By Rajan Hoole –
Southern Perceptions Mid – 1983 – Part II
It is also instructive to look at how the general drift in communal relations was affect- ing perceptions among the Christian leadership and the larger Christian community. This was a small minority of about 8% of the populace, who were torn between universal ideals (i.e. “In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew…”) and the strong pressure to prove their nationalist credentials in their respective ethnic camp.
Unlike in this age of ‘politically correct’ statements, back in 1983 people could be brutally frank. A short time before the violence, a writer and journalist with worldwide experience was invited to give a series of talks to Anglican clergy of a rural deanery in Colombo. In his first talk he posed questions about the security forces using inhuman third degree methods in the North. One clergyman responded, “What else could you expect the Government to do?” This appeared to be a widely held position among the audience. Taken aback, the speaker cancelled further talks.
Such sentiments among Christian clergy were then reflected in contributions to the Press. The Sun of 13th July carried a letter by Rev. Fr. D. T. Wickremasinghe OSB attacking Amnesty International over its recent report that was critical of human rights violations in the North by the security forces. He said that the AI report was not to be taken seriously since Marxists had taken positions of responsibility in it by their notorious game of infiltration. There were also several commendable contributions of quality by members of the Sinhalese Christian clergy. A frequent contributor calling for moderation, understanding and dialogue on the ethnic question was the late Rev. Celestine Fernando.
Fr. George B. Perera in a contribution titled ‘In Search of Peace’ in the Sun of 20th June 1983 stated: “If one were to learn any lesson from the past, one cannot be complacent about the current situation of unrest, lawlessness, tension and terrorism in our land. The enforcement of law and order, the employment of the armed forces and police with more authority are only means to meet an emergency situation. The very presence of the armed forces in the North seems to be one of the reasons for the retaliatory type of violence…” He concluded by calling for dialogue.
An appeal for an end to violence by the Rt. Rev. Swithin Fernando, the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, appeared in the Daily News of 29th June. He said that Tamil citizens had taken to violence with a view to gaining redress for what they ‘believe to be injustices’ to which they are subject. We should remind ourselves constantly, he said, that no person should be subject to torture, and that such practices would be a blot on our nation. The mark of a civil society, he re- minded us, was to be on guard at all times. He called for restraint by the armed forces and made a plea that young men should not be named terrorists and isolated.
These were healthy sentiments expressed with much caution about a month before the violence, before President Jayewardene set the line with his much-publicised interview. After that it became very difficult to say even this much for many years.
The ideological grip, which was then much in evidence in the air this nation breathed, was so strong that it was very hard for a Sinhalese to go further than broad generalities, even to touch lightly what the average Tamil experienced. Even the Saturday Review from Jaffna, which communicated that to concerned Sinhalese, had been sealed on 2nd July. However a remarkably frank expression of Tamil perceptions by Vinoth Ramachandra appeared in the Island of 12th July.
“If your readers visit Jaffna and talk with any sample of the populace, they would soon discover that the primary cause of terror lies in the presence of undisciplined security forces sup- ported by repressive legislation. The arbitrary detention of young males, the intimidation of innocent passersby on trivial grounds and the general vindictive spirit of a trigger happy military are quickly driving the public into sympathy for the Tigers.
“Another contributory factor to the sad state of communal relations is the lack of an independent media. While attacks on the armed forces and politicians killed in the North are given ample coverage in the Sinhalese and English press and radio, all incidents of anti-Tamil violence are either ignored altogether or severely distorted. For example in recent weeks the Tamil students at the University of Peradeniya have been living in a state of fear and uncertainty owing to vicious attacks on them by fellow Sinhalese students. In one incident a student barely escaped death when a petrol bomb exploded in his room while he was asleep.
“This situation has been completely ignored by the media which seem to feel that the chant- ing of slogans outside residences of supreme court judges is somehow more criminal than the attempted murder of innocent students. Whether the silence of the media regarding Peradeniya campus Tamil students has been due to a cover up engineered by the university authorities or simply due to journalistic woeful- ness, I cannot say. But I do know that official apathy and biased reporting are rapidly contributing to growing alienation between the two communities.”
Ramachandra was a physicist who had given himself over to full-time work for the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS). Being a Tamil and a regular visitor to all university campuses in the country, he was able to see and feel what was developing. He was also well known and respected in Church circles with many young Sinhalese associated in his work. Yet times were such that his voice was an iso- lated one.
As for the Sinhalese clergy who had an enlightened position on the ethnic issue, they were rendered lost and helpless by the violence of July 1983. About the last time the Rev. Celestine Fernando had any hope was when the President about mid-July announced an All-Party-Conference. His response in the article ‘The Bells of Peace’ appeared in the Daily News (19.07.83) and at least one other daily. It stated: “All those who love Lanka and her people will be grateful to the President for his call for an all-party-conference to settle what has become the most crucial problem of our nation.”
This response also points to the general weak- ness of fair-minded Sinhalese from the upper segment of society. This country did not go through an independence struggle, and it was not part of their ethos to confront the State and those in power. To them the rulers were taken for granted as fairly decent and amenable. It was hard for them to grasp the level of depravity to which the State sank in July 1983. They knew many of the leading persons in politics, the ad- ministration and the security services as friends from leading schools in Colombo, the University of Ceylon or Oxbridge. Confronting them meant facing problems they were not prepared for. Celestine Fernando continued to agonise about the state of the country. In October 1984 the LTTE conducted its first massacre of Sinhalese settled by the armed forces in Kent and Dollar farms in what came to be known as WeliOya. These hapless convicts had taken the place of Tamils who were driven away by third degree methods. Rev. Celestine admitted privately that, as a Sinhalese, he could not condemn the massacre. That shows the extent to which such persons were made helpless by events. Of course, for the Tamils the massacre raised some pressing questions.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here