Sri Lanka Brief
NewsSouthern political activists enroute to Jaffna for protest demonstration obstructed by Army and Police at Puliyankulam

Southern political activists enroute to Jaffna for protest demonstration obstructed by Army and Police at Puliyankulam

Nearly a thousand political activists who were heading to Jaffna to take part in a protest campaign against the abduction of two of their colleagues had a taste of the bitter post-war reality in the North even before they could reach the peninsula.  Twelve bus loads of activists were held up at impromptu check points and barriers for no apparent reason, though the military and the police spun ludicrous stories to validate those ad hoc measures which were primarily intended to sabotage the protest.

Finally, when the protestors reached Puliyankulam, the police barricaded the A9 road and announced that a bridge had collapsed, making the road impassable. Ominous signs of what was in store for the activists, who would disregard those orders were on display: Three lines of soldiers armed with clubs and poles stood 50 metres away, blocking the road.

This correspondent travelled along with a group of media personnel to cover the abortive protest campaign scheduled to be held in Jaffna. This story would give an idea of the extent this government and its security apparatus would go to keep Jaffna and the Wanni away from public scrutiny.

The political activists of the JVP splinter group, Jana Aragaya Viyaparaya (Movement for Mass Struggle) were on their way to Jaffna for what the organizers described was to conduct a public awareness campaign about the abduction of two of their colleagues. Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan were abducted in Jaffna, allegedly by the security forces and are believed to be held in a secret military detention facility. The members of the Jana Aragala Viyaparaya had planned to distribute leaflets about the abduction of the two political activists and the plight of the other political detainees in the country.

State sanctioned sabotage

The protest campaign was later joined by several other left leaning political parties – the NSSP, the Communist Party (Maoist), etc., and a handful of civil rights groups. Participants had travelled from every corner of the country in 12 buses but when they reached Punewa, a few kilometres north of Medawachchiya, they got the first taste of what would be an ugly spectacle of a state sanctioned sabotage of their planned protest.

At Punewa, the buses were flagged by a senior police officer who insisted that the protestors could not proceed as a bridge in Nedunkerny has collapsed. Nedunkerny was however, over 20-30 km from Punewa. Strangely enough, Colombo bound buses from Jaffna were freely flying on the other side of the road. When asked as to whether a bridge had collapsed, passengers in one of those buses laughed it off. They felt that it was a poor joke.

The protestors persisted that they would proceed up to the collapsed bridge. After a brief hullabaloo, the cop gave in. The protestors got into their buses, but could proceed barely a mile. A barricade stood on the road, blocking public traffic. Protestors were told that instructions have been received to check thoroughly all the vehicles which enter Vavuniya. However, on that occasion, the police version appeared to have shifted. A senior cop said three hand grenades had been discovered from a lorry transporting coconut.

Northbound vehicles waited in a long queue for hours. Travellers bound to Jaffna in public transport wondered whether the laws of the past have been re-imposed. The instructions to the police appeared to be to delay the protestors who would then have no time to hold a protest in Jaffna, if they ever made it at all. However, many more thousands of ordinary travellers who were forced to wait for hours were inconvenienced. In that sense, impromptu security measures amounted to a collective punishment.

After a long delay, the bus loads of protestors were cleared to proceed northwards. But about a mile to the Omanthai entry point, they were again stopped.

The security forces appeared to want to minimize the inconvenience that would be caused to ordinary travellers by those politically sanctioned security measures. They held up the bus loads of protestors at a distance and wanted to allow the ordinary travellers to pass through the check point.

Frustration was boiling in the ranks of the protestors. There was tension and there was disappointment. The majority of the protestors were once the active grassroots cadres of the JVP, a party which steadfastly stood behind the government’s war effort. Some participants were members of hard line pro-war frontal groups of the JVP such as the Negenahira Janatha Viyaparaya (Eastern People’s Front).

Some felt betrayed by the military’s highhandedness. One angry man was heard shouting; “Api hithala kamarawala idan yuddeta support kere ne. Apa koti katata pagamanak yannath awa, ubalage dennek koti allan giyama.” (We did not support the war from AC rooms. We even came in a march to the Tiger lair when two of your soldiers were abducted by the LTTE, demanding their release).

Politically mandated measures

There was discomfort among soldiers; their body language said it all. They had been embarrassed by being compelled to execute politically mandated measures which had no bearing on national security.

Both the soldiers and the police were diplomatic in their dealings with the protestors. How they handled a group of frustrated protestors, who had every right to be angry at the repeated government sanctioned acts of sabotage, is perhaps proof of emerging professionalism of the security apparatus. So could the same be said of the police officers who were thrust into handle a highly inflammatory situation. (Though the same could not be said about their top brass, who had shamelessly followed orders of their political masters, in spite of the fact the measures they implemented that day amounted to gross violations of basic constitutional rights of citizens).

After being held up at the Omanthai check point for several hours, the protestors proceeded on their journey, only to be stopped at Puliyankulam. A cop directed vehicular traffic to the Mullaitivu road and announced that the Nedunkerny bridge has been damaged and that the road was impassable.

“So it collapsed just as we reach here?” a protestor queried, tongue-in-cheek, pointing out that the last Jaffna bus travelled on the road, just minutes ago.

Wielding clubs and poles

However, ominous signs of what were in store, if the protestors unheeded the calls, were on display 50 metres away. Soldiers stood wielding clubs and poles.

Military spokesman Brigadier Nihal Happuarahchi when queried by the media said that a road clearance operation had been carried out after the discovery of a suicide jacket which resulted in delays. He ruled out that the security measures were meant to sabotage the protest. However, for the protestors, that did not appear to be a convincing explanation.

The protestors finally caved in and held a noisy protest, chanting slogans demanding political rights for civilians in Jaffna. The remote Puliyankulam is not the ideal place for a protest. Except a few bus loads of travellers who were also stuck in the traffic jam, there were no spectators. But that appeared to be the only available option in a desperate situation.

On our return, we were again held up at the Omanthai check point. That time, however, soldiers were more effusive. A soldier in a chit chat with the protestors expressed his disappointment at the treatment that was meted out to protestors. A senior officer assured that he would expedite the checking of vehicles at the check point so that the protestors could go home early—and in fact he did so.

Protestors also preferred to blame the government for all the inconvenience they suffered and the ultimate sabotage of their protest. There appeared to be little bad blood between the protestors and the military. As we departed from the check point a few soldiers were waving at the protestors. And some of the protestors inside the bus waved back.

Still no news of Lalith and Kugan

JVP MP Ajith Kumara, who is now a member of the Jana Aragala Viyaparaya, presenting an adjournment motion in Parliament said that though a month has passed since the two activists, Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan were abducted, the government had failed to provide any information about their whereabouts.

He reiterated that the two activists had been abducted by a military or para-military group.

He alleged that the police had tried to suppress evidence related to the abduction of the two activists who were abducted by unidentified men who arrived in a white van and two motorcycles in Neerweli on December 9. He noted that Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella himself has told the media that the two activists had not disappeared, which gave hopes to their colleagues that they were alive. He noted that there is a crackdown on student activists, rights activists and other activists groups who are campaigning for democratic rights of the people akin to its practice during the period when the LTTE was active.

He proposed to the House that an independent investigation into the abduction of Lalith and Kugan be launched, that the government end the suppression of university student activists and that the efforts to label activists groups as LTTE sympathizers be ended.

The Leader of the House Nimal Siripla de Silva responding to the motion said that the police had obtained statements from 13 persons over the abduction of the two right activists and that none of the witnesses had said that they saw the two men being abducted by a white van.

That however comes as no surprise as the witnesses would, genuinely, fear for their lives. The Trincomalee correspondent of the Jaffna based Uthayan newspaper, who took pictures of the closed range gun shot wounds of the five slain students of Trincomalee was killed by unknown gunmen days after the publication of those pictures, which suggested that the five students had been killed in execution style, contrary to the government version.

In the absence of a witness protection mechanism, only the bravest, if not the suicidal inclined would come out to give evidence against the culprits who operate under the connivance of the powers that be.
courtesy: LakbimaNews/22 January 2012,
By Ranga Jayasuriya

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