By Austin Fernando –
Twenty five years ago today –June 2nd – I was the Secretary of the Ministry of Rehabilitation and received a telephone call from General Sepala Attygalle, the then Defence Secretary, under President J. R. Jayewardene.
He inquired if I were aware of the massacre of Buddhist priests in Ampara, taken place that day. When I answered in the negative he narrated the circumstances under which thirty Buddhist priests have been murdered by the LTTE, in cold blood. He informed me that he had discussed with the President and received orders to send me immediately to Ampara. The President expected me to look in to the situation and provide all assistance to the affected parties and had specifically mentioned that there were nearly 140 Tamil families around Ampara town and I should ensure that none of them was touched in any way. He hung up his telephone saying “I have redirected a helicopter to the Air Force Grounds and you will be immediately flown to Ampara.”
Though human security or countering terrorist attacks was not my responsibility, but his, I would not convey to him, because he was the Defence Secretary! Moreover, I was mindful of the President’s urgency to save a worse situation.
Who does not fear death?
There were only a few Sinhalese civilians who visited these areas as officers or do-gooders. I was one. Ministers Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamani Jayasuriya and Lionel Jayatilake, Dr. Joe Fernando (Health Ministry), Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne (UNICEF), President Jayewardene’s son Ravi Jayewardene and his wife Penny Jayewardene, Dr. Kamalika Abeyaratne, Rohan Pethiyagoda, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratna and Harsha Navaratna etc were a few others. Some of them are a forgotten lot now because “patriots” of recent times are ‘reborn’!
Dhammapada has guided my life. It stated:
Sabbe tasanti dandassa,
Sabbe bhayanthi macchuno
(All tremble at force, of death are all afraid).
I had a habit of “hiding” my visits to conflict areas from my wife and children, especially when I followed dangerous incidents, where secondary attacks after huge massacres were expected. I understood their fear.
I confided the presidential order to my Personal Assistant Lakshman Silva and gave my bungalow key to him and wanted him to inform my wife who was serving at Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya that I had suddenly visitedAnuradhapuraand would return in the evening. True to my belief she did not know that I had been to Ampara, though she had heard about the massacre by afternoon. Not having ‘Breaking News’ unlike now would have been the reason!
Within minutes I was at the Air Force grounds seated inside a helicopter- the solitary traveller. The two pilots- immunized by training- did not show any serious security concern due to this incident. Without a word spoken among us they were air-borne flying me to a military camp. The officer in charge at the military camp was ready with security for me to proceed to Ampara. But, I was scared of a secondary threat to such convoy. That was how terrorists operated. However, I respected the young officer’s security judgment.
Nandisena’s very high blood-pressure
I was driven straight to theAmparaHospital. As I disembarked from the jeep I saw my colleague D.M. Nandisena at the entrance to the hospital. He was the G.A. Ampara. We were long standing buddies in District Administration. I queried “Nandi, what is the form?” He retorted, “What form? The bodies of the priests have been brought in and I cannot look at them. My blood-pressure was up; very high. You must go and see for yourself.” He looked worn out. His dark complexion was coal charred. No wonder. He was a sobered, God fearing, thorough gentleman.NoGAwould have seen so many dead bodies of clergy killed due to terrorism. Of course, Jinasiri Dadallage, the young Assistant Government Agent who collected the priests’ corpses in Aranthalawa would have beaten Nandisena’s eerie experience. Because, he was among the few who visited the killing field before others.
I saw through Nandisena’s wholly disturbed mind and walked to the verandah where the bodies were lying. The bodies- mostly with cut and gun-shot injuries- were kept in rows, leaving little space for each other. It was eerie. The blood that oozed from the wounds was drying on the corpses. The clean saffron robes which reflected Karuna, Mettha, Muditha and Uppekkha -the satara Brahma Viharanayas (the four sublime abodes), were discoloured bloody red, symbolic of criminality, cruelty, inhumanity and devastation. I pondered whether President Jayewardene foresaw the latter symbols splashing in bloody red on Ampara Tamil families.
I could not imagine how some of the dead priests young as 8 or 10 years could bear the attacks on their bald heads and how one could be so cruel to a “baby priest”. I realized that these were the terrorists who killed sucklings while they were being breast fed. The attackers were the young criminals, brainwashed by a megalomaniac to appease his blood thirst. What piety was in them?
Then, how could Nandisena’s blood pressure be low?
I returned to Nandisena and with him met priests who have arrived at the hospital. Some of them were crying, as expected from humans, though they preached to us at pansakulas (Buddhist funeral service) not to excessively lament on account of the dead. Some were hiding the pain of mind with silent empathy. Some were boisterous. Some were unfairly suspecting the hyper pro-Sinhalese behaviours of Venerable Indasara Nayaka Thero as provocation for this attack. Then, he ought to have been the solitary victim. Frankly, it was due to LTTE insanity. The Sinhalese businessmen were in an aggressive mood, as much as public officers. They were oozing hate. With these I knew the main purpose of the visit was a difficult, but an essential assignment.
Among the public servants who were there I met Ariyadasa- a stenographer- who served Ratne Deshapriya Senanayake, when he was a Deputy Minister. I took him aside and asked him what the ground situation was. He told me “Sir, the Sinhalese Buddhists are so wild about this massacre I do not know what would happen by evening. The labourers and some traders swear worst revenge on Tamils. We feel that there is nothing wrong if that happens, as these Buddhist priests were innocent, who should not have been killed.” His words really unsettled me, because he was insinuating that even some public officers might be harbouring dastardly revenge.
I inquired from him whether he knew the parties who would instigate troubles. He said “There are no specific parties openly doing so. But if any miscreant acts rashly no one would come forward to save such a situation. Contrarily there may be many who would join. Even policemen are worried.”
I visualized the scenario where armed thugs in Ampara town running berserk, attacking Tamils; traders and public officers joining, probably law enforcement deliberately collapsing and consequently the innocent Tamil families suffering victimization.
I decided to speak to a representative group of trouble-shooters. Ariyadasa introduced me to some, but refused participation. I know why: I would return to Colombo; he should remain in Ampara!
This arrangement fulfilled my desire, of course, in a smoky dungeon environment, inhaling the dried up secondary smoke, where some sarong clad ‘thugs’ (with shorts exposed underneath tucked up sarongs!) met me. For them every Tamil was a Tiger. Revenge had taken precedence over Mettha (Compassion)! Will these Buddhists losing compassion create surprise when 30 priests have been killed in one go?
In one voice they swore immeasurable revenge on Tamils. In a pacifying tone I tried to convince them that revenge was not the answer and it might escalate crimes. Drowning my voice they vociferously refused to accept my stance. Their voices were so loud and stern I wondered whether I had made a mistake by meeting them. However, I had no alternatives, as my failure meant invariable attacks on Tamil families.
Fortunately, there were a few who realized my dilemma. I identified them soon and focused addressing them. Incidentally, they were ‘the seniors’ among the group. I understood the usual underworld behavioral responses to leaders. Therefore, I made them the medium to address the group.
The ‘leader to group’ influence brought some sense to others’ thinking. At least, it appeared so. One of their main demands was the financing of the funeral arrangements, which should have been rightly queried by priests. Roles mix up during emergencies! Ignoring other issues raised, I harped at length on this main issue- the cremation, which sobered them. As I was also the Commissioner General of Essential Services I had no problems to bear any funeral expenses. I told them that I would advise the GA to bear all funeral expenses. When it was announced they settled down a little more. Most of them felt that they had won one battle. I felt relieved because I could explore endorsing official thinking of “No harm to Tamils”. Still I was reluctant to totally accept that they would not react adversely, after taking me for a ride. But, the leaders assured me that nothing untoward would happen. Whether I could believe them- whom I met only once for nearly two hours- bothered me.
Relieved, I left the smoky room and returned to the hospital. On my way, I saw Minister P Dayaratna walking towards the hospital. He was my friend from his Electrical Engineer days in the River Valleys Development Board and therefore it was easy for me to communicate with him. I told him “Sir, I have tentatively settled the issue of the safety of the Tamil families, as required by the President. Still I keep my fingers crossed, as I do not know personally the persons who discussed with me. I have little reliance on their promises. As you generally know the troublemakers in town you might as well continue the dialogue.” I explained to him what transpired in my discussions and assured him financing all requirements for any activity related to the “adahana” (cremation). Finally, I repeatedly requested him to impress on the thugs to “behave”!
Minister Dayaratna, a politician with feet on ground and personal charm handled the situation effectively and mustered maximum support from State, clergy and community showing his political will to maintain harmony. No Tamil was affected in Ampara as consequence to this incident, which proved his matured caliber; a lesson to many present day politicians.
It was another lesson to prove that cruelty need not be overcome with cruelty. Unfortunately, cruelty continued otherwise until May 2009. In today’s popular rhetorical context the approach of the then government to ‘touch no Tamil families’ following an inhuman massacre would be considered “cowardly” or “treacherous!
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in its report at Section 8.72 said “Representations were also made before the Commission that the Government should order a full scale probe into the Arantalawa massacre of 33 Buddhist monks, most of whom were Samaneras, on 2nd June 1987…..” It appears that along with the other investigations recommended in the LLRC Report, this is also forgotten. As recommended in Section 5.107 of the LLRC Report for other affected, as “a matter of justice,” the plight of these priests “needs to be recognized by the State…” I pray it to be fulfilled after 25 years.
An inquiry may be the mechanism to clear criminal accountability. Since there is sufficient access to information, investigating methods / technology and LLRC mandate there cannot be reason for delay. It could be the first step to reconcile with restorative justice. Restorative justice cannot flow only from the Memorial at Aranthalawa!
May the deceased Aranthalawa priests attain Nibbana!