Fishermen’s ire, police fire and a widow’s tears

By Chris Kamalendran

The hopes of Antony Fernando Warnakulasuriya (35) and his wife Niluka Sudharshani (30) from Chilaw, to see that their two children have a better life than they had were dashed on Wednesday morning when Antony was hit by a bullet during a fishermen’s protest.

The last journey of a fisherman felled by a bullet.
Pic by Indika Handuwala

It was reportedly fired by a Special Task Force (STF) member who was deployed. Niluka who had sought employment in Abu Dhabi just a month back returned to the country on Friday. “My husband called me a day before the incident and told me of the intended strike by fishermen. He told me that some families would be providing home cooked meals to those who would be protesting and that he missed me. That was the last I heard from him,” a tearful wife told the Sunday Times.

Fishermen from Egodakanda, Wella Veediya, Antony’s hometown had planned to join a major protest organized by fishermen in Chilaw on Wednesday against the fuel price hike. They had also kept away from fishing for two days before that.

“I heard that the people were trying to march to the town and that the Police and the STF had been deployed at the beach to prevent them from doing so,” Parish Priest St. Sebastian’s Church Rev. Fr. Claude Fernando Warnakulasuriya, told the Sunday Times.

“The fishermen were unarmed. They were only holding placards at the start. I advised them not to march to the town. The Police and the STF too prevented them. I went ahead of the crowd and shouted at the police and STF not to harm the people,” he said.

The Police initially fired tear gas to prevent the crowd from advancing, the Sunday Times learns.
“When the crowd continued to advance the STF pointed their weapons at the fishermen I shouted not to shoot. Suddenly I heard a gun shot and saw a badly injured fisherman among a couple of others injured,” he said.

Rev. Warnakulasuriya said when they tried to take the injured to hospital they could not use the main road as there was heavy presence of police and STF. They eventually took the injured in boats via the lagoon. He said it was after the shooting that the crowd got agitated.

Some of the fishermen armed with clubs, knives and stones tried to advance towards the town. At least two police bikes were set on fire and a judge’s quarters was attacked, he said. Rev. Fr. Warnakulasuriya was soon joined by other Catholic priests to curb the violence. Many of the priests stood between the advancing villagers and the police and the STF who were soon backed up by the Army.

Bleak future: The two children. Pic by Augustine Fernando
Hopes dashed: A tearful wife arriving at the airport. Pic by Deepa Adikari

Heeding the plea of the priests the crowds withdrew later in the evening and a dusk to dawn police curfew was declared. The army was deployed in the town overnight. On Thursday a special police team arrived from Kurunegala to carry out investigations. In a bid to keep the crowds away the police had reportedly strewn bits of broken bottles on the beach. The priests had once again intervened to defuse the tension.

By afternoon fishermen from the adjoining villages arrived in town and were seen putting up black and white flags to mark their protest against the shooting as well as mourn the death of the fisherman.

On Friday Minister Milroy Fernando, Deputy Minister Neomal Perera, MP Victor Anthony Perera and provincial ministers – all representatives of the Puttalam disitrict paid their last respects to the fisherman.

The widow Niluka told the Sunday Times that during the short time she was away in Abu Dhabi her husband wanted her to return as the children were ill. “I pawned my jewellery and went for employment to educate our children and our hopes have been dashed,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Police handed over a cheque of Rs 500,000 as compensation to the family.
The funeral of Antony Fernando Warnakulasuriya took place last afternoon.

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