“SL Police Shame on You”… Really Mahela J???

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It is one thing to be disenchanted with the Government but quite another to condone acts of violence in protest of that Government. There is a clear attempt by the Media, professionals and popular personalities to villainise the Police and victimise the man who was shot dead during the clashes between the Police and rioters. 

Was Chaminda Lakshan a Victim of Police Brutality or Collateral Damage?

Senior DIG Ajith Rohana in a statement noted that Chaminda Lakshan aka ‘Sudda’, who was shot dead by the Police during the Rambukkana clashes, already had two court cases over manslaughter. Yet, neither this fact nor that he had an alias (a feature common among underworld characters, which is not to state with certainty that he indeed was involved with them) justifies his death. Until a court of law delivers the verdict guilty, a man must be presumed to be innocent. Therefore, the court cases against ‘Sudda’ unrelated to this incident are immaterial. 

According to witnesses, he was simply a bystander, few meters away from the actual clashes, without even a piece of rock in his hand. If that is indeed the case, then we must ask how or why he got shot. 

We must make allowances to the possibility that the witnesses may be trimming the truth. In
Sri Lanka, anyone with a tragic end is painted as the most angelic person. Even if a girl committed suicide, three quarters of the news article would be of her unparalleled beauty, popularity and the vast potential she had as the best performing student in her grade. We never hear of average looking people with average abilities ever meeting a sudden death. 

Many have expressed their skepticism about the Police investigating the Rambukkana incident, especially to determine if they used excessive force. Some have equated this to getting an insight into the matter from the culprit’s mother. 

However, then, the same logic can be applied to the witnesses’ statements as well. Even after the Police’s repeatedly ordered the crowd to disperse, firing tear gas, using batons and firing into the sky those who remained were with the rioters. Anyone who continued to remain in the vicinity certainly had a death wish as the drama’s focal point centred on the attempts to set a bowser filled with fuel ablaze.

We have seen many protests in Sri Lanka. Usually, even the rowdiest protesters leave when tear gas canisters are fired. Sometimes, instead of fleeing protesters do tussle with the Police and Police barricades. However, it is rarely that ordinary protesters act so aggressively that Police have to draw firearms.

In fact, many out of the three thousand odd protesters who were engaged in the Rambukkana protests dispersed right after tear gas was used. It was the remaining protesters that divided themselves into organised groups and begun to clash with the Police. One group began pelting the Police with sizable rocks causing grievous bodily harm to about 20 officers. Fifteen of them had to be hospitalised. 

From this sequence of action, we can reasonably deduce that these elements were not ordinary citizens. They were obviously hardened and seasoned to violence. They seem familiar with clashes as these, perhaps with rival gangs. 

Therefore, the witnesses who had come forth too might most probably be from this very group. This puts their statements, which might not be entirely truthful, also into the same unreliability context as Police investigating on possible Police excessiveness. 

This is the problem with violent incidents such as these. None of the parties involved would be above reproach or absolutely innocent. In the ensuring confusion where reality becomes surreal and order turns disorderly the whole truth may never emerge. It would be very difficult for those who follow this drama in their living room’s safety to comprehend the actual situation. Questions that we think as legitimate and reasonable as “why live bullets, not rubber bullets” or “why not simply arrest the law breakers” must sound absurd to those officers who were fending for their lives from seasoned fighters who were getting increasingly aggressive. 

The Kegalle Magistrate Wasana Nawarathna had reprimanded the Police for redacting certain facts on the B report with the use of tippex. As the lawyers representing the rioters observed, such a redaction is only possible after producing a more detailed report to the court. The Police duly apologised to the court and undertook to inform the IGP so as to take necessary disciplinary action against the officer who committed the offence. 

Likewise, after analysing the unedited video footage held by various Media channels (as directed by the magistrate) gaps would emerge between the video evidence and witnesses’ statements. 

Peaceful Protests, Protests, Riots & Terrorism 

The Media highlighted Sudda’s death whilst sidelining the attempts to set a bowser with 33,000 litres of fuel with another bowser also filled to the brim in close vicinity in an overcrowded area. Some Media organisations even tried to hide this near terrorist act by describing this incident as Police having fired at ‘peaceful protesters’. Over hundred lawyers appeared on behalf of those arrested free of charge. 

Conversely, the Police are being severely criticised for taking action. One critique even equated Police action to that of a mad dog. Mahela Jayawardena has shamed the Police. 

It is a sad reflection indeed that none had acknowledged nor commended the Police for their tireless attempts to restore peace and calm. Addressing the protesters’ grievances the Kegalle Police Superintendent had first verified that the fuel station was indeed without fuel. Thereafter, he had arranged with the Kolonnawa officials to get two fuel bowsers. However, when fuel arrived, the demands changed to fuel at lower prices. 

In effect, Police worked to appease the protesters for over 12 hours. When there were attempts to set the bowser on fire, the Police used loudspeakers to warn the grave consequences such actions would hold for the whole region and advised all in the vicinity to disperse. ‘Sudda’ is one such person who disregarded this advice. Thereafter, the Police made a human ring around the bowser under attack in an attempt to protect it. 

It was to this human shield that rocks were pelted. There is video evidence of culprits instructing others to somehow set the vehicles ablaze. We can only imagine the terse situation that would have built up with each passing minute. 

The right to protest is uncontested as can be seen from the scenes emerging from Galle Face, in front of the presidential secretariat for the past fortnight. Protests however must not be confused with riots or terrorist acts. 

– If ordinary citizens merely hold placards and shout slogans, then that could be described as ‘peacefully protesting’.

– If public life is obstructed by acts as disrupting traffic flow, then it is still a protest but can no longer be described as peaceful.

– If engaged in action as pelting rocks so as to cause grievous bodily harm, public and/or private property vandalised by acts as setting fire to the fuel shed or deflating the bowser’s tires and forcibly removing its battery, then it is a riot. 

– If attempts were made to set fire to a bowser filled to capacity with fuel to engineer the same devastating effects of blasting a bomb that could kill hundreds of people, then that can only be described as an act of terrorism.

If we cannot condemn hooliganism nor advocate the civic duties that as citizens we must uphold, then we have no moral right to judge the Police for actions taken to avert a catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude. 

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By Shivanthi Ranasinghe