Batalanda’s ghosts return to haunt Ranil
By Nirupama Subramanian
COLOMBO, AUG. 22. “Anil’s Ghost”, the new novel by the celebrated Sri Lankan-Canadian writer, Mr. Michael Ondaatje, is based on the orgy of killings and disappearances that swept southern Sri Lanka in the late 80s when government-backed death squads put down an armed insurrection by the Janatha Vimukthi Perumina.
Now, one incident from those dark years has returned to haunt the United National Party (UNP), in power then, and its present leader, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe.
With the Government stepping up investigations into the incident in the weeks ahead of the general election, the spin team of the ruling People’s Alliance (PA) has pounced on it and made it the Big Issue.
The allegation is that Mr. Wickremesinghe, then a Minister, was the political authority behind an illegal detention centre in a housing complex at an industrial township outside Colombo between 1988 and 1990.
The Batalanda detention centre, as it is known, was run by a government-backed counter-subversive unit, part of the state’s operation to put down an armed insurgency by the JVP that threatened to overtake the country.
It has been alleged that a number of people suspected of being JVP cadres were taken there and tortured. Many of the victims “disappeared”, some survived.
The incident has returned to centre-stage after a policeman associated with the detention centre resurfaced in Sri Lanka earlier this month, and gave a statement to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) directly linking Mr. Wickremesinghe to persons alleged to be members of a death squad.
The former policeman also alleged that various members of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s inner circle in the UNP were responsible for sending him abroad and ensuring he stayed out after the present Government announced the appointment of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Batalanda detention centre in 1995.
Last week, police questioned twice one of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s close associates in the UNP, Mr. Milinda Moragoda, named by the former policeman as one of those who helped him flee the country.
According to local media reports, Mr. Wickremesinghe may also be summoned for questioning soon.
If the UNP is worried, it is not yet showing it. At a news conference on Sunday, Mr. Wickremesinghe dismissed the whole matter as “part of the mud-slinging campaign against the UNP” by the Government. “Sometimes I am an agent of the LTTE, now the Batalanda charges are being made,” he said.
The UNP chairman, Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, described the statement by the former policeman, now in custody, as a “fabricated lie”. “We are not wasting our time on this, there are burning issues facing the country and we will be taking up those issues in our campaign,” Mr. Jayasuriya said.
But if the Government so decides, Batalanda’s ghosts could take a life of their own which could prove extremely damaging to the UNP even after all these years. That the detention centre existed is not in question. The only matter that needs to be settled is Mr. Wickremesinghe’s role in it. Earlier this year, the Government published the report of the 1995 inquiry commission on Batalanda.
Mainly a fact-finding mission, the commission had no sentencing powers, but recommended that the Government bring the guilty to book. One of its findings was that “Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe and the SSP, Nalin Delgoda, are indirectly responsible for the maintenance of places of unlawful detention and torture chambers in houses at the Batalanda Housing Scheme”.
It said Mr. Wickremesinghe held “unauthorised” meetings of police officers involved in counter-insurgency operations in the housing complex, and that as such, he had “abused his authority”.
But for the Government, going to town on this issue before the elections could prove a double-edged sword with which it could well cut itself.
A Sinhala weekly reported yesterday that one of the persons arrested last week by the police for three murders during that time, a free-lance journalist alleged to have links with Mr. Wickremesinghe, was in fact, a member of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) founded by Ms. Chandrika Kumaratunga and her actor husband, Vijaya, who was killed by the JVP in 1988.
It is a fact that every politician in the Government or in the Opposition in that period was under siege by the JVP, and many openly assisted government-sponsored vigilante death squads to break the insurgency. In the process, thousands of innocents also lost their lives. According to estimates, between 40,000 to 60,000 people were either killed or “disappeared” in those three years.
As Sarath, one of the protagonists in “Anil’s Ghost”, says: “Terror everywhere, from all sides. We wouldn’t have survived with your rules of Westminster then. So illegal government forces rose up in retaliation. And we were caught in the middle. It was like being in a room with three suitors, all of whom had blood on their hands. In nearly every house, in nearly every family, there was knowledge of someone’s murder or abduction by one side or the another…”