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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 27 , July 1, 2023

Mass graves expose Sri Lanka’s stinking story | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 1 July 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy


In all probability hundreds, if not thousands, of mass graves are dotted across Sri Lanka, containing the bodies of tens of thousands of victims of enforced disappearances from two insurgencies between 1983 and 2009. The victims include both Sinhalese and Tamils, the island’s majority community and the largest ethnic minority respectively. But the Sri Lankan state, even as it seeks global help to keep itself afloat economically, is simply not bothered to either punish those responsible for the cold-blooded killings nor provide a sense of healing to the distraught families of those officially listed as ’missing’.

These are some of the chilling findings of a 75-page report, Mass Graves and Failed Exhumations in Sri Lanka, released in Colombo on June 20 by four organizations including the Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) as well as the International Truth and Justice Project. The report has come out just when Sri Lanka is under renewed international pressure to restore the badly mauled democratic processes and to bring about a genuine ethnic reconciliation after decades of war that have brutalized a once idyllic island.

Nothing short of a brutal mindset could have allowed the dominantly Sinhalese military and security forces to so wantonly and illegally execute tens of thousands of armed combatants as well as innocent civilians and bury the bodies in mass graves. These are happenings normally associated with US-backed rightwing dictatorships in South and Central America.

The victims in Sri Lanka were associated with both the leftwing Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP or People’s Liberation Front), a Sinhalese group which carried out two insurgencies, the last one coinciding with the presence of the Indian military in the island’s northeast in 1987-90. The other was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), whose war for separation from 1983 almost broke up Sri Lanka before it suffered a military rout in 2009. The JVP and LTTE also committed numerous brutalities but it is the State which is expected to have a sense of respect for justice and accountability.

Over the last three decades, around 20 mass graves have been partially exhumed. These were in the districts of Jaffna (3), Kilinochchi (2), Mullaitivu (2), Mannar (2) and Batticaloa (1) – all in the northeast or LTTE war theatre – as well as Kandy (1), Kurunegala (1), Matale (1), Gampaha (3), Colombo (2), Matara (1) and Ratnapura (1), all dominantly Sinhalese areas. The report says that all over the island, tens of thousands of bodies lie uncovered in mass graves. Till now, hardly any family – Tamil or Sinhalese — has had the remains of their loved ones returned.

None of the numerous Commissions of Inquiry in Sri Lanka was mandated to look into the issue of mass graves. Instead, all efforts to uncover the truth by a section of more honest officials have been stymied. Magistrates and forensic experts have been transferred abruptly, police have delayed carrying out judicial orders, lawyers of families of the missing have been denied access to the graves, no ante mortem data was collected and no effort has been made to find living witnesses. On occasions, magistrates have prevented journalists from accessing information about exhumations. In the rare instances where someone has been convicted, they were pardoned – by the powers that be that had a vested interest in keeping the truth buried along with the bodies.

Says the report: "It is a story of a lack of political will – an inadequate legal framework, a lack of a coherent policy and of insufficient sources. For the families of the disappeared, it is a story of unresolved tragedy; the bereaved are forced to live – and die – without ever finding their loved ones."

Take, for instance, Matale district where the JVP was fairly active and where a mass grave was discovered in 2013. Mahinda Rajapaksa was then the president of Sri Lanka while his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the all-powerful Secretary in the Defence Ministry. Both were then considered heroes in the eyes of most Sinhalese for crushing the LTTE. Gotabaya had been the Military Coordinating Officer of Matale district from July 1989 to January 1990, the period which coincided with the collapse of the JVP.

Once the bodies in Matale began to be exhumed, Gotabaya reportedly ordered the wholesale destruction of all police registers and records older than five years at police stations in Central province which includes Matale. No action was ever taken against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who went on to become the president of Sri Lanka (and was ousted last year), or any of the senior police officers in the province. Today, Gotabaya is back in Colombo and leads a comfortable life, his security ensured by the government.

If nothing got proved in Matale, the situation was no different at Kaluwanchikudy in Tamil-majority Batticaloa district where a mass grave was discovered in 2014. Initially, authorities hurried with the exhumation thinking the victims had been killed by the LTTE. Later investigations stalled. Why? Because the truth dawned that the killings may have been ordered by Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Colonel Karuna, who was the eastern military commander of LTTE and whose 2004 split considerably weakened the Tigers. Karuna later switched over to the side of the military and in 2008 officially joined the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. No exhumations have been undertaken there since then.

There is a blatant lack of investigation to identify possible witnesses to grave crimes. Witnesses who wanted to come forward have expressed fear for their safety. The 2015 Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act has a provision for confidential statements to be taken. But this is widely seen as inadequate. Sri Lanka told the UN in 2021 that this will be replaced by a new law but nothing has happened so far.

According to the report, to date very few exhumations have led to the identification of the victims or any clarification of the circumstances of their death, let alone the prosecution and conviction of those responsible for the disappearance and murder of people.

One exception concerns Somaratne Rajapakse, a soldier sentenced to death for the murder of a Tamil girl, her mother, her brother and neighbor in Jaffna in 1996, a year after the military retook the region from the LTTE. Rajapakse claimed in his trial that as many as 400 bodies were buried at Chemmani, the site where the girl’s body was discovered. This led to exhumation of 15 more bodies and the identification of more soldiers considered responsible for the massacre. But none was brought to justice; on the contrary, many were promoted — a stark case of impunity that prevails in Sri Lanka. Yet, Colombo parrot like keeps telling international bodies that it is trying to restore sanity after decades of armed conflict.

The report has come out with some important recommendation to ensure that the exhumations lead to justice. These include:

  • Enact a specific law and policy on the management of mass graves and exhumations, which includes their identification, preservation and investigation;
  • Establish a legal entity, made up of representatives of government, local authorities, forensic experts, families and communities to have oversight of the issue of mass graves and exhumations;
  • Appoint a family liaison officer for each exhumation;
  • Actively engage with people who suspect their relatives to be among the bodies exhumed, and collect ante-mortem data and DNA from them with their consent;
  • Give relatives a chance to identify the remains and any possessions/artefacts recovered and return any identified remains to their families; and
  • Bring to justice those responsible for hindering the process of probe into enforced disappearances, including investigations into mass graves.

Can all this happen when Sri Lanka ethnically still remains divided into ’us’ and ’them’? Can this happen without Colombo realizing that truth and reconciliation can only happen when there is a commitment to absolute truth? Sri Lankan security forces did not just kill Tamils; they killed Sinhalese too, left and right. Countless anguished mothers on both sides of the ethnic divide have died after waiting for long years for justice. Will those still alive ever be able to heal their festering wounds?

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