While a memorial which marks the violent ‘Reign of Terror’ between 1987-90 is long overdue, the State can begin by holding a “truth determining” process – one with a genuine, earnest interest in determining the “truth” – and by acknowledging the crisis, rather than shirking from it and from taking responsibility for its role in the carnage caused.
Twenty five years since what is arguably the most intense genocide in “Southern Lanka”, that dark reign of blood, bullets and terror remains a “taboo subject”: unspoken of, unaccounted for and un-remembered by the State. Every year, in the month of November, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) organizes a commemoration on behalf of the fallen victims of the uprising against the J.R Jayawardena government, which culminated in an inconclusive number of deaths of civilians and political activists. According to the independent understanding, the number is between 40000 and 60000; while the mass majority of these extra-judicial killings are alleged to have been carried out by para-military units and militant operatives executed under the aegis of the State.
The JVP, in several instances, has admitted to their role in the crisis and has, over popular media, even apologized to the Lankan people for its destructive measures carried out as “necessitated” by circumstances. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) – which defected from the JVP in 2011 and formed its own activism – meditatively refers to the tragedy of 1987-89 in their confession, publicized a few years ago. Both the JVP and the FSP share roots with active anti-governmental activists who spearheaded the assault against the State; and also those who were brutally quelled and suppressed by the state’s (official and unofficial) defense machinery. However, as these two bodies solemnly partake in activities and programmes to meditate on the terrorized past, we have not seen the State involved in any reminiscence of the same. It is almost as if the State – which in some cases show the five second memory of a fish – has no intention of “remembering” that violent past, or its own violent measures as the law giving and law enforcing supremo of the country.
The State’s response to the political upheaval of 1987-89 has been widely questioned and condemned by independent observers. The Satanic reputation of the Premadasa regime and his handpicked confidantes to “flush out rebellion” are acknowledged to breed fear psychoses by terrorizing the civil community into utter numbness. Prins Gunasekara (a lawyer with Left Wing affinities who, as alleged, came under State death threat), in his A Lost Generation, refers to the government’s infamous tactic of terrorizing “hundred people, by killing one” as a counter-rebellious thrust. He also dedicates much space in his study to highlight the lack of process or inquiry into the genocidal maneuvers of the State. Rohitha Munasinghe, writing from self-imposed exile (after an escape from a governmental torture camp in 1990), equally emphasizes on the lack of an inquest, or a legal process in the aftermath of the “cleansing” in question. Munasinghe cross-refers to the State response in 1971 where, irrespective of criticism and shortcomings, a legal inquiry of sorts was resorted to in establishing “crime” and “punishment”.
In the twenty fifth year of commemoration, the frontline of the then-JVP set up have all been killed, save Somawansa Amarasinghe. With the possible exception of Ranil Wickramasinghe, the entire vanguard of the then UNP-regime are also no more. Of the SLFP oppositional bastion of 1987-89, a few such as the present head of State remain in politics. The time, I believe, is ripe for the State to make a symbolic gesture in solemnly remembering that political crisis which humiliatingly degraded a generation of youth who were caught in the crossroads of fire. In the end, death is inevitable and the human essence we preserve in our body is too flimsy for us to disregard its fragility. Our emotions and feelings matter – for at the heart of all transaction there is sentiment – and reconciliation has to be built on mutual respect to these emotive aspects: ours and those of our “perceived enemies”. If, the JVP supports a “common candidate” maneuver moved by the UNP in the forthcoming Presidential election – and against SLFP’s Rajapaksha, too – the old James Shirley poem “Death the Leveler” would only make too sweet a sense.
How the State may stand up and empathize with the 60,000 dead and their affiliations is best left to the imagination of the government/s to come. The State, too, can begin by holding a “truth determining” process – one with a genuine, earnest interest in determining the “truth” – and by acknowledging the crisis, rather than shirking from it or from taking responsibility for the carnage caused. But, at a more symbolical level, a memorial which marks the tragic conflict – an accessible memorial in a respectable, central locality – is long overdue. Rohana Wijeweera may not have a main road named after him (as Colvin R De Silva, NM Perera et al have), but it is also for the betterment of our future that this national leader be “absolved of establishmentarian blame”. The politics of hatred where this single person is held responsible for a national crisis – and the uncanny way in which that view is passed down to yet another generation and offspring – has to be more critically intervened with. A bit of empathy and consideration – two life-sustaining grains which the State often misses in her granary – would be rich gifts to share with the common, though twenty five years have lapsed.
[Written for the ‘Nation’]