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Sri Lanka’s Black July: Borella, 24th Evening

Rajan Hoole

Most people hate to see themselves as murderers. This influences the manner in which they perceive public and private tragedies, and memory often rejects the unpleasant and sanitises the true nature of the event. So it happened with Tamils in the way they sanitised and rationalised instances of Tamil violence against Sinhalese and Muslims. Several of these have been described in our reports over the years. The Sri Lankan State with its ideology is an institution, which most Sinhalese actively or passively empathised with. The fact that there was no investigation into the violence of July 1983, made it easy for Sinhalese in general to opt for versions that distanced their government and hence themselves from the holocaust. Likewise the Tamils, with the subsequent communal attacks by their militant groups.

Thus one often hears said about the 1983 violence that it began spontaneously on the evening of 24th July when the bodies of the slain soldiers were brought from Jaffna, after which the Government lost control of the situation – so that the ‘Tamil terrorists’ or simply ‘terrorists’ who ‘brutally’ killed the soldiers in a routine military incident were largely to blame. This pedestrian version, more or less, with the qualification that Tamil civilians too suffered brutal reprisals, has got into several respectable accounts. It is thus very much the official version of the country’s ruling interests. It distances the Government from blame.

A different version of events is held by many Sinhalese who are conscious of the interests of the Sinhalese people. They are keenly aware that the violence did irreparable harm to Sinhalese interests, subjected the Sinhalese people to worldwide obloquy and legitimised the division of the country. Many of them hold the violence to have begun spontaneously, but are clear that the Government which had soldiers on the streets of Colombo every few yards could have stopped the violence if it wanted to. Among this more discerning layer, there was also anger that the main parties, the UNP and the SLFP, which showed no leadership qualities then, had let the Sinhalese down badly. Many of them in the higher levels of society, such as lawyers, professionals and university lecturers, came to have an emotional leaning towards the JVP rebels who made a bid for power during 1988-89.

The Southern Left which had a long tradition of opposing the State, had no difficulty, at least in private, in blaming the Government wholesale. However, by this time, 1983, they were politically marginalised and their trade union arms had been violently attacked. Moreover after the July violence, Jayewardene tried to pin the blame for it on the Left along with the JVP, and banned them. This being their position, what they said publicly was muted.

The book Sri Lanka: the Holocaust and After by L. Piyadasa (a pseudonym) had drawn widely from sources close to the Left. It accused the Government of preparation well before the killing of soldiers in Jaffna, and spoke of goon squads led by UNP local councillors armed with electoral lists systematically targetting Tamil houses in Colombo and suburbs. In Kelaniya the gangs were identified as those of Industries Minister Cyril Mathew. The General Secretary of the JSS (Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya) which was under Mathew’s patronage was seen at large in Colombo on the 25th of July. The following day, according to Piyadasa, many of these goons from Colombo were bussed to Kandy (72 miles from Colombo) which then erupted. Badulla followed on the 27th and later Passara and Nuwara Eliya.

Mr. Bradman Weerakoon who was a trusted advisor to President Jayewardene and later to Premadasa, whom also Jayewardene made commissioner general of essential services in the wake of July 1983, has a sophisticated understanding of the violence, which also minimises the agency of individuals. His answers to difficult questions were prompt and unhesitating. He was quick to concede that politicians are extremely devious and operate in a very different framework, and that there was no one in the cabinet who stood out against dealing extra-judicially with persons perceived as a threat to the Government. As for the violence itself, he said that it might be misleading to look for answers to questions like who was responsible for what. The atmosphere had by that time become so charged that things happened by themselves. Much of the instigation, he said, was done at a low level by policemen and soldiers, who felt that it was now the patriotic duty of the Sinhalese to get rid of the Tamils.

Weerakoon himself pointed to the violence engulfing Colombo on Monday, Kandy on Tuesday, Badulla on Wednesday and Passara on Thursday, the delay roughly corresponding with distance from Colombo, and offered his own explanation. He associated it with news passed on by travellers, say someone going from Kandy to Badulla and instigating others, “See what the Sinhalese in Kandy did to the Tamils, where is our patriotism, are we not going to do our bit for our race?” He named army personnel as being among the agents in instigation of this kind, and cited the experience of his brother who was a planter near Passara. This planter was in the bazaar where he observed a convoy of army trucks that were parked. Otherwise, everything was normal and peaceful. He left the town, his vehicle climbing a hill. When he was some distance away, he heard gunshots and noise. Passara had erupted. As to the Welikade prison massacres, Weerakoon believes that spontaneous low level incitement was the key factor. That is to say, rioting had begun in Borella, on Monday (25th) the area was on fire, and the news would have been conveyed to the prisoners who were a mere few hundred yards away, with a challenge to prove their patriotism to the Sinhalese cause.

Reports of the role of the Army in the violence came also from Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. During 1983, Frank de Silva who retired as IGP in 1995 was DIG Police, Kandy. From the time of the killing of soldiers in Jaffna, he had intensified police patrols; often going out personally himself. The situation was calm through Monday. On Tuesday, he saw crowds that merely gathered and faced the Police without doing anything threatening. He with ASP Bertus ordered the crowds to be dispersed. They melted away and reappeared elsewhere to be dispersed again. After several replays of this, de Silva felt that the Police were looking foolish and withdrew his men. He had also noticed that many in the crowd were young men with short haircuts, giving themselves away as soldiers from the Sinha Regiment battalion in Kandy, who had also been associated with the communal violence of 1977. He wondered what the officers were doing allowing their men out in this manner. But with no help or instructions, he found himself at a loss. That afternoon Kandy erupted. Frank de Silva recalls finding a badly mauled Hill Country Tamil from Wattegama near the railway crossing on Peradeniya Road, putting him in his car and taking him to Kandy hospital.

Nuwara Eliya, was closely guarded by the Army who were checking all vehicles and had forbidden passenger vehicles from carrying Tamils. Although the violence spread from Kandy to Gampola and Nawalapitiya, Hatton was spared through the exertions of ASP G. Ariyasena, described by his superiors as an excellent officer. Nuwara Eliya was temporarily spared. Further Mrs. Herath Ranasinghe, the MP in Nuwara Eliya, as a precautionary measure had ordered the Police to take preventive custody of the local ruffians. On Friday 29th Minister Gamini Dissanayake arrived in Nuwara Eliya and held a party meeting. According to Piyadasa’s book what followed was that the ruffians preventively detained were released, and then Nuwara Eliya erupted into violence with active help from the Army.

This version quoted from Piyadasa as an eyewitness account was published in the Broken Palmyra. In 1990 the late Mr. Gamini Dissanayake contacted a friend common to himself and the authors of the Broken Palmyra and protested strongly against the implications of this version. He also offered to send Tamil witnesses from Nuwara Eliya who had a different version of events. He also protested that the statement quoted from his speech to the LJEWU in the wake of July, that “If India invades this country, the Tamils will be killed within 24 hours”, had been taken out of context. However, he ought to have been sensitive to the effect of that remark on the Tamils.

Whatever the validity of Dissanayake’s objection, it brings out the difficulty of recording events in this country. Where the State wants to suppress the truth in a climate of violence, legality is on its side. Under the circumstances, there were no legal records of what happened in July 1983 and no commission of inquiry. Information collected was smuggled out and published abroad. But activists who stand by Piyadasa’s version of events in Nuwara Eliya have to this day collected no affidavits. That is how things are in Sri Lanka!

A number of senior police officers who compared notes on developments particularly outside Colombo came to the conclusion that the ‘nucleus’ of the organised violence was provided by the Army. Cyril Herath who was IGP from 1985-88 was the DIG at Kurunegala in charge of the North Western Province. He held the peace, kept his fingers crossed and actively ‘resisted’ Army reinforcements being sent into his area. It remained an area notably free of violence in July although there had been some incidents in June.

The question now naturally arises, what went wrong with the Army? What was supposed to be an organised force with officers trained in the prestigious academies of Sandhurst and Dehra Dun had almost collapsed into an undisciplined mob. Several officers who held senior and responsible positions in the Army blame a combination of poor leadership and political interference. We will deal with this question in a later chapter. But now we move onto the responsibility of the Government and its leading figures.

Specifically, did the Government through rhetoric and posturing create conditions for communal violence where it found itself cornered or did its responsibility go much further? Was it an active agent in fomenting violence? Most Tamils saw the Government as an active agent, while the opposite is true of most Sinhalese. Indeed, if one looks only at one aspect of Jayewardene’s behaviour, what he did and what he told those close to him, one could make a strong case that he was cornered, and we are all in a sense prisoners of our past actions. But the Tamils as the victims were much more alive to other nuances, such as what he failed to do and the orders he did not issue. These tell a different story.

But before we proceed, a note of caution from Bradman Weerakoon: “One needs to be very careful before one accuses the Government of having organised the July 1983 violence and the Welikade prison massacres. I know it was terrible. From my house I could hear sounds of agony and blows falling on flesh. I had Tamils in my house whom I took to a refugee camp when I received a threatening call and subsequently brought back home because they were so miserable there. You know, there were several factors at work. A general election which would have released steam had not been held. There was commercial jealousy because several Tamil entrepreneurs had done well under the open economy. Then there were opposition groups wanting to create trouble for the Government. All these forces came into play. After all, we are so fragmented. How much do we know? It was the sort of eruption where the Government may have found itself unable to do much. A curfew often meant that the Tamils were in their homes while the assailants were free to pick them off.”

It is always true that in every society hatreds, rivalries and jealousies are simmering below the surface. But people are generally constrained from going to extremes unless there is a breakdown of social order giving free rein to the worst impulses of mankind. The question is whether that breakdown was caused by, or with the connivance of, the Government, or whether it was a spontaneous occurrence? Our partial answer in the past chapters has been that the Government had both consciously and unconsciously been building up towards a breakdown. In the preceding violence at Peradeniya University and in Trincomalee, there was active Government connivance. Weerakoon’s defence of Jayewardene’s failure to impose curfew in time has a flaw. If Jayewardene was thinking along Weerakoon’s lines, he would not have imposed curfew at all. But he did impose curfew on the 25th after the mobs ran amok for several hours. We will now examine the violence of July 1983 in greater detail.

The Government and the Violence of July 1983

About early July 1983, there was a dinner felicitating a doctor at Brown’s Beach Hotel, Negombo. Festus Perera, minister of fisheries, was holding forth at one table. He had evidently not noticed that a lady seated within hearing distance was Tamil, despite her wearing pottu and her thali. By that period the passenger traffic between Colombo and Jaffna had steadily increased to an all-time peak. The reasons were many, including the open economy with increasing foreign employment and travel. The subject of the Minister’s censure was the Tamils, who were travelling from Jaffna in ‘luxury’ coaches passing through Negambo and their acquisition of goods such as colour TV-sets. The minister added gravely, “Just wait a few weeks and they will be taught a lesson” From such hints, including Jayewardene’s Daily Telegraph interview, many Tamils sensed that there was something menacing in the air.

The closeness of Festus Perera to J.R. Jayewardene is reflected in an event during the split in the UNP which surfaced in January 1972, when the UNP was in the opposition. Dudley Senanayake was president of the party while Jayewardene was senior vice-president. In a statement published in the Press (Observer 23.1.72), Jayewardene professed his admiration for Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike, her Marxist partners (LSSP & CP) and her government’s socialist policies!! He moreover proposed to take the UNP into a coalition with Mrs.Bandaranaike’s government. In preparation for the next party convention 90% of the UNP branches had dropped Jayewardene from nominations to the vice- president’s post.

It was mainly the branches along the Catholic belt between Chilaw and Beruwela, where Festus Perera had influence, that had nominated Jayewardene. In preparation for this same convention, it was Cyril Mathew, described as ‘Jayewardene’s trusted lieutenant’, of whom more will be said later, who, attended by ‘notorious criminals from Kosgoda’, went about trying to organise support for Jayewardene. Dudley Senanayake, subsequently reached an understanding with Jayewardene and postponed the convention. According to Buddhika Kurukularatne, then area organiser for Ambalangoda, Senanayake then wrote to him: “…please understand, I came to an understanding merely to prevent UNP people from killing UNP people. If we went ahead [with the convention] there would have been bloodshed!” (Sunday Island, 20 June 1999). That gives us something of the flavour of personalities behind the July 1983 violence.

The remarks such as those by Festus Perera were certainly not isolated. The late Mervyn de Silva (Men & Matters, Sunday Island, 2.2.92) referred to the unstated truth about July 1983 that ‘cries out to be heard’: “At least a week before that savage eruption, there was talk of ‘something about to happen’…. something nasty, of a ‘lesson’ to be taught.”

We had said earlier that a source of anxiety for the Government was its lack of legitimacy. Its fraudulent referendum had rendered the SLFP, the main opposition party, moribund. The brunt of opposition activity had moved outside Parliament to small Left-oriented groups whose natural turf was not the Parliament.

From what T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka says (The Agony of Sri Lanka), the Government was getting worried by routine speeches being made by groups like the NSSP and JVP. He also stretches things when he writes, “At another meeting Dr. Karunaratne protested on behalf of the NSSP on the arrest of Mr. S.A. David and Dr. S. Rajasundaram, the leaders of the Gandhiam Movement. Thus the NSSP became the first party in the Sinhalese speaking areas to show sympathy for the Tiger Movement”. Dissanayaka was here preparing the ground to justify the Government’s subsequent ban on the NSSP. There was hardly any known connection between the Gandhiyam and the LTTE. (See the charges against the Gandhiyam leaders in Chapter 8.) Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne after all did what any sensible democrat should have done.

The Government was again so nervous that any challenge to it had the potential to be carried off in unforeseen directions. In the nature of the anti-Tamil atmosphere built up by the Government, the easiest way for it to attack Left groups who were conciliatory on the Tamil issue, was to create anti-Tamil hysteria.

Borella, 24th Evening

Borella Junction is a shopping centre and a major bus terminus. About a third of a mile south of it along Baseline Road lies the Colombo General Cemetery at Kanatte, and about quarter of a mile west of it along Ward Place lay Braemar, the private residence of President Jayewardene. Before coming to his residence Ward Place intersects Kynsey Road, which comes from Kanatte, and beyond Braemar it intersects McCarthy Road and ends at Lipton Circus and the Colombo General Hospital, three quarters of a mile from Borella.

Travellers passing Kanatte in the evening, including the Communist MP Sarath Muttetuwegama, had little idea that a military funeral was going to take place. There were soldiers on guard around Kanatte and on Castle Street which leads to the new Parliament. Some thought that it was because President Ershad of Bangladesh who was in Colombo was visiting the Parliament. The Police had been given no instructions. About 4.00 PM a senior police officer told our scholar witness that the bodies of 13 soldiers killed in Jaffna were being brought to Colombo for burial with full military honours and that the funeral was to be at Kanatte. He added that it was still a top secret. A little later Prime Minister Premadasa and Minister Gamini Dissanayake among other top officials arrived at Jayewardene’s residence. Evidently, a top cabinet delegation was planning to attend the funeral.

There are several versions of what happened that evening, most of which speak of a spontaneous upsurge of communal violence. We have consulted several sources with a view to reconstructing the drama. Our witness went to Kanatte with the senior police officer.

The relatives of the dead soldiers had been brought there in buses. They were sad and depressed, but not angry. This was the first time the Army experienced anything like a dozen casualties in a single incident. There was an Army band and Buddhist monks to perform the last rites. The government-owned Lake House press and a crew from state television were there. Arc lights had been fixed around the burial site.

The bodies were to be brought from Jaffna for dressing at A.F. Raymond’s funeral parlour next to the cemetery. The funeral was scheduled for 5.00 PM, but owing to delays in decision making, the flight carrying the bodies touched down in Ratmalana airport very late. What then happened has been largely unreported. The times are important as will be seen later. The delay caused the crowd of curious onlookers to become large.

As it was getting dark, a group of young men wearing white T-shirts and shorts pushed through the crowd, and suddenly appeared at the burial site. They started covering the graves with their bare hands with angry expressions such as “Are you having them killed and buried like dogs!” They made a scene by kicking the brassware brought for the funeral ceremony. Their demand that the bodies of the dead should be given to the next- of-kin was bound to arouse sympathy.

The senior police officer suggested to our witness that the young men, who were about twenty in number, were deserters from the Rajarata Rifles who were sent out of the Army in early June. He thought they were now in the army camp a short distance from Kanatte on the Narahenpita Road. Then Assistant Superintendent Gaffoor went up to see what the matter was, and almost fell into the grave when the intruders stoned the Police. Another ASP from the President’s staff remarked that things were out of control as the crowd started getting restive. Our witness rushed off to warn a Tamil friend and his English wife, who were visiting in that area, to leave.

Another police officer on the scene was the Inspector General Mr. Rudra Rajasingham. He had been on circuit in Nuwara Eliya. On hearing about the funeral, anticipating trouble, he cut short his circuit and returned to Colombo. He was in Kanatte for the military funeral and was surprised to find that no army officer of rank was present to take charge. There were soldiers in uniform and other young men, whom he identified as off-duty soldiers. DIG (Metropolitan) Edward Gunawardene was also present. Then Deputy Defence Minister Werapitiya and Gen. Attygalle, Additional Secretary, Defence, came there and spoke to Rajasingham as the senior-most security official present. They left to report to Jayewardene after asking the IG to ‘hold the fort’.

A police officer attached to the CDB too identified a group of youths present there as off- duty army personnel from the nearby Narahenpita camp. Asked if they could have been university students, he was emphatic that he could tell the difference between army personnel and students. He noticed a little tension, which he described as a ‘drizzle’, and not a down-pour. He got into his patrol car and drove about as a plain-clothes officer. Through Tickell Road he reached Cotta Road and noticed a little stone throwing at a Tamil boutique, but nothing more.

We have mentioned the disruption caused by the young men. The crowd began demanding that there should be no funeral there, but that the bodies should be handed over to the next of kin. This was reportedly conveyed to the President by police intelligence men who taped what was going on. The President decided to cancel the funeral. This was followed by a commotion. The CDB officer felt that it was a mistake to have cancelled the funeral and that had it gone ahead, never mind the bit of an extremist speech by a Buddhist monk, things would have settled down.

There were both a variety of actors as well as observers at Kanatte that evening, who carried away with them different impressions about how the eruption took place. Some were quite sure that it was the spontaneous eruption at Kanatte that was the beginning of the holocaust. There were also those equally emphatic that the two were distinct events. Among the actors on the scene, there were Buddhist monks including Alle Gunawanse. There were off-duty army personnel.

Also present at Kanatte was Colonel Prasanna Dahanayake who had been sent out of the Army in 1966 on the charge that he had plotted a coup against the UNP Government of the day. He was subsequently detained along with other Leftist elements accused of plotting the July 1983 violence. Questioned in custody by ASP Chandra Jayawardena of the CID, the Sandhurst trained officer was totally evasive. Jayawardena threatened to send him to Jaffna prison. The Colonel flapped his arms and replied, “then I can fly”. He was known to be Left in his politics and anti-UNP. To a fellow detainee, he admitted having been at Kanatte to stir up trouble against the Government. A Left politician said of Colonel Dahanayake, “He was anti-UNP all right. But knowing him as well as I do, his anti-UNP politics is mediated through an anti-Tamil approach.”

Once the burial plans were cancelled, the Police riot squad rushed from the cemetery to seal off Ward Place at the Kynsey Road and McCarthy Road junctions, confirming that the Police perceived the crowd as posing a threat to Jayewardene. We do also know that a part of the crowd wanted to rush up Kynsey Road into Ward Place. T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka attributes to DIG Edward Gunawardene the decision to seal off Ward Place.

We also learn that Jayewardene was advised in the strongest terms that the situation was out of control. The words used by Police Superintendent Neil Weerasinghe who was in charge of his security were ‘The bubble has burst’! They understood that Jayewardene would declare curfew, and were surprised the following day when he had not.

All our sources are agreed that the initial mood of the crowd that left Kanatte was anti- government. According to some of them, about 10.00 P.M., fresh gangs were brought to Borella junction which raised the anti-Tamil cry. They are identified as government gangs. According to these reports when the crowd from Kanatte encountered the gangs freshly brought in, there was a hoot. Thereafter, the anti-government cry subsided and the anti-Tamil cry became dominant. This according to some sources, was the beginning of arson and the murder of Tamils who fell into the mob.

(From Chapter 9 of  Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder“. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To be continued tomorrow ..)

courtesy - Colombo Telegraph

- Melani


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