By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Two very interesting, informative and constructive contributions by retired senior Police officers of yesteryear, Merril Gunaratne (Lessons from Sinhala Muslim unrest in Beruwala 1991 – Sunday Island, March 11) and Gamini Gunawardane (Change outdated system of police riot control – The Island, March 27), shortly after reading Tarzie Vitachchi‘s publication, ‘Emergency ’58’, for the second time prompted this writer to pen this piece.
This is a comparison of the way the Governor General brought 1958 communal riots under control and how the present government responded, when faced with events in Ampara and Kandy in February and March 2018.
Riots in July 1983, much more severe in magnitude and the probable involvement of some senior members of the government of the day is best left out of this discourse.
In 1958, communal riots began on May 22 with the attack on the Polonnaruwa railway station and the wrecking of the Batticaloa—Colombo train and several other minor incidents. On May 24 and 25 murderous rioters stalked the streets in broad day light.
Vitachchi’s account of 1958 disturbances portrays Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike virtually paralyzed by his inadequacy, very similar to the paralysis suffered by the Yahapalana leaders.
Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke declared a State of Emergency shortly after noon on May 27, 1958 and deployed the armed services to quell the rioting while the Prime Minister merged into the shadows. According to Vittachi, a senior journalist at the time; “The Prime Minister, for reasons never openly stated by him anywhere, took the unprecedented step of passing the buck back to the Governor-General—thus making Sir Oliver Goonetilleke virtual ruler of Ceylon.”
Below are some excerpts verbatim, relating to press censorship besides rioting in Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, and Colombo from Vitachchi’s publication.
With the announcement of the emergency came the simultaneous imposition of press censorship and the appointment of an Information Officer as Competent Authority for this purpose. Two hours later the editors of the newspapers were invited to a conference by M. J. Perera, the Competent Authority. He met them at the head of the stairs, and by way of an opening gambit he pointed through the window at the neon sign atop the Grand Oriental Hotel building which read: ‘2500 Years of Buddhism’. He remarked: ‘Two thousand five hundred years of Buddhism—and see what we’ve come to!’ One of the editors replied: ‘Two thousand five hundred years of Buddhism and two and a half years of Bandaranaike!’
Upstairs, as we were ushered into the air-conditioned ‘office’ room of the protagonist of the great tragicomedy, H.E. the Governor-General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, C.G.M.G., KCVO K B.E., was already trying out his lines. He held a telephone to each ear. He did not even look up as we entered. We stood inside the door as he told the mouthpiece of one telephone—’sh-sh-sh-shoot them.’
That settled, he cradled that telephone and said into the mouthpiece of the other: ‘O.E.G. here. Clear them out even if you have to sh-sh-sh-shoot them.’ The second telephone clicked back on its cradle.
His words, which I report as nearly verbatim as I can give them, were: No news of any incidents or about any aspect of the present situation. No editorials, no comment, no columns, no photographs or cartoons of any kind on the emergency without reference to me.
It was pointed out that such harsh censorship had never been imposed even during the worst days of the war—in Ceylon or Britain during the Blitz.
Sir Oliver’s response to that was to shunt the subject on to another line but close enough to convey his meaning: I advise you to read up the Detention Laws under the Emergency Regulations. Detention without trial, No writs of habeas corpus, no bail.
He broke off with a sunny apology, to make another telephone call. All we heard was: ‘Maurice de Mel. Not Royce. Maurice. Is that Maurice? 42nd Lane, Wellawatte? Clear the place. If necessary sh-sh shoot.’
As we rose to go Sir Oliver said: ‘Gentlemen, bear with me for a few days. A few weeks. Maybe months. Then you can call me an rn-rn-murderer if you like.’
The arrival of army reinforcements drove the goonda leaders into a frenzied ‘conference.’ Later events showed that they had taken the size of the unit as an indication that this was only the advance party of a larger force that would arrive that afternoon to relieve the beleaguered town. Their decision was to attack now before the opposition was better fortified.
The Bren gun was mounted near the gate. At 3.20 p.m. the first wave of goondas advanced towards the police station, with sarongs lifted, shouting obscenities and coarse defiance. They were still confident that Apey Aanduwa would not shoot them down.
As they came nearer, the Bren fired a burst over their heads to warn them. This had just the opposite effect. They took it as confirmation that the army was only bluffing. The roar of the crowd became louder and the obscenities more defiant. The entire 3,000 now began to swarm towards the barricade. At this point, the army unit commander said that he needed authority to open fire. Aluwihare signed the order. The officer put the paper in his pocket and walked out. On came the mob. They were only a few yards away now. One man in front raised his sarong, displaying his genitals in foul defiance of the army. The Bren opened fire, and the passionate exhibitionist fell dead. Two of his comrades shared his fate.
The crowd scattered in all directions as the Bren stuttered briefly. Men who had been borne up by demoniacal courage reinforced by an assurance that they were politically protected now fled screaming in terror and forgathered in groups far away from the range of the gun.
On May 30 the laborers employed by the Land Development and Irrigation Department at Padaviya, and the newly-arrived squatters in the allotments, could no longer contain themselves. It did not take long for the bloodlust to get a hold on the ‘Padaviya Panzers,’ as they were to become.
The army met the Panzers halted at a point a few miles short of Kebitigollewa. They had run into a police patrol of five, headed by Inspector Daya Ranasinghe. Ranasinghe held the Panzers up with five rifles, ordered them to dismount and held them covered, hoping and praying that something would turn up to save the situation. He knew very well that he and his men could not expect to stall an army of blood-thirsty hoodlums for long. But the shooting at Polonnaruwa had taken the gleam off their Apey Aanduwa complex, and their sense of discretion was now more dominant than their self-assurance.
When the army arrived, Major McHeyzer ordered his men to surround the rebels and take them into custody for violating at least half a dozen Emergency Laws. But when the soldiers began to circle round them, the Panzers tried to make a bolt for it through the jungle. A brief burst from a Bren stopped the stampede. When it was all sorted out it was found that eleven men had been killed and eighteen injured. The army took 343 prisoners and brought them, in the trucks they had stolen, to Anuradhapura. The thugs who had planned to enter Anuradhapura as conquerors were brought in as prisoners.”
Sir Oliver himself related how he set about the task as follows: “Army, navy and air force personnel were called in to help the police to restore order, a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. proclaimed, and the death penalty for looters announced. The armed services and the police, themselves armed for the occasion, did a magnificent job of work from the afternoon of May 27 (1958). Their orders were to shoot to kill, and by nightfall, I was informed that the city of Colombo up to Victoria Bridge in the north and Wellawatte in the south had been cleared. The forces were on duty right through the night, and there was no sleep for me too at Queen’s House.”
Rioting was contained, and law and order restored primarily due to the decisive leadership of by Sir Oliver. Also, to be recognized is the delegation of authority to relevant authorities, i.e., Police and Army, with instructions to do what it takes to contain rioting and arson expeditiously. Availability of competent and duty conscious administrators with sound judgment such as Government Agent Deryck Aluwihare in Polonnaruwa and Police officers was an added advantage.
During the recent riots in Ampara and Kandy, quick and decisive decision making was non-existent by a President and government reeling from a shock electoral defeat in Local Government elections. Inaction between March 2 evening and 3 pm on March 5 when a curfew was declared, and the army deployed wasted valuable time. The declaration of a state of emergency on March 6 is comparable in many ways to the inaction of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike in May 1958, before requesting Sir Oliver to take over the administration of the country.
Prompt and decisive action combined with a robust response would have saved many Muslim houses, property, mosques, and vehicles destroyed. The Muslim community would have been spared the trauma they did not deserve. Sri Lanka’s image would have been spared.
In the recent disturbances, Police and STF have been accused of inaction. Elements in the Police may have done so due to prejudices. However, the STF, a part of the Police is a well-trained highly disciplined paramilitary force. A more plausible reason for their inactivity, if true, may have been the reluctance to use the necessary degree of force in the absence of clear directives from the political leadership in Colombo. Administrators of the caliber of Aluwihare who issued a written instruction for the army to open fire in Polonnaruwa in 1958 based on his own on the spot assessment of the situation are an extinct breed today.
An order to fire resulting in the death of a few rioters may have resulted in the big guns at UNHRC in Geneva getting their knickers in a twist. The US Ambassador and British High Commissioner in Colombo might have busted their hernias. Nevertheless, such an eventuality must be weighed against the trauma faced by Muslims in Sri Lanka in general and those in Ampara and Kandy in particular. Suffice to state, every single Muslim in this country would have endorsed and appreciated such a directive. It would have helped in winning hearts and minds of a community who has periodically been subjected to communal violence. It would have also sent a strong message, law and order was paramount in the government’s agenda.
On this occasion, the government was able to eventually contain disturbances and restore peace by deploying the army and not UNHRC, the international community, NGOs or foreign envoys based in Colombo. The government would do well to remember this fact. To date, it has failed to demand a review of Geneva Resolutions 30/1 and 34/1, based on revelations by British peer Lord Naseby, garnered from dispatches by the British Defense Attaché in Colombo during the closing stages of the Vanni campaign to the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London. Such invaluable material was either hidden from or ignored by the UNSG Panel of Experts for reasons best known to them in their report and the preparation of UNHRC Resolution 30/1.
One hopes, we will not live to see the day, a demoralized army decline to involve itself in maintaining law and order when called upon to do so due to the government’s failure to protect its soldiers from false accusations of war crimes related to battlefield causalities.
That would be the day the government find its goose cooked and leaders, no place to hide.