Soldiers Seeking The Spoils Of Gem Pits
By Nirmala Kannangara Pictures by Asanka Subhodha in Kataragama
Following the arrest of an army solider for selling liquor at the makeshift army welfare shop adjacent to the Tammannawa gem pits by the Kataragama – Lunugamvehera road, questions are being asked about who is behind this illegal move.
An army soldier was arrested with 81 bottles of 375 ml extra special arrack and 32 cans of 500 ml special beer from the makeshift army welfare shop in Tammannawa by the criminal investigation unit of the Tangalle Division on March 11.
Angry villagers are asking whether this is the reason why the Field Commanding Officer Kataragama Lt. Col. R. B. C. U. K. Ratnamalala made the area a ‘high security zone’.
“The Court issued a restraining order on February 16, preventing outsiders from entering the area where gems were found but it was withdrawn on March 1. Although the restraining order was removed, the residents are still barred from moving freely and people from neighbouring villages are not allowed to enter the area to conduct their routine business.
Since the army took over providing security for the gem pits, Lt. Col Ratnamalala closed off the area to people, other than the residents. “We were subjected to much harassment especially at the hands of Lt. Col. Ratnamalala,” an angry villager on condition of anonymity told The Sunday Leader.
According to him, Ratnamalala is a dictator and has threatened the villagers on several occasions.
Meanwhile the villagers accused a senior government minister, some local government representatives, high ranking public officers and Lt. Col. Ratnamalala of illegal gem mining in the area late at night.
According to the villager, Coconut Development and State Plantations Development Minister Jagath Pushpakumara, Chairman Pradeshiya Sabha Kataragama Chanaka Rangana, Mayor Hambantota, Divisional Secretary Kataragama T. B. M. Atapattu and Lt. Col. Ratnamalala were involved in illegal gem mining at night damaging the entire road much to the annoyance of the road contractor. “Road construction work has come to a complete standstill since gems were found in the road. Although the road construction contractor remained silent when the people started digging the newly laid road with sticks looking for gems, he was furious when these government stooges dug the road using backhoes every night. He lodged a complaint with the Kataragama police to prevent further damage to the road. Minister Pushpakumara is alleged to have threatened the contractor over the phone urging him to withdraw the complaint immediately failing which he was threatened with sever repercussions. As a result the contractor has withdrawn the complaint.
Meanwhile K. D. Devapriya a provincial journalist in Kataragama was threatened by Lt. Col. Ratnamalala on March 7, for entering the area without any prior approval from him (Ratnamalala).
“I was on my way to meet Ven. Ananda Thero of the Galapita monestry with a friend of mine on Poya day when an army jeep drove up and stopped near me.
I saw Lt. Col Ratnamalala getting down from the jeep and coming towards me but did not take any notice of him since he is a good friend of mine. I assumed that he was coming towards me to exchange pleasantries but to my utter dismay he shouted at me for entering the area without any approval from him.
Why should I get approval from him when I told the check point that I was going to the monastery to see the Buddhist monk. Realizing that Ratnamalala was under the influence of liquor I tried to avoid him but to no avail. In a threatening way he asked whether I came to report their ‘businesses’ to the media,” Devapriya said.
According to Devapriya, Lt. Col.Ratnamalala had also yelled at Ananda thero using abusive language.
“This is a Buddhist country and this is a sacred area. It was disheartening to see a military officer who was supposed to maintain law and order behave like an animal and how he used abusive language on a Buddhist monk.
Ratnamalala then told me that he was carrying out Defence Secretary’s orders and that he was not scared of anyone since the Defence Secretary has given his blessings for him to carry out his ‘businesses’.
I then told him that this cannot be the Defence Secretary’s order and that he (Ratnamalala) was using his superior’s name for his benefit. This annoyed Ratnamalala and he chased us away. All this was witnessed by the Chairman Kataragama Pradeshiya Sabha from his official double cab together with a gem merchant who was helping them in the illegal gem mining,” said Devapriya.
Ratnamalala had then threatned Devapriya with death.
“When we were leaving the area, Ratnamalala followed us and stopped us near the army checkpoint at the Viharamaha Devi statue. Snatching my mobile phone from my hand Ratnamalala dashed it on the ground and threatened me saying, ‘we are not like the police. We can shoot anyone with these guns without any issue. These are army orders and we are above the law’,” Devapriya said.
Devapriya lodged a complaint with the Kataragama police (no: 349/ 2012 CIV 2260/ 69) that same evening and the inquiry was held the following day.
“Ratnamalala meanwhile had gone to Chief Minister Uva Province Shashindra Rajapaksa seeking his intervention for a settlement to which the Chief Minister had asked Ratnamalala not to harass media personnel. The Chief Minister later told me that Ratnamalala was pleading with him to intervene as it would affect his job.
I then wrote to the President, the Defence Secretary, the Army Commander and the Inspector General of Police requesting them to take immediate action against this military officer who has become a threat to the area. After my confrontation with Ratnamalala, people from all over were openly critical of Ratnamalala for the harassment meted out to them. One old man who is in his late 60’s told me how he was ordered by Ratnamalala to crawl on the gravel road assuming that he was a spy. This was one such example as to how the villagers have been harassed by this military officer,” said Devapriya.
According to the Military Act action will be taken – Military Spokesperson
Military Spokesperson Brig. Ruwan Wanigasooriya told The Sunday Leader that necessary action will be taken according to military law against those who are found guilty after the police investigation.
“Military law is straight forward and strict action will be taken against those who violate this law. Since this particular case is still under police investigation I cannot make any further comment,” Brig. Wanigasooriya said.
When asked who has given orders to Lt. Col. Ratnamalala to prevent people from entering the area for their day to day activities, Brig. Wanigasooriya said that it was a precautionary action taken by the army.
“When the people started digging the road looking for gems the road became impassable. That was why the Field Commanding Officer has closed the road to traffic,” said the military spokesperson.
When asked as to why the pedestrians too were not allowed in and whether it was to help politicians to carry out their ‘illegal business’ and the army to sell liquor for the gem pit workers, the military spokesperson denied the allegations.
Minister Jagath Pushpakumara contradicts his own statement
When Coconut Development and State Plantations Development Minister Jagath Pushpakumara was contacted to find out whether he threatened the road contractor over his complaint to the police, Pushpakumara first said that he knew nothing about such a complaint.
“What complaint are you talking about? I do not know anything,” he said.
However contradicting his own statement, Minister Pushpakumara said that he had come to know of such a police complaint by the contractor but was neither aware of it nor was he involved in it.
“Once the land was auctioned I went there but since then I have never been to that area,” Pushpakumara told The Sunday Leader.
Removed the soil to look out for gems for the benefit of the people — Divisional Secretary Kataragama
Refuting allegations levelled against him for the involvement in illegal gem mining, Divisional Secretary Kataragama T. B. M. Atapattu told The Sunday Leader that the soil was removed to look for gems for the benefit of the people.
“The National Gem and Jewellery Authority wanted me to remove the soil to see whether there are gems. If gems are found they would auction the land and 70 percent of the net profit would be divided amongst the underprivileged families in the area. I was not involved in any illegal gem mining,” said the Divisional Secretary.
The villagers wanted me to supervise the gem mining – Chairman Kataragama PS
Refuting allegations levelled against him, Chairman Kataragama Pradeshiya Sabha Chanaka Amil Ranjan said that he has no involvement in any illegal gem mining.
“Being the Chairman Kataragama PS, the villagers wanted me to supervise the work. That was why I was going to the area very often. However, Ranjan told The Sunday Leader that he knew nothing about the alleged threat the Field Commanding Officer had made to the journalist.
“This is a high security zone and no one is allowed in. I was not there when this alleged threat had taken place,” added Ranjan.