I never met Gemunu Seneviratne, also known as Gayan, and spoke to him over the phone only a couple of times. The only time I saw him even on television was when he appeared in Britain’s Channel-4 television news. I later came to know that Gayan was among the four youths, with their faces covered by red clothes, who spoke to the news correspondent.
In 1989, I was tasked with the responsibility of gathering information and pictures about disappearances and handing them over to international human rights organizations. At that time, there was no internet or mobile phones, and it was a very difficult task to take handwritten information out of the country without getting caught by the Customs or the law enforcement authorities. Foreign tourists and foreign priests of several Christian sects helped us in that.
It was Gemunu who gathered information, at the risk to his life, and gave me details about persons from whom documents could be obtained. The then UNP regime and the Patriotic People’s Movement were shoulder to shoulder in terrorizing the country, and vicious murders had become a daily occurrence.
Accusations against war heroes
Detailed information sent by Gayan to London was very helpful to inform the international community about the abductions, killings and the torture of detainees by the armed forces. Other than us, MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mangala Samaraweera and Vasudeva Nanayakkara took the human rights violations to the UNHRC.
The last time I phoned Gayan from a phone box in South London, he told me that his safety had been compromised. One disguise he made to cover his identity was to rinse his mouth with liquor and put a pack of cigarettes in his pocket.
When I proposed him that I could help him to leave the country through a western diplomatic mission in Colombo, he refused it pointblank, saying he cannot abandon his colleagues and flee to save his life. He also said it would be a neglect of responsibilities when he had a lot to do.
Confusion in the struggle
Gayan was one of a handful of genuine revolutionaries who gave leadership to youths who waged a struggle amidst a troubled leadership and confused policies. He entered the struggle at the risk of his life with the intention of creating a just society. We do not know who killed him. We do not know who kidnapped him on a dark night. We do not know who kept him in a torture cell and tortured him. But, there are persons amongst us who know answers to all these questions. Those who tortured and killed him still live amongst us. The despotic leaders who ordered his killing still rule the country. We know the leaders who betrayed the struggle then and thrive today.
The fate of the thousands of Gayans who sacrificed their lives for an honest struggle for the liberation of the innocent people remains a mystery for us. The rulers and the ruled both joined in to keep that a mystery and for that betrayal for 25 years.
Resistance in the face of death
Towards the end, Gayan lived the life of a fugitive and those who knew him say he met and talked to our parents when he came to our house and that he was a pleasant person who could win the hearts of the young and the old alike. We came to know how much our father, a UNPer even before Independence, appreciated his struggle until the end as a honest man who made a noble sacrifice without abandoning his comrades even when the battle was lost, when he decided to turn his back to president Premadasa came to see him at his deathbed at hospital. It was Gayan who encouraged my father to show that little resistance.
On a cold day of December, Gayan was grabbed away from us. I cannot tell my son a long life story about Gayan. It is unlikely to be written either. But he knows that he is named after the little hero of his father who remains committed to the liberation in which he believes. One day, he will have to tell his grandsons the story of a little hero who sacrificed everything a few decades ago.
That is the legend of thousands of little heroes like Gayan who became victims of terror, as told by the grandfather!
- Priyath Liyanage
An afterthought to the legend of Gayan….
Gemunu Yasas Seneviratne alias Gayan was killed on a day of the first two weeks of December 1989. A student of Aloysius College, Galle and Vidyalankara University of Kelaniya, he was a student of the Sri Lanka Law College in 1987-88.
Students for Human Rights
It was Gayan who started, with the guidance of the late president’s counsel Nimal Senanayake and the supervision of the slain lawyer Wijedasa Liyanarachchi, the Students for Human Rights (SHR). It was him who took to the international community the information about the abductions, disappearances and murders committed during the 1987-89 terror period. At a time when there were no mobile phones, faxes, internet, facebook, twitter and other technology, the only tool that could be used to communicate the information out of the country was the telephone.
Gemunu and Richard
In that task, the other person who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Gemunu was journalist Richard de Zoysa, who was murdered by the Premadasa regime on 18 February 1990. The two had met mostly at the lobby of Hotel Galadari in Colombo. At the time Richard had been watched by the Army and other intelligence units. He was a close friend of the slain human rights lawyers Kanchana Abeypala, Charitha Lankapura and others. Gemunu got to know Richard through those lawyers and the two joined together to send information to international HR organizations.
Rajapaksa’s double game
At the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa was a lawyer appearing for human rights, and Gemunu was his close friend. Even then, Mahinda tried games of double-crossing, and attempted to use Gemunu to set people against Wijedasa Liyanarachchi. But, Gemunu did not fall for that as he was politically mature, despite being a youth.
His arrest and murder
In December 1989, an Army intelligence spy telephoned Gemunu and told him to meet Richard at the Galadari Hotel lobby at 4.00 pm. As promised, Gemunu went there and waited until 6.00 pm, but Richard did not make an appearance. So, he left the hotel and fell into the trap set by Army intelligence men.
He was first kept at the notorious Yataro Hotel torture cell at Thimbirigasyaya. Just once, he was able to speak to a renowned female HR activist in the country, but no one was able to save him.
Twenty seven years have gone by since his murder. We should enter all that we know about him to the cyberspace in order for the generations of the past and the future to help them understand as to what had happened then.