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Home > Tamilnation Library > Eelam Section > Sri Lanka � Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy
TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: Eelam
Chapter 3 - The 1983 Riots: An Orgy of Violence
Let me single out some of the striking features of the 1983 riots, not so much for their shock value as for their revelation of a certain worsening as well as of new developments in Sri Lankan politics.
1. More than any other previous ethnic riot, the 1983 eruption showed organized mob violence at work. Gangs armed with weapons such as metal rods and knives and carrying gasoline (frequently confiscated from passing motor vehicles) and, most intriguing of all, because it indicates prior intent and planning, carrying voter lists and addresses of Tamil owners and occupants of houses, shops, and other property, descended in waves to drive out Tamils, loot and burn their property, and sometimes kill them in bestial fashion. These gangs frequently had access to transportation�they traveled in buses or were dropped off at successive locations by the Colombo coastline trains.
As The Times (London) of 8 August 1983 put it:
"This time [unlike in earlier riots] the Government detected plain signs of deliberate organization. The rioters, seeking out Tamil homes and burning them, had a particularly detailed knowledge of who lived where and who owned what."
India Today (New Delhi) of August 31 confirmed this report:
"The mobs were armed with voters' lists, and detailed addresses of every Tamil-owned shop, house, or factory, and their attacks were very precise."
Most of Wellawatte, the ward in Colombo where Tamils were concentrated, was burned; so were large portions, and entire lanes, in the wards of Dehiwela and Bambalapitiya.
The communal riots of 1983 began in the capital city of Colombo, although all previous ethnic riots had not begun there. From Colombo, the indiscriminate attacks on Tamils of all varieties spread in ever-widening waves to the towns of Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, and Trincomalee. This pattern roughly accorded with the largest concentrations of Sri Lankan Tamils (outside their own areas of dominance in the north and east) and of the Indian Tamils in the tea plantations. Following the example of Colombo, but reverting to a well-established pattern, shops and establishments, especially in the market areas of Matale, Kandy, and Nuwara Eliya, were looted and burned. I shall limit myself to the damage in Colombo because the incidents there were reliably reported.
Apart from those killed�the government admitted to a death toll of 350, but the suspected numbers are larger, the Tamil estimates nearing 2,000�the largest immediate tragedy was the number of refugees who had abandoned their homes and their jobs and were crowded in terrified disarray into some fifteen refugee camps in Colombo (called -"care and welfare centers"). The estimates of the refugees in the Colombo camps alone ranged from 80,000 to 100,000. In The Guardian (9 August 1983) David Beresford wrote: "The Sri Lanka Government told foreign diplomats last night that about 100,000 people needed homes, clothes, household goods, and food for between three and six months, following last month's communal violence." The government also estimated that some 18,000 households were affected.
2. The same newspaper went on to report the second terrifying aspect of these riots: aside from Tamil homes, there was systematic destruction of shops and commercial and industrial establishments, many of which employed Sinhalese labor, and which were an essential arm of the UNP government's policy of economic development. Beresford reported that government officials said in the same briefing session for donor countries: "About 100 industrial plants were severely damaged or destroyed, including 20 garment factories. The cost of industrial reconstruction was estimated at 2,000 million rupees (�55 million). This did not include damaged shops."
Around the same time in early August, the New York Times supplemented the information on the scale of the economic destruction:
A significant portion of the jobless included Sinhalese workers, some of whom had participated in the very destruction of their own places of work.
Badly hurt by this conflagration were some of the island's biggest industrialists. Some well-known Sri Lankan Tamil victims were K. Gunaratnam, whose interests spanned textile trade, film distribution, and transportation; A.Y. S. Gnanam, who controlled major manufacturing firms such as St. Anthony's Hardware, Syntex, and Asian Cotton Mills; and R. Maharaja, whose constellation of enterprises included the island's largest cosmetics manufacturing firm, the contractorship for large sections of the island's major development "lead project," namely, the Mahaweli Scheme, and the distribution and retail of imported goods. In sum, textile mills, oil, rubber, and other factories situated in industrial locations such as Ratmalana and Peliyagoda were reduced to ashes.
But this destruction of a good part of the island's commerce and nascent industry was confined not only to Sri Lankan Tamil interests; it did not merely include South Indian Tamil interests; it extended to include all Indian enterprises and persons who happened to stand in the explosive and undiscriminating path of the rioting. As India Today (August 31) put it:
This exaggerated perception, if it prevailed was short-lived, but it nevertheless took its toll. Thus the victims included properous and famous Hindu Sindhi and Muslim Bohra businesses owned by the Hirdaramanis and Jafferjees, names familiar in Colombo for some fifty years.
Perhaps even more awesome was the virtual destruction of Colombo's colorful and bustling bazaar of shops, the Pettah, dominated by South Indian retail merchants, but also dotted with the shops of Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamil businessmen.
An unexpected victim in the center of commerce was the Indian Overseas Bank, whose building and records were set ablaze: it was the principal bank used by Indian citizens in Sri Lanka and by many Sri Lankans of Indian origin.
3. A third disconcerting feature of the 1983 riots was the complete breakdown of law and order, a breakdown that was caused as much by the active participation or passive encouragement of the ultimate guardians of law and order�the police and the army�as by inflamed criminal excesses of the civilian marauders. There were several instances of the authorities' active or passive condoning of the destruction of life and property. I have already referred to the massacres in Welikade jail, which could not have been carried out withoutthe collusion of prison officers. The New York Times (Sunday, 7 August 1983) reported that "Sri Lankan Army troops pulled 20 civilians off a bus and executed them two weeks ago in retaliation for a Tamil guerilla attack that killed 13 soldiers, a government spokesman confirmed today." This was up north in Jaffna.
Elsewhere, in Trincomalee, the beautiful, coveted harbor on the east coast, where Tamils and Sinhalese (the majority of the latter being considered by the Tamils as recent intruders) were poised in equal numbers, sailors from the Sri Lankan navy ran amok, themselves setting a bad example for the civilians to follow. The sailors, later assisted and accompanied by civilians, ran riot, killing and looting and setting houses and shops ablaze. Morawewa, a district of Tamil residential concentration, was reduced to ashes.
But the most disquieting spectacle was the behavior of segments of the armed forces and police right in the capital city itself. We could cite news items from several sources, but let us stick to the The Times (of London):
President Jayawardene said in a television interview yesterday that troops and police had sometimes encouraged the anti-Tamil violence. The President told a BBC interviewer:
This testimony and confession by Mr. Jayawardene was confirmed by The Guardian (9 August 1983).
Thus segments of the armed forces that had earned their spurs as protectors of law and order and agents of the SLFP Government in regard to the Sinhalese youth insurrection of 1971 were now in 1983 mutinous breakers of law and order in regard to defenseless Tamil civilians. This indeed was the first massive breakdown of law and order among those entrusted with its preservation to occur during Sri Lanka's history as an independent nation-state. It is not surprising, then, that Tamil commentators have perceived this pattern of change in the role of the police and armed forces over the years: in 1958 they saved many Tamil lives and earned their reputation as upholders of law and order; in 1977 they turned indifferent; but from 1981 onwards they have become a party to the riots, frequently figuring as the prime villains.
Of course, the most proximate cause of the army's degeneration was the sporadic puncturing of their sense of honor and martial invincibility by the ambushes of Tamil guerrillas. But there is more to their conduct than outraged vengeance-seeking. What their conduct further signifies is the politicization of the armed forces and their being drawn into the vortex of populist and chauvinist causes to a degree never before known (though previously instances of chauvinist posturing and ethnic aggression on a smaller scale or confined to certain regiments had occurred).
In any case, the degeneration of the armed forces and the police did signify that, at least for a short time, the government�that is the president, the cabinet, and the civilian bureaucrats�were rendered powerless to act. Moreover, during this period the government itself may have lost its hold on the country as illustrated by not implausible stories about its "panicky" appeals for military help to certain countries other than India (such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore, the United States, and Great Britain). It was public knowledge that the president's house was cordoned off by select and trusted officers and troops in an effort to discourage any attempted marches and sieges by inflamed Sinhalese protestors, who wanted the blood of the thirteen Sinhalese soldiers to be avenged.
It is perhaps a sense of being overwhelmed by the aroused conduct of the Sinhalese en masse, a feeling of being crushed and pressured by a massive tide of collective aggression, that we detect in the conduct of a president who delayed imposing a curfew in Colombo for twenty-four hours, until the worst had already been done, and who made no public statement on radio and television for some four days, and when he finally did, could say only that the riots were "not a product of urban mobs but a mass movement of the generality of the Sinhalese people."
He then asserted: "The time has come to accede to the clamor and the national respect of the Sinhalese people." Therefore the TULF had to be banned, for there was no other way to "appease" the natural desire and request of the Sinhalese people.
Mr. Athulathmudali, who was later to be appointed minister of security, on the same television program in which the president bowed to the action of the generality of the Sinhalese people, 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, when the Tamil refugees remained in the camps, neither the president, nor the cabinet, nor even a single prominent Sinhalese politician visited them to commiserate even briefly, or to promise relief and rehabilitation.
In all this we see perhaps not so much a racist indifference and lack of pity as the cowed fear that a tidal wave of Sinhalese mass action had expressed itself and had swept aside the frail crafts of the politicians. The sense of being overwhelmed released dark fears of conspiracy as well.
The same president who admitted that some of his armed forces had participated in the riots, and who also claimed that the Sinhalese people as a whole had acted, at the same time pointed his finger at a communist conspiracy (both external and internal), hinted at a naxalite plot, and wagged his finger at India for its alleged expansionist and interfering ambitions.
However, at some level the president also knew that the most dangerous tendencies were stirred up by elements within his own ranks; he had to face the unpalatable fact that the strongest threat to any responsible statesman-like action came from hardliners within his government who had encouraged punitive acts against the Tamils as a means of intimidating them.
The question is how we are to understand the mainsprings and trajectory of this short-lived but devastating Sinhalese mob behavior, which shows indisputable signs of manipulation and orchestration by organized factions and interest groups, among whom have to be included elements within the government itself, indeed, within the cabinet and the armed forces, and within their retinues of clients and followers.
On the one hand, the phenomenon goes against the grain of all that the government has tried to accomplish in recent years in the economic sphere. And why would the Sinhalese engage in a war from which they too were bound to emerge as losers of the recent economic gains and expansion of employment? It seems to have been the case that about 100,000 persons were put out of work because of the riots, and that, ironically, is a significant number of jobs the Jayawardene government claims to have provided in the six preceding years. Why would the Sinhalese want to cut off their noses to spite their faces?
To all appearances, the UNP regime in Sri Lanka was firmly in control these last few years. Soon after Jayawardene came to power in 1977, he was able to change the constitution and introduce a presidential form of government somewhat on the French model and a proportional system of representation that was advocated as a means of avoiding the wildly oscillating consequences of landslide electoral victories that had been the result of the British form of majoritarian politics.
His own parliamentary five-sixths majority was manipulated not only in the alleged interest of stabilizing politics in the long run, but also to hold a referendum that enabled (by the use of threats and force against opposition parties and at the election booths) the prolongation without elections of the life of the present parliament for six years. Thus the president's power and the UNP's rule seemed assured until 1989 at least. (The feeling of strength and the accompanying slide toward authoritarianism was also reflected by the deployment of an army of occupation in Jaffna [and the Northern Province] and the passing of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1979.)
In retrospect, the horrible aspect of the events during the riots, and the government's actions soon afterwards, should not unduly prejudice our assessment of President Jayawardene's positive acts toward settling the Tamil issue and reconciling both the Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils to his regime.
First of all, consider the auspicious deal he had struck with the Indian Tamils. They had voted overwhelmingly for him and the UNP in the landslide 1977 elections; the promises Jaywardene had held out to them had brought the Ceylon Workers' Congress, the largest trade union of the Indian Tamil plantation workers, into the government.
Jaywardene did make provision in the constitution for Tamil to be awarded the status of national language together with Sinhalese, although the latter was to continue as the "official" language for purposes of administration. He had negotiated with the TULF over the establishment of District Councils throughout the island. These Councils were to be given certain powers concerning local government, peasant colonization, and primary as well as secondary (but not higher) education. It was hoped that the delegation of such minimal powers would appease Tamil sentiments.
In the event, however, there was much foot-dragging and a lack of spirited implementation of the provisions in the face of alleged hostility of the Sinhalese population at large. By a curious twist, the granting of these powers ended up by strengthening the center's, and especially the president's, powers.
The central government held all the purse strings, and alienated the Tamils by the appointment of several presiding Sinhalese district ministers invested with overriding powers even in the districts where the Tamils were the majority. President Jayawardene's spirit had been willing up to a point, and no more. He had also tried to mediate the contentious issue of an equitable admissions policy to the universities.
For the Sri Lankan Tamils, the application of equal and even-handed criteria of merit and performance at entrance examinations was vital; indeed, it constituted a lifeline for them. The admissions policies were therefore a crucial test of their equal rights as citizens of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese on the other hand favored an admissions policy based on a quota system that gave the edge to their population ratio, and they defended this curious "affirmative action" on behalf of a majority in power on the grounds of undue privilege enjoyed by the Tamils in this sphere. We shall later test the veracity of this Sinhala signature tune. For the Tamils this Sinhala demand was a lunge at their jugular vein, and the Sinhalese knew this to be a deadly truth. The SLFP, and subsequently Jayawardene, had helped in the formulation of what was called a "standardization policy" that claimed a rise in the number of Tamils admitted.'
But since university admissions are calculated largely on the basis of district populations, and since the Tamils form a majority in only six of the total of twenty-four districts, the Sinhalese students enjoy a conspicuous advantage over their Tamil counterparts on the basis of demographic rather than meritocratic criteria.
All in all, there was just the chance that under Jayawardene's presidential rule and virtual one-party government an accord might be reached on the same lines as the far-seeing but tragically abandoned Bandaranaike - Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957�scotched, incidentally, by a movement led by Jayawardene himself, who was then in the opposition!
So one responds with some sympathy to this news item in The Times (of London) of 8 August 1983, which describes these petulant and nostalgic words of Jayawardenewords that evidence a missed second chance that many fear might have been the last: "He had prompted action to make Tamil an official language of the country, the devolution of central powers to district councils, and the solution of a bitter dispute over admission to the universities. He would have done more, he says. He was to propose at the round-table conference convened earlier last month that if the TULF would postpone a demand for the independence of Eelam ... other blessings would follow."
Jayawardene had convened an all-parties conference to settle matters, and a popular rumor had it that he was slow to act when the riots broke out in July so as to nudge the beleaguered Tamil leaders into negotiating with him. If there is any truth in this, it is only part of the truth; and the ploy turned out to be a miscalculation, for what was imagined at the beginning to be a camp-fire lit by Sinhala chauvinist boyscouts turned into a raging forest fire that took at least seventy-two hours to put out.
On the economic front, the UNP claimed to have initiated a "liberalization policy" marked by a pro�United States stance, the encouragement of foreign capitalist investment, and a greater reliance on market forces than on state intervention, protection, and subsidization. The UNP had decided on the implementation of four major projects: the Mahaweli scheme. particularly the speeded-up construction of the dams; the housing program; the creation of the Free Trade Zone; and the building of the new administrative capital at KOtte. (In the event, the last was mercifully scaled down, for it had more to do with fulfilling monarchical fantasies of a new capital named confusingly after a king who bore the same name as the president than with economic development or rational administration). To be sure, the Mahaweli scheme and the housing project had created new employment, especially in the field of construction, but the returns on these projects were expected to be a long time in coming.
Thus the most publicized feature of the government's economic strategy, which it considered its chief means of creating economic growth, was the encouragement of foreign private investors to return to Sri Lanka, after their flight or reluctance to come during the SLFP regime, and invest in and promote export activities, some of which were labor intensive. Cheap Sri Lankan labor would be a major attraction in the context of the establishment of "free trade zones," especially in the immediate vicinity of Colombo, where more infrastructural investments would be provided to supplement the existing facilities. The southwest littoral of Sri Lanka where Colombo is situated, and which incidentally is a heavily populated Sinhalese zone, would be the hub of this industrial development, and also the primary beneficiary of an intensified tourist trade. To achieve these goals the government had established the Greater Colombo Economic Commission.
All in all, by one method of accounting, the UNP government had between the years 1977 and 1983 increased the rate of national economic growth, created significantly more employment, and had relaxed import restrictions, which made available more consumption goods in the market. (It should not be overlooked, however, that a fair part of the reduction of unemployment was caused by immigration abroad.) These features combined to create an air of increased prosperity and activity.
So in the face of all these indications of economic expansion and political aggrandizement, why did the riots occur "against the grain" of events, to undo a great deal of the gains made by the government? Why did the riots occur in a spectacularly virulent form in 1983, when most observers of the scene do not seem to have expected them? Were there portents and cracks in the UNP regime which were invisible then but which we can now identify and interpret ex post facto?
First of all, we notice a paradoxical symptom in Jayawardene's seemingly successful assumption of near-total power and his initiation of seeming progress. Although there were Sinhalese shows of aggression against the Tamils under the Bandaranaike and SLFP regimes (1956 and 1958 were memorable years), there were four successive punitive actions, including the worst ever, against the Tamils in the seven years of the Jayawardene regime since 1977. How do we explain a spate of anti-Tamil riots in an atmosphere of confident Sinhala domination and progress?
An awful prospect that we should not flinch from considering is the remark made by Neelan Thiruchelvam, a member of Parliament and a member of the TULF, a remark that bears the mark of despair: "This time the Tamil professional and entrepreneurial class has been destroyed" (India Today, 31 August 1983). That there was an effort for many years to diminish Tamil participation in the professions and white-collar occupations is well known.
A more clouded issue is the reason for the destruction of Tamil�both Sri Lankan and South Indian�commercial interests in Colombo. There were rampant rumors that the "hawks" and "chauvinists" in the UNP cabinet, of the ilk of Industries Minister Cyril Mathew, of whom I shall say more, were thinking of taking punitive actions against the "terrorist" activities of the Tamil insurgents and the intransigence of the TULF politicians in an attempt to make them forswear any intention to secede from the body politic.
They were alleged to propose a ruthless crackdown on the Tamils, who they charged with the control of 60% of the wholesale trade and 80% of the retail trade in the capital. Whatever the exaggeration in these numbers, the rumors reveal the deadly strategic efficacy of "punishing" the Tamils in the city of Colombo itself, where most of their professionals, entrepreneurs, and white-collar workers were aggregated.
India Today (31 August 1983) asserted in print what other sources have also suggested, that Minister Cyril Mathew, who controlled a powerful government labor union (some would say a private army of thugs) called Jatika Sevaka Sangamaya, was implicated in the pinpointing of the Tamil owned shops and factories to be destroyed. The same jingoist, of whose style of neo-fascist politics I shall have more to say, in a speech made in Parliament on 4 August 1983, at the tail end of the dying riots, defended them with the words: "If the Sinhala are the majority race, why can't they be the majority?"
If, then, the riots were ever intended at any stage by its most organized and chauvinist participants as an attack on the Tamils resident in Colombo at their most vulnerable and exposed front, then the Tamils might be forgiven for wondering whether the perpetrators merely intended the violence to be a coercive twist of the arm (that had later inadvertently maimed their own limbs as well), or, more diabolically, to be a maddened "total solution" that would once and for all pluck out and expel the Tamils from the midst of Sinhala presence.
The contemplation of such deeds in itself is symptomatic of the rising tempo of a problematic Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism that had and still has the potential to incite mass political action. What tendencies within the Sinhalese social and political domain (irrespective of the Tamil irritant) were conducive to generating this volcano? The carrying out of such deeds bespeaks a cataclysmic paroxysm of violence, which was as demented as it was brief in duration. But a volcano temporarily spent can erupt again. How are we to read the future portents and the past evidence?"