The Terrible Truth Of The Trincomalee Tragedy
January second of the New Year 2006 was a Monday. It was 5.30 in the evening when 20 year old Manoharan Rajihar set off from home on St. Mary’s road in Trincomalee town. Both his father and mother were medical doctors jointly running the Welcome Medical clinic. He told his parents that he would be going to worship at the Pillaiyar temple and the Pathragali Amman temple. Thereafter he said that he would chat for a while with friends at the beach and return.
One of his friends, an undergraduate at the Engineering Faculty in Moratuwa university had come home for the new year and was scheduled to go back the following day. Rajihar said he would return home by 7. 30 p.m.
Trincomalee had been tensed up for quite a while. There had been much violence along with hartals paralysing normal life. Police and security personnel along with civilians had been targeted. The civilian killings and in some cases reprisal killings cut across ethnic barriers.
Though Trincomalee was bustling actively after many years of the ceasefire the atmosphere had deteriorated in recent times. Life had not been the same after a large Buddha statue was installed overnight near the Central bus stand and market.Tamil organizations had opposed this.
Hartals were staged. It was ruled by the Lower Courts that the statue was illegally installed on Urban Council property. In spite of public opposition and a Court directive the statue remained where it was with massive security provided.
The protests over the statue had resulted in a lot of additional security personnel being deployed in Trincomalee. This brought about another wave of protests against the increased security presence. With LTTE backed Tamil resurgence movements stepping up demonstrations the situation became worse.
Sporadic violence continued. An attack on the security personnel brought about reprisals on Tamil civilians. In some cases “unknown” people killed Sinhala and Tamil civilians. It was tit for tat. For instance when a Sinhala businessman was killed on December 24 two Tamil trishaw drivers were killed on December 26.
Against this backdrop people seldom ventured out of their homes after dusk.
Rajihar’s parents too were concerned about their son staying out till dark.
But they were not unduly worried because they knew their son was a decent, level-headed boy. He was very punctual and if he said he would be back at 7.30 p.m. they knew he would keep his word. Besides the place he was going to was not very far from home. Also they knew his friends. All of them were quiet, well-behaved youths with little interest in politics let alone Tiger politics. They were youths with glowing dreams of a bright future. The parents had no worries about their son or his friends getting mixed up with the LTTE.
Rajihar was the third in a family of six children. The eldest was a girl now married and settled in Britain. The next was a son. There were three younger brothers. An old student of Sri Koneswarar Hindu College Rajihar had completed his AL’s. He was an outstanding sportsman excelling in table tennis and chess. Rajihar was the Secretary of the Trinco Table Tennis Association. He had even conducted training sessions in TT for the security forces’ recreation. Rajihar had been thoroughly vetted and given a military approved identity card. The military ID is the one respected by all security personnel.
Apart from this the Manoharans were familiar with many security officials including naval officers who had obtained treatment at the clinic. All this gave the family a sense of security in troubled times. Being doctors the parents were after all in the upper strata of Trincomalee society. The parents had also bought Rajihar a cellular phone as a precaution. He had strict instructions to call and keep them informed if he was getting late or held up anywhere. Rajihar left home happily for his rendezvous with friends blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting him.
Seven young men all of them born in 1985 gathered that evening at the Dutch Bay beach. The spot was near the Gandhi statue roundabout where the Dockyard road and Koneswarar or Fort Frederick road intersected. There was an important checkpost close by, manned by navy, army and police personnel. Actually there were three more checkposts manned by naval personnel within a 100 metre radius. There was also a small boutique selling provisions.
There were stone benches on the beach front where people sat and took in the sea breeze. The seven friends were now seated on those benches chatting gaily. They had been frisked and cleared at the checkpost before coming to the spot.They arrived on four cycles and a motor cycle with two riding “doubles”. Six of the friends were alumni of Sri Koneswara Hindu College. One was an old boy of St. Joseph’s College. The key figure in the group was Thangathurai Sivanantha, the Moratuwa campus undergrad. He had come home on December 31 and was returning on January 3. The seaside chit-chat was like a send off to Sivanantha.
All of them had completed their A’Levels in 2004/5. Apart from Sivanantha another too had gained entry to Katubedde. The others too were hopeful of higher education or at least a good job in Colombo. Some had ideas of going abroad. They were good all-round students in both studies and extracurricular activities. They were computer proficient too. Time just flew as the friends swapped stories and teased each other in good fun.
It was about 7.15 p.m. when a green three-wheeler coming along Dockyard road slowed down. A grenade was thrown from the vehicle. It exploded yards away from where the seven friends were seated. The three- wheeler then sped away on Koneswara road towards the Fort. The dazed friends realised the situation was taking a turn for the worse and cut short their conversation. They speedily mounted their cycles and motor cycle and prepared to get away from the spot. That was not to be!
Almost as if on cue a security force truck trundled in quickly. Instead of giving chase to the three-wheeler the occupants of the truck zoomed in on the seven Tamil youths. They surrounded them and forced them to kneel down. Rajihar took out his mobile phone and called his father Dr. Kasipillai Manoharan. The call was not answered. Rajihar however left a quick message saying they were being made to kneel down by security forces. The phone was snatched away by one of the assailants.
They started checking their ID cards. Thereafter they began assaulting them. They were then put aboard the truck and assaulted again and again. Their explanations and protests were ignored.
At this point some more security vehicles arrived. There was an excited discussion in Sinhala among the new and old arrivals. The youths could only hear the noise. Suddenly they were kicked and pushed out of the truck. Even as they fell they found that the entire area was now pitch dark. The lights in the vicinity had been turned off. The youths were now hit again and forced to kneel down again.
After some more bickering among themselves one group of security personnel began leaving the spot. It was still dark and the lights were out. Only the vehicle lights tore through the darkness of the night. After one group of security men left the other group began getting really mean. Then it became really terrible.
After some more rounds of assaulting, the youths were forced to kneel down again. Firearms were taken out and brandished. The youths were told that they were going to be killed as a warning to the Tigers in Trincomalee. The innocent youths began wailing and pleading. Their pathetic cries were heard far and wide.
Listening to the faintly audible cries was Dr. Manoharan. Finding that he had missed a call, Rajihar’s father had checked the phone to find it was from his son. Thoroughly agitated Dr. Manoharan began calling his son’s cell again and again and again. There was no answer. Extremely perturbed the father then mounted his scooter and set off for the spot on the beach where his son had said he was going to. Besides it was close to the Amman temple too.
When Dr. Manoharan came near the spot he found all the lights including the street lights had been turned off and there was darkness all around. He was shocked to find that security personnel had sealed off the particular area and were refusing to let anyone go through. Upon inquiring he was told that some Tigers had attacked the security forces and no one would be allowed to pass. He was curtly ordered to turn back. Manoharan refused saying his son was in trouble and that he would not go back without him.
As Dr. Manoharan stubbornly stayed put despite the danger he heard the cries of the youths pleading
with their assailants. He thought he recognized his son’s voice among them. He kept on pleading with those at the checkpost to let him through. The personnel refused but were becoming increasingly nervous and jittery and then rang out the shots followed by the screams. More gunfire and more screams. It took just four minutes from 7. 51 p.m. to 7.55 p.m. A few minutes later an explosion was heard and then it was all over.
After playing cat and mouse for a while the assassins now began firing. Two of the youths were shot behind the ear. One was shot in the back of the head. The other four then scrambled to their feet and made a desperate attempt to escape by running away. They were mowed down by gunfire. They were shot in the chest, abdomen, shoulders, thighs etc., and collapsed. A little while after the firing was over two grenades were thrown at the still bodies. One exploded but the other failed.
The assassins were in no mood to take their victims to hospital. They delayed for nearly half an hour. The calculated delay presumably was to let the youths bleed to certain death. Finally an ambulance was called and even the lights came on “miraculously”.
Dr. Manoharan raced to the Trincomalee hospital. His heart leapt when he was told that two of the youths were alive still. His heart sank when he found that his son was not in the Intensive Care Unit. Later he was allowed to check out the morgue where he found his favourite son lying dead. He broke down and wept.
News began spreading and the parents of the victims began converging at the hospital notwithstanding the security situation. Their long night of sorrow was made unbearable by the deliberate attempt to twist the truth.
The security forces who had brought in the youths to the hospital had made a police entry that some Tigers plotting to attack the security forces had suffered casualties due to some grenades exploding accidentally. This then was the version hastily disseminated by the security propagandists. Given the tense situation in Trincomalee and the vain boasts of the LTTE that the people were rising up against the armed forces there were many takers for this story. Many newspapers and news agencies also carried the security version initially. The defence ministry spokesperson as well as other army and police officials also stood by this story.
The truth however became known when the post-mortem and judicial inquiry was conducted. The Trincomalee Judicial Medical Officer Dr. Gamini Gunatunga conducted the post-mortem and ruled that all five dead victims had died due to gunshot injuries. Three had died of head injuries while the other two had succumbed to abdomen and chest injuries. The JMO however observed that some of the victims had injuries other than gunshot wounds too. But the fatal ones were from gunshots.
With the JMO report the explanation provided by the security forces was blown to smithereens. The Trincomalee Magistrate Mr. V. Ramakamalan recorded an interim verdict of gunshot injuries and instructed that the bodies be handed over to the families. But there was a hitch. The police at the hospital refused to release the bodies. They insisted that the parents sign letters accepting that their children were Tigers. Otherwise the bodies would not be handed over they threatened.
The parents of the victims however were not prepared to do that. They had lost their innocent children. They were not prepared to sacrifice their reputations as well. They were not prepared to let them be stigmatised as “terrorists” when they were not. They simply refused to budge.
One parent said, “if you don’t give the body I will have a funeral with an empty coffin and a picture of my son but I will never admit to this untruth of calling my son a terrorist. I have lost my son but I won’t lose his honour”. TNA Parliamentarian from the Trincomalee district Thurairatnasingham also arrived at the hospital and exerted pressure. Finally the cops relented and the bodies were released without any letters being signed.
Trincomalee was overwhelmed with sorrow. On the 3rd there was a spontaneous closure of schools and boycott of classes by students. Students of all communities and faiths expressed solidarity with the victims. Realising the public mood was turning bitter the authorities withdrew security personnel from checkposts and sentry points in the Tamil neighbourhoods of Trincomalee. Some enraged people destroyed a few of these deserted places.
On the following day more organized efforts were made by Tamil youths to continue the hartal. However the element of genuine spontaneity prevalent on the first day was lost.
On Wednesday January 4, the bodies of the five victims were lying in their respective homes. They were all born in the same year on different dates.
They had schooled together and now had died on the same day.
Shanmugarajah Gajendran born on September 16 was living on Vidyalayam lane; Lohitharaja Rohan born on April 7 was from Sivan Kovil road; Thangathurai Sivanantha born on April 6 was a resident of Vanniya lane; Yogaraja Hemachandran born on March 4 lived on Customs street; Manoharan Rajihar born on September 22 lived on St. Mary’s road.
Trincomalee town was grief stricken. People flocked to the houses of the victims. Again those condoling with the families were not only Tamils but many Sinhala and Muslim families as well. Everyone knew what had really happened and of the innocence of the victims. The student population turned up in large numbers. The certificates, cups and medals won by the victims were laid out by their coffins.
On Thursday January 5, the funeral was held at the Srikonewara Hindu College generally known as Trinco Hindu. The institution had a grand tradition of over a hundred years. Among its distinguished former Principals was the great Tamil scholar Swamy Vipulananda who went on to become the first Tamil professor of Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu.
The Principal Mr. M. Rajaratnam was distraught by the developments. A special dais was constructed on the day of the final farewell at the College grounds. The bodies were brought in individual processions to the College. Religious leaders of the Hindu, Christian and Islamic faiths addressed the mourners. Student representatives and Principal Rajaratnam also made speeches. They were emotional but eloquent. One thing rankling was the unjust charge that the victims were Tigers. Every speaker refuted the accusation and condemned those responsible. Finally the five bodies were taken in procession through the streets of Trincomalee to the Hindu burial grounds near Ehamparam road. Once again a few checkposts were attacked on the way. Security personnel were pointedly absent. At Madathady some lumpen elements close to the JVP started throwing stones. They were quickly checked by the police providing security.
Trincomalee had not seen such a large funeral procession after the one for former Federal Party MP Rajavarothayam.
After last rites were performed the five friends, inseparable in life and in death, were laid to rest.
Meanwhile the Trincomalee Magistrate began his judicial inquiry. He spoke to the two youths receiving treatment at the ICU. One was Yogarajah Poongulalon and the other Pararajasingham Kokulraj. Though conscious the condition of one had not yet passed the critical stage. Dr. Kasipillai Manoharan and the woman lawyer Subashini Chitravelu also made statements before the Magistrate. Subashini is the sister of Mrs. Thangathurai the mother of Sivananda the Moratuwa undergraduate.
Incidently the Tamil students at Moratuwa University wanted to mourn the death of their fellow student but were fearful because he had been branded a Tiger terrorist. But thanks to the praiseworthy professionalism of Dr. Gamini Gunatunga an ethnic Sinhala person the attempt to frame the victims as Tigers was failing. The security propagandists who said the grenades had exploded accidently revised their position and said that there was a shootout.
Slowly, open minded people were beginning to realise the terrible truth behind the Trincomalee tragedy. Pressure began mounting on the Government with even Amnesty International commenting on it. A TNA delegation made out a strong case in a meeting with Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The President pledged firmly that he would probe the incident and punish the culprits.
On the other hand attempts were being made to suppress the truth too.
The witnesses who testified at the inquiry were subjected to several threatening calls in Sinhala. The families of the victims were also intimidated. They also began suspecting that they were being watched.
The JVP sponsored hartal in Trincomalee included a new demand that no inquiry should be held into the Trincomalee deaths. Interested parties were also pressuring the President to let go or face demoralization among the forces.
Mahinda Rajapaksa faced a difficult situation. He was a man who had championed human rights for decades. As he himself once said, “Mahinda is a man of human rights”. Now he is challenged to prove that his commitment to human rights and justice is non-negotiable. Mahinda also announced after his victory that henceforth he would not belong to any ethnicity or group in the discharge of his duties. The time has now come for Mahinda to prove his mettle.
President Rajapaksa must realise that protecting the riff-raff in the armed forces will not raise its morale. Punishing the guilty, criminal elements would not demoralise the armed forces. On the contrary every self-respecting member of the armed forces would only be happy that these vermin bringing the entire security forces to disrepute are identified and punished. The onus then is on Mahinda the man of human rights to take the correct decision.
The entire truth behind the terrible tragedy in Trincomalee can be uncovered only through a genuine inquiry. For this the two injured youths, families of the victims and other knowldegeable people have to be protected. Moreover the guilty ones should not only be identified but penalised effectively.
This takes moral and political courage but let us hope that the “Weeraketiya Sinhaya” has what it takes. All fair minded Sinhala people who comprise the silent majority in the country will definitely support him.