3 June, 2023


Arming Sinhalese Civilians In Border Areas

By Rajan Hoole –

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Border Aggression and Civilian Massacres – Part 8

A ccording to Herman Gunaratne, an informal group around Ravi Jayewardene, which included an army volunteer, Colonel Wickremasekere, and a regular, Major Karunatilleke, then based at Anuradhapura, met in Colombo on 23rd December 1984. They saw the Kent and Dollar Farms disaster as a retreat of the Sinhalese. Blinded by their aims, they were unable to take into account what they had been building up within the other side through more than an year of aggressive posturing and forced evacuations. According to Gunaratne what they decided was not to establish large Sinhalese settlements for the present, but to stop the ‘retreat’ by arming and training the Sinhalese villagers in border areas.

This decision was taken out of a sense of frustration that their dream of grand Sinhalese settlements with Israeli help had come almost to naught. It was also taken within the mental constraint of continuing an aggressive approach to the Tamils. But a little thought would have shown that arming Sinhalese civilians was a futile exercise. The Kent and Dollar Farms massacre was a particular response to a grave provocation. It had broken to some extent the Tamil inhibition against killing Sinhalese civilians. It had the potential to become a wider tendency, but it could also have stopped there. There would have been understandable fears among Sinhalese border villages, but it was not so far a threat to them. Old Sinhalese villages that had interacted peacefully with Tamils for centuries were very different from the Sinhalese settled in Kent and Dollar Farms under the JOSSOP. After all, leading Sinhalese politicians Maithripala Senanayake and K.B. Ratnayake, who were from these villages, had their education respectively at St. John’s College and Hartley College, Jaffna.

Arming border Sinhalese was bound to provoke a steep increase of tensions as they actually did. An individual bully with a gun was going to make, apart from his neighbours, also those in adjacent Tamil villages insecure. This in turn was bound to increase militant recruitment in Tamil villages, followed in time by serious action against Sinhalese thought to be close to the Army. This process was bound to push relations to breaking point, resulting in uncontrolled violence. Further, arming Sinhalese home guards with shotguns has been conclusively shown to be futile over the years. Home guards proved useless against attacks by Tamil militants coming in groups with surprise on their side, armed with automatics.

The only way to solve the problem was to go the extra mile and clinch a political solution. Arming border villages was an act of evasion by those in authority who were not serious about a political solution. Arming border villages has been regularly portrayed as a charitable act of those whose hearts bled for them. It is typical of those charitable actions taken by eloquent peers in Colombo, London and Vancouver, who in the name of saving those of their kind at home, whether Sinhalese or Tamils, brought them intolerable misery.

Under Jayewardene, security functions were dispersed. There was a Defence Ministry, a National Security Minister, an Internal Security Minister and so on with Ravi Jayewardene wielding a great deal of authority with no official position. The arming of border villages too reflected this diversity. It would also be probably correct to say that the decision to arm vil- lagers had been discussed and a decision taken at National Security Council level about the same time the informal group met on 23rd December.

The Daily News of 25th December announced that in response to a request from the Fisheries Minister, 200 refugee fishermen were to be trained in the use of firearms. The Sun of 8th Janu- ary 1985 announced President Jayewardene’s decision that 50 to 100 home guards will be trained and deployed to guard the boundaries of vulnerable areas. In Parliament on 10th January, in answer to an adjournment question posed by Maithripala Senanayake, SLFP, Madawachchiya, Athulathmudali replied that all Sinhalese people living along the boundary of the Northern Province will be armed with guns al- ready purchased.

The arming of villagers by Ravi Jayewardene was through his voluntary organisation Sath Sevana, with the arms, logistics and resources coming from the Government. According to Herman Gunaratne, they went to Padaviya to arm settlers during the first half of January 1985 and a few days later to Morawewa and Gomarankadawela in the Trincomalee District. By mid-April the border villages were armed. A press report on 5.6.85 said that a home guard in Gomarankadawela had shot himself.

It should also be remembered that in the ideological framework of the elite Sinhalese nationalists, there was something compulsive about arming the Sinhalese in the border areas and getting them embroiled. This is entailed by the speech of Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake to settlers in Padaviya quoted with approval by Gunaratne from the memory of one of his grand sons (see Sect.5.1). It imposed on them the unenviable burden of being the ‘Last bastion of the Sinhala’. Their peers would not let them remain peaceful tillers of the ground.

While arming Sinhalese border villages, the Government and its armed forces launched on a fresh spate of massacres that rendered civilians on both sides fair game. This was part of deliberate government policy. Athulathmudali said during the opening of the new JOSSOP building in Vavuniya about 12th November 1984: “The people should inform the security forces if they get to know of any terrorist activities. Failure to do so will only result in the people themselves being in danger.” This was a regular message. Just after the Kent and Dollar Farms incident, the Defence Ministry reported killing 68 ‘terrorists’ in the area. 20 Tamil prisoners were murdered in Vavuniya. 32 Tamil civilians were killed in Othiyamalai. On 3rd December 15 civilians were killed in Thennamaravady and so it went. The worst ever massacre to date took place in Murungan, near Mannar, on 4th December. A mine attack on a jeep killing one soldier and injuring several others resulted in a massive attack on civilians within 3 to 4 miles of the incident. Buses and postal staff were attacked, leaving a death toll of 107 (see Saturday Review and Virginia Leary’s ICJ Report).

A few days later Methodist Minister George Jeyarajasingham from Murungan was travelling to Colombo in a van with his Sinhalese wife Bridget, from Pitipana, Negombo. It was believed that he was in possession of video docu- mentation of the recent massacre. All the passengers in the Datsun pick-up, including the Jeyarajasinghams, were killed so as not to leave behind any eyewitnesses. In an appreciation for them (Sun 27.12.84), Prince Casinader remembered the yeoman service the two of them had performed looking after refugees following the attack on Tamils in Trincomalee during mid- 1983. On 6th January 1985, Fr. Mary Bastian and 8 parish members were killed in the church in Vankalai, near Mannar in what Bishop Savundaranayagam described as an ‘unprovoked attack’. These incidents contributed to swelling the ranks of Tamil militants from the Mannar District and from among the newly created refugees in the Mullaitivu District.

Having experienced a setback in its plan for grand Sinhalese colonies in the North-East and having armed border Sinhalese, the Government hit upon the next best – a programme of mass eviction from Tamil villages in the Eastern Province. The first step was to foment violence between Tamils and Muslims who usually lived in neighbouring villages and often in the same village. Although many Muslim youth joined the Tamil militant groups, the intolerance in Tamil nationalist politics had foreclosed the armed Tamil militant groups developing the ability to treat Muslims with respect and care. Their conduct was bound to bring about friction, which the State could magnify and use. To the simple-minded Tamil militant with the power to kill, it became far easier to believe a rumour that a Muslim was a CID informer, than a similar rumour about a Tamil.

By early 1985, executions of alleged informers by Tamil groups had become common. For many of them arrogance came with power. The LTTE’s Jaffna leader Kittu claimed to a journalist that he had killed about 40 Mossad, CIA and CID agents! His victims were mainly Tamil. A hapless Sinhalese trader running into bored militants in the Vanni could often end up having a rough time. According to a former TELO member, many such persons were killed. On 7th April 1985, three Muslims were shot dead in Murungan in the Mannar area. What came after in the Eastern Province was well-planned and orchestrated. It came in the context of increasing militant activity in the East with several ambushes against the Armed Forces.

To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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Latest comments

  • 2

    The old games are yet being played under new guises and excuses! what they portend for the future is scary to imagine. The reference to D.S. Senanayake’s words in Padaviya, confirm the type of leadership he provided to the newly independent Ceylon. What he started goes on yet and is down hill.

    Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

    • 1

      Dr RN,

      What else he did?
      (1)Plantation Tamils deprived of citizenship – 1948/50 – http://tamilnation.co/indictment/indict001.htm

      “In 1948, at independence, the Tamils had 33% of the voting power in the legislature. Upon the disenfranchisement of the estate Tamils (in 1950), however, this proportion dropped to 20%. The Sinhalese obtained more than a 2/3 majority in the Parliament, making it impossible for the Tamils to exercise an effective opposition to Sinhalese policies affecting them…”
      (2) Sinhala Lion Flag imposed as National Flag by majority will – http://tamilnation.co/indictment/indict002.htm

  • 1

    They should be armed again.

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