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නාදුනන මළ සිරුරක් (Nadhunana Mala Sirurak) — Unidentified Dead Bodies

The tragic history of the Sri Lankan student movement

Art by Ellie Wilson Art by Ellie Wilson

In the mad rush of August 2008, when the final preparations for our move to Sydney were being made, an envelope of photographs fell into my hands. Most of the prints I recognized from albums and the other prints were duplicates that apparently didn’t make Thaththa’s final versions.  Mixed in with the duplicates and discards was a set of photographs from the mid-‘80s and ‘90s that I had never seen before. Among them was the photo of Gayan I keep with me now — an original print of the version used in his ‘missing student report’. I didn’t know who he was at the time; I assumed he was a relative I hadn’t met, someone from the extended family. Which, in a way, I suppose he was.

I kept the photographs in a box with me throughout high school and early university. Quite often, I would lay them out on the floor of my bedroom and go through them. I’d study the faces, the poses, the architecture, the greenery, the art on the walls — some of which I recognized, some of which I didn’t. During one of these routine examinations, I learnt from Amma that the young man in the worn 2’ x 2’ photograph was Gayan, a friend of hers who was killed in ’89.

I have learned most of what I now know – about politics and the people of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) revolt of 1989 – from listening to Amma and Thaththa, from their conversations with each other and with friends from their university days. Without fail, there always came a point in every visit, in every trip or some such gathering when, as a group, they’d mull over that time. Us children would watch and listen. There is something vacuous about being born of such a generation — a generation whose collective bravery and idealism was a force to be reckoned with; a material and ideological threat significant enough that the government set their troops on them. By virtue of being the products of our parents’ shared, brutalised trajectories, there’s an unspoken comfort that, as their children, we take from each other.

* * *

The student movement in Sri Lanka’s south had become a powerful force by the 1980s. Their ranks swelled in this period, due to them being left to mobilize opposition to the increased dictatorial tendencies of the United National Party (UNP) government. There was a lot of overlap between the student movement and the JVP, the largest grassroots Communist party in the country – in terms of membership, ideology and activities.

Both movements were rooted in the island’s poor and largely rural masses. Indeed, most students and JVPers came from such backgrounds. If it were not for access to free education, it is unlikely that many of them would have been able to access secondary schooling and university studies. In the decade preceding the JVP insurgency it was this segment of society that bore the brunt of the UNP’s free-market policies.

The resistance that unfolded tried to meet the tyranny which precipitated it. Following 7 years of increasing economic hardship and racial disharmony under Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s SLFP government, the UNP secured a parliamentary majority at the general election of 1977. This is known as the starting point for the despotism, corruption and militarisation that have come to be so deeply entrenched in life on the island. In conversation with Amma and Thaththa, it’s clear that this is what their experience leads them to believe. It’s hard to disagree, after hearing their memoirs and reading about the period – when all policies and events are unfolded on paper.

Within about 6 months of becoming Prime Minister, in February 1978, UNP leader J. R. Jayawardene transferred the Parliament’s state powers to an Executive Presidency and assumed this position himself. He did so without holding a presidential election. In 1979, the Prevention of Terrorism Provisional Act was introduced on the pretext that it was necessary for fighting the growing militancy of the Tamil separatist struggle in the North. These laws could be invoked once a state of emergency was declared under the Public Ordinance Act. Significantly, they did not grant the presumption of innocence for parties accused under the Act. Nearly a decade on, these laws were brought into force in the South of the island during the crackdown on the JVP insurgency.

The traditional opposition to state corruption was defeated in one brutal event.  The union movement which had traditionally led these fights in the period immediately prior to and after independence was left in shambles after the defeat of its general strike in 1980. In an unforeseen and unprecedented response, all 130 000 public servants striking in protest of the rapidly rising cost of living were summarily dismissed by the government. The unions continued an established tradition of strike action going in – no previous movement ended in complete defeat. The UNP government’s response dealt a heavy blow to the tradition of union organising. The government had set out to show mass action was a futile effort, and in large part, they succeeded.

In 1982, the government issued a document of policy proposals, known locally as a ‘White Paper’, titled ‘Education – Proposals for Reform’ which outlined its plan for privatising the free public education system. The Inter-University Student Federation was established that same year and led a nation-wide opposition movement which forced the government to withdraw the White Paper.

Both Amma and Thaththa entered the arena of left-wing political activity through the student movement. As a high-schooler, Thaththa became heavily involved in the White Paper fight of 1982. Amma very clearly identifies the North Colombo Medical College (colloquially known as the PMC) fight of 1987 – the student movement’s next major campaign – as the turning point for her, as it was for many others of that generation.

The PMC fight was a particularly crucial moment in the broader socio-political landscape as it directly fed into the JVP insurrection. In protest of the beginning of a pay-to-enter private Medical School in Colombo, the students of Faculty of Medicine of the University of Colombo collectively boycotted their exams. This effectively brought the state medical education system to a halt, and by extension, that of the private medical college as well. The Colombo campus shut-down indefinitely and remained so for the next 3-4 years. For Amma, the realisation of just how powerless those of little wealth and status were rendered in the face of the well-connected, how difficult it was for an ordinary group of people to confront this injustice, was borne out of this struggle to guard free public education.

These events significantly contributed to the growing discontent among ordinary Sri Lankans about the trajectory that society had taken under the UNP government. It was, from the outset, a common person’s struggle.

Following the UNP cracking down on the opponents – The JVP along with other far-left parties were proscribed in 1983. Following this, the government’s war against the Tamils in the North intensified, as did their crackdown on left-wing, anti-government activities in the South.

These movements brought to the fore the frustrations that had been rising within the Sinhalese psyche since the UNP came to power. Ultimately JVP’s growing political cachet culminated in a full-blown Marxist-Leninist insurrection.

The sparks of the revolution grew hereon to such an extent that troops were retreated from the North and redeployed to the South.  Beauracrats and military dogmatists would claim the necessity as they reflected on their violence, as the militancy of the JVP led to widespread democratic political mobilisation. About 40 000 people were killed, or ‘disappeared’.  All of these were by Sri Lankan military forces and pro-government paramilitary groups in the South. The violence against JVPiers and JVP-sympathisers, at times in situations where people were merely suspected to be involved with the JVP, spanned from 1987 to 1991. By March – April 1990, all but one of the JVP’s politburo had been killed/disappeared, as had a significant mass of its membership. Thaththa, who was deeply embedded in the JVP’s ranks, left the country for France in 1991 to avoid being killed and to continue the JVP’s reorganisation effort from abroad. Amma left for France in 1992 to join him there.

Despite the work she did for the student movement and the JVP’s activities following the PMC fight, Amma was never officially a member of the JVP. She met Thaththa through Students for Human Rights, a radical organisation that documented the abductions, killings and disappearances that were taking place under the UNP government’s watch and smuggling this information out of the country to raise international awareness about the situation. Gayan had been the General Secretary of Students for Human Rights and was also a representative of the IUSF; someone both Amma and Thaththa worked very closely with. He was abducted and disappeared by army personnel in December 1989.

Unidentified dead bodies were a common sight in the streets and canals in those days. Often naked and battered, sometimes limbless or decapitated, sometimes burning on rubber tyres. Amma first came across the administrative term ‘unidentified dead bodies’, or නාදුනන මළ සිරුරක්, while working for Students for Human Rights in late ’88. She was handed a single sheet of grid paper which had a list of locations where unidentified bodies had been seen, how many bodies there were and what conditions they were in – burnt, burnt with tyres, burnt beyond recognition and so on. This data, along with records of missing school students, university students and other civilians were collated and filed. Some were smuggled out of the country and the rest remain in the country. The files that Amma has with her now are a small portion of this large collection, most of which have since been misplaced. Amma had kept these files hidden in her home, bundled up in her mother’s saris, through the worst of the insurrection. They were almost found once during a search of the flat. She left them with the JVP when she left for France in 1992. Looking after them was no longer a life-or-death matter by this point; those cards had more-or-less been dealt by then.

I think much of Thaththa’s bitterness – I don’t know if he’d agree with me using that word – has more to do with the JVP’s failure to do justice by everyone who was killed or disappeared, than anything else – “they’re so scared of that past – that militancy, that revolutionary spirit…They fear that if you talk about the people who were disappeared, that past will come to the fore. Their mission is to forget that past. And to a large extent they have.” Yes, he remains very critical the JVP’s part-hypocrisy, part-political spinelessness, part-Sinhala chauvinism when it comes to the issue of Tamil self-determination in Sri Lanka. Talking to him, there is clearly a great deal of regret at how regressive the JVP has come to be in this sense; “It’s like any other Sri Lankan political party. Well, of course, they talk about globalisation, workers rights. But at the same time, when it comes to the mother of all problems in the country, the National Question, they shy away from it.” But more than anything I think it’s about the sense of personal loss that is tangled up with the collective memory of ’89 and the Party’s unwillingness to persist after redress in the 3 decades that have elapsed since.

While writing this piece I was asked if I thought I’d inherited my parent’s cynicism. My initial response was to question the word ‘cynicism’. For whatever Amma and Thaththa have said in the past – whatever criticisms, or hesitancies they may have about a given progressive/left-wing endeavour – I have never witnessed them being totally dismissive of such attempts. Experiencing something like the insurrection no doubt changes a person and takes time to recover from. I feel it’s more a matter of that than cynicism. To this day, Amma remains somewhat forgiving of the JVP’s failings; “There is a lot to be desired, I’m sure. But I still have some respect for anybody who is engaging in that spectrum of politics. A lot of people run them down – people who were in it especially. But I still feel, if I am to run them down, there are many others that I’d have to run down before that.”

* * *

Thinking about ’89, it often strikes me that it really did end in total and utter defeat. It was a failure in the sense that they set out to achieve something and didn’t achieve it. The critical mass of the rebellion was taken out. Between the two of them, Amma and Thaththa lost friends, brothers, lovers, comrades, acquaintances, mentors…I have often wondered how society comes back from something like that. How is it when so many bodies are plucked off the face of the earth? Is it roomier? Quieter? I instinctively find the notion of a people’s revolution in the Marxist sense a lovely one. But I feel unsure. And I think that a large part of it is because of the defeat in ’89 – what and who my parents lost, everything and everyone – I feel it too.