THE JULY 1983 VIOLENCE AGAINST TAMILS
The mood of the government was reflected in a pronouncement President Jayewardene made during the course of an interview he gave Graham Ward of the Daily Telegraph, published in the issue of 18 July 1983. He said: "I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now... Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us." India had been diplomatically voicing its concern about the worsening situation to the government. The Sri Lankan government had been working up anti-Indian remarks by the President. Significantly, the first public statement of concern for the Tamils in Ceylon from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, came between the publication of Jayewardene's remarks in the Daily Telegraph and the commencement of the racial violence six days later.
We have seen that in the weeks leading up to the 23rd of July 1983, the government had been building up for a use of massive force against Tamils. Regulations had also been framed which empowered state officials to break up refugee settlements of victims of the 1977 violence painstakingly built up in the North and East. Under cover of the July 1983 violence, there was forced transport on a large scale of Indian Tamil refugees from the North and East back to the hill country which they had fled in fear six years previously. They were simply dumped in the hill country while around them Tamils were again being killed and rendered refugees. July 1983 saw the publication of a report by Amnesty International detailing the large scale practice of torture against detainees. This was dismissed by President Jayewardene as communist inspired.
The course of the violence had such a planned character that the ambush of Sri Lankan soldiers rather than being the cause would have represented simply a convenient starting point. Militant activities in Jaffna had been on the increase. The army too had some successes. On one occasion two militants were ambushed and killed. On 23 July the L.T.T.E. killed 13 soldiers when the truck in which they were travelling hit a landmine on Palaly road in Thirunelvely. A senior L.T.T.E. man, Sellakilli, who had turned the tables on Inspector Bastianpillai was also killed. According to one source there had been a mix up of signals and Sellakilli had stood up. The following day the army went on a spree in Jaffna killing 41 people - some in their homes, some while they were waiting for buses at Manipay, and so on. The violence in Colombo started in the early hours of 25 July. 53 Tamil detainees at Welikade prison were killed in two successive attacks by armed fellow prisoners on the 25th and 27th of July. There was no impartial inquiry into this incident. It is believed that the prison massacre was planned at the highest levels and in the circumstances it could hardly have been otherwise.
The excerpts given below are taken from "Sri Lanka: The Holocaust and After," by L. Piyadasa, Marram Books, London (1984). These describe the course of violence:
In Kelaniya, Industries Minister Cyril Mathew's gangs were identified as the ones at work. The General Secretary of the government "union" the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (J.S.S.) was identified as the leader of gangs which wrought destruction and death all over Colombo and especially in Wellawatte, where as many as ten houses a street were destroyed. A particular U.N.P. municipal councillor of the Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia Municipality led gangs in Mount Lavinia. In the Pettah (the bazaar area, where 442 shops were destroyed and murders were committed) the commander was the son of Aloysius Mudalali, the Prime Minister's right-hand man. And so on. Thugs who worked regularly for the leaders of the U.N.P., the Ministers of State and Party Headquarters, and in some cases uniformed military personnel and police, were seen leading the attack. They used vehicles of the Sri Lanka Transport Board (Minister in charge, M. H. Mohammed) and other government departments and state corporations. Trucks of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation's Oil Refinery came from many miles away bringing the men who destroyed so much of Wellawatte. There is much other evidence of this sort. In view of the quasi-governmental nature of the "action," the killings that took place may have been difficult for the eye-witnesses to resist ... But in the neighbourhoods, after the initial shock, Sinhalese and Burghers organised themselves and kept off the gangs who had been sent to burn and kill.
We have talked to people who were eye-witnesses of the killings - the beatings-to-death and burnings-alive in cold blood of individual Tamils seized, with never a case of police opposition, on the streets and in vehicles. Most people have read or heard the account, which we are convinced is authentic, of the Norwegian tourist who saw twenty people burnt alive in a minibus by one of these gangs. One of the most remarkable exploits of the "heroes" was the massacre, that day, in Welikade Prison (Sri Lanka's most important) of 35 people including some convicted men, and most either on remand or arbitrarily detained by the military. All were Sri Lankan Tamils. We are convinced that this massacre could not have been carried out without government and National Security Council authorisation and preparation at a level which would have guaranteed immunity from prosecution and public investigation. The men and women responsible for the conspiracy to commit this atrocity were never named, nor were those who organised and directed it. Fellow-prisoners of the murdered persons who were set up to commit some of the killings, and provided with weapons (and what else?), were collectively but not individually identified, but no one was charged!
The pogrom continued less intensely in Greater Colombo for three more days, in spite of the curfew. On Tuesday, July 26th, some of the action squads were transported to Kandy, some 70 miles away, and that afternoon there was a similar sharp and quick action there before the curfew was declared at 6 p.m. It then moved further up-country, past towns like Matale (devastated) and Nawalapitiya towards Badulla and Nuwara Eliya. Hindu temples had been added to the hit list. Army action had resulted in over 60 per cent of Badulla's city centre being reduced to rubble. On the 27th, incredibly, the second massacre of Tamil political detainees and remand prisoners was successfully carried out. This time 18 were killed. There was more to come. For, as some of the Tamils began to trickle back to work towards the end of the week, their fellow-countryman, J. R. Jayewardene, spoke publicly for the first time on Thursday evening, justifying what had been done to the Tamils in South and central Sri Lanka, and uttering not a word of sympathy. On Friday, this provocative speech, and other actions, led to further arson and many more killings.
The second extract describes the peculiar conduct of Mr. Gamini Dissanayake, M.P. for Nuwara Eliya and Minister of Lands and Land Development. Nuwara Eliya erupted following his visit, after the city had been brought under control by persons acting with foresight:
The town was closely guarded by the army. All vehicles were checked. Bus conductors had orders not to transport Tamils. Minister Gamini Dissanayake came from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya to hold a meeting with party members. The day before, M.P. Herath Ranasinghe had arrested precautiously (sic) some well-known rowdies. Soon after the end of Gamini Dissanayake's party meeting they were released. These people went out immediately, well-equipped with petrol, iron rods and other kinds of weapons, and tried to attack two Tamil priests in town. They managed to escape. Without having succeeded they moved on - another mob joined up with the first one. They laid a ring of petrol around a Tamil shop which was then burnt. They were supported in this by the army who supplied them with gallons of petrol. During the day nearly all Tamil-owned shops were burnt. Mrs. Herath Ranasinghe ordered the army to disperse the looters - but it was already too late. The Member of Parliament was banished from town under a hail of insults. Tamil people who walked the streets were beaten by soldiers. The fire brigade which stood waiting was hindered by the army and the Sinhalese mob in doing its job... Shops which had not been burnt by the mob were set fire to by the army. Around noon Nuwara Eliya was like a sea of flames... ("Sri Lanka - 'Paradise' in Ruins," Sri Lanka Co-ordination Centre, Kassel, 1983).
Addressing a meeting of the L.J.E.W.U. (Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union), a union sponsored by Mr. Dissanayake as a rival to Mr. Thondaman's C.W.C., shortly after the July 1983 violence; Dissanayake said: "If India invades this country, the Tamils will be killed within 24 hours." There was much talk at that time about Indian troops being sent to protect Tamils. Dissanayake was, in the best street thug tradition, doing more than his share of Tamil baiting.
With the march of modern Sinhalese nationalism, Duttugemunu, a prince from the second century B.C. had been brought out of the mists of time and elevated to the position of the archetypal Sinhalese hero. The most celebrated of Duttugemunu's acts was to defeat in single combat, Elara, the aging King of Anuradhapura for 40 years. Elara had in his youth led an army into Ceylon from South India, and according to the chronicle Mahavamsa which contains the incident, had been a just and popular ruler. Duttugemunu had built a tomb for his dead foe and had decreed that all passers by should treat it with respect. To call Elara a Tamil and Duttugemunu a Sinhalese is to load modern ethnic consciousness with meanings it did not possess in ancient times. Indeed even as late as the first half of the 19th century, it was natural for members of the Kandyan upper class whom the British wished to apprehend, to seek refuge in Jaffna without feeling in any way aliens there. An older generation of the Kandyan upper class was quite happy with its children seeking spouses of the right caste in Jaffna, rather than in the low-country. There are many anecdotal stories which illustrate this. Once Mrs. Bandaranaike's brother, Senator Barnes Ratwatte, was heard speaking to someone in fluent Tamil. When a Tamil person expressed surprise, Mr. Ratwatte had replied lightly: "The higher you go up Kandyan society, the Tamil improves." This suggests a Ceylonese society divided on caste lines rather than on linguistic lines. This is confirmed by recent scholarship (See "Ethnicity and Social Change in Sri Lanka", published by the Social Scientists Association, 1979).
Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism as it is known today was spearheaded by the emergence of a low-country based commercial class under the opportunities provided by British ruled Ceylon. Kumari Jayewardene has pointed out that the anti-Indianism of this class had to do with current business rivalries with Indian merchants who were also making it good, rather than with anything in the hazy past. A leading role in the development of this nationalism was played by the Karawe caste, descended from Tamil speaking mercenaries who were brought from South India in service of local kings shortly before the coming of the Portuguese in 1505. Modern Sinhalese nationalism thus propagated a series of myths through the teaching of history in schools; whence the obscure prince Duttugemunu came to be the achetypical anti-Indian and anti-Tamil hero. History has no justification for this if one looks at the continual migration of peoples from India and their co-mingling over the centuries.
The latter part of the seventies saw an incident made sillier by the involvement in it of two highly educated ministers. A monument in Anuradhapura long known as Elara's tomb was proclaimed as being the tomb of Duttugemunu. Claims to this effect in the last three decades died down when it was found that the opposition from professional scholars was too much. This time some remains from the tomb were sent to the Government Analyst, to prove that the remains were those of Duttugemunu. How that was to be done in the case of a person dead for over two millennia with no medical history, one does not know. Two of the ministers who took a prominent interest in the ceremonial fanfare were Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali. Acquiring for themselves the Duttugemunu image was important for their politics and their personal vanity. This may go some way to explain their heroics. (For more on the subject of the tomb, see "The Tomb of Elara," by Dr. James Rutnam.)
Such histrionics were almost exclusively part of the gimmickry of the Right. The Sinhalese masses were increasingly fed on such opium to alleviate their bourgeoning misery. Theatrical gestures of this kind are likely to cut little ice today. Indian troops are within a few miles of the tomb. As an Indian General put it: "We are not here to play marbles". Dissanayake was prominent amongst the protagonists of the Accord which 'invited' in the Indian troops. Mr. Dissanayake commands a ministry with a very large flow of money, next perhaps only to defence expenditure. He is also tipped to be a possible successor to President Jayewardene. With such interests at stake, it is understandable for Duttugemunus to turn Ettappan or Pilime Talawe, who connived with the British conquest of Pandya and Kandy respectively, thus betraying the trust of their Lords.
The July 1983 race riots marked an outbreak of irrational frenzy. The reasons given are many: widespread corruption at the top accompanied by impoverishment below; the increasing resort to ecstatic religion by the common people whose worldly horizons were hopelessly restricted, thus making them more vulnerable to emotive suggestions; the failure of economic life in rural areas swelling the ranks of a discontented urban proletariat; frustration resulting from the violent break up of the 1980 strike and the deprivation of the safety valve of general elections through an almost certainly rigged referendum, etc. The government succeeded in directing all this frustration at the Tamils through its propaganda, thus providing sacrificial victims for a Bacchanalian orgy. One may compare this with the periodic pogroms against Jews in Tsarist Russia.
The collective Sinhalese hysteria had the character of a religious ritual. The Cabinet which one way or the other sanctioned it, seemed to share in the hysteria. Hardly a minister came out clean. S. J. Tambiah ("Ethnic Fratricide in Sri Lanka," Chicago University Press, 1985) records the conduct of some key ministers thus:
In the wake of the July 1983 violence, perhaps out of a "feeling of being crushed and pressured by a massive tide of collective aggression" by the Sinhalese, it took the President 24 hours to impose a curfew on Colombo, and four days to say anything at all. Then referring to the mobs as a "mass movement by the generality of the Sinhalese people," the President averred: "The time has come to accede to the clamour and national respect of the Sinhalese people." This tide of appeasement was carried on by other ministers. On the same television programme, Mr. Athulathmudali, who was later to become Minister of National Security, nearly wept with ponderous histrionics over a sight he had never dreamed he would see - lines of Sinhalese people waiting to buy food as the result of riots! He had not a word to say in sympathy for frightened Tamils crowded in indescribable conditions in refugee camps... neither the President, the Cabinet, nor even a single Sinhalese politician visited them to commiserate even briefly, or to promise relief and rehabilitation... The same President who admitted that some of his armed forces had participated in the riots wagged his finger at India for its alleged expansionist and interfering ambitions... Minister Cyril Mathew declared in Parliament on 4th August 1983: "If the Sinhala  1 are the majority race, why can't they be the majority?" Even Ronnie de Mel who later tried to distance himself from the government's Tamil policy did not come out untarnished.
Piyadase puts it thus: "The economic interests represented by Esmond Wickremasinghe, Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake can be furthered only at considerable cost to the people of Sri Lanka."
One thing was clear after the riots. For the first time a government had connived in violence against a section of its own people on such a large scale. Wild passions had been unleashed. It was an invitation to all and sundry to fish in troubled waters. The country was not going to be the same again. (For a detailed exposition of the subject, see L. Piyadasa's "Sri Lanka: The Holocaust and After," Marram Books, London, 1984) [Top]Next||Previous||content
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