7th June 1998
By Shelani de Silva.
Pix Gemunu Wellage.
As a medical student in the seventies, he fought against injustice and gradually took to politics, influenced by the then leaders of the JVP who frequented the medical faculty, most of all Rohana Wijeweera.
Dr.Athula Sumathipala, a psychiatrist today has come a long way since those troubled days in the 80s. Having had close links with Wijeweera he too was a victim of the torture and torment many JVPers underwent. He however has been able to live through that period and emerge from it not so much clinging to the sufferings he underwent but rather deriving strength from it.
Now living in the UK, Dr Sumathipala is attached to the Maudsly Hospital and Institute of Psychiatry, University of London. He is in Sri Lanka to research a new intervention on people who have multiply syndromes not explained in known organic illness and is currently working at the Sri Jayawardanepura Hospital.
Many might wonder why he chose to return to this country, after all what he went through but his reply is that he no longer is involved nor has he any links with the party. Instead he is here for his profession. At last weeks symposium on the Psychological Impact of Trauma in Sri Lanka organised by the Sri Lanka Medical Association, he presented a paper on a civilian victim of trauma.
Dr.Sumathipala's association with the JVP leader dates back to the seventies when he became Wijeweera's physician and close ally. It was his close links with the leader that led to his arrest along with several top JVPers in 1983 and his abduction and arrest in 1988, when Rohana Wijeweera was in hiding. His abduction left lasting scars both on him and his family. But today Dr.Sumathipala has been able to relate those incidents to his profession not only to carry out research in trauma related fields but also to help patients who have gone through similar circumstances.
His association with the JVP Dr.Sumathipala said began while at University when they shared a common cause in anti ragging.
The JVP at that time was also fighting for the same cause. It was during this time that several leaders were released and they used to come to the campus to conduct talks. I was very impressed by Rohana Wijeweera's speeches. By 1980 I was involved in the JVP. I remember asking him whether the JVP would take to arms, I wanted to be very clear but he replied that they would never take to arms unless they were forced to do so.
It was during this time that the Presidential election campaign was round the corner. The JVP under the leadership of Rohana Wijeweera got their election campaign in full swing.
I travelled with Wijeweera around the country. It was during these trips that I got very close to the leader and got to know him both as a leader and a person who possessed rare qualities. I respected him for the human qualities in him. He was a man who never took a meal without seeing to his drivers welfare and to that of others, he said.
Dr.Sumathipala was among the key JVPers who were arrested in 1983 during the referendum and the proscription .He is very critical about the proscription claiming that it not only saw the downfall of the JVP but also resulted in so much turmoil that caused injustice to many people.
We were arrested on no valid grounds. It was done purely to avoid the court matter. I remember when we were arrested a senior army officer commented that the countrys intelligent lot was in the CID. We were treated well during the six months, he said.
Once Rohana Wijeweera went into hiding Dr.Sumathipala on his release seeing that the JVP was unable to come to the main stream of politics cut all links with politics and took up his medical profession..
Although he had severed his links with the JVP leader the Government at that time had him closely watched.
In 1988 Dr Sumathipala was abducted on his way home after seeing patients. After his links with the JVP he had set up a clinic at Ward Place. On the day of the abduction he was returning home around 5.30pm. Closing upon Castle Street, a Pajero had knocked the car. Since it had no number plate Dr.Sumathapala had gathered he was being followed. Two other vehicles were also behind giving chase.
I knew there was trouble, so I decided to go to the police station, but as I was nearing the station a gun was pointed at me and I lost control of the vehicle. Within moments I was tied and blindfolded and put into the vehicle. I tried to figure out where I was taken but I felt numb.I remember I had a few pieces of paper in my pocket It was actually the name and address of a person proposed to my sister. He was from Tangalle, and there were also a few names of my patients. I swallowed the papers, because I knew they would not believe my story and harm them also. I am glad I did this, he said.
Relating the incident Dr.Sumathipala explained that now looking back he can relate to such incidents from a psychiatric angle. He even gave terms used for such incidents. He infact had gone through the whole process of this.He says now that he no longer has any links with politics he looks at the incidents in a more broader aspect and in a medical aspect.
I was tortured severely. The first day they would have harassed me for forty five minutes but for me it was like days. That night I heard an officer telling another to get a piece of paper for me to sleep on, but another said that they have to respect me claiming that a doctor should be given a bed not a paper to sleep on. I then knew that there was a human being among them, he said.
It was mainly his family, the Sri Lanka Medical Association and British Medical Association including the media who fought for his release. On several occasions he was promised his release but due to several reasons it was stopped .By that time his family had filed a Human rights case and that too caused a problem for his release.
My wife wrote to President Jayawardane requesting my release. He then called for a meeting with them. They were promised I would be released. They were told that I will be released on the condition that on my release I will pay a visit to the Presidents House. I agreed. I was brought to the Presidentís House handcuffed with the IGP and senior officers. President Jayawardene requested me to arrange a meeting with Rohana Wijeweera. I point blank said that I did'nt have any connection with him and further said that if I did I would not do that because if I was treated like this what would they do to him. That was the end of my release. But I was sent to the Army Hospital. It was very much relaxed. My wife was allowed to visit me, the officers were very kind to me and infact I was able to complete my MD Protocol research, he said.
On March 31st 1989 Dr Sumathipala was released. Later he was attached to the Sri Jayawardanepura Hospital at the Emergency Unit where later several of his torturers came for him for treatment.
I clearly remember that on one occasion a senior officer who tortured me severely brought his niece. Of course the moment he saw me he turned to go, But I sent for the girl and treated her. I used to treat a lot of Army casualties but I did not have any anger towards them, he said.
It was while at the Hospital that Dr,Sumathipala came to hear of the death of Rohana Wijeweera, in the most unusual manner .
A priest came to for a checkup. Even before I could start he asked me whether I believed if Wijeweera was killed. I was shocked I knew he knew nothing of my connections. I was lost for words. But later we spoke of Wijeweera for nearly ten minutes.
I mourned his death, for the person who he was. I respected him. Even now at times I find it very difficult to accept his death. I am positive that if the JVP was not proscribed ,he would have been in parliament today. He had the qualities of good leadership of course he had his weaknesses, who does'nt? he said.
Asked whether he had any regrets looking back on the events, he said
I have no regrets, I gained strength from all these. The incidents infact have helped me in my profession. But looking beyond myself I regret for the suffering of all those families, including my wife and two children. I remember my eldest daughter was three and a half years old and the second just seven months, but when I was released she was very changed,very hostile. We had to go through a lot to make her better. Likewise the mothers who suffered. We have to learn through this and never repeat such a tragedy, he said.
Dr.Sumathipala returns to England next month but will be back in Sri Lanka next April. He will be here for two years, working on some research and also hopes to publish a book on his life.
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