By now the nation will have seen the images of
fiery devastation, shattered livelihoods, a dazed populace and, also, an
angry populace. This is the aftermath of last week's firestorm at the
Army base in Salawa, in the Avissawella area.
The total disaster impact, while major in terms of Sri Lankan
proportions, is somewhat smaller in impact when compared to some similar
arms dump disasters that have occurred in larger countries with far
bigger military installations. Nevertheless, whatever the comparisons
being drawn - including comparisons with war devastation in the North -
the communities in the picturesque countryside around the Salawa
cantonment experienced a disaster they need not have experienced.
What with the growing global outcry over climate change, the nation
is finally realising that the 'natural' disasters striking this island
are actually a mix of powerful natural events that, then, trigger a
chain of other subsidiary disaster events that are the result of human
mismanagement and abuse of land and water resources. Further, the
scientific understanding of climate change helps us realise that those
initial 'natural' events, themselves, may have been caused by severe and
sustained human damage to the environment.
But in Salawa last week there occurred a disaster that was, entirely,
due to human agency, including human failures. What these failures are,
we expect the twin probes, one by the Army and the other by the Police,
to tell us eventually. The nation expects to hear the answers despite
its previous experience of governments loudly declaring 'investigations'
and later quietly shelving the resultant reports.
People are already questioning the location of a massive arms and
munitions storage facility in a populated civilian area rather than
within a large, isolated, military installation that would have then
distanced any civilian population from such a disaster at least to some
degree. Indeed, there are elaborate global standards already set that
govern the storage of military hardware and explosive materials, just as
there are global standards that cover storage of fissionable and other
nuclear materials, chemicals, general inflammable materials, etc. The
Army leadership seems to be acknowledging a failure in this regard.
While the causes of the disaster are being probed, most urgently,
there needs to be a multi-pronged response to the effects of the Salawa
firestorm. Just as in the separatist war battlefields of the North,
there is a need to swiftly deal with the explosion fall-out of toxic
chemicals arising from burning explosives, ammunition metal casings, and
pollution of water and earth by lead and other poisonous elements thrown
up by the fiery blasts. Sri Lanka's long experience with war has
equipped the government and civil society with skills and resources in
de-mining and the disposal of un-exploded ordnance (UXO).
The government must give top priority to this aspect of the disaster,
including the long-term health effects and treatment facilities.
A second priority is the clean-up of the entire area and the
cleansing of water resources and soils that may affect human settlements
and agriculture. A third priority is treatment of a literally
shell-shocked populace for the psychological and social trauma it has
suffered. A fourth priority is the swift rehabilitation of the economic
capacities and infra-structure of the affected region so that
livelihoods could recover and resume. The protest demonstrations towards
the end of last week by groups of residents in Salawa indicate a public
impatience over delays in support for their recovery. Unlike a largely
natural disaster, the local populace is fully aware of the fact that
they were hit not by a rainstorm but by explosions of human-made and
stored materials. No wonder, then, the people are quick to demand
responses from humans who claim to bear responsibility for such matters.
The Army has notably been in the forefront of the rescue and recovery
efforts so far. The Army Commander must be commended for this
initiative. It is up to the government now to deploy its responsible
ministers and relevant officials to give leadership to the overall
The defeat of the 'No Confidence' motion against the Minister of
Finance tabled by some sections of the Opposition in Parliament was not
un-expected. The parliamentary arithmetic was always clear as to the
relative voting strengths. The test was to see how big would be the
government's 'Nay' vote majority over that of the Opposition's 'Aye'
In the event, it was primarily that section of the Opposition that
comprise the UPFA rebel faction, which voted for the No Confidence
motion. It must be noted that it was not even the main, formal
'Opposition' in Parliament that originated the motion in the first
place. The originators were the UPFA rebels who choose to call
themselves the 'Joint Opposition'. (A bemused citizenry is yet trying to
decipher as to what this 'joint' means.)
The formal Opposition, comprising the TNA, whose head of
parliamentary group is the official Leader of the Opposition, and the
JVP, the next largest group in Opposition, were both more spectators in
this parliamentary mini-drama than serious actors. The TNA chose to be
absent from the House at the time of voting while the JVP voted in
favour of the motion.
It is up to the TNA to explain to the citizenry, whom it claims to
represent in 'Opposition' irrespective of ethnicity, why it de-prioritised
the No Confidence vote by not even being present in the chamber to
participate in the voting. As the Leader of the Opposition, Mr.
Sampanthan must explain the reason for this lackadaisical parliamentary
behaviour in relation to a vote that has relevance to the nation's
The Government cannot sit back on its laurels after the defeat of the
UPFA rebels. After all, it is a matter of direct relevance to the
economic well-being of the people. History has taught that economic
interests and socio-economic needs underlie all other interests, even
ethnic community interests. No one but the political leadership can be
blamed if it fails to factor in the socio-economic interests of the
people along with the other strands of governance, such as the repair of
democracy and the solving of the ethnic conflict.