By Rajan Hoole –
1979 – 83: The Mounting Repression – Part IV
Whatever the merits of the Open Economy introduced in 1977, corruption made life harder for the ordinary people by contributing to an inflation rate of 20%-30%. An event highlighted by the SLFP journal in the early 80s was the purchase of 7 Tri-Star jets for Air Lanka, each purchased at double the listed price of USD 25 million. There was much simmering anger and a desire for change. In anticipation of this, President Jayewardene had appointed a commission which put his most potent rival, Srimavo Bandaranaike, out of the way by recommending a suspension of her civic rights for alleged abuse of power. He won the presidential election in October 1982 against Hector Kobbekaduwe, a weaker opponent, obtaining 53% of the vote.
There had been a good deal of anger within the SLFP, knowing well that Jayewardene would use all means fair and foul to thwart their victory. Understandably, some strong, angry and perhaps violent remarks were made within the SLFP’s higher circles. On the basis of some hearsay remarks conveyed to him, Jayewardene pulled another rabbit out of his hat – the famous ‘Naxalite Plot’ involving some leading SLFPers to kill democrats like himself and establish a totalitarian regime. Jayewardene was loath to lose his five-sixths majority in parliament which enabled him to adopt a new constitution and amend it at will – four times by then – always to further entrench his power. Citing the ‘Naxalite Plot’, he proposed to replace the parliamentary elections that were due, by a referendum to extend the term of the existing parliament by six years. People were called upon to vote and surrender their right to elect.
The referendum was won by Jayewardene, using widespread violence, intimidation and ballot stuffing. A particular method used was related to us by a magistrate in a provincial town.
By then the Police had been meddled with to ensure that the right officers were in place. The UNP bigwigs got the Police to arrest SLFP organisers and polling agents on trumped up charges. They were then taken to the magistrate with a view to remanding them. Every magistrate knew that if he did not oblige, his career prospects would be dim. Today’s magistrates become tomorrow’s high court judges, appeal court judges and supreme court judges. The training of the judiciary was under way.
Here was a new and novel practice. The President discovers a plot and the Police look for evidence and come up with a report. The report does not go to court in the form of charges against individuals. It is submitted to the Press. Ironically, the serialisation of the police findings on the ‘Naxalite Plot’ in the press took place during the July 1983 disturbances. To shift the blame for the latter the President discovered yet another plot, which fitted neatly into the earlier one, and banned several Left parties.
Many things happened in the run up to the July ’83 violence. Bye-elections were held in 18 constituencies where the sitting UNP members who had been given another term by the Referendum, on the basis of a poor showing in the Referendum poll in their constituency, were deemed to have lost their support. The elections on 18th May 1983 were marred by the violence of the ruling party. This was particularly so in Kesbewa and Mahara, both won by the UNP. The new MP for Kesbewa was Gamini Lokuge. Vijaya Kumaratunga, the rising star then in the SLFP, lost in Mahara by a mere 45 votes. So the UNP won 14 of the 18 seats, and its supporters who were influential in the Press argued that it continued to retain its popular base. The Referendum was thus given a whitewashing.
Jayewardene seemed to be succeeding in rolling up Sri Lanka’s electoral map. Some of the SLFP’s senior members complained about Anura Bandaranaike consorting with the UNP and making statements inimical to the party. They wanted Mrs. B to check her son, which she seemed reluctant to do. Two senior members, Hector Kobbekaduwe and T.B. Illangaratne, resigned their party posts.
On the 18th May again, local elections were held in Jaffna in the face of a boycott call by the LTTE. A soldier guarding a polling booth was killed, consequent to which the Army burnt a number of houses at Kantharmadam. At least 3 UNP candidates or supporters were killed by the LTTE during that period. The boycott call was the first time the LTTE challenged the TULF in this manner. Amirthalingam was in a quandary. On the one hand he was being blamed as an ineffective leader, failing to condemn the killing of non-TULF candidates and unable to exert any moderating influence on the militants. Amirthalingam was close to admitting helplessness as the Government had left him with DDCs, which were worthless and was not prepared to go any further. His position (e.g. Sun 14.6.83) was that he was prepared to place before the Tamil people a solution based on the ‘right to self-determination’. It was an unenviable position for a leader. He had not built up a base for mass action. He had to depend on wisdom dawning on Jayewardene, or some outside agency driving some into him.
Where the Jayewardene government was concerned, it was haunted by its lack of legitimacy in the South. On the surface, the Opposition was in shambles. But in perpetuating itself in power through legally questionable means, the Government was led to clumsy and highly unedifying means of subduing what remained of the independence of the Judiciary. In all this, the role of members of the Cabinet who could mobilise mobs and underground elements assumed a new importance, whence things could easily get out of control. What began in the Referendum of December 1982, through July 1983, led to several tragic events within the UNP itself over the coming ten years.
For a government basking in mixed feelings of triumph in the South, its every effort to subdue the North brought about the opposite. The ‘Naxalite Plot’ in the South was fiction, but its every repressive move was conjuring up real naxalites in the North. Its use of draconian laws to detain or humiliate those very persons who, if treated differently, could have had a moderating influence, was plunging the North into anarchy. There were clear signs that an angry government was, certainly by early July, moving towards some form of arbitrary or extra- legal action against the Tamils collectively, though perhaps unclear about what form it would take. We now look at certain aspects of the build-up that give us a feeling of what was going on.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here