By Tassie Seneviratne –
By 1970, the SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike had decided to form a coalition with the Trostkyite LSSP and the Communist Party under the banner ‘United Front’ (UF) to contest the General Election under a ‘Common Programme’. It featured extensive nationalization, a more pro-Soviet foreign policy, expanded social programmes, and replacement of the Soulbury Constitution with a Republican Constitution that ‘would restore Buddhism to its rightful place.’ The UF resurrected communal emotions as a timely and powerful campaign weapon.
The UNP was portrayed as a party of the rich and being out of touch with the aspirations of the ordinary people. The ULF’s socialist platform had much greater appeal and won with an overwhelming majority with 118 seats as against 17 by the UNP, 13 by the Federal Party and 2 by the Tamil Congress.
Right from the start the Coalition Government had problems from the radical left. We, in the police, especially those of us in the Special Branch, had, prior to the 1970 General Election, filed reports revealing in minute detail plans by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led by Rohana Wijeweera for a blitztieg operation to take over the government. The government of Mrs. Bandaranayake did not take the intelligence reports seriously.
Pushing forward their propaganda with catch-words such as Indian expansion, unstable economy and inability of the traditional leftist parties to ‘deliver the goods’, and alleging that the leaders of the Old Left were leading bourgeoisie lives, the youth uprising gathered momentum. JVP cells started spreading and robberies committed to collect funds and weapons.
A senior form engineering student from a leading school in Kandy had acquired the knowhow to manufacture lethal bombs from a forensic book in the British Council Library and was teaching his accomplices in the Peradeniya University and elsewhere the art of assembling the bombs. According to him, Victor Ivan a.k.a. Podi Athula received severe injuries to his hand from an explosion whilst demonstrating bomb manufacture.
This self-taught bomb expert is now a thriving entrepreneur, useful to himself and the country. He is manufacturing hardware for local use as well as export. I have the privilege of developing close acquaintance with him after he contacted me on reading my articles in the Sunday Times.
What I write now in regard to bomb manufacture is what I have received straight from the horse’s mouth: Components for lethal bombs were collected by him and concealed in the ceiling of Jayathilake Hall at the Peradeniya University. It was important that the components be kept separately to avoid explosion if mixed up. But due to the heat in the ceiling and melting of some components, they had got mixed up and resulted in a massive explosion. Another accidental explosion took place at Nelumdeniya.
To his good fortune he had been arrested in connection with the bomb explosions, before the insurrection. With his interrogation by HQI Kandy, Rodney Kithulagoda, he had become disillusioned with the JVP leadership and made a clean breast of all what he knew. With his arrest and interrogation, the lethal bombs were not to be. The bombs that the militants did make were not that lethal. They were mainly smoke bombs that we just kicked out of the way. He was however charged for the offences disclosed and dealt with by courts. The case record was to come in good stead for him to show that he had been already dealt with by courts for offences committed by him, when JVP suspects were being rounded up after the insurrection. He expresses much gratitude to Rodney Kithulagoda.
By March 1971, the intentions of the JVP militants became blatantly clear and a State of Emergency was declared. The militants, however, went ahead with their attempt to seize power through armed insurrection. Their strategy was to overpower all police stations simultaneously, seize their arms, arrest all political leaders and seize power.
The JVP cadres had been duped to believe that there were highly placed politicians, foreign countries, and military personal backing them. They came perilously close to overthrowing the lackadaisical government, but by end of April were completely suppressed by military means. The JVP’s top leadership and about 15,000 suspected insurgents were imprisoned.
The timing for the blitzkrieg was to be just past 12 midnight on 5th April 1971. The group assigned to attack Wellawaya Police miscalculated the date and attacked the police station on the night of 4th April dawning on 5th. They failed to overpower the police station. By the time the JVP attacked other police stations on the night of 5th April, the stations had been alerted and none was overpowered. But many stations including Deniyaya Police withdrew for tactical reasons, with arms and ammo and lived to come back and fight another day. Several police stations were set on fire after the police withdrew.
At the time the insurrection broke out on 5th April, I was on loan to the Customs Department to help establish the Customs Intelligence Unit headed by SP E. Egodapitiya. This was in addition to gathering intelligence on subversion. On 8th April 1971, SP Egodapitiya was ordered to proceed on special duty to Matara and I with Inspectors D N S Perera and Selwyn de Silva, volunteered to join him.
When we reached Matara Police, we found all outstations withdrawn to Matara HQ Police Station and the policemen were chock-a-block in the building as well as the compound. No specific assignments had been given to them. The SP Matara Division, S.D.Chandrasinghe and the ASP Matara ? Karavita were closeted inside the office of the HQI. The only police officer ‘on his feet’ was HQI D. S. Sumanaweera.
A short while after our arrival, an alarm was given from a high rise building in front of the police station (Dr. Mohotti’s) that a CTB bus was moving at high speed along Hakmana Road in the direction of the police station. It was curfew time. HQI Sumanaweera took position near the parapet wall in front of the police station. The bus turned around at several junctions bordering the Matara Esplanade and started to head in the direction of the police station. When the bus was close enough for the driver to observe the police, it was signaled to stop, but the bus kept moving. HQI Sumanaweera fired two shots with a .303 rifle and the bus jerked to a halt. The driver died of gunshot injury to his head. It was later revealed that the driver had been required to report elsewhere for an official purpose and he had driven in that manner because he had been drunk.
While the HQI went forward to confront the bus and then opened fire, the rest of the policemen in all nooks and corners started to fire their rifles indiscriminately in the air, and those inside the police station fired through the roof.
I was watching the proceedings from behind cover of the parapet wall when I saw the SSP Matara also behind the parapet wall in his birthday suit, and asking HQI Sumanaweera to come inside. The HQI assured him that the situation was under control and requested him to go in and wear something. That was the panic-stricken situation that prevailed at the Matara Police when we arrived there.
False alarms of large groups of insurgents marching towards the Matara police and of flotilla of boats approaching from the sea, were galore. The radio operator, PC Yasapala came wailing away several times claiming to have intercepted all kinds of ominous messages. One such message was that Kosgoda Police had been overrun and all policemen killed, and its OIC Inspector Mahath was hung on a temple flower tree in front of the police station. The fact as it turned out was that Kosgoda Police was the only outstation that did not withdraw but was successfully defended by its OIC Inspector Tony Mahath and his men.
SP Egodapitiya soon took control of the situation at Matara Police and with our assistance organized guard points covering the perimeters of the police station. Once the guard points were manned and a proper intelligence network was in place, it was realized that the situation was not as bad as had been made out, and along with the Army we started to go out on patrols and road clearing operations. Soon the outstations were reopened one by one. With the reopening of these police stations the insurgents were pushed towards Deniyaya.
There was no stiff armed-resistance as we pushed our way towards Deniyaya. Trees were cut down across the road and boulders rolled to block the roads. Improvised claymore mines were placed on embankments near the road blocks. The Army and Police however, very systematically cleared the mines and other obstructions and we reached Deniyaya town on 24th April without any casualties on our side.
By the time we reached Deniyaya, the police station was completely burnt down. It was reopened in the Deniyaya UC office building which was on a hillock surrounded by paddy fields. The Army Unit occupied the Rest House which overlooked the UC building. SP Egodapitiya shared a room in the Rest House with the commanding officer of the Army unit from where he directed police operations. The three of us Inspectors operated from the newly opened Deniyaya Police till end of 1971.
The mopping up operations in the Sinharaja Forest was met with but weak resistance. Their Molotov bombs only emitted smoke and were safely kicked aside as we proceeded uphill along winding bends. Army ambushes shot and killed several when they came out in search of food. Soon these insurgents got keen to surrender to safe hands and by arrangement they surrendered. They too were disillusioned with what they had been brainwashed, especially about the police. Their response to kindness was marvelous. The males and females, I cannot remember the exact figures, who were detained at the police station outnumbered us policemen. They were not locked up in cells. In fact, there were no cells. The female detainees occupied the hall in the main building in charge of the matron. The male detainees and the policemen occupied bunks in temporary sheds. The detainees even helped in the cooking and constructing temporary sheds.
A special word has to be mentioned about their integrity by and large. Many of the detainees had passed the O level exam creditably well. Kusuma Buddhakorale of Akuressa had passed the O levels with five credit passes, if I remember right. They had all worked for Mrs. Bandaranaike’s coalition party on the promise of jobs according to their qualifications. But once in power, the promises were forgotten and the kith and kin of the politicians, with no qualifications at all, had been given jobs. These disgruntled youth were easy prey for the JVP leaders.
A special word has to be mentioned about their integrity by and large. Jayatissa, an employee of Deniyaya Estate, had been the area leader. He had enforced discipline within the ranks. Kusuma Buddhakorale (KB) had been put in charge of all money and provisions taken over from cooperative stores (CS) in the area. She had kept accounts with meticulous care. An instance to make my point is a complaint made by the manager of the CS in Pallegama in regard to robbery of cash and provisions by the JVP militants. When statement of KB was being recorded there was discrepancy in the amounts of cash and provisions. The amounts given in the CS manager’s complaint was much higher than accounted for by KB. When confronted, KB asked the manager to produce the Ac books in which she had entered what she had taken charge of. When informed that we would have to inquire into the truthfulness of his complaint, the CS manager got cold feet and said he would check back. Having checked back he produced the correct Ac books saying it was an oversight!
In regard to attitudes of the police, I am constrained to write about a cross-talk that ensued over a difference of opinion. A very senior SP from Police HQ visited Deniyaya Police whilst on official circuit. He did not approve of the kind treatment afforded to the detainees. He, in fact, questioned why we brought them to the police station at all whilst other stations had disposed of them. He was told that we look at it differently, believing that the misguided youth must be reined in and rehabilitated. The talk ended there with the officer From Police HQ leaving with a glum face.
When investigations were completed and the detainees had to be taken to Colombo to be handed over to the Prison authorities, many of them wept openly saying that even their parents had not treated them so well.
Kusuma Buddhakorale, a JVP leader in Deniyaya, was charged in the main case for her complicity in the insurrection. In her evidence she spoke inter alia about the kind treatment meted out to them while in custody at Deniyaya Police. She spoke of a police officer who looked into all aspects of their welfare and stated that she would refrain from mentioning his name lest that officer may have to face reprisals from government agencies.
A common feature in the militants in custody was disillusionment. All this reveals how the downtrodden people are brainwashed with fantasies and used as fodder by unscrupulous politicians for their political ends.
*The writer is a Retired Senior Superintendent of Police. He can be contacted at email@example.com