5 July, 2022


Black July: Some Missing Threads

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 31

“…Next came attempts to appease heaven. After consultation of the Sibylline books, prayers were addressed to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpina; Juno too was propitiated. But neither hu- man resources, nor imperial munificence, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated sinister suspicions that the fire [that raged in Rome] had been instigated. To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats – and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus…” – Publius Gaius Tacitus, from Histories page1image6544

Sinha Ratnatunga’s account of the July 1983 violence is contained in the first two chap- ters of his book, The politics of terrorism: the Sri Lankan experience. It was published in mid- 1988 by the International Fellowship for Social and Economic Development Inc., Australia. Ratnatunga’s material provides an opportunity to sharpen our conclusions about the events of July 1983. Both in his book, and in his column for the Weekend under the name Migara, Ratnatunga’s accounts display signs of close access to the ruling establishment of the day. The book is defensive of the conduct of the UNP and most particularly of Jayewardene. While much valuable testimony is given, the writer continu- ally suggests, or cites persons to the effect, that the formation of the mobs and the violence were spontaneous, thus absolving the UNP of all re- sponsibility. While referring to allegations against Mathew, he offers only Mathew’s denial. The value of the information is often lost by the failure to ask appropriate questions, a failure to push matters to their logical conclusion, and by overlaying facts with misleading suggestions.

Jayewardene and Mathew 

Ratnatunga highlights rumours about Cyril Mathew’s activities:

“…In 1981 too a District Minister had complained about Mathew’s involvement in the anti-Tamil riots in Ratnapura and a party inquiry was initiated though never completed. This time the President himself wrote a confidential letter to Cyril Mathew, one time most trusted lieutenant… ‘You have em- barrassed me as the President of the country’, the President penned, and went on to make not only general complaints about his Minister’s conduct during the riots, but also made specific accusations against him. Mathew stood accused, for example, of instigating a mob to attack ‘Cyntex’, a textile manufacturing factory owned by a rich Tamil [i.e. Gnanam], who wielded considerable influence in the ruling party” (p.44).

Jayewardene had evidently shown the corre- spondence to Migara for the historical record. Mathew’s instigation of the mob refers to the Cyntex showroom in Colpetty which we had referred to [in Sect. 9.6] as Gnanam’s Building. Someone who witnessed this public spectacle on Galle Road must have told Gnanam about it. We also verified that Gnanam had complained to Jayewardene within a matter of a few days. But no one need have ‘whis- pered this into the President’s ear’ (Ratnatunga) for him to have known about it. Gnanam may be sur- prised to know that the President knew of it almost on the dot from Mathew himself. For, Mathew im- mediately went to the President and demanded an apology from the army officer who had tried to ar- rest him. This was conveyed to the officer by the President himself.

Cabinet Ministers and the Welikade Prison Massacres 

Ratnatunga provides some new informa- tion about the Welikade prison massacre. He highlights the role played by Athulathmudali and Wickremasinghe:

“…President Jayewardene wanted the rest of the prisoners sent immediately to the Jaffna prisons, but Ministers Lalith Athulathmudali and Ranil Wickremasinghe opposed it, say- ing that the Sinhalese would become further infuriated over such a decision. When a com- promise was suggested, Negombo, close to the International Airport, the President opposed it saying that there would be a repeat perfor- mance there” (Ratnatunga, S., 1988, p.30).

This was on 27th July 1983, the day of the sec- ond prison massacre. Obviously, Athulathmudali and Wickremasinghe did not want the prisoners to be taken away to safety. They objected despite the fact that by this time at least 35 prisoners had died. The two minis- ters were thus very much aware that the surviv- ing prisoners were sitting in a death trap. Al- though Ratnatunga does not explicitly say when, we have argued (Section 11.10.7) that this objec- tion must have been made at the morning’s cabi- net meeting, when 37 of the original 72 prison- ers were yet alive. By evening, after the second massacre, only 19 were left – the job was 74% complete. There was then nothing much to get ‘infuriated’ about in sparing the rest.

Ratnatunga’s account is complimentary to Jayewardene, while at the same time raising questions about the roles of Athulathmudali and Wickremasinghe. The word ‘compromise’ sug- gests that the objection was strong. Athulathmudali and Wickremasinghe were meant to be responsible persons taking decisions on issues of life and death based on the best possible information they had access to. These ministers no doubt knew about the role of some jailors and the Army in the first prison massacre and the fear and anxiety among senior prison officials.

In our own account of the prison massacres we have drawn attention to the involvement of the UNP organisation in the Kelaniya area (Ranil Wickremasinghe’s base) and Athulathmudali’s reported role in drafting some of the most ob- noxious security proposals. We also drew atten- tion to a draft bill (Island 12.6.83 & Sect. 8.6), which proposed to grant the Army impunity for killing prisoners allegedly in the act of escap- ing. A graphic instance of this happened in Vavuniya on 3rd December 1984 (Sect.8.7) when Athulathmudali was National Security Minis- ter. If it is moreover admitted that the ‘infuria- tion’ of the Sinhalese was a show put on by the government of the day, the position of the two ministers on the prisoners’ safety, compromises them even further.

There is a further troubling feature of the prison massacre. Ratnatunge (p.24) tells us that the TELO leader Thangathurai, whom he mis- takenly calls the deputy leader, had expressed a willingness to bring the Tamil groups together and negotiate with the Government. Ratnatunge names Athulathmudali and Neelan Tiruchelvam as link men in this project. This was given strik- ing indirect corroboration by Major Gen. Sarath Munasinghe (Rtd.) in his book A Soldier’s Ver- sion (2000). In 1981 he was a major at Panagoda and was assigned to escort Thangathurai for hearings at the Colombo High Court. The two conversed in English.

Munasinghe records Thangathurai as having told him, “You all must never allow this man Prabhakaran to come up. If he ever comes up I can assure you that he will ruin the entire country and wipe out the entire Tamil race”. Thangathurai, like Prabhakaran, who was much younger to him, hailed from Valvettithurai. Thangathurai was a key pioneer in building up an armed militant movement. He was also once Prabhakaran’s men- tor, and even a father figure. Prabhakaran left him in 1974, and rejoined Thangathurai’s TELO when his LTTE broke up about 1979. Prabhakaran was in the TELO when Thangathurai, Kuttimani and Jegan were arrested following the Neervely bank robbery in 1981.

Thangathurai knew Prabhakaran intimately and there may have been an element of suspi- cion in the formers late feelings towards the lat- ter. However, nearly all those in prison matured politically through reading and discussion and Thangathurai was respected by the others. His reported willingness to talk to the Government, one may take to be an understandable and ma- ture decision.

However, what did this Government do? It arranged for goons to massacre Thangathurai along with the other prisoners. Given the UNP leaders’ real position of ‘no devolution’ (Sect. 4.8), there was nothing for them to discuss with Thangathurai. They only had complete con- tempt for the man whom they thought they had in their power. By murdering Thangathurai, the UNP leadership threw away the key to an early solution to the ethnic problem.

The prison massacre was one of the many actions by which the UNP leaders fostered and nourished Prabhakaran as their own nemesis. In less than 3 years from the prison massacre, they were desperate to talk to him.

By the year 2000, the UNP led by Ranil Wickremasinghe, who was by no means an in- nocent party in the prison massacres, was in a singular situation. Its leaders pass messages to the to the LTTE in an attempt to buy guarantees for their life, and make regular conciliatory noises. They hope against hope that the LTTE’s suicide bombing of their prominent party man General Algama in December 1999 was merely an aberration, and went on trying to shift the blame for the murder on to the Government. They continue to play their historic role of block- ing a political resolution of the Tamil problem – this time partly in keeping with the LTTE’s wishes.

This behavioural trait is the quintessence of Sri Lanka’s ruling class. A cruel and frivolous arrogance, and abject surrender to their nemesis, are the two sides of the same coin.

To be continued..

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

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

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

Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up

Part five –  30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot

Part six  – Black July: The Testimony Of Lionel Bopage, Then General Secretary Of The JVP

Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama

Part eight – What Was Behind Tiger Friday – 29th July? -The Significance Of The Pettah

Part nine – Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983

Part ten –  Sri Lanka’s Black July: A Family’s Tragedy In Colombo

Part eleven –  Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Question Of Numbers

Part twelve –  Welikade Prison Massacres: The First Massacre: 25th July 1983

Part thirteen –  Welikade Prison Massacres: Testimonies Given At The Magistrate’s Inquest

Part fourteen –  Circumstances Leading To The Magistrate’s Inquest

Part fifteen – Welikade Prison: The Second Massacre: 27th July 1983

Part sixteen – Welikade Prison Massacres: Chief Jailor Observed Army Commandos Coming In

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 – Events Of 24th July – The Eve Of The Holocaust: Who Wanted A Military Funeral?

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 five – Black July: Ranil Wickremesinghe, Gonalwela Sunil And The Kelaniya University

Part twenty six – Black July: Army Hathurusinghe Prevented Police From Assisting Prison Victims Under Attack

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

*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..

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 0

    You sound Ike broken record

  • 0

    God knows what this guy is trying to tell.No wonder “NO COMMENTS”.Not worth wasting my time.

    • 0

      Pasel & Max Silva,

      (1) Don’t you both think people should know the history? people must know history. That is why in schools they teach HISTORY.
      (2) If you look few lines above from here you will see
      “*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish.”

      Now you know Rajan is not writing this, Colombo Telegraph (CT) is publishing it with permission from Rajan. Because CT feels that you and me should know the history.

      Thank you CT for doing this.

    • 0

      He published this book MANY years ago, Colombo Telegraph is publishing it chapter by chapter with permission from him !!!!!!! The original book is out of print !!!!
      Read the article gain

    • 0

      Who is forcing you to read it? if you don’t like it stop reading it and stop complaining!!

  • 0

    @Max Silva

    you boys have got things in a twist

    He is not saying anything CT is only publishing chapters taken off his book writen some years back

  • 0

    How many more chapters in this book? getting tired of this going for ever and ever, I think they started in July and its Oct (well almost) and still going !

    • 0

      Siva sankaran sarma.We are still paying for JRJ’s wicked, crude…… follies.The people should know what happened.JRJ put his tail between hi legs and signed the pact with Rajiv. Now people say that Rajiv forced JRJ.What did JRJ discuss with Rajiv thru the ours he continued to dicuss with Rajiv. That fool ruined all of us and created Prabakaran.
      People should know

  • 0


  • 0

    [Edited out]

  • 0

    Tamils were black even before black July!

    In 1981 Tamils were only 20% of Colombo city population. In 2012 they were 40%!!

    What black July?

  • 0

    What is disgusting most after all this was Ranil had the gall to say that Prabhakaran made him lose the presidential election by his order not to vote. How could he expect the Tamils to vote for him after what he and his uncle has done to the Tamils.
    And what was pathetice was TNA joining with the UNP to get Fonseka elected President.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.