Colombo Telegraph

Findings Of The Disappearance Commissions

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

1989: The Eclipse of the JVP and the Perplexity of the Left – Part 6

Two Disappearance Commissions were appointed by President Chandrika Kumaratunge, shortly after she was elected president in November 1994. The one for the Central Zone covering the North- Western, North-Central, Central and Uva Provinces was headed by retired high court judge, Mr. T. Suntheralingam. The other for the Southern Zone covering the Western, Sabragamuva and Southern Provinces was headed by the human rights activist and lawyer Mrs. Manouri Muttetuwegama, the widow of Sarath Muttetuwegama, MP. They went into disappearances dealing mostly with the JVP insurgency of 1987-90. Their findings, based on public testimony, tell us about the different trends in the two zones as well as the criteria employed by the two commissions. The Central Zone Commission (CZC) received 15,045 complaints with 6614 from the Central Province (CP), 3683 from the NWP, 2763 from the NCP and 1985 from the UP. The Southern Zone Commission (SZC) received 8380 complaints and of 5620 complaints in which the perpetrators were identified, those in 4845 of them were from the Security Forces and the remaining 775 of them from the JVP.

There is also a significant difference in the patterns of extra-judicial killing. The killings in the Central Zone peaked about the time of the February 1989 general elections, while in the Southern Zone, the peak was reached in October 1989 – 3052 of the 4845 killings by the Security Forces in the SZ listed took place during the second half of 1989.

This gives some idea of the qualitative difference between the two zones. The killing in the Central Zone had been considerably higher and focussed around the elections. This also suggests that the JVP’s terror was weaker in this zone, and consequently UNP figures providing lists for elimination were significantly more active in this zone. Correspondingly, in the Southern Zone, several UNP members left the party or were killed. The killing in this zone intensified only when the Army went on a killing spree from August 1989 that lasted into 1991 at a much-reduced rate.

The interesting suggestion that the JVP was notably weaker in the Central Zone than in the Southern Zone receives confirmation from the presidential election results of 21st December 1999. This election was contested by the JVP as a well-organised political force. The JVP polled the highest in the Southern Province with 13.3% in the Hambantota District and 6 to 7 % in the Galle and Matara Districts. But moving northwards one discerns in general a decline to 4.18% in the Anuradhapura District. The decline is much sharper along the Catholic belt on the west coast.

The JVP is also weak in Sabragamuva and the plantation districts, but has pockets of support in the south-eastern suburbs of Colombo and the non-Catholic interior of Gampaha District. Nationally, the JVP polled 4.08%. It is also of interest that in mixed areas such as Amparai, Nuwara Eliya and Trincomalee, a smaller proportion (3 to 4%) of Sinhalese voters have voted for the JVP.

In the Southern Zone again, the killing appears to have resulted from a wider mixture of causes than in the Central Zone as revealed in the cases and social background given in the report:- viz. personal jealousy, jealousy against someone else’s children who were doing well and who in turn were made the more vulnerable by the family being SLFP supporters, caste rivalry, political rivalry, being on lists etc. No dominant trend that stands out has been mentioned.

By contrast, the Central Zone report gives a much stronger conclusion: “In conclusion it would appear that many persons lost their lives after January 1988 on account of their political convictions. An analysis of the disappearances during this period would show that most of the disappearances occurred in 1989. By that time the organizers, activists and supporters of the SLFP could have been identified by the then Government in power. There is enough and more material to indicate that most of the victims were organizers etc. of the SLFP. It would appear that such persons were branded as JVPers and their names were given to the Police and the Armed Forces for elimination.”

The Central Zone Commission also questioned the alleged JVP threat to family members of the Armed Forces. Evidently, these threatening posters had appeared in areas regularly patrolled by the Army. According to an individual familiar with the working styles of both commissions, the CZC questioned witnesses, elicited opinions about different aspects of the disappearance of their loved one (e.g. political sympathies and activities of victim, was he observed, warned, by whom etc.). It finally made its finding on assessing the balance of probability. The SZC, according to this observer, tended towards asking for harder evidence about who the perpetrators were. The observer summed up the difference in approach as that between a judge and a criminal lawyer.

We have however pointed to other possible causes for a dominant trend in the Central Zone where, the populations of the two zones being reasonably commensurate, the disappearances were considerably more numerous:- viz. the JVP being weaker, and politicians and death squads acting with greater freedom. It must also be kept in mind that up to the last month of 1988, the SLFP leadership was courting the JVP and this resulted in a situation where the JVP while killing supporters of the UNP and the Left was using the SLFP. In turn, identifying several of the SLFP supporters and activists with the JVP would have appeared plausible to UNPers providing lists. We have also in the previous chapter quoted statements from leading UNPers which in retrospect, at least, can be interpreted as, “The SLFP think they could ride to power on the back of the JVP, we will teach them a lesson”. The SLFP leadership was blind to what was going on.

Once the JVP turned its guns on the SLFP from the beginning of 1989, a number of key SLFP figures, some of whom became ministers in 1994, also joined the killing game. The numbers are almost certainly much smaller, but the commissions do not give us an idea of the numbers of victims of the SLFP and the section of the Left who were also involved in killings. If Podi Silva’s diary provides any reflection, this figure would be in the scores or hundreds rather than in the thousands.

This opposition involvement, even on differing scales across the board, shows why justice has been stalled. When occasion arose, some of the leading UNP miscreants had no difficulty in switching parties as happened before the 1999 presidential election. The victims who went before the commissions must be finding all this too hard to comprehend. But below the tragedy, there lurks a dangerous vacuum.

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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