Richard de Zoysa, who was kidnapped and killed by a death squad operating under the knowledge of the state on 18 February 1990, has over the past three decades been commemorated as an icon of State-sponsored suppression of free expression in Sri Lanka.
De Zoysa was a multifaceted prodigy with a background as an actor in theatre and film, as well as an emerging poet composing in English.
In the late-1980s, with the escalation of political violence in the south, De Zoysa took a keen interest in the killings and disappearances of thousands of men and women: the majority of which was carried out by the State using its legal and extra-legal military force.
On the night of his death, de Zoysa was abducted from his home by a gang said to be operating under Ronnie Gunasinghe, an elite Police officer close to the government at the time. De Zoysa was 32.
The killing of Richard de Zoysa is a crucial juncture in the human rights discourse connected with the violence of the late-1980s.
De Zoysa was the son of two prominent Colombo families with friends and acquaintances in influential circles. In a country, where over 60,000 persons were killed or disappeared in the heyday of violence, de Zoysa’s murder immediately became a narrative centre.
"The legacy of de Zoysa as a writer and journalist is reflected in many who came after him that have been either killed or forced into exile through violence and intimidation in which the State is implicated."
His death was discussed in Parliament by members of both the Government and the Opposition. Colombo-based poets wrote many eulogies to de Zoysa. In number, these elegies shot over the total of poems they wrote on behalf of the faceless and nameless thousands, who mostly belonged to a different class.
In the months that followed de Zoysa’s death, extra-judicial killings in Sri Lanka’s south steadily declined. De Zoysa became the necessary sacrifice for the killing machine to relax its fangs.
As to why de Zoysa was killed has birthed many speculations. While the actual reason for the murder may remain classified, some associate with his death incriminating information de Zoysa was said to have had in his possession regarding human rights violations in the country.
When his death took place de Zoysa was on the verge of taking up a new assignment for Veritas, a news service based in the Philippines, and it was speculated he had information that was harmful to the government image.
Yet, others drew on a play de Zoysa was writing/producing at the time: An anti-Premadasa production titled Me Kauda, Monawada Karanne?”
The patron of this venture had been Lalith Athulathmudali, the UNP front-liner who had differences with his superiors in the party.
In his A Lost Generation: Sri Lanka in Crisis: The Untold Story, lawyer and human rights activist Prins Gunasekara alludes to this connection in great detail. He also endorses that the order to kill de Zoysa had come from the highest authority: A detail which Gunasekara claims to have learnt at first hand from Ranjan Wijeratne, who was the Minister of Defence at the time.
"While the actual reason for the murder may remain classified, some associate with his death incriminating information de Zoysa was said to have had in his possession regarding human rights violations in the country."
In Rathu Anguru, a memoir Janaka Mallimaratchi wrote a few years back, Mallimaratchi refers to a meeting he had with de Zoysa a few weeks before the latter’s death.
At the time, both were employees of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and de Zoysa had been upset over the escalation of youth deaths in the tail end of 1989.
Mallimaratchi claims that de Zoysa was desperate for the killings to stop and claimed that it took a toll on the country.
Mallimaratchi’s father was a prominent minister in the government at the time and his brother Jayantha (who was later killed, as alleged, by a JVP hit-man) was an emerging politician at the local council level. Mallimaratchi Senior – who was the Minister of Cooperatives in the Premadasa government – himself was killed in the Thotalanga bomb explosion in October 1994.
"In the southern consciousness, the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of the Sunday Leader, in January 2009, and the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda in January 2010 left an impact quite similar to de Zoysa’s death twenty years before."
Until her death in 2004, the quest for justice for Richard de Zoysa was spearheaded by his mother, Manorani Saravanamuttu.
Three Police personnel charged with de Zoysa’s murder were acquitted in 2005 for discrepancies in the evidence presented against them. Ronnie Gunasinghe had already died by then, having been a victim of the Armour Street bomb blast on 1 May 1993 in which President Premadasa, too, was killed.
The legacy of de Zoysa as a writer and journalist is reflected in many who came after him that have been either killed or forced into exile through violence and intimidation in which the State is implicated.
This includes a high number of journalists and media workers who report in the Tamil language and operated in the North and East during times of conflict. It includes several high profile journalists that include persons like Dharmaratnam Sivaram who was abducted in the heart of Colombo and killed.
In the southern consciousness, the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of the Sunday Leader, in January 2009, and the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda in January 2010 left an impact quite similar to de Zoysa’s death twenty years before.
Both as a writer and a youth, Richard de Zoysa represents a suppressed lobby in Sri Lanka for whom justice continues to be denied. Among thousands of others silenced by the arrogance of power this absence of justice, with time, has become a way of government.
For the coming decade, it will be important to understand and reassess the lives and deaths of people like de Zoysa as a heritage. Within such a reading, the direction of the justice narrative for victims of political violence will have to be re-assigned.
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