Three young men have been killed over the last couple of days following a clash between the army and residents of Weliweriya — about an hour’s drive from Colombo — during protests against contaminated drinking water. At a time when the army’s growing dominance — even in civil matters — is being condemned by many sections within and outside the country, the incident has sparked severe criticism on the need for the army to be summoned in response to a protest over a basic civic problem.

The army reportedly swung into action to “tackle” the protesters and the subsequent firing claimed three lives, in addition to leaving many seriously injured.

Akila Dinesh (17), a student, died on Thursday night soon after the clash, while Ravishan Perera (19), who was admitted to the National Hospital, succumbed to injuries on Saturday, news agency Adaderana reported. On Sunday, a 29-year-old man, who was undergoing treatment at the Colombo National Hospital, also died.

Following contamination of water in their wells — their primary ground water source — by effluents from a nearby factory, thousands of Weliweriya residents staged a protest on Thursday. Though the residents had been highlighting the issue for a while, there was no response or action from civic authorities. They even explored legal options, moving the magistrate court with a petition against the owner of the factory, Dipped Products Ltd, a subsidiary of Hayleys Group located at Nedungamuwa, about 3 km from Weliwveriya, The Sunday Times reported. However, the adjournment of the case until August 22 resulted in the protest gaining momentum, as more residents took to the streets on Thursday to express their anger and concern. The road from Kandy to Colombo was blocked — except for access given to school vehicles and ambulances.

The army personnel were soon at the spot, trying to “control” the crowd. Many sections in Sri Lankan believe that while the police ought to have intervened in such a situation, the army’s presence and action cannot not justified. The Lawyers Collective condemned the government’s “continuous ferocity” against peaceful protesters.

In a statement issued in this connection, the Collective said the government has displayed total disrespect to the constitutional guarantees on civil liberties of its citizens. “Evidence clearly establishes that deplorable levels of force including live bullets were used on the unarmed villager. The assailants also assaulted journalists and grabbed their cameras by force when they were doing their job covering the event.”

The legal fraternity urged the government to control its military and ensure that they are used for only legitimate purposes.

Journalists of the local media, at the spot to cover the developments, said army personnel threatened to “smash” their cameras. “There was a power cut soon after the clash that made some of us suspicious,” a journalist told The Hindu.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission has begun investigating the incident, with a five-member team probing available evidence.

The army, which has been denying charges against it, too has ordered an investigation into the incident.