Operation Strangers Night and the
Estrangement of Tamils
by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Mahinda Rajapakse the new President of Sri Lanka met
representatives of the co - chair quartet of the Sri Lankan peace
process on January 9th. One of the issues raised at this meeting was
about the cordon, search and arrest operations going on in Colombo
and other areas. The President's response according to an official
communique was as follows.
" Responding to a query by the Co-Chairs on the recent 'Strangers
Night' operation, it was explained that this was a routine law enforcement
procedure aimed at 'clearing the neighbourhood' of criminal aliments
including drug traffickers and gangsters, which will also take place in
other areas of the island. It was emphasized that over 90% of those
detained were released on the same day and that due process was
One is not aware of how the co - chair representatives received this gem
of an explanation proffered by our executive president. It is obvious
however that either Rajapakse was totally in the dark about what was
happening or was speaking with a "forked tongue". The President was
either being misinformed by those around him or he himself was wilfully
dishing out misinformation.
The crucial point to note is that operations such as "strangers night"
were not routine law enforcement procedures as claimed by the
President. There were no such operations in the past for nearly four
years. These manoeuvres began happening only after the election of
Mahinda Rajapakse as President on Nov 17th. With Mahinda assuming
power his brother Gothabaya became defence secretary; Army
commander Shantha Kottegoda was forced into retirement and Sarath
Fonseka appointed in his place;Jathika Hela Urumaya politician and
former DIG of Police HMGB Kotakadeniya assumed duties as defence
It was after this triumvirate took over defence matters that operations
such as "strangers night" began in Colombo. Given Kotakadeniya's
controversial past as Police officer and his undisguised ideological
beliefs one may reasonably conclude that the on going operations are
primarily his "brainchildren".This propensity for conducting such
operations is part and parcel of the man's mental make - up.
An obvious flaw in the explanation that it is all a routine law and order
matter is the manner in which it is being conducted. The chief targets of
these operations are not criminal elements but law - abiding respectable
Tamils. The entire exercise has a pronounced racial angle to it. If one is
to comprehend clearly the context in which these acts are occurring one
has to delve into the recent past slightly.
It may be recalled that there were widespread arrests of "suspicious"
Tamils in Colombo and the suburbs in the late nineties when Chandrika
Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was President. The Police cells were
overflowing with Tamil detainees. So great was the crisis that the Tamil
United Liberation Front's Constitutional expert Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam
who always believed in the rule of law ,came up with the idea of
inundating courts with a series of habeas corpus writs and fundamental
rights petitions. The present Chief Justice Sarath Silva was Attorney -
General then. A conference was arranged between law officials and the
TULF. The situation began easing and the TULF dropped its idea of
seeking legal recourse.
Since many Plantation Tamils do not have proper identity documents
through no fault of their's a good number of them were arrested as
suspicious persons.This led Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman to take a
hand in the matter also. He exerted considerable pressure on Chandrika
Kumaratunga. The TULF supported Thondaman in this.Since
Kumaratunga herself had a progressive outlook on issues like these she
transferred Kotakadeniya out. Furthermore he was denied rightful
appointment as IGP on account of his seniority.
Adding insult to injury was the fact that Kumaratunga appointed
Anandarajan a Tamil and junior to Kotakadeniya in the service as IGP.
Thereafter Kotakadeniya opted to retire. He then took to Politics.
Kotakadeniya never forgave Anandarajan and went public making racist
and slanderous remarks against the IGP. For a man of Kotakadeniya's
mindset the Jathika Hela Urumaya was a second home. He became its
senior vice - president and still holds that post.
One feature of thes arrests was the large - scale corruption. Much
money changed hands and many a crroked cop made money by
arresting and then releasing Tamils. A striking example then was the
manner in which Kotakadeniya waged war on those involved in money
transfer business or "hawala". A few Tamils and even Muslims were
arrested on the "suspicion" that they were laundering money for the
LTTE. Within days it was business as usual.All those detained were out.
I remember asking two money transfer agents in Toronto about what
happened. They said that large amounts were paid out as bribes to
secure the releases of their principals in Colombo.. Another
consequence was that the "commissions" for transactions went up after
this exercise.The explanation given was that after the arrests a scheme
to bribe officials regularly had been set up. So the entire exercise
starting with a bang ended in a pathetic whimper. Only some corrupt
officials were getting richer. But as these columns pointed out earlier Mr.
Kotakadeniya is an honest man.
Kotakadeniya , out in the cold due to Kumaratunga is now back with a
vengeance thanks to Mahinda's "chinthana".Denying Kotakadeniya the
IGP post was perhaps one of Chandrika's wisest decisions as President.
Rajapakse however has brought him back as the virtual Police chief with
almost "carte blanche" powers to re- invigorate the Police force.
New tricks cannot be taught to an old dog they say. The one thing
Kotakadeniya knows best and loves best is to order cordon and search
operations with mass arrests. There was however one hitch. Unlike in
the nineties the LTTE is not a proscribed organization now. Though the
security situation is quite perilous the LTTE is not a banned outfit. The
PTA cannot be enforced right now. But luckily for him the emergency
regulations were in force.
Kotakadeniya revealed his thought process in a newspaper interview
where he lamented the fact that being LTTE or having links was not
illegal now. So operations to flush out tigers was not possible. But he
pointed out that operations to maintain law and order could be done.
Cordon and search operations to identify and arrest criminal elements
would very soon be on the cards he said. Kotakadeniya found an able
deputy in DIG Pujitha Jayasundara. The DIG had a torrid time in fighting
narcotic criminals. The new strategy of rounding up Tamil civilians was
like a piece of kokis for him.
So we had the first Strangers night operation on Dec 17th.in four Police
divisions. 109 Tamils were arrested. Then we had the third strangers
night operation on Dec 31st. 2400 Policemen and 2000 Armed forces
were involved. 920 Tamils were arrested. They were finger and
footprinted; photographed and videoed. Statements were recorded.
Except for 53 all were released. Later another 39 were released. Only
about ten are being kept in custody now.
It is claimed by official circles that there was a second strangers night
operation on Dec 27th. Criminal elements in Maradana, Dematagoda
and Kolonnawa were targeted. This operation was very much low - key
and not as stridently aggressive as the ones targeting Tamils. No
criminal of note was arrested. This exercise seems to be aimed at
deflecting criticism away and provide a facade that the objective is to
target criminals and not Tamils.
It has been announced that at least twelve other Strangers night
operations are in the pipeline. In the meantime the cordon , search and
arrest operations began spreading to the outstations too. 10 Tamils
were arrested in Uppukulam in Mannar. 29 Tamils were arrested in
Puttalam; 109 Tamils were arrested in Ratnapura and Kahawatte. 16
Tamils were arrested in Bandarawela. 4 Tamils were arrested in Passara.
In the case of the plantation areas the pretext for the searches was that
LTTE men were hiding and explosives were concealed. None of the
operations yielded any tigers or bombs. Only the estate workers were
harassed. There is a threat of a strike being launched by 25, 000
workers in some areas of the Badulla district if the arrested persons
were not released. It is interesting to note that security in the plantation
areas became a "threat" only after the Presidential elections.
Rajapakse in a fit of puerile chagrin tried to "fix" Arumugam Thondaman.
The latter took up the challenge by "flirting" with the LTTE in Kilinochchi.
Thereafter security operations are on the increase in the Up Country.
The important question however is whether these security operations
are really security - orientated or politically and racially motivated to
teach Thondaman and the "wathu Demalo" a bitter lesson?
As far as the "strangers night " operations in Colombo they have
achieved very little except of course to increase the estrangement of
Tamils from the Sri Lankan state and Mahinda Rajapakse regime. The
first operation only "netted" 109. The powers that be in Defence were
thoroughly dissatisfied. The word percolated downwards. The third
operation on the eve of the new year saw police Inspectors vying with
each other to increase their tally of "strangers" in Colombo.
Many of those arrested had their proper identity documents and had
been living for many, many years in Colombo. A lot of them were
reputed professionals and even priests. Yet they were herded into
"copshops" like common criminals. Many Tamils including children were
forced to stand for a long time on the streets.
They entered houses at night and woke up residents. Searches were
conducted while most womenfolk were in their nightclothes. Many
houses were ransacked. Children under 18 were asked to show their
"non - existent" ID cards. Several women in their "nighties" were taken to
the Police stations.
The conduct of the Police and security personnel was atrocious and
racist in many instances. Offensive and intimidatory remarks of a racist
nature were made. Their conduct was abominably rude. The people
were shouted at and children intimidated. Public vehicles were halted
and Tamils singled out. An Indian national travelling in a thre - wheeler
was given a torrid time and asked to show her original passport. She
was a Tamil from Tamil Nadu.
The one clear fact that emerged as a result of this operation was that
the targets were deliberately Tamil and not suspicious criminal elements.
The people of other communities did not suffer much or were targeted to
the extent that the Tamils were. The conduct of those involved in many
cases displayed open traces of racism.
Mano Ganesan of the Western Peoples Front took out a procession -
demonstration in Colombo on Jan 6th to protest the arrests. "Can you
arrest a thousand to detain 10 people" he queried.
The statements made by officials to rationalise the operation would be
hilarious if not for the seriousness of the situation. Pujitha Jayasundara
first said that they had seized barbed wire and blood transfusion
equipment as a result of the operation. What a lot of effort to retrieve
these and in any case was it an offence to keep these? Then he
changed his stance and said there were reports of tiger assassination
squads being in Colombo to kill Rajapakse and others. He amended his
position again and said that the operation was a pre-emptive strike to
prevent tigers carrying out operations here. Alas! no tiger was arrested
Realising perhaps that these explanations were sounding "silly" and
smacked of racist motivation the IGP Chandra Fernando himself
stepped in and justified the operation as being against criminal elements
alone. These were routine matters. It was this explanation that
Rajapakse trotted out to the four co - chairs. But on Jan 7th when he
met the TNA delegation he was honest enough to admit excesses and
promised an end to harassment and illegal arrests. For obvious reasons
the tune changed two days later.
There is no denying there is a security threat to Colombo. That cannot
be met by alienating and estranging the Tamils of Colombo. If the
security officials are to get solid intelligence about certain matters then
the Tamil people should not be alienated. Furthermore it is a joke to
think that the LTTE will not have proper ID or valid excuses to be in
Colombo. They would have excellent documentation and well -
established cover. It is only the "innocent" who are faulty with
documentation nd reasons.
Moreover recent developments have shown that many Sinhala people
are hand in glove with the LTTE in Colombo. The murders of Intelligence
officials in Colombo indicates that. So it is doubtful whether LTTE
"connections" are restricted to Tamils alone. Given the high level of
official corruption one would not be surprised if some high level Sinhala
people are aiding and abetting the LTTE for remuneration.
Open war is not declared yet. The LTTE is yet to be proscribed. If
Tamils are harassed so greatly in Colombo and elsewhere in the current
situation it is not hard to imagine their plight if war does erupt and the
tigers are banned. With Kotakadeniya in the saddle mass arrests and
incarceration will be the order of the day. What is happening now is only
a straw in the wind. Sadly even if all those harsh measures are adopted
will the security of Colombo and its leading citizens be guaranteed?