By Basil Fernando –
What thrust Sri Lanka into the political hotspots of the world was the July 1983 riots, which is now known to be a crisis sponsored by president JR Jayewardene himself. At least, there exist evidences that this happened with his knowledge and approval. The immediate circumstances that brought about these riots were the killing of 13 soldiers in the north of Sri Lanka by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This was a political outfit that took up arms in order to achieve a separate state for the Tamil people living in Sri Lanka.
When the news of the 13 deaths was reported to the rest of the island, the immediate response of the military was the demand that the 13 corpses be brought to Colombo together to have a joint funeral. The then prime minister of the country, R Premadasa, represented an electorate in which there were several ethnicities living together. His friend, the mayor of Colombo, according to the story as told by the mayor, met the president and requested him not to allow these funerals to take place in the manner that had been requested because they had had information that this would lead to racial riots. The mayor wrote that the president agreed not to allow that to happen and upon that assurance they left for home.
However, president Jayewardene did nothing to stop the funerals being held together and by the noon of that day the riots broke out. Substantial evidences gathered in the aftermath demonstrate that the riots were well organized. There were lists of persons prepared beforehand in order to attack their families and houses. The video footages of the houses burning, wounded people screaming, and people fleeing from their houses were broadcast immediately all over the world. That was how Sri Lanka entered into the political map of the world as a troubled spot.
I was then a practicing lawyer and on that day I was in the magistrate courts in Wattala, a suburb very near to Colombo. By about eleven to twelve in the morning, some smoke was seen ascending towards the skies from the direction in Colombo. Murmur started amongst lawyers who were at the bar table that some serious trouble was beginning in Colombo. Around twelve o’clock the magistrate stopped working at the courts announcing that curfew will be imposed, and sought the help of the police to return to his house.
Meanwhile the lawyers and the litigants were also hurrying back to their houses. As I passed the gate of the magistrate courts, I saw a very tall man who had an injury on his head or forehead, was severely bleeding, and was walking all alone perhaps back to his house. No one talked to him or stopped him to help. This was the first scene I saw of that day’s events, followed by days of more unrests.
The violence and looting of that day that erupted across the country were also seen in the little suburb of wattala. Many Tamil shops and small factories, and other business places, were looted. There was no report of deaths in this particular suburb although there were many reports in the other parts of the country. When I returned home I found that in the house behind ours there was a Tamil family being protected by the villagers around. This family spent the night at our residence and in the early morning of the next day they left to some place, and to my knowledge they never returned to the village where they were residing.
When the curfew was lifted few days later, the discussions were all about various incidents that had taken place throughout the country, and some of the victims were known to us. I used this time also to go to the labor tribunals which were situated in the labor secretariat at Narahenpita. I knew a judge, a labor tribunal president, who was a Tamil and was liked by everybody living around the tribunal at Narahenpita. I learnt that he and his family had been severely attacked.
These riots were unusual that shocked everyone. Just a few days after the riots I wrote a poem that is one of the most reproduced ones I have ever written. I reproduced this poem below:
YET ANOTHER INCIDENT IN JULY 1983
Burying the dead
being an art well developed in our times, Our psychoanalysts having helped us much to keep balanced minds, whatever
that may mean, there is no reason really
for this matter to remain so vivid
as if s6me rare occurrence.
I assure you
I am not sentimental, never having had a “breakdown,” as they say.
I am as shy of my emotions
as you are, and attend to my daily tasks in a very matter-of-factway.
Being prudent, too, when a government says: “Forget!” I act accordingly.
My ability to forget has never been doubted.
I’ve never had any adverse comments on that score either.
Yet I remember
the way they stopped that car, the mob, there were four in that car:
A girl, a boy
between four and five it had seemed
and their parents, I guessed, the man and the woman. It was in the same way they had stopped other cars.
I had not noticed any marked difference.
A few questions in a gay mood, not to make a mistake, I suppose. Then they proceeded to action by then aroutine,
pouring petrol and allthatstuff.
Then someone, noticing something odd
as it were, opened the two left doors of the car, took a’)’ay the two children
resisting and crying as they were moved away from their parents.
Children’s emotions have to sometimes be ignored for their own good,
he must have thought.
Someone practical was quick, efficiently lighting a match.
An instant fire followed, adding one more to the many around.
Around the fire they chattered
of some new adventure,
A few scattered.
What the two inside felt or thought was nomatter.
Peace-loving people were hurrying home as if in aprocession.
Then suddenly, the man inside the car, his shirt and hair already on fire, broke open thedoor.
Then bending, took his two children.
Not even looking around,
as if executing a calculateddecision, he resolutely re-entered thecar.
Onceinside,helockedthedoor. I had heard that noisedistinctly.
Still that ruined car is there by the roadside with other such things.
MaybetheMunicipalitywiUremoveit one of thesedays··
to the capital’s garbage pit.
The cleanliness of the capital receives the Authority’s top priority.
Now this real life story is about a middle class Tamil family living in Colombo, the city they thought was theirs. They lived a happy life of co-existence with others where the issue of ethnicity had never been an issue. Colombo middle class lived in comfort and were cosmopolitan in nature. However, the family might have begun to notice that the attitudes and moods were slowly changing and they would not have thought one day their victimization would come. But that did come on that fatal day.
Their cars were stopped because they belonged to Tamil ethnicity. The mob proceeded almost by routine to put petrol all over the cars in order to set it alight. As it was set ablaze, someone noticed that there were two children also in the car, so by way of natural instinct of course they opened the doors and removed the children from the car. So now the children became onlookers while their parents were the sacrificial lambs facing death inside their own car.
Then something decisive happened. The father who was already facing burnings stepped out of the car, took the children, went back to the car and closed its door. Many people have talked about the meaning of this decisive action on the part of the father. Why could he not let the children survive? One of my friends, with whom I had friendship many years later, a former philosophy lecturer at the Peradeniya University, a Tamil whose family also migrated in the aftermath of this riot to Australia told me a suitable title for this poem, “Not in Your World”. Perhaps, this is what was working in the mind of that father.
This was not just the burning of a family but the end of an outlook people had to the circumstances of their life in Colombo. This was not their city anymore and the persons whom they considered their friends and neighbors, with whom they had friendly and loving relationships, have suddenly turned against them without any fault on their own part. The family was merely seen from the point of view of ethnicity they belonged to, and not as individuals who were living happily with others and were altogether enjoying cordial, friendly relationships.
Should the children watch their parents die being burnt inside the car? And, if they do what kind of psychological and emotional impact would this have in their lives? Was it not better to liberate them from that terrible way of living if they were to survive? So the father did what he thought best under that circumstances.
This poem was the summing up of the situation of the transformation taking place in the country. And the poem worked subconsciously in my mind. It was first published in the new Ceylon writings, a literary publication edited by Professor Yasmine Gunaratne. She devoted a whole volume of writings for July 1983 incidents. This poem was printed with another poem of mine titled, “Just Society”, which portrays the manner in which a riot was sponsored, or at least approved and supported, by the then president himself and was blamed on some leftist groups. The poem won the first prize of the collection together with a poem by Richard De Zoysa, a well-known journalist and an actor who paid the price of freedom of thought and expression, one of the most gruesome murders sometime later.
An internally peaceful society metamorphosed into a violent one. This transformation was not merely in terms of ethnicity but was in terms of how the internal problems within a society and a community was being dealt with. Violence became the mode of dealing with problems. This was to be repeated regularly in other incidents in the years to come. This psychology of resorting to violence in resolving problems transformed the attitudes of everyone. While the people who used violence, whether they be Tamil radicals or the mobs or the politicians, those who allowed the armed forces and the police to settle issues in whichever manner they would consider fit, changed a system. This change still remains.