A scene of anti-Tamil violence in Colombo in 1983

Monday 25th July 1983 began like just another day. But what we didn’t know was that it was to be the last day of an era. By mid-morning from my second-floor office in Fort I could see the city being put to the torch. Already my two sisters’ homes in the suburbs had been attacked and they were taking shelter with Sinhalese and Burgher neighbours.

After ensuring that the female staff was safely escorted home, I walked to my wife’s office in Kompannavidiya. Outside the Air Force Headquarters on Sir Chittampalam Gardiner Mawatha, gangs were stopping cars and setting them on fire. A Police jeep drove through the inferno; but the mob did not pause from their orgy of destruction. On Malay Street groups were looting and then setting shops ablaze. I watched truckloads of troops chanting ‘Jayaweva’ drive out of Army Headquarters, exhorting and encouraging the mobs.

A Sinhalese colleague accompanied us back home where we packed one briefcase with essential documents and one basket with food and necessities for Nishara, our nine-month-old baby. If we had to flee this was all we would take. When a house in the adjacent road was attacked, we took refuge with a Sinhalese neighbour.

We were among the fortunate. We survived. This article remembers the many who did not return to their homes; who came home to charred ruins; who fled to refugee camps and then into exile overseas. It honours the memories of the men, women, children and domestic animals who perished in Sri Lanka’s Holocaust.

By Jayantha Somasundaram

This article is based on reporting by the international media on the events in Sri Lanka 40 years ago.)

“I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people… now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion… the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… Really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.” – President J.R. Jayewardene, Daily Telegraph (London) 11 July 1983

“Someone seemed to have planned the whole thing and waited only for an opportunity. And the opportunity came on the night of 23 July,” (Race & Class London XXVI.I [1984]). Thirteen soldiers of the 1st Battalion Sri Lanka Light Infantry were killed in a landmine explosion in Thirunelveli. Enraged troops struck back immediately. David Beresford wrote that “members of the Tamil community in Jaffna told the British Guardian troops killed a number of students waiting at a bus stop; the students aged between 18 and 20 had been lined up and fired upon. Six were killed and another two injured. Shortly afterwards troops drove through a village about five miles outside Jaffna shooting at random. Two were reported killed. Soldiers in civilian clothes were out in jeeps and raided a number of houses shooting inhabitants. In one house a family planning official was allegedly shot dead while lying on his bed and his 72-year-old father-in-law a headmaster shot sitting outside on the veranda. About 16 people were killed.

“Asked yesterday why no inquests have been held, President Jayewardene said: I didn’t know until a couple of days ago. It is too late now.” The violence then spread to Trincomalee where since early June Tamils had been subject to violence by hoodlums from the market area. On the 3rd the Mansion Hotel had been attacked. Now sailors went on a rampage destroying Hindu Temples, homes and shops. “In Trincomalee” reported The Irish Times (29.7.83), “130 sailors were under arrest after breaking out of their barracks on Monday and attacking shops and homes.”

“Only one in every 100 policemen is a Tamil. When security forces were ordered last week to protect Tamils in Trincomalee and other cities, they reportedly joined in the looting and burning,” said the London Observer (31.7.83).

A crowd had gathered at Kanatte Cemetery in Colombo for the funeral of the soldiers to be held on the 24th evening. “That night, a section of this crowd started setting fire to Tamil houses at the Borella end of Rosmead Place,” (Race & Class ibid).

On the morning of the 25th, mobs began moving right through Colombo and its suburbs waylaying Tamils and attacking them. They stopped vehicles and set ablaze those belonging to Tamils. They went through commercial areas looted shops and set them on fire. Residential areas were worked systematically and homes occupied by Tamils were attacked, looted and burned. Tamils who fell into the hands of these mobs were beaten and killed.

“There is no doubt that someone had identified the Tamil houses, shops and factories earlier. Seventeen industrial complexes belonging to some of the leading Tamil and Indian industrialists were razed to the ground, including those of the multi-millionaire and firm supporter of the ruling party, A.Y. S. Gnanam (the only capitalist in Sri Lanka to whom the World Bank offered a loan), and the influential Maharaja Organisation. The Indian-owned textile mills of Hirdramani Ltd, which used a labour force of 4,000 in the suburbs of Colombo was gutted. So was K. G. Industries Ltd, Hentley Garments, one of the biggest garment exporters…Several cinemas owned by Tamils were destroyed…Probably the worst affected area was the Pettah, the commercial centre of Colombo, where Tamil and Indian traders played a dominant role. Hardly a single Tamil or Indian establishment was left standing. A most distressing aspect of the vandalism was the burning and the destruction of the houses and dispensaries of eminent Tamil doctors – some with over a quarter of a century of service in Sinhala areas.” (Race & Class ibid)

All over the island

By midday the skyline was marked by columns of smoke as factories, shops and houses burned to the ground. A curfew was imposed at 2.00 pm but the terror did not abate, the attacks continued into the next day. “In the capital Colombo, Tamils are said to have been dragged from their cars and incinerated with petrol,” reported the London Economist (30.7.83).

Anthony Mascarenhas of the London Sunday Times wrote: “Throughout Monday Tamil shops were attacked and burned. Those who resisted perished with their property. Buses and cars were stopped and their Tamil passengers beaten up. Cars were burned and strewn all over the city. The army moved in by noon but troops turned a blind eye. Next day Tuesday, the looters took over defying the curfew. By midweek the trouble had spread all over the island. Affluent Tamils in Colombo who had hidden to escape the mobs were now singled out for attacks in their homes, which were looted and burned.”

“The capital was strewn with the wreckage of scores of shops and houses set ablaze, gutted or looted in the rioting.”(New York Times 28/7/83)

John Elliot of the London Financial Times reported from Colombo: “In each street individual business premises were burned down while others alongside were unscathed. Troops and police either joined the rioters or stood idly by. President Jayawardene failed either intentionally or because he had lost control to stem the damage.”

“By Monday night” said Asiaweek from Hong Kong (12.8.83) “the official death toll in the Greater Colombo area alone was 36 with hundreds more injured and unofficial estimates put the figure at three or four times higher. Most of the dead were helpless Tamils stranded in the city and caught by mobs while trying to flee. In the Borella area two Tamil shop-owners were burnt alive when a mob set fire to a row of shops. In Maradana a Tamil was chased by a mob brought down with stones and then hacked to death.

“On Monday while Borella was being put to the torch rioting broke out in adjacent Welikada prison. Some 400 prisoners from a section reserved for common criminals broke into the maximum-security section. Of the Tamil inmates many of whom were still awaiting trial, 37 were killed, either bludgeoned to death with iron bars or literally trampled to death.

“By Tuesday morning virtually every town in Sri Lanka with a Tamil presence bore scars of rioting. The main target, Tamil owned shops and businesses. According to one estimate more than half the country’s Tamil owned shops were gutted.

“Meanwhile the violence went on” continued Asiaweek (12.8.83). “On Thursday an incoming train from Kandy was stopped just outside the Fort station by security forces acting on a tip that Tamil terrorists were on board. One Tamil was reportedly apprehended carrying hand grenades and an automatic rifle. In the process of arresting them however, pandemonium broke out in the train and the Tamil passengers fled. Ten were run down by a mob of some 2,000 Sinhalese who doused each one with petrol and set them alight while still alive. As the victims screamed in pain the Sinhalese crowd cheered and flashed victory signs, then spilled into the streets looting and burning Tamil shops.”

Welikada Prison

“The same day saw more trouble at Welikada,” explained Asiaweek. “Sinhalese prisoners for the second time in three days broke into the maximum-security wing, this time murdering seventeen Tamil detainees. With three other Tamil inmates killed in the Jaffna jail, the total number of Tamils clubbed or trampled to death by rampaging Sinhalese prisoners was 55.”

David Beresford of The Guardian (13.8.83) recalled that ‘Kutumani’ Yogachandran and Ganeshnathan Jeganathan in speeches from the dock had announced that they would donate their eyes in the hope that they would be grafted onto those who would see the birth of Tamil Eelam. “Reports from Batticaloa jail where the survivors of the Welikada massacre are now being kept say that the two men were forced to kneel and their eyes were gorged out with iron bars before they were killed.”

On his return to London Pat O’Leary told the Associated Press “People were dragged out of their homes and then the houses were burned down. I watched a group of Sinhalese people chase a group of three Tamils. They caught one beat him up threw him to the ground and stoned him. It was terrible. Nobody did a thing to help. Even the Police turned a blind eye.”

A Norwegian woman Eli Skarstein on her return to Oslo told the press that “A mini bus full of Tamils was forced to stop just in front of us in Colombo. A Sinhalese mob poured petrol over the bus and set it on fire. They blocked the car doors and prevented the Tamils from leaving the vehicle. Hundreds of spectators witnessed as 20 Tamils were burned to death.”

“For days soldiers and policemen were not overwhelmed: they were unengaged or, in some cases apparently aiding the attackers,” reported the London Economist (6.8.83). “Numerous eye witnesses attest that soldiers and policemen stood by while Colombo burned. After two days of violence and the murder of 35 Tamils in a maximum-security jail, the only editorial in the government-run newspaper was on ‘saving our forest cover’.

“It was five days after the precipitating ambush and a day after a second prison massacre that the people of Sri Lanka heard from their President. On July 28th Mr. Jayewardene spoke on television to denounce separatism and proscribing any party that endorsed it in order to ‘appease the natural desire and request’ of the Sinhalese ‘to prevent the country being divided’. Not a syllable of sympathy for the Tamil people or any explicit rejection of the spirit of vengeance. Next day Colombo was a battle field: more than 100 people are estimated to have been killed on that Friday alone.”

Tigers in the City

On Friday 29th when a soldier accidently shot himself in the Pettah the rumour spread that ‘Tigers’ were in the City. Indian journalist M. Rahman reported how in response soldiers and Sinhalese mobs retreated to the many bridges leading out of Colombo, killing Tamils desperately trying to get back to their homes.

A middle-aged businessman whom T.R. Lanser interviewed for the London Observer (7.8.83) said “On Friday about noon a mob came to attack Tamil people in the hospital. A Tamil Inspector of Police who was visiting me was murdered, cut with knives, just as he was talking to me. He faced them and he gave us time. Even with this broken foot I ran and hid…”

Michael Hamlyn wrote in the London Times (1.8.83) “burnings and killings continued over the weekend despite a 60-hour curfew. The trouble spread on Saturday to Nuwara Eliya. There were further incidents of violence against Tamils and their property in Chilaw, Matale and Kalutara.

”There was a mass exodus of Tamils displaced from their homes. Thirty busloads of refugees were taken from a camp and embarked on a ship for the North.” The International Herald Tribune (15.8.83) in Paris quoted A. Amirthalingam leader of the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) and leader of the Opposition in Parliament, as saying that 2,000 people had died in two months of ethnic unrest. He said the figure included deaths in the whole island since anti-Tamil violence broke out in Trincomalee on June 3rd and culminated in riots throughout the island at the end of July.


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