Richard De Zoysa


Richard de Zoysa died twenty years ago, in the early hours of February 18th 1990. He had been abducted from his home earlier that night by a posse of armed men, part of the death squads which had dealt with what was seen in those days as the JVP menace. 

The methods used during that period to rid the country of what was seen as terror are now all forgotten. This is not only because they occurred two decades and more ago, and our memories are incredibly short. No, it was also because the perpetrators of terror in those days were also part of the establishment, and therefore any misdemeanours on their part are naturally skated over. 

In that respect Richard’s death proved a turning point. Being himself a member of the establishment, however rebellious, he could not be ignored, and it is in part because of his death that the reign of terror came to a halt. And perhaps even more fortunately, the criticism then led to crystallization of protest, the emergence of a proactive Civil Society that has made itself heard ever since, when abuses take place. 

At the same time it could be argued that this was possible because the governments in power were not establishmentarian in character. Not only has Sri Lanka been governed for the last 15 years by the SLFP, which the Colombo establishment opposes as a matter of principle, before that there was Premadasa. Though the establishment was divided at the time, enough of its more articulate members opposed him and saw rights issues as a vehicle for protest. 

So we have the paradox that those who cared nothing when Jayewardene presided over the burning of the Jaffna Public Library and the pogrom of 1983, the deprivation of Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights and the Referendum of 1982 that put off elections for six years, the nullification through hasty legislation of Appeal Court judgments and the intimidation of Supreme Court judges, now appear as champions of the minorities and democracy and the rule of law. Of course there is a new generation involved, and we cannot really blame them for their ignorance, in a society which remembers nothing, except grudges and prejudices. But their paymasters are those who relished authoritarianism when it seemed to promote their interests, and that is why we should not be surprised that they flirted with authoritarianism again. Bizarrely, they were also prepared, in promoting this, to ally themselves with the JVP which had been hunted down with such relish twenty years earlier. 

But the dance of death that the establishment engages in ever so often should be the subject of a longer study. Here I am concerned with a small element in this process, which was highlighted by Richard a couple of years before he died, and which I was reminded of by a fortuitous encounter in Jaipur in November last year. 

I had been asked to deliver a keynote address on education to the Conference of a Non-Governmental Organization, and afterwards I saw a performance in the open air of ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’, which we had promoted at the British Council way back in I think 1987. 

In those days, unlike previously and since, the British Council was also a venue for protest theatre, with the full backing of the then British Council Representative, Rex Baker. He did on occasion ask me whether we were not going too far, but my view was that freedom had to be tested to its limits. Rex had served previously in Iraq, and initially wanted to put up a photograph of President Jayewardene along with one of the Queen at the entrance to the Council, but I dissuaded him on the grounds that that would be seen as a political gesture, and the Council was respected as an institution beyond politics. In general then I was allowed a free hand, and able therefore to use the talents of purveyors of protest such as Richard and Steve de la Zilwa. 

It was the latter who produced ‘Accidental Death’. Richard, who had done a fascinating ‘Merchant of Venice’ for us, which touched on elements of the racism that we both worried about, felt his own political commentary had been far too subtle to be understood, and that Steve’s production had dealt admirably with current issues. He consoled himself however with the thought that at least the ‘Merchant’ had been toured, whereas ‘Accidental Death’ could only play in our little British Council auditorium. One review of the production was, if I remember aright, called ‘A beautiful caged animal’. 

When people talk now about the absence of media freedom, I think back to those days and wonder about how quickly they have been forgotten. Soon after that I managed to get the services of Scott Richards for a series of workshops, which all produced tellingly political productions. The first was ‘What the papers don’t say’, and had biting comments on issues like the private medical college which could not then be discussed in the regular press. 

On the strength of that production Richard decided to send some of his more recent acquaintance for the workshops, boys who I later found out were associated with the JVP, a couple of whom were killed for this in 1989. He was ambivalent about work with the British Council, which he thought a bourgeois institution, but he felt that with Scott there would be scope for self expression for his boys. So it proved, and the next production was a sensational collation called ‘Twice Told Tales’, which had even my sedate father relishing the witty barbs. 

But all this was contained. In those days television and radio were state monopolies, and even the one set of independent newspapers we had was muted. Ironically, the breakthrough came only after Richard’s death, under Premadasa, who was I think confident enough not to care about what others said, who unlike Jayewardene was always prepared to face elections. He it was who started issuing licenses for broadcasting, and permitted papers and new tabloids to spring up. I have no doubt that he would have survived their criticism, but the Tigers realized his strength and got rid of him, and ensured comparatively weak and petulant governance over the next decade. 

How would Richard have reacted? I saw his opposition to Premadasa as in part fuelled by his establishment background, or at least his closeness to Lalith Athulathmudali. Conversely it could be seen as simply a product of his closeness to the JVP, through the boys whose approach to life, so utterly different from his own, he found fascinating. He could not get over the gulf that separated his earlier protégés from Royal, who would go abroad for study and end up with UN jobs, from these scholarship boys who had to struggle every inch of the way. 

But perhaps there was no necessary dichotomy. What the last few weeks have taught us is the cynicism with which alliances are made when pique and bitterness are the motives. We forget sometimes how Jayewardene was able to use the JVP against Mrs Bandaranaike during his first term, before he drove them underground by condemning them for the 1983 pogrom for which his own responsibility was much more. We forget how then officials at the US Embassy chuckled when the LTTE and the JVP together took on the Indians, who had after all begun to intervene precisely because Jayewardene had wanted to involve us in the Cold War on the western side. 

I do not think Richard would have allowed himself to be used. But idealists can be used contrary to their knowledge and their will. We know that strange alliances were brewing in those days, in the fallout after the Indo-Lankan Accord, and in politics there are no permanent enemies. What we do have are permanent prejudices, and we can see the entrenchment of violations that occurred in the eighties as springing from these. 

We have gone a long way towards improving the situation, but we need to go further. This can only be achieved if there is more attention to the principles involved, less drama based on predilections. Sadly we do not pay enough attention to facts in looking at values, we do not look at precedents and practices elsewhere. Twenty years after Richard died, we are just recovering from a terrorist threat that was even greater than the ones faced then. We can only hope that now at least, with a greater sense of security than we have had for a quarter of a century, we can affirm values in the context of facts.