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Debates against an article in The Island

10 December 2001, The Island
The 'Christian Worker’ and the ‘Disappeared’

By C.A.Chandraprema
Some weeks ago, I paid a courtesy call on my erstwhile boss Vijaya Vidyasagara the Editor of Christian Worker. He gave me the latest copy of the 'Christian Worker' datelined September 2001. I have mentioned earlier in this newspaper that the Christian Worker is probably the most inefficient magazine on earth. The issue that carried the dateline of September 2001 was actually the 1st quarter issue combined with the 2nd quarter! I worked for Christian Worker for one year and then fled because I was young and I didn’t want to ruin my reputation by working for a magazine that habitually missed the deadline by months at a time. In The Island, what is written today gets published tomorrow. That is my conception of journalism.

At the time I worked for Christian Worker, we sold the magazine entirely on the names on the front cover. All the top leaders of the left movement like Colvin Silva, Pieter Keunaman, Bernard Soysa, Batty Weerakoon, D.E.W.Goonesekera, Vivienne Goonewardene, and some SLFPers like C.V.Gooneratne, Professor Viswa Waranapala, Dr Mervyn de Silva and Dr H.N.S.Karunatilleke were regular contributors to this magazine. So people bought it even though it never came out on time. After August 1994, Christian Worker suffered a crippling blow when almost all its main contributors suddenly became cabinet ministers and top level officials in the PA government.

Survival at a cost
Vijaya Vidyasagara was suddenly left high and dry. I expected the magazine to fold up after August 1994, but it has survived. When I met him a few weeks ago, I reassured my old friend Mr Vidyasagara that after the 5th December, his woes will be over because all his former contributors will be once again jobless and free to write to the Christian Worker. And lo and behold, that has happened exactly as I predicted. If there was any LSSPer who ate ‘kiribath’ after the elections, it has to be only the Editor of Christian Worker. When I left after having chided my erstwhile boss on his incurable socialist inefficiency, he was bellowing his defiance and threatening to put out another issue before the December 5th election. Miracles do happen. The socialist twins Vijaya Vidyasagara and Ranjith Liyanage actually did manage to put out another magazine by December 2001 just before the elections. This is the first time that I know of when the Christian Worker has managed to meet a deadline.

When I thumbed through the September 2001 issue of Christian Worker, I realised that the magazine had survived only at a terrible cost to its integrity. I was particularly appalled at an article with the headline "SL High Commissioner in Australia alleged to be responsible for atrocities - Former detainee under General Perera speaks out" We never published that kind of nonsense when I was working for the magazine. Obviously, my old friend Mr Vidyasagara has been compromising on quality and integrity to keep the magazine afloat.

The article is based on a report released by some organisation styling itself the "Asian Human Rights Commission" and purportedly based in Hong Kong. This is the first time in my life that I have heard of an organisation called the "Asian Human Rights Commission" - and this despite the fact that I do know quite a lot of people in the local NGO circuit.

The report of the AHRC has published an "eye witness account" of torture, and killings at an army camp in Wehera in the Kurunegala District allegedly run by Major General Janaka Perera, the present Sri Lankan envoy in Australia. The AHRC claims that they are releasing the harrowing account of the eyewitness "not to encourage a witch hunt of the High Commissioner but to show the scale of the atrocities committed in Sri Lanka between 1988 and 1992 and to call for those responsible to be brought to justice." But the contents of the article makes it very clear that their intention is in fact to launch a witch hunt against Janaka Perera. The report has sentences like "The fact that a man associated with such heinous crimes has risen to such a high level..." and "Instead of facing a court for his crime against humanity, those responsible are promoted on the basis of their experience in creating terror"

Kangaroo courts
The AHRC says that Janaka Perera should be facing a court, but there is actually no need for him to face courts because the AHRC has already declared him guilty! The AHRC has taken on the role of a 'kangaroo court' and already declared Janaka Perera’s guilt. The fact that Janaka Perera is the Sri Lankan envoy to the land of the kangaroos does not mean that he should be tried in a kangaroo court. And what kind of evidence is the AHRC presenting to the public to prove Janaka Perera’s guilt? They have published what is claimed to be an ‘eyewitness account’ of the happenings an Army camp allegedly run by Janaka Perera. How do we know how authentic this eyewitness account is? The AHRC assures us that they have known the 'eyewitness' since the early 1990’s and that they have studied the case ‘carefully’. they also claim to have ‘independently verified’ the relevant facts related to this case.

The article does not show us how they have studied the case 'carefully' or 'independently verified' Janaka Perera’s guilt. If they were able to find enough evidence to show that Janaka Perera was involved in human rights abuses in Wehera, why have they not presented the evidence to the CID or a magistrate and got criminal proceedings started? If an organisation like the AHRC is able to try people on their all own, why on earth is the World Bank giving millions to rehabilitate buildings belonging to the judiciary in Sri Lanka? They might as well give all that money to AHRC so that they can try all cases from Hong Kong and e-mail their verdict to the local press. This is a very dangerous game that the AHRC is playing. As journalists we are supposed to be careful about making allegations or casting aspersions on people. One malicious article can ruin a man for life. And it is very difficult to undo such damage.

If I saw this article in some other publication, I might not even have read it. But that issue of Christian Worker was given to me by its Editor personally with the request that I give him my opinion about it. Well I am now giving him my opinion.

Lets look at some of the claims made by the AHRC. In assessing the situation that led to the disappearances, the AHRC says "These disappearances occurred mainly in the southern part of Sri Lanka and the victims were largely Sinhala youth. The disappearances were not a campaign by a hostile foreign enemy nor were they part of a bloody civil war or revolution. It was a campaign by a democratically elected government (UNP) to remove an opposition. (my emphasis) The victims need not have been involved with insurgents; attending a meeting, or a speech or even reading a book was sufficient to be targeted for extrajudicial killing. Many of the victims were outside the insurgency movement, some victims were simply members of legally recognised opposition parties. Many were just children." Lets analyse this statement.

There was no insurrection!
Firstly, the AHRC claims that the disappearances were not part of a civil war or a bloody revolution and that it was all due to a democratically elected government removing an opposition. Whom are these people trying to deceive? There WAS a bloody revolution in the late eighties launched by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and they started by killing left wing, opposition political activists not by attacking the state or by killing members of the ruling party. The first victim of the JVP’s reign of terror was the killing of Daya Pathirana a left wing student leader on the 15th December 1986. I had just started work for Christian Worker at that time, and it was I who wrote the cover story in the 1986, 4th quarter issue of Christian Worker about the killing of Daya Pathirana.

And it was in this article that I predicted that the JVP was out to kill all left wing opposition activists. I showed my article to Mr Batty Weerakoon the present leader of the LSSP (It was the first article I ever wrote in English) but in his opinion, the killing of Daya Pathirana was an isolated case and he thought the JVP would not come after the rest of the left movement. But I proved to be correct. And Comrade Batty was wrong. Hundreds of left wing opposition activists were brutally killed by the JVP after they removed Daya Pathirana. Some of the top political left wing political activists killed by the JVP during this period was Nandana Marasinghe (The next to go after Daya Pathirana), Dr Nandasena Fernando (NSSP), Vijaya Kumaratunga and a whole host of others. In addition to the killing of leftists, the JVP also gunned down or chopped to bits, thousands of ruling party activists, and government officials like grama sevaka’s, postal peons, newspaper sellers, shopkeepers bus drivers and so on. They also killed many civil society figures like Professor Stanley Wijesundara, Thevis Guruge, Premakeerthi de Alwis and many others. The JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe openly accepted responsibliity for 6,000 killings in his recent Kalutara speech. Why labour the point? There was a bloody revolution launched by the JVP.

Who are these jokers to deny that there was a rebellion in Sri Lanka? Are we expected to disbelieve our direct experience? What about the fact that I wrote a series of fifty-two articles to this newspaper in 1990 on the JVP’s second insurrection? I won an award for that! If my employer accepts the stand taken by the AHRC that there was no armed revolution or civil war in the late eighties, I will be sacked for having perpetrated a hoax! The AHRC obviously operates on the premise that if a falsehood is repeated often enough, it will automatically become the truth. Even the Editor of Christian Worker and myself were under threat. Vijaya Vidyasagara has asked me on several occasions, "I say, how is it that we managed to escape?" My answer has been that the JVP didn’t kill us only because we wrote in English and were known only to a limited crowd. If Christian Worker had been published in Sinhala neither Vijaya Vidyasagara nor myself would have survived the late eighties. That was the actual situation. And these Hong Kong based morons tell us that there was no bloody revolution in Sri Lanka!

The JVP started killing left wing activists to eliminate competition from within the left movement much in the same way that the LTTE eliminated all other Tamil political groups.

Then the JVP took on the ruling party and the armed forces. The armed forces retaliated. Insurgents were killed, some disappeared. All that is true. But in probing the events of that time, one has to be accurate and fair. One can’t make allegations on the basis of hearsay and rumours. Nor should one make sweeping general statements about such serious matters. The AHRC report passage quoted above, says that to get killed, "one need not have been with the insurgents". (Note the involuntary admission that there were in fact ‘insurgents’ despite the fact that the report says that the disappearances were not part of a bloody civil war or revolution!) According to this report, it was sufficient to simply attend a meeting or read a book to be targeted for extra-judicial killing. The report goes on to say that many of the victims were outside the ‘insurgency movement’ (sic) and that some were simply members of legally recognised political parties. How does the AHRC know that ‘many’ of those who have disappeared were outside the insurgency movement? (Again that involuntary admission that there was in fact an insurgency.)

The numbers game
Has the AHRC conducted a survey to see exactly how many of the disappeared were outside the ‘insurgency movement’? If so can they please release the figures so that we can gauge how many of these killed were innocents? When they use words like ‘many’ how many is 'many'? These are very serious matters that we are talking about. So lets not be vague and fluid in what we say. And if many of those who disappeared had only been attending political meetings and reading books, then Sri Lanka will be the only country in history to have quelled a rebellion by overlooking those involved in the armed insurgency and simply killing innocents. Only innocents were shot dead but the JVP rebellion ended. When innocents died, the JVP also died! Its amazing! Why don’t we recommend that method to the Americans as well? If they leave fundamentalists alone and kill enough innocent Muslims, the Al Quaida organisation will disappear!

Macabre jokes apart, these is a need to be accurate in what we say. Take for instance the figures given by the AHRC report about the number of people who have disappeared. In one place the AHRC report says that the Commissions of Inquiry appointed by the PA government had come up with the figure of 26,877 disappearances. Then the report says that the NGO estimate is 60,000. The full page AHRC advertisement carried on the back cover of the same issue of Christian Worker gives a figure of 30,000 disappearances. And there is a note below this estimate of 30,000 which says in parentheses "According to official estimates". Now, what official record says that 30,000 people have disappeared? The Commissions of Inquiry have come up with 26,877 disappearances. The NGO estimate is 60,000. What official agency mentioned a figure of 30,000? All this is speculation and conjecture. Are these people professionals? If one is talking about killings, then it has to be quantified first. There can be only one correct figure.

These are not coconuts that we are talking of. These are human lives. Which figure is correct? The full page AHRC sponsored advertisement on the back cover of Christian worker gives a total figure of 30,000 disappearances and says that 15% of this number were below the age of 19. Then in the body of the main article, the AHRC says that "a large number of persons ranging from 26,877 to 60,000" disappeared and that 15% of this number was below the age of 19. Now, 15% of 26,877 is 4031, 15% of 30,000 is 4500 and 15% of 60,000 is 9000. Pray, which number is correct? All these figures quoted by the AHRC are based on speculation and conjecture. The highly respected Buddhist scholar Hajme Nakamura in analysing the South Asian mind pointed out that South Asians have a tendency to be profuse and fluid with facts and numbers. This is one reason why India has no accurate historical records. And the little that exists is overgrown with myth and legend. We also have a tendency to be liberal when mentioning numbers. Numbers like millions, billions and phrases like "as many as the sands of the Ganges" are casually bandied about. The South Asian concept of an ‘aeon’ (kalpa) is a time unit beyond human imagination. This particularly South Asian tendency to be liberal in mentioning numbers, seems to have affected the AHRC as well.

Why are there such wide disparities in the figures being mentioned by the AHRC? Sri Lanka has a well developed system of public administration. This is not some tribal society. Every birth is registered. The ‘Grama Sevaka’ system covers all villages. Every family and individual is registered for purposes of giving food stamps, janasaviya or samurdhi. If somebody was abducted from a village, such facts are easily verified. The Grama sevaka of the village will know all about it. Why is it that well over a decade after these incidents took place, none of these so called human rights organisations have been able to come up with any accurate figures of the actual number who disappeared? If the margin of error was a few hundreds then that would be understandable. But here the margin of error is in the thousands and tens of thousands! The AHRC casually bandies about figures ranging from 26,877 to 30,000 to 60,000.

About 'eyewitness' accounts
Given the way they play around in this manner with the numbers of people who disappeared, can we believe them when they say That they have 'carefully studied' the eyewitness account about torture and 'independently verified’ the allegations made about Janaka Perera? They have not yet even verified the number of people who have disappeared. And have they made a distinction between the people who have disappeared, and those who have been killed? The figure of 60,000 was commonly bandied about by the PA government to indicate the total number of casualties which included both the disappeared and those killed. All these figures are pure fiction. None of these so called human rights organisations have made a proper professional study of the exact number of disappearances. They are probably afraid that the actual tally may not be 'attractive' enough for their purposes. So they use the 'political numbers' given by the politicians.
For the AHRC, everything is very casual. The number of those disappeared is fluid. The 'eyewitness account' they have given is equally casual. The AHRC tells us to believe their eyewitness account because "...the story of the detainee is completely consistent with the details of the detention camps kept during this period..." Detention camps all over the third world ranging from Latin America to Asia to Africa are all the same. They are all overcrowded. Torture is practised, some are killed, some are released and that’s it. In reading the eyewitness account published as evidence against Janaka Perera, all it says is that the detainee was brought there, kept in over-crowded conditions, he saw people being tortured, and he himself was tortured, he was kept there for a long time and then he was released due to the intervention of an opposition politician.

Even I can write hundreds of ‘eyewitness accounts’ of detention centres with my eyes shut. The conditions are so predictable. Every eyewitness account is like any other. So the mere fact that the eyewitness account is ‘consistent’ with the details of the detention centres of the period, is no reason to believe a word of what has been said. If the person concerned was genuinely a detainee, then it can be argued that the mere fact that he was later released proves that the authorities were very careful in verifying the guilt of those they took into custody. Given the evidence that this ‘eyewitness’ survived detention, one may surmise that ‘most’ or ‘many’ of the innocents were later released. (Note the fact that I too have adopted the AHRC phraseology!) If the authorities were indiscriminate in their killings, then how did this ‘eyewitness’ survive to tell the tale? All such eyewitness accounts are open to suspicion. The issue of the ‘disappeared’ became so politicised, that these so called eyewitness accounts generally are purely works of fiction. If they are not works of fiction, they can easily be presented to court or to the police.

The reason why I would dismiss out of hand the so called ‘eyewitness account’ given by the AHRC is because their political bias becomes obvious when they try to claim that there was no armed revolution or a civil war at the time the disappearances took place and that all that was due to the government wanting to ‘remove an opposition’. Moreover, they use the ‘political figure’ of 60,000 as the number of those who have disappeared, instead of bothering to find out exactly how many have died. All these so called human rights organisations are rogues and charlatans who make money on human misery. If they make a proper count of those who disappeared and the figure turns out to be low, then they lose a lucrative source of income. Likewise, if they bring their eyewitness account to court and the court throws it out, they will be left high and dry. So they continue to publish unfounded details in order to keep the gravy train moving. This is Sri Lanka’s tragic situation. There are many who actually make a living off the multiple tragedies besetting this unfortunate country.

I was saddened by the fact that Christian Worker was reduced to publishing such crap in order to survive. I hope the situation will improve after its newly jobless contributors recover from the post-election blues and start writing in again.

The Casual Approach to Killings

A Reply to C. A. Chandraprema

This is a reply to an article published in The Island on Dec. 10, 2001, entitled “The ‘Christian Worker’ and the ‘Disappeared’” by C. A. Chandraprema. It was purported to be a comment on the reproduction of a short report about the Wehara detention camp in Kurunegala published by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) on June 28, 2001, and reproduced in a past issue of The Christian Worker. AHRC is glad that the report is still being passionately discussed.

It should be noted that Mr. Chandraprema attended a meeting organised by AHRC on disappearances on Feb. 21, 1998, in Sri Lanka and heartily participated in it, opposing at the time any discussion on disappearances, and that afterwards he wrote several articles attacking this meeting (a summary of the proceedings of this AHRC meeting is available on the Internet at Yet Mr. Chandraprema wrote in his comment on Dec. 10, 2001, in The Island that “this is the first time in my life that I have heard of an organisation called the Asian Human Rights Commission.” If one descends to the type of journalism that this gentleman has engaged in and uses his own words, we should call him a joker or a moron or an ass or a fraud or a hoax. However, to do so would be abuse the right of publication. It suffices for us to say that what he has written, even about himself, is not true. To quote from his article itself is sufficient to reveal Mr. Chandraprema’s own style: “The highly respected Buddhist scholar Hajme Nakamura in analysing the South Asian mind pointed out that South Asians have a tendency to be profuse and fluid with facts and numbers. This is one reason why India has no accurate historical records problem.”

Mr. Chandraprema’s attempt in his article is to reduce massive disappearances which occurred and are internationally known to be mere myths. This is the same tendency one finds in those who seek to deny the reality of the Holocaust. It is all a myth—it never happened—is the argument of this type of denial. As for his reference to South Asia, the lack of a historical record is due to the levels of repression that have prevailed in the region. For example, where are the records of the genocide of Buddhists in India? The repression was so complete that Buddhism was completely wiped out of the land of its birth. It has been revived only recently, in comparatively small numbers, by the movement of Untouchables. This tradition of repression and the denial of it in South Asia was a creation of the Brahmins, and it has left its mark deeply in Sri Lanka too. This is why we are not surprised by Mr. Chandraprema’s article. A denial of grave violations of human rights, including massacres, is the basic trait of South Asian culture. Just recall what happened in the inquiries of the Bindunuwewa massacre more than a year ago. One can only guess what might happen as well to the massacre of 10 Muslims on Dec. 5, 2001, Sri Lanka’s recent violent election day. The pattern of denial is as follows: there is a murder; no proper inquiries are held; no prosecution takes place; and later the incident itself is denied because it was not proved in a court of law. The main difference in the approach of Mr. Chandraprema and AHRC is that he wants to deny the existence of disappearances on the basis that there were no prosecutions or convictions while we maintain that investigations and prosecutions have deliberately been denied.

Another aspect of the same South Asian tradition is the casualness towards killings. This is what permeates Mr. Chandraprema’s thinking as expressed in the meeting mentioned above, in this particular article and in what he says in other writings about the people he most admires, who in normal parlance are called mass murders. He writes: “This is not some tribal society. Every birth is registered. The Grama Sevaka system covers all villages. Every family and individual is registered for purposes of giving food stamps, janasaviya or samurdhi. If somebody was abducted from a village, such facts are easily verified. The Grama Sevaka of the village will know all about it. Why is it that well over a decade after these incidents took place none of these so-called human rights organisations have been able to come up with any accurate figures of the actual number who disappeared?”

First of all, Mr. Chandraprema has a poor understanding of tribal society. Tribal people are very civilised people; they do not kill casually. They have their unwritten laws and very humane traditions. No tribal people would have done what has been done in Sri Lanka: killing, torture, exhibiting bodies on roads, raping girls and killing them. Tribal people did not produce informers who carried lists of people to be killed. For a full list of such atrocities, there are the reports of four state commissions (i.e., Commissions of Inquiry into Involuntary Removal or the Disappearance of Persons, which inquired into all of these matters); and for any worthwhile journalist who wants to recall the details of this grisly period, all that is needed is to look into his or her own notes of this time. (It is quite possible that some may have destroyed their diaries regarding this period.) It is, indeed, a blind, deaf and dumb person who would deny that these things happened, which are known even to little children. If one is to go by Mr. Chandraprema’s own publicly known record, he cannot pretend to be so ignorant about these matters. We do not want at this time to go into well-published materials about Mr. Chandraprema own involvements at the relevant time. All that we wish to do is to point out is that he is not the impartial observer that he pretends to be. As for records, the following quotes from the state commissions tell the whole story:

"A feature that struck us most forcefully in our inquiries was the utmost care that had been taken, not only by individual perpetrators, but also by the system itself to present these occurrences from being reflected in the official records of the country. Starting with the refusal of the local police to record complaints, which was a general feature in all three provinces, through the blatant use of vehicles without number plates, right up to the refusal to allow the bereaved to take possessions of corpses identified by them, let alone obtaining death certificates in respect of them, there is clear evidence of a systematic attempt to keep these deaths/disappearances from being recorded in the official annals. A nation which takes pride in the fact of having a recorded history of thousands of years should not leave a dark patch of unrecorded events in the recent past (Introduction to the Final Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Involuntary Removal or Disappearance of Persons in the Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces published in September 1997). (The head of this commission, Ms. Manouri Muttettuwegama