25 June, 2022


June 1985 – May 1986: The Final Assault On Trincomalee And The Trappings Of A Colonial War

By Rajan Hoole –

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Border Aggression and Civilian Massacres – Part 11

During the period June 1985-May 1986 the document Massacres of Civilians lists after the attack on Dehiwatte in June, 3 massacres in August 1985 in which a total of 16 Sinhalese civilians were killed. There was a massacre in Namalwatte, Morawewa colonisation scheme in Trincomalee District during November 1985, where 11 were killed (6 were killed in August in the same place). In December a group abducted and killed 6 pilgrims to the Madhu shrine in the Mannar District. We will deal with another incident in February 1986 not mentioned in the document. These have the character of localised retaliation and do not represent a concerted policy at the leadership level of militant groups.

In the Morawewa area (Pankulam) for ex- ample, the Air Force killed 9 Tamil civilians in May 1985. This was a continuing pattern. In June (1985) itself the violence by the State briefly shifted north of Trincomalee town. On 4th June at Kumburupiddy, Kattukulampattu East, 25 houses of Tamils were attacked and the people were fired at from helicopters as they fled into the thickets and jungles. One civilian was killed and two, including a 12 year old boy, were injured. This was the basis for Athulathmudali’s story about 5 terrorists being killed after they supposedly fired and at a helicopter. The next day Thiriyai was attacked.

On 13th June, violence and arson against Tamils in Cottiar Division resumed. Mr. Athulathmudali was present in the area on this day. 900 houses of Tamils were burnt at Kattaiparichchan, Sambur, Chenaiyoor and Muthur. The arson continued in the coming days and Tamil civilians continued to be shot and killed along the roads and in paddy fields. In one incident in Lingapuram, Mr and Mrs Pathakuddy and their 3 children were shot and killed by the armed forces.

The Government was increasingly placing itself in the position of one fighting a colonial war. The forced evacuation of Thiriyai, the northernmost Tamil village in Trincomalee District whose inhabitants still remained, is another example. At 5.30 AM on 5th June, a low flying helicopter fired into the village scattering the residents helter-skelter. Within a few minutes, trucks rolled in carrying Air Force personnel who threatened the people to run before they are killed. The fleeing people from a distance heard explosions, as their houses started burning. Subsequently in the interior parts of the village and adjoining Tamil areas such as Kallampathai, more houses were burnt, bring- ing the number to over 700 houses destroyed (400 in Thiriyai). Substantial agricultural implements and stored paddy were also destroyed.

Most villagers fled the area. but some re- mained in a school building used as a refugee camp. On 10th August army personnel came to the school and opened fire at the refugees, some of whom were whiling away their time playing cards. Ten of them were killed, among whom were P. Mahadeva, principal of Thiriyai High School, K. Ehambaram, secretary, Thiryai Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation, K. Thurainayagam, president, Thiriyai Multi-Purpose Co-op Union and K. Narayanpillai, retired village headman. These incidents are from [TULF].

August 1985 when talks were going on in Thimpu was a violent month. The cease-fire was being observed in the breach except in Jaffna. On 14th August 6 Tamil passengers were dragged out by gunmen in the Trincomalee District and hacked to death.

The talks in Thimpu began on 10th August. The Daily News of the 17th published an item headlined Terrorists bait forces in Vavuniya, claiming that 21 civilians died in a shoot-out after a mine exploded 300 yards from town just miss- ing a passing army truck. The Police were quoted saying that there were a number of terrorists among the dead as well as 3 women and 2 children. The foreign media did not trust government claims. Thus when some Tamil sources said that 200 to 250 persons, including women and children, had been killed by the Army, it caught on like wild fire. There were also reports of a similar massacre in Trincomalee on 17th August. The Tamil delegates talking to the Sri Lankan government representatives in Thimpu walked out in protest. The Government found itself in a difficult position and up to a point, it suddenly wanted the truth to come out to limit the damage.

It was revealed in the Press on 18.8.85 that post mortem examinations had been done on 21 corpses by Dr. Sri Rajeswaran, DMO, Vavuniya. This was sourced to R. Vilvarajah, inquirer into sudden deaths. The Island on 21.8.85 quoted GA Vavuniya denying that he had told Christopher Moore of the BBC and Manchester Guardian that 200 civilians were killed. The truth was published in the Saturday Review of Jaffna based on two eyewitness accounts, where the editor Gamini Navaratne, a Sinhalese, personally interviewed one witness. The Saturday Review found that it was a staged incident. Who in au- thority was responsible for the incident, we do not know.

On the morning of 15th August, the Sinhalese residents at Thonikkal were shifted to Navagama near the Eretperiyakulam army camp. On the 16th morning a truck with soldiers stopped near a culvert close to the Sri Lanka Air Field Unit and planted something which on exploding caused minor damage to the culvert (an almost empty bus was allowed to pass over it at 7.00 AM). After the explosion, the Security Forces were on the scene firing at civilians. About 50 civilians ran into the house of former MP, C. Suntheralingam. While one group of soldiers surrounded the house, another group went in and ransacked the house. Once they came out, the group surrounding the place opened fire at the civilians. The Saturday Review published the names of 23 victims including two children and the wife of Sarvodaya representative Kathiramalai (who was later executed by the Tamil group EROS).

What happened in Trincomalee was less clear. Jeremy Clift reporting in the Daily News (21.8.85), quoted former principal and Trinco Citizens’ Committee Chairman K. Sivapalan denying the report that 250 civilians were killed in Sambaltivu. Sivapalan had said that no one was killed there, but 13 were killed in retaliation on 17th August after a mine exploded under an army vehicle. His son Gangadharan had been shot dead by the Army three months earlier. Other sources were quoted by Clift as say- ing that several people were reported missing in Sambaltivu and may be dead. The Saturday Review (24.8.85) reported that on the 17th the Army entered several houses and opened fire killing 5 children and 5 adults. The following day (Massacres of Civilians), 6 Sinhalese were killed by Tamil militants in Namalwatte, Trinco District. Although a cease-fire was on, the large number of Tamil civilians being killed by the Sri Lankan Forces was not reflected in the Colombo media. The coordinating body of Citizens Committees enumerated 311 Tamils killed in June 1985 which increased to 383 in September (Saturday Review 21.12.85).

The last of the large-scale attacks intended to cause destruction was a marathon which went on uninterrupted from 4th to 9th September along the northern coastal suburb of Trincomalee. It covered the town’s main shop- ping area in Central Road and Main Street, through Ehambaram Road, Veeranagar, Thirukadaloor, Manthottam, Uppuveli Navalar Road, up to the 3rd Mile Post, Uppuveli Junction. It was an operation involving Sinhalese home guards ably assisted by the national armed forces from land, sea and air. All premises, private and commercial, were looted before being committed to the flames.

It was a grand carnival of light, sound and screams. The Air Force fired from airborne helicopters, the Navy’s gunboats shelled from the sea and the Army, armed to the teeth, took up positions to the north of the isthmus so that the good work could go on without being spoilt by intruders. The main business was done by Sinhalese home guards brought from outside Trincomalee and service personnel in plain clothes.

Among the accomplishments of the operation was the destruction of the buildings of Sivananda Thapovanam, a home for 200 destitute children. A minimum of 1500 buildings owned by Tamils were destroyed, and all boats and fishing gear of Tamils were stolen or destroyed. 8 Hindu temples were desecrated and about 25 civilians were killed. Further destruction on such a scale was brought to an end because there was little else to destroy in the Trincomalee District. Foreigners were kept out to spare their sensibilities as well as to prevent their having yet another view of the country’s capacity for self- immolation.

The killing of 35 Sinhalese civilians in the Trincomalee District on 19th February 1986 was not reported in the document Massacres of Civilians. A convoy of refugees from Dehiwatte was proceeding towards Kantalai on the Allai- Kantalai Road with an army escort. It was led by a jeep containing the Seruvila Buddhist priest, which was followed by an army truck, 2 CTB buses and a lorry. They were refugees going to Kantalai to collect their dry rations and other essential items. The lorry, which was the last in the convoy and a quarter mile behind the next vehicle, was subject to a land mine attack. 35 civil- ians and 4 soldiers were killed. This was splashed in the papers the next day and Athulathmudali observed that young women and children had been murdered in a gruesome manner. It was claimed that two terrorists, who were armed with AK-47s, were killed by the Army. In this case the attackers may not have been serious about not hitting civilians (as with the troop train in Kilinochchi in January 1985 where a third of the dead were Tamil civilians), but the primary target seems to have been the Army. The same day, at the same time, another incident took place in the village of Thangavelayuthapuram in the southern sector of the Eastern Province about which the Government was silent until the Madras Hindu reported it.

The local Daily News of 25th February giving Athulathmudali’s refutation quoted from the Hindu report of the 21st: “More than 50 Tamils in- cluding old men, women and children were killed in a fresh wave of attacks by Sri Lanka’s armed forces … [According to local sources] the soldiers [i.e. STF troops] who arrived in armoured cars encircled the village and started shooting down Tamils. Helicopters also dropped bombs on the village. Shops and houses were razed to the ground.”

According to the refutation, the Security Forces had received information of the Tamil group EROS cultivating cannabis in the area and also cultivating paddy fields taken over from civilians. The STF as part of a 3 day combing operation surrounded the paddy field at 10.00 AM and found about 50 terrorists harvesting paddy. The terrorists opened fire and the troops retaliated killing 40 terrorists. The terrorists, the refutation added, came back and took video shots before cremating bodies.

Athulathmudali was quoted as saying that the President had agreed to order an immediate CID investigation into the incident at Thangavelayuthapuram… ‘where 40 terrorists of EROS were killed by the security forces on 19th morning’. In other words the CID were once more meant to confirm the Minister’s claim. Athulathmudali also had some words for the Batticaloa Citizens’ Committee: “The so-called citizens’ committee leaders who have made statements on the incident to the foreign media…made no complaint to the authorities.” Well, Paul Nallanayagam was arrested, charged and tried precisely for complaining to the authorities.

Thangavelayuthapuram is a settlement in cleared jungle west of the road from Thirukkovil to Komari. It was established in the 1950s by Federal Party activists, among whom was Mr. Ariyanayagam of Thambilivil, in the wake of anxiety over state-aided Sinhalese colonisation with the coming of the Gal Oya scheme. In the 70s, Plantation Tamil refugees from communal violence were also settled there. As is normal in the East some of the paddy fields may have belonged to Muslims who resided in towns. The Daily News report says that six Muslims were killed in that area 4 months earlier. The circumstances suggest that there may have been a dis- pute between a militant group and some Muslims, perhaps over the group wanting to cultivate their lands.

The Saturday Review report on the incident said that a local Muslim, Saheed of Addalachchenai, had come with the STF. But whoever was cultivating the land, whether the owners or some militant group, the dead were clearly regular harvest labourers who come from various places. 24 of them were local, 12 from Akkaraipattu, 3 from Chenkalady- Kommathurai (Batticaloa) and the tractor drivers. The action was typically STF. The victims were killed after being forced to lie face down on the ground for some time.

This was the state of civilian massacres during that period. Only the massacres of Tamils by the security forces were much more regular and intense. Lists prepared by the Co- ordinating Centre of Citizens’ Committees and published in the Saturday Review show the killing rate then to be above 2000 Tamils a year. In every Tamil village in the Trincomalee District we have visited (Report No.12), a handful to several dozens of civilians were killed during that period.

Where the Tamil groups were concerned, the EPRLF and PLOTE at a theoretical level held that they wished to link-up with like-minded (Left-leaning) Sinhalese. Although not deep rooted, it would have placed some constraint on the cadre and we have not come across killings of Sinhalese attributed to these groups. The TELO was a loose group with both good elements and bad but with no firm policy. Someone who wanted to put across ideas or publish good political literature could have found someone in the TELO to help him. But the leadership had no qualms about killing. Two senior TULF leaders Dharmalingam and Alalasundaram were killed in early September 1985. From the very beginning TELO were identified as the killers – e.g. the car in which Dharmalingam was abducted was identified as a TELO vehicle. The simultaneous abduction and murder of two prominent MPs with a following suggested orders from the top. The MPs had no quarrel with TELO and the nature of the group suggests prompting by Indian handlers – the RAW? This happened soon after the failure of the Thimpu talks. The LTTE and EROS had no qualms about killing Sinhalese, except that at this particular time they were still trying to attract sympathy from the world as ‘progressive’ liberation groups, and being known as outright Sinhalese killers would not have done them good. Yet, many group leaders would have turned a blind eye to killing Sinhalese.

They all went to the Thimpu conference at the height of their collective influence. By then, many areas of the North-East had become no go areas for the Sri Lankan forces. But a combination of internal killings, killings of their own civilians and Sinhalese civilians, had brought them down to a moral standing hardly higher than that of the Sri Lankan State. It was only too easy to impose obedience through the gun and the egos of most leaders had soared inordinately. Even their dealings with the people had become power relationships and lacked a sense of their rights and dignity.

Most of the Tamil militant groups went to the Thimpu talks with skeletons in their cupboard, and the talks became an exchange of unbridgeable theoretical positions on the question of the Tamils being a regionally defined nationality. They traded accusations and nothing was achieved for the people. Had they been convinced that it was wrong to kill Sinhalese and that Tamils should enjoy basic democratic freedoms, they could have pinned the Government down to concrete measures to benefit the people. Typical of their attitude was to have walked out after making exaggerated claims about numbers involved in the Vavuniya massacre. They got their headlines and after that, the truth did not matter. In the long run it was counter-productive because correspondents stopped trusting Tamil claims.

More productive would have been to have pinned the Government down to an impartial inquiry and discuss measures to prevent such incidents happening again. It became an exchange between two morally bankrupt sides. Only the LTTE was very clear that the Tamils should be given no rights whatsoever, that no life mattered (whether Sinhalese, Muslim or Tamil) and that the rights of the Tamil Nation were the same as the totalitarian authority of the Leader.

To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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Latest comment

  • 2

    “the truth did not matter”

    Yes Dr.,THE TRUTH DID NOT MATTER to UTHR ALSO.According to UTHR report 34,kandiah thayapararaja was admitted to the Kalubovila hospital on the 13th Sep.2009,and died on the 15th.

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