By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 9 –
As many Tamils in the Pettah see it, one of the aims of the violence was to bring ruin on them and have their places taken by Sinhalese supporters of the UNP. A particular sequence did not pass unnoticed. On 25th July the almost wholly Tamil-owned wholesale market in food grains in the Pettah (e.g. 4th & 5th Cross Streets, Keyzer Street etc.) was consigned to flames. On 3rd August Athulathmudali, minister of trade and shipping, called a meeting of retail traders and asked them if they could undertake the wholesale trade of rice and set up a wholesale rice market in Colombo. On 5th August, the papers carried photographs of Athulathmudali inspecting a new market down Duplication Road meant for 50 wholesalers. One could of course defend Athulathmudali as a practical minister promoting the Sinhalese to undertake wholesale trade in a new situation where Tamils lacked the security to do so. Yet one does feel disconcerted by the absence of any expression of sympathy for the Tamils then, and the indifference towards helping the Tamil traders who faced ruin to get back into business. They after all had the skills for the job. Perhaps, Narasimha Rao saved the Tamil Pettah merchants, and today an estimated 70 – 80% of the trade is controlled by them.
There are many ways in which Tamil commerce has been affected. The events too in general affected investor confidence in Sri Lanka for obvious reasons. Udaya Jewellers in Sea Street pulled out completely and are now well established in India. Several other jewellers reckoned Colombo to be an insecure place and insured themselves by shifting some of their capital to India. Lalitha while remaining in Sea Street had also succeeded in becoming an extremely successful jeweller in Madras. Similarly Ambiga Jewellers in Madurai. A similar trend was evident in Tamil eating- houses. Several of the eating houses in Trichy are now said to be owned by Ceylonese. Tamil jewellers also pulled out of areas like Panadura, Galle and Matara where their premises were attacked and they lacked the confidence to go back.
This created a vacuum which has been filled by Sinhalese and Muslim jewellers. Particularly successful after 1983 has been the Sinhalese jeweller E.A.P. Edirisinghe who started as a pawnbroker in Sea Street. 80% of his employees are said to be Tamil.
Similar trends are also evident in other areas. The once thriving Tamil transport industry has been crippled by security concerns arising from the Tamil insurgency. The vacuum has been largely filled by Muslims. Tamils who worked in the import trade have also suffered from security concerns which have restricted their operating in the Harbour. They often have to operate through Muslims or Sinhalese.
The top league of Tamil businessmen who could raise money even on the international market have bounced back. But small businessmen have suffered from difficulties in getting bank loans, usually from the People’s Bank. The difficulty arises from another phenomenon. According to sources in the Pettah, there have been a significant number of instances of default in repayment consequent to the Tamil loan recipient and the guarantor both going abroad – another possibility of escape that was not thought worth the bother before July 1983. Consequently, the small businessmen wanting loans find themselves having to find guarantors with immovable assets.
These difficulties have given rise to a new breed of young Tamil businessmen who function like high-risk stock market speculators. They lack the certainties of the older conservative businessmen who had an adequate and diversified capital investment to balance losses in one sector with profits in others. The new type lack capital and minimise overheads by operating from a corner with only a table, telephone and calculator. They virtually borrow in the morning, buy with it, sell in the afternoon and return the loan with interest in the evening, the whole transaction being accomplished without handling the goods. It is risky business. The developments are characteristic of a community denied a secure environment and living dangerously.
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
*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 tomorrow ..