The death of Freedom of Assembly, Expression and Religion in the North of Sri Lanka
Every 26th and 27th of November since the end of the war (2009), we hear of people in the North not being able to moan their dead, not being able to carry out peaceful assemblies, not being able to partake in religious festivals or observances in public or at home, and every year it falls on deaf ears. Also noteworthy is the fact that such incidents are most often reported only in the Tamil media and sites or non-main stream news websites. This raises the question as to what “makes news” in the South, and what the mainstream media considers priority. The North not being one of them it would seem.
The trusty arms of the State once again ‘rose to the occasion’ with a real “vengeance” this time around, to suppress all events, deemed by them to be “unwarranted” or bearing potential to “incite” the populace, for the fourth consecutive year now. The only difference this year being that the State has blatantly ignored the recommendations made by its very own reconciliatory mechanism, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which has asked that the State “facilitate(e) their (the people’s) attendance at religious ceremonies, without placing any hindrance to such activities” and that “(p)eople, community leaders and religious leaders should be free to organize peaceful events and meetings without restrictions” (para. 9.116 and 9.118). The report has even gone as far as to recommend that a “separate event be set apart on the National Day to express solidarity and empathy with all victims of the tragic conflict…” (para. 8.304).
No Right to Assembly, Expression or Grieve
Despite all the aforementioned recommendations though, the security forces wielded chaos in the North yet again. Groups of students who had gathered at the Jaffna University grounds on November 27th Tuesday, a Poya holiday, which also marked Maaveerar Naal and the Hindu festival of lights, Karthiaai Vilakkeedu, were threatened and forced to flee the premises by 10 unidentified men in civil, suspected to be military intelligence officers, bearing pistols and riding motor bicycles.
As it was a holiday, students had met as usual to conduct group discussions and badminton practices within the University, rightfully presumed to be a ‘safe space’ for students to congregate. That was unfortunately not the case earlier this week, when students were terrorized into evacuating the University premises.
A student had noted down the details of one of the motorcycles as being an Indian made Bajaj Pulsar bearing the registration number NPJM 3172. The two riders of this bike had stopped at a group of students and threatened them to leave the area. Even after all the students had dispersed, the bikes had continued to circle the University premises.
Furthermore, on the 27th morning, military forces had stomped into the Jaffna University student hostels, expecting there to be some lighting of lamps. Having heard that the lamp lighting to commemorate Maaveerar Naal had been shifted to the female hostels, the military had broken into their hostel, terrifying the students. The Army had entered the hostel through the water tank, broken open the doors of the girl’s hostel, and put out the lamps. They had also frightened the girls by putting guns to their head, threatening to shoot them. Some girls had fainted out of fear and shock. Subsequently, there was a heated argument between the male hostellers and the army.
Furthermore, an alleged CID officer in civil, had taken photographs of five students standing with their motorbike, from the Medical Faculty, photocopied their national identity cards (NIC) and returned it to them.
A member of the Student Union said that “as today is Maaveerar Naal, Government forces are trying to prevent any type of commemorations from taking place. Last year too, forces were deployed at many temples and churches, preventing them from carrying out even routine rituals and religious activities. Therefore, it is most definitely a military intelligence activity to prevent people from lighting oil lamps and paying tribute to the martyrs.”
Following the tense situation at the University on the 27th, MP Saravanapavan visited the students at the University to find out details of the incident. On his arrival, alleged intelligence officers in civil had thrown stones at the MP.
A news journalist belonging to the Uthayan newspaper (a Jaffna Daily), was assaulted allegedly by the military intelligence, whilst covering the unrest at the university premises on the 27th. “I was taking photographs of the university incident, when two people with their faced covered with cloth, approached me and attempted to forcibly remove my camera from my hands. When I tried to protect it from them, they assaulted me and tried to take my camera from me again,” said the journalist. Following the incident, he immediately lodged a complaint with Jaffna Police, and was admitted to the Jaffna General Hospital for treatment.
In addition, also on the 27th, four students traveling along the Aadiyapatham road in Jaffna town were stopped and intimidated by unidentified persons, suspected to be military intelligence. Their NICs were taken and photocopies were then made and the cards returned to the students. Fortunately they were not assaulted or arrested but they are said to be traumatized by the incident.
Yet another group of students belonging to the Jaffna Hindu College, who had gathered at the school grounds yesterday for their routine practices, were allegedly intimidated by military intelligence officers and forced to leave the grounds. This unexplained activity carried out by the military had caused much panic and fear among both parents and students.
The following day (28th November 2012), students who were harassed and intimidated on the 27th, gathered at the University to conduct a silent protest against the terror tactics carried out by the military intelligence the previous day, having acted in total disregard of the University’s administration.
Some of the placards they held up, included the following slogans;
“No freedom of expression in this democratic nation”, “Who is responsible for student’s safety?”, “Can the military justify military intrusion into the female hostel?”
After having silently protested for half an hour, the students attempted to walk out of the main University entrance and re-enter the premises via the Science Faculty entrance located on Ramanathan road (distance of less than 100 meters). As the students set foot out of the University entrance, the Riot Police Unit and officers dressed in civil batten charged the unarmed students. Many students, including female students were injured, with four students and an intelligence officer being hospitalized for further treatment, as a result of batten charge and stone pelting. The officer was discharged within one hour of being admitted, whilst the students remained for further treatment.
The students had also called Jaffna District MP E. Saravanabawan to come and intervene, as they were under attack by the military and Police. “University students fought for their rights were brutally attacked and five of them were arrested. My vehicle was attacked… and…smashed the windows by the intelligent unit personnel, while police and military were watching. Students who were peacefully demonstrating were arrested but why they could not arrest those culprits attacked my vehicle,” stated MP Saravanabawan at a media briefing held in Jaffna on the 28th of November, 2012.
Having arrived on the scene, the military had not permitted the MP to enter the premises. He had argued with them and was eventually permitted to enter. “They did not respect me as a parliament member. They behaved in an uncivilized manner. This was watched by the officer in charge of Jaffna police station.”
“Yesterday military attacked me by pelting stones. Today they have smashed my vehicle. Regarding these incidents, I have made complains to the police station. Regarding this incident I will bring to the attention of Defense Ministry and Parliament was mentioned by him,” he added.
Many students have said that alleged intelligence officers were still wandering the university premises, with hidden guns and filming the student activists, and hundreds of military, intelligence and Police officers surrounding the University premises, had caused a tense atmosphere within the university.
A journalist from the Maharaja Network too was injured, along with a few University Media Unit students who were being treated for swellings caused by batten charges.
All vehicles entering Jaffna on the 27th were checked at Ottumadam, Arali and Thaddar Street junction, and the forces were patrolling the vicinity of the University in pick-ups and jeeps. They stood guard outside the University gates for the entire night.
The Jaffna University administration has yet to speak out, or take action against this incident. However, the Jaffna University Teacher’s Association (UTA) has issued a statement condemning the incident, raising the question as to how at a time Emergency Regulations are not in place, such an extent of force could be used on unarmed students, partaking in peaceful assembly. It has also condemned the numerous injuries caused to the University students, including female students.
People have also complained that the army had stationed themselves at the Navanthurai cemetery and prevented people from lighting lamps for the dead on the 27th.
The Chairman of the Karainagar (Jaffna) Pradeshiya Sabha, Anaimukan Velayutham’s home was set ablaze by unidentified persons at around 7pm on the 27th of November, 2012, as he was accused of having paid homage to “fallen heroes,” at his house. “Some unidentified people stormed into my home and set some vehicle tires on the floor in the middle of my home and set them on fire,” described the Chairman.
On the 28th, a local businessman in Kilinochchi was assaulted and intimidated by the military, as he had lit lamps in his shop in commemoration of Maaveerar Naal.
There was also a scheduled meeting for clergy and lay people to discuss some community issues to be held on the 27th in the Mannar district, which had to be postponed due to the prevailing situation. The meeting venue had received a call on the 26th evening inquiring details regarding the meeting to be held the next day. As the priest heading the meeting had not wanted to risk the security of the lay people attending, they decided to postpone the meeting.
No Right to Religion and Culture
In celebration of the Karthiaai Vilakkeedu, which happened to fall on the 27th of November this year, people in the Jaffna had lit oil lamps on their fences and gates through the night. This was in keeping with the DIG (Jaffna), Eric Perera’s assurance that there would be “no obstacle to the public of Jaffna celebrating the ‘Hindu Karthikai Deepam’ festival by lighting oil lamps or engaging in religious activities in Kovils on November 27.” Despite this assurance though, on Brown Road, Jaffna, the military had put out lamps and asked people why they were burning oil lamps. Even after being told about the Festival, the military had demanded that they put off all oil lamps in the area. Similar action had been taken by the military in Gurunagar and Paraiyoor. In Karainagar the military had gone as far as to kick out lamps, and told people not to re-light them. Envision a scenario where a similar act was done to a Buddhist on Vesak day? It would have made headline news! So one can pose the question, why the double standard?
A priest in Kilinochchi said that the military had surrounded most of the churches in the area and had called many priests and questioned them as to why they were having mass on the 27th. He said that much like any other Tuesday where there would be a mass to St. Anthony, on the 27th too, he was preparing to say mass as usual. Many military persons were listening to our sermons and watching our services. As it was Maaveerar Naal as well, people wanted to light lamps in the church in remembrance of their fallen heroes, but the military did not permit them to do so.
In Mannar, Hindu temples were instructed not to conduct special Pooja to celebrate the festival of lights on the 27th, and also to keep the temples closed for the day.
The military had visited a priest in the Mannar district, on November 26th evening, and instructed him not to conduct mass the following day. The priest had told the military that he was under the instruction of the Bishop, and that he would only adhere to the orders of the Bishop. Having reported this incident to the Bishop, the Bishop had asked that the priest not conduct the service as a precaution, but had instructed an alternative priest to carry out the service the following morning. A large number of parishioners had attended the mass.
Another priest in Mannar had received phone call from the Police OIC instructing the priest not to carry out mass on the 27th. However, the priest had carried out his service regardless.
Yet another priest was approached by a person in civil on the 26th evening, and passed on instruction by the military, not to conduct mass on the 27th. The priest had then given his contact details to the boy and told him to ask the military person to get in touch with him and tell him directly. As he heard nothing more from the military, he too went ahead with his service as planned on the 27th. He had even asked people to bring candles and commemorate the lives of their loved ones.
Three and a half years on and citizens of our country still have no freedom of speech, association or religious observance; absolutely nothing has changed. If at all, the State has become progressively more insecure. Before a Government can speak of reconciliation and peace, should it not have in place justice and equality?
Update: 1st December 2012: Seven students from Jaffna University including union members have been summoned by Jaffna Kopai police over an accusation of connection with alleged arson attack on 28th night. Out of the seven students, two have surrendered at Kopai police with Faculty Deans Prof. Kanthasami (Dean Faculty of Science) and Prof. Velnampi, Dean Faculty of Management.
Sanmugam Soloman. a science faculty student union member was the victim who was brutally assaulted by riot police on 28th morning and treated for internal injuries. A picture taken while he was assaulted is widely available in the media. Kanagasapapathi Jenamayan is President of Arts Faculty student union. Both have surrendered. Two other students named have already graduated and working under government graduate scheme at Nedunkeny, in Vavuniya North (this has raised more questions about the alleged arson attack).
The students surrendered at 1pm. They are still under going questioning.
The seven students named are strong activists and active members of Jaffna University Student Union. They have taken part in several marches and protests against the oppressive nature of the Sri Lankan military, including the silent match on the 28th, which was brutally attacked by the Police and other organised armed groups.
This incident and subsequent arrests have created fear amongst students. The safety and personal security of those in custody are also in question.
 Former LTTE Leader, V. Prabhakaran’s birthday.
 Maaveerar Naal (Martyr/Hero’s Day), a day set apart by the LTTE to remember and pay tribute to fallen cadres.
Online Uthayan, University students lighted lamps, forces were in pandemonium. “Udayan” reporter assaulted by forces – http://onlineuthayan.com/english-news/uthayannews/3334x2l1h1h1r2
 Online Uthayan, “Intelligence unit personnel smashed my vehicle while police and military watching”. Saravanabawan MP elucidates to Medias - http://onlineuthayan.com/english-news/uthayannews/333423l1h1h1r2
 TamilNet, SL military attacks house of Kaarainakar PS Head for observing Heroes Day - http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=35797
 The Island, Jaffna people free to celebrate ‘Hindu Karthikai Deepam’ festival — DIG - http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=66866