The saying “Every search for a hero must begin with something that every hero requires: A villain” is perhaps the quote that stands out the most in Mission Impossible 2. In simple terms, it suggests that a hero cannot exist without a villain. In Sri Lanka, two uprisings and a thirty-year-long war, along with all the events in between, have given rise to individuals viewed as heroes and villains. However, what if the hero and the villain are the same? What if the people admired by the public as heroes have led secretive lives that society is unaware of? Today, I’d like to tell you three intriguing stories about three individuals whom the world believes to be heroes but also villains. Although I can’t confirm the actions of these people, I will be citing accounts from authors and eyewitnesses. Please understand that my intention is not to criticize or disparage any living or deceased individual.
Rohana Wijeweera was the Founder of the ජනතා විමුක්ති පෙරමුණ (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or People’s Liberation Front in English) and the දේශප්රේමී ජනතා ව්යාපාරය (Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya or Patriotic People’s Movement) the military arm of the same political party. Those who see Wijeweera as a hero point to his commitment to social justice and his willingness to fight for the rights of the underprivileged.
They contend that he was a true revolutionary driven by a desire to establish a fairer society. They highlight his charisma and his talent for motivating people to join him, even when facing significant risks. However, I see Wijeweera as a complex figure, embodying both hero and villain qualities. He orchestrated two insurgencies that resulted in the loss of numerous lives and extensive damage to both government and private property.
What troubles me the most is that he ordered the killings of military personnel and their families. Despite claims on social media by the new generation that the government orchestrated these killings and falsely blamed the JVP, it’s not accurate. While the government did exploit the situation to its advantage by massacring families connected to specific law enforcement officers and armed forces, it was Wijeweera who initially gave the order. In the end, Wijeweera also met a violent death, validating the saying attributed to the Holy Bible: “Those who cherish the sword will perish by the sword.”
Sepala Ekanayake, a Sri Lankan, became internationally infamous for hijacking an Alitalia Boeing 747 with 340 passengers on June 30, 1982, during a flight from New Delhi to Bangkok, all driven by his love for his son. The hijacking concluded peacefully with Sepala getting his demands met, but he was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison, serving time in Welikada. Despite the Italian government’s request for his extradition, public opinion in Sri Lanka opposed the move, with some even considering Ekanayake a hero.
Ekanayake although was successful in hijacking a commercial airplane did not harm its crew or the passengers. So, what casts him as a villain? It’s his alleged role in the Welikada prison massacre during the 1983 Black July pogrom by the racist communities against the Sri Lankan Tamil minority in Colombo. In this incident, fifty-three Tamil inmates were murdered by Sinhalese inmates. According to Rajan Hoole’s book “Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence, and Murder,” Ekanayake was implicated in the murders.
Although Ekanayake denies any participation, Lt Col. Sunil Peiris asserts in his book “My Journey with the Commando Regiment” that he saw Ekanayake holding the severed head of a Tamil inmate when they, along with their team, arrived at the prison to regain control of the situation. It’s important to highlight that, as of now, no one, including Ekanayake, has been convicted of any crimes related to these incidents.
Lt. Col. Tuan Nizam Muthaliff
On September 6, 2001, I came across a newspaper report stating that Vaithilingam Sornalingam, also known as Colonel Shankar, the founder, and leader of the LTTE air wing, was killed by an unknown party using an anti-personnel claymore mine. While speculation surrounded his death, suggesting it might be a result of internal strife within the LTTE, the organization accused the Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol (L.R.R.P) or the Deep Penetration Unit (D.P.U) of the SL Army of carrying out the attack. The Sri Lankan Army not only refuted the accusation but also denied the existence of a Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol.
So, where does the late Lieutenant Colonel Tuan Nizam Muthaliff fit into this story? He served as the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion in the Sri Lanka Army’s Military Intelligence Corps. He worked with the aforementioned nonexistent Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (L.R.R.P) and oversaw the covert operations team that killed Shankar. Muthaliff and his men instilled fear in the top leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E). However, his identity was exposed allegedly after the Millennium City incident, and subsequently, the L.T.T.E assassinated him on May 31st, 2005.
Today, he is hailed as a celebrated war hero and was once someone I looked up to as a role model. That’s why I was taken aback to come across a mention of him in “මරණ වරෙන්තුව නොහොත් විජේවීරගේ නික්මයාම” (Death Warrant alias the Departure of Wijeweera) by Kandegama Kularathne. According to the author, Muthaliff was in charge of a torture chamber during “Operation Combine“, the same facility where Rohana Wijeweera was held. While acknowledging that Wijeweera was not a saint, there is a concern that many innocent individuals might have lost their lives in that torture chamber under Muthaliff’s supervision.
In the intricate weave of history, the line between heroism and villainy often blurs, presenting us with complex narratives to unravel. Rohana Wijeweera, revered for his advocacy for social justice, yet tainted by allegations of violence, epitomizes this paradox. Sepala Ekanayake’s hijacking, born of personal desperation, juxtaposed with accusations of involvement in atrocities, underscores this ambiguity. Similarly, Lieutenant Colonel Tuan Nizam Muthaliff’s valor in combat contrasts sharply with allegations of brutality, challenging simplistic narratives. These tales caution against blind hero worship and urge a nuanced understanding of human complexity. They remind us that behind every celebrated figure lies a multifaceted story, demanding critical reflection and introspection. As we grapple with the enigmatic lives of these Sri Lankan figures, we confront the complexities of our shared humanity, striving towards a more compassionate future.
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