Politics of torture and politics of terror have been the mutually reinforcing two main scourges that were affecting the people, the polity and the society in Sri Lanka for the last thirty years or so and even before; when one has been acting as the cause the other has been appearing as the effect and vice versa.

On a global scale in recent times, particularly after 9/11, there have been many studies conducted on the use of torture and its ‘legitimacy’ in what has been popularly termed as the ‘war on terror.’1 Framed mainly on the lines of traditional concerns of torture in the process of criminal justice, as excellently initiated by Cesare Beccaria2 in the 18th century, only few of these studies nevertheless attempts to investigate the links between the two. However, on the issues of torture they are undoubtedly substantive studies and would guide any investigation even into the links between the two.

There are many roots to politics of terror or terrorism as researched by other academics throughout the world.3 Ideology, inscrutable social frustration, perceived national liberation or any of the likes can be identified as broad causes. At the same time, many biographical data shows that the victims of political torture most often emerge as the perpetrators of political terror. It is the conviction or the premise of the present author, however, that when political terror appears in magnified form there is no other way for the society rather than defeating it nevertheless through legitimate means. The legitimate means does not approve torture or the violation of human rights or international humanitarian law. Freedom from torture is a fundamental human right.

The studies on politics of terror and politics of torture so far have remained mutually exclusive two distinct terrains. They have hardly come together. The present article however tries to bring them together for the benefit of understanding both phenomena in an interlinked fashion for the sake of the promotion of human rights, democracy and good governance. There are of course close theoretical links between the two. Any proper definition of either terror or torture cannot exclude the common element of violence or torment from our understanding of the two. Both are oppressive. If violence or torment is abhorrent in one it should be abhorrent in the other. In addition, there are cyclical relations between the two like cause and effect in a spiral fashion and when they are unleashed there is no easy end unless and until the cycle is broken.

This article argues that understanding of the link between the politics of torture and politics of terror is primary in breaking the link followed by necessary political action and/or public policies in getting rid of both from any polity or society afflicted by them. The basis for this argument is the case of Sri Lanka. On the part of the author it is not the theory that led him to the argument between the link and the way-out from the menace, but the life experience. Theory came later. Therefore, the main argument and the exploration of the link between the two is presented in a narrative form in this article as largely experienced or observed by the author associated with other evidence and arguments.


For this article ‘politics of terror’ is terrorism. It is primarily understood as a political phenomenon. Among many definitions, let me quote Charles Ruby on the subject.4

“Terrorism is defined by Title 22 of the U.S. Code as politically motivated violence perpetrated in a clandestine manner against noncombatants. Experts on terrorism also include another aspect in the definition: the act is committed in order to create a fearful state of mind in an audience different from the victims.”

On torture, Edward Peters quoted the 3rd century jurist Ulpian for a definition and that is sufficient for this study as a beginning.5

“By torture we are to understand the torment and suffering of the body in order to elicit the truth. Neither interrogation by itself, nor lightly inspired fear correctly pertains to this edict. Since, therefore, torture is to be understood as force and torment, these are the things that determines its meaning.”

For the purpose of this investigation, ‘politics of terror’ pertains primarily to the violent clandestine behaviour to instil immense fear both among the combatants and noncombatants to achieve political goals. On the other hand, ‘politics of torture’ particularly encompasses the violent state behaviour to instil great fear among the clandestine combatants, dissidents as well as the general public to achieve different political goals. What can be added in the case of ‘politics of torture’ is what is emphasised by the UN Convention against Torture (1975), as both physical and mental.

Early Observations

I recollect the incident of a young man in our neighbourhood of Koralewella who was brutally assaulted by the police at Moratuwa somewhere in early 1953. He was allegedly involved in a petty theft. He was sitting on a chair in front of their tiny wooden house for the people to see. There was a placard near him stating – ‘thireschina police pahara’- to mean, ‘brutal police assault.’

His head was bandaged and face was deformed in purple colour with swollen lips. One hand was hanging from a shoulder- strap and he was smoking a cigarette from the other. He was without a shirt wearing a sarong and there were obvious bruises all over his chest and body. There were crowds to see the victim and two left-leaders in the area addressed the gathering.

It was after few months in August a popular general strike called Hartal or uprising erupted in the country against the price increase of the rice ration led by the trade unions and left parties.6 During the events, Koralewella area stood prominent nicknamed as little-Korea. Among several incidents, a train carrying people for work in Colombo was stopped and the passengers were asked to go back home. The railway tracks were damaged. It was rumoured that the youth who was assaulted by the police that I mentioned took the lead in the incidents.

In this early period of post-independence social conflicts in the country there were no efforts to channel victim-grievances of police brutality or others into cohesive movements of democratic resistance. The traditional left did raise the issues in Parliament where they were well represented but there were no human rights related civil society organizations or NGOs to agitate; neither there were possibilities of filing fundamental rights cases like today.

The grievances appear to accumulate. Another sphere of this accumulation was related to the emerging ethnic conflict. When the Federal Party leaders protested against the Sinhala Only Act in front of the Parliament in June 1956 and when they were assaulted by thugs, even the Prime Minister ridiculed them without consideration even for their blood stained wounds. The assault appeared state sanctioned. The wounds were more psychological than physical.

More horrendous incidents took place during the communal riots in 1958 most of which are objectively documented by Tarzie Vittachi.7 There were atrocities committed by the Tamils against the Sinhalese, but they dwindled into insignificance when compared to what happened to the Tamil community. Independent observers were of the view that the incidents were well planned by the ruling party related groups with state sanction. This is something I call ‘political torture’ in contrast to individual torture in the process of criminal investigation that we normally talk about. The purpose has been to silence a community in their protest against inequality. The suffering, the pain and agony have been deep seated with tremendous future consequences.

Deteriorating Conditions

The judiciary in Sri Lanka traditionally served as a direct check on the police and administrative actions of the executive in general. But the situation started deteriorating after the change of the constitution in 1972 which gave way for political interferences in the judiciary. Independence of the judiciary was considered less important in a ‘third world democracy’ and in a socialist pathway. Other compounding factors were the population growth, increasing unemployment, worsening economic conditions, escalating crime rate and unrest among the youth. The police was the main instrument of social control.

There were several radical or new left organizations emerging in the late 1960s, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or the People’s Liberation Front being the most prominent. The JVP worked primarily in the rural areas where police-civil relations had been particularly adversarial. While the police were anathema for the youth, the youth were anathema for the police. The antagonism was mutual. It was after a series of confrontations between the police and the JVP activists, since late 1970 that the April 1971 insurrection erupted. By the time the leader of the movement, Rohana Wijeweera, was under arrest in a Jaffna prison. One of the objectives of the insurrection was to rescue the leader from prison. The insurrection was waged more in desperation than of a careful plan to capture state power.

Wijeweera have had a traumatised childhood his father being a victim of election violence in 1947 with police involvement. The farther was disabled. Wijeweera revealed that he was kept in a dark room without clothes for days when he was in custody in 1971 and only a Tamil inmate gave him a sarong to wear after noticing him. It was not by accident that the JVP attacked over hundred police stations and captured around 40 for few days or weeks as the main outcome of the insurrection. Some were abandoned. The police-JVP or youth antagonism was the main catalyst for the insurrection. Before the main event, over hundred activists were in police custody who had to go under enduring ordeals of torture to elicit information about what was termed as the ‘Naxalite’ movement.

I was witnessed to four bodies hanging on a Tamarind tree in front of the police station at Hasalaka when I was travelling with a friend to inquire about another friend in Mahiyangana. Apparently the tortured bodies were demonstrated to terrorise the people in the area to prevent them from the insurrectionary activities. Those were the early days of the insurrection. Two of my friends, Lakshman Weerakoon and Gunadasa, disappeared who were teachers at the Haguranketha Maha Vidyalaya. The story came to be revealed later through two sources.

A female teacher revealed that the two were taken away from the bus that they were travelling in at Rikillagaskada junction on their way to collect the salary from the Kandy education office in late April. An errand-boy who was working at that time at the police station revealed later that the two were brought to the police station and Gunadasa was severely assaulted and as a result he died. To prevent an eye witness to the event, Lakshman was taken behind the police station and was shot, sending both bodies on the river downstream. It was a known fact that many slain bodies were floating in rivers during the insurrection.

There was no question that the JVP insurrectionists also were ruthless during their insurrection; but their capacity was limited and the wherewithal of the police and the army far exceeded that of the insurrectionists. The number killed estimated to be around 10,000 and a similar number was in detention and later released after ‘rehabilitation.’ The leaders were tried under special legislation and incarcerated for many years. Although the army involvement in quelling the insurrection was limited, their atrocities were unlimited. The rape and killing of Kataragama beauty queen Premawathi Manamperi was the most prominent.8

Roots of Insurgency

The lesson apparently learned by the Northern rebels from the Southern insurrection was about arms. To win the war superior arms and tactics were considered necessary. Not only in arms but also in
‘ruthlessness’ they were determined to compete the state. ‘Terrorism’ was devised first as a tactic, but then it evolved into a way of life. The advantage for this venture in the North was the support base in Tamil Nadu and among the Diaspora.

I was a member of a fact finding mission to Jaffna in May 1981 just one month before the infamous burning of the historical Jaffna library. The mission was organized by the Movement for Inter Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) and the reason for the mission was the increasing reports of police atrocities in the district.9 By this time there were several rebel groups operating, one under the leadership of Prabhakaran who was known as Thambi. We visited nearly fifty households in the town area who were affected by the atrocities. A similar story emerged in many places, but I recollect very clearly one.

The father was a middle aged man with two young sons and a daughter who could speak Sinhalese. He had a cigar business and told me that he used to travel to areas like my home town of Moratuwa to sell his cigars during the good old days. His house was ransacked on the pretence of search and the two sons were taken away. The second was released later with injuries inflicted during interrogation and was lying in bed by the time we visited. His wounds were obvious.

The elder one’s fate was not known. He was still kept in custody. The old man told us that his elder son’s crime was to attend a Tutory in the area, by pointing out the direction, where ‘Thambi’ also was studying few years back without any other connection. He vouched that his sons were not politically involved.10

During our visit, a particular name of a police ASP (Assistant Superintendent of Police) came again and again as the main perpetrator or organizer of atrocities. Although the name skipped my mind later, it came back when I came across the person in mid 1990s in Colombo. He was a DIG then. Apparently a sane person on the surface, he is supposed to be a ruthless officer against Tamil youth who was in charge of many operations in the North and the East. He joined an extremist Sinhala nationalist party in retirement and was an advisor on counter insurgency measures to the government. The connection between counter insurgency, including torture, and extreme nationalism was obvious.

By this time I had a vague idea about how the movement originated. The year 1972 was perhaps a landmark. The standardisation to university admissions had disadvantaged the aspiring middle classes in Jaffna. The
1972 Constitution closed the possibility of federalism or even devolution by defining the polity as a strict unitary system. Thereafter in 1974, the accidental or intended death of seven people during the World Tamil Research Congress in Jaffna was an occasion for the youth to rebel and thereafter organise clandestinely. It was under the pressure of the radical youth that the Federal Party opted for the famous Vaddukodai Resolution openly demanding a separate state and Tamil Eelam in 1976.11

It was mainly the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that opted to win the Eelam demand consistently through what I would call terrorism. It fits with the definition of terrorism that we presented at the beginning of this essay. It may be a reaction to the state terror and/or torture that many young people had experienced in custody. But it was a disproportionate and an extreme reaction. It was not a solution but a new problem or rather menace that was created.

It was the same pattern of reaction, perhaps at a lesser degree, that the country experienced in the South during 1987-89 unleashed by the JVP. The completely unjustified banning of the organization in 1983 and the arrest and torture in custody of many activists thereafter created the conditions for the second insurrection of the JVP. Like the LTTE, the JVP terror was not only against the state or the police or the armed forces but also against the people who dissented from them or simply ignored their orders. I was not privy to direct experiences during the period as I was working abroad. But during visits I came across some.

A known female lawyer’s old father at Watapuluwa, Kandy, was brutally killed as he failed to close the shop he was running almost by habit and not merely for business. The lawyer’s husband was my former colleague at the University of Peradeniya. A trade union activist among the university employees named Gunapala whom I knew from my student days was killed for no reason other than his dissent from JVP politics and the family was not allowed to perform a proper burial for him.

Glimpses of Terror

The initial terrorist attacks particularly between 1975 and 1983 were aimed at what they called the traitors of the Tamil struggle. Jaffna Mayor, Alfred Duraiappah, was the first target in July 1975 followed by many of the Tamil police officers involved in insurgency investigations. Most gruesome was the way the Inspector Bastianpillai and two others were killed in Murukkan in April 1978. Bastianpillai was supposed to be one of the brutal Tamil police officers involved in counter insurgency measures.

Narayan Swamy gives a vivid picture of how Prabhakaran planned and executed the killing of 13 soldiers in July 1983 through an ambush which created what came to be known as Black July in which over 2,000 Tamil civilians were killed in reprisal by the Sinhalese goons.12 The LTTE attack was aimed at a backlash. That was the beginning of the Eelam War.

The tactics of war thereafter involved attacks and killings of Sinhalese villagers in areas where the LTTE claimed a homeland, beginning with Dollar and Kent Farm attacks in November 1984. Soon the civilian attacks were extended to the other areas and a major turning point was the massacre of unarmed civilians in Anuradhapura in May 1985. Thirty such attacks were reported for 1985 and 1986 with a death toll of nearly 600. The calculations went as if to take revenge for the Black July. Another intention was to terrorise the whole nation to impose its will over the country. All other radical groups were by this time had been effectively silenced or outnumbered.

Since 1986 the LTTE also was demonstrating its capacity to execute terror attacks in the heart of Colombo. In May that year Air Lanka Flight 512 and the Central Telegraph Office in Colombo were bombed. The next year April was the Central Bus Station. It was only for a short period of time that the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) could bring respite for the war or terrorism. Their intervention also proved to be flawed with equally damaging violations against the civilians. It is also argued that if not for that intervention that the Sri Lankan forces could have contained the LTTE in 1987 during the Vadamarachchi operations.

Whatever the truth of that claim, the exit of the Indian army also marked the escalation of terror in the country and the control of large land areas including many parts of Jaffna under the LTTE. The new wave started with the massacre of 600 unarmed police officers and the ethnic cleansing of Muslim civilians from the North in 1990. The LTTE also demonstrated its capacity of terror by assassinating the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 and the Sri Lankan President, Ranasigha Premadasa, in May 1993. There was a long list of assassinations of both Sinhalese and Tamil politicians, and also intellectuals on the Tamil side. Apart from terrorism now there was conventional war. There was an army with terrorist tactics of suicide bombers and recruitment of child soldiers.

To supplement conventional war, terrorist attacks were unleashed in Colombo. Kolonnawa Oil Storage was attacked in October 1995 and the Central Bank in January 1996 followed by a train bombing at Dehiwala in July. In October 1997 the World Trade Centre in Colombo was bombed and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy was attacked in January 1998. These are only highlights. The conventional war continued in capturing the Mullativu camp and the area in July 1996, Killinochchi in September 1998 and the most important Elephant Pass in April 2000. By this time the Vanni consolidation of the LTTE was largely completed.

There are extensive reports of how the LTTE controlled the civilians in the controlled areas and in the so-called de facto state and even before. There are reports of extreme terror and torture that they used.13 The civilians were extensively taxed, forced to work for their military and the dissent was suppressed. There were reports of torture camps maintained for those who went against the LTTE. Apart from their strength of territorial consolidation, 9/11 and changed international circumstances thereafter were the reasons for them to agree for the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and the peace process in February 2002. Otherwise, the attacks such as the Bandaranaike International Airport in July 2011would have continued with major economic repercussions.

It was only during the peace process between 2002 and 2005 that the atrocities relatively abated on both sides. But both sides were arming themselves in ferocious manner with covert operations of killings and inflicting disappearances. This article does not trace the history or the events of the final war between July 2006 and May 2009. But this period is important as the culmination of politics of terror and politics of torture in the country.

The reasons for not covering this period are space and the need for careful study of facts and information available or not available at present. But it should be stated that the atrocities committed by the government forces and the LTTE at the last stages of war might prove unimaginable if independent investigations are conducted.

However, one incident could be related as an example. A credible footage is available of the brutal killing of the Eastern commander of the LTTE, Ramesh, after capture or surrender. That is against the international humanitarian law. The first footage reveals the questioning of him by soldiers whose identities cannot be difficult to verify. At the end of an altercation, one who was questioning asks others to get a ‘Polla’ (pole) to teach him a lesson. The second footage shows the body of Ramesh brutally killed. There are other videos credible or partly credible. The revelation of the body of Prabhakaran in battle is understandable; the alleged bullet ridden body of his twelve year son is not.

Repercussions on Polity

Nearly three decades of war has undoubtedly traumatised the psychology of the people in the country on all sides. It is possible that the ‘rulers’ are also affected the same way or more, considering the bizarre way they behave. This is the result of politics of torture and politics of terror.

When the ‘war on terror’ was launched and when the armed forces were winning, the overwhelming majority of the people in the South rallied around the government completely weary of LTTE atrocities particularly in their areas as outlined before. The effect on the people in the North was different with uncertainty, insecurity and fear. This is what partly led for the thousands of people to become a ‘human shield’ for the LTTE apart from the force that the LTTE enlisted. At the end of the war there were two psychological terrains that were created by the circumstances in the South and the North. When the armed forces rescued the civilians from the LTTE control, although they were relieved, the fear, uncertainty and insecurity persisted. This is something that any reconciliation process should address.

The South by and large was different with triumphalism and complete admiration of the government and armed forces. The rational thinking was the casualty. ‘If you are not a friend of the government, you are an enemy.’ People adored the President as the ‘King.’ There was nostalgia for the ancient past and revulsion against the West and what is foreign. The people who dissented were easily branded as ‘traitors.’ Political relations were taking a pattern of a ‘ruler-subject’ relationship than of citizens in a democratic society with rights.

By this time many sections of the opposition had joined the government and the government was a strong government, although in terms of ‘good governance’ it was terribly failing. The elections in 2010 re-established the situation with a second term for the President and more than two thirds majority for the government. It is on the basis of this strength that the constitution was changed in September 2010 through the 18th Amendment further strengthening the powers of the President over the bureaucracy and the judiciary and eliminating the limited terms for the office for the presidency. It was a major landmark of deteriorating democracy.14 It was also a major blow to the ‘rule of law’ in the country by encroaching into the impartiality of the judiciary and the independence of the public service.

The situation for the opposition, for dissent and for independent thinking was quite oppressive since the war time onwards. The media was a major casualty. In a series of killings beginning with Taraki Sivaram in April 2005, a prominent critic of the government and senior journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga was killed broad day light in January 2009. The killers are not yet apprehended although information reveals the killing to be a military or paramilitary operation. Many of the others were white van abductions leading to disappearances including Prageeth Eknaligoda in January
2010. It is unknown how the abducted persons were treated in secret. The numbers abducted and disappeared are also a controversy. It is irrespective of this oppression still the media is vibrant and that is a good sign for the future.

Although war time restrictions are over, what is oppressive in the South is several times more in the North. Although the main security zones are closed, the military presence in the North is heavy. It is estimated that there is one soldier for every six civilians including the elderly and children.15 The military presence in the North is not a passive phenomenon. They are involved in construction work, encroaching into people’s land and businesses and controls not only political events but also social gatherings.

It is argued that the reduction of military presence in the North will create conditions similar to the 1980s, but on the contrary, it is the military presence that would create such a situation. The heavy military presence gives an atmosphere of politics of torture and terror.


The Sri Lankan polity is behaving as if suffering from a post-traumatic disorder. This is the result of long term politics of torture to suppress dissent and politics of terror on the same lines or as reaction to state suppression. This study investigated in a narrative form the links between the two, one reinforcing the other. As a product of this vicious cycle, during the last thirty years or so, the political institutions seem to be extremely fragile with scant respect for rule of law, democratic practises, human rights and good governance.

The popular mandate given to the government obviously in good faith after terminating terrorism is extremely abused through misconceptions of inviolability of power. The power has proved to be corrupt both politically and economically. To maintain and extend that power including financial bounties, repressive measures of political intimidation, framed trials, abductions, involuntary disappearances and torture in custody are still being used. Within the government authority, there is an inner circle of ‘family and close associates’ ruling. Violence and intimidation is used not only against the opposition parties but against the constituents of the same ruling coalition as revealed during the local government elections in October 2011.

There is a need to break the cycle of torture and terror, and terror and torture, if the democratic system in the country to be resurrected and good governance and rule of law are to be reinstated. Although the next round of presidential and parliamentary elections is few years away from now, democratic forces may need to be strengthened within and outside Parliament both in the South and in the North. The first principle is to speak up and speak up fearlessly.16 The journalists and academics could play a major role in this respect and the Media of all types is pivotal. Second is to reach the ordinary people and the grassroots through the languages of Sinhalese and Tamil that they are familiar with.

All oppositional parties and all democratic sections of the ruling coalition itself should be influenced to stand for democracy, reconciliation, good governance, rule of law and human rights. Civil society organizations, trade unions, NGOs and even religious organizations could play a major role. On the issues of torture and rule of law, all possibilities available within the judicial system, whatever the existing weaknesses, should be utilized. The issues at stake are obviously larger than party politics or individual party objectives. The choices are becoming narrower, and narrower, between Democracy and Repression.

1 Some of the studies are by Benvenisti, Meron and Babara Ehrenreich, Abu Ghraib, the Politics of Torture, Atlantic Books, 2004; Lightcap, Tracy, The Politics of Torture, MacMillan, 2011; and Pary, John T, Understanding Torture, Law, Violence and Political Identity, University of Michigan, 2010.

2 Of Crimes and Punishments, 1764.
3 Some important studies are Bajpai, Kanti, Roots of Terrorism, Penguin, 2002; Krueger, Alan, What Makes a Terrorist: economics and the Roots of Terrorism, Princeton University Press, 2007; and Richardson, Louise, The Roots of Terrorism, Routledge, 2006.

4 “The Definitions of Terrorism,” Analysis of Social
Issues and Public Policy, 2002. p. 9.
5 Torture, Basil Blackwell, 1985. P. 1.
6 Robert Kearney, Politics and Trade Unions in Ceylon, University of California, 1971. P. 149.
7 Emergency 1958, Andre Deutsch, 1958.
8 For insurgency see, Gamini Samaranayake, Political
Violence in Sri Lanka, 1971-1987, Gyan Books, 2008.
9 See “What Happened in Jaffna: The Days of Terror,” MIRJE Report 2, May 1981.
10 It was during this visit that I first came to know Ketheesh Loganathan, a committed human rights activist from Jaffna, who was later killed by the LTTE in Colombo in 2006.
11 K. T. Rajasingham, “Sri Lanka: The Untold Story,”
Asia Times, 26 January 2006.
12 Inside an Elusive Mind: Prabhakaran, Vijitha Yapa, 2006.
13 UTHR (Jaffna) Report 9, Chapter 3: “The Tortured
14 See Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, “Repercussions of the 18th Amendment and Decline of Democracy, Sri Lanka Guardian, 17 September 2010.
15 Col. R. Hariharan, “Sri Lanka: Why Military
Matters in the North? Sri Lanka Guardian, 28 May
16 Namini Wijedasa, “Stopping the Rot,” Colombo Telegraph, 23 May 2012.

laksiri_vol1_number2Laksiri Fernando, BA (Ceylon), MA (New Brunswick), PhD (Sydney), is a former Senior Professor in Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo and currently a Visiting Scholar at the University of Sydney in retirement. He has served Vidyodaya University, University of Peradeniya and the University of Colombo in different times teaching Political Economy and Political Science. He was a Japan Foundation Fellow in 2005-6 and was Fellow at the Universities of Ryukoku, New South Wales and Heidelberg. He served as the Secretary for Asia/Pacific of the World University Service (WUS) in Geneva and Executive Director of the Diplomacy Training Program (DTP) at the University of New South Wales. Primarily a researcher on human rights and ethnic conflict, his publications include Human Rights, Politics and States: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka; Political Science Approach to Human Rights, Police Civil Relations for Good Governance and Ethnic Conflict in the Global Context among others. He was Director of the National Centre for Advanced Studies (NCAS) and a Director of the Colombo Stock Exchange.