26 October, 2020

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Matale Mass Grave: A Nation Without A Conscience?

By Emil van der Poorten –

Emil van der Poorten

The discovery of a mass grave, adjacent to the Matale hospital, with the remains of about 200 human beings in it, dating back to the late-nineteen eighties does not appear to have provoked the kind of consternation that it should have in any country with even a pretence to democratic practice leave alone a constantly-invoked adherence to all that is humane within Buddhist philosophy.

I think back to that time in Sri Lanka’s history which I was, thankfully spared experiencing, when I was a member of Amnesty International and received a copy of their annual report on Sri Lanka which stated that, by their calculation, there had been in excess of 60,000 “disappearances” in the south-west quarter of Sri Lanka alone during the second JVP insurrection. This, they stated, did not include “extra-judicial executions” permitted by prevailing law, and battle-field casualties. An astounding figure considering that those “disappearances” did not include, literally, a body count of those similarly “disappeared” or killed in other parts of the country including those in which a different insurrection raged! The word “horrendous” is probably over-used in this day and age but its application to these circumstances appears more than justified.

In a land where gossip has always reigned supreme and it is virtually impossible to keep any kind of secret, how could the burial of 200 bodies, presumably all of whom hailed from villages in the area, have been kept under wraps for very nearly a quarter century? Apart from the matter of humane conduct in combat, this is what bemuses me the most.

But when I got to thinking about this kind of thing, my thoughts went back to the first (Che Guevara) insurrection of 1971 when, probably on a smaller scale, the “upholders of law and order” were more than suspected of indulging in similar practices. While the numbers were not anywhere close to those of the late 1980s, the horror of it all was not far behind.

I remember being told by a planter colleague who managed one of the few company-owned plantations in the N. W. Province, that the “forces of law and order” had lined up a large number of young men, on the lip of a large pit that they (the young men) had excavated prior to mowing them down into the mass grave where they were then buried.

More close to home, a Che Guevarist insurgent from the Kegalle district, for reasons too lengthy to detail here, chose to seek my help in order to surrender to the security services. He arrived on my doorstep one evening during a time of dusk to dawn curfew and would only consent to surrendering to the army. Again, for reasons that do not lend themselves to recounting in a composition of this length, I was able to arrange for an army patrol to visit our rather remote residence. When that army patrol arrived and the officer in command had interrogated the man, he believed the man’s involvement in the insurrection had been peripheral and that he should have little fear of surrendering and being subject to due process of law.

One catch here though was the fact that the army patrol, under orders existing at that time, had to hand the man over to the primary police station in the province and my army officer friend assured me that under cover of darkness, the prisoner would probably be beaten to death and then “tired” at the top of an adjacent hill, as was the practice then.
In the circumstances, my wife and I were left with little (moral) choice but to keep the fugitive under our roof – a criminal offence at the time – and take him into the army unit in the self-same provincial capital the next morning. We did. After a sleepless night, for obvious reasons, and a nerve-wracking drive past the local police station the next morning we delivered the man to the army unit.

The good news is that the fugitive served time and is, a senior citizen, leading a life in retirement in a place far away from his village of origin with no one – including the wife he married, after incarceration – aware of his deep, dark secret!

This narrative should prove, if proof be needed, that it was the Bandaranaike regime that initiated the practice of “disappearances” and the “unorthodox” disposal of bodies. And it wasn’t only in this large centre that bodies were being disposed of away from the public’s gaze. On one occasion when I was in the process of picking up the mail from the post office which was on the opposite side of the road to the local police station, my wife inquired from a post office employee what the awful smell she was getting was. He pointed to a plume of smoke rising from behind a six-foot hedge and, in pantomime, described the shooting that had preceded the necessity for the rudimentary, tire-fuelled pyre.

It has been suggested, over and over again, that the late 1980’s set the tone for what has happened during and after the “Eelam war.” Not so. It is nigh on half a century since extra-judicial executions were first legitimized in this country. Isn’t it time to try to change course from this murderous insanity? Isn’t the single biggest question, “When faced with forensic evidence which, even at the preliminary stages appears irrefutable, what are we going to do about this?” Does this not present a very real opportunity to begin to come to terms with those terrible past travesties of justice, purge ourselves of their residue and take the steps that are ESSENTIAL to ensure that this does not continue to occur?

While those questions are obviously rhetorical, the real question, immediate and urgent, is “WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT THE MATALE BODIES AND WHEN WHICH DOESN’T CONSTITUTE YET ANOTHER COVER UP?*

* The (inevitable) Presidential Commission of Inquiry has been appointed as I write this and I suggest it will be consigned to the same container that all its predecessors now occupy, sent there by no other than He Who Commissioned the Report.

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    Matale Mass Grave: A Nation Without A Conscience? There should have been a full stop and not a question mark after the title of your article.

    Only in a nation without a conscience could a government sycophant make a statement such as this and expect people to believe it.

    Director General of the Media Center for National Security (MCNS), Lakshman Hulugalle said that initial Police investigations into the attack on the Uthayan office in Jaffna had revealed that it was an ‘inside job’.

    “There is nothing new in this attack- this is the same tactic used by the LTTE. Initial investigations have revealed that it is an inside job to tarnish the image of the government and the country,” he said.

    dailymirror.lk/news/28100-it-was-an-inside-job-hulugalle.html

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      the same cheap excuse and cunning attitude to persecute minorities, if it was same inside job, can police take them to impartial judiciary and to journalists to proove the truth?

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        manisekaran

        Emil van der Poorten is right when he writes about 1971.

        A few 1971 survivours told me how a stupid Tamil saved their lives from police executioners. More than 150 young men were lined up to be shot when this stupid Tamil man appeared from somewhere and gave personal guarantees to the chief executioner, got all of them released.

        They also told me most of them attended his funeral in Jaffna few years later. When they narrated their “moment of destiny” I could see tears pouring out of their eyes.

        In later years, elsewhere in the island I have had the misfortunes of meeting more survivours, both Sinhala and Tamil.

        The state does not give a damn about whether one is Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese. Since the state is undemocratic and unaccountable these war crimes go on for ever.

        As a stupid Tamil from Tamilnadu you may not know that you have an interest in restructured democratic Sri Lanka. I understand your umbilical relation with your fellow stupid Tamils of Sri Lanka but remember you also have the same umbilical relation with your other stupid brethren the Sinhalese.

        Democratisation of whole country is far more important than your relation with both stupid people.

        Think about it, it was not just the Tamils who died in the wars but Sinhalese and Muslims as well.

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          @ NV,

          Calling me stupid may satisfy your anger but I am not going to defend on that.

          It is, like you fight for your veddhas, I do it for my brethren Tamils, but my overall desire is a calm country where people can find peace and progress. It is very disturbing to see a land that had historical connection with us in such turmoil. As far as concerning Sinhalese origin, I have understanding of their origin pertain to medieval kingdom of Bengal, orissa and certain AP, but not from Tamils.

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            manisekaran

            “Calling me stupid may satisfy your anger but I am not going to defend on that.”

            How should I call a stupid then?

            You say:

            “It is, like you fight for your veddhas, I do it for my brethren Tamils”

            You may not know this, Sinhalese also your brethren. All five DNA studies have confirmed this.

            Tamils of Tamilnadu, Sri Lanka Tamils and Sinhalese share some Bengali DNA.

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    I grew up in an era of JVP violence and army camps mysteriously swallowing up multitudes of youth. Body parts were regularly strewn across. Conscience, how much is it a kilo? There are quite a few armed forces personnel who can be seen around town these days who were literally involved in killing hundreds of youth. There are politicos around who had tigers as pets to which they fed human meat. Buddhism is a veneer. The dark innards of the society is still wallowing in its animist barbarian past. Don’t be surprised dear author. Just be happy you are not of this land.

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      Prithvi

      Please pass your observations to David Blacker.

      Where is he?

      He might demand evidence, be prepared.

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    “WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT THE MATALE BODIES AND WHEN WHICH DOESN’T CONSTITUTE YET ANOTHER COVER UP?”

    Sorry – we have no time. We have to take care of Muslims.

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    If this nation had a conscience we wouldnt be where we are and still talking about peace. The killers are still in power and they need to continue their trade to remain in power. Otherwise they may end up at the Hague. The nation is largely non violent but do not mind their leaders killing a few to maintain the peace.

    I remember that period when there were huge crowds on the Kelani Bridge to observe the cadavers floating by. It is still the same, if a dead body is found there is a traffic jam. People are fascinated by dead bodies lying by the road. Talk about the tourist hotel at Nandikal.

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      Safa

      “If this nation had a conscience we wouldnt be where we are and still talking about peace.”

      It seems the only person who possesses plenty of conscience is David Blacker.

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    Lives have always been cheap in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Some Asian countries too have managed to rise above this state, and their citizens now enjoy much more dignity.

    In Sri Lanka, as indeed in many other parts of South Asia, those who survive are usually the powerful, or influential people. The poor are always sacrificed at the altar of greed, lust for power and base human instincts.

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    An independent public inquiry should be held. It is time for the Sri Lankan government to prove its honesty and to prove that the rule of law is followed in Sri Lanka. The IGP and the Chief Justice should take the lead on this. If we do not have a credible independent public inquiry, another clause would be added on to the next UN Human Rights resolution against Sri Lanka. There would be another Channel 4 documentary “Killing Fields of Matale”.

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    Emil,

    I lived in Kandy then during that second JVP insurgency. Our undergraduate studies at Peradeniya were disrupted, but back at home in Jaffna, the IPKF was harassing youths, and I found it was safer to stay in Kandy during that time. I remember seeing Vijaya Wimalaratne and Premadsa Udugampola at Peradeniya.

    The SLA was then focused on fighting the JVP and left Tamil youths in the South largely alone, so while Sinhalese friends were fearful to move around, I moved around a bit and saw the decapitated heads of JVP suspects displayed in front of the Arts Theater at Peradeniya, bullet-ridden bodies dumped in Mulgampola and Kadugannawa, and heard from friends who saw large scale atrocities by the Army in Kundasale, and naked bodies of women hung from trees in the countryside.

    The Matale mass grave is hardly surprising to me.

    If Tamil society was willing to be indifferent to–and tolerate–the decimation of other militant groups and dissidents by the LTTE, Sinhalese society was willing to tolerate the mass scale extrajudicial killings to suppress the JVP. But once society starts to tolerate such extrajudicial killings in the name of counter insurgency–when it was entirely possible to defeat the JVP by staying within the law–it is a slippery slope, and the country’s slide was inevitable. Add the extra dimension of race when it came to SLA vs Tamils, massive war crimes in the Vanni were fully in character for the SL armed forces.

    I don’t know if war crimes investigations can go as far back as 1971–I wasn’t old enough to be in elementary school then, but any investigation should include the atrocities of the Premadasa era. After the JVP was defeated, while Premadasa was still in power, two Tamil friends on campus were abducted by SLA when they were returning from dinner at Lyon cafe and murdered. They had absolutely nothing to do with either the JVP or the LTTE.

    The causal way in which the university authorities and fellow students dismissed it, and the way such atrocities are still dismissed by Premadasa acolytes like Dayan Jayatilleka and HLD Mahindapala (even Tisaranee Gunasekara was then with Premadasa, though she appears to have cleaned up her act now), has only strengthened my resolve to pursue war crimes investigations no matter how long it takes.

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      It should read ‘casual’ not ‘causal.’

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    Agnos says:

    “I don’t know if war crimes investigations can go as far back as 1971”

    We should demand for an independent credible investigation into all war crimes and crime against humanity perpetrated from 5th April 1971 to date.

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    WHY TAMILS CANNOT BE GIVEN THE RIGHT TO RULE THEM SELF IN THEIR OWN TERRITORY?

    DO YOU CONSIDER THEM AS SECOND CLASS CITIZENS ?

    WHY THE SINGALESE DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE FEELING OF TAMILS ?

    WHY ARE SINGALESE COLONISING TAMIL AREAS! WHERE THEY HAVE THE MOST FERTILE LANDS WITH REVERES AND RAINFALL IN SOUTH – COMPARED TO INFERTILE AND BARRON LANDS IN THE NORTH & EAST?

    EVERY ONE IS BLAMING LTTE! CAN ANY ONE TELL ME HOW MANY SINGALESE CIVILIANS HAS BEEN KILLED BY LTTE ACTION OVER 30 YEARS?

    AND HOW MANY TAMIL CIVILIANS KILLED BY SINGALESE ARM FORCES OVER THAT PERIOD?

    WHY SINGALESE ARMY OCCUPYING TAMILS AREAS WHERE THERE IS NO RESISTANCE ?

    WHY SINGALESE NATION IS PROMOTING EXTREMISM ?

    ARE SINGALESE NATURALLY BAD AND SELFISH PEOPLE ?

    IF YOU ARE A SINGALESE CAN YOU PLEASE ANSWER THE ABOVE QUESTIONS !

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    Manivannan M P.

    You are asking;

    “EVERY ONE IS BLAMING LTTE! CAN ANY ONE TELL ME HOW MANY SINGALESE CIVILIANS HAS BEEN KILLED BY LTTE ACTION OVER 30 YEARS?”.

    We started Counting. but Tamil civilian killed by LTTE also coming to the count in large scale, whole sale.
    it canot be avoided.
    Any solution or can be reversed????.

    MANI ???????????????????????????

    Can you PLEASE ANSWER THAT first??????.

    WE ARE TALKING ABOUT MATALE MASS GRAVE YARD,
    THe people killed by a SXXT eating PIG.

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      I can feel your anger and agony. The only problem is that these are all humans be it sinhalese or tamils. The longer the propaganda of discrimination when the ground reality is different only creates violence and disharmony. The Sinhalese and Tamils have to unite and demand good governance and equal rights. For that you must have trust and to develop that trust we must abandon narrow nationalism, The tamil diaspora who have migrated should allow the sinhala and tamils in SL to unite and protest against Indian and western domination which is exploiting the disharmony between the various nationalities.

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    Not really sure whether the 1971 insurrection falls under war crimes since there was no war.

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    This is the fault of civil society. We have always been a feudal society with the Kings first (of course there were exceptions) and then the Colonial powers followed by the local politicians subjugating the people and keeping control through fear.

    The only answer is a proper liberal education in an international language (English ) to encourage the populace to think for themselves and do their own research into problems and issues that beset them instead of following vociferous leaders and the paid press !

    It will take 2 generations more.

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    I was a university student during the time of the JVP insurrection . and the JVP was a bunch of murderous thugs who randomly killed thousands of civillians . the Time things started things going worng for them was when they killed and threatened to kill service memebers families . That was what started the paramilitaries in ernest . They TOTALLY deserve what they got . if you ever lived though the atrocities they committed for simple things such as turing your lights on during their curfew . The only reason the matale graves are a big deal I think is because they think they can get gotabaya . but it was not gota who ran the JVP to the ground but udugampola .

    Anybody who has driven past kadugannawa I drove past when they had piles 40 or so bodies of executed thugs one day travelling from kandy to Colombo . and as far as I am concerned it was the only way the country could have been saved from a pol pot regime like the khemer rouge had the JVP succedded .

    And the same is tru about the LTTE thugs . why cry about prabas son how about crying about all the child soilders who dies to protect prabas son . There will never be a war crimes investigation as self defence is no a war crime . period

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    by the way there is no tamils own terrotory in this country . just like there is no sinhalese own country . There are no homelands the whole country if our homeland . if you dont like that stay in canada or australai or where ever you are .

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    Abhaya:
    It is perhaps understandable that someone who has witnessed mindless brutality reacts in typically knee-jerk fashion to it. However,to say that extra-judicial executions and the disposal of bodies like so much firewood is ACCEPTABLE is beyond the pale. What does it say about their “civilized conduct” when people choose to ape the Wijeweeras, Pol Pots and Hitlers, allegedly, to defeat those very murderers?
    You obviously don’t have a notion of what such principles as the rule of law really mean to the survival of civilized society and it might be useful to read a bit of history, ancient and modern, to develop some perspective in that regard before making the kinds of pronouncements you have.

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