An estimated 3,000 people turned up outside Sirikotha, headquarters of the United National Party (UNP), to listen to the results of an election to elect the leadership on Monday. It was the first such election after the party's constitution was amended earlier this year, to elect -- rather than select -- the party's hierarchy.
Most of those who turned up or were transported by bus to the location at Pitakotte were supporters of Co Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya who was contesting the longtime incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe. They had the backing of some party members who were disgruntled and disillusioned with Mr. Wickremesinghe and what they call are his autocratic ways, and see no future for the party under his command.
That group is led by Sajith Premadasa, son of one-time President of the country and leader of the UNP, Ranasinghe Premadasa.
They had come to the same place once before and forced their way in, demanding a change in the leadership, but this time they stayed out in anticipation of an electoral victory at the party's 96-member Electoral College comprising members of the Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group.
|Mob in action from outside Sirikotha
|Crowd surging round Hema Premadasa in her vehicle. pic by Romesh Danushka
|Riot police regain control of the situation. Pic Mangala Weerasekera
Mr. Jayasuriya threw the gauntlet on behalf of his younger promoters, who were themselves reluctant to mount a direct challenge. The party's General Secretary Tissa Attanayake acted has the returning officer for the vote on the party leader, deputy leader and national organiser.
At regular intervals those standing outside the party headquarters were chanting slogans in praise of Jayasuriya and Premadasa who was contesting for the Deputy Leader's position against Ravi Karunanayake. There were also crowds backing the versatile young parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekara, who was contesting for the post of National Organiser against Eastern provincial council member and multimillionaire entrepreneur Daya Gamage.
"Karu Aawoth Payayi Hiru, Anduwata Pennai Tharu' (The sun will shine if Karu comes, while the government will see stars) was one of the popular slogans repeated often.
Opposite the party headquarters from the roof top of a shop a large banner of about 20 X 15 ft with the face of Jayasuriya unfolded amidst applause of the crowd. A short distance away, fire-crackers were lit as more crowds turned up.
Inside the headquarters, the voting was over by 2.00 p.m., but the announcement of the results was taking unusually long. Supporters of Jayasuriya-Premadasa group were making inquires from Lal Perera who had been one of those coordinating the activities outside the headquarters. Some of the Working Committee members turned up on the balcony - some were welcomed with applause, others jeered. Among those jeered was Mr. Gamage, who had hit the headlines recently over the Government's decision to takeover his Sevanagala sugar factory.
The results first started emerging via SMS. It was not good news for the thousands assembled. Mr. Wickremesinghe had trounced Mr. Jayasuriya by 68 votes to a mere 26. Mr. Gamage (56 votes) had a comfortable win over Mr. Jayasekera (36), a margin of 20 votes. The only saving grace was the victory of Mr. Premadasa (50 votes) over Mr. Karunanayake (42), a margin of just 8 votes. The enthusiasm outside among the Jayasuriya-Premadasa supporters soon exploded into anger and violence.
Some tried to break into Sirikotha. Two iron gates, the iron railings and the handful of policemen stood between them and the party headquarters.
But, that was not for long as the crowd picked up rocks and bricks from the roadside and threw them at vehicles parked outside Sirikotha. The vehicle of Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Attanayake were targeted. But a Police officer helped to remove the vehicle of Mr. Premadasa with the help of Premadasa supporters.
As the crowds turned even more violent they pulled down the iron railings outside Sirikotha and stormed the premises, but were prevented from gaining access into Sirikotha where the leader and other members were still trapped in.
Police reinforcement arrived to push the now unruly mob back on to the road. A few slipped through the police cordon and hurled both stones and abuse. Some stones hit a few Working Committee members. One of the agitators removed the party symbol - the elephant, from the main board while others pulled off the letters of the party name embossed onto a granite wall at the entrance.
Yet others pulled down the party flag and even the National flag and hoisted white handkerchiefs on the flag posts.
Police made no clear attempt to keep the crowds away, despite the risk of some among the mob gaining access to the building where the Working Committee members were still remaining. As the mayhem continued, old tyres were brought and set on fire outside the premises.
Police riot squads then moved in nearly two hours after the pandemonium began. Both, Mr. Jayasuriya and Mr. Premadasa turned up outside Sirikotha and appealed for calm --the calm after the storm. But it was eventually the rains which helped to disperse the crowds.
At the end of the day, these UNP supporters of Mr. Jayasuriya and Mr. Premadasa had attacked their own headquarters. The damage to the headquarters is still being estimated by a private company. dditionally, the damage caused to the opposition leader's official vehicle, which was reportedly the one given to him from the Presidential Security Division pool of vehicles, was estimated at Rs. 5,000,000.
P.B. Medagedara, Administrative Director of Sirikotha, later lodged a complaint with the Mirihana Police.
Police acting on the complaint arrested 17 of those alleged to have taken part in the mini-riot opposite Sirikotha and charged them in the closest Magistrate's Court for unlawful assembly, entering premises unlawfully and damaging public property including the vehicle of the Opposition Leader.
Southern Provincial council member Maithri Gunaratne, Western Provincial council member Shiral Lakthilaka, Horana UNP organizer Subash Ravi Jayawardena, all lawyers, were among the 16 arrested and produced before the Magistrate on Tuesday.
Police objected to bail on the grounds that they could be involved in creating public unrest. All 16 were remanded till January 2.
On Thursday, however, all 16 of them were released by the Gangodawila Magistrate and Additional District Judge H.M.R Anura Kumara. He held that there was not enough evidence to keep the 17 UNPers in remand custody and dismissed the charge that state property had been damaged on the basis that the Leader of the Opposition was not attending to an official matter, but a party matter at the time his vehicle was damaged.
A day after the incident, President Mahinda Rajapaksa met Editors of national newspapers and made the comment that "it was an unfortunate incident which should not have happened".
He noted that since the party had officially elected a leader the UNPers should now proceed to work towards building up a strong opposition.
"Do not have personal battles with the leader if you are aspiring to be a leader", was the President's advice.
Mr Wickremesinghe addressed the media on Tuesday and vowed to take strong disciplinary action against those responsible for the attack on Sirikotha.
He handed over one of the stones which had hit his vehicle to a cameraman covering the news conference on behalf of a private television station, asking him to hand it over to his chairman, who, he alleged, was one of the conspirators behind the attack and creating dissension within the UNP.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Wickremesinghe urged the government to hold an independent inquiry into the attack on the UNP headquarters.
Speaking in Parliament he said he had lodged a complaint with the police regarding the attack and asked the government to inquire into it. "There is a private media institution that instigated these incidents. This too must be probed," he said. Mr. Wickremesinghe apologized to UNP supporters for the incidents as well.
"I want to apologize to the country and the people for not being able to safeguard Sirikotha, he said. He is now due to write to the Speaker of Parliament asking him for clarification on what is 'state property', in particular in relation to the damage caused to his vehicle.
The significance of having the 'damage to state property' included in the charge sheet against the 17 accused for unlawful assembly, is that the Magistrate will have to have special circumstances to grant bail to the accused.