Sri Lanka: Military’s role in Aluthgama riots

Muslim homes were broken in to by the mobs in the middle of the night. Many families now seek the security of the neighbours, no longer trusting that the police will provide them with the necessary protection.

Muslim homes were broken in to by the mobs in the middle of the night. Many families now seek the security of the neighbours, no longer trusting that the police will provide them with the necessary protection.  Al-Jazeera 18 June 2014.

Zahrah Imtiaz   11 December 2018

It was close to 7.30pm on June 15, 2014, and a lone vehicle with three men came to a stop at the Hettimulla junction in Beruwela. One of them, was former Security Forces West Commander, Major General Ubaya Madawela. He had rushed to the area in cities with just his escort and driver as news of tensions between the Sinhala and Muslim communities in the area were rising. His vehicle had to come to a stop as two mobs started to converge at the junction. Both groups armed with sharp objects and batons were making their way towards each other, with just the General and his two men in between to stop them.

Three days prior to this, a traffic incident between Ven Ayagama Samitha Thera and three Muslim youth had sparked protests among the Buddhist community in the area with some shops belonging to the Muslim community attacked. To make matters worse, on the morning of June 15, the controversial General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena, Ven Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero along with Samitha Thera had held a meeting in Aluthgama, further fanning the flames. The police who were in charge until that time assured that they were in control but the Defence establishment which was monitoring the situation had asked the army to be on standby in the case things escalated,

“I was in Ratnapura at the time when I heard about this particular meeting in Aluthgama. The police informed me that they had adequate security in place for any situation. But former Army Commander, Lieutenant General, Daya Rathnayake and former Secretary to Law and Order, General Mallawarachchi asked that troops be readied to be moved in at short notice and that was done”, said Major General Madawela in an interview with Daily News.

By 6.30pm on the 15th, the situation had become fragile and the police could no longer handle it on their own and they contacted the General to move in.

I did not have time to get into my uniform, I immediately rushed there in civies to Beruwela. I was stopped at a junction called Hettimulla, I could not go beyond that, he recalled.

“I saw lots of people moving on Galle Road to Beruwela city and another along the by roads. At that time I could not recognize anybody, I only saw certain articles in their hand and they were shining, it could have been a bottle, bat, anything. There were massive crowds. So I stopped the vehicle and got down on my own. On my own I moved towards the crowd, they too stopped and calmly looked at me as they held those articles in their hand”.

He approached the group coming from Galle road first. Shocked at this man walking to them on his own, they asked him who he was.

“I told them I would speak to someone who is leading them or taking a prominent role there. There were two men who came forward. Then I told them I was the General in charge of this area, and I started to ask what the problem was and so on. There were many allegations against different communities, blaming different entities. I calmed them down- I told them that these were not issues to take to roads with the intention of harming anyone, so they should turn back. Then they wanted me to calm down the other lot. It is then that I identified that the lot on Galle Road were the Sinhalese and the by roads were the Muslims”.

He then walked to the Muslim group and told them the same thing and assured them that if they went back home, he would assure their safety and the protection of their community.

“Both lots responded to me very well though I was not in uniform. So I was happy that I was able through my communication skills, to bring the situation under control. I was not afraid, because I knew that this was a misunderstanding between the two communities and if I could communicate to the point and clearly, I could resolve it”.

This was however just the beginning.

A military solution to ethnic riots

The Aluthgama riots left four persons dead and close to 80 injured with 200 houses and 73 commercial buildings damaged. However, without timely military intervention, the situation could have been worse or even spread to other areas. So can we learn from the military intervention in Aluthgama to be prepared for similar incidents in the future?

The military can only take control of an area on the invitation of the Inspector General of Police and not before. Thus when the army did eventually take over, after 36 hours since the first incident, the conflict had intensified to a certain extent. There were clashes inside Aluthgama and its peripheries, though not in Beruwela, recalled General Madawela.

Rumors had spread that the Sinhalese were attacking the Muslims and as a result, the Muslims had got agitated. The Muslims, in turn, were spreading the word that the Sinhalese were burning houses.

“We did not know who burnt what but there were incidents of arson and destruction of property. So we had no time to investigate what was happening inside, it was far from where I was. So once the crowd moved out, I moved to the Police station to get all the information I needed. In the meantime former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave me instructions to take full control of the situation and to bring in the Police and some of the civil institutions which could help under my control. So that gave me a lot of authority and responsibility to ensure that all these situations are brought together under one command, to solve the issue. That was the necessity at that particular time. Because if we had segmented command or divided command we would not have solved this problem”.

The 142 Brigade Command had been moved to Aluthgama by the afternoon of June 15 to be kept on standby. But by 11.55pm, six platoons were moved to the Beruwela Police station to bring the situation under control. Six hours after taking control, troops had been strategically deployed to all areas.

Major General Madawela explained that he used an ‘oil slick method’- where it diffuses from a center and spreads to other areas. The Command was divided into Battalion bases, Company bases and Platoon bases with sectorized command under Battalion commanders.

The first task of the military in such situations is to ensure control and stability. Troops from the Panadura Army camp were thus deployed to Adhikarigoda where most incidents were taking place and another group was deployed to Dharga town and then to Welipenna, “That gave the people at least a 40 percent feeling of protection and stability”.

“I had to make quick decisions and then study the area in detail. Even though the army was deployed, there were rumors still spreading and that needed to be handled very carefully”.

Pocket meetings

Rumors are the most the dangerous weapon in any ethnic riot and the first task of any mission is to quell these as much as possible with ‘accurate information’. The General thus decided that the best solution at hand was to hold pocket meetings in the area and explain to the people what was happening and allow them to voice their grievances.

As troops were being deployed, the General started having pocket meetings with community groups from both sides of the divide. Religious leaders like the chief priest of the temples, Moulavis in mosques, community heads, and mosque trustees were all roped into these meetings.

Forty-eight hours since the takeover, I had a pocket meeting every 30 minutes- day and night, he said.

“I think I only had 30-minute naps each day for four days in a row”.

This also kept open lines of communication between the community and the authorities, any gaps in the communication strategy of the authorities could have left room for rumors to grow and spread.

I chose to communicate in smaller groups (in 15 areas) because I wanted them to have eye contact with me and understand me. Large groups can also get out of hand. I spoke to the Sinhalese community in proper Sinhala and wherever necessary in English. I also had a very good Tamil translator to speak to the Muslim community, he explained.

“I spoke the truth to them. I told them what I could do and I gave the confidence that there won’t be any incident thereafter. Since I had taken control of the situation, I knew exactly what was happening at which place. I knew each and every area, the number of houses and the number of people living and my staff was working on different areas whilst I was trying to work out a strategy to curb the situation. It was a concurrent activity”.

The General however also had to field questions from military families living in the area, “They were very vociferous. They were saying that ‘my husband is away and this is happening, we have been threatened’. I told them no, that is not true. I came here with no military uniform and I was not threatened. Because unless you set an example, no one will believe you”.

“I said don’t worry, we are here to look after you, whether you are military family or not, we will look after all”.

If you pass the correct information to any community and if you speak to them in a way they understand and give the information they need. I don’t see any problem, he stressed.

Intelligence and maintaining law and order

The most vital ingredient in any operation, however, is ‘intelligence’- you cannot control what you do not know. Battalion and Company Commanders were thus also deployed to conduct reconnaissance missions whilst they were trying to bring the situation to normal.

Troops engaged in helping communities douse fires, prevent looting, establish roadblocks along with the Police and apprehend any person suspected of breaking the law.

“We worked for hand in hand with the Police as the army cannot arrest anyone. I was fully supported by the ASP and SP and had DIG Senaratne and DIG Sumith Edirisinghe working with us”.

Further, they also had to deal with school children being easily led and instigated to come on to the roads and engage in violence, “They had no reason to come on to the streets, the parents have to look after them more. I feel that they were just trying to show off, so I addressed them specifically in some instances but at times there were aggressive- trying to question my authority”.

Having a strong intelligence network thus helped the army identify unscrupulous elements before they took any action,

“I knew who was behind each and every incident which took place in Dharga Town; whether it happened in the Muslim area or Sinhala area. I managed to speak to those who were causing trouble differently and in person. I spoke to them in a different way, not the way I spoke to the community. Because it was a different language I used. I showed them the authority and responsibility the military and police had against such individuals. And we could either take them to courts or solve the problem then and there”.

More importantly, he observed that they did not relate to any community, what they found out about the other, “That would have caused more issue. What was important was to solve the problem”.

“When this was happening, there were many more incidents being planned around the country but since we solved this problem none of that took place. We contained it. We knew incidents were being planned in Mawanella, Kattankudy, Puttalam, and Colombo. There were some isolated incidents but no major incidents”, he added.

Discipline from within

As operations continued, one major concern was discipline within the ranks. Ethnic riots can become personal to the officer and thus all measures were taken to ensure that both the army and police did not add to the chaos.

Major General Madawela stressed that he continuously paid attention to the discipline of his offers and the police, “We had certain policeman not toeing the line of command, so I personally identified them and I wanted the IG to change them because I did not want the situation worsened by any ill doings”.

The soldiers were also regularly briefed and motivated to keep them going.
By June 17 the violence had been brought under control but pocket meetings had to continue as reconstruction work was just about to begin.

Part 2

Reconstruction begins

As much of Aluthgama and its peripheries stood in ruin with communities divided into two, the government at the time, eager to restore things to normalcy, asked that the military once again step in to reconstruct the towns demolished.

The former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa had granted Rs 200 million for reconstruction work and once again the military was given full powers to undertake all over as soon as possible.

“So then we had a transition from emergency to the reconstruction of the areas”, remarked Major General Madawela.

Operations were once again modified with the army civil works divisions were called in and they started to assess the damages. An assessment was made for each and every house along with the level of construction needed.

On top of the deployment sectors, construction sectors were established and each and every construction sector had a store managed by the military police to cut down on corruption.

“Before starting construction I addressed all the construction staff because they were to live with the community and place themselves where construction was taking place. So the most important thing was discipline. If the discipline of soldiers is good, there won’t be any issue”.

Tender procedures followed according to government procurement regulations were called for but they also found that many of the items could be found in the local area and they were cheapest given low transportation costs. This in turn provided employment to a beaten community.

“I also bought them the best. They may not have had a KDK fan at home but we fixed one. Even the toilet fittings, unless they had their own preference, we got them Rocelle or American Standard- that was within the budget”.

These features upgraded many of the houses and helped uplift the spirits of those affected, explained the Commander, “They were depressed, they did not know what to do, so this was motivating them. And it gave them their confidence back and the belief that the government has to look after them. The Government wanted at the time, to not let the situation escalate, and not to have a repeat of another”.

General Madawela who had come into simply restore order in June, ended up staying five months there and even established his tactical Head Quarters there.

Rebuilding the Community

Dharga Town, Major General Madawela observed had always been a hot spot for ethnic tensions. The Muslims lived concentrated in the urban centers whilst the Sinhalese community lived around them, in the peripheries and closer to the sea. Any visitor to these areas would notice that that whilst the two communities, in general, lived together in the area, they lived so in pockets of ethnic isolation.

“I felt that the two communities, in general, had always lived in suspicion. We had meetings together with both communities and they saw the government, military and officials treating all equally so I would like to believe that those suspicions faded away. We never gave anything extra for any community”.

In the aftermath of the incidents, the community was consulted as to what was the best way to move forward, “I told them you know the past, don’t go there, discuss how you will build a future”.

When it came to security-related measures, the community groups recommended; that all dangerous articles found in the area be destroyed, civil security/citizen committees to be reorganized, a Police Station at Dharga Town be set up, establish an Army camp in the area and appoint competent police officers to Aluthgama and Dharga Town stations.

With regards to community-related measures, they recommended; that youth be reformed through religious centers, have continuous dialogue between the two communities in the area every three months, control measures be put in to curb violent scenes/visuals, release all apprehended personnel before the commencement of fresh dialogue and have religious congregations to educate youth on religious precepts and ethics.

How effective is punitive action?

At the time of the incidents, over 80 people were arrested in connection to various attacks and incidents. Many among the arrested were the youth of 18 or below. As their arrests continued to be a major grievance in the community, the government allowed them to be released through individual appeals,

“We had the parents go to the police station with the youth, they were crying. We arranged a bus to take the parents. But we also need to have certain investigative procedures, we cannot just let things go, whichever community it is. So the youth also learned a lesson from that”.

However the General also noted that it was difficult to prosecute individuals during an ethnic riot as finding accurate evidence was difficult,

“When there was evidence we arrested individuals. But overall we adopted a corrective mechanism. That helped a lot. Even today we don’t see a repeat of such an incident there”.

Mass arrests without leniency would have simply led to lengthy court trials that would have simply made the two communities bitter against each other for a longer time period.

A formula to replicate

In March of this year, a traffic incident in Digana once again led to the death of a Sinhalese lorry driver that resulted in ethnic unrest in the Central Province. Since 1915 to date Sri Lanka has faced 11 major ethnic riots- all of which could have been controlled with timely intervention. So could an effective military strategy learned from Aluthgama be used to control ethnic violence in the future?

Major General Madawela agrees. “Under military concepts, such situations are called operations other than war. When you take this, you have what is called Civil-Military cooperation (CIMIC) action”.

There are four elements under CIMIC action: 1. Support the civil power (Police), 2 Assist ministries, 3. Assist communities and 4. Assist peacekeeping.

Close to 10 years since the end of the war, the military’s role in the prevention of conflict has become even more paramount,

“In the spectrum of conflict, from peace to war, many things can happen. There can be internal disturbances, insurgencies, violent extremism, terrorism- all come within this spectrum”.

The armed forces must be alert enough to find out where these sparks will happen because these are conflicts of thoughts, explained the General.

“Any conflict begins because of conflict of thoughts. What is known by you, is not known by me. So you have to have a dialogue with the people and within the community, to know what the people think. People say that there is no solution found because we have not had proper negotiations with them or continuous dialogue with them. Continuous dialogue, first and the second time will fail, but the third time it may succeed”.

Today, the former Security West Commander finds Aluthgama to be a feather in his cap as he enjoys his retirement. It has been both a military as well as a civil victory, proving that timely and accurate military intervention can achieve better results in a country mired with ethnic tensions. This year even as several parts of the country became embroiled by ethnic unrest-Aluthgama remained calm. What better success story can one ask for? The only question is will we use it.