Tamils in Colombo harassed by
"Strangers Night" Operation

by D.B.S. Jeyaraj


Tamils living in the electoral divisions of  Colombo West and East were
given a terrible shock on the night of Saturday December 17th when a
massive security operation was launched  against them. Over 600 Police
and security force personnel were deployed in an operation codenamed
"Operation Strangers Night" in the areas of Wellawatte, Bambalapitiya,
Havelock town, Pamankade, Kirillapone and Narahenpita. Once again
Tamils in Colombo were brutally reminded that they were all  suspicious
aliens in the eyes of the state  simply because of their ethnicity.
A news report in the "Daily Mirror" of Dec 19th  stated as follows -
"More than 100 suspicious people were taken into custody following a
massive cordon and search operation code-named "Strangers Night" in
Wellawatta, Narahenpita, Kirulapone and Bambalapitiya police areas,
police said yesterday.

Colombo DIG Pujitha Jayasundara said the surprise house-to-house
operation was carried out jointly by the police, Army, Navy and the Air
Force to track down illegal activities and suspected terrorist members in
the area.

He said during the operation which started at 11 pm on Saturday and
ended at 5 am yesterday, 107 people were taken in on suspicion while
five of them had been detained.

"We used Tamil speaking officers to explain the people about the search
and also used women police officers to check women", he said adding that
the people had cooperated well".

The complacent, self - serving remarks of Pujitha Jayasundara along with
other media reports may help to convey the impression that the Police
and security forces had conducted a proper law - enforcement operation
and netted many terrorist suspects. Some may even believe that the
people (all Tamils) were all happy and appreciative about the operation in
this cheerful season of peace and goodwill.

This writer however got a different impression when talking to some
people at the receiving end  of "strangers Night".The callous conduct of
the law enforcing authorities seemed to have caused much resentment
and added further to th sense of alienation felt by many Tamils.

The operation had commenced at 11 pm on the 17th. Hundreds of Police
and security personnel descended on the areas coming under "operation
Strangers night". It was a massive cordon and search operation. The
targeted "strangers" were all Tamils. The  security  personnel set up
temporary search stations and road blocks at key junctions . All vehicles
and pedestrians were stopped. While "non ' Tamils" were let off
immediately people of Tamil ethnicity were subjected to intensive
searches and grilling. Young Tamils were given very harsh treatment.

Apart from vehicles and pedestrians many houses, apartments, boarding
houses, shops, businesses were also surrounded and searched. Many
people were fast asleep when the guardians of law and order woke them
up. Once again non - Tamils  residences and places were not bothered as
much as Tamils   were .

The operation went on till 6.am on Sunday. According to the "official"
version 107 "suspects" were taken to Police stations  and questioned
further. Of these five people were kept for   further investigations while the
others were released after completion of security procedures. The
Colombo Tamil grapevine however has it that some youths had been
taken elsewhere by "commandos" and remain unaccounted in the official
records.

Most of those taken in as suspects were not "strangers" in Colombo. They
had very legitimate reasons to be in Colombo. Many had been living for
years here. At least 97 % had their national identity cards and office
identity cards. Despite this they were treated as suspicious strangers.
Nothing suspicious was seized from them. Many of those detained were
returning home from work.

The arrested persons were taken first to the Police stations in their
neighbourhoods. They were packed into the Police cells. Though kept for
many hours they were not given food or water. They were not allowed to
contact friends or relatives or lawyers. The Police also failed to inform
family members of the whereabouts of these detainees.

The arrested persons were transported by night from Police cells to the
field force headquarters near Police Park. They were taken to an upper
floor where officials interrogated them. After information so obtained was
recorded they were fingerprinted and photographed like common
criminals. Video filming individually was also done.

Once again they were brought back to the Police stations from where they
were taken and locked up in cells again. Nothing happened till 10. 30 am
on Sunday. It was from that time onwards that lawyers started calling over
at the cop shops. Complaints were also made to the IGP Chandra
Fernando. The process of release started and by 2.00 pm most people
were enjoying their birthright of freedom.

Most  people who underwent this experience were bitter." we were treated
like criminals and terrorists simply because we were Tamils" said one.
""They were insensitive and inhumane. Even  water was not given"
complained another. It was suspected by some that a political vendetta
was underway. "We Tamils voted in large numbers for Ranil in Colombo.
Now we are being victimised for that" they said.Another opined that" the
corrupt elements were getting ready like in the past to make  money ".

There is a Tamil proverb "Oru Paanai Sottrukku  Oru Soru Padham" which
means that a morsel of rice will indicate the quality of the whole pot of
cooked rice. Likewise the plight of  three Tamil media personnel  will help  
illustrate the overall experience of Tamils on the "strangers night"of
Saturday.

Three employees of the Colombo based Tamil daily "Thinakkural" were
returning home in the office vehicle on saturday night when they were
stopped  at 11. 30 pm by the Police and military personnel at Kirillapone.
They were P. Parthiban of the editorial dept and C. Gokularaj and K.
Sarweswaran of the computer dept. Parthiban is also a lawyer. After
preliminary questioning  the three Tamil media persons were "arrested"
while the non - Tamil driver was allowed to go.

Despite the detailed explanation proffered that they were newspaper
employees returning home after work they found themselves being taken
to the Police station. The three persons had their national identity cards,
media accreditation cards of the information dept and office identity cards
but these were of no avail in the face of this massive security juggernaut.
The security personnel simply refused to pay any attention to the
explanations.

The trio along with 30 other arrested Tamil "night strangers" were locked
up in the Police cells. When the journalist tried to contact people over his
cellular phone the Police prevented it and confiscated the phone. They
were not allowed to contact anyone. Police also failed to inform family
members of their situation.

Upon hearing of the situation another employee from "Thinakkural" came
to the Police station and tried to explain matters. He too was ignored and
ordered to vacate the premises at once. When the Officer in Charge
returned to office after the long Saturday night operation at 6 am the trio
tried to talk to him. He too refused to listen saying he had to sleep and left.

Meanwhile they had been taken at about 1.00 am to Thimbirigasaya for
further interrogation and recoding of particulars. The media people like all
other arrested Tamils were photographed, videoed and fingerprinted.
They were then brought back to the Police station.

Since they were employees of "Thinakkural" the institution was able to
exert some influence. Parliamentarians Mano Ganesan, Joseph
Pararajasingham, Nadaraja Raviraj, ex - MP Appathurai Vinayagamoorthy
and Western Province Peoples front Vice - President Nalliah
Kumarakuruparan began moving in on the matter. IGP Chandra
Fernando, DIG Pujitha Jayasundara and media minister Anura
Priyadarshana Yapa were informed.

Raviraj and Vinayagamoorthy went personally to the station in the
morning. The cops on duty said that nothing could be done till the OIC
returned. Finally the OIC came at 10. 45 am. Thereafter the "thinakkural"
trio was released after documentation signed by Raviraj and
Vinayagamoorthy. Media minister Yapa has called for a detailed complaint
by the paper to be taken up with the defence authorities.

This is what happened to the Tamil media persons. The Free Media
Movement has condemned the incident and called for an investigation.
Other protests too have been raised over what happened to the trio. Pro -
tiger media is highlighting the incident as another example of the "Sinhala
" states suppression of Tamil media freedom.

Harping on the incident as  being directed against the Tamil media is like
missing the forest for the trees. Parthiban, Gokularaj and Sarweswaran
were all media persons but they were not arrested because of that. They
were detained because they were young Tamil males. The harassment
they underwent was in their personal capacity as Tamils and not their
professional capacity as media persons.

Emphasising the media angle alone would divert focus away from the
primary contradiction. What is of importance is to note that despite their
media influence these Tamils could not prevent harassment. In spite of
Parliamentarians intervening their release could not be obtained. They
like all the other Tamil victims of this exercise had to undergo unwarranted
humiliation and harassment due to their ethnicity.

The lesson from "Strangers Night" is that once again the state is getting
ready for a massive onslaught against the fundamental rights of the
Tamils in Colombo. Being detained on suspicion for a specific offence is
one thing but to be arrested merely on suspicion for no offence than
being Tamils is entirely different. The manner in which these Tamils were
locked up, interrogated, photographed and fingerprinted is indicative of
what lies in store for the Tamils in Colombo in a future scenario where war
erupts and the LTTE gets proscribed. Even more frightening is the talk
about youths being taken away to an undisclosed location

Tamils in Colombo have been having a taste in small doses of what awaits
them  in the aftermath of the Kadirgamar assassination. The security
personnel who failed miserably in protecting the foreign minister also
failed to secure the area for hours after the killing. Thereafter helicopters
with search lights hovered in the skies of Colombo scouring the streets
and lanes in Tamil residential areas as if the killers were hiding behind
bushes or walls.

This was followed by searches of Tamil houses and detention of Tamil
people. The most notable of them being the arrest of Charles Gnanakone.
He was crucified in a trial by media. It was this column alone which stated
that Gnanakone appeared innocent and that justice should triumph. After
55 days of incarceration Charles is now a free man cleared by the AG
dept and courts.

But other arrested persons continue to languish in custody. Meanwhile the
vermin who feast on human tragedies are at work. Corruption is prevalent.
A northern businessman dealing in motor spare parts was arrested,
questioned and released. The release was procured through the payment
of 75 lakhs of rupees to a Tamil para - military organization working as
"informants" to preserve the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of
the Country. The money so obtained was according to informed sources
divided among security authorities and Tamil para - military

One point that has emerged very clearly after the Kadirgamar
assassination is that the security authorities are utterly incapable of
coping with a tiger threat in an intelligent manner. The stock response
seems to be simple harassment of the Tamil people. There is very little
intelligence about actual LTTE movement. So Tamils are to be harassed
at random. Adding further incentive to this modus operandi is the lure of
filthy lucre. The Tamil para - militaries  will squeeze money out of arrested
persons and share it with the security people.

Another factor troubling many peace loving Tamils in Colombo is the
return of Kotakadeniya. Retired Deputy Inspector - general of Police
HMGB Kotakadeniya is an honest man. He is however a hawkish guy. It
may be recalled that his approach towards "terrorism" was to initiate
arrests of Tamils in large numbers. So terrible was the situation that
Soumiyamoorthy Thondaman and some TULF leaders pressured
Chandrika Kumaratunga to transfer him out.

Kotakadeniya was also denied the IGP post which was rightfully his. He
then retired and teamed up with the arch - reactionary, Sinhala - Buddhist
chauvinist Jathika Hela Urumaya. Such a man has been made Defence
ministry adviser with special powers by the man of the masses. The
"strangers Night" operation has demonstrated what the future is going to
be for Tamils in Colombo under the authority of Kotakadeniya.

There is no denying that the LTTE poses a security threat in Colombo
and elsewhere. This does not mean that Tamils living in Colombo should
be harassed in the name of security. Operation "Strangers Night" has not
yielded anything tangible from a security perspective. All it has achieved is
the sending of shock waves to the Tamil community.

The Tamil  sense of alienation increases and resentment builds up. It is
this mindset which may ultimately be conducive to a climate where security
is under threat. Operations like "Strangers Night" can only help develop
this mindset among aggrieved Tamils victims of the state in Colombo.