By Rajan Hoole –
Count Down To July 1983 – Part IV
Jayewardene had another problem. He and his prime minister, Premadasa, had badly mismanaged their relations with India. The problem arose from a pro-Western shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, their openly canvassing for ASEAN membership for Sri Lanka and also some very imprudent personal remarks about Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay. On 19th July the Indian Government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi formally expressed its concern to Colombo about recent developments in Jaffna and the measures taken by the Sri Lankan Government to deal with the situation there. The Government owned Daily News of 21st July carried the headlines: “Colombo reacts angrily to Indian meddling”. With prodding from the Government, editorial writers went to town with titles like, “How come Big Brother?” (Daily News 22.7) and “Big Bully” (Sun 22.7).
In the meantime, Indian Foreign Secretary Mr. Bajpai, clarified to Bernard Tillekeratne, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner, that India was merely conveying its point of view to Sri Lanka about the Emergency Regulations, which allowed the disposal of corpses without inquest. He added that they were watching developments in Jaffna, which could have repercussions in India. It was all in polite, diplomatic language that could not be faulted. Tamil militants had been sheltering in India during the 70s, and there is no evidence that the Indian Central Government was encouraging them. In fact Kuttimani had been deported in 1974 to face imprisonment in Sri Lanka. It was only after Prabhakaran’s and Uma Maheswaran’s Pondi-Bazaar gunfight in May 1982 that things changed.
It ought to have been an occasion for calm reflection. But the Government’s anger also signified that it had gone too far in building up the momentum in a particular direction. Take the statement made by Prime Minister Premadasa in Parliament on 28th June and those by other leaders given in the next section: “The SLFP has decided on a division of the country and they speak of the North and East. This must stop because ours is a unitary state. When you say that Sinhalese people are killed and you say that their passions are not roused then that is a myth. There are people who want to loot and attack the Government.”
Premadasa then asked the SLFP to join the Government in crushing terrorism.
The Daily Telegraph Interview
President Jayewardene said in reference to the TULF in his interview to the Daily Telegraph (London), of 12th July, reproduced in the Sunday Observer (17.7): “They used to speak on behalf of the terrorists. But now all that is going to cease. As long as [the TULF] remained in Parliament, its members would be consulted on political issues. But on terrorist issues, these we are going to deal with ourselves without any quarter being given.”
It was here that the President disclosed that he would call a round table conference of party leaders, including the former prime minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, whose civic rights he had stripped for 7 years. As to the purpose, he said that whether or not they attend the conference or accept his proposals, he would still go ahead with anti-terrorist measures. On Amnesty International, he said it was important to note that its key office bearers in Sri Lanka ‘were all communists’.
He then came to the most memorable part of the interview: “I have tried to be effective for some time, but I cannot. I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now… Now we can’t think of them. Not about their lives, or their opinion about us. Nothing will happen in our favour until the terrorists are wiped out. Just that. You can’t cure an appendicitis patient until you remove the appendix.”
Lalith Athulathmudali delivered a speech in Parliament on 21st July, remarkable for its close resemblance to Jayewardene’s interview published ten days earlier: “… As far as the Government is concerned, what it thinks is correct for the Tamils it will carry out. Whether you participate [in the round-table conference] or not, whether you support us or not, we will implement what we want to implement. The Government will go ahead with what it thinks is correct to bring an end to terrorism.
“In the process innocents may suffer. We will do our best to avoid it. I think the SLFP wants to fight terrorism and I am not convinced as to the reasons why they are backing out [of the round table conference]. As a Sinhalese-Buddhist party how can you refuse to participate in a conference of this nature? How will you face any election or the people if you do not come forward to eradicate terrorism? I call upon you to join hands with us to suppress these fascist terrorists. I also call upon the Communist Party and MEP to join the Government in its solution to terrorism. I must tell these parties (i.e. Sarath Muttetuwegama and Dinesh Gunawardena) not to confuse the security issue of the North with the Tamil problem. These problems are encountered by all Tamils. The Government is very conscious of this. Come to the round-table and we will find solutions to the whole problem.”
Among friends (e.g. T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka) Athulathmudali had been very open about his ambitions of becoming president. But his ministry, Trade and Shipping, was nothing like as grand as Gamini Dissanayake’s Mahaveli Development and Lands, Dissanayake having been a young MP in the party through the lean times it faced in the early 70s. But ‘Northern terrorism’ had been a pet pre-occupation of Athulathmudali’s, and also dominated the Government’s agenda. Persons close to Colombo’s leading circles have identified Athulathmudali as the main author of the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979.
The speech while being close in content to Jayewardene’s interview had its peculiar nuances. Earlier in the speech he had said, “In those days it used to be said that there was a Tamil majority in the North. But now it is different. The time has come that the majority of Tamils live among the Sinhalese.” Athulathmudali did not acknowledge the legitimacy of people of a part of the country – the North-East – who were largely Tamil speaking, having fears and experiences of majoritarian state ideology, and wanting to preserve something in life they considered peculiarly their own; through demanding an autonomous arrangement.
Athulathmudali’s thinking and the Government’s practice had moved far from the problems of the Tamils, including colonisation in the North-East, as acknowledged in the UNP Manifesto of 1977. The problems of the Tamils which the Government now acknowledged as needing solutions, did not evidently go much beyond the use of Tamil and employment quotas. The quotations above from Premadasa, Jayewardene and Athulathmudali covering the month preceding the communal violence show a certain convergence. We will also deal with instructions given by Gamini Dissanayake on land matters a week before the violence in the next chapter.
In the President’s inner circle there had definitely been a decision to get tough with the Tamils. The Prevention of Terrorism Act may be regarded as implicitly extra-legal. It required the use of torture and provided for it. But we see above something more explicitly extra-legal :
“We cannot think about their lives or their opinion about us”, “innocents may suffer”, “will go ahead with what we think is right to eradicate terrorism”.
There was also dissatisfaction with the PTA which was serving no purpose, beyond enabling the detention of persons the Government did not like, for prolonged periods. The Island of 12th June 1983 carried on its front page the item “Army empowered to kill fleeing terrorists: Anti- Terrorism Act, Criminal Code to be amended”. We will take this up later (Sect. 8.6). It was intended to indemnify the Army against legal proceedings arising from the killing of terrorist suspects supposedly breaking jail. This again we have good reason to believe had much to do with Athulathmudali’s thinking. Later in 1988 Athulathmudali as National Security Minister brought before Parliament an Indemnity Act to cover security and administrative personnel involved in the suppression of ‘terrorism’ since 1977. After becoming National Security Minister in 1984, he gave freer rein to his ideas of having the ‘majority of Tamils living among the Sinhalese’ through forced demographic transformation of Tamil inhabited areas. This furthered the virulence of the conflict through directly bringing about the first Tamil militant massacres of transplanted Sinhalese in late 1984.
The idea of solving the ethnic problem through establishing Sinhalese settlements in the North-East dominated the thinking of persons close to Jayewardene. It formed the cornerstone of counter-insurgency from October 1983 for which Israeli help was sought (see Chapter 20). A more frank expression of this sentiment was given by Ranil Wickremasinghe during the parliamentary ‘debate’ on the Sixth Amendment (CDN, 6th August 1983), after the July violence: “The Government will try to solve the problems of the minority and create a situation whereby all communities could go about the country and live where they please…… Otherwise, there would be a separate state automatically”. This theme has since been the hobbyhorse of numerous academics and professionals.
In mid-1983, wiping out Tamil terrorism through means foul rather than fair had become the main preoccupation of the UNP Government to shore up its scant legitimacy. In jockeying for positions within the UNP itself, it had become a competition about who was most zealously fighting Tamil terrorism. A game where legal norms were held in scant regard was quickly bound to degenerate into a general attack on Tamils, moving on to Hill Country Tamils and even Malayalis.
There were moves taking place at different levels. At one level it was the all-party-talks, amendments to existing repressive laws yet found to be too restrictive, and playing around with the judiciary to make them more amenable. The other was at a level less inhibited by a veneer of Western education of the Oxbridge sort and a long exposure to legal forms. The two levels were not exclusive and there were even cabinet ministers in the second personally very close to Jayewardene. At the second level it was preparations through collecting electoral lists, identifying Tamil homes and business premises and fomenting trouble where an opportunity arose. The last was evident in the troubles at Peradeniya University, in Trincomalee and finally in Colombo from the evening of 24th July. There was no fundamental difference in sentiment between the two levels.
Until the 24th July it was the first quasi-legal level that was more visibly active. There was next to no seriousness about reaching any accommodation with the TULF. But the Government was anxious to get the SLFP onto the anti-terrorist bandwagon, although Jayewardene himself had used quasi-legal methods to diminish Mrs. Bandaranaike and ensure that she was not allowed to stand against him at the presidential elections. But now he wanted her on the bandwagon. To this end appeals to Sinhalese-Buddhist ideology which the SLFP championed from the 1950s were being employed in an attempt to corner the SLFP. For the SLFP there was a dilemma. To accept the invitation would have left it without a distinctive identity, lending legitimacy to all the repression directed against it since 1978. But to reject it, the SLFP could have argued its case cogently, going beyond terrorism and the Sinhalese-Buddhist angle, and appealing to non-partisan human principles.
But the SLFP at that stage was incapable of going beyond its survival instinct, and could only give weak arguments based on the Government’s ineptitude – as of a party without an alternative vision in permanent opposition and not the alternative government. Lakshman Jayakody gave in Parliament the SLFP’s reason for not attending the round-table conference: “You gave an order to the Army Commander to stamp out terrorism by December 1981. That was the only order given. No other order went out. What happened to the Rajarata Rifles? How did that come about?… The SLFP knows its stand on the Sinhala-Buddhist connection. Instead of asking us how to stamp out terrorism you should tell us what you are doing about it. I do not agree with the views expressed by Amnesty International. What are you doing to counter it?…”
The SLFP’s lack of vision and lack of principle was to see it in deep trouble in the late 1980s when it entered into a stormy liaison with the JVP as a means to power.
*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