“It is surprising that today’s generation…would consider Richard a ‘human rights activist’ who was killed by a repressive government for his journalistic and human rights work”.
“In a two and a half year reign of terror the JVP killed thousands of civilians and the UNP government of the day only did their duty by the people in cracking down on the JVP and finishing it off by whatever means was necessary….if anyone got caught in the crossfire, that’s his lookout”.
Above are two extracts taken from a “review” CA Chandraprema had socialized through the Island on June 3rd, 2015, on The Pen of Granite: a commemorative edition on Richard de Zoysa, which was co-authored by me (which can be viewed here: Chandraprema’s Article). This is the same Chandraprema who authored Sri Lanka: The Years of Terror – a state-friendly intervention with the years of the Second JVP uprising, and a biography of the late Ranjan Wijeratne (the title of which eludes me just now). Chandraprema’s latest call to fame was his highly in depth, unconventionally balanced treatise of Gotabhaya Rajapakshe – the former secretary of defense – which was published as Gota’s War.
Coming from a writer who has been an apologist of the Premadasa regime (in Sri Lanka: The Years of Terror) and the chronicler of a Ranjan Wijeratne and a Gotabhaya Rajapaksha, the above statements need not necessarily amuse a reader, either. But, the sheer confidence and finality with which these statements are channeled leaves some of us mildly amused, to say the least.
In Chandraprema’s essay, he does not in anyway dispute the fact that, in all probability, the Premadasa paramilitary abducted Richard de Zoysa and then had him murdered. The paramilitary squad accused of having committing this deed is often said to have functioned under the late SSP Ronnie Gunasinghe, who – again – is said to have been close to President Premadasa. The subject of Defense was under the purview of Ranjan Wijeratne, who was later blown up (under mysterious circumstances) and of whom Chandraprema published a biography in 1998. Chandraprema’s problem seems to be that Richard de Zoysa had had definite JVP links, and that such a person cannot be simultaneously a “rights activist”; and that the very JVP links justifies Richard’s fate: as he, to reiterate the astonishing quote, was “caught in the crossfire”.
Chandraprema’s lens can only be one of two: it is either one that is misted by being too long too close to the bastion of uncompromising power; or, of one that is regiment-minded in an irretrievable, stunted way. For me, there is no other possible explanation in analyzing a statement which argues that extra-judicial measures, in their darkest form, can be justified in the name of “security”: a variable that is, after all, at the whim of the regime. There is no other way in which we can make meaning of why a democratically elected government is justified in wanting to “finish off” by “whatever means was necessary” a group subversive of its authority. I am not running the risk of being an idealist in making these statements, but – alike May 2009 – the “damage” caused to lives and prisoners could have been much minimized in 1989/90, as well, had a more reasonable approach been adopted. The likes of Ranjan Wijeratne – as Chandraprema calls him, “A peria dorai to the last” – guaranteed that this wasn’t so. One speculation is that Wijeratne himself summarily executed Upatissa Gamanayake – the JVP 2nd in command – but this is a line I will leave as speculation alone.
Richard de Zoysa’s career – with its many grey areas, I’m sure – offers us reading of a complex personality at a complex historical moment. As much as that is so, I am certain that Chandraprema himself is not naïve so as not to know the complexity of a historical moment where clean cut definitions and allegiances do not exist: the kind of surroundings that cause a Reign of Terror, which renders to complicated affinities and commitments – of which the Wijeweeras, de Zoysas, (and not to mention) the Wijeratnes are a part. Our challenge is to absolve the human and the humanitarian of these various stakeholders and to assess them historically – relative to that historical moment – and to exhume the essence of their political activism. Richard de Zoysa becomes an “activist” in that deeper sense. The regime’s paramilitary guillotine cannot be absolved for the same reason. History cannot and will not pardon or acquit the authors of this killing machine for the same reason.
Chandraprema’s formula can very well be used by anyone who hopes to justify the killings that took place in the closing days of the Civil War between the government forces and the LTTE. As it is commonly understood, there are many parts missing in that final jigsaw and it is likely that – as accused – there has been events that give speculation to “war crimes” (as alleged). The distance between highbrow theory and human conduct in the battlefield being too distant, it is most probable that there were events that were not “very clean” as meets the inter-continental standards. Here, too, outright denial and closure is what has made the debate of “May 2009” the controversial stalemate it has come to be. The lack of transparency and openness in dealing with a reconciliatory perspective has only complicated and confounded matters – this is yet another debilitation caused by the Chandraprema-like huzzah for the State machine.
The Pen of Granite was not written to decorate the memory of Richard de Zoysa. While at no point do we question that he was a “concerned citizen”, the book – in its different approaches – tries to locate the complexity of this personality as it occupies a complex moment of a complicated decade. In writing the book the purpose was to feed the discourse of literature that deals with the age of which Richard was a part; and the fact that he may have had “some kind of” JVP-link dosn’t deter the validity of our study. If Chandraprema’s reasoning is something to go by, the shelves and streets will flood with the biographies of Ranjan Wijeratnes and Gotabhaya Rajapakshas – a kind of a mini craze which we saw among some politicos over the past 6 years or so – and the extra-judicial militia should prosper as it walks on the heads of 50-60,000 dead.