28 October, 2020

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Recognizing And Regretting The Excesses Of July 1983

By Rajiva Wijesinha –

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP

Perhaps the clearest test of a pluralistic outlook amongst Sri Lankans, to say nothing of basic decency too, is their response to the events of July 1983. Anyone fit to pass the test sees it as an aberration in Sri Lankan history, an outrage in which defenceless Tamils were systematically persecuted.

Those who offer excuses or play down the event seem to me morally repugnant. That is why, despite his comparative efficiency and honesty, I think Ranil Wickremesinghe would not be a suitable leader for Sri Lanka. His comments soon after the riots, when he played down their impact, and claimed that far worse things had happened to the Sinhalese because of the Bandaranaike policy of nationalization of businesses, were disgusting.

Since he also claimed that that policy had not affected businesses in the hands of minorities, he was in a sense parroting the Cyril Mathew line that was one of the reasons behind the attacks on Tamil businesses in Colombo, namely greed and the use of emotive racism to suppress competition. I can only hope that those politicians and decision makers now in government who are encouraging the Bodhu Bala Sena, and the shadowy forces behind it that are trying to knock out successful Muslim commercial enterprises, realize that they are repeating history and behaving just as a more callow Ranil Wickremesinghe did in his youth.

But while that sort of indulgence to the racists of 1983 was appalling, equally negative are those Tamil nationalists who play down the exceptional nature of what happened thirty years ago, and present it as simply something in a continuum of Sinhala persecution of Tamils. That is nonsense, parallel to the nonsense of those who do not recognize the exceptional nature of the LTTE, and use it to attack all Tamil politicians. We should not allow such obfuscation of the difference between Tamil political agitation and the terrorism of the LTTE.

Apologists for the LTTE, as many members of the TNA were (with more reason given that they were under threat), behaved badly as Mr Wickremesinghe did in 1983. But they are qualitatively light years away from those who actually perpetrated brutalities, the thugs of 1983 as well as the LTTE – with the quantitative excesses of the LTTE and the refinements of brutality over the years (as were graphically described to me last week during a visit to Batticaloa by someone who had escaped from the place where sentences of death were carried out) making them infinitely more dangerous and therefore necessitating the sustained war we finally realized we had to fight against them to conclusion.

What made 1983 such an aberration? Apologists for the LTTE argue that there were similar riots in 1958 and 1977 and 1981, and there were similar excesses during the conflict such as happened in Chenmani and more recently to the students in Trincomalee. But the riots in 1958, and I believe those in 1977 too, were excesses by individuals which government stopped as soon as possible. In the former case, when Mr Bandaranaike did not feel able to give the necessary orders, he handed over control to the then Governor General who, together with the armed forces, dealt firmly with the rioters. Similarly, while there were excesses by the armed forces, systemic in the eighties, from the nineties on policies have been markedly different, and in line with international law. Those who committed crimes at Chenmani were charged and several are still in jail, and finally we have realized the need to deal firmly with those who killed the youngsters in Trincomalee.

But no action was taken against the rioters of 1983, and they were in fact provided with support by elements in the government, voters’ lists to identify Tamil houses, and transport to Colombo in the first days of the riots, and then to other places when the riots spread. I believe the same thing happened in 1983, when a Member of Parliament led the riots in Ratnapura, to be only demoted afterwards, but then brought back into power and prominence when men of violence were needed to lead the government lists in the first Provincial Council Elections in 1988.

In both instances the mayhem stopped not because civilized forces in government had asserted themselves, but because of foreign pressure. In 1981 it was after an Indian tourist was killed, and the Indian government made it clear that this could not be tolerated, that Jayewardene reined in his forces, forces he had unleashed when the media ran a stream of propaganda against Tamils as defence against efforts to highlight the abuse the government had engaged in during the Jaffna District Development Council elections. In 1983, the West, which had backed Jayewardene unquestioningly before then, to the extent of condoning his crooked referendum that postponed elections for six years, made it clear he had gone too far, so that in mid-stream as it were he changed tack.

So the man who on July 28th claimed that the riots were the understandable reaction of the Sinhalese to efforts to divide the country, and used this as an excuse to introduce a constitutional amendment that drove the TULF out of Parliament, three days later allowed his Ministers to claim that the riots were the actions of Marxists. He therefore arrested members of the Communist and the Revolutionary Trotskyist parties, while the JVP was proscribed and went underground, from where it organized much more effectively than before.

In the late eighties the country suffered from that wholly unfair persecution of the JVP. For thirty years we suffered because of course the main effect of the riots of July was dwindling of the influence of moderate Tamils and an increase of the power of the terrorists – with the LTTE swiftly eliminating its rivals and taking centre stage. Their activities were helped by the bitterness of a now swollen diaspora, with many of those who had left Sri Lanka after July 1983 unable to forget the terror and the humiliation they had suffered at the hands of what they understandably saw as government forces.

I have long been suggesting to those in charge of such matters that we should have a day of mourning for all those who have suffered, and the most suitable day for this would be July 23rd. Such a step has also been suggested by the LLRC and I fail to understand why we have not acted on this. It is high time that, thirty years on, we reflect on the enormity of what was done then, and try to make some belated amends on behalf of the collective nation.

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    To the Editors of Colombo Telegraph:
    When are you going to conduct a poll to pick the most mealy-mouthed and devious among the apologists for the most violent and corrupt and racist government ever to run this country?
    Even before you do, I’d like to nominate this unmentionable – Rajiva Wijesinha – to join the list in which Dayan Jayatilleka, Malinda Seneviratne, Chandraprema & Co. should also feature.
    Come on, CT, let’s give credit to those who’ve earned it! It’s long overdue and we should not omit any who’ve suddenly “seen the light.”

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    “..belated amends on behalf of the collective nation” – certainly wise and fair thought, but Professor, I do not see this regime as one that has an iota of such intention. Instead they use ’83 style tactics to drum up the muck of the barrel vote to ensure their sustained vaccuming of national resources into their bellies. They are more dangerous than the personalities and regimes that led to the ’83 riots…no Sri Lankan can expect a future worth looking forward to at this rate..

    BTW, I recall as a boy in ’83 watching a Sinhala mom walking over and through the debris of burnt Tamil grocery stores…collecting cans of food and unburnt grocery etc…today her eldest son is an Island Reconvicted Criminal (IRC) and noted heroin addict, second died in police custody …their family home in the shanty was bulldozered by the army, without warning to pave they way for the vaccum machine…

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      Years after 7/83 I stopped my car at Dean’s Road to buy some fruits.
      A man of the area (age 60s) approached me and said I will not know him but remembers the 4-days looting of my Bungalow in the vicinity of the
      General Hospital. He said one of the men who owned a Hotel, who eventually possessed my fridge, freezer and so on died – electrocuted while trying to repair the fridge. His point was that was retribution.
      I smiled and thanked him and merely said, not just me and my family,
      but the whole country lost in that dark week of July ’83.

      Senguttuvan

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    That 1956, 1958 may have been different, in that there was no organised State complicity in both, compared to the nation-wide attacks on Tamils and their assets in 1977, 1981, 1983 and later – where State actors and assets were very much at play; in all of them there is a common denominator – an open discussion in which is often avoided. It is that feature that has destroyed all that was good
    and positive in post-colonial Ceylon/Sri Lanka since 1952/56. It is that mischievous and sinister factor that has continuously challenged Parliamentary democracy in the country unabashedly asserting itself as the real power in this plural land. Unless we come out with a popular, consensual political leadership to rein in this corrosive conspiratorial group to ensure their functioning outside the political area, one can see little hope for the country to come out of the piling socio-economic misery that has bedevilled an entire nation for far too long.

    Senguttuvan

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    Unlike earlier responses, I welcome RW’s broaching of this subject. It was indeed sad to hear young Michael Mendis in a recently televised interview confess to not having heard of this national tragedy. The mayhem of July 1983 remains one of the most obnoxious events of our history and all of us who played a part in it should hang our heads in shame at the memory of those dark days. We should never forget the events that led up to it, and as a people we should ensure it never happens again, and to this end we should educate the younger generations and never let them forget.
    An annual day of remembrance is a laudable proposal but I fear it is not going to happen anytime soon. Not as long as those who govern us cower to the vituperative ‘elephant in the room’, mostly dressed in saffron and enjoying high patronage.

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      Well, anyway, the painter Chandragupta Thenuwara gave some of us
      (who will never forget such terrible happenings)
      the opportunity to “remember” July ’83 in company, as it were,
      by dedicating his current exhibition(opened at 5pm this evening at the Wendt Gallery)to its memory. As far as I could tell there were people there from all our ethnic groups, all hoping, surely, that we will never witness such another conflagration in this country.

      I walked home in the rain under the marvellous trees that still line parts of Thurstan Road (for how long?)& unable to shake off the feeling that this country is just about the pits, I put on a film called “Tears of Gaza”, made in 2010, about a situation that is, surely, even worse than ours. A situation that seems incapable of solution. But only the night before I had finished reading a book by Miko Peled, the Zionist son of a Zionist father, General Matti Peled, & grandson of the Zionist leader Avraham Katznelson who signed Israel’s declaration of “independence”. Miko served in the Israeli army but did not pursue soldiering as a profession, & his “Journey of an Israeli in Palestine” is not only geographical but also one of the heart & mind, for he gradually moves away from all his dearly held beliefs & prejudices, from the view that no way will Jews & Arabs ever be able to coexist in one country, to that which sees coexistence in Isreal-Palestine or Palestine-Israel as the only possible future. I think it is a book that should be read by people here.

      Whereas I think this was a tremendous volte face for a Zionist, it still, however, requires a huge sacrifice on the part of the Palestinians whose land was taken away from them by people who came from all over the world in very recent times.

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    Cannot agree more with the good proffesor!

    but RW might be attacked as a conspirator of the big bad western world by Leela of Lee Potter !

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    “………………….something in a continuum of Sinhala persecution of Tamils”
    Quite right.
    Periodic massacres of tamils – more than 160 instances – commenced in 1951 – soon after independence, and ‘culminated’ in the 1983 all-island pogram.
    These are on record by – North East Secretariat On Human Rights – NESOHR – available on the web if one clicks this title on Google.
    Rajiva cannot ‘bury’ this factual record.
    He is the man who invented ‘blue eyed children’ born to refugee women in the camps after 2009.

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      When I searched the web for NESOHR this is what I got:
      “Due to the one sided reporting of alleged government atrocities only, the credibility of NESOHR in human rights circles was quite low and it was not perceived as trustworthy or reliable organisation”

      Rajiva trying to “bury” FACTUAL records???

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    A Bit belated by the B Englishman who is utilizing 83 to bash the UNP just like many of the earlier Racist Sinhala politicians.

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    Your emphasis on in the title reveals something fishy. What is your Sinhala threshold of acceptable violence against Tamils or Muslisms.

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    Sorry I missed the key word in the earlier comment

    Your emphasis on The Excess in the title reveals something fishy. What is your Sinhala threshold of acceptable violence against Tamils or Muslisms

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    Jinadasa Samarakkkody

    “What is your Sinhala threshold of acceptable violence against Tamils or Muslisms”

    You may have to rewrite the whole sentence as follows:

    What is your Sinhala/Buddhist threshold of acceptable violence against Tamils, Muslisms or Sinhalese?

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    Now, those very same dynamics that perpetrated Black July are back again. Sinhala extremist organizations like the Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya have their sights set on our Muslim brothers and sisters. Ruling elements desperate to maintain their stranglehold on power are using the same arguments, the same prejudices and the same tactics.

    We simply cannot let them annihilate our society again with their vicious rhetoric. We have to stand strong, we have no other choice!

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