Mobs on the rampage. 1983 anti-Tamil violence in Colombo.

By Jayantha Somasundaram

(This articlecontinued from yesterday (25) is based on reporting by the international media on the events in Sri Lanka forty years ago.)

“For day after day Tamils were beaten, hacked or burned to death in the streets, on buses, on trains – sometimes in the sight of horrified foreign tourists. Their homes and shops were burned and looted. Yet the security forces seemed either unwilling or unable to stop it – indeed, in Jaffna and Trincomalee, some members of the armed forces themselves joined in the fray, claiming an admitted 51 lives. And not until the fifth day, did President Jayewardene finally appear on television. In that address he did not utter a single word of sympathy for the victims of the violence and destruction.” (Paul Sieghart Sri Lanka: A Mounting Tragedy of Errors International Commission of Jurists 3/1/84)

“Mr Athulathmudali, who was later to be appointed Minister of Security on the same television programme, nearly wept with ponderous histrionics over a sight he had never dreamed he would see – lines of Sinhalese people waiting to buy food as a result of the riots! He had not a word to say in sympathy for the frightened Tamils crowded in indescribable conditions in refugee camps. In the first days after the holocaust neither the President nor the Cabinet, nor even a single prominent Sinhalese politician visited them,” wrote Harvard Professor S. J. Thambiah, in Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy.

The British Guardian said that “The President has decided that his immediate task is to placate the majority Sinhalese mobs which are still rioting, burning, looting and murdering at the expense of the Tamil minority. He has· effectively outlawed the only serious Tamil party (TULF). Instead of throwing a protective Gandhian arm around the minority population, the President has thus at a stroke disfranchised the great mass of them and turned them into a race of untermenschen or institutionalised second class citizens. The danger is that the President’s decision may be seen both by the Sinhalese mobs and the Tamil masses as a virtual endorsement of the blood bath.”

“When presented with evidence that the Army or the Police have committed atrocities against defenceless Tamils, the Government has reacted with a shrug of the shoulders,” wrote Francis Wheen in the London Times (30.7.83). “Police misconduct has actually been rewarded. In two separate cases the Supreme Court found that police officers had acted illegally; in both cases the officers concerned were promoted.”

“On the first day of violence in Colombo,” wrote T.R. Lansner in the London Observer (14.8.83) “when thousands of Tamil businesses and residences were gutted, police had orders not to intervene, it is claimed. Certainly hundreds of armed Police deployed through the city could be seen standing idly by as mobs broke vehicles and looted homes and businesses. Even when Tamils were set upon and beaten and burned to death, police armed with automatic weapons did nothing.”

Conspiracy Theory

Having watched silently for almost a week as anti-Tamil violence engulfed Sri Lanka, Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi finally telephoned Jayewardene on 28 July and expressed concern about the situation in Sri Lanka and the fate of its Tamil population. She also informed him that she was sending her External Affairs Minister Narasimha Rao on the following day to Colombo. “The Indian Foreign Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, met with President J.R. Jayewardene today to discuss the situation.” (New York Times 30/7/83)

Given international media reporting and diplomatic concern, the Jayewardene-Premadasa Regime now found it necessary to change its position and distance themselves from the perpetrators of violence. Government spokesmen thereafter laid claim to an anti-Government plot, a Communist Conspiracy and foreign involvement, to explain the unchecked anti-Tamil violence of the previous week. To substantiate this they proscribed the Communist Party, the Nava Sama Samaja Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). “The Colombo Sun called for the closing of all Soviet bloc embassies, specifically those of the Soviet Union and East Germany.” (New York Times 2/8/83)

But in a letter to the President, TULF leader Amirthalingam said: The Tamil people do not believe that Left parties had any hand in the attack on them. They regard this as an attempt to win the sympathy and support of the Western powers. The attack on the Tamil people was executed by the same forces that attacked the strikers in July 1980, attacked Professor (Ediriweera) Sarachchandra and demonstrated outside the houses of Judges (in June).”

“Initially Mr. Jayewardene hinted publicly at an Indian-Soviet Conspiracy and rumours spread that he had asked Western powers for help,” wrote John Elliot in the Financial Times. “Then he said he had no ‘direct evidence’ of a foreign power’s involvement but he was sure that army officers loyal to the JVP planned civil disturbances. Recently in an interview in Colombo he told me that the trouble was caused by the JVP together with people in his own party who are violently anti-separatist.

“Cyril Matthew, a member of the rigidly Buddhist Jaggery caste and boss of the UNP’s trade union is widely suspected in Colombo of having a guiding influence over the riots.”

John Elliot continued: Many foreign and local observers regard the claims of Mr. Jayewardene and his fellow Ministers as an attempt to cover up the fact that a few leading members of his own Government may have played a role in the plot which was partly aimed at striking a death blow at Tamil activists and at removing Tamils from their positions.

Mrs B: Govt. looking for Scapegoats

In an interview with Asiaweek (12.8.83) former Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike dismissed the ‘conspiracy theory’. “It is definitely racial,” she said. “Anyone who says the violence was anything else but racial is living in a fool’s paradise. This government since it came to power in 1977 has been trying to encourage lawlessness. The UNP (United National Party) and its members have been on the wrong side of the law all the time. Now they are telling lies – that this is a plot to overthrow the government. They are only interested in looking for scapegoats.”

“There is a wealth of theory and a remarkable shortage of fact,” comments the International Commission of Jurists, “(State Minister Ananda Tissa de Alwis saw in the master plan ‘the minds of certain foreign elements’. He had previously said much the same about the 1981 outbreak. In a press interview in December 1983, he identified those foreign elements as the KGB. In parallel press interviews his colleague Cyril Matthew saw ‘the dirty hand of India’. For simpler-minded Tamils the answer is only too obvious: the entire blame falls on the Government but interestingly and encouragingly they do not blame the Sinhalese people as such, nor have they attempted any reprisals against them. What I find most extraordinary is that to this day there has been no attempt to find out the truth through an official, public and impartial enquiry when the situation in the country cries out for nothing less.”

“Virtually every Tamil I met was of the opinion that the violence against them was organised by the Government,” reported Princeton University Professor Gananath Obeysekera in Political Violence and the Future of Democracy.

“Both the Tamils hurt by these events and even Sinhalese people, as well as the foreign press, openly stated that the government either condoned the attack or it was done by factions within the government. As a response the government came out with its own theory of an international and local Communist conspiracy,” continues Professor Obeysekera. “According to this anti- Government plot scenario the Muslims and Christians were to be massacred next. All three of the proscribed parties were sympathetic with Tamil language aspirations. Similarly it is difficult to believe that a government so promptly informed of (Vijaya Kumaranatunga’s) ’Naxalite’ plot by the CID a day after the presidential elections were ignorant of a more serious plot by Marxist groups to create race riots. In other words, the government was forewarned of a plot that did not occur but not warned of one that did! If the race riots were caused by Marxists why did the government imply that it was a popular uprising by the Sinhalese and why in heavens name did no one offer sympathy for the dispossessed?”

The Jayewardene Regime now carried the pogrom to its logical conclusion. First, they made it clear that the remaining Tamil population were hostage against any external intervention to protect them. J.R. Jayewardene told India Today “The worst that India can do is to invade us. If they invade us that is the end of the Tamils in this country.”

Fourteen Hours: Fourteen Minutes

In The Break-Up of Sri Lanka, A.J. Wilson Founding Professor of Political Science at the University of Ceylon quotes Minister Gamini Dissanayake as telling a meeting at (UNP HQ) Sri Kotha on 5th September: “They are bringing an army from India. It will take 14 hours to come from India. In 14 minutes, the blood of every Tamil in the country can be sacrificed to the soil by us.”

The Regime proceeded with the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution which removed the TULF from parliament. Tamil MPs supporting the UNP Regime took the required oath and retained their seats. But none of them: S. Thondaman, Bill Devanayagam and C. Rajadurai, were re-elected to Parliament at the next General Election. Thondaman did return to Parliament, but on the National list.

Second, the pogrom was used to economically marginalise the Tamils. Ananda Tissa de Alwis explained that the ownership of Tamil businesses would be restructured to deny them a majority shareholding. And trade itself would be reorganised. “The Trade Minister has already reorganised rice wholesaling to break the Tamil grip. It is no longer in my interests to allow one community to dominate, insists Lalith Athulathmudali,” in the Irish Times (24.8.83). ‘The Tamils have dominated the commanding heights of everything good in Sri Lanka,’ explained Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel, “the only solution is to restore the rights of the Sinhala majority.’ “

“Today, after nearly a week of killing and burning Sri Lanka’s aura of stability and progress has evaporated. Hundreds of businesses and factories lie in ashes, and economic development, the Government says, has been set back three years, five years, even more. Tamils were dragged from their homes, set fire, stabbed, hacked with axes and run over. The true extent of the killings remains unknown, because many are still missing. Thousands of Tamils fled to refugee camps … Tamil homes were burned down, and Tamil-owned businesses in Colombo were gutted. Seventeen major factories wholly or partly owned by Tamils were turned into ash, including two that employed thousands of people each. Three plants that produced textiles for export were destroyed. Damage estimates are uncertain and incomplete, but the total economic loss has been placed at $300 million or more, and 150,000 people are said to have been rendered jobless. About 10,000 foreign tourists were here when the trouble started. All but about 1,500 have left. ‘If the Tigers take one more Sinhalese life in the north,” T. D. S. A. ‘Jungle’ Dissanayake, a Government official, said, ”I hate to think of the consequences.” (New York Times 4/8/83)

The final toll may never be known but during that week when homes, shops farms, cinemas, factories and vehicles belonging to Tamils were destroyed 140,000 of them fled to refugee camps. Government estimates were that 100 factories and 2,497 shops were destroyed and so large was the collection of burned out vehicles that they had to be carried out to sea for disposal.


“Not only may foreign investors now be frightened away, but the island’s once-prosperous Tamils may no longer be counted as a mainstay of Sri Lanka’s economy…. An estimated 100,000 were left homeless. Government miscalculation and inaction have contributed to the violence,” explained The Christian Science Monitor. “So has a breakdown in discipline among the almost exclusively Sinhalese Army and police… Bewildering to even some of Mr. Jayewardene’s aides, is that the President has not made a conciliatory public statement to the Tamils; has offered no compensation; and done nothing to appease. Rightly or wrongly, this is being interpreted as a colossal show of weakness, indifference or isolation, by both Tamils and educated Sinhalese. Rather, he has permitted his Cabinet members to flail on the ”involvement of foreign powers,” a well-coordinated ”foreign plot.” When such statements were received with annoyance and some derision by Colombo’s elite, the President himself spoke only of a Sri Lankan ‘leftist plot.’”

“Half of the 4,100 Tamil shops in this once-gracious capital have been burnt to the ground. Seventeen major Tamil owned textile factories have been gutted in Colombo alone… The export-oriented tea industry in the lush hills has, according to the finance minister, nearly disappeared. For it was Sri Lanka’s Tamils who were the entrepreneurial class. In the greater Colombo area, though they represent only 9 percent of the population, one-third of the capital’s businesses and investments were in Tamil hands.” (Mary Anne Weaver The Christian Science Monitor Boston, Mass. 8 Aug 1983)

“In 2004, President Chandrika Kumaratunga gave a public apology to Tamils for Black July, likening it to Nazism. She appointed a commission, which concluded that nearly 1,000 people died and 700,000 were exiled. And she acknowledged there might be many more unreported incidents. … Despite Mrs Kumaratunga’s gestures, no one has been held accountable for the July killings.” (BBC 23 July 2013)


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