Twenty-five years ago, on 13 November 1989, the Sri Lankan government announced that Rohana Wijeweera, an extreme-left Sinhalese nationalist leader of two failed insurrections, had died in police custody – in unclear circumstances.
“I heard about the death. Of course it was not unexpected, I knew it was coming,” recalls his friend, lawyer and election agent, Prins Gunasekara, speaking to the BBC history programme, Witness.
Even as the Tamil conflict flared up in the north the island had been wracked by violence in the south. Wijeweera’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or People’s Liberation Front, killed those who rejected its ideology – and was crushed by the state.
Charismatic and powerful
So who was Rohana Wijeweera?
Born in 1943 into a rural communist family in Sri Lanka’s deep south, “he was not wealthy, nor did he belong to a high caste”, one-time colleague Victor Ivan wrote after his death.
“His parents were poor, ordinary people.”
He travelled the USSR and developed an admiration for Stalin. But, with his flowing hair and red-starred beret, he mostly styled himself on the hero of the Cuban revolution Che Guevara.
“He was a very charismatic, powerful speaker – he could speak for three or four hours without notes,” recalls another one-time lawyer of Wijeweera’s, P Rajanayagam. That meant that his message struck a chord with many poor rural-dwellers.
But Wijeweera also had an ethnic element to his message. Ceylon, as it was then, was an ethnically mixed island but had no common, over-arching language. And Wijeweera’s natural base was among the majority Sinhalese – people who had been educated in Sinhala at school or university, but had no jobs and blamed the system.
In 1971, while in prison for activities against the state, Wijeweera tried to direct an insurrection. The revolt failed miserably, but several thousand JVP members were killed by the government.
‘Kill the brutes’
In 1982 Wijeweera contested the presidential election, with Gunasekara as his agent. In speeches he accused politicians of “tearing up” the people’s rights.
He came a distant third. By the late 1980s the JVP was banned and he was plotting a new, ferociously violent insurrection. The party argued that attempts to make peace with the Tamil Tigers were selling out the Sinhalese.
Prins Gunasekara says it was the president that provoked the JVP by telling his security forces to “kill the brutes”.
Those in the JVP or suspected of involvement “were being picked up, tortured and killed”, he says.
The JVP killed monks, academics, union leaders, even a popular politician-film-star, Vijaya Kumaratunga, whose wife Chandrika later became president.
“The JVP had these kangaroo courts where they sentenced people to death and then would send an assassin to kill that person,” says Priyath Liyanage, editor of BBC Sinhala. “On the government side there were death squads, torture chambers. It became a nation of terror in 1989.”
In the green jungles and rice fields, among the Buddhist temples and on campuses, the state wreaked its revenge, says Mr Gunasekara.
“The pro-JVP elements were arrested, beheaded, and their heads were put on poles and planted around a lake in the University of Peradeniya [in the city of Kandy]. So when they see it they know this is what happens if you are pro-JVP.
“In my own electorate there were one or two places where they used to bring young men, shoot them and set on fire.”
In November 1989 Rohana Wijeweera was finally hunted down and arrested while living in disguise on a tea plantation with his family.
According to Prins Gunasekara, President Ranasinghe Premadasa gave the go-ahead for the captive – and one of his colleagues who had been tortured – to be summarily killed.
According to some accounts, he was burned alive.
So ended the insurrection of the People’s Liberation Front. But the state continued to go after alleged sympathisers for months. Thousands remain missing to this day.
Prins Gunasekara says the whole period has left an awful legacy.
The numbers may be less now but “as the JVP did at one stage, the government abducts people, disappears people, tortures them, the parents are not even told where the children are”, he says.
This southern conflict claimed perhaps 70,000 lives.
But it failed to attract the international attention that the much longer ethnic one has done, says the BBC’s Priyath Liyanage.
Whereas the large Tamil diaspora helps maintain awareness of that issue, those caught up in the JVP conflict were “mainly Sinhala, rural people, people from poorer backgrounds”, he says.
The JVP became a legal political party. It still venerates its icon, Rohana Wijeweera.
The government confined Wijeweera’s widow and six children to a naval barracks. Little has been heard of them in the quarter-century since.
President Premadasa and his Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne, who was present at Wijeweera’s death, were both later assassinated by the Tamil Tigers. (BBC)