By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 11 –
Before we leave this chapter, we look at the question how many Tamils were killed during the July 1983 violence? Almost
every figure aroused controversy. Sarath Muttetuwegama pointed out that according to the censor 36 persons had been killed in Colombo on the 25th – the first day of violence – including 35 prisoners at Welikade! T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka gives a total of 471 Tamils killed including 227 in the Colombo District. Dr. M.S.L. Salgado, JMO Colombo, recalls that during that week about 283 bodies came to him for post mortem examination. Under the prevailing anarchy, we may take it that nearly all of them were victims of communal attacks.
Amirthalingam in speaking to the Tamil diaspora in New York just after July violence placed the number of Tamils killed at about 2000. After he became leader of the Opposition, Amirthalingam was generally painstakingly detailed and accurate. But in the South itself the attention of many shifted from the atrocious nature of the violence itself to a defensive cry that the Tamils (including Amirthalingam) were exaggerating and that Sri Lanka was being unfairly vilified. Take for example Dissanayaka’s remark: “Political opinion in Tamil Nadu ranging from the sublime to the ludicrous and the mass media was orchestrated against Sri Lanka. A hartal (stoppage of work) was observed on August 2nd.” It was as though such concern, which alone kept the local Tamils in hope then, was attempt to make Buddhism the key element in the Sinhalese identity while playing down caste. Today the most strident of Sinhalese publicists and scholars who move towards demonising the Tamils while eloquently holding out against political accommodation with them, come mainly from the service castes.
The new however jostles uneasily with the old. Gamini Dissanayake was a Kandyan Govigama. During the July 1983 violence he and his wife dropped in one evening among old friends visiting a Tamil lawyer on holiday from Britain. In private discussion, Dissanayake lamented the state of the Left. “Earlier”, he told another visitor, “in dealing with the Left, one could have talked to a good Govigama like Dr. N.M. Perera or to a good Dutch Burgher like Pieter Kenuman”. “But now”, he added, “the leadership of the Left has gone to the scum!”
illegitimate. How many more Tamils would have been killed if not for Indira Gandhi’s telephone call to Jayewardene, and her subsequently sending Rao? The question is not about Mrs. Gandhi’s or M.G. Ramachandran’s sincerity. Their actions were legitimate, apart from perhaps being politically necessary.
In assuming that the figure of about 500 Tamils killed is correct, one would also assume that the Police were faithful in directing nearly all the corpses of victims to hospital mortuaries. Given the active or passive connivance of the Police in the violence, what interest did they have in directing bodies to mortuaries and totting up the score? Was Jayewardene, who was getting worried about foreign publicity, going to reward them for keeping an accurate record? Were the bodies of Arunan and his father sent to the mortuary? We know that they were burnt with the house. Were any remains of the man thrown on to the burning tin roof in Kandy sent for a post mortem? How about those travellers clubbed to death and then placed under their motor cycle or inside their car and set on fire?
This problem was posed to Bradman Weerakoon, then Commissioner General for Essential Services. He said that Jayewardene asked him to take over this job on Friday the 29th and allocated Rs.50 million for this purpose. He accepted on condition that there was no interference, and in this matter, he said, the promise was kept. On the number killed, he said that he had moved around quite a bit during that period, and had no difficulty with figures such as 2000 or 3000 killed. He described one particular experience. The 29th was Tiger Friday in Colombo when fresh violence erupted. On Saturday morning, he went with a police escort along Galle Road, from de Fonseka Place in Bambalapitiya to visit his mother in Mount Lavinia. The main road was chock-full with burnt vehicles and debris. He had to proceed very slowly, he said, often climbing over objects on the road. But on Monday following the week- end, he saw Galle Road wiped clean as it were.
Only the burnt buildings on either side betrayed signs of past calamity. Some movers had been brought and everything on the road had been lifted and disposed of somewhere, including the human remains. Such were the times that one would not have expected the Police to go to the scene and dispatch bodies unless they had been expressly sent or they could not avoid getting involved.
Before discussing the nature of the event, we will in the next chapter discuss two key events that have a bearing on the violence as a whole.
Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up
Part five – 30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot
Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama
Part nine – Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983
*From Chapter 9 of Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To be continued..