December 2012

 

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The Reign of Terror

Rev. Fr. S. V. B. Mangalarajah
 


Sri Lankan police attack Tamil students at the University of Jaffna
 on Nov. 28, 2012, during their non-violent protest at which the
 students wore black bands over their mouths to signify
 the state of their freedom of expression.
(Photo from http://nirmanusan.blogspot.hk)

The Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Diocese of Jaffna would like to bring to the attention of peace and freedom-loving people the fact that people in the North of Sri Lanka continue to be tormented by “state terrorism.” Of late, the situation has worsened. Since November 2012, the repressive measures of the Sri Lankan government unleashed on the people, and the arbitrary arrests of the Jaffna University students and other youngsters, have reached new heights.

We have earlier pointed out four months ago that the lasting peace we longed for still remains elusive and that the measures taken by the Sri Lankan government do not in any way help to bring about this peace. The present developments indicate that peace-loving people are on the verge of total despair, and we have no hesitation in presenting the current situation now as a “Reign of Terror.”

Three episodes that took place in November 2012 brought about a deterioration of the general situation, and these incidents that are described below cause concern and worry for us and for our people.

1. During the last week of November, Hindus celebrate a special festival of lighting lamps—Vilakkeedu—when they light small lanterns in their temples and in their homes. This year this specific festival coincided with the Heroes’ Day of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Well in advance of the festival, the Hindu authorities had explained this celebration to the police, and the senior police officer in Jaffna (SP) had given permission to the Hindus to light the lamps and go ahead with the celebration. With such assurances, the Hindus held their celebration and lit the lanterns, only to be interrupted by the security forces who ordered them not to do so. In some places, some “unidentified men” came on motorcycles and ordered the people to put out the lanterns and threatened them.

2. On Nov. 27, there was an unusually heavy concentration of the security forces around the premises of Jaffna University as Nov. 27 used to be the day the LTTE remembered the dead during the past 30-year war. The security forces suspected that the university students would light some lamps to remember the dead in the war. Hence, in the evening, the security forces barged onto the campus and entered the hostels of boys and girls, causing pandemonium and damage to the furniture and other items. The students were threatened not to have any kind of commemoration for the dead.

The following day the students organized a peaceful protest against the unauthorized entry and the high-handed behavior of the security forces. As a sign of the curtailment of their freedom of expression, the students tied their mouths with black bands and were getting ready to march with placards out of one gate of the campus and re-enter through another gate. As the students started their march in a peaceful manner, the security forces pounced on them and violently put down the protest, injuring a number of them. About 20 students had to be rushed to the hospital.

One of the photographs taken during this melee, which appeared in the newspapers the following day, was expressive of the barbarity of the attack on the unarmed students. It showed that one student with his mouth tied with a black band had tripped and fallen, probably while running for safety. This student, who was flat on the ground, was surrounded by three policemen armed with clubs. These policemen were beating the student simultaneously with their boots and their clubs.

The journalists who came to the demonstration were also beaten up. The local member of Parliament (MP), Mr. Saravanbavan, arrived also; and when he was trying to tell the security forces to exercise restraint, he was abused and intimidated. The windscreen of his vehicle, which had been parked where the army was standing, was also smashed.

3. The aftermath of these campus incidents is still more disturbing and is sending shock waves around the area causing panic. Soon after the quashing of the peaceful demonstration of the campus students with an iron hand, four of the university students were arrested and taken to Vavuniya for questioning. In the following days, more university students and more youth in the Jaffna Peninsula were arrested. As the days passed, more arrests were made; and on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, the number of those arrested, students as well as others, had soared to 45. Some of those who were arrested are the youth who had gone through a period of rehabilitation due to their alleged involvement with the LTTE. All these youngsters are being held in detention under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Hundreds of these youngsters, who are now living normal lives with their families, are very much disturbed by these arrests.

Lessons Not Learnt

Taking into account the above developments, we feel that no lessons have been learnt from the serious mistakes of past governments that caused hundreds of thousands of precious lives to be lost. The use of violence to put down the peaceful satyagraha demonstration on the Galle Face Green in Colombo by S. J. V. Chelvanayagam when the Sinhala Only Act was passed in 1956 led to the birth of Tamil militancy. We are very well aware of the cost of this action through the hundreds of thousands of lost lives. Now what happened at Jaffna University is completely unwarranted, and the Sri Lankan government seems to be igniting another cycle of violence.

We also have quite justifiable fears for the safety of the dozens of youth who are being detained in Vavuniya for questioning under the PTA. Not even six months have passed since the torture and killing of two Tamil political prisoners—Nimalaruban and Dilruksan—who were in Vavuniya, and we have not heard of any action taken against the jail guards and other officers in the prisons who were involved in the torture and killing of these youth. The longer the current young people are kept in detention, the more risks they face to their lives.

Moreover, the findings of recent U.N. reports on the last days of the war in Sri Lanka have not only brought to light the fact that the United Nations failed miserably in not giving adequate protection to civilians but have also laid bare the real face of the Sri Lankan security forces. Some of the most powerful and influential countries which supported the Sri Lankan government to win the war against the LTTE have begun to realize that there had been large-scale human rights violations, violations of internationality accepted norms of treating those who surrendered fairly; that promises given not to use heavy weapons and not to attack civilian targets were broken; that there was a protracted delay in tabling a meaningful solution package to the ethnic problem, etc. Even after such a heavy loss of lives and property, the international community is still not able to take a firm decision. The United Nations and the powerful countries merely express their concern and worry over developments in Sri Lanka. This expression of disapproval does not go far enough, and the plight of the minority Tamils remains the same.

The international community should realize that the current situation, which is volatile, cannot be remedied by local public protests, protests by local MPs, newspaper condemnations, etc., as the past experiences show. Rather, there is an urgent need for firm action to be taken by the United Nations and the international community to stop another cycle of violence and large-scale loss of innocent lives.


* The Rev. Fr. S. V. B. Mangalarajah is the chairman of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Diocese of Jaffna.