Count Down to July 1983
"... In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be! Passions spin the plot:
We are betray'd by what is false within.
- George Meredith, from Modern Love
From about mid-May, 1983, the time of the bye-elections in the South and local elections in the North - both violent in different ways - there was a steady build up towards a very violent denouement. The more repressive the Government became and the more it detained under the PTA, the greater the vacuum in the North. While the LTTE, which was already established, acted according to a pattern, there were newer groups announcing their existence through acts of anarchy in protest over every provocation by the Government. Developments in Trincomalee formed a key element in the build-up and will be dealt with separately. The Press in Colombo too contributed to this build-up by its one-sided coverage of events, which remains a problem to this day. Yet, up to the eve of the violence there were also some hearteningly objective pieces in the Press. But this almost totally disappeared after the July violence. The seeds of how civil society in the South went into a shell after the violence, could be discerned in the faltering way it was behaving before it.
During May there were attacks on Tamil students at the University of Peradeniya by fellow Sinhalese students, resulting in an exodus of the former. The Island editorial of 16th May titled 'Time for some sane thinking' reflected:
"In the face of growing communal tension and phobias... the country is pitched headlong into a confrontation with ugly truths which are bound to increasingly strain our collective tolerance and patience in the days to come. The days ahead are bound to be pregnant with the possibility of unrest and all sections within the Government and outside should be alert to this... A case in the point is the situation at Peradeniya where the detection of a student allegedly in possession of some subversive leaflets had been converted into an excuse for an attack on Tamil students in general ...
"It is important that the offensive against the Northern gun men should not deteriorate into such a charade, for this kind of victimisation is one of the reasons for the bitterness harboured by the Tamil people."
It was also pointed out that there is nothing very remarkable about the possession of such 'subversive literature' as many, especially journalists, got them by post. The talk about 'subversive literature' shows how ill-informed the Press was about something that happened 4 days earlier in this country's premier centre of higher learning. No such literature was found in the University. A first year engineering student editing an innocuous journal was handed over to the Police as a 'Tiger' and later exonerated. We will examine the episode in some detail later in this chapter (see 4.7).
Following the Army's running amok in Kantharmadam, Jaffna, after the local elections on 18th May 1983, the same editorial writer wrote on 25th May:
"While it would be naive to expect the Government to withdraw the Army from the North, the authorities must be careful to see that the Army itself is not guilty of terror against helpless people for sins committed by a minority. In any political solution to the National Question, the Government has to carry the people of the North with it and this cannot be done if they are further alienated."
The tone of these editorials suggested impending danger, but were not altogether without hope: If the State and the security services maintain discipline, keep a sense of balance and stay above the law, things could be remedied. But two months later, after the worst was over in July, the same writer on the 29th July struck a note of helpless despair:
"There is an incubus of shame which every nation will have to carry on its conscience till the end of history, and what has been happening since Monday will be Sri Lanka's till the end of time".
Much had indeed happened in-between. What had initially occurred in Peradeniya, would have been passed off by many a casual observer as an unplanned outburst. But this was evidently not the opinion of the dons of the University. A crisis meeting of academics of the Arts Faculty was held, presided over by the Dean, Professor Ananda Kulasooriya. It was the dominant feeling that there was a planned attempt by agents to subvert the rationale and identity of the University. A resolution was adopted to have the authorities declare Peradeniya a 'multi - racial' university (Island 25.5).
At that time agents, who will be identified later, had blamed Tamil students for the tarring of name boards and the putting up of multi-lingual posters. A don observed that it was unbelievable that Tamil students would have dared to do such things. About that time a senior don in English studies told a visitor that things did not look good as agents had been seen about the place carrying lists of names.
Following the election violence in Jaffna on 18th May, where a soldier was killed and the Army ran amok, there was sporadic violence against Tamils. Three days later, two military policemen boarded the Jaffna train when it stopped at Anuradhapura and attacked Tamil passengers. The Police informed an army officer who took the men into custody. Also a series of anti-Tamil posters came up in Anuradhapura town. Peter Balasuriya reported in the Island that a special police team was trying to track down those responsible. Similar attacks were repeated by 'unknown persons' a few days later, while the train was moving in the Anuradhapura area. Rajaguru, DIG, Jaffna, said that no one complained. The people did not expect the Police to pursue these matters and saw little point in complaining. At this point no organisation other than the UNP or having the blessings of the UNP was in a position to do work of this kind. Anuradhapura was also the home of the Rajarata Rifles who were involved in the incident in Jaffna.
The Island also reported (25.5.) that the Government Agent (GA) was to be replaced by three cabinet ministers, including Lalith Athulathmudali, to assume control over administration and security in Jaffna. On 30th May, Sabaratnam Palanivel, a young man driving a van was stopped, dragged into the Valvettithurai army camp, shot dead and his face was run over by a vehicle. Following the violence in Vavuniya involving the killing of two airmen and the burning of shops on 1st June, violence against Tamils erupted in several parts of the South and Trincomalee.[Top]
On 3rd June President Jayewardene declared the Public Security Ordinance to be in force. The Working Committee of the UNP had earlier called upon the President to put into effect all the regulations under the PSO to suppress terrorism. But incidents of violence against Tamils continued. These took place in Dehiwela, Panadura, Negombo, Kurunegala, Trincomalee, Talawakelle, Nawalapitiya, Kandy and Mt.Lavinia. At least 4 persons were killed in the South, an apothecary was stabbed in his dispensary in Mt.Lavinia and several shops were burnt. Two bombs were also hurled at the Tamil Congress leader Kumar Ponnambalam's house in Colpetty.
But there was one big difference from what was to happen on 25th July 1983. Acting IGP S.S. Joseph ordered divisional chiefs to crack down hard on acts of arson, looting and incitement. Senior DIG Suntheralingam expressed confidence that the lawless elements could be subdued. More than 100 of them were detained. Edward Gunawardene, DIG Metropolitan, said that several rabble rousers had been arrested in the Kirullapone area. This up-beat confidence was in sharp contrast to their inaction and confession of inability to stop the violence during the latter days of July. President Jayewardene left on a trip to Egypt and Rome from 12th to 27th June, after swearing in Premadasa as acting president.
On the eve of his departure he appealed to the people not to incite violence, emphasising discipline among the Armed Forces. To whom was he appealing at a time when the SLFP was in disarray and his power almost total? During the communal violence of 1981, Jayewardene had publicly blamed his own party men.
At the time of Jayewardene's departure, some token action too was being taken against indiscipline in the Army. On 6th June there began desertions from the Rajarata Rifles after 4 men were sacked over the burning in Jaffna on 18th May. Lt.Col L.D.C.E. Waidyaratne was made the new commanding officer following the interdiction of Lt.Col K.M.S. Perera over the desertions. A further 5 officers who criticised the new CO were reportedly sacked along with all 96 deserters.
But following Jayewardene's return, there was a notable deterioration in the situation. On 27th June, the day Jayewardene returned, Amirthalingam told Parliament that soldiers had shot at a passenger bus proceeding to Jaffna, killing the driver and that several injured were in hospital. The bus was burnt. Also the Army had shot dead a youth sleeping on the verandah of the TULF's Nallur MP, Mr. Sivasithamparam's home. The latter complained that while there had been 6 homicides by the security forces in the North, the Police had failed to apprehend a single culprit. Rajaguru, then DIG Jaffna, was made IGP in 1995.
However it was the violence in Trincomalee that formed the immediate cause of a rapidly deteriorating situation in the North from the onset of July. The press and the people in Jaffna saw it clearly as a sinister attack on Tamils in Trincomalee by politically organised Sinhalese hoodlums with the backing of the Security Forces. The Press in Colombo represented it as clashes of rivalry between Tamil and Sinhalese business interests, hiding the true facts. (See the next chapter.)
On 30th June the TELF President, Dr. S.A. Tharmalingam and Secretary, Mr. Kovai Mahesan, sent from Jaffna telegrams about Trincomalee to a number of Western embassies in Colombo, as well as to the embassies of Cuba, Iraq, Libya, the USSR, the PLO, the UN and the Apostolic Nunciate. The contents of the telegram which appeared in the press on 1st July, were: "Tamils experience pathetic situation in Trincomalee. Killing, looting, arson now taking place under government declared curfew. Racist security forces behind violence. We seek immediate intervention of friendly nations to stop genocide of Tamils".
The TELF also called for a hartal in Jaffna on 1st July to protest against the violence in Trincomalee. TELA, a new breakaway group from the TELO, led by Oberoi Thevan who was responsible for the bomb at Hotel Oberoi in Colombo, marked its advent by a series of attacks on government property. Ten bogeys of the Yarl Devi train were burnt causing damage estimated at Rs.60 million. 11 CTB buses worth Rs. 7.7 million were also burnt. Several sub-post offices and an AGA's office in Jaffna were burnt during the coming days. All this of course had nothing to do with the TELF. Dr. Tharmalingam was an old time nationalist and former Jaffna mayor who would very likely have felt uncomfortable with gun carrying youth. On hearing of the atrocities against Tamils in Trincomalee his blood would have boiled, as would that of most people in Jaffna. It was then a growing sentiment in Jaffna that only foreign intervention could save the Tamils. In this sense the TELF telegram was an accurate reflection of Tamil sentiment.
As for burning rolling stock, buses and government offices, it was far from having the support of the people. It was anarchic and unwanted as reflected in the headline of D.B.S. Jeyaraj's piece in the Sunday Island (10.7.83): "Militants pour oil on troubled waters".
A gesture from the President strictly and impartially enforcing the law in Trincomalee would have gone a long way towards calming the situation. But instead the Government only took cognizance of the challenge to its authority in Jaffna and tightened the screws of repression. The PSO was invoked. The Competent Authority, Douglas Liyanage, using powers vested in him under the PSO, prohibited publication and sealed the offices of the Suthanthiran and Saturday Review on 2nd July. Further, Dr. Tharmalingam and Kovai Mahesan were detained under Emergency Regulations. Jayewardene had formed the habit of using the PSO which was passed when he was in the State Council, in 1947, at the drop of a pin. He had used it during the strike of 1980 and to seal the opposition press and detain key opponents during the campaign for the infamous 1982 Referendum.
The State owned Sunday Observer of 3.7.83, accusing the sealed papers of grossly distorting the news, referred to the destruction of property following the 'hartal' called by the TELF. It added: "There is reason to believe these papers would make use of these incidents to exacerbate communal feelings as they have done in the past and create a climate for violence."
This event was an important step in the progressive polarisation of perceptions in the North and the South. What was significant to the Southerners was the killing of about three dozen servicemen since 1975 and destruction of state property. To the Northerners, what was of significance was the State's responsibility for the continuing violations. These included the killing of Tamils in communal attacks, deaths in prison, ongoing killings in Trincomalee, recent killings of half a dozen civilians in Jaffna, no arrests being made, and the ongoing arson directed at Tamil property, beginning with the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. The Saturday Review for them was their paper, giving the factual position on incidents that mattered most to them, being widely read in Colombo and abroad. Who was after all inciting violence? To the Tamils these events were further confirmation that it was only through brute force that the Government would deal with them.
The arrest of Dr. Tharmalingam was on the one side plain repression. On the other, it was paranoia riding the heights of the ridiculous. In its wake the Southern media were treating the public to a grand Tamil conspiracy straddling India and the West. The late Ranil Weerasinghe, the Sun correspondent on security matters wrote in the Weekend (3.7.83): "The Government is to take a series of measures under Emergency Regulations against persons whose allegedly provocative actions have contributed towards creating instability in the North... Members of shadow groups it was claimed, work through various organisations to whip up communalism through constant attacks on the State and the Armed Forces. Some of the groups which were manipulated and funded by organisations abroad, grew like parasites on the misery of others".
Such was the perception in the South of groups like the TRRO (Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation, with which Mr. K. Kandasamy was associated) and Gandhiyam. In the meantime Amirthalingam, on a visit to Trincomalee, sent a telegram to President Jayewardene (D.B.S. Jeyaraj in Sunday Island 3.7.83): "Reports of violence by both sides absolutely incorrect. Over 16 persons have been killed - all Tamils. About 40 hospitalised with serious injuries. Over 35 of whom are Tamils. Over 150 houses burnt - over 95% of which Tamil owned. Services conduct searches in Tamil areas followed by thugs attacking Tamil people and setting fire to houses. Inspite of heavy loss of life and property of Tamils, very few Sinhalese arrested. 80% of those arrested are Tamils. Sinhalese offenders immediately or thereafter released. Police and Services definitely partisan. Tamils can defend themselves if Forces are withdrawn. Forces prevent self-defence by Tamils and provide opportunities for attack by hoodlums. Tamil officers sent to Trincomalee totally inadequate. Please send sufficient senior and low-ranking Tamil officers to restore confidence among Tamils. Please stop the massacre of innocent Tamils in their own homeland by hoodlums with the connivance of the Forces."
In the meantime there had been demonstrations in Tamil Nadu in protest of violence against Tamils in Sri Lanka. One demonstrator, Shah Jehan, who tried to immolate himself was hospitalised with burns. Back home in Sri Lanka, it was increasingly a dialogue of the deaf, with the Tamils and Sinhalese concerned about totally different things. In the South people were making connections and seeing conspiracies that the Tamils were hardly aware of.
Continuing from the previous day, Ranil Weerasinghe in the Sun of 4.7.83 drew connections between the burning of the train in Jaffna, demonstrations in Tamil Nadu, and previous symbolic attempts to declare UDI by some Tamil expatriate lobbies - moves opposed by the TULF : "Two main pressure groups based in London and Madras, thwarted twice in their attempts to declare UDI and set up a government in exile in Madras, are believed to be pursuing this course of action through one terrorist group in the field and several political and other such covert organisations... Operating through their various shadow groups, these rabid Eelamists are once again embarking on a strategy to create unrest in the country, to be timed with an anti-Sri Lanka campaign aimed at gaining sympathy for their cause."
This was the high point in the life of TELA (Tamil Eelam Liberation Army), whose fame depended on the needs of columnists fishing for conspiracies. Its leader Oberoi Thevan had left the TELO after a quarrel with Prabhakaran in 1981, who was then in the same group, and started his breakaway group. He was killed in a despicable manner on Prabhakaran's orders in August 1983, barely 3 weeks after the July violence. Any influence the Tamil expatriate lobbies referred to had on Prabhakaran, they soon discovered, was almost nil. It must be said to Weerasinghe's credit that he was prepared to be shocked when he visited Trincomalee and to write about it honestly.[Top]
Other events to fire the imaginations of those looking for conspiracies followed in quick succession. Amnesty International released a report on conditions in Sri Lanka in early July. It dealt with the conditions in which those arrested under the PTA of 1979 were being detained, extra-judicial killings, torture, and more recently the death of Navaratnarajah on 10.4.83 after two weeks in custody. The AI had in fact sought to discuss the report with the Government before releasing it and had sent a 72 page draft to President Jayewardene on 7th February. On 6th April, AI was told that neither the President nor a representative of the Government would discuss the report.
This was again a sign of growing paranoia. There was to be a good deal in the Press about AI and other Human Rights agencies being a Marxist conspiracy. Giving apparent substance to such thinking was the fact that Suriya Wickremasinghe, a key activist in the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, was the daughter of the late Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, a founder leader of the Communist Party of Ceylon. In fact several of the concerns raised by the AI had been raised by the CRM earlier. For example the CRM's Human Rights Day Review of 3rd December 1979 signed by its president the Rt. Rev. Lakshman Wickremasinghe, the late Bishop of Kurunegala, and its secretary, Desmond Fernando, dealt with the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Emergency Regulations and the Liberation Tigers Law.
These, the CRM Review said, "contain provisions that go far beyond any reasonable or permissible requirement of national security. They provide for arrest without warrant and without any obligation to inform relatives of the fact of such an arrest and the place of detention. They permit the prolonged detention of persons in Police custody, or in any place the minister may determine, without any rules or legal safeguards whatever, concerning their conditions of detention and interrogation".
Another event was the appearance in the Manchester (London) Guardian of 6th July, of an article by David Selbourne. Selbourne who was covering Sri Lanka had already been to Jaffna, seen the scene of the Kantharmadam arson, spoken to many people and had made an appointment with the Chief Justice, when he was picked up by the Police and deported on the night of 25th June. The provocation for this treatment was his visit the year before, in June 1982. Having been with Athulathmudali at Oxford University, he was privileged to have a motor car ride in Colombo in the company of President Jayewardene and ministers Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. During the ride, and in other conversations, Selbourne was treated to some uninhibited remarks by his jolly companions. Selbourne reported Athulathmudali to have said, "We are going to break heads" in connection with solving the Tamil problem (Saturday Review 10.8.85). This was later denied by Athulathmudali (SR 26.10.85). Selbourne had then on his return to Britain written several frank articles in British journals and in the Illustrated Weekly of India.
Selbourne's article in the Guardian following his deportation in June 1983 was titled, "Sri Lankan Army fails to stem violence". It stated: "Even saffron-clad Buddhism with all its pieties is now armed with sub-machine guns". The article quoted Amirthalingam to the effect that the TULF in keeping with its non-violence would launch a satyagraha in October. He was further quoted thus: "The underground Liberation Tigers, whose actions constantly protected by the Tamil community have claimed the lives of 37 members of the security forces since 1977, are at the forefront of the struggle for Tamil self-determination."
Selbourne's deportation, the closure of the Saturday Review and the arrest of Dr. Tharmalingam were all symptomatic of the same nasty mood that the Government was cornering itself into. Amirthalingam's statement as reported by Selbourne, as provocative as it would have sounded in the South, was a reflection of his weak position. The Government had left him with nothing to show for his co-operation, and his one-time protégé Prabhakaran, was now forcibly preventing the recently elected TULF dominated local councils from functioning. The TULF defended its formal commitment to non-violence while declining to condemn militant violence by citing instances where Mahatma Gandhi had defended militants. Attacks on Selbourne featured prominently in the Press. The Government issued a statement about his deportation. Thus a man who was in Britain an ordinary Oxford don and writer, was transformed into Sri Lanka's major security concern.
Then came another sensation in the Sun's front-page headlines: "Eelam's Fifth Column in Massachusetts: Ugly Americans Do it Again". This report of 8th July accused the US of interfering with Sri Lanka's sovereignty. The provocation was the second resolution by the Massachusetts State Assembly, following on the earlier one in 1979, in support of the Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka as an oppressed nationality. Prior to the passing of the resolution the TULF president M. Sivasithamparam had addressed the Assembly. Following the resolution being adopted, a press release was issued jointly by Marie D. Howe, representing the Assembly, and the Tamil Eelam Association of America. A later Island editorial however took a more sober view of the affair by pointing out that this resolution by what amounted to a city council was not remotely a reflection of US Federal Government policy.
Furthermore there was no concerted conspiracy. The two brothers behind the lobbying for the resolution were Sritharan and Sri Thillaiampalam. They were hitherto never associated with the LTTE lobby and were merely Tamil nationalists. They faded away from the political scene after the LTTE through violent repression asserted its dominance.
At this point the Government conceived of a sixth amendment to the Constitution of 1978. A joke was doing the rounds that a customer had asked a British bookseller for a copy of the Sri Lankan constitution. The bookseller, it is said, had replied, "Sorry sir, we do not stock periodicals". The joke was about the regularity with which Jayewardene amended the constitution as the need of the moment demanded. The Sixth Amendment was to oblige members of parliament and various state employees and employees of statutory bodies to forswear separatism on oath. A surprising number of people and columnists opined that such a law would be a cast iron defence of the country's unity and unitarity. It was again a sign of the ideological conformity of the Southern middle-class and a blind acceptance of the wisdom of leaders, however corrupt and inept.
The crisis wore on with the Government restricting trains and essential services to Jaffna citing the disruptive actions of the militants. There was also talk in security circles of banning bicycle travel in Jaffna - the main mode of transport there - on the grounds that militant attackers too came on bicycles. To those in Jaffna, these moves appeared as a form of collective punishment.
There were also some weak attempts to rescue the situation. The Sunday papers on 17th July said that the Government will not push through the Sixth Amendment. President Jayewardene had summoned an all-party round table conference, which Ranil Weerasinghe described as crucial for the Government and the TULF. Made wiser by his visit to Trincomalee, he added in his 'Weekend' article, that the problem has been compounded by "weak and ineffective military action, which has led to frustration, and in some instances out of this, self-damaging retaliation". "Strong political action", he said, "must be backed by strong military action, aimed not indiscriminately, but against the terrorists". Such sanity would become non-existent as the country was plunged into savagery a week later.
But with the announcement of all-party talks, hopes were kindled again. The Rev. Celestine Fernando, a senior Anglican clergyman and member of the CRM, had been regularly writing to the papers pleading for talks to resolve the problem and restore sanity. In an article titled 'Bells of Peace' (Daily News 19.7), he wrote, "All those who love Lanka and her people will be grateful to the President for his call for an all-party-conference to settle what has become the most crucial problem of our nation."
But it soon became evident that things were not so simple. D.B.S. Jeyaraj who had been an admirer of Amirthalingam since his high school days at Jaffna College - Amirthalingam lived nearby in Moolai - reported in the Island on 18.7. that the TULF will not attend the all-party-talks, because the Government wanted to confine the discussion to terrorism alone, without attempting to find solutions to the grievances of the Tamils. Jayewardene subsequently widened the scope of the talks to include suggestions regarding the Tamil problem. Jeyaraj further reported from the TULF party conference in Mannar, that the party Politburo would reconsider its decision not to attend, if all opposition parties including the SLFP would participate. The TULF further stipulated that the agenda should include self-determination for the Tamil regions, withdrawal of the Armed Forces from the same and an amnesty for detainees under the PTA.
The main parties to the talks were then caught up in developments of their own making. The TULF which had promised a satyagraha in 1977 had instead played with the militants, allowed its mass base to slip away and was openly under challenge from the militants. It could not afford to go for talks without assurance of being able to rectify some of the grievances.
The Government for its part suffered from a lack of legitimacy after a rigged referendum in place of parliamentary elections. There were few takers for the Naxalite Plot that it had conjured up. Yet the SLFP, the UNP's main rival, had been thrown into total disarray. Vijaya Kumaratunge, on whose charisma and organising capacity a revival of the party's fortunes depended, had just resigned from being the party's assistant secretary. His reason was that the party leader's son Anura Bandaranaike had attended the function celebrating J.R. Jayewardene's 40 years in politics.
Jayewardene had become the king he wanted to be. But his throne was shaky. The North made the King nervous. The South seemed subdued only by taking away the legitimate and visible outlets for the discontent that was seething below. Something needed to be done about the North. But a weak and decimated SLFP was unlikely to think responsibly. It was even more likely to capitalise on communal sentiments. This left Jayewardene with a tempting option, although it was approached more instinctively, hesitatingly and not always consciously and deliberately. That was to play the communal card itself in a big way, tap the worst instincts of the Sinhalese, and create a diversion by the UNP becoming the unchallenged champions of the Sinhalese.
As for the state-machinery, there was one last breath of sanity. A police team of 20 under SP Bennet Perera was sent to Trincomalee to investigate the killing and arson there. The likes of it were to become totally irrelevant after July.
Jayewardene had another problem. He and his prime minister, Premadasa, had badly mismanaged their relations with India. The problem arose from a pro-Western shift in Sri Lanka's foreign policy, their openly canvassing for ASEAN membership for Sri Lanka and also some very imprudent personal remarks about Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay. On 19th July the Indian Government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi formally expressed its concern to Colombo about recent developments in Jaffna and the measures taken by the Sri Lankan Government to deal with the situation there. The Government owned Daily News of 21st July carried the headlines: "Colombo reacts angrily to Indian meddling". With prodding from the Government, editorial writers went to town with titles like, "How come Big Brother?" (Daily News 22.7) and "Big Bully" (Sun 22.7).
In the meantime, Indian Foreign Secretary Mr. Bajpai, clarified to Bernard Tillekeratne, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner, that India was merely conveying its point of view to Sri Lanka about the Emergency Regulations, which allowed the disposal of corpses without inquest. He added that they were watching developments in Jaffna, which could have repercussions in India. It was all in polite, diplomatic language that could not be faulted. Tamil militants had been sheltering in India during the 70s, and there is no evidence that the Indian Central Government was encouraging them. In fact Kuttimani had been deported in 1974 to face imprisonment in Sri Lanka. It was only after Prabhakaran's and Uma Maheswaran's Pondi-Bazaar gunfight in May 1982 that things changed.
It ought to have been an occasion for calm reflection. But the Government's anger also signified that it had gone too far in building up the momentum in a particular direction. Take the statement made by Prime Minister Premadasa in Parliament on 28th June and those by other leaders given in the next section: "The SLFP has decided on a division of the country and they speak of the North and East. This must stop because ours is a unitary state. When you say that Sinhalese people are killed and you say that their passions are not roused then that is a myth. There are people who want to loot and attack the Government."
Premadasa then asked the SLFP to join the Government in crushing terrorism.[Top]
President Jayewardene said in reference to the TULF in his interview to the Daily Telegraph (London), of 12th July, reproduced in the Sunday Observer (17.7): "They used to speak on behalf of the terrorists. But now all that is going to cease. As long as [the TULF] remained in Parliament, its members would be consulted on political issues. But on terrorist issues, these we are going to deal with ourselves without any quarter being given."
It was here that the President disclosed that he would call a round table conference of party leaders, including the former prime minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, whose civic rights he had stripped for 7 years. As to the purpose, he said that whether or not they attend the conference or accept his proposals, he would still go ahead with anti-terrorist measures. On Amnesty International, he said it was important to note that its key office bearers in Sri Lanka 'were all communists'.
He then came to the most memorable part of the interview: "I have tried to be effective for some time, but I cannot. I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now... Now we can't think of them. Not about their lives, or their opinion about us. Nothing will happen in our favour until the terrorists are wiped out. Just that. You can't cure an appendicitis patient until you remove the appendix."
Lalith Athulathmudali delivered a speech in Parliament on 21st July, remarkable for its close resemblance to Jayewardene's interview published ten days earlier: "... As far as the Government is concerned, what it thinks is correct for the Tamils it will carry out. Whether you participate [in the round-table conference] or not, whether you support us or not, we will implement what we want to implement. The Government will go ahead with what it thinks is correct to bring an end to terrorism.
"In the process innocents may suffer. We will do our best to avoid it. I think the SLFP wants to fight terrorism and I am not convinced as to the reasons why they are backing out [of the round table conference]. As a Sinhalese-Buddhist party how can you refuse to participate in a conference of this nature? How will you face any election or the people if you do not come forward to eradicate terrorism? I call upon you to join hands with us to suppress these fascist terrorists. I also call upon the Communist Party and MEP to join the Government in its solution to terrorism. I must tell these parties (i.e. Sarath Muttetuwegama and Dinesh Gunawardena) not to confuse the security issue of the North with the Tamil problem. These problems are encountered by all Tamils. The Government is very conscious of this. Come to the round-table and we will find solutions to the whole problem."
Among friends (e.g. T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka) Athulathmudali had been very open about his ambitions of becoming president. But his ministry, Trade and Shipping, was nothing like as grand as Gamini Dissanayake's Mahaveli Development and Lands, Dissanayake having been a young MP in the party through the lean times it faced in the early 70s. But 'Northern terrorism' had been a pet pre-occupation of Athulathmudali's, and also dominated the Government's agenda. Persons close to Colombo's leading circles have identified Athulathmudali as the main author of the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979.
The speech while being close in content to Jayewardene's interview had its peculiar nuances. Earlier in the speech he had said, "In those days it used to be said that there was a Tamil majority in the North. But now it is different. The time has come that the majority of Tamils live among the Sinhalese." Athulathmudali did not acknowledge the legitimacy of people of a part of the country - the North-East - who were largely Tamil speaking, having fears and experiences of majoritarian state ideology, and wanting to preserve something in life they considered peculiarly their own; through demanding an autonomous arrangement.
Athulathmudali's thinking and the Government's practice had moved far from the problems of the Tamils, including colonisation in the North-East, as acknowledged in the UNP Manifesto of 1977. The problems of the Tamils which the Government now acknowledged as needing solutions, did not evidently go much beyond the use of Tamil and employment quotas. The quotations above from Premadasa, Jayewardene and Athulathmudali covering the month preceding the communal violence show a certain convergence. We will also deal with instructions given by Gamini Dissanayake on land matters a week before the violence in the next chapter.
In the President's inner circle there had definitely been a decision to get tough with the Tamils. The Prevention of Terrorism Act may be regarded as implicitly extra-legal. It required the use of torture and provided for it. But we see above something more explicitly extra-legal : "We cannot think about their lives or their opinion about us", "innocents may suffer", "will go ahead with what we think is right to eradicate terrorism".
There was also dissatisfaction with the PTA which was serving no purpose, beyond enabling the detention of persons the Government did not like, for prolonged periods. The Island of 12th June 1983 carried on its front page the item "Army empowered to kill fleeing terrorists: Anti-Terrorism Act, Criminal Code to be amended". We will take this up later (Sect. 8.6). It was intended to indemnify the Army against legal proceedings arising from the killing of terrorist suspects supposedly breaking jail. This again we have good reason to believe had much to do with Athulathmudali's thinking. Later in 1988 Athulathmudali as National Security Minister brought before Parliament an Indemnity Act to cover security and administrative personnel involved in the suppression of 'terrorism' since 1977. After becoming National Security Minister in 1984, he gave freer rein to his ideas of having the 'majority of Tamils living among the Sinhalese' through forced demographic transformation of Tamil inhabited areas. This furthered the virulence of the conflict through directly bringing about the first Tamil militant massacres of transplanted Sinhalese in late 1984.
The idea of solving the ethnic problem through establishing Sinhalese settlements in the North-East dominated the thinking of persons close to Jayewardene. It formed the cornerstone of counter-insurgency from October 1983 for which Israeli help was sought (see Chapter 20). A more frank expression of this sentiment was given by Ranil Wickremasinghe during the parliamentary 'debate' on the Sixth Amendment (CDN, 6th August 1983), after the July violence: "The Government will try to solve the problems of the minority and create a situation whereby all communities could go about the country and live where they please...... Otherwise, there would be a separate state automatically". This theme has since been the hobbyhorse of numerous academics and professionals.
In mid-1983, wiping out Tamil terrorism through means foul rather than fair had become the main preoccupation of the UNP Government to shore up its scant legitimacy. In jockeying for positions within the UNP itself, it had become a competition about who was most zealously fighting Tamil terrorism. A game where legal norms were held in scant regard was quickly bound to degenerate into a general attack on Tamils, moving on to Hill Country Tamils and even Malayalis.
There were moves taking place at different levels. At one level it was the all-party-talks, amendments to existing repressive laws yet found to be too restrictive, and playing around with the judiciary to make them more amenable. The other was at a level less inhibited by a veneer of Western education of the Oxbridge sort and a long exposure to legal forms. The two levels were not exclusive and there were even cabinet ministers in the second personally very close to Jayewardene. At the second level it was preparations through collecting electoral lists, identifying Tamil homes and business premises and fomenting trouble where an opportunity arose. The last was evident in the troubles at Peradeniya University, in Trincomalee and finally in Colombo from the evening of 24th July. There was no fundamental difference in sentiment between the two levels.
Until the 24th July it was the first quasi-legal level that was more visibly active. There was next to no seriousness about reaching any accommodation with the TULF. But the Government was anxious to get the SLFP onto the anti-terrorist bandwagon, although Jayewardene himself had used quasi-legal methods to diminish Mrs. Bandaranaike and ensure that she was not allowed to stand against him at the presidential elections. But now he wanted her on the bandwagon. To this end appeals to Sinhalese-Buddhist ideology which the SLFP championed from the 1950s were being employed in an attempt to corner the SLFP. For the SLFP there was a dilemma. To accept the invitation would have left it without a distinctive identity, lending legitimacy to all the repression directed against it since 1978. But to reject it, the SLFP could have argued its case cogently, going beyond terrorism and the Sinhalese-Buddhist angle, and appealing to non-partisan human principles.
But the SLFP at that stage was incapable of going beyond its survival instinct, and could only give weak arguments based on the Government's ineptitude - as of a party without an alternative vision in permanent opposition and not the alternative government. Lakshman Jayakody gave in Parliament the SLFP's reason for not attending the round-table conference: "You gave an order to the Army Commander to stamp out terrorism by December 1981. That was the only order given. No other order went out. What happened to the Rajarata Rifles? How did that come about?... The SLFP knows its stand on the Sinhala-Buddhist connection. Instead of asking us how to stamp out terrorism you should tell us what you are doing about it. I do not agree with the views expressed by Amnesty International. What are you doing to counter it?..." The SLFP's lack of vision and lack of principle was to see it in deep trouble in the late 1980s when it entered into a stormy liaison with the JVP as a means to power.[Top]
On 22nd July, Appapillai Amirthalingam made his final speech in Parliament until his brief reappearance six years later. It was the speech of a man plumbing the depths of despair. He was helpless against a State bent on a vindictive course against the Tamils in general, resorting to state terrorism. A news black-out too was in force. He asked, "Has the Government by exercising powers under Emergency restored food supplies to the North? The Government has failed to provide essential supplies to the North... Letters sent by the TULF to the President have not been published in the English Press... The burning of the train [by militants] is an act of madness. But an attempt is being made even to stop private buses going to the North. At Iratperiyakulam near the army camp, six private coaches plying to the North had been smashed. A bus from Pt Pedro to Colombo was shot at by the Army and the driver, who was a Sinhalese, has been injured..."
Amirthalingam was far from being a man without faults. But from 1981 his conduct had been so restrained as to bring about dissension within his own party. His statements had been factual, for the most part avoiding emotional overtones. He had put his weight against provocative gestures such as a UDI. His appeal to Tamil sentiment across the Palk Straits had been minimal. All this was held against him by his erstwhile followers. Apart from practical considerations, he had worked in the belief that a satisfactory political solution could be arrived at through dialogue. He was too much of the leader to run away. He was later very much a party to the Indo-Lanka Accord. In trying to make it work, he would even take on his erstwhile protege, Prabhakaran, calling him a 'Pol Pot'. It was Prabhakaran who finally determined Amirthalingam's fate by the only weapon he had come to believe passionately in.
There was more than a touch of madness in the air, even a touch of the ridiculous. On the same day (22.7) the Sun gave a very short summary of the 33 page report prepared by SSP Tyrell Gunetilleke of the Special Investigation Unit on the 'Naxalite Plot' which was used by Jayewardene to override parliamentary elections. "The report", it said, "has not set out any concrete finding, but has set out a tale of intrigue full of juicy tit bits and reveals several contradictions in statements of opposition personalities". The report said in conclusion: "If the information being investigated is correct, the conspirators [apparently intending to harm Jayewardene, Mrs. Bandaranaike and her son] would have been acting from a position of power after their anticipated victory at the presidential polls. In these circumstances, there need be no external preparation and the principle of 'need to know' in a coterie of hard core miscreants. In these circumstances if the conspirators were in power, all they had to do was to ensure that the Police and the armed services looked the other side."
'If' is the key word here. The 33-page report was circumlocution for the conclusion 'No substance'. It also showed Tyrell Gunetilleke as a policeman with a sense of humour. A few days earlier the Government had been moved to issue a statement on why it deported David Selbourne. The allegations against him were that he had after his visit in 1982 published articles in the Guardian and Illustrated Weekly about the harassment of Tamils by the Sinhalese armed forces which subsequently appeared in the Saturday Review (- the then recently sealed English weekly from Jaffna). It was further alleged that he had discussions during his recent visit with anti-government (i.e. democratic opposition) politicians, including the TULF hierarchy. The most novel allegation against Selbourne, was that his hotel booking had been made by Desmond Fernando, son-in-law of the late communist leader Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe. It was a sad commentary on the state of Sri Lankan society that the Government took it for granted that the people, civil society and the opposition would swallow all this without protest.
Another example of the madness that gripped the air was given by 'Prospero' - widely believed to be Ajith Samaranayake, who was among the editorial writers for the Island. In a reflection ten years later in the Counterpoint of July 1993, he said: "This unprecedented campaign described as a pogrom by the Tamils and dubbed the 'Black July' by concerned commentators was preceded by an equally unprecedented campaign against India in the Press, both government-owned and private. Following concern expressed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the Government's move to dispose of dead bodies in the North without an inquest, national newspaper editors were summoned to the Foreign Ministry and requested to orchestrate a campaign of editorial vituperation against India and Mrs. Gandhi. Needless to say the gentlemen of the Fourth Estate, most of whom do not even care to conceal their dislike of India, were only too willing to oblige the commissars."
It may be added that the 'pogrom' commenced on the 24th of July. On the 29th the Government was forced to accept a visit by Indian Foreign Minister Narashimha Rao who came to assess the situation. Since then India which had never interfered previously came to have a firm influence over Sri Lankan affairs.
Yet, even the little democratic good sense that was left in the country would have made it difficult for the Government to go on with mounting abuses in the South, which were rooted in its lack of legitimacy. Thus whether planned or not planned, the communal holocaust came as a much needed diversion for the Government.
As fate would have it the country's descent into the anarchy of the holocaust came on the heels of an important military breakthrough. On 15th July the Army in Jaffna ambushed and killed Charles Anthony alias Seelan, a trusted lieutenant of Prabhakaran's, and one of his companions, in the Chavakachcheri area. The Colombo Press was highly elated by it. Evidently the Army in Jaffna under Brigadier J.G. Balthaazer had made an intelligence break into the movements and safe-houses of some key LTTE men. On the night of 23rd July, there was to be a commando raid to get Sellakili in one of his hiding places. A routine patrol from the Mathagal camp had been asked by radio (see T.D.S.A. Dissanayake) to shorten its route and get back to base early. This patrol was caught in a land mine ambush at Tinnevely, led by Sellakili of the LTTE. Thirteen soldiers including an officer were killed. Two survived. The commando raid was called off and reinforcements were sent to the area - which was known from regular radio contact maintained by the ill-fated patrol.
Ironically, on the LTTE's side it was Sellakili alone who was killed. To this day few would swear how he was killed. As a senior man who was very free with Prabhakaran, and whose personal life was a little wild, he was something of a liability for the new image Prabhakaran was trying to give himself and his organisation. If the Army had kept its cool and been disciplined, the event would have been a minor set back. But by going on the rampage and killing more than 50 civilians in Jaffna over the next few days, the Army threw away all its intelligence gains and started a process which by mid-1985 confined it to barracks.
The anti-Tamil build up in the South launched by a volatile and paranoid Government was in no way conducive to maintaining discipline in the security forces. Out of this build up came shock troops to conduct an anti-Tamil pogrom. All the fantasies which the Press in Colombo had been feeding the Sinhalese in accompaniment to the chorus, by waxing loud about Tamil Conspirators International and Perfidious India, became in one rush of insanity, a self-fulfilling prophecy as developments in the coming years showed.
There were indeed several developments being driven, mainly by the Government, to such crisis proportions that their culmination could not have been contained within a society committed to civilised norms. They were all inter-linked aspects of the State's repressive outlook. Propaganda had softened the South to an extent where, whatever the reservations people had about the Government's attitude, conviction was lacking to call a halt to a disaster that would in five years cost the South even more grievously. The several developments converged to explosive proportions in July, contributing to the violence of the pogrom.
Before we quit this chapter, we will take a closer look at events in Peradeniya University between 11th May - 10th June 1983. These events have in retrospect an important bearing on the violence of Black July. Their occurrence overlapped with attacks on Tamils in various parts of the country and particularly Trincomalee. The similarity of methods seems more than a co-incidence. We also see how the gullible and those wanting to be heroes on the cheap were readily drawn into a vortex of hate, while those dissenting were most often reduced to silent spectators. We are fortunate in being able to draw upon an excellent report prepared by a committee of inquiry appointed by the Vice Chancellor Prof. B.L. Panditharatne. The members of the Committee were Kenneth M. de Lanerolle, Dorai Calnaido and Mrs. T.K. Ekanayake.[Top]
On the afternoon of 11th May 1983, by broad daylight in a very public place - the entrance to the University where Galaha Road branches off from the Colombo Road - the Sinhalese lettering on the plaque, with University of Peradeniya written in all three languages, was defaced. Some paint with cement-like substance had been used. The action was undoubtedly witnessed by many, but no one testified as to the actual culprits. Rumours were then spread that the defacement was the work of Tamil students. The report alludes to, and we heard separately, that Tamil nationalist slogans and posters were found in the University and outsiders had come in and made threats that they and their supporters among the students would teach the Tamils a lesson.
That night, some Tamil students were watching a Tamil film in the Science Faculty canteen. At 9.30 P.M. the males among them were dragged out by a group of Sinhalese students led by W.A.D.T. (Thulsie) Wickremasinghe and A. Ekanayake - both of them 4th year science students from Arunachalam Hall. The Tamils were accused of defacing the Sinhalese lettering on the plaque, and were forced to deface with black paint the Tamil lettering on the name boards from Galaha Junction to the Arts Faculty. This was followed by attacks in several student halls of residence.
According to the Report: "Throughout the night of the 11th, gangs of students rampaged along the road and made mayhem in the halls. Yet the Security Service (which believes only in 'acting on information received') saw nothing and heard nothing. We are left to wonder why these blind and deaf men remain on the pay-roll of the institution. During this critical period what authority existed within the campus was in eclipse. Not only did the Security Service signally fail in its duty, but wardens and sub-wardens appear to have abdicated their responsibility. Here was a situation which could not be handled by the University's own structures. Yet were serious attempts made to call in the Police?.... The only happy feature of these disturbances was the kindness shown by several Sinhala students to the victims by warning them of possible attacks, advising them how to avoid them and agreeing to look after their belongings in their absence. One outstanding gesture of compassion was made by a Sinhala boy who had led Mr. Navaratnam away to safety after he had been mauled and abandoned in front of Wijewardene Hall."
The main attacks on students on the 11th night took place at Hilda Obeysekere hall (HOH), James Peiris Hall (JPH) and Marrs Hall (MH). HOH was attacked about 9.45 PM by students armed with staves and parts of furniture. They were from other halls looking for particular students, some of whom were pointed out by fellow Sinhalese students. "....they were aided and abetted by students resident in the hall who pointed out rooms occupied by Tamils and generally helped in the identification of victims. In the process of discovering their suspects, the attackers were not averse, however, to threatening and doing bodily harm to other Tamils interrogated and when they forcibly entered their rooms."
A particular target was a first year engineering student P. Balasooriyan who was editing a Tamil magazine and was accused of being a 'tiger'. In trying to escape Balasooriyan jumped down a floor and injured himself. He was then identified by two fellow first year engineering students, Shantha Ratnayake and Bandara, and was assaulted by several students including a batch-mate W.M.V. Fernando. He was later found sweating and kneeling on the floor. Amidst the clamour of the mob demanding that 'Tiger' Balasooriyan be handed over to the Police, the Warden Dr. K.N.O. Dharmadasa contacted the Vice Chancellor and Balasooriyan was handed over to the Police the next morning. The CID later exonerated Balasooriyan.
The Report adds on this 'tiger episode': "The sub-wardens of Hilda Obeysekere Hall do not appear to have correctly assessed the situation on the night of the 11th. Evidence has been placed before us that the assaults and harassment of many Tamils had taken place prior to and concurrently with the very long drawn-out 'tiger episode'. A prima facie case by appropriate authorities does not appear to have been made against Balasooriyan before taking a very serious step of sending him to the Police.... Dr. Dharmadasa himself admitted that their prime concern was to defuse the situation... Had a less hasty step been taken, regarding Balasooriyan, it would have saved the authorities and his 300 accusers the ignominy of learning (later) that the 'tiger' was only an 'unoffending cat'!"
During the incident the Warden had been shown a bag containing some blocks, rubber stamps and a Tamil magazine that were considered proof of Balasooriyan's involvement with the 'Tiger Movement'. It turned out that Balasooriyan was openly editing and selling a cultural magazine Pudusu ('New') which he had started while at school in Mahajana College, Tellipalai. Much later Balasooriyan joined the NLFT, a small left group started by Viswanandadevan, also a product of the Engineering Faculty, Peradeniya. The NLFT was noted for its pungent criticism of the ultra-nationalism of the Tigers. Balasooriyan later went to Britain. It further highlights the ridiculous nature of the incident at HOH. It was this that led to reports of subversive literature in the Colombo Press. Evidently, in the country's premier university where about 25% of the students and staff were Tamil speaking, the authorities had no way of verifying the contents and nature of some writing in Tamil!
At Marrs Hall 'C. Maruthainar was trod on so mercilessly that he defecated, while a Sinhala batch-mate who had helped to identify him averted his eyes'. E. Sritharan who was hiding in the ceiling fell down, suffered four broken ribs, damaged vertebrae and was hospitalised. S. Nagendran was assaulted for the crime of contesting the Medical Students' Association elections by a group of students led by Dr. S. Gamage, a passed out dentist, staying in the Hall illegally.
Mr. M. Sivasangaram, a lecturer in economics and a cripple, was living in room No.1 on the ground floor of Arunachalam Hall. The ramp which he used to move from one level to another in his wheel chair was taken away by students on the 11th evening. Perturbed by this he left Peradeniya with the bulk of the Tamil students on the 12th. Three members of the staff (K. Selvarajah, instructor in electrical engineering, K. Jayanthakumaran, lecturer in economics and R. Navaratnam, lecturer in geography) stayed behind.
About 9.00 P.M. on the night of the 12th, the three staff members were pulled out, taken to the roundabout near Arunachelam Hall and attacked. The first two managed to escape from them, Jayananthakumaran with a fractured and bleeding nose. Navaratnam was dragged along the road and was injured in his knees and shoulders by being beaten with bamboo poles and a belt. Thulsie Wickremasinghe, the fourth year science student identified earlier, was the man with the belt.
On the 13th the attackers had become bolder. The Teaching Hospital is just outside the University, bordering the Medical Faculty at Galaha Junction. Here it was thought safe for the Tamils to reside outside and attend by day. But the student assailants committed trespass by broad day light to attack Tamils on those premises, even though notices warning students about their conduct had been put up. Two final year medical students, V. Muralitharan and K.R. Saseendran, were caught near the house officers' quarters, forcibly taken under the railway bridge on Galaha Road and were severely assaulted. The man whipping with the belt was again our hero, Thulsie Wickremasinghe.
The Tamil students later began to come back after the university authorities set a deadline for 31st May for their return. There were then sporadic attacks and attempts at arson in Akbar-Nell and Marrs Halls. Notable however were the very similar masked attacks on Tamil students at Arunachalem Hall and James Peiris Hall on 4th and 5th June respectively.
The Report also observed that this was the first time that the University had been affected by communal tensions from outside.[Top]
The Report cites the memorandum of Dr. Premasiri, Director of Student Welfare: (1) the seats of trouble are in the Halls and (2) that there is an anti-Tamil element working insidiously in the University; and adds, "This view is expressed quite independently of him, by us in our Interim Report." Apart from Dr. Premasiri, the Report names Dr. Ashley Halpe as one of those who provided crucial information for the Inquiry.
The modus operandi of the assailants had some striking similarities to the far greater violence of July 1983:
* The start of the violence was a real or contrived provocation. But a plan and preparations were ready in advance.
* Students attacking a particular hall came from outside armed with lists of targetted students. Residents mainly helped in locating the victims.
* Even though the ring leaders were widely known, it took the university authorities four weeks to suspend Wickremasinghe and Ekanayake, and that was after a masked attack on returned Tamil students in Arunachalem, the hall in which the two resided.
The Security Service behaved as though it was what the powers that be wanted and did nothing. The Police were apparently not called on the 11th and 12th May. When a medical professor called the Police on the 13th, the day the Medical Faculty and Teaching Hospital came under attack by broad daylight, the Police apparently told him (p.23 of the Report) that the D.I.G's authority was needed (even though the Teaching Hospital was outside the University).
(Page 5 of the Report): "The purpose of the campaign was to evict the Tamils from the Campus. In complete defiance of authority and acting with blatant violence, the attackers succeeded in achieving their ends".
Mixed motives and effects of Propaganda
The Report notes (p.6): "At some points, personal grudges appear to have taken precedence: jealousy at examination performance, some earlier quarrel, an inferiority complex etc." It says on p31: "Among the remarks hurled by the Sinhala inquisitors at their victims are some which give the impression of an uninformed - even childish - attitudes towards the Tamils of this country;' Tell Amirthalingam to build you a university in Jaffna!' ,' You are tigers!',' You belong to the Gandhiyam Movement!',' You must learn Sinhala; don't speak in Tamil or English!' and so on".
Refutes Justification for Attack
Some justifications for the attack too have similarities to those given for the July 1983 violence: - viz. provocation by Tamil separatists and the inadequacy of the response from the State.
The Report observes (p.29): "It may be argued that the students who staged this campaign against Tamils were forced to do so because the authorities had done nothing to counter subversion in the University. Not one iota of proof has been produced that the authorities had been apprised of such a situation nor is there any evidence that they had heard such complaints and ignored them." [Top]
One reason why the University had remained insulated from the communal violence outside until 1983 was that the Left was strong in the universities. Even though there had inevitably been a certain amount of communal polarisation, it had been possible to discuss the ethnic issue quite openly without rancour, and many lifelong friendships were made across communal divisions. During the December 1982 Referendum there had been major clashes in the University along UNP and anti-UNP lines. It was a turning point. The UNP Government had secured itself by this stratagem of the Referendum a further six years in office with no effective opposition. In reinforcing its brand of absolutism, the right wing sections in the University received a shot-in-the-arm where they could act with impunity with the forces of the State backing them. This was happening throughout the country. This was the context behind the attacks. The Report gives strong indications of planning behind the attacks:
"We have therefore to conclude, that there is no substance in the accusations made by the chief actors in this drama when they confronted the Tamils on the campus, and that the slogans and defacing of the plaque were part of the strategy to implicate the Tamils, and so to precipitate unrest in the University". (p. 25)
Apart from the nature of the simultaneous attacks on the 11th night, another feature is pointed out in the Report. It says, "We have noted with some misgivings the role of the President of the Peradeniya Students' Union before and after the night of terror (the 11th), his assignment in the halls of residence, (at meetings, which we understood, were unauthorised,) his solicitude for the victims of the campaign [i.e. the suspended perpetrators], and his ubiquitous presence at focal points of the campus during the disturbances."[Top]
Although the Inquiry Report did not comment on this, its own evidence points to UNP involvement. What took place on the 11th, 12th and 13th on the campus was organised criminal assault with intimidation and danger to life, with the authorities unable or unwilling to make any impact on the situation. Yet no attempt appears to have been made to summon the Police (p.7). We may take it that the Vice Chancellor did not call the Police. When the Police were called to intervene by a medical professor, they avoided the issue by bringing in the fictitious need for the DIG's clearance.
This is extra-ordinary because the Police were involved by the University only to take into custody and interrogate for terrorist links an innocent Tamil victim. On the other hand Thulsie Wickremasinghe was brazenly open in his belt-wielding assaults on three successive days. No attempt was made to check him. The Tamil students who fled were given a deadline to return leaving the belt-swinging-hero free to start the mischief all over again. Wickremasinghe appears to have been extremely confident of the impunity he enjoyed.
Those who have been through Peradeniya over the decades would know one thing for sure. Whenever there was a disturbance within the Campus that the Government considered a challenge to itself, the Police were promptly dispatched with riot gear, virtually to camp inside. The Vice Chancellor had little say in the matter. Why the indifference on the part of the Government and the Police this time? Why the silence of the Vice Chancellor on what action he took regarding summoning the Police to protect the Tamils? Did he try and did someone dissuade him?
The Jayewardene Government was extremely sensitive to what was going on in the universities. In Chapter 11 we will see the alacrity and violence with which the Government interfered in Kelaniya University in 1978 when student elections showed poor support for the Government. Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe intervened personally with a view to influencing the elected representatives. The Government was undoubtedly far more concerned about Peradeniya. The experience at Kelaniya does indicate something about the prominent students going about with impunity causing havoc, while 'what authority existed within the campus was in eclipse'. The latter was something Jayewardene would hardly have tolerated for three days, leave alone four weeks, unless it was sanctioned by persons having his confidence.
A particular feature of the violence shows through in the 18 students identified by the Committee of Inquiry against whom punishment ranging from 1 year's suspension to dismissal was recommended. 13 of them were from medicine-related courses (medical - 9, dental - 3, veterinary - 1), 4 from science and an engineering first year. Nearly all of them are from courses to which competition is high with the students tending to have an elitist outlook and being significantly more receptive to ideas of the Right. There was none found guilty from the Humanities. Also in earlier years the Engineering Faculty had far healthier traditions such as welcoming freshers instead of ragging them. We may also note that the Press, which leans towards the UNP, did not touch in any depth the horror of what happened at the University.
It is also of interest to note that there were very senior persons at the University, who were also highly influential in the UNP hierarchy. The vice-chancellor's brother was N.G.P. Panditharatne, the powerful UNP Secretary General. Also influential with the UNP were Professors K.M. de Silva and G.H. Peiris. K.M. de Silva co-authored a biography of Jayewardene. We have no doubt that Prof. B.L. Panditharatne did not want to go down in history as the vice-chancellor who presided over the ethnic cleansing of the University. Neither would have any of the others relished the distinction of being professors in such an institution. It was perhaps this inhibition that prompted some kind of action. Although there was no public note of indignation against the attackers who were well known to the authorities, restorative measures were put into motion, although they were long delayed and inadequate. We also understand that the Report of the Committee of Inquiry was suppressed, apparently on the grounds that one person in the three-member committee did not sign. Mrs. T.K. Ekanayake, who was then the principal of Girls' High School, Kandy, resigned from the Committee of Inquiry at the latter stages on 14th November 1983. There is an indication in the Report that her place was taken by Mrs. Chandra Ranaraja at the Vice Chancellor's request. However, the final report of 6th December 1983 was signed by only two of the three members. They were Kenneth M. de Lanerolle (Chairman) and Dorai Calnaido (Member). As to Jayewardene's personal interest in universities, we may note that during his presidency, he was also minister of higher education! [Top]
We have confirmation from different sources that it was the UNP that was behind the campus violence. Thulsie Wickremasinghe, the main ringleader, has been identified as a UNP agent. He, it is said, was given good positions later by the Government. Qadri Ismail who was then a student at the University and was later in turn a journalist with the Island and Sunday Times, confirmed that the violence was a UNP affair. He also added, "Strangely enough, it was the JVP that worked hard to get the Tamil students back". It also signifies a vacuum where the traditional opposition was ineffective. The UNP had created a situation where only the extreme-right or the extreme-left, which was not averse to the former's methods, could thrive. In the South the vacuum was filled by the JVP from the violent Left. In the North-East it was to be the LTTE representing the extreme Tamil Right.
The ideas that surfaced at Peradeniya in May were those which emerged from the mouths of attackers at the end of July. Those who had destroyed Tamil houses down a road were heard saying, 'We have cleansed this place!' It suggests that at least by May 1983, an influential section of the UNP was planning for the big show while also laying down the line for those who still had some sanity left.
It is also worth noting that the attack on the Tamil students at Peradeniya marks a deliberate shift in political violence by the UNP. The document Communal Violence July 1983 put out by the Civil Rights Movement lists previous attacks on university students: - viz. Vidyalankara Campus (March 1978), Katubedda Campus (April 1978), Polgolla Campus (February 1979), Vidyodaya Campus (March 1979), Colombo Campus (March 1980), Kelaniya University (June 1980). (Note that subsequently all these campuses of the former single University of Ceylon, became independent universities; e.g. Vidyalankara Campus became part of Kelaniya University.)
These attacks were concentrated in the 27 months from March 1978 to June 1980. Parallel to this there were several UNP mob attacks against trade unions during this period, culminating in June 1980 when unions preparing for the general strike were attacked. Also in the same month there was a brutal attack on the teachers at Maharagama Training College. The CRM document says on the attacks on students, that thugs were brought from outside and the Police too participated in some of the attacks. Moreover, when the unions were attacked 'no police protection was afforded to the pickets'.
The attacks here were not communal, and, had the clear purpose of breaking the opposition to the Government's introduction of an open economy. There were no similar attacks on students for nearly 3 years after June 1980. We may therefore take it that the attack on Tamil students at Peradeniya flowed from a general decision about dealing with the Tamils taken at the highest levels of the UNP hierarchy.
In the next four chapters we will deal with these developments one by one. They are the developments in Trincomalee, the build up of opinion among the Sinhalese where sentiments were becoming violent resulting in the unbridgeable gap between the Sinhalese and Tamils, the assault on legality and a momentum, already observed, to resort to extra-judicial means in dealing with Tamil activists.
Before we proceed, we may observe that there had always been a segment of Sinhalese extremists having in mind communal violence as a means to dealing with the Tamils. The following is an extract from one of the pamphlets sent anonymously through the post, about the period of the 1958 communal violence, to the Government of Ceylon (vide back cover of Tarzie Vitachi's Emergency '58). Its ultimate aim was to have the major cities in the South free of non-Buddhists. It stated:
"Be warned. Death is at your doorstep. Act now and join us in our struggle for freedom from Tamils and other aliens such as the Muslims, Malays, Burghers, etc.., all of whom can go to the Northern and Eastern Provinces if they want to remain in Sri Lanka."
At that time they were quite happy to concede the North-East as alien territory. In 1983 the UNP was the chief refuge of these tendencies, which Jayewardene encouraged and played with. When in 1980 the TULF was in two minds about accepting District Development Councils, we learn very reliably that Jayewardene applied pressure on them saying that some people in his party were planning communal violence. Such violence did materialise in August 1981 in which Jayewardene himself admitted UNP involvement.
When the DDCs were found to be without any real power, on Gamini Dissanayake's initiative the Jaffna DDC Chairman, Mr. Nadarajah, was invited to talks at Queen's House at which Jayewardene and Athulathmudali were also present. Athulathmudali told Nadarajah bluntly that there was no question of devolution. The strategy was to buy him over by offering money for a few projects such as a stadium. Mr. Nadarajah firmly refused. The last such talks took place a week before the July '83 holocaust. Nadarajah was gunned down by the LTTE in Jaffna in 1988.[Top]
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