(Excerpts From the “Sunday Politics” Column in the “Sunday Observer” of October 15th 2017)
Namal Rajapaksa’s next ordeal this week was the Police investigation into a protest the Joint Opposition held in Hambantota against the government’s plans to develop the Mattala International Airport with the help of India.
A day before the protest, ASP SanathAmarasinghe and the Hambantota Police OIC, Priyantha Abeysinghe sought a restraining order from the Hambantota Magistrate preventing protesters from entering the vicinity of the Hambantota Port, the Indian Consulate and the roads leading to the Hambantota Port.
Accordingly, the Hambantota Magistrate issued an injunction order and banned the protesters from entering those areas. Despite the order, the Joint Opposition said they would continue with the protest and there were early signs of confrontations between the Police and the Joint Opposition protesters.
The protesters, led by Namal Rajapaksa, defied court order and held the protest in front of the Indian Consulate in Hambantota, sending a strong negative message to India.
In addition to anti-Indian slogans, they also chanted slogans against what they termed the “Chinese occupation” in the district, referring to the PPP agreement to develop the Hambantota international harbour.
It seemed as if the Rajapaksa group had declared war on the two economic giants of the Asian region – India and China.
Not surprisingly, the demonstration led to a clash between the Police and the protesters as the Police had to use teargas and water cannons to disperse them. The Police initially arrested 26 protesters and summoned several Parliamentarians involved in the protest to record statements.
Among them were Namal Rajapaksa, D.V. Chanaka, Prasanna Ranaweera and Provincial Council member Upali Kodikara.
Rajapaksa, Chanaka, Ranaweera and three others were arrested after questioning and produced before court. They were remanded for two weeks for violating court order and causing inconvenience to the public.
Interestingly, a few minutes after the arrest, Rajapaksa, who usually has an active social media presence, tweeted saying they were arrested for conducting a peaceful demonstration. He also tagged the ‘UNHRC’ in his tweet, giving the impression that he is seeking support from the UN Human Rights Council to obviate Police action.
Rajapaksa’s move has given rise to two important questions: Firstly, it raises a serious question as to how he is allowed to use his mobile and tweet while in Police custody.
Secondly, it brings the validity of his political slogans into question as the UNHRC was anathema to their political camp, not so long ago.
Ironically, the Joint Opposition protest was held against the Indian and Chinese investments in the Hambantota district, igniting xenophobic sentiments in the minds of the public.
But, Rajapaksa, who led the protest, had no qualms about seeking support from the UNHRC, a ‘foreign body’ which they demonized over the past eight years.
This behaviour showcases the duplicitous behaviour and double standards, not only of the young Parliamentarian, but also of the Joint Opposition.
“The Rajapaksas now lament about the Police action. But, when you hold a demonstration defying a court order, you are inviting Police action. For instance, when these Parliamentarians took part in the protest, they were aware that they would be arrested. They invited Police action, attempting to make a political drama out of it,” a government spokesman said, commenting on the Hambantota protest.
Apart from the Rajapaksa theatrics, another drama unfolded on the sidelines of the protest. A person who claims to be a journalist was assaulted by a senior Police officer in the heat of the moment. The footage of the assault went viral on social media platforms over the weekend, earning mixed reactions.
It was later revealed that Susantha Bandara Karunaratne, the person claiming to be a journalist, actively took part in the protest, holding placards and chanting slogans.
Several photographs which surfaced later proved Karunaratne’s active involvement in the protest.
Sagala and Rajitha
Clarifying the matter, Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka said Karunaratne was not attacked by the Police while carrying out the duties of a journalist.
“This is not to justify the assault. But, we need to get our facts right,” the Minister said.
“Karunaratne was among the protesters. He was seen holding placards and chanting slogans. His involvement in the protest led to the confrontation with the Police. None of the journalists covering the protest had problems with the Police,” he added.
“The law should apply to both sides equally. While the Police officer is under criticism for slapping a protester at the heat of the moment, it is also important to know that Karunaratne was not assaulted while covering the protest as a journalist. He was a protester actively taking part in the demonstration. The incident has to be understood in the right context,” Ratnayaka explained.
The matter surfaced at the weekly Cabinet briefing too. Journalists kept firing questions at Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne over a ‘journalist’ being attacked by a Police officer during the protest.
“I had been attacked by the Police during various protests. But I never showed my stethoscope and said I was a doctor. I took part in those protests as a protester, making political demands,” Senaratne said, adding some senior Police officers who salute him today, were among those who attacked him in the past.