By Rajan Hoole –
The Dress Rehearsal In Trincomalee – Part VI
The killing of two Air Force men in Vavuniya by PLOTE militants, was followed by the security forces going on the rampage and widespread arson. Many felt that these reprisals would be continued in Trincomalee where elements already charged with patriotic fervor were waiting to let go. The PSO was promulgated and the security forces were given the ‘freedom of the battlefield’ to combat terrorism even in places where there was little evidence of it. What then happened in Trincomalee during June, was either not reported in the media or reported in a distorted manner despite the fact that the Tamils were living through hell.
There were a few stray items in the press suggesting that something disturbingly unusual was going on: Tamil youth killed in Mullipuram, Kantalai… Two huts burnt in Andankulam… A man shot in the leg in Kanniya… Bus proceeding to Jaffna shot at and set on fire, driver killed, several passengers hospitalised, and some ran into the jungle and are missing… Small child hacked to death…. In Moraweva (where the Sinhalese population was boosted by recent colonisation) four were shot and cut to death, of whom two were children 1 year and 4 years….
Most of these items were reports of what TULF MPs had said in Parliament and were frequently late, as getting information was difficult. The Press reported that there was a curfew in Trincomalee and that several persons were detained over the violence, but was extremely vague about what was really going on.
The first indication that what was going on in Trincomalee was planned and had official backing, strangely enough, came not from the media, but from a speech made in Parliament by Gamini Lokuge, UNP MP for Kesbewa, who had in May won a violent bye-election. He is one of those close to Mathew & Co. who had made Trincomalee their hobby-horse. He had recently taken over from a foreigner, Welcombe Hotel in Trincomalee. Renamed Seven Islands Hotel, it acquired a reputation as a meeting place of conspirators.
Lokuge said in Parliament on 27th June: “The Sinhalese people had banded themselves together in Trincomalee because they have been harassed by the Tamils there in the past. Are you [Tamils] trying to chase the Sinhalese people away as you did in 1956?”
Even at this late stage, the Press continued to mislead. The Island of 29th June carried an item : “Army, Police open fire to stop mini-war in the Trinco bazaar area between Tamil and Sinhalese traders…. Two Hindu temples set on fire.” The Sun editorial of 2nd July asked whether it was the Armed Forces and Police being at loggerheads or commercial rivalry, that was responsible for the violence in Trincomalee?
Even months after the event it seemed hard to write the truth plainly. T.D.S.A. Dissanayake in his Agony of Sri Lanka put it somewhat humorously (p. 59): “In the Trincomalee district the Sinhala population was of the opinion that the Tamils would evict them forcibly to create the state of Tamil Eelam. Hence they took a pre-emptive strike and the Tamils retaliated. The Sinhala people had the tacit support of some sections of the Armed Forces, the Tamils had the open support of the TULF.” (Our emphasis!)
The general pattern was for the security forces to go and ‘search’ a particular Tamil area, take in a few young men on ‘suspicion’ and ensure that the place was defenceless. When they left, the organised hoodlums moved in. Later in July when things were more open, naval personnel were seen with cotton swabs and cans of oil, which they used for acts of arson in Tamil owned premises.
However a commendable, and even prophetic, article appeared in the Weekend of 10th July 1983. The writer, the late Ranil Weerasinghe, demonstrated that he could write very objectively when he saw for himself, rather than rely on doubtful sources. Given below are excerpts from his article, “Who fiddled while Trinco was burning?”:
“18 deaths have been recorded over a one month period and every single one of them Tamil…Indeed one wonders whether the Government strategists and so-called military analysts are anything but blinkered bureaucrats stumbling from one major mistake to another. Otherwise, one cannot reconcile how the State, which by now must surely realise that the ethnic problem is the biggest stumbling block to development, can allow the situation to deteriorate and its cancerous tentacles to gain a hold on more and more parts of the country.
“The local government elections should have made it clear that the Tigers had no influence there.
“The end result is that the Tigers or any other militant group can become more and more acceptable to the Tamils in the East, not as subversives, but as freedom fighters willing to help defend them, not only against their aggressors, but also against their ‘military oppressors’ who allegedly turn a blind eye to the activities of their assailants….
“The Government must rethink all the outdated strategies of the past and immediately evolve fresh moves to solve this burning issue which slowly but relentlessly moves towards a major holocaust, (our emphasis)…
“The Tigers have begun by making mistakes….burning trains…attacking police stations…AGAs offices etc. The people sometime must in the face of such inconveniences turn against the terrorists unless the latter can, as it is happening at the moment, convince the public that these are repressive moves by the Government and not a direct responsibility of terrorist action.”
It was perhaps the last time for many long years when a Sinhalese would, or could, write in such a frank manner. As we would see later, journalism after the July ’83 holocaust, which Weerasinghe had prescience of in Trincomalee, became an even more untruthful, suffocating and conformist affair.
Weerasinghe’s article also quoted S.H.P. de Silva, a long time Sinhalese resident of Trincomalee : “The trouble had been allowed to develop because of weak administration and the slowness of the Government to react. It is absurd only to call upon the people to uphold peace. When the leaders at the top work for peace, the people will co- operate. It is high time the Government takes a decision on whether the appeals by the Tamil community are just and a response should be made either way without keeping the country in limbo like this.”
It was a sober demand from a Sinhalese who had to live in close proximity to Tamils. The cause of such people was to be grossly distorted in the coming years. Particularly so by crusaders from Colombo who while supposedly taking up the cause of Sinhalese in ‘border areas’ were only ensuring that their plight became impossible.
As for the Government, there were no signs of remorse. The meeting a government ministerial team headed by Gamini Diassanayake had with GAs of the North and East on the eve of the July 1983 violence had some very disturbing overtones. Gamini Dissanayake told the GAs, “There were people with no right of settlement being trans-rooted from plantations to new areas. Sri Lanka is too small to have one land policy for one district and another for some other districts with the entire gamut of food and other commodity transportation and construction activity, which had a political connotation with a threat to the unity of the State… The Government would soon be enacting new legislation to give the GAs new powers with the support of the Police, judicial, ministerial and other government bodies to prevent exploitation of land resources...”
Deputy Minister Percy Samaraweera said,
“Hundreds of estate workers of Indian origin… who were supposed to have been repatriated under the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement have been found to have been resettled in the Trincomalee District. No GA can under any political pressure from separatist organiastions deviate from this land policy…”
The thrust of the meeting reported in the Sun of 20th July 1983 was clear. Also associated in the meeting was Minister K.W. Devanayagam who in 1975 had helped starving Tamils evicted from the estates to settle in the Batticaloa District. The intention of Dissanayake’s contemplated legislation (see below & Sect. 20.4) was no doubt to act tough with Tamils from the Hill Country and to make it easier to settle Sinhalese. There were indeed extra-legal connotations.
The activity described by the ministers is the alarmist version of the work of Gandhiyam. All the work of the Gandhiyam had been stopped by the arrest and detention of its leaders, Rajasundaram and David, in early April. Rajasundaram had been tortured and was killed in Welikade Prison in a most horrible manner exactly a week from the publication of this report. It showed that the Government’s fear of the Gandhiyam had assumed psychic proportions. The refugees from the Hill Country around Trincomalee had already been terrorised from April. The next act in their drama was even more inhuman.
Following the violence that began in Trincomalee in early June 1983, a large number of Tamils of both local and Indian origin were living in refugee camps. The following account of the singular event which took place on 23rd July 1983, is taken from our Report No. 11:
The refugees of Indian origin displaced from places including Pankulam, Alles Garden and Kappalthurai (near 6th milepost, Kandy Road) were in refugee camps at Nilaveli, Sambaltivu, Pankulam and Trinco town among others.
An order went down the line through Captain Marshall of the Navy, Co-ordinating Officer/ Trincomalee, to the AGAs, to compile separate lists of Tamil refugees of Indian and local origin. Senior Tamil officers, such as the Additional GA, were kept in the dark. Later, one night, hand-picked Sinhalese staff officers from the Trincomalee Kacheri were asked to go with the lists in the company of the security forces to the refugee camps above. They were asked to get hold of the AGA concerned or the Grama Sevaka (Headman) of the division if the AGA could not be located.
The names of Indian Tamils were read out, after the night callers had aroused the refugees from their sleep. Terrified families meekly came forward and got into commandeered CTB buses as they were ordered. Even if some of the family were not present, the rest were ordered to get in, their pleas being of no avail. The GA/Trincomalee, a Sinhalese, was then out of town. About mid-night the Tamil Additional GA was aroused from his sleep by a telephone call from Captain Marshall. The Additional GA was told of the plan then under execution. The call, he was given to understand, was to keep him informed for courtesy’s sake.
Several busloads of Indian Tamils were driven under armed escort to various parts of the Hill Country and dumped in places with which they had no connection. Many families who had already suffered from the violence of 1977 and ‘83 agonised for weeks not knowing what became of their kin from whom they were forcibly parted. Most deportees collected whatever relief payment was available and eventually found their way back to Trincomalee.
Captain Marshall, a Burgher, himself acted under orders from the government in Colombo and was deeply unhappy. He was powerless when naval ratings under his command ran amok in Trincomalee town during July 1983.
The deportations above followed directly from Gamini Dissanayake’s meeting with the GAs a few days earlier. It was also proposed to vest the GAs and AGAs with draconian powers to destroy buildings and use provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act to deal with persons of Plantation Tamil origin settled in the North- East and organisations which helped them (see Sect. 20.4 end). Note that a precedent had already been set by the burning of the houses of these people in Pankulam on the AGA’s orders. This was a case of bad laws precipitated by bad practice.
The laws proposed had some very curious features. The GAs were to be empowered to use the Police, Army or Navy in doing the dirty work. What was the Navy doing here? It naturally fell into place because of the valuable combat experience it had acquired for this work in Trincomalee during June & July 1983. Here we have the origins of JOSSOP. Because the latter had its head quarters in Vavuniya where the Air Force had a facility, it too was drafted into the job of chasing and corralling Plantation Tamils. Note also the crucial role here for the Sinhalese GA in Trincomalee.
These developments preluded a concerted policy of demographic transformation, whose beginning, although hidden by the violence of July 1983, was part of the same programme and was no less insidious. This will be taken up in Chapters 14 & 20.
*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