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.’

That does not mean that aberrations have not recurred, but they have been nothing like as systemic as in the late eighties. This makes it all the more remarkable that Richard, who was not for much of his life a political activist, nor even a political journalist, should have taken the decision to get involved in the dangerous work of a proscribed political party. In the novel, and also in two lengthy analytical articles I wrote soon after his death, about his personality and about the political milieu in which he finally got enthused and active, I tried to suggest the different strands in his motivation. I am not sure I succeeded because with Richard I have always been conscious of the superscription to Paul Scott’s Mark of the Warrior, ‘Three things are to be considered: a man’s estimate of himself, the face he presents to the world, the estimate of that man made by other men. Combined they form an aspect of truth.

I have noted that, while a distinction between the first two elements might initially seem important only in cases of conscious hypocrisy, we see throughout in Scott’s work how the demands of one’s fellows could quite easily require one to suppress what might otherwise seem perfectly satisfactory aspects of oneself. I am grateful therefore to Willi Richards and Roger Elsgood for bringing alive in this programme much of the complexity of Richard’s character, and also his innate idealism and decency.

Willi had also worked with Richard in the late eighties, and understood his response when I was trying to persuade him to bring into British Council drama workshops youngsters of a very different class to that which the Council usually worked with. Our efforts worked and the youngsters transformed the workshop productions into impressive political statements. The most impressive of those actors – I can see him still, performing flamboyantly in the small British Council auditorium – was also killed, a few months before Richard, which is when Richard understood that he too was in danger. But no one now remembers Madhura.

Let me end however with extracts from a few of the tributes paid to Richard by the Sri Lankan poets in English whose reputation he revived by his dramatic readings in those distant days:

Jean Arasanayagam

for your voice could capture

Lives and make them breathe

However cold and still

 Who also pointed out the unique contribution of the fisherman who discovered the dead body washed ashore, and insisted on staying guard till his mother arrived on the scene, so that the murder had to go on record –

and say that only one, that simple fisherman,

had grace.

 Alfreda de Silva

Yet, for all that restless

energy and camaraderie,

there was in you a stillness

and a transcience

and like the dragon-fly

that basks in sunlight a little while

spreading its brilliant wings

for all to wonder at and gaze upon.

one moment you were here, and the next gone. 

Arjuna Parakrama

You’ll get eulogies, a funeral for what it’s worth

A memorial lecture next year, that Sena and thousands

Of others won’t . No one will grudge you that

In this grotesque unequal exchange we celebrate as life.

                        ….: what you did no one did better, Richard.

It is about life, then, and work ahead, and going back for me.

And death, your death; more than a thousand deaths.

What death?