By Rajan Hoole –
A hartal by Muslims in the Eastern Province to protest the killings in Murungan was organised on 12th April 1985. A crew from state television was fortuitously present in the Amparai District to record a Muslim protest for the news broadcast. But more interesting things were happening about which there was total silence. The Tamil village of Karaitivu, which lies between Sainthamaruthu and Kalmunai to the north and Nintavur to the south, was attacked by Muslim mobs backed by armed men from the newly deployed Special Task Force (STF) and even an Air Force helicopter.
The STF was a British gift to Sri Lanka. Just as the US President gifted the Mossad so as not to get directly involved, the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent the Channel Islands based Keeny Meeny Services (KMS), providing ex-SAS mercenaries to train policemen selected for the STF. The role of the STF and the Air Force in the Karaitivu attack was confirmed in the Paul Nallanayagam court hearing (see below) by an eyewitness whose own house was dam- aged and ‘Chairman’ Vinayagamoorthy, a mem- ber of the UNP who was chairman of the Amparai District Development Council.
Immediately afterwards, the State shifted its attention to the Muslim village of Kattankudy, 3 miles south of Batticaloa. After night prayers a call went out on the mosque loudspeaker that Kattankudy was being attacked and asked the men to come with any weapon at their disposal. The Tamils living in Navatkudah to the north were alerted. A few minutes later they saw a crowd coming towards them led by a police armoured car with lights flashing. An officer leading in the armoured car was identified as Piyasena from the Special Investigations Unit. He and another officer Upul earned notoriety over disappearances.
Several houses in Navatkudah were de- stroyed and about 4 persons were killed (our testimony obtained from a medical student and a person closely associated with the Batticaloa Citizens’ Committee was published in Report No.5). Dr. Frank Jayasinghe of the Colombo Citizens’ Committee, who was, until July 1983 principal of the Kodaikanal School in S. India, visited Karaitivu and later gave evidence in the Paul Nallanayagam case. He reported that in Karaitivu, 11 persons were killed, 40 hospitalised and several thousands were made homeless (Qadri Ismail in the Island 28.4.85).
The same pattern was followed in village after village in the Eastern Province. Valaichenai is another town where the Tamils were badly affected. It quickly became an open secret that the Government was behind the disturbances. While the Muslim MPs of the UNP in the East were quiet, A.L.A. Majeed, former SLFP MP for Kinniya protested.
In a speech made at the opening of the Muslim Cultural Centre in Mutur on 12th April (Veerakesari, 16.4.85), he said: “The Tamils and Muslims have been living peacefully for hundreds of years. I wish to bring to your notice that certain sin- ister forces and self-interested parties are trying to bring about a violent clash between Tamils and Muslims”. He pointed a finger at certain ‘fake politicians’ and called upon the Muslims to be vigilant. The warning was given at the very beginning of the violence, suggesting that he knew that troublemakers were already at work. In a remark made at the Batticaloa Kachcheri, Minister Devanayagam said, “A third force has entered the Eastern Province” (Saturday Review 27.4.85). The two taken together were clearly pointing at a Muslim politician in the Government from outside the Eastern Province.
Further revelations (Weekend 21.4.85) strongly suggested that this Muslim UNP politician was from Colombo. Minister Thondaman told the Cabinet on 19th April that 7 lorries and 2 jeeps filled with thugs had gone from Colombo to the Eastern Province to provoke trouble. One minister became sensitive and there was an argument between Thondaman and that minister. Rasiah Selvarajah reporting from Karaitivu (Sun 29.4.85) stated that the violence was similar to that against Tamils in Colombo during July 1983. Often goods were taken out and burnt, but government property was left untouched. Shortly after the argument between Thondaman and a fellow cabinet minister became the talking point, Minister M.H. Mohamed, MP for Colombo Central, left the country for London. It was also reported in the Press that his son’s house in Lon- don was subject to a fire bomb attack. No one was hurt.
Referring to press reports of Thondaman’s accusation, Maithripala Senanayake charged in Parliament that Israeli Mossad agents are responsible for the trouble. Minister Major Montague Jayewickrema tried to parry the charge by asserting that Thondaman said no such thing at the cabinet meeting. When he called upon Minister Mrs. Wimala Kannangara for support, she said that Thondaman said that he had heard that vehicles of that description took thugs to the Eastern Province, but did not say that he actually saw it. Major Jayewickrema interjected, “For God’s sake let me handle it, he never said anything like that.” Sarath Muttetuwegama MP then pointed out that Thondaman’s allegation was revealed to the Press by the Cabinet Spokesman after the weekly cabinet meeting.
There was also a particular nuance in these proceedings. The Government was not serious about covering up for the Muslim Minister; rather, they seemed quite happy to embarrass him. It took the heat away from the Sinhalese establishment. However, the Minister concerned was no more than a tool in the Government’s elaborate machinations. Curiously, no one asked Thondaman about what he had said.
Qadri Ismail writing in the Island (28.4.85) pointed out that the Government’s denial that the STF participated in the violence did not carry conviction as it was a heavily policed area where any attempted violence could have been quickly quelled. Moreover, all the guns possessed by the local Muslims had been taken back earlier under Emergency Regulations. Ismail also observed that he had visited the area a month earlier and there was no evidence that the Muslims had felt threatened as a religious community to resort to such violence as was only bound to bring insecurity rather than any gain. Ismail said that despite trying for a week, he found Minister A.C.S. Hameed uncontactable while M.H. Mohamed was out of the country (The Saturday Review had earlier reported Hameed as having said, ‘Tiger Vendetta undermined Tamil-Muslim unity in the Eastern Province’.) Ismail quoted Mrs. Bandaranaike as saying, “The Government does not want to quell communal violence. They thrive on it.”
As an interesting note, Minister M.H. Mohamed, a leading member of the Sri Lanka- Arab Friendship Society, called a press conference at his parliamentary office on 15th June 1990. This was a few days after the LTTE had broken off very intimate talks with the Premadasa Government and begun a new round of war. Two months earlier, out of deference to Arab interests, the Government earned US disapproval by throwing out the Israeli Interests Section in the US Embassy. Mohamed charged that Israeli experts had joined the LTTE to create trouble and turmoil. He did not pro- duce a shred of evidence and no one took him seriously. However, Mohamed never revealed who the ‘Mossad’ agents were who fomented violence in the Eastern Province in April 1985 as widely alleged by the opposition. Mohamed’s woefully belated melodrama on Israeli machi- nations was a symptom of abiding uneasiness.
In conception at least, the plan had an element of sophistication and deviousness in trying to get the Muslims involved on the side of the Sinhalese State. But it was botched up by having the STF, an Air Force helicopter and a police armoured car accompany the mobs who were afraid of a militant attack. Also in Sri Lanka, it is difficult to transport Muslim thugs from Colombo into the East and have it kept secret.
The incident incidentally created a need for, and helped the meteoric rise of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress based in the Eastern Province. It was a problem similar to that of the Sinhalese border villages, whose interests were suppos- edly represented by political actors in Colombo. The incident delivered a powerful message to the Eastern Muslims that Muslim MPs belonging to the major South-based parties will play to an agenda dictated from Colombo that may be totally opposed to their interests – such as the compelling need for good Muslim-Tamil relations felt by both. The malignant methods of the Regime helped the progressive fragmentation of the Sri Lankan State as a whole.
The Government did not mind putting Muslim ministers into the soup over the Eastern Province imbroglio, but did not hesitate to show its vicious side when it came to exposure which revealed a deeper involvement of the State.
To be continued..