By Manny Thain, Tamil Solidarity campaign organisation
The outpouring of anger at Brigadier Priyankara Fernando’s threatening gesture to peaceful protesters on Sunday 4 February has won an important victory – at least for now. The Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs has instructed the High Commission in London to suspend Brigadier Fernando in his role as Minister Counsellor.
The incident – when High Commission officials turned out to mock and insult the protesters and the brigadier drew his hand menacingly across his neck in a cutthroat gesture – was filmed by an activist at the protest. Tamil Solidarity helped to publicise it on social media and the scenes soon went viral. For example, leading Tamil Nadu news media News 7 had over 100,000 views and 4,000 shares of the footage – on the day of the protest alone!
The protest itself, timed to coincide with Sri Lankan Independence Day, had been a great success.
Nadesan, Tamil Solidarity joint national secretary, explained: “We called this protest to keep the pressure up. To keep the oppression in Sri Lanka in the news. We know that Independence Day is used by the government of Sri Lanka as a show to the world that everything is OK. We wanted to challenge that.
“When we called the protest we contacted members and supporters of other diaspora groups – it’s what we always do. And, on the day, several hundred mainly young Tamils took part. It was great!
“But, although our aim was to raise awareness of the situation in Sri Lanka, we didn’t expect a military officer to come out so aggressively, provoking crowds by pointing to his military badges and then making that throat cutting sign. It was shocking!”
The film footage shared on social media created a storm of protest. But Tamil Solidarity members also registered an official complaint with the police and launched an intensive campaign with an online petition. The petition was signed by over 1,000 people in just one day. The British Foreign Office was bombarded with constant emails.
Tamil Solidarity campaigners also sent out letters asking for solidarity, including to Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, long-time supporters of the rights of Tamil-speaking people. Through help from other activists two other Labour MPs wrote to the Foreign Office.
However, we need to be aware that this victory is far from complete. As the notice of Brigadier Fernando’s suspension makes clear (see below for the full statement), it is in effect while “authorities in Sri Lanka including the Sri Lankan Army… initiate inquiries on the incident…”
We know only too well the kind of inquiries conducted by the government of Sri Lanka and its security forces. But what the suspension shows is that mass pressure can get results. That pressure must be maintained. The campaign continues. Contact us to get involved.
Campaigner Isai Priya, who is also involved with the Refugee Rights Campaign, said: “Tamil Solidarity and the RRC is clear: we are determined to continue this campaign. We are not satisfied with a suspension. We demand that the British government and Home Office recognise what has happened here and what it means. They continue to deport Tamil activists to Sri Lanka. This puts their lives at certain risk and this army brigadier’s behaviour shows what those activists will face. As soon as these young people raised their voices they face intimidation and threats. We have made this point so many times but now we demand that the Home Office immediately takes this evidence into serious consideration and reviews its policy and desists from the deportations.”
Alleged incident involving the Minister Counsellor (Defence) attached to the Sri Lanka High Commission in London
Authorities in Sri Lanka have taken serious note of videos being circulated on social and web-based media of an alleged incident involving the Minister Counsellor (Defence) attached to the Sri Lanka High Commission in London behaving in an offensive manner.
In this connection, instructions have been sent to Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in London today, 6 February 2018, to suspend the Minister Counsellor (Defence) from work, with immediate effect. Authorities in Sri Lanka including the Sri Lanka Army will initiate inquiries on the incident immediately.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Colombo, 6 February 2018