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The Imprisonment of Kumar Gunaratnam

Political Background

Sri Lanka is a middle-sized island with a multinational and multilingual society. The majority population is the Sinhala community, along with whom Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and Malay minorities exist, scattered in the low and high lands. A civil war erupted in the mid-80s as Tamil militant groups started a movement for a separate state for Tamil speaking ethnicities in Sri Lanka. The struggle, which spanned three decades and led to the death of tens of thousands of Tamils living in the North, was crushed in 2009. Yet the reconciliation process is delayed and justice is not yet served.

The tropical island situated at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent has been a strategic concern of geopolitics owing to its location in the center of the Indian Ocean. After the colonial times of Portuguese, Dutch and British domination the local capitalist parties assumed power. At present Lankan economy is based on exports of tea, garments and unskilled domestic maids for Middle East households.

A New Leftist Movement in Sri Lanka

The Leftist movement of Sri Lanka started in 1935 as the Lanka Samasamaja Party. Later on, the Soviet – China split and many other drawbacks of the international socialist movement affected the tendencies and character of the Lankan socialist movement. At present, the Lanka Samasamaja Party, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka as well as Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) who identify themselves as socialists, have chosen parliamentary politics and collaboration with capitalist parties. Few other leftist parties have been struggling to promote revolutionary politics mobilising the oppressed and engaging small pockets of urban proletariats, public workers, landless farmers and estate workers.

The Front Line Socialist Party is a Marxist revolutionary party based on a renegade faction of JVP, the third most popular political party among the middle class Sinhala population of Sri Lanka. In the past, JVP has led two armed insurrections in Sri Lanka using terror tactics, while losing thousands of revolutionary cadres to state repression. The party was resurrected within mainstream politics and has become the most organized leftist movement in the Indian sub-continent during the past decade. In the 2004 general election 39 members of JVP were elected from around the island and they joined a coalition government with the capitalist Freedom Party. However, an internal debate on whether to continue in parliamentary politics or to mobilise oppressed masses in class struggle, commenced among the JVP ranks. Most of the parliamentarians as well as official leaders of JVP were in favour of the class collaborationist parliamentary politics. However, an internal struggle to become an independent leftist movement compelled JVP to leave the coalition government. Although the leave materialised it did not stop some leaders from making plans to return to the coalition in power. Premkumar Gunaratnam, one of the revolutionary cadres who stood for class mobilisation, was highly critical of the coalition attempts. Meanwhile, PM Mahinda Rajapaksha was informed that Gunaratnam stood as the obstacle to the JVP making a coalition government. As a result, unidentified armed groups followed him and several attempts were made to abduct him but were unsuccessful. However, he was deported to Australia by government authorities preventing him from harming their free style anti-democratic control following of a three-decade war. The leaders of the present Lankan government invited the citizens in exile to return and restore normalcy on the island while they re-instate democratic rule by defeating the authoritarian regime of Mahinda Rajapaksha. Comrade Premkumar Gunaratnam returned to the island with hopes of engaging in leftist politics, a ‘crime’ for which he was denied residence on the island in the past. However, the present government did not grant him citizenship.

His apprehension by the
His apprehension by the Kegalle police.

Early Politics

Comrade Kumar Gunaratnam is a citizen of Sri Lanka by descent. He studied in Kegalle at St. Mary’s College and Pinnawala Central College. Subsequently, he was selected to enter into the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Peradeniya, where he commenced his studies.

Since 1982, he has been engaged in active politics: he became an active member of the JVP and, as such, was a senior member of its internal Central Committee and politburo. He was an active member of JVP in 1981 and an internal central committee and politburo member from 1994 until 2011.

During the 1987-1989 JVP insurrection, Comrade Gunaratnam was illegally arrested and detained and his brother was killed by the UNP government as youth uprisings led by JVP were completely suppressed. However, he was able to escape from an illegal detention camp in the year 1990 and continued to engage in politics under JVP thereafter.

In 2004, the JVP formed a coalition government and one year later resigned from government entirely. In 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksha was supported by the Party in the presidential election. Afterwards, an internal party debate to join the Rajapaksha government again ensued. In 2006, the government invited JVP to form a coalition and take ministries, a move Comrade Gunaratnam, a senior member of the party, vehemently objected to. His stance was subsequently adopted by the majority of the party.

Internal Dispute of JVP

As a result of this internal dispute, a few party members joined the government and divulged the fact that Comrade Gunaratnam was the one who opposed the move to support the government.  Credible information appeared, that his life was threatened as long as he remained in Sri Lanka. In these circumstances he was compelled, though reluctantly, to leave Sri Lanka in order to avoid being killed. However, he was advised that information and directions had been given to the emigration authorities at all ports of exit to apprehend him if he attempted to leave the country. Considering the circumstances, he was compelled to leave under a false name to Australia.

Civil displacement in the final stages of the war (2009)
Civil displacement in the final stages of the war (2009)

Once there he wanted to change his name legally in order to get a proper passport and return to Sri Lanka without getting caught in the traps of state repression. Since he could not indefinitely remain in Australia, he applied for and was granted Australian citizenship under the name Noel Mudalige. Nevertheless, he intended to continue his political work in Sri Lanka. Having an unknown identity, he could sometimes return to Sri Lanka and actively work with confidential comrades within the party.

Return and Abduction

In September 2011 he came to Sri Lanka to voice his opinion and to engage in an ideological struggle which arose due to a serious internal crisis of JVP. In April 2012 he was kidnapped and abducted by an unknown group in a white van who tortured him while holding him in custody. The incident proved that his life was indeed threatened. At that stage the Australian embassy in Sri Lanka intervened on his behalf.

As a result,  his abductors handed him over to the relevant police station who in turn handed him over to the emigration authorities who in turn deported him immediately. When the presidential election was declared in 2014, he applied to come back to Sri Lanka once again. When he asked for permission to re-enter Sri Lanka on several occasions, the Controller of Immigration and Emigration informed him that he must show due cause regarding the previous overstay in Sri Lanka. In his letter dated 24.11.2014, comrade Gunaratnam specifically stated that he was a citizen of the country by birth as well as a political activist and that his motive for returning had to do with a desire to engage in leftist politics in Sri Lanka.

Comrade Gunaratnam was granted a visa around the 28th of December 2014 and arrived in Sri Lanka on the 1st of January 2015. The authorities knew that although he came to the island under the name of Noel Mudalige with a tourist visa he was actually engaged in political work. He made no secret of the fact that he was in Sri Lanka and he became engaged in political activity under his own name. He was called to the Department of Immigration on the 28th January 2015 and was charged with abusing the terms of his tourist visa by engaging in political activies. He visited the Department of Immigration and Emigration at their request on both the 28th and 29th of January and made statements which he was unable to get copies of. When he visited the Department of Immigration and Emigration at their request on the 29th of January, his Australian passport was taken away by the officers.

The Immigration and Emigration Controller wanted him to come back to his office again on the 30th of January, 2015 to make another statement. However, he did not present himself as he had already made, according to the law, all the required statements. In the meantime, he had made an application under Section 8 of the Citizenship Act which gives the Minister of Internal Affairs the power to grant citizenship for a citizen by descent who had lost his citizenship status. Furthermore, he had specifically stated that he was ready to renounce Australian Citizenship at any time.

Arrest and Imprisonment

Around the 4th of November, while visiting his mother in Kegalle, he was arrested and imprisoned  for several weeks and on the 18th of November 2015 he was charged by the Magistrate Courts of Kegalle. He remained in custody till the 30th March 2016, the date when the final court decision was delivered. Irrespective of the fact that Comrade Gunaratnam had applied twice for the resumption of his Citizenship under the terms of Section 8 of the Citizenship Act, the government proceeded with the aforementioned criminal case and sentenced him to one year imprisonment with a fine.

Until this day, the Minister has not informed him of the outcome of his application even though thousands of people were granted dual citizenship or citizenship. He returned to the country when the new government invited all those who were forced to leave due to political victimization, threats and harassment to return. Comrade Gunaratnam had been transferred to the Anuradhapura Prison which deviated from normal practice as prisoners who are given a sentence of one year or less usually remained at the same prison which they were detained at on the date of the judgment. Furthermore, according to proper procedure a conviction for overstaying in the country, results in immediate custody but no such steps have been taken yet.

In these circumstances, it is clear that although the present government had come to power promising that it would ensure the democratic rights of the people; this was only applicable for those who are pro-UNP and pro-government. While the government is issuing citizenship certificates overnight for people like Arjun Mahendran who is a close friend of the Prime Minister, Comrade Gunaratnam who was an actual victim of the anti-democratic rule of the previous government, is jailed and his application for citizenship is not even considered.

According to early declarations of Gunaratnam’s layers, he was to complete his prison sentence on the 9th of December 2016. In the meantime, on the 15th of November the prison department officers sought a definite stance of the verdict regarding his overstay. They specifically asked the magistrate court’s opinion whether Kumar Gunaratnam is to be deported or not. Responding to the request, the court refused issuing any declaration. However, it is unusual that the prison department has not considered the 7 day reduction on his prison term which other inmates are usually given. It is strange and it remains unclear whether the officers made a mistake or the authorities had a plan to deport him on the 2nd of January without knowledge of his lawyers or his relations.

President Maithripala Sirisena, and the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe have been informed of the injustices done but they have still not intervened. Ministers of the government announce that in principle Kumar Gunaratnam must be granted citizenship if he requests so. But nothing has been done up to this point, despite the citizenship application and the situation makes us think that they are simply expecting that his deportation would finally go unnoticed in the press.