by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The Fort and Pettah areas of Colombo city became a battlefield of sorts on Friday February 17th when Police cracked down on a mass demonstration of opposition parties led by the United National Party(UNP) protesting over issues like the recent steep rise in fuel prices, increasing cost of living and mismanagement of the country.
Although the Army and Special Task Force (STF) were also called in to supplement Police efforts in controlling the demonstration it was the anti-riot squads of the Police that were primarily engaged in suppressing the protest.
The Police-public clashes started after demonstrators began a protest march after the main rally was over. While Police tried to prevent the procession on the one hand the participants tried to break through the cordon on the other. This led to friction and fracas.
Many rousing anti-govt slogans were chanted by the crowd with political leaders joining in enthusiastically
Friday afternoon saw the entire stretch of roadway from the Technical College roundabout to the Sri Lanka roundabout being jam packed with people as demonstrators in their thousands gathered at the Colombo Fort railway station premises for the protest rally and demonstration organized by the chief opposition UNP.The Pettah central bus stand area was also crowded.
The protest rally began around 3 pm outside the Fort railway station. It had been officially designated as the venue for the rally and Police permission obtained. While crowds comprising people from all communities gathered in large numbers a very large contingent of Police personnel under direct supervision of senior Police officers was also stationed in the vicinity.
Anticipating an unauthorized protest march by the demonstrators the Police had many barricades set up at strategic points. The chief intention was to stop protesters marching towards Presidents House or the Presidential secretariat at Galle face or proceeding through Galle road towards “Temple Trees”in Kollupitiya.
The rally commenced with leaders from UNP and other parties addressing the crowd.Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. A notable feature was the participation of the Tamil National Alliance at the meeting. Parliamentarians Suresh Premachandran and MA Sumanthiran represented the TNA.
The leader of the opposition and the UNP, Ranil Wickramasinghe, urged the government to increase the salaries of the workers and strengthen democracy. “We are prepared to fight from north to south, from west to east and in the Up Country to achieve that target,” he said.Wickremesinghe however left the Fort rally soon after speaking leaving his deputies to hold the “Fort”.
“Having promised a better democracy, one of the best dictatorships in the world has been created. Having promised food, we were forced into begging,” said Dr Vickramabahu Karunaratne, the leader of the New Left Front.
Democratic Peoples Front leader Mano Ganesan condemned the UPFA governments economic policies and urged the working class to unite regadless of ethnic differences to fight for the rights of people.MA Sumanthiran, the TNA national list MP said it is important that the opposition and the public rise against the fuel price hike.
Among prominent UNP political leaders notable persons present at the meeting were former UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake,UNP National Organiser Daya Gamage, parliamentarians Dr Harsha de Silva, Mangala Samaraweera, Dr Jayalath Jayawardhana, Renuka Herath, Rosy Senanayake, Eran Wickramaratne, Lakshman Kiriella, Palitha Thevarapperuma and Harin Fernando.
Some of the notable absentees from the UNP were Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, and MP’s Ranjith Maddumabandara, Thalatha Athukorala and Chandrani Bandara, all of the reformist group within the UNP.
Many rousing anti-govt slogans were chanted by the crowd with political leaders joining in enthusiastically. Some of the slogans raised by the protesters, starting with Opposition and UNP Leader Wickremesinghe were to bring down the fuel prices and that the people were suffering while MP Namal Rajapaksa was being groomed as the heir to the throne (Thel Mila pahatha Damapiyaw, Namalta Urumaya, Janathawata Karumaya)
At the final stages of the rally as political speeches were being wound up sections of the crowd began moving towards the direction of lotus road while shouting anti – govt, anti – Rajapaksa slogans. Police then moved in and blocked those on the march erecting barricades while urging the crowd to disperse.
The demonstrators however were vociferously defiant and began marching towards the barricades. Scuffles took place as demonstrators tried to break through Police ranks and remove the barricades.
Many political leaders of the UNP remained on the platform continuing to chant rousing slogans. But few of them joined the demonstrators challenging barricades with the exception of a few like Kalutara district MP Palitha Thevarapperuma and Badulla district MP Harin Fernando.
With hostility increasing the Police then started firing tear gas canisters on the demonstrators. Water cannons were also used to disperse the crowds. The demonstrators however refused to be cowed down and continued their efforts to storm Police barricades.
Crowds rallied each time they were beaten back by tear gas and water cannon and renewed efforts to storm the barricades.Beaten back they plunged in again and again vigorously.
Five determined “charges” were made to break down Police barricades but all were thwarted by Police using water cannon and tear gas. UNP Parliamentarians Palitha Thevarapperuma and Harin Fernando were in the forefront actively leading the protesters trying to break through the barricades.
At one stage sections of the crowd began pelting stones at the Police. The Police too reacted by throwing things back. Gampaha district MP Dr.Jayalath Jayewardena was injured when a tear gas canister struck his left arm.A large number of demonstrators sustained minor injuries.
Police claimed that fifteen Police officers including the senior Deputy Inspector General (DIG)of Police, DIG and Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) for Colombo were injured in the melee.
Additional security personnel from the Special Task Force(STF) and Army were called in after the Police was stoned but those deployed did not engage directly. Although possessing firearms there was no shooting as in the case of Chilaw where the STF fired live bullets on unarmed protesters without warning.
Reinforced by Army and STF presence the Police redoubled their efforts to disperse the crowds. Using water cannon and tear gas liberally the Police began driving the People back all the way up to the Manning market area. Crowds scattered and engulfed the Gunasinghepura area.
UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake and senior Parliamentarian Joseph Michael Perera called off the rally officially and urged protesters to leave peacefully.. Many including several party MP’s started leaving.
Around 300 hardcore supporters continued to defy the Police and refused to leave. Sections of this group dragged wooden pavement stall structures to the middle of the road and set then on fire. Police then unleashed torrents of water on these elements and chased them away.
By 6. 30 to 7.00 PM the crowds had dispersed . The deserted Fort and Pettah areas bore the look of a war ravaged zone.
UNP MP Harin Fernando told the media that the attack on the protest was brutal and the government would not be able to continue to suppress the voice of the people. “This was a very peaceful protest that was brutally cracked down. I don’t think the government can continue this for long. You can see how motivated the people are and how much they disagree with this government, so obviously protest like this would continue,” he said
Harin Fernando also stated that todays protest was just the beginning. “This was just the beginning and we will continue to protest against this undemocratic regime,” he said.
‘Our father kept telling stop firing..despite this bullets flew over his words’
Senior UNP leader Joseph Michael Perera told the media that the attack on a peaceful protest should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. “This was a very peaceful protest, none of these people had weapons or anything else with them. This same thing happened in Chilaw where one person was killed and now it’s being continued,” he said.
The UNP has condemned the Govt’s undemocratic attack on a democratic protest”