21 June, 2024


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

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 20

The violence which erupted in Colombo on 25th July had already a trial run two months earlier at the University of Peradeniya (Sect. 4.7) and in Trincomalee the previous month (Chapter 5). In the outlying areas of the latter district Tamils were attacked, killed and chased away from their homes by hoodlums with Government patronage. The notice for this had been implicit in the press items of 28th November 1982 cited in Sect. 8.2. In Trincomalee town itself, the security forces went into Tamil areas to neutralise all possibility of self-defence before the hoodlums went in. In connection with the planning and the deployment of ruffians in Trincomalee, the names of Cyril Mathew and members of his coterie have transpired (p.86 of Piyadasa’s book). Just before the July violence a ministerial team led by Gamini Dissanayake had given notice of strong measures against Tamil refugees of 1977 settled in the area, many of whom were forcibly transported to the Hill Country under cover of the Black July violence (Sect. 5.6).

Notice had been given of further extra- judicial measures from June such as the press notice of 12th June proposing additional powers to the Army to, in practical terms, kill Tamil detainees and claim that they were attempting to escape (Sect. 8.6). Then came the President’s Daily Telegraph interview of 11th July, a speech in Parliament to match by Athulathmudali and the Gazette Extraordinary of 18th July with its section 15A (Sect. 4.5 & 10.3). All these point to a planned movement towards a major crunch by an influential section of the Government.

Events of 24th July – the Eve of the Holocaust 

Who wanted a military funeral?

The suggestion that the Army wanted a military funeral in Colombo for the 13 soldiers killed in Jaffna (e.g. T. Sabaratnam in CDN 27th July 1999) seems hard to comprehend. If that was a popular demand in the Army, it would have ultimately come form the Army Commander, T. Weeratunge, who had gone to Jaffna.

But even as the time of the funeral approached and the relatives were gathered, there was, as the IG Police and other senior police officers have testified, no senior army officer of rank present in a responsible capacity.

The families of the dead soldiers were themselves treated in a most shabby manner. There was no senior officer to console them. When they asked for the bodies to have their own private funeral, they were told that it was not possible because the bodies were mangled beyond recognition. This they later discovered to be totally false (see Sect.12.4). It was certainly not the funeral the families wanted. It was much more the Cabinet’s funeral.

As the IG Police pointed out, more than 30 policemen had been killed and they had dealt with it, with the IG attending every one of them in his time. There was enough experience on how to deal with the problem. One finds it hard to believe that the Government thought the best way to calm the situation was to have a crowd- puller at the Colombo cemetery under arc lights and TV cameras, with perhaps the President

making a ‘Mark Antony’s speech’, and then, splashing it in the media. One knowledgeable trade union leader strongly believes that such a speech was part of the script.

Failure to declare curfew

According to what has been claimed by senior cabinet ministers later, when some of them asked Jayewardene to declare curfew on the night of 24th July, he had asked, “Who is going to enforce it?” Jayewardene had made the same excuse on subsequent days (see Minister Thondaman’s article, CDN 29th July 1999). It has also been said that the Government was confused and feared a near state of mutiny in the Police and the Army.

On the contrary, such excuses for the Government are unsupportable. Rudra Rajasingham who was the IGP had tried hard to control the situation and had told the President early on the 24th night that he must declare curfew. Jayewardene replied, “I will think about it” and not “Who will enforce it?” What basis was there for the President to suggest later that a curfew cannot be enforced, unless he had been told this by his service chiefs?

IGP Rajasingham is very clear that there was far from being a state of mutiny in the Police. According to him, “We were stretched, but we were trying to help in various places. There were policemen wanting to go with the mobs, but we brought them round in a day or two. In the Army of course it took longer.”

Here too it must be kept in mind that problems of discipline were precipitated by the unloosing of state-supported mobs, who made their depredations the clamour of the day. The President cannot be taken seriously here because he never said, “My senior Police and Army commanders say that curfew cannot be enforced”. To our knowledge no responsible security official said so. Moreover, several senior policemen then were Tamil and Rajasingham, also a Tamil, was by all accounts a popular IG among his men.

But of course once the Government removed the constraints of discipline and allowed or encouraged the security forces to taste the freedom of a communal mob, even for a very short time, then the Government would have had good reason to fear prolonged anarchy. Obviously, there were hardly any signs of such a danger on a large scale on the 24th afternoon.

Thus the report, if correct, about Jayewardene sending his emissaries to police stations in Colombo asking for their co-operation, must be seen in the context of self-induced fears. We will now see what the Army was doing apparently under orders. One should also keep in mind the assessment of DIG Cyril Herath in Kurunegala that the Police could keep the peace if the Army was kept out. Also in Nuwara Eliya, the precautions taken by the Police were negated by a minister’s arrival.

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

*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..

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