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Richard De Zoysa

Introductory remarks by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha to a discussion after the presentation of the docu-drama on the  occasion of the DSC South Asian Literature Festival, London – October 2010


In the run up to this festival, I was struck by an article that related Richard de Zoysa’s murder, way back in 1990, to recent attacks on journalists in Sri Lanka, and in particular to the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of ‘The Sunday Leader’. In one sense this is understandable, because both cases involved murder, and murder clearly for political reasons. Strengthening condemnation in such cases by drawing attention to previous such occurrences obviously makes sense.

At the same time this should not detract from the differences. Richard’s murder took place in the context of pervasive violence against the southern youth insurrection of the time, the thousands of disappearances that are still on record as unsolved at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. In those days Human Rights was not fashionable in Colombo, because the insurrection was against a government that represented Colombo’s elite. Richard was seen in some quarters as a traitor to his class – the government indeed read out in Parliament extracts from what was claimed to be his diary, in an attempt to suggest that this had something to do with his sexuality – and it took much effort to draw attention to the murder elsewhere in the world. I still remember a piece a friend of mine, Sandra Barwick, wrote in the Telegraph at the time, drawing attention to the silence in Britain then about abuses in Sri Lanka – but we have to remember that in those days we were considered a useful ally of the West, and strong and decisive leaders were generally considered desirable, through old Cold War habits, without any consideration of their moral status.

All that thankfully has changed now. In Sri Lanka the chattering classes woke up to at least some sense of principle, and I believe that in fact Richard’s death contributed to the end of the total violation of all norms in the decade that ended with that death. In my novel, The Limits of Love, I put it as follows – ‘The outcry has been so tremendous, both within Sri Lanka as well as abroad, that it is clear that any repetition of such activities will be disastrous for the government. The message evidently has gone out therefore, that restraint will have to be exercised in the future, and that the open season in which the security forces would not be held accountable for counter-subversive activities is now over. Diana says too that the Death Squads have been dissolved, not officially of course, for officially they never existed, but with a certain degree of pomp and circumstance including a party at which Ranjan made an appearance. In that respect, it would seem, Richard did not die in vain. Because of him, the reign of terror has ended.’

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2010
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