Government-Supported Death Squads Quash Sri Lanka Insurrection

Rebellion in Sri Lanka by the Maoist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna led to the assassination of thousands of government supporters and the slaughter of thousands of suspects by government-supported death squads.

Summary of Event

Sri Lanka endured a large amount of civil strife in the 1980’s. Two civil wars were fought throughout much of the decade. In 1987, the Maoist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, or People’s Liberation Front) began an all-out war to gain power in Sri Lanka. The JVP’s campaign resulted in a bloody response by government-supported death squads and the suspension of constitutional rights and due process in the nation for nearly two years. The violence and human rights abuses that took place shook the foundation of constitutional rule in Sri Lanka. Civil wars;Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;Sri Lanka
[kw]Government-Supported Death Squads Quash Sri Lanka Insurrection (1987-1991)
[kw]Death Squads Quash Sri Lanka Insurrection, Government-Supported (1987-1991)
[kw]Sri Lanka Insurrection, Government-Supported Death Squads Quash (1987-1991)
[kw]Insurrection, Government-Supported Death Squads Quash Sri Lanka (1987-1991)
Civil wars;Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;Sri Lanka
[g]South Asia;1987-1991: Government-Supported Death Squads Quash Sri Lanka Insurrection[06360]
[g]Sri Lanka;1987-1991: Government-Supported Death Squads Quash Sri Lanka Insurrection[06360]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;1987-1991: Government-Supported Death Squads Quash Sri Lanka Insurrection[06360]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1987-1991: Government-Supported Death Squads Quash Sri Lanka Insurrection[06360]
Fernando, S. Saman Piyasiri
Wijeweera, Rohana
Gamanayake, Upatissa
Premadasa, Ranasinghe
Wijeratna, Ranjan

The JVP was the same organization that had led an insurrection against the government in 1971, in which ten to twenty thousand people died. The leaders of the 1971 insurrection were jailed, but they received amnesty in 1977. These included Rohana Wijeweera, the leader and organizer of the insurrection. After the amnesty, the JVP regrouped and organized as a legal political party, and its leader, Wijeweera, even entered the 1982 presidential elections, placing third out of six candidates. The party participated in legal politics until it was banned following ethnic riots in 1983. At that point, it went underground and began to prepare for the next insurrection.

The arrival of Indian peacekeeping forces in the northern and eastern parts of the island to enforce a truce between the government and the ethnic minority Tamil guerrillas in 1987 was the catalyst for the revolt. Many Sri Lankans feared India and its intentions, and many saw the government-invited arrival of Indian troops on Sri Lankan soil as a serious threat to the sovereignty of the country. The JVP exploited this fear to gain support for its movement.

The JVP leadership espoused a Maoist ideology. The group’s appeal was to both male and female youths, especially in the southern province of Sri Lanka across the southern tier of the island. Among university students, there was strong sympathy for the JVP. At the height of the violence, from 1988 to 1990, the universities of Sri Lanka were closed down by supporters of the JVP. The JVP’s appeal to the young was based on nationalism, the fear of Indian encroachment in Sri Lanka, and the offer of hope in a climate of few economic opportunities, rather than on the organization’s Maoist ideology.

The JVP’s main tactic was an assassination campaign against government supporters and anyone who did not oppose the Indian troops in Sri Lanka. Thousands were slaughtered in the uprising’s first two years. At first, the Sri Lankan government was helpless to stop the JVP killings, but by 1988 this began to change. The bodies of alleged JVP supporters began to appear at night across the southern districts of Matara and Hambantota. At times, the bodies were found with signs on them listing their alleged crimes. Eventually, the killers began to burn their victims beyond recognition. The killings spread in 1989 to other parts of the island. Bodies began to appear in the Anuradhapura district in north-central Sri Lanka. In June, 1989, bodies began to be found in the Kandy district in the central hill country, which had previously been spared much of the JVP violence.

The killings became more gruesome, and mutilation of the bodies became more common. The deaths of victims became less an objective of the killers than the terror created by leaving body parts in public places or sending them to victims’ relatives. In August, 1989, a ring of heads appeared overnight around a campus site where a University of Peradeniya official had been killed the day before. The police refused to allow the heads to be removed. In September, hundreds were killed in villages of low-caste people near the university, and the bodies were thrown into rivers. Often, government security personnel would prevent relatives from retrieving the bodies, forcing them to leave the bodies for the public to view. By the time the violence ended, more than ten thousand bodies had appeared around the country. It has been estimated that the number of victims who disappeared during this period of violence may be more than one hundred thousand.

Although the government denied it, there was strong evidence to indicate that the killings were carried out by off-duty police and army personnel, assisted at times by government supporters. A few of the killers were captured. The son of a member of the Sri Lankan parliament and seven police and army personnel were arrested in 1988 for the murder of three youths picked up at gunpoint on a crowded street in the city of Ratnapura. Most of the time, however, the government denied any involvement in the killings and fought to avoid investigating them.

The killings began to subside in November, 1989, after Rohana Wijeweera and Upatissa Gamanayake, the leaders of the insurrection, were captured. Wijeweera was the first to be captured; he died within forty-eight hours of being taken into custody. The official explanation of his death was that he had been shot by a member of his politburo as he led security forces to a hideout. His body was cremated within hours of his death. Within weeks, the government claimed that all members of the politburo and the district leaders of the JVP had been either captured or killed. Most of those captured died while in custody, but not before they “decided” to provide the government with important information to find other leaders. Their bodies were soon cremated.

The capture of the leadership was followed by a bloodbath by the death squads as they sought out suspects and killed them on the spot. On one night in December alone, more than 170 bodies appeared across the southern district of Hambantota. What made the killings even more remarkable was that they were usually carried out at night, while strict government curfews were in effect and roadblocks dotted the roadways of the island. Remarkably, the security personnel at the roadblocks rarely noticed the vehicles used to pick up thousands of victims. In a few instances, security men were killed when they tried to stop or arrest members of the death squads. Despite the destruction of the JVP leadership, the death squads continued killing for another two months with little decline in the number of victims. Even after that period, the death squads were active for nearly two more years, although at a much-reduced rate.

The killings were made easier by the existence of the Prevention of Terrorism Act Prevention of Terrorism Act (Sri Lanka, 1979) (PTA), which was passed in 1979 to curb Tamil ethnic minority guerrillas in the north and east of the island. The act allowed security forces to search and arrest suspects without warrants or evidence. The police and army were allowed to take detainees to any site to interrogate them for up to eighteen months without notifying the courts or any other authorities. Suspects could be tried before a judge without a jury, and security forces were able to dispose of the bodies of suspects without autopsies or notification of next of kin. The PTA also allowed for press censorship of any reports of actions related to the act. Along with other emergency regulations, the PTA allowed the government security forces to carry out any actions they wished.


The activities of the death squads in Sri Lanka resulted in the elimination of the JVP threat to the government. By mid-1991, JVP violence had been reduced to occasional attacks and arrests; those who made up the party’s political organization had fled into exile. The reign of terror, however, had a profound effect on Sri Lankan society. The exercise of violence by the police, military, and youths undermined the control of the security forces. Some of the killings carried out by the death squads appeared to have been personal vendettas cloaked as anti-JVP activity. In addition, the security forces no longer followed the rule of law to protect the constitution. Abuses by the security forces were relatively rare in the southern parts of the island prior to the JVP insurrection; afterward, criminal acts carried out by security force personnel became much more common. These acts included robberies, extortion, and rapes.

Sri Lankan students responded in defiant fear. Unrest at the universities where the JVP had great support, such as Peradeniya, continued. Student protests took the form of boycotts of student government elections and the election of slates of candidates sympathetic to but not openly in support of the JVP’s political positions. Respect for the legitimacy of the government also suffered. Many young people lost trust and faith in the older generation’s ability to deal with the country’s problems.

Perhaps the largest impact on the country was the brutalization of Sri Lankan society. The extensive violence left many physical and psychological scars that would take years to heal. Students not only rebelled against authority but killed representatives of that authority. These included professors, businesspeople, and the families of security personnel. The once-peaceful Sri Lankan society became very violent. Violent crime, once a rarity, became common. Rates of drug abuse and suicide climbed to near-record levels.

Police and military personnel had found that torture and violence against suspects could be very effective in controlling civil unrest, and they continued to use such methods in investigating crimes. The government’s unwillingness or inability to punish illegal activity by the security forces provided an umbrella of protection to the police and military. Attempts to punish wrongdoers were prevented or covered up.

The death of an internationally known journalist provided strong evidence of the government’s willingness to protect the death squads at all costs. The young journalist, Richard de Zoysa, De Zoysa, Richard a leftist who apparently was not connected to the JVP, was arrested at his home by men who claimed to be police on February 18, 1990, more than three months after the death of Wijeweera and the decline in JVP offensive operations. De Zoysa’s mutilated and tortured body was found the next day on a beach south of Colombo. His mother, who had observed his arrest, identified a police officer as one of the group that arrested her son, but the government decided that there was not enough evidence to pursue the case. It also blocked an attempt in the parliament to appoint a commission to investigate the murder.

Sri Lanka, once a model of democracy, descended to the edge of authoritarian government. The willingness of the government to use extraconstitutional means such as murder and torture to protect itself left an undemocratic legacy that threatened the country’s future. Nevertheless, responding to popular agitation, the government began to ease repressive policy and permitted elections in 1994. The JVP competed in the elections as the National Salvation Front and began an improbable climb to political prominence, building a fairly strong presence in local elections and winning small but increasing numbers of seats in subsequent national parliamentary elections. The party eventually joined the United People’s Freedom Alliance, a coalition that won the parliamentary election of 2004 and went on to form a government. Civil wars;Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;Sri Lanka

Further Reading

  • Amnesty International. Sri Lanka Briefing. London: Author, 1989. Part of a regular series of reports produced by Amnesty International on human rights abuses in conflicts in Sri Lanka.
  • De Silva, Kingsley. “The Sri Lankan Universities from 1977 to 1990: Recovery, Stability, and the Descent to Crisis.” Minerva 28 (Summer, 1990): 156-216. A leading Sri Lankan historian chronicles the rise of violent student activism in the Sri Lankan universities that led to the closure of the schools by JVP activists from 1988 to 1990.
  • Dubey, Swaroop Rani. One-Day Revolution in Sri Lanka: Anatomy of 1971 Insurrection. Jaipur, India: Aalekh, 1988. Presents a historical account of the 1971 insurrection as well as an update of the situation in Sri Lanka to 1987, just before the second insurrection intensified.
  • Ivan, Victor. Sri Lanka in Crisis: Road to Conflict. Ratmalana, Sri Lanka: Sarvodaya, 1989. A history of the events leading to the conflicts in Sri Lanka by a former politburo member of the JVP during the 1971 insurrection. Focuses on the economic situation in Sri Lanka.
  • Marino, Eduardo. Political Killings in Southern Sri Lanka. Los Angeles: International Alert, 1989. Discusses the JVP conflict and provides descriptions and a chronology of some of the killings in southern Sri Lanka. Places special emphasis on human rights issues.
  • Oberst, Robert C. “Political Decay in Sri Lanka.” Current History 88 (December, 1989): 425-428, 448-449. Presents an analysis of the JVP and Tamil conflicts and the Sri Lankan government’s attempts to resolve them.
  • Rotberg, Robert I., ed. Creating Peace in Sri Lanka: Civil War and Reconciliation. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999. Collection of essays by Sri Lankan, British, and American experts discusses all aspects of the conflicts that have taken place in Sri Lanka.
  • Watson, I. B., and Siri Gamage, eds. Conflict and Community in Contemporary Sri Lanka: “Pearl of the East” or the “Island of Tears”? Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2000. Collection of essays examines the reasons behind the ethnic conflicts, mass murders, and assassinations that have taken place in Sri Lanka and offers suggestions for change.

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