One person was shot dead and 15 wounded when the Sri Lankan military opened fire at 4000 Sinhala protesters in Weliweriya on yesterday evening. The protesters had been demonstrating against the pollution of water with chemical emissions from a nearby factory.
After using tear gas in an attempt to break up the protest, clashes broke out between the police and the protesters, before the military stepped in and opened fire. The police spokesperson Buddika Siriwardene confirmed that one person had died and 15 others have been admitted to hospital. According to the Washington Post, video footage of the incident shows 'soldiers shooting at running protesters'. See here and here.
This morning, the government's news portal, News.lk, reported:
'Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has said that the Weliweriya drinking water dispute was settled satisfactorily. He has said that in the meantime certain vested elements provoked the villagers into needless confrontations.
Rajapaksa has said that the protesting public were satisfied with the solution offered to close a factory, which was supposed to cause contamination of water in the area, but those with political motives provoked some of the residents for staging protests.'
In a statement today, the US embassy in Sri Lanka said:
'The U.S. Embassy is concerned about the violence in yesterday’s protest in Weliweriya, and urges the Government of Sri Lanka to respect the rights of people to protest peacefully, and urges restraint from all sides.'
Meanwhile, in an op-ed published today, Sri Lanka's former Ambassador to the UN in Geneva and Vice–President of the UN Human Rights Council, Dayan Jayatilleka, outlined his central concern regarding the shooting.
"How will the world view Sri Lanka after the events of yesterday?" asks Jayatilleka, adding, "the obvious observations will be, if this is how the State authorities treat unarmed Sinhalese, largely Buddhist civilian men, women and children who are protesting against polluted water, how must that state have treated the Tamils in the closing stages of the war?"
See here. Extract reproduced below:
'How will the world view Sri Lanka after the events of yesterday? Having known and sparred successfully in defence of our country’s sovereignty with two, not just one, UN High Commissioners for Human Rights – Louise Arbour and Navi Pillay—I can say with confidence and dismay, that Weliweriya would only substantiate the call for an international inquiry and the demand for the opening of an office of the High Commissioner in Sri Lanka. When I opposed it in 2007-2009, we could credibly claim to hold the moral high ground since we were fighting a fascistic foe. The demonstrators in Weliweriya who faced lethal force hardly fall into the same category as the suicide-terrorist Tigers and therefore our refusal of an office of the High Commissioner to monitor human rights abuses would lack the moral credibility it once had.
The obvious observations will be, if this is how the State authorities treat unarmed Sinhalese, largely Buddhist civilian men, women and children who are protesting against polluted water, how must that state have treated the Tamils in the closing stages of the war? How could authorities who didn’t care about possible casualties when sending in armed troops into unarmed crowds, care enough about Tamil civilians in the last days of and the morning after the war? If Weliweriya demonstrates the policy of the State and how the forces of the state behave towards the Sinhalese, how must they have conducted themselves in the North and East for thirty years and how must they be functioning in the former conflict zones today?
The argument of national sovereignty as currently deployed by the state and its ideologues, has a hole shot through it after the Gampaha killing. National sovereignty and popular sovereignty are twins. National/state sovereignty refers to external threats, those from outside our borders, and does not confer license to override popular sovereignty, the sovereignty of the citizen, most especially in a state constitutionally defined and designated a democratic Republic since 1972.
Coming in the run-up to the Northern Provincial Council election, the question cannot but be posed as to whether the Establishment which sent lethally armed soldiers to confront a crowd of unarmed civilians in the Gampaha district yesterday, will do otherwise, or deploy less force, if faced with peaceful protests over, let us say, issues of land seizure in the North. What if school-children, nuns, or elected members of the Provincial Council are shot or disappeared? Will that not trigger a surge in Tamil Nadu, followed by a demarche from Delhi in an election year? Will this not open the road to R2P?'