In Sri Lanka, Will Mass Grave Case Be Buried?
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In Sri Lanka, Will Mass Grave Case Be Buried?


On November 24 last year, workers digging a trench in the compound of Matale hospital, central Sri Lanka, made a gruesome discovery. Using a backhoeing machine ahead of plans to build foundations for a new bio-gas unit behind a kitchen, workers began to unearth what appeared to be human remains.

Forensic excavation over the next three months confirmed at least 154 human skeletons, the largest mass grave discovered in Sri Lanka, where more than three decades of civil war ended with the defeat of the rebel Tamil Tigers in 2009. Preliminary forensic reports submitted to Matale court earlier this year paint a picture of torture and killings. Some bones showed evidence of nails hammered in before death and one leg bone was tied with a carefully knotted metal wire.

“There are several skulls that remain devoid of their skeletons,” a sign of decapitations, reads one of the forensic reports. Evidence also points to the use of firearms and blunt instruments before death.

For President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful family, the ongoing investigation into what happened in Matale has turned into a ticking political and judicial time bomb. Not only has the case subjected the president’s questionable rights record to embarrassing scrutiny, it has also implicated his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, in serious abuses perpetrated against the country’s Sinhalese majority, the source of political support for both men following their victorious ending of the civil war four years ago.

With the next court hearing in Matale set for August 19, investigations continue to focus on three key unknowns: Who are the victims, and how and when did they die?

The discovery of artifacts buried with the bodies dates the grave to between 1986 and 1990 with further tests still needed for a more accurate timeframe, according to forensic reports. So far no bodies have been identified. But with each piece of evidence speculation is growing that the grave dates back to a two-year counter-insurgency operation by the Sri Lankan army resulting in more than 20,000 people disappeared in the Sinhalese south by the end of 1989, according to government inquiries.

At lunchtime on December 19 of that year, two soldiers wearing Sri Lankan army uniforms entered the home of Wedikara Kamalawathi, just outside of Matale, and detained her two teenage sons for questioning. Both had been involved in student rallies, said Kamalawathi, but she insisted they were not members of the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), a group which killed hundreds of soldiers and police and their families during the uprising.

The next day, Kamalawathi said she and other parents followed a convoy of army vehicles transporting their children to a detention camp inside a college close to Matale hospital.

When she went there to search for her sons with her husband a few days later, a guard showed them a book with a list of names and then turned them away.

“The names of my two sons were crossed out in red ink,” said Kamalawathi, tears streaming down her face. Susantha Janaka, 18, and Rohana Nisantha, 17, were never seen again.

They were among more than 450 people recorded as missing in the Matale area during the period of the uprising, according to a later presidential inquiry. Only low-level police and soldiers have faced punishment for the atrocities of this period.

In May 1989, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was promoted and posted to Matale as the district coordinating officer “tasked with bringing the JVP under control,” notes CA Chandraprema in Gota’s War: The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka, published in May last year.

A glowing portrait of the defense secretary, the book details Gotabhaya’s earlier career in the army and notes that he remained in Matale until the JVP uprising was put down at the end of 1989. Only one senior JVP cadre in the country survived. Gotabhaya then moved to the U.S. and later secured an American passport, returning to Sri Lanka to help brother Mahinda’s campaign for the presidency ahead of his victory in 2005.

February 16, 2014 at 00:20

A great article with some WELL-RESEARCHED links.

August 4, 2013 at 05:30

Despite all what has taken place and still taking place CHOGM is meeting in that country! Little wonder then that state is being rewarded for murdering its own citizens en masse and mass graves are a sign of the demonocracy at work ever so often.   

Rangana De Silva
August 1, 2013 at 14:00

This could very well be from the time of the JVP insurgency .

Steve Finch
August 1, 2013 at 11:40

Ranil, in response to your most recent message:

- Details of legitimate, legal burial yards are available in Sri Lanka if they date back as recently as Matale. Forensic reports submitted to the courts in this case date the grave to "not earlier than the year 1986 and not later than the year 1990." This is based on artifacts found in the grave site that were manufactured after 1986. This means that the bodies in this grave were buried no earlier than 27 years ago – there would be records of a mass grave of at least 154 bodies if it were a legitimate, legal burial site inside a hospital from this period. This view is backed by independent medical and archeological experts in documents submitted to the court in this case.

- Your comment about bodies being stacked up in a "hospital burial yard … especially when the hospital does not have a morgue" is perplexing. Are you suggesting that Matale hospital stacked up at least 154 bodies – some decapitated, some with blunt instrument and fire-arm injuries and with nails drivens into their bones, according to forensic reports - without any records being made, and without any family members of the dead knowing, and as recently as the late 1980s!? This goes against all evidence presented to the court so far. Again, do you have any evidence whatsoever to back what you are saying?

- While it is true that the army burned bodies of the dead during the 1987-1989 uprising – according to scores of accounts from this period – we also know that at least 450 people's bodies were never found after they disappeared in the Matale areas during this period. This is according to a presidential inquiry in 1997. In cases like Kamalawathi's two sons detailed in this story, people went missing and were taken to army facilities and their bodies were never found. The families of these people want to know where the bodies are and the discovery of the mass grave in Matale has given them hope – and fear – that they may finally find their disappeared family members.

- Your comment about links to the current Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa are both inaccurate and misleading. You state: "…even before invesigations have commenced…" This is not true, invesigations have been ongoing since the mass grave was first discovered at the end of November last year. These are forensic and archeological investigations whose findings have been submitted to the court and investigations by police which have been criticized by people close to the case.

And links to the Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa are wholly objective. Firstly, it is documented fact that he was in charge of the military in Matale from early May 1989 until the very start of 1990. Secondly, it is documented fact that he was charged with ending the JVP-led uprising in this area during this period, which he did. Thirdly, it is documented fact that people went missing during this period, including Kamalawathi's two teenage sons. She has pictures of them in her house - many of them - and these two human beings no longer exist in that they haven't been seen by their own family since December 1989 and they were seen being taken to a military facility during this period. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was in charge of the military during this period.

Finally, all objective evidence we have so far points to this grave dating to between 1986 and 1990. This court-submitted evidence therefore links the defense secretary to the mass grave in terms of timing but further testing is required to find the exact date of this site, as stated in the article.

Again, if you have any evidence to back what you're saying – in relation to your theories about mass, unregistered burial sites in hospitals from the late 1980s, for example – it would be useful.

August 1, 2013 at 06:19

The truth must come out and those who committed crimes must be held responsible for their actions. This may also lead to the discovery of many atrocities and other crimes. The culprits might not have expected the truth to haunt them so soon.

August 1, 2013 at 01:21

Humanity failed in Sri lanka

Human rights agencies say that there are still disappearance .Govt always keep an blind eye to do its dirty work. Journalists whoever questioned the Govt are killed or disappeared or left the country

Sri Lanka has a long history of establishing ad hoc commissions to deflect international criticism over its very poor human rights record and widespread culture of impunity, Human Rights Watch said. Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has established at least 10 such commissions, none of which have produced any significant results.

Every time the international community raises the issue of accountability, Sri Lanka establishes a commission that takes a long time to achieve nothing," Sri Lanka have many more monster graves waiting for justice for all the victims of  war.

Govt may well be continuing its human rights abuses with these arbitrary arrests and executions and dissapair. Now the level of democracy in the island was best illustrated by the opposition presidential candidate called for the intervention of 'outside governments' to prevent dictatorship and to protect democracy in the island. "There is no law and order in this country,there is nothing we can do about it" he said.

Colombo regime still continued to detain forcefully ,unlawfull many in jails without records and justice.


How long the  world leaders watch nefarious Colombo still seeks to hold back the truth. Those who speak up and write for the plight of Victoms are labeled "traitors" or terrorist supporters, underscoring the lawless character of the Colombo regimes and it's war crime agents.

The world community questioned enough on Tamils struggle needs to step up and seize the moment, showing people everywhere that wars are won by the peace they create, not by the battles that end them. 

The conduct of the Sri Lankan state, which disregarded all norms of humanity and used  scorched  earth policy in the war.


July 31, 2013 at 22:38

This President has the reports of more than 15 commissions/committees apointed by him in the last seven years to ''investigate'' murders, disappearances, abductions, corruption at high levels, .. but refusing to make them public:

He is following the practice of previous governments which led Amnesty International to produce a report in 2009: SriLanka: 20yrs of Make-Believe

If people wonder why any talk of LLRC has died down, it's because it was hacked late January or early February.

Thoughtless Commonwealth Heads of Governments are going to go to Sri Lanka to attend CHOGM2013 – these are the people who refused to publish the EPG Report on Commonwealth Reform in Perth till the late stages of CHOGM2011 – they were forced to publish it by speechesin afrige meeting. Otherwise they might not have published the report which would have been leaked unofficially.later on.

July 31, 2013 at 22:29

THat is one hypothesis – investigation will prove or disprove it.

Malkham Abaghamma
July 31, 2013 at 21:17

The hospital derived nails into the dead bodies, decapitated their heads, riddled the bodies with bullets and even subjected them to complete torture before burying them? For what?


July 31, 2013 at 15:26

Details of hospital, church and wayside burrial yards are not available thoughout the country especially when they date back to over a few decades. Traditional burial rites don't relate to the way bodies are stacked in burial especially in a hospital burial yard. Especially when the hospital does not have a morgue. They are quickly burried. So called evidence of decapitations, torture, use of blunt weapons and firearms is open for interpretation.

However, if foulplay is involved the perpitrators must be investigated and punished.

During the Indian invasion (1987 to 1989) many groups were involved in violent activites. The JVP had many divisions that fought against each other and there is evidence of groups operating in army and police (STF) uniforms. However, all the parties involved used to burn the dead to destroy evidence. If is very unlikely the army had not used this tactic.

Linking the current defence secretary (who was in the army and served in the Matale district in 1989) even before investigations have commenced is not objective.

July 31, 2013 at 11:03

When the first human remain was unearthed, the Lankan government media spokesman exuding confidence said that it was animal bones. The next day the sagacious spokesman said “A prehistoric being”. Lucy’s sibling? When few more remains surfaced the spokesman said that the remains were those of people trapped in a landslide. If the find was in the North or East of Sri Lanka the matter would have ended but Matale is roughly in Central Sri Lanka. So things started to unfold. Locals could not remember a landslide. The spokesman explained “Elementary – the landslide occurred long long ago”.  It is now established that the remains are of the 1986-90 vintage. The second JVP insurrection occurred 1987-89. Surely the publicity must jog someone’s memory. But vision of white-vans causes memory loss.  Will the truth ever emerge? Yes, after a regime change.

July 31, 2013 at 06:15

Mass murders and mass graves are not uncommon in Sri Lanka under cover of the PTA since 1970. The Matale grave is the latest manifestation. Whether this investigation will be pursued or buried as happened to several mas graves in the north and east from 1984 to 2009 and previously in the south during the JVP insurgency is left to be seen. The Chemmani mass grave case went up to the AG under the former President and there the case rests. RIP? 

Steve Finch
July 30, 2013 at 15:31

According to the two forensic reports produced so far on the Matale mass grave and other court documents, this seems almost impossible. First of all, neither the hospital istelf or the local authorities have any records of a hospital burial yard for this site. Secondly, these bodies were stacked up in a systematic manner designed to save space while ignoring traditional burial rites in Sri Lanka, according to forensic reports submitted to the court. If you add to that the comprehensive forensic evidence of decapitations, torture, use of blunt weapons and firearms, etc then the case for this being a designated, legal hospital burial yard seems to completely disintegrate. No evidence submitted to the court so far supports this theory. Unless, of course, you have evidence to support this claim?

July 30, 2013 at 12:29

What is missing in the article is that these human remains were found in a hospital burrial yard where the dead used to be burried a few decades ago.

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