The focus of the media and civil society organizations is again on the prevailing culture of impunity following State Minister Lohan Ratwatte’s violent behaviour in two prisons. He resigned as the State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation, but has retained the Gem and Jewellery related Industries portfolio. Pressure is mounting on the government to sack him from Parliament and have him prosecuted.

Justice Minister Ali Sabri told the parliament on Wednesday that a committee had been appointed to probe the allegations against Ratwatte, and action would be taken based on the committee report. On Thursday, he appointed retired High Court Judge Kusala Sarojini Weerawardena to probe the alleged prison incidents. The Prisons Department is conducting a separate investigation. Nobody takes commissions and committees seriously in this country, and a cynical public considers them diversionary and time-buying tactics.

The general consensus is that stern action must be taken against Ratwatte for he is reported to have done, but the problem is far more complex to be tackled by sacking a few errant individuals. Something drastic needs to be done to do away with the existing political culture, where those in power remain above the law.  

Sri Lanka is no stranger to political violence, which goes back far into the mists of time. Its political establishment and the underworld are joined at the hip. The focus of this column, however, is limited to the nexus between the underworld and politicians, and the culture of impunity.

(Those who are desirous of an in-depth study of political violence may benefit from the works such as Political violence in Sri Lanka: A diagnostic approach (1998) by Samaranayake, G., The Holocaust and After (1984) by L. Piyadasa, Marram Books, London, Political violence in Sri Lanka– L. Bopage andMethods and sequelae of torture: a study in Sri Lanka. In Torture (2007) by de Zoysa, P. & Fernando, R. This list, however, is not exhaustive.)

Rot sets in

When did the rot set in Sri Lanka’s cricket? This question was posed to Sri Lanka’s former World-Cup-winning Cricket Captain Arjuna Ranatunga, some years ago, and he came out with a crisp answer: “The day our cricketers started playing for money.” He put his finger right on what really ails Sri Lanka’s de facto national game. The same is true of Sri Lanka’s politics as well, but there are several other contributory factors. Besides money, power without responsibility and the emergence of politicians as a separate class of sorts have also contributed to the deterioration of Sri Lankan politics.

Time was when thugs chose to be under politicians and settled for political patronage and money for services rendered. They were not interested in politics as such and had no ambitions other than a desire to expand their turfs with the help of their political masters. But the overdependence of politicians on criminals caused the latter to develop a taste for power, and seek more than patronage and money; they needed their share of the pie, and opportunities presented themselves for these anti-social elements to contest local government elections and subsequently provincial council polls. Underworld characters wield considerable influence over the lower strata of society, and can muster enough popular support to get elected to local government bodies and in some cases even to the Provincial Councils. Some of them have clawed their way up to the parliament as well.

There were violent characters supporting Sri Lankan governments in the good old days as well. The first parliamentary election in 1947 was not totally free from incidents of violence, as old timers may recall. The UNP won that election albeit without a working majority. Organized goon attacks on the UNP’s March to Kandy in 1957 also serve as an example. The protest march had to be abandoned at Attanagalla, where pro-SLFP thugs blocked the Colombo-Kandy Road. The attacks on the Tamil MPs’ Satyagraha at the Galle Face Green in 1956 is also a case in point. But it was in 1977 that a large number of social dregs got elected to the parliament from different parts of the country; they were lucky that the SLFP had become extremely unpopular during its seven-year rule from 1970 to 1977 mostly due to its economic experiments that caused immense hardships to the public. The members of the UNP government elected in that year ranged from the foreign-educated elites to the riff-raff such as cattle thieves, illicit fellers and cannabis dealers.

Governments and underworld links

It is seldom that politicians from elitist backgrounds get directly involved in incidents of violence. They usually get their dirty work done by others. The J. R. Jayewardene government had underworld characters like Kalu Lucky terrorize its opponents. In 1983, they even stoned the official residences of the Supreme Court judges in retaliation for an apex courtjudgment in favour of legendary leftist Vivienne Goonewardene, who filed a fundamental rights case against the police after being roughed up during a protest in Colombo. The thugs went scot free.

Sunil Perera aka Gonawala Sunil, who received a presidential pardon, after the 1977 government change, while serving a prison term for raping a teenage girl, was another criminal who led the underworld shock troops that helped the JRJ government crush Opposition protests and rig elections. He was appointed a Justice of the Peace!

Pro-UNP criminals went into overdrive to help the JRJ government win the 1982 presidential election, the referendum that followed shortly afterwards, and the 18 byelections held in 1983, in the electorates, where the UNP lost the referendum. The UNP won 14 of these elections, and the Opposition secured four. Underworld characters also ensured the UNP’s victory at the 1988 presidential election and the 1989 parliamentary polls, held amidst the JVP’s reign of terror; they stuffed the ballot boxes.

Gonawala Sunil himself led the goon attacks in Mulkirigala during the 1985 byelection, and when the SLFP supporters surrounded him, President Jayewardene declared a curfew in the area and had him brought to Colombo under police protection.The UNP ‘won’ that election.

Sunil was killed in 1988 and the crime was credited to the JVP’s account. But the underworld watchers are of the view that his own masters had him eliminated because he knew too much.

The Premadasa government, formed after the 1989 general election, opened a new low in Sri Lankan politics. The second JVP uprising led to a situation where politicians raised private armies to protect themselves against the southern terrorists. But they unleashed violence disproportionate to the threat, and trained their guns on the Opposition, and the culture of violence came to stay. Huge stocks of arms and ammunition the thengovernment supplied to vigilantes and smuggled in from the war zone and military desertions facilitated the rise of the underworld after the violent suppression of the JVP insurrection.

During the first JVP rebellion, some SLFP politicians formed vigilante groups, but most of them did not survive because the killing spree did not last long enough for them to get established as underworld outfits.

The Premadasa government stepped up attacks on the leaders of the UNP offshoot, the Democratic United National Front (DUNF), formed by Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake; the duo broke away after an abortive attempt to impeach President Premadasa. When Athulathmudali was assassination in April 1993, the Opposition blamed President Premadasa for the crime. He vehemently denied the charge.

The sky was the limit for the goons of the Premadasa government. The police openly protected them. When a group of journalists who were attacked by the UNP thugs while they were covering a pamphlet distribution campaign held by the DUNF near the Fort Railway station, in 1992, tried to lodge a complaint with the police, the Fort OIC rose to his full height, blocking the entrance to the police station, declaring that the place was closed for the day!

The Premadasa government did not spare the media and was responsible for the abduction, torture and killing of Richard de Zoysa.

Soththi Upali (Arambawelage Don Upali Ranjith) headed the shock troops of the Premadasa government. He was so powerful that he could walk into any police station and occupy the OIC’s chair. He and other criminals remained above the law until the assassination of President Premadasa in 1993. Thereafter, Upali maintained a very low profile and died at the hands of a rival gang some years later.

Opportunities presented themselves for political leaders to reverse the trend and create conditions for the evolution of a new political culture. Numerous leaders came forward promising to usher in new beginnings but all self-proclaimed messiahs emulated their predecessors after being ensconced in power.

By 1994, the situation had become so bad that one of the main election promises of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK), who steered the SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) to power and won the executive presidency in that year, was to eliminate the culture of political violence or bheeshanaya and root out corruption or dooshanaya. But her promise was not kept, and her government also became dependent on the underworld to suppress democratic dissent, and some members of her security officers functioned as a goon squad. That dispensation also became extremely corrupt.

Sanjeewa Perera alias Beddegana Sanjeewa, a notorious contract killer and extortionist, led the underworld gangs working for the CBK government. Appointed a Reserve Sub Inspector, he worked as a member of the Presidential Security Division (PSD). Eventually, he was gunned down in 2001. It is thought that his handlers themselves eliminated him because he knew too much and went out of control.

Besides Sanjeewa, there were many other mobsters who worked for the ministers in the CBK government, prominent among them being Dhammika Amarasinghe, who was killed inside the Colombo Magistrate’s Court.

The 1999 North Western Province Provincial Council election became one of the worst electoral contests in the country. The goons working for the CBK government went berserk. UNP supporters were assaulted in public; some of them were stripped naked and paraded on streets. Opposition polling agents were chased away and ballot boxes stuffed by the PA goons in full view of the police. The PA was declared the winner!

In 2010, Nihal Karunaratne, who headed the PSD during CBK’s tenure, was sentenced to five years RI by the Kandy High Court, which found him guilty of having intimidated and threatened with death the OIC of the Hanguranketha Police during the general election period in 2001.

The following year, Karunaratne was sentenced by the Colombo High Court to two years rigorous imprisonment suspended for 10 years over an incident where he obstructed police officer H. Samudrajeewa in 2000. While a special police team headed by Samudrajeewa was searching Baddegana Sanjeewa’s house, on the orders of DIG O. K. Hemachandra, to arrest some wanted criminals, Karunaratne barged in and obstructed the police.

The CBK government was held responsible for attacks on journalists such The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunge, and the killing of D. Sivaram.

In 2005, the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a lawyer by profession, who became a national level political leader by championing human rights during the second JVP uprising, became the President. It was thought in some quarters that democracy would get a breather on his watch. But it turned out to be another false dawn.

The war was brought to an end in May 2009, and President Rajapaksa could have taken steps to end the culture of political violence, corruption, impunity and abuse of power, and usher in a new era. But he, in his wisdom, allowed the perpetuation of the same old culture.

Pro-government thugs enjoyed the freedom of the wild ass; they operated openly and, in some cases, alongside the riot police during Opposition protests. Some Ministers of the Rajapaksa government such as Mervyn Silva were seen in public in the company of underworld figures. In December 2007, Silva forced his way into the state-owned Rupavahini head office, together with a notorious criminal, only to be held incommunicado and roughed up. Later, his goons attacked some of the Rupavahini workers who had organized the attack on Silva and his underworld friend.

Underworld operations carried out by those connected to the Rajapaksa government were complex, and all those directly involved in them were eliminated systematically after being used. In 2003about two years before the formation of the Rajapaksa administrationS. K. Ranjith better known as Chandi Malli, a provincial Minister and staunch Rajapaksa loyalist, was killed almost opposite the Police Headquarters in Colombo Fort, a high security zone. Sunil Ratnaweera of Suriyawewa led the attack. A few months later, Ruwan Kumara aka Wambotta, another criminal, executed Ratnaweera after dragging him from a prison bus at Angunukolpelessa. Subsequently, notorious underworld hitman, Prasad Gamage alias Army Sunranga, killed Wambotta. He died at the hands of the police a few months later.  

Attacks on journalists and media institutions continued, and prominent journalists such as The Sunday Leader Editor Wickrematunge were killed, and the perpetrators were never brought to justice.

Another false dawn

The 2015 regime change was expected to mark thebeginning of a new era. Those who had suffered under the Rajapaksa government and sought justice pinned their hopes on the new administration. After all, it promised good governance, justice for the victims of political violence and legal action against the former rulers and their cronies for corruption and the abuse of power. But apart from some high-profile arrests such as that of Basil Rajapaksa, and some show trials, precious little was done to bring the culprits to justice. The likes of Mervyn de Silva switched their allegiance to the new administration, and the prominent Sri Lankans who had helped Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe capture power were disappointed. Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, the chief architect of the ouster of the Rajapaksa regime, became one of the bitterestcritics of the yahapalana administration, which reneged on most of its promises, and got involved in mega rackets like the Treasury bond scams.  

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration started off well, and introduced some progressive laws. The 19thAmendment restored the Constitutional Council and reduced the executive powers of the President, but overall, it failed to deliver on its promises and badly compromised national security. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe clashed openly rendering the government dysfunctional. The Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 sealed its fate, and the Rajapaksas made an easy comeback. We are where we are.


Sri Lanka finds itself in a dilemma. It is left without any leader who is not associated with the governments responsible for the mess it is in. The people have elected the present government for want of a better alternative and their disillusionment is palpable. The government does not seem to care to mend its ways. Its leaders are doing more of what they did in the past and have not learnt from their mistakes.

The worst that can happen to a country is for its people to lost faith in the democratic process, and it is happening here. The youth have become cynical and pessimistic as evident from their social media activities. They are not likely to rebel against the state the way the youth did twice in 1970 and in the late 1980s. Instead of trying to bring order out of chaos, they are migrating. They cannot be blamed for leaving a country that has remained underdeveloped for seven long decades after gaining Independence from the British, and is not likely to achieve its development goals in the foreseeable future thanks to corruption, the abuse of power, cronyism, nepotism and the culture of impunity.

When both the government and the Opposition consist of politicians who have failed to live up to people’s expectations and have nothing new to offer, and there is no mainstream alternative, democracy is in peril. In a country, where people are disillusioned and the youth frustrated, anything is possibleleaderless popular uprisings included. It is public anger spilling over into the streets that fuelled the Arab Spring, which plunged several countries into absolute chaos.

Politicians and their goons must be condemned in the strongest possible terms whenever they commit transgressions, but only a mass movement devoid of partisan politics will help bring sufficient pressure to bear on politicians to behave, and governments to uphold the rule of law, which is the best antidote to the culture of impunity. Nothing else will do.





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