By Rajan Hoole –
Count Down To July 1983 – Part V
On 22nd July, Appapillai Amirthalingam made his final speech in Parliament until his brief reappearance six years later. It was the speech of a man plumbing the depths of despair. He was helpless against a State bent on a vindictive course against the Tamils in general, resorting to state terrorism. A news black-out too was in force. He asked, “Has the Government by exercising powers under Emergency restored food supplies to the North? The Government has failed to provide essential supplies to the North… Letters sent by the TULF to the President have not been published in the English Press… The burning of the train [by militants] is an act of madness. But an attempt is being made even to stop private buses going to the North. At Iratperiyakulam near the army camp, six private coaches plying to the North had been smashed. A bus from Pt Pedro to Colombo was shot at by the Army and the driver, who was a Sinhalese, has been injured…”
Amirthalingam was far from being a man without faults. But from 1981 his conduct had been so restrained as to bring about dissension within his own party. His statements had been factual, for the most part avoiding emotional overtones. He had put his weight against provocative gestures such as a UDI. His appeal to Tamil sentiment across the Palk Straits had been minimal. All this was held against him by his erstwhile followers. Apart from practical considerations, he had worked in the belief that a satisfactory political solution could be arrived at through dialogue. He was too much of the leader to run away. He was later very much a party to the Indo-Lanka Accord. In trying to make it work, he would even take on his erstwhile protege, Prabhakaran, calling him a ‘Pol Pot’. It was Prabhakaran who finally determined Amirthalingam’s fate by the only weapon he had come to believe passionately in.
There was more than a touch of madness in the air, even a touch of the ridiculous. On the same day (22.7) the Sun gave a very short summary of the 33 page report prepared by SSP Tyrell Gunetilleke of the Special Investigation Unit on the ‘Naxalite Plot’ which was used by Jayewardene to override parliamentary elections. “The report”, it said, “has not set out any concrete finding, but has set out a tale of intrigue full of juicy tit bits and reveals several contradictions in statements of opposition personalities”. The report said in conclusion: “If the information being investigated is correct, the conspirators [apparently intending to harm Jayewardene, Mrs. Bandaranaike and her son] would have been acting from a position of power after their anticipated victory at the presidential polls. In these circumstances, there need be no external preparation and the principle of ‘need to know’in a coterie of hard core miscreants. In these circumstances if the conspirators were in power, all they had to do was to ensure that the Police and the armed services looked the other side.”
‘If’ is the key word here. The 33-page report was circumlocution for the conclusion ‘No substance’. It also showed Tyrell Gunetilleke as a policeman with a sense of humour. A few days earlier the Government had been moved to issue a statement on why it deported David Selbourne. The allegations against him were that he had after his visit in 1982 published articles in the Guardian and Illustrated Weekly about the harassment of Tamils by the Sinhalese armed forces which subsequently appeared in the Saturday Review (- the then recently sealed English weekly from Jaffna). It was further alleged that he had discussions during his recent visit with anti-government (i.e. democratic opposition) politicians, including the TULF hierarchy. The most novel allegation against Selbourne, was that his hotel booking had been made by Desmond Fernando, son-in-law of the late communist leader Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe. It was a sad commentary on the state of Sri Lankan society that the Government took it for granted that the people, civil society and the opposition would swallow all this without protest.
Another example of the madness that gripped the air was given by ‘Prospero’ – widely believed to be Ajith Samaranayake, who was among the editorial writers for the Island. In a reflection ten years later in the Counterpoint of July 1993, he said: “This unprecedented campaign described as a pogrom by the Tamils and dubbed the ‘Black July’ by concerned commentators was preceded by an equally unprecedented campaign against India in the Press, both government-owned and private. Following concern expressed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the Government’s move to dispose of dead bodies in the North without an inquest, national newspaper editors were summoned to the Foreign Ministry and requested to orchestrate a campaign of editorial vituperation against India and Mrs. Gandhi. Needless to say the gentlemen of the Fourth Estate, most of whom do not even care to conceal their dislike of India, were only too willing to oblige the commissars.”
It may be added that the ‘pogrom’ commenced on the 24th of July. On the 29th the Government was forced to accept a visit by Indian Foreign Minister Narashimha Rao who came to assess the situation. Since then India which had never interfered previously came to have a firm influence over Sri Lankan affairs.
Yet, even the little democratic good sense that was left in the country would have made it difficult for the Government to go on with mounting abuses in the South, which were rooted in its lack of legitimacy. Thus whether planned or not planned, the communal holocaust came as a much needed diversion for the Government.
As fate would have it the country’s descent into the anarchy of the holocaust came on the heels of an important military breakthrough. On 15th July the Army in Jaffna ambushed and killed Charles Anthony alias Seelan, a trusted lieutenant of Prabhakaran’s, and one of his companions, in the Chavakachcheri area. The Colombo Press was highly elated by it. Evidently the Army in Jaffna under Brigadier J.G. Balthaazer had made an intelligence break into the movements and safe-houses of some key LTTE men. On the night of 23rd July, there was to be a commando raid to get Sellakili in one of his hiding places. A routine patrol from the Mathagal camp had been asked by radio (see T.D.S.A. Dissanayake) to shorten its route and get back to base early. This patrol was caught in a land mine ambush at Tinnevely, led by Sellakili of the LTTE. Thirteen soldiers including an officer were killed. Two survived. The commando raid was called off and reinforcements were sent to the area – which was known from regular radio contact maintained by the ill-fated patrol.
Ironically, on the LTTE’s side it was Sellakili alone who was killed. To this day few would swear how he was killed. As a senior man who was very free with Prabhakaran, and whose personal life was a little wild, he was something of a liability for the new image Prabhakaran was trying to give himself and his organisation. If the Army had kept its cool and been disciplined, the event would have been a minor set back. But by going on the rampage and killing more than 50 civilians in Jaffna over the next few days, the Army threw away all its intelligence gains and started a process which by mid-1985 confined it to barracks.
The anti-Tamil build up in the South launched by a volatile and paranoid Government was in no way conducive to maintaining discipline in the security forces. Out of this build up came shock troops to conduct an anti-Tamil pogrom. All the fantasies which the Press in Colombo had been feeding the Sinhalese in accompaniment to the chorus, by waxing loud about Tamil Conspirators International and Perfidious India, became in one rush of insanity, a self-fulfilling prophecy as developments in the coming years showed.
There were indeed several developments being driven, mainly by the Government, to such crisis proportions that their culmination could not have been contained within a society committed to civilised norms. They were all inter-linked aspects of the State’s repressive outlook. Propaganda had softened the South to an extent where, whatever the reservations people had about the Government’s attitude, conviction was lacking to call a halt to a disaster that would in five years cost the South even more grievously. The several developments converged to explosive proportions in July, contributing to the violence of the pogrom.
*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