By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka: A Haunted Nation – The Social Underpinnings Of Communal Violence – Part 2
The era that followed the July violence was one that was haunted by ghosts. Those who had harboured carefully conceived agendas against what they took to be an omni- present Tamil separatist enemy were suddenly seeing these plans being flung back at them. One such plan was conceived in the Ministry of Mahaveli and Lands (MML) under Gamini Dissanayake. In Chapter 5, we described some of the minister’s activities around Trincomalee. In the weeks preceding the July violence, some officials in the MML were active trying speedily to implement Mahaveli System M north of Trincomalee in the Yan Oya (River) basin. Like the subsequent System L in Manal Aru (Weli Oya) in the Mullaitivu District started the fol- lowing year, it was to be another Mahaveli project without Mahaveli water. Economically it was very tenuous. Yan Oya was a seasonal and unreliable dry zone river.
The plan as these officials saw it was intended to sunder the contiguity of the largely Tamil- speaking North-East by establishing large Sin- halese settlements in the Yan Oya basin and then System B in the Maduru Oya basin. The story is described in M.H. Gunaratne’s For a Sovereign State. The plan according to him had the ap- proval of Gamini Disssanayake who had prom- ised to brief the President. It is a sign of Gunaratne’s naivety that he credits a junior Mahaveli official, T.H. Karunatilleke, with seeing for the first time the political urgency of the Yan Oya plan. This was in spite of Panditharatne, chairman of the Mahaveli Board, having given him a hint that it was an old hat that was practically infeasible.
Dissanayake was evidently willing to give the zealous hounds straining at the leash a bit of rope and the resources of his Ministry while keeping his own options open. These were the same devious politicians behind the July ’83 vio- lence. It was another dreadful example of how easily the resources of the State, where Tamils had no power and the few Tamils remaining in government service were kept in the dark, could be turned against a minority. This was accom- plished secretively by a handful of zealots given the licence. Dissanayake claimed that he had told Jayewardene. Both he and his boss would have taken credit or distanced themselves depending on how things turned out. This scheme may also partly explain Gamini Dissanayake’s unfriendly interest in Tamil refugees from earlier commu- nal violence settled in the Trincomalee District, just on the eve of the July ’83 violence.
Also remarkable is the number of well edu- cated people in high places who fell in line to do their bit for the cause, as Sepala Ekanayake did in his own way which others might have found crude, even if it was for the same cause. Ekanayake became a candidate for a Sinhalese extremist party in the 2000 general elections.
Gunaratne names Dr. A.N.S. Kulasinghe (Chair- man), G.G. Jayawardene and H.B. Jayasekera of the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau as showing tremendous enthusiasm for the project once he told them that the Minister had given his approval. This was about 23rd July 1983. These men were no doubt excellent engineers. But motivated by Sinhalese elite ideology, they were thoughtless about transplanting Sinhalese poor into conditions that were economically di- sastrous and politically explosive. It is these same poor who were killed with the same thoughtlessness by the same class in the name, ironically, of democracy and law and order, when the JVP started playing on their disen- chantment in the coming years.
The orgy of violence erupted in Colombo just about the time Minister Dissanayake gave ap- proval for the project and leading officials of the Mahaveli Board were working on the conquest of the Yan Oya basin, while around them in Co- lombo, the Tamils were being subjected to an orgy of violence. Even around Darley Road where the Mahaveli Board is situated, there were human torches of Tamils felled by the mobs. These officials had taken a flight from reality. In the secretive paranoid atmosphere of their work, just about any Tamil with a modest position in government service became a spy, a saboteur and a menace. To them a handful of Tamil mili- tants became an army of separatist terrorists. It did not occur to them that all civil, political and social service organisations among the Tamils had been prostrated by months of repression. Gandhiyam leaders were behind bars and Dr. Rajasundaram was murdered in prison on 27th July while the Mahaveli men conspired. K. Kanthasamy of the Tamil Refugees Rehabilita- tion Organisation had fled from the country in June 1983, upon being warned of impending arrest. Many of the refugees from the 1977 vio- lence they had rehabilitated in the North-East, had already been attacked by armed forces- backed mobs in June and were in refugee camps. There was no one to look after them leave alone help them to return to their homes. At this very moment of triumph, as it were, the men in the Mahaveli Board began seeing ghosts.
The following is from Herman Gunaratne’s For a Sovereign State (p.58):
“Whilst we were making arrangements to imple- ment Karunatilake’s proposals in or around the month of August 1983, we received some very disturbing reports. Panic stricken messages were pouring into the Mahaweli Ministry stating that Tamils were en- croaching on state land, that the Tamils were taking advantage of the absence of the security forces in the North and the East to attack and hold their main target – land; and they were going for it in a big way.
“Whilst the enraged Sinhala people were causing havoc to Tamil economic establishments in Colombo, the dedicated Eelamist was hitting us on the most sensitive issue – LAND.
“The main objective of this thrust was the right bank of Maduru Oya.”
Thus began the Maduru Oya fiasco, which we will come to later. These ham-fisted demo- graphic projects with the full-backing of the State behind them, and further coming on the heels of the events of the preceding months culminat- ing in the July holocaust, stirred the worst fears of the Tamils. Up to this point there had been a belief among the Tamils that in the North-East, at least, they were free from the violence of com- munally charged mobs, or could at least hope to defend themselves. State sponsored colonisation had gradually eroded that belief. What the Mahaveli Board was planning to do was to implement in one fell-blow what had been thought about for a long time (Gunaratne names Minister C.P. de Silva in the 1950s as the originator), but carried out in small stages. Such ideas were the main inspiration behind govern- ment policy up to the time of the Indo-Lanka Accord. Their enforcement was taken over by such powerful figures as Ravi Jayewardene and Lalith Athulathmudali. It sent the Tamils into the arms of India and brutalised them to the point of consenting to massacres of Sinhalese civilians and providing fertile ground for the rise of the fascist Liberation Tigers. The men who ruled the destinies of Sri Lanka, the political novices in the Mahaveli Board and allied state agencies had created Tamil Eelam in their mind during that fatal year of 1983.
In contrast to what these people who pushed this government policy imagined, the true posi- tion of Tamils then, in contrast to what was imag- ined by the former, was exemplified by the forc- ible transportation of Tamil victims in Trincomalee who had been refugees from vio- lence at least twice. This was described at the end of Chapter 5. They were utterly helpless against the machinations of the State.
The 6th Amendment to the constitution ban- ning separatism, a disingenuous attempt to ex- orcise another ghost, was presented in Parlia- ment on 4th August 1983. The Supreme Court had returned the proposed amendment with minor reservations such as the excessive severity of the penalties. Prime Minister Premadasa presenting the amendment stated that the TULF or any other party with similar [separatist] objectives could no longer exist in this country. He was to more than swallow his words by providing arms to the LTTE in 1989. He could not have been serious when he presented the amendment.
The absurdity of the Act was understood by Felix Dias Bandaranaike (FDB), who the previ- ous month had threatened to challenge it in court on the grounds that it infringed intellectual free- dom. For example, Nihal Jayawickrema who was Secretary, Justice, under FDB, left the coun- try and became in time a distinguished scholar in the field of ethnic minorities and the problem of separatism. Such valuable study would be- come impossible if one begins by declaring even the theoretical advocacy of separatism a sin, in an attempt to sweep the dirt under the carpet. However in August FDB left the country for theological studies.
In the South as a whole, in the wake of July 1983, there was a determination not to face the truth about, and the consequences of, what had happened. Elements of the independent press led the way. Migara of the Sun was around at every crisis to provide the most fragile props for the Jayewardene regime. After the October 1982 presidential election, Migara in his piece of 4th November 1982 was giving flesh to the ‘Naxalite Plot’ in preparation for the next attack on de- mocracy – the Referendum:
“The abortive October Revolution by political bankrupts did not take place. The voters of Lanka made a wise decision to avert such a crisis.”
On 1st August 1983 he wrote of another Naxalite Plot giving more props to the UNP re- gime in a piece titled “ ‘Mea Culpa’ but never again – JR assures the nation as a foreign hand moves its pawns”:
“The immediate cause [of the violence] was the ambush and cold-blooded murder of an army patrol in Jaffna… But the follow-up, undoubtedly anti-Tamil in nature and shades of anti-Indian was the coup-de- grace which led to a violent outburst at the audacity of the Eelamists who openly and covertly killed so many service personnel on duty in the North… Now that patience has been stretched to a limit and has compelled a normally peace loving people to say ‘enough is enough’ and raised the ugly head of arson, looting and murder, led by thugs who revelled in the situation thus created.”
Migara was suggesting on the one hand that the violence was a response to Tamil separatism by the Sinhalese whose patience had been stretched, and that it was in part, a demand for the Sixth Amendment:
“This civil commotion has compelled the UNP Government to think anew and hasten legislation that will, we hope and pray, erase the necessity for such communal riots for all time in the future so that this country can say – we have now been baptised by fire.”
On the other hand, Migara was trying to marry this strand above incongruously with a leftist conspiracy. On Tuesday 26th July, he said, the police were ready with their ‘most secret’ report that Monday’s heavy attacks were well- organised and that they suspect the JVP and other Left groups of being responsible. He then offered readers the information that the East German embassy (then of a communist country) had made representations to the Foreign Office about food shortages in Jaffna. This he followed by creating an impression about a conspiracy that was both foreign and leftist:
“We fail to understand how East Germany would be interested in what is purely an internal matter for the Sri Lankan Government… and why this concern for the people of Jaffna. Yes, their Government has much explaining to do in this regard.”
(The writer, Migara, said in a book written later by him (see Chapter 12) that the Left conspiracy was something DIG Ernest Perera had learnt from an informant – the basis of the ‘most secret’ report!)
Both Ranil Weerasinghe and Rex de Silva in the Weekend of 7th August were separately point- ing to a foreign hand while maintaining that there was no evidence against anyone. Weerasinghe (in Redlight for the Reds) while pointing at communists said, “it is fairly obvious” that local thugs, paid huge sums of money, have been infiltrated over the years into many groups and used in dirty work without prior knowl- edge. Rex de Silva while being more ambigu- ous in leaving the option open between the CIA and KGB (i.e. the US and Soviet (Russian) intel- ligence agencies) deduced the fact of a foreign conspiracy: “Every act of destruction in the 3rd World these days has had some kind of alien root. Sri Lanka cannot be an exception.”
The Competent Authority objected to Migara’s earlier piece because it had not been shown to him, although it had tried to marry Jayewardene’s claim of a Sinhalese uprising made in the famous TV broadcast with the sub- sequent Left conspiracy. Later Jayawadene’s TV broadcast version of 28th July (i.e. Alle Gunawansa’s version?) was being played down by Minister Anandatissa de Alwis, even though it was the basis for the much acclaimed 6th Amendment. To understand the Government’s annoyance with Migara’s piece that was writ- ten in good faith, one needs to look at Jayewardene’s rapidly shifting positions from 28th July to 4th August (see Sect. 11.1) to 7th Au- gust. David Beresford of the Guardian who interviewed Jayewardene on 7th August reported the following (Guardian Weekly 14.8.83):
“The Sri Lanka Government blamed an unnamed foreign power for the violence, simultaneously out-lawing three local Marxist organisations, including the Communist Party. In Sunday’s interview, how- ever, President Jayewardene said that there was no proof of Communist involvement in the riots. But he said that the Russians might have had a hand in them.”
About the end of 1983, de Alwis told Pritish Nandy of the Illustrated Weekly of India: “Behind the violence is a foreign hand. The KGB to be pre- cise.” We can now see the reasons for the Government’s shifts. By this time the UNP gov- ernment had made overtures to the US, Britain and Israel for aid in its repressive projects (see Ch. 20) and was inexorably carrying the coun- try towards greater tragedy. It naively thought the Russian bogey a useful one.
To be continued..