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Chapter 9

Sri Lanka's Black July

“If mobs of mutinous Indian soldiers, without officers or leaders, had been guilty of cruel and revolting deeds, the trained British soldiers, led by their officers, exceeded them in cruelty and barbarity. I do not want to compare the two… It is also well to remember that the cruelty of a mob is nothing compared to the cruelty of an organised government when it begins to behave like a mob.”

  - Jawaharlal Nehru on the Indian Mutiny of 1857, in  his Glimpses of World History

9.1 Preliminaries

9.2 The Government and the Violence of July 1983

9.3 Borella, 24th Evening

9.4 What really happened at Kanatte?

9.5 Jayewardene's Failure to Declare Curfew

9.6 Other testimony regarding the violence

9.7 The Cover Up

9.8 30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot

9.9 The Testimony of Lionel Bopage, then General Secretary of the JVP

9.10 Thondaman & Muttetuwegama

9.11 What was behind Tiger Friday - 29th July? -The Significance of the Pettah

9.12 Tamil Merchants in the Pettah - Post July 1983

9.13 A family's Tragedy in Colombo

9.14 A note on Buddhism, Caste & the New Sinhalese Nationalism

9.15 The Question of Numbers

9.1 Preliminaries

Most people hate to see themselves as murderers. This influences the manner in which they perceive public and private tragedies, and memory often rejects the unpleasant and sanitises the true nature of the event. So it happened with Tamils in the way they sanitised and rationalised instances of Tamil violence against Sinhalese and Muslims. Several of these have been described in our reports over the years. The Sri Lankan State with its ideology is an institution, which most Sinhalese actively or passively empathised with. The fact that there was no investigation into the violence of July 1983, made it easy for Sinhalese in general to opt for versions that distanced their government and hence themselves from the holocaust. Likewise the Tamils, with the subsequent communal attacks by their militant groups.

Thus one often hears said about the 1983 violence that it began spontaneously on the evening of 24th July when the bodies of the slain soldiers were brought from Jaffna, after which the Government lost control of the situation – so that the ‘Tamil terrorists’ or simply ‘terrorists’ who ‘brutally’ killed the soldiers in a routine military incident were largely to blame. This pedestrian version, more or less, with the qualification that Tamil civilians too suffered brutal reprisals, has got into several respectable accounts. It is thus very much the official version of the country’s ruling interests. It distances the Government from blame.

A different version of events is held by many Sinhalese who are conscious of the interests of the Sinhalese people. They are keenly aware that the violence did irreparable harm to Sinhalese interests, subjected the Sinhalese people to worldwide obloquy and legitimised the division of the country. Many of them hold the violence to have begun spontaneously, but are clear that the Government which had soldiers on the streets of Colombo every few yards could have stopped the violence if it wanted to. Among this more discerning layer, there was also anger that the main parties, the UNP and the SLFP, which showed no leadership qualities then, had let the Sinhalese down badly. Many of them in the higher levels of society, such as lawyers, professionals and university lecturers, came to have an emotional leaning towards the JVP rebels who made a bid for power during 1988-89.

The Southern Left which had a long tradition of opposing the State, had no difficulty, at least in private, in blaming the Government wholesale. However, by this time, 1983, they were politically marginalised and their trade union arms had been violently attacked. Moreover after the July violence, Jayewardene tried to pin the blame for it on the Left along with the JVP, and banned them. This being their position, what they said publicly was muted.

The book Sri Lanka: the Holocaust and After by L. Piyadasa (a pseudonym) had drawn widely from sources close to the Left. It accused the Government of preparation well before the killing of soldiers in Jaffna, and spoke of goon squads led by UNP local councillors armed with electoral lists systematically targetting Tamil houses in Colombo and suburbs. In Kelaniya the gangs were identified as those of Industries Minister Cyril Mathew. The General Secretary of the JSS (Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya) which was under Mathew’s patronage was seen at large in Colombo on the 25th of July. The following day, according to Piyadasa, many of these goons from Colombo were bussed to Kandy (72 miles from Colombo) which then erupted. Badulla followed on the 27th and later Passara and Nuwara Eliya.

Mr. Bradman Weerakoon who was a trusted advisor to President Jayewardene and later to Premadasa, whom also Jayewardene made commissioner general of essential services in the wake of July 1983, has a sophisticated understanding of the violence, which also minimises the agency of individuals. His answers to difficult questions were prompt and unhesitating. He was quick to concede that politicians are extremely devious and operate in a very different framework, and that there was no one in the cabinet who stood out against dealing extra-judicially with persons perceived as a threat to the Government. As for the violence itself, he said that it might be misleading to look for answers to questions like who was responsible for what. The atmosphere had by that time become so charged that things happened by themselves. Much of the instigation, he said, was done at a low level by policemen and soldiers, who felt that it was now the patriotic duty of the Sinhalese to get rid of the Tamils.

Weerakoon himself pointed to the violence engulfing Colombo on Monday, Kandy on Tuesday, Badulla on Wednesday and Passara on Thursday, the delay roughly corresponding with distance from Colombo, and offered his own explanation. He associated it with news passed on by travellers, say someone going from Kandy to Badulla and instigating others, “See what the Sinhalese in Kandy did to the Tamils, where is our patriotism, are we not going to do our bit for our race?” He named army personnel as being among the agents in instigation of this kind, and cited the experience of his brother who was a planter near Passara. This planter was in the bazaar where he observed a convoy of army trucks that were parked. Otherwise, everything was normal and peaceful. He left the town, his vehicle climbing a hill. When he was some distance away, he heard gunshots and noise. Passara had erupted. As to the Welikade prison massacres, Weerakoon believes that spontaneous low level incitement was the key factor. That is to say, rioting had begun in Borella, on Monday (25th) the area was on fire, and the news would have been conveyed to the prisoners who were a mere few hundred yards away, with a challenge to prove their patriotism to the Sinhalese cause.

Reports of the role of the Army in the violence came also from Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. During 1983, Frank de Silva who retired as IGP in 1995 was DIG Police, Kandy. From the time of the killing of soldiers in Jaffna, he had intensified police patrols; often going out personally himself. The situation was calm through Monday. On Tuesday, he saw crowds that merely gathered and faced the Police without doing anything threatening. He with ASP Bertus ordered the crowds to be dispersed. They melted away and reappeared elsewhere to be dispersed again. After several replays of this, de Silva felt that the Police were looking foolish and withdrew his men. He had also noticed that many in the crowd were young men with short haircuts, giving themselves away as soldiers from the Sinha Regiment battalion in Kandy, who had also been associated with the communal violence of 1977. He wondered what the officers were doing allowing their men out in this manner. But with no help or instructions, he found himself at a loss. That afternoon Kandy erupted. Frank de Silva recalls finding a badly mauled Hill Country Tamil from Wattegama near the railway crossing on Peradeniya Road, putting him in his car and taking him to Kandy hospital.

Nuwara Eliya, was closely guarded by the Army who were checking all vehicles and had forbidden passenger vehicles from carrying Tamils. Although the violence spread from Kandy to Gampola and Nawalapitiya, Hatton was spared through the exertions of ASP G. Ariyasena, described by his superiors as an excellent officer. Nuwara Eliya was temporarily spared. Further Mrs. Herath Ranasinghe, the MP in Nuwara Eliya, as a precautionary measure had ordered the Police to take preventive custody of the local ruffians. On Friday 29th Minister Gamini Dissanayake arrived in Nuwara Eliya and held a party meeting. According to Piyadasa’s book what followed was that the ruffians preventively detained were released, and then Nuwara Eliya erupted into violence with active help from the Army.

This version quoted from Piyadasa as an eyewitness account was published in the Broken Palmyra. In 1990 the late Mr. Gamini Dissanayake contacted a friend common to himself and the authors of the Broken Palmyra and protested strongly against the implications of this version. He also offered to send Tamil witnesses from Nuwara Eliya who had a different version of events. He also protested that the statement quoted from his speech to the LJEWU in the wake of July, that "If India invades this country, the Tamils will be killed within 24 hours”, had been taken out of context. However, he ought to have been sensitive to the effect of that remark on the Tamils.

Whatever the validity of Dissanayake’s objection, it brings out the difficulty of recording events in this country. Where the State wants to suppress the truth in a climate of violence, legality is on its side. Under the circumstances, there were no legal records of what happened in July 1983 and no commission of inquiry. Information collected was smuggled out and published abroad. But activists who stand by Piyadasa’s version of events in Nuwara Eliya have to this day collected no affidavits. That is how things are in Sri Lanka!

A number of senior police officers who compared notes on developments particularly outside Colombo came to the conclusion that the ‘nucleus’ of the organised violence was provided by the Army. Cyril Herath who was IGP from 1985-88 was the DIG at Kurunegala in charge of the North Western Province. He held the peace, kept his fingers crossed and actively ‘resisted’ Army reinforcements being sent into his area. It remained an area notably free of violence in July although there had been some incidents in June.

The question now naturally arises, what went wrong with the Army? What was supposed to be an organised force with officers trained in the prestigious academies of Sandhurst and Dehra Dun had almost collapsed into an undisciplined mob. Several officers who held senior and responsible positions in the Army blame a combination of poor leadership and political interference. We will deal with this question in a later chapter. But now we move onto the responsibility of the Government and its leading figures.

Specifically, did the Government through rhetoric and posturing create conditions for communal violence where it found itself cornered or did its responsibility go much further? Was it an active agent in fomenting violence? Most Tamils saw the Government as an active agent, while the opposite is true of most Sinhalese. Indeed, if one looks only at one aspect of Jayewardene’s behaviour, what he did and what he told those close to him, one could make a strong case that he was cornered, and we are all in a sense prisoners of our past actions. But the Tamils as the victims were much more alive to other nuances, such as what he failed to do and the orders he did not issue. These tell a different story.

But before we proceed, a note of caution from Bradman Weerakoon: "One needs to be very careful before one accuses the Government of having organised the July 1983 violence and the Welikade prison massacres. I know it was terrible. From my house I could hear sounds of agony and blows falling on flesh. I had Tamils in my house whom I took to a refugee camp when I received a threatening call and subsequently brought back home because they were so miserable there. You know, there were several factors at work. A general election which would have released steam had not been held. There was commercial jealousy because several Tamil entrepreneurs had done well under the open economy. Then there were opposition groups wanting to create trouble for the Government. All these forces came into play. After all, we are so fragmented. How much do we know? It was the sort of eruption where the Government may have found itself unable to do much. A curfew often meant that the Tamils were in their homes while the assailants were free to pick them off."

It is always true that in every society hatreds, rivalries and jealousies are simmering below the surface. But people are generally constrained from going to extremes unless there is a breakdown of social order giving free rein to the worst impulses of mankind. The question is whether that breakdown was caused by, or with the connivance of, the Government, or whether it was a spontaneous occurrence? Our partial answer in the past chapters has been that the Government had both consciously and unconsciously been building up towards a breakdown. In the preceding violence at Peradeniya University and in Trincomalee, there was active Government connivance. Weerakoon's defence of Jayewardene's failure to impose curfew in time has a flaw. If Jayewardene was thinking along Weerakoon's lines, he would not have imposed curfew at all. But he did impose curfew on the 25th after the mobs ran amok for several hours. We will now examine the violence of July 1983 in greater detail.[Top]

9.2 The Government and the Violence of July 1983

About early July 1983, there was a dinner felicitating a doctor at Brown’s Beach Hotel, Negombo. Festus Perera, minister of fisheries, was holding forth at one table. He had evidently not noticed that a lady seated within hearing distance was Tamil, despite her wearing pottu and her thali. By that period the passenger traffic between Colombo and Jaffna had steadily increased to an all-time peak. The reasons were many, including the open economy with increasing foreign employment and travel. The subject of the Minister’s censure was the Tamils, who were travelling from Jaffna in ‘luxury’ coaches passing through Negambo and their acquisition of goods such as colour TV-sets. The minister added gravely, "Just wait a few weeks and they will be taught a lesson" From such hints, including Jayewardene’s Daily Telegraph interview, many Tamils sensed that there was something menacing in the air.

The closeness of Festus Perera to J.R. Jayewardene is reflected in an event during the split in the UNP which surfaced in January 1972, when the UNP was in the opposition. Dudley Senanayake was president of the party while Jayewardene was senior vice-president. In a statement published in the Press (Observer 23.1.72), Jayewardene professed his admiration for Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike, her Marxist partners (LSSP & CP) and her government’s socialist policies!! He moreover proposed to take the UNP into a coalition with Mrs.Bandaranaike’s government. In preparation for the next party convention 90% of the UNP branches had dropped Jayewardene from nominations to the vice-president’s post.

It was mainly the branches along the Catholic belt between Chilaw and Beruwela, where Festus Perera had influence, that had nominated Jayewardene. In preparation for this same convention, it was Cyril Mathew, described as ‘Jayewardene’s trusted lieutenant’, of whom more will be said later, who, attended by ‘notorious criminals from Kosgoda’, went about trying to organise support for Jayewardene. Dudley Senanayake, subsequently reached an understanding with Jayewardene and postponed the convention. According to Buddhika Kurukularatne, then area organiser for Ambalangoda, Senanayake then wrote to him: “…please understand, I came to an understanding merely to prevent UNP people from killing UNP people. If we went ahead [with the convention] there would have been bloodshed!” (Sunday Island, 20 June 1999). That gives us something of the flavour of personalities behind the July 1983 violence.   

The remarks such as those by Festus Perera were certainly not isolated. The late Mervyn de Silva (Men & Matters, Sunday Island, 2.2.92) referred to the unstated truth about July 1983 that 'cries out to be heard': "At least a week before that savage eruption, there was talk of 'something about to happen'.... something nasty, of a 'lesson' to be taught."

We had said earlier that a source of anxiety for the Government was its lack of legitimacy. Its fraudulent referendum had rendered the SLFP, the main opposition party, moribund. The brunt of opposition activity had moved outside Parliament to small Left-oriented groups whose natural turf was not the Parliament.

From what T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka says (The Agony of Sri Lanka), the Government was getting worried by routine speeches being made by groups like the NSSP and JVP. He also stretches things when he writes, “At another meeting Dr. Karunaratne protested on behalf of the NSSP on the arrest of Mr. S.A. David and Dr. S. Rajasundaram, the leaders of the Gandhiam Movement. Thus the NSSP became the first party in the Sinhalese speaking areas to show sympathy for the Tiger Movement”. Dissanayaka was here preparing the ground to justify the Government's subsequent ban on the NSSP. There was hardly any known connection between the Gandhiyam and the LTTE. (See the charges against the Gandhiyam leaders in Chapter 8.) Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne after all did what any sensible democrat should have done.

The Government was again so nervous that any challenge to it had the potential to be carried off in unforeseen directions. In the nature of the anti-Tamil atmosphere built up by the Government, the easiest way for it to attack Left groups who were conciliatory on the Tamil issue, was to create anti-Tamil hysteria.[Top]

 9.3 Borella, 24th Evening

Borella Junction is a shopping centre and a major bus terminus. About a third of a mile south of it along Baseline Road lies the Colombo General Cemetery at Kanatte, and about quarter of a mile west of it along Ward Place lay Braemar, the private residence of President Jayewardene. Before coming to his residence Ward Place intersects Kynsey Road, which comes from Kanatte, and beyond Braemar it intersects McCarthy Road and ends at Lipton Circus and the Colombo General Hospital, three quarters of a mile from Borella.

Travellers passing Kanatte in the evening, including the Communist MP Sarath Muttetuwegama, had little idea that a military funeral was going to take place. There were soldiers on guard around Kanatte and on Castle Street which leads to the new Parliament. Some thought that it was because President Ershad of Bangladesh who was in Colombo was visiting the Parliament. The Police had been given no instructions. About 4.00 PM a senior police officer told our scholar witness that the bodies of 13 soldiers killed in Jaffna were being brought to Colombo for burial with full military honours and that the funeral was to be at Kanatte. He added that it was still a top secret. A little later Prime Minister Premadasa and Minister Gamini Dissanayake among other top officials arrived at Jayewardene’s residence. Evidently, a top cabinet delegation was planning to attend the funeral.

There are several versions of what happened that evening, most of which speak of a spontaneous upsurge of communal violence. We have consulted several sources with a view to reconstructing the drama. Our witness went to Kanatte with the senior police officer.   

The relatives of the dead soldiers had been brought there in buses. They were sad and depressed, but not angry. This was the first time the Army experienced anything like a dozen casualties in a single incident. There was an Army band and Buddhist monks to perform the last rites. The government-owned Lake House press and a crew from state television were there. Arc lights had been fixed around the burial site

The bodies were to be brought from Jaffna for dressing at A.F. Raymond’s funeral parlour next to the cemetery. The funeral was scheduled for 5.00 PM, but owing to delays in decision making, the flight carrying the bodies touched down in Ratmalana airport very late. What then happened has been largely unreported. The times are important as will be seen later. The delay caused the crowd of curious onlookers to become large.

As it was getting dark, a group of young men wearing white T-shirts and shorts pushed through the crowd, and suddenly appeared at the burial site. They started covering the graves with their bare hands with angry expressions such as “Are you having them killed and buried like dogs!” They made a scene by kicking the brassware brought for the funeral ceremony. Their demand that the bodies of the dead should be given to the next- of-kin was bound to arouse sympathy.  

The senior police officer suggested to our witness that the young men, who were about twenty in number, were deserters from the Rajarata Rifles who were sent out of the Army in early June. He thought they were now in the army camp a short distance from Kanatte on the Narahenpita Road. Then Assistant Superintendent Gaffoor went up to see what the matter was, and almost fell into the grave when the intruders stoned the Police. Another ASP from the President’s staff remarked that things were out of control as the crowd started getting restive. Our witness rushed off to warn a Tamil friend and his English wife, who were visiting in that area, to leave.

Another police officer on the scene was the Inspector General Mr. Rudra Rajasingham. He had been on circuit in Nuwara Eliya. On hearing about the funeral, anticipating trouble, he cut short his circuit and returned to Colombo. He was in Kanatte for the military funeral and was surprised to find that no army officer of rank was present to take charge. There were soldiers in uniform and other young men, whom he identified as off-duty soldiers. DIG (Metropolitan) Edward Gunawardene was also present. Then Deputy Defence Minister Werapitiya and Gen. Attygalle, Additional Secretary, Defence, came there and spoke to Rajasingham as the senior-most security official present. They left to report to Jayewardene after asking the IG to 'hold the fort'.

A police officer attached to the CDB too identified a group of youths present there as off-duty army personnel from the nearby Narahenpita camp. Asked if they could have been university students, he was emphatic that he could tell the difference between army personnel and students. He noticed a little tension, which he described as a 'drizzle', and not a down-pour. He got into his patrol car and drove about as a plain-clothes officer. Through Tickell Road he reached Cotta Road and noticed a little stone throwing at a Tamil boutique, but nothing more.

We have mentioned the disruption caused by the young men. The crowd began demanding that there should be no funeral there, but that the bodies should be handed over to the next of kin. This was reportedly conveyed to the President by police intelligence men who taped what was going on. The President decided to cancel the funeral. This was followed by a commotion. The CDB officer felt that it was a mistake to have cancelled the funeral and that had it gone ahead, never mind the bit of an extremist speech by a Buddhist monk, things would have settled down.

There were both a variety of actors as well as observers at Kanatte that evening, who carried away with them different impressions about how the eruption took place. Some were quite sure that it was the spontaneous eruption at Kanatte that was the beginning of the holocaust. There were also those equally emphatic that the two were distinct events. Among the actors on the scene, there were Buddhist monks including Alle Gunawanse. There were off-duty army personnel.

Also present at Kanatte was Colonel Prasanna Dahanayake who had been sent out of the Army in 1966 on the charge that he had plotted a coup against the UNP Government of the day. He was subsequently detained along with other Leftist elements accused of plotting the July 1983 violence. Questioned in custody by ASP Chandra Jayawardena of the CID, the Sandhurst trained officer was totally evasive. Jayawardena threatened to send him to Jaffna prison. The Colonel flapped his arms and replied, "then I can fly". He was known to be Left in his politics and anti-UNP. To a fellow detainee, he admitted having been at Kanatte to stir up trouble against the Government. A Left politician said of Colonel Dahanayake, "He was anti-UNP all right. But knowing him as well as I do, his anti-UNP politics is mediated through an anti-Tamil approach."

Once the burial plans were cancelled, the Police riot squad rushed from the cemetery to seal off Ward Place at the Kynsey Road and McCarthy Road junctions, confirming that the Police perceived the crowd as posing a threat to Jayewardene. We do also know that a part of the crowd wanted to rush up Kynsey Road into Ward Place. T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka attributes to DIG Edward Gunawardene the decision to seal off Ward Place.

We also learn that Jayewardene was advised in the strongest terms that the situation was out of control. The words used by Police Superintendent Neil Weerasinghe who was in charge of his security were ‘The bubble has burst’! They understood that Jayewardene would declare curfew, and were surprised the following day when he had not.

All our sources are agreed that the initial mood of the crowd that left Kanatte was anti-government. According to some of them, about 10.00 P.M., fresh gangs were brought to Borella junction which raised the anti-Tamil cry. They are identified as government gangs. According to these reports when the crowd from Kanatte encountered the gangs freshly brought in, there was a hoot. Thereafter, the anti-government cry subsided and the anti-Tamil cry became dominant. This according to some sources, was the beginning of arson and the murder of Tamils who fell into the mob.[Top]

9.4 What really happened at Kanatte?

As indicated above, there are different versions and impressions about what happened at Kanatte on the 24th evening. We give below crucial pieces of testimony, which help to fill some glaring gaps. The first is an eyewitness account by a responsible member of the Ceylon Mercantile Union and is extracted from a statement issued by the General Secretary, dated 23rd August 1983:

"According to our member's statement, he had first gone to the funeral parlour of A.F. Raymond & Co. near Kanatte cemetery, in the afternoon of Sunday, the 24th July, on a message given to him by the Police, as he was a close relative of one of the soldiers killed in Jaffna the previous night. The relative had been informed by the Police at about noon on Sunday that they could take the dead soldier's body for removal to their home town. Later that evening, they and the relatives of other soldiers who had been killed in Jaffna who had assembled there were informed that all the bodies would be brought for burial at Kanatte that evening.

"They went to the cemetery, accordingly, and a huge crowd had assembled there. While they were waiting for the bodies to be brought for several hours, the relatives of the dead soldiers had objected to the bodies being buried at Kanatte. A clash with the Police in the cemetery had taken place when the graves were being closed by many of those who had objected to the burial at Kanatte.

"Later that night, a high official of the Ministry of Defence (said to be General Attygalle) had announced that the relatives would be allowed to take the bodies from Army Headquarters to their respective home towns or villages. Our member had been taken to Army Headquarters thereafter in an Army truck with other relatives. They had removed the body of their dead relative in the early hours of Monday (25th July) for burial in their hometown.

"Our member stated that he had come to know that attacks had taken place on Tamil owned shops at Borella, and other places on Sunday night, only after he had gone to the Army Headquarters around midnight. Before that he had heard hooting from the direction of the Borella junction when he was on his way to the Army Headquarters. He was positive that at no time, throughout the period of about 8 hours that he had been near or inside the Kanatte cemetery, had he heard or noticed anything amongst the people assembled there or amongst the large number of army personnel and police who were there, which indicated that reprisals against Tamil people or their property were being contemplated. The only resentment that had manifested itself at the cemetery was against the contemplated burial of the bodies of the dead soldiers at Kanatte."

This statement clears up several points. One is that, the mood at Kanatte was, if anything, anti-government. Those living closeby towards Rajagiriya had also testified that the dominant cry they heard was the demand for giving the bodies to the next-of-kin.

Also significant is the hooting from the direction of Borella, supporting some of the testimony we had from others. In Sri Lankan culture, hooting is a phenomenon resulting from the meeting of two groups at cross-purposes. For example, hooting would occur when a group of student demonstrators is confronted by a police barrier. It is also notable that the witness had not come to know of arson at Borella while he was in the area.

This witness had said more that was not in the statement throwing light on who wanted the funeral at Kanatte. The authorities had initially lied to the relatives that the bodies were mutilated beyond recognition. This will be taken up in Chapter 12.

The witness had gone to Raymond's, bordering the cemetery, to collect the body of his nephew who was a victim of the ambush in Jaffna. It was he who had taken a plank and had pushed ASP Gaffoor. This was the man described as a Troskyite protester in some accounts. The founder-general secretary of his union is Mr. Bala Tampoe, a one time Troskyite (LSSP) parliamentary candidate for Colombo Central, who in 1960 narrowly lost to Premadasa. Another element in the Trotskyite story is featured below.

As to the goings on at Kanatte we received further testimony from student sources who later founded the Independent Students' Union. On hearing of the funeral, six of the students had gone to Kanatte, intending to start a protest against the Jayewardene Government. Some of these students had split from the Communist Party (Youth Wing) in protest against what they regarded as the inadequate response of the Party when they clashed with the JVP. At Kanatte three of these students made powerful speeches. They told the crowd that the soldiers have come here in coffins, not because of the Tamils, but because of J.R. Jayewardene's dictatorial government!

The students wanted to lead the crowd to Jayewardene's residence. As the crowd streamed out of Kanatte, the students thought that they were in control. But when they came out, the students realised that the situation was beyond their control. The students left. One of them went to the Borella bus stand, took a bus and went home to Battaramulla.

We may thus conclude that the attacks on Tamils at Borella came mainly from a source different from the main actors at Kanatte. The next witness is from a leading Left party. He had been out of Colombo on a party matter and returned late on the 24th evening. He went to Dean's Road, Maradana, and as the situation deteriorated, became worried about some Tamil party colleagues who were then in Colombo. In the night, he went with some Sinhalese colleagues to scout the Maradana area. They witnessed mobs indulging in arson. Then some colleagues drew the attention of the witness to a man who seemed prominent in the crowd. The witness had not known the man earlier, but got to know him subsequently. The man was Sangadasa, a UNP municipal councillor and a close associate of Prime Minister Premadasa. The time was, the witness recalls, a little after midnight. This was the earliest instance in the night of 24th July, where we have received direct testimony of a government mob at work.[Top]

9.5 Jayewardene's Failure to Declare Curfew

Jayewardene's failure to declare curfew thus appears in an appropriate setting. About 1.30 A.M. this same witness from the Left party saw the walls of TULF president M. Sivasithamparam's house, which was on fire, collapsing to the ground. A little over a week later, this witness was placed under arrest along with other members of Left parties accused by the Government of being responsible for the violence.

From Jayewardene’s house fires could be seen in an arc stretching from Elphinstone Theatre in Maradana, all the way down the road to Borella and then to Narahenpita and Thimbirigasaya. In fact, from any window of his house Jayewardene would have seen roaring fires. The Police did not know what had happened, and, except for perhaps one or two in the hierarchy who were necessarily privy to the designs of those high up, were completely at sea. Late into the night the bursting of tear gas shells could be heard as the Police tried to disperse the crowd. About 2.00 AM on the 25th there was a lull.

The people living in Colombo’s residential areas from Colpetty and southwards to Mt Lavinia had in general no idea of what happened the previous night. People sent their children to school and went to work, and came to know that something had happened only upon seeing burnt buildings. Borella itself was quiet. From Kynsey Road junction on Ward Place to Borella junction, burnt out Tamil shops could be seen. Not far from Jayewardene’s place, there was a burnt out corpse. The skull was cracked and the charred remains of the brain could be seen. The victim was probably a poor man with a roadside stall who had slept on the verandah of a shop.

ASP Abeygoonewardene from Jayewardene’s security arrived at home in the early hours of the 25th morning. He expected a curfew in the morning and told his wife not to wake him up. His wife put him up at 6.30 AM telling him that there was no curfew on and the children needed to be taken to school at St.Peter’s. This he did, though surprised at curfew not being declared. He had to go later again to fetch his sons as the situation got worse.

A middle-aged scholar was walking along Ward Place in the morning towards Lipton Circus. The road remained sealed off between Kynsey and McCarthy roads. As though with clockwork precision pandemonium broke loose at 10.00 AM as the mobs arrived. A Tamil man driving a van was stopped, and the man escaped into a dispensary as the van was set on fire. In several places, Tamils getting caught were turned into human torches, as down Darley Road. At Lipton Circus the scholar met Linus Jayatilleke of the NSSP. The two wanted to do something to stop the violence against Tamils, and feeling helpless, they walked down Dean’s Road to the Centre for Society and Religion. Fr. Tissa Balasuriya was out on the road in his cassock trying to wave down a passing army truck to send some refugees who had come to the Church, to a refugee camp. They advised Balasuriya that this was not a normal army, and handing the refugees over to them would be like handing over sheep to the wolves. We mention this here because when Left parties were banned by the Government on the 30th as being directly responsible for the anti-Tamil violence, Linus Jayatilleke’s name went up on the wanted list. The scholar later joined a police officer to find out what was going on. Passing Town Hall they went up Turret Road and at Colpetty junction they saw shops on fire. A wine shop had been broken open and looters were helping themselves to liquor and to settees from a furniture shop. On Galle Road the heat was unbearable and they saw fires as far as the eye could see. Tamil shops and premises were being systematically burnt by trained squads. Where Sinhalese premises adjoined Tamil premises, appropriate precautions were taken. Whenever they finished with an area, the expression they used was “We have done the cleansing here” (“Api suddha kara”).   

L. Piyadasa has recorded the following: "At the corner of Galle Road and Dickman's Road, a unit of Jayewardene's troops trained their weapons on six Tamils to prevent them from escaping and got the Sinhalese 'heroes' to batter them to death and burn their bodies."

There was something very remarkable about what was going on. Not only had  Jayewardene failed to declare curfew, but unlike the previous day when the Police were trying to take some action to control the riot, they were hardly to be seen, even though they then had greater manpower than the Army. There were regular army pickets on Galle Road, but they rather seemed to be in league with the squads of destroyers. Army trucks were going up and down Galle Road while the mobs cheered them, “Sinhala Hamudavata Jayawewa” (“Victory to the Sinhalese Army”)!

The scholar and the police officer then went south along Galle Road, passing mobs and army pickets, driving along the centre because of the heat from the burning buildings. When they came to the petrol shed by the side of Vivekananda Road, Wellawatte, they saw a sight which made them stop. They saw Mr. C. Kumarasuriyar, minister of posts and telecommunications in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government of 1970-77. Dressed in trousers and a banian with hands tied, a mob was parading him, leading him by a rope. A policeman was seated impassively by the roadside holding his 303 rifle. Kumarasuriyar explained to a soldier in an army picket nearby that he had been a minister in the last government, and being a Tamil, he had been very much under threat from Tamil militants. The soldier dismissed him abusively with words to the effect, “Get lost you scum”! As though by design, there were no responsible army officers to be seen anywhere about.

The police officer explained to the scholar, “My God, he was the first attesting witness at my wedding!” and made to get out. The scholar stopped him, “It is of no use, they would not hesitate to kill even you”. They decided to go to the police officer’s house in Dehiwela and get through to Fr. Neil Dias Karunaratne, a priest who was in contact with Charmaine Vanderkoon, Jayewardene’s daughter-in-law through her first marriage to his son Ravi, and the mother of his grandson. On reaching home and finding the phones out of order, and unable to move along Galle Road, they drove through Hill Street and High Level Road to the place of Charmaine and her husband Ricky Mendis. The officer told her, “You are a Tamil and the Tamils are absolutely helpless”. Ricky wondered with concern why Air Force helicopters were not patrolling the main roads from the air to disperse the mobs. The police officer responded that soldiers were on the streets, but they were doing nothing.

Just then a jeep arrived with an armed escort. Coincidentally it had been sent by Jayewardene to remove his daughter-in-law to the safety of his house. The police officer asked the scholar to join him, to report Kumarasuriyar’s plight to Jayewardene. The scholar declined, saying that he did not want to get involved with Jayewardene. In due course Jayewardene rushed an army patrol to the scene. Kumarasuriar was saved in the nick of time as the mob, having paraded him, was about to club and burn him. He had suffered such a shock that he was warded in the Colombo Hospital ICU.

Minister Montague Jayawickrema who lived close to Jayewardene had spent the weekend at his estate, and had become aware of the trouble only upon entering Colombo on Monday evening. He was identified with Dudley Senanayake’s faction in the UNP. A senior UNPer had come to see him that afternoon and missed him. As he was going back he saw some of Montague’s neighbours. He told them that Jayewardene 'has unleashed the hounds and now he cannot call them back'! [Top]

9.6 Other testimony regarding the violence

The first reports of organised violence on the 25th following the mid-night lull came from Narahenpita about 5.00 AM. Goons with electoral lists visited Tamil homes and smashed up property. In Colombo South, Dehiwela and Mt Lavinia, known UNP figures were seen leading mobs. In School Avenue, Dehiwela, a Tamil member of the UNP who stayed at home, saw his party colleagues coming with a mob to attack Tamil houses. Later, Minister Lalith Athulathmudali admitted in passing to an eminent Tamil whose house was burnt, that had he been told he could have saved the house. Athulathmudali said that he was at Vanderwert Place, Dehiwela, on the 25th morning.

Many prominent UNPers and UNP agents were identified leading the violence on Monday (25th). There were Sangadasa and Aloysius Mudalali's son, both Premadasa's agents, in the Pettah-Maradana area. A JSS man who brings children to Ladies College in a school bus led a mob that came to Ward Place where Jayewardene lived. Piyadasa identifies Srinal de Mel, the JSS Secretary, in the Wellawatte area.

A mob went down Sunshine Avenue, Dehiwela, and came back to the top of the road after being told by residents that there were no Tamils living there. A police sergeant sent them back saying that there were about 3 Tamil houses there. The mob was from Maharagama.

A Tamil who knew several ministers had moved from further south to Castle Lane, Bambalapitiya. As things got worse on Monday several displaced persons were with him in that house. He first telephoned Gamini Dissanayake. Mrs. Dissanayake told him that her husband had gone out. This was evidently to protect the house of S.C. Chandrahasan. He then telephoned Ronnie de Mel and found that he had gone to meet Jayewardene. When he telephoned Festus Perera, the person who answered, after having said that the minister was not available, offered to take down a message. He left a message asking for urgent help. That night a police vehicle came to his house, and an inspector asked if he had called the minister. A police sentry was then placed on the top of the road.

Those with him did not run short of food, because two boys of Indian origin who were fluent in Sinhalese joined the looters and brought back enough food. It was these two boys who scouted on Friday 29th and brought back the information that cars were being stopped on Galle Road and people were being burnt.

On the morning of Tuesday 26th, the Army Commander, Tissa Weeratunge, drove along Galle Road from Army HQ to view the damage. Towards the end of Colpetty, near Bambalapitiya, they encountered a mob trying to set fire to Gnanam's Building. Gnanam was a successful Tamil businessman. They also noticed an elderly man of some authority who seemed to be in charge of the mob. The army patrol stopped. Since they could not arrest the whole lot, Major Sunil Peiris went to arrest this man who seemed to be the leader. Some in the crowd took alarm and informed the Major that the gentleman concerned was "amethi thuma" - that he was the 'honourable minister'. That was how Major Peiris became acquainted with the Hon. Cyril Mathew, minister of industries and scientific affairs. Peiris then noticed a car nearby with the minister's security.

Mathew then went off in a huff to his friend and patron, President Jayewardene, and demanded that Major Peiris should apologise to him. When Jayewardene conveyed this to Peiris at Army HQ, Peiris replied that there was nothing he needed to apologise for, since it was his duty to uphold the law, and he had no way of knowing that the gentleman concerned was a minister. Jayewardene dropped the matter. It seemed that Mathew had been doing his own patrol on Galle Road, picking out premises that had escaped the ravages of the previous day.

The Army Commander had returned from Jaffna on Monday morning. But from the 25th morning when the organised violence began, there are no indications that the Army was given any orders to quell the violence. The Army stood indifferently, indulged in instigation, or actually joined in the violence. One could hardly have expected the Police or the Army to have done anything remarkable when Cyril Mathew and the JSS were on the streets. T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka cites several instances of the Police opening fire. But he too no doubt read the minutes of the secret conference held at Police HQ on 13th June 1958, which his father had attended as DIG Range One. The minutes of this conference to discuss the failure of the Police to quell the communal violence in May 1958 are given in Tarzie Vittachi’s book. It is said in the minutes: “The I.G. [S.W.O. de Silva O.B.E.] said that the Police must once and for all get out of their heads the question of firing in the air or over the heads of mobs. The experience of every country had been that it was worse than not firing at all."

A remarkable feature of the violence in July 1983 was that Jayewardene spent a good deal of his time in Army Headquarters and in the Army Commander’s room, issuing next to no orders. Was the Army Commander overawed by his Commander-in-Chief into doing nothing? Curfew was always declared when it was too late, and then too not enforced. On Monday when violence broke out in Colombo, curfew was declared from 2.00 PM, after the worst was over. In Kandy the Police had been anticipating trouble, but curfew was declared on Tuesday evening after the mob had rampaged. Mr. Thondaman, a cabinet minister representing the Hill-Country Tamils had on Monday morning gone to see Jayewardene under escort and had told him that there were reports of trouble brewing in the Hill-Country and wanted him to declare curfew. Badulla erupted on Wednesday and Nuwara-Eliya on Friday. There was no curfew on. Jayewardene's constant refrain had been "Who is going to enforce the curfew?" Thondaman quotes him as having asked, "Will the Army obey?" (CDN 30.07.99).

Thondaman's Daily News (30.07.99) article also confirms information from other sources and tells us something of Jayewardene's movements on that day.

Jayewardene had been at the Presidential Secretariat (old Parliament and Senate) on Galle Face on the 25th morning. He and Thondaman were later joined by Dissanayake and Ronnie de Mel. This suggests that he then went to Army HQ which is close by for the Security Council meeting in the afternoon. Bradman Weerakoon was with him in the Army Commander's room when the news of the prison massacre came in.

In every area the violence had been sudden and brief. Professor Valentine Joseph, senior university don who had served long enough to teach fathers and sons, could see the fires at Borella on the 24th night. After a lull, hoodlums rushed to his home late on the 25th morning shouting his name. He had to run carrying his most precious documents and work, while his home was set upon. He recounted, “By evening they had finished with us all!” [Top]

9.7 The Cover Up

The first comment on the violence came from cabinet spokesman Anandatissa de Alwis after the weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday (27th) morning. In speaking to the Press, few deaths were admitted but there was no expression of concern for the victims. Jayewardene's speech was broadcast to the nation in the night of 28th July. Jayewardene’s speech contained signs of his vacillations during the foregoing weeks. Had Jayewardene been firm and steady, one would have expected him to have followed de Alwis and blamed the violence on an insidious section of the opposition. He could, in addition, have said a word of comfort to the Tamils, claimed that the Government had got the situation under control, made ritual promises about bringing the offenders to book and tried to look good. But on the contrary, Jayewardene was feeling very insecure. The burden of his speech was the appeasement of the Sinhalese: “Because of this violence by terrorists, the Sinhala people themselves have reacted … the time has now come to accede to the clamour and national request of the Sinhalese people… [other than through bringing legislation to deprive those in positions of influence who campaign for separation of their civic rights, we cannot see] any other way by which we can appease the natural desire and request of the Sinhalese people to prevent the country being divided…”  (T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka)

The Sun of 29th July carried what was most striking in Jayewardene’s speech as its banner headline: “JR asks people to lay down arms”. The gist of the speech then followed: “In an emotion filled tone of voice addressing the nation on radio and television, he appealed to the people to lay down their arms. He solemnly promised that he will safeguard the rights and privileges of the majority community – The Sinhala People.”

This call to lay down arms was not cited in the extract from the speech quoted by Dissanayaka in his book released a few months later, although it was, most indicative of Jayewardene’s mind. It also seemed to attribute legitimate patriotic fervour to those – identified by him as the Sinhalese as a whole – who had taken up arms against an unarmed minority at their mercy. These were not the words of a man in his right mind, and even less of a leader. It was also the same day that the Island editorial writer wrote for the next issue, 29th, the words about the 'incubus of shame the Sinhalese people will have to carry with them to the end of time.' Jayewardene’s deviation from the line laid down by de Alwis, the cabinet spokesman, to talk about appeasement, suggests a man fearing greatly for himself. We will see in Chapter 12 that Jayewardene's line was influenced by his talk with the extremist monk Alle Gunawanse a short time earlier.

The editorial writer for the Sun (29th) who took up de Alwis’s theme was feeling distinctly uncomfortable: “State minister Anandatissa de Alwis did not mince his words when he revealed that there is an insidious pattern in the wave of terror that gripped the nation during the past few days. He is obviously basing his remarks on information gathered by the law enforcers and other knowledgeable sources. The similarity of the modus operandi of the mobs that went on the rampage is decidedly indisputable. It had a very basic political orientation that bore testimony to the presence of a mastermind, which wanted to destabilise the Government and its machinery….

“Some ruthless elements had successfully sown the seeds of mayhem – and the ensuing events were disastrous … But there is much to be done in preventing further damage to life and property as well as stop the incessant acts of terror that seem to continue… Under the prevailing emergency, looters will technically face the ‘firing squad’ – a meaningful deterrent at a time like this. But they seem to get away all the same. We urge the authorities to ensure that the letter of the law is followed particularly in view of the proliferating menace…”

It is implicit in what the writer draws from de Alwis that there is one organisation behind the violence, one pattern of action and one mastermind. But the law enforcers seemed to let them get away with it. The previous day the Sun struck a very different note in its editorial, viz.: “It was the loathsome Tiger atrocities in the past in the North that sparked off the chain reaction of violence”. The tone of editorials was varying depending on the Government's latest line.

The events in July are very involved, and any attempt at explaining them is bound to have shortcomings; especially so, when we try to understand the shifts and incoherence of the leaders, as evident in the performances of de Alwis and Jayewardene above. There was also another significant event about which local writers present a confused picture.

According to T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, had telephoned President Jayewardene on the afternoon of Thursday 28th July, after he had recorded his broadcast to the nation, which was telecast that night.

The Ceylon Daily News of the following day (29th) said that Mrs. Gandhi had initiated the call the previous day saying, "she was sorry and concerned over rumours of reports she received regarding the murder of Tamil-speaking people and these questions are being raised in the Lok Sabha now in session". The Indian Prime Minister, it said, inquired whether Mr. Jayewardene would mind the Indian foreign minister travelling to Sri Lanka and whether discussions with him could be arranged. The President is said to have replied that he would welcome the Indian foreign minister.

The Island carried the same day a different version filed by Reuters from New Delhi on 28th July: "Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi said today she was sending her Foreign Minister to Sri Lanka tonight. Gandhi told Parliament that she had suggested to President Junius Jayewardene in a telephone conversation that in view of the situation in the violence torn Island, External Affairs Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao should visit there, the PTI news agency reported. The President readily agreed, she said.... Feelings have been running high in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu over alleged atrocities against Tamils."

Reuters had thus based this on a PTI report of Indira Gandhi's reference to the telephone conversation in parliament. This suggests a time well before Thursday afternoon. This was after all not an ad hoc move by Mrs. Gandhi, who had expressed her concern at developments in Sri Lanka less than a week before the violence. Jayewardene was given no choice in receiving Rao.

According to other very reliable sources, after the telephone call from Mrs. Gandhi, which came late on Wednesday (27th) evening, Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe had been on the telephone in the early hours of Thursday summoning cabinet members for an urgent meeting in the Fort. The meeting is said to have been heated, with accusations being traded and ended not long before dawn. (Ratnatunga's book (p.116 and p.118) gives the time of Mrs. Gandhi's call as 4.00 PM on the 27th.)

9.8 30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot

Addressing the nation over radio on the 29th, Prime Minister Premadasa attributed the violence to wild rumours. On the 30th Minister of State and Cabinet Spokesman de Alwis blamed the violence on three Left oriented parties, the JVP, the Communist Party and the Trotskyite NSSP. He announced a three-phase conspiracy by these groups. Its first phase was to induce violence between Sinhalese and Tamils, second between Sinhalese and Muslims, and third between Buddhists and Christians among the Sinhalese. They were banned and the detention of their activists and leaders was ordered. The confusion among the ministers on covering up their crimes was also reflected in the Sun editorials. On the 28th it was Sinhalese reaction to the loathsome Northern terrorists. On the 29th it was a mastermind who seemed to enjoy licence from the law enforcers. On 1st August the editorial was on de Alwis’s suggestion that Communists with money were behind the violence – a line that the ruling class was comfortable with, as witnessed from the press either promoting or not challenging the repression licensed under Jayewardene’s invention of the first Naxalite Plot in October 1982.     

 Addressing the government parliamentary group on 4th August, Jayewardene, now clearer about the line to take, elaborated on the second Naxalite Plot. He spoke of a four-phase plan which was to culminate in the Government being replaced by certain groups in the armed services. It is almost unnecessary to add that no such sections were identified, and no inquiry was ordered into such a grave allegation.

These shifts were no doubt clumsy attempts at a cover up as well as to stifle opposition. The conspiracy theory appeared, in Sinha Ratnatunga’s book and has been cited by Rohan Gunaratne in his Lost Revolution – his book on the JVP. According to Ratnatunga, Jayewardene was apprised of the four-phase master plan by 'leftist elements’ who ‘anticipated food riots amidst chaos’.

Gunaratne adds: “The leaders of the leftist elements were identified as members of the JVP, and the next day the President proscribed most of the Left parties…” (See Sect. 12.7.)

Mr. Rudra Rajasingham when asked about the banning of the Left parties, replied that he was most surprised that the Government had banned them as they were definitely not involved. He was clear that the violence had been planned and about who was behind it. When asked about the report in Sinha Ratnatunga's book about his and Ernest Perera’s meeting with Jayewardene to communicate details of the plot, he remembered the meeting, but could not remember what had transpired.

He said that he must check with Ernest Perera. Contacted another time, he said that he would not like to make any further observations.

Confirmation that the JVP was not named comes also from a senior police officer in charge of Jayewardene’s security, who also admired him. He noted that the Army were conniving with those indulging in communal attacks on Tamils, and that it was a ‘master stroke’ for Jayewardene to tell the Army the next morning (29th) that they were aiding the JVP by their connivance or inaction. It was only then, he added, that the Army started restoring order. Apart from any fear the Government may have entertained, the banning of the Left parties suppressed the only active opposition. 

There was also another matter. Earlier in 1983 the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera had challenged the 1982 Referendum result in the District Court alleging a number of serious abuses. These included the intimidation of voters, opposition supporters and polling agents by threats, violence, display of deadly weapons and confiscation of polling cards of those suspected of being against the 4th Amendment extending the term of parliament. A court order to preserve ‘packets and documents’ connected with the Referendum had been secured by Wijeweera.

Following the ban on the JVP on 30th July, Wijeweera had to go underground. Towards the end of the year the District Judge dismissed the action following the plaintiff’s failure to answer interrogatories served on him. Much later the Commissioner of Elections confirmed all the serious charges with expressions such as “surprising”, “shocking” and “serious doubts” as to the voters having “exercised the degree of freedom of voting stipulated by the law”. How short-sighted a gain for Jayewardene and at what heavy cost? [Top]

9.9 The Testimony of Lionel Bopage, then General Secretary of the JVP

In the morning of 25th July he was near Angoda at their press, proof reading their journal. A crowd coming from Colombo advised people to close up and go home. Bopage drove home to Kelaniya, passing through Colombo. In Kelaniya cars were being stopped on the road opposite the Tyre Corporation and vehicles carrying Tamils were being burnt with their occupants. (Sources from Kelaniya University told us that one Omar, a well-known thug of Cyril Mathew's, was responsible for killing a Tamil doctor and burning him along with his vehicle.) The thugs wanted to remove some petrol from his car. Someone recognised him and waved him off. He then got into the road to go to his home in Mawarandiya. A Ceylon Transport Board breakdown truck came towards him with 25 to 30 passengers wielding clubs and long knives.

About five of them got down and asked if he were a Tamil. He got down and shouted, "Are you fellows mad?" They went off. This and his experience over the next few days and testimony from JVP officers elsewhere convinced him that the State was the main party to the violence. Following the ban on the JVP he was detained and taken to the CID Building. The reasons for the arrest of JVP-office bearers, Bopage said, was 'complicated.' The house of a Tamil DIG, Vamadevan, was burnt during the riots and he had accused the JVP of burning his house. Vamadevan had earlier made a report that the JVP was re-arming, and this had been referred to on JVP platforms. Bopage felt that this was only a pretext. The real target he believed was the election petition against the 1982 Referendum filed by Wijeweera, which had a strong chance of succeeding, since these same charges were later confirmed in the Election Commissioner's report.

At the CID building, ASP Chandra Jayawardena was one of the officers interrogating them. In his statement to the CID, Bopage denied any JVP involvement, and charged that according to reports from their officials sent to the Party, Prime Minister Premadasa was behind the violence in Pettah, the violence in Nuwara Eliya had started only after Gamini Dissanayake arrived on the scene and that Cyril Mathew was involved in a big way. He challenged the CID to bring in these three ministers and question them. The CID, he said, did not contradict what he said, but as far as he knew, these ministers were never questioned. He asked the CID if they had apprehended one member of the JVP who was involved in the violence. They replied that one looter caught in Mount Lavinia admitted to being a JVP supporter.

Tyrell Gunatilleke, SSP (Special Investigations), CID, Bopage said, had within two weeks cleared the JVP of any involvement in the disturbances. But they were not released. One day Bopage was called to the office of SSP Rajapakse, Director, CID, who delivered a long harangue against the Tamils. Then he suddenly came out with an invitation to Bopage to join the UNP and added, "Orders from the top". This he firmly declined. The invitation was repeated by Athulathmudali in 1985 after he, Bopage, had left the JVP over differences pertaining to the ethnic question, and was detained again on suspicion. He refused again.

Wijeweera's petition which was dismissed by the District Court then went to the Court of Appeal where the lawyer Prins Gunasekera appeared for Wijeweera. The Bench comprising Justices B.E. de Silva and T.D.G. Alwis in their judgement on 4th December 1984 upheld the contention of the Solicitor General K.M.M.B. Kulatunga, that none of the grounds of the application was valid, since the District Judge had dismissed Wijeweera's action on the grounds that he had not answered the interrogatories. [Top]

9.10 Thondaman & Muttetuwegama

The clearest statements about the violence giving the lie to Jayewardene’s line of a spontaneous Sinhalese uprising came in early August from Mr. S. Thondaman, a cabinet minister and leader of the Ceylon Workers' Congress representing the Hill-Country Tamils in Parliament, and from Sarath Muttetuwegama, the only Communist Party MP in Parliament.

Thondaman’s statement carried in the Sun of 3rd August and also in the Island, was titled “None but the blind can avoid shedding tears" : “At a time when the community of people of Indian origin has been torn asunder of its roots where it had existed for over 100 years, we are constrained to look at the claim which some make that the recent pogroms are a Sinhalese uprising against us … In our thinking it is the work of well organised groups who had gone on the rampage, rioting, looting and setting on fire ... It is more than unfortunate that these elements of disaster, these squads of goondas [thugs] and rabble have been allowed to parade the streets freely causing havoc and inflicting misery of such proportions with impunity…” Thondaman thus directly contradicted Jayewardene's claim of a Sinhalese uprising.

Sarath Muttetuwegama made his speech in Parliament on 4th August when the 6th Amendment banning separatism was taken up for discussion. By then his party along with two others had been banned. He said: “Everybody knows Sir, the houses and the areas that were attacked, that State CTB (Ceylon Transport Board) buses came with thugs. Surely, I am not telling this to make some point. If you go and ask your friends in those areas you will know. Electricity Board vehicles brought thugs to Agalawatte. I am not saying the Electricity Board Chairman or somebody else or the Minister gave an order. That is not the point. The State apparatus was used…”  

Mr. Muttetuwegama then addressed Mr. Thondaman, who, as cabinet minister for rural industries was seated on the government benches, whose statement appeared in the Press the previous day. He quoted the last lines from the extract above referring to squads of goondas allowed to parade around with impunity. He then asked Thondaman: “Was it we of the Left parties who allowed the goondas to roam the streets with impunity? Or was there somebody else, some other authority who could have stopped it? You had better tell this house what you really meant when you made the statement.”

At the beginning of his speech Muttetuwegama had posed the key questions: why the censor (Competent Authority Douglas Liyanage, who was working closely with Minister de Alwis) allowed the report in the papers of July 25th morning titled “Thirteen soldiers killed in Jaffna” without preparing the country for it in any way; and why the government failed to declare curfew on the 25th morning after two points of the city had been attacked. We will take these questions up in the chapter after the next.

So far we have said little to give a feeling of how the victims experienced the violence. Once the mobs were charged and let loose, extremes of barbarism were quickly attained, and the fact that Colombo and Kandy were major towns where foreigners could see the violence and capture it on film did seem to set no inhibitions. In Kandy, a Dutchman who had lived in Idi Amin’s Uganda witnessed how a Tamil stall-holder on the main street in Kandy was set upon by the mob. His stall was set on fire. He was then thrown onto the burning tin roof. Twice he rolled down and fell on the ground. The third time his body stuck to the tin roof, and burnt with it. He remarked that he had not seen such barbarism anywhere else.

In Kandy the chief man given the task of identifying places to be attacked has been named as T.M.P. Themiyapala, a UNP agent. A story that came to us from a Sinhalese scholar who had been trying to piece together events, is that on Sunday 24th July, Themiyapala had used his influence to find a hospital bed in Colombo for the niece of a Tamil lawyer who had defended him in court. In taking the lawyer's leave, Themiyapala is said to have told him, "Sir, I must go to Kandy now. I have a big job to do, giving the works." Themiyapala was later arrested reportedly upon the insistence of Deputy Minister Shelton Ranaraja representing Kandy and detained in Colombo along with leading Left activists.

The Kandy Perahera, a festival originated by the Kandyan Kings, was due in August which Jayewardene wished to attend in royal pomp and ceremony. Themiyapala is said to have threatened to spoil things for Jayewardene if he was not released. Jayewardene released him.

The following was another revealing anecdote along the lines of Themiyapala's that is quoted from a leading Communist Party member D.E.W. Gunasekera's recollections of Black July 1983 (CDN 30 Jul 1999):

"I must reveal how a Private Secretary to a Deputy Minister from [the] Puttalam District, who was taken into custody for arson, approached me to draft a petition to J.R.Jayewardene, seeking his release. I promptly obliged, even though he was a UNPer.

The revealing thing was that he merely carried out orders of his minister to set fire to a line of Tamil shops.[The] Response to the petition I drafted for him, was so fast that he was released the following day. [The] Deputy Minister himself called over to take him away. That was how justice prevailed.

However, we were left there for 56 days and released honourably exonerated. Next morning, after our release, J.R. Jayewardene had the guts to telephone Pieter Keuneman and K.P. Silva and invite them for talks, seeking advice on the solution to the ethnic problem. Of course, that was J.R.

His Excellency, on that day, was so gracious as to step out of the Ward Place house to greet them, for his conscience would have pricked him to confess his guilt for what he had done in banning the party and party leaders for no reason.

That was J.R.'s style of governance. Of all the misdeeds of J.R., the blackest was the Black July for which the entire nation suffers to date.

I must recall what Sarath Muttetuwegama told parliament in his usual eloquence, directing at Premadasa and Cyril Mathew, "You can charge my comrades for anything, but not for being chauvinistic or communalistic".

On Friday 29th violence erupted again in Colombo when things were beginning to settle down. Many Tamils throwing caution to the winds had left their places of refuge to inspect their homes.

T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka takes a foreign journalist to task for suggesting that the burst of violence on the 29th was triggered off by President Jayewardene's address to the nation the previous night. But then what message would the nation have received from Jayewardene shifting the blame for the violence on to the Tamils and suggesting that the Sinhalese had taken up arms for a just cause?  The violence also began in the Pettah, an area controlled by Premadasa's agents. We may say that although Jayewardene may not have wanted such violence on the day the Indian Foreign Minister was on a visit, the UNP was definitely involved. There was no other organised force that could act with brazen impunity, and the UNP had in fact put together an organisation to unleash lawlessness which had moreover already tasted blood. Premadasa's sheepish reference to harm resulting from rumours in his broadcast to the nation that night led one to suspect that he had something to hide.

It was also on that Friday that the extremist monk Gunawanse's patron, Gamini Dissanayake, had chosen to visit his constituency in Nuwara Eliya, where violence then erupted.

The following extract is from a Daily News (28th July 1999) article by Peter Christie on events in Nuwara Eliya on 29th July 1983:

"Ganeshan Stores, Nuwara Eliya's grocery and sundry outlet was set on fire after it was looted. The mob was said to be marching towards the brewery and attacking the 'well to do' Tamil people on the way. What was most alarming was that the security forces, according to the rumours, had lost control. In Nuwara Eliya the army volunteers had a camp at Upper Lake Road since the JVP insurrection of 1971. The telephone was engaged there and calls for help made to the camp could not get through.

"The Paneer Selvams were a family of well to do cultivators. They had been the hardworking kind who cashed in on the potato cultivation rush after 1977 and had reaped rich gains.

"As dawn broke the family prepared for a new day. Breakfast was as usual. Paneer Selvam's thoughts were on his three grandchildren who were boarded in a leading Kandy school. He had heard about the disturbances throughout the island and was praying that those away from his home would be safe. Moreover, he felt safe because the policemen who were his friends said he would have protection. He kept calling his grandchildren at school and realised that all the phones were 'dead'....

"The gang pushed past the bus depot and wound its way around Hawa Eliya. Stopping at every house they inquired if it was a Sinhalese or Tamil house. Most of the Sinhalese, contrary to popular belief sheltered their neighbours from the gangs often lying, sometimes even confronting the gangs when they were called 'Tamil Lovers'....

"At noon the gang had reached Paneer Selvam's home. One gang member knew the family had accumulated wealth in gold from their savings. He fired the mob on and unhindered by the neighbours - because of the frenzy - the gang got in and broke down the front door.

"There is no direct evidence as to what happened to the family on that fateful day. Four days later when the police did finally arrive at the spot, in the charred remains of the Paneer Selvam home were the corpses of thirteen ¾ men, women and very young children."[Top]

9.11 What was behind Tiger Friday - 29th July? -The Significance of the Pettah

Anyone trying to chronicle the events of Black July would feel a certain exhaustion by the time they come to 29th July. Those who carefully tried to trace the earlier events tend to be vague by the time they come to Friday. The more sensational developments had largely ended with the second jail massacre. What happened on the 29th appears a stray, unorganised outburst which closed the chapter. The people concerned on the 29th - of Sea street, Pettah - were Tamil merchants earning a living away from the mainstream of Tamil life and were not the most sought after by writers for their experiences.

What tended to be most talked about were the attacks on middle-class Tamils living in Colpetty and southwards to Ratmalana. Yet, if one looked at what some leading ministers (i.e. Mathew and Ranil Wickremasinghe) and spokesmen for Sinhalese mercantile interests had to say, Tamil commerce was the main target. (See Prospero in Counterpoint July 1993.) One need not elaborate on the interests driving them, even though their claims were thoroughly warped.

The Pettah, the hub of Tamil commercial activity, had been a key target of attack on the 25th. A number of dead bodies were seen on McCallum (Olcott) Road, Pettah bus stand and elsewhere. Tamil establishments of wholesale agents in food items, clothiers, traders in other goods and eating houses were looted and set on fire. The security forces and police in patrol cars simply watched. The head of Maharajah Organisation came with a Navy escort and tried to get the nearby fire brigade to put out the fire. The fire brigade got ready, waited for the man to leave, and did nothing. The one place that was spared was Sea Street, the one famed for jewellers. It has been said that to be a successful jeweller in any part of the country, one would do well to have a base in Sea Street.

With the onset of the violence on Sunday night, some of the leading jewellers - Palamuththu Muththukkarrupan Chettiar, Udaya, Ambika, Lalitha and Nithiyakalyani among them - put together a large sum of money, went to persons of great influence and got the place guarded. Several of the leading jewellers had dealings with Prime Minister Premadasa, and the owner of Udaya's in particular was backing him financially, as well as canvassing for him. Just before the violence, Nelson, a right-hand man of Premadasa's, informed some key people in Sea Street that their street would be guarded. Pickets comprising navy and police personnel were posted at the Main Street and Harbour ends of Sea Street. This street thus had the distinction of being the only Tamil preserve to survive intact from the 25th to the 28th, while the surroundings were engulfed in flames. How Sea Street was saved gives us a fair idea of who was involved or at least connived in the attack on the surrounding area. In his book, L. Piyadasa identifies the son of Aloysius Mudalali as the man who led the mobs in the Pettah on the 25th, destroying 442 shops and committing many murders. Aloysius was a lieutenant of Premadasa's. Interestingly, a casino run by him in rented premises in the Fort was also burnt.  On Friday the 29th, there was a seeming air of normality. The naval pickets were removed, people came out and there was a bustle of activity.

Our account of what subsequently happened is based on testimony given by persons from Sea Street. It was also the day the Indian External Affairs Minister, Narasimha Rao, had come on an inspection visit. Being the only survivors in a disaster zone was a disconcerting experience, and the Sea Street folk did not trust the apparent calm. They prepared themselves by filling glass bulbs with acid and other chemicals used in their trade. About 10.30 AM a large mob gathered at the Main Street end of Sea Street (a short walk from McCallum Road down 5th Cross Street). They made to enter Sea Street, but no attempt was made by the security forces to disperse them. The workers in the jewellery shops climbed onto the roof-tops and threw their substances at the mob.

The experience of the mobs in the past five days had given them a brazen confidence that there would be no retaliation from the victims. Sea Street promised rich and easy pickings. When retaliation came, they were thoroughly unnerved. To their simple minds the only Tamils capable of resistance had to be Tigers. The cry that the 'Koti' (Tigers) had come to Colombo went out from them with a shrill note of urgency. The Army was called out from their temporary camp at St. John's fishmarket - a stone's throw away. The soldiers came and opened fire at the Sea Street 'Tigers'. Although a much smaller number was talked about, we have checked with several sources down Sea Street and at least 12 youths employed in the trade were killed. The employees were mostly Tamils from the Porativu division of Batticaloa and the rest were of recent Indian origin.

Our sources also said that the owners had in the immediate aftermath praised these young defenders who lost their lives as heroes and pledged to compensate their families generously. But this pledge is said to have remained unfulfilled. However after the first retaliation, the mob largely kept away from Sea Street, except for some minor robbery later in the day.

A partial breakdown of the number of workers killed is as follows:

Rajaram - 1, Palamuthu Muthukkaruppan Chettiyar - 2, Latha - 1, Kingsley - 1, Nandini - 1, Jeyachitty - 1, Muththumeenacchi - 1, Nithyakalyani - 2. At least two visitors staying in Sea Street at Nandini and Nithykalyani were also killed. The owner of (New) Meenacchi had been burnt with his car close by on the 25th. We give a little detail here not merely because our sources were good, but also because we stumble on to something that has been little explored. The mobs that came to the area on Monday the 25th were frenzied, probably under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In many cases, workers were burnt with the shops. These workers were mostly from the Hill Country and the rural North-East. There was no trade union to pursue their interests and the surviving owners themselves were in desperate straits. The dead workers themselves were reduced to ashes, leaving behind un-numbered and unrecorded voids in humble and distant homes.

There is another curious significance about the Sea Street incident. On Sunday 24th July, the Army had run amok firing in Jaffna killing at least 50 civilians. Following this, Sea Street was about the first incident in which the Army subsequently opened fire - and then at whom?

Who were the mob or mobs that came to Sea Street? An earlier witness who worked for a leading jeweller at the Main Street end had thought that the mob was mainly from Modera, a Sinhalese Christian area two miles to the north, but added that Premadasa's men from Plantain Estate and Kochikade joined in later so as not to lose out. But the judgement of this witness was also coloured by a perception that Premadasa was their protector. Our sources however strongly opined that the initiative to attack Sea Street was taken by the men of Premadasa's area whose territory it was. We should also keep in mind that underworld groups are extremely jealous in guarding their territorial interests. A Sinhalese journalist who was indignant about the violence unleashed and had done his own probing, was told that the Sea Street merchants had tried to contact Premadasa on that day, but failed to get through.

We may also note that Tiger Friday is chiefly remembered not for what happened in Sea Street where it began, but for the wild panic and massive retaliation against Tamils elsewhere in Colombo that followed rumours that Tigers were in town. Along Galle Road, vehicles were stopped and those found to be carrying Tamils were burnt with their occupants, leaving Galle Road looking like the charred remains of a battle. The event also helped to make 'Tiger' a magic word - on the one hand, a detested word, and, for Colombo's angry minorities who never saw a Tamil militant, a charmed word.

It would be mistaken to seek a neat, simple explanation for Tiger Friday. It did not stem from organised violence gone out of control like during earlier days. Nor can it be described as a spontaneous reaction to a rumour. We could however gainfully list some of the tendencies at work.

* The State had justified the violence in the course of which the message got around that Tamil property is there for the picking.

* In the middle of devastation Sea Street stood out as an untapped gold mine which seemed foolish to leave alone in that carnival spirit of impunity. Premadasa too would have found himself under pressure from his underworld folk whom he had used, whatever the benefits he had received from Sea Street during his journey up the political ladder. The fact that Sea Street was spared had given Premadasa an undeserved reputation as a protector of Tamils, which has stuck to this day. This Premadasa may have found embarrassing given the credentials then required for competition within the UNP. In his broadcast on the same (29th) night, he talked about the harassment caused by the events to Sinhalese and Muslim brethren, but carefully omitted the Tamils.

* The elements who had been given complete freedom to enjoy an orgy of looting and murder would have been disappointed when it was coming to an end before the job was completed. They would have waited for a cue to go on the loose while the festive spirit was high. Jayewardene's broadcast on the 28th which justified their actions could not have improved the situation. Sea Street also enjoyed a reputation far beyond the immediate vicinity. We have been told that two well-known robbers from Piliyandala took part in robbery later in the day.

Tamil merchants in Pettah had been left with the strong impression that what had saved them from total ruin was the interest shown by India and Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao's visit that same day. In the early hours of the next morning (30th), the Police for the first time started taking action against looters in the Pettah area, and the Government hastened to blame the violence on the Left.[Top]

9.12 Tamil Merchants in the Pettah - Post July 1983

As many Tamils in the Pettah see it, one of the aims of the violence was to bring ruin on them and have their places taken by Sinhalese supporters of the UNP. A particular sequence did not pass unnoticed. On 25th July the almost wholly Tamil-owned wholesale market in food grains in the Pettah (e.g. 4th & 5th Cross Streets, Keyzer Street etc.) was consigned to flames. On 3rd August Athulathmudali, minister of trade and shipping, called a meeting of retail traders and asked them if they could undertake the wholesale trade of rice and set up a wholesale rice market in Colombo. On 5th August, the papers carried photographs of Athulathmudali inspecting a new market down Duplication Road meant for 50 wholesalers.

One could of course defend Athulathmudali as a practical minister promoting the Sinhalese to undertake wholesale trade in a new situation where Tamils lacked the security to do so. Yet one does feel disconcerted by the absence of any expression of sympathy for the Tamils then, and the indifference towards helping the Tamil traders who faced ruin to get back into business. They after all had the skills for the job. Perhaps, Narasimha Rao saved the Tamil Pettah merchants, and today an estimated 70 - 80% of the trade is controlled by them.

There are many ways in which Tamil commerce has been affected. The events too in general affected investor confidence in Sri Lanka for obvious reasons. Udaya Jewellers in Sea Street pulled out completely and are now well established in India. Several other jewellers reckoned Colombo to be an insecure place and insured themselves by shifting some of their capital to India. Lalitha while remaining in Sea Street had also succeeded in becoming an extremely successful jeweller in Madras. Similarly Ambiga Jewellers in Madurai. A similar trend was evident in Tamil eating-houses. Several of the eating houses in Trichy are now said to be owned by Ceylonese. Tamil jewellers also pulled out of areas like Panadura, Galle and Matara where their premises were attacked and they lacked the confidence to go back.

This created a vacuum which has been filled by Sinhalese and Muslim jewellers. Particularly successful after 1983 has been the Sinhalese jeweller E.A.P. Edirisinghe who started as a pawnbroker in Sea Street. 80% of his employees are said to be Tamil.

Similar trends are also evident in other areas. The once thriving Tamil transport industry has been crippled by security concerns arising from the Tamil insurgency. The vacuum has been largely filled by Muslims. Tamils who worked in the import trade have also suffered from security concerns which have restricted their operating in the Harbour. They often have to operate through Muslims or Sinhalese.

The top league of Tamil businessmen who could raise money even on the international market have bounced back. But small businessmen have suffered from difficulties in getting bank loans, usually from the People's Bank. The difficulty arises from another phenomenon. According to sources in the Pettah, there have been a significant number of instances of default in repayment consequent to the Tamil loan recipient and the guarantor both going abroad  - another possibility of escape that was not thought worth the bother before July 1983. Consequently, the small businessmen wanting loans find themselves having to find guarantors with immovable assets.

These difficulties have given rise to a new breed of young Tamil businessmen who function like high-risk stock market speculators. They lack the certainties of the older conservative businessmen who had an adequate and diversified capital investment to balance losses in one sector with profits in others. The new type lack capital and minimise overheads by operating from a corner with only a table, telephone and calculator. They virtually borrow in the morning, buy with it, sell in the afternoon and return the loan with interest in the evening, the whole transaction being accomplished without handling the goods. It is risky business. The developments are characteristic of a community denied a secure environment and living dangerously.[Top]

9.13 A family's Tragedy in Colombo

We now give the experience of an ordinary family in Colombo. V was then a 12-year-old girl living in a road off Allen Avenue, Dehiwela. Elder to her were two boys Arunan (24) and Ahilan (21). Her father was a registrar at the Supreme Court. Arunan was working for Suzuki Motorbike agents from where he participated in motor races held at Katukurunda and won prizes. Ahilan, who had studied at Royal College, got interested in a Left-leaning political group against his father’s wishes. But later the father too was sympathetic. On the 24th night, the atmosphere at home had been tense. Two of Ahilan’s friends came home and said that the Government is likely to unleash an attack on the Tamils the following day. They also knew about the incident in Jaffna the previous night and how UNP agents had been preparing themselves with voters' lists. The father had possessed a shotgun from the time he had worked for the Irrigation Department in Kantalai. That night he took out the shotgun and cleaned it.

The next morning, V went to school in Wellawatte. About 9.30 AM, the Principal came to the Tamil medium classes and announced in a discreet voice that the school was being closed. She also advised the girls to remove their 'Pottus' and go home. The buses were still running and the Tamil shops were open for business as usual.  V went home. Arunan who left for the work as usual with his father in the morning came rushing home around noon, and the father came about 1.30 PM without the motor bike on which he and Arunan used to travel to work together in the mornings. After about 5 minutes, Ahilan and two of his friends came home.

The father had been at Hulftsdorp when trouble had broken out. His colleagues had warned him not to go, but he had insisted on it. He came on his motorcycle accompanied by a police officer, and then sent the police officer back on his motorcycle. Ahilan’s friends had to return to Bambalapitya. The father asked Ahilan to go with them for a short distance.

About 2.30 PM a mob of about 50-100 arrived, mostly ruffians in shorts with long knives used to cut fish and clubs. V later learnt that they had come from Ratmalana in state-owned CTB buses. She also noticed two boys from the locality, one the nephew of a local tough and the other, the son of a bakery owner who used to sneer at her as a ‘Demali’ whenever he saw her on the road.

Soon, the mob was inside the premises and were banging on the door. Her father went out through the backdoor, climbed the back wall and fired thrice below the knees. One man was injured. The mob retreated. Some of them came around and managed to pull her father down into the adjoining compound. The last she saw of Arunan was when he was holding a small axe. She later learnt that Arunan had fought and injured one of the attackers before he was himself killed. Her father had been clubbed to death after which the mob had tried to burn him and only partially succeeded. V later recalled that her father had been rather excited, so that firing and reloading was not easy for him.

V, along with their domestic helper, a boy from Nawalapitiya, hid in the outside toilet. She had been seen. A man who appeared to be a leading person in the mob, though not as villainous looking as the others, came there, got V to come out, and told her, “I too have sisters, I will not harm you, go to Jaffna and do not come back”. Frightened and not knowing what had happened to her father and brothers, V went to the Dehiwela Police station where she knew her father used to know a police officer. She complained to them that a mob had come to attack her house and her family was in danger. The Police told her that they had just heard about it and had sent a vehicle. She then believed them, but later recalled that the policemen had been smiling.

She went back home to find nobody in the compound. The house had been broken into, but had apparently not been looted. She searched and called out for her father and brother, but to no avail. When V stepped out she saw a neighbour watching her. The Sinhalese neighbour told her that the mob had gone because they heard that she had gone to the Police, but would come back, and asked her not to be there. Just then V saw her father’s corpse with his hair partially burnt.

V decided to go back to the police station. But before she went far, a Sinhalese girl who studied in the A/Level class in the same school, with whom she had become acquainted, stopped her. Her family insisted that she stay with them until the situation improves before going to the Police. They later informed V, after visiting the site, that Arunan had also been killed and the security forces had come in the night, put the bodies into the house and burnt her house after they had completely looted it. She also learnt that Ahilan had come back, but had been stopped on the way by a few neighbours who advised him to leave for safety, as the others had done.

Since there was constant fear of the return of the mobs, V’s hosts asked her to stay inside. The lady of the house, a well-built woman, said that if the mobs step into her compound she would chop their legs off. After two days the lady noticed suspicious looking men watching the house probably after some rumour had been passed that they were hiding Tamils. That night the lady told V that if the thugs come in large numbers and forcibly enter the house she might not be able to manage, so she would take both V and the boy to her mother’s place in Kandy where they could stay until the situation returns to normal. “We might be able to find your other brother later and then see what can be done,” she said. V was unhappy about this idea because she was desperate to find her brother. She then suggested that she be taken to a Sinhalese friend of Arunan's who lived near Thunmulla junction whom she had visited with her brother.

Early on Thursday morning, V’s host took them to the Sinhalese friend's home in a van, where she found Ahilan who had  also come in search of his family. He was accompanied by her cousin who too did not know where his family was. Ahilan was wearing frayed denim jeans and a red cotton shirt, which he had probably got at the refugee camp. Having heard about what had happened to his family, Ahilan did not cry, but bit his lower lip until it bled. The friend’s father who was a doctor in the US had come to Sri Lanka only a few days earlier on a holiday. He looked at Ahilan’s red shirt and denim trousers and asked him whether he were a Communist. He added, “You people get hammered because you go about dressed like Communists”. His son, Arunan's friend, stood by looking embarrassed. The doctor then pressed a thousand rupee note into V’s hand, which she unsuccessfully tried to decline, and insisted on driving them to the refugee camp at the Bambalapitiya temple. By then Ahilan was actively involved in the running of the refugee camp along with his friends.

V later heard that the mob had also gone to another Tamil house down their road. But fortunately for them, their Muslim neighbours called them, and they managed to crawl through a patch of tall grass in the compound and escape to their neighbours' unseen. But their house was looted and burnt.

Once in the refugee camp Ahilan asked their domestic help where he wanted to go - to Nawalapitiya or to Jaffna first. He chose the first and Ahilan found a family going to Nawalapitiya with whom he was sent home. The others went to Jaffna.

Subsequently Ahilan and his cousin became active members of the EPRLF. Ahilan drowned in 1986 while crossing the Palk Straits to India after an engine failure had caused the boat to overturn.

The tragedy of this family is not without its ironies which are connected with another tragedy of the Tamil people. Ahilan’s friend who also joined the EPRLF was later killed by another Tamil group - the LTTE - after it banned that group in December 1986. His younger brother was also killed by the LTTE in 1987. The only surviving member of that family is a girl who now lives in Switzerland. After a few years in Jaffna, when Eelam War II began in 1990, V and her mother came to Colombo. They renovated the house in Dehiwela and V’s mother chose to live there. However, whatever hopes there were that the Tamil people would attain freedom and dignity through this suffering were extinguished with the LTTE’s rise to totalitarian power over the Tamils.[Top]

9.14 A note on Buddhism, Caste & the New Sinhalese Nationalism

In South Asia in general the principal mark of identity is caste. Language and religion are transmutable. Thus when the Kandyan kingdom in the 18th century was in need of a Kshatriya prince to fill the throne, a Hindu Tamil-speaking Nayakkar from South India was made king and the protector of Buddhism. Such perceptions of identity still have considerable life as a survival from a feudal past. A passing fashion among Western scholars of the 19th century identified language with race and popular nationalism on both sides began to speak of Sinhalese Aryans and Tamil Dravidians. Kumari Jayawardhana in her work traces the use of new perceptions of identity to hate campaigns against Indian and Moor business competitors and Indian labour from the early 20th century.

The introduction of universal adult franchise with the Donoughmore reforms of 1931 found several members of the Sinhalese ruling class changing their religious allegiance from Christianity to Buddhism. Among the 'Donoughmore Buddhists' were Bandaranaike and Jayewardene who had been Anglican Christians. Jayewardene, the choirboy at St. Michael's, Polwatte, was among the earliest to play the Buddhist card openly. Campaigning in the 40s against his opponent E.W. Perera for the Kelaniya seat, Jayewardene asked, "As much as I hold E.W. Perera in great esteem, how can this hallowed city of Kelaniya be represented by a Christian?"

The UNP took a resounding beating in 1956 and Jayewardene siezed on the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact to devolve more power to the North-East, to revive the UNP's fortunes. Jayewardene organised a march to another 'hallowed city' - Kandy with the Temple of the Tooth - to pray for the welfare of Ceylon, which he accused Bandaranaike of selling to the Tamils. Dudley Senanayake, then re-entering politics after 5 years called the B-C Pact an act of treachery. The UNP leaders then publicly swore from the Temple of the Tooth that they would, to the end, oppose the formation of regional councils under the B-C Pact. [See p. 82-83 of T. Sabaratnam's The Murder of a Moderate.]

For Jayewardene with his visions of monarchical grandeur, the Temple of the Tooth became an obsession. It was he who began the public appearance of the new head-of-state at the Temple of the Tooth. It was from the precincts of this Temple in the late 70s that some of the notable productions of Cyril Mathew's Ministry of Industries & Scientific Affairs - the hate literature against the Tamils - were first distributed to the public.

Mathew's rise to prominence is another interesting phenomenon in Sinhalese nationalism. He comes from one of the service castes who together comprise about 40% of the Sinhalese population and are known to be of fairly recent South Indian origin. Colonial education, particularly under the British, and new commercial opportunities helped many of them to advance within Sinhalese society, although they were only grudgingly accepted by their peers from the Govigama (Sudra, Vellala) caste.

To Jayewardene and Bandaranaike Buddhism was primarily a means to getting votes. To Mathew it was something much more. His zeal for planting or allegedly discovering Buddhist temples in Tamil-speaking areas is well-known. It was as though this zeal was for him a means of fighting for a place in Sinhalese society which tolerated, rather than accepted him. Jayewardene pandered to his vanity by making him MP for the 'hallowed city' of Kelaniya, where Mathew in turn made himself President of the Kelaniya Sacred City Trust.

Mathew's assumed pro-Buddhist and anti-Tamil zeal points to another phenomenon - an attempt to make Buddhism the key element in the Sinhalese identity while playing down caste. Today the most strident of Sinhalese publicists and scholars who move towards demonising the Tamils while eloquently holding out against political accommodation with them, come mainly from the service castes.

The new however jostles uneasily with the old. Gamini Dissanayake was a Kandyan Govigama. During the July 1983 violence he and his wife dropped in one evening among old friends visiting a Tamil lawyer on holiday from Britain. In private discussion, Dissanayake lamented the state of the Left. "Earlier", he told another visitor, "in dealing with the Left, one could have talked to a good Govigama like Dr. N.M. Perera or to a good Dutch Burgher like Pieter Kenuman". "But now", he added, "the leadership of the Left has gone to the scum!"[Top]

9.15 The Question of Numbers

Before we leave this chapter, we look at the question how many Tamils were killed during the July 1983 violence? Almost every figure aroused controversy. Sarath Muttetuwegama pointed out that according to the censor 36 persons had been killed in Colombo on the 25th – the first day of violence – including 35 prisoners at Welikade! T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka gives a total of 471 Tamils killed including 227 in the Colombo District. Dr. M.S.L. Salgado, JMO Colombo, recalls that during that week about 283 bodies came to him for post mortem examination. Under the prevailing anarchy, we may take it that nearly all of them were victims of communal attacks.      

Amirthalingam in speaking to the Tamil diaspora in New York just after July violence placed the number of Tamils killed at about 2000. After he became leader of the Opposition, Amirthalingam was generally painstakingly detailed and accurate. But in the South itself the attention of many shifted from the atrocious nature of the violence itself to a defensive cry that the Tamils (including Amirthalingam) were exaggerating and that Sri Lanka was being unfairly vilified. Take for example Dissanayaka’s remark: “Political opinion in Tamil Nadu ranging from the sublime to the ludicrous and the mass media was orchestrated against Sri Lanka. A hartal (stoppage of work) was observed on August 2nd.” It was as though such concern, which alone kept the local Tamils in hope then, was illegitimate. How many more Tamils would have been killed if not for Indira Gandhi’s telephone call to Jayewardene, and her subsequently sending Rao? The question is not about Mrs. Gandhi’s or M.G. Ramachandran’s sincerity. Their actions were legitimate, apart from perhaps being politically necessary.  

In assuming that the figure of about 500 Tamils killed is correct, one would also assume that the Police were faithful in directing nearly all the corpses of victims to hospital mortuaries. Given the active or passive connivance of the Police in the violence, what interest did they have in directing bodies to mortuaries and totting up the score? Was Jayewardene, who was getting worried about foreign publicity, going to reward them for keeping an accurate record? Were the bodies of Arunan and his father sent to the mortuary? We know that they were burnt with the house. Were any remains of the man thrown on to the burning tin roof in Kandy sent for a post mortem? How about those travellers clubbed to death and then placed under their motor cycle or inside their car and set on fire?

This problem was posed to Bradman Weerakoon, then Commissioner General for Essential Services. He said that Jayewardene asked him to take over this job on Friday the 29th and allocated Rs.50 million for this purpose. He accepted on condition that there was no interference, and in this matter, he said, the promise was kept. On the number killed, he said that he had moved around quite a bit during that period, and had no difficulty with figures such as 2000 or 3000 killed. He described one particular experience. The 29th was Tiger Friday in Colombo when fresh violence erupted. On Saturday morning, he went with a police escort along Galle Road, from de Fonseka Place in Bambalapitiya to visit his mother in Mount Lavinia. The main road was chock-full with burnt vehicles and debris. He had to proceed very slowly, he said, often climbing over objects on the road. But on Monday following the week-end, he saw Galle Road wiped clean as it were. Only the burnt buildings on either side betrayed signs of past calamity. Some movers had been brought and everything on the road had been lifted and disposed of somewhere, including the human remains. Such were the times that one would not have expected the Police to go to the scene and dispatch bodies unless they had been expressly sent or they could not avoid getting involved.

Before discussing the nature of the event, we will in the next chapter discuss two key events that have a bearing on the violence as a whole. [Top]

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