A week ago, he was virtually a political non-entity, a man who was one of many in a long list of ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) politicians who held sway in their regional strongholds. A few minutes of foolish bravado have now changed the life of Eraj Ravindra Fernando.
The hitherto little known Mayor of Hambantota leapt into the spotlight this week after brandishing a pistol and intimidating a group of opposition United National Party (UNP) parliamentarians while they were on a visit to the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport at Mattala.
The incident has earned him almost universal condemnation. Worse still for the government, it has refocused attention on an issue that the UPFA wants relegated to the backburner: the alleged lack of law and order in the country and the growing culture of impunity among ruling party politicians.
"This particular incident has the potential to balloon out of proportion as it occurred in Hambantota, considered the home base of President Mahinda Rajapaksa."
It all began when UNP parliamentarians Eran Wickramaratne, Ajith Manapperuma, Ajith Perera, Nalin Bandara Jayamaha and R. Yogarajan undertook an ‘inspection’ of the airport at Mattala amid allegations that it was a ‘white elephant’ costing millions of rupees of public funds and earning little revenue.
This would have passed as one more protest campaign the UNP indulges in from time to time -- only to be forgotten by the masses in a few days -- had it not been for Fernando’s dramatic intervention. Now the incident has spiralled out of proportion, compelling the government to go for ‘damage control’.
Following a tense situation at the airport where a mob had gathered and were seen manhandling the visiting Members of Parliament, the ‘inspection’ had to be called off and the legislators had to be escorted away to ensure their safety.
Thereafter, reports emerged in the media that Fernando had threatened the MPs with a pistol. It turned out that his defence was worse than his offence. Initially, he claimed that he carried no pistol. He also said he visited the scene following a request by Hambantota District MP Namal Rajapaksa.
Fernando also offered a rather convoluted explanation of his actions. He said he had arrived at the scene after hearing of reports that the UNP MPs were being intimidated by villagers who were angry as the parliamentarians were critical of the airport project. He wanted to ‘save’ them, he claimed. There were also suggestions being floated in the state-controlled media that the incident was the handiwork of supporters of UNP Hambantota district parliamentarian Sajith Premadasa because the visiting MPs were perceived as loyalists of Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Then Fernando was confronted with a scenario where there was ample video footage and photographs to confirm that he did indeed carry a pistol and was brandishing it too. Faced with this evidence, Fernando then stated that it was only a toy pistol that he had borrowed at the scene!
“I saved the MPs. I was urging the villagers not to attack. I am not a fool to attack MPs. If I wasn’t involved, the MPs could have been attacked and a massive international issue could have been created,” Fernando said by way of explanation. A more damaging denial was to come from parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eldest son issued a categorical statement denying that he had instructed the Hambantota Mayor to get involved in any way.
“I never asked Mr. Fernando to go and look into the situation that arose in Hambantota and I didn’t know anything about it. I was in the middle of a training session with the rugby team in Trincomalee,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.
Condemnation of the incident was swift and came from many quarters. The UNP denied that its MPs had criticised the development projects during their visit to Hambantota and were planning to raise a breach of parliamentary privilege issue with Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa.
Its media spokesman Mangala Samaraweera went a step further and urged Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma to remove President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Commonwealth Chairman because the incident occurred in his home district.
That is certainly a far-fetched proposition, but there is no denying that the incident caused severe embarrassment to the government hierarchy. There were also reports that President Rajapaksa had telephoned Fernando and had reprimanded him strongly.
Meanwhile, Democratic Party leader Sarath Fonseka has gone so far as to say that this incident justified the resolution adopted against Sri Lanka recently at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. He said it was a clear indication that human rights were being denied in the country.
Other organisations have rushed to condemn the incident which could not have come at a worse time for the government which was trying to stall an international inquiry against alleged war crimes and human rights abuses. The fracas earned international headlines and generated negative publicity.
Officially at least, the Police have announced that an inquiry will be conducted into the allegations. However, Fernando is yet to be questioned or formally charged by the Police who have also come in for severe criticism as footage clearly showed them looking the other way when the incident occurred. Significantly the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which Fernando represents in the Hambantota Municipal Council has also maintained a deafening silence. There has been no attempt to conduct a disciplinary inquiry into his actions, suggesting that the matter will slowly but surely be soft-pedalled.
Such a course of action would of course lend more credence to the idea that ruling party politicians of all strata-- even at the village level -- are enforcing a reign of terror against their political opponents and that law enforcement authorities are taking a back seat, because they too are subject to political pressures.
This particular incident has the potential to balloon out of proportion as it occurred in Hambantota, considered the home base of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
It is also a gift for the Eelam lobby which is attempting to portray Sri Lanka as a lawless, failed state. Eraj Ravindra Fernando thus joins a growing list of UPFA politicians who have been associated with thuggery and intimidation such as Mervyn Silva, Duminda Silva and Rishard Bathiudeen. If the consequences experienced by his colleagues are a benchmark, then he has little or no need to worry.