Understanding lawlessness amid Sri Lanka’s civil unrest


When a crisis strikes in Sri Lanka, lawlessness follows, but the 9 May mayhem which included lynching, setting fire to vehicles houses and shops, assaulting the public in broad daylight, was something that occurred before; during the infamous July 1983 riots. The 1983 riots happened because the Government failed to impose a curfew, which was later described as intentional. On 9 May at around 10 a.m., Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaska allowed a gathering of around 2,000 of his supporters into Temple Trees to demonstrate his strength and then allegedly unleashed them on peaceful protesters occupying the Galle Face Green.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa proclaimed a State of Emergency on 6 May under which the Temple Tree gathering was allowed to take place on 9 May.

Temple Trees and the people who gathered there have been blamed for that Monday’s violence. They released their anger on peaceful protesters who have been affected by the economy in various ways. There were priests who stayed for hours supporting the struggle asking the leadership to step down.

“Lanka on fire,” said several international TV channels, baffled as to why it happened so quickly, given that the protests and outcry against the Government started with the fertiliser shortage and progressed to dwindling gas, fuel, and kerosene supply. The protest later incorporated the severe food shortages, such as milk and rice.

The country’s politics has buried food scarcity and the right to life today. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was finally seen as the candidate for a leadership change. He has been largely unwelcomed, but given the severity of the economic crisis, a Premier is required to take up the mantle and bring some relief to the people.

However, a series of events between 9 May and today have exposed the lawlessness and the Colombo Fort Magistrate issued a travel ban on the ex-PM, MPs Namal Rajapaksa, Johnston Fernando, and Western Province SDIG Deshabandu Tennakoon.

Regime-sponsored violence?

Following the Temple Trees meeting, the 2,000-strong crowd of men and women who arrived in Colombo in buses marched towards Galle Face. Prior to that, peaceful protesters met SDIG Tennakoon, who had arrived in the area, and pleaded of him not to let Rajapaksa’s supporters into GotaGoGama and he assured that he will protect them. He was overheard saying, “We will protect you even if you are against us.” The youth stated that they had never accused the Police or the tri-forces, and that they would never do so.

Tennakoon was last seen approaching the Galle Face with the pro-Mahinda group a few minutes later. He was photographed with several of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s most ardent supporters. The man in charge of the law had apparently ‘fallen for politicians’ at that location.

Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Jayadeva Uyangoda, told Ceylon Today that 1987 was a year of underground JVP violence, which followed the 1983 riots. He believed that both the 1983 riots and 9 May were ‘regime sponsored’ but that both leaders miscalculated and made historical blunders that backfired.

The civil war was sparked by ethnic riots against Tamils in 1983, and the Rajapaksas were overthrown on 9 May.

The subsequent violence also resulted in the torching of prominent ruling party members’ mansions and luxury homes, including those of Keheliya Rambukwella and Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, who did not want Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down due to the fact that the public voted for him to become Prime Minister. This list includes the properties of Chamal Rajapaksa, Gamini Lokuge, Nimal Lanza, Johnston Fernando, Channa Jayasumana, D.B. Herath, Basil Rajapaksa, Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, Arundhika Fernando, Indika Anurudha, Rohitha Abeygunawardana, Bandula Gunawardana, Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Premitha Bandara Tennakoon.

In a riot in Nittambuwa, SLFP MP Amarakeethri Athukorala and his driver were killed. Many politicians remain in hiding, with only Mahinda Rajapaksa, Namal Rajapaksa, and Keheliya coming out to congratulate the new Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on Twitter. People and cops were beaten and stripped. MP Kumara Welgama was also assaulted. Mobs were looting as well.  On 10 May, Mahinda Rajapaksa left the Temple Tress and is currently taking refuge at Sober Island in Trincomalee under heavy guard by the Navy.

General Kamal Gunaratne, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, provided an update on protest-related casualties and damages on 11 May. He said there were nine deaths (including two police officers), 41 burnt vehicles, 61 damaged vehicles, and 136 properties vandalised.

The country’s President, Army Commander, and Defence Secretary took no action during the chaos. Mobs took the law into their own hands, searching government vehicles for VIPs. Buses were also set ablaze. The Mahinda well-wishers’ buses were set on fire and pushed into the Beira Lake. Around 20 goons were also pushed into the lake, where they remained in the filthy water until the Army transported them in trucks to the Military Hospital in Narahenpita several hours later, where some were refused treatment because there were not military personnel. They were taken to military hospitals for their own safety as pro-Mahinda men were mobbed when taken to State hospitals.

State of Emergency

On 9 May around 3 p.m., a Police curfew was imposed islandwide, following Rajapaksa’s resignation as Prime Minister.  The nationwide curfew imposed after Monday’s violence is still in effect. SDIG Tennakoon was assaulted on 10 May for betraying the Galle Face protesters and failing to protect them. The Defence Ministry also ordered the Tri-Forces to shoot anyone stealing public property or causing harm to individuals at around 7.30 a.m. on Tuesday and this order was imposed almost 24 hours later.

Many western countries, including the United States, have already condemned the emergency law citing that the State of Emergency was declared without explanation. Several envoys based in Colombo stated that Sri Lankans have been overwhelmingly peaceful in their protests, deserve to have their voices heard, and that the Government should focus on solving political and economic challenges rather than restricting public freedom of expression.

Prof. Uyangoda went on to explain the situation further. “The public is angry, but they kept their cool at the Galle Face, controlling their rage. After they were attacked, the retaliation continued. Both sides created havoc, which was eventually ‘subdued.” He also claimed that the Police and the tri-forces were given orders not to interfere in the same way that the mobs did in 1983. He also believes that the general public disapproved of government orders and emergency regulations. “They took it lightly, and even the leadership may not have expected it to escalate to the point of torching homes and causing destruction. Perhaps those in power thought the violence would work in their favour, but they were all wrong.”

He went on to say that today even choosing a Prime Minister who lost the people’s confidence is a mistake and an insult to the tradition of parliamentary democracy. “It was manipulated and a plotted affair while Wickremesinghe is not part of the solution but it seems the President ‘passed the buck’ on the new Prime Minster”.

The authorities have arrested many individuals for questioning over Monday’s violence. Three were arrested for assaulting SDIG Tennakoon and some arrests have been made in Kandy for setting up another GotaGoGama. There is no clear indication whether any arrests were made of those who stormed Galle Face and attacked Christian priests, Buddhist monks and the youth who had been occupying the protest site for over a month.

Attorney-at-Law Gehan Gunatilleke explained that when a State of Emergency is declared by the President, he is required to forthwith inform Parliament, and Parliament is supposed to vote on the State of Emergency.

“Remember, a State of Emergency was declared immediately after Parliament was adjourned on 6 May (and not when any violence had taken place). That was very problematic, because that meant Parliament could not immediately vote on the President’s action to declare an emergency and issue new emergency regulations; giving the President extraordinary powers”.

When a State of Emergency is declared, he added the President assumes powers to legislate through emergency law. So that is why parliamentary oversight is crucial.

Under the Public Security Ordinance, if emergency is declared when Parliament is already adjourned, the President is required by law to issue a proclamation reconvening Parliament within 10 days. And then Parliament immediately votes on the emergency declaration. “I don’t think that proclamation has been issued, and until it is issued, the President’s actions are in violation of the law.”

He then pointed out that it was the reason why the Speaker has asked the President to immediately summon Parliament. Once Parliament is reconvened, it can set aside the State of Emergency and the emergency regulations – which it must do. Now it seems Parliament will reconvene only on 17 May. It will then get a chance to vote on the emergency.

“It is absolutely extraordinary that in a context that the President is being asked to resign, there are new emergency regulations that actually increase his powers.”

He added, “I don’t know the extent to which these regulations were used to arrest looters, but a state of emergency is not required to hold looters to account. “You can impose curfew, deploy armed forces and arrest people who destroy property without a state of emergency. The Public Security Ordinance and the Penal Code provide for that.”

The new regulations are extremely problematic, and can be used to suppress protesters. Take regulation 11(11) for instance: The President can prohibit the holding of public processions or public meetings. GotaGoGama etc. is now at serious risk of being dismantled.

“So it is absolutely important that emergency is rescinded and regulations are consequently discontinued so that the people can resume their peaceful protest.  While these regulations are in play, the right to peaceful assembly is in serious jeopardy,” the lawyer underlined.

Following the 9 May violence several victims gave statements as to who attacked them. One disabled veteran identified the extremist Dan Priyasad as the one who led the attack on the disabled soldiers’ tent at Galle Face.

“It is not at all safe, particularly for politicians on the Government side,” Nalaka Godahewa, had told the BBC after his house was among those torched.

Still as many as 30 odd MPs did not show up at police stations to lodge complaints against the attacks on their homes. Fear exists as law and order is not enforced.

“Law of the Jungle”

“The wrecking of the demonstration site led to large scale mob attacks against the residences of government ministers, many of which were torched. The curfew was necessary.  The law of the jungle had taken hold in the country after the Prime Minister unleashed the demons of his political councillors to assault peaceful protestors at the MynaGoGama and GotaGoGama protest sites,” said Executive Director National Peace Council of Sri Lanka Jehan Perera.

He pointed out that the Emergency Law gives authority to the military to take part in law enforcement activities undertaken by civilian agencies, in particular the Police.  Notwithstanding the declaration of a State of Emergency, the Constitution continues to function and gives the right to free association and assembly. On the morning of 9 May, the security forces and their Commander in Chief had the duty to protect peaceful protestors exercising their constitutional rights. They failed in their duty which led to the law of the jungle taking hold at those sites and in their vicinity.

“The law of the jungle came to prevail on the streets, as witnessed in the forcible checking of civilian vehicles and in communities where houses of government parliamentarians were attacked and torched.  The Security Forces stood by without enforcing the law due to the abject failure of the political leadership of the country. Indeed, the potential for violence at present is ever present. Tempers are running short in many places where people have been waiting in queues for weeks outside petrol stations and gas outlets.”

Perera pinpointed that the deliberate undermining of institutions and the rule of law due to their abuse by successive governments was taken to a new low by the last government. “The priority now would be to restore law and order and the economy. There is hatred towards government members who are seen as responsible for the economic catastrophe that has seen real incomes being halved since the beginning of this year. All mainstream political parties stand discredited. The trust between the polity and citizenry needs to be restored,” he said.

The puzzle has not yet been solved. The only saving grace is that the ill-gotten wealth of many corrupt politicians was destroyed in the flames. In 1983, the thugs obtained the Tamil voters’ register list from the local Grama Niladhari and went on a rampage, but there is no one to verify who helped get the list of addresses of the corrupt ministers, their sons and their goons houses, hotels, and properties that were ransacked. That’s the power of lawlessness and the legacy will continue.

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan