23 February, 2024


A Flawed Triumph And Dilemmas Of The Elite

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Rajan Hoole

The 1990s: The Culture of Untruth and a Perilous Vacuum Part 1

Purely from the point of power relations, 1990 began as a bright year for the Premadasa Government. The tide had definitely turned in the fight against the JVP, with the key leaders dead. The killing rate was still high in the South and in the North-East, but that did not seem to matter. The Indo-Lanka Accord was undermined and the Indian Peace Keeping Force was set to withdraw. The LTTE and the Government seemed the best of pals and were jointly picking off members of the Tamil opposition. The opposition in the South was in total disarray.

If one did not have a historical perspective of the UNP’s record of repression and regular resort to violence against some section of the civilian population, the JVP would appear to be a demonic menace that suddenly descended on this country. Did not Premadasa and Ranjan Wijeratne bring it under control as only those who had no qualms about ‘fighting fire with fire’ could? Should not the squeamish and vacillating opposition be grateful to them for saving their skin? Was there any role left for them to play? Were they not joining the UNP in droves?

All these factors in favour of Premadasa turned out to be illusions. His own success with the resulting overconfidence was his worst enemy. The UNP’s unprincipled style of crisis management thrived on uncertainties and the more the uncertainties, the greater the prospect of disaster. Being committed to the early departure of the IPKF, he could have taken a principled approach. He could have talked to all the Tamil parties and told them that the minimum on their side must be a commitment to the democratic process. Then he could have discussed with them the terms and rectification of constitutional shortcomings for stability in the North-East, so that the IPKF could leave.

Instead, the UNP’s approach was to give the LTTE weapons and logistical support to attack the IPKF and to capture and kill its opponents, and so multiply hate and distrust. Then when the LTTE played up in June 1990, the UNP Government got hold of the LTTE’s opponents, armed and deployed them against the LTTE. Until the LTTE played up, the UNP Government had turned a blind eye to the LTTE’s humiliation of the Muslims in the East. But when the LTTE turned to war and attacked Muslims as well, it created armed Muslim home guards for use against the Tamils. This game could only go from crisis to crisis.

At first Premadasa’s success against the JVP led to relief. With the danger from the JVP past, several sections of society began feeling uncomfortable about the mass killings of the past few years. The country had come to be known as a cesspool of murder. To be part of it hurt the sensibilities of an ordinarily respectable middle- class person. Like in July 1983, people in general did not like to see themselves as having lent complicity to murder. Then many such people had blamed the Tamils for what they got and reassured themselves by citing instances of Sinhalese saving Tamils and donating blood to Tamil victims. This time too they needed an object on which to hang their guilt.

In the process of shifting the entire blame onto the Government and Premadasa for the killings of the JVP era, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s speech in Parliament on 12th January 1990 was an important milestone. The Government’s insensitivity too made it easy for the others to blame all the misdeeds on the Government. Ranjan Wijeratne stated in Parliament on 25th January 1990, “We have finished the first and the second elevens, now we are tackling the under 14 fellows”. True to his word, even though the back of the JVP was broken, 1160 disappearances were recorded in the Southern Zone for the year 1990, and the Disappearance Commission for this Zone has observed that the victims were generally the very young. Even those who passively went along with earlier killings found it necessary to distance themselves from such excess when publicly aired.

Ranjan Wijeratne who was a close relative of Ceylon’s first prime minister D.S. Senanayake and a member of the UNP from his youth, rose to the peak during his career in the Plantation Raj. This too, no doubt, enhanced his feudal sense of justice – making him a good patron and a bad enemy. He had no problem with the belief that the enemies of the State, old or young, should be killed, and did not care to acquire the sophistication to put it euphemistically. Making a show of clemency, after the worst was over, and improving Sri Lanka’s image did not seem to appeal to him. He was also no doubt encouraged in this approach by the praise he was receiving at that time.

The next event that made members of the elite uncomfortable came on 19th February 1990 with the abduction and murder of the prominent media figure Richard de Zoysa, whose family had been close friends of Lalith Athulathmudali’s. It was initially opined that Premadasa was solely responsible for his murder, owing to the belief that de Zoysa and Laxman Perera, a UNP local councillor in Mt Lavinia, were involved in producing a play satirising Premadasa’s politics. Perera too disappeared about the same time. We now reliably understand that de Zoysa had been tailed for some time on the orders of Ranjan Wijeratne for reasons to do with his suspected political sympathies with the JVP. It is not uncommon for youth who are dissatisfied with the complacency and corruption of their own privileged circles, to be attracted by a cause that is seen to demand idealism, sacrifice and living dangerously.

Although there was much fear, many of de Zoysa’s journalist colleagues felt that they must speak out and did so with varying degrees of courage. Then came the next question: was the killing of de Zoysa intrinsically any different from those of ordinary village youth, who it seems were condemned to die, often randomly, for such elusive ends as ‘national sovereignty’ and the ‘restoration of law and order’? The killings during the JVP insurrection were a big story reminiscent of the killing fields of Cambodia and the world was watching. Organisations to voice the grievances of the disappeared were formed. Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu, Richard de Zoysa’s mother, became a prominent voice in this cause. She moreover had the ability to speak directly to a global audience. The cause of the disappeared began to draw more supporters.

We may mention here the circumstances in which the murder of Richard de Zoysa on 19th February 1990 made legal history. The mother had witnessed the son’s abduction. Some months later while watching the news on state television, she saw a man whom she recognised as the leader of the group who had abducted her son, whose body like Ananda Sunil’s (Sect. 19.5) was thrown into the sea off Moratuwa. This man was none other than Ronnie Gunasinghe, SSP Colombo Central, a long time close associate of President Premadasa’s who was also later used by Ranjan Wijeratne. He was shown on television on 10th May 1990 making a charity donation in connection with Vesak. de Zoysa’s mother communicated this and a police investigation commenced.

Gamini Perera, SSP, CDB, was put in charge. He collected the video recording of the news broadcast, made his inquiries, recorded statements, and we understand that he intended producing these in court which would normally have resulted in a warrant being issued for SSP Gunasinghe. At this point, we understand that under heavy pressure whose source was believed to be Ranjan Wijeratne, Gamini Perera, against his wishes, had to submit the case to the Attorney General, Sunil de Silva, for a decision. About 30th August 1990 (Island 31.8.90), the Attorney General informed the Magistrate’s Court through senior state counsel Anura Maddegoda, that there was insufficient evidence to frame charges.

Mr. Maddegoda explained to the Moratuwa Magistrate’s Court that there are ‘vital contradictions’ in the several statements and affidavits of Dr. (Mrs.) Saravanamuttu. In her fourth statement to the Police, Dr. Saravanamuttu had passed on ‘credible information’ received from anonymous or undisclosed sources. These sources disclosed the abduction and killing as done by a team of police personnel handpicked by SSP Ronnie Gunasinghe, which included IP Ranchagoda, OIC Fort, and IP Devasurendra of Slave Island Police. Mrs. Saravanamuttu later said that she had not seen a person of Devasurendra’s description among the abductors. Maddegoda concluded from this that Mrs. Saravanamuttu’s ‘credible information’ was false on her own admission in respect of Devasurendra. However, the valid inference is that whatever Devasurendra’s role was, Mrs. Saravanamuttu did not recall seeing him in her house.

Mr. Maddegoda further said that Dr. (Mrs.) Saravanamuttu recognised SSP Gunasinghe as the killer upon seeing him on television for 3 seconds following the announcement of his name. This was, he said, three and a half months after her son’s murder and Gunasinghe having been named to her by undisclosed sources. Maddegoda further said that there were discrepancies in her statements on what was precisely worn by the abductors (e.g. one person in police uniform in one statement and two in another). Owing to these contradictions and ‘infirmities’, Maddegoda told the Court, the AG had directed the IGP to conduct further investigations.

The salient feature here, and one that has not ceased to be relevant to this day, is that if the law enforcement agencies really wanted to find the killers, they would have used the information from the mother as the starting point of investigations. But here, whatever police investigation done was effectively suppressed. In turn, the Attorney General’s office was picking contradictions in the statements of the distraught mother on whom the onus of investigation had been placed, and who was trying to recollect and organise her thoughts.

Increasingly, it became the norm for people to distance themselves publicly from the dark doings of the JVP era. Joining the cause of the disappeared became for the Opposition and the Press a means to clearing their consciences, both political and personal, of the incubus. Mrs. Bandaranaike is a case in the point of the dilemma confronting most people. She had no state power then. But at a time of helplessness she had asked Premadasa (according to General Wanasinghe) to take whatever necessary measures to end the JVP rebellion. She knew from her experience in 1971 that this would involve much extra-judicial killing. SLFP members too then (in 1989) got involved. But at the end of it she had grave reservations. Killing for political advantage too had been carried out systematically under the prevailing extra- judicial licence.

To place the dilemma succinctly, having sanctioned the State to go ahead with extra- judicial killings, how honest would one be in disowning guilt for the glaring excesses?

When the rest of the world asked who did this, the ready answer became ‘not us, but them’, pointing at the Government. It lightened consciences laden with guilt to isolate as ‘butchers’ those like Ranjith Peiris (Sect.17.4), who in many ways were no more to blame. Again, the concern for the disappeared came belatedly, and largely because of the victims of anti-JVP terror being Sinhalese. How could after all, editors who had been eloquent in their denunciations of Tamil Tiger atrocities against Sinhalese civilians, be seen to be turning a blind eye to the mass murder of Sinhalese youth by the Government?

Ironically, while concern over the disappeared was growing in the South, the Army and the STF were on a binge massacring Tamils in the East, as though to expiate what they did for the previous three years to youth in the Sinhalese South. Well attested disappearances took place in the East between June and December 1990 totalling well over 4,000, some of the best known single incidents being at Eastern University, Sathurukkondan and Pottuvil. It was hard to get the Press in Colombo to acknowledge even many years later that such things happened to Tamils.

Movements for the disappeared took off in the South from early 1991, but with little mention of events in the North-East. The country was geographically and emotionally divided. From the beginning, the victim families had a problem with politicians of every shade of the opposition backing their cause. Of these parties only the NSSP (New Socialist Party) could lay claim not to have indulged in extra-judicial killings. The SLFP was in a peculiar position. Some prominent SLFPers who helped the JVP in 1988, turned to killing them the following year. In 1991, some of these figures became activists in the cause of victims of extra-judicial killings. Yet pushing a cause requires political experience and organisation. Thus, even though a mixed blessing, the victims who were helpless on their own could not spurn help from politicians whose record was not untarnished. It is no exaggeration to say that the movement for the disappeared played a major role in carrying the People’s Alliance (SLFP, LSSP & CP) to power in 1994.

As a political process, such a movement, although several leading participants were not unblemished, was a benign development. It opened up discussion of subjects hitherto taboo in the South – especially the Tamil question. Circulation figures for the alternative press picked up from a few thousand to dizzying heights by 1993 when they began to look like mainline papers. The rise and fall of the English monthly Counterpoint roughly coincided with the life-span of this openness in the South. Two more events – the Impeachment Crisis and the Udugampola revelations – which, while driving the Premadasa Government further into crisis, contributed to this openness.

In the meantime, the Government was not taking kindly to everyone finding it convenient to brand it a ‘killer regime’. It fired a salvo which appeared as a prominent item in the Sunday Observer of 17th February 1991. The piece was titled, “‘Dr’ of terror parading as a human rights activist – PRRA Targetted Innocent Victims”. It stated:

“A ‘Dr’ who master-minded the People’s Revolutionary Red Army (PRRA) – a private army of hired killers set up as a counter to the JVP – is now working within a left-wing party as a leading human rights activist for the Mothers’ Front. The PRRA was established at the height of the JVP violence and worked closely with the Independent Students Union (ISU). This enabled PRRA to infiltrate campuses.

“Informed sources claim that among the JVP cadres killed by PRRA are, K.A. Saman, undergraduate of Colombo University (killed
on August 17,1989 at Kynsey Road, Borella); P.G.U. Saddhasena, undergraduate of Colombo University (killed on October 5, 1989 at Kegalle); B.K.S.D. Rodrigo, undergraduate of Colombo University (killed
in the latter part of 1989); and M.A. Dayaratne, undergraduate of Colombo University (killed in early 1990). The ‘Dr’was paid Rs.25,000 for each head he brought….” The payment of bounty was the normal

practice at that time as stated so starkly by the senior gazetted police officer (i.e. rank considerably higher than ASP) quoted in the last chapter. Since the PRRA was closely associated with the CSU, one could be quite sure that claims for bounty were made for the victims killed. During that period, Ranjan Wijeratne who was in charge of the Defence Ministry knew a great deal about what each opposition politician did about the JVP threat. Had he not been killed two weeks later, one might have expected him to break his gentlemanly silence and issue further salvoes through the government-controlled media. One need not be surprised that the target of the salvo above shifted from the Left camp into the UNP and became an MP in 1994.

It was just one indication that politicians in general were unreliable partners in the cause of justice for the disappeared. In the meantime, there were other developments bringing trouble to the UNP.

With the JVP insurgency behind and the civil war largely confined to the North-East, the UNP was enjoying a period of untrammelled power. Corruption was visibly rampant. The civil war itself became a gold mine for sections of the Government and the Security Forces. On the one hand, banned items could yet be sent to the North by operators who paid money at the right places. On the other, there were kickbacks from voluminous defence purchases, which became the regular talk in the Press. Vice in Colombo that ran the risk of punishment by the JVP sprang back with a vengeance with government politicians and police officials raking in huge payments. Premadasa let them all go their way in money making and ran a private unit of retired policemen to monitor and collect files on all their questionable activities. Anything bad said about that government was bound to stick.

During Premadasa’s political career several killings were blamed on him but never proven. Premadasa was aware of his reputation and sometimes seemed to encourage it. Upali Wijewardene, a nephew of President Jayewardene and a successful businessman, was thought of as being groomed for a future president. In February 1983 his private jet disappeared after taking off from Kuala Lumpur and is thought to have exploded in the air. Parts of the plane were reported to have been sighted in the South China Sea. The cause was not known, but some believed it was caused by Premadasa’s agents, and others blamed it on business contacts with whom he had differences.

The following testimony of Upali’s cousin Ranjith Wijewardene, Chairman of the Sunday Times, appeared in the 10th anniversary issue of the weekly (8th June‘97). In early 1990 when Vijitha Yapa was Sunday Times editor, a columnist published some cabinet news that Premadasa was angry about. At a function at Gangaramaya Temple, Keleniya, Premadasa told Ranjith W. in a small gathering: “I want to advise you, do not let those who destroyed Upali destroy you.” He then enumerated three instances, where he claimed he had been pilloried in the Island – a newspaper founded by Upali Wijewardene with Yapa as pioneer editor. Premadasa’s words, if correctly reported by R.W., could have been understood in only one way by the speaker and hearer. On being told about it, Yapa resigned as editor. Premadasa may have been pulling R.W.’s leg to get him sack the editor.

To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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