By Rajan Hoole –
Count Down To July 1983 – Part II
On 3rd June President Jayewardene declared the Public Security Ordinance to be in force. The Working Committee of the UNP had earlier called upon the President to put into effect all the regulations under the PSO to suppress terrorism. But incidents of violence against Tamils continued. These took place in Dehiwela, Panadura, Negombo, Kurunegala, Trincomalee, Talawakelle, Nawalapitiya, Kandy and Mt.Lavinia. At least 4 persons were killed in the South, an apothecary was stabbed in his dispensary in Mt.Lavinia and several shops were burnt. Two bombs were also hurled at the Tamil Congress leader Kumar Ponnambalam’s house in Colpetty.
But there was one big difference from what was to happen on 25th July 1983. Acting IGP S.S. Joseph ordered divisional chiefs to crack down hard on acts of arson, looting and incitement. Senior DIG Suntheralingam expressed confidence that the lawless elements could be subdued. More than 100 of them were detained. Edward Gunawardene, DIG Metropolitan, said that several rabble rousers had been arrested in the Kirullapone area. This up-beat confidence was in sharp contrast to their inaction and confession of inability to stop the violence during the latter days of July. President Jayewardene left on a trip to Egypt and Rome from 12th to 27th June, after swearing in Premadasa as acting president.
On the eve of his departure he appealed to the people not to incite violence, emphasising discipline among the Armed Forces. To whom was he appealing at a time when the SLFP was in disarray and his power almost total? During the communal violence of 1981, Jayewardene had publicly blamed his own party men.
At the time of Jayewardene’s departure, some token action too was being taken against indiscipline in the Army. On 6th June there began desertions from the Rajarata Rifles after 4 men were sacked over the burning in Jaffna on 18th May. Lt.Col L.D.C.E. Waidyaratne was made the new commanding officer following the interdiction of Lt.Col K.M.S. Perera over the desertions. A further 5 officers who criticised the new CO were reportedly sacked along with all 96 deserters.
But following Jayewardene’s return, there was a notable deterioration in the situation. On 27th June, the day Jayewardene returned, Amirthalingam told Parliament that soldiers had shot at a passenger bus proceeding to Jaffna, killing the driver and that several injured were in hospital. The bus was burnt. Also the Army had shot dead a youth sleeping on the verandah of the TULF’s Nallur MP, Mr. Sivasithamparam’s home. The latter complained that while there had been 6 homicides by the security forces in the North, the Police had failed to apprehend a single culprit. Rajaguru, then DIG Jaffna, was made IGP in 1995.
However it was the violence in Trincomalee that formed the immediate cause of a rapidly deteriorating situation in the North from the onset of July. The press and the people in Jaffna saw it clearly as a sinister attack on Tamils in Trincomalee by politically organised Sinhalese hoodlums with the backing of the Security Forces. The Press in Colombo represented it as clashes of rivalry between Tamil and Sinhalese business interests, hiding the true facts. (See the next chapter.)
On 30th June the TELF President, Dr. S.A. Tharmalingam and Secretary, Mr. Kovai Mahesan, sent from Jaffna telegrams about Trincomalee to a number of Western embassies in Colombo, as well as to the embassies of Cuba, Iraq, Libya, the USSR, the PLO, the UN and the Apostolic Nunciate. The contents of the telegram which appeared in the press on 1st July, were: “Tamils experience pathetic situation in Trincomalee. Killing, looting, arson now taking place under government declared curfew. Racist security forces behind violence. We seek immediate intervention of friendly nations to stop genocide of Tamils”.
The TELF also called for a hartal in Jaffna on 1st July to protest against the violence in Trincomalee. TELA, a new breakaway group from the TELO, led by Oberoi Thevan who was responsible for the bomb at Hotel Oberoi in Colombo, marked its advent by a series of attacks on government property. Ten bogeys of the Yarl Devi train were burnt causing damage estimated at Rs.60 million. 11 CTB buses worth Rs. 7.7 million were also burnt. Several sub-post offices and an AGA’s office in Jaffna were burnt during the coming days. All this of course had nothing to do with the TELF. Dr. Tharmalingam was an old time nationalist and former Jaffna mayor who would very likely have felt uncomfortable with gun carrying youth. On hearing of the atrocities against Tamils in Trincomalee his blood would have boiled, as would that of most people in Jaffna. It was then a growing sentiment in Jaffna that only foreign intervention could save the Tamils. In this sense the TELF telegram was an accurate reflection of Tamil sentiment.
As for burning rolling stock, buses and government offices, it was far from having the support of the people. It was anarchic and unwanted as reflected in the headline of D.B.S. Jeyaraj’s piece in the Sunday Island (10.7.83): “Militants pour oil on troubled waters”.
A gesture from the President strictly and impartially enforcing the law in Trincomalee would have gone a long way towards calming the situation. But instead the Government only took cognizance of the challenge to its authority in Jaffna and tightened the screws of repression. The PSO was invoked. The Competent Authority, Douglas Liyanage, using powers vested in him under the PSO, prohibited publication and sealed the offices of the Suthanthiran and Saturday Review on 2nd July. Further, Dr. Tharmalingam and Kovai Mahesan were detained under Emergency Regulations. Jayewardene had formed the habit of using the PSO which was passed when he was in the State Council, in 1947, at the drop of a pin. He had used it during the strike of 1980 and to seal the opposition press and detain key opponents during the campaign for the infamous 1982 Referendum.
The State owned Sunday Observer of 3.7.83, accusing the sealed papers of grossly distorting the news, referred to the destruction of property following the ‘hartal’ called by the TELF. It added: “There is reason to believe these papers would make use of these incidents to exacerbate communal feelings as they have done in the past and create a climate for violence.”
This event was an important step in the progressive polarisation of perceptions in the North and the South. What was significant to the Southerners was the killing of about three dozen servicemen since 1975 and destruction of state property. To the Northerners, what was of significance was the State’s responsibility for the continuing violations. These included the killing of Tamils in communal attacks, deaths in prison, ongoing killings in Trincomalee, recent killings of half a dozen civilians in Jaffna, no arrests being made, and the ongoing arson directed at Tamil property, beginning with the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. The Saturday Review for them was their paper, giving the factual position on incidents that mattered most to them, being widely read in Colombo and abroad. Who was after all inciting violence? To the Tamils these events were further confirmation that it was only through brute force that the Government would deal with them.
The arrest of Dr. Tharmalingam was on the one side plain repression. On the other, it was paranoia riding the heights of the ridiculous. In its wake the Southern media were treating the public to a grand Tamil conspiracy straddling India and the West. The late Ranil Weerasinghe, the Sun correspondent on security matters wrote in the Weekend (3.7.83): “The Government is to take a series of measures under Emergency Regulations against persons whose allegedly provocative actions have contributed towards creating instability in the North… Members of shadow groups it was claimed, work through various organisations to whip up communalism through constant attacks on the State and the Armed Forces. Some of the groups which were manipulated and funded by organisations abroad, grew like parasites on the misery of others”.
Such was the perception in the South of groups like the TRRO (Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation, with which Mr. K. Kandasamy was associated) and Gandhiyam. In the meantime Amirthalingam, on a visit to Trincomalee, sent a telegram to President Jayewardene (D.B.S. Jeyaraj in Sunday Island 3.7.83): “Reports of violence by both sides absolutely incorrect. Over 16 persons have been killed – all Tamils. About 40 hospitalised with serious injuries. Over 35 of whom are Tamils. Over 150 houses burnt – over 95% of which Tamil owned. Services conduct searches in Tamil areas followed by thugs attacking Tamil people and setting fire to houses. Inspite of heavy loss of life and property of Tamils, very few Sinhalese arrested. 80% of those arrested are Tamils. Sinhalese offenders immediately or thereafter released. Police and Services definitely partisan. Tamils can defend themselves if Forces are withdrawn. Forces prevent self-defence by Tamils and provide opportunities for attack by hoodlums. Tamil officers sent to Trincomalee totally inadequate. Please send sufficient senior and low-ranking Tamil officers to restore confidence among Tamils. Please stop the massacre of innocent Tamils in their own homeland by hoodlums with the connivance of the Forces.”
In the meantime there had been demonstrations in Tamil Nadu in protest of violence against Tamils in Sri Lanka. One demonstrator, Shah Jehan, who tried to immolate himself was hospitalised with burns. Back home in Sri Lanka, it was increasingly a dialogue of the deaf, with the Tamils and Sinhalese concerned about totally different things. In the South people were making connections and seeing conspiracies that the Tamils were hardly aware of.
Continuing from the previous day, Ranil Weerasinghe in the Sun of 4.7.83 drew connections between the burning of the train in Jaffna, demonstrations in Tamil Nadu, and previous symbolic attempts to declare UDI by some Tamil expatriate lobbies – moves opposed by the TULF : “Two main pressure groups based in London and Madras, thwarted twice in their attempts to declare UDI and set up a government in exile in Madras, are believed to be pursuing this course of action through one terrorist group in the field and several political and other such covert organisations… Operating through their various shadow groups, these rabid Eelamists are once again embarking on a strategy to create unrest in the country, to be timed with an anti-Sri Lanka campaign aimed at gaining sympathy for their cause.”
This was the high point in the life of TELA (Tamil Eelam Liberation Army), whose fame depended on the needs of columnists fishing for conspiracies. Its leader Oberoi Thevan had left the TELO after a quarrel with Prabhakaran in 1981, who was then in the same group, and started his breakaway group. He was killed in a despicable manner on Prabhakaran’s orders in August 1983, barely 3 weeks after the July violence. Any influence the Tamil expatriate lobbies referred to had on Prabhakaran, they soon discovered, was almost nil. It must be said to Weerasinghe’s credit that he was prepared to be shocked when he visited Trincomalee and to write about it honestly.
*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