Socialist Equality Party (SEP) member Velummailum Kamalthasan and his brother-in-law Santhiralingam Ilancheliyan were arrested by Sri Lankan police on September 15 in Negombo while they were preparing to travel to Colombo by bus. They were kept in Negombo police lock-up for more than a week despite the fact that the SEP had confirmed Kamalthasan’s longstanding party membership.
The SEP is well known for its opposition not only to the government and its communal war but also to the Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its bourgeois nationalist program. The refusal of the police to immediately free the two men is another sign of the increasingly anti-democratic methods being used to stifle any opposition under the guise of fighting “terrorism”. The police finally released the two men on September 23 following a vigorous campaign by the SEP and the World Socialist Web Site.
Speaking to the WSWS, Kamalthasan explained the circumstances of his arrest: “We had sufficient legal documents to prove our identity even according to the government’s rules. We had copies of our police registration [every Tamil living in the Sinhala majority areas has to register his/her household residence at the nearest police station] as well as our passports. But they arrested us. There were political reasons for our arrest.
“In fact our arrest was a part of the general attack being carried out on working people and especially Tamil people in Sri Lanka. In an interview Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse [brother of President Mahinda Rajapakse] said: ‘All Tamils are not terrorists, but 98 percent of terrorists are Tamils’. He wanted all Tamil people who had come to Colombo recently to go back to Jaffna. He gave the police a free hand to arrest Tamils.
“On September 15 at about 11.30 a.m. we boarded a bus at the Negombo central bus stand. When the bus had proceeded about a quarter mile the police stopped it at a railway crossing. Then they made us get down, examined our papers and took us into their van. There were two arrested persons already in the van.
“We overheard two police officers saying to each other: ‘This catch is not enough. We must get at least two more.’ One of the other two was a Tamil youth from Gampola. He had lived in Negombo for three years. The other was from the Northern Province. He had been in Negombo for two years. A Sinhalese youth was also taken from the bus as he had no National Identity Card. However, he was released at the police station.
“At the police station they took down our names in a register and got our signatures. They asked us why we left Jaffna and came here. I explained that I had come because there were no employment prospects. My brother-in-law had been here for 23 years. Then they put us into the lock-up.
“The cell was 2.5 x 3 metres. We had standing room only. The numbers inside the cell varied. One night there were 14 people there. The toilet for all bodily needs was a small enclosure, separated from the cell by a low wall. When someone stood up in the toilet, his upper body would be seen from outside. The smell of urine and excreta pervaded the cell. The police did not assault us. That may be because our party immediately intervened. The rice provided for detainees stunk and was repulsive. We depended on what was brought from home. My wife and in-laws visited us daily.
“Intelligence branch officers questioned us on three occasions. I told them that I was a member of the SEP. After seven days the police produced us before a magistrate in his chambers. They did not present us in open court. The police said they wanted us released because they had failed to find any evidence against us. This meant the fact that we were Tamils had been sufficient reason for our arrest.”
Sri Lanka’s emergency laws allow for protracted detention without trial but the police are legally required to obtain a detention order and explain and provide a copy to the detainee. “All the time we were held, none of the police showed us a detention order for our arrest,” Kamalthasan said. “We were only shown a document after being taken to the court after seven days. The police did not explain it to us, nor did the court. It had the heading ‘defense ministry’ on the top. The police had been telling us that we were kept for a long time because the party had created trouble over us. We did not believe that.”
Kamalthasan’s brother-in-law Ilancheliyan added: “Although the police told us that they would not release us because of the intervention by Kamal’s political party, I never believed what they said. I have learnt about the party from Kamal. I believed that the party would work to release us. Many people try to extract protection money from victims such as us. However, the SEP has not done so. I understand they conduct their fight for principles.”
Kamalthasan continued: “The other two youth who were arrested with us were also released. I think it was because the SEP had intervened to release us. From the time of the arrest I was confident that the SEP would fight for our release. I had experienced previously how the party fought against the repression of our comrades and others by the police and military, as well as repression by the LTTE. We knew that there would be an international campaign for our release. The party would take the fight for our freedom to the working class.
“The working class is the sole revolutionary class in modern society. If given a correct orientation, the working class has the force to free us. This can be done only by fighting for the international unity of the working class against all ethnic, communal and national divisions, be it Tamil or Sinhala or anything else.
“Lenin led the October revolution based on internationalism. Stalin turned to nationalism. That led to the undermining of the gains of the revolution and ultimately the dismantling of the Soviet Union itself. Trotsky took up the struggle to preserve the revolutionary international heritage against the betrayal of the Third International under Stalin. Today, our party carries on this struggle internationally.”
A life under war
Kamalthasan said he had decided to join the SEP after experiencing its struggle against the arrest of four party members in the Wanni by the LTTE in 1998. In the end the SEP’s international campaign forced the LTTE to free them. He had been in the Wanni at the time. “I was born in August 1978. My whole life has been spent under conditions of war. My father [now living with Kamalthasan in Negombo] worked at the Port Commission in Trincomalee.”
At this point, Kamalthasan’s father joined the discussion: “Yes, I have worked in Colombo, Galle and Trincomalee. I have worked in all the major ports in Lanka. I was a member of the harbour workers union affiliated to the Lanka Sama Samaja Party [LSSP]. We fought many important workers’ struggles to defend democratic rights and living standards. At that time the LSSP stood for parity of status for both Sinhala and Tamil languages. But they gave up in 1964 when LSSP leader N.M. Perera became finance minister in the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government.”
Kamalthasan continued: “When the anti-Tamil pogrom broke out in July 1983, our family left Trincomalee for Karainagar in Jaffna, but there was trouble on the way and we turned back to Kilinochchi. After a short while we left for Karainagar. My father remained in Trincomalee until he retired from his job. Finding it impossible to live in Karainagar we went back to Kilinochchi. As we could not stay there long, we shifted to Vadukoddai [also in Jaffna]. We were back in Karainagar in 1987 when the Indian Army occupied the area.
“In fact we had to move so often--Vadukoddai, Kilinochchi and Poonahari, etc--that we did not have proper housing, schooling or decent employment possibilities. Bursting shells, gunfire and the blasting of dirty bombs dropped from low-flying war planes were part of the background music of our youth. Many people I knew or who were related to me were killed or maimed. Many fled to India by boat. Some managed to get to Europe or other countries.
“I had to change schools many times. I attended seven schools, including Maraignana Sambandar Maha Vidyalaya in Karainagar, Konalingam Maha Vidyalaya in Trincomalee, Saiva Prakasa Vidyalaya in Moolai, Vadukodai, American Mission Tamil Mixed School in Pilawattai, Thirunavakarasu Maha Vidyalaya in Wadukodai, and Maha Vidyalaya in Kilinochchi. But none of the schools could provide a proper education. Everything was being destroyed by the ongoing war.
“I left Jaffna because it was impossible to make a living there. Jobs are hard to come by. Prices are extremely high compared to Colombo and the south. One cannot even get sufficient income to meet one’s daily needs. There is no opportunity to fish due to restrictions imposed by the military in Jaffna. Military rule in the Northern Province is very oppressive. Abductions and killings are a daily occurrence.”
Kamalthasan explained that SEP member Nadarajah Wimaleswaran and his friend Sivanathan Mathivathanan had disappeared in March last year while riding a motor bicycle along a causeway connecting Pungudithivu and Kayts islands off the northern Jaffna peninsula. “The military can ‘disappear’ anybody and go scot-free. That is the kind of ‘freedom’ the people of Jaffna are enjoying,” Kamalthasan said.
“In 2005 my family decided to help me to get to Colombo and go to the Middle East for a job. It has now been two years and nine months since I left Jaffna. It is very difficult to contact my relatives in Jaffna. Although they have mobile phones, the coverage is not available all the time. They don’t want me to go there because of the difficult situation. Prices in Jaffna are 2 to 3 times higher than here. So I decided to stay here [in Negombo] and find work after returning from the Middle East.
“In the south and around Colombo, getting a job is a problem for everybody. However, it is definitely worse for Tamils. In order to apply for a job one has to get a letter from the Village Officer (VO) of the area. Even if one can prove one’s residence, one has to gratify the VO to get the letter. I got a job at a boat building yard. But the yard owner was told by the police not to allow me to attend to the boats of Tamil clients. I was allowed to work on Sinhalese-owned boats only. The police subsequently closed all the boat yards in the area. Dozens of Sinhala workers also lost their jobs. It showed how the military-police control is a threat to not only Tamil workers but also Sinhala workers.”
Kamalthasan explained that the failure of the “peace process” between Colombo and the LTTE, initiated under the previous United National Party (UNP) government in 2002, and the return to war was causing people to look for a political alternative. During the 2005 presidential campaign a significant layer began to turn toward the SEP.
“My father and all the members of my family came to the presidential election meeting of the SEP to be held in Jaffna in 2005, which Comrade Nanda Wickremasinghe was to address. Sixty people from all over the northern province including the Wanni—men, women and children--attended the meeting in difficult conditions. An LTTE poster pasted at the door of the hall threatened to attack us if we proceeded with the meeting. We had to stop the meeting after a short speech by one of our Jaffna comrades.
“That ‘peace process’ was not for the working people. It was an attempt at a power-sharing arrangement between the LTTE and Colombo government. That ‘peace process’ was not to meet the aspirations of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim working people. The ‘international community’ sponsored it, hoping it would create better conditions for the profits of transnational corporations. Lots of people thought peace could come through this process.
“The LTTE’s politics fail to defend or gain democratic rights for Tamil-speaking people. The SEP has always said that the democratic rights of the Tamil people can be secured only by establishing a workers’ and peasants’ government, ending the military-police machine. We have to fight to defend the rights of both Tamil and Sinhalese working people. This is not confined to Sri Lanka but can be won only by the international unity of the working class. The letters sent to the WSWS to support us show the power of this international unity.”