Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Saffron Children

And the Long Shadow of a Crime

Massacre of child monks: Arathalawa, 35 years on

By Sarita Gunaratna

Dinesh Jayakody

And the Long Shadow of a Crime

Massacre of child monks: Arathalawa, 35 years on

By Sarita Gunaratna

Dinesh Jayakody

The robes worn by the Aranthalawa Massacre victims at the time of the attack. Image courtesy of Sri Lanka Armed Forces

In memory of:

Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero, 59

Ven. Paragahakale Vijithananda Thero, 24

Ven. Kalugala Ananda Saagara Thero, 19

Ven. Wavinne Saddhawansa Thero, 19

Ven. Kehelpotha Sugathapala Thero, 18

Ven. Thalgamuwe Uparathana Thero, 18

Ven. Wavinne Saddhatissa Thero, 18

Ven. Wavinne Gunawansa Thero, 17

Ven. Wavinne Aththadassi Thero, 17

Ven. Mahiyanganaye Gunasoma Thero, 17

Ven. Kurupanawela Kolitha Thero, 17

Ven. Manthrithenne Dhammasiddhi Thero, 16

Ven. Komariye Wimalajoti Thero, 16

Ven. Handungamuwe Ariyawansha Thero, 15

Ven. Dambarawe Mahinda Thero, 15

Ven. Kotawehere Wimalabuddhi Thero, 14

Ven. Kurunagale Pan͂n͂ananda Thero, 14

Ven. Karupanawela Dharmapala Thero, 13

Ven. Handungamuwe Buddharakkitha Thero, 13

Ven. Rajagaltenne Pranaji Thero, 13

Ven. Ambagahawellle Sarana Thero, 12

Ven. Dewalahinda Dhammarakkitha Thero, 12

Ven. Mahiyanganaye Vajirabuddhi Thero, 12

Ven. Mahiyanganaye Sumana Thero, 12

Ven. Keripahe Sobhitha Thero, 12

Ven. Wavinne Vijitha Thero, 11

Ven. Mahiyanganaye Ananda Thero, 11

Ven. Mahiyanganaye Wipulasara Thero, 11

Ven. Ragala Ananda Thero, 11

Ven. Devalahinda Anomadassi Thero, 10

Ven. Kalugala Palitha Thero, 9

Mr. G. G. Samarapala

Mr.  J. P Jinadasa

Mr. V. Jayawardene

The following account was compiled using the interviews with survivors, eye witnesses, first responders, family members of victims and others with direct involvement or knowledge of this event, as well as the sworn statements and affidavits obtained by the Sri Lanka Armed Forces and police. All other statements were corroborated by accredited sources, which are cited herein or obtained from experts in the area to which the statement pertains, who are listed in the Acknowledgements section.

The day after the Massacre, the following news article appeared in the local daily newspaper, Daily News:

Tigers Kill 29 Bhikkus Near Aranthalawa

The separatist terrorists yesterday, massacred 32 people, including 29 Bhikkus traveling from the Ampara district to an upasampada ceremony in Kandy, the government said.

National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali told the Daily News that 32 persons including the Bhikkus, had been shot dead and several Bhikkus and five others wounded in the brutal attack.

The attackers have been identified as LTTE leaders from Batticoloa.” The Minister said. ”This is the worst attack on any religious community since the terrorist violence began, which has cost over six thousand lives in the past four years.”

The shooting took place near Aranthalawa, the scene of previous terrorist massacres, in the eastern Ampara district.

A later police report placed the death toll at 31 Bhikkus and three lay men killed…

Daily News, June 3rd, 1987

Among the crucial details left out of the news report was that 29 of the 31 Buddhist monks killed were child monks and that most of the victims had been attacked with swords, machetes and knives prior to their deaths.

Part 1: The Land of a Thousand Sunrises

The Eastern Province, with its long stretch of coastland comprises three districts: Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. It borders five provinces on the landside and the Bay of Bengal on the seaside. The Ampara District, where the slain monks lived, is located in the dry zone and is known as the granary or the “rice bowl” of Sri Lanka. It has an arid difficult climate, but produces a large share of the country’s rice – the nation’s staple. The Senanayaka Samudraya, an enormous reservoir developed as part of the Gal Oya Development Project in the 1950s supplies the area with captured rainwater and water collected from the wet zone.

Ampara has historic ties to Theravada Buddhism and is sacred to the Buddhists of Sri Lanka. It is flanked by two important archeological sites, the ancient Mahiyangana stupa dating back to the 2nd Century BCE and the Deeghawapi stupa from the 3rd Century BCE. Some believe that these structures mark the Buddha’s visits to those areas more than 2,500 years ago. More recently during the colonial era (1505-1948), much of the East was part of the sovereign territory of the Kandy Kingdom under the protection of the Sinhalese kings. Among the archeological ruins of wonder in this area are sites such as Pulukunava, hiding within its forested hills the ruins of hundreds of ancient Buddhist structures, drip-ledge cave dwellings for meditating monks and pre-Christian inscriptions that date back to the 3rd Century BCE.

The Portuguese (1505-1658), Dutch (1658-1796) and British (1796-1948) colonizers who occupied much the island from 1505 until independence in 1948, also occupied parts of the Eastern Province from time to time. In 1602, When the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) wanted to establish cordial relations with the King of Kandy and conspire against the Portuguese who were then in control of the Western seaboard and lowlands, it landed in Batticaloa and traveled to Kandy to meet with the King, unhindered by the Portuguese. At that point, almost a century into colonial rule, the North and East remained under the Sinhalese Kingdom of Kandy. This is expressed in a letter written in 1609 by Prince Mauritius de Nassau of the Netherlands addressed to the King of Kandy, at the time King Wimala Dharma Suriya, which states “The illustrious and high born Emperor of Ceylon, King of Candia, Trinquenemale, Jaffnapatan, SeteCorlas, Mannar, Chilau, Cota, Batecalo and PunteGale,..” However, by the time Heer Adam Westerwold, Commander in Chief of the Dutch Fleet based in India arrived on the East Coast in 1638, parts of the East had fallen to the Portuguese. Together with an army from Kandy lead by King Rajasingha II, Westerwold captured the Portuguese fort in Batticaloa. The Dutch Admiral on behalf of the Prince of Orange then entered into a contract with King Rajasingha II to capture and return the lands that had previously belonged to the Kandy Kingdom. The Dutch captured Trincomalee in 1639 and handed it over to the King in the following year. However, Batticaloa was not returned to the King, leading to a souring of relations between the King and the Dutch. Ampara remained an outpost of the Kandy Kingdom until the British period.

In the pre-Colonial past, under the Sinhalese kings, civilization had flourished in the dry zone through a highly engineered reservoir-based irrigation network and the wet zones had been avoided. These kings decreed that the wet zones of the island where thick jungles grew should be left untouched. Ancient irrigation systems collected water from the wet zone and distributed it throughout the dry zone where populations were sustained and the agriculture supported. Colonization upended the harmonious ecological balance between the wet and dry zones. The colonizers immediately settled into and cultivated within the wet zone and destroyed up to 75% of the island’s forest reserves and polluted the water sources. There they established the biggest port cities and economic hubs which drew the largest populations and neglected the dry zones completely. 

For the first post-Colonial Prime Minister of an Independent Sri Lanka, D. S. Senanayake, the return of (a bulk of) the native population back to the neglected dry zones, the (re)development of an irrigated agricultural sector and the restoration of the ancient reservoir and irrigation network that existed under the Sinhalese kings was an important part of national policy.

The Gal Oya (river) Development Project was such an important part of this policy, that it was proposed just after Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, started in 1951 and completed in 1960. The Gal Oya Development Project, backed by the Americans (who were not part of Sri Lanka’s colonial history) was seen as a major opportunity for Sri Lankans, particularly the Sinhalese, to return to their pre-Colonial agrarian roots; to regain self-sufficiency; and to restore the culture, heritage, identity and dignity that had been lost.  

The re-settlement program was also intended to correct a grave injustice done to the Sinhalese population by the British Colonizers: in 1848 as punishment for the Kandy Revolt, the British forcibly seized much of the highly fertile hillside land belonging to the Sinhalese farmers under the “Waste Lands Ordinance” which they then immediately cleared and cultivated for tea and coffee production for the Crown. This led to the abject poverty of a large number of previously self-sufficient Sinhalese farmers. The Gal Oya Project was also intended to remedy this injustice by returning unoccupied land (cleared jungle areas) to these displaced farmers to resume cultivation.[4] As part of D. S. Senanayake’s national policy, the re-settlement activities of the 1950s saw some migration of displaced Sinhalese farmers to the East as well as the expansion of existing Tamil and Muslim settlements in these parts.[5] Contrary to the rhetoric of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam) who would wage a war in 1983 to claim this land as part of a Tamil mono-ethnic homeland, no Tamils were displaced during these government resettlement activities which were conducted in cleared jungle areas where no populations existed.[6]

In Sri Lanka the national population breakdown is 75% Sinhalese, 11% Sri Lankan Tamil, 9% Muslim, 4% Indian Tamil and 1% Other[7]. In the Eastern Province, the population distribution is 42% Tamil, 32% Muslim, 25% Sinhalese and 1% Other, making it unique in that it does not have an obvious ethnic majority unlike in the other eight provinces. The common characteristic of this population is that the people of the East are generally poorer than the rest of the country and is largely rural. Rice and fish are the main products from this region with rice mainly being produced by Sinhalese rice paddy farmers and the fishing industry mainly comprising Tamil fishermen.

Part 2: The Village and the Temple

In 1959, 12 years after the last Colonizers had left, and almost three decades before our story begins, a 27-year-old Venerable Hegoda Sri Indasara Thero moved to Ampara as part of the Gal Oya Development Project. Like many Sri Lankans after independence, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Thero was swept up by a groundswell of post-Colonial nationalism and hope. The Gal Oya Development Project was part and parcel of this promise.

Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Thero moved East with the wave of re-settlement activity associated with the Gal Oya Project and began teaching the Dhamma to the rural folk he encountered living in the area. With no temple to reside in, he moved into a cave dwelling until he established himself in the community. Impressed by his sermons and his commitment to the community, the residents appealed to local officials who gifted him a piece of land next to the Ampara General Hospital (Ampara Base Hospital at the time). There he established a small community temple, which consisted of a few modest structures of thatch and mud and a small Buddha image house. Born and ordained in Galle, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Thero who came from a prominent and well-respected Southern family, was a bit of a curiosity in the area. For a bright young university-educated monk, from an elite family, with his choice of well-established and comfortable temples throughout the southern and western provinces available to him, to move to the newly developing region of the East was beyond unusual. At the time, the East was viewed as an area of extreme hardship due to its wilderness and arid conditions. When Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Thero’s family learned that he wanted to settle in the East and establish a temple there, they decried the wilderness and the “mosquitoes the size of crows,” the lack of water and all the other hardships he would endure. But Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Thero believed in the promise of the Gal Oya Project. He asserted that the Sinhalese Buddhist communities had long shared a strong bond with their community temples. It was an ancient symbiotic relationship. If this post-colonial project were to be successful, he declared that these new agrarian settlements needed community temples to anchor them, or people simply would not stay.

Well before the war erupted, the Eastern Province was an unforgiving land. Once he settled in Ampara, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Thero was deeply moved by the helplessly poor rural folk he encountered and felt that his support was needed there more than anywhere else in the country. Once established in his mainstay, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Thero with his well-known energy and determination set about establishing many small vihares (Buddhist monasteries) to support the farming settlements throughout the district. Despite the historical roots to Buddhism in this area, many of the existing temples had gone to ruin during the colonial era or gotten enveloped by wilderness. His strategy was a simple one: set up a modest thatch and mud structure on a piece of gifted land and appoint a monk to reside there. If the relationship between the settlement and this temple grew, both the village and temple would become established.

The relationship between the Ampara residents and Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Thero’s temple grew strong quickly. In 1966, he established there the earliest pirivena (school for Buddhist monks) in the district. It was a Vidyalankara pirivena that would follow the pirivena education stream of the illustrious Vidyalankara Pirivena in Kelaniya, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Thero’s alma mater and one of the most important pirivenas in the country. Founded in 1875 during the height of the colonial era, the Vidyalankara Pirivena in Kelaniya had survived attrition to become one of the leading monastic education centers in Sri Lanka and is credited as heralding the national movement towards independence. Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike’s government granted this pirivena university status in 1959.

Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Thero named his new school Sri Vidyananda Pirivena. It was a place to which he would spend the next few years recruiting many promising boys with academic talents and scooping up those who at a young age felt the urge to join the Order of the Bhikkus.

The community rallied and supported this ambitious project and the new student monks who arrived there. With the modest resources they had, they supplied the pirivena monks with meals and staples. According to Walpita Gamage Sirisena, a long-time dayakaya (lay supporter) of the temple since moving to Ampara in 1964, the residents of the area took a keen interest in the well-being of the Head Monk, the teachers and all the student monks. When the pirivena suddenly grew from a few students to almost 70 children and youth in the early 1980s, the villagers organized the households to offer alms in groups.

In the early 1980s in a small farming village named Wavinna in the hilly outskirts of Kandy, a 7-year-old boy named Wasantha wanted to become a Buddhist monk and asked his parents about it. His father was vehemently opposed to it, but his mother was somewhat supportive. For the time being, Wasantha dropped the idea. 

It is around the same time that Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero started to think about becoming a monk. He was 15 years old at the time and living in Kandy. Every day, he would observe the small monks at the little village temple go about their day. Their serene life greatly appealed to him. Born second of four children into a poor but stable family, Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero did not get much resistance from his parents when he talked to them about it. Learning of his interest, a young monk named Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Thero introduced him to his mentor Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero who was by now the Chief Incumbent of the Eastern Province. (With this elevated status, the title ‘Nayaka’ – Leader – was added to his name.) In 1983, Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero along with three others were ordained by Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero.

The newly ordained monks arrived in Ampara and settled down at the Sri Vidyananda Pirivena. Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero remembered that 1983 was a particularly difficult year for the people in the East. The war broke out between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, and the East became part of the war theater. Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero led by example during this time, he recalled. To the community, “he was like a lion.” Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero said. But to the child monks in the pirivena, “…he was like a father. He worked very hard to make the lives of the children an enlightened one and took a keen interest in their education.”

One day in 1984 when Wasantha was eight years old, he saw an announcement that caught his attention. It was about a planned celebration for then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa’s upcoming 60th birthday jubilee. “They were looking for 60 children to join the Order of the Bhikkus.” Wasantha said. He asked his parents again for permission to become a Buddhist monk and asked to be added to the group that would be ordained on the Prime Minister’s birthday.

D.M Siriyawathi, a resident of Wavinna, remembered the moment that her 13-year-old son asked her for permission to become a Buddhist monk. He had come home excited about an announcement he had heard about a search for 60 children to join the Order on Prime Minister Premadasa’s birthday, she said. The family agreed to let him join, she said, but they were a poor farming family with five children to support. Siriyawathi remembered that the family sold their Ayurvedic illuk plants to illuk cutters to raise the bus fare that the family needed to take their son to the ordination ceremony, which was to be held in Anuradhapura.

On June 23, 1984 in a large ceremony in front of the pristine white Ruwanwelisaya stupa in the heart of the North Central province, where the largest collection of Buddha’s relics are believed to be preserved, 60 boys became Samaneras (Buddhist monk in training). Their ordaining monk was Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero. As part of the ordination ceremony, their heads were shaved and for the first time, they put on the bright saffron robes that signaled their abandonment of lay life. The robes themselves are symbolic of this commitment. Made of rags stitched together in a subtle pattern reminiscent of rice paddy fields, these robes have been carefully designed more than 2,500 years ago to uninvite envy – so lacking in any attractive features that not even a thief would want to steal them.

A student monk is known as a Samanera candidate before his ordination ceremony. A Samanera candidate can be as young as five years old. As part of the ceremony, he has to have his head hair and beard shaved. In the case of the child monks, there were no beards to shave. As a blade grazes their scalps and chunks of black hair are shaved off, they begin their journey towards Enlightenment by reflecting on the first five of the 32 parts of the body, and repeat them over and over again.

Kesa, loma, nakha, danta taco…” (“Head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin…”)

With the shaving ritual, the candidate takes the first step of ridding himself of all material attachments or causes for envy, starting with one’s head of hair. When the head shaving ritual is over, what remains is a smooth bald head, and the candidate is ushered to the next step of the ritual: to bathe and discard his lay clothes and wear new white ones. When he emerges from completing this step, he is barely recognizable to his family in attendance.     

When instructed to do so, he stands before the senior monks and places his palms together on the summit of his head and lowers himself down on his knees. He then leans forward and touches his head on the ground between his two palms which are now spread on either side of his head on the floor. In this way, he worships the senior monks with reverence and respectfully requests his ordination from the senior-most monk present, his Upadhyaya Bhikkhu (Preceptor Monk) with the following supplication,

Okasa! Ahan Bhante! Pabbajjan yacami. (“Permit me, Venerable Sir!  I request the ‘going forth’)

Dutiyampi, ahan bhante! Pabbajjan yacami. (A second time, Venerable Sir, I request the ‘going forth’)

Tatiyampi, ahan bhante! Pabbajjan yacami.” (A third time, Venerable Sir, I request the ‘going forth’.”)

He then hands the Upadhyaya monk his set of bright new saffron robes with a long, narrow band of cloth of the same color. Worshiping him again, he once again requests the ‘going forth’:

Sabba dukkha nissarana nibbana sachikaranatthaya imam kasavam gahetva pabbajetha man bhante anukampamupadhaya.”            

(“May you take this set of robes and with compassion, Venerable Sir, ordain me for the purpose of attaining nibbana (the state of freedom) devoid of all dukkha (suffering)”

Next, the Upaddhyaya Bhikkhu ties the robes together with the long band of cloth and places the bundle in the open palms of the candidate. The other end of the band of cloth is around the candidate’s neck. Using the prompts provided to him, the candidate makes the following declaration:

Patisankha yoniso civaram patisevami yavadeva sitassa patighataya unhassa patighataya dhamsamakasavatatapasirimsapasamphassanam patighataya yavadeva hirikopina paticchadanattham.”

(“I mindfully reflect on how the robe is meant to be used only to ward off the cold, to ward off the heat, gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, the bite of reptiles and to prevent the unseemly exposure of parts of the body.”)

But those robes would not be able to ward off the strikes of a sword or the bullets from a machine gun.  Three years later, those child monks would face one of the most horrific crimes committed against humanity. From under the seat of a bus, an 11-year-old Ven. Wavinne Sirinanda Thero (Wasantha) would watch helplessly as his beloved Head Monk, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero, is killed as he tried to protect the child monks in his care, as a sword struck down and split open the skull of one child monk and the shots from a machine gun tore apart the stomach of another. He would watch as person after person fell to the ground and blood flowed like a river down the aisle. Of the 60 child monks ordained that day, 30 would be fated to die three years later, their young lives extinguished violently, and the others would spend the rest of their lives unable to escape the shadow of a crime that would define them.   

Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero was the ordaining monk of the children and youth on the evening of June 23, 1984. Against the majestic backdrop of Ruwanwelisaya, 60 children made a commitment most adults would struggle to understand. They gave up their parents and siblings, their homes, their worldly possessions (few as they may have been) and the villages that had been their world up to this point, to enter the austere world of Buddhist monks. They committed to reside at a temple far away from their loved ones. After their ordination ceremony, the Samaneras were ushered into a chartered bus and were taken that very night to the Sri Vidyananda Pirivena in Ampara.

With the arrival of the new monks in training, Sri Vidyananda Pirivena suddenly grew tenfold. The structures and facilities were still rudimentary: built up with materials gifted or collected and by the labor of volunteer construction workers and craftsmen in the area. Classes were conducted in a thatch and mud hall and a similar separate building functioned as the monks’ avasa (sleeping quarters).  Despite the simplicity of the structures, the pirivena was fast growing into a bustling and vibrant campus of activity with teachers visiting from all over and ambitious educational goals set for the students. The pirivena itself had grown in importance to the community which organized themselves to try and adjust quickly to its growth spurt. Despite the efforts of the adults around them, the life that the child monks entered here was a difficult one. The surrounding villagers were too poor to provide daily danés (alms) to all the students residing there, so the monks had to go on pinnapathé (walking for alms) to obtain a lot of their meals or prepare meals for themselves with the few supplies they had. These meals were meager, often consisting of rice, lentils and coconut sambol. Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero who was also ordained in the same ceremony of 60 at the age of 13, recalled that Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero would partake in these lean meals with the children. “If we were eating coconut sambol and rice, that was what he ate. He did not privately enjoy the little bit of special danés given to the temple, while we ate something else. He ate only what we ate.”  

“He was never motivated by money or worldly things.” Recalled W.G. Sirisena, a longtime dayakaya of the temple.

Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero also remembered the Nayaka Thero’s lessons on generosity during a time when the monks themselves had so little. On some days, poor people from a nearby Tamil village would arrive, children and all, at the time of the monks’ mid-day dané. Whenever Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero saw them at the temple, he instructed those in the kitchen to prepare parcels of food for these families, even though the monks themselves had barely enough to eat. “He never discriminated against anyone based on whether they were Sinhalese, Muslims or Tamils. He treated everyone with respect and kindness,” he said. Some in the community believe that his cordial relationship with the Eastern Tamil population perhaps rankled the leaders of the LTTE.

Despite the basic nature of the facilities and the daily hardships they faced, the almost 70 trainee monks of various ages thrived at the institution. They were vaguely aware of the war raging around them, even getting used to the constant sound of sirens as ambulances raced back and forth from the Ampara Base Hospital, day and night. Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero who was well-educated himself, stressed the importance of education and social service to his students. He kept distractions out of the temple and laid out an ambitious goal for them. He wanted his students to be well-educated and proficient in all three languages of Sri Lanka – Sinhala, Tamil and English, as well as in Hindi to able to communicate with all the communities on the island and those in India. He saw his pirivena students, raised in wartime, as future ambassadors of Theravada Buddhism, traveling to far flung communities and spreading a message of peace and unity. He found special instructors to teach the students the different languages, including native Tamil language teachers, who risking their own lives with the LTTE came to the pirivena to teach the little monks. By then pirivena educations had become standardized across the country and came under the supervision of the Ministry of Education: Pirivena Branch’s Provincial and Zonal Educational Offices. Like the standard Ordinary Level Exams (O/Ls) and Advanced Level Exams (A/Ls), the Pirivena O/Ls and A/Ls were administered by the Education Ministry in an island-wide examination every year. Therefore, in addition to their special language classes, the students were taught subjects such as Pali, Sanskrit, Buddhist Studies, History, Health Science, Mathematics, Geography and Science. They also studied the Tripitaka, which comprise the complete discourses of the Buddha, and its commentaries. Students who showed aptitude and a desire were encouraged to continue their educations at universities, where they could obtain degrees in areas that appealed to them such as Buddhist Studies (e.g. Tripitaka analysis) or Pali with many of its bright young students opting to attend the University of Kelaniya, formerly known as the Vidyalankara Pirivena, their own small pirivena’s namesake.

Pirivenas in Sri Lanka date back to King Devanampiyatissa (247 BCE – 207 BCE) of the Anuradhapura period when he presented 500 Island-born monks to Arahat Mahinda, who were able to recite the Vinaya Pitaka which consists of five hefty volumes. In addition to being places for training and educating Buddhist monks, they can also be places where scholarly Buddhist discourse takes place. The Mahavamsa, the epic poem chronicling Sri Lanka’s ancient history dating back to the 5th Century BCE was produced in such an institution known as Mahavihara during the Anuradhapura period. So important were the pirivenas to Buddhist society and culture, that they were protected by the Sinhalese kings and would change locations along with their kingdoms during periods of invasion from South India. Later, many were targeted and destroyed by the Portuguese in an effort to stamp out Buddhism on the island. 

Under Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero’s leadership, life at the Sri Vidyananda Pirivena was structured, disciplined and serene. Wasantha (Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero at the time) recalled that the child monks were pleasant, playful and friendly with each other. The educators there were strict about following the Buddhist doctrine and vinaya (Buddhist monastic rules), which included creating a collaborative environment and discouraging conflict. It was a place where students were expected to study hard and do well in examinations. Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero remembered adjusting easily to pirivena life partaking happily in the prescribed Buddhist routines and rituals in the morning and taking pirivena classes in the afternoons.

The days began at 5:00am, with the student monks partaking in their daily ablutions, after which they would line up at the Bo maluwa (Bo Tree enclosure) to take their daily vows. Afterward they would partake in the morning dané, which almost always consisted of a bowl of humble kola kanda (traditional herbal congee) and attend to the prescribed mindful activities of the morning such as collecting fallen leaves and tidying up the premises. They would prepare meals and partake in their next dané, the last meal of the day, before 11:30am. In the afternoon they would attend pirivena classes together in the hall. In the nights they returned to their Bo maluwa to chant pirith (seeking protection and blessings) before going to sleep at the end of the day – side by side.

Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero who was a gifted student remembered that some classes, such as the special English classes that he took, would go late. “At 10 at night, we were still learning.” He said. An energetic and a well-respected student, Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero had many friends and was seen by his teachers as a student monk with a bright future ahead of him.

During these years, Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero, with his easygoing demeanor and hailing from a large family, formed close friendships with the other young monks in residence. He recalled that the child monks did everything together. Among the close friends he remembered with affection were “Buddhasara, Buddharakkitha, Wimalajoti, Sarana, Saddhananda, Vijitha, Gunawansa, Vijithananda…” He said before trailing off.  They were “clever… bright students.”

Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero who by now was overseeing almost 40 temples in the Eastern Province, left the education to other senior teaching monks and came to the pirivena a few times a week to check in on the students and the school. He took a keen interest in everyone’s well-being and if anyone was in need or facilities were lacking, he attended to any short-comings immediately.

“To this day, I have a great respect and love for our Nayaka Thero.” Said Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero.

“He was like our father.” Remembered Wasantha.

A sense of the new war crept into temple life. The LTTE was by now attacking Sinhalese and Muslim civilians in the North, Eastern and North Central provinces with alarming regularity, and the child monks at the temple heard about these events from time to time.

At the time, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero took several trips to Colombo to meet with the country’s political leaders to make them aware of the extent of the LTTE attacks and “harassment” of the Buddhist population in the East. He implored the leaders to pay attention to these areas and to provide them with adequate military protection. However, the country’s leaders, who were by then combatting a Sinhalese communist uprising in the south in addition to the armed Tamil insurrection in the north, appear to have ignored his pleas. Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero saw that the remote, rural populations of the East were of little importance to a political elite concentrated in the vastly more affluent and urban Western Province increasingly preoccupied with their own political survival. Therefore, he stepped up as the region’s protector forming close deep ties with the villagers of the Eastern Province irrespective of their ethnic or religious backgrounds. Using his van, two dayakayas who worked as his drivers and a megaphone, he drove up and down the East, advising people on how to keep themselves safe from LTTE attacks.

“The LTTE attacks villages at night when you are sleeping. Don’t sleep in your homes!” He instructed through his megaphone. Many heeded his advice. 

When an entire Sinhalese village in the adjacent Batticaloa District in an area known as Aranthalawa was “cut” by the LTTE on February 07, 1987, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero immediately rushed there to assist the victims and perform the last rites of those who were killed. Once at the site of the massacre he tussled with the government Security Forces stationed there, who had cordoned off the village. “What is the point of protecting the village now, after they are all dead!” He is said to have shouted in frustration. Defying the orders of the armed police and military on guard who had been instructed not to let anyone into the village, he pushed his way through to see for himself what had taken place. He then met with the bereaved – many of whom had just witnessed the violent deaths of their loved ones, and performed the proper last rites for them.  Funerals are the only rite of passage that Theravada Buddhist monks are involved in, and his actions, though symbolic, were immensely important to the consolation and morale of the survivors after their loved ones had been violently killed often in front of them and their communities had been wiped out.

Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero recalled how anxious the child monks became when the Head Monk got late returning from visiting the Aranthalawa Village. “When he didn’t come back by nightfall, we went and sat in a row on top of the low rock boundary wall by the road and waited for him.” He said.

By mid 1987, the Sri Vidyananda Pirivena was the leading training institute for Buddhist monks in the Eastern Province. Under the watchful eye of Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero, the child monks devoted themselves to temple activities and their studies. At the time leading up to the massacre, some were busy studying for their O/Level examinations. The Head Monk expected good results from his students and the child monks were eager to meet his high expectations of them.

Part 3: In the Days Before the Massacre

Six months before the Aranthalawa Massacre, in January of 1987, Vellapillai Prabhakaran one of LTTE’s leaders at the time, arrived in Jaffna after spending several years in South India. In addition to fighting the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE started intense battles with other Tamil political organizations and Tamil militant groups to gain supremacy. At the time, Sathasivam Krishnakumar who went by the nom de geurre Kittu was the LTTE’s Jaffna commander. Prabhakaran’s arrival in Jaffna signaled that Kittu’s reign at the helm of the LTTE was coming to an end. While Kittu and the Sri Lankan government had negotiated a deal to transfer control of parts of the Eastern Province and Northern Province to the LTTE, Prabhakaran, who was an absolutist was uninterested in a negotiated political settlement. In defiance of both parties, he doubled down on his own strategy: to drive out the Sinhalese and Muslim populations from the Northern, North Central and Eastern Provinces and to wipe out all traces of their historical ties to these lands. In addition to the ethnic cleansing campaigns, which became known as “village cuttings” colloquially, the LTTE also began a campaign to destroy historical and archeological sites and monuments belonging to the Buddhists and Muslims by driving bulldozers through them. This campaign became known locally as “dozering”.

After Prabhakaran’s return from South India in 1987, the war in Sri Lanka entered a particularly bloody phase with the LTTE embarking on a massive killing spree of civilians in addition to its offensives against the military. The list of attacks on civilians by the LTTE below comprise only the atrocities that were committed in the span of six months from January to June of 1987 leading up to the Aranthalawa Massacre:

  • On February 05, LTTE cadres massacred nine villagers of Colony 18, a chena cultivation and subsistence farming community, 25 miles from Ampara. The cadres arrived by night, surrounded the colony, herded the residents, all unarmed civilians and forced them into a single house where they were mowed down with machine gunfire. Four women, two men and three small children were killed while 14 others were injured.
  • On the same night, another group of LTTE cadres attempted to attack the nearby town of Manthottam, but the attack was repelled by the town’s Home Guards.
  • On February 07, the LTTE surrounded and attacked with swords, machetes and guns, the Aranthalawa Village in the Batticaloa district wiping out almost the entire village killing 28 women, children and men.
  • On March 24, the LTTE cadres massacred an additional 25 Sinhalese villagers in the Serunewa Village again in the East. Here the cadres attacked at pre-dawn when the villagers were in their homes asleep and killed at least 12 women, five children and eight men. Then they set fire to all the houses in the village so that the survivors had nothing left to return to.
  • On March 30, the LTTE massacred 18 Tamil prisoners held by them. They were members of EPRLF, another Tamil militant group that LTTE was also fighting with. An EPRLF member who survived the event stated, “Several of us prisoners were kept in a room at the LTTE’s Brown Road Camp. In the evening Aruna (LTTE’s former Batticaloa leader) burst into the room and opened fire at us with an automatic weapon. Three of us managed to escape through another door and get away. Eighteen were killed during that incident.”
  • On April 04, the LTTE killed 65 Tamil people in Jaffna, believed to be their rivals belonging to two opposing Tamil parties. The massacre was in apparent retaliation against an attempt on the life of Kittu.

At this time, a senior Sri Lankan Government Minister and prominent Tamil politician, Savumiamoorthy Thondaman brokered a cease-fire to be observed over the upcoming traditional Sinhala-Tamil New Year.  This ceasefire was proposed by the LTTE. The Sri Lankan government though wary, accepted the proposal. Both the government and the LTTE agreed to suspend all operations from April 11 to 19 in observance of the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. However,

  • On April 17, just days after the Sinhalese and Tamils finished celebrating the New Year and on the day that the Christians were celebrating Good Friday, the LTTE carried out a massive attack on civilians in the East. This time they stopped two buses heading to Trincomalee and one bus heading out of Trincomalee along the Habarana – Trincomalee road. Most of the passengers in the buses were Sinhalese families returning home after celebrating the New Year. The cadres intercepted the buses and forced the passengers to line up along the side of the road. Then they shot and killed 126 women, children and men including a two-month-old baby being held by his mother to her breast. While the victims were mostly Sinhalese, the massacre included members of all ethnic groups.
  • The attack became known as the Kittuluttuwa massacre. 
  • Witihn three days, the LTTE again killed civilians again in the East. This time 15 villagers at Jayanthipura in the Trincomalee district. The victims were five men, five women, four young girls and one small boy. It was yet another pre-dawn attack on a sleeping farming village. On the same day, the LTTE also attacked a police station in the area causing additional mayhem. 
  • Meanwhile in Colombo, on April 21, the LTTE killed roughly 150 civilians by car bomb at the bustling Pettah Bus Station, Sri Lanka’s central transportation hub equivalent to New York City’s Grand Central Station. In Addition to the dead, more than 200 people were injured in this attack. A week later, the authorities were still trying to identify approximately 23 bodies. The carnage in Pettah was described by The Guardian in the following way “Near what seemed to be the point of the explosion, heaps of mangled bodies lay on the ground. Many were charred and naked, their clothes, apparently burnt or blasted off. One man was making a futile attempt to beat out the flames on a burning corpse with a piece of plywood. The headless body of a naked child lay near a twisted pile of cars and burning rickshaws.

By mid-1987, the LTTE’s large-scale attacks on civilians were drawing condemnation from the world with previously sympathetic governments shifting their support to the Sri Lankan government.

The war had started on a provocation after years of simmering tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. On July 23, 1983 the LTTE ambushed and killed 13 soldiers stationed near Jaffna and sparked a horrific week-long Sinhalese-led pogrom against the country’s Tamils that started in Colombo and spread through the nation. Working off of lists, the highly organized rioters beat up, tortured and killed Tamil civilians, looted their homes and burned down Tamil-owned businesses. While many average Sinhalese people stepped up to protect their Tamil friends and neighbors by hiding them in their own homes or defending their properties, many Sinhalese people also joined the rioters. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled the country as refugees. This was the third such riot in Sri Lanka’s young post-Colonial history, and it solidified global sympathy for the LTTE’s separatist cause. Now, with the wave of international sympathy shifting towards the Sri Lankan government, Prabhakaran began to deliberately put Tamil civilians in harm’s way, as a means to regain the international support and sympathy that he was losing. This included launching attacks on the Security Forces from inside Tamil refugee camps, in the hopes that the Security Forces would retaliate and kill Tamil refugees in response. In the Aranthalawa Massacre of Buddhist monks, a seemingly senseless massacre, Prabhakaran who was known as “a great strategist” is believed to have seen the right ingredients to provoke another riot by the Sinhalese majority against the country’s Tamil minority at a time when international sympathy for the LTTE was waning fast.

One week before the Aranthalawa Massacre, on May 28, 1987, the Air Force handed over the security of a large swath of land within the Batticaloa District to the Special Task Force (STF), an elite branch of the combined Security Forces. This land area included Pulukunawa, Maha-Oya, Aranthalawa, Mangalagama, and Padiyathalawa. With this hand over, all of the Eastern Province came under the protection of the STF. A young STF officer, Police Sub Inspector (SI) Janaka Hapuhinna was given orders to take over the Mangala Oya Camp (overseeing the above-mentioned areas) from the Air Force. He had joined the STF after completing his police training in 1986. After joining the STF, he continued elite level training under the British Special Air Service (SAS). Once his training was completed, he was assigned in April 1987 to Kalawanchikudi, the main STF camp in the south Batticaloa District. 

When the handover order was given, Officer Commanding SI Hapuhinna and his team of officers set out to the Mangala Oya Camp. So rudimentary was this unit that they had no equipment, no vehicles and no special weapons, other than the guns they were carrying. The men traveled from Batticaloa town to Kohone by foot and the remainder by public transportation until they reached the Mangala Oya Camp. Here they encountered a police platoon of approximately 30 men and a Police Sergeant and nine officers stationed in the area. SI Hapuhinna and his team moved into a small hall near the Mangala Oya school. Having set themselves up, SI Hapuhinna and his team spent the next few days familiarizing themselves with their surroundings. 

During those initial days, SI Hapuhinna’s STF team visited a small village named Aranthalawa Village where an LTTE attack on villagers had taken place a few months earlier, killing 28 and wiping out almost the whole village of Sinhalese chena cultivators. When the STF team visited, the village had been completely abandoned.

SI Hapuhinna is currently the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP). ASP Hapuhinna recalled that, “Not a single soul was there. There were shops and homes, but the (surviving) villagers had abandoned everything and left.” Recalling the efficiency of the LTTE’s ethnic cleansing campaign in the North and East, ASP Hapuhinna noted that the Aranthalawa Village had been one of the last two remaining Sinhalese villages in the Batticaloa District.

The soldiers familiarized themselves with the remaining hamlets and villages in the area, getting to know the local population, and their livelihoods and patterns. They learned that they were mostly simple chena cultivators, eking out a living through subsistence farming and hunting. They also learned that the people in the area had recently grown nervous about cultivating inside the jungle, opting instead to do their farming activities close to the roadside. They also learned that after the Aranthalawa village massacre, the villagers in the last remaining Sinhalese village, Mangalagama, would finish work and eat their last meal by mid-afternoon – usually by 3:00pm while there was plenty of daylight left, and would close up their homes and retreat into the jungle to hide and sleep, too frightened of the LTTE to sleep in their own homes at night. Even the few remaining Buddhist monks at the Mangalagama Temple did the same the officers observed, closing up the temple by afternoon and heading into a makeshift bunker they had dug out or into the jungle where they would sleep. Describing the population, ASP Hapuhinna explained “Their needs were basic, and their lives were very simple.” 

According to ASP Hapuhinna, the STF officers were keen to alleviate this additional burden on the already difficult lives of the villagers. The officers tried to ease their fears, explaining that they were there to protect them, and encouraged the villagers to return to their homes to sleep.

Five days before the Aranthalawa Massacre, the little monks at the Sri Vidyananda Pirivena and the Mahawapi Temple were one mass of excitement. Breaking the monotony of pirivena school life of studying, pirith chanting and leaf picking, was this one annual trip, called a charikawa, that took them all over the island. This particular one would take them from East to West, down to the South along the coast and back up to Ampara through the heartland. The nearly month-long journey was intended to start off the Poson festivals in June that mark the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. True to Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero’s style, the itinerary was full, symbolic and performative. By bus they would travel across the island from East to West, stopping overnight at the all-important Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, where the Buddha’s tooth relic is housed. Then they were to head across the island to the west coast to the Kalaniya Raja Maha Vihare Temple, which is also among the important Buddhist pilgrimage sites on the island containing structures and artifacts that date back to 500 BCE. Afterward, they were to visit the important Kaluthara Bodhi Temple, which boasts a Bo tree grown from a sapling of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, a direct descendent of the very Bo tree under which the Buddha is believed to have attained Enlightenment. 

After visiting these pilgrimage sites of the west, the delegation planned to embark on a Dharma Duta journey along the western coast to the south. Part religious and part social service, the Dharma Duta journey was an opportunity for the Buddhist public in the West and South to meet the Eastern monks, exchange news and information, learn of each other’s wellbeing and seek and receive guidance, all as the monks travelled by foot. The East was rapidly getting isolated from the rest of the country due to the war and the government was censoring much of the news from the warfront in an effort to hide from the public the full extent of the LTTE’s advancement and attacks on civilians. This made the Dharma Duta portion of the journey a particularly important opportunity for connection between the Eastern monks and the Buddhist dayakayas in the rest of the country.

The Dharma Duta journey was planned to weave through the multi-cultural coastal communities along the west and south. The monks had been training for this portion of the event, perfecting their special language training so that they could converse with and offer guidance to communities in any of the island’s languages. Once they reached the south, they planned to stop in Galle, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero’s hometown, to celebrate his 60th birthday. From there the delegation planned to visit Katharagama, coinciding with the 1987 Gam Udawa celebration put on by the government during those years with much fanfare, and visit the Katharagama devales (housing the shrines to the Hindu gods and goddesses). Then they would return to Ampara by bus via the sacred town of Mahiyanganaya containing Buddhist archeological sites relating to, what some Buddhists believe to be, the Buddha’s first visit to the island in 528 BCE. Traveling through multiple provinces and threading through many communities along the way, the charikawa was intended to be a unifying one during fractured times as well as an enlightening field trip intended to provide worldly exposure for the cloistered student monks. 

The little monks were delighted by the upcoming field trip and were unable to contain their excitement in the days leading up to it. However, a few of the older Samaneras voiced their concerns, worrying that that their delegation might attract unwanted attention from the LTTE. Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero was characteristically defiant, their families noted, refusing to bow to the pressure of a terrorist organization. The charikawa was confirmed to continue as planned. 

Two days before the Aranthalawa Massacre, 17-year-old Wavinne Aththadassi Thero visited his mother and told her that he would be participating in the important charikawa that Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero had organized. His mother, D. M Siriyawathi recalled that he was happy and thriving at the pirivena at the time “coming first or second in his class” routinely. He seemed generally positive and cheerful about the upcoming trip, but as he took his leave of her, she sensed in her son a slight unease. When she asked him about it, he finally said “I am of the mind to go, and of the mind not to go.” It was their last conversation.

On the night before the Aranthalawa Massacre, A. W. Jayawardene, the Chief Home Guard from the hamlet of chena cultivators called Nuwaragaltenna, in the Batticaloa District, along with a group of 24 other civilian men, took up positions along the Ampara-Uhana Maha Oya Road. The Home Guards’ assignment that night was to “gavasenna” (“hang around”) in groups along the roadside as a means of deterring LTTE activity on the road that night. That particular stretch of the Ampara-Uhana Maha Oya Road had become known for LTTE highway robberies, hijackings and kidnappings with lorries carrying rice often becoming a target, robbed at gunpoint. A few months prior, LTTE cadres had snuck up on the sleeping village of Aranthalawa also in the vicinity and killed most of its residents including the children.

According to Jayawardene, he had been informed by the Security Forces earlier in the day that three scheduled SLTB buses carrying passengers from the Bandaranayake International Airport in Katunayaka would travel along the road on its way to Batticaloa town and needed a safe passage through the area. The Home Guards stationed themselves in groups and the buses passed at approximately 12:30am, 1:30am and 2:30am. By 5:30am the sun had risen and at 6:00am, Jayawardene and his men dispersed towards their homes.

A resident of Nuwaragaltenna since 1972, Jayawardene had made a meager but comfortable life for himself and his family as a chena cultivator in this small hamlet when the war broke out in 1983. Almost immediately the LTTE began their “cuttings” and “harassments” of the Sinhalese and Muslim villages in the North, North Central and Eastern provinces in an effort to drive out those communities that lived there. When accounts of village massacres reached Jayawardene in 1984, he assumed that his village too would one day come under LTTE attack. He appealed to the police for firearms, as a means for the villagers to protect themselves. Owing to the LTTE’s clandestine and guerilla tactics, the vast swaths of land area where they carried out their attacks, and the LTTE’s practice of carrying out attacks on villagers at night, the government was unable to provide the needed security for all these settlements in remote rural areas. In 1984, Jayawardene put together a small civilian village protection team and received 10 rifles and some rapid weapons training by the military.

By 1987, the government had semi-formalized the ad-hoc system of civilian self-protection units that came to be known as Home Guards around the “mouth of” Tiger territory and relied on these volunteers to protect themselves, their property and some territory in their vicinity. Jayawardene’s unit grew to 25 men, and as the frequency and randomness of LTTE attacks on the civilians in the East grew, he and his team were sometimes called on by the Security Forces to “gavesenna” in certain vulnerable areas as a means of deterring LTTE activity in that area. By the Home Guards’ account, the night of June 01, 1987 was an uneventful one.  

Part 4: “Aney mamé, epa! Epa!” (“Uncle, don’t! Don’t!”)

Also on the night of June 01, 1987, in the adjacent Ampara District, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero arrived at Sri Vidyananda Pirivena in his van driven by his driver. There, the child monks comprising mainly 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 year olds as well as a nine year old, were ready and waiting. After meeting with the child monks who were beyond excited about the next day’s trip, they all left the pirivena for the nearby Mahawapi Maha Vihare Temple at about 10:00pm by van. Here they were received with great excitement by the student monks residing there and the young ones fell into discussions with each other about the upcoming charikawa. Some of the older student monks stepped in and out of Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero’s office late into the night, to discuss with him matters relating to the trip. Finally, the children retired to the sleeping quarters and rattan mats were rolled out for them to sleep on side by side. The children’s chatter died down eventually. Wasantha, then 11-year-old Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero, recalled that many of them were too excited about the trip to sleep well that night. Ven. Hegoda Sri Inadasra Nayaka Thero also stayed up late into the night. The light in his study burned steadily as he worked, attending to the affairs of the various temples headed by him before the charikawa commenced. 

The early morning of June 02, 1987 was a happy one. The monks rose at 4:00am, before sunrise. The little ones rolled out of their mats in a state of excitement. After the morning ablutions were done, they dressed in their robes – in saffron, bright yellow or brown. The morning started with their usual religious activities in the Bo maluwa which included the daily commitments to their vows (precepts). Then the monks prepared danés – breakfast of kola kanda and lunch of rice and curry packed into parcels to have on the way. By morning the small monks were usually ravenous, having fasted since the previous day’s lunch, but the highly disciplined mindful eating and drinking rituals that day proved to be difficult for them. They could barely sit still, let alone eat. After the meal, the teachers ushered the young monks to the Bo maluwa to complete their religious activities before the trip.

Sometime after 5:00am, a distinctive red Sri Lanka Transportation Board (SLTB) bus bearing the placard “Vishesha Charika” (Special Tour) with license plate number 60-3599 arrived at the temple driven by the driver G. G. Samarapala. He was a bus driver by profession and a dayakaya of the temple. He was tasked with driving the delegation across the country. In the bus was N. P. Jinadasa the conductor. Vasantha Jayawardene, a youth who lived in the area and was friends with the student monks, also arrived. He had been invited to come along by some of the monks and his role was to assist the group. The laymen were dressed smartly in white shirts and sarongs or pants befitting the significance of the occasion. Also after 5:00am 47-year-old Rathnayaka Mudiyanselage Rathnayaka, known as Rathnayaka Mudalali, arrived. An Ampara resident and a trader by profession, he was a loyal dayakaya of the pirivena, where his son, 12-year-old Ven. Devalahinda Dhammarakitha Thero resided and was also taking part in the trip. He was going on the trip to be close to his son and also to assist the delegation.

Some dayakayas from the neighborhood arrived to see off the group. As the lay folk gathered and made small talk as some chewed betel leaf to stamp out any lingering sleepiness, the monks completed their devotionals. Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero then summoned the group and gave them instructions and guidance for the upcoming trip and also generally. Afterward, the monks in charge got the little ones seated inside the bus each clutching his round talipot leaf fan in one hand and a cloth travel bag in the other, which contained their worldly belongings: a spare robe, a black metal alms bowl, a needle and some thread and a parcel of food for lunch. One by one, the small monks clambered in rolled up in their bright robes. For the small child monks, the important charikawa presented an immediate gratification as well; a brief delightful flight from the structured, measured and highly disciplined life at the pirivena for which they had signed up at impossibly tender ages.

Eventually the bus filled up, with the monks sharing seats with each other because it was so full. Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero had a list of all those who were to go on the trip. He checked off the names and squeezed into a seat at the back. Behind them was the Nayaka Thero’s white van which filled up with the remaining monks. Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero walked to the Bo maluwa where he spent a few moments in solitude, offered merit to the devas, and took his leave from the temple. He then gave his last instructions to the two monks who remained at the temple and got into the bus last. He took the front seat next to a little child monk, directly behind the steps. Jinadasa and Jayawardene sat on a bench in front of them across from the driver, Samarapala. Rathnayaka Mudalali took a seat across the aisle from Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero.

At 5:45am, the bus left the temple with 47 — 43 monks of whom 39 were child monks and four lay folk. As the cool morning air blew through the open windows, the bus turned onto Ampara-Uhana Maha Oya Road. On the empty road, the bus picked up speed. Darkness gave way to bright Eastern daylight. And, for approximately one hour, everyone in the bus was joyous and exhilarated. The little monks started to sing folk songs. After a while of indulgence, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero with mock sternness reproached the group and instructed everyone to chant pirith with the same gusto with which they had sung the songs. Soon everyone was chanting pirith into the wind. The Eastern tropical sun was shining brightly through the open windows. The bus crossed from Ampara District into Batticaloa District as it raced towards Kandy. Everyone onboard was relaxed and happy.

SI Janaka Hapuhinna and his unit of STF officers who were stationed at the Mangalagama Camp had been patrolling the road by Mangalagama village since the night before. It was the last remaining Sinhalese village in Batticaloa, which he was assigned to protect from LTTE attack. At some point early that morning, the STF personnel on duty observed the red bus bearing the placard “Vishesha Charika” head towards Maha Oya followed a little while later by a white van.

Around 7:00am the Chief Home Guard of the hamlet of Nuwaragaltenna, A. W. Jayawardene was having a cup of black tea at his home near the roadside. He had just finished the night “shift” with his team of Home Guards along the Ampara-Uhana Maha Oya Road. He caught a glimpse of the bus as it bounced along with the sound of monks chanting pirith inside.

At approximately 7:15am, the bus entered a desolate stretch of road that cut through a thick teak jungle known as Aranthalawa.

Suddenly, Samarapala pressed on the brakes and the bus slowed down to a stop. A log had been placed across the road blocking the path. Samarapala consulted with Jinadasa. The conductor suggested driving over the log, but Samarapala, perhaps sensing danger, started to put the bus into reverse.

Three men appeared on the side of the road wearing navy blue uniforms similar to those worn by the Sri Lanka Air Force. One of them, a well-built “tall and light-skinned” young man holding a T-56 assault rifle stepped up next to the bus and stuck out his hand, instructing the bus to stop.

Samarapala complied believing the man to be a member of the Security Forces, perhaps in need of a ride. The man climbed inside the bus with the two others. Pointing the machine gun at Samarapala and speaking in Tamil, he ordered the driver to turn the bus from the road into the jungle. Everyone was startled. It was now apparent to all those in the bus that the person who had entered their bus was not a member of Sri Lankan Security Forces but a member of the LTTE organization in disguise. Immediately, those on the bus became frightened. Samarapala, who was proficient in Tamil, spoke respectfully, explaining to the LTTE cadre that he was a civilian, the father of six children and that the bus was full of innocent child monks who were headed on a pilgrimage. “Please let us pass without trouble.” He begged. The LTTE cadre pointed his weapon threateningly at Samarapala’s mouth and shouted at him to turn the bus into the jungle immediately or face certain death. Perhaps fear took over or perhaps he believed that by following the terrorists’ orders, he would be able to save the lives of those on the bus. In either event, Samarapala made a fateful decision. He turned the bus away from the open road and towards a secretive place that had been prepared for them deep inside the teak jungle of Aranthalawa.

With the weapon pointed at his face and body, Samarapala drove further and further into the jungle and away from the road. The small monks looked out of their windows and noticed that 25 to 30 LTTE cadres holding machine guns, swords, machetes, knives and poles had now positioned themselves on either side and behind the bus, and were following along silently on foot. They were dressed in a variety of attire, mainly civilian clothes and some looked to be teenagers. The children who had been so silent inside the bus that a pin drop could have been heard, began to panic. The bus continued to move forward extremely slowly. The children inside the bus began to cry.

About 50 meters in, the LTTE leader onboard ordered Samarapala to stop the engine. Samarapala again complied. Another LTTE cadre boarded the bus as the one who had pointed the gun at Samarapala stepped off. He looked to be about 17 years old. “Munny munny woch woch” He shouted holding out a bag. The LTTE cadre moved through the bus, grabbing the wrist watches and wallets off of the lay folk.  The monks also gave any money that they had on them, which was not much. With the loot secured in the bag, he too stepped off the bus. The first LTTE cadre stepped back on and pointed his machine gun again at Samarapala. Again Samarapala begged and pleaded with the LTTE cadre with his palms joined and fingers interlaced saying over and over again that he was the father of six children who would be left destitute were he to be killed. The LTTE cadre shot him multiple times in the head and Samarapala collapsed on the steering wheel. 

Another LTTE cadre climbed in. It was immediately clear to everyone inside that he was carrying a sword. He was small made, well-built and dark-skinned, and had a “terrifying face and demeanor”.  When the small monks saw him, they began to cry even louder. 

Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero perhaps sensing what was about to take place, stood up from his seat and said “I am Hegoda Indasara from Galle. I am not afraid to die. If you harbor hatred towards me, then kill me! But, do not harm these little ones.”

One of the cadres shouted at Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero and pushed him back into the seat as the other swung the sword. The sword first hit the ceiling of the bus. Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero attempted to block the falling blade with his arm, but it struck his head. The LTTE cadre then struck him again and again “like felling a banana tree” and everyone on the bus watched in horror as blood spewed out of his neck. Their beloved Head Monk Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero, 59, crumpled into the seat and died. “Vettada!” (“Cut them!”) an LTTE cadre shouted in Tamil.

The small monks began to scream. Some started to run here and there inside the bus. Some hid between seats. The birds on the forest tree canopy above started to echo the screaming and crying happening inside the bus. The LTTE cadres who had surrounded the bus watched silently, and waited. After Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero had been killed, Ven. Valallawita Wimalanyana Thero who was seated directly behind, sensed that he would be next. He was Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero’s deputy on this trip and one of the beloved teachers of the young monks. He stood up and repelled the blade of the sword with his arm causing it to hit the roof of the bus. This blunted the force with which the sword came back down and saved his life. Ven. Valallawita Wimalanyana Thero slid to the ground as the blade sliced his hand, arm and chest in one deep long gash. He fell between seats. 11-year-old Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero who was seated in the third row ducked under his seat. From his vantage point, Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero could observe what happened next.

An LTTE cadre grabbed one of the little monks, who had been seated in front, and attempted to drag him outside. The little monk clung to the metal pole near the entrance of the bus and screamed and struggled as his robes came unraveled into the LTTE cadre’s arms. Realizing the difficulty of taking the victims off the bus one by one to be executed, an LTTE cadre struck the little monk’s head with a machete with great force splitting open part of his skull “like a coconut.” The other LTTE cadre then shot into the bus, killing Jinadasa and Jayawardene instantly. Rathnayaka Mudalali was shot in the legs as he ran further into the bus. He fell down in the aisle and passed out. With all the adults around them dead or incapacitated, some of the little monks started to call out to their mothers and fathers.

Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero was unhurt under the seat. He recalled experiencing both terrible fear and a sense of extreme helplessness. He did not know whether to cry, scream for help or be silent as the massacre went on in front of him. The LTTE cadre standing next to the seat he was hiding under reloaded his gun and around 25 bullets fell on the metal floorboard next to where he was hiding. The bullets hitting the floor made a deafening noise. He thought he would be discovered and killed when the LTTE cadre bent down to collect the fallen bullets, but the cadre did not reach down for them. Instead, he moved through the bus methodically shooting. The other LTTE cadres sliced and chopped the fallen monks.

Lying on the ground unable to move Ven. Valallawita Wimalanyana Thero listened helplessly to the sound of slicing, chopping, shooting and crying going on. One by one, he felt bodies falling on top of him.

As the LTTE cadres moved towards the middle of the bus, one terrified little monk curled up on his seat and stuck his metal alms bowl on his head. Several others around him who saw this did the same. The LTTE cadres killed them anyway, slicing and shooting their bodies while the metal alms bowls still covered their heads.

Hearing the sound “chis chis” as the blades struck flesh over and over again, Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero, 19, hid his head behind the back of the seat in front of him and curled up into the fetal position. He was seated towards the back right corner of the bus over the rear wheel. He knew the LTTE cadres would soon make their way down to him. He too recalled his parents and tears welled up in his eyes. But he stayed quiet.

17-year-old Ven. Wawinne Gunawansa Thero who was seated on the left next to Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero stood up when the LTTE cadres approached them and was struck down by a sword so forcefully that his flesh fell on Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero’s neck and lap and his blood poured onto his robes. Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero stayed slumped over in his seat with his eyes shut. As he lay motionless, he felt more “warm fluid and pieces” falling on him. He would later realize that what had fallen on him was the brain matter of 11-year-old Ven. Mahiyanganaye Wipulasara Thero who had been seated on his right next to the window. With both those on either side of him dead, he stayed motionless, completely covered in his friends’ blood and body parts. The LTTE cadres seemed to think he too was dead, but they shot him anyway, piercing his left leg and back with bullets.

In a final effort to escape death, some children begged their murderers “Aney mamé, epa! Epa!” (“Uncle, don’t! Don’t!”) and “Aney ayyé, apiva maranna epa!” (Big brother, don’t kill us!”). Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero was shot four times and parts of his vertebrae were shattered. The sound of his friends’ desperate pleas was his last memory from that day.

The LTTE cadres left the bus and began shooting into the bus from the outside. The sound of crying children was replaced by the sound of deafening gun shots and windows shattering. Unable to move and with the weight of several bodies piled on top of him Ven. Valallawita Wimalanyana Thero observed a short period of quiet where the only the sounds of “kendiri ganawa” (quiet moaning) of the dying children and gasping for air could be heard. Suddenly, there was a loud noise of LTTE cadres re-entering the bus. They moved about briskly identifying all the those who were still moving or making small sounds and shot them on their heads at close range. Lying on the ground Ven. Valallawita Wimalanyana Thero watched blood flow “like a river” down the aisle. The LTTE cadres left the bus. He heard celebratory hoots and howls of laughter outside. Gunshots were fired into the air. The jungle was quiet.  Approximately 10 or 15 minutes after the massacre had started, it was over. The survivors would later describe their attackers as “practiced” and “efficient”. 

Nuwaragaltenna’s Chief Home Guard, Jayawardene, immediately sensed that something must have happened to the monks. Not long after the bus had bounced by carrying the pirith-chanting monks, he had heard gunshots in the distance. He sounded his siren (horn). The Home Guards who had wandered off towards their houses, quickly assembled within a few minutes of the siren’s call. Once the men had gathered, they returned to the side of the road and tried to figure out the location of the bursts of gunfire. A lorry came down the road and they flagged it down.

“Did you pass an SLTB bus carrying Buddhist monks going in the opposite direction?” Jayawardene asked the lorry driver. The driver said, no.

Jayawardene knew now that the monks were being attacked. He dispatched two of his men to the nearest STF camp in the lorry. The remaining 23 men, gripping a variety of weapons such as rifles, axes and poles, charged into the jungle, risking their own lives in the process. As they searched inside the dense jungle they could hear the sounds of gunshots and screaming. Jayawardene and his men fired their weapons as warning as they searched for the victims.

Approximately 45 minutes after the bus and van had passed them, STF officers who had been on patrol near the Mangalagama camp saw the same white van they had seen previously driving behind the bus rush towards them at great speed. The driver pulled up next to the officers in a state of panic and explained that the bus carrying Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero and many small Buddhist monks had been stopped by whom he initially thought were Sri Lankan Security Forces personnel. When the bus stopped, the driver had stopped the van, some distance away. At that point the men that stopped the bus had started shooting at the van, he said, but those inside the van were unharmed. He realized when the shooting happened that the people who had stopped the bus were LTTE cadres in disguise. As the panicked driver turned the van around as fast as he could and sped back towards the STF personnel, he had seen that the bus was turning left into the Aranthalawa jungle. 

“How many LTTE cadres did you see?” SI Hapuhinna asked. The driver said that he thought he saw about eight men standing near the bus. SI Hapuhinna realized that a major attack on the monks was taking place. However, his unit had no vehicles with which to respond. They quickly flagged down lorries as and when they came along the road and climbed in or hung on the sides and rushed to the scene in the numbers that could fit into each vehicle. Near Aranthalawa, they hopped off and ordered the lorries to remain on the side of the road. On foot the soldiers entered the jungle. They heard shooting going on to their right and moved towards the direction of the gunfire, firing as they advanced. Approximately 50 meters from where it had been diverted, the red bus with its windows blown out came into view. The bus was eerily quiet.

From this point, there are slight differences between the STF first responders’ and the Home Guards’ accounts. Both accounts are presented here:

When Jayawardene got closer, he saw three monks collapsed outside the bus by the footboard. The men approached the monks, who were alive but injured. Two of the monks seemed “very little” and would not talk, but the other – a youth implored, “Sir, don’t kill us.”

Jayawarene told him not to be scared and that he was there to help. As he bent down to worship the monk, he saw that the monk’s arm was flapped open. The monk said that the LTTE cadres who attacked them had disappeared into the jungle a short while ago.

As some of the Home Guards attended to the three injured, the others converged around the bus. Jayawardene clutched his rifle, which he believed still had some bullets left in it, and climbed inside. Inside the bus, he felt as though he had entered a dream. “Everything that could have been done had been done (to them).” He said. “Not just shot, but cut… cut with swords, chopped, shot.”

Inside the bus, Jayawardene recognized the distinctive visage of Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero.  Jayawardene noticed three nearly identical cuts to the back of his head, across his ear and one to his neck. They were still bleeding. Jayawardene who knew Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero well, tried to revive the Head Monk by gently moving his head, “But his (head and neck) were breaking down, collapsing” and lifeless. 

When SI Hapuhinna and the soldiers got close, they saw that the steps on to the bus was covered in a layer of blood so thick it looked like mud. The STF team quickly climbed inside and assessed the carnage. Inside the bus, Jinadasa the conductor’s body lay close to the entryway. Samarapala’s body was slumped over the steering wheel. Bodies were strewn about, but most of them were in a pile towards the back. No one spoke. SI Hapuhinna heard only a low constant noise, “like bees,” coming from inside the bus. He was not sure how many victims were there or whether anyone was still alive.

Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero who had been crouched behind the seat in front of him heard someone say, “Ape Hamuduruwani (Our Dear Monks)who committed this atrocity on you?” in Sinhala. He looked up cautiously. He saw someone in military uniform. Speaking clearly in Sinhalese, the person announced, “We are from the Army and Police. We came to rescue you. If you can talk, talk Hamuduruwani! If you have any life, quickly get up! We will take you to the hospital.” Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero had heard of LTTE members returning to the sites of their massacres and speaking in Sinhalese to the survivors, only to kill them when they moved or revealed themselves.  He hid his head again and dared not speak. 

Even though SI Hapuhinna had identified himself, no one in the bus spoke. Some survivors watched as the first responders quickly moved through the bus, moving some bodies, lifting others, wiping blood off their faces, and gently shaking them to identify those who might still be alive. They urged the monks to speak if they could. “We have come from the Mangalagama Camp to rescue you.” The officers said.

Finally, some of the small monks who had hidden under the seats came out. 

“I have not been killed, take me.” Ven. Valallawita Wimalanyana Thero shouted from under a pile of bodies. Together, the first responders quickly moved the dead bodies that were on top of him and Ven. Valallawita Wimalanyana Thero managed to stand up. For the first time he saw the extent of what had happened. At that moment, the only pain he was aware of was “the aching in (his) heart” as he saw the Head Monk and all the little monks killed and their bodies strewn about. The floor of the bus was “one river of blood.”

11-year-old Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero helped the first responders to identify survivors and get them off the bus. He and 16-year-old Ven. Komariye Wimalajoti Thero along with one or two others were miraculously unharmed, he noticed.

15-year-old Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero, lying in a pool of his own blood and unable to move, became distressed that a part of his siwuru pota (robes) was covering his face. Wasantha, formerly Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero, remembered how Ven. Komariye Wimalajoti Thero quickly reached their distressed friend and moved the robe away from his face. It was Ven. Komariye Wimalajoti Thero’s last act, and one of kindness. Some moments later, 16-year-old Ven. Komariye Wimalajoti Thero would collapse and die, likely from a heart attack brought on by the sheer trauma of what he witnessed. “He did not have even a scratch on his fingernail.” Wasantha remembered.

16-year-old Ven. Komariye Wimalajoti Thero became known as the child monk who had died without sustaining any injuries whatsoever. In the national consciousness, his death created the illusion that at least one victim had died without suffering. 

The first responders quickly identified and carried out the heavily injured survivors including Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero who was unconscious by then, Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero with gunshots to his left leg and back, Ven. Valallawita Wimalanyana Thero with a long deep gash that ran from palm to chest, and Rathnayaka Mudalali with gunshot wounds to his legs and knee. The injured survivors were then carried by the first responders from the jungle to the roadside. Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero and a few others who were able to walk by themselves also assisted.

On the roadside, the survivors were carefully loaded onto another bus that had been flagged down and its driver raced to the Ampara Base Hospital. As the bus headed back towards Ampara, everyone was quiet. Some were in shock, some unconscious, some barely alive and some would die on the way.

SI Hapuhinna tried to move the massacre bus back to the road, but the front left tire had been shot. With only the rim, SI Hapuhinna managed to reverse the bus back to the side of the road along the same path on which it had traveled into the jungle. One of the lorries that had waited by the roadside had a spare tire which they quickly fitted onto the bus. Once the tire was fitted on, the bus driven by SI Chandrasena, with SI Hapuhinna also inside raced to the Ampara Base Hospital carrying the remaining bodies.

Of the 47 who boarded the bus that morning 34 were killed in the massacre. 31 of the dead were Buddhist monks, of whom 29 were child monks. Of the four lay people who had taken part as volunteers, three were killed. 

As the buses sped towards Ampara, the Ampara Base Hospital was informed by the STF communications team in Kalawanchikudi to prepare to receive the victims. The hospital staff there were not strangers to LTTE attacks on civilians and the military. During those years the staff would watch motars flying back and forth in the distance, and were used to working under pressure attending to the large number of casualties that were brought in: wounded soldiers from the eastern warfront, victims of LTTE village massacres, victims of landmines and victims of random claymore bombings, as well as victims of natural disasters such as floods and landslides. 

There seemed never to be a pause in the deaths, recalled Sister M. V. Somawathi, a nurse who had worked at the hospital from 1974.

During the war, the hospital staff themselves came under threat from time to time, Sister Somawathi recalled. A few times, they were given warning that the LTTE was planning on attacking the hospital. For a while, at night the staff would change out of their uniforms and into “regular” clothes because they had been warned that the LTTE planned to abduct and kill them. During that period, Sister Somawathi and the others on night duty would finish attending to the patients before nightfall and would let them know where to find the staff in their hiding place if they were needed. Working under these intense conditions eventually began to feel normal for Sister Somawathi, and she remained at the Ampara Hospital for more than three decades, noting that she never requested to be transferred out of the east.

On the morning of June 02, 1987, Sister Somawathi returned to her home in Ampara town at 7:00am after her night shift at the hospital had ended. The evening before, several monks from the neighboring Sri Vidyananda Pirivena had come by to inform the hospital staff that they were going on a long charikawa. The staff had wished them well and the monks had left. This meeting was at the back of Sister Somawathi’s mind as she stood at her well washing her face, when an SLTB bus tore through the street at high speed with orange robes flying out of the windows. The disorderly sight felt unusual to her. Sister Somawathi called out to her husband and asked him to find out whether something had happened to the Mahawapi and Sri Vidyananda Pirivena monks. It was approximately 8:00am.

Within a few minutes Sister Somawathi learned about the massacre in Aranthalawa. She splashed some water on her face and rushed back to the hospital. When she got there, one bus had dropped off the survivors and another had unloaded the dead. Inside the hospital the staff quickly separated the survivors and the dead and directed one group of stretchers to the emergency room and the other group of stretchers to the morgue. The few who sustained no injuries were looked over and quickly discharged. Medical and surgical teams were called in and they arrived at the hospital within minutes. The nearby funeral hall was informed and an embalming crew also arrived. While the doctors and the embalmers got to work on their respective charges, the administrative staff began to discharge the existing patients at the hospital to free up the beds for all the children. Sister Somawathi remembers searching through the bodies until she found the body of her community’s beloved Head Monk with massive gashes to the back of his head and neck. Later she learned that Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero, in his last moments, had offered up his life to the LTTE and asked them not to harm any of the children in his care. Then, she learned, he had lowered his head to his assassins.

Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero’s heroic death struck a chord in the community. In his final moments, he had been brave, defiant and self-sacrificing just as he had been in life. Until the last, he was a protector: of the innocent child monks under his care and the abandoned Eastern Buddhists that he had adopted as his own. To Sister Somawathi, their community had suffered an immeasurable loss.

As the medical staff moved quickly trying to stabilize those who were severely injured, in the morgue the embalmers moved more slowly. They washed off the blood and dirt from the faces and the small bodies, and closed the eyes. They scrubbed small chests and polished little shoulders. They tried to unclench fists. And in a loving, if futile, gesture they carefully covered the gunshot wounds to the heads and faces with squares of white medical tape as though to hide from view what the children had suffered. Throughout the day Sister Somawathi attended to the needs of the embalming crew, providing them with the hospital’s own supplies of white cloth for their work. Once the bodies were prepared, the hospital staff laid down their own white hospital sheets on the floor of one room for the bodies to be laid on. The staff hoped that this small gesture would provide the monks with some dignity. To hide the injuries to their bodies, the staff covered them from shoulders to toes with the same blood-soaked robes they had died in. They tried to cover up some of the gruesome head injuries with rags.

Child victims of the Aranthalawa Massacre laid out at the Ampara Base Hospital images courtesy of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces

The victims of the Aranthalawa Massacre laid out at the Ampara Base Hospital images courtesy of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces

Sister Somawathi who was moving about quickly tending to her tasks was unaware of who came and went from the public areas of the hospital that day. However, she recalled that as the morning progressed the crowd was swelling to uncontrollable levels and that people were visibly upset. Monks from Sri Vidyananda Pirivena, the Mahawapi Maha Vihare Temple and from all around Ampara began arriving at the hospital early along with neighboring dayakayas who had been alerted to the news.

A survivor of the Aranthalawa Massacre surrounded by young monks at the Ampara Base Hospital. Images courtesy of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces.

The public gathered at the hospital and milled about in the common areas and outside. A dayakaya and Ampara resident, W. G Sirisena remembers the moment when he learned that Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero and the little monks had been massacred. He rushed to the Ampara Base Hospital to see for himself. When he saw the bodies of all the monks laid out at the hospital “I started shivering and shaking,” he remembered. “It looked like a battleground.”

15-year-old Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero was stabilized and airlifted to Colombo where he remained in a coma. When he regained consciousness more than three months later he learned that his Head Monk and most of his friends and classmates with whom he had attended pirivena school had been killed, their ardhana (funeral) ceremony had been held and the three-month alms giving had been given in their memory. He also learned that he was paralyzed from the waist down and would never walk again. He remained in hospital for another six years.

“In a moment, everything and everyone in my life was lost to me. I became truly alone in the world.” He said.

19-year-old Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero underwent life-saving procedures and was transferred to Kandy for specialized surgeries and again to Colombo. More than three decades later, he still undergoes surgeries and treatments for his injuries.

In the Ampara hospital, while being treated for the injuries to his legs and knee, Rathnayaka Mudalali, 47, learned that his 12-year-old son had been killed.

Discharged from the hospital on the same day and clutching only a bag of pills he had been given by the doctors, 11-year-old Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero returned to a much-changed Sri Vidyananda Pirivena. There, in a state of shock, he waited for his parents to arrive and take him home.

Recalling the experience that left an indelible mark on him, Jayawardene said, “We carried these small monks through the jungle, who were barely alive and kendiri ganawa. They were 12, 13, 14 years old. Some of them died in our arms. This will always be embedded in my memory.” 

After handing over the bodies to the hospital, the STF personnel took the massacre bus – now regarded as a crime scene – to the Mangalagama Camp, to collect evidence. 

The STF responded swiftly to the massacre. They moved into the jungle, patrolling and gathering evidence of LTTE activities in the area. Military investigators discovered campsites that had been used by the LTTE cadres and some discarded uniforms that resembled those of the Air Force. They monitored LTTE communications from the STF base in Kalawanchikudi.

Mainly through the monitoring of LTTE communication sets, the STF learned about the LTTE team that had carried out the attack. The name that featured prominently in the intercepted communications was an LTTE regional leader who went by the nom de guerre Regan, whom the STF identified as the operation’s leader and chief participant. He was identified as being part of a seasoned team of eight LTTE leaders in the East that operated out of Batticaloa who were responsible for many of the attacks on civilians in the Eastern Province including the bus attack a few months prior known as the Kituluttuwa massacre of 126 civilians as well as most of the village massacres. The STF believed that Karuna Amman, as the LTTE commander of the Eastern Province, would have been aware of the attack.

According to ASP Hapuhinna, it was very difficult at the time to prevent such attacks as these were not discussed over the LTTE communications sets prior to the events. The STF were also unable to gain intelligence from the Tamil villagers in those areas, as many of the LTTE members were integrated into these villages.

“(In this area, the LTTE members) lived in the (Tamil) villages as ordinary citizens during the day, and would join the (LTTE’s) clandestine operations at night. No matter how many operations they participated in, the fishermen would return to fishing, the farmers to farming the next day and resume normal life. It was difficult to identify the perpetrators before this event because we could not get good information from the villagers. The STF made an effort to be friendly in these villages during foot patrols, but the villagers (who did not belong to the LTTE) were too scared to speak with us, because the LTTE members were among them and watching them and would retaliate against them if they were thought to be friendly with the Security Forces.” He recalled an incident where the STF members found someone in a Tamil village killed and strung up on a light pole because “(she) smiled with us” on the previous day when the officers were on foot patrol.

A week after the attack the STF responded militarily, targeting the LTTE’s Eastern leaders. Using the communications monitoring from Kalawanchikudi, a small STF team of five led by SI Faizal Hadji carried out a targeted operation in the Unnichchai forest. The team ambushed an LTTE campsite and killed three of the eight LTTE leaders who had carried out the Aranthalawa Massacre. Two other LTTE leaders were killed in a subsequent targeted STF operation. However, Regan, identified by the STF as the Aranthalawa Massacre’s leader and main participant, remained elusive. Though injured in an operation, the LTTE leadership went to great lengths to keep Regan alive even sending him to South India for medical treatment one month after the attack, after the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed in July 1987. The LTTE sent him to South India for medical treatment again in September 1990 after he was injured in another military operation.[18] In addition to the Aranthalawa Massacre, Regan was believed to have participated in many of the gruesome attacks on civilians in the Eastern Province by ambushing buses along eastern roads and killing its passengers by day or by massacring sleeping villagers by night. 

Regan later sought and received political asylum in France where he lived in Paris under the name Nadarajah Matheenthiran, while maintaining a low profile. He was eventually granted French citizenship for having a “blemishless”[19] record there. After a while, he became active again in the LTTE under the name Parithy and in 2002 took over LTTE’s leadership in France which was operating under the front organization Tamil Coordinating Committee (TCC) which was responsible for extorting money from Tamils living in France as “taxes” for the LTTE. On November 08, 2012, Regan was shot and killed next to a bus stand in Paris by two unknown assailants on a motorcycle. French authorities believe that he was killed by members of a rival faction within the LTTE.[20]  

Regan (right) in Paris, raising the LTTE flag years after the Aranthalawa Massacre. Image courtesy of D.B.S. Jeyaraj.

Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, who was LTTE’s head of the Eastern Province known as Karuna Amman, renounced the LTTE in 2004 and created a break-away faction, colloquially known as the Karuna Faction. Due to the instrumental support that he subsequently provided the Sri Lankan government in driving out the LTTE from the east, he was granted immunity from prosecution and invited to join mainstream politics. In 2008 he became a National List Member of Parliament for the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the party of then President Mahinda Rajapakse who went on to militarily defeat the LTTE in 2009.

Immediately after the war ended, the Sri Lankan government signed an agreement with the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) on May 26-27, 2009. In this resolution, the UNHRC “condemn(ed) all attacks that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam launched on the civilian population and its practice of using civilians as human shields,” yet discouraged the government from seeking accountability for the war crimes committed by the LTTE organization. Instead, the resolution strongly encouraged rehabilitation and reconciliation programs including for former LTTE cadres preempting the government of Sri Lanka from investigating the war crimes committed by the LTTE or holding any of the LTTE’s leaders or cadres accountable for any documented crimes against humanity committed by them during the 26-year war, including the Aranthalawa Bhikku Massacre (34 killed) on June 02, 1987;  Kittuluttuwa Bus Massacre (126 killed) on April 17, 1987; the Kanthakundi Mosque Massacre (147 killed) on August 03, 1990; or the massacre of the 600 unarmed policemen in the Eastern Province who surrendered to the LTTE on state orders during ceasefire negotiations on June 11, 1990.

Part 5: An Essential Assignment

By slaughtering child monks, the LTTE’s leaders may have hoped to provoke a violent retaliation by the Sinhalese Buddhists at a time when global support for the LTTE’s separatist cause was waning. However, the anticipated riot or any isolated acts of retribution never happened due to the immediate and strategic steps that then President J.R. Jayawardene took to ensure the safety of the Tamils living in Ampara.

On the morning of June 02, 1987, news of the attack reached the government in Colombo. President J.R. Jayawardene was described by those who knew him as likely very upset that Buddhist monks had been massacred. Expecting a visceral reaction from the public once the news got out, the President was also anxious to contain the fall out straight away.

That same morning, Defense Secretary General Sepala Attygalle called the then Secretary to the Ministry of Rehabilitation, Austin Fernando at his office. He informed Fernando that the President had hand-picked him to perform an important duty in Ampara, but offered only scant details of the assignment. Among the information provided to him was that several Buddhist monks had been killed by the LTTE, and that a military helicopter would be ready to take him to Ampara straightaway. Fernando was to offer all assistance to the affected parties, he was told. Most importantly, Gen. Attygalle said “The President wanted to tell you that there are 144 Tamil families living inside the Ampara Town. You need to ensure that these people are safe, until we sort out this situation.” Fernando was perplexed, wondering why Gen. Attygalle, in command of the Tri-forces and the police at the time was asking a civilian administrator to do the Security Force’s job.

But Austin Fernando had the right pedigree to diffuse the situation. Less than a month ago, he had spent a week inside the office of the forensic medical doctor in Colombo as the medical examiner’s team individually identified what remained of the 150 victims of the Pettah bomb blast and advised the authorities on performing the proper last rites for the victims who belonged to the various religious and ethnic groups. The previous year he had been sent by the President to assist and appease affected villagers after the Kantale Dam breach. However, up to this point Austin Fernando had not been deployed to calm tensions after a terrorist attack. Without too much information at that point, he was not sure what sort of situation he was headed into.

Fernando set out to the Air Force grounds in Ratmalana where a military helicopter was waiting for him. As was his habit at the time, he instructed his personal assistant to go to his house and fabricate a small lie to his wife. “Tell her that I have been sent on a mission to Anuradhapura rather than to Ampara.” He instructed his PA, worried that news of this event (whatever it might be) would reach her and others in Colombo, and that it would cause her a lot of worry to know that he was in the midst of it. Military pilots flew Fernando to an army base in Kattaparichchana near Ampara where a military convoy was already waiting. Worried about a secondary LTTE attack on the convoy, as it was the LTTE’s style to attack those responding to one of their attacks, Fernando asked the junior officer present to instead provide him with one unmarked vehicle to travel in and only a small group of officers in plain clothes to protect him. Inside his jeep he asked the officer “Where have the bodies been taken to?” He was told that the bodies had been taken to the Ampara Base Hospital. “Let’s go there.” Fernando said. 

He arrived at the Ampara Base Hospital discretely. Outside the hospital, the Government Agent for Ampara, D. M. Nandisena looked unwell and was breathing heavily, Fernando recalled. He greeted Nandisena and suggested they go inside, but Nandisena begged him to “Please go inside and see for yourself,” stating that he had very high blood pressure and might suffer something terrible if he went back in.

Anticipating the worst, Fernando entered the hospital. By this point he had seen much of what the LTTE was capable of doing to civilians. He had seen the photographs collected by the Security Forces at the time of LTTE atrocities committed in the North, Eastern and North Central province villages. Though censored and kept out of the news, as a high-level government official, “I had seen the pictures of young children (who had been) killed by them in (those) districts; how pregnant women had been killed– gutted; and two-year, three-year old children had been killed… hit, hammered by the LTTE.”

He walked into an open veranda-type room inside the hospital and saw the bodies of the child monks laid down side by side on the floor on white sheets. There were row after row of them, from wall to wall. Small faces, necks, shoulders and toes were visible. Their torsos were covered in the same blood-soaked saffron robes they had died in earlier in the day. It was an unforgettable scene where the peaceful nature of those small children’s faces belied their horrific injuries. The head injuries, the bleeding that had taken place, the cuts and gunshot wounds that he saw that day still upsets him decades later.

“I cannot imagine someone trying to hit or cut or kill a man like that… a child like that.” He said. Despite all the dead bodies he had seen up to that point as a senior public administrator in wartime, “I was so devastated.”

In the public areas of the hospital, a large crowd had gathered. Among them were many Buddhist monks who had arrived from the nearby areas. Some monks were openly weeping at the sight of the carnage. Some were angry, wondering if Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero’s outspoken and strong stance against LTTE intimidation had gotten them killed. Some were quiet, in shock. Among the laymen and some officials present, Fernando noticed that a more troubling emotion was brewing: fury.

“With (this) I knew the main purpose of the visit was a difficult, but an essential assignment.” Fernando said.    

Without revealing his mission, Fernando asked Nandisena about the mood of the town. Nandisena who was in a bad way emotionally, wasn’t sure. “Things might get a little bit nasty,” He speculated, “Because people (are) really upset.”

Fernando looked around at those gathered and identified a government stenographer named Ariyadasa who was among the clerks present. Fernando knew him to be someone with an ear to the ground. He called the stenographer over, and through him learned that the mood brewing in Ampara was dark. “People (are) furious and fed up and openly discussing what had taken place.” Ariyadasa told him. Fernando asked if there could be retaliation against any Tamil families and Ariyadasa replied, “I am sure that there will be retaliation” by a particular segment of the population.

Fernando asked Ariyadasa about the people in the area who would likely take part in such an event. Through the stenographer, Fernando learned that in the Ampara town a group of men whom Ariyadasa described as local “thugs” and “mudalalis” (businessmen) had already gathered at the back of a shop and were discussing the day’s events with open anger. Ariyadasa knew where the meeting was taking place, but was reluctant to take a government official there, fearing later reprisal once Fernando had left for Colombo. Fernando understood, and went to the location with the military personnel assigned to protect him, asking the officers to stay outside while he met with the group. In the smoke filled back room of a shop, Fernando alone faced the group of incensed, sarong-clad men who had been working each other up for some time. The men vowed to take their revenge on “them”, by which they meant any Tamil, whom they equated with the LTTE. 

“There is no point in having discussions now, mahattaya (gentleman).” They told him.

In the heated conversations going on, Fernando saw no entry point into the discussion, but while listening he identified a few individuals, village elders, who might be receptive to what he had to say. While the 144 Tamil families he was assigned to protect were of immediate concern, Fernando also worried about the possibility of local mob violence sparking a full-blown riot. In the current climate with the public reeling from shock and in deep pain over the relentless barrage of LTTE attacks on them, a spark of civil unrest in Ampara had the potential to spread through the country like wildfire. While this particular massacre was by no means the biggest in terms of the number of casualties or economic impact, it had a devastating effect on the nation’s morale. Even by LTTE standards, it was a “dastardly, dirty thing” that had been done, observed Fernando.

Fernando saw an opportunity to enter the conversation when someone started to talk about the monks’ funeral expenses. In reality, the funeral expenses should have been queried by the monks, but Fernando reasoned that the roles had gotten mixed up during chaos of the day. “What do you want me to do (regarding the funeral)?” He asked the men. As he was also the Commissioner General of Essential Services, he stated that he had no problem with bearing the victims’ funeral expenses. He deftly turned the whole discussion towards the funeral, which he then talked about at length, until it sobered the men. “Whatever you want to do for the ardhana, I will do it.” Fernando said, stating that he would advise the GA to bear all funeral expenses.

When this was announced, the men settled down. Most of them felt that they had won a battle. Fernando then reiterated to the men that the government would bear all the costs associated with the monks’ funeral. He then focused on presenting the government’s position to the “village elders” whom he had previously identified, and obtained assurances from them that there would be no trouble that night.

Once the group had sufficiently calmed down, and he was satisfied with the men’s assurances that there would be no violence against any Tamils in the area, Fernando left the meeting and relayed the promises he had made to GA Nandisena and to State Minister Petikirige Dayaratna. He then returned to Colombo via helicopter. 

Under the emergency regulations that were in place at the time, curfew was imposed in Ampara that night. Due in large part to Fernando’s diplomacy, and the president’s decision to send a civilian administrator to calm tensions rather than the military to quell them, that night was a peaceful one. There was no civil unrest and no innocent Tamil people were harmed in retaliation by vigilantes. That night, the Sinhalese population did not play into Prabhakaran’s hand.

At the Sri Vidyananda Pirivena, dayakayas from the Ampara town and villages came and went. Some lit the small clay oil lamps. Some sat and cried in the Bo maluwa, under the same Bo tree canopy that the small monks had chanted pirith and sought the protection of the devas many times before. 11-year-old Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero, who had been discharged from the hospital earlier in the day, sat alone, oblivious to all the activity around him and waited for his mother to arrive. 

W.G Sirisena along with some other dayakayas arrived and started to get the hall ready for the bodies. This would be the last time the pirivena would receive its little monks before their ardhana ceremony and cremation. The villagers who milled about the temple struggled to grasp the magnitude of their own loss. Their beloved Head Monk – and leader; several members of their community including a driver, conductor and a school-aged youth; and all the child monks whose wellbeing and progress they had attended to with personal interest and care were now all gone. By late afternoon parents of the victims began to arrive from all parts of the island frantic for news about their children. The villagers helped the family members locate their loved ones. After an emotional reunion, Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero’s mother took him back home to Wavinna that same evening. 

One by one, the villagers too headed towards their homes. By all accounts, it was a quiet night.

The next morning, the state-run newspapers carried a brief, redacted account of the massacre. However, despite the government’s effort to downplay the event, the news of the massacre had already spread across the island. Throughout the nation people reacted to the news with shock and disgust. “People were very upset.” Recalled Fernando, “They hated even hearing about it.”

Buddhists across the island displayed their sorrow and opposition to what had happened by raising yellow prayer flags. It was a restrained reaction to a horrific crime against humanity. Although the anticipated riot never happened, the mood was grim. The population was becoming restless and could coalesce suddenly and overthrow the government. President J. R. Jayawardene had already described this mood to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in a secret meeting in Bangalore. Unbeknownst to his constituents, in November 1986, President Jayawardene made a plea to the Indian Premier asking for the Indian military’s help to keep his government from collapsing. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi tentatively agreed to this, if India’s demands were met. One month after the Aranthalawa Massacre, on July 29, 1987, President Jayawardene gave in to Indian pressure and signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. 

With the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution came into being. To appease its own large South Indian Tamil population that was highly sympathetic to the LTTE’s fight for a mono-ethnic Tamil homeland, India dictated the terms of the agreement: the devolution of power (that Sri Lanka move from central governance into a federal system, like India, giving autonomy to its nine provinces) and the amalgamation of the Northern and Eastern provinces (while keeping all the other existing provincial boundaries intact, even though they were drawn up by the British during the Colonial era and are based on little regard for the Island’s actual demographic, social, cultural or historical extents).

“The manner in which the LTTE was supported in India at the time” must be understood, explained Fernando, to understand “how J.R. Jayawardene was pressured to sign (the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord).” The Indian proposal for the amalgamation of the North and the East had existed well before the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, Fernando explained. “Why? Because the East is the “granary” of Sri Lanka.” Economics and politics were the basis for this amalgamation proposal, he explained, rather than a demographic continuity between the North and East. During the weakest point in J. R. Jayawardene’s presidency when his government was facing imminent collapse, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi seized the opportunity to push through this proposal.

However, the idea of merging of the North and East had been rejected by the people of the East when it was first introduced by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) operating out of Jaffna in 1976.[21] This is noted in the Sansoni Commission Presidential Report of 1980, which states that “…At the last General Election (1977) 67 per cent of the voters in the Eastern Province cast their votes against the TULF so that this party cannot claim that it received a mandate for Eelam in respect of that province.”[22]

Eastern Tamils again rejected the idea of an amalgamated North Eastern Province, this time from within the LTTE organization itself. In 2004 the LTTE organization split along geographic lines, with its Eastern members leaving the LTTE’s Northern command to create the Karuna Faction, which would ultimately bring down the LTTE organization in Sri Lanka. The LTTE command in Jaffna lead by Prabhakaran and his inner circle were known to discriminate against their Eastern brethren, whom they considered to be of a lower caste. The LTTE leadership’s own discrimination of and disregard for the Eastern Tamils was perhaps felt most painfully by the families of the child soldiers of the LTTE. The LTTE forcibly recruited these children, as young as 10 years old, primarily from the Tamil families in the East. “If a family resisted, they were often subject to threats and harassment. In many cases, a child was eventually taken by force.”[23]

According to Fernando, whether the 13th Amendment is popular or not within Sri Lanka, its enforcement has been pushed on every successive democratically elected government of Sri Lanka by two powerful entities: every successive government of India since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the UNHRC which included it in the Resolutions on Sri Lanka immediately after the conclusion of the war in 2009 and again in 2015[24] as well in 2021.[25] 

Part 6: Rebuilding and Reconciling

Back at the Sri Vidyananda Pirivena immediately after the Aranthalawa Massacre, Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Thero took over as the Head Monk of more than 40 temples that had been under the care of Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero. He was 24 years old. Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Thero who had only recently left the Sri Vidyananda Pirivena to pursue his higher studies at the Kelaniya University, returned immediately to Ampara when he heard about the massacre.

In the days after the massacre as his first act as the new Head Monk, Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Thero oversaw the ardhana ceremony and cremation of the slain monks. Due to the tremendous outpouring of grief from the community, the funeral was held at the Ampara municipal grounds on June 05, 1987 with more than a thousand senior monks from temples all over Sri Lanka and several thousand members of the public in attendance. After the ardhana and related events, Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Thero focused his attention on the needs of the injured who were scattered between hospitals in Ampara, Kandy and Colombo; and tried to create an environment for the remaining monks to return to in a much-diminished pirivena, missing its leader, a teacher and almost all of its students.

One by one the surviving child monks asked to leave the robes. Some were dealing with debilitating injuries. Some were scared about being attacked again for being Buddhist monks. Parents too begged to take back their sons, not wanting to be separated from them again. In the end, of the 12 surviving monks, only three would remain in robes. 

It is in the immediate aftermath of the massacre that the relationship between the temple and the village that Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero had nurtured displayed its strength. Dayakayas from all over Ampara rallied around their young Head Monk, offering him all the assistance and guidance they could provide. Even the parents of the slain monks gave him their support to somehow build the pirivena back up and continue the legacy of their beloved Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero.

At the temple in the months after the massacre, the mood was “sadness beyond one could cope.” Said W.G. Sirisena. The monks were in a bad way, grief-stricken, depressed. The community rallied, trying to lift up their spirits, and did their best to keep the temple and its inhabitants going.

“I used to go to the temple almost every day, as part of my routine.” Said Sirisena describing his relationship with the Mahawapi Temple since 1964. He remembers the last time he saw the little monks, on the morning of June 02, 1987, where some dayakayas had gathered at the temple to send off the delegation on their charikawa. “They left the temple with great joy.”

After the three-month dané and merit-giving was conducted for the deceased, Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Thero made a vow. “It was very painful to me that this gruesome terrorist act against Buddhist monks had happened here in this Buddhist country. I vowed that I would keep the memory of this event and of the monks who died alive in the hearts of the people of this country, somehow through some action.” 

Like his predecessor, Ven. Kirinidiwela Somarathana Thero believed in the power of symbolism. He decided to build a memorial at the very site of the massacre. As long as that memorial exists, he determined, the country could not forget the brutality of the LTTE and the war that had ravaged the nation for nearly three decades. “I wanted to create a message to the world: this is where these Buddhist monks were cut, chopped, shot and killed by terrorists.”

The fact that the massacre had happened in the middle of a thick jungle was immaterial to him. He petitioned the government for permission to clear an area of the jungle and build the memorial. In his words, these were nearly impossible times with the East largely isolated from the rest of the country. The location of the memorial site was also unforgiving. There was no electricity, running water, a road or any protection from the elements. Still, Ven. Kirinidiwela Somarathana Thero managed to worked with volunteers to clear out an area of the massacre site, which he had obtained permission to build on. However, constructing a monument there seemed out of his reach.

In 2007 President Mahinda Rajapakse, at the cusp of militarily ending the war, started the Deyata Kirula National Development Program, a fund intended to redevelop war-torn areas through building and infrastructure projects. Ven. Kirinidiwela Somarathana Thero applied for funds and became the recipient of the program’s first grant. 20 years after the massacre, he was finally able to get the land cleared and the foundation stone laid for the Memorial. He then launched a petition to claim the massacre bus, which he learned was being kept at an SLTB bus depot in Bandarawela. His petition was successful and he was granted ownership of the bus, which he got delivered to the massacre site. He then commissioned the renowned realism sculptor Anil Arumapura to recreate the scene of the massacre inside the bus, using first responders’ and eye-witnesses’ testimonies and photographs that the temple had collected. The sculptor got to work, to create a moving scene of the violence and chaos unfolding inside the very bus in which the massacre had occurred. No details were left out, from the horrific to the helplessness that the victims experienced. From the injuries depicted on the life-sized bodies made of plaster to the alms bowls covering the heads of some of the dead victims, Ven. Kirinidiwela Somarathana Thero worked with Arumapura to create, not only a monument for the dead, but a historical record of what had taken place.

Due in large part to Ven. Kirinidiwela Somarathana Thero’s efforts to keep this event in the public’s memory, the government commemorated the Aranthalawa Massacre’s 20th anniversary in Colombo at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), Sri Lanka’s iconic convention center, in a photographic exhibition that was open to the public. Sri Vidyananda Pirivena arranged transportation for the victims’ families to attend this exhibition, including finding them accommodation to stay overnight at Colombo temples. 

M.H Kiriappu, father of a child monk killed in the Aranthalawa Massacre at the Aranthalawa Massacre 20th Anniversary exhibition at the BMICH in Colombo. Image courtesy of The Daily News.

The Aranthalawa Memorial built at the massacre site eventually became a memorial temple because it started to receive threats. When Ven. Kirinidiwela Somarathana Thero learned that vandals were planning on defacing the Memorial, monks offered to stay overnight at the site to protect it. Soon, they built a small temple adjacent to the Memorial, and the Aranthalawa Buddhist Monks Memorial Temple came into being in 2013. Built with donations from Buddhists worldwide, a small number of Buddhist monks live here in simple dwellings. They lack basic facilities such as running water and do not have a surrounding lay community that is large enough to support it. However, Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero, now the Chief Incumbent of the Eastern Province, has ambitious plans for this temple. He hopes to grow the Memorial Temple into a cultural center with accommodations for residing and visiting monks, a meditation hall, a conference hall, a library and administrative buildings. Though he heads more than 40 temples and pirivenas, some able to provide more comfort than the Aranthalawa Buddhist Monks Memorial Temple, it has become Ven. Kirinidiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero’s mainstay and one that he has committed to protect, preserve and grow. With this Memorial Temple and the large commemoration events he holds on every anniversary of the Aranthalawa Bhikku Massacre, this one event is slowly being etched into the public memory, while the hundreds of other similar acts of terrorism by the LTTE are now all but forgotten by a population eager to move on after the war ended. 

Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero at the Aranthalawa Memorial in Aranthalawa.

In Colombo, Prof. Chandraguptha Thenuwara at the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo and the artist-led Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts has spent decades thinking about post-war Sri Lanka and the role of memory. Since 1997 he has held an annually occurring exhibition in July to commemorate the 1983 pogrom that became known as “Black July” the violent, week-long attack by a Sinhalese mob on the Tamil population. Through this exhibition he explores themes of wartime memory, memorialization, reconciliation, healing and national growth.  

Even as a society works through these complex issues and emotions, “…a memorial, especially a war memorial, must have a simple message – no war, no violence.” He said. “Or, you are (subscribing) to the international bullet making market. International players will pit us against each other, because it is profitable for them if we go to war. So, we must empower the people (not to go to war with each other).”

Prof. Thenuwara believes that post-war memorials especially need to be aware that they are being erected by the “victor”. Through this awareness, he said, they need to offer a space for “dialogue, understanding, apologizing, acknowledging and addressing past violence” between groups in a fractured country. And, importantly, they must provide a space for Sri Lanka’s grieving multitudes to experience catharsis by “(being) a place for people to cry – publicly cry.”

There is no question that in post-war Sri Lanka, people grieve in private: within their homes and within their closed ethnic, religious and social communities. In this fractured landscape, Prof. Thenuwara stresses the importance of making memorials and monuments that invite those who are grieving as well as those who wish to make amends, as the way to bridge divisions in Sri Lanka. To that end, Prof. Thenuwara cautions about monuments, especially “victor’s” monuments “that make statements”, rather than providing “the space to think.”

That said, the ultimate test of a monument’s eventual success, he said, “…is time. Time will decide if a monument is a good one or a bad one. If it is not a good monument, it will become neglected and disappear. If it is a good monument, people will love it. They will visit it often and care for it, and it will stand the test of time.”

The Arananthalawa Buddhist Monks Memorial is presently a successful monument. It has become a pilgrimage site to some Buddhists, with a steady stream of visitors coming through. These visitors’ donations sustain the Memorial Temple and fund the upkeep of the grounds and monuments at the Memorial. 

Inside the massacre bus, highly realistic sculptures of children and adults in various twisted stages of death and suffering are depicted. One child monk is shown leaning his body out of a window calling for help. His futile gesture is intended to arouse in the visitor a sense of the collective helplessness felt by all those who could not prevent the massacre from happening that day.

The Aranthalawa Memorial: interior view (2013) courtesy of Anil Arumapura.

The Aranthalawa Memorial: exterior view (2021)

“It is not our intention with this Memorial to hurt anyone’s (minority community’s) feelings. It exists because terrorists massacred a group of clergy, here, in this country. It exists to open the eyes of people, including the country’s leaders… to never let this happen in our country again.” Said Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero.

Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero, a survivor of the Aranthalawa Massacre, who has visited the Memorial, echoed these sentiments. “It speaks to the heart,” He said. “Because, it imparts a valuable message: may this type of misfortune or trouble never fall on the citizens of this country again.”

D. M. Abeyratna, father of Ven. Wavinne Saddhawansa Thero who at the age of 19 died in the Aranthalawa Massacre, has visited the Memorial many times. “When I see (the Aranthalawa Memorial), I think “This is what happened during the war… this is terrorism.”” He said.

He thinks that the Aranthalawa Memorial depicting the victims in the bus is an important historical record of what happened. However, the memorial that he prefers to visit is a different one. On the same site, in a different clearing, there is second memorial: it is of 31 serene white statues of the Seated Buddha placed along a path. The statues were made in honor of each of the victims who died in the massacre. Each statue symbolizes a Buddhist’s ultimate goal: to attain Enlightenment, which is to be released from the cycle of rebirth. It means the end of suffering. Abeyratna called this a “beautiful” memorial that he said he likes to visit, to spend time at and to find some solace.

Abeyratna also said that he finds the annual memorial service conducted by the temple to be immensely helpful, which he had participated in every year until he became frail and lost his vision due to cataracts. Since then, he had been unable to travel to the commemoration events, he said, but he hopes that they continue to perpetuity so that his son and the others who were killed in the massacre can be offered enough good karma to be born into the world of the devas (gods) and avoid being born into our world again.

D. M. Siriyawathi, the mother of 17-year-old Wavinne Aththadassi Thero who was killed in the Aranthalawa Massacre, had visited the Memorial and has attended the commemoration event every year until the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the financial crisis that followed, she said that she fell into deep poverty and could not even afford the bus fare to attend the annual commemoration event. Whether she would be able to attend them again or not, she said that she hopes the annual commemoration event continues to perpetuity so that her deceased son and the other victims can continue to be offered good merit to avoid facing such an event in a future life.

Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero reflecting on all that they had endured and what the future holds said: “In Buddhism, we believe that we all face the Ata Lo Dahama (Eight Worldly Conditions: gain, loss, fame, obscurity, blame, praise, happiness, pain) in our lifetime. We have trained our minds to face any troubles, obstacles or problems that come our way. We are also educated, and we have gained experience through the years. Therefore, sadness, happiness, pain, tears, laughter, victory, defeat, are all conditions that we can tolerate. This is what life is. Having faced this enormous event already, any future troubles or problems we may face will not be problems for us.”

Sri Vidyananda Maha Pirivena today is a bustling school for novice monks with a new group of 60 students and teachers. The spacious, picturesque campus comprising mostly simple open halls now provides both primary and secondary education to its students. It also operates the Sri Vidyananda Dhamma (Sunday) School for lay children and also runs a pre-school for the community’s youngest children. The current pirivena students are the same ages as the victims of the massacre and come from the same parts of the island, mostly the rural heartland. Majority, like their predecessors, felt an urge to become monks at a young age. There are also a few very young students who were “given” to the temple. They can be as young as four or five years old and are too young to decide if they want to join the Order. They arrived at the pirivena due to an unfortunate change in their families’ circumstances, such as the death of a parent or a divorce. These children follow the same routine, classes and vinaya as the ordained student monks, but are not required to wear robes. 

“If they ask to join the Order, we will ordain them.” Said Ven. Pallewela Mahinda Thero, who oversees the pirivena under the guidance of Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero.

At the school, as part of the pirivena education there is a strong focus on higher education, dhamma duta work and social service in keeping with Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero’s vision. The student monks have always actively participated in social service work within the Ampara community. Over the years, the pirivena has accepted many refugees that the student monks have cared for. During the war years, Wasantha (formerly Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero) recalled a time a few years after the Aranthalawa Massacre, when the pirivena took in refugees after the Akkaraipaththu Massacre on March 24, 1991, another village “cutting” in the Ampara district. The survivors who were from a middle-class suburban part of Ampara were mostly teachers, public servants and professionals, he recalled. Wasantha remembered that the families that arrived were in a state of shock, unable to grasp what had happened to them. The monks cared for these traumatized families for more than a year until they could pick themselves back up and leave the pirivena, he said. Some moved to other parts of the country to rebuild their lives, but still remain in close touch with Wasantha, bonded by their shared trauma and a deep gratitude for his kindness and empathy at a time when they had lost everything.

In 2004, when the tsunami struck the East Coast, the pirivena again accepted refugees. This time the refugees were all Tamil, from the east coast’s fishing villages. The BBC Sinhala Service carried a news article about this titled “LTTE Massacre Site is Haven for Tamil Victims”.[26] Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero used the event to try and unify communities. He instructed the student monks to attend to the refugees’ every need from serving them milk tea every morning to helping the disabled or injured to the toilets. The refugees who too had lost their loved ones and all their property in the tsunami were not made aware of the history of the pirivena, Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero said.

Ven. Pallewela Mahinda Thero who is now the main administrator at the Sri Vidyananda Maha Pirivena cares for the current child monks and attends to their every need. He said that these days, immediate concerns relating to survival dominate their lives. The unprecedented financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic has been a double-blow for the pirivena and the surrounding community. The child monks are falling ill in waves, despite the administrators’ efforts to follow the Ministry of Health’s Covid-19 guidelines. With hospitals refusing to admit Covid-19 patients and a serious shortage of medicine on the island, Ven. Pallewela Mahinda Thero personally travels all over to try and obtain the necessary medicine and supplies to treat the sick child monks at the pirivena. Almost all the surrounding families have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in the form of death, illness and a loss of income, He said. The financial crisis has compounded their suffering. Some of the families that used to group together to provide alms to the temple are now simply unable to do so. During these times, the pirivena has to dip into its dwindling supplies of provisions to feed the student monks, and seek donations from those outside their immediate community. When it rains, the three simple structures that function as the monks’ sleeping quarters get flooded, he said. Shortly before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic the monks had started construction on a new dormitory building to replace these three structures that date back to the pirivena’s early days. When the pandemic started, construction stalled and now the plans have been shelved indefinitely due to a lack of funds.

Because his days are filled with the tasks of running the pirivena and attending to the needs of the surrounding community, Ven. Pallewela Mahinda Thero, who is pursuing his higher education, studies late at night chewing betel leaf to ward off any sleepiness that might come over him. Some of the child monks bring their school books and study next to him. During the height of the pandemic and as the island was sliding into a massive financial crisis, despite falling ill from Covid-19 twice, Ven. Pallewela Mahinda Thero obtained his Master’s Degree from the University of Kelaniya mainly by taking his classes remotely. He has more degrees to pursue, he said.

Despite his easygoing demeanor, Ven. Pallewela Mahinda Thero is constantly striving: to ensure regular meals for the child monks and maintain the general health of the student population; to stay one step ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic that has made several child monks seriously ill and keeps sending the pirivena into quarantine; to over time replace or upgrade the rudimentary aging buildings on the campus; to create pleasant and tranquil spaces on the premises to facilitate studying (to this end, he recently got constructed a small waterfall and an open air study area with donated materials and volunteer labor); and above all, to provide the students with a quality education. He maintains a close cordial relationship with the members of the Ampara community and counts among the pirivena’s dayakayas, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims.

Like its founder, Ven. Pallewala Mahinda Thero hopes to turn the small provincial monks in his care into worldly ambassadors of Buddhism able to hold their own in the world. He hopes the pirivena can one day offer good quality English classes, which he believes is essential to this mission. 

Ven. Pallewala Mahinda Thero (far right) with some current students and dayakayas of the Sri Vidyananda Maha Pirivena in Ampara arriving to visit the Head Monk Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero at the Aranthalawa Buddhist Monks Memorial Temple in Aranthalawa.

Part 7: Where Are They Now?

After the massacre, the government offered one-time compensation to the victims’ families: Rs. 25,000 for the slain adults and Rs. 15,000 for the slain children. Even by 1987 standards, this was a paltry sum. Some families, such as Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero’s family, rejected the offer. But, most of the families of the slain monks were poor to refuse it. The victims’ families have received no further assistance from the government or any form of reparations. The survivors, because they did not die in the massacre, received nothing at all.

D. M Siriyawathi, mother Ven. Wavinne Aththadassi Thero who died in the massacre at the age of 17, noted that the entire government payment of Rs. 15,000 that her family received got used up in the process of obtaining her son’s death certificate. After the massacre, her once stable (although poor) family sank further and further into poverty, she said. Some years later, Siriyawathi’s husband passed away. Still, she continued to visit the pirivena when she could, which she had visited every two weeks for the three years that her son had resided there. The child monks reminded her of her own Podi Hamuduruwo (Little Monk), she said. The pirivena was the only institution that provided her with support after her son’s death. Whenever she visited, “The pirivena monks treat me very well.” She said tearfully. “They give me sugar, tea, flour to take back with me… what amount of money that they can give, telling me to use if for the bus fare, for medicine… They give me Panadol (pain medication), Siddhalepa (Ayurvedic balm)…”

Much of Siriyawathi’s life was defined by loss. “Sri Lanka’s great years was in the 1960s and 70s.” She reflected. For a brief while in Sri Lanka’s modern history – wedged between two eras of violence: the colonial era and the war period – agrarian Sinhalese families enjoyed dignity, prosperity and opportunity. It was evident in “…the way we ate and drank and the way we lived.” She said. “Now there is only loss. I lost my Podi HamuduruwoI lost my husband, I lost my parents. I had to sell property to (be able to afford to) perform even a pinkama in their memory… I have not been able to regain my land.”

Siriyawathi passed away in 2022, at the height of the financial crisis that resulted in island-wide shortages in medicine and medical supplies. Like many Sri Lankans without the financial resources to weather the many natural and man-made disasters of Sri Lanka, she died as she had lived, a victim of circumstances beyond her control. In May 2022, as hospitals across the country ran out of medicine, Siriyawathi was diagnosed with liver cancer and admitted into hospital. She died less than two weeks later.

B. M. Thilakarathna, brother of Ven. Wavinne Gunawansa Thero who was killed in the Aranthalawa Massacre at the age of 17 said that his parents attended the annual commemoration events organized by Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero every year until their deaths.

The victims’ families unanimously agreed that the annual commemoration events are an important part of the temple-centered support structure that Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero had created for them. Every year, the families receive letters of invitation to attend the commemoration event. The event is a large and somber one that is also attended by delegations of monks from other temples, local officials, dayakayas and the Ampara community with the survivors and the victims’ parents being its honored guests. Here they are able to connect with each other and check on each other’s well-being, and form a community around their shared trauma. The parents, most of whom are in poverty, also receive an annual financial contribution from Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero.

The very temples that almost collapsed after the Aranthalawa Massacre, have remained the sole, steadfast safety net that the survivors and the victims’ families have relied on.

“Even today, Ven. Somararthana Thero cares for us. If we call and ask for anything, he will inquire about our well-being and attend to our needs.” Said Wasantha, formerly Ven. Wavinne Sirinanda Thero, who faced the Aranthalawa Massacre at the age of 11.

Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero, 19 at the time of the Aranathalawa Massacre

35 years later, Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero still struggles with the injuries he sustained during the Aranthalawa Massacre and has undergone multiple surgeries. 19 years old at the time of the attack, “my education was destroyed after that.” He said. “My body has not recovered, yet.”

For years after the attack Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero said he lived with “terror, sadness and pain.” Thinking about what innocent people – civilians, clergy, children – have suffered at the hands of the LTTE, he said he feels “a great sadness.” He bears the effects of the attack: chronic pain, continuous medical treatment and surgeries, insomnia, and a deep mental anguish over what happened. He feels a tremendous sadness about the disruption to his education, which he was never able to complete, he said. He has lifelong medical expenses: for treatments and surgical procedures as well as for medication. His most recent surgery relating to his injuries was in 2021. To date, Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero has not received any compensation or reparations for the terrorist attack he endured. All his medical expenses have been borne by Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero who has traveled all over the island with him in search of specialist doctors, procedures and treatments that may alleviate his pain.

“He is still in shock about what happened.” Said Sirisena, a temple dayakaya. “When he sees us (those he knew from before the massacre) he gets tearful, even after all these years.”

Although he endured one of the worst crimes against humanity, Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero has a peaceful message for reconciliation. He reflected on the UN-mandated programs established immediately after the war ended in 2009 aimed at reconciliation, which included rehabilitating former LTTE cadres, despite the violent crimes that they may have committed, and reintegrating them into civil society. Despite his own first-hand experience with the LTTE’s terrorism and a lack of accountability for the atrocity he faced, Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero said, “People are born pure. They are not born with any hatred towards another race or ethnic group. Those sentiments are created. So, for (the former LTTE cadres) to be given an opportunity to learn the value of life, the value of a society, the value of a country… to build them up and to give them the skills… is to give them (another opportunity) at this life to become illuminated members in society. I think these programs in place are good ones.”

Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero, 15 at the time of the Aranthalawa Massacre

For Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero, every day since the Aranthalawa Massacre has been exceptionally difficult. His happiest memory from the day of the massacre is that during the first hour on the bus, he was standing. His last memory from that day is lying in a pool of his own blood and listening to his friends begging their murderers, “Aney Mamé, epa! Epa!” (“Uncle, don’t! Don’t!”)

He was 15 years old and unconscious when he entered hospital and 21 years old and paralyzed when he was discharged. For six years Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero lived in various hospitals undergoing multiple surgeries on his spine and doing physical therapy to regain the use of his arms. After four years, the hospital discharged him, he said, but then kept him on as an in-patient for two more years because he had nowhere to go.

Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero said that he struggled to find a temple that could accommodate him with his special needs and all the expenses that came with his paralysis. He needed two attendants throughout the day and night to help him with his basic needs; a wheelchair accessible temple to house him; and financial support to cover surgeries, physical therapy and medications for the rest of his life. 

His old pirivena could not accommodate him (with his special needs), he said. And, no government institution, non-government organization or temple volunteered to take him in. In the hospitals, the doctors, nurses and orderlies treated him with care and kindness, he said. In the outside world, he found himself unwanted and completely alone. He sank into a depression, he said, and wondered if his life was over at 21.

For a while, he was homeless, Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero said. Eventually, some senior Buddhist monks petitioned the government to find him an accommodation. Due to their persistence, officials moved him to a small building in Badulla close to his hometown of Kirindiwela, neither a temple nor a residence. He has since lived there in a state of limbo, surviving from one month to the next. Without any financial resources of his own, he has to raise the funds from donors to pay for his care, he said. Having to raise Rs. 50,000 every month to pay for his care has been draining for him. He said that does not have the funds to make a small viharage (monastery) on the premises to be able to run his own temple. He has not been able to complete his education. He finds it frustrating that the survivors, who have struggled immensely since this massacre have been forgotten by both Sri Lankans and an international community, with the latter eager to discuss reparations only for alleged Tamil victims of the government, but not the hundreds of thousands of documented war victims of the LTTE like him. 

Having undergone multiple surgeries on his spine and also his hands, Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero has now resigned himself to the possibility that he may not recover. He fears that his medical expenses will continue for the rest of his life. For Sri Lankans, he has the following message. “We are still alive. Come and see us. Help us. We are struggling to make ends meet.”

“People talk about the Aranthalawa Bhikku Massacre, they worship the Memorial, but they don’t make inquiries and help the survivors who are struggling to stay alive or the parents of those victims who died from it. If those children were alive today, they would not let their parents be in these desperate circumstances.” He said, noting that many of the victims’ parents are now elderly, helpless and have steadily fallen into poverty. “Look after (the victims’) parents, they are destitute today. We (the survivors) are struggling today.”

On June 30, 2020, 33 years after the Aranthalawa Massacre, Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero filed a Fundamental Rights application with the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka seeking “an order be made on the Acting Inspector General of Police and the Attorney General to take immediate legal action against any surviving terrorist responsible for the attack which took place on the 02nd of June 1987.”[27] On August 03, 2021, the Attorney General informed the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka that an investigation into the Aranthalawa Massacre would be launched.[28] Since then, no public announcement on the investigation has been made.  
Wasantha Dissanayake (Formerly Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero), 11 at the time of the Aranthalawa Massacre

“Sometimes I think that life is an illusion… a lie. (As we) spend our lives, the only currency we carry with us is our decency.” Said Wasantha, formerly Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero, who joined the Order at eight years and faced the LTTE in the Aranthalawa Massacre as a 11-year-old child monk. Had it not been for the massacre, he would have remained a Buddhist monk he thinks. “The ordained life was a difficult existence back then. We didn’t always receive alms (at the temple) so we had to often go on pinnapathé with our alms bowls to collect our meals. Unlike many Buddhist monks whose needs are taken care of today, we had to be very self-sufficient. It was a difficult and meager existence, one which lost its appeal to me… after what happened.” After the Aranthalawa Massacre Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero felt frightened daily that his saffron robes made him a target of the LTTE. The fear and the terror with which he lived took a mental toll on him. After spending a week with his family after the Aranthalawa Massacre, Ven. Wawinne Sirinanda Thero returned to the pirivena, but struggled to adjust. He found it impossible to stay there especially at night, he said. He missed his friends with whom he had spent every waking hour. “I could not fill the void.” He said.

One day at the pirivena, he became so frightened at the thought of being attacked again for being a Buddhist monk that he decided to leave the robes and re-enter lay life. He was 15.

After leaving the robes, Wasantha struggled to readjust to the nation’s public education system, having spent most of his life in the pirivena education system. He eventually abandoned his education altogether. He took daily wage jobs that were available to him, gravitating to ones that allowed him to work in a focused way with his hands, guiding into finished products raw materials such as silver, granite, terrazzo, titanium and cement. He once took a service sector job in the luxury resort islands of Maldives. For the last several years he has been working consistently in home construction to support his wife and two young children. He takes pride in the quality of his work, which seems to be the only aspect of his life that he can control. “I can make terrazzo shine like a mirror.” He said.

The financial crisis sent cement prices soaring and halted the construction industry completely in 2022. Without an income, his savings got depleted trying to meet the exorbitant cost of living. When asked to elaborate on his hopes for the future, Wasantha said that he would like to one day build a small house of his own, as a symbol of stability, for his children.

Having received nothing by the way of reparations or any closure in the form of justice for what he endured, he seemed amazed that the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) passed another resolution against Sri Lanka in 2021. At the center of the resolution is the allegation of human rights abuses against Tamils by the government of Sri Lanka, which the UNHRC insists must be investigated and any perpetrators held accountable.

“I was witness to the (Aranthalawa Massacre) from beginning to end. I was seated in the third-row seat of the bus and witnessed the whole event from the murder of Ven. Hegoda Sri Indasara Nayaka Thero in the front of the bus, the attack on Ven. Valallawita Wimalanyana Thero next and all the rest all the way to the back of the bus…

“…Our people have no memory, we forget after a few weeks… I am not sure if our children even know the hardship we faced during the war with the LTTE. Back then, if we got on a bus to travel from the Eastern Province to Colombo, we had to stop at about 50 military checkpoints along the way, climb down, get searched, climb back on and less than a kilometer later we had to stop and go through it again at another check point – we really suffered day after day. They (UNHRC and the international community) should consider what the LTTE did to us. Those who suffered the most from the war are the Sinhalese, so their (resolution) needs to be equitable.

“Consider the parents who lost their sons that day, some of them are in desperate circumstances now and suffering immensely. They even struggle to find their next meal. If their sons were alive, they would have been adults by now, and would not have allowed that to happen. They would have supported them somehow, whether they were Buddhist monks or not. But many of these parents have nothing and no one. The humane thing to do is to find out about them, learn about their struggles, and find out how to support them for the remaining years of their lives. Investigating this event and achieving a fair settlement (for the survivors and families of the victims) would be my hope for the future.”

Survivors like Wasantha had to navigate what had happened to them alone. Wasantha’s family supported him the best they could, but was unable to help him deal with his trauma. He said that he took the pills that the doctors prescribed him at the hospital, but stopped taking them eventually because “(they) didn’t help much.”

Wasantha’s children do not know of his involvement in the Massacre. “I will take them (to the Memorial) one day at an appropriate time, and then I will tell them.” For now, he wants to preserve their innocence.

Rathnayaka Mudiyanselage Rathnayaka

Rathnayaka Mudalali was shot in the legs and knee during the massacre. While in hospital, he learned that his 12-year-old son, Ven. Dewalahinda Dhammarakkitha Thero, had died. For the remainder of his life, Rathnayaka Mudalali dedicated his life to helping the monks build the pirivena back up and attending to the welfare of the child monks there. Records show that over the years he traveled to multiple parts of the country at his own expense and gave multiple sworn affidavits and testimonies, including to the Ampara police and the Commissioner of Oaths in Polonnaruwa. He kept meticulous records of his injuries and treatments as evidence. As a survivor as well as the father of one of the victims, it was his quiet hope to somehow initiate a criminal investigation into what he firmly believed was a crime against humanity that was committed against him and the 46 others. He died in 2018 at home in Ampara, never fulfilling this hope. In his final hours, he requested the presence of the Sri Vidyananda Maha Pirivena student monks to chant pirith for him one last time. The temple sent five child monks, all around the same age as the son he lost, to perform this service.


I would like to thank Ven. Kirindiwela Somarathana Nayaka Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Eastern Province and Head Monk of the Sri Vidyananda Maha Pirivena, Mahawapi Maha Vihara Temple and the Aranthalawa Buddhist Monks Memorial Temple for providing open access, interviews and documentation relating to the Aranthalawa Massacre; Major General Sujeewa Senarath Yapa RWP RSP ndu – Commander, Security Forces (Jaffna) for providing evidence and documentation relating to the Aranthalawa Massacre and other LTTE atrocities, and for his assistance in finding first responders; Mr. Austin Fernando, Former Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka, Defense Secretary, Governor of the Eastern Province and the Minister of Rehabilitation at the time of the Aranthalawa Massacre, for giving his recollections, perspective and the historical context within which this event occurred; Ven. Pallewela Mahinda Thero, Head Administrator of the Sri Vidyananda Maha Pirivena for providing assistance and access to understanding pirivena life in Eastern Sri Lanka; Ven. Hanguranketa Pūnnyasara Thero for giving his survivor’s account and life story; Ven. Andaulpotha Buddhasara Thero for giving his survivor’s account and life story; Mr. Wasantha Dissanayake (formerly Ven. Wavinne Sirinanda Thero) for giving his survivor’s account and life story; Mrs. G. M. Siriyawathi (mother of Ven. Wavinne Atthadassi Thero) for sharing her memories and perspective; Mr. D. M. Abeyratna (father of Ven. Wavinne Saddhawansa Thero) for sharing his memories and perspective; Mr. S. G. Gunasekera (father of Ven. Ambagawalla Sarana Thero) for sharing his memories and perspective; Mr. B. M. Thilakarathna (brother of Ven. Wavinne Gunawansa Thero) for sharing his memories and perspective; ASP Janaka Hapuhinna, Sri Lanka Police for giving his account as a first responder and as an STF Officer Commanding at the time; Mr. A. W. Jayawardene, Home Guard of Nuwaragaltenna for giving his account as a first responder; Mrs. M. V. Somawathi, (retired) registered nurse at Ampara General Hospital for giving her eyewitness account and historical recollections as a long-term Ampara resident; Mr. W. G. Sirisena for his account as a lay supporter of the Sri Vidyananda Maha Pirivena and historical recollections as a long-term Ampara resident; Dr. K. Locana Gunaratna for his contribution and guidance on the Colonial history of Sri Lanka; Ven. Bhikkhuni Dr. W. Suvimalee for her contribution and guidance on ordination ceremonies of Theravada Buddhist monks and nuns of Sri Lanka; Ven. Polgolle Kusaladhamma Thero for his contribution and guidance on the pirivena history of Sri Lanka; Prof. Chandragupta Thenuwara for explaining his work on post-war memorials, memory and reconciliation in Sri Lanka; Mr. Chanakya Dissanayake for his coordination and support; and Mrs. Ramila Senanayake for her editorial support.

[1] De Silva, Jayatillake, ed. Chronology of LTTE Terror. Colombo: The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, Sri Lanka, 54

[2] Baldaeus, Philip, Pieter Brothier, and S. D. Saparamadu. Essay. In A True and Exact Description of the Great Island of Ceylon: Being the Section Relating to Ceylon of the “Beschrijving Der Oost Indische Kusten Malabar En Choromandel Der Zelver Aangrenzende Ryken En Het Machtige Eyland Ceylon Nevens Een Onstandige En Grondigh Doorzochte Ontdekking En Wederlegginge Van De Afgoderye Den Oost-Indische Heydenen”, Maharagama: Saman Press, 1960.

[3] Bhikkuni Dr. W. Suvimalee. “Revisiting the Abhayabumi Concept”. Life Times Sri Lanka, April 2016.

[4] Kanagasundram, Ajit. LankaWeb, “The Gal Oya Project 60 Years On.” The Island, October 10, 2016. http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2016/10/10/the-gal-oya-project-60-years-on/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka, “Census of Population and Housing of Sri Lanka – Table A1: Population by District, Sex and Sector”, generated from the original using http://www.statistics.gov.lk/PopHouSat/CPH2011/Pages/Activities/Reports/FinalReport/Population/Table%20A1.pdf, March 03, 2022

[8] O’Brian, Barbara, Learning Religions, “Buddhist Monks Robes”. August 25, 2018. https://www.learnreligions.com/the-buddhas-robe-p2-4123187

[9] De Silva, Jayatillake, ed. Chronology of LTTE Terror. Colombo: The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, Sri Lanka, 44-45

[10] De Silva, Jayatillake, ed. Chronology of LTTE Terror. Colombo: The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, Sri Lanka, 45-47

[11] De Silva, Jayatillake, ed. Chronology of LTTE Terror. Colombo: The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, Sri Lanka, 47-48

[12] De Silva, Jayatillake, ed. Chronology of LTTE Terror. Colombo: The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, Sri Lanka, 47-48

[13] De Silva, Jayatillake, ed. Chronology of LTTE Terror. Colombo: The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, Sri Lanka, 49

[14] De Silva, Jayatillake, ed. Chronology of LTTE Terror. Colombo: The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, Sri Lanka, 50

[15] De Silva, Jayatillake, ed. Chronology of LTTE Terror. Colombo: The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, Sri Lanka, 51-53

[16] Rettie, John. “Colombo Bus Station Bomb Claims 150, 22 April 1987.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 21, 2009. https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2009/apr/22/1987-colombo-bus-station-bomb.

[17] Klodawsky, Helene, No More Tears Sister. National Film Board of Canada, 2006. 78mins. http://onf-nfb.gc.ca/en/our-collection/?idfilm=51681

[18] Jeyaraj, D. B. S., “LTTE Chief Matheenthiran Alias Parithy Shot dead in Paris”. Daily Mirror. November 09, 2012.  https://www.dailymirror.lk/23375/ltte-chief-matheenthiran-alias-parithy-shot-dead-in-paris.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Sansoni, M C. Rep. Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Incidents Which Took Place Between 13th August and 15th September, 1977. Colombo: Department of Government Printing Sri Lanka, 1980. https://lankafreelibrary.com/2019/10/15/sansoni-commission-1980/.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Becker, Jo and Thapa, Tejshree, “Living in Fear: Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.” News Release. Human Rights Watch. November 11, 2004. https://www.hrw.org/report/2004/11/10/living-fear/child-soldiers-and-tamil-tigers-sri-lanka.

[24] Fernando, Austin. “Flashbacks of Reinforcing 13A.” The Island. Upali Newspapers (Pvt) Ltd. December 25, 2020. https://island.lk/flashbacks-of-reinforcing-13a/.

[25] General Assembly resolution 46/1, “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”, A/HRC/RES/46/1. March 26, 2921. undocs.org/en/A/HRC/RES/46/1.

[26] Fernando, Elmo. “LTTE massacre site is haven for Tamil victims.” BBC Sinhala Service. BBC, January 28, 2005. https://www.bbc.com/sinhala/highlights/story/2005/01/printable/050128_elmo_ampara.

[27] Farzan, Zulfick, “Monk files FR seeking action against terrorists responsible Aranthalawa Massacre.” News First, MTV Channel Pvt Ltd, June 30, 2020. https://www.newsfirst.lk/2020/06/30/monk-files-fr-seeking-action-against-terrorists-responsible-aranthalawa-massacre/.

[28] Farzan, Zulfick, “Investigation launched into Aranthalawa Massacre of 1987 – AG tells Supreme Court.” News First, MTV Channel Pvt Ltd, August 03, 2021. https://www.newsfirst.lk/2021/08/03/investigation-launched-into-aranthalawa-massacre-of-1987-ag-tells-supreme-court/

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