On the 4th of August a private sharing of experiences session organized by civil society inside the Centre for Society and Religion [CSR] is disrupted by an organized gang led by what appeared to be a group of Buddhist monks. Sri Lankan law enforcement authorities are present on location approximately 10 minutes after the gang disrupted the meeting. It is possibly one of fastest response times by Sri Lankan police to a 119 emergency phone call. The police encounter a gang of over 20 persons including Buddhist monks shouting obscenities, taking pictures and intimidating the persons including women, small children, prominent civil society activists and foreign diplomats inside the sharing session. Even the foreign diplomats feel that they cannot leave the premises due to the police failing to provide guarantees for their safety and security. They call their own security personnel for their protection. The police fail to disperse the organized mob for over 90 minutes. The women and children who have missing or disappeared family members are crying they look at the gang in fear. Unsurprisingly and sadly rather than protecting the persons at the private meeting and arresting the gang on charges of trespassing the police close down the meeting stating that “peace has been disturbed” and that they “cannot guarantee the security of the persons” where the incident occurred.
This is despite an agreement by the police personnel at the scene that the meeting that was disrupted illegally by uninvited gang is completely legal. This is nothing new. It is very similar to the shutting down of the Sri Lanka Press Institute journalist’s workshop, the Transparency International Sri Lanka organized journalists workshop in Negombo a few months back and the human rights festival held at the UNP Headquarters during CHOGM in 2013. Slowly, words like Burma, North Korea and Singapore creep into our socio political cultural ethos. A gang well organized and led by persons allegedly to be Buddhist monks achieve their true objectives: disruption, defaming and distancing people from the North. Sri Lankan media personnel show up at the venue, state media and state controlled media sooner than any other media and the story is lost in translation. Some media outlets openly defame the organizers of the workshop, the diplomats, the civil society and most importantly the family members of the disappeared.
The gang later identify themselves as the “Dead and Missing Persons Parents Front” with its supposed advisor the Ven. Angulugalle Siri Jinananda Thera holding a press conference along with the other members Mr. Ananda Perera and Mr. HKD Nandadasa state that they disrupted a move to give online evidence about war crimes in Sri Lanka. The gang and their political backers achieve their short sighted goal of disrupting this meeting but they cause great damage to image of Sri Lanka by violating human rights such as the freedom of assembly, the freedom of movement, the freedom of expression and a number of fundamental rights enshrined under Chapter 3 of the Sri Lankan constitution. They were short sighted fundamentalist patriots who will turn out to be traitors on the long term. Here’s what really happened on the 4th of August 2014 based on eye witness accounts, an analysis of audio and video footage and information from other media outlets.
Before 2.30PM: Families of the Disappeared (FOD) organize for family members of disappeared persons in the “North” of Sri Lanka to come to Colombo to meet the ICRC, share their experiences with other family members, civil society and members of the diplomatic community. They are also scheduled to meet family members of persons who have disappeared in the “South” of Sri Lanka. FOD organizes a closed door sharing and listening session with family members of disappeared persons and they send out a limited number of invitations to civil society members and the diplomatic community in Sri Lanka.The meeting is scheduled for between 2.30PM and 4.30PM at the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR). The text on the email from FOD head Mr. Brito Fernando is as such:
“25 family members of the disappeared from North representing 5 districts will be here in Colombo on 4th July, Monday, for a sharing and listening program. We are inviting civil society activists and the Embassy representative for a closed-door session of sharing and listening. If the Ambassadors/ High Commissioners, themselves can attend with their related staff it will give these families more strength and courage. It will be at CSR – Maradana, (Deans Road) from 1430 to 1630, on 4th July, Monday.”
Inside the hall of CSR the sharing session begins with civil society activists and international representatives from the British, German, French, American, Swiss and European Union embassy’s. They listen to harrowing stories from family members about their missing relatives.
Family members are reminiscing about the disappearance of their respective family members in the North. One family member states that she had seen her disappeared family member in footage shown during the Channel 4 documentary. Based on this video she still has hope that her husband may still be alive and in military custody.
People inside the CSR hall hear violent shouting and loud noises from outside the hall. A group of persons who do not identify themselves violently and forcibly barge into the hall begin to shout violently in obscene language at the persons in the hall. They say things like “you are betraying the country for money” and “you are all prostitutes”. They never identify themselves as an organization representing families of dead or missing persons. There are also people using audio video recording equipment to video and photograph everyone inside the hall. They are all wearing short sleeved shirts, their hair is cut short and they are methodically recording the people inside the hall. Family members feel threatened. The organizers of the meeting and other civil society activists rush to the doorway of the hall and a pushing match ensues. At this stage the incident looks like its heading towards escalated violence but the organized gang of monks, psychotic looking old men and serial photographers with short haircuts are isolated at the entrance area of the hall.
Family members who are in a state of shock notice that they are being recorded. Everyone in the hall feels threatened by this gang but the family members are worried that their faces will be recorded and strange men in the dark of the night will come knocking at their door when they get home. They cover their faces. Fear grips their faces, children start to cry and women start holding onto the diplomats who place themselves between the families and the gang of photographers.
The gang has not been identified and they look like the extremist monks you see on TV. The gang uses violent gestures and they continue to point fingers threateningly at shouting in obscene language that organizers and families of the disappeared of “betraying the country for money by testifying against the armed forces” and of being “prostitutes”. They then point and shout at the persons from the North saying that they are family members of senior Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and they are family members of Mahaveer (LTTE Martyrs). The organizers and civil society and gang start shouting at each other, the gang uses obscene language. The organizers shout back that they should not disrespect the family members of missing persons. One member of the gang then shouts back “our people have also been killed”. Civil society activist Nimalka Fernando worships a Buddhist monks and asks him not do this but the gang does not stop. They continue to shout and attempt to barge their way in. The police show up led by a short fat dark senior police official whose name tag cannot be seen in the melee except for the letter “W” at the start of his surname. He will be described as senior police official W from now on. Everyone in the hall is surprised by the quick arrival of the police, but they are also told that staff of CSR had informed the police about the incident.
Based on the view from inside the hall the police look like they are unable to contain the gang. The gang keeps on shouting and they accuse Brito Fernando, Nimalka Fernando and the Christian priests present of organizing a meeting against the country. They accuse the organizers of the meeting of bringing family members of senior LTTE leaders to testify against Sri Lanka.
The shouting reduces a little. Organizers ask the police and the gang as to why the media are here and why there were persons taking pictures of family members of disappeared persons. They produce a fax and they say that the media received a fax message inviting them to the session. The organizers identify that the fax message is fake. They state that they had not sent it. The fax is sent from the following number 0112799110. They organizers say that the fax has been dispatched from a number that is not known to them. It was faxed at 2.29PM when the meeting was starting at 2.30PM and it invites the “media” to come to the meeting at 2.00PM. That’s just bad organizing maybe on the part of the organizers of the listening session or the gang. Here is the fax and its English translation.
The incident continues with the gang still in the entrance to the hall. Senior police officer W says makes interesting comments. Firstly, he explains that a complaint has been made by the Ven. Angulugalle Siri Jinananda Thera that a meeting against the country has been called by Brito Fernando and Nimalka Fernando. The Ven. Jinananda Thera had later identified himself at the police station as the advisor of the “Dead and Missing Persons Parents Front” and the editor of Sinhala newsletter. A quick look into the Ven. Jinananda Thera’s YouTube profile shows that he has posted a high quality propaganda video about the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and given a speech in Sinhala which roughly translates into “the duty of the Buddhist in the face of Bodu challenges”. It was at this point that police official W stated that the peace in the area has been disrupted and that since the police cannot guarantee the security of the persons in the hall or outside the persons inside the hall should disperse and this meeting should be stopped. All of this was witnessed by the persons inside the hall. It was at this stage that the members of the gang began to say that they only wanted to share their experiences at the session. Police official W then stated that the people in the hall and the gang should sit down together and discuss whatever they wanted too. He wanted to know whether the people in the hall could agree to that. The organizers of the session that this was closed door meeting and that they would not want to share their experiences with a gang that had violently barged into the hall. The gang was trespassing on private property. The staff of CSR also confirmed that this was the case. The police then wanted both parties to come to the police station but they also wanted some family members of disappeared persons to come the police station to give statements about the incident.
Organizers tell the police that they will not come to the police station based on a complaint made by a member of the gang. They agree to come to the police station to record their own complaint and to respond if needed to the other complaint. The organizers explain that the conflict was not between the gang of alleged family members of dead and missing parents and families of the disappeared and the missing from the North who were in the hall but between them and the gang hence there not being a need for the family members to go the police station. They felt that the family members who had already been intimidated by the gang would face more intimidation from the police. The organizers agreed to come to the Maradana police station. However, the police had not secured the area or the CSR premises as such so no one in the hall could leave, including the diplomats. The passageway out was being obstructed by the gang and the police.
ASenior police official named MS Perera whose name tag could be seen because things had quieted down a little arrives at the scene. He is informed by CSR staff that the gang was trespassing on private property and that they should be removed. A senior diplomat informs the police that he and the people in the hall do not feel safe. He informs the police that his security is on route to the location to guarantee his safety. He informs that police that he will complain to the highest government authorities that he can about this situation. Once again, the police don’t question the legality of meeting at CSR. There is hesitation from the police. Senior police official W is seen moving to the background of the mob. He is seen in heated conversations with some of the Buddhist monks in the rearguard of the gang. He then comes to the front of the gang and states in a violently that “there is a degree of toleration that the police can bear”. He starts to violently push the gang including Buddhist monks out of the hall. The organized gang is pushed by the police officers to exterior of the CSR building housing the hall. 3 junior police officers cover the entrance to the hall. A tall looking bald headed man wearing black trousers and a grey and green-checkered shirt is also seen standing next to the entrance holding a walkie-talkie. When workshop participants question him about who he is he replies that he is “Neomal from the Civil Defense force”. When asked who the Buddhist monks were, he states that they are from the Buddhist temples in the areas and the persons in civil are their followers. At this point more civil society activists and lawyers start to show up at the scene.
Although they have been evicted from the CSR building the gang continues to remain outside the hall demanding the arrest of the persons inside the hall and the organizers of the event. The Ven. Jinananda is allowed by the police to give an interview to the mainstream media who have by now arrived on location. He states that Brito Fernando and Nimalka Fernando should be arrested for conspiring against Sri Lanka. He states that “they should be ended”. He also states that they should be “hung until death legally”. The gang remains at the entrance to the CSR building. Police are not seen to be moving them away from the building. No one inside the hall is able to leave.
Security details from the diplomatic missions of the EU, British and USA can be seen inside the hall. Some diplomats cannot leave because the situation outside is still volatile while some diplomats choose to stay until the security of all persons inside the hall are guaranteed by the police. The police have still not provided this guarantee.
There is an impasse. The gang refuses to leave. They want the meeting to be called off and the persons inside the hall to be arrested. The persons inside the hall are unable to leave because they fear for their security from the gang outside. They are also unsure about how the police will respond to them. Civil society activists including prominent human rights lawyer JC Weliamuna arrive on the scene. There are verbal confrontations between the civil society activists outside, the gang and the police.
5.00PM (approx.) T
he gang begins to disperse after the police notified everyone that the two groups have agreed to come to Maradana police station and record their complaints. By this time the British and European security contingents have escorted their diplomats out of the hall. Video and photos of them being escorted out are shown in the mainstream local media. The senior diplomat from the USA is the last to leave. He thanks the families for their bravery in the face of adversity and he tells them that he has now seen the intimidation that they face firsthand. He tells them that he will raise this at with the highest authorities of the Sri Lankan government. Civil society activists leave the hall for the first time to assess the situation outside.
Civil society activists say that there were roughly 40 male and female police officers outside the CSR building and within the premises of the CSR compound. There were also roughly 20 media personnel outside. Civil society activists are informed that the gang led by Ven. Jinanada had attempted to forcibly reenter the CSR premises with more journalists when they were blocked by the police. They are told that remnants of the gang still remain outside the CSR premises. The senior diplomat from the USA leaves CSR escorted by his security contingent.
Brito Fernando accompanied by lawyers departs from CSR to the Maradana police station. They request the police to provide them with protection to travel to the police station. Two traffic policemen are provided to them.
At the Maradana police station the lawyer’s notice that the lawyers are attempting to arbitrate a “solution” between the gang and the organizers of the session. At the police station members of the gang including Ven. Jinananda start to shout at Brito Fernando and the lawyers in obscene language. They accuse them of betraying the country for money. Ven. Jinananda states in obscene language that Brito Fernando and Nimalka Fernando are having a sexual relationship. Another Buddhist monk from the gang has to restrain the Ven. Jinanda by holding his hand. Members of the gang say that they will “resolve this issue outside” and they warn Brito Fernando and the lawyers to “watch out” inside the premises of the Maradana police station. The police ask both parties to provide a list of the people involved in the incident. The lawyers explain that they will provide a list of names if the gang complies with the police request. The gang explains that they had heard about the meeting from a family member of the disappeared from the North who called the head of their Dead and Missing Persons Parents Front DMPPF to ask them whether they were aware about this meeting. The members of the gang had then explained that Brito Fernando and Nimalka Fernando had made Mahaveer persons and family members of missing LTTE leaders in the Northern Province come to Colombo to collect information that would be damaging to the government of Sri Lanka. They say that they have a right to disrupt any meeting that is anti-national and organized by traitors. The gang states that they never wanted the meeting to be stopped. They want to share the experiences of families of the disappeared from the South. Brito Fernando and the lawyers make an official complaint to the police against the gang that disrupted their meeting. They go back to CSR and talk to the families. The families leave back to their homes.
Visuals of the Incident