By Rajan Hoole –
Count Down To July 1983 – Part III
Other events to fire the imaginations of those looking for conspiracies followed in quick succession. Amnesty International released a report on conditions in Sri Lanka in early July. It dealt with the conditions in which those arrested under the PTA of 1979 were being detained, extra-judicial killings, torture, and more recently the death of Navaratnarajah on 10.4.83 after two weeks in custody. The AI had in fact sought to discuss the report with the Government before releasing it and had sent a 72 page draft to President Jayewardene on 7th February. On 6th April, AI was told that neither the President nor a representative of the Government would discuss the report.
This was again a sign of growing paranoia. There was to be a good deal in the Press about AI and other Human Rights agencies being a Marxist conspiracy. Giving apparent substance to such thinking was the fact that Suriya Wickremasinghe, a key activist in the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, was the daughter of the late Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, a founder leader of the Communist Party of Ceylon. In fact several of the concerns raised by the AI had been raised by the CRM earlier. For example the CRM’s Human Rights Day Review of 3rd December 1979 signed by its president the Rt. Rev. Lakshman Wickremesinghe, the late Bishop of Kurunegala, and its secretary, Desmond Fernando, dealt with the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Emergency Regulations and the Liberation Tigers Law.
These, the CRM Review said, “contain provisions that go far beyond any reasonable or permissible requirement of national security. They provide for arrest without warrant and without any obligation to inform relatives of the fact of such an arrest and the place of detention. They permit the prolonged detention of persons in Police custody, or in any place the minister may determine, without any rules or legal safeguards whatever, concerning their conditions of detention and interrogation”.
Another event was the appearance in the Manchester (London) Guardian of 6th July, of an article by David Selbourne. Selbourne who was covering Sri Lanka had already been to Jaffna, seen the scene of the Kantharmadam arson, spoken to many people and had made an appointment with the Chief Justice, when he was picked up by the Police and deported on the night of 25th June. The provocation for this treatment was his visit the year before, in June 1982. Having been with Athulathmudali at Oxford University, he was privileged to have a motor car ride in Colombo in the company of President Jayewardene and ministers Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. During the ride, and in other conversations, Selbourne was treated to some uninhibited remarks by his jolly companions. Selbourne reported Athulathmudali to have said, “We are going to break heads” in connection with solving the Tamil problem (Saturday Review 10.8.85). This was later denied by Athulathmudali (SR 26.10.85). Selbourne had then on his return to Britain written several frank articles in British journals and in the Illustrated Weekly of India.
Selbourne’s article in the Guardian following his deportation in June 1983 was titled, “Sri Lankan Army fails to stem violence”. It stated: “Even saffron-clad Buddhism with all its pieties is now armed with sub-machine guns”. The article quoted Amirthalingam to the effect that the TULF in keeping with its non-violence would launch a satyagraha in October. He was further quoted thus: “The underground Liberation Tigers, whose actions constantly protected by the Tamil community have claimed the lives of 37 members of the security forces since 1977, are at the forefront of the struggle for Tamil self-determination.”
Selbourne’s deportation, the closure of the Saturday Review and the arrest of Dr. Tharmalingam were all symptomatic of the same nasty mood that the Government was cornering itself into. Amirthalingam’s statement as reported by Selbourne, as provocative as it would have sounded in the South, was a reflection of his weak position. The Government had left him with nothing to show for his co- operation, and his one-time protégé Prabhakaran, was now forcibly preventing the recently elected TULF dominated local councils from functioning. The TULF defended its formal commitment to non-violence while declining to condemn militant violence by citing instances where Mahatma Gandhi had defended militants. Attacks on Selbourne featured prominently in the Press. The Government issued a statement about his deportation. Thus a man who was in Britain an ordinary Oxford don and writer, was transformed into Sri Lanka’s major security concern.
Then came another sensation in the Sun’s front-page headlines: “Eelam’s Fifth Column in Massachusetts: Ugly Americans Do it Again”. This report of 8th July accused the US of interfering with Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The provocation was the second resolution by the Massachusetts State Assembly, following on the earlier one in 1979, in support of the Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka as an oppressed nationality. Prior to the passing of the resolution the TULF president M. Sivasithamparam had addressed the Assembly. Following the resolution being adopted, a press release was issued jointly by Marie D. Howe, representing the Assembly, and the Tamil Eelam Association of America. A later Island editorial however took a more sober view of the affair by pointing out that this resolution by what amounted to a city council was not remotely a reflection of US Federal Government policy.
Furthermore there was no concerted conspiracy. The two brothers behind the lobbying for the resolution were Sritharan and Sri Thillaiampalam. They were hitherto never associated with the LTTE lobby and were merely Tamil nationalists. They faded away from the political scene after the LTTE through violent repression asserted its dominance.
At this point the Government conceived of a sixth amendment to the Constitution of 1978. A joke was doing the rounds that a customer had asked a British bookseller for a copy of the Sri Lankan constitution. The bookseller, it is said, had replied, “Sorry sir, we do not stock periodicals”. The joke was about the regularity with which Jayewardene amended the constitution as the need of the moment demanded. The Sixth Amendment was to oblige members of parliament and various state employees and employees of statutory bodies to forswear separatism on oath. A surprising number of people and columnists opined that such a law would be a cast iron defence of the country’s unity and unitarity. It was again a sign of the ideological conformity of the Southern middle-class and a blind acceptance of the wisdom of leaders, however corrupt and inept.
The crisis wore on with the Government restricting trains and essential services to Jaffna citing the disruptive actions of the militants. There was also talk in security circles of banning bicycle travel in Jaffna – the main mode of transport there – on the grounds that militant attackers too came on bicycles. To those in Jaffna, these moves appeared as a form of collective punishment.
There were also some weak attempts to rescue the situation. The Sunday papers on 17th July said that the Government will not push through the Sixth Amendment. President Jayewardene had summoned an all-party round table conference, which Ranil Weerasinghe described as crucial for the Government and the TULF. Made wiser by his visit to Trincomalee, he added in his ‘Weekend’ article, that the problem has been compounded by “weak and ineffective military action, which has led to frustration, and in some instances out of this, self- damaging retaliation”. “Strong political action”, he said, “must be backed by strong military action, aimed not indiscriminately, but against the terrorists”. Such sanity would become non- existent as the country was plunged into savagery a week later.
But with the announcement of all-party talks, hopes were kindled again. The Rev. Celestine Fernando, a senior Anglican clergyman and member of the CRM, had been regularly writing to the papers pleading for talks to resolve the problem and restore sanity. In an article titled ‘Bells of Peace’ (Daily News 19.7), he wrote, “All those who love Lanka and her people will be grateful to the President for his call for an all-party-conference to settle what has become the most crucial problem of our nation.”
But it soon became evident that things were not so simple. D.B.S. Jeyaraj who had been an admirer of Amirthalingam since his high school days at Jaffna College – Amirthalingam lived nearby in Moolai – reported in the Island on 18.7. that the TULF will not attend the all-party-talks, because the Government wanted to confine the discussion to terrorism alone, without attempting to find solutions to the grievances of the Tamils. Jayewardene subsequently widened the scope of the talks to include suggestions regarding the Tamil problem. Jeyaraj further reported from the TULF party conference in Mannar, that the party Politburo would reconsider its decision not to attend, if all opposition parties including the SLFP would participate. The TULF further stipulated that the agenda should include self-determination for the Tamil regions, withdrawal of the Armed Forces from the same and an amnesty for detainees under the PTA.
The main parties to the talks were then caught up in developments of their own making. The TULF which had promised a satyagraha in 1977 had instead played with the militants, allowed its mass base to slip away and was openly under challenge from the militants. It could not afford to go for talks without assurance of being able to rectify some of the grievances.
The Government for its part suffered from a lack of legitimacy after a rigged referendum in place of parliamentary elections. There were few takers for the Naxalite Plot that it had conjured up. Yet the SLFP, the UNP’s main rival, had been thrown into total disarray. Vijaya Kumaratunga, on whose charisma and organising capacity a revival of the party’s fortunes depended, had just resigned from being the party’s assistant secretary. His reason was that the party leader’s son Anura Bandaranaike had attended the function celebrating J.R. Jayewardene’s 40 years in politics.
Jayewardene had become the king he wanted to be. But his throne was shaky. The North made the King nervous. The South seemed subdued only by taking away the legitimate and visible outlets for the discontent that was seething below. Something needed to be done about the North. But a weak and decimated SLFP was unlikely to think responsibly. It was even more likely to capitalise on communal sentiments. This left Jayewardene with a tempting option, although it was approached more instinctively, hesitatingly and not always consciously and deliberately. That was to play the communal card itself in a big way, tap the worst instincts of the Sinhalese, and create a diversion by the UNP becoming the unchallenged champions of the Sinhalese.
As for the state-machinery, there was one last breath of sanity. A police team of 20 under SP Bennet Perera was sent to Trincomalee to investigate the killing and arson there. The likes of it were to become totally irrelevant after July.
*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