Sunday, August 01, 2010

Tamils registered: targeted ethnic profiling?

By Ranga Jayasuriya | Lakbima News

An elderly Tamil man stands at the entrance to the Mayura Kovil, Colombo 6. The Kovil is bustling with devotees, more so as the annual Vel procession of the Kovil, a major event in the religious calendar of Hindus in the area, is scheduled to take to the streets in two weeks. The old Tamil gentleman, who is also a member of the Kovil committee, stands at the gate, screening passers-by with his naked eye to see that nothing untoward happens on the eve of this all important event.

Born and brought up in Colombo, he has no other place to call his own and has lived all his life in there. Last month he had been told by the police to reregister himself and his family members with the police, the second time in past three years he had to undergo the humiliating procedure. Earlier in 2008, he was rudely woken up and dragged to Wellawatta police station in the night and kept waiting for hours till cops wrote down his family information.

That was at the height of the war.

He asks: “But, why this time... when the war is over?

That is the question of a thousand Tamils. And there seems to be no convincing answer. The police say they will register all the citizens and not only Tamils and that the new program is conducted under a section of the police act which vests power in the OIC of the police station to register residents of the police area, for the “wellbeing of the people themselves”.

But, still the mind numbing question is why now — 14 months after the end of the war? And, if the program is to register all citizens, which is still bad and smacks of an overarching police state, why is it only in Tamil majority areas that the registration of people is taking place?

The registration effort is now in progress in Wellawatta, Kotahena, Bambalapitiya, Grand Pass etc. The old gentleman says he has lived long enough to discern the untold objectives of the program. “They (police) say everybody will be registered. But I think it’s Tamils they want to register after all.”

“Tamils have to obey orders or fear arrest and being taken to the police. It is not that bad for the Sinhalese.” He admits that the end of the war has made life easier for Tamils in Colombo as security restrictions were lifted. Like anyone else in the town, he blames the skyrocketing prices of essential goods, piling up of garbage on the road sides and traffic snarls.

But in addition to the every day worries of an average citizen, the registration adds further trauma and sense of collective humiliation for Tamils.

“They ask what special grievances we have. Well. This registration is one of them.”

Sugar coating

Despite the police assurance, it is hard to hide an unsavoury practice of ethnic profiling with a sugar coated explanation. Most Tamils feel bitter being singled out, but there appears to be no means to vent their frustration.

The road in front of the Mayura Kovil runs past a ghetto where the majority of inhabitants are Tamils - both long time residents and recent arrivals.

Dwellers there had been told to reregister with the police. Many have already done so and others have collected registration forms from the Wellawatta police.

“Police will come to houses and take to the police station anyone not listed in the form,” says a resident.

In Wellawatta, police announced via loudspeakers that residents in the area should register with them.

Yesterday, Keselwatta police visited Bandaranaike Mawatha, Armour Street to distribute registration forms. Bandaranaike Mawatha is a congested, mainly Tamil residential area. A journalist of a Tamil language newspaper, who is also a resident in the area, told this correspondent that police told residents that new data would be entered in the computer so that it would make the procedure easier if anyone loses the National Identity Card or applies for a police certificate.

Householders should provide details of family members, any guests staying with the family on a longtime basis,and their National Identity Card details, Grama Niladhari certificates etc.

Last week, the annual Vel procession of the Kathiresan Kovil in Bambalapitiya paraded the streets. When it went past the Temple Tress, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and first lady, Shiranthi Rajapaksa were there at the gate to receive the procession, one of the major religious events of Colombo Hindus. The president’s appearance was a welcome gesture of state patronage to Tamil culture and Hindu religion. And the festival was full of optimism of a new dawn for Tamils and the country in general. However, also, early last month, Bambalapitiya police informed shop owners in the area to register themselves and the persons they have employed in shops.

A shop owner, opposite the Kathiresan Kovil who requested anonymity told this correspondent, the police announcement was intended for all shop owners in the area. As a Tamil, who is originally from Matale, he, however says, that he does not see the program as discriminating against Tamils.

“All the shop owners were told to register their employees, be they Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims. Police said there are 13,000 National Identity Cards, 5000 of them are not legible and 3000 are duplicate copies. When information is computerized, they (police) said, they can stop people from forging identity cards” he said.

But, in Kotahena, Tamil shop owners complain that they have been singled out.


Western Province Peoples’ Front MP Praba Ganeshan told this newspaper that Tamil shop owners in the area complained that Kotahena police had visited their shops and told them to register with the police, but that some cops avoid going to Sinhalese owned shops.

“When I inquired from the OIC, Kotahena police, he denied that his people visited the shops.”

“I wrote to the President, asking him to intervene. But, I haven’t got a reply yet,” he said.

Two years back, in September 2008, Defence Ministry launched a major registration drive of recent migrants in Colombo; most of them happened to be Tamils and Tamils of Indian origin. Schools, temples and community buildings were turned into makeshift registration centres where recent migrants who arrived during past five years were registered.

In December last year, police lifted the restrictions that required every citizen from North-East who arrived in Colombo to register themselves with the police as long as their stay is not longer than one month.

Later, as other restrictions were gradually lifted, registration of Tamils was viewed as not fitting new realities, hence it became redundant.

The security situation has changed, but minds of those at high echelons are hard to change, specially when driven by paranoia. The problem with post war Sri Lanka is that it has failed - or has, at least, been too slow - to move forward from its war time psychosis to a new era of national reconciliation and to mend fractured ethnic relations and uphold civil liberties of all its people. In that sense, the worse fears about far reaching consequences of counter-insurgency campaigns, which go an extra mile - at the cost of the social fabric - to defeat the enemy have come true. The fractured social fabric is hard to mend unless there is genuine political commitment.

War has ended, but fear psychosis hasn’t. Not a single Tamil who spoke to this correspondent in Wellawatta, Bambalapitiya, Slave Island and Kotahena wanted to be named for obvious reasons.

Those are the echoes of a terrorized community. When the police go for another round of registration campaigns, all clearly targeting Tamils, that does not help in any way to alleviate their fears.

Police Spokesman SSP Prishantha Jayakody on registration

Q: The new registration program is aimed at Tamils...?

It is wrong to say only Tamils. We are registering everyone, Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims.

Q: Is there any circular being issued to register people?

Under section 76 of the Police ordinance, the OIC of a police station is vested with powers to register residents in his area for their security and wellbeing. Therefore, the current program is conducted at the discretion of the OICs and not under emergency regulations.

Q: The program is taking place in Tamil areas. It seems they are the target group...?

No, we are conducting the same program island wide.

Q: Do you register people in Galle or Matara also?

Yes, we plan to.

© Lakbima News

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