Celebrating Freedom: A Personal Account

Tuesday, 8 February 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Harsha de Silva, Ph.D

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 militarised; 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 Waters 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 organised 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 17 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 500, may be more,

I was in front and did not see the rear.  We had walked for around 15 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 24x7 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 Attanayake.  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 recognised.

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- skelter.  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 20 minutes.  The man who gave us protection we later realised was the security guard of the home occupied by some foreigners.  He was worried thinking he had done something wrong, but when he recognised 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 Karu Jayasuriya’s and another person’s were 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 some 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 John Amaratunga and Sajith Premadasa who were on the way to the protest had been redirected for personal safety.  Tiran and 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.