By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 24
What appears on the surface as a good reason against the violence of July 1983 being organised comes from persons who knew the prominent cabinet members well, say as journalists. It is pointed out that there were rival factions within the UNP engaged in bitter power struggles. For this reason, it is argued, they were thoroughly incapable of sitting down together and planning something so scandalous and full of dangerous repercussions as the July 1983 violence. Could one for example imagine arch- rivals Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake and Athulathmudali having got together and planned the violence? How much co-operation could one expect from similar aspirants in the present government?
The second question points towards the answer. As individuals, Athulathmudali and Dissanayake on the one hand, and G.L. Peiris and L. Kadirgamar on the other have a similar social background. But how they would act or might have acted needs to take into account the differences in the corporate character of the UNP of 1983 and the SLFP. In general all parties, in particular the UNP and SLFP, have used thugs, particularly when in power, to disrupt meetings and protests of their opponents. But an outfit like the JSS was unprecedented. During the late 70s and early 80s, it took on the character of a parallel totalitarian state machine. It had its own intelligence network, watched and intimidated individuals, maintained goons paid by the State, targetted the opposition and carried out its own ideological project.
The Police and Judiciary were made to toe the line of a regime whose standards of public morality plumbed the darkest depths. Under this regime, ministers and even some MPs maintained private armies to intimidate, injure and kill with impunity. Gangsters maintained by particular ministers were a law unto themselves and struck fear among all and sundry. This regime had been continually unleashed on the Sinhalese in several localised contexts. The communal violence of July 1983 was a case of this apparatus fresh from deployment against the Sinhalese at the December 1982 Referendum and the May 1983 bye-elections being unloosed on the Tamils. By whipping up chauvinism, the Government cornered the SLFP, a party then showing little intelligence or vision, and stabilised itself in the South for a few more years.
As for the leading ministers hopeful of stepping into Jayewardene’s shoes, they could not, whatever their differences, afford to rock the boat which showered on them inordinate wealth and power. A particularly interesting feature of the JSS is that its founder president in the early 70s was Jayewardene. When he gave its reins to Cyril Mathew in 1977, it was to a Mathew who was his own creature and long- time intimate. The role of Mathew is hinted at in an instance cited by T. Sabaratnam in his Murder of a Moderate – A Political Biography of A. Amirthalingam.
The UNP had come to power in 1977 with the support of the TULF. In 1978, Amirthalingam complained to Jayewardene about Matthew’s extreme chauvinism and his attacks on the TULF. Jayewardene replied, “Don’t worry about him. There is some dissatisfaction among Sinhalese extremists about our close relationship with your party. Matthew’s role is to keep them satisfied.”
Further Wimal Fernando’s document shows that the JSS was a power in every ministry, not just Mathew’s. In general, people employed in government-related bodies were enrolled in the JSS and membership dues were deducted from their salaries unless they objected. We have given an instance where JSS agents compiled lists of Tamils occupying senior positions in the media – a ministry under Anandatissa de Alwis, a man who did his job without having a particular reputation for chauvinism.
Thus the party was already enmeshed in a way of functioning where, when it came to dealing with opposition to the Government, senior ministers were constrained to drop their differences and work closely with Mathew and the JSS. We give below an instance where Ranil Wickremasinghe worked closely with Cyril Mathew in 1978 in an attempt to subdue opposition at Kelaniya University. While Ranil Wickremasinghe did all the talking, most of the goon-work was done by Mathew. During the Jaffna DDC elections of 1981 several leading ministers including Mathew, Dissanayake and Festus Perera went to Jaffna. But the rank and file agents came from several arms of the UNP. There was a job to be done and personal rivalries mattered little.
Again David Selbourne who visited Sri Lanka in June 1982 was privileged to ride in a limousine with Jayewardene, Dissanayake and Athulathmudali who were, with their guard down, joking about solving the Tamil problem, displaying a shared contempt. Even in the run- up to the July ’83 violence, most of the talking was done by Jayewardene, Premadasa, Athulathmudali and Dissanayake. Mathew, whom Jayewardene called the Party’s exhaust pipe, found his turn to speak after the violence, during the 6th Amendment debate on 4th August. When he became embarrassingly too big for his boots, Jayewardene put him out not long afterwards.
It was also a time when Jayewardene was all- powerful within the party, and once a thing was decided, collectively or otherwise, deviations were not tolerated. Two examples come to mind. The first is from T. Sabaratnam’s book (p.319). After the July ’83 violence, India was insistent on a solution to the Tamil problem, and sent its envoy G. Parthasarathy to mediate between the exiled TULF and the Government. Prime Minister Premadasa had been avoiding him. “On the last day Jayewardene hosted a dinner for which Premadasa was not only invited but was made to sit at Parthasarathy’s table.”
Again after the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987, Premadasa and Athulathmudali showed their displeasure and tried to distance themselves from it in the face of rising violent opposition in the South. When the Provincial Councils Bill under the Accord was to go before Parliament, Jayewardene made Premadasa propose and Athulathmudali second it. When it came to facing the liabilities of particular actions, Jayewardene was not going to tolerate others gaining political mileage by distancing themselves after the end of good
times, leaving him carrying the can. This is important in understanding the July ’83 violence. Thus where the planning of the ’83 violence went, it was not necessary that the whole cabinet sat down and planned it out. The direction was set weeks ahead of the violence, and the exhaust pipe, Cyril Mathew, with Jayewardene behind him, knew his job. The JSS was active in all the ministries. We may take it that many, if not all, ministers knew it was coming. For example, Festus Perera evinced his knowledge of it weeks ahead at Brown’s Beach Hotel, Negombo. They also knew what was expected from them when the signal was given. The UNP head office at Sri Kotha, Colpetty, was the nerve centre of operations from where the JSS functioned.
A particular example gives some idea of the suggestively evasive conduct of some ministers. On 25th July, the mobs did a clean job of Athulathmudali’s electorate, Ratmalana, and the Minister was himself nowhere to be seen by his constituents. But, on the other hand he had been about Dehiwela the same morning on his own admission. The artistically designed luxury home of a Tamil professional friend of his on the bank of Bolgoda Lake was attacked by a mob and the valuables were taken away in rafts. According to a report from his circles, the friend complained to him and nearly all the stolen goods were located and returned.
We mentioned special lists sent from working places by the JSS. As for the group of Tamil media professionals referred to earlier, some of their homes were attacked by a group who went down their road and were only interested in their homes as opposed to all Tamil homes. Some others had their name underlined in red in an electoral list carried by the mob. Such instances of underlining were seen by neighbours when the mob made inquiries. This suggests that processing had been done at the JSS HQ and targets were assigned to hit squads.
In conclusion, we might say that there was a plan to launch a limited strike on the Tamils at a suitable time whose main purpose was political intimidation and a battering of their economic base. Killing was bound to take place, and was in many instances allowed or encouraged. These were essentially the conclusions reached by the Ceylon Mercantile Union after polling 195 members from 77 branches, 80% of whom were Sinhalese. These conclusions were communicated to President Jayewardene in a letter of 27th August 1983, signed by its General Secretary, Mr. Bala Tampoe. The poll further concluded with respect to the Welikade prison massacres of 25th and 27th July that ‘there was no doubt that they were planned’. We will come to this shortly.
There was no need for the plan to have been a detailed one in all aspects. It was after all a crude affair whose main requirement was the availability of brute force to be mobilised at short notice. The UNP had this in place and had given it plenty of practice. Most of those who mattered knew it was coming and what was expected from them.
Those active in Maradana were widely identified as supporters of Prime Minister Premadasa. His men in the company of his henchman and municipal councillor Sangadasa were seen in the area around Deans Road where much arson was taking place from the night of 24th July.
The gangs active in Borella were widely identified as supporters of Transport Minister M.H. Mohamed, MP and UNP organiser for the area. His men are also said to have been active in Slave Island. His men have also been accused of being the agents used by the Government to foment Mossad-inspired violence in the East in April-May 1985 (see Chapter 20).
Sunethra Ranasinghe, the daughter of S. de S. Jayasinghe was both MP and a powerful figure in the Kohuwala area. Her supporters enjoy no mean reputation for thuggery. The following reference to Mrs Sunethra Ranasinghe appears on page 22 of Sinha Ratnatunga’s book:
“At Dehiwela and at Kohuwela, just outside the city limits, the attacks on Tamil houses and shops appeared to be a well-orchestrated and planned operation. A few people down the many by-ways of Dehiwela and Kohuwela were spotted throwing molotov cocktails into these premises. As was the case in most of the other areas, the local member of parliament, Mrs Sunethra Ranasinghe, minister of teaching hospitals and womens’ affairs, was of the view that the people involved in her electorate were not from Dehiwela or Kohuwela.
“As the news reached Mrs. Ranasinghe, the politically-minded daughter of a late cabinet minister, she decided to go immediately to the Accident Ward of the General Hospital where she saw for herself an endless stream of people being admitted with slashes, cuts and bruises”.
This is followed by a claim from Mrs. Ranasinghe that she was herself treated insultingly by the mobs.
Lalith Athulathmudali, though MP for Ratmalana, admitted to being in (Vandewert Place) Dehiwela on the 25th morning. An up and coming UNPer living in Kinross Avenue, Bambalapitiya was reported having high visibility around Wellawatte on the 25th July.
It is interesting that Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, in a manner similar to Mrs. Sunethra Ranasinghe, and like whom he was well-known for having thugs in his following, made the claim that ‘thugs had come to Kadawatta and to his electorate from outside and caused the damage’ (CDN 6.8.83). However according to Wimal Fernando’s document, there is evidence that Wickremasinghe was personally involved in intimidation in the neighbouring Mahara electorate two months earlier and previously during the Referendum. His principal henchman Gonawela Sunil, according to Fernando, ‘led the gangs during the Referendum, in Kelaniya’. It is incredible that un-named outside gangs came to Wickremasinghe’s electorate and ran riot during July 1983 while he could do nothing. Lionel Bopage’s testimony given in Chapter 9, where he encountered killers outside the Tyre Corporation, which is under Mathew, and then a work-gang in a CTB vehicle, gives a part of the picture of what was going on around Wickremasinghe’s area.
The JSS head office at Sri Kotha (the UNP HQ), and the Petroleum Corporation head office, both of which were in Colpetty were places where Cyril Mathew reigned as king. The Petroleum Corporation head office was identified by Fernando as the HQ of the regular junta – of thugs posted to and receiving salaries from various government bodies, freely indulging in corrupt practices without doing any work. Mathew must have taken great offence when he found that his storm troopers had missed Gnanam’s Building. The general pattern of the violence is clear. Gangs were often, but not always, bussed to different areas where they would not be identified (e.g. a gang from Ratmalana in Allen Avenue, Dehiwela, and one from Maharagama in Station Road, Dehiwela).
The local representatives (i.e. MPs) kept away and remained inaccessible or arranged for distress messages to be taken from important Tamils in their circle. It was not the sort of violence, given its uniform modus operandi, that mushrooms in a fraction of a day.
The point we make is that once a course of action was decided and the ponderous party machine was in action, its members who did not
want their careers jeopardised had to fall in line. In the Western Province in particular, the ubiquity of the JSS machine was a factor which went far to ensure that party members and MPs toed the line. If an MP, say, did not toe the line, he would have had his own local party organisation taken over by the JSS, which had already made inroads into it. He would have moreover lost his position in the party.
It is notable that the little resistance to the party line from within the UNP came from MPs well outside Colombo where the JSS was weak. There was Shelton Ranaraja, deputy minister for justice, in Kandy, who is said to have taken some action, but after the violence was over, to have the main agent of violence in the area arrested. Renuka Herath in Nuwara Eliya kept the peace until Dissanayake arrived, and then found that her orders had no effect. In Galaha, again in the Hill Country, Anura Daniel, MP, went with his men in a jeep, camped out, and ensured that there were no attacks on Tamils. Ronnie de Mel, the Finance Minister, almost certainly knew in advance, what was taking shape and after the violence uttered a token expression of dissent, but without a note of sympathy for the victims. His electorate was a rural one from Matara District. Ranaraja, Herath and Daniel were either marginal persons in the party or were not likely to go much further than where they were.
On the other hand, Tyronne Fernando, then deputy foreign minister and MP for Moratuwa near Colombo, is one who tries to cultivate a liberal image. However, no expression of dissent, or sympathy for the victims, came from him and thugs from his area were undoubtedly used in the violence. Thus we get some idea of how the JSS, whose strength was mainly around Colombo, influenced the choices of individual UNPers. It is not that the JSS was external to them. They had become part of the network. Had there been no plan with agents poised for execution at different points, it would have led to considerable initial confusion. Several influential UNPers would have dissented spontaneously, given that some of them were uncomfortable about it. But that did not happen. Their consent or silence had been secured in advance.
We now move on to examine the prison massacre. In setting out the context for it, we also have a look at how state facilities were used, public funds were abused and productivity thrown to the winds to turn work forces into strike forces. We also get an idea of the origins of violent conflict in the country.
To be continued..
Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up
Part five – 30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot
Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama
Part nine – Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983
Part eleven – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Question Of Numbers
Part fourteen – Circumstances Leading To The Magistrate’s Inquest
Part fifteen – Welikade Prison: The Second Massacre: 27th July 1983
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 one – Events Of 24th July: What Were The Army’s Orders?
Part twenty two – Black July: Further Evidence Of Advance Planning
Part twenty three – Black July: The JSS Goon Squad Regime
*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..