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Sri Lanka: Mass graves everywhere, but where

are the killers?— Part 04

Since 1948, successive regimes have continued to condone and practice torture
and killings as a systemic weapon. Despite being party to international
conventions against torture, these regimes have been condoning, using and/or
tolerating the use of torture, ill-treatment and killing of individuals to this day

Read Previous parts of this series: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

Colonialism in Sri Lanka

( February 26, 2018, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) During the period 1505-
1948, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British colonized in varying degrees the
land the native people inhabited. The objective of the Crown, the State and the
Church was to establish their socio-economic and political power over the natives
and to transfer their allegiance from a local to a foreign sovereign. To achieve this,
the natives had to be alienated from their traditions and mores including culture,
identity, language and beliefs. In this process, colonial rulers and their elite used
diverse manipulative strategies and tactics, of persuasion, inducement,
persecution, discrimination, and destruction. They carried out their acts by
enacting oppressive proclamations, decrees and laws both overt and covert, such
as the use of force, repression, fraud, allurement, deportations and killings.
Let me cite some references. Sir James Emerson Tennent refers to the conduct of
Portuguese in the island as follows:

… Their expeditions consisted of soldiers as well as adventurers, and included friars

and chaplain majors. Their instructions were to begin by preaching, but, that
failing, to proceed to the decision of the sword.[1]

Dr G P Malalasekera distinctly refers to the high-handed methods the Portuguese

Every stage of their progress was marked by a rapacity, bigotry, cruelty and
inhumanity unparalleled in the annals of any other European colonial power. Their
ferocity and their utter indifference of all suffering increased with the success of
their army; their inhuman barbarities were accompanied by callousness which
knew no distinction between man, woman and child; no feeling of compassion
was strong enough to stay their savage hands in their fell work. To terrify their
subjects and bring home to them the might of the Portuguese Power, they
committed atrocities which had they not been found recorded in the decades of
their friendly historians, seems too revolting to be true. Babes were spitted on the
soldier’s pikes and held up that their parents might hear the young cocks crow.
Sometimes they were mashed to pulp between millstones, while their mothers
were compelled to witness the pitiful sight before they themselves were tortured
to death. Men were thrown over bridges for the amusement of the troops to feed
the crocodiles in the river, which eventually grew so tame that at whistle they
would raise their heads above the water in anticipation of the welcome feast.[2]
For brevity, I will not refer further to the dreadful events that had taken place
during the colonial period. Almost seven decades ago, colonialists left Lanka to
their own devices; handing over power to their local indigenous backers. The
post-1948 regimes have continually made use of most of the brutal and
repressive instruments established under colonialism. Colonial powers set judicial
precedents for the post-1948 Sri Lankan regimes to follow. While colonialists
made the rules, they also waived the application of those very rules whenever
they needed to do so. Colonial regimes simply destroyed many who opposed their
rule,[3] including those who took part in the 1818 and 1848 insurrections.
Post-1948 period: Crimes against humanity
Since 1948, successive regimes have continued to condone and practice torture
and killings as a systemic weapon. Despite being party to international
conventions against torture[4], these regimes have been condoning, using and/or
tolerating the use of torture, ill-treatment and killing of individuals to this day. In
this sense, violence, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial executions have
been a central issue of politics in Lanka’s modern history.

Since 1948, disappearances and extrajudicial executions have been reported with
increasing frequency. Most of those subjected to mass killings on an island wide
scale, appear to be students, or rural youth mainly belonging to the so-called low-
castes. In 1971 during the first JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna)[5] youth
uprising, for several months there were reports of disappearances and
extrajudicial executions in the South. Again, between mid-1987 and early 1990
during the second JVP insurrection, tens of thousands of such disappearances and
extrajudicial executions had taken place in the south. From 1983 up to mid-2009,
there had been a dramatic increase in reports of disappearances and extrajudicial
executions particularly in the North and East, where Tamil militants had been
engaged in an armed struggle to establish a separate state.

In a general sense, the use of violence, torture, disappearances and killings is

considered illegitimate and illegal. Despite the highly unethical nature of the State
using violence, torture, disappearances and killings, the view that such use is legal
and legitimate also prevails.[6] Since the late 1970s, with the provision of
extraordinary powers and indemnity, the security forces appear to have become
more confident that they can commit any crime and abuse with impunity. Apart
from the very short period of nearly six months between January and June 1989,
a nationwide state of emergency had been imposed on people. Several years
back, the government allowed the Emergency Regulations to lapse, but
incorporated a range of new provisions through an Order made under section 12
of the Public Security Ordinance, calling out all members of the Armed Forces for
maintaining public order in all the 25 Districts. The Prevention of Terrorism Act
(PTA) has been in force almost during the entire period since July 1979, despite
the current regime’s pledge to discard it.[7]
Mass killings and mass graves in Sri Lanka
Botched investigations into the mass graves that were already found raises the
concern that the killers and their political masters are following a strategy to
thwart any possible future investigations. This has become particularly evident in
investigations into the mass killing of prisoners in Welikada and
Galenbindunuwewa. The tactics that have been used are coming to the open in
other enquiries such as in the cases of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and Rugger
captain Wassim Thajudeen. As such, how to ensure credibility of any future
investigations is a critical question that the people in Sri Lanka and the
international community must ask.

Accidental uncovering of grave sites has become more common in the Sri Lankan
context.[8] In May 2017, human remains found at the Shangri La hotel
construction site again raised the issue of mass killings and mass graves for
discussion.[9]This site had been an army base and a cemetery previously.
Preliminary investigations have been made and a report has been submitted to
the court.

The three Presidential Commissions of Inquiry, which were appointed in

November 1994 had investigated a total of 27,526 cases of disappearance and
resolved 16,742 cases. The final reports submitted to the President in September
1997 implicated hundreds of officers in respect of 3,861 cases associated with the
1988-89 JVP uprising. There are tens of thousands of cases yet to be investigated.
The implicated officers have not been prosecuted. The Reports have served
merely as a statistical analysis of the disappeared, without providing
recommendations that that would serve justice to the victims.

The Defence Ministry’s Board of Investigation, established in November 1996 to

specifically investigate the disappearances of those arrested by the Army in Jaffna
in mid-1996 has never made its report public, thereby making verification of cases
impossible and any legal action impossible. It is not surprising that these
complaints were not taken seriously since the complaints filed were against the
very officials who were investigating them. Investigative bodies like
Disappearance Investigative Unit of the police and Missing Persons Commissions
Unit of the Attorney General’s department, which were set up exclusively for the
purpose, are afflicted with similar problems.

While there are many mass graves in different parts of the island, for brevity of
this paper, only four mass graves that have been found will be discussed here at
length. In July 1998, the scrubby flat lands Chemmani in the Jaffna peninsula was
claimed to contain mass graves of Tamil civilians murdered by the Sri Lankan
troops. In 2013, a mass grave was also found at Matale. In January 2014, a mass
grave was found at Thiruketeeswaram, Mannar. In 2014, based on a civilian’s
claim, a mass grave was found in Kaluwanchikudy in the Batticaloa District.
Precursor to Chemmani
In early 1996, the Sri Lankan Army recaptured the Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE had
held since 1990. After the army take over, Tamil youth began to disappear with
bodies of people the army arrested being found dumped by the road side.
Amnesty International believed up to 600 Jaffna Tamils had disappeared while in
military custody and had been tortured to death or deliberately killed.

In the latter part of 1996, a year-12 school girl, Krishanthi Kumaraswamy was
arrested at the Kaithady army checkpoint, then raped and killed. Her mother, her
brother and a neighbour, who went looking for her had also disappeared. The
army denied arresting any of them. Remains of the dead bodies were noticed in
shallow graves within the restricted area. The bodies were taken to the school
girl’s sister’s house in Colombo. However, the Army imposed a condition to
cremate the remains within 24 hours.
In 1997, the UN Special Rapporteur on Disappearances and Extrajudicial Killings
reported that investigations into the disappearances in Jaffna in 1996 appear to
have been delayed due to the Emergency Regulations, Prevention of Terrorism
Act[10] and the powers of the Minister to hamper investigations. The State and its
political leadership held back any investigations on the pretext that the security
forces will be demoralised by carrying out such investigations during the military
offensive. In 1998, a five-member committee identified the members of the
forces responsible for 25 disappearances. However, the report remained
unpublished without any action being taken.[21]
Chemmani mass grave – 1996
During the military operations launched in the Jaffna Peninsula in 1995-96,
between 300 to 400 people are believed to have been tortured to death and their
remains buried in Chemmani. In July 1998, Lance Corporal Somaratne Rajapaksa,
one of the soldiers on trial for the rape and murder of the school girl Krishanthi
Kumaraswamy, her brother, mother and neighbour – made a statement in court
just before being sentenced to death that he knew the location of mass graves
around the Chemmani checkpoint where more than 400 people killed by the
security forces in 1996 were buried. The Lance Corporal later testified to the
existence of 27 mass graves in the area. Another accused in the same case had
corroborated this statement. The soldier had been personally involved in the
burial of murdered Tamil civilians. He had stated that he simply carried out the
orders of his superiors and named three army captains and a lieutenant who had
been involved in the rapes and killings.[11] Following a case filed against them, the
accused were arrested.[12]

This case attracted high local and international publicity and pressure to
investigate the alleged mass grave in Chemmani. In 1997, Amnesty International
appealed to the Attorney General to ensure any exhumation of the site be
impartially and independently conducted so that any evidence collected was
admissible in court. It also called for bringing in experienced international forensic
experts to assist local experts in the process of exhumation and the investigation
processes. Though agreed at the time, the government did not do anything
further to that effect. [13]
In August 1998, the Criminal Investigation Department visited the alleged
Chemmani mass graves with the first accused. His statement was recorded on the
instructions of the Attorney General, while the Human Rights Commission (HRC)
also recorded a separate statement. The HRC requested forensic assistance from
the UNHCHR, and it was granted. Despite the then Foreign Affairs Minister’s
statement to the effect that a forensic team was being assembled, nothing
materialised. When the process of prosecution did not progress as expected, the
possibility of a cover-up was suspected. There had been serious concerns that the
evidence at Chemmani might be destroyed to pervert the course of justice.

The government ordered the military to seal off the area under the pretext of
securing the evidence. After the order, however, significant activities were
reported including smokes seen billowing from the area, allegedly destroying any
evidence crucial for the investigation.[14] The Sri Lankan regime deliberately
obstructed the efforts to investigate the Chemmani mass grave[15], even going to
the extent of ordering the closure of all local courts.

In July 1999, the Jaffna magistrate urged the CID and the Attorney General’s
Department (AG’s) to bring the five army personnel convicted in the rape and
murder of Krishanthi to identify the areas where the civilians killed by the army
are said to be buried and to arrange for their early exhumation. However, the
Counsel of the AG stated that it was not possible due to the ongoing security
arrangement in the area. The magistrate considered this as an undue delay that
eroded public confidence and urged the Counsel to expedite the investigation.
The Counsel went onto state that if the court ordered an early exhumation, then
the AG will appeal against the decision.[16] Excavations were eventually
undertaken in September 1999 under the supervision of a forensic pathologist
with the technical assistance of foreign forensic experts and a Coroner recovered
15 bodies. All recovered bodies were found to be homicides, mostly killed by
applying blunt force to the head and chest. And later, the venue of the case was
shifted to Colombo.

In late 2002, the CID submitted a confidential report to the Colombo Chief
Magistrate on the exhumation of the Chemmani mass grave. The CID had also
sent a full report to the AG and was awaiting further instructions to proceed.
Bone samples were sent for DNA testing to the Hyderabad Forensic Laboratory in
India and then to the UK for DNA testing. The DNA results are not yet known and
the case, too, has fizzled out. Investigations into the mass killings in Chemmani
came to an abrupt end, and with the assistance apparently received from Mohan
Pieris of the AG’s Department[17], the suspects had been released on bail.[18]

Later under the direction of the then AG, this case was thrown out of court with
the passports returned to the accused. They have been granted promotions and
during the 2015 Presidential Elections they had actively campaigned for re-
electing the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa. A University Teachers for Human
Rights (Jaffna) Special Report indicated ‘very definite pointers to culpability at a
much higher level.’[19] No one at the higher levels has been prosecuted and no
further investigations have been made into the aspects of command
responsibility for human rights violations that occurred in Jaffna even during the
period of the mid-1990s.[20] Yet, it is the soldier who gave evidence still held in
prison as the sole rapist and the killer of the school girl. He had also been
subjected to an assassination attempt to make him withdraw his statement on
the mass graves.[21] Nothing has been done to address the trauma of the families
affected by the mass killings of Chemmani even after the ‘Good Governance’
regime came to power in January 2015.

How did the court case filed on Chemmani mass grave die out? Despite the
Human Rights Commission undertaking in January 1998 to investigate
disappearances in the Jaffna peninsula, no one has been identified as responsible
for the mass killings. And no one has been found guilty or convicted for the
killings in Chemmani. All the suspects have been freed, except the person who
became the State Witness. A murder suspect, usually, does not receive
promotions. But all four suspects in this case have been subsequently promoted.
Captain C J T K Lalith Hewa is now a Senior Lieutenant Colonel in charge of an
Army Holiday House in Panadura. Captain T D Sasika Perera was a Senior
Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the Mannar Army Camp, but now attached to the
Kalawewa Army camp. Captain Sachindra Wijesiriwardana was a Junior Lieutenant
Colonel in charge of the Mullaitivu Army Camp, now attached to the Army
Headquarters in Panagoda. Lieutenant A Yatagama has retired from service.
Twenty-one years on, it is abundantly clear that the Sri Lankan government has
failed to do justice to the victims of mass killings in Chemmani and deflected
mounting calls to investigate infringements of international humanitarian law.

[1] Tenant, J .E., 1860, Ceylon: An Account of the Island, 1, 547-548, Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.
Quoted in Lim, D., Spaulding, S., and De Neui, P. H. 2005. Sharing Jesus Effectively in the Buddhist World, 98, William Carey


[2] Malalasekera GP 1938, The Pali Literature in Ceylon, PhD Dissertation , in Tennakoon Vimalananda, xxvi

[3] This has been the global practice of colonialism, despite the existence of Conventions on human rights: For example, the
massacre of unarmed demonstrators in Amritsar in 1919, the killing of political opponents in Kenya in the fifties and the killing

unarmed protestors in Northern Ireland in the seventies.

[4] Such as the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or
Punishment and the Declaration against Torture.

[5] The JVP – the People’s Liberation Front, a revolutionary Marxist movement formed in the mid-sixties.

[6] For example, see Dayan Jayatilleka theorizing a morally justifiable violence, particularly in 2009, during the last phase of
the war, and his defence of alleged executions, targeting non-combatants and physical torture.

[7] The Emergency Regulations have facilitated the disappearances of tens of thousands of persons held in the custody of the
security forces. Through these regulations, all restraints on law enforcement officers have been removed, and the power to

dispose of dead bodies is given to the concerned officers. Judicial supervision is suspended. There are no provisions even to

keep records of the disposed bodies. Additional ERs, passed in 2000, granted “any authorized person”, in addition to the

security forces, the right to arrest and detain any person engaged in activities considered to be a threat to national security,

public order and maintenance of essential services.

[8] Roar Reports 7 June 2017, Bodies Beneath: Accidentally Discovered Mass Graves In Sri Lanka,
at: https://roar.media/english/reports/history/bodies-beneath-accidentally-discovered-mass-graves-in-sri-lanka/

[9] Daily Mirror 15 May 2017, Human skeletal remains recovered at a Colombo construction site,
at: http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/Human-skeletal-remains-recovered-at-a-Colombo-construction-site-128835.html

[10] The PTA, a draconian legislation, overrules most of the guarantees provided by the Constitution against
disappearances. For instance, Section 6 allows the Police to arrest, search a person or premises and to seize any document or

item without warrant, and allows the police to detain a person for three days without judicial supervision if there is a

reasonable suspicion that the person is connected with any unlawful activity. Section 9 empowers any Minister of the

government to order the detention of a person for up to eighteen months without judicial supervision, where the Minister ‘has

reason to believe or suspect that any person is connected with or concerned in any unlawful activity’.

[11] World Socialist Web Site 26 June 1999, Eyewitness account from Sri Lanka: Tamil mass graves excavated in Chemmani,

[12] Lance Corporal Somaratne Rajapaksa stated that he did not kill or rape anyone, but simply followed the orders of the
hierarchy and burnt or buried dead bodies. In the process, he had kept some jewellery found on those bodies. He revealed that

rapes and killings were carried out by Captain C J T K Lalith Hewa (61834), who was the Officer in Charge of the Army camp in

Araali, Captain T D Sasika Perera (62188), Captain Sachindra Wijesiriwardana (62421) and Lieutenant A Yatagama (63088). As

they were found to have committed the crimes, Somaratne was made a State Witness of the case (No. H C B A 29/2000) filed

against them. Based on his evidence and the Police “B” Report (B 28/99), the four suspects were remanded in custody on 13

March 2000 with their passports seized.

[13] Amnesty International 22 June 1999, Sri Lanka: Chemmani exhumations — positive first steps towards truth and justice,
121/99 AI Index: ASA 37/17/99, at:https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/144000/asa370171999en.pdf

[14] Asian Human Rights Commission 24 August 1998, Sri Lanka: Allegation of Mass Grave of About 400 Bodies – No
Investigations, AHRC SL/UA980825, at: http://www.humanrights.asia/news/urgent-


[15] The New York Times, 4 April, 1998, see how the Serbians destroyed much of
the evidence of the slaughter at Srebrenica.

[16] TamilNet 15 July 1999, Jaffna Magistrate urges early exhumation,


[17] Mohan Peiris rose through the ranks of the Attorney General’s Department as a state counsel and a Senior State
Counsel. In 2008, he was appointed Attorney General. He was appointed Senior Legal Officer to the Cabinet of the previous
regime. Following the impeachment of the former Chief Justice Dr Shirani Bandaranayake, President Mahinda Rajapaksa

nominated him as Chief Justice. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights doubted his independence and impartiality,

particularly when dealing with allegations of serious human rights violations by the government. The International Commission

of Jurists condemned his appointment as a further assault on the independence of the judiciary. However, in 2015, with the

acknowledgement that his appointment was void, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake resumed duties as the Chief Justice.

Mohan Peiris arranged to withdraw murder charges against a former deputy minister and a rape case against a government

parliamentarian. He concurred at a local court that he lied at the UN Committee Against Torture in 2011 saying that the

government had received information that the missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda was living overseas. According to the

current President, Mohan Peiris visited him several times to persuade not to remove Mohan from the position of Chief Justice,

promising to deliver judgements according to the President’s wishes.

[18] Mohan Pieris arranged to provide private legal advice to all suspects of the Chemmani case. All of them were released
on bail on 6 July 2000. How this happened, while Mohan Pieris being promoted in rank remains a secret. Their passports were

also returned, and large sums of money has allegedly exchanged hands. The four suspects, who are said to have been ‘obedient

servants’ of the former Defence Secretary, have worked hard after their release to bring back the incumbent Mahinda

Rajapaksa as President.

[19] University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) 1999, Gaps in the Krishanthi Kumaraswamy Case: Disappearances and
Accountability, Special Report, at: http://www.uthr.org/SpecialReports/spreport12.htm

[20] Ibid, 48

[21] Agence-France Presse, 23 August 1998, When prisoners were executed in Welikada Prison in November
2012, Somaratne Rajapaksa was said to be a prime target, but somehow escaped.

To Be Continued

Lionel Bopage is a passionate and independent activist, who has

advocated and struggled for social justice, a fair-go and equity of opportunity for
the oppressed in the world, where absolute uniformism, consumerism and
maximisation of profit have become the predominant social values of humanity.
Lionel was formerly a General Secretary of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP –
Peoples’ Liberation Front) in Sri Lanka, and he now lives in exile in Australia.
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