By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka: A Haunted Nation – The Social Underpinnings Of Communal Violence– Part 3
There was also then considerable pressure on the other minorities to stay with the Government’s line and not show any sym- pathy for the Tamil victims. Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel, a prominent UNPer and president of the All Ceylon Muslim League wrote a public letter to the Indian Union Muslim League protesting at the latter’s concern for Tamil victims in Sri Lanka (CDN 23.8.83):
“We the Moors of Sri Lanka who are all Muslims by religion were shocked to hear that the MP belonging to your party walked out from parliament in New Delhi in protest because there was no discussion on what they have called ‘the atrocities against Tamils in Sri Lanka’.”
Dr. Kaleel then tried to explain, as it were, to his Indian counterparts, the crime of the Tamils deserving punishment: “They are demanding a separate state called Eelam consisting of the North- ern and Eastern Provinces of the island.”
Muslims affiliated to the UNP and SLFP of- ten found themselves in an unenviable position. When there were communal attacks on Muslims in the North Western and Southern Provinces in the late 70s, it was left to the TULF leader Mr. Amirthalingam as Leader of the Opposition to raise the public outcry. Mr. A.C.S. Hameed was however, a leading Muslim member of the UNP whose influence in minority questions has been arguably benign. In the cabinet meeting of 27th July, Hameed argued unsuccessfully against the 6th Amendment, which effectively proscribed the TULF. He said that it would completely estrange the Tamils, and predicted that it would give In- dia a role by bringing her in as an intermediary
between the Government and the Tamils. (T. Sabaratnam, p.304). No one else, whether in the UNP or the SLFP, saw the practical consequences arising from this.
Ten years earlier (5th December 1973), Hameed, then in the opposition, criticised both standardization and the district quota system be- ing introduced as retrograde steps. He made a plea that “Education in this country should never contribute to the growth of communalism”. There was no protest from a single Sinhalese MP. In time the state of affairs among Muslim MPs in the SLFP and UNP led in 1986 to the birth of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress with its base in the south of the Eastern Province.
The Anglican Church’s response to the July 1983 violence seemed to involve its minority sta- tus as well as class. Although Tamils form about half of its membership, leading members of the Church have been part of the establishment since colonial times. The Church’s schools in Colombo command enormous prestige, and St. Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia, has always been influen- tial in Government and the Security Services. The Finance Minister, the next Army Chief-of- Staff, the Clerk to the House of Representatives, Presidential Advisor Bradman Weerakoon and the Secretary to the Justice Ministry, to name a few, were old boys of the school or at least An- glicans. The Police Chief was an old boy of Trin- ity College.
The Anglican Church could have made an impact and shown its protest by declaring some of its institutions refugee camps and demand- ing that the Government should give them protection. However, the Church’s actions were timorous, while its leadership remained very deferential to the Government and oblivious to its criminality. The leadership tended to view the care of the refugees as the concern of the Government and the figures below at refugee camps suggest that few Tamils felt encouraged to shelter at Anglican institutions. The Hindu leader- ship in Colombo though with limited influence, has several times organised huge refugee camps at Saraswathy Hall from 1956.
The confusion of the Church seems exempli- fied in the mixed reports coming from St. Tho- mas’ College, Mt. Lavinia. On 25th July, at the Warden’s invitation the Tamil staff members stayed behind and were joined by some family members. They along with some day-boys spent the night at the school. The next morning they were told that vehicles had arrived to take them to a refugee camp at Ratmalana Airport. Ac- cording to another report, on the 25th morning some boys from the school, including a group of siblings, sought to remain at a place of refuge within the school premises, along with some other boys who had come running from Ratmalana Hindu College. An active Anglican and Christian leader very close to the siblings testified that all these boys were asked to leave the school and they went to Wellawatte police station, going part of the way through by-lanes. There they were well looked after. One of these siblings had also told a school mate and dioc- esan councillor the same experience, adding that another sent out of the school the same day had been attacked on Watarapola Road near the school.
This has now been strenuously denied by the school authorities of that time, who maintain that no one was turned out. They have cited in- stances such as the school caring for an injured man and a pregnant woman who were brought in and the school coming under threat as the result. The school being unable to match the threats and the State unable to provide security, the authorities said, in consultation with Minis- ter Athulathmudali who visited the school, it was decided to shift the Tamils to Ratmalana. Notably, neither the Tamil nor the Sinhalese Anglicans sought to iron out these issues even after 17 years had passed.
According to figures released by the Govern- ment to the Red Cross, St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, opened its doors on 6th August and admitted 850 refugees. This was done reportedly on the initiative of Bradman Weerakoon, Commissioner General of Essential Services who was also on the school’s board of governors. By comparison, Roman Catholic institutions whose social base is lower down seem to have been more forthcoming. Some of the refugee figures at centres on 5th August 1983 are as follows (CDN 9.8.1983):
St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya (RC) – 1369,
Hindu College, Ratmalana– 7750,
Greenlands (Isipathana) College – 3848,
St. Benedict’s College (RC) – 7000,
St Lucia’s High School (RC) – 4390.
Corresponding figures for Anglican institutions were:
St. Thomas’ College,Mt Lavinia– 0 (850 from 6th August),
Ladies’ College– 140,
St. Thomas’ Prep, Colpetty – 20.
The last two schools above are in Colombo – 7 & 3. Tamil refugees in this area were housed in Mahanama College (total of 8673 persons) and Thurston College (3000) – both government institutions. When the civil war began in ear- nest in 1984, St. Thomas’ College continued to make, from time to time, uncritical gestures of support for the Army, which continued to make world news headlines for atrocities against Tamil civilians, and was christened by BBC’s Mark Tully, ‘the world’s most undisciplined army.’ In early 1999, the school and the church authori- ties felicitated the new army commander, an old boy, who remains directly answerable for hundreds of disappearances in Jaffna in 1996. The Church has evinced schizophrenia in its approach to the Tamils, who are very much part of the body.
It must also be placed on record that one of the most forthright and heartfelt reflections on the July violence came in the form of a pastoral letter issued by the Rt. Rev. Lakshman Wickremasinghe, the Anglican Bishop of Kurunegala. He said in his letter:
“We are ashamed as Sinhalese for the moral crime other Sinhalese committed. We must not only acknowledge our shame. We must also make our apology to those Tamils who were unjustified victims for this massive retaliation.” He passed away a short time later. Appendix I contains an extract from this historic document.
A deeply felt statement was also issued by the Rev. Soma Perera, who then 61,was the chairman of the Ceylon Methodist Conference. He said (Island 22nd October 83): “I feel that my own hands are stained by the blood of innocent victims of this senseless violence. As members of the Sinhalese community we ask forgiveness for the wrong we have done.”
To be continued..