By Rajan Hoole –
The foregoing contributed significantly to the change of public mood in the South. On 11th January 1996 President Chandrika Kumaratunga addressed a letter to the Army Commander G.H. de Silva with an attached schedule of names of army personnel identified by commissions of inquiry as being responsible for disappearances of persons. These personnel, she said, should be sent on compulsory leave and disciplinary action initiated. She wanted him to report the action taken within a month. This was about the last occasion on which President Kumaratunga took her election pledge on human rights seriously.
That there was such a letter was first reported in the Island on 28 Feb.96. Among the 200 personnel to be sent on compulsory leave were 4 brigadiers, including Janaka Perera and P.A. Karunatilleke. On 11 Mar.96 Shamindra Ferdinando writing in the Island as part of the campaign against the move said that it will not go ahead. An unnamed army officer was quoted saying, “Who wants to join the army when one is punished for destroying the enemy?” Here was the Press trying to bury mass murder, even the murder of women and children (68 children in the Sathurukondan massacre), under the general nomenclature of ‘enemy’.
That the move had indeed been undermined was confirmed when on 15th April 1996, Janaka Perera and Karunatilleke were promoted to the rank of major general. It was in the divisions of these two generals that disappearances commenced in Jaffna less than 3 months later, after a woman suicide bomber killed Brigadier Hamangoda. The total disappeared ran into several hundreds. The Army was once more beyond the law.
The magistrate’s court hearing involving Brigadier Janaka Perera on 6th February 1996 had some interesting features pointing to the decay of the system. It concerned the murder of 20 civilians taken in 1989. A petition was submitted under the criminal procedure code after the change of government, in October 1994. The first hearing at the Nikeweretiya Magistrate’s court after samples were taken from the grave, was on 18.1.96. Witnesses testified that Colonel Janaka Perera had threatened the villagers that 10 of them would be killed for every soldier killed. Subsequently, the 20 in question were taken.
Witnesses testified to seeing some of the abductees being assaulted with iron bars and killed. The Magistrate accepted that the deaths were not due to natural causes and ordered the Police to conduct further investigations before fixing a new date for 6.2.96. Summons were sent to Janaka Perera and other accused.
It turned out on 6.2.96 that the Police and the Government Analyst had not reported back. The Defence argued that there was insufficient evidence that a crime had been committed. Pointing out that Janaka Perera had been involved in operations in Jaffna, a President’s Counsel gave the useful tip that because of Perera’s presence in Court, a military operation that was to begin on that day had been postponed to the 12th (Island 7.2.96).
In a singular development, the Magistrate, Lenin Ratnayake, praised, Janaka Perera of being a “national treasure”, apologising for the inconvenience caused by the need to uphold the law. There were no further court appearances by Janaka Perera. Later when Ratnayake was Magistrate, Mahawa, a series of articles about him appeared in the Sinhalese weekly Ravaya that were first not believed. Then the Bar Association intervened and a preliminary inquiry into the accusations was heard by three Appeal Court judges.
The preliminary inquiry where cross- examination of witnesses was admitted found the charges proved. These were 1.) Using his position to abuse two women under conditions of duress (evidently in his chambers on one occasion while two lawyers stood guard outside) and 2.) Having withheld from the JSC (Judicial Service Commission) his dismissal for embezzlement from a previous job. The findings went before the Attorney General to frame charges. Later the Ravaya editor petitioned the Supreme Court that the AG (the next Chief Justice) had suppressed material evidence relating to the case (see the Mudaliar column, Sunday Times 12.9.99). At the time of writing, the matter was before the Supreme Court.
The degree of impunity in the system alluded to is shocking, but not surprising. The events all hang together. Here was a case of gross abuse of power by an army officer and an apologetic judge flatters the principal accused by lauding him a “national treasure” even before the case is properly heard. Can those who approve of this cover up, fault the judge for becoming, or being, cynical and abusing his power in his own sphere of activity?
Reports of magistrates, the Police and a few unscrupulous lawyers getting together and making a parody of law enforcement are, alas, not isolated. Shame is no longer a restraint. What then of the country folk around Nikerawetiya who once thought, mistakenly, that the PA government was serious about justice? Are we condemned to a cycle of youth uprisings and a need for more “national treasures” to suppress them?
The year July 1995 to July 1996 in retrospect created a break in the nature of the PA government. It lost its moral edge and its war against the LTTE became one of military attrition, which one of them may eventually lose but neither would win. The tragedy is one for which the Government alone cannot be blamed. The Press, the extremist groups, the opposition and the rest of the society, to gratify the passions of the hour, subverted the earlier good intentions of the newly elected government that could have made a real difference. They licensed instead state-sponsored mob violence and several other undemocratic practices. This period also saw public acclaim for police practices which reached ridiculous proportions by 1999.
If the Government was suddenly made to feel that its election promises about human rights and democracy had become a liability, having no public support, and that it was being attacked at every turn by sections of civil society who should have been upholding them, cynicism was bound to be the outcome. As politicians go, what followed is not surprising.
One day it was Mulder and Jaffna GA Ponnambalam. Those who were happy about the arbitrary actions against these persons cannot complain about a host of other abuses that followed. The Press and the others, who applauded Sunanda and Keller being beaten up by a mob while the Police looked on, cannot complain about Police indifference to PA thugs during the shameful NWPC elections in January 1999.
The events also did much to licence police incompetence and corruption with the Press applauding. Police officers found an easy way to get ahead in their careers by manufacturing sensational stories for the media. Kotakadeniya’s claims about his achievements look very frail against the substance in the Mulder affair and the Tamil businessman with Rs. 2 million. SSP Bandula Wickremasinghe who is said to have had his office painted UNP-green during the UNP era went forth to win other palms under the PA government after the two priests affair. One could make any number of extravagant claims and get away with it provided they are neither tested in court nor critically investigated by the media.
Once the media had been fed with a juicy conspiracy story involving a combination of Tamils, churches and NGOs, the truth ceased to be an issue. Indeed, the Press have been the staunchest defenders of Kotakadeniya’s record as well as of others without a shadow of integrity. If these officers were capable of something better, the Press spoilt them and made sure that it did not surface. LTTE terror in Colombo is a grave matter, which requires discreet policing that does not make the Tamils feel cornered and alienated. The reality today is that any honest Tamil trying to give information to the Police must first fear getting locked up, and information about him being passed onto the LTTE.
One cannot get to the bottom of the LTTE’s network in Colombo and its ability to carry out sensational attacks like the Central Bank bombing without reference to the underworld. There was also a strong hint of it in the failed attack on President Kumaratunga in December 1999. A corrupt Police and a sensation-hungry media are going to make little impact here.
Underpinning these developments is a failure of political vision in the South. The military offensive in Jaffna during 1995 gave rise to elation similar to that which prevailed during the 1987 Vadamaratchy offensive. There was so much expectation of an outright military victory that the frequent tone of opinion columns was that the Tamils did not matter.
This was the import of the Daily News and Island editorials of 16.11.95 suggesting that the NGOs were the last defence of the LTTE. The Daily News gave prominence to a placard in a London demonstration calling for an end to ‘Tamil Terror’.
The current attitude towards Tamil civilian casualties in the North was reflected in the following excerpt from the Island’s lead item on 19.2.96 by Shamindra Ferdinando:
“Long-range guns hit terrorist targets in the Thondamanaru-Valvettithurai area, military sources said. Valvettithurai is the hometown of the LTTE leader… The Forces launch artillery strikes in Valvettithurai very so often [sic]. The Forces are careful… as misguided shells can hit places occupied by foreigners. The ICRC, UNHCR and MSF maintain offices in the Vadamaratchy area.”
The shelling had no discernible purpose. The thinking reflected is, “Tamils are fair game, be careful about foreigners”. This has been the normal practice of the State. On 22.9.95, the same day that Air Force bombing killed 24 school children and 15 others in Nagar Kovil, a shell from Palaly falling on a house in Savanai, Pt. Pedro, killed 4 children. The mother survived because, having seen bombers in the Nagar Kovil area she had called her children into the house and went to the street to assess the intentions of the bombers (our Special Report No.6). What was reflected in Ferdinando’s report were callousness and indifference that have come to be taken for granted.
Thus apart from the failings of the Government, the uncritical and unquestioning approach of the Press towards the security services contributed in the long run to demoralisation and incompetence. It is also well to remember that all malignant attitudes, practices and repressive laws, first received popular licence for use against Tamils. When they affected the Sinhalese, it was far too late to complain.
When the editor Rohana Kumara was murdered in September 1999, eleven of this country’s leading editors in a statement pointed to the State as the culprit, and the ridiculously ineffective police investigation did nothing to contradict them. But then most of these editors directly or indirectly supported UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe for president at the election held shortly afterwards, and some of them had worked openly to subvert any punitive action against security personnel implicated in grave violations, including arbitrary reprisal killings. Are they not rather late in condemning something that they had licensed several years ago? How consistent are they even today?
*To be continued.. next week “Governing Under Siege”
*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