Colombo Telegraph

Count Down To July 1983

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

“… In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be! Passions spin the plot: We are betray’d by what is false within.” – George Meredith, from Modern Love

Stirrings in the Press

From about mid-May, 1983, the time of the bye-elections in the South and local elections in the North – both violent in different ways – there was a steady build up towards a very violent denouement. The more repressive the Government became and the more it detained under the PTA, the greater the vacuum in the North. While the LTTE, which was already established, acted according to a pattern, there were newer groups announcing their existence through acts of anarchy in protest over every provocation by the Government. Developments in Trincomalee formed a key element in the build-up and will be dealt with separately. The Press in Colombo too contributed to this build-up by its one-sided coverage of events, which remains a problem to this day. Yet, up to the eve of the violence there were also some hearteningly objective pieces in the Press. But this almost totally disappeared after the July violence. The seeds of how civil society in the South went into a shell after the violence, could be discerned in the faltering way it was behaving before it.

Black July 83 – Boralla | Photo – Chandraguptha Amarasingha

During May there were attacks on Tamil students at the University of Peradeniya by fellow Sinhalese students, resulting in an exodus of the former. The Island editorial of 16th May titled ‘Time for some sane thinking’ reflected:

“In the face of growing communal tension and phobias… the country is pitched headlong into a confrontation with ugly truths which are bound to increasingly strain our collective tolerance and patience in the days to come. The days ahead are bound to be pregnant with the possibility of unrest and all sections within the Government and outside should be alert to this… A case in the point is the situation at Peradeniya where the detection of a student allegedly in possession of some subversive leaflets had been converted into an excuse for an attack on Tamil students in general …

“It is important that the offensive against the Northern gun men should not deteriorate into such a charade, for this kind of victimisation is one of the reasons for the bitterness harboured by the Tamil people.”


It was also pointed out that there is nothing very remarkable about the possession of such ‘subversive literature’ as many, especially journalists, got them by post. The talk about ‘subversive literature’ shows how ill-informed the Press was about something that happened 4 days earlier in this country’s premier centre of higher learning. No such literature was found in the University. A first year engineering student editing an innocuous journal was handed over to the Police as a ‘Tiger’ and later exonerated. We will examine the episode in some detail later in this chapter (see 4.7).

Following the Army’s running amok in Kantharmadam, Jaffna, after the local elections on 18th May 1983, the same editorial writer wrote on 25th May:

“While it would be naive to expect the Government to withdraw the Army from the North, the authorities must be careful to see that the Army itself is not guilty of terror against helpless people for sins committed by a minority. In any political solution to the National Question, the Government has to carry the people of the North with it and this cannot be done if they are further alienated.”

The tone of these editorials suggested impending danger, but were not altogether without hope: If the State and the security services maintain discipline, keep a sense of balance and stay above the law, things could be remedied. But two months later, after the worst was over in July, the same writer on the 29th July struck a note of helpless despair:

“There is an incubus of shame which every nation will have to carry on its conscience till the end of history, and what has been happening since Monday will be Sri Lanka’s
till the end of time”.

Much had indeed happened in-between. What had initially occurred in Peradeniya, would have been passed off by many a casual observer as an unplanned outburst. But this was evidently not the opinion of the dons of the University. A crisis meeting of academics of the Arts Faculty was held, presided over by the Dean, Professor Ananda Kulasooriya. It was the dominant feeling that there was a planned attempt by agents to subvert the rationale and identity of the University. A resolution was adopted to have the authorities declare Peradeniya a ‘multi – racial’ university (Island 25.5).

At that time agents, who will be identified later, had blamed Tamil students for the tarring of name boards and the putting up of multi- lingual posters. A don observed that it was unbelievable that Tamil students would have dared to do such things. About that time a senior don in English studies told a visitor that things did not look good as agents had been seen about the place carrying lists of names.

Following the election violence in Jaffna on 18th May, where a soldier was killed and the Army ran amok, there was sporadic violence against Tamils. Three days later, two military policemen boarded the Jaffna train when it stopped at Anuradhapura and attacked Tamil passengers. The Police informed an army officer who took the men into custody. Also a series of anti-Tamil posters came up in Anuradhapura town. Peter Balasuriya reported in the Island that a special police team was trying to track down those responsible. Similar attacks were repeated by ‘unknown persons’ a few days later, while the train was moving in the Anuradhapura area. Rajaguru, DIG, Jaffna, said that no one complained. The people did not expect the Police to pursue these matters and saw little point in complaining. At this point no organisation other than the UNP or having the blessings of the UNP was in a position to do work of this kind. Anuradhapura was also the home of the Rajarata Rifles who were involved in the incident in Jaffna.

The Island also reported (25.5.) that the Government Agent (GA) was to be replaced by three cabinet ministers, including Lalith Athulathmudali, to assume control over administration and security in Jaffna. On 30th May, Sabaratnam Palanivel, a young man driving a van was stopped, dragged into the Valvettithurai army camp, shot dead and his face was run over by a vehicle. Following the violence in Vavuniya involving the killing of two airmen and the burning of shops on 1st June, violence against Tamils erupted in several parts of the South and Trincomalee.

*To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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