(This article was originally published in Daily FT on 22nd July 2016)

By Ashwin Hemmathagama – Our Lobby Correspondent

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday commended Parliament for acting responsibly and helping to defuse tensions between students who clashed last Saturday during a welcome ceremony held at the University of Jaffna.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

However, the Prime Minister accused one parliamentarian of trying to capitalise on the incident.

“But unfortunately there is one particular member who was eager to take advantage. He could find racism among blacks in Uganda if necessary. However, JVP MP Anura Dissanayake spoke to me immediately after the incident. I spoke with ITAK MP Mavai Senathirajah, Minister of Higher Education and Highways and the Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella, Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development Sagala Ratnayaka and Minister of Prisons Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs D.M. Swaminathan who took action,” he added.

According to Minister Kiriella, separate investigations into the incident were underway. “Both the Kopai Police and university authorities are conducting investigations. Disciplinary action will be taken against those who are behind these clashes. Senior members of the University Grants Commission will be meeting the non-academic and academic staff of the University of Jaffna on Friday to discuss matters in detail,” said the minister.

Chief Opposition Whip, JVP MP Anura Dissanayake, said: “A recent event held to receive new students led to a fight between Sinhala and Tamil students. This is not an ordinary fight we are familiar with but a fight with racism. We see this as a result of the gradual shift within Jaffna towards racism and hatred. We fear that this can be developed and lead to a conflict. Such conflicts make room for different political parties to move forward and spread their hatred and support racists. We still don’t know the actual number of people who died and disappeared during the civil conflict. We should defeat any steps taken to grow racism.”

Leader of the Opposition R. Sampanthan attributed the incident to a simple misunderstanding between the students attending the welcome ceremony. “This is indeed an unfortunate incident. It was apparently caused by some misunderstanding over the arrangements of a welcome event for new students. I think we all should try to avoid such misunderstandings. We are very fortunately that the situation was brought under control rapidly with students and the university authorities extending their fullest cooperation to this objective. I do not think we should exaggerate the situation.

“The university should be reopened. Steps are being taken and some departments are already functioning. Political motivations deliberately dither the process of reconciliation. Such activities are aimed at jeopardising the country’s main goal of reconciliation and unity among all. We must be aware that certain elements in this country are trying to create mischief and those elements cannot be allowed to have a free run,” said MP Sampanthan.

Expressing the concern of the Joint Opposition, MP Dinesh Gunawardena said: “Welcome events have taken place at the University of Jaffna for many years without issue. The event which started on the morning of that particular day went ahead without any issues until around 2.00 p.m. when a minority started some racist activities. Police got involved after some time and the lives of the students were in danger till such time. The University Marshal was also not there. The students had to protect themselves. The Government should act fast and take action to avoid such incidents which could lead to a conflict or ethnic cleansing. We condemn this incident.”