Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Armed men on nocturnal terror visits to deter students’ struggle

By Leon Berenger | The Sunday Times

It was around 10.20 p.m. on Monday (16), when a group of students had just finished their dinner and were preparing to call it a day, when it all happened. A group of around 15 to 20 persons, some of them masked and armed with assault rifles and hand guns, stormed the hostel situated in Homagama, and informed the occupants that they were searching for an ‘underworld leader’.

The armed men immediately went around searching the building that also serves as an office of the university student organization, dragging out those already in bed, and assembling all the occupants in the inside verandah.

“Ko Sanjeewa Bandara,” the leader of the group demanded from those assembled. “Oka pathayalaya nayakek, kiyapan koheda inne,” (The fellows is an underworld leader, tell us where he is) the leader of the group demanded from the students.

“We told the men that Sanjeewa Bandara is the leader of the Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF) and not an underworld leader, and also that he was not a resident of this particular hostel,” Nuwan Jayaweera told the Sunday Times.

“We further informed the men that, if it is Sanjeewa Bandara they were looking for, it was easy to trace him as he appeared at news conferences, students protests all over the city at day, and could be easily spotted,” he said.

“This infuriated him, and he warned us to close down the place within a day, or face the consequences, which he promised would be ugly,” Mr. Jayaweera added.
According to the students present, the armed men were widely believed to be from the Army Intelligence, and the motive for their late night visit was purely aimed at intimidating the organisation that is in the forefront of the ongoing student protests throughout the country.

When the armed group left after about 45 minutes, during which time they searched the entire place, the students followed them, only to turn back after the ‘invaders’ raised their rifles and threatened to open fire.

During the raid, the students also observed that more armed persons had ringed the building from several sides. “Shortly after the incident, we made a complaint with the Homagama Police, but nothing has come out of the investigation, and we do not expect any positive results either. Even the police by now, would be aware of the identity of the men,” Mr. Jayaweera added.

The Homagama incident is not an isolated one, with students’ groups and others claiming that such late night, and even day visits by armed persons to private households, are widespread in many parts of the country.

The homes targeted are those of university student leaders and hardcore activists behind the wave of protests that was triggered-off by the proposed setting up of private universities in the country, among other issues.

One such home visited was the one belonging to Miss D.A. Perera, a fourth-year student of the Arts Faculty at Sri Jayawardenepura University.

“Two mufti-clad men entered my shop that adjoins my home and made inquiries about my eldest daughter who is attending Sri Jayewardenepura University,” said K.A. Perera, a staunch supporter of the left movement.

“They were decent in their approach, as they identified themselves from military intelligence. However, they were also giving a message. I suspect, the visit may have been different, if I was not present that day,” he said.

“The two men wanted to know my political affiliations and that of my daughter. I told them that I do not belong to any major political party, but instead, follow the left path, and that would not change,” Mr. Perera added.

“In the meantime, I was expecting such a visit at any moment. Even my daughter cautioned me towards this end, adding that the homes of several students had already been visited,” he said.

The two men later left the Perera home after a chew of betel, saying that they too had a job to do, but not before the grocer spotted a piece of paper in their possession, with a list of names and addresses.

IUSF President Sanjeewa Bandara alleged that some 250 homes from all parts of the country had experienced such visits from the beginning of this month, and that the trend was continuing.

“In most cases, the occupants of the homes were asked to get their children off the street protests, or face the consequences. In some cases, there were repeated visits to a particular household,” Mr. Bandara added.

He said that, the homes targeted belonged mainly to student leaders and other frontline activists behind the protests, and in some cases, even that of demonstrators caught on camera and from television grabs.

He added that, the intruders were working in collaboration with the local Grama Sevakas, where they collected personal information of an individual student, before moving in at night. “In addition to that, they were also in possession of students’ personal files taken from the administration section of each university. What is even more damning is that they spread false rumors among the villagers, that this particular student is connected to international groups sympathetic to the separatist Tamil cause,” Mr. Bandara told the Sunday Times.

Waruna Rajapaksa with the ‘People’s Struggle’ movement and Western Provincial Councillor, warned that the student crisis had come to a frightening point, with the army getting involved to stifle democratic rights.

“Instead of addressing the issues at hand in a democratic and fair manner, the Government has opted for a military solution. “It is like using a sledge hammer to squash an egg”, is how Mr. Rajapaksa described the current approach by the State.

“The students involved in the Homagama case are affiliated with our movement, and therefore, were concerned of the unfolding developments,” Rajapaksa said.

Rajapaksa’s People’s Struggle movement is a breakaway faction of the left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP).

However, in this case, the JVP and the dissidents have united to condemn the involvement of the army in suppressing student actions, and have warned, that the issue could develop into a full blown crisis, should the Government insist on a military approach to solve the problem.

“The Government is bankrupt of ideas and solutions, and has therefore, opted for the military approach. This should never be the case. The authorities must have a re-think, before moving in on this particular direction,” JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe said.

He warned that, if the Government has its way with this so-called private universities to be opened in the country, it would mean the death knell of free education, starting from the primary to the halls of higher education.

He added that, the budgetary allowance for free education in the country was just 1.6% of the GDP, a pittance when compared with the allocations to other sections. “Very soon, the parents will be called on to provide the desk, chair and even the piece of chalk to the classroom.

The Government is bankrupt for ideas and solutions to the burning issues faced by the people. It is not only the student crisis, but the increasing burdens forced on the people, like the cost of living and the high unemployment rate are issues the State must look into at the earliest,” Mr. Somawanasa added.

He said that, looking at the present trend the Government is taking towards the university crisis, it will soon bring out the army to stifle anyone who dares oppose the establishment, be it trade unions or whatever.

In conclusion he added that, the students must be allowed to exercise their democratic rights without hindrance, while the Government must make a genuine effort to look into their problems and try and bring about solutions at the earliest.

Dr. Nirmal Devasiri with the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) said that propagating revolutionary ideas was not illegal and is allowed within a democratic framework. “It is ‘madness’ to link the present student uprising to terrorism. No sane person will think of an armed struggle in the present scenario. Young people must be given the opportunity to express their political beliefs,” he added.

He added that, late night visits to the homes of students will only bring out negative results. “We have seen this in the past, and it should not be allowed to happen again,” Dr. Devasiri cautioned.

He said a student had informed him that his house experienced such a visit simply because he was studying at a university. “This is ridiculous” Dr. Devasiri added.

Meanwhile, Leader of the House, Nimal Siripala de Silva informed Parliament that certain international elements were trying to bring about a regime change in the same manner as they did in Libya.

“These so-called international-group-funded forces to take to the streets in Libya and they are making a similar attempt here,” he said without elaborating.

He was responding to questions by the Opposition that the Government was trying to undermine students’ rights In a public statement made earlier, former JVP frontliner and presently a Government minister, Wimal Weerawansa lashed out at the heads of universities for mishandling the situation.

Higher Education Secretary Dr. S. Navaratne said they were not aware of any army involvement- such as the home visits, etc.

He added that, the planned meeting between the university authorities and student leaders on Saturday last week, could not take place, as they- the student representatives, did not show up.

Earlier, Dr. Navaratne cautioned that other interested elements were seeking to ride on the student issue, purely to enhance their personal agendas. “This will never be allowed to be the case” he said.

The Army, however, vehemently denied that soldiers were involved in covert operations such as visiting the homes of university students.

Army spokesman Brig. Nihal Hapuaarachchi said such operations were the job of the police, as it is a civilian matter, and the Army has nothing to do with it. He urged persons who experience such a visit, and suspect it was from the army, to bring the matter up with the nearest police station at the very earliest.

Govt. pits Army against students to block protests

Students and activists belonging to the ‘People’s Struggle’ movement were, this week, furious, after authorities used the Army to block a protest campaign in the heart of the Jaffna Peninsula.

The group made up of some 800 activists had traveled to the north in 12 buses, but was intimidated, harassed and were forced to turn back halfway through their journey, a spokesman for the group said.

He said their convoy was stopped at some seven checkpoints and were told that the road to Jaffna was not motorable as a bridge had collapsed.

At one checkpoint, the group was told that a suicide jacket had been found in the vicinity and that to proceed further was a risk. “It was clear that these foolish stunts were made to prevent us from going ahead with our leaflet campaign to be held in Jaffna town”, the spokesman added.

The group’s campaign was aimed at calling on the authorities to indicate the whereabouts of two of their activists, Lalith Kumara Weeraraju and Kugan Muruganathan, who were abducted late last year in Jaffna.

© The Sunday Times

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