By Rajan Hoole –
It was the main part of Sansoni’s brief to identify the causes of the August 1977 violence and those responsible. This he avoided. In a one page chapter (Chapter IV), he merely observes that he had made his comments in the course of relating incidents. However he provides much valuable information in the course of recording events in Jaffna, while steering away from the obvious conclusions with evident discomfort. We shall go through the facts presented by him (Chapter III, pp. 83-120 of this report) and examine his conclusions.
13th August 1977 (Saturday):
Four police constables, including PC Basnayake, went to the carnival at St. Patrick’s College on the previous night, the night of the 12th. They assaulted and threatened Mr. Kulanayagam who asked for the entrance fee. (We have been told that inside they misbehaved, helping themselves free at food stalls run by women.) Dr. J.P. Philips, one of the carnival organisers, complained to Mr. Gunasekera, HQI Jaffna, on the 13th morning. However, policemen again went to the carnival on the 13th night, and about midnight, there was a clash between the policemen and some visitors. According to Sansoni, two policemen were hospitalised with injuries.
Sansoni rejected the claims of HQI Gunasekera and PC Basnayake that the policemen had gone to the carnival on the 12th night to arrest two men wanted for robbery. He pointed out that no entry had been made in the information book.
14th August 1977:
Mr. Amirthalingam, MP, KKS, and Mr. Yogeswaran, MP, Jaffna, told the Commission that members of the public had complained to them that on this day the Police had been assaulting people on the streets in Jaffna. Sansoni rejected this on the grounds that no witnesses had been produced. Amirthalingam had said in Parliament (18 Aug.1977) that several lorries were stopped by the Police in the morning and the occupants, including the drivers, were assaulted.
On the evening of the same day PC Bandara was shot and injured in the thigh by unknown persons, in the Kopay area. According to Amirthalingam, a police patrol had challenged 3 men, all of whom left their bicycles and ran away after one of them fired at the Police.
15th August 1977:
Mr. Yogeswaran said that at 5.15 AM on this day, he received complaints of 3 cases of assault by policemen. Two of the victims appeared before the Commission. One was a CTB bus conductor S. Jesudasan, who said that he was assaulted by 5 policemen with batons at 4.25 AM near Muneswaram Temple junction and pushed into a pond, and he later saw the same men attacking a cyclist and a pedestrian. The other victim, Thurairajasingam, was a youth of 19 years who was assaulted about 4.00 AM near Regal Theatre by policemen in plain clothes with batons. Their statements were recorded in hospital by Inspector Senathirajah.
Both these took place a stone’s throw away from the Jaffna Police station, and north of it across the esplanade. The assailants were in white shirt and shorts with short hair-cuts. Sansoni deemed the testimony of the witnesses valueless as it was too dark for them to identify the persons or their weapons. He also cited the testimony of Mr. Noordeen, ASP Jaffna, to the effect that he had looked into the matter and found no evidence against anyone. Sansoni concluded: “I therefore find that no assault was committed by any Policemen on the 15th. .”
A retired public servant and newspaper reporter L.A. (Augustine) Saverimuttu testified before Sansoni that he had met A.S. Seneviratne, SP Jaffna, by appointment at 3.30 PM. He said that Seneviratne mentioned a policeman having been shot and injured at Kopay and added that the Tamils were going to pay dearly for the act. This was denied by A.S. Seneviratne. Sansoni did not accept Saverimuttu’s testimony. A contemporary journalist in Jaffna told us that Augustine Saverimuttu used to write for the Colombo-based Sun and was then very critical of the militants. He is clear that Saverimuttu ‘did not fish this story out of his mind’.
Amirthalingam said in Parliament (18 Aug.77) that he tried to contact SP, Jaffna, in the evening over reports received by him about people being assaulted by the Police in distant places such as Chavakachcheri. There was no answer on the direct line and he was told on calling the Police Station that the extension was out of order. By ruling that there was no misbehaviour by the Police on the 14th and 15th, Sansoni claimed that what happened hitherto had no connection with what followed on the 16th.
16th July 1977:
According to the Police Information Book produced to Sansoni, in the early hours of the morning a group of about 100 persons went on an orgy of destruction in the Market and Main Bus Stand area, damaging shops and setting fire to the Old Market building. Sansoni rejected other evidence, based on which the Tamil leaders blamed the Police for these incidents, as ‘quite insufficient’.
These incidents were taking place about a third of a mile from the Police Station and would have been visible from there.
We give an eyewitness account of the events in the Jaffna Bazaar on the 16th morning from a youth of Kottady who was then 14 years old:
“In the night of the 15th, word spread that there were fires in the town area and that the Police were setting fire to some shops. The young men rushed to the area. My elder brother went ordering me that in no circumstances should I leave home. I joined some of those of my age and watched from a drain close to the ‘Satturathu’ or CSK (i.e. Hospital Road – KKS Road) Junction, keeping a safe distance from my elder brother. I saw policemen and police vehicles in the bazaar area. Only a few of the men were armed and they could not easily see us.
“Some of the elders had brought used tyres, piled them up at CSK Junction and set them on fire, creating a barricade so that the Police could not come into our area. I saw some policemen coming there and pulling out the sign-post with the street names. Using the sign-post they lifted a burning tyre by its loop, carried it and threw it on some inflammable material in the Old Market, thus setting it on fire. We all threw stones at the policemen. Eventually they took off in their vehicles.
“The next morning while I was going to school I heard that members of the public had grabbed the guns from two policemen who had come to do sentry duty at a bank. I saw one of them being assaulted. I took the compass from my box of geometrical instruments and gave the policeman a prick on the thigh before proceeding. One gun was smashed. The other I heard was recovered by the Police when those who had it, left it outside and went into Subhas Café to drink tea.”
In essentials, this testimony obtained independently matches that given in the Sansoni Report. Our witness joined a militant group seven years after the incident.
Sansoni refused to identify with the Police the men whom a shop-keeper in the Old Market said were wearing khaki shorts and banians and set fire to a shop there.
However when four shop-keepers testified that the Police assaulted the people, lifted burning tyres from CSK Junction and threw them at the mat stalls causing fires, Sansoni interpreted this in terms counter to what was accepted by the people. He had cited the ‘view ‘of ASP Noordeen, that “an unruly mob had taken possession of the town”.
It thus became Sansoni’s contention that a mob had taken over the town in the early hours of the morning, had set up burning barricades and were indulging in mischief. Thus, according to him, what the Police subsequently did was to restore order by acting with firmness. Some fires, according to him, resulted when the Police removed the burning tyres and cast then onto the roadsides to clear the roads, as they had to.
If restoring order was in the minds of the Police, they could have kept a low profile and worked through the TULF MPs to calm the situation. As it turned out, attempts by MPs Amirthalingam, Yogeswaran and Kathiravelpillai, and GA Jaffna Mr. Wijeyapala and Additional GA Mr. Joseph to contact the Police and restore sanity became largely futile, as Sansoni’s Report itself suggests.
ASP Noordeen went to town in his vehicle at about 8.00 AM and returned to the police station with the two constables who had their guns stolen. He then ordered six armed parties to be sent into town, one comprising five men under him. Several witnesses including Dr. Balasingham and Mr. M.R. Joseph, a businessman, described the resulting situation as a ‘reign of Police terror’. Mr. Joseph testified that he saw ASP Noordeen driving fast towards the Bus Stand, after which he shouted, “Shoot them like dogs. It is either they or we”.
While admitting possible excesses by some police officers in restoring order, Sansoni suggested that Mr. Joseph’s statement was an exaggeration.
About 10.15 AM, the Additional GA Mr. Joseph, went to the New Market which was on fire and received the impression that the Police were obstructing the people from extinguishing the fire. Sansoni suggested that the Police were rather trying to control the crowd. Mr. Joseph then met the local heads of the Army and Navy at the Airport and asked for assistance in putting out the fire without receiving a response. It was only after the Army Commander arrived that men and water bowsers were sent to the city.
Altogether five civilians died from police firing. Sansoni heard evidence from five among those injured. Sansoni then cited the testimony of Mr. Liyanage, SP, Anuradhapura, who had come to Jaffna that morning. Liyanage spoke of mobs looting government stores, looting and burning 2 or 3 Sinhalese bakeries and of a police truck and a police jeep being burnt. Sansoni then observed: “If the Police took action against them by firing at them after a warning to disperse, innocent victims who are at the scene cannot claim redress in such cases of justifiable homicide. Sight-seers must be prepared to suffer in such situations.” But under events in Anuradhapura, Sansoni gives a description of Liyanage’s conduct (see below) that would totally discredit him as a witness, and yet he appears to rely on Liyanage here.
However, all the testimony Sansoni received from civilians was about policemen destroying property and firing in all directions without warning. Sansoni accepted some breaches of regulations.
On the damage or destruction caused to government property and Sinhalese owned premises, Mr. Amirthalingam referred to the Police shooting and killing people and to the incident in the bazaar about 10.30 AM. Amirthalingam was assaulted from behind by two policemen, one with a gun-butt. The crowd shouted and 4 policemen fired over their heads (- the firing was however denied by Noordeen).
More particulars are given in Amirthalingam’s speech in Parliament (18 Aug.1977). The incident took place after Amirthalingam who had gone to the Police Station received news of two civilians being killed by the Police. When he went to the Bazaar, Noordeen and Gunasekera had to restrain policemen without numerals who were aiming their guns at Amirthalingam and the others with him. As though to explain the shooting of civilians, Noordeen said that bombs were thrown at the Police. Asked if he saw it and where, Noordeen said that he was told this by HQI Gunasekera. Amirthalingam then called Gunasekera and queried him. Gunasekera denied havin said anything about bombs. Amirthalingam then told Noordeen, “This is the sort of lie on which you have shot two men…. People like you should b exposed…” It was then that the Police assaulted Amirthalingam and fired into the air without any order to do so. Up to that point, the mob had not been unruly.
Amirthalingam said that the arson and looting by mobs resulted from this provocation. Sansoni aintained that the mob action was independent of the fires in the market (which he said may have resulted from “action justifiably taken by the Police, or by mobs bent on looting and arson”), and had begun early in the morning. He thus exculpated the Police from the night’s arson and blamed it all on the mob which went into action much later.
Although Mr. Jayasinghe, secretary of defence, Mr. Werapitiya, deputy minister of defence, the Army Comander Mr. Sepala Attygalle, the IGPMr. Stanley Senanayake and DIG, Jaffna, Mr. Ana Seniviratne cae to Jaffna on the 16th, plice misbehaviour including looting of jewelery shops, continued into the evening of the 17th.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here