By Damith Wickremasekara
National Freedom Front supporters, led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa, marched to the UN office in Colombo on Tuesday, launching a protest campaign which eventually set off a chain of reactions during the week.
They were carrying placards with some of them reading “Hands off Sri Lanka” “Moon – Double Standards”, “Scrap the UN Panel”. Others displayed caricatures, with one of them depicting President Barack Obama with the UN Chief.
An effigy, paraded by the protesters, had a board strapped on it saying ‘Ban Ki-Moon’. After a noisy protest, the group broke through the police barriers and approached the UN gates, which were closed. A few yards away, they set fire to the effigy.
The group then hurriedly put up a tent opposite the gate of the UN office. They soon realised that a CCTV camera was right above them. A protester, standing on top of the gate, tried to cover it with a plastic bag. But his efforts were not successful.
Soon one of the NFF activists arrived there, armed with black paint and sprayed it around the camera which might have blocked the filming process.
By this time, protesters had surrounded building, preventing the UN staff from leaving or entering the premises. Some people visiting the UN office were also trapped inside and were forced to remain there throughout the day.
Addressing his supporters, Weerawansa condemned the UN advisory panel on Sri Lanka. “We will continue our protest until the panel is withdrawn,” the Minister declared. “They are starting with a panel but would end up with a war crimes tribunal,” he charged.
Some 100 policemen including riot squads were also at the scene. Tension mounted in the evening when the UN staff members were trying to leave the premises. The UN office made a request to police to clear the way for the staff. But the protesters refused to oblige.
A senior police officer discussed the issue with NFF official Mohammed Muzamil because the gates had to be opened so that people could leave the office in their vehicles. “Tell them to leave their vehicles and walk out by foot and come later to take their vehicles,” he responded.
Police also took preventive measures to block some protesters from entering the UN compound by scaling the gate. A police team was deployed inside the compound to prevent people from storming the building.
Police and NFF supporters clashed as police took steps to provide a safe passage for the exiting UN staff. Most of them were young police recruits.
Senior police officers were heard shouting “Do not attack the people. We do not have orders to hit them”.
Some of them were seen assaulting Piyasiri Wijenayaka. “Don’t hit him. He is a former MP,” shouted an NFF activist.
Police were seen carrying him away and placed him under a tree. He was later removed to a hospital in the city. Police then formed a human chain to help the UN staff to leave the office in about 15 vehicles. Some unruly protesters jeered at the UN employees as they left the office.
Mr Weerawansa returned to the scene around 5.30pm and was alerted about the police assault.
“Kauwda munta yanna dunne? Koyi ekada ape kattiyata gehewe (Who is the fellow who allowed the staff to go; Who is the fellow who hit our supporters?),” he thundered.
His party supporters tried to identify the policemen who assaulted them. “We will not allow a single person to leave the office until Ban Ki-moon removes the panel,” Weerawansa remarked. “We understand that one of the police officers had spoken to the people at the UN and thereafter assaulted our supporters. We will find him,” he said.
Mr Weerawansa then called the IGP and asked him to order the policemen to leave the area. Minutes later, he made another call and started a conversation. He then walked up to Senior DIG K. P. P. Pathirana who was standing about 20 metres away and handed the phone to him saying that the Defence Secretary was on line.
The phone was on speaker mode so that others could hear the conversation. People at the scene, who overheard the conversation, claimed that clear instructions were given to DIG Pathirana to withdraw the police. He was heard saying “OK, Sir”.
As the DIG returned the phone, Weerawansa reportedly shoved the DIG while a few others pounced on the senior officer with one of them hitting his cap off. A fellow police officer picked it up. Another NFF supporter pulled him by his uniform while others punched him. Policemen intervened to save him. The DIG was seen limping away and policemen withdraw to some 100 metres away from the protest site.
Police trucks also pulled out from the area.
At 6.15pm, External Affairs Ministry Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe arrived at the scene to talk to the protesters. He urged them to allow the remaining UN staff to leave the office. Mr. Jayasinghe later went inside the UN office, escorted by STF officers.
Mr. Jayasinghe came out in five minutes and inquired from Mr Weerawansa about their demands.
Mr Weerawansa said the UN office should be pressurised to prevail on the UN chief to agree to their demands.
This time, NFF representative Wasantha Bandara joined Mr. Jayasinghe as he returned to the UN office.
Mr. Jayasinghe returned after 30 minutes and was seen whispering to Mr Weerawansa before leaving the location. Mr Weerawansa was then heard telling an aide that “the US is claiming that we are holding these people as hostages”.
As the rumpus continued, the NFF made preparations to stage a Thovil ceremony outside the UN premises. A few minutes later, Mr Weerawansa agreed to allow the remaining UN staff to leave the office. Minutes before they were allowed to leave, Mr Weerwansa told the men involved with ‘Thovil’ to scare the UN staff with ‘Dummalla’, which is used to light up the place during Thovil ceremonies.
Three vehicles then left with the UN staffers – all foreign nationals. The demonstrators threw ‘Dummulla’ at the vehicles while protesters continued to jeer at the employees.
Mr Weerawansa alleged at a press conference later that police started assaulting the protesters after the UN staff bribed a senior police officer. “He is the biggest bribe-taker in police,” he charged. The protest continued on Wednesday without any serious developments while the UN staff were given an unofficial holiday. They were reportedly instructed to ‘work from home’.
On Thursday morning, however, Mr Weerawansa launched a protest fast to push his demands.
In a marked contrast to the first day, UN vehicles were seen driving in and out of the building in an apparent afterthought by the NFF activists who might have realized the repercussions of their actions on Tuesday.
Several cabinet ministers were among those who visited Mr Weerawansa until he ended his action yesterday. - courtesy: The Sunday Times -