By Sandun Jayawardana
Elements backed by political parties and enemies are being blamed for the destruction caused to vehicles and properties of government politicians, their relatives and supporters during the three days of violence that broke out after pro-government thugs attacked peaceful protesters outside Temple Trees and at Galle Face on Monday.
Properties and vehicles belonging to more than 40 government and pro-government parliamentarians, including former ministers, have been damaged, according to police.
The Sunday Times spoke to several MPs whose properties were attacked. Many pointed a finger at elements with links to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), and, personal and political enemies who were out to settle scores. The claims have been denied by both parties.
A mob of around 400 persons stormed the Kandy residence of former Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella on Monday night. They quickly overwhelmed the few policemen who were on guard and proceeded to ransack the house and set fire to it. The house, designed by one of Sri Lanka’s premier architects, went up in flames within minutes. Mr Rambukwella, who was not at home at the time, said he saw the destruction on television.
He said he suspected elements of the JVP, FLSP and Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) of being behind the attacks on politicians and their supporters. “This is a repetition of 88/89. It (attack on protesters) was an unwanted incident, but if you analyse what happened over the next four to five hours, you can see that a plan had been in place (to unleash violence). They were looking for a spark to put that plan in motion and justify a response that was way out of proportion.”
Mr Rambukwella feels much of the damage and loss of life could have been prevented had the armed forces been deployed earlier.
Former State Minister Prasanna Ranaweera said the attacks on his residence, office and workshop in Hunupitiya were not carried out by area residents. “It was clearly political vendetta and I blame the JVP and FLSP for this. The attackers were wearing helmets and carrying petrol bombs. I know they came from the protest site at Galle Face,” Mr Ranaweera said, but did not offer any evidence.
The MP claimed he and his family were left with only the clothes on their backs. “They are now trying to blame this on Mahinda Rajapaksa, but this is a problem with people who are not willing to accept opposing political views. They are trying to take this country back to the 88/89 period.”
A mob rampaged through former Labour Minister Vidura Wickramanayake’s residence in Horana, destroying property and severely damaging vehicles. The words “Drohiya” (Traitor) were written in red across the wall outside the house.
Mr Wickramanayake said he did not wish to speculate on who might be behind the attack. “Nothing is permanent. You need to prepare yourself for the worst in politics. This is not the worst thing that could have happened. What is needed right now is for all of us to get together and ensure stability, or else, people will run out of food soon,” he stressed.
A group stormed the residence of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s Kurunegala District MP Gunapala Rathnasekara on Monday night. The MP’s office was also located in the premises. Videos posted on social media show the house on fire against the backdrop of a cheering crowd. Mr Rathnasekara said it was a politically motivated attack and he was not prepared to blame the protesters.
“I am a first-time MP. I was a lecturer at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Everything that was destroyed I built before I came into politics. I admit that we couldn’t do what the people expected us to do but violence is not the answer. Today, the country has descended into anarchy.”
Mr Rathnasekara said he did not intend to seek re-election and added he was disappointed that the SLPP did not heed voices of backbenchers such as himself.
Ampara District SLPP parliamentarian D. Weerasinghe was another first-time MP who was targeted. A mob that attacked his residence spent more than 30 minutes ransacking it while some 40 policemen stood watching, he claimed.
“Area residents had got to know that a mob was coming to my house and were gathering to defend it when police came and told them to disperse, saying they would handle the situation, but then they stood by while the mob destroyed everything,” Mr Weerasinghe charged.
He said he built the house with a Rs. 5 million bank loan. Only Rs. 1.2 million had been paid back in instalments, according to the MP. “There’s nothing left for me to rebuild. The mob was very thorough.”
Mr Weerasinghe claimed the attackers were mainly JVP activists and came from the “Gota Go Gama” branch set up in Ampara town. “Some even broadcast the attack on Facebook Live. I gave those videos and names of those involved to police but no one has been arrested so far.”
Fires set by mobs gutted the Meerigama residences of Gampaha District SLPP MP Kokila Gunawardena and her brother. She said she did not send a single bus to Temple Trees for Monday’s meeting because she was of the view that Mahinda Rajapaksa should step down as prime minister. “This was about revenge. A monk affiliated to the JVP led the mob that stormed our houses. I personally won’t be worshipping any monks from now on,” she said.
Also coming under mob attack were the Nattandiya house of former State Minister and SLPP Puttalam District MP Ashoka Priyantha and his Maranda house where he runs his office. The mob also attacked an education institution owned by his wife in Nattandiya town and laid waste to a vehicle yard operated by a contractor who had been one of his chief supporters, destroying at least 14 vehicles.
In the days prior to the attack, he said he had been threatened by supporters of opposition parties via WhatsApp and even physically by crowds that had gathered outside his residence. “They threatened me with dire consequences if I didn’t vote for the No-Confidence Motion against the Government. I have made police complaints regarding those threats.”
Mr Priyantha said his children have been hit especially hard by the violence. His daughter is sitting her O/Level exam next week and all her books were destroyed. He had to remove his son from the Sabaragamuwa University over fears for his safety after some seniors started making inquiries about him, the MP said. “We have no protection now. Our family is scattered and staying in different places over safety fears,” he said.
While the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is probing the attacks on protesters outside Temple Trees and at Galle Face, investigations into attacks in other areas are being carried out by police under the direction of the senior officers in these police divisions, Police Spokesman Senior Superintendent Nihal Thalduwa said. “Each division has a Divisional Crime Detection Bureau that can investigate these crimes while senior officers can also assign special teams to probe specific incidents depending on their severity.”
However, he noted that investigations into many incidents had not begun owing to the country’s present situation. Most of the incidents occurred on May 9 and police were focused on May 10 and 11 in preventing further violence. In addition, many of the victims were yet to lodge complaints or make statements to police, SSP Thalduwa explained, when asked why no arrests had not been made so far. “Most investigations are starting only now,” he said.
JVP Politburo member Lal Kantha denied allegations that the party had orchestrated violence. “We unreservedly condemn any acts of violence. We have repeatedly called on the people not to take the law into their hands. People don’t have the right to punish anyone. That is up to the law, however imperfect it maybe. The President, the Prime Minister and their Government started this but it’
s our responsibility as citizens to prevent it from escalating further.”
It was important for those in the villages to set up committees to prevent violence from breaking out in their areas, he emphasised.
JVP and National People’s Power (NPP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake too appealed for calm. During a media briefing on Wednesday , he urged the people to reject violence and not to aid any violent acts. He pointed out that unless stability was restored, finding solutions to the prevailing crisis would be impossible.
He called for the arrest of the Temple Trees “conspirators” who planned and executed the state sponsored attacks on peaceful protesters. “This clearly includes former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, ministers and local government representatives,” he stressed.
The plan devised by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and especially former Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa to remain in power by unleashing violence on peaceful protesters backfired completely when so many of the country’s citizens came out against the attacks and stood in solidarity with the protesters, Mr Dissanayake said.
“We have suspicions that, with the Temple Trees conspiracy having failed, the Government is trying to use the state of anarchy that has befallen this country to pave the way for military and dictatorial rule,” he remarked, adding that there was clearly a political objective of the Government behind such acts of violence at a time when a curfew was in place and police and the armed forces had been mobilised.
“We have a justified suspicion whether certain elements, after having failed to achieve their objective through violence unleashed from Temple Trees on the 9th, were now trying again through unleashing violence at various other places,” he told the media.
FSP Propaganda Secretary Duminda Nagamuwa said President Rajapaksa and his Government, after launching attacks on peaceful protesters, were now trying to pin the blame on parties such as the FSP in preparation for a crackdown on party activists.
He said the party had suspicion as to how licence plates of buses that allegedly transported SLPP supporters to Temple Trees ended up on social media within a short time after the attacks on protesters. “Only those who organised the meeting at Temple Trees and those from intelligence agencies could have had access to that information, so there are suspicions as to how it came to be shared.”
The FSP condemns all acts of violence, Mr Nagamuwa asserted. “We believe in trade union action and peaceful protests. We don’t believe in violence. It is up to the law to punish wrongdoers. No one has the right to attack people and set houses on fire. There should be a fair and transparent investigation into what happened but we can’t expect that from this Government. We need an independent commission for that.”