UN Officials Want Action Against Gota Over his Alleged Role in “Disappearances” of 700 Persons in Matale when in Charge of Anti-JVP Operations in 1989-1990

by D.B.S.JEYARAJ

These are trying times for Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former President and Ex-Defence secretary.Faced with a massive wide-spread peoples protest last year , the then President known popularly as Gota, deserted post and went abroad from where he relinquished office. Finding himself unwelcome in most countries,Gota returned home. Thereafter he has been trying hard to go to the USA, the country of which he had been a naturalized citizen until 2019. His efforts to re-enter the US have proven futile so far.

In a further twist of fate , Gota along with elder brother Mahinda was at the receiving end of targeted sanctions by Canada on Jan 6 this year.These Canadian sanctions could potentially, have far reaching implications and consequences for him.

Now, adding to Gota’s woes is a UN spear-headed International focus on an earlier phase of his life. This time it is not about his roles as President or Defence secretary but about the time he served as a Lt. Col in the Sri Lankan army. It is specifically about the time Gota was appointed commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Gajaba Regiment (1GR) and military co-ordinating officer of the Matale district during the second insurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP ) which took place from 1987 to 1990.

Matale District Coordinating Officer

Gota reportedly functioned in Matale District from May 1989 to January 1990. “He (Gota) was posted to Matale as the district coordinating officer tasked with bringing the JVP under control.” wrote C.A. Chandraprema in “Gota’s war”.

There were numerous allegations of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, and extra-judicial killings being committed by Govt security forces between May 1989 and January 1990, in the Matale District, during the JVP uprising. Over 700 persons most of them Sinhalese allegedly disappeared then.There has been complete lack of accountability and judicial action against the State authorities allegedly identified as perpetrators of the violations committed so far.

However the 1989-90 JVP “ghosts”of Matale have now retuned to “haunt” Gota in 2022/23.in a significant development four key representatives from UN related agencies wrote a joint letter to Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe on 8 November 2022. The UN epistle from the four bodies expressed concern about the complete lack of accountability and judicial action against those identified as responsible.The UN missive provided particulars about the Matale incidents of 1989/90 and requested a comprensive response from the Sri Lankan Govt. If there was no reply in two months, the UN said it will make the letter public. Since there was presumably no response from Colombo, the UN joint letter was available in the public domain in 9 Jan 2023. In keeping with certain protocols, the UN redacted the name of the official in charge of Matale District in 1989/90.

In order to provide readers with a clear detailed picture, relevant paragraphs from the UN letter are reproduced extensively below-

UN Letter of 08 November 2022

Excellency,

We have the honour to address you in our capacities as Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of nonrecurrence.

We would like to bring to the attention of your Excellency’s Government information we have received concerning the alleged enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, and extra-judicial killings, reportedly committed by Government security forces between May 1989 and January 1990, in the Matale District, in the context of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) uprising.

According to the information received: Between May 1989 and January 1990, Government security forces in the Matale District allegedly carried out enforced disappearances, arbitrary and unlawful detentions, and extra-judicial killings, in the context of escalating violence between the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Government of Sri Lanka.

It is reported that, during this period, the Government deployed then commanding officer of the 1 st Battalion, Gajaba Regiment, as District Military Coordinating Officer of the Matale District, where he controlled all security forces deployed in the district, including intelligence forces.

Starting in 1989, Commissions of Inquiry were set up by the Government to investigate human rights violations that had reportedly occurred during, and subsequent to, the uprising. The Commissions received complaints alleging enforced disappearance, torture, extra-judicial killings, and arbitrary and lawful detentions that had been carried out by security forces in the Matale District.

The information received points to and the security forces under his control (mostly the “Gajaba Regiment”) as the main perpetrators. According to the Commissions’ reports, would have known about the scale of violence in the small district of Matale, which only had a population of 350,000 at the time.

It is reported that four different Commissions of Inquiry investigated the enforced disappearances of persons that took place from May 1989 and January 1991.

1041 enforced disappearance in Matale

The Commissions documented 1041 cases of enforced disappearance in the Matale District, from which more than 700 cases occurred between May 1989 and January 1990.

The Commissions also compiled a list of 24 alleged perpetrators of enforced disappearance in the Matale District. This list, however, was never published and was reportedly placed under a government secrecy order set up to run until 2030.

The list includes and army and police officers under his command. reportedly had been present at various detention sites, as well as schools and guest houses known as “notorious torture sites”.

The Commissions also documented instances of arbitrary and unlawful detention and torture (including sexual torture) of detainees. Commissions’ reports noted that it was well known at the time that people were stopped and detained at checkpoints, or as part of roundups and mass arrests in villages and were abducted by officials who identified themselves as belonging to the State security services using unmarked government vehicles. Those detained and abducted included young men and boys from villages in the Matale District.

Vijaya College Army Camp

Evidence was also collected from former detainees who had survived detention in army or police custody at Vijaya College army camp and other places of detention in Matale District. Prisoners testified to being blindfolded and beaten, including while “being hung upside down”, and “being forced to inhale chilli fumes.”

UNHRC

The Commissions documented one specific case of a victim who was arrested in September 1989 and held at Vijaya College army camp for a period of 40 days and brutally tortured while in detention. The Commissions also collected evidence of extra-judicial killings of civilians during this period, many of whom would have been arbitrarily and unlawfully detained and taken into custody.

The allegations received also refer to instances in which human remains of victims were left in fields or displayed on bridges. It is also reported that the alleged perpetrators have not been charged or tried and have continued to hold positions in the Government.

It is argued that judicial action against security officials and politicians was dissipated due to political interference, and also because of security and military recruitment needs in the context of the conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of these allegations, we express our serious concern at the alleged enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, and extra-judicial killings, reportedly committed by Government security forces between May 1989 and January 1990, in the Matale District, and the ensuing lack of accountability and judicial action against the alleged perpetrators of these human rights violations.

Allegations if Confirmed

Should the facts alleged above be confirmed, they would amount to a violation of the right to life, as set forth in article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and in article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), acceded to by Sri Lanka on 11 June 1980. With regard to the alleged enforced disappearances, if confirmed, they would amount to violations of articles 6, 7, 9 and 16 of the ICCPR, read alone and in conjunction with article 2(3). These would equally amount to violations of the 1992 Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), which Sri Lanka ratified on 25 May 2016.

If confirmed, the allegations of arbitrary deprivations of liberty would amount to a violation of the right to liberty and security of person, enshrined in article 9 of the Covenant. The abovementioned allegations also appear to be in violation of the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, established in article 5 of UDHR, article 7 of the ICCPR, and article 1 of the Convention against Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (UNCAT), acceded to by Sri Lanka on 3 Jan 1994.

These allegations would also contravene the State’s obligations to investigate acts of torture and ill-treatment, prosecute perpetrators and provide redress and reparation to victims, pursuant to articles 4, 5, 12 and 14 of the UNCAT.

As it is our responsibility, under the mandates provided to us by the Human Rights Council, to seek to clarify all cases brought to our attention, we would be grateful for your observations on the following matters:

Please Provide Information

Please provide any additional information and/or comment (s) you may have on the above-mentioned allegations.

Please provide information about whether any investigation and judicial or other inquiry has been undertaken in relation to these allegations. In particular, please provide information on steps taken to conduct prompt, impartial, independent, thorough and effective investigations into potentially unlawful deaths in line with international standards, including the Revised United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (the Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of a Potentially Unlawful Death (2016)1 )

If no inquiries have taken place, or if they have been inconclusive, please explain why.

Please provide detailed information regarding the findings by the four Commissions of Inquiry on the enforced disappearances that took place from May 1989 and January 1990, including the 1041 documented cases in Matale District, as well as on the publication of the list of 24 alleged perpetrators.

In particular, please elaborate on how the placement of such a list under a government secrecy order set up to run until 2030 would comply with your Government’s international undertakings.

What measures, if any, have been undertaken to search for the persons disappeared between May 1989 and January 1990 in the Matale District, and to establish their fate and whereabouts.

Please provide the factual and legal basis for the arrests and detentions of individuals carried out in Matale District between May 1989 and January 1990 and documented by the Commissions.

Please explain what measures were put into place to guarantee the fair trial and due process rights of arrested and detained individuals. Please also explain how these measures comply with Sri Lanka’s obligations under international human rights law.

Have any measures been taken to provide reparations, including financial compensation to the victims of these alleged human rights violations? If this is not the case, please explain why.

Response Within 60 Days.

We would appreciate receiving a response within 60 days. Past this delay, this communication and any response received from your Excellency’s Government will be made public via the communications reporting website.

They will also subsequently be made available in the usual report to be presented to the Human Rights Council. While awaiting a reply, we urge that all necessary measures be taken to investigate and ensure the accountability of any person(s) responsible for the alleged violations.

Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of our highest consideration.

1. Aua Baldé Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances

2. Mumba Malila Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

3. Morris Tidball-Binz Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

4. Fabian Salvioli Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence

Three important aspects Highlighted

Three important aspects concerning the suppression of the JVP revolt in Matale district have been highlighted in this UN letter.

Firstly 1041 cases of enforced disappearances in Matale district have been documented through four commissions of inquiry.Of these more than 700 allegedly occurred when Gota was in charge as the chief militaty officer.

Secondly the four Sri Lankan commissions appointed at different times by different Govts have identified 24 persons as perpetrators allegedly involved in the enforced disappearances in Matale. There is no information of any action being taken against anyone in this regard

Thirdly it has come to light that the names and designations of those allegedly responsible for the Matale “disappearances” have been placed under a govt secrecy order set up to run until 2030. This is an indicator of institutionalised impunity.

As dtated earlier the name of Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been redacted and does not appear in the UN letter made public. However it is open knowledge that Gota was the chief coordinating military officer in charge of Matale district from May 1989 to January 1990 during which over 700 enforced disappearances took place.

Gota’s “Command” Role in Matale

However Gota’s “command” role in Matale district and the circumstances under which he was placed in charge by a UNP Govt is recpunted by C. A. Chandraprema in his book “Gota’s war”.The following are excerpts from pages, 173,174&177 in the book’s Chapter 28 titled “The second JVP insurrection”.

pic via: @GotabayaR

“ On 1 May 1989, with Colonel Wimalaratne being promoted to the rank of Brigadier, Göta was made the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment. This was now a permanent appointment unlike the temporary command he held during the Vadamarachchi operation.”

“With this promotion, he was posted to Matale as the district coordinating officer tasked with bringing the JVP under control. The 1st Gajaba Battalion, which had been in Trincomalee for nearly one and a half years, was brought down to Matale. Lieutenants Shavendra Silva, Jagath Dias and Sumedha Perera were among his company commanders in Matale.” (all three became Generals later with Shavendra ending up as Army chief)

“When Gōta was appointed coordinating officer of the Matale district, the ruling party politicians of that area had complained to the powerful deputy defence minister Ranjan Wijeratne that Göta was Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother and that they had no faith in him.”

Ranjan Wijeratne

“At that time, Mahinda Rajapaksa was back in parliament after an interval of 12 years and was a vocal critic of the manner in which the UNP government was handling the JVP insurrection. At that time Brigadier Wimalaratne was director operations of the Joint Operations Command. He had told Ranjan Wijeratne that it was up to the government to decide whom to appoint as the coordinating officer for Matale. However he had pointed out that Göta was serving in Matale as the commander of the 1″ Gajaba Battalion and that he could not be removed from the position of battalion commander because he was a good officer who was committed and professional in his work. “

“Brigadier Wimalaratne had explained to Wijeratne that Göta had fought in Vadamarachchi and given him details of other operations that he had carried out. Wijeratne had agreed that Göta should not be removed from his position.”

“Later, Wijeratne came to Matale and Göta organized a conference for him and he explained what he was going to do to secure the district against the JVP terrorists. After the conference, Wijeratne told him that the politicians of the area don’t want him because he is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother but that his commander says he is a good military officer that he has earned the command of the battalion. Wijeratne had added, “I don’t want to change you, you get on with the job and if any of the politicians give you trouble, tell me.”

“After Göta took over the Matale district, detachments were posted in every strategically important location.”

Mahinda Wijesekera

“During that period, among some suspected JVP activists arrested in Matale was a person who happened to be a relation of Mahinda Wijesekera’s wife. Wijesekera, who had played a major role in getting Mahinda elected to parliament in 1970, was now himself a member of the SLFP and a parliamentarian representing the Matara district. Wjesekera had come to Matale to plead with Gōta to release his relative. Having himself been a leader of the JVP, Wijesekera told Göta that Matale is an important region for the JVP and that Rohana Wijeweera had been talking about this area even during the 1971 insurgency and there was a strong possibility that he was hiding somewhere in an inaccessible place in the district.”

“Gota remained the security coordinating officer of Matale until the end of the second JVP insurrection. In January 1990, he applied for three months leave and went to the USA to see his family.”

JDS and ITJP Report

It is important to note that some months prior to the UN joint letter, on 10 May 2022, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) and the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) published a joint report titled “ Gotabaya Rajapaksa: the Sri Lankan President’s Role in 1989 Mass Atrocities.” Furthermore on 30 June 2022, JDS and the ITJP submitted further information on the role played by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and key members of the security forces in Matale in 1989 to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance.

FoD Demo in Matale Town

The UN letter/statement on the Enforced disappearances in Matale during the 2nd JVP insurgency was welcomed by human rights activists and the loved ones of the disappeared. Brito Fernando , President of “Families of the Disappeared”(FoD) conducted a demonstration in Matale town handing out leaflets to the public calling for truth and justice.83 family members of the enforced disappearances victims participated.52 of them were from Matale while the others were from Kandy, Galle, Matara,Hambantota, Gampaha and Colombo.

Many have felt for many years that the human rights violations allegedly committed by the security forces in the Sinhala majority districts during the JVP revolt of 1987-90 have not got sufficient international attention in the past. The UN joint letter is threfora most welcome in this respect. Moreover the letter and related findings will now have an impact in the forthcoming UN Human Rights Councol meeting in March this year in Geneva.

Brito Fernando

Let me conclude with a comment from FoD president Brito Fernando” We welcome this and it will invigorate us all. Families of the disappeared desperately need to see accountability and this sort of acknowledgement from abroad by the UN gives them a glimmer of hope after so many decades of disappointment and suffering,”(ENDS)

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This is an updated version of the “Political Pulse” Column appearing in the “Daily FT
dated 18 January 2023.It can be accessed here –

https://www.ft.lk/columns/Past-JVP-ghosts-of-Matale-return-to-haunt-Gota-now/4-744235