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Minimum force, maximum damage 

9 months ago

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In a gloomy development, Sri Lanka, on 19 April, recorded the first death caused by attacks by the Police and defence forces on civilians during the ongoing wave of anti-Government protests, triggering fears of more Rathupaswala-like incidents.  The death in question was reported in the Rambukkana area, where more than 30 persons sustained injuries after being shot at by the Police in their attempt to quell a protest staged by a group of civilians demanding fuel at previous prices, among other concerns. While more information about the protest and how the situation intensified to a level where a death was caused are being investigated by the law enforcement authorities, the Police are under fire for using live ammunition, which, according to Inspector General of Police (IGP) Chandana D. Wickramaratne, is an act that comes under the use of “minimum force”.  According to the Police, the Police were required to use live ammunition as the protestors were becoming violent and persistent. The Police further backed its claim by stating that the officers were compelled to shoot at the protestors, because certain protestors were preparing to set fire to a fuel bowser that had been parked where the protest broke out. Thus, the use of what was called “minimum force” was justified as a step taken to prevent the damage that would have been caused by the said fuel bowser being set on fire.  What most people question is whether the use of live ammunition on unarmed civilians can be considered an act that comes under “minimum force”, which the Police are authorised to exercise, and whether the Police followed the established procedure before using live ammunition. Even though tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets are usually used to disperse violent crowds, in this case, the Police have acknowledged using only tear gas, and there was no mention of rubber bullets or firing warning shots to the sky first.  Why the Police was compelled to use live ammunition to deal with unarmed civilians – who, according to the Police themselves, were armed only with stones – is problematic, considering the fact that the Police Department has received extensive training to deal specifically with such tense situations.  However, videos of the incident shared on social media platforms show a side of the incident that the IGP has not acknowledged yet, and they raise serious doubts about the necessity to open fire at the protestors, which the Police has cited as the reason for their actions. The manner in which the Police opened fire at the protestors is highly questionable, as some of those videos show police officers repeatedly firing at protestors who were running away from them, and there was no sign of them trying to be careful enough to shoot protestors below the knee level despite the IGP’s claims that the orders were issued only to shoot protestors below that level.  At the same time, how much of a threat the protestors posed is also highly questionable. Even though the Police said that the protestors were attempting to set fire to a fuel bowser, what the videos of the incident show is a mere attempt to let the air of the bowser’s tyres out.  What is more, even though the Police identified the protestors as a grave threat, the latter were unarmed; the only exception was some of them throwing stones, which trained police officers should be able to face with the protective gear including face shields that they have been provided with. Unlike clashes between the Police and civilians in countries like the US, where civilians are permitted to purchase and carry firearms, when it comes to the Rambukkana incident, civilians did not pose any sort of threat that a trained Police force could not handle.  Trained Police and defence forces personnel armed with modern firearms and protective gears, firing freely at civilians armed only with stones, is not a fair fight. Shooting people in such a context does not really constitute an act of using minimum force, and the people have to ask: “If minimum force involves using live ammunition and results in deaths, how destructive can maximum force be?”  The Government and the authorities can try to save themselves from the people’s wrath by denying any irresponsible and/or orchestrated, destructive act. Placing the blame on the people is the easiest way to do that, and perhaps, that is what the country is seeing at the moment.  However, the people witnessed similar incidents during the protests in Rathupaswala, where three people were killed, and in Katunayake, where one person was killed, under the rule of then-President and incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and incidents such as these will merely intensify the public’s anger. In addition, it added a new black mark to the state of Sri Lanka’s human rights and democracy.  This should not be the beginning of more deaths, and the Police’s actions against those who shot at the protestors will determine whether there is any genuine interest in protecting and serving the public.

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