By Rajan Hoole –
1989: The Eclipse of the JVP and the Perplexity of the Left – Part 5
For the elite, the threat to life was over by early 1990. They wanted to forget all about the JVP episode and get back to the pre- 1987 status quo. But there were many things that could not be wished away besides their own complicity in mass murder. What about the hundreds of thousands of largely rural folk living ‘out of sight and out of mind’ tormented by the loss of their young husbands, sons, daughters and breadwinners? Was it even remotely fair to tell them that ‘fire had to be fought with fire’ and that their young had to be destroyed like vermin to restore the rule of law? What would be the long-term consequences for Sri Lanka of denying them justice?
There was then the State, which had got into the habit of killing without the slightest remorse. When the war in the North-East resumed in June 1990, Premadasa and Ranjan Wijeratne were very confident that they could settle the LTTE the same way they finished the JVP. They began a killing spree of Tamils without understanding the key difference that they were dealing with a people completely separated from the State, who had only the brutal and crisis-ridden LTTE to turn to. Thanks to this strategy of Premadasa and Wijeratne, a depleted LTTE was given a windfall of fresh recruits to inflict devastating blows on the Army.
In the South itself the Left parties, intellectuals and activists who had understood the gravity of the Tamil problem and were critical of the State had been thrown off-balance by the JVP rebellion. Many of them did not want to co-operate with the State, but were overtaken by events and decisions taken by their colleagues. One Left group decided that they would on their own fight and politically challenge the JVP. This meant that they could not ask for help from the State. They were trained in the use of firearms by a Tamil group, the EPRLF, in Trincomalee. In early 1990 one of its leaders, Wije, tried to smuggle into the South some arms obtained from a Tamil group that was pulling out of Trincomalee. The Army located the weapons in the lorry at the Monkey Bridge check-point, allegedly on a tip-off. Wije was thrown into a detention camp with JVPers, who beat him to death. Such was the cynicism of the State in a triumphant mood of blood-lust.
As pointed out at the end of the last chapter, the Right who in 1988 were bending over backwards to accommodate the LTTE and JVP, flipped over once the JVP was finished. From June 1990, they made up for their cold- shouldering of the Army during the JVP era by piling on it extravagant praise for what they saw as the resumption of its rightful role of killing Tamils.
The other ‘progressive’ sections were too immersed in the difficulties of defining their new role to pay much heed to the North-East. They felt an inner compulsion to isolate those like Ranjith Peiris as ‘butchers’. His name unlike those of the others came into public circulation because several youths interrogated under him were later released. Once he was at the office of a left-leaning NGO. A youth who was formerly in the JVP came there, saw him, started shivering and broke into sweat. Peiris reassured him and calmed him down. The youth said, “You people should not have killed the way you did.” Peiris replied, “Don’t take me for a killer. You are an example of how I handled people. There are many more like you.”
Peiris’ contention that has been corroborated by other sources, is that persons from almost every section of the Left – NGOs, intellectuals and the opposition parties – were involved in working with the State towards crushing the JVP. When attacked and threatened by the JVP, the leaderships of the main opposition parties, the SLFP, LSSP and CP approached Ranjan Wijeratne, who then often summoned Colonel X. These opposition parties’ youth wings were given arms. RP’s unit used to get lists from a number of sources, including persons from these parties. Some of these lists from areas where the Left party in question was well organised were complete with biographies. Peiris maintains that if they had killed according to these lists, many more would have died.
Unlike the SLFP, the Left had come under attack from the JVP primarily for having taken a principled position with regard to the political settlement to the Tamil question under the Indo- Lanka Accord. The Left did not want to use the UNP’s vulnerability on this issue to take cheap shots. They had rather become victims of the UNP Government’s dismantling of the democratic process, which created sympathy for the JVP. Some of their best men like George Ratnayake of the Communist Party and JVP dissident Nandana Marasinghe were being targetted and killed. Marasinghe was very sympathetic on the Tamil question. Although the JVP had charged him with having been a police informant, this has been firmly denied by his friends. They said that he had been approached by Terrence Perera of the CSU, who knew him from the 1971 insurgency, but he had declined to play that role. Marasinghe was killed on 29th November 1987 and Perera three days later. Both had acquired note as bold fighters in their respective vocations. It was a situation brought about by the UNP, which had left the people with few choices. A combination of several things was bound to happen.
Even if one only wanted politically to challenge the JVP, one had to be armed. The young party cadre in areas where the parties were active would have wanted arms, and their leaders would have been obliged to request these from the Defence Ministry, which would also have brought further linkages. The cadre would have become aware of counter-insurgency structures like Ranjith Peiris’, which were acting on information obtained. Some among the party cadre who felt strongly about the JVP’s murders would have gone all out to use these structures to destroy the JVP. The existence or non-existence of such structures strongly influenced choices.
For the others, total passivity would have been impractical. One would have lived at home in fear, becoming paranoid about the activities of suspect persons in the neighbourhood. One would invariably be visited by friends, colleagues and former associates, who had connections with state security agencies. Out of fear for one’s life or otherwise, one was in conversation bound to give some information. That information might result in some innocent person being tortured or killed. In short, purity, without losing sight of its value, was an unattainable virtue in such a situation. One was, as it were, trapped in original sin.
Peiris feels that the SLFP and the Left need not admit openly the role they played, but they should not shift the entire blame onto the UNP by going on accusing them of killing 60,000 Sinhalese youth. Peiris is not the only former Left activist who is faced with ostracism by his erstwhile friends. While Peiris’ is a pained reaction, others who were young and socially better placed have gone on the offensive, defending their role during that period and also their conversion to the UNP.
One of the latter, at a recent Human Rights seminar made a very forceful statement that such rights had no relevance to that period and what was done was the only solution. He further said that those who stand by Human Rights and accuse the Government of that time of murder, ought to be grateful that they are able to enjoy their life and positions today. This they do only because others, however unpleasant the task, did what was the need of the hour. A senior and highly esteemed member of a traditional Left party was present at the seminar and was subdued up to that point. He was then on impulse moved to stand up and congratulate the young man on his frankness and suggested that the others who were pressing for action against crimes during that period were not being honest. This man’s nephew, a promising Left leader, was an early casualty of JVP terror.
The incident points to a dilemma that is deep down within the Left and in general within the parties in opposition then. A senior Left leader told us that during the JVP insurgency, the LSSP, CP and NSSP received arms from the State for their protection, but the NSSP decided not to go further in co-operating with the work of state agencies through collecting information and combatting the JVP. The first two he described as ‘in and out’ in working with state agencies. A senior member of the first two said, “Knowing the JVP, if we received information of JVP infiltration or some other activity in a particular area, we had no problem in letting the security forces know about it.”
The first strong protest about what the Government had been doing came in the form of a statement in Parliament by Mrs. Bandaranaike on 12th January 1990. She said: “It is no secret that politically backed para military hit squads continued to abduct and murder youth through the length and breadth of our country. In the guise of combatting subversion thousands of SLFP members had been arrested, abducted or murdered by these killer squads”. She pointed her finger at a high-ranking officer at Army HQ.
As though in a long delayed response to this statement, Hamilton Wanasinghe, who was then army commander, spoke in a recent interview with the Daily Mirror (9 Oct. 1999) of a meeting with President Premadasa, where Mrs. Bandaranaike and some other opposition leaders were present, along with the service commanders. He quoted Mrs. Bandaranaike as having said, “Do anything you want, and finish this [JVP insurgency] as soon as possible.”
The meeting almost certainly took place in 1989 after the JVP started targetting all opposition parties. Subsequently several SLFPers, some of whom are now ministers, obtained help from the State and joined the hunt for the JVP. Undoubtedly, many others were uncomfortable about this. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s statement in Parliament was a response to a late discovery that UNP politicians who were at that time submitting hit lists to army co-ordinating officers had also been including many names of SLFPers.
Yet in early 1990 any kind of dissent continued to be muted because of the Government’s paramilitaries. A particular event which highlighted violations by the Government and brought out some protest was the murder of the prominent media personality Richard de Zoysa on 19th February 1990.
Having come to realise the gravity of the Government’s repression, where the licence to fight the JVP had been extended to the Opposition, several SLFPers had deep reservations about giving uncritical support to the Government in the war against the LTTE which resumed in June 1990. At a meeting of the SLFP parliamentary group on 19th July 1990, several MPs were against support for the extension of emergency. One MP reflected frankly that it was a license to kill Tamils in the name of killing Tigers. Lakshman Kiriella pointed out that behind the patriotic rhetoric of the war in the North-East, something ugly was being covered up. About 40 bodies a day were appearing along the roadsides in the Kandy area, as the Army cleared camps of Sinhalese detainees prior to moving troops to the North- East.
The opposite point-of-view was voiced by S.L. Gunasekera who was linked to the group for ‘Destroying the Basis of Eelam’. He pointed out that the SLFP had voted for a mass supplementary estimate of USD 125 Million for the purchase of arms and ammunition by the defence ministry. He asked how the Party could now vote against giving the security forces the power to use these weapons. Mrs. Bandaranaike decided that the SLFP would abstain from voting. The SLFP was too divided and confused to grapple with the Human Rights issue.
An example of the confusion and double standards at that time is contained in an Island editorial which appeared 15 months earlier (21 Mar.89) in response to the massacre of Sinhalese civilians by the security forces after a JVP attack on them. It read: “Three policemen being killed and three others injured is pathetic. Seventeen civilians being gunned down is a massacre of innocents.” But when the government forces started massacring Tamils in the East by the hundreds and thousands, the media in Colombo were deafeningly silent. We will now briefly examine what the Disappearance Commissions had come up with.
To be continued..