1 March, 2024


Black July: Justice Of Peace Gonawela Sunil And The Killings In Prison

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 27

If the prison murders were planned as we have argued they were, there would have been a need to identify and take into confidence a group of strategically placed prisoners, who would charge the rest with emotion and lead them forward when the signal was given. Rogers Jayasekere with the help of jail guards close to him could have identified prisoners. But RJ was not conspicuous for his power and influence. He was essentially a behind-the-scenes man. In the context of a plan, he was not the best person to give willing prisoners assurance of impunity and perhaps promises of reward. Leo de Silva was after all a prison superintendent with a reputation for toughness and integrity.

This brings us to Gonawela Sunil who was Kelaniya-based and was about the most powerful thug of his time and enjoyed UNP patronage at the highest level. His name has been from the beginning associated with the prison attacks. But we have been unable to trace any evidence of his direct involvement. Yet if the operation in Welikade emerged from UNP circles in Kelaniya as seems evident, Gonawela Sunil

would have been drawn into the discussion for good reasons as we shall see.

Gonawela Sunil was sentenced to about 10 years in prison for rape – as we learn the contract rape of a high society woman around or just after the time of her marriage. Such persons with power and money, as is well-known, enjoy considerable privileges and cannot help flaunting their influence. Some of them have been known to bribe prison staff to take them out secretively in the night for a licentious binge and bring them back. With their political patronage, they begin to wield power over prison staff as well as prisoners.

An extra-ordinary circumstance turned Gonawela Sunil into a new kind of celebrity – the master of ceremonies as it were, in the celebration to mark the golden jubilee of universal adult franchise for the people of this Island, which fell on 7th July 1981. President Jayewardene announced an amnesty for prisoners who satisfied the conditions stipulated. These were, they should have been convicted for the first time and with less than 10 more years to serve, and for offences not including murder, treason, unlawful assembly, bank robbery, highway robbery, default of income tax payment, bribery etc. A singular omission in the offences listed was rape. It thus became only too obvious to all concerned, that the amnesty was tailor-made to fit Gonawela Sunil and was quickly dubbed ‘Sunil Samawa’ (‘Sunil’s Amnesty’).

Sunil came out of Welikade prison, a proud demonstration of what the country had achieved in fifty years of universal adult franchise. It followed the burning by the Police of the Jaffna Public Library a month earlier. In the eyes of the prisoners and even junior prison staff therefore, Gonawela Sunil’s stature towered above as a very powerful figure, almost a minister, who could get the Government to do wonders. What’s more, he was later made an All-Island Justice of Peace! In planning the prison killings and setting the stage for it, his links and the fact that he was well-known to Rogers Jayasekere, give his presence in the picture a certain inevitability.

Like the Air Force helicopter remaining stationary above the prison during the massacre of 25th July, another peripheral occurrence saying nothing concrete, is also of some interest. During the time of anarchy, which prevailed during the massacre, there was an attempt to attack the prisoners in the Tamil Ward for normal Tamil prisoners. Malu Nihal, another famous gangster and a rival of Gonawela Sunil’s, got into the Tamil Ward and fought off the attackers. We now move onto a figure who definitely featured in the massacre of 27th July.

To be continued..

Part one – Sri Lanka’s Black July: Borella, 24th Evening

Part two – Sri Lanka’s Black July: What Really Happened At Kanatte?

Part three – Black July: ‘Api Suddha Kara’ – JR’s Failure To Declare Curfew

Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up

Part five –  30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot

Part six  – Black July: The Testimony Of Lionel Bopage, Then General Secretary Of The JVP

Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama

Part eight – What Was Behind Tiger Friday – 29th July? -The Significance Of The Pettah

Part nine – Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983

Part ten –  Sri Lanka’s Black July: A Family’s Tragedy In Colombo

Part eleven –  Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Question Of Numbers

Part twelve –  Welikade Prison Massacres: The First Massacre: 25th July 1983

Part thirteen –  Welikade Prison Massacres: Testimonies Given At The Magistrate’s Inquest

Part fourteen –  Circumstances Leading To The Magistrate’s Inquest

Part fifteen – Welikade Prison: The Second Massacre: 27th July 1983

Part sixteen – Welikade Prison Massacres: Chief Jailor Observed Army Commandos Coming In

Part seventeen – Welikade Prison Massacres: Postscript

Part eighteen – July 1983: Planned By The State Or Spontaneous Mob Action?

Part nineteen – July 1983: Ranil Wickremasinghe Followed Cyril Mathew

Part twenty – Events Of 24th July – The Eve Of The Holocaust: Who Wanted A Military Funeral?

Part twenty one –  Events Of 24th July: What Were The Army’s Orders?

Part twenty two – Black July: Further Evidence Of Advance Planning

Part twenty three – Black July: The JSS Goon Squad Regime

Part twenty four – Institutional Implications Of The JSS And Black July

Part twenty five – Black July: Ranil Wickremesinghe, Gonalwela Sunil And The Kelaniya University

Part twenty six – Black July: Army Hathurusinghe Prevented Police From Assisting Prison Victims Under Attack

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 1

    interesting interesting so malu nihal was trying to save the prisoners who were being sacrificed

    many thanks to CT for publishing this for posterity and im eagerly awaitng the next chapter

  • 0

    I didn’t know the Malu NIhal contribution towards saving the Tamil Prisoners. Thanks.

    Given what we know, why did the Tamils want to vote or Ranil ? The lesser devil ?

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.