By Rajan Hoole –
1989: The Eclipse of the JVP and the Perplexity of the Left – Part 4
Although the JVP did not realise it, the turning point in its fortunes came when it began to hound and kill its detractors from the Left. It was a tendency it shared with the LTTE in an effort to become the sole spokesman of the people. In turn the hunted who were placed in desperate straits were driven to form alliances, particularly with the State, and whence were attacked with renewed vigour as ‘traitors’. The society then paid a heavy price amidst confusion, mixed feelings and bloody vendettas. The difference is that while in the North-East the State’s legitimacy was almost zero and there were no political parties left that could convincingly hold their own in the face of LTTE hit men, in the South the situation was rather different. Even if one had a low opinion of the UNP, there were several other well- entrenched parties threatened by the JVP, and who by 1989 were desperate to see an end to it.
Sensing the JVP’s hostile attitude to ex- JVPers, several of the latter in 1985 went to Europe as refugees. The killing of ISU leader Daya Pathirana in December 1986 was a sign of things to come. Less known is the story of Vaz Thilekeratne. He, Mahinda Pathirana and Ranjith Peiris (Peera) were dismissed from the Party in 1983. A key member of the Party involved in the dismissal proceedings described them as close to Wijeweera, hard working and committed to the JVP cause. But, he added, that looking back, the Party did not take into account certain human needs that come with age. Some with growing family obligations were not paid to meet these. Peera was also described as jovial. Also having been senior JVPers at a time when the JVP functioned as a democratic party, they were on talking terms with several major political leaders of the day and moreover they knew the JVP inside out.
Vaz survived two attempts on his life at the end of 1986. The murder of Nandana Marasinghe in November 1987 was a further warning. Marasinghe, a much-respected member of the Party, had parted company with the JVP in 1981 to become a critic of Wijeweera’s leadership. He also became a social worker, culture enthusiast and secretary to the Anuradhapura Citizens’ Committee. He made a living to look after his wife and three children by selling sundry items. He was shot dead at the Anuradhapura fair in November 1987 by JVP agents.
Ranjith Peiris (RP) was then very close to Vaz. Vaz according to RP, decided that it was time for them to end the career of Wijeweera, who was prepared to destroy everything and kill his way to power. As for co-operating with the State, apart from other inhibitions, Vaz also thought it unsafe as the security services were infested with JVP sympathisers. He agonised and died of heart failure. Peiris knew the JVP were looking for him. From Gampaha he went to Amparai. The JVP came there, and missing him, killed his host most brutally.
RP thought of Vaz’s reflections, and decided that there was only one course left to him. He went to Colombo and about early 1989, started work with Colonel X of an intelligence unit. RP contacted Mr. Y, a refugee in Europe who shared his concerns. Mr. Y said that he would come in a week and asked RP to contact certain former JVP members, set up an information-gathering network and to make a list of prominent JVPers.
RP’s defence is that they were not killing innocent youth in such large numbers as the regular forces and others were doing. Their objective was to destabilise the JVP and get at the leadership. One of the first things done by Mr. Y who planned out political strategy was to issue a leaflet in Wijeweera’s name. Mr. Y knew Wijeweera and his style intimately. Within two days, from a denial issued by Wijeweera, they confirmed his presence in this country.
Another operative Mr. Z with good connections in the media-intellectual-NGO circles put together a political think tank. They met once or twice, but then worked individually and avoided meeting in a large group. They produced analyses, critical articles about JVP and about the dangers of the whole society becoming militarised. This group worked separately and autonomously of intelligence and military operations. But their productions were channelled into the propaganda work of RP’s unit, which used them in the form of leaflets, literature and radio broadcasts.
Colonel X gave them complete freedom to work on condition that he was kept informed of what they were doing. They operated two radio stations. With a view to confusing the JVP, they operated one in the JVP’s name and the other in the name of a Left Revolutionary Army. The latter was critical both of the JVP and the Government. A particular talent of RP’s was to talk to captured JVP area leaders, turn them against the JVP and release them to become informants. Having known RP well, Wijeweera is said to have become paranoid about JVPers arrested and released. Some of them are said to have been executed by the JVP. RP is also said to have taken steps to protect JVPers who turned over.
They once arrested an area leader who had possession of a receipt for some fans, a washing machine and a refrigerator. They found that the items were for Wijeweera. They identified the area and kept it under surveillance to discover the locations of the other leaders as well. About the same time Colonel Janaka Perera got information about Wijeweera from another detainee. He arrested Wijeweera and brought him down to Colombo from a bungalow in St. Mary’s Estate, Ulapane, where he lived under the name Attanayake. This was on 12th November 1989. Colonel Perera who met a clean-shaven man in an upper middle-class home had first thought that he was mistaken and turned back. He then went back and is said to have brought him along cautiously at first, saying that President Premadasa wished to speak to him. There was also the fear of an ambush, which, however, did not materialise.
In Colombo RP and Mr. Y were brought to verify the identity of the man detained. Mr. Y wanted to be left alone with him, and within a short time Wijeweera is said to have broken down and pleaded with him. Mr. Y is then said to have checked out the information he had about other leaders and asked Wijeweera to go on a video recording and ask his men to lay down their arms.
According to RP and other sources, it was Ranjan Wijeratne who took the decision to kill Wijeweera and Premadasa was not told. Wijeweera, as told by persons who were there, repeatedly asked to talk to Premadasa. A senior police officer in Colombo told us that Wijeweera was executed by SSP Ronnie Gunasinghe. According to the same source, when Wijeweera was being led forward, the soldiers present were seen shivering. The cameraman who took Wijeweera’s appeal on video, it is reported, later broke down and cried, so giving himself away.
In his book A Soldier’s Version Major General Sarath Munasinghe (Retd.) gives a complementary account of Wijeweera’s final hours. He along with his superior Colonel Balagalle and NIB Chief Zernie Wijesuriya spoke to Wijeweera for about four hours. He was then taken away for execution. This was about 3.45 AM on 13th November 1989. Munasinghe reports Wijeweera talking easily about his experiences. When questioned in English, he answered in Sinhalese and reminded his interlocutors that his second language was Russian. He refused to answer questions when Ranjan Wijeratne walked into the Ops Combine HQ and spoke to him. When a “well known” police superintendent walked in, held Wijeweera by the hair from behind and tapped his cheek, Wijeweera looked at him and said sardonically, “I thought it must be someone like you”. When he was finally taken, Wijeweera gave Munasinghe a private message to be passed on to his wife and shook hands with him.
This interlude evidently took place after RP and Mr. Y had been with Wijeweera. The second encounter suggests a man who, unlike in the first, was collected and dignified. We have here a man going down in history leaving behind conflicting reports about his real self. Perhaps, in a man who was both a killer and unquestionably a leader with considerable charisma, the attributes of cowardice and valour, trivialness and gravity, the vulgar and the noble, and a deep affection for one’s own family coupled with a complete disregard for others, are not contradictions. There are also individuals who remember the late SSP Ronnie Gunasinghe as a courteous man and a sincere friend.
Most of the remaining JVP leaders including Gamanayake, Saman Fernando and Shantha Bandara were soon taken in and summarily executed. Of the senior leaders, only Somawanse Amarasinghe slipped out of Colombo with the help of influential persons and now moves between Paris and London. He is a brother of the wife of Premadasa’s lieutenant and cabinet minister, Sirisena Cooray.
According to RP, on the very day that Wijeweera was killed, Mr. Wijeratne called a halt to the mass executions of JVP suspects rounded up. A youth said independently that on that day he with several youths were loaded into an army truck in Bandarawela after nightfall and the truck began moving towards their place of mass execution. Then it stopped, and they were unloaded. Apparently, the order to stop all executions had just come in. Mr. Y left the country soon afterwards. RP told Colonel X, “Now I want to go and live like a man”. Colonel X has kept confidences and has not breathed a word about the persons directly and indirectly involved in what was on the whole a sophisticated operation.
RP went away and lived with his wife and children in Gampaha for a year. He then faced the problem of means to bring up his family. He needed a job. He went to Colombo and sought out his old friends, former JVPers and intellectuals, who were linked to the intelligence operation. RP felt that they were trying to distance themselves from him. He found that in conversations among themselves, they referred to him as ‘the Butcher’! We understand that RP recently went abroad. Most of the information here is drawn from testimony given to a journalist by several of the persons concerned.
To be continued..