By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 19
During that period several ministers seemed to be inspired by the rulers of Malaysia and in particular Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, who of course never set fire to his economy. Mathew strongly advocated Malaysia’s Bhumiputra policy. He cited in Parliament (4 Aug.83) Mahatir’s argument that the Chinese and Indians of Malaysia, if forced to leave, could find an alternative home, but not the Malays. Mahatir’s assertion that an indigenous race is one that is ‘truly identified’ with a country was adduced by Mathew to make his case. Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe, Minister of Education and Youth Affairs – who as Jayewardene’s relative, shared with Jayewardene’s chief henchman Mathew, his political estate in Kelaniya – closely followed Mathew in his view of the situation. Mr. Gamini Jayasuriya, Minister of Agriculture, said in an article (Daily News, 26 Aug. 83): “The immediate cause of the recent outburst of violence is not an independent or spontaneous act. It was the climax of a long drawn-out and well-planned series of treacherous acts over the years committed by the terrorists of the North.” Thus Mathew, Wickremasinghe and Jayasuriya advanced Sinhalese anger as the cause of the violence and failed to distance the Government from its planning and execution.
Mathew cannot be accused of not being frank. Speaking on the 6th Amendment in Parliament on 4.8.83, he was clear that it was the majority’s prerogative to use violence against a minority who did not fall in line. He said, “70% of the people in this country are Sinhala people. In a country like Malaysia, there were only 53% of ‘Malaysians’ (i.e. Malays). The Chinese of the country acted high-handedly and the Malaysians had patience only for 6 days before taking action (i.e. the 1969 violence). But the Sinhalese people of this country had been patient for 10 years.” As though his speech were wanting in candour, he uttered the cry, “If the Sinhala are the majority race, why can’t they be the majority?”
However, apart from hinting at Sinhalese settlement in the North-East as a means to solving the Tamil problem (on the 6th Amendment, CDN, 6.8.83), Ranil Wickremasinghe’s statements were more an attack on the SLFP than a defence of the UNP’s role during the July violence. While saying it was ‘unfortunate that certain Tamil prisoners were killed by some other prisoners’, it should be remembered, he added, that the SLFP had killed about 10,000 youth [during the 1971 JVP insurgency]. He also opined that the ‘tragedy’ which had befallen the ‘non-Sinhala’ trader due to the ‘machinations of an extreme political party’ as a result of their factories and premises being burnt down, ‘was nothing compared to the tragedy imposed on the Sinhala entrepreneur by the Bandaranaikes since 1956.’
He claimed that the nationalisation policies pursued by the Bandaranaikes had adversely affected private enterprise in areas dominated by the Sinhalese. But when the SLFP encouraged local manufacturing, he said, the bulk of the licences went to non-Sinhalese. He mentioned his cousin Upali Wijewardene among those Sinhalese adversely affected. In concluding his Daily News Interview (12.8.83), he stressed that the Sinhalese entrepreneur was complaining of discrimination against them by the Government. It was as though the July 1983 violence had redressed the damage done to the Sinhalese entrepreneur by the SLFP, which, according to him, favoured the Tamils. This theme of redress also appears in a speech by Athulathmudali cited below.
Combining this theme with the Left master- plan of Jayewardene and others quoted earlier, it may appear that the July violence resulted from the Left suddenly becoming zealous about improving the competitive edge of Sinhalese capitalists through the use of non-market forces.
The Rt. Rev. Lakshman Wickremasinghe, the Anglican Bishop of Kurunegalle, was an eminent public figure at that time. He was also president of the Civil Rights Movement. Soon after the 1983 violence, he returned from England, where he was taking a much-needed sojourn and visited most of the refugee camps in the island housing victims of the violence. He visited a refugee camp in Akkarayan with Dr. Luther Jeyasingham and Mr. Kanthasamy of the MIRJE, Jaffna. After talking to the refugees, he was discovered alone, crying. When asked he replied that from his conversations with the refugees, he had found that his family had been closely linked to the violence. The Bishop died on 23rd October 1983, a broken man. Persons close to him confided that the conduct of two members of his family in particular had grieved him.
Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali, Minister of Trade and Shipping, took off in a different direction without touching the causes in a broadcast in the night of 31st July. He did not have one word of sympathy for the Tamil victims. But for the others, sorrow and sentimentality were overflowing: “I saw a sight which neither you nor I thought we would live to see again. We saw many people looking for food, standing in line, greatly inconvenienced, seriously inconvenienced. The scene made me very sad indeed…. I promise you again, in a few days, in a few weeks at most, the situation will be back to normal, and these last few days that you have suffered so much, and I have suffered as much with you, will be a thing of the past.”
A day earlier when Minister de Alwis announced the banning of the Left parties, he said, “the plotters then anticipated a food riot.”
The ambitious politician Athulathmudali told them the next day that he had things under control. His words, thick with buttery platitudes, make one wonder if he had prepared for this drama well in advance. The 4th Cross Street wholesale market in Pettah was affected by the violence. ‘An Insider’ in the Counterpoint of December 1994 said that Athulathmudali got over the crisis by efficient management and his policy of always holding 3 months’ stocks of essentials in warehouses, introduced after the cyclone which devastated the Eastern Province in 1978.
It is the fact that he was a clever administrator and a very ambitious politician which suggest that if the violence was planned, and he was part of the planning, he would have also thought of taking credit to himself by keeping the food flowing after the initial confusion. In the same press briefing of 27th July where Anandatissa de Alwis spoke of a mysterious hand behind the highly planned violence, he also issued an official communiqué which said the following: “The Government has moved in fast to meet a temporary dislocation of the movement of food supplies in the country. Supplies of food are being dispatched from warehouses for distribution through multi-purpose co-operative stores…”
It was a Government thinking hard and taking action to obviate possible discontent arising from food shortages. But it had nothing to say about finding out and checking the unseen hand spreading murder and mayhem. About the tail end of the violence, a well known journalist who was at a government department, casually mentioned to Athulathmudali the need for him to go home and find food for his family. What Athulathmudali said jolted the journalist and made a strong impression on him. Athulathmudali said that he was expecting such a situation and that there was plenty of food in the stores. He added that he could immediately dispatch 3 lorry loads to the government department from the CWE and asked him to put his name on the vouchers sent for that department and get his food. This could also have a more innocent explanation. Athulathmudali may have simply been trying to build up his image as a clever and far-seeing administrator who is ready for the worst.
Yet a speech he made at Piliyandale Central School in early October 1983 disclosed some peculiar notions he had about fair competition: “During the height of the trouble we opened a wholesale rice market at Duplication Road and challenged the Pettah Market into severe competition….but in no time we won – slashing prices by as much as Rs 10/- for a 67 Kg bag of rice…We did that amidst obstructions, barriers and objections. We then went to the notorious 4th Cross Street. The CWE (Co-operative Wholesale Establishment) is now getting a response from there!”
If the Tamil wholesale traders were profiteering, the Government had so many legislative and administrative means to deal with it. It did not need to send mobs to burn down shops and murder workers and owners. What he then meant by competing with a Pettah Market reduced to rubble and ashes is not clear. If these claims were not funny, they would be sinister.
Prime Minister Premadasa addressing the nation in the night of 29th July, made a bumbling populist speech. “Today they had spread rumours that Tigers have come to Colombo and are in Colombo. Just imagine the great destruction and crimes committed based on such wild rumours. Our people not only got aroused, but also engaged themselves in violent acts. Some have taken clubs and other weapons and engaged themselves in such violent acts. As a result even our Sinhalese and Muslim brethren have been subject to such harassment. You just imagine what a catastrophe it is”. He then went on to talk about punishment for separatists.
This speech was made on ‘Tiger Friday’, on a day that Premadasa’s men were known to be notably involved. Note the absence of Tamils from his brethren facing harassment. A Tamil doctor, who was then taking refuge with a Pentecostal pastor in Kandy, was told by the latter that it was a good speech. The former merely observed that he did not think so. Its appeal probably lay in crediting the Sinhalese with no more than responding foolishly to rumours and separatist provocations.
Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel made something of a dissenting speech taking his cabinet colleagues to task. But the dissent was lost in its nonsensical prelude. He opened with, “I am not speaking to you in the spirit of rancour… sorrow…. [or] in a spirit of remorse”. He then spoke of Sinhalese having survived invasions from South India, beginning with the sons of a horse dealer, then colonial rule by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British and the 1958 (anti-Tamil) riots, and asked why they should fear
destruction now. He then came to the point of his speech – “the destruction caused to the economy in the last week by looting, arson, burning and the blood-shed.” Continuing, he said: “I do not know who does greater damage to the country. Is it those who advocate the division of the country or those who destroy the economy? I think both groups are traitors to the country and nation and should be punished.” As though to bring himself in line with Mathew and the rest, he told the Economist (20 Aug. 1983): “…. the Tamils have dominated the commanding heights of everything good in Sri Lanka.” He added that the ‘only solution’ is to ‘restore the rights of the Sinhalese majority’. L. Piyadasa comments (p.118 of his book): “What kind of a Finance Minister would justify such destruction? In communal terms, de Mel’s own Karava community is far over-represented in leading positions in the economy, society, politics, the church etc!” (See Chapters 8 and 12 of Piyadasa’s book and Chapter 1 of the book by the Committee for Rational Development on myths of communal privilege.)
Lalith Athulathmudali could think of picking up some votes by crying for the Sinhalese in queues and sending them food. But, de Mel’s hopes for a booming economy by 1989 were in shambles. There was nothing for him in the violence. From what we have presented up to this point, there is no doubt about the Government’s complicity in the violence of July 1983. But the important question remains not conclusively answered although strong opinions are held one way or the other: Did the Government merely blunder into the anti-Tamil violence of July 1983, or; was it the outcome of advance planning well before the event, involving agencies of the State?
If the latter, it raises even graver questions about the position of the minorities and the protection they enjoy, questions that have been fudged and largely avoided. We first present a version that points to the first by suggesting that the Government was all the way confused and helpless in the face of Sinhalese anger. Cyril Matthew’s role in the violence is admitted, but while leaving the others fairly clean. The version comes essentially from later conversations of journalists with the UNP’s cabinet members at that time such as Athulathmudali and Dissanayake, who were undoubtedly charming and persuasive. This is also essentially the version of T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka.
According to this version, the Government was plunged into uncertainty after the ambush in Jaffna where 13 soldiers died. They felt very anxious about how the Sinhalese people would receive the event. Some wanted the bodies cremated in Jaffna and the ashes to be brought to Colombo. By the time it was decided to bring the bodies and have the funeral in Colombo, it became very late. The crowd in the meantime became angry and restive and started abusing the President. The President cancelled the funeral. The crowd went berserk and started attacking Borella and Narahenpitiya.
The Government, according to this version, was in a panic. In the night several ministers pleaded with the President to declare curfew. The President’s response was “Who is going to impose the curfew?” He was in fact so unsure whether the Police and the Army would take orders from him. The Government, this version added, simply let go and tried to ride out the wave of anti-Tamil feeling. Then of course elements of the UNP went out and indulged in acts of violence to divert the anger against the Government towards the Tamils. There was no planning in any of this. Electoral lists carried by mobs did not need organisation. Every party office has these lists, this version pointed out. Ratnatunge says (p.25 of his book) that Jayewardene sent his brother Harry, Ranil Wickremasinghe, Paul Perera and UNP Secretary Abhayawardene from police station to police station in a bid to ensure their loyalty and maintain order in the City. (The last was angrily denied by a top police official: “I never heard about it. What were they wanting the Police to do? Burn the Tamils?”)
Views supporting such versions are largely advanced by well-meaning and quite knowledgeable Sinhalese. That is, hardly any planning was involved, and that it was for the most part spontaneous. This also shifts much of the blame on to the Tamils for supporting separatism and provoking the Sinhalese. By sharp contrast most Tamils, including those who were occupying high positions in the security forces, state agencies and state media are strongly convinced that the violence was well– planned and executed by the Government. We will now examine the evidence for this step by step.
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?
*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..