Colombo Telegraph

Black July: ‘Api Suddha Kara’ – JR’s Failure To Declare Curfew

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

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’!

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!


Part one – Sri Lanka’s Black July: Borella, 24th Evening

Part two – Sri Lanka’s Black July: What Really Happened At Kanatte?

*From Chapter 9 of  Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To be continued tomorrow ..

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