By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 33
We have argued in our account based on testimony cited that the outbreak of violence at Borella had no direct rela- tion to the clamour to hand over the bodies to the next of kin at Kanatte. The crowd was made up of conflicting elements that had different motivations. While the relatives did want the bodies of the soldiers, and gained much sup- port there were others, who wanted to turn the occasion into an anti-government demonstra- tion. Still others, such as Gunawanse, wanted to harness the anger of the crowd and turn it against the Tamils. Gunawanse played on the alleged mutilated condition of the bodies to in- cite the crowd, demanding that the bodies be shown – ‘even a little dismembered finger’. Was this protege of Minister Dissanayake acting en- tirely on his own? Ratnatunga confirms that the dominant sentiment at the cemetery was anti- government. Referring to the situation in the cemetery late in the evening, Ratnatunga says “Anti-government epithets were liberally strewn and were becoming the order of the night” (p.13). Given Gunawanse’s reputation, it is clear that he was starting to play on the grief and anxiety of the mourners, intending to move it in an anti- Tamil direction.
Gunawanse did not succeed at Kanatte itself. It was later that an anti-Tamil flavour began to creep in, when on the roads of Borella, accord- ing to Ratnatunga, ‘the crowd began voicing vitu- perative slogans aimed at the Government, the Tamils and the terrorists’. Ratnatunga points to different motivations in the crowd, a section of which moved to Borella and others to the President’s house along Kynsey Road. It was now a differ- ent phenomenon from what it was at Kanatte. While Ratnatunga absolves the Government of all responsibility for the violence, our account highlights the role of mobs supported by the government on the night of 24th July, whose role it was to attack Tamils and Tamil establishments. Gunawanse’s task appears to have been to fo- ment violence at the cemetery itself.
Tiger Friday – 29 July
Ratnatunga gives much exciting and useful detail, but the main drama is obscured. The first significant event of ‘Tiger Friday’
was the attack on Sea Street by the mob. By failing to examine this attack properly, and choosing to concentrate on rumours about Tiger infiltration as a cause of the violence, the whole complexion of the violence is changed. Our account, which was drawn from people who were there (Sect.9.11), suggests that the mob which attacked Sea Street showed all the signs of being organised rather than being spontaneous.
Ratnatunga gives details of rumours circulating about Tigers in the Pettah area. But a more careful reading of Ratnatunga’s account shows that the main action began after the mob advanced on Sea Street. Until then, there were some isolated killings, a rumour about two unidentified persons in blue uniform, the Army and Police shooting at burnt out buildings, some helicopter firing at a suspected building, a soldier accidentally shooting himself and an explosion triggered off by such activity in a fireworks shop. Ratnatunga goes on to describe the Sea street attack thus:
“So when the terrified mob decided to attack the one enclave of Tamil business concentration that had not been attacked so far, the atmosphere was electrifying.” (p.38).
Ratnatunga places the emphasis on the spontaneous nature of the attack, and to some extent excuses the crowd by claiming they were provoked or terrified into their actions by rumours. Earlier he had described Sea Street as a place ‘whose pavements are literally paved with gold’. Ratnatunga yet again, seems to be excusing the violence in some way by pointing to the prosperity of the Tamil traders.
Following the Sea Street incident, Ratnatunga’s account suggests the mushroom- ing of violence with the attacks in Dam Street and the killing of Tamils who took shelter in the Pettah Main Bus Terminus. He also men- tions casualties from the firing of security forces and that the casualty list contained 5 Sinhalese names. However, he does not mention the fact that it was the Tamils who were the main vic- tims of the firing, that at least 12 Tamil work- ers who resisted the mob were killed by Army firing.
Ratnatunga attaches much importance to a “Police radio message, the origin of which the Police have yet to trace [the command centre denies ever having sent such a message], which came at about 10.30 a.m. proclaiming that ‘Tiger’ terrorists were attacking the Police at Gasworks Street in Pettah.’ ‘Panicking policemen hastily began organising guards at stations….The bogus and unauthorised radio message to the Police asking them to guard their respective stations, left the streets open and set in motion a new wave of crime, which included murders, cold-blooded murders”. He adds that later on the Police were officially informed that the message asking them to guard their stations was false, by which time it was too late – the damage had been done. Ratnatunga then goes on to ask whether this was a Marxist plot or simple panic (p.41) – a favourite question without an answer in the 408 pages of the book! This police radio message, however, has striking reverberations of the ‘mysterious’ police radio message from Jaffna which ignited the 1977 communal violence (Sect. 2.8)! Another notable common feature is the delayed ‘cancellation’ of the message.
It is hard to believe that the police system in a state could fail in such an absurd manner, and even worse that it was left without an inquiry. First, the suggestion that the Tigers were launching massed attacks on police stations in Colombo was patently ridiculous. Second, as to what the Police in the Pettah area were doing about upholding the Law at that time, see Sect.19.5 for the Ananda Sunil case. There is no credible excuse for the police hierarchy.
To be continued..
Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up
Part five – 30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot
Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama
Part nine – Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983
Part eleven – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Question Of Numbers
Part fourteen – Circumstances Leading To The Magistrate’s Inquest
Part fifteen – Welikade Prison: The Second Massacre: 27th July 1983
Part seventeen – Welikade Prison Massacres: Postscript
Part eighteen – July 1983: Planned By The State Or Spontaneous Mob Action?
Part nineteen – July 1983: Ranil Wickremasinghe Followed Cyril Mathew
Part twenty one – Events Of 24th July: What Were The Army’s Orders?
Part twenty two – Black July: Further Evidence Of Advance Planning
Part twenty three – Black July: The JSS Goon Squad Regime
Part twenty four – Institutional Implications Of The JSS And Black July
Part twenty seven – Black July: Justice Of Peace Gonawela Sunil And The Killings In Prison
Part twenty eight – Prison Massacre And The Alitalia Hijacker Sepala Ekanayake
Part twenty nine – Black July: Further Indirect Evidence Of State Involvement
Part thirty – Blak July: Remarks & Testimonies In Retrospect
Part thirty one – Black July: Some Missing Threads
Part thirty two – Black July: Alle Gunawanse – A Missing Link?
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To be continued..