Sri Lanka: Mass graves everywhere, but where are the killers? — Part 2

The Emergency Regulations contributed to a climate of impunity and hampered investigations into the massacres and disappearances of civilians

Click here to read Part One of this series 

by Lionel Bopage                                                                                               


( February 11, 2018, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) The phenomenon of mass killings and mass graves is not something new[1]. In Peru alone internal armed conflict has paved the way to more than 6,000 clandestine graves[2]. Many investigations into mass graves had been initiated in the latter part of the last century, for example in Argentina, Guatemala, Iraqi Kurdistan, Ukraine, El Salvador, Rwanda, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. Though less publicised, investigations into several such mass graves have also been carried out in Somaliland, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Among the prominent mass graves found in Sri Lanka are at Sooriyakanda, Ankumbura, Chemmani, Mirusuvil and Thuraiappah Stadium in Jaffna. Asian Human Rights Commission has mapped 28 mass graves of which many are yet to be exhumed.[3] In the Sooriyakanda mass grave located in 1994 there were skeletal remains of more than 300 murdered Sinhala youth including 24 school children of Embilipitiya Maha Vidyalaya. They were killed during the state’s counter insurgency operations launched by the state to eradicate the JVP.

The JVP led an armed uprising during the 1987-1989 period, against the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord. They carried out targeted killing of civilians and families of armed forces personnel.[4] The state crushed the uprising in 1989 by brutally eliminating almost the entire JVP leadership. The state used para military forces to kill tens of thousands of people[5] carried out under the slogan Ten of yours for one of ours[6]. At the time, the People’s Alliance (PA) regime promised to investigate alleged atrocities carried out during the 18 years of the previous UNP regime, including that of the Sooriyakanada mass grave. However, not much happened since the PA came to power in 1993.

When the armed conflict with the LTTE began in the late seventies, the State stationed a full Sri Lanka Army brigade in Jaffna. The LTTE was proscribed. Both the State and the LTTE employed terror, engaging in mass killing of civilians, enforced disappearance of suspected activists and carried out indiscriminate attacks against civilians.[7] There had been mass killings in the early 1990s. Many hundreds of Police officers that surrendered to the LTTE were slaughtered, and many hundreds were massacred in retaliation by the security forces. About a further thousand people were said to have disappeared. Similar massacres continued in the 1990s.[8]

The Emergency Regulations contributed to a climate of impunity and hampered investigations into the massacres and disappearances of civilians.[9] These included the disappearance after rounding up of Tamil people in the nineties, who had found shelter at the Vantharumoolai campus of Eastern University, Batticaloa, and the mass murder of school children at Sooriyakanda in the 1990s. The late Dr Neelan Thiruchelvam called for at least a partial revocation of the Emergency Regulations for an impartial inquiry to take place.[10]

Reports indicated that the initially indicted security officers had been honourably discharged in the late 1990s. For example, regarding the 186 Tamil men, women and children[11] from the Sathurukondan and surrounding villages who had been taken to an army camp and killed later, an inquiry identified three Captains of the Sri Lankan army as being responsible. The judge who led the inquiry citing strong evidence urged the then President to hold the perpetrators to account. However, the government took no action against them. In the late 1980s, the school children from Embilipitiya were abducted and murdered at the behest of the school principal, who had connections with the security forces. In 1996, pressured by the UN the government reported that it had conducted a forensic analysis with the help of a team of forensic, investigative and legal experts under the supervision of the High Court. However, media, civil society groups and the US State Department claimed that the investigations were unsatisfactory.[12]

In addition, the Government at the time stated that it was investigating newly discovered graves, including one at Ankumbura alleged to contain 36 human skeletons of the people the police had killed in 1989.[13] In 1996 and 1998, the US State Department stated that the government had not made significant progress relating to investigations of the mass graves at Sooriyakanda, Ankumbura and Nikaweratiya. Forensic investigations reportedly took place, but no progress was reported in the years 1995 – 1999, and the case apparently stagnated thereafter.[14] In April 1999, an additional mass grave was unearthed during excavations at the Thuraiappah Sports Stadium in Jaffna.

In December 2000, eight internally displaced people had returned from Uduppidy to Mirusuvil with appropriate permissions to inspect their properties and to collect firewood, when they had been arrested allegedly by the security forces in Mirusuvil, Jaffna. One of them had allegedly escaped from custody with serious injuries and informed relatives of the others that they had been killed. According to the evidence of District Medical Officer, their throats had been slashed. Due to international pressure[15], the government eventually took into custody five soldiers for carrying out illegal arrests, torture, murder and burial of dead bodies in a mass grave. Despite the promises of the government to try those arrested without a jury, the case disappeared from public scrutiny after 2007.[16]

In June 1990, the security forces recaptured Kaluwanchikudy and Kiran in the East.[17] In 2014, a mass grave was found in Kaluwanchikudy that was suspected of containing the remains of about 100 Muslim people. They were believed to have been killed in 1990 in Kattankudy by the LTTE on different occasions. 27 family members had been reported missing during the time the LTTE prevailed in the East.[18] The grave was to be excavated in July 2014, but put off due to a court order. Instead of forensic examination, the Police wanted to use statements of relatives to identify the remains of victims through their belongings. During the military campaign, the LTTE resorted to the extreme measure of chasing out Muslims from the areas identified as the Tamil homeland.[19]

[1] Colls C S 2016, The investigation of historic missing persons cases genocide and ‘conflict time’ human rights abuses, In 2016, Handbook of Missing Persons, New York

[2] Baraybar J P and Blackwell R 2014, Where are They? Missing, In Forensics, and Memory, Annals of Anthropological Practice 38:1, 28

[3] AHRC Feb.- Apr. 2014, In Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, Exclusive: The Island of Mass Graves, 49.

[4] Human Rights Watch March 2008, Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for “Disappearances” and Abductions in Sri Lanka, 19, at:

[5] Lynch C 2004, Economic Liberalization, Nationalism, and Women’s Morality, in Winslow D, Woost M D eds., 2004, Economy, Culture, and Civil War in Sri Lanka 168, 188, describing consensus that while both government forces and the JVP committed atrocities during 1980s counterinsurgency efforts, government forces committed the bulk: “Amnesty International (1990) quotes some observers who hold the government responsible for 30,000 and quotes the government holding the JVP responsible for 6,517. Chandraprema (1991) breaks it down as 23,000 killed by the government and 17,000 by the JVP.”

[6] For a blog containing pictures of corpses, posters, and threats and summarizes key scholarly works on this period, see “Search, Interrogate and Destroy” – Hard COIN for Hard Times (Feb. 26, 2013), at:

[7] Yogasundram N 2006, A Comprehensive History of Sri Lanka: From Prehistory to Tsunami, 313, Vijitha Yapa Publications

[8] Kingsbury D 2012, Sri Lanka and the Responsibility to Protect: Politics, ethnicity and genocide, 70, Routledge

[9] The immunity given to the security forces has been a persistent problem in addressing the issue of disappearances; under the Emergency Regulations and the PTA the security forces enjoy immunity for holding detainees for prolonged periods of time without explanation. For example, Section 26 of the Indemnity Act provides for immunity from prosecution or other proceedings, civil or criminal: any officer or person for any act or thing in good faith done or purported to be done in pursuance or supposed pursuance of any order made or direction given under this Act.

[10] Wikipedia 2017, Sooriyakanda mass grave, at:

[11] Those massacred included 38 from Sathurukondan, 37 from Panichchaiyady, 62 from Pillaiyaradi and 47 from Kokuvil.

[12] Gunaratna R. 1990. Sri Lanka, a lost revolution? The inside story of the JVP. Published by the Institute of Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka

[13] Sri Lanka Human Rights Practices 1994, at:

[14] Archived U.S. State Department Human Rights Reports, at: (1993-1998) and (1999-2013).

[15] BBC News 6 March 2005, New panel to probe Mirusuvil massacre, at:

[16] Canadian Humanitarian Appeal for Relief of Tamils 2009, Plight of the People, at:

[17] Obeysekera G. 24 June 1990, The Long March to Kiran Victory, Weekend, 4-5. In Wickremesekera, C 2016, The Tamil Separatist War in Sri Lanka, 71, Routledge.

[18] Sinhalanet 8 July 2014, Mass Grave of Muslims Found, at:

[19] Z News 24 June 2014, Sri Lanka to dig up eastern mass grave site, at:

Lionel Bopage is a passionate and independent activist, who has advocated and struggled for social justice, a fair-go and equity of opportunity for the oppressed in the world, where absolute uniformism, consumerism and maximisation of profit have become the predominant social values of humanity. Lionel was formerly a General Secretary of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP – Peoples’ Liberation Front) in Sri Lanka, and he now lives in exile in Australia.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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