- Those who entered the forest disregarding these warnings have been beaten up
- The villagers informing Kirioya Atharagalla Grama Niladhari Officer, Bakamuna Divisional Secretary and the Bakamuna Pradesha Sabha Chairman did not serve a purpose
- Bakamuna Police has stated that no complaints had been lodged against the Army regarding the assaults or excavating activities carried out in search of treasures
- The personnel stationed inside the forest had been carefully inspecting the archaeological sites using drones
- Members of the unit had found equipment including drills, gun powder, gelignite rods, diesel and and unused ammo
- A spokesperson of the Special Force camp in Naula said that no officer from the camp had been assigned to protect the reserve
“Treasures have been excavated not in the forest, but near the river and none of the army personnel had been nearby. Anyone can say they were beaten up by Army personnel. With the development of new technology anyone can take photos to make them appear as true. Army personnel do not assault people”-
Brigadier Nilantha Premarathna Army Spokesperson
The ancient palace of King Parakramabahu and the surrounding historical sites with an archaeological value in Wasgamuwa Reserve are at present dominated by treasure hunters. Residents of Kirioya, Atharagalla and Kumara Ella allege that those who are engaged in treasure hunting are not treasure hunters, but personnel from Army’s Special Force. These personnel are excavating for treasures in groups in the guise of protecting the reserve, they allege.
The main occupation of residents of Kirioya, Atharagalla and Kumara Ella is gem mining. There have been instances when they trespassed the reserve to engage in mining. They also hunt animals. These offences are punishable by law. The residents admitted that they were committing an offence. “However while punishing us the Special Force personnel are engaged in treasure hunting. The law is not enforced on them. They are excavating for treasures using political power. They beat up the villagers trespassing Wasgamuwa Reserve and hand them over to the wildlife office to take legal actions.
Items used in illegal excavation activities
Food items that were buried underground
“They are uneasy when we trespass the forest. The Special Force personnel are excavating for treasures after restricting entry for us. Some Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) officers also support these activities. The fact that the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Polonnaruwa is unaware that many archaeological sites in the Wasgamuwa Reserve have been blasted using dynamite- with the motive of excavating treasures- is hard to believe. This reserve comes under the purview of the DWC Polonnaruwa. We are engaged in gem mining for a living. Wildlife officers round us up immediately in such instances,” villagers pointed out.
“Those who trespass the reserve for gem mining and poaching are caught and beaten up after which they are handed over to the DWC for the purpose of taking legal action. As we are not aware of their condition we admit them to hospital and take legal actions afterward”- T. R. Pradeep Kirioya Wildlife Ranger
“Army personnel warn us not to enter Kalu Ganga, Kumara Ella or the forest area by clearing the elephant fence. Those who entered the forest disregarding these warnings have been beaten up. Some have been threatened and weapons have been fired. A resident from Kirioya who has received serious wounds received treatment at the Laggala Hospital. He is in critical condition. The authorities have taken legal action against the victim for trespassing and hunting in the forest, but not dealt with the ones who beat him up. Informing Kirioya Atharagalla Grama Niladhari Officer, Bakamuna Divisional Secretary and the Bakamuna Pradesha Sabha Chairman did not serve a purpose,” they added. It is reported that the victim mentioned in the incident is preparing to lodge a complaint with the Human Rights Commission stating that he was subjected to prejudice by the men in uniform. A relative of one of his companions- who was serving the Army- is said to have made the victim liable for all offences in order to save the other person. An old person was beaten up in August for trespassing the reserve to mine gems. People fear mining for gems or hunting in the forest because they might get beaten up by Special Force personnel or get fined by DWC officers,” the villagers of Kirioya pointed out.
They also said that recently the personnel stationed inside the forest had been carefully inspecting the archaeological sites using drones. Actually they have not inspected illegal gem mines but the ancient palace of King Parakramabahu and the surrounding areas that have an archaeological value. A gem miner in Kirioya, reminding us of the history of treasure hunting in the area, said that the area was inspected in 2014 using helicopters.
Several villagers have seen another group of army personnel in Kumara Ella surrounding the ancient palace of King Parakramabahu using thread that have been blessed (Pirith nool). Another villager said that a resident of Kumara Ella had dialed 119 to inform about the illegal mining activities by these personnel in Kumara Ella and blasts heard from the area. An officer of the DWC said that instead of investigating the incident the caller had been forced to leave the village after gangs were tasked with intimidating him.
“One or two might lie regarding this issue, but in this case almost everyone in the villages is telling the same story and this issue should be investigated”- Ven. Balangoda Sumana Thera Chief Incumbent of Kiriyoya Temple
The Special Raid Unit of the DWC Polonnaruwa on receiving information that a group was excavating for treasures in Galmulla area in Kumara Ella had conducted a raid on November 15. Members of the unit had found equipment including drills, gun powder, gelignite rods, diesel and and unused ammo. The excavation site is located 100-120 metres away from Amban River. Villagers have informed the DWC office that they had heard the sound of blasts in the area recently. Wildlife Ranger Kumarasiri Wijekoon, Wildlife Ranger Dhananjaya and wildlife officers from Kirioya, Diyabeduma, and Bakamuna have conducted the raid on the instructions of DWC Polonnaruwa Zone Assistant Director W. M. K. Chandrarathna.
DWC officers who participated in the raid said that those who were engaged in treasure hunting had prohibited villagers from entering the area. “The area is identified as an archaeological site. A large rock was seen destroyed using bores and a generator has been used to power the drills.” DWC officers added. A large number of military MRE packs, 30 kilos of rice, pumpkin, salt and many other food items were found. They have confiscated many equipment used to excavate in search of treasure. These items have been hidden carefully on treetops and in underground areas. These items had been discovered after the officers dug up the ground out of suspicion noticing the buried food items which surfaced due to the rain.
When inquired whether the claims made by villagers- regarding Special Force personnel excavating for treasures in Wasgamuwa Reserve- were confirmed through the raids they carried out the DWC officers said they were unable to confirm them. “The court will decide who brought military food into the reserve. Until then we cannot say whether the Special Force was involved,” they added.
“No army personnel were in the Wasgamuwa Reserve during the previous 4-5 weeks” – Army spokesperson
Army Spokesperson Brigadier Nilantha Premarathna said on November 23 that Army personnel had not been assigned to protect the reserve. “I spoke with Chanaka, the Department of Wildlife Conservation officer in charge of the park. He said that there had been a treasure hunting incident and military MRE packs- found inside an anthill-had been produced before the court. I checked with the Army and Special Forces camps in charge of the area and was informed that they were not involved in any activity in Wasgamuwa Reserve. Army soldiers have participated in wildlife raids before, but not during the previous 4-5 weeks. When I made inquiries regarding the incident where several villagers were beaten up a Department of Wildlife and Conservation officer told me that four people who had engaged in poaching in April had been produced before the court. He added that they had accused the Army because they were angry. Treasures have been excavated not in the forest, but near the river and none of the army personnel had been nearby. Anyone can say they were beaten up by Army personnel. With the development of new technology anyone can take photos to make them appear as true. Army personnel do not assault people. Anyone can buy MRE packs from outside. They are available in outside stores. Our officers have not been to the Wasgamuwa Reserve for the past few weeks. Those who earn an income by illegal means are just accusing the Army,” Brigadier Nilantha Premarathna added.
The new bridge that is used to enter the Wasgamuwa Reserve
A spokesperson of the Special Force camp in Naula said that no officer from the camp had been assigned to protect the reserve. “To assign Special Force personnel with such duties the special permission of the Army Commander is required. MRE packs are used only in the military and they are not sold outside.” he added. A spokesperson of Welikanda Special Force camp said that no personnel in the camp had been assigned with duties in the Wasgamuwa Reserve and added that ration packs are not available outside, but the instant food packets might be available. A spokesperson for the Minneriya Army Camp also confirmed that no soldier was assigned to protect the reserve. However DWC officers said that Special Force personnel stationed in the Vavuniya camp had been assigned these duties. But the Vavuniya Special Force camp dismissed this claim.
“Special Force soldiers have been in Wasgamuwa reserve for one and half years” – DWC Assistant Director
Speaking regarding the presence of Special Force soldiers in the Wasgamuwa Reserve,as told to us by residents of Kirioya, Kumara Ella and Atharagalla, DWC Assistant Director in charge of Polonnaruwa Zone W. M. K. Chandrarathna said that Special Force soldiers had been in the reserve for one and half years and they had been assigned with duties in the reserve on the instructions of the DWC Director General following an order from the high authorities. “They (SF Personnel) are staying in the rock bungalow under the Department of Wildlife and Conservation and are transported to the reserve in DWC vehicles. I have informed the DWC Director General regarding treasure excavations and taken legal actions,” said Chandrarathna. When inquired who would take responsibility for excavating treasures and destroying ancient sites with an archaeological value despite both Special Force soldiers and DWC officers being present, Chandrarathna said that both parties would have to take responsibility. “This incident cannot be ignored. If it is proven that DWC officers and Special Force personnel were aiding in these activities, such officers would be dealt with according to law.” he added.
Kirioya Wildlife Ranger T. R. Pradeep said he had learned that Vavuniya Special Force camp personnel had been assigned to protect Wasgamuwa Reserve. “Those who trespass the reserve for gem mining and poaching are caught and beaten up after which they are handed over to the DWC for the purpose of taking legal action. As we are not aware of their condition we admit them to hospital and take legal actions afterwards. A person who got beaten up was admitted to Laggala Hospital recently and legal action was taken after treatment was offered. Wildlife officers never beat up people trespassing the forest, but only arrest them to enforce the law. Special Force personnel, who were in charge, were withdrawn from the area a week before the raid was conducted; the raid was carried out to locate the treasure hunters and a new team arrived in the forest on November 23. Special Force soldiers in Kirioya and the surroundings have informed DWC officers not to report to work in those areas. DWC officers are engaged in duties in other areas except those areas mentioned. 45 cases were filed in court in 2020 against trespassers caught by the Special Force and DWC officers. This year the number is 32.”, Pradeep added.
Attempts made to contact DWC Director General M. J. C. Sooriyabandara proved to be futile.
When the Daily Mirror contacted the Laggala Police this writer was asked to contact Bakamuna Police with the latter stating that no complaints had been lodged against the Army regarding the assaults or excavating activities carried out in search of treasures.
Bakamuna Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Nalin Kumara said that there were illegal gem mines, but he was unaware of whether the Army was engaged in treasure hunting or whether they had assaulted villagers. Bakamuna Divisional Secretary C. M. Karunarathna said that she had not received any complaints against the Army regarding treasure hunting or attacking villagers and asked this newspaper to contact Kirioya, Atharagalla Grama Niladari D. M. P. B. Udagedara. This Grama Niladari disconnected the line when we tried to contact her.
Almost all the villagers relate the same story regarding these unlawful activities.
“ People are hospitalised after getting beaten up by Army personnel”- Chief Incumbent of Kiriyoya temple
The Chief Incumbent of Kiriyoya Temple Ven. Balangoda Sumana Thera said that the villagers of Kirioya, Atharagalla, Kumara Ella were claiming that the Army was engaged in treasure hunting. “People are hospitalised after getting beaten up by Army personnel. One or two might lie regarding this issue, but in this case almost everyone in the villages is telling the same story and this issue should be investigated,” he added. In a discussion held several months ago- between a powerful person representing Kandy district and Kirioya residents in a hostel in the area- the residents have spoken about the harassment initiated by the Army and the difficulties they face when engaged in gem mining. This influential person has said that he had assigned soldiers to the Wasgamuwa Reserve and they would not be withdrawn for any reason. Attempts made to contact this powerful person were futile.
The villagers still have hope that the authorities will carry out investigations to unearth who is behind treasure hunting in the Wasgamuwa Reserve and disclose everything to the public.