Sri Lanka takes its place in the annals of savagery
Posted on July 19th, 2015

Financial Times Thursday January 18 1990

David Housego, recently in Colombo, reports on the authorities’ violent crushing of the JVP revolt.

ALMOST certainly, only the tip of the barbarity and brutalism of the Sri Lankan conflict has come to the surface. But if 30,000 people have been killed in the struggle between the Sinhalese JVP movement and government forces, as some diplomats believe, it is one of Asia’s worst post-war episodes of violence. It takes its place as an ugly land-mark along with the riots in post-partition India, the Korean and Vietnamese wars, the suppression of the Communists in Indonesia by Sukarno, and Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Kampuchea.

The savagery of the conflict has created its own momentum of ever more gruesome atrocities- The JVP first, then the armed forces in retaliation, took to leaving dead bodies by the roadside and then igniting them with rubber tyres. In the Kandy district in central Sri Lanka, paramilitary forces recently cut up bodies and draped them from roadside trees – as though a burning body alone was no longer sufficient to intimidate opponents.

Since July, when the JVP struck fear into the armed forces – and in retrospect brought about their own destruction – by threatening the families of the army and police, the armed forces have not concealed their use of torture. The scars of beatings and of burns through electric shocks are clear evidence on the bodies of those who have passed through detention centres.

Interrogation procedures appear to follow a systematic pattern beginning with a heavy beating and leading in the worst cases to a Sri Lankan invention of passing a plastic tube into the rectum with barbed wire inside – and then withdrawing the plastic. But the contrasting reality is of a capital, Colombo, which has the festive mood of a city liberated after a long siege. Middle class Colombo celebrated the capture and killing in November of Rohan Wijeweera, the JVP leader, which led to the arrest and elimination of his colleagues.

Restaurants, long closed through curfews or JVP threats, have been packed. Shops stay open later and there are crowds on the streets. Business confidence is picking up as the government’s claims to have almost crushed the JVP gain in credibility. Mr Charitha de Silva, the humane and much-respected chairman of Aitken Spence, says of the investment climate: “Overall things are definitely beginning to take off.” Aitken Spence, diversified in garments, freight handling, agro-business and tourism, expects record profits this financial year.

The fear, engendered by the massive police round-ups of JVP suspects, has helped the government carry through much-needed but unpopular IMF measures to remove subsidies and raise prices to market levels. The price of bread has risen by 38 per cent in the past two months, milk and sugar by 48 per cent, rice by 30 percent. Inflation is cautiously put at 20per cent higher than a year ago. But there have been none of the strikes and protests that were once a feature of democratic life in Sri Lanka.

Many in Sri Lanka’s establishment have great difficulty in bridging these two worlds -between the killing and terror that they sense dominate lives in the interior and the comforting signs of a return to normal in Colombo. At last week’s meeting between the government and representatives of western donor nations to review economic performance, a senior civil servant was thrown off balance by the details of human rights abuses presented by the donors and by the increasingly blunt questioning he had to face.

One diplomat said of what is happening in the central and southern regions of the country: “In many villages life has come to a standstill. Many men of working age are not there any more. They have either left to save themselves or they have been killed. ” Another diplomat says “the fabric of society is being destroyed (by fear) and fear may soon paralyse the way society functions.”

Driving up from Colombo last week to Trincomalee on the east coast I was struck by the sight of large numbers of children going to school for the first time in almost two years as a result of the reopening of classrooms. But equally striking was that there were few young boys among them.

There is no way of substantiating estimates of the numbers killed. The most obnoxious part of the Emergency regulations gives the security forces power to eliminate people with-out any trial or inquiry, or without even notifying their families. Parents often cannot establish whether their children have been killed or are simply missing.

European governments are pressing to get these clauses removed on the grounds that they can no longer serve any purpose. Security forces apparently regard them as necessary during “mopping-up operations.” But there is concern that their use could be extended from suspected JVP members to other opponents of the regime and “troublemakers.”

The direction the country will take is difficult to foresee because President Ranasinghe Premadasa is a lone figure who does not take his cabinet or even his senior officials into his confidence. He seeks the advice of gurus and astrologers and was recently photographed being raised on a chair by a spiritualist.

But he is in a much stronger position than in August when the JVP threat was at its height, the foreign exchange reserves at an all time low, and he was faced with a difficult dispute with India.

Some think his pragmatism will steer him to solutions for other problems, from bringing the armed forces back under civilian control, to achieving some form of national reconciliation and a settlement in the north. But the civil war has opened a Pandora’s Box, and it is still unclear what will emerge

Source: Financial Times Thursday January 18 1990


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