By Rathindra Kuruwita
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna MP Sunil Handunnetti and three others were assaulted in Jaffna last Sunday and the incident has ignited the media space. The incident which occurred during the day in a city which has a visible military presence, has raised many questions about political freedom in the North.
JVP MP after the attack ~ pic: Sandeshaya
The JVP MP was in Jaffna to make initial preparations for a protest campaign organized by party affiliate organization ‘We are Sri Lankan.’ Their objective was to demand that government releases the names of detainees held in military controlled camps. The issue of ‘missing persons’ is a very serious and sensitive issue in Jaffna. There are thousands who would support any organization that would take a genuine interest in the issue. The attack on JVP members is also an indication of the sensitivity of the issue and the resistance of certain sections to address this very urgent humanitarian concern.
Handunnetti was attacked inside the premises of former Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Pathmini Sithamparanathan who told LAKBIMAnEWS that the attack was carried out while they were discussing the protest campaign and the issues of ‘missing persons.’
She said, “we were talking about the protest and why it is important. Suddenly about 10 men barged in and asked ‘who among you is Lalith Kumar?’ in Sinhala and these people did not at all look like Tamils. Lalith is the JVP leader in Jaffna.
Realizing that something was amiss, the others in the house and the JVP members asked me to go to another room. While I was leaving I heard Handunnetti saying that he is an MP and then they started attacking them. They left in minutes and we took the wounded to hospital.”
Although such incidents are not new to Jaffna, it is the first time in recent history that political representatives from the South were assaulted in Jaffna. The JVP alleged that the attack was carried out by military intelligence and said that this act proves beyond any doubt that there is no political freedom in the North. Handunnetti told the media that local police officers and hospital staff asked them to leave Jaffna immediately if they valued their lives.
“This shows that everyone is aware that it was carried out by a government/military backed group. There is a heavy military presence in Jaffna; there are armed soldiers and policemen all over the place. There is no way that any other group could pull off such a thing. The same people who attacked us came to observe the protest campaign we had organized the next day. We have proof of this.”
Meanwhile, military spokesman, Major General Udaya Medawala denied any involvement on the part of the government in the incident and claimed that military intelligence had better things to do. He added that they have no involvement in the investigation that is being carried out by Police either.
“Military Intelligence is one of the most disciplined units in the army. They are not involved. This is a civil case and the police will handle this.”
The JVP supported Ealam war IV to the maximum, and have been dubbed a ‘chauvinistic’ party by many Southern intellectuals. But since the end of the war the party has also been at the forefront protecting the rights of Tamils. The JVP and its affiliate student organization the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) were the only ones which have been agitating for the rights of the northern university students held in detention and at present it is the only mainstream political force carrying on a campaign for the rights of detained Tamil youth.
This maybe a part of the JVP’s strategy to enter northern politics, but they are addressing an important issue not hitherto properly tackled by the UNP and TNA, the two organizations which traditionally represent minority rights. Moreover, 18 months after the war the government still has not released the names of those kept in detention camps. There are thousands of parents, wives and husbands who are going from camp to camp even today looking for their sons, daughters or husbands, and the LLRC has regularly stated solving the detainee issue is a must.
“It has been 18 months and nothing has been done so far. Publishing a list of detainees is not difficult and is one of the most basic things for the healing process. It would also be a great relief for thousands. As long as the government delays doing these most basic things there will always be room for agitation.
Everyone in Jaffna, from university students to artistes still live in fear”, Sithamparanathan said.
“Everybody in Jaffna lives in fear” ---- Sunil Handunhetti, MP.
What happened in Jaffna?
We went to Jaffna as a part of a demonstration by We are Sri Lanka organization. We wanted to force the government to reveal the names of Tamil youth who are detained in various camps. We didn’t ask the government to release LTTE suspects. If they are guilty we are not against punishing them but we also want the government to inform their parents where they are. They have that right and we went there to help them stand up for their right.
I went a day before to prepare the ground work, to meet university students and lecturers, priests, journalists and artists and explain why we are doing this. I left the Uthayan office after an interview and I realized that we are being followed. To avoid confrontation we went to Padmini Sithambaranathan’s house, and since she was a former MP we thought that we will be safe in that house. But when we were in the porch around 10-15 people came around and attacked us.
We were attacked in broad daylight, in the middle of a large city which is dotted by military check points. We believe that only a set of government goons can attack us.
No political group needs to come and attack us. Why should they attack us? We went there to help them. But Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has issued a statement to Thina Murasu, the EPDP paper that the JVP has come to Jaffna to cause trouble. That’s why we say that this was done by the Defence Ministry; we saw the same people at the next day’s demonstration.
The government says that you have gone to Jaffna to get political mileage by riling up an unnecessary but sensitive issue?
It is an issue that exists, right? Otherwise we wouldn’t be there and people wouldn’t come to the protest. We have been named racists by some people in the South and the North, but even with such strong propaganda people came. Why did they come, because this is important to them, right?
In a way this attack dispelled many lies about us. Now the people in Jaffna know who we really are and that we are enemies of an oppressive regime, any oppressive regime.
It’s a very sensitive issue. Why do you think that the government has not addressed this?
This is the problem we have. The government is running a media show. Just recently they opened an office of the Ministry of Youth Affairs in Kilinochchi, but it has no roof. What’s needed is not to do stuff like that but to mend the hearts of these people. Parents want to know what happened to their children, they are looking for their loved ones just the way our mothers went from camp to camp looking for us in the 88-89 periods. That’s the first issue they should solve.
The army camps are the only buildings that look nice and developed while the general public live in tents given by NGOs. Will that ever build trust? A society that has just gone through a war, does not want further trauma. When I was in hospital one attendant told me “I lived in fear during the war and I still live in fear.” What has the government done to change this?
If this is my plight as an MP, there is no point about talking about the rights of the people. Everyone in Jaffna, from university students to artistes live in fear. One has to think the way the government wants. When Prabhakaran was alive he wanted the people to think the way he wanted; what’s the point of defeating terrorism if that has not changed?
People in the North face the same predicament as we do . Establish the freedom to live. If the government says that it has established democracy in Jaffna tell the people who are looking for their children where they are. What’s the difficulty in putting out the list of detainees and to say that these are the people who are with us?
Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this issue at ground level?
They are afraid, that’s the main thing. The government’s strategy is to suppress if they can’t intimidate. That’s why we are being suppressed.
Don’t you want to enter Northern politics?
Of course we do, we have already opened an office in Jaffna and Vavuniya. We have contested elections. This will not stop us; the only thing the attack did was to prove to the people of the North that we are not chauvinists as said by some elements ... and that we are there to support any struggle by any oppressed party. We are Marxists and a Marxist can never be a racist!