The Confusion over Wijeweera’s Last Hour: Two State Notices and Dissenters from the Margins.

On November 13th 1989, the Sri Lankan state publicized the death of the then-JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera. Details outlined in the notice contradicted the contents of a parallel communique issued on the same matter by the commander of the military. This clash of abnormality which came within the first twelve hours of Wijeweera’s death is symptomatic and symbolic of the many befuddling distortions, convolutions and contradictions that exist within the state’s ‘history’ of that unruly time. Either facts were deliberately confused to sustain a climate of uncertainty. Or else, there was no longer a regard for record or detail. In the last months of 1989, the country had entered a phase where records or documents meant quite little.

Rohana Wijeweera_3

Based on the statements made by the government and the military, journalist Iqbal Athas files a report in which he alludes to “high ranking government sources” who claimed Wijeweera to have been killed. According to this source, the JVP supremo had met his end “in a pre-dawn raid by elite army troops on a tea estate near the central town of Gampola”. In the second statement, coming from “an army commander”, it is claim that “the rebel leader was killed by troops in a Colombo hideout after one of his colleagues opened fire” (Athas, ‘Rebel Leader Captured, shot dead’). Indeed, even at the point of reporting, Athas himself knew that at least one of these versions – perhaps, even both – were untrue: that these were restructurings fit for the reading of society. Athas betrays his knowledge of what is obvious by placing side by side the conflicting sources; thereby, amplifying what is glaring and incongruous. He reports that army commander Lt. Col. Hamilton Wanasinghe had “interrogated Wijeweera”, who – it is admitted – has ‘volunteered’ to make a videotape appeal to the JVP rebels to surrender arms; after which he had agreed to lead the security forces to “a hideout in the city” where “JVP politburo member H.B. Herath was discovered”.

The ‘facts’ of this ‘discovery of Herath’ ends with the following inevitable conclusion:

Mr. H.B Herath handed over certain articles and pretending to search for more articles, suddenly pulled out a weapon and fired in the direction of Mr. Rohana Wijeweera… Security force personnel began shooting and both radicals died of bullet wounds… the bodies were immediately cremated’ (Athas, ‘Rebel Leader Captured, shot dead’)


By firing thus, H.B Herath – politburo member and leading organizer of the JVP among students – had introduced to Sri Lankan Police and military history a ‘plot stereotype’ that, with intermission, is in use to this very day: the ‘suspect’ who leads the law to ‘a hidden safe-house’, (from somewhere) miraculously draws a weapon, and is shot to death in the cross-fire, while Iqbal Athas’ reporting, at best, demonstrates creative and responsible journalism under the barrel of a smoke-trailing gun. Over the past three decades, subsequent ‘versions’ of Wijeweera’s death have become public even though the actual men behind his killing have – to degrees – been left in the dark. Among these contesting ‘truths’ postmortem, the more commonly accepted view is that Wijeweera, being taken away to the Colombo Golf Course, was shot to death and that his body was then cremated at Borella Cemetery which is adjacent.

Com H[1].B. Herath
HB Herath
Twenty eight years later, in 2017, Sanjeewa Fernando, a columnist of the ‘Daily Mirror’, in an article titled “Wijeweera and the nation’s lost brigade” (published November 15th, 2017) writes in open dismissal of the state report of Wijeweera perishing in a shootout. Fernando calls this fabrication a “fairytale account”. As these frontline leaders did not die in battle but in incarceration, Fernando insists that they were “assassinated in state custody”: an act for which the state was “technically and legally…responsible”. The circumstances of Wijeweera’s death have occupied the central imagination of the insurrection’s counter-narrative. For instance, in his discussion in Ja.Vi.Pe Sangavunu Ithihasayen Bindhak – II (From the Hidden History of the JVP – II), Rohitha Munasinghe re-visualizes what ‘may have occurred’ during Wijeweera’s last hours. Here, Munasinghe relies on comparative ‘versions’ of the events purported to have taken place, including the sworn statement of Indrananda de Silva – the military photographer who had been assigned the task of taking photographs of Wijeweera – who was later identified as a JVP plant within the military. A subsequent court martial process convicted de Silva to a fifteen year sentence after which – upon being freed – he entered politics through the JVP ticket.

The following reconstruction of events are excerpted and translated from Munasinghe’s book:

Taken out of the jeep, to feed Wijeweera’s body [through the crematorium door] wasn’t an easy process. Four army soldiers who held the body by its hands and feet heaved the body a few times and then tried to throw it so it might go in through the opening of the furnace. The body that hit the concrete wall surrounding the furnace mouth fell on the ground with a loud noise. It is at this point that Wijeweera whimpers in pain. What it suggests is that though nearing his death even at that point he wasn’t actually dead.

For a second time, the soldiers swing Wijeweera’s body as before and throw it towards the opened door of the furnace. For a second time the body hits the wall and collapses on the ground. Unable to watch this inhuman, beastly sight the crematorium operator steps in saying, “You cannot do that in this way, sirs” and takes it on himself to feed the body in.

The crematorium operator, who later renounced from worldly comforts and resorted to monkhood, states that his witnessing the cruel and tragic end that overcame one who was a reputed political leader was the main reason that made him disenchanted with worldly life. (Munasinghe, Ja.Vi.Pe Sangavunu Ithihasayen – II 18-19; my translation).

In June 2018, Wijeweera’s spouse Chitranganee lodged a habeas corpus application demanding the state to reveal the fate of her husband. Following the arrest of Wijeweera in November 1989, his family – which includes five children – were placed under military custody; and until their release in 2015, the family had been living under fortified conditions under navy protection in Welisara. In the interim, the JVP has made little and negligible efforts to seek redress or to obtain clarification from successive governments regarding the extra-judicial fates of its frontline cadre. Munasinghe is perturbed and disenchanted by this complacency and lack of commitment on the part of the JVP in pressurizing an accountability programme (Munasinghe, Ja.Vi.Pe Sangavunu Ithihasayen – I 12). In such a context, the counter-narrative discourse which has continuously attempted to foster a history within which these deaths are questioned has been the most powerful quest for knowledge and justice for the victims of state terrorism.

A-Drop-From-The-Hidden-History-Of-The-Jvp_frontIn Indrananda de Silva’s statement he confesses that H.B Herath, even as he was taking photographs, was already beaten and tortured within an inch of his life. At this point, he was still in military custody. Unable to get a response from Herath, de Silva props the frail body up against a wall and proceeds with his assigned task. It is unlikely that this destroyed person had life in him to carry out a skirmish in a safe-house by toting a secured weapon. de Silva’s testimony supports more the perception that Herath had already been killed or fatally wounded as a result of prolonged torture; and that he, along with Wijeweera, were killed off and bodies incinerated. Dharman Wickremeretna, in his commentary Ja.Vi.Pe Dhevana Kerella (The Second Insurrection of the JVP) endorses this view. Dharman follows Herath’s capture from a JVP safe-house in Galaha, off Kandy, and of his being brought to Colombo army headquarters on the 12th of November 1989. His death is reported as co-incidental to that of Wijeweera, carried out near the “sixth hole” of the Colombo Golf Course (Wickremeretna 94).

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