15 June, 2024


Riot Control – Then And Now

By Rajeewa Jayaweera

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(Lessons from Sinhala Muslim unrest in Beruwala 1991 – Sunday Island, March 11) and Gamini Gunawardane (Change outdated system of police riot control – The Island, March 27), shortly after reading Tarzie Vitachchi‘s publication, ‘Emergency ’58’, for the second time prompted this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.

“General’s Rule

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.’

Polonnaruwa Aflame

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.

Padaviya Panzers

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.

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Latest comments

  • 8

    Dear Rajeewa, you have missed some important points either deliberately or through ignorance. As a resident in Colombo, I was a witness to all three major riots of 58, 77 and 83. In 1958, Governor General was a Christian and majority of high ranking officers in armed services and police were Sinhala Christians, Burghers or Tamils. This is the reason why they did not hesitate to shoot dead rioters who were almost all Sinhala Buddhists. You have failed to mention how Col. F.C. De Saram prevented lorry loads of thugs in Anuradhapura who were being taken by C.P. De Silva to burn Jaffna. An interesting episode happened in Borella. Royal College principal D.K.G. De Silva went to Pettah to buy fish on the day of the rioting thinking that as a Sinhalese nothing will happen to him. Unfortunately someone threw a bottle on to his car, where the windscreen unlike the present ones broke and a piece of glass lodged into his eye. He contacted C.C. Dissanayake and was taken to see the eye specialist Dr. Sivasupramaniam living down Cotta Road. When they were at his home for consultation, a mob of rioters who had unleashed violence in Borella and were coming down the road to damage more Tamil properties. C. C. Dissnayake did not hesitate and shot in the air and the rioters ran away, saving other Tamil properties. Royal Principal lost one eye in that incident. This situation of impartial officers ended in 1962, when most of them were arrested for an attempted coup and their places were taken by Sinhala Buddhists. Since then none of the Sinhala rioters have been shot dead leave alone arrested, or the looted property recovered.

  • 9

    Furthermore, in 1977, during the riots and curfew being in force from 2pm on Saturday, I was taken by a police jeep on Sunday afternoon to do a post-mortem at Dompe. While we were going despite the curfew, there were lots of people on the road, and the worst part is that when the police jeep was going none of them were bothered either to hide or run away. This was how they controlled rioters unleashing violence against Tamils. Unlike in 1977, where armed services and police were silent observers to the atrocities, in 1983 armed services and police took active part in committing them. Recently elections commissioner made a forthright statement that majority of Sinhalese were happy about what happened to Muslims. This is the same story all along where majority of Sinhalese endorsed the violence on Tamils. Instead of admitting that there is institutional racism in armed services and police, you are trying to cover up saying that armed services may become demoralised due to false allegation of war crimes and may refuse to maintain law and order. Your bringing of the subject of war crimes of armed forces into this topic, which actually happened with incriminating evidence present (I am a medical witness to it), shows your outright chauvinism.

  • 36

    Dear Gnana
    I could have mentioned dozens if not hundreds of incidents but Editors do not appreciate repetition of details. There is a thing called space constraints. The two key episodes quoted from Tarzie Vitachchi‘s ‘Emergency ’58’ should be sufficient for any rational and intelligent person to get the gist of the message.
    Thank you for the rare admission of status which prevailed in 1958. To quote your own words; “In 1958, Governor General was a Christian and majority of high ranking officers in armed services and police were Sinhala Christians, Burghers or Tamils. This is the reason why they did not hesitate to shoot dead rioters who were almost all Sinhala Buddhists.” That too dear Gnana is “institutional racism” – again your own words. That is also what paved the way for SWRD’s 1956 revolution with the objective of addressing the imbalance and inequality of over 500 years.
    Since you seem to suffer from a lapse of memory, let me correct your statement “Since then none of the Sinhala rioters have been shot dead leave alone arrested, or the looted property recovered.”. What the government, armed forces, and Police did with JVP in 1971 and 1987/9 was shoot them dead and might I say, quite rightly. Yes, some innocents too got caught up as it happens in such situation in the world over.
    In my piece, I empathize with the Muslim community who suffered from racial violence. Unlike you, I try to look at issues as objectively as possible. If there is any chauvinism or bigotry, it is certainly not on my part. You are unfortunately unable to see the tree from the woods on any issue involving the Sinhalese as you are consumed by your pathological hatred for the Sinhalese.
    Only a bigot would defend thugs such as FC de Saram (so-called elitists who abhorred any man wearing a sarong). Plotting to overthrow a democratically elected government is Treason. He and all those involved in the 1962 coup d’etat.should have received the death sentence. They escaped due to the much-hyped Westminster Constitution given by colonials in 1947 not containing any clauses covering the ‘overthrow of a democratically elected Queen’s government’. In most other countries, the offense entails the death penalty.

    • 4

      Rajeewa calling the presence of non Sinhala Buddhists in high ranks as institutional racism is wrong. These people were recruited on merit. They were of high integrity and there was discipline in the services, with no government meddling. Look at the sad state at present, all after SWRD who unleashed indiscipline and racism. There is nothing wrong with you empathising Muslim community who suffered from racial violence, but your silence in not only empathising with Tamil community who had suffered worst fate, but also standing in the way for justice to Tamil victims shows your duplicity. You are correct to call FC De Saram as an elitist, because as an Anandian you have an axe to grind with him. There was an interesting episode involving him with Ananda cricketers who turned up for practices to play for SSC. I do not know how far it is true, but he is supposed to have told these Anandians, “I expected you to be in sarongs”.

      • 35

        Gnana, as usual, you have got your facts in a twist. I am no old Anandian. Give it another shot! Yes, FC de Saram’s story of expecting Wettimuny brothers to turn up for cricket practice in sarongs is correct. Yet, he could not prevent Sunil, Sidath and Mithra brothers occupying batting nos. 1, 2, and 3 for several years. Meanwhile, he was pensioned off. Wettimunys were equally comfortable in sarong and trousers unlike ‘kalu suddas’ such as de Saram. I wonder what he would have said had the likes of Vineswaran turned up to cricket practice in sarong, red pottu and and white ash on his forehead???

        • 4

          This story was in the rounds much before Wettimuny brothers had come to the limelight. I am not sure, but I was told it was for Anuruddha Polonovita and Sony Yatawara in the late 50’s. By that time it was the practice of politicians to wear national dress to hoodwink the masses, and therefore that remark would not have been made against any politician. So your mentioning of Vigneswaran is totally inappropriate. For your information during that time, Ananda and Nalanda were considered gamaya schools, and hence FC’s comment.

  • 4

    The country has gone (not going) to the dogs already, now no turning back.

    It’s unfortunate to see how such a highly literate society failed to produce a single statesmen who can put country before self.

    Has gone in only one direction after the independence, SOUTH.

  • 5

    What obtained in 1958 and today have very little in common. In 1958 the armed services were Ceylonese. Today exclusively hand picked Sinhalese. In ’58, the armed services were not sure as to what to do. Today the services know exactly what to do – ie. nothing! In 1958, the Governor General was answerable to the ‘Crown’. Today the President is answerable to ‘No One’. There are reasons to believe that SWRD B saw injustice. Today the damn lot only see the path to get rich.
    You mentioned the “Sh…Sh…Shoot…’ order by the 1958 Governor General OE G. There was a similar order in May 2009. The Lankan Army ‘captured’ a twelve year old, gave him some tidbits. “What do we do now?”. “Shoot” order came and the twelve year old was dead with some tidbits in the mouth. Like to compare the two incidents?
    In 1958 mega corruption were unknown. Today honesty and integrity are unknowns.

    • 5

      They are heartless SOBs. Just because they outnumber the minorities in Sri Lanka they think they can commit any crimes they want and get away with it with the support of corrupt police, armed forces and the chauvinist politicians. How inhumane are these Sinhalese racists to kill an innocent twelve year old little boy who did nothing wrong at all to anyone. The innocent image of the little boy still lingers in my mind as if he is my own son. Karma will come back haunt you with no mercy for you scoundrels.

  • 36

    Vitachchi’s account of 1958 was more anti SWRD and highly exaggerated.
    The number of killings in the Polonnaruwa Farm mentioned by his is only of a flight of imagination.
    The crowds gathered at the Polonnaruwa Police Station had no intention of attacking the Police Station. They had gathered in numbers due to the rumor that an army of Tamils from Batticaloa were at the Manampitiya bridge exchanging fire with a few Sinhalese and would soon attack the Polonnaruwa town. The Police did not do anything to quash this rumor. The GA panicked and ordered to fire at an unarmed crowd.

  • 25

    Vitachchi’s account of 1958 was more anti SWRD and highly exaggerated.
    The number of killings in the Polonnaruwa Farm mentioned by him is only of a flight of imagination.
    The crowds gathered at the Polonnaruwa Police Station had no intention of attacking the Police Station. They had gathered in numbers due to the rumor that an army of Tamils from Batticaloa were at the Manampitiya bridge exchanging fire with a few Sinhalese and would soon attack the Polonnaruwa town. The Police did not do anything to quash this rumor. The GA panicked and ordered to fire at an unarmed crowd.

  • 2

    Rajeewa has come up with a pukka approach to the balance of terror.

  • 1

    Thought provoking article. This should be an eye opener to the big wigs and all law enforcement officers. Yet, I don’t deny the fact the circumstances now and then are totally different. Today there are many restraints which prevents the law enforcement officers to jump the gun at the drop of a hat. This situation has drastically impeded the law enforcement officials to flex their muscles. Nevertheless, one can’t accept mobs attacking unarmed innocent civilians under the noses of law enforcement personnel. As someone correctly pointed out, under such a situation, when the security forces personnel are called in and no sooner they take position on the ground, you can’t expect mobs or civilians to run amok under their noses.

  • 0

    Dear Mr Jayaweera
I was very excited when I seen the head lines “Riot Control – Then And Now” an article shared with us the citizens of Sri Lanka. As an adult of 55 years of age and suffered all what happend in our country since 70’s I followed your work closely….wanting to learn more.
    I make the following comments knowing my country and her issues “very well”
    – Now we are trying to teach our younger generation what happened then by a “us the generation” who experienced it as a responsibility for a better tomorrow.
– Taking the opportnity as the same “old riots” terrorising her citizens again has just repeated itself…………in a free.”Independent Nation” set put to take care of herself since 1948??
-Never to normalise the “unthinkable” as we have successfully done which is to terrorise a segment of “Mother Lanka’s Children” systematically – killing/burning/looting/leaving them all helpless/refugees in their own land/disenfranchised and helpless children of the Mother Earth too.
– We as Sri Lankans know these thugs/criminals/misfits do not know the “law of the land” they need to follow to be fellow citizens along with the one’s who do follow and respect/uphold the countries constitution. Work hard to better them, their families and their mother land.
-Uphold the law and protect Mother Lanka’s Subject is the only “Jod scope” our Security apparatus ever have – however which were note then and CERTAINLY NOT NOW I hope you agree except a delayed response as you so elequantly went into such details in 1958 .
-Everyone in the world has a right to protect themselves and their families also hope you agree.

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