Revisiting Aranthalawa Bhikku Massacre after Three Decades

By Austin Fernando

“Aranthalawa Bhikku Massacre” can be considered as an event that cannot be forgotten, happened when I was the Secretary of the Ministry of Rehabilitation. The background to this event was as follows.

I remember receiving a telephone call from General Sepala Attygalle, the then Defence Secretary, under President J. R. Jayewardene. He inquired if I were aware of the massacre of Buddhist priests in Ampara, taken place that day. When I answered in the negative he narrated the circumstances under which around thirty Buddhist priests have been murdered by the LTTE, in cold blood.

He informed me that he had discussed with the President and received orders to send me immediately to Ampara. The President had expected me to look in to the situation and provide all assistance to the affected parties and had specifically mentioned that there were nearly 140 Tamil families around Ampara town, and, I should ensure that none of them was touched in any way. He hung up his telephone saying “I have redirected a helicopter to the Air Force Grounds and you will be immediately flown to Ampara.”article_image

Though human security or countering terrorist attacks was not my responsibility, but his, I did not convey to him, because he was the Defence Secretary! Moreover, I was mindful of the President’s urgency to save a worse situation.

Who does not fear death?

Dhammapada says: Sabbe tasanti dandassa, Sabbe bhayanthi macchuno (All tremble at force, of death are all afraid). This applies to military, terrorists, politicians, bureaucrats, members of the clergy and any other civilians. I knew this.

There were only a few Sinhalese civilians who visited the terror affected areas as officers or do-gooders, taking the challenges of death or harm. I was one. Ministers Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamani Jayasuriya and Lionel Jayatilake, Dr. Joe Fernando, Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne, President Jayewardene’s son Ravi Jayewardene and his wife Penny Jayewardene, Dr. Kamalika Abeyaratne, Rohan Pethiyagoda, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratna and Harsha Navaratna were a few others. Some of them are a forgotten lot now because “Patriots” of recent origin have been ‘reborn’!

I had a habit of “hiding” my visits to conflict areas from my wife and children, especially when I followed dangerous incidents, where secondary attacks after huge massacres were expected. I understood their fear. Therefore, I confided the President’s order to my Personal Assistant Lakshman Silva and gave my bungalow key to him and wanted him to inform my wife who was serving at Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya that I had suddenly visited Anuradhapura. True to my belief she did not know that I had been to Ampara, though she had heard about the massacre by afternoon. Not having ‘Breaking News’ unlike now would have been the reason!

Within minutes I was at the Air Force Grounds seated inside a helicopter- the solitary traveller. The two pilots- immunized by training- did not show any serious security concern due to this incident. Without a word spoken among us they were air-borne flying me to a Military Camp in Ampara. The officer in charge at the Military Camp was ready with security for me to proceed to Ampara town. But, I was scared of a secondary threat to such convoy. It is because of being reminded of “Sabbhe Bhayanthi Machchuno!” That was how terrorists operated. However, I respected the young officer’s security judgment.

Nandisena’s very high blood-pressure

I was driven straight to the Ampara Hospital. As I disembarked from the jeep I saw my colleague D.M. Nandisena at the entrance to the hospital. He was the Government Agent of Ampara. I queried “Nande, what is the form?” He retorted, “What form? The bodies of the priests have been brought in and I cannot look at them. My blood-pressure is up; very high. You must go and see for yourself.”

He looked worn out. His dark complexion was coal charred. No GA would have seen so many dead bodies of priests in one instance, killed due to terrorism. Of course, Jinasiri Dadallage, the young Assistant Government Agent (later Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration) who collected the priests’ corpses in Aranthalawa would have beaten Nandisena’s eerie experience, because, he was among the few who visited the ‘Killing Field’ before others.

I saw through Nandisena’s wholly disturbed mind and walked to the verandah where the bodies were lying. The bodies- mostly with head injuries and cut injuries- were kept in rows, leaving little space for each other. It was eerie. The blood that oozed from the wounds was drying on the corpses and robes. The clean saffron robes which reflected Karuna, Mettha, Muditha and Uppekkha -the Satara Brahma Viharanayas (the four sublime abodes), were discoloured bloody red, symbolic of four demonic abodes of criminality, cruelty, inhumanity and devastation. I pondered whether President Jayewardene foresaw the latter symbols splashing in bloody red on bodies and clothes of Ampara Tamils.

I could not imagine how some of the dead priests young as 8 or 10 years could bear the attacks on their bald heads and how one could be so cruel to “baby priests”. I realized that these were the terrorists who killed sucklings while they were being breast fed; and pregnant women who could not run away were chopped. The attackers were the young criminals, brainwashed by a megalomaniac to appease his blood thirst. What piety was in them?  Then, how could Nandisena’s blood pressure be low?

Troublesome environment

I returned to GA Nandisena and with him met priests who have arrived at the hospital. Some of them were crying, as expected from humans, though they preached us at pansakulas (Buddhist religious funeral service) not to excessively lament on account of the dead. The Buddhist priests who arrange remembrance days now and probably escaped from cruel death due to some karmic luck would not have known the real status of handling such a catastrophe. Some priests were hiding the pain of mind with silent empathy. Some were boisterous.

Some were unfairly suspecting the hyper pro-Sinhalese behaviours of Most Venerable Indasara Nayaka Thero, as provocation for this attack. Then, he ought to have been the solitary victim. Frankly, it was due to LTTE insanity. The Sinhalese businessmen were in an extremely aggressive mood, as much as public officers. They were oozing hate. With these I knew the main purpose of my visit was a difficult, but an essential assignment.

Among the public servants who were there I met Ariyadasa- whom I knew as a stenographer who served Ratne Deshapriya Senanayake, when he was a Deputy Minister. I took him aside and asked him what the ground situation was. He told me “Sir, the Sinhalese Buddhists are so wild about this massacre, I do not know what would happen by evening. The labourers and some traders swear worst revenge on Tamils. We feel that there is nothing wrong if that happens, as these Buddhist priests were innocent, who should not have been killed.” His words really shook me, because he was insinuating that even some public officers might be harbouring dastardly revenge.

I inquired from him whether he knew the parties who would instigate troubles. He said “There are no specific parties openly doing so. But if any miscreant acts rashly no one would come forward to save such a situation. Contrarily there may be many more who would join. Even policemen are worried.”

I visualized the scenario where armed thugs in Ampara town running berserk, attacking Tamils; traders and public officers joining, probably law enforcement deliberately collapsing and consequently the innocent Tamil families suffering victimization, especially if Policemen were also to be an aggressive attacking party.

In such desperate situations one has to hang on to any piece of straw. I decided to speak to a representative group of trouble-shooters. Ariyadasa introduced me to some, but refused participation. I know why: I would return to Colombo; he should remain in Ampara!

Peace negotiations

This arrangement fulfilled my desire, of course, in a smoky dungeon environment, inhaling the dried up secondary smoke (even Ganja!) and some smelling of liquor, where some sarong clad ‘thugs’ (with shorts exposed underneath tucked up sarongs!) met me. For them every Tamil was a Tiger. Revenge had taken precedence over Mettha (Compassion)! They wished to eat the bowels of Tamils. The nationalists who spilled nationalism and invaded my house during the 1983 Riots in Colombo also demanded to eat the bowels of the Tamils! These Buddhists losing compassion would have been consequential to 30 odd priests killed in one go. Compassion would have evaporated. In unison they swore immeasurable numerous revenge on Tamils. In a pacifying tone I tried to convince them that revenge was not the answer and it might escalate crimes. Drowning my voice they vociferously refused to accept my stance. Their voices were so loud and stern I wondered whether I had made a mistake by meeting them. However, I had no alternatives, as my failure meant invariable attacks on Tamil families.

Fortunately, there were a few who realized my dilemma. I identified them soon and focused addressing them. Incidentally, they were the ‘Seniors’ in the group. I understood the usual underworld behavioural responses to leaders. Therefore, I made them the medium to address the group to convert them to my thinking. My realization was that I was on the correct path.

The ‘leader to group’ influence brought some sense to others’ thinking. At least, it appeared so. One of their main demands was the financing of the funeral arrangements, which should have been rightly queried by priests. Roles mix up during emergencies! Ignoring other issues raised, I harped at length on this main issue- the cremation, which sobered them. As I was also the Commissioner General of Essential Services I had no problems to bear any funeral expenses. I told them that I would advise the GA to bear all funeral expenses. When it was announced they settled down a little more. Most of them felt that they had won one battle.

I felt relieved because I could explore endorsing official thinking of “No harm to Tamils”. Still I was reluctant to totally accept that they would not react adversely, having taken me for a ride. But, the leaders assured me that nothing untoward would happen. Whether I could believe them- whom I met only once for nearly two hours- bothered me.

Somewhat relieved, I left the smoky room and returned to the Kachcheri. On my way, I saw Minister P Dayaratna walking towards the hospital. He was my friend from his Electrical Engineer days in the River Valleys Development Board and therefore it was easy for me to communicate with him. I told him “Sir, I have tentatively settled the issue of the safety of the Tamil families, as required by the President. Still I keep my fingers crossed, as I do not know personally the persons who discussed with me. I have little reliance on their promises. As you generally know the troublemakers in town you might as well continue the dialogue.” I explained to him what transpired in my discussions and assured him financing all requirements for any activity related to the “adahana” (cremation). Finally, I repeatedly requested him to impress on the thugs to “behave”!

Minister Dayaratna, a politician with feet on ground and personal charm handled the situation effectively and mustered maximum support from State, clergy and community showing his political will to maintain harmony. No Tamil was affected in Ampara as consequence to this incident, which proved his matured calibre; a lesson to many present day politicians. There were definitely very much lesser numbers of persons who would cash in with hatred to take revenge from another ethnic group during an event like this. Nowadays there are to galore!

It was another lesson to prove that cruelty need not be overcome with cruelty. Unfortunately, cruelty continued otherwise until May 2009. In later popular rhetorical context the approach of the then government not to ‘touch Tamil families’ following an inhuman massacre would be considered “cowardly” or “treacherous!”

Aranthalawa Monument and Reconciliation

In 2013 a Monument was established in Aranthalawa and the depictions in it show the world this cruelty of the LTTE, and not the sympathy extended by the Head of the Government. This is the outfall of terror. Good done by us is often forgotten while the eerie acts are stalled in our minds. I may state that it brings back cruel memories, resounds the cries of the unarmed priests who were killed in cold blood. It has little relevance to reconciliation. Who would open paths to reconciliation with dark cruel memories of the past like that happened at Aranthalawa? It is common to Kebithigollawa or Mullaivaikkal or Kaththankudy. If memorial monuments were established there, it will be the result.

This is the call emanating from all victims, whether in Aranthalawa, Kattankudy, (Saddam Hussain Village, Eravur -TW) Kebithigolleva, Pettah Bus stand, Sencholai or Mullavaikkkal, Digampathaha. I have heard that yell; I have seen it. Perpetrators may show other “genuine” causes for all such actions. But, for sake of humanity such blue murder has no space for acceptance. It is so when done by any others too. This is the yelling cry we hear from all parties concerned, from all parts of the country that faced the protracted conflict. These are difficult memories to be easily erased. Investigation of all such incidents become relevant to understand the real status and to reconcile. This is also refuted by some others who consider such exposures from inquiries as irrelevant to reconciliation.

Epilogue

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in its report at Section 8.72 said that “representations were also made before the Commission that the Government should order a full scale probe into the Arantalawa massacre of 33 Buddhist monks, most of whom were Samaneras, on 2nd June 1987.” It appears that along with the other investigations recommended in the LLRC Report, this is also now forgotten. As recommended in Section 5.107 of the LLRC Report for other affected, as a matter of justice, the plight of these priests needs to be recognized by the State. I pray it be fulfilled after 30 years. Such follow-up will clear the path for reconciliation.

An inquiry may be the mechanism to clear criminal accountability of the perpetrators. Since there is sufficient access to information, investigating methods / technology and LLRC mandate there cannot be reason for delay. It cannot be considered as acrimonious against any one since inquiry as recommended by the LLRC is a demand made by everybody as a “must”. It could be the first step to reconcile with Restorative Justice. When people gather to commemorate the killing of more than thirty Buddhist priests, it must be stated that Restorative Justice cannot be achieved only through Aranthalawa Monument.

I do not think anyone with piety or any serene tranquil mind will be reminding this dastardly event. I am very much more qualified to speak about this event as I had been involved in dealing with reconciliation 30 years back. However, due to the dastard nature of this event, it is difficult to restrain commemoration. The importance of reconciliation will finally dawn on one who thinks in depth on this event. I wish it is the reason for commemoration than any other.

May the massacred Aranthalawa priests and the laymen attain Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

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