By 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.