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Home > Tamil National Forum > Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > On-site Field Reporting during Black July 1983 by Anthony Mascarenhas
Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
On-site Field Reporting during Black July 1983 by Anthony Mascarenhas
28 July 2009
Blood is running in the streets of Serendipity
Gasworks Street, which runs through the Pettah, Colombo�s wholesale food and dry-goods area, is noted for two things: the gas company�s towering gas-holder, and the public lavatory which, despite the stench, is anxiously sought out by passengers arriving at the nearby long-distance coach station.
Because of the countrywide dusk-to-dawn curfew, there were few passengers arriving on Friday morning. And since most of the shops in the Pettah market had been looted and gutted by fire earlier in the week, because they were owned by Tamils, the lavatory was unoccupied.
At about 10 am � so I was told by half a dozen eyewitnesses � a young boy walked in and discovered a man quietly changing into what looked like a naval uniform. In the climate of suspicion that hangs over this lovely island � which glories in its ancient name Serendib, the home of Serendipity � he concluded the man was a �Tamil Tiger�, like one of the seven terrorists killed by a naval patrol the previous evening at the nearby Fort railway station while allegedly attempting to plant explosive devices in a passenger train.
The boy ran out and raised the alarm. There is some confusion about what happened next. But the fact is that some soldiers went in and brought the man out. Then the crowd, which instantly materializes on such occasions, doused him with kerosene and set him ablaze.
I got there when the charred, naked body had been strung up by the boots from an electric pole outside the lavatory. A crowd of at least 1,000 people was looking at it with curious fascination, from a distance of about 50 ft. Young men with wooden clubs kept them away. Other men moved through the crowd, selling lozenges at a halfpenny a piece.
The carnival atmosphere was broken by a loud explosion just out of sight, along the fa�ade of gutted shops on the street. It was followed by rapid fire from light machine-guns. The crowd scattered as magically as it had collected. We all took refuge in the concrete crescent of the bus station. There was a lot of firing. Then word got around: the Tamil Tigers were trying to blow up the gas holder, which supplies the capital�s homes and hotels and power industry.
Cracks of exploding bullets
Friends living across the city later told me they had got information about this �terrorist attempt� only minutes after I had heard it on the scene. Apparently, bush telegraph has gone electronic. But what may have spacked the reports was the arrival of an admiral�s helicopter which, like the persistent dragonflies I have seen over the bogside in Londonderry, conveys the unmistakable message that something�s amiss.
Sri Lankan Commandos, the equivalent of our own SAS, and trained by them, began arriving in Gasworks Street. About a dozen men, in camouflage dress and with light machine-guns at the ready, rapidly moved into position behind the lavatory. There was a burst of clapping and cheering from the crowd.
Then, clearly reassured by the commandos� presence, the onlookers began to move forward. I went to the front of them. Nothing happened for about 10 minutes and I could hear the men with lozenges once more trying to drum up business behind me. We should have stayed in the concrete crescent.
There was a sudden crackling in the second storey of the gutted building across the road from me. It sounded like fireworks at first, but then there was a sudden cloud of smoke and the unmistakable crack of bullets exploding. Suddenly, I felt like the bottom man in a scrimmage as at least a dozen of us tried to shelter behind a wall. Then we all got up and fled back to the security of the concrete crescent.
Meanwhile, the commandos were surrounding the area and firing into the building. Two small armoured cars, only slightly less venomous than the Belfast �pigs� turned up. There was more rapid firing. The helicopter kept a tight circle overhead. I managed to find a good observation platform on top of a bus, with two local journalists. A loud hailer kept calling out something in Tamil � obviously a warning to surrender. One of the reporters turned to his friend: �You know Tamil? Then you tell us what they are saying.� The other man was clearly put out: �I don�t understand the damned language�, he retorted.
The irritation was understandable. Tamil has a dangerous sound in Colombo today. The hard fact is that by a calculated act of violence, a small group of Tamil terrorists � estimated to number at most not more than 400 hardcore activists � has virtually achieved its objective of dividing this country into two irreconcilable camps: the Sinhalese and the Tamils.
There are shades of Cyprus about the situation here. There have been situations of serious Sinhalese � Tamil rioting in the past decade, but apparently there is no going back now. The ambush of a military patrol last Sunday in which 13 soldiers were killed near Jaffna, the main centre for Tamils in the north of the island, was the last straw for the armed forces.
For more than three years they have been straining at the bit as their colleagues and policemen were gunned down by Tamil terrorists, and while President Junius Jayewardene, aged 76, tried to negotiate a political settlement which took in the main grievances of the Tamils. Jayewardene was well disposed to do so.
During his long years in opposition to the overbearing, dynastic Bandaranaike regime, he had shared humiliation, even hardship, with Appapillai Amirthalingam, general secretary of the Tamil United Liberation Front.
President had a hopeless task
When Jayawardene was swept into office with an overwhelming majority in the 1977 general elections, Amirthalingam, as leader of the second largest party in parliament (17 members) became leader of the opposition. In keeping with his policy of dharmishta � a righteous society � Jayewardene began a political dialogue with Amirthalingam and his group to redress the Tamil grievances.
He made Tamil one of the state languages. He removed disadvantages suffered by the Tamils under the previous government�s policy of �standardising education�, a process of positive discrimination in favour of Sinhalese students.
But Jayawardene had a hopeless task. The elections that had swept him into office had also been employed by Tamil separatists, particularly Amirthalingam�s party, as a referendum on their demand for the creation of Eelam, a separate Tamil state. The separatists won hands down in the 20 Tamil constituencies around Jaffna and obtained the mandate they wanted.
In these circumstances, every concession Jayawardene made to the Tamils did not satisfy the hardcore separatists hell-bent on the partition of Sri Lanka. And those, such as Amrithalingam, who were trying for a political compromise within the unity of Sri Lanka, were increasingly isolated and looked down on as Uncle Toms.
Last October�s presidential election, when Amirthalingam�s party gave Jayawardene an uncontested run, was the first important confrontation between Tamil extremists calling for a boycott and the moderates. In May, during the parliamentary by-elections and local government elections in Jaffna, the extremists, attacking so-called �collaborators� caused widespread violence against Tamil candidates.
Polling in Jaffna was a disaster. The extremists won. At the sametime there was an upsurge in violence against troops, the police, governmental institutions and government banks � all the hallmarks of classic terrorist provocative tactics. The armed forces appeared to be in confusion, not least because of a low level of military intelligence: blame for this fell upon the president.
Just as his predecessors had done, Jayawardene, on coming into office, had chosen his own team down to the base of the administrative pyramid. But intelligence officer, trained by the Israeli Mossad and the British MI 5 � so I am told � were transferred to inconsequential duties. They were replaced by others more trusted by Jayawardene and his party, but apparently less experienced. The inevitable result was that the Tamil Tigers gained the upper hand.
The breaking point came last Sunday when the government tried to bury the 13 soldiers killed in the terrorist ambush in Jaffna in a single service in Colombo�s principal graveyard, instead of the normal practice of handing the bodies over to relatives for burial in their home villages. As a brave effort to dampen public emotion it totally misfired.
For one thing the families of the deceased were brought in from the districts for the ceremony. For another, the bodies somehow failed to arrive from Jaffna at the appointed time. As the delay increased, so did the anger of the crowd. Soon relatives were jumping into the graves saying they would be buried with their sons, husbands and brothers unless they were given the bodies to take home for burial.
A reliable eyewitness said a crowd of more than 5,000 gathered at the cemetery, and the mood became ugly. The announcement that the funeral would have to be put back to the next day brought a fresh outcry. The crowd began to stone the police and was in turn dispersed with tear gas.
Shops attacked and burned
As the people ran from the cemetery they began to attack several Tamil shops along the route. The Borella area which has a concentration of Tamil shopowners was the worst hit. Throughout Monday, Tamil shops in the city were attacked and burned. Shop owners and assistants were asked to leave. The smart did. Those who resisted perished with their property. It is not know how many people died this way. Buses and cars were also stopped and their Tamil passengers beaten up. Cars were burned and strewn all over the city.
The army was moved into quell the disturbances by noon that day, but apparently without result. Eyewitnesses say that troops seemed to turn a blind eye to what was going on. Next day, Tuesday, the looters took over, defying the curfew that had been imposed in the city, its two adjoining districts and the sacred hill city of Kandy.
On Monday night, 35 Tamil extremists � some convicted, others detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act � were clubbed to death in Colombo�s Welikada Jail, the country�s maximum security prison. The government says it was the result of a jail riot. But gossip in the city, and there is no way of proving it, points the finger at irate soldiers.
On Tuesday night, 130 men of the navy garrison in Trincomalee, the major port on the east coast, broke open the armoury. They then entered the town, which has a mixed population of Sinhalese and Tamils, and shot up parts of it. Damage or the casualties remain unknown, but sources say the men only agreed to return to barracks the following morning after they had received gurantees against disciplinary action.
By midweek the trouble had spread all over the island and the government had to impose a 24-hour curfew throughout the country. President Jayawardene on Thursday night broadcast an impassioned appeal to his people for a return to sanity.
But disaster struck again on Friday morning. The incident on Gasworks Street fuelled fears that Colombo itself might blow up with the gas works. A new wave of anti-Tamil sentiment flooded the city. Affluent Tamils in Colombo, who had hidden to escape the mobs, were now singled out for attack in their homes, which were looted and burned. People seemed to be on a Tamil-catching spree.
In Hulfstdorf, not far from where the country�s courts are, the body of a Tamil man whose throat had been cut was brought from somewhere by handcart and dumped in the middle of the road. Someone from among the crowd stopped a passing motorcycle, siphoned off some petrol, poured it on the body and set it alight. The head burned for sometime and then the fire went out. The body was dragged further down the street and tossed onto a tyre which was set alight. It was still burning at 5 pm when curfew was imposed.
The government is now faced with the task of quelling the most serious and widespread outbreak of violence since the country became independent in 1948, without sparking off a further chain reaction of killing and public retaliation.
Race riots �planned as cloak for coup�
As the orgy of communal violence by the Sinhalese against the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka burned itself out yesterday, at least temporarily, with an officially admitted death toll of around 300, Presidnet Junius Jayawardene is left with two apparently intractable problems.
The most pressing is to cleanse the armed armed forces of mutinous groups which, he said, in collusion with some Marxist parties, had instigated the rioting as a prelude to a military coup. The second is a political settlement with the country�s 2,800,000 Tamils, including some 70,000 refugees now totally alienated and herded in a festering mass around Jaffna, in the north, which is the heatland of the area they demand as a separate Tamil state they call Eelam.
Disclosure of the intended military coup was made by Jayawardene himself last Thursday at a closed meeting of his parliamentary party, which then went on to amend the constitution to outlaw Tamil separatist parties. The plot, he said, was hatched three weeks ago and the communal violence between the Sinhalese and Tamils was only its first phace. The second was to have been a clash between Sinhalese and the Muslims, another minority group on the island, and the third a conflict between Buddhists and Christians within the Sinhalese majority.
�At this point in time, the groups in the Services against the government would seize and take over the administration, making out that the purpose of the take-over was to establish law and order, which the government could not do.�
This carefully worded version of Jayawardene�s speech, released to the press by the official censor, hids the fact that after riots erupted on July 24, when 13 soldiers were ambushed and killed by Tamil terrorists in Jaffna, a sizeable number of Sri Lanka�s 13,000 troops were in a state of mutiny for four days as they wreaked vengeance agains the country�s Tamil population.
The president himself required the protection of his small armoured corps, which put a ring of armoured cars and half-tracks around his residence. The rebellious troops remain a threat to Jayawardene. He must get rid of them quickly if he is not to risk another mutiny. But this will be a difficult task.
Despite vigorous official denials, independent sources confirm that the government did try last week to obtain troops and equipment from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Britain and the US as a back-up force while it undertook a cleansing operation. It was as much the lukewarm response from those countries as the strong opposition from Sri Lanka�s own armed forces that lead to the plan being abandoned.
Now Jayawardene is thinking in terms of creating a new elite force from the still loyal troops. The question is whether he will have the time to do it before another outrage by Tamil terrorists provokes the army. He will have to be equally circumspect in any attempts to build a bridge to the alienated Tamils. Anything even vaguely suggesting concessions will leave him vulnerable to another violent backlash from the Sinhalas and the army.
Terrorists face big crackdown
A profusion of orchids surrounded Sri Lanka�s president, Junius Richard Jayewardene, as he mused last week on his ruptured country. We sat together in the King�s Pavilion, the ornate hill-country mansion which once housed British governors. Dazzling displays of scarlet anthuriums flared from several vases: on one wall, starkingly incongruous, hung a Japanese samurai sword, like a rip in an exotic canvas.
Jayawardene talked about the anti-Tamil rioting last month and said his government was nearly overwhelmed by a military coup. The rioting, he said, had been the result of collusion between northern Tamil terrorists and southern left wing terrorists.
�The plan was for Sinhala-Tamil riots, then Buddhist-Christian riots, then food riots, then general chaos. And then some sections of the armed services would say, �the government cannot function, so we are taking over�. National leaders would be assassinated or eliminated.�
The 76-year old president was giving his first interview to a British correspondent since the riots. Beyond the pavilion, feelings still ran high. All is not over yet. Jayawardene would not back up his outline of the intended coup with specific details, such as the identity of the army units of men. �Who was to do what, we actually do not know,� he said. However, I learned from another government source that a full screening of the armed forces was being carried out with some urgency. Between 200 and 300 servicemen had been punished or discharged for indiscipline. More would follow when they were identified.
The president said he thought the constitutional amendment rushed thorough parliament earlier this month, making it illegal for any individual, group or political party to advocate separatism or secession, had defused resentment within the armed forces. But this is disputed � anonymously � by some other members of his party.
Jayawardene confirmed that, when the rioting started, his government had sounded out Britain, the US, Bangladesh and Pakistan about the availability of military supplies, should these become necessary. No troops were asked for, he said, because that would have created problems with the armed services. The government is now making purchases, by tender, of military and riot-control equipment, including bullet-proof vests, rubber bullets and tear gas (�because we have run out of it�).
Even more urgently, according to a well-informed source, it is also importing armoured personnel carriers, helicopters and other counter-insurgency equipment � which, it was said, may be supplied from Britain. All this is required for a full-scale operation against the terrorists due to start soon. The president disclosed that a special force, mainly of commandos but with some police, was being trained for the purpose. �Once the terrorists are eliminated, there will be no more problem,� he declared.
The president�s most trenchant remarks, during the interview, were reserved for the support and sanctuary that terrorists had received in the past from Tamils in the nearby Indian state of Tamil Nadu, immediately across the Palk Strait, to the north of Sri Lanka. He described this as �disgraceful� and urged that the Indian prime minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, should ensure it ended.
In an oblique reflection of the growing resentment in Sri Lanka at Mrs Gandhi�s alleged �interference� he said there was no role for India to play in the present crisis until the Tamil United Liberation Front, Sri Lanka�s main Tamil party, had given up its secessionist demands. �So I would say to her [Mrs Gandhi], �please keep your hands off�.
Jayawardene added that he would be putting this squarely to Mrs Gandhi�s personal representative, Gopalaswami Parthasarathy who arrived in Colombo yesterday for talks on the Tamil question � talks apparently initiated at the Indian prime minister�s behest. �There can be no solution of the Tamil problem outside the democratically elected government and the democratic process�, the president insisted.
However, it is precisely his single-minded pursuit of a settlement through the parliamentary process that has raised the hackles of the country�s Sinhalese majority, even members of his own party. It remains to be seen whether democracy in Sri Lanka is strong enough to overcome their reaction to the next big terrorist attack on the armed forces � which could happen at any moment.