As this series draws to a close, bringing with it perhaps intimations of mortality, I thought of engaging in reflections relating to the death anniversaries of some people I admired tremendously. Closely connected to a range of human rights issues was the murder of Richard de Zoysa, 13 years ago this week, undoubtedly by government para-military forces.
At the time of his death government papers engaged in a campaign of disinformation and vilification, but the case resonated, and I believe it contributed to the disbanding of the forces that had been used to quell the JVP insurrection. Memories of those events have returned, with the discovery of a mass grave in Matale, but I am not sure that it would make sense to revive inquiries into the subject now.
That was a brutal period, with the initial provocation coming from a government that had completely subverted the democratic process. However the violence the JVP engaged in was disproportionate to the provocation, and lasted beyond the removal of the principal cause of despair. When elections were finally held, at the end of 1988, the JVP should have re-entered the democratic process, but the excesses that followed, directed also against the opposition party that had suffered so much from UNP violence, led to even greater violence on the part of the State.
Thinking back on those events, one realizes how the grossness of the LTTE was even greater, and the response of the State less extreme. In both instances however the State had a responsibility to prevent abuse on the part of its own agents, and to deal firmly with calculated and premeditated abuse, while also limiting extreme reactions in cases of provocation.
In 1989 however the armed forces had not received the concerted training in International Humanitarian Law that has been a feature of the last two decades in Sri Lanka. They were still in the Keany-Meany mindset, after training in the old brutal British methods of repression which one hopes, perhaps optimistically, the British are less complacent about now. Some of the abuses then were systematic, which is why it was important to have a thorough inquiry after the government changed.
But, perhaps understandably, the Kumaratunga government concentrated on disappearances, and on providing compensation, and there was no question then of punitive measures. To reopen the cases now however would be a mistake, given that society has settled down again. On the contrary, what we should be concentrating on now is examination into disappearances, as was done in the nineties after an even longer period had passed, so that we can assuage the grief of those who still need to know about the fate of their loved ones.
One of the problems about unleashing para-military forces is that they take on a life of their own, as can be seen in Richard’s murder, long after the JVP leadership had been destroyed. Thankfully we see few signs of that now, though that is why government must be thorough in investigating matters such as Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance. In 1990 President Premadasa, who I believe wanted swiftly to restore normalcy, would have had difficulties, if Richard’s death, and the consequent uproar, did not provide him with the moral authority to shut down the activities of those who had been dealing in like manner with JVP excesses.
But, that having been done, the establishment closed ranks to prevent proper investigation. Though a brave magistrate, and Richard’s even braver mother, stayed by the body so that the record could not be tampered with, his mother’s identification of the perpetrator, Ronnie Gunasinghe, was dismissed by the Court. Only much later was his second in command brought to trial, and by then Richard’s mother was not in a position to give evidence satisfactorily, and the trial was I believe finally compounded. Sadly, those who now pronounce on police and judicial inadequacies have forgotten the extreme perversions that occurred then, with hardly any Civil Society organizations able or willing to protest. And, as Richard’s mother put it, she at least could continue with the good fight, but that was not possible for the family of Ananda Sunil who had been abducted at the time of the Referendum. He had been long forgotten by the nation at large in 1990, and I suspect hardly anyone remembers the name of the incident now.
A particularly bizarre element in the campaign run by government at the time was to claim that Richard’s murder had to do with vengeance over a homosexual love affair. The viciousness of those in authority then extended to the reading in Parliament of what was claimed to be his diary, though the MP who engaged in this told me later that he has forgotten who gave him the diary or the brief to read from it. That was a vulgarity that I suspect neither government nor opposition would engage in now, even though neither has the courage to propose disallowing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, as has been suggested by the Committee that prepared the draft Bill of Rights mentioned in the 2005 President’s Manifesto.
Though I am assured that prosecutions do not take place, it is absurd to continue to keep an archaic British law – which G L Peiris as Minister of Justice recently extended to lesbians, whereas Queen Victoria had refused to allow legislation against lesbians since she could not conceive of such practices. Such laws allow for abuse of the vulnerable, and also prevent the concerted action to prevent child abuse that is essential, and easier if clear age limits are laid down. But, as with efforts to liberalize legislation on abortion, a few extremists, committed to the restrictive Judaeo-Christian tradition (which the West has now largely overcome), as opposed to the tolerance of the subcontinental vision, will continue to prevent reform. I can only hope that, to honour Richard’s memory as well, there will be greater enlightenment soon.