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Anti Tamil Pogrom 1983
Special Colombo Correspondent,
It is difficult to say when this report will reach the outside world. The government has imposed a curfew from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow (i.e. 26.7.83). And tomorrow has been declared a public holiday and possibly no postal services may operate.
Whole of July there have been problems in Trincomalee in the Eastern province. There have been attacks on Tamil-speaking people by Sinhala thugs egged on by the UN P and tolerated by the police and the Army. The Army in particular has suffered a number of casualties in the North including Vavuniya and they have been bitter about the restraints placed on them by the Government. Some 100 soldiers had deserted because the Officers had not permitted them to make indiscriminate retaliatory attacks on Tamil-speaking people in the North.
The Government has had a very bad response from aid donors; IMF had insisted that the Government must devalue again and put right the yawning gap in the balance of payments. The 1982 current account balance of payments deficit ran to some $490 million and was attributed to sluggish exports and a rise in imports. Total outstanding external debt in January 1983 stood at $1 700 million. It was not possible for the Government to impose import controls because that would undermine their whole economic policy and their political line. After much huffing and puffing the Government devalued the Rupee again on 17th July. Immediately some prices went up and a whole set of others are poised for price rises - fuel, transport, fares, food, etc.
The Government seeks to divert the attention of the people from these problems by talking about the 'terrorist' menace. Announces that they would take decisive steps to stamp out terrorism whatever other parties may say or do in relation to the 'All-Party Conference' called by the Government to discuss the 'terrorist' menace. All the opposition parties, including Mrs Bandaranaike's Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and the Tamil United Liberation Front refuse to participate in the Conference (a) because it is only about Terrorism and does not resolve the problems in the North and (b) according to the interview Mr. J.R. Jayawardene had given to the London Daily Telegraph he would take all steps necessary whatever other parties may do in relation to the Conference. In an interview to 'Rivirasa' Mrs Bandaranaike of the SLFP stated that Mr. Jayawardene wanted to obtain the approval (rubber stamp) for the actions the Government wanted to implement. The Tamil United Liberation Front decides to boycott the Parliament or more precisely not to participate in it. All the major newspapers have various stories about 'terrorists' and the clamour for Eelam.
First meeting of the 'All-Party' meeting is a flop, Only the UNP and Ceylon Workers Congress (both Government parties) attend. Further meeting postponed to 27.7.83. and the Government promises to enlarge the scope of the All-Party Conference. SLFP still refuses to participate because the Government is 'merely trying to use the SLFP to further their ends'. Students resist UNP thugs in the Peradeniya Campus. Mass movement of students stages protests and calls for the withdrawal of suspension notices on students barred by the Vice Chancellor, etc. After a week of struggle and the taking of a hostage (Head of the Science Faculty) by the students, the University authorities give in and sign an agreement with students. But on the following day the Government states that it will not honour it because it was obtained under duress. But the students disprove he claims of the University and offer written documents in evidence to the Newspapers and the Government imposes a Press censorship on the 19th July. Two days later the censorship is extended to cover all 'terrorist' incidents in the North.
On the 24th, Sunday, news trickled into Colombo about a big death toll amongst Army personnel in the North as a result of 'terrorist' attacks. Armed youths in the North had set off a remote controlled bomb whilst an army convoy was passing and then shot practically every soldier who alighted from the vehicles. According to the figures released by the Government 13 persons were dead including the lieutenant who commanded the unit and two others were seriously injured. Unconfirmed reports say that the two injured soldiers had also died.
On 24th July Sunday night preparations began. Several persons boarded public and private buses and began to make racist remarks designed to provoke and whip up racial hatred. Meanwhile Government had made arrangements to bury the dead soldiers - it appears without giving relatives an opportunity to take the dead bodies to their homes. The burials were to take place at Borella (Kanatte Cemetery). Some mishap had occurred and the burials did not take place. The result was that the people (5000 approximately) who had been waiting to use the whole incident to launch a racial pogrom went ahead with their plans despite the fact that the dead bodies did not arrive at Borella.
On Sunday night shops belonging to Tamil traders were burnt and some people were beaten and killed. The troubles spread quickly. The police and the army egged them on. And by Monday morning attacks had spread to Narahenpita, Nugegoda, Kotte, Maradana, Pettah, Fort, Wellawatte, Mount Lavinia, Moratuwa, Jaela, Wattala, etc. Many criminal types took the opportunity to loot. But on this occasion the attacks were more political - many attackers did not take any loot: they set fire to shops and their contents and even tried to prevent people from taking the loot. But in many places there were people who were only after the loot.
On Monday 25th July, morning I witnessed several incidents. Sea Street shops had been closed and in adjoining streets many Tamil shops were being broken into and goods looted and then shops were set on fire. The people were in a different mood from the 1977 and 1981 attacks. Even the bystanders were approving the attacks stating that the 'Tigers' (reference to armed groups in the Tamil-speaking North) should be taught a lesson. Amongst them were soldiers and policemen. In some instances Muslim shops and even Sinhala shops were broken into but these were rare.
As I passed the YMBA building in Fort I saw the Ambal Cafe (Tamil Restaurant) being burnt. Flames rose into the sky and soon smoke began to envelop the whole area. Since this cafe was in the Bristol building the flames would have affected a large part of this building, if not all of it. Later unconfirmed reports said that the whole building had been burnt down.
Many other shops, offices and buildings were burnt; amongst them was the Indian Commercial Bank, probably because in the days prior to this newspapers had been making great play about Indian intervention in Sri Lankan affairs.
As I walked towards the Lake House building and then to the Government Clerical Service Union Headquarters (near the Lake House Book Shop) I saw a new stage in the pogrom - groups of thugs were stopping vehicles and beating up Tamil people; they were setting fire to cars and robbing them of all their possessions. And the soldiers in Army trucks who passed the place were waving at the thugs encouraging them and the thugs were shouting 'victory' (Jayawewa) to the soldiers. Only the police made an attempt to save one or two people. When they left the place, the trouble began anew.
I went up to the GCSU and spoke to some office-bearers and several others who were there. People were streaming into the streets and offices had been closed. The Government had meanwhile imposed a curfew to begin at 2 p.m. and closed all schools and Government offices. But there were no buses - most of them were being taken to bus depots. Some private buses operated but they were crowded. We discussed what could be done. We were too few - about 6 or 7, against 100 or so thugs and the fact that most bystanders supported these thugs meant that we could not effectively counter them.
By 12.30 p.m., massive fires were burning everywhere and the whole of Colombo was engulfed in a thick cloud of dark smoke. I met many who had come from different parts of the City and all of them said the same story - looting, burning and harassment of Tamils. Some killed; and worse still, people in general had become affected by racial hysteria.
It was pretty sickening. I felt very depressed because I felt I was powerless to do anything.However, I realised that there was no point in being depressed. I came back to Colombo Fort and the streets were now crowded with people who were trying to somehow get home before the 2 p.m. curfew. I walked up to the Modera bus stand and there were no buses. I decided to walk towards Modera with many others who were doing the same thing.
On the way I saw looters carrying their loot - bales of textiles, bottles of brandy, whisky and beer, rice and sugar, etc., and they were forcibly stopping lorries and compelling them to take them. Everywhere it was the same; houses being looted and burnt, cars overturned and burnt.
One area where there was no sign of any troubles was Kochchikade - Jampettah Street. Here there is a very large concentration of Tamils and they also have a tradition of being very violent. This was the only area which was quiet.
As I came to the Alutmawatha Road people were gathering outside their houses. Others - mainly groups of youths - were running in search of their next targets of attack.
Curfew made little difference at all to the activities of the thugs largely because the army encouraged these men of violence.
The fires continued and even small houses were attacked; their belongings looted or taken out and set on fire. These activities went on until about 11 p.m. before the police came around and asked people to get inside their houses and that too very gently. Earlier the army encouraged the mobs and even assisted them and the police turned a blind eye - mobs were moving about with offensive weapons.
Although the Government announced on the radio that looters will be shot and that punishment for looting was death, the mobs did not take much notice of it because they knew that neither the police nor the army was taking any action. In order to justify these dastardly acts, some now began to make stories about the houses that they looted - stories were made up to say that they had found boxes of bullets and ammunition inside these houses or that the army had captured two 'Tiger' leaders. When they were closely questioned they were stories they had heard second or third-hand.
The time is now 9.a.m. on Tuesday 27th. Just now I have seen a big ware-
I have sent you a report of the Pogrom which started here on 24th night. The report I sent was for 25th and 26th. I want to add more items to bring it up-to-date. After the curfew hours (the Government imposed a curfew on Monday 25th at 4 p.m. and it was in force throughout 26th. On the 27th again it is on from 4 p.m. to 5 a.m.) the attacks on Tamil shops and offices continued. Cyntex, Kundanmals, Hidramani's, and many other factories have been set alight. Thereafter the goon squads went from house to house destroying the belongings of the Tamils. The curfew was not enforced; in fact, the army gave full assistance to these criminals they even threatened police not to harass these goons. Now the Government has lost control of the situation, to some extent.
Yesterday they announced that 35 persons held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act had been killed by other prisoners at the Welikada jail. I think this is a total fabrication. It is obvious that the Government got them killed. In any event, without the active cooperation of the jail guards it is difficult to see how they could have been killed. Amongst those killed are Kuttimani, Jegan, Thangathurai and Mohan. It is obvious that they had selected the ones to be killed - thus the catholic priests, the Nithyananthans, etc., were not amongst those killed.
Today I am in Kandy; I came here to see whether the situation is better than in Colombo. In fact it is worse. Whilst the situation in Colombo is getting a little better, the situation in Kandy is still very dangerous. Right now (10 p.m.) there is a threat that thugs would come to attack. I am staying here tonight because I could not go back to Colombo before the curfew (4 p.m.). Thugs are roaming round the streets burning houses and attacking cars and lorries, belonging to Tamils. They stop buses and look for Tamils and beat them up, and in the worst cases kill them. It appears that the whole business is engineered by some section of the Government supported by the army. JR is unable to control the situation. The Army is actively supporting the goons with petrol, etc. Many of the attacks have taken place during curfew hours. It is difficult. o say at this stage what would happen in the next few days. The possibility of things getting worse and even a putsch occurring cannot be ruled out.
Try and see whether you can influence some trade unionists to take a strong stand. I think the atrocities committed in the last period should move some people. The BBC and the Australian service have given largely accurate reports. There is, of course, a rumour to the effect that the armed Tamil groups decided to attack the army because soldiers had raped three girls and two of them had committed suicide. I cannot confirm this story.