By Kapila Bandara and Tharushi Weerasinghe
The multimillion-rupee racing bike and SUV rally that caused public outrage this week understood at least 600 fuel-guzzling vehicles speeding in procession with police escort, by admission of its organiser, Spin Riders’ Club Founder Sajina Sithmal.
Mr Sithmal denied any ruling party patronage for the event but grudgingly acknowledged that members with political ties may have joined the convoy. But public fury brought a premature end to the fun.
Amongst the vehicles seen on widely-circulated video clips were two Hummers, one in champagne gold and the other in white. The latter towed a boat an outboard motor. Other SUVs brand included Defender with flashing lights, pick-up trucks, Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Rubicon, Land Rover Discovery, Ford Ranger, Pajero, and Toyota Land Cruiser.
The parade is held every year by Spin Riders’ Club. This year it was to be in two phases between 17-19 March, from Mirigama to Kalpitiya and onwards to Anuradhapura. Mr Sithmal later apologized for the rally which drew outrage on the streets and amongst Sri Lankans at home and abroad.
“There is no political connection with this,” Mr Sithmal said. “But sometimes people with political connections may be with us. Still, there is no political party connection with our main objective.”
A Spokesman for Sport Minister Namal Rajapaksa tweeted that “no assistance was given”.
Unregistered vehicles were part of the parade. The Club claimed these people had joined in during the journey and were not their members. This could not be independently verified and contradicted with Mr Sithmal’s assertion to the Sunday Times that, “We always get a police convoy of about two police bikes in order to make sure those without approval don’t join in.”
Part II of the parade was halted by police ostensibly for violating rules under which permission was granted. The cancellation followed a public outcry, including on social media. wPolice said in an unusually long two-page statement on Friday that action will be taken with regards to all the rules blurred. Footage showed riders in multiple SUVs dangerously riding on open windows; and a two-man police escort with blaring sirens led the rally. In a Range Rover directly behind them, a man hung illegally out the back window.
Riders and drivers traveled at high speed, hogging the width of the two-lane rural roads. Some even waved aside traffic, emulating the much-derided escorts that clear the way for politicians. Several SUVs had red and blue flashing lights. They are illegal on private vehicles. Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police Ajith Rohana said in January 2019 that only ambulances, police, fire trucks and rescue vehicles can use them.
Planning for the rally started in January when there was “no fuel crisis”, Mr Sithmal said: “About Rs 1.5 million had been paid for hotel bookings. For that reason, we could not abandon the rally.” Social service activities are usually tied in with the annual tours–this year, it was the donation of Rs 1.2mn to Apeksha Hospital.
“In addition, we hope to give school books worth about Rs 500,000 to a Kalpitiya school,” he said.
Area residents were infuriated at the insensitivity of the Club to the suffering of the public. “People are queuing up overnight to get some fuel so they can water their crops,” castigated Ven. Kalpitiya Sashanarakshaka Balamandala Lekadikari Thera. “But these ‘connected’ people are riding in the hundreds for fun.” He was one of the key backers of the protest that stopped the parade.
Riders and drivers had left their accommodation in the dead of the night on Thursday when it was learned the police had canceled the second leg from Kalpitiya to Anuradhapura, hotel owners in the area said.
Meanwhile, Mr Sithmal denied that a fuel bowser was part of the parade–while they had considered the option, they had been unable to get it organised. “We only brought extra petrol in cans that we had collected and paid for,” he said. Approval was obtained through a process they followed every year.
(Additional reporting by Hiran Priyankara in Puttalam)
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