25 June, 2022


The Maduru Oya Fiasco

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Rajan Hoole

The Rise and Fall of the Tamil Militancy and the International Legal Implications of the Government’s Counter-Insurgency – Part 2

In the last chapter, we touched on the drive initiated by leading officials in the Mahaveli Authority pre-emptively to settle Sinhalese in the Maduru Oya Basin in the Batticaloa District. This area was to be developed under the Mahaveli Project. The story of this takes much of Herman Gunaratne’s book For a Sovereign State (FSS). The author should be complimented for an unusually frank narrative where he has been true to his perceptions. But after five years – roughly the period covered by the book – it was clear that his perceptions were in crisis. This was true of a large number in his class. What is particularly interesting about his book is that without being aware of it he tells us much about how leading Sinhalese politicians thought and operated.

The scholar-detectives of the Mahaveli Ministry, T.H. Karunatilleke and Hemapriya, found an eager disciple in Herman Gunaratne who on Dissanayake’s invitation took up the job of Additional General Manager, CECB. Karunatilleke was Director of Planning. The scholar-detectives saw no end of Tamil conspiracies during July 1983 and its aftermath. A particular discovery of Karunatilleke’s was that cunning Tamil surveyors in the Survey Department had been altering Sinhalese place names in the North-East to Tamil ones. One example was the supposed alteration of Kokkila to Kokkilai by adding an ‘i’. Had any one of them cared to look up the 1824 Census or books on Ceylon by Prideham or Tennant written in the first half of the 19th century before there were Tamil surveyors, they would have found the same names and even more Tamil names. They were capable of locating a Tamil menace under every bush and every stone, and went on to become the leading lights of Sri Lanka’s administrative bureaucracy.

Gamini Dissanayake was a sophisticated player who had use for such zealots in his power game. The prestigious and lucrative Mahaveli Authority placed him almost at the top of succession stakes. Reviving the ancient glories of the Sinhalese with foreign loans and putting the Tamils in their place was the stuff of the game.

Dissanayake’s use of these zealots may be compared with going on a camping expedition with children. One gets more life and work out of the children by making them believe that the camp is surrounded by ferocious lions, and that they would all pull through the danger if they do their part diligently. It was not like Dissanayake to dampen their zeal by pouring cold water on their delusions. He rather encouraged them.

In early August 1983, an alarmed Gunaratne informed Minister Dissanayake about ongoing large-scale organised Tamil encroachment in the Maduru Oya (River) basin, as reported by Mahaveli staff. It was hardly the time for Tamils to venture out into an insecure area. If there was any truth in the suggestion, it was an easy police matter. When Gunaratne requested that the Army be sent in, Dissanayake replied that the Army was otherwise engaged ‘dealing with problems in the South and fighting terrorists in the North.’ Dissanayake obviously did not believe Gunaratne’s reports. He instead encouraged Gunaratne to settle some Sinhalese there unofficially.

The factual position as reported by M. Anthonymuttu, GA Batticaloa, is also given in the book. The old villages in the area were Kallichenai and Oothuchenai. Under a government scheme in 1958, 685 acres of Paddy, Highland and residential allotments were opened up. On an understanding reached by K.W. Devanayagam, the MP for the area, 10 persons of Indian origin were allotted land on the scheme. 48 families of Indian origin sent to Batticaloa after the 1977 riots were also allowed to settle in the area. There were also about 200 encroachments by the expanding population from the two named villages above on 600 acres of land. This was the general situation in the country, and according to Minister Dissanayake’s order of 1979, these long-standing encroachments would have been regularised had they not been in an area coming under the Mahaveli Scheme. According to what had been the practice in Sinhalese areas, they should have been the first to receive land under the scheme.

Gunaratne was approached by a monk from Dimbulagala who had tried to settle Sinhalese in the area in 1974 and was made to retreat after protests by Tamils. The two then spoke to N.G.P. Panditharatne, a cautious man, who was UNP chairman and director general of the Mahaveli Project. He listened to the alarming stories related by them of ongoing massive Tamil encroachment in Maduru Oya and of the Minister’s unofficial go-ahead to Gunaratne on settling Sinhalese. Panditharatne told the monk to deal with Gunaratne in future and not to come to him again. He kept himself behind the scenes and ensured that money and vehicles for the task were released by the Mahaveli Authority. The monk shortly afterwards placed an advertisement in the Sinhalese daily Dawasa calling for applicants for land in Maduru Oya.

The Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Gandhi, in the latter half of August, sent her envoy Gopalasamy Parthasarathy to talk to the different parties and to examine possible means to a political solution. Parthasarathy naturally called on Dissanayake. The discussion was no doubt conducted on the friendliest of terms with the utmost courtesy displayed by both sides.

Hemapriya who was hanging about came in after Parthasarathy left and asked the Minister if Parthasarathy was ‘zeroing down on land.’ Dissanayake said gravely that it was so. Hemapriya told him anxiously that he held the keys to the problem and should not yield ‘one inch of our land.’ Dissanayake affirmed that he would yield nothing. He then dropped a strong hint meant for Gunaratne that he was disappointingly slow about settling people in Maduru Oya. Dissanayake could of course have told Hemapriya that India was committed to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka

and was constrained by international law, and so could be handled without fear by sensible dealing. But Dissanayake preferred to pretend to the children that the camp was being stalked by wild beasts. To the children, Parthasarathy’s mission was presented as one to carve out Tamil Eelam.

From 1st September 1983, a band rising to 40,000 Sinhalese poor trooped into Maduru Oya, led by the Dimbulagala monk. This resulted in pandemonium. There was protest by the Tamil leaders, adverse publicity in the Indian Press and crossfire in the local media between the Tamil Home Affairs Minister William Devanayagam, also MP for the area, and Gamini Dissanayake. Dissanayake had very likely wanted something more discreet and had not expected this sensational outcome. But he was clearly open to the possibilities the unexpected development offered his career.

Panditharatne played his game from behind the scenes by telephoning a top defence official, probably the Defence Secretary, and getting the names of naval officers dismissed recently. The dismissals pertain to the indiscipline and arson in Trincomalee by naval personnel, during and before Black July. These persons were contacted by Gunaratne with a view to settling them in Maduru Oya. They were to spearhead the formation of a citizen army by finding another three dozen or so ex-servicemen and training the other settlers in armed combat. It had all the hallmarks of a crusade.

In early October Gamini Dissanayake decided to cash in by playing the legendary ‘Sinhalese’ hero Duttu Gemunu (Gamini), and in the process steal a march on his rivals for the top job. He called a private meeting of leading Sinhalese businessmen. Dissanayake spoke to them about the prospect of Indian intervention. He then had an unnamed gentleman explain the threat of Tamil Eelam and their proposed means of thwarting it by establishing Sinhalese settlements in the Yan Oya (River) and Malwathu Oya basins (north-east and north- west respectively), thus breaking the contiguity of the Tamil-speaking region. Dissanayake added that he had recruited dismissed naval officers to organise the security of the Maduru Oya settlement and proposed that the settlements at Yan Oya and Malwathu Oya be done in the same manner.

One cautious businessman, Dasa Mudalali, asked if this plan had the President’s consent and reminded the others that if not it was doomed. Dissanayake replied that not only did the President know, but that he would also get a contribution from the President’s fund. Rs. 3.5 million was pledged between them. Dissanayake gave Nawaloka Mudalali the task of naming the fund and finding the astrologically correct time to inaugurate it. This was duly done on the morn of 16th October with Mrs. Dissanayake serving milk-rice and Nawaloka Mudalali presenting a cheque. The cheque was never cashed.

The next day Dissanayake panicked and disowned having anything to do with the Maduru Oya settlement. How Dissanayake misjudged Sri Lanka’s position then is quite remarkable. Apparently, Dissanayake, a close lieutenant of Jayewardene, had never discussed the matter with him explicitly. According to Gunaratne, during Dissanayake’s long silence, some of his rivals had persuaded Jayewardene that the Maduru Oya affair was a conspiracy against him. Jayewardene decided to crack down and appointed Paul Perera and a Colonel Benedict Silva of the Volunteer Force to have the settlers removed.

One sympathises with Gunaratne, because he seldom sees through the deviousness of big- time politicians. It cannot be that President Jayewardene was fooled about what was going on in Maduru Oya from 1st September to 16th October. It had been all over the Press and was the talk in the diplomatic circuit. In such matters Jayewardene would not have known in full detail what was going on and would not have wanted to know. With Minister Devanayagam, among others, complaining, he would have had to go through the motions of sorting it out.

Dissanayake must have given Jayewardene some hints of what was going on and received what he took to be implicit approval. There were no differences between Jayewardene and Dissanayake on the objectives – e.g. the Weli Oya Scheme that followed. The establishment is after all very familiar with such methods. In doing something controversial one encourages a subordinate to stick his neck out, keeps a safe distance and keeps one’s options open on whether to take credit or to disown the affair. In the latter event, a minion’s neck was sent to the chopper. That is what ultimately happened to Cyril Mathew, and to Gunaratne in the present instance.

Consequently, in the power game of snakes and ladders Gamini Dissanayake took a tumble down the belly of a snake. Lalith Athulathmudali sold himself as the man-of-the-hour and went up a ladder as Minister for National Security in March 1984. Gunaratne spent some days in a police cell to be interrogated by the rising star ASP Ronnie Gunasinghe, and then left the Mahaveli Authority. When Dissanayake went up a ladder again, it was as a favourite of India negotiating the Indo-Lanka Accord. Jayewardene let Athulathmudali and Dissanayake pursue their own courses and kept his options open. Such totally unprincipled pursuit of personal rivalries would prove the bane of peace in Sri Lanka for years to come. Going from anti-India to pro-India like Dissanayake was the most normal thing in this game. Often the people, and particularly the minions, were left angry and disoriented.

As regards the Maduru Oya fiasco, what very likely happened was that Jayewardene faced an unexpected crisis. The Government could have settled 500 Sinhalese in the area over a few months and possibly have got away with it. It has been happening much of the time around Trincomalee and it is tiresome for a minority community devoid of state power to follow these up and fight them out. But an envisaged armed camp of 40,000 settlers was too much. Sparks were flying and even the Government could not have made it viable. And what was a pittance of 3.5 million rupees raised from Sinhalese Mudalalis wary of planetary influences?

Even worse, the Indian Government would have felt snubbed when it was trying to negotiate a political settlement. The Sri Lankan Government too would have looked utterly ridiculous and irresponsible, first hammering the Tamils in the South and then setting up armed camps of Sinhalese in the North-East where the Tamils had some security. Donor countries too would have been put off. When the seriousness of it was brought home to Jayewardene, he had no other option. It was a gamble of Dissanayake’s that had simply gone too far.

In early October when Panditharatne sensed that an evacuation of Maduru Oya was in the offing, he sent Karunatilleke and Hemapriya to the North to identify new areas where the crusaders in Maduru Oya could be moved. The evacuation of Maduru Oya was taken care of by the forces of nature rather than by forces of the State. The monsoon rains came down and the plain was flooded – a prospect which the country’s leading managers of water resources had overlooked. Blinded by ideological objectives high on their mind, these scientists forgot their very fundamentals, which every native peasant was keenly aware of.

T.H. Karunatilleke duly identified the Kent and Dollar Farms area in the Mullaitivu District where refugees from the Hill Country region had been helped to start a new life after the 1977 violence. There were also long standing native Tamil villages. Given the situation in the country, Tamil militants too visited the area. Although Karunatilleke makes much of this, he was then able to visit the area as a government official along with the Sinhalese Additional GA, Vavuniya, without anticipating any security risk.

The main burden of Karunatilleke’s report was from the same feverish imagination that launched the Maduru Oya fiasco: That there   was continuing planned Tamil encroachment in the area that would prevent the Sinhalese colonisation scheme at Padaviya – another fait accompli in the 1950s – from expanding into the Northern Province. It was this mindset, backed by state power, which finally turned an essentially peaceful area into a killing field.

Karunatilleke’s report of 12th October 1983 concluded thus:

“I strongly request these illicit settlements and anti-national activities be probed into and suitable action taken. Their existence will not only prevent the expansion of the habitat of the people living in this area on a planned basis, but also would pose a threat to national security.”

It helped to set off the kind of brutalisation leading to the rise of the Liberation Tigers.

To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Herman Guneratna in an article in the Sunday Times of 26th Aug.1990 had this to say.
    All wars are fought for Land.We conceived and implemented a plan which we thought would secure the territorial integrity of SriLanka for a long time.We moved a large group of 45,000 land hungry Sinhala peasants into the Batticaloa and Pollanaruwa districts of the Maduru Oya delta.By settling Sinhala peasants in the Maduru Oya,we were seeking to have in the Batticaloa Zone a mass of people opposed to a separate Tamil State.Herman Guneratne as published in the Sunday TIMES Aug.1990.

    The MP Kalkuda during this exercise of Herman Guneratne and his boss at the Mahaweli Ministry,was K.W.Devanayagam of the U.N.P.KWD DID NOT win his seat on the basis of a separate state.Perhaps,Herman G.in his zeal was attempting to rewrite history and erase Hugh Cleghorns observation of the ground situation in 1799.

  • 0

    May not be all wars, but this war certainly was over land. It was over whose right it was to grab the sparsely populated jungles that existed in the Vanni and Eastern Province interior land that previously was an integral part of the Kandian kingdom. The Tamils felt that the arbitrarily drawn borders of the two provinces meant that the British bequeathed all the land within them exclusively to the Tamils. They didnt have the numbers to occupy the land, so settled Indian Tamils from the hill country in these lands in a land settlement program called the Gandhian movement. Many of these lands had existing remnant villages (Sinhala purana gam) of a hybrid mixture of Sinhalese, Veddah and sometimes Tamil people called the Vannias clinging on to a meagre existance. RL Spittel, Tennant, Still and Seligman have written extensively on these areas and the demography can be inferred from their accounts. The village names of all but a few are Sinhalese. The wealth of archaelogical ruins within these areas, Rajagala, Nuwaragala, Kudumbigala (also known as Toppigala), Buddangala are evidence of a prosperous civilisation during the Ruhunu kingdom period before the jungles took over.

    So the question is who should own this land? Tamils from Batticaloa, Tamils from Jaffna, Tamils originally from India or the Sinhalese? Or should it be shared fairly?

    Personally, I feel it should have been best left as jungle and we should have managed our population so as not to have to expand into these areas. But it is too late for that now. We need a fair system that gives Tamils control over certain areas and Sinhalese over other areas to bring this ethnic conflict to a close.

    This can be achieved by dividing up the land mass into self governing enclaves based on an equal per-capita entitlement to land between Jaffna Tamils, Batticaloa Tamils, Moslems and Sinhalese. But this is not a popular idea among any of the squabbling parties. They will not be happy until they get entitlement to a much larger share than the other. Supremacist nationalist sentiments rule in Sri Lanka whether they be Sinhalese or Tamils.

    • 0

      Dingiri, You forget to add one more. It should be “….Supermacist nationalist sentiments rule in SL whether they be Sinhalese,Tamils and or Muslims..”. Nobody can see or hear how Muslims grab government lands in the East. Because in there such as Akkaraipattu,Samanthurai,Ampara and in Pothuvil all the government officials and ruling politicians[in provincial councils] are Muslims.

  • 0

    Land hunger in a small country, where population has virtually trebled since Independence is, an emotion issue that can turn incendiary by the scheming. Whereas responsible politicians should bring in their managerial abilities, learning and political skill to tread the delicate ground gently we found the opposite happening in the country. This, unfortunately, divided the country further and we were left to inherit racial disunity and, eventually, a destructive war.

    While some parts of the Eastern Province abutting the Uva and other in different periods of history came under the Kandyan kingdom language, culture and other features made it abundantly clear the people were, at least in the past century and more, predominantly Tamil. Land hunger in the South, as in the NEP, is conceded. But moving around 50,000 from the South to the Batticoloa District in the 1980s is clearly not calculated to promote ethnic harmony or communal unity – but calculated mischief with intent to set the country ablaze.
    There was sufficient Crown Land in the deep South where Sinhala landless could have been settled without disturbing communal sensitivities. But this path was avoided satisfying a majoritarian mindset – and thus was exacerbated Tamil militancy and eventual war.

    As to the migration of Indian Tamils to the EP from the hill country, it may be remembered Hector Kobbekaduwa had an axe to grind with Thondaman and his people for a long time.
    At the very first opportunity he got – as Minister of Agriculture, with Land Reform coming under him. Under the guise of Land Reform that bifurcated Estates above 50 acres, he inflicted mass unemployment on the Estate workers of recent Indian origin. The already poor community was subject, by design as it were, to famine and hunger. There was a flood of them to Colombo and Western Province where they were forced to beg in the streets for their food. Some social and charity organisations came forward to help them convert jungle and uncultivated shrub land in the Batticoloa District. This was to help them with their livelihood at a time when Mrs. B’s Govt, both by omission and commission, caused a food shortage (particularly rice) However, communalists of the Cyril Mathew ilk gave this a colour of intrigue and xenophobia – poisoning the minds of the Sinhalese. This found ready succour in a country woefully short of economic opportunities resulting in the island-wide attack on innocent Tamil civlians and their properties in 7/83.

    Rajan Hoole and UT(J)HR serve a useful purpose in bringing to public notice and discussion those features and miscalculatios that took place from 1956 to the 1980s till today. The aberrations flowing therefrom will define the direction the country will take from now on.


  • 0

    Mr. Hoole : You are an ethnic Tamil are’nt you !

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