Silence in the Killing Zone

By Steve Coll
Sunday, January 16, 1994

Of all the bonehead mistakes I ever made, arguably the most boneheaded was the decision to drive away at sunset from the Madhu bishop's compound. War was on again in Sri Lanka and we had been driving around in it all day. For reasons no longer retained, it seemed important to record what we had seen in a brief news story. The difficulty was that we were stuck in the jungle and the light was going. The bishop of Madhu had offered to put us up for the night at his cool, whitewashed compound, a battlefield sanctuary where thousands of civilian refugees sought shelter from the soldiers, guerrillas and paramilitary death squads roaming around their villages. To get back to the land of international telephone lines from the bishop's place, we would have to drive along narrow dirt roads through checkpoints manned by Sri Lanka's ethnic Sinhalese security forces.

Of course, I was not planning to do any actual driving; I would leave that to Ron, the cherubic Sri Lankan madman who had developed a highly lucrative, monopoly-by-default business driving journalists around his island's several wars. Ron's advantage, aside from nerve, was his divided ethnic lineage -- half Sinhalese, half Tamil -- which conveniently allowed him to claim that he was a partisan of whatever side of Sri Lankan ethnic conflicts he happened to be on at any given moment. This kept him alive and kept his passengers moving through the checkpoints. Ron once drove for the Colombo Hilton but was discharged after returning his polished Toyota with .50-caliber machine gun bullet holes in the roof and sides. One of these bullets, fired from a helicopter tracking him from overhead, had passed between his parted legs and through the driver's seat. The car company seemed indifferent about the near-miss but was terribly upset about the Swiss-cheese ventilation. So now Ron worked out of his home near the airport and drove scavenged cars on which he erected great white banners proclaiming neutrality in several languages. He was unfailingly cheerful and game for anything, even bonehead ideas like the drive from Madhu.

For 30 minutes we raced along abandoned narrow tracks through elephant grass and groves of palm. We had the windows down and the tape deck on at high volume. We passed a couple of checkpoints with ease and thought we were nearing the edge of the fighting zone. Darkness fell quickly and the passing palms faded to black.

Suddenly Ron slammed on the brakes. He killed the headlights and the tape deck and the motor.

Somebody was shouting at us in Sinhalese from a distance. Ron interpreted under his breath. Put your hands up. Open the car doors slowly. Step with your hands in the air to the front of the car. Get down on your knees. Move forward down the road on your knees with your hands still up.

Flashlights glanced across us as we followed these instructions. Gun bolts clicked. We couldn't see a thing. Ron began a dialogue in Sinhalese with somebody in the shadows. I could not understand a word, but it did not sound as if it was going very well. We moved 20 yards down the road, shuffling humbly in the dirt. Ron, still talking like a Gatling gun, finally rose to his feet and walked forward, telling me under his breath to stay still. I knelt like this, reaching to the sky, physically and emotionally frozen, until I heard Ron begin to chuckle. Then he began to laugh. Now three or four people were laughing.

"It's all right," Ron said. "Come ahead." An army captain in fatigues and a T-shirt stood near a barbed-wire bunker. He had a pistol in his hand. Soldiers with assault rifles and shoulder-fired grenade launchers joined the group. They were chattering in rapid Sinhalese and still laughing. Ron, now in full salesman's mode, had his arm on the captain's shoulder to express collegial intimacy.

"The captain says this is our lucky day -- really our lucky day," Ron said jovially. "He thought we were the enemy. He was this close" -- Ron squeezed his thumb and forefinger together -- "to ordering his men to open fire. Then I heard him shouting and stopped the car. They had machine guns and grenades trained on our headlights. He was about to yell 'fire' when we stopped. He says this is really our lucky day."

Ron was gritting his teeth but laughing nonetheless. The captain now felt a need to explain six or seven times what a lucky day this was for us, since he had not killed us. He even digressed into the field of astrology to describe the scale of our good fortune.

By now I was feeling annoyed. I said to Ron, "Tell him that this is certainly our lucky day, but it is also his lucky day, because killing an American reporter, even by innocent mistake, would not be a good thing for a fine officer like himself."

Ron passed this thought along, and the captain seemed puzzled by it. He answered in Sinhalese. "He says," Ron explained, "that this is Sri Lanka. If they had killed us, they would have just burned the bodies. Nobody would have ever known."

Right. I had forgotten about that.

BETWEEN 1988 AND 1990, some 20,000 to 60,000 people in Sri Lanka were murdered by government-sponsored paramilitary death squads. Nobody knows exactly how many; nobody ever will. To date, no individual has been brought formally to justice for the killings. The democratically elected Sri Lankan political party in power at the time of the murders remains in power today. Throughout the time of the killings, substantial financial aid to Sri Lanka's government flowed from Washington's various foreign policy and multilateral bureaucracies, a flow that continues. There are many remarkable facets of this episode. The most remarkable of all is the silence that accompanied it, within Sri Lanka and without.

You may suppose that you are about to read a sermon against that silence, a cry of outrage of the sort that normally follows when the phrases "death squads" and "American human rights policy" are tossed about, as in reference to El Salvador, or Chile, or Argentina. Indeed, the number of death squad murders in Sri Lanka was as high as or much higher than in the Latin American cases that have so pricked American consciences, prompting anguished Hollywood filmmaking, poignant Broadway stagings, heated exchanges on the floors of Congress and the convening of international truth commissions. Sri Lanka would benefit from such attention. Yet such a response has not yet risen and almost certainly never will. The reasons are perhaps more troubling, more challenging and more relevant to the disordered world that Washington policy makers must now negotiate than rhetorical debate about obscure Sri Lanka ever could be. What follows, then, is not a sermon, but a small exegesis about silence and state-sponsored mass murder.

Aside from Sri Lankan expatriates, the group of Americans fully aware of what was happening in Sri Lanka between 1988 and 1990 probably would fit comfortably into a hotel conference room. They were country analysts in the State Department's South Asia regional bureau and human rights division; counterparts at the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the CIA and other foreign policy bureaucracies; diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital; a small handful of congressmen and their aides; a similarly small handful of Asia-oriented human rights activists; a few journalists; and a gaggle of academics. Speaking with them now, some three years after the Sri Lankan death squads wound up their work, one gets the sense that those who were involved, even if only as witnesses, feel something in common.

This feeling is difficult to describe. It is not outrage or anger. The conversations begin with ambivalence and grope toward certain issues -- how the revolutionary threat faced by the democratic Sri Lankan government was itself so murderously extreme; how the Sri Lankan state was on the verge of disintegration when it unleashed the death squads; how Sri Lanka was so remote from Western interests and understanding; how the usual rules of human rights policy may not have applied. Then the conversations move toward a distanced observation and a partial conclusion: These thousands of death squad murders in Sri Lanka, horrible as they were, may have been necessary, or even in some way justifiable. And from there, the speaker's language often becomes vivid, even strange.

"There was such an ambient level of violence, sort of like static, that you could get away literally with murder," says one State Department official involved at the time. "Look at the U.S. government's response during this business. On the one hand, we were saying, 'My goodness, we really are concerned about these fairly credible reports of extrajudicial killings.' On the other hand, we never did cut off aid . . . It was just a horrifying period. We followed all the death and destruction . . . {But} it was isolated on all sorts of terms. If that doesn't make it unique, it's not the norm. This all concerned the bottom half of a country the size of West Virginia at the tail end of very uncomfortable flights . . ."

From another U.S. official involved: "The first time I saw pictures that someone had taken of people in military uniforms shooting civilians was toward 1988, in the second half . . . I was given them through a military source. They had a bunch of kids out in a clearing and executed them . . . In 1989, when they {the Sri Lankan death squads} started to roll it up, when it got to the point of being ludicrous, nobody ever said a thing {against it} that I heard, even though what the {Sri Lankan} government was saying then was so patently false, just farcical, really. Nobody ever complained because by that point, everybody in Colombo realized it was a fight to the death, that it had to be."

There are other, less haunted points to make about the connections among Washington, Sri Lanka, human rights policy and the death squads during this period. Even if the U.S. government did not stop its aid to Colombo, it did lobby privately and speak out publicly in Washington against the killings. The State Department documented the atrocities carefully in published (if little-noticed) reports. The media did little to bring the murders to the public's attention, so the U.S. government felt scant pressure to reconsider or publicly debate its chosen policy. Also, the United States did not train or meaningfully supply the Sri Lankan death squads, as was true in Latin America. For this and other reasons it is by no means clear that America could have altered this bloody diversion in Sri Lankan history even if it had wanted to try.

"You cannot in Washington wave a magic wand so that everything happens worldwide the way you want it to happen," says Richard Schifter, assistant secretary of state for human rights at the time and now a special assistant to President Clinton on the National Security Council. "What levers can we pull to make things happen? That varies. In the case of Sri Lanka, there wasn't that much." A passionate advocate of human rights policy as an instrument of American national interest, Schifter reflects on the lessons of Sri Lanka in sentences that mainly end with question marks. "Where you have a democratic government trying to overcome an existential threat, the question that does arise is, just how hard do you push? You push hard, but then when it comes to adopting sanctions, how far do you go? . . . {Another} question is, to what extent should our policy really be driven -- as it is -- by the accessibility or attractiveness of a particular situation in the media?"

In reference to Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti, these questions are currently alive for Schifter and his White House policy-making colleagues. They will arise elsewhere soon enough. In Sri Lanka the case is closed. This is what happened:

THE SRI LANKAN death squads normally worked at night. They were led by people like our checkpoint captain, mid-level ethnic Sinhalese army and police officers at the front lines of the island's counterinsurgency campaigns. From their barbed-wire military and police compounds in the jungle, the officers and small squads of soldiers in civilian dress drove out in jeeps after sunset, yanking young men of certain low castes from the streets or from cars or from their homes. Often the young men, suspected revolutionaries, were beaten and interrogated for a few hours. Then they were shot in the head at close range and burned with kerosene. Sometimes their bodies were dumped just before dawn into the muddy rivers that snake through the Sri Lankan jungles. At the Ja-Ela Bridge just north of Colombo, commuter traffic into the capital would congeal each morning as drivers and bicyclists stopped to lean over the rails and count the corpses floating down the Ja-Ela River to the ocean. In the island's Sinhalese-dominated south, where the death squads were most active during 1989 and 1990, a popular tactic was to cut off the heads of victims. Soldiers then placed the heads at dawn outside the homes of the victims' relatives. Though Sri Lanka has been plagued by ethnic strife for a decade, the vast majority of death squad victims were not members of the island's beleaguered ethnic Tamil minority, whose violent conflicts with the Sinhalese majority have garnered headlines worldwide. Rather, the victims were southern Sinhalese supposedly allied with the Maoist People's Liberation Front, known as the JVP because of its Sinhalese initials. Those who died in this spasm shared ethnicity and religion -- but not political ideology -- with their murderers.

Democratic polities are organized partially around the assumption that to pluck people from their homes in the night, shoot them, behead them and burn their corpses at dawn is morally and otherwise intolerable. So what made the Sri Lankan death squads in the island's south so politically peculiar was that few Sri Lankans, even those in parliamentary opposition to the national government, found it possible to draw such firm conclusions. For example, consider that Ranasinghe Premadasa, the recently assassinated Sri Lankan president who presided over the reign of the death squads, was more popular after the terror than before. When a popular democracy in a country with a 90 percent literacy rate is prepared to endorse death squads at the polls, does it tell you that democracy is fatally flawed or that the work of the death squads represented some sort of utilitarian achievement? You could hear both answers on the island.

Sri Lanka is a country of 17 million that has carried to the most vivid extremes the same conflicts -- over ethnicity, nationalism, religion, political ideology, social equity, economic opportunity, the nature of the state -- that bedevil and occasionally threaten the stability of its larger regional neighbors and other countries worldwide. The island is a gruesome political laboratory where the rest of South Asia observes and analyzes a possible future that it wishes at all costs to avoid. The difficulty is that the island is so rich with terrible anecdotes, intractable conflicts and competing theories that it is possible to draw reasonable but diametrically opposed conclusions from the same evidence. By the late 1980s Sri Lankan society had become so polarized by violence and so beset by organized evil that the country, as a Colombo friend put it, quoting the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel, had "lost its ability to distinguish between right and wrong."

Why this happened is a question that arises in part from language of political morality generally muted today in the industrialized West -- language used to explain, justify or defeat revolution.

The People's Liberation Front is -- or, more properly, was -- a self-proclaimed Marxist revolutionary movement that capitalized on the grievances of impoverished but generally well-educated Sinhalese Sri Lankans who felt they had gotten a raw deal from their governing, post-colonial, English-speaking elites. These Sinhalese saw themselves as trapped in their southern villages, deprived of economic opportunity and social mobility. Rohan Wijeweera, the son of a small-time Sinhalese communist politician, was the Liberation Front's leader. He spent years studying Marxism and history in the Soviet Union. While developing the ideology of his revolutionary movement, he traveled around the world and met or corresponded with representatives of China, Cuba, the South West Africa People's Organization in Namibia, the Palestine Liberation Organization and various Basque separatist guerrillas. He read Che Guevara's and Fidel Castro's speeches and books, titles such as "Those Who Are Not Militant Revolutionaries Are Not Communists" and the tellingly phrased "History Will Absolve Me." Wijeweera was a charismatic man of modest birth and great ambition who understood intuitively how to push the hot buttons of Sinhalese racial, ethnic and religious culture. But as for politics, the vocation to which he devoted and ultimately gave his life, he spoke of the crucial questions only in the most wooden language of Marxist theory.

Justifying the mass killing he unleashed first in an aborted revolutionary strike in 1971 and then with greater effect during the late 1980s, Wijeweera said, "Counterrevolutionaries resort to violence. Therefore to ensure the safe delivery of the new social system it becomes necessary to resort to revolutionary violence against the violence employed by the capitalist class . . . I am a Marxist-Leninist. I am a modern Bolshevik. I am a proletarian revolutionary . . . I, as a Bolshevik, am in no way a terrorist. As a proletarian revolutionary, however, I must emphatically state that I am committed to the overthrow of the prevailing capitalist system and its replacement by a socialist system."

This sort of thing sounded as if it were copied from a borrowed revolutionary phrase book. But in all the years of his revolutionary fervor, it was the most Wijeweera ever offered his adherents as theoretical justification for following him into death. There were emotional buttons that Wijeweera pushed at crucial moments of his revolution -- buttons that aroused Sinhalese nationalism and xenophobia. But the leader's politics were unapologetically modern and Bolshevik. He was deeply absorbed by the absurd doctrinal debates and splits within the international communist movement. At one point, for example, he decided that isolated, tropical Sri Lanka's future depended to a large extent on which side it backed in the Moscow-Beijing split. Wijeweera chose China, devoted many jungle speeches and propaganda pamphlets to explaining his choice, and declared himself a Maoist.

Why such a significant number of Sri Lankan Sinhalese were willing to follow Wijeweera into battle in the late 1980s is a difficult question. Sri Lanka had been for years a center of Trotskyite politics. Yet Wijeweera never commanded anything like a majority. The base line of his support is perhaps best measured by the 273,428 votes he won in a 1982 presidential election, the only one in which he ever participated. This placed Wijeweera third in the balloting, way behind the two major parties but strong enough to surprise Sri Lanka. Rohan Gunaratna, the Sinhalese historian who has published the only thorough, balanced history of the Liberation Front, writes that aside from his personal charisma, ruthlessness and ambition, Wijeweera built a meaningful movement because he "successfully blended Marxism and racialism and created a doctrine which attracted the Sri Lankan rural educated unemployed youth," of which there were many, as there are in all of South Asia. The combined successes and failures of Sri Lanka's post-colonial state created by the 1980s a generation of idle, intelligent, healthy, ambitious young people susceptible to rebellious ideology and to manipulation by charismatic leaders. Most of the serious writing in Sri Lanka about the reasons for the Liberation Front's rise concentrates on specific, avoidable mistakes the Colombo government made -- the decision to segregate Sinhalese and Tamil language education in 1956, the ambivalence about democracy during the early 1980s, the decision to ban the Liberation Front in 1984 on the pretext that Wijeweera led brutal anti-Tamil riots in Colombo the year before, when in fact it was the government's own thugs who led the attacks. These avoidable errors were indeed serious and they strengthened the Liberation Front. But once the revolutionary movement began, the dynamics of insurgency and counterinsurgency also influenced its development. The Sri Lankan security forces cracked back with brutal violence, creating martyrs, which further inspired the revolutionaries. At the same time, the movement's adherents discovered that in impoverished, insecure societies such as those in South Asia there is unusual profit in revolution -- with a gun and a bandanna and a threatening pamphlet, you can walk into any "capitalist" shop in town and extort decent amounts of money, even if you don't know Marx from Engels.

Modern South Asian governments are often quick and thorough when deploying force to defeat prospective revolutions, as were the British, who taught their successors what they know. Arguably, Sri Lanka's counterinsurgency campaign against Wijeweera and his People's Liberation Front -- the death squad campaign -- is distinguished not so much by the fundamental conditions in which it occurred as by its extreme brutality. At a moment of exceptional weakness in the history of the independent Sri Lankan state, Wijeweera and his followers nearly brought the whole house down. They were defeated in a bloodbath the likes of which South Asia has not seen since the partition of Pakistan. Many governments in the world today, in consultation with Western allies and sponsors, wrestle continually with how they should calibrate counterinsurgency in order to prevail and survive. Particularly, these governments wrestle with the question of force versus negotiation. And when they look to Sri Lanka, they find ambiguous lessons about the uses of death squads.

IN THE SUMMER of 1989 Wijeweera had the Sri Lankan state on its knees. The entire capital of Colombo seemed to feel the way I did kneeling on the dirt road that night near Madhu: frozen, waiting for the sound of the end. When you drove in from the airport, the only people on the streets were soldiers. On that 30-mile stretch there were perhaps 50 checkpoints and roadblocks manned by jittery teenagers. Wind came in off the Indian Ocean and blew trash all about the roads, much of it dire propaganda posters pasted up by the invisible cadres of the Liberation Front and then torn down by the security forces to tumble in the abandoned streets. There were scarcely any cars or buses -- the Liberation Front had banned them as part of a general strike it called in anticipation of the state's imminent overthrow, and its cadres had shot dead enough drivers to put the point across. In the previous year Wijeweera, after two decades of planning, had taken his revolution to the edge of the envelope. His followers threw hand grenades into buses and shops to kill those who refused to pay extortion money. They carried out random assassinations of civil servants, policemen and soldiers. They infiltrated the ranks of the national police and the army, distributed pamphlets and delivered secret lectures about the revolution. To demoralize those in the security forces who would not go along, Wijeweera ordered his men to enter the homes of policemen while they were off at work, slaughter their wives and children with knives and guns, and then leave the bodies to be discovered when the policemen came home. As these gruesome attacks multiplied, the demoralization of civil society worsened. By late July, the end seemed near. Sri Lanka would fall to the Liberation Front -- this was no longer Wijeweera's pipe dream, it was a serious possibility. The front issued propaganda declaring that it was soon going to do to the families of army officers what it had already done to the families of police if the officers did not resign. The army was the ticket to national power and it seemed in danger of crumbling from within.

There were few illusions in Sri Lanka about what the Liberation Front would do if it seized national power. These were not cuddly Sandinistas with a Hollywood auxiliary. Wijeweera spoke of ethnic, religious and class conflict in the most violent terms. He endorsed and practiced political murder on a wide scale. If he took Colombo, there would be slaughter -- widespread "ethnic cleansing," as it is called today in the former Yugoslavia, as well as large-scale political retribution. Everybody in the capital knew it. It was already happening, incrementally.

At this point Premadasa's government abandoned its attempts at negotiation with Wijeweera and unleashed the death squads in full fury. According to Sri Lankan politicians, security force officers, international human rights groups -- and the small group of American officials tracking all this from Washington -- the Colombo government deliberately recruited policemen who had lost relatives in bloody Liberation Front attacks, sent them into the areas of the south where the Front had made the most progress, and told them to do whatever was necessary to defeat the enemy. This method of counterinsurgency, acknowledged only in elliptical terms by its Colombo architects, had begun in 1988. In July of 1989, with the state teetering, the government let it be known that it had adopted a new, modified policy: For every relative of a policeman or soldier killed by the Liberation Front, 10 allies of Wijeweera would be rounded up and summarily executed.

After this announcement, to travel in Sri Lanka's death squad country was to tour a strange landscape of slaughter and silence. This was the time of the Mitsubishi Pajero jeeps with no license plates and the midnight knocks and the burning bodies rolled up on the pristine white beaches. In Liberation Front strongholds, young men began to disappear at a rate of 400 to 500 per week. Some of them undoubtedly fed the smoldering piles of ash and bone fragments that I would come across from time to time on southern roadsides, usually a few hundred yards from a security force checkpoint. When a severed head or a full corpse with a burning tire around it turned up, crowds of villagers gathered and stared, mute. The message delivered by the besieged government got around quickly.

I drove with Ron one afternoon through the jungle to Kotagoda, the seaside fishing village that was Wijeweera's birthplace. Since nearly any organization in South Asia begins with family and clan, the death squads had decided to slaughter every young man they could find who traced his roots to the place where Wijeweera belonged. As a consequence, there were only old men and a few women left in Wijeweera's village. They drifted into Kotagoda by day to do a little fishing and farming. Nobody would sleep there at night, they said. Too many severed heads. One woman had been beheaded 10 days before, the villagers said. They stood talking like this in a spectacular setting -- coral sea sparkling in tropical sun, lush palms and wildflowers all around. They pointed around the horizon as if directing a tourist to a hotel. Over there, see, is where they burn most of the bodies in the night. Here is where the tide brings the corpses ashore. Down there is where most of the severed heads show up.

As we spoke, a jeep raced into the village. It stopped 30 yards down the road. It had no license plates. Armed men in civilian dress climbed out, charged up the hillside, then returned a few minutes later yanking a teenager by the collar. They threw the young man into the back of their jeep and sped off. Brazen -- it wasn't even dark yet. For all practical purposes, we had just witnessed a murder. What were we supposed to do now, call the police?

In the nearby town of Matara we drove to the headquarters of the local commander of the security forces, appropriately housed inside an old Dutch colonial fort. At the razor-wire gates were hundreds of women standing in clumps under the hot sun, some holding umbrellas. They wore colorful saris and blouses. They were the mothers of the disappeared, lined up in search of answers. Every morning they showed up at the fort at dawn, hoping for an audience with the colonel inside. It had reached the point where the colonel handed out numbered tickets to control the flow. Only the first hundred mothers got numbers, so they had to leave their homes in the jungle at 2 or 3 in the morning each day to reach Matara in time to get a ticket. Even then, the mothers said, they rarely got any answers. Occasionally a son turned out to be alive and in a detention camp; mostly there was no news. The colonel usually said that the boy in question must have been killed by Wijeweera's men, the mothers reported. They clustered around Ron and me, wailing and crying, thrusting forward photographs and identity cards of their missing sons.

I pushed inside the overheated concrete building. There were more mothers inside, seated in silence on wooden chairs beneath spinning ceiling fans. After a time, the colonel invited me in. Death squads, shmeath squads -- he didn't want to talk about any death squads. But he would be glad to talk about the Liberation Front and how he was on the verge of ending its revolution.

"The Liberation Front were virtually in control when we came in," the colonel began. "People were living in fear. They were collecting funds. They were saying, 'Stop work. Stop buses.' . . . But they have not succeeded. When we established control the fear went out from the public."

I mentioned that a previous Sri Lankan government had felt once before, in 1971, that it had beaten the People's Liberation Front with violence. It had been wrong. What made him think the uprising wouldn't happen all over again, this time worse than before?

"We've taken on some youth training to try to prevent future insurrections," the colonel answered. "We're training hundreds of young people in the army youth-training program. There's no pay but there are one or two courses under way . . ."

IN FACT, President Premadasa was smarter than that. As a southern Sinhalese of low-caste birth, the first leading mainstream politician of that background in Sri Lankan history, he was well positioned to steal Wijeweera's revolutionary thunder by challenging some of the high-caste elites in Colombo whom Wijeweera held up as the implacable enemy. By his birth alone, Premadasa assured many ordinary Sri Lankans that he had their welfare at heart. He mixed free market reforms with visible welfare schemes, modernism with obscurantist, apoplectic Sinhalese nationalism. By these means Premadasa tried after 1989 to co-opt Wijeweera's original appeal and substitute a political vision grounded in a functional, if brutal and flawed, parliamentary democracy.

But Premadasa surely knew as well as anyone that it was the death squads, and not his calculated political chauvinism, that defeated the People's Liberation Front. This was accomplished by mid-1990 and brought Sri Lanka back from the brink of anarchy. The decisive event occurred on November 12, 1989, when roving security force units in plainclothes found Wijeweera in hiding in a southern village called Ulapane and arrested him. He died of multiple gunshot wounds in the early hours of the next day. His body was burned. After that, the Liberation Front began to dissolve. The government claimed Wijeweera was shot trying to escape and that he was cremated according to tradition, "under conditions of maximum security," as the official release put it, as if a corpse might be prone to rash acts. Hardly anyone in Sri Lanka believes the claim of attempted escape, there are witnesses who contradict it, and it does seem an unnecessary fiction. If it is possible to suggest that death squads have moral authority, the authority of the Sri Lankan death squads arose from the belief -- held not only by Premadasa and his henchmen but by what seems in retrospect to have been a solid majority of Sri Lankans -- that the mass state-sponsored murder of 1989 was justified by the greater evil contained in the imminent triumph of the People's Liberation Front. The climactic act of this essentially popular campaign of national murder now appears to have been the summary execution of Wijeweera himself, an event most Sri Lankans actually celebrated.

Premadasa did not speak in these terms because it remains the official position of Sri Lanka's parliamentary democracy that state-sponsored paramilitary death squads operating beyond the reach of law represent a political crime. The Sri Lankan president and the Western governments that poured large sums in public and private capital into the Colombo government during the death squad campaign seem to share instead the tacit understanding that while the death squads were acceptable this one time because of the extremity of the Liberation Front threat, they are not acceptable in principle. In the jungles are the ghosts of at least 20,000 murder victims. The Colombo government and its outside sponsors are not morally capable of exorcising them.

After Wijeweera's death and as the Liberation Front gradually collapsed, the Sri Lankan government did agree, under pressure from Washington and other Western governments, to repeal an emergency regulation that made it legally permissible for security forces to dispose of bodies without autopsies or other accountability procedures. Nonetheless, disappearances continued, although on a considerably reduced scale. Colombo also agreed, as peace returned to the south, to adopt a series of human rights proposals from Amnesty International, which it had previously barred from the island. One of the few proposals Sri Lanka's government declined to adopt, however, was that it investigate and hold individuals accountable for the thousands of death squad killings of 1989 and 1990. Colombo's posture was, and to a large degree remains, that what's done is done.

Some human rights activists in the West feel strongly that Sri Lanka should do more to account for the truth about its recent past. They feel no affection for the Colombo government. But even they often express a degree of ambivalence they hardly ever voice about other cases in which governments have slaughtered their own people with impunity.

"I've always found the Sri Lankan example the most troubling. The message that comes out of it is so frightening, because if you kill enough people you succeed," says Patricia Gossman, a Washington-based researcher with Asia Watch who is normally a vocal thorn in the side of the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy's South Asia offices. "By late 1989, to be honest, for a human rights group to come to terms with {Sri Lanka} we had to do the balancing act too. It was frustrating to know what a human rights group could say . . . What we normally would say about a situation like that is that kind of government response {to a revolutionary threat} can't really succeed in the long run. I don't think that's true in this case."

"It's a very difficult situation, and internally I feel a little bit divided about it," says Barnett Rubin, a South Asia scholar and human rights activist at Columbia University. "I think this {episode} communicates the message that if you're a government we support, and you're in a really dangerous situation, it's all right to kill tens of thousands of people without any legal framework, totally arbitrarily. That's a message that I don't think should be transmitted . . . {Yet} in a way, it sounds like I'm being insanely moderate by putting it in that way. The real trouble with {Western} governments having human rights policies is that they do tend to put themselves in the position of those in authority and say, 'What would we do?' And it is very difficult to conceive of a legal means to deal with the Liberation Front."

To Sri Lanka's neighboring South Asian governments the lesson is clear enough. If you are prepared to cope with some public relations irritations, you can get away with state-sponsored murder in the late 20th century if you succeed in arguing that national survival is at stake, if you succeed in painting your opponents as a greater evil than your own government, and if you are otherwise prepared to cooperate with the larger international priorities of the West. (Sri Lanka, late in 1990, just after the death squad campaign was finished, quietly permitted U.S. C-130 and C-141 Starlifter transport planes to refuel on the island while ferrying supplies to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War buildup. When this became public, officials on both sides praised the productive relationship.) And another lesson has been underlined: Death squads, properly calibrated with the will of a beleaguered majority, can be a decisive means to tactical victory.

After it was all over in southern Sri Lanka, I sat down for a few hours one afternoon in Colombo with Neelan Tiruchelvam, a lawyer and research analyst whose ability to articulate questions of political morality in a country that seems to have so little of it is truly astounding. I asked about the legacy of state murder.

"There are very deep scars, I think," he said. "In the southern areas there are so many people who are victims of violence or people who have been tortured and who are still struggling to reconstruct their lives. There is very little support for them in terms of emotional support, legal support. But what is very, very strange about Premadasa's government and its relationship to those areas is that in the most recent local government elections, the government did better in those areas than in previous years. This shocked people. Part of the explanation is, I think, the way the Liberation Front itself behaved. They were so ruthless that the restoration of some degree of normalcy was welcomed."

What about the argument -- the lesson of the war for many Sri Lankans, especially those in power -- that the death squads were a necessary and even justifiable evil?

"Well, as far as the government is concerned, they won't apologize for what happened. There are lots of people, I think, in the middle class also who would say that. That is, we had no other choice. But I find it difficult to accept the inevitability of repression in any situation, even one as bad as what happened here with the Liberation Front. But they say, 'Well, you are only able to talk like this because we went in and cleared the ground for you to survive.' So it's an extraordinary instance. I don't see a parallel in history . . . It's extremely dangerous as an example. People are genuinely convinced this is the right thing to do."

Sri Lanka's paradisaical south is today normal. The beach hotels are full. The jungle villages are quiet. The economy is growing rapidly. The government has become far more open and responsive on human rights issues. There is still a low-intensity ethnic war in the extreme north of the island, as there has been for some years, but the bulk of the population is well isolated from this conflict.

Lately, however, when the sun goes down in Colombo, a pattern chillingly reminiscent of the Liberation Front period has begun to evolve, according to human rights groups. Government security forces, worried about possible connections between ethnic Tamils in the capital and Tamil rebels in the far north, have begun to travel through the city in the dead of night in unmarked military vehicles and civilian dress. Thousands of Tamils have been pulled from their homes after midnight and driven away in the unmarked jeeps, sometimes blindfolded. Yet there is a big difference from before, one that might be regarded as a form of accomplishment: This time, after a few hours or a few days of interrogation, the detainees are released and sent home.

"They are coming back alive," says Elizabeth Nissan of Amnesty International. "But the fact is, that kind of arrest, that style of doing things, can turn, as we saw in the earlier period. That's quite worrying."

And if that style of doing things in Sri Lanka does again turn, it is reasonable to ask, who will be prepared to stop it, and on what ground will they stand?

Steve Coll is an international investigative correspondent for The Post. This article is adapted from On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey Into South Asia, published this month by Times Books


View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 1994 The Washington Post Company