20 June, 2024


Indian Concern & JR’s Daily Telegraph Interview

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. 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. JR Jayewardene

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


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Latest comments

  • 0

    “…their openly canvassing for ASEAN membership for Sri Lanka and also some very imprudent personal remarks about Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay.”

    There is a mix up of sequence of events.
    The imprudent remark about Indira Gandhi and Sanjay was by JRJ during the 1977 election campaingn when Indira Gandhi wa out of power following defeat by the alliance led by Morrji Desai.
    The pro-West line, although unwise. But it was not for India to decide Sri Lankan foreign policy.
    India moved cleverly to prevent US bid for the China Bay Tank Farm. That was acceptable conduct; but not making public pronouncements on a country’s internal matters. There is something called diplomacy in which India still has much to learn.
    Indira Gandhi was responsible for encouraging LTTE and other militants by facilitating training on Indian soil and elsewhere well before the 1983 catastrophe.
    “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.”

    The SLFP could not have been so deluded to think that it could hitchhike a ride to power on the JVP bandwagon.
    Its move was essentially designed to make things difficult for the UNP.
    The SLFP opposition to the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987 drew attention to four clauses that concerned Indian interests, about which few other than a Marxist Leninist left party of the North even cared to comment.

  • 2

    Daily Telegraph and The Guardian published almost half a page obituary of JR. A Scathing attack on him.

  • 2

    Dr. Hoole, there are very interesting geo-political games and string pulling everyday. I am still waiting for Ranil W to apologize for Black July. It was the seminal event in modern SL history that made the LTTE into what it became. From Boys to Men as Subramaniam Swamy said and from a small group of predominantly VVT boys to a movement which became a global network with willing combatants ready to join.

    I have said many times JRJ however smart he was, was a Pro US anti communist leader. He did great things in opening up the economy but he totally misread Indian concerns. The Indira-Rajiv Gandhi pair were pretty vindictive and also paranoid about the apparent veering towards the US during the cold war. Why on earth did he foolishly think he could be part of ASEAN? That was laughed at. The Big Brother-Little Brother relationship but not like Nepal and India before his tenure helped SL A lot. But once India started looking at SL as a threat things developed so fast that JRJ did not even have time to cry “Uncle”. The West was not interested in SL at that time and it deferred to India when India violated SL’s airspace and also later on intervened militarily with the forced invitation. It was like the Neighbor Kudumudalali thug who says “If I am not invited to your house warming party I will break and smash your house”. So it was a Catch-22 by then. Because I was Indian educated my old man told me very many times not to come back because initially I was a vocal supporter of IPKF and the peace agreement. The JVP became anti Indian and my old man felt I could have been in trouble. Fear was palpable and the way 1988 Presidential election was conducted only confirmed everyone’s fears.

    I mention Black July because even with the other targeted attacks after the UNP won even in 1977 they were never on a scale like in 1983. Even the wealthy English speaking elite in Colombo 7 were targeted. Factories of great entrepreneurs and respected people like AYS Gnanam whose kids studied at Royal were attacked. It shattered people’s psyche and froze the last majority of Sinhalese into a fearful position as the marauding mobs of UNP goons and thugs committed violence unprecedented in SL history against an innocent minority.

    I am now retired and teach only part-time. In the Uni I teach there is a small Holocaust museum and I take my students there. In that are posters of young 18 to 20 year olds whose history is narrated and we are asked to identify them as Victim; Perpetrator; ByStander or Rescuer. Most sinhalese fell into the bystander category but there were brave rescuers too including some of my amazing friends in Thimba who did not allow any sinhala goon to attack their street.

    It is powerful and I shared the story of Black July with them and also the story of Black October in India with them because right now the hatred towards all Muslims or you could say mass prejudice against Muslims is palpable and growing in the USA. It is scary. I also told these kids who the US helped save the Bosnian Muslims and how Croats forced Jews and Serbian Orthodox people to convert to Catholicism or be killed. Then I asked them if it could happen again? They said yes and but also said the world will get to know about it faster because of the amazing levels of technology and social media presence in the world.

    To get back to the point; India decided to teach SL a lesson for veering away. They had domestic political compulsions with 78Million or more Tamil people in TN barely a hop away. Refugees and electoral concerns combined with the foolish attitude of the JRJ regime then unleashed a long chain of events. This included who India established a Southern Air command when for the longest time they did not think they needed one. India was and still is the regional super power. I am not saying SL cannot decide their own allies but at that time JR overestimated his importance to the US and burnt his bridges with India. Take that with 1971. Virtually within a week Indian army ships were in Colombo across from Galle Face. IAF helicopters flew to drop leaflets to get JVPers to surrender. The first shipments of guns and ammo came from India. India offered to airlift the leadership if necessary. I remember seeing Indian warships and supply ships looming ominously in their gray color against Galle Face Green.

    Lost opportunities; foolish geo political errors and even though CBK apologized for the crimes of 1983, not a single UNP leader took responsibility or apologized. Many negative things can be said about CBK but she said she cannot hate Tamil people for what the LTTE did to her by trying to blow her up.

    I hope there war and hatred do not return there.

    • 0

      Thank you for a thought provoking and educational post.

    • 0

      Mr Ratwatte

      Maybe you should add to your account of various massacres and ethnically-inspired attacks one that is commemorated on 17 (I think it is) by the Palestinians — Nakba. That was the time when an estimated 400 Arab villages were depopulated (and some destroyed) and subsequently settled by citizens of the new Israeli state. Many if their original inhabitants who had lived there for centuries became refugees or — that extraordinary phenomenon — “present-absent aliens. And, of course, the ousting of the original, age-old inhabitants, still goes on. The world sees it but then shrugs its shoulders.

      I think you should follow up a session at the holocaust museum with a little talk about the reversed position that Israel I Jews now find themselves in.

      Also I might refer you to the dolwful role of US academia when many German Jewish academics applied to it during the late 39s and early 40s. I will try to find the title if a book about it.

      • 0

        I do cover the Shatila and Shabra refugee camp massacres when we talk about global conflict and Irgun as well briefly and their acts of terrorism. And the Smithsonian Holocaust Museum is really powerful. And Israeli excesses in Gaza are really hard to cover because of self censorship and lack of news in the West.

        I have been to the Holocaust museum in DC and it powerful; and yes there are black and white photos of Ethnic types and Ceylon Vedda is there for features. I distinctly remember it. German Fascists brainwashed their entire nation to hate Jews and Slavic people. Their pseudoscientists wanted to define people by phenotypic traits as being superior and acceptable and others not so much. They considered Eastern Europeans SubHuman.

        It is scary how a so called christian civilized so called advanced nation can become like that. The question to ask is can it happen again? Then look at Bosnia, Rwanda, and so many places. Look at India..Oh well what happened in Communist Cambodia? 3 million people wiped out by a psychotic class envious communist movement? They were as bad as Taleban because they hated educated professionals. I saw one of those killing fields exhibits in Angkor Wat. On my bucket list is to visit Auschwitz in Poland because growing up we talked a lot about these issues with our grandparents and parents. Also want to visit MyLai: hope Tom Malinowski visited there too. Terrible cost of war; we humans are the only mammalian species that kills for killing sake and not for food.

        • 1

          Glad to know that you cover those massacres in Lebanon, but I wonder if it is really all that hard to access information about the conflict in West Asia. One can call up so many news sites in the web now. Al-Jazeera is one. And I find many of the articles in something like Counterpunch very informative. If the US press doesn’t cover the conflict there are English language newspapers elsewhere that aren’t so squeamish. And unlike a number of situations that you mention, the Palestinian tragedy is ongoing and appealing to us now.

      • 0

        Correction to my comment: Nakba is commemorated on 15 May.

    • 0

      As you are still a university man tho retired, and like to introduce students to the holocaust museum, it might be useful to show them something of the role of American universities at that time. A path-breaking book about this is StephenH Norwood’s: The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Universities.

      • 0

        Oh dear, among the many typos in my comments is one in the title of Stephen Norwood’s book: the last word should read “Campuses” not “Universities”.

    • 2

      There is a big holocaust museum in DC that had (I haven’t revisited in 20 years, so not sure if it is still the case) a reference to Sri Lanka. The Nazis’ eugenics movement categorized some people as among the “ugliest”; while this was intended for the Jews, the Nazis also put pictures of some Veddahs from Sri Lanka in that category. To my knowledge, no one in any media or public forums has followed up on that as a story.

    • 1

      Mano Ratwatte

      The Americans are not going to allow anyone to mess around the free movement of ships in the adjoining Sea lanes. This is why they helped to
      eliminate VP/LTTE. That was in early 1980s. The sea lanes are far more important now and will be much more so in the coming years. A conservative estimate in shipping circles forecasts 80% of the world’s Container shipping will move to/from these waters. The Yanks also trapped JRJ with the “honour” of a White House Banquet, where, obliging yankee Dicky’s wishes, the legendary Frank Sinatra is said to have sung JRJ’s favourite ditty “I’ll do it my way”

      The yanks liked that – what with Indira Gandhi annoying them with the Indo-Russia Defence Treaty being just one irritation. But when the crunch came late July ’83 and Yankee Dicky reached his friends in the States for help and succour, the bigger boys in the US Administration came into the discussion. The decision – Sri Lanka is in India’s sphere of influence and they should make up with Delhi. Remember, the US is not run by a kitchen cabinet where a single strong man makes all the decisions. That must have shattered JRJ and that other super-ambitious anti-Tamil hawk Lalith A. JRJ was then to learn the lesson “there is no such thing as permanent friends – only permanent interests”

      India is going forward astonishingly in all sectors – mostly economically. This trend is expected to continue in the coming decades. The talents and political managerial skills of our current leaders will be determined by how they integrate this bankrupt country, lead by many crooked ministers. Making peace and producing a warm relationship with booming India is the way forward. By that I don’t mean subservience.

      Only Ranil has what it takes to get the job done. But the Mahanayakas will continue to function as wrecking-crews, as usual, until the Sinhala people wake up. Ranil must get his advisors to study how the small country of Finland managed to co-exist with giant, communist Russia from the post-WW2 times till now. That is diplomacy and collective wisdom.

      R. Varathan

  • 5

    Mano Ratwatte

    “Lost opportunities; foolish geo political errors and even though CBK apologized for the crimes of 1983, not a single UNP leader took responsibility or apologized.”

    I haven’t heard JR or any other UNP leaders apologizing for the destruction of Jaffna Public library. Some of those who were actively involved in the destruction were ministers and those perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity.

    I still don’t understand why the library had to be destroyed.

    Can you explain the rationale behind such a building and its contents which belonged to humanity not just the Jaffna man.

  • 0

    Only foolish fascists and extremists be they religious(specially Christians and Muslims) or political extremists will burn books.That incident was an unforgivable crime and a shameful chapter of our recent gory past.


    • 2


      “Only foolish fascists and extremists be they religious(specially Christians and Muslims) or political extremists will burn books.”

      Now you blame the Christians and Muslims for the arson attack on Jaffna library where nearly 100,000 books and old Ola manuscript were burnt down.

      Earlier a retired DIG accused the LTTE.

      Will all of you make up your mind.

  • 0

    Why do we read History, but to see what lessons we can draw from it?

    When the UNP was buried in the 1970 Landslide by the Left Coalition in 1970, it became a splintered group, but one which automatically got all minority support outside the Tamil dominated areas. JRJ seemed personally to have won a landslide in 1977, but what he led was essentially a coalition of disparate and competing Sinhalese politicians. So, each little fellow had to be kept happy!

    In a sense, we have had the same sort of thing happening on the 8th of January 2015. Some of us voted hoping that the result would be a government with a clear vision. Others obviously always vote in hope of little things unrealistically promised. We live on in the hope that the thrust towards reconcilliation and lasting harmony will prevail.

  • 0

    First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.-Neimoller

    This is a powerful piece by Reverend Martin Neimoller written against Nazis. He was fortunate that he escaped with his life after being sentenced and serving 7 years in Nazi Germany. He was lucky because he was a German Aryan as they liked to call themselves. We use that as a starting point to discuss a lot of issues specially with the Black Lives matter and the reaction to it where people call it a terrorist movement.

  • 0

    ……The imprudent remark about Indira Ghandhi and Sanjay was by JRJ during the
    1977 election campaign when Indira Ghandhi was out of power following defeat by the alliance led by Moraji Desai….

    Actually,this remark about the cow[Mrs.G] and the calf[Sanjay] was made by Premadasa at the last stages of the campaign.
    Premadasa was comparing this to the Srilankan scenario where Mrs.B[COW] and the calf[Anura] were on the way out in 1977!
    The Cow and the Calf is the election symbol of the Congress Party.
    JRJ-The Fox that he was got Premadasa to be his mouthpiece and the latter eventually put his foot into his mouth!

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