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 Post subject: “Operation Strangers Night III” -
 Post Posted: Sun Jan 08, 2006 3:22 am 
“Operation Strangers Night ” -
Sri Lankan security forces conduct massive sweep of Tamils in Colombo

7 January 2006

In a flagrant violation of basic democratic rights, calculated to inflame communal tensions, Sri Lanka’s security forces launched a massive cordon and search operation against Tamil residents of the capital Colombo on December 31.

Protest in Colombo over indiscriminate arrests of Tamils@ photo TamilNet.

Entire neighbourhoods were sealed off and nearly a thousand Tamils were arrested and held incommunicado for hours after the terrifying pre-dawn raids. Houses were ransacked, people were searched and detainees were systematically fingerprinted, footprinted, photographed and videotaped. By the end of the day, most were released, but 53 remained in custody.

It was the first major anti-Tamil crackdown in Colombo since the signing of a 2002 ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Security forces sought to justify the operation in the vaguest manner, with deputy inspector-general of police Pujith Jayasundara claiming it was aimed at “preventing future LTTE attacks and to ensure the security of Colombo”.

Coupled with escalating violence in the island’s northeast, the huge police and military mobilisation has heightened fears that the country is once again heading toward war.

“Operation Strangers Night III” involved 2,000 military personnel and 2,400 policemen, all heavily armed, in 15 predominantly Tamil suburbs. These included Pettah, Fort and Maradana, Wellawatta, Bambalapitiya, Dematagoda, Kotahena, Borella, Kirulapona, Modera, Maligawatta, Narahenpita and Kolonnawa.

All roads and access to these areas were sealed off for seven hours, from 4.30 a.m., with residents barred from leaving. Students were stopped from attending Saturday classes, shopkeepers could not start their New Year business and no one could go shopping for the evening festival. Newspaper deliveries were halted until noon.

Security squads entered houses, demanded identification papers and searched homes, supposedly looking for “explosives or weapons”. They arrested anyone suspicious, unable to identify themselves or who could not provide reasons for staying in Colombo. Youth were particularly targetted and among those detained, more than a hundred were women. Detainees were taken to eight police centres and subjected to interrogation, while police stations were crammed with parents and relatives waiting for their release.

According to Deputy Inspector-General Jayasundara, five people were taken into custody as “LTTE suspects” and placed under detention orders “until the conclusion of investigations”. But police admitted that no explosives or weapons were found. These detentions are a direct attack on political and civil rights. Military personnel exploited the wide powers granted under a state of emergency declared following the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August.

Amid rising tensions in the North and East, the Colombo media has conducted an inflammatory campaign, quoting unnamed security officers saying that the LTTE had earmarked key economic institutions, security establishments and other important places for attacks. Some reports cited exact numbers of LTTE agents who had supposedly infiltrated Colombo, raising the obvious question of why these agents were not located in the crackdown.

Jayasundara claimed that intelligence reports had showed the LTTE was planning to assassinate several political leaders, including President Mahinda Rajapakse. He told reporters that the armed forces would intensify the search operations.

Rajapakse’s newly appointed army commander, General Sarath Fonseka, and the president’s defence adviser, Kotakedeniya, a former police deputy inspector general and a leader of the Sinhala extremist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), have insisted on such search operations.

Over the past month, police have also called for the reintroduction of the repressive and discriminatory regime that applied before the ceasefire. Hundreds of Tamils, especially youth, were detained for years without trial under emergency laws. Anyone unable to produce a national identity card could be detained as a LTTE member. Tamil residents of Colombo had to register their details at local police stations.

Residents terrorised

Media coverage of the December 31 operation suggested that the raids were conducted “cordially” with “little inconvenience” to residents. But people who spoke to the WSWS provided harrowing accounts. Some said the operation was reminiscent of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogroms that triggered the civil war.

A Wellawatta resident said: “Early in the morning, at about 3.30, I heard someone knocking at my door. When I opened the door, heavily armed police and army personnel were standing there. They asked how many people were staying in the house. My wife and children were afraid and my small son started to cry.

“The officers were shouting at my wife and daughter and asking for identity cards. My 15-year-old son was threatened repeatedly because he could not produce an ID card. How could he, when cards are only issued at the age of 18?

“Even after we gave them our identity cards, they didn’t stop. They went inside and searched the house for about 45 minutes. When we could not open a cupboard door we were abused with filthy words. They threatened us, saying, ‘go and tell this to Prabhakaran [the LTTE leader]’. I heard one officer telling another, ‘we should chase these fellows to the North even without clothes, just as Muslim people were chased away [by the LTTE] from the North.”

“We are afraid that war may erupt at any moment. If it does, search operations will continue like they used to during the civil war. We felt a little bit of freedom when the ceasefire was in force. If the war resumes, everyone in this country, Tamils and Sinhalese alike, will suffer equally.

“During the presidential election campaign, certain leaders—especially from the JVP and JHU—spread communal feelings among the Sinhala public once again. Now they are silent about the incidents going on.”

Luxmi, a pregnant mother and an Indian citizen, said: “The security forces stopped and surrounded my vehicle as I was going to see my doctor. There were hundreds of soldiers—it looked like a war situation. Since I am an Indian national, I speak only English and Tamil. My driver, who is a Sri Lankan Tamil, was trying to explain. They chased him away and demanded ID from me. I showed them a copy of my Indian passport but they refused to accept it.

“Four officers surrounded me, pointing their guns at me. I was nervous and did not know what to do. Fortunately I had my mobile and phoned my husband to come with the original passport. They warned me that if there was any delay, they would take me to the police station.”

A Dehiwala resident said: “Our bus was stopped and all the Tamil people were asked to get out. It reminded me of the 1983 communal violence, which I experienced personally. I was terrified. We faced over half an hour of questioning. An officer abused me in Sinhala, alleging that I gave rooms to ‘Tigers to play in Colombo’. But I am not a member or supporter of the LTTE.”

Tamils in Colombo harassed by ‘Strangers Night’ operation

Thursday, December 22, 2005
By D. B. S. Jeyaraj
@ TML / Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Tamils living in the electoral divisions of Colombo West and East were given a terrible shock on the night of Saturday, December 17 when a massive security operation was launched against them. Over 600 police and security force personnel were deployed in an operation code named ‘Operation Strangers Night’ in the areas of Wellawatte, Bambalapitiya, Havelock Town, Pamankade, Kirulapone 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 December 19 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 Jayasundera 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 p.m. on Saturday and ended at 5 a.m. yesterday, 107 people were taken in on suspicion while five of them had been detained.
"‘We used Tamil speaking officers to explain to the people about the search and also used women police officers to check women,’" he said adding that the people had cooperated well."

Different impression

The complacent, self-serving remarks of Pujitha Jayasundera 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 the sense of alienation felt by many Tamils.

The operation had commenced at 11 p.m. on December 17. Hundreds of police and security personnel descended on the areas coming under ‘Operation Strangers Night.’ It was a massive cordon and search operation. The targetted ‘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 and businesses were also surrounded and searched.

Many people were fast asleep when the guardians of law and order woke them up. Once again non-Tamil residences and places were not bothered as much as Tamils were.

The operation went on till 6 a.m. 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.

Not ‘strangers’

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 here for years. 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 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 a.m. 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 p.m. 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 Wickremesinghe 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."

Overall experience

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 p.m. by the police and military personnel at Kirulapone.

They were P. Parthiban of the editorial department and C. Gokularaj and K. Sarweswaran of the computer department. 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 Department 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 Tamils 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.

Thinakkural employees arrested

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 a.m. 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 a.m. to Thimbirigasaya for further interrogation and recording 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 People’s Front Vice President Nalliah Kumarakuruparan began moving in on the matter. IGP Chandra Fernando, DIG Pujitha Jayasundera and Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa were informed.


Raviraj and Vinayagamoorthy personally went to the police station in the morning. The cops on duty said that nothing could be done until the OIC returned. Finally the OIC came at 10:45 a.m.

Thereafter the Thinakkural trio was released after documentation were 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 (FMM) 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" state’s 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.

Harrasment of Tamils

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 former 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 Attorney General’s Department and court.

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 Rs. 7.5 million to a Tamil paramilitary organisation 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 paramilitary.

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 paramilitaries 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 H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya. Retired Deputy Inspector General of Police, 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.

Terrible situation

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 (JHU). Such a man has been made Defence Ministry advisor 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.

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