25 May, 2022


Embilipitiya Schoolboys’ Affair – The Thin End Of The Wedge

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Rajan Hoole

The 1990s: The Culture of Untruth and a Perilous Vacuum – Part 7

The case of 32 schoolboys from Embilipitiya, which came at the tail end of mass disappearances in the late 1980s, brought poignantly to the outside world the shocking depths of brutality to which this country had descended. This publicity did help the parents, who were of very modest social position from the rural Deep South, in their 9- year saga for justice, in defiance of the obduracy of the State. The trial verdict salved the conscience of a nation darkened by the JVP episode, where everyone was touched by shades of guilt. The saga is now entombed in a history that few want to disinter.

Yet, that history is very much alive with us today and raises many issues relevant to the present. The chief accused in the case – school principal Loku Galappathy – played his part to perfection for a nation looking for something on which to hang its guilt. The Daily News produced a picture of the chief accused arriving in the Ratnapura High Court for the verdict on Wednesday, 10th February 1999, smiling at the cameras as though he had no sense of shame or remorse. If one were looking for a picture of a ghoul, this was it. The saga had an almost children’s story ending, where the wicked king was forever deposed from the throne to the dungeon. The writer in the Daily News made a point of similar import. The verdict, like the Krishanthy Kumarasamy verdict the year before, seemed to give the Kumaratunge government the aura of champions of justice.

Sadly, however, the spirit of Principal Galappathy, now doing 10 years RI, remains very much part of the nation that faked its expiation of guilt. This spirit looms large in public life, and behind persons who, unlike Galappathy, exude great charm in society. We will look at the issues as we sketch the developments.

About the first comprehensive account of the tragedy, based on the testimony of the parents, was presented by Justice J.F.A. Soza, chairman of the Human Rights Task Force (HRTF), in his first annual report of August 1992. The Sevana army camp in the locality passed under the command of Colonel R.P. (Parry) Liyanage in July 1989 when the earlier commander, Brigadier Lucky Algama, was moved to Colombo. This was the time the killing of alleged JVPers in the Southern Province picked up in intensity, peaking in October. Loku Galappathy, who was the principal of Embilipitiya Central College

became very friendly with Colonel Liyanage. Two other principals of schools in the Embilipitiya cluster and a village headman had been sounded by Principal Galappathy on having 7 or 8 student leaders abducted to stop pro-JVP demonstrations, but they had refused. One of these other principals, S. Kalugampitiya, is the mother of Rasika Wijetunge (17), the first victim of the central tragedy below. She was a strong UNP supporter whose home was used for election campaigns. Despite this, she was helpless when her son was abducted.

The starting point of the tragedy was that Principal Galappathy’s son Chaminda, an army officer, had a love affair with the local lass, Pavitra Ranmali. Some love letters written by him had fallen into the hands of Rasika Wijetunge, who shared them with other schoolboys. They poked fun by quoting expressions from these letters. Justice Soza reports it to have been well known in the area that Principal Galappathy, being an arrogant and vindictive man, made a list of 18 names of boys to be dealt with.

Of the 32 missing schoolboys, 3 had been abducted in August and 4 in October, the connection of which with the systematic abductions that started in November is not clear. The abductions of the 25 schoolboys in the main drama started with that of Rasika Wijetunge on 6th November 1989. They went on through December and the last abduction took place on 10th January 1990. All the victims who were taken to Sevana army camp and not seen again were mostly of ages 17 to 19. The event had very little to do with the JVP, since the JVP was virtually finished by mid-November and most (21) of the abductions took place subsequently.

The role of Principal Galappathy’s son Chaminda was also suggested by an incident on 17th November 1989 when there was a cricket match between Udagama School and Udawalawe School. There was an altercation between Nihal of Udamaga School and Janaka, a friend of Chaminda’s. Janaka had threatened to finish off Nihal and his friends on burning tyres – the notorious ‘tyre pyres’ of that period. Udagama School won the match and the same day three students from the school were abducted. The Army removed Nihal from his home 3 days later. When Principal Galappathy was told about this, he maintained that the four boys were involved in subversive action.

As for evidence admissible in a court of law, several army personnel involved in the abductions had been identified by witnesses. Moreover, two fathers of the victims who had been detained at Sevana army camp and released were witnesses to the arrest and detention of some of the victims. From Justice Soza’s reporting, he no doubt formed the strong impression that the incident was hatched between Principal Galappathy, his son Chaminda and Colonel Liyanage. After all, the abductions, detention and disappearance of the 25 boys at Sevana army camp took place over 66 days and involved men and vehicles identified with the camp. If Colonel Liyanage was so ignorant of such gross criminal activity in his own camp spanning 66 days, how could he be fit to counter an external threat to his camp that could materialise within a few hours?

However, Justice Soza distinguished between his impressions and the possibilities in a court of law. The HRTF in February 1992 moved to help K.P. Lionel and Kakulu Totuwege Don Stephen, the parents interned in Sevena Camp and released, to file a private plaint for conspiracy to abduct and abduction against a soldier S.A. Senaratne, Principal Galappathy and his son Chaminda. After agreeing initially, the two men absconded.

In his next report of August 1993, referring to habeas corpus applications filed, Justice Soza said that these cases cannot absolve the State from responsibility. He further stated that the Police had recorded statements and sent them to the Attorney General (Tilak Marapone) who was said to be considering the matter. It was implicit in what he said that given the strength of the evidence, the hesitation was not justified. Marapone, who was Solicitor General, had taken over as Attorney General from Sunil de Silva in July 1992.

Justice Soza was more explicit about his fears in the report of August 1994. He pointed out that the two parents detained were eyewitnesses to arrest and detention. Yet, 16 habeas corpus applications, he said, would be aborted by the plea that the missing were not taken in. Although the CID investigation dossiers were with the Attorney General, it was said that the AG was waiting to collect the sworn statements the parents will be making at the habeas corpus inquiry. Justice Soza added that this was an excuse for delay, which is hardly convincing. He right along feared that delay would undermine the cause of justice.

It was necessary for the Government of the day that the Attorney General should play this game, so that they could go on saying there was no evidence that the Army took the missing persons. Deputy Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne denied in Parliament on 24th October 1990 that the Army took the school children into custody. The Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and Environment, Dr. Wimal Wickremasinghe, said in June 1992 that police investigations have revealed that the schoolboys were taken by armed thugs and their present whereabouts were unknown.

The new PA government was elected on 16th August 1994 and Tilak Marapone resigned as AG. On 20th October 1994, Acting AG Shibly Aziz directed the CID to arrest Principal Galappathy and 8 army personnel, including Brigadier Parry Liyanage. A plaint against the suspects produced was filed before the Embilipitiya Magistrate’s Court, indicting them of abduction and detention of the 32 schoolboys with intention to kill. The plaint was filed by State Counsel Anura Maddegoda, the same officer who informed the Magistrate’s Court in August 1990 that evidence was lacking to proceed with Richard de Zoysa’s case.

Going by that precedent, one might guess how the AG’s department would have handled the Embilipitiya case if the UNP had continued in power. They would have, as the AG then indicated, collected more statements from the parents at the habeas corpus hearings that would have come to nothing. Putting these together with earlier statements recorded by the Police would inevitably have provided a fruitful field for discovering ‘contradictions’ and ‘infirmities’ as in de Zoysa’s case.

The verdict on the Embilipitiya case was delivered on 10th February 1999 by the Ratnapura High Court Judge Chandradasa Nanayakkara. Captain Chaminda Loku Galappathy and Brigadier R.P. Liyanage were acquitted. Principal Loku Galappathy and 6 other soldiers (including 3 captains) were sentenced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment. They were found guilty of one or more of murder, abduction and conspiracy for some of the former, with respect to 25 of the students. The guilt ascribed was thus of a general nature and no one was in particular found guilty of an act of murder, or physically assisting in such, that would have carried a death sentence.

The verdict indicated how a long tradition of repressive legislation and the resulting practices have tilted the scales overwhelmingly in favour of criminals protected by the State. We are also given a graphic picture of the politicisation of the Attorney General’s office. The delay, which Justice Soza was concerned about, works in favour of high ranking officers whose role in such crimes is seldom physical. To convict such persons, some of the low ranking personnel against whom there is direct evidence will have to turn crown witnesses and say who gave the order. Delay, which signals that the State does not want the case going the full length of exposure, undermines the chances of that happening. By April 1996, the new PA government too had given definite signals that it did not want to punish high-ranking officers. This would also have indirectly influenced the Embilipitiya case. The court hearing in Nikeravetiya against Brigadier Janaka Perera had for example been effectively aborted and he was in April 1996 made major general. The Government would have found it awkward if the court in Ratnapura had sentenced Brigadier Parry Liyanage. After being acquitted, Parry Liyanage complained with some justice that his rights were violated by the Army delaying his due promotion to major general.

Even if acquitted by a civil court, Liyanage should have been tried by a military court for negligence in not keeping himself informed of a serious breach of discipline in the camp under his command. Nothing of that kind ever takes place. The function of military courts in Sri Lanka is to find convenient scapegoats after every military disaster.

Sevana-type camps were after all widespread in the East once the Army fresh from experiences like in Embilipitiya was sent among the Tamils. The North-East Disappearance Commission has listed several of these, but to absolutely no effect. Even under the PA government there were several ‘Sevana’ camps in Jaffna. In our Special Report No.12, we have given testimony from a victim who during 1997 narrowly escaped from a ‘Sevana’ camp in Manipay, Jaffna, under Colonel Udaya Perera.

To place the Krishanthy Kumarasamy rape and murder case in its place, the crime on 7th September 1996 came at the tail end of hundreds of disappearances in Jaffna that were presided over by generals and brigadiers from July 1996. The event was inseparable from the impunity conferred on the men who were torturing, killing and disposing of bodies under orders from high up. As during the UNP era, the Deputy Minister of Defence maintained even on 10th October that there were no violations in Jaffna. However when pressure mounted regarding the Government’s human rights record, the Government went about the Krishanthy Kumarasamy case with a determination to have a conviction while limiting the damage to low ranking personnel and sparing the generals. This made a difference and conviction for murder was made possible by some of the men turning crown witnesses (see our Special Report No.12 and Sect. 23.3.3 and 21.2.9).

When the HRTF was set up by President Premadasa in 1991 and its successor the Human Rights Commission (HRC) by President Kumaratunge in 1997, damage limitation and providing window dressing were no doubt among the motives of the governments under pressure. Yet, it is left to those who take on the responsibility to be firm and independent in the task of safeguarding human rights. Justice Soza performed his task as HRTF chairman with energy and independence, while challenging the State in an effective manner.

There is however a far graver matter arising out of the Embilipitiya disappearances with long term consequences for the Sri Lankan polity. What is remarkable about the event is not Principal Galappathy’s anger or vindictiveness. He was placed in an abnormal combination of events where he had the opportunity to use state power and impunity as vehicles for his terrible revenge. He was far from being alone in this game at that time. For people like him in humbler stations of life the opportunity came and went. But not so for others. Vindictiveness is a common vice among the Sri Lankan elite, but is seldom matched by opportunity to go as far as murder.

In addressing the larger problem, we must also look at the suppressed record. During 1989, it was not only the UNP and the security forces who had the opportunity to satisfy their vindictive urge against innocent persons through murder. But several other sections of society too did the same in the name of fighting the JVP. For most of these sections the opportunity passed by, but not so for the then opposition. The extract from the diary of the PRRA leader and other testimony (Sect.17.3 & 17.4) tell us about the nature of that opportunity to settle grudges against individuals using the long rope provided by leading UNP personages wielding state power.

The statement attributed to Mrs. Bandaranaike by General Wanasinghe, that she wanted Premadasa and the service chiefs to finish off the JVP by any means has not been contradicted. She was alive when Wanasinghe said it. Far from being an ordinary woman, she headed a party organisation commensurate with the UNP’s, reaching into all Southern villages. There is no need to guess what proceeded from the meeting with Premadasa and there is independent testimony (e.g. Ranjith Peiris, Sect. 17.4). Many Principal Galappathys from the ranks of the then opposition too no doubt had their opportunity, even if the results were not as sensational.

However, the main body of the then opposition has state power today. The corrupting influence of the impunity which many of them had tasted, although dormant during the coming few years, should not be lost sight of. Combined with subsequent state power and a vocal opposition, the temptation to go back to the practices of 1989 could have appeared irresistible. We saw in 1999 an unprecedented burst of impunity from the PA government.

These tendencies illustrate how the groups then in opposition, and presently in government, have faked the country’s coming to terms with the JVP era. In this respect it is very unfortunate that the Disappearance Commissions, in spite of the valuable work they did, have failed to focus on the role of the opposition and of other groups under threat from the JVP during those dark years in the South. The failure to form an honest consensus on human rights left the security forces feeling cynical and once more ready to take the law into their own hands. The disappearance in Jaffna of hundreds beginning in July 1996 was again a vindictive outburst – following a suicide bomber killing Brigadier Hamangoda and the LTTE then overrunning the Mullaitivu camp. The spirit of Principal Galappathy lives on.

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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Latest comments

  • 1

    the full story on this is perhaps yet to be written.

    the following interesting footnote circulates in the Colombo port community where it is commonly accepted as fact.

    in order to round up the embilipitiya victims, the army men used a fellow student as a ‘gonibilla'(an informer suitably masked against identification). the latter, either for reward or under duress, pointed out the unfortunate boys. the same person apparently emerged from the periphery of the ruling circle in 2006 and began a rapid climb to the top of the state sector. he now holds an apex state position and enjoys a super luxury lifestyle, surpassing even ministers.
    ultimately as prof hole points out everyone including the media made common cause to hush things up.

    a similar hush up where common cause seems to have been made by succeeding regimes is the massacre by ltte of more than 400 policemen in the east in one night following their surrender on the stupid and irresponsible orders of president premadasa . the main suspect perpetrator enjoys a position at the high table and is on record of denying complicity. however everyone including the media have chosen to simply forget this epic atrocity – here too the full story is yet to be written.

  • 1

    They got only 10 years for killing 32 boys..!!! karma will come after them for sure, in this life or the next…Since I have not followed the case I can;t believe how this Parry Liyange and Chaminda lokugalappaththi got released…what a judiciary system…!! This Parry guy later became the chairman of Milko…and I read somewhere this principal is practicing witchcraft somewhere after his jail term… Thank you Mr. Rajan.

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