Editorial: Is Natural Justice Nigh?

| by Helesingha Bandara

( December 27, 2012, New York City, Sri Lanka Guardian) At Least 59 skeletal remains of human corpses have been unearthed so far in the Matale mass grave. Theories about the origins of the buried are abundant, extending to a 1930s or 40s smallpox plague.  The tales that we have heard as children said if anybody contacted smallpox, the person was isolated until death and when dead not only the body but all other belongings of the diseased were burnt to prevent the disease from spreading. If scores of people died in Matale hospital of smallpox the authorities could have ordered the bodies burnt rather than buried. There was no tradition in Sri Lanka to let the hospital authorities to take decisions on the dead people without the involvement of the family and friends of the diseased unless special powers are granted to hospital authorities by an emergency decree. 

Whose remains are those?

Those who are in their late fifties or over may recall that massacres did not happen during the 1971 insurrection. Some youth died in combat and a few died at the hands of brutal security personnel for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

However, mass scale murders were pretty common during the 1987-1989 terror era. Those who are in their late thirties or over, may well remember that massacres took place in large scale all throughout the South of the island. It is unlikely to find a single person in that age group who has not witnessed a body burning by the roadside or severed limbs of a person displayed at a roundabout.  In summary every single person in the country must be able to recall at least one person known to them killed. Such were the numbers that it is hardly surprising if it is found that the length of the Matale corpses being under ground is around 22 to 24 years.

Who were killed?

The victims of 1987-1989 state terror campaign can be categorised mainly into six categories. JVP insurgents, people who expressed anti-government sentiments, political activists belonging to other opposition parties, perceived enemies of the personnel of the security forces including the police and the civil defense force, perceived enemies of the UNP political supporters and the  unfortunate bystanders.   Official figures are at 30,000 while some estimates claim it is double that figure.

During the second insurgency, the ruling United National Party (UNP) launched a counter-terrorism campaign in the south, resulting in an estimated 60,000 people who died or disappeared during the 1987-1989 revolt. (The Economist 15-21 Apr. 1995, 37).

In late 1994, the newly-elected president established three presidential commissions to investigate past human rights violations, including thousands of "disappearances" since 1 January 1988. The three commissions had similar mandates, but were responsible for the investigation of "disappearances" in three different geographical areas (AI Feb. 1998, 4). By 1995, the commissions had received over 34,000 complaints from relatives of the disappeared (The Economist 15-21 Apr. 1995, 37).

“If the USA has a genuine desire about human rights, they should know that 66,000 people were brutally killed in Sri Lanka during the period from 1987 to 1989, but nobody ever raised  objections”- Wimal Weerawansa. (Sunday Observer, 04 March 2012)

Unlike in 1971 there was no face to face combat during the second insurrection. Therefore the number of people killed in combat was zero.  Among the estimated 30,000 to 60,000 only a small percentage was the real JVP members.  Most of those directly involved escaped with the anticipation of the impending disaster. Some known examples are Wimal Weerawansa and Somawansa Amarasingha. The rest, of whom the vast majority had no direct involvement in the uprising, paid a big price due to various reasons, the primary reason being that they were part   of an uncivilized society that pretends to follow the non-violent doctrine of the Buddha but are  brutal and cruel in nature. Other reasons include many people taking advantage of the situation to revenge upon rivals of deadly local feuds.

“What is certain is that the methods of death were appalling: the South African 'necklace' of a burning tire, victims eviscerated and left to die, and even the occasion of a dozen heads arranged around the Alwis pond of the University of Peradeniya” (Wikipedia)

Who killed them?

 By orders of the then United National Party (UNP) government headed by Premadasa thousands were annihilated. Security forces and the police practically carried out massacres under the patronage of Ranjan Wijerathne the then minister of defense. In addition at village level, revenge killings were carried out by the killer squads of the MPs known in other words as Gramaarakshaka Niladhari (Civil Defense Force).   In September 1997 the government established a commission to investigate murders and involuntary disappearances reported that "A large number of persons responsible for the disappearances - government officers and others - have been identified in the report.”

 Some names such as Udugamploa who later became known as a traitor of the nation (“Kulasiri Udugampola – A traitor of the nation and the state-August 5, 2007 by lrrp)

, Sergeant Dayananda of Nikaweratiya police, Gaddafi of elsewhere and so on are synonymous with the perpetrators and most of them have never been prosecuted.

 Why justice eluded
 By 1994 UNP lost power. Mass murders of 1987-1989 threw UNP into political wilderness and for nearly two decades they still haven’t found a path to come out, such were the effects of the sins committed by them.
Chandrika established commissions to investigate thousands of disappearances .The commissions had received 34,000 complaints since January 1988.

On September 3, 1997, the three commissions issued their report, stating that they investigated 19,079 complaints, and found evidence of 16,742 persons involuntarily removed and having disappeared. A two-page statement from the president's office stated, "A large number of persons responsible for the disappearances - government officers and others - have been identified in the report." The report said that the commissions had no legal authority to take legal action but were asked to identify those responsible for the killings.

On May 8, 1998, the government appointed another presidential panel to investigate the disappearances during the 1987-90 JVP revolt. The three-member panel was given the mandate to continue the work of the three previous commissions, investigating more than 11,000 remaining cases, and covering the entire country. “However, this new commission also does not have punitive powers to prosecute those responsible for the disappearances” (AFP 9 May 1998, IPS 16 July 1998).

 It felt like Chandrika treated the issue with divided loyalty between her conscience and the murder of her husband by the JVP. The investigations carried out at the tax payers’ expense were futile if no one could be prosecuted. It is like giving a rifle without cartridges. Somehow for the innocents who died at the hands of brutal opportunistic personnel of the armed forces, the police and others justice eluded .Most of the killers are still at large.

This Government.

 This government should not have such illusions or divided loyalties. Perhaps the discovery of the Matale mass grave is a timely reminder that justice still awaits for those who were murdered. After the Second World War Nazis were relentlessly chased. The last case was as recent as 2009, after almost 65 years. 

“The Last Nazi, aged 89, finally faces justice as he goes on trial accused of helping to kill 28,000 Jews”

UPDATED: 14:52, 28 November 2009

In comparison, 25 years to deliver justice for the dead and their families is not too late at all. It is the responsibility of a government to deliver that justice. In many fronts this governments is losing popularity. This is one better opportunity for the government to regain its former glory. Besides it can bury the UNP still deeper in the political grave with the renewal of investigations and prosecutions that would be a constant reminder of the UNP’s terror campaign that contradicts what they pretend to stand for today.

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