By Laksiri Fernando –
I was first planning to make just a comment to Roel Raymond’s article on Richard de Zoysa, her departed uncle (Colombo Telegraph, 14 March 2021). But after rereading the extremely sensible and topical article “Remembering Richard: And the Silence that Empowers Those in Pursuit of Power” I finally decided to write this short tribute. I have used in the headline of this article a phrase in her column–– ‘a life brutally taken 31 years ago.’
In Raymond’s article, she has brought the despicable nature of power politics, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, to the forefront. As she says, “in understanding the nature of power — I have argued with those who will listen — I understand that small men and women will be continually crushed by the men and women who are single-minded in pursuit of power.” This is exactly what happened to Richard who expressed his views frankly and openly without any intention of power.
I have not known Richard personally. I came to know his mother, Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu, and her plight, when she came to Geneva seeking justice (not revenge) before the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1990. However, I knew of Richard as an impressive actor and a convincing writer. He expressed his views frankly and openly. Let me shortly speak about his last article published on 11 February 1990, a week before his killing in The Sunday Island. It was titled “A Manifesto for an Alternative Society.” There was nothing subversive in this article except his alternative vision.
The reason to write this article appears to be Gunadasa Amarasekara’s previous article on Jathika Chinthanaya (National Ideology), an ideology which had been in circulation for some time then. Although appears to be soft on Amarasekara personally, perhaps as a prominent literary figure, Richard has questioned and countered many of the arguments of Amarasekara.
It was Amarasekara’s argument that communism or socialism was crumbling in the Eastern Europe because of the force of ‘national ideology.’ In contrast, Richard was arguing that it was crumbling because socialism was imposed in Eastern Europe ‘from above and beyond their borders.’ At the same time, Richard was contending that Jathika Chinthanaya was trying to do the same on minority communities, Tamils and Muslims, within the Sri Lankan national borders.
In talking about ‘indigenous intellectuals,’ Amarasekara had listed only Sinhala intellectuals, from Anagarika Dharmapala to Martin Wickremasinghe. In contrast Richard was saying, “This seems to suggest that there were either no Tamil or Muslim intellectuals, or that the Tamils and Muslims are not indigenous to this island.” His tone was not angry but sarcastic.
There was no indication, in this article, that Richard was supporting the JVP or its violence. Only sympathetic comment was in respect of JVPs alleged ‘distancing from Amarasekara’s or communalist ideology.’ There are only three sentences where ‘JVP’ appears. The rest of the article was generally theoretical. It is possible that those who ordered Richard’s abduction did not at all understand what he was saying. It is true that Richard was believing in Marxism-Leninism, right or wrong. The following is the way he summarized his ‘Manifesto for an Alternative Society.’
“The answer is surely a secular-state, truly secular, with icons except the institutions of the state itself, and guided by the principles of sound management within an ideological framework which does not carry within itself the seeds of either extremism of Jathika Chinthanaya or the potential anarchy of cultural pluralism.”
“I suggest that Marxism-Leninism in its original form does provide the theoretical basis, which must be flexible enough to accommodate the strains arising along the way. It is not cynical to declare that politics is the art of the possible, as long as one does not equate ‘possible’ with anything goes.”
Context of Gross Violations
I was about to make a statement on the ‘patterns of gross human rights violations’ before the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva on behalf of the World University Service (WUS), when Chakravarthi Raghavan of the Inter Press Service (IPS) came to me and handed over a telegram that he had received from their headquarters in Lisbon. It was 19 February (Monday) around 11.30am. IPS communications were so quick.
I read the telegram as a part of my statement and asked for a clarification from the Sri Lankan representative. It was shocking in the Commission room because of the quickness (and perhaps my loud voice!). It was Sunil de Silva, then Attorney General, who was at the Commission as the key representative of Sri Lanka. He immediately left the chamber, and in the afternoon made a statement stating that the government would be inquiring the incident. It never happened thereafter. Sunil himself had to leave the country in 1992.
Richard de Zoysa’s killing was not an isolated incident during that time. Even before and after, there had been an evolving pattern of gross violations by the Ranasinghe Premadasa government, the JVP and the LTTE, to name only the main perpetrators. Let me quote the first two paragraphs of the Country Report of the Human Rights Watch for the year 1990 to summarize the situation.
“Violence against civilians by all parties to the conflict continued to characterize the war in Sri Lanka in 1990. In the south, the murder in February of a prominent journalist brought world attention to the activity of government-backed death squads, which then seemed to subside. An armed Sinhalese nationalist group, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which was responsible for several thousand killings, appeared to be crushed when its top leaders were apparently killed in custody in late 1989. By late 1990, however, both the JVP and the death squads had resurfaced. In the northeast, human rights conditions reached a new low in June, after the breakdown of a 14-month ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the largest Tamil opposition group.”
“Even for Sri Lanka, the utter brutality on all sides that followed the LTTE’s June attacks on police stations and military installations in the northeast was unprecedented, creating an atmosphere of terror. The LTTE and the Sri Lankan security forces both carried out massacres of civilians. The army summarily executed suspected Tamil insurgents; the LTTE did the same to Sri Lankan police officers. Both the LTTE and the security forces used civilians as shields against attacks. The army engaged in heavy bombing in civilian areas, resulting in damage to homes, hospitals, temples, churches, and pedestrians. Burning bodies appeared along roadsides in many parts of the country, and reports of mass arrests and disappearances increased.”
As Roel Raymond has emphasized in her article on Richard de Zoysa (her deceased uncle), power politics is the main reason for the violent situations then and today, in Sri Lanka and almost everywhere. There is a need for a new generation of people who think, speak and act differently, considering politics not as a means for power, but as an avenue for Dhamma (virtue) and peace. This may be unimaginable for some today. But it should come sooner than later. The power-based politics, not only in the government but also in the opposition, should be discouraged and disapproved. That is the only way to preserve souls like Richard de Zoysa.