Brian Senewiratne, Australia
The massacre of Tamil youths in a detention centre
25 October 2000
The massacre of 24 unarmed Tamil boys in a Rehabilitation Centre run by the
Sri Lankan Government must arouse international condemnation. This is a gross
violation of International law and International Covenants to which Sri Lanka is
a signatory. In accordance with International Law, authorities holding detainees
are responsible for their safety and security at all times and in all
circumstances. There are no exceptions.
During the 1983 massacre of Tamil civilians in Colombo, 52 Tamils held in the
maximum security section of the Welikade jail in Colombo were battered to death
by a large group of well armed Sinhalese prisoners while the prison guards and
army officials looked on.
Some of the other 290 prisoners testified that gangs of hoodlums were brought
into prison from outside. There is also evidence that prison officials
participated in the killing orgy with prison equipment such as axes and knives
being given to other prisoners. The then President, J.R. Jayawardene and some of
his Cabinet Ministers and their bands of hooligans who were responsible for
systematically destroying Tamil lives and property in Colombo were implicated in
this massacre. International bodies pointed out that such a massacre could not
have occurred without the complicity of prison officials, especially since the
prisoners were in the maximum-security section of the prison.
In December 1997, three Tamils were hacked to death in prison while guards
looked on. In January this year (2000), two Tamil political detainees were
murdered in the Kalutara prison just south of Colombo.
A week ago, on 25 October 2000, Tamil boys aged between 14-23 were massacred by
Sinhalese hoodlums at the Bindunuwewa Rehabilitation Centre, some 3 miles from
Bandarawela town in the hill country of Sri Lanka. This Rehabilitation Centre is
jointly run by President Kumaratunge’s Presidential Secretariat, Child
Protection Authority, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Rehabilitation and
Reconstruction, National Youth Services Council and the Don Bosco Technical
The youths were detained under the notorious “Prevention of Terrorism Act”,
which breaches every international convention. A police unit and 12 home guards
recruited from the neighbourhood were in charge of security. It is important to
appreciate that the young detainees were being held without charge or trial.
They had been demanding that charges be filed against them or that they be
released. They were denied the judicial process to which they have a right under
the U.N. International Convention on Civil and Political Rights to which Sri
Lanka acceded in 1980.
Article 9 (2) states “that persons arrested should receive prompt notification
of reasons for arrest and any charges made against them. Article 9 (3) states
that they should be promptly brought before a judge and brought to trial or
At 5.30 am on the morning of 25 October 2000, 2000 Sinhalese thugs stormed the
Rehabilitation Centre wielding knives, machetes, axes and iron rods.
They hacked to death some 24 detainees and set fire to the buildings. 16
detainees were seriously wounded and another 7 injured and twenty were missing.
It is likely that the death toll will rise in view of the seriousness of the
injuries and the refusal of the staff of the local Bandarawela hospital to treat
the injured. The death toll has, in fact, already risen and currently stands at
29. It could rise further.
There is no question that some of the home guards and policemen aided the mob.
Some of the mob had been transported from elsewhere in vehicles. (I know the
area well and there is simply no public transport to move such a large number of
people). What is even more serious is that when the injured were taken to the
Bandarawela Hospital, the medical staff refused to attend to them saying they
were Tamil Tigers. Journalists trying to get some information about the massacre
were subjected to intimidation by police who attempted to portray this as an
escape attempt, a riot etc. When Non-Governmental organisations tried to visit
the scene, they were told by the hooligans “We have cleared the area of Tigers
and protected our homeland. Go away and don’t report anything that would
discredit our Sinhala-Buddhist country”.
In what was no more than damage control, the police arrived and arrested some
250 of the hooligans. However, crowds numbering thousands converged on the
police station and the hoodlums were released, confirming that it was all an
exercise in window dressing.
President Kumaratunge has announced a “full inquiry”- no doubt an internal
inquiry. Having followed up several such inquiries, I am not holding my breath
waiting for anyone to be charged or even reprimanded. Past history has shown
that although there is “condemnation” and announcements of an “impartial
inquiry”, the end result is of no action being taken and the offenders carry on
with a sense of impunity.
President Kumaratunge and her government must take full responsibility for yet
another blot in Sri Lankan history.
The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, perhaps one of the most disgraceful and
despicable Foreign Ministers we ever had, distributed large numbers of copies of
the booklet “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children the Sri Lankan case”, to
delegates at the International Conference on war affected children held in
Winnipeg, Canada [September 10-17,2000.]
In it the Government of Sri Lanka claims that it “has paid considerable
attention to the aspects of rehabilitation and meeting the needs of LTTE child
soldiers/youths who surrender. This has been in operation since 1996 and was
supervised by the Presidential Committee on “Safety and Welfare of LTTE Child
Soldiers”, part of the Presidential Task Force on Human Disaster Management.
The booklet goes on to state, “in order to carry out a more comprehensive
rehabilitation program with the aim of reuniting these children into society, a
multi-sectional steering committee chaired by Foreign Minister Lakshman
Kadirgamar was constituted by the President in November 1999.
If what we have seen in Bindunuwewa is the outcome of this “rehabilitation
program”, the International Community must act. Or do we wait for the next
To expect the Sri Lankan government to act is as good as closing the book. If
President Kumaratunga is as concerned about this despicable act as she appears
to be, will she allow an international independent body to investigate this and
other massacres? If she does not, her credibility will be about as poor as that
of J.R. Jayawardene.
It would appear that all the talk of “safety and welfare of child soldiers”,
“rehabilitation and reunification into society” etc., are fine words for
international consumption and propaganda.
A further follow-up publication may be necessary as the ‘plot unfolds’ and the
real culprits responsible for this menace, are identified. After the 1983
massacre of Tamils in Colombo, I wrote the booklet “Unanswered Questions, The
July 1983 Massacre” which was published before all the details were known.
I wrote this almost by way of an apology to the Tamil people since the then
President J. R. Jayawardene had difficulty in doing so. After 4 days of
deafening silence, all he could do was to address the nation on television and
apologise to the Sinhalese for the inconvenience caused by the long queues for
groceries. Not a word of sympathy or even regret to the Tamils whose lives and
property had been shattered.
Under these circumstances, I thought it mandatory for a Sinhalese to express
sympathy to the Tamil people and apologise for the way the Sinhalese thugs and
hoodlums had behaved.
However, even at that early stage it was clear that Jayawardene and several of
his senior ministers and UNP stalwarts had plotted this massacre for several
months. When the full story emerged several months later, the degree to which
they were involved became clear.
Similarly with this current massacre, what we can see now is only the tip of the
iceberg. There will be a lot more to see if (and that is a very big “if”) an
impartial and open inquiry is held. The chance that it will be open, independent
and impartial, with foreign observers present is remote. A whitewash is likely.
The reason for my scepticism is that even at this early stage there are some
serious questions that have to be answered.
On this day preceding the massacre, the detainees had threatened to go on a
hunger strike unless they were charged (or released if charges could not be
levied). The army was called in from the nearby army camp in Diyatalawa. However
the army left the detention centre just 6 hours before the massacre. Why?
The day before the massacre notices appeared in Bandarawela town that the area
should be “rid of Tigers” From where did these notice appear?
Sinhalese villagers living in the area are being blamed for the massacre. This
is about as absurd as the Indonesian Government claiming that the East Timor
slaughter was done by “rogue elements” of the Indonesian army. Sri Lanka’s own
human rights panel, The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRC) has already
issued an 18-page report that it could not accept that thousands of local
residents had stormed the rehabilitation centre and beat the inmates to death.
The HRC points out that the crowd only had knives, poles and implements and not
firearms. The police on the other hand, were fully armed, and could easily have
brought the rampaging mob under control. Why didn’t they?
There is documentary evidence that there had been an excellent rapport between
the detainees and the local villagers. The detainees, as part of their work, had
to do some social work in the village.
Several villagers, astounded and angered by the charge that they had been
responsible for the massacre, have already come out and stated quite clearly
that they were “helpful boys” who helped in several chores in the village. I
doubt if the Sri Lankan government will be able to conceal the identity of those
responsible, anymore than Jayawardene was able to conceal the identity of those
responsible for the 1983 massacre.
As with the July 1983 massacre of Tamils in Colombo and the south the October
2000 massacre of Tamil youths in the so-called “Rehabilitation Centre” points to
a well planned, well organised event. Planned by whom, executed by whom and on
whose orders? The answers will come, a whitewash inquiry not withstanding.
When it does, Kumaratunga, her armed forces and the Sinhalese extremists and
thugs she seems to be so reluctant to take on, may not come out of this one with
any great glory- her reassuring noises notwithstanding.
The world cannot wait for this “non-event”. The least we can do is to demand
1. All the political detainees (some 3000) being held without charge or trial
are released at once (or charged). To hold them without charge or trial is
illegal and if the Sri Lankan government is unwilling to rectify this, we will
have to mobilise international action to force the government to do so. This we
have done in Indonesia, Bosnia and several other places. Why not Sri Lanka?
2. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) under which these (and many more
atrocities) are committed is withdrawn at once. It has been condemned by Amnesty
International and numerous international legal bodies and human rights groups.
Sri Lanka cannot getaway with this Act, which is more reminiscent of a despotic
regime than a supposed democracy.
3. An international team is admitted at once to investigate the massacre.
If the international community does not act, and act now, they will be about as
responsible as the hoodlums, the police, the armed forces and their political
masters, who were responsible for this barbaric deed.
(The author is a physician of Sri Lankan origin, a Sinhalese, who now resides in
Australia. He is in active medical practice as a Consultant Physician in
Brisbane and is also a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the
University of Queensland, Brisbane. Australia.)