Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Celebrating Freedom: A Personal Account

Note: The Editors of Groundviews received this account of the attack, written by Dr. Harsha de Silva (MP), which took place on the 4th of February at an opposition protest outside the Welikada prison.

I am generally not the street-protesting type. I try to articulate my arguments with facts and figures, be it writing, speaking or engaging in debate. But the other day, I was in a demonstration and this is an account of what happened; the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The UNP had decided to boycott the 63rd Independence celebrations to protest the incarceration of General Sarath Fonseka and the continuing clampdown on freedoms in general; it was only a week since the offices of LankaeNews were set ablaze. That morning I had already made several comments on rising prices, in fact the doubling of prices, since the UPFA had ascended to office. During the day I had spoken to several people on the deteriorating economic freedom in Sri Lanka and how the State was expanding its activity in agriculture, manufacturing and services. I had pointed out that our economy was getting militarized; be it in vegetable trading and running tea boutiques on the A9 by the army, whale watching and canal transport by the navy or domestic air travel by the air force. I had wondered aloud about the appointment of all three service chiefs to the Board of Water’s Edge golf club. But most of the day I had participated in a workshop on how to increase economic freedoms of poor rural farmers by improving their access to information and knowledge. Something I believe in; that the solution to the twin problem of poor farmers and high cost of food lies in creating efficient agricultural markets via greater and more transparent access to demand and supply information, both spot and forward.

As a part of the activity for the day our party had organized a protest that evening. Named ‘Nidahase Vilapaya’ it was to be a candle light vigil in front of the Welikada prison to pressure the Government to release General Fonseka. I decided to participate in it. It was only about a month ago I had visited the General in prison and witnessed with my own eyes the ungrateful way the Government was treating the person who made a signal contribution in defeating terrorism in this country. The derogatory ways in which some Government MPs refer to him in the Chamber had always disturbed me. I am sure the General has his faults, like any of us, but should we not have at least some gratitude? Anyway, the reasons were many. My seventeen-year old son also wanted to join the protest. He wanted to express his own feelings. In retrospect, perhaps it was not the wisest thing that I did that evening, but we were to participate in a peaceful protest. Heart of hearts though, I was happy that he was not growing up indifferent like some young people in this country today.

When we arrived at the Prisons junction it was already crowded to my surprise. A senior policeman approached and advised me not to get down from my vehicle as the crowd there was not ours, but rather of Minister Mervyn Silva’s. He advised I proceed directly to the place where we were supposed to start the protest; Punchi Borella junction. However when we got there and attempted to alight from the vehicle I was advised by yet another senior policeman that I should move further up the Maradana Road towards Borella as MP Thilanga Sumathipala was having a religious function near the Punchi Borella Bo tree and the police had instructed the UNP to shift the starting point of the demonstration. In fact the section of the road near the bo tree and passport office was barricaded and none of the protesters were allowed in. The only people there were those who had come to participate in the ‘religious function.’ The reason I am reiterating this point is because a DIG had stated that clashes began as we disturbed a religious ceremony of a Government politician. That is absolutely not true. We never passed any religious ceremony. We started our protest much further away from it as instructed by the DIG’s own staff and proceeded away from it and not towards it.

By the time we finally started our protest, maybe it was around seven in the evening. Some carried torches, some carried placards, yet others shouted slogans and most just walked along the street. Perhaps there were at least five hundred, may be more, I was in front and did not see the back. We had walked for around fifteen minutes and the protest was now taking shape. We were well within our rights and not breaking any law. In fact there were dozens of police in uniform on either side of the road. They did not try to break anything up. They were observing the proceedings. Perhaps other higher ups may also have been watching via the Rs 300 million 24×7 surveillance-network of at least 118 ultra-sensitive cameras spread out across the city.

I remember quite well moments before the attack. I was a little ahead of the main group. Our vociferous parliamentary colleague Dayasiri Jayasekera was leading the slogans. He had a mega phone and others were repeating after him. Our deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya was just behind him along with MPs Ravi Karunanayake, Rosie Senanayake, Palitha Thewarapperuma and I believe Tissa Attanake. DNA colleague Tiran Alles was also in the pack following. I saw many other prominent UNP politicians actively engaged; Provincial councilors Shiral Lakthillake, Mujibur Rahman and Srinath Perera and I think, it was former MP Dr Karunasena Kodituwakku. A number of other politicians and civil society people were there as well. I saw many professionals who I recognized.
Suddenly, we heard people screaming and then I heard shots. Someone said we were being shot at; perhaps they were rubber bullets that were coming our way, I don’t know. Then it was like a hail storm. Rocks, Molotov cocktails, cement blocks and all kinds of objects were being thrown at us. In seconds thugs appeared with iron rods, poles and started assaulting people and smashing up vehicles. Everyone started to run helter skeltor. My son was right next to me. He pulled me away. We ran. Some fell. Some got caught to the mob. I heard women scream. It was chaotic. The police continued to observe the scene but did not do a thing. Perhaps the higher ups did the same from the CCTV headquarters. We were running back towards Punchi Borella. But the people from the ‘religious ceremony’ were coming towards us. We turned to a lane. There were others running down the lane. I heard voices of thugs asking for our blood.

“Ado …..ge putha… gahapung, marapung…”. Suddenly a roller shutter opened. My son, a fellow protester and I were pulled in to some one’s home. The roller shutter was shut. A man who we had never met locked it and took us to the back. The goons were outside looking for us. We hid there for twenty minutes. The man who gave us protection we later realized was the security guard of the home occupied by some foreigners. He was worried thinking he had done something wrong, but when he recognized me he felt comfortable. My phone kept ringing. I made some calls to convey I was okay. We had escaped grievous hurt. Once the pious thugs went away we went back to my car and sped away.

We saw Rosie’s vehicle badly smashed up. Ravi’s and Dayasiri’s vehicles were damaged. I heard Mr Karu Jayasuriyas’s and another person’s was also damaged. Later I saw some television footage of a vehicle being driven away while the back was on fire! It was only when we came back to UNP’s media centre we were able to corroborate the stories. We saw mobile phone footage of people beaten up badly and got to know of the incident where the Sirasa journalist had been attacked and his sophisticated camera stolen. We also saw photographs of those bleeding badly. My colleague Palitha Thewarapperuma had taken injured people to hospital and he had seen several others there as well. We heard that after the goon squads were allowed to get away by the observing police, a few of our protesters had regrouped and held a small demonstration at the scene. Subsequently I saw the visuals on television.

Now others started coming in to our media office. Parliamentary colleagues Mr John Amaratunga and Sajith Premadasa who were on the way to the protest had been redirected for personal safety. Tiran and Mrs Anoma Fonseka also arrived having being escorted out of the melee. MP Eran Wickramaratne also joined. His coordinating secretary was badly beaten. The middle aged innocent man was shaken up. Several other staff members of politicians were also targeted. We then held a hurriedly summoned press conference and conveyed to the media what actually took place. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is that thugs with iron rods, Molotov cocktails, poles and rocks beat us up while the police just watched.

We then came back home disgusted. On the way my son compared this brand of democracy with several other regimes past and present around the world. I was ashamed of our generation. I think it is time we said enough is enough if we still care about true democracy.

  • Dear Dr. Harsha,
    Very soon the Blackers and the Jayathilekes will be adding their 2 cents worth saying the mob was on a humanitarian operation to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of this funny country we live in. According to them, all is hunky dory in the Island of Jilmart.But to us…the silent minorities…there has certainly been something very rotten in the State of Jilmart for the past 63 years.(with apologies to Shakespeare.We only hope and pray it will not continue for another 63!

  • To those of you who believe that Sri Lankans are the greatest…please click the link below and read…

    http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2011/02/06/harvest-of-63-years-of-independence/

  • “The honourable wounds of war”, Harsha? 😉

    • Dear Dr. Harsha,

      The Wikipedia, free encyclopedia describes ‘Police State’ as state in which the government (pronounced Family Dictatorship) exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic and political life of the population. A police state typically exhibits elements of totalitarianism and social control, and there is usually little or no distinction between the law and the exercise of political power by the executive.

      The inhabitants of a police state experience restrictions on their mobility, (pronounced check points and random checks on individuals) and on their freedom to express or communicate political or other views, (pronounced killing of journalists and burning down of TV stations and newspaper printing presses) which are subject to police monitoring or enforcement.(pronounced CCTV Cameras) Political control may be exerted by means of a secret police force which operates outside the boundaries normally imposed by a constitutional state. (pronounced as white vans, mobs and the Prevention of Terrorism Act).

      In my personal point of view, this country is a ‘Police State’ meandering along with the help of ‘Mob Rule.’

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Police_state
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ochlocracy

      But as usual all what sycophants without a conscience can call what happens in such a state is, “The honourable wounds of war.”

      • It seems, dear Dunce, like so many other things, irony too is wasted on you. Why don’t you google that quote and see who said it.

    • Sanjeeva

      This things would never happen to the Lapdogs of Power! However the Dictators would never hesitate to betray anybody to save their existence and there are some people who would like to see this as necessary to “serve their ideology and it requires its toll to be paid”. These indifferent supporters would wake up one day when they are asked to pay their share to the purported goal and only then they would realize what damage they have done to the society and the future generations, but they would search for an excuse like always to save their skin.

  • sunimal

    Things have come to a headon.Please copy what Ghandhi did to oust the British by going to jail enmass to get rid of this menace destroying SL.

  • arun.silva87

    At least the truth of what is happening in Colombo will come out. They will believe it, if it comes from a Sinhalese person!!! But the atrocities which happened and is still happening in the North and East will never come out. They (sinhalese) will not believe if it is coming from a Tamil person!!!

    Sadly the “slow genocide” of the Tamils will continue, until they have no strength to fight back. It has come almost to this level. People there cannot even talk about this even among themselves!!!Pathetic state of the “miracle of Asia”

  • The Mervyn Silva

    I am happy to be giving the assuarance from the government side that we will be conducting the full and impartial investigation to be determining which western imperialistic power is behind this latest attack on the democracy and the sovereignty of our country.

  • A couple of questions:

    1. What is being done about this attack now? Is the UNP bothering to take legal action? The mobile phone videos and ultra-sensistive camera footage (if you can get a hold of it) would be hard to refute in a court of law, if only to sue the police for non-performance of their duties.

    2. Where was Ranil Wickremasinghe, the leader of the opposition, when all this was going on? Was he at the protest?

    • justitia

      What legal action, when police refuse/delay indefinitely recording of complaints from citizens who accuse those favoured by them – let alone against police inaction when violence was perpetrated in their presence?
      In the old days a typed signed complaint was accepted by the police and was pasted on the Complaint Book at the police station, and a certified copy was provided the very next day, and action on the complaint was commenced promptly.
      This attack by goons was witnessed by policemen who took no action.
      This is the “new” brand of “democracy” in action.
      The government should realise that other countries are watching and aware of this situation.
      Maybe this is why the web media premises were torched.
      In real democracies, the head of the police force would have been at least temporarily suspended and an independent group of persons ( such groups are appointed by each government ) would have investigated.

  • Dear David,

    Do you find any irony in these two paragraphs?

    In a clear signal that Rajapaksa had no intention of changing his governance style, the parliament in September passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively strips the police, judiciary, electoral commission, public service commission, and the National Human Rights Commission of their independence, Human Rights Watch said.

    “There is no reason to believe that Sri Lanka will return to a rights-respecting government any time in the near future,” Pearson said. “Until wartime abuses are prosecuted, minority grievances are addressed, and repression against the press and civil society ends, only the president and his family members in power have reason to feel secure in Sri Lanka.”

    To read further, click the link given below.

    http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/01/24/sri-lanka-stonewalling-wartime-abuses

    • Dear Mr Dunce, when I said that irony was lost on you, I didn’t realise that the meaning of it was also lost on you 😀 Here’s a link to help you with that: http://m.dictionary.com/d/?q=irony&o=0&l=dir

      • Dear David, don’t be slippery like an eel. Just answer the question!

      • So Mr Dunce, are you asking me if those two paragraphs “1. convey a meaning that is the opposite of the literal meaning”?

        Or are you asking me if they have “2. an outcome contrary to expectations”?

        Or do you have your own unique definition of the term?

        Btw, were you able to figure out where my original ironic quote came from?

  • Dear Dr.de Silva, When is the UNP going to wake up to the fact that the government is working according to a VERY LONG TERM plan that certainly does not include a loss at a general or presidential election but is rather establishing the . groundwork for a totally militarily-buttressed long-term regime? The army is NOT in the north and east to preempt an LTTE revival. My bet is that there us a secret long-term defense agreement/mou with China to ensure an Israeli-type satellite state, backed with the totality of Chinese air and sea power, to ensure India does not – and will not- interfere when the government begins laying down tough edicts in the north and east which will cause problems in Delhi when Tamil Nadu goes on the prod.What do you think Gota and the air chief are doing at the Bangalore attack aircraft show? To prepare for a massive Eelam War 5 ? Laughable ! No. They’re looking for the big ones and guess who will finance the purchases under a defense agreement? Not Delhi. Beijung. For what purpose? You see, this is why
    the UPFA remains in power.They’re light years ahead of the UNP, planning the future with a broader world view. They’re not forgetting what Rajiv did to JR and are determined to take Delhi for a ride until they’re ready to make a ply when China has got into position through subtle economic and other co-operation agreements. The Burma style militarized regime is being meanwhile given a human face by being made ‘people-friendly’ by bringing cheaper vegetables- plus-to their feet while the Navy is also given the same cosmetic treatment. Will write more later.