The so-called ‘white van’ culture dates back to the late 1980s, when the J. R. Jayewardene government, troubled by southern terrorism, unleashed brutal force disproportionate to the threat and plunged the country into a bloodbath. It flourished under the Premadasa regime, which brought the JVP’s reign of terror to an end. Pro-ruling party death squads, at that time, used nondescript white vans which were so ubiquitous that they did not attract anyone’s attention, to abduct JVP suspects, who were taken to torture chambers, where they were done to death. ‘White vans’ became synonymous with the Rajapaksa government which ran them more efficiently than the ailing state-owned bus service! Those who thought the much-dreaded ‘white vans’ would go out of circulation following the advent of the yahapalana rule were mistaken.
An attempt by a ‘white van’ squad to abduct a protesting student leader who is at the forefront of a campaign against private medical education came a cropper last week due to stiff resistance offered by his fellow protesters. The white van gang beat a hasty retreat. Police Spokesman SP Ruwan Gunasekera, subsequently, claimed the responsibility for the incident; he said police had deployed plainclothesmen to arrest the student leader concerned and the van belonged to the Colombo Crime Division. Had the abduction gone as planned without a hitch police would have claimed no knowledge of it!
The Police Spokesman did not sound convincing at all. Police use uniformed personnel to beat up students in full view of the media and, therefore, there was no reason for them to deploy plainclothesmen to arrest the student leader concerned; they could even have sent the STF, which they unflinchingly deploy to crush undergrad protests if they had thought ordinary policemen were not equal to the task. Instead, a group was sent in a white van to instill fear in the protesting students.
The Police Spokesman has failed to convince even some government ministers, who have seen red. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera lost no time in tearing into the police over the ‘white van’ incident and calling upon the IGP to order a probe. State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene, also, told the media on Sunday that he thought police should have deployed uniformed officers with a warrant.
It has now become too embarrassing for the JVP to defend the yahapalana government. JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti has gone on record as saying that the Rajapaksa government used white vans at night and the incumbent administration is now using them in broad daylight. The Rathu Sahodarayas cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for helping form the present government.
In a dramatic turn of events replete with irony, the Joint Opposition (JO) grandees have taken moral high ground as regards abductions and the suppression of people’s fundamental rights. They pretend that they ran the country very democratically with everyone’s rights respected. Some of them have even condemned the yahapalana government and called for an end to the use of ‘white vans’ to suppress political dissent. If the present regime had swallowed its pride and consulted the JO leaders on how to use ‘white vans’ effectively, it would have been able to carry out a perfect abduction last week! Not that the incumbent government is without abduction experts within its ranks but they have been out of action for so long that they need refresher courses.
Meanwhile, it is reported that police are planning to arrest all those who thwarted last week’s abduction. The yahapalana big guns and their lackeys in khakis must be descendants of the legendary bovine king, Kekille, who always hanged the accuser and let the accused off the hook!