By Sanjeewa Karunaratne


A few years after the JVP attempted their second revolt against the Government of Sri Lanka, the Government resorted to unconventional warfare. When J R Jayawardena handed over the reins to R Premadasa, he also gave a mechanism that could be unleashed against the JVP. It was an armed force affiliated with the police called the Special Task Force (STF). The STF, a well-trained police force for covert and clandestine operations, was also responsible for the security of the parliamentarians—a prime target of the JVP. The para-military and STF who guarded the parliamentarians joined forces to neutralize the JVP’s threat. In this war against the JVP, some parliamentarians were highly active. Piya was one of them—the only one who did not leave his hometown, Matara – a stronghold of the JVP. Piya’s son, Anu, was my classmate. He once explained how they made bulto in a coconut grove they owned in Tangalle.

Gunasiri Bulto, once a popular candy in Sri Lanka, was a unique product (the two sons of the candymaker also studied at my high school; one was in the senior class, and the other was in the junior class). This black candy came cylindrical, which you can chew like gum. Like gum, it ends up with a tar-like residue you can no longer chew. Anu’s bulto refers to this tar-like residue. But it was not an ordinary bulto.

The interrogation tactics against the JVP suspects were ruthless.

I first saw Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) Premadasa Udugampola at my friend Mike’s house. The DIG and Mike’s father were having tea. The DIG spearheaded the operations against the JVP in Gampaha District. Mike’s father and brother-in-law, the officer-in-charge of the Weeragula police station, were among DIG’s closest allies. The DIG had strong personal reasons for his actions. The JVP was accused of killing his mother, brother, sister-in-law, and two children and setting their ancestral home on fire in Poddala / Uluvitike in Galle District on July 24, 1988 (A Lost Revolution? Inside Story of the JVP by Rohan Gunaratne). The DIG heeded the warning. He moved his wife and children to Los Angeles. Ever since, Udugampola led squads of similarly motivated men on a singular mission—to wipe out the JVP at whatever human cost. Based on rumors, one of the favorite interrogation techniques of the DIG was inserting a pencil through the ear canal of a suspect and slapping him. Another one was inserting a PVC pipe in the suspect’s anal, inserting a barbed wire through the pipe, removing the pipe, and pulling the wire.

The JVP maintained a reputation for carrying out their warnings. They banned people from casting their votes in the 1989 General Election. Government officials such as school principals and teachers needed to cast their votes, which was mandatory. My father-in-law, a retired principal at a government school, cast his vote early on Election Day. As he was exiting the polling station, he spotted the JVP warning, “death to the first five who vote.” He immediately packed up and moved his family to Gampaha. He also pulled his children from two exceptional schools in Kandy, Mahamaya Girls School, and High School. He admitted them to schools in Gampaha, where they remained until the end of their secondary education.

As the Kandy District in hill country became a hotbed for the JVP insurgency, the University of Peradeniya was closed in 1988. After winning the election, R Premadasa Government appointed DIG Udugampola as the police chief in Kandy District in 1989. When I entered the University of Peradeniya in 1995 after it reopened in 1990, I stayed at the Hilda Hall’s most isolated seventh wing. Right next to my room, there was a large stain of blood on the wall (it was painted over later). I was told it was remnants of a holdout between para-military forces and the JVP following the execution of a university official. At the time I had doubts about this narrative. The para-military finally infiltrated the JVP defenses (a threat to blow up the building) and entered the Hilda Hall through a hole—some JVP operatives were killed on the spot, and some were taken into custody. The following day, fifteen severed heads were arranged around the fountain at the Alwis Pond traffic circle in the Galaha Road. The next day, there were nineteen more. (Galaha Road runs across the University of Peradeniya. But at the time, I did not know the heads had been placed there in two days. The narrative that circulated at the university was 34 severed heads, which I doubted because the pond's inner circumference where the heads were allegedly placed was less than 30 feet.)

One of the highly investigated crimes of this dark era was the killing of a medical student, Pathmasiri Thrima Vithana. He was abducted at night at Ratnapura Bus Station on October 22, 1988. During the post-mortem examination, it was revealed that Thrima Vithana suffered cigarette burns, and his finger nails had been removed. Metal nails were found hammered into his skull. Both hands and legs were broken. He was shot four times. Most of the youth caught by the para-military squads received harsh interrogations and ended up in mass graves. Only a handful of the suspects survived to tell their story.

The Hokandara mass grave was located near my house. Hokandara and Suriyakanda mass graves were unearthed by the Government in 1998. During our visit to my grandparents in Magedara – a JVP stronghold – at the height of the insurgency, my relatives acknowledged a mass grave in the Kottawa Wildlife Reserve. We were too scared to investigate it. During this visit, we saw a mass grave in Yakkalamulla. The Wawul Kale mass grave made it into the news because of an eyewitness account of the murders. Other mass graves were reported in Dikwella, Angkumbura, Wilpita, Akuressa, Essella, and Deniyaya. During the construction of a hospital in Matale, more than 150 bodies were discovered that were dated between 1986 and 1990 (Matale district is adjacent to Kandy District).

At present, people in Sri Lanka are surrounded by tens of thousands of skeletons of the JVP era. In some estimates, 20-30,000 youth may have perished between 1984 and 1989. However, the “take no prisoner” approach of the counter-insurgency operations put an end to the JVP’s armed revolt against the Government.

The parliamentarian, Piya’s counterattack against the JVP was effective and well-funded. His decision to stand their ground in the insurgency's epicenter while the rest of his colleagues flee the area was highly courageous. After we left high school, his son, Anu, often attended school events with a gun on his hip. After a few rounds of drinks, Anu traded stories about the insurgency (by then the insurgency had been crushed by the Government). The bulto story came out during one of these sessions. I'm doubtful whether Anu witnessed it or some of their guards told him about it.

In one night, the counter-insurgency squad had taken in a few suspects. They were driven to a coconut grove and stripped naked. Their hands were tied behind, and they were blindfolded. A rubber tire was inserted like a loop around the neck. Petroleum was poured into the tire, and it was set ablaze. With the head on fire, the person takes off blindly, hitting a coconut tree after a coconut tree. 

When they recovered the body, he said, “the head looks like bulto.”