Lanka is faced with its Srebrenica moment. The Judicial Medical Officer’s report on the mass grave at the Matale Hospital premises, and another specialist report by Prof. Raj Somadeva, the Professor of Forensic Archaeology at the University of Kelaniya, have established that (a) the mass grave dates back to the government’s counter-insurgency campaign against the Southern insurgency in 1989-90 and (b) that the victims had been subjected to extensive torture, before they were killed and buried. That is while the survivors say that the Army in 1989, operated a torture chamber in a school, Vijaya Vidyalaya, located near the site of the mass grave.
Cursed with three insurgencies during the last four decades, the country is dotted with mass graves.
In fact, in the early 90s, a politically charged campaign over a suspected mass grave in Suriyakanda, where the innocent student victims of a military torture chamber in Embilipitiya were believed to have been buried, finally landed Chandrika Kumaratunga in the President’s House. It was President Kumaratunga who obtained a Court order to excavate the suspected mass grave. Soon after her election, she issued a decree that scores of military officers and soldiers implicated in grotesque human rights violations committed during 1989-90, be immediately suspended from service.
Picked from the grassroots
However, the military which had been all powerful at the time opted to disregard the order from the newly elected President. The military had, then, been indulging in a climate of impunity which the outgoing United National Party Government had set in place. It was a time when the Police Special Task Force (STF), which was formed to lead a ‘dirty war’ against the JVP in the late 80s, was associated with its loyalty to the United National Party (UNP) and than its allegiance to the Constitution. In fact, the first recruits of the STF were picked from the grassroots cadres of the UNP’s provincial politicians. The STF and many other military and para-military groups that were supported by the State emulated Latin America’s dirty war tactics, also known as Operation Candor, which was responsible for mass disappearances and extra judicial killings in Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, among other countries.
In this backdrop, understandable enough, the newly-elected President Kumaratunga thought it was better to put up with military impudence. However, she soon strengthened her grip in the military, with the appointment of Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatta as the Commander of the Army. By then, she could have given another try and reissued her directive, but she did not. She swept it under the carpet and worst still, during her own regime, Brigadier Parry Liyanage, who was then the commanding responsibility as a Colonel during the abduction, torture and massacre of students of Embilipitiya in 1989, was promoted to the rank of Brigadier; he thereafter went on to serve at the Sri Lanka Athletic Association.
Barring a handful of Court cases, the preponderance of egregious rights violations that took place between 1989-90, was not investigated. The killers attached to the military and para-military squads escaped justice, and got away scot free. And the absence of legal measures to hold those responsible accountable for those egregious violations gave rise to an entrenched climate of impunity.
However, to give her due, despite her failure to bring justice to the victims of the 1989 massacre, President Kumaratunga acted on the instance of alleged rights violations such as the allegations about a mass grave in Chemmani, the excavations of which, however, did not produce any conclusive evidence.
The fact of the matter is that, beginning from Sirima Ratwatte Bandaranaike’s left-leaning Government in the early 70s, successive Sri Lankan regimes have failed to act against extra judicial killings, disappearances and torture, blamed on their own security apparatus.
However, the world has moved since the dirty wars of Latin America. In 2005, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that an earlier pardon granted to dirty war generals was void. The Junta President of Argentina, Jorge Videla, and many other dirty war generals are now serving their twilight years in jails. In 2010, Videla was sentenced to life in prison for the massacre of political prisoners.
Sri Lanka’s recent past is much bloodier than that of South America. The term ‘disappeared’ (desaparecido) was first coined by Human Rights organizations in 1966 after the government’s covert campaign against political opponents in Guatemala. Disappearances were unique in that people were not officially identified as killed by officials, though in fact they had been kidnapped, tortured, and finally killed in secluded places, either by the State forces or para-military groups.
Sri Lanka is one country which, unfortunately though, adopted that strategy as a cornerstone in its counter insurgency/terrorism strategy. Disappearances have been used to divert the culpability of the State apparatus in extra judicial killings, though the victims have often been liquidated and evidence of the crimes has been destroyed.
However, the Matale mass grave has now thrust open the doors to one such torture chamber. The JMO report reveals the skeletons bore marks of torture – heads had been severed from bodies by an electric saw, nails had been inserted into the fingers, and that prisoners had been electrocuted.
Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself was a human rights activist who campaigned for the rights of the disappeared. The recent gory discovery offers him an acid test to prove his sincerity in his once professed values. He should have little hesitation to proceed with an investigation as the current findings reveal that his regime could not be held culpable for this grave. There may be one glitch though: His younger brother and powerful Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was the Commanding Officer of the 1st Gajaba Battalion, appointed on 1 May 1989. He was also posted to the Matale District as District Coordinating Officer. He served in Matale until the end of 1989 and in 1990 he applied for three months’ leave and went to the US to see his family.
Blood is thicker than water. And the prevailing climate of impunity and the military triumphalism would not warrant a serious investigation into the conduct of the military during the Southern counter-insurgency. However, one should not forget the dirty war General Videla’s analogy. He was 83, when he was sentenced to life in prison in 2010, 27 years after the junta relinquished power in Argentina.