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Richard de Zoysa was killed 21 years ago, on the night of February 19th 1990. Several poems were written in his memory in the months that followed, and I have collected many of these in ‘An anthology of Sri Lankan poetry in English’ as well as in ‘Richard de Zoysa: his life, some work ….. and a death’.

 Appalling as his death was, it was not an isolated incident, in the culture of violence this country had developed in the decade before his death. This got worse in the two decades that followed. More recently however things have improved, though there will be need of constant vigilance to ensure that violence is not renewed.

In Richard’s memory, and in memory of all those who died unnecessarily at the hands of those who saw violence as the only answer to attitudes they opposed, I present here three poems from the forthcoming collection of English, Sinhala and Tamil poetry that the National Book Trust of India will be publishing later this year.

The first poem was written by Arjuna Parakrama, who was studying at Pittsburgh at the time. It reiterates the belief that the killing was by the death squads that functioned with impunity in those days. There is little doubt now that they believed Richard was involved with the JVP, and took him away and killed him as they had dealt with so many others whom they suspected, with and without reason, of supporting the JVP and its terrorist tactics at that period.

Those government paramilitary squads, which contributed to the massive numbers of missing that Sri Lanka is still trying to account for, ceased to function soon after Richard’s death. I believe this was because of that death, since those in government who felt things were getting out of hand were able to assert themselves, given the uproar in Colombo that – as Arjuna suggests – had not been affected similarly by the deaths of thousands of others who were less well known.  But there has never been a proper inquiry to establish accountability, and there has been no memorial lecture – which may say something about the power of the establishment that Richard challenged. 


They say they didn’t kill him, so maybe Richard didn’t die,

Like thousands less famous that have disappeared before;

The Police inquiry has absolved the Police of any blame

And now the government will surely rush to perpetrate the same.

It’s a mistake it seems, like thousands past, more costly though,

To cover up.

You’ll get eulogies, a funeral for what it’s worth

A memorial lecture next year, that Sena and thousands

Of others won’t . No one will grudge you that

In this grotesque unequal exchange we celebrate as life.

Richard, you are greater here than Richard

Than Richard-Rajini-Sena-a-thousand-names you share,

That’s fitting too, you who had more accomplishments than

Was fair in one person anyway.

So it’s not about agreeing, special circumstances, old school ties,

Sometime friendship, theoretical debate,

Not even your work, for me, though this is harder to dismiss,

Not your so easily-worn brilliance, nor your visibility

That protected you until they turned you into an example

No, this is not about agreeing,

Nor is it to pick at the dry bones of old errors of judgement,

Not even to dissect the politics of personal trust and patronage.

It is then, about a life, your larger-than-life life, a thousand

Lives, LIFE: they chose yours to mutilate as a warning to the rest,

And that must be the strangest of compliments;

They are sick, desperate, berserk with self-righteous hate,

But they cannot afford to mistake their enemies for their friends.

So, this is not about agreeing.

We do different things differently, there are many ways to care

About what one does: what you did no one did better, Richard.

It is about life, then, and work ahead, and going back for me.

And death, your death; more than a thousand deaths.

What death?

Arjuna referred in his poem to Rajani Thiranagama who had died one year earlier. The note to the translation by Lakshmi Holmstrom of Cheran’s poem says that ‘Rajani Thiranagama, a lecturer at Jaffna University, was shot dead in 1989 by the LTTE’. This was the time at which they were seeking to establish themselves as the sole representatives of the Tamils, and an independent voice like Rajani’s had to be suppressed.

She was the leading light initially of the University Teachers for Human Rights of Jaffna University, a group that had no illusions about the LTTE and no fears about criticizing them, even while fighting for the rights of Tamils and attacking government action and inaction that they thought culpable. In recent years their principal spokesman was I believe Rajan Hoole, and I was sorry to read recently what seemed to be his obituary. I hope I was wrong, because, even though I did not agree with all they said, I believe their integrity and independence were beyond question. Getting rid of Rajani and driving the rest away made life much easier for the Tigers, in building up a totalitarian system. But, as Cheran notes, Rajani’s hands will continue to rise higher and higher, and I hope that some at least of her hopes will be fulfilled in the rebuilding of Jaffna now.


Now, in a little while

the sun will set,

darkness will fall.

The darkness that is yet to come

will not be as before

but the very devil—

a night that has murdered the moon

and set fire to the stars;

an ash-smeared night.

You hurried on your way

hoping to light a small hand-lamp

or at least a candle

before such a night could fall.


today they were in great haste

arriving from the south—

Death’s messengers

with their rifles

and their five bullets.

As you fell

the sun’s last rays

threw upon the wall

your shadow:

your waving hands rising


and higher

beyond the horizon.

Finally, a poem by Buddhadasa Galappathy provides another perspective on the violence in the south of the country at that period. Though it could be argued that the government of that time had driven the JVP to violence by proscribing it unfairly, the JVP had embraced the opportunity offered to them, and moved swiftly and effectively to tactics of violence and terror. It is easy now to forget how they would insist on households remaining in darkness, to express opposition to government, and kill anyone who disobeyed. Within a few months, in many parts of the country, their writ ran supreme, and they nearly succeeded in bringing the country to a halt.

The poem is taken from a collection entitled ‘The Night is quiet’, and was translated by Malini Govinnage. It expresses very simply the fate that befell many, for reasons that had nothing to do with the political tyrannies that overwhelmed the country on different sides and in different ways during that ghastly period.  

The stealing of a jeweled lamp

Comrades, I need an answer

As to why you killed my husband

When he broke your law, the Law of Darkness

When you forbade the lighting of lamps

To make your point

He is not guilty

He obeyed your law

It was me

Who made him break it

For the offence

Of lighting a lamp

You have put out the lamp

That brought light to my household

It was not he who wanted it lit

But I, to quieten my little son

Who feared the darkness


Asked him to light the lamp

Where is your justice?

Why could you not find out

The reason he broke your law

Before you put out the lamp of my life?


Tr. Malini Govinnage

Sunday Observer 20 February 2011 http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/02/20/mon07.asp