21 June, 2024


Events Of 24th July: What Were The Army’s Orders?

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 21

Several questions about the role of the Army during the July 1983 violence remain unanswered. The proposition that the cabinet of the day has tried to promote is that the officers had lost control and there was total confusion. But this does not explain why the Army was deployed along Galle Road and was seen abetting the mobs, while often the officers were not to be seen. Would it then not have been more logical not to deploy them?

The Commander, General Weeratunge had followed in a second aircraft the flight which took off from Jaffna on the 24th evening, carrying the bodies of the 13 soldiers to Colombo. Sinha Ratnatunge in his book tells us (p.13) that the flight carrying the bodies left Jaffna at 7.30 PM and was expected in Ratmalana (i.e. Colombo) at 8.45 PM. However, T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka says in his book (p.76) that the flight touched down in Ratmalana at 7.20 PM. At some point about mid-way, according to Ratnatunga, Weeratunge received a radio message from the President asking him to turn and go back, and to stay overnight in Jaffna. Dissanayaka (p.75) and Ratnatunge (p.14) say that this was to maintain order in Jaffna, where some soldiers broke barracks in the morning and went on a rampage. But then again, the order was given after there were signs of disorder in Colombo on account of which Jayewardene (about 8.30 PM according to Ratnatunga) cancelled the military funeral. We may take it despite the difficulties with the times, Jayewardene sent the Army Commander back to Jaffna only after he had decided to cancel the military funeral.

Subsequently UNP mobs were on the streets and the Army itself complemented the activities of the mobs in the very capital of Sri Lanka. Was the President’s order to the Army Commander to spend the 24th night in Jaffna as innocent as it sounds? Was it to give him an alibi for the Army dissolving into an undisciplined mob? At a point when it was put to the IGP, Mr. Rajasingham, that he was then in a position of authority to exercise control of the situation, he said after some reflection, “Yes, it seems so, but there were so many things going on above me”. He indicated with a gesture that they were beyond him.

One must in fact be wary of accepting motives attributed to Jayewardene at face value. This is particularly so with reasons attributed by Dissanayaka and Ratnatunga to Jayewardene in sending the Army Commander back to Jaffna on the 24th night. It would appear that contrary to all earlier and subsequent indications, Jayewardene had in that chaotic situation acquired a sudden concern for the Tamils in Jaffna. David Beresford of the Manchester Guardian (Guardian Weekly 14 Aug. 1983) asked Jayewardene on 7th August about the failure to hold inquests for those killed by berserk troops in Jaffna on 24th July. Jayewardene replied, “I didn’t know until a couple of days ago. It is too late now”. He claimed that the Army had withheld from him information about the massacre, but maintained that only 20 were killed. Amirthalingam and others in Jaffna had told Beresford that 51 civilians, including school children, had been shot dead by troops at bus stands, on the streets and in their homes.

Lawyers had told him in Jaffna that when the Police started collecting evidence, the Ministry of Defence had told the Magistrate not to hold the inquest. Civilians in Jaffna also contradicted the claim that the troops had been ordered back to barracks. They said that troops in civils were out in jeeps raiding houses and shooting inhabitants, killing 16 persons in one incident.

Jayewardene characteristically kept giving different stories as suited his convenience. The story about Jayewardene sending back the Army Commander to Jaffna for the sake of the people appears to be no more than a later rationalisation. As for the real reason, we must set this beside the fact that Jayewardene knew of unrest on the streets of Colombo even as he sent the Army Commander back to Jaffna, and further, he failed to declare curfew, the reasons for which are even more unconvincing.

During that time Colonel A. Ariyapperuma had on the Commander’s recommendation held the position of Commander (Operations), Colombo. We reliably learn that on 25th July officers in charge of army camps in the outskirts such as Homagama reported trouble brewing in their areas. But not getting instructions from Army HQ, or being virtually told to mind their own business, they kept aloof. In the absence of the Army Commander on the 25th morning, if fell to Brigadier Mano Madawala to intervene if Commander (Operations) was not doing his job, since he was virtually second in command. But this too did not happen. The chief-of-staff position appears to have been kept unfilled at that time.

Another stark instance of the negative impact of the Army that was deployed came from a senior police officer. This officer, a Sinhalese who was in the CDB was asked to take charge of Borella junction on the 25th July by the IGP since he was earlier OIC Borella. He found the mob and the army unit positioned there in cahoots, with the soldiers trying to play heroes. Since he was known, the mob did not trouble him. He remembers a tall building on fire with a Tamil youth and his elderly mother stranded on top. He directed a fire brigade lift to be sent up, which brought them down safe. At one point, to control the crowd, he had a tear gas shell fired into it.

The army lieutenant in charge of the unit there came up to him and pointed his service revolver at his head. The police officer warned the army lieutenant sternly that if he tried anything, he would empty his machine gun into him. He then radioed Police HQ and asked them to have the army unit withdrawn, for, if not, it may result in bloodshed between the Army and Police.

An even more suggestive instance of the Army’s conduct on the 25th morning came from a General Council member of the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU). He was in a vehicle on Galle Road, going south from Colpetty junction. He found himself stuck behind two army trucks, unable to overtake them. The leading truck carried armed men in uniform clearing the road as it were. In the truck behind were soldiers in civil with crowbars and a large stock of empty Fanta or Coca Cola bottles. Every time they encountered a Tamil shop, the men got down, broke the shop doors and windows with crowbars, poured fuel into the empty bottles, stopped the opening with a fuel-soaked piece of cloth, lit it and threw it into the shop. The trade union man followed the army trucks all the way from Colpetty to Dehiwela watching this operation. This was, as the CMU leader Bala Tampoe pointed out, a clear case of soldiers acting on orders from above.

The testimony of the scholar who travelled along Galle Road later on the 25th relates to the situation after the first bombing operation had been accomplished. He saw fires on either side of the road with army trucks plying up and down, and mobs cheering, “Victory to the Sinhalese Army!” He also learnt of mobs going area by area and saying, “We have cleansed this place”. Put this together with the testimony of the army officer in Chapter 9 of Minister Cyril Mathew with a group of men in Colpetty not far from the UNP HQ, but towards Bambalapitiya, trying to set fire to Gnanam’s Building which had apparently survived the first day.

The whole affair was clearly a planned operation. Soldiers running amok is one thing, but going out in two trucks with fuel and bottles, spending a long time going methodically over a four mile stretch of Colombo’s most prominent road is inconceivable without orders cleared from the very top. It gives us a picture of what the Army was doing. They were deployed with orders, some to assist the mobs and some not to interfere. Others without clear orders would have been allowed to get the message from what the others were doing.

We also gain some insight into the behaviour of the soldiers stationed at Welikade prison during the two massacres of 25th and 27th July, and the attitude of the officers. They would also have had some idea of how their colleagues were behaving at Borella Junction two bus halts away.

The events also give us some insight into the dangers of politicians meddling in the choice of the Army Commander. In sharp contrast was the action of Brigadier Justus Rodrigo who had been recommended for the job of army commander by the previous outgoing commander. As GA, Gampaha, in July 1983, he went out and got the Police to open fire on the mobs. What the Army did during this period was a moral disaster from which it never recovered.

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?

*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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