Colombo Telegraph

Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 7 –

The clearest statements about the violence giving the lie to Jayewardene’s line of a spontaneous Sinhalese uprising came in early August from Mr. S. Thondaman, a cabinet minister and leader of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress representing the Hill-Country Tamils in Parliament, and from Sarath Muttetuwegama, the only Communist Party MP in Parliament.

Thondaman’s statement carried in the Sun of 3rd August and also in the Island, was titled “None but the blind can avoid shedding tears” : “At a time when the community of people of Indian origin has been torn asunder of its roots where it had existed for over 100 years, we are constrained to look at the claim which some make that the recent pogroms are a Sinhalese uprising against us … In our thinking it is the work of well organised groups who had gone on the rampage, rioting, looting and setting on fire … It is more than unfortunate that these elements of disaster, these squads of goondas [thugs] and rabble have been allowed to parade the streets freely causing havoc and inflicting misery of such proportions with impunity…” Thondaman thus directly contradicted Jayewardene’s claim of a Sinhalese uprising.

Sarath Muttetuwegama made his speech in Parliament on 4th August when the 6th Amendment banning separatism was taken up for discussion. By then his party along with two others had been banned. He said: “Everybody knows Sir, the houses and the areas that were attacked, that State CTB (Ceylon Transport Board) buses came with thugs. Surely, I am not telling this to make some point. If you go and ask your friends in those areas you will know. Electricity Board vehicles brought thugs to Agalawatte. I am not saying the Electricity Board Chairman or somebody else or the Minister gave an order. That is not the point. The State apparatus was used…”

Mr. Muttetuwegama then addressed Mr. Thondaman, who, as cabinet minister for rural industries was seated on the government benches, whose statement appeared in the Press the previous day. He quoted the last lines from the extract above referring to squads of goondas allowed to parade around with impunity. He then asked Thondaman: “Was it we of the Left parties who allowed the goondas to roam the streets with impunity? Or was there somebody else, some other authority who could have stopped it? You had better tell this house what you really meant when you made the statement.”

At the beginning of his speech Muttetuwegama had posed the key questions: why the censor (Competent Authority Douglas Liyanage, who was working closely with Minister de Alwis) allowed the report in the papers of July 25th morning titled “Thirteen soldiers killed in Jaffna” without preparing the country for it in any way; and why the government failed to declare curfew on the 25th morning after two points of the city had been attacked. We will take these questions up in the chapter after the next.

So far we have said little to give a feeling of how the victims experienced the violence. Once the mobs were charged and let loose, extremes of barbarism were quickly attained, and the fact that Colombo and Kandy were major towns where foreigners could see the violence and capture it on film did seem to set no inhibitions. In Kandy, a Dutchman who had lived in Idi Amin’s Uganda witnessed how a Tamil stall- holder on the main street in Kandy was set upon by the mob. His stall was set on fire. He was then thrown onto the burning tin roof. Twice he rolled down and fell on the ground. The third time his body stuck to the tin roof, and burnt with it. He remarked that he had not seen such barbarism anywhere else.

In Kandy the chief man given the task of identifying places to be attacked has been named as T.M.P. Themiyapala, a UNP agent. A story that came to us from a Sinhalese scholar who had been trying to piece together events, is that on Sunday 24th July, Themiyapala had used his influence to find a hospital bed in Colombo for the niece of a Tamil lawyer who had defended him in court. In taking the lawyer’s leave, Themiyapala is said to have told him, “Sir, I must go to Kandy now. I have a big job to do, giving the works.” Themiyapala was later arrested reportedly upon the insistence of Deputy Minister Shelton Ranaraja representing Kandy and detained in Colombo along with leading Left activists.

The Kandy Perahera, a festival originated by the Kandyan Kings, was due in August which Jayewardene wished to attend in royal pomp and ceremony. Themiyapala is said to have threatened to spoil things for Jayewardene if he was not released. Jayewardene released him.

The following was another revealing anecdote along the lines of Themiyapala’s that is quoted from a leading Communist Party member D.E.W. Gunasekera’s recollections of Black July 1983 (CDN 30 Jul 1999):

“I must reveal how a Private Secretary to a Deputy Minister from [the] Puttalam District, who was taken into custody for arson, approached me to draft a petition to J.R.Jayewardene, seeking his release. I promptly obliged, even though he was a UNPer.

The revealing thing was that he merely carried out orders of his minister to set fire to a line of Tamil shops.[The] Response to the petition I drafted for him, was so fast that he was released the following day. [The] Deputy Minister himself called over to take him away. That was how justice prevailed.

However, we were left there for 56 days and released honourably exonerated. Next morning, after our release, J.R. Jayewardene had the guts to telephone Pieter Keuneman and K.P. Silva and invite them for talks, seeking advice on the solution to the ethnic problem. Of course, that was J.R.

His Excellency, on that day, was so gracious as to step out of the Ward Place house to greet them, for his conscience would have pricked him to confess his guilt for what he had done in banning the party and party leaders for no reason.

That was J.R.’s style of governance. Of all the misdeeds of J.R., the blackest was the Black July for which the entire nation suffers to date.

I must recall what Sarath Muttetuwegama told parliament in his usual eloquence, directing at Premadasa and Cyril Mathew, “You can charge my comrades for anything, but not for being chauvinistic or communalistic”.

On Friday 29th violence erupted again in Colombo when things were beginning to settle down. Many Tamils throwing caution to the winds had left their places of refuge to inspect their homes.

T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka takes a foreign journalist to task for suggesting that the burst of violence on the 29th was triggered off by President Jayewardene’s address to the nation the previous night. But then what message would the nation have received from Jayewardene shifting the blame for the violence on to the Tamils and suggesting that the Sinhalese had taken up arms for a just cause? The violence also began in the Pettah, an area controlled by Premadasa’s agents. We may say that although Jayewardene may not have wanted such violence on the day the Indian Foreign Minister was on a visit, the UNP was definitely involved. There was no other organised force that could act with brazen impunity, and the UNP had in fact put together an organisation to unleash lawlessness which had moreover already tasted blood. Premadasa’s sheepish reference to harm resulting from rumours in his broadcast to the nation that night led one to suspect that he had something to hide.

It was also on that Friday that the extremist monk Gunawanse’s patron, Gamini Dissanayake, had chosen to visit his constituency in Nuwara Eliya, where violence then erupted.

The following extract is from a Daily News (28th July 1999) article by Peter Christie on events in Nuwara Eliya on 29th July 1983:

“Ganeshan Stores, Nuwara Eliya’s grocery and sundry outlet was set on fire after it was looted. The mob was said to be marching towards the brewery and attacking the ‘well to do’ Tamil people on the way. What was most alarming was that the security forces, according to the rumours, had lost control. In Nuwara Eliya the army volunteers had a camp at Upper Lake Road since the JVP insurrection of 1971. The telephone was engaged there and calls for help made to the camp could not get through.

“The Paneer Selvams were a family of well to do cultivators. They had been the hardworking kind who cashed in on the potato cultivation rush after 1977 and had reaped rich gains.

“As dawn broke the family prepared for a new day. Breakfast was as usual. Paneer Selvam’s thoughts were on his three grandchildren who were boarded in a leading Kandy school. He had heard about the disturbances throughout the island and was praying that those away from his home would be safe. Moreover, he felt safe because the policemen who were his friends said he would have protection. He kept calling his grandchildren at school and realised that all the phones were ‘dead’….

“The gang pushed past the bus depot and wound its way around Hawa Eliya. Stopping at every house they inquired if it was a Sinhalese or Tamil house. Most of the Sinhalese, contrary to popular belief sheltered their neighbours from the gangs often lying, sometimes even confronting the gangs when they were called ‘Tamil Lovers’….

“At noon the gang had reached Paneer Selvam’s home. One gang member knew the family had accumulated wealth in gold from their savings. He fired the mob on and unhindered by the neighbours – because of the frenzy – the gang got in and broke down the front door.

“There is no direct evidence as to what happened to the family on that fateful day. Four days later when the police did finally arrive at the spot, in the charred remains of the Paneer Selvam home were the corpses of thirteen 3⁄4 men, women and very young children.”

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

*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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