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Colombo - A few minutes after arriving in Sri Lanka last month, I was sitting on the pavement outside Katunayake airport, watching the birds and the dragonflies. A Sinhalese youth sat down beside me, apparently keen to talk about the recent violence against the country's Tamils. "Tamils all gone from Colombo now", he said, with a broad grin, "Tamil shops all burned. Perhaps all Tamil people will go to India now . His tone was gleefully triumphant. "Sri Lanka is for Sinhalese people'', he concluded, though Tamils have lived in Sri Lanka for over two thousand years, at least as long as the Sinhalese.
If one wishes to know where these Sinhalese youths get their ideas from, one need only look at Junius Richard Jayawardene, Sri Lanka's 77-year old President. On Thursday 28 July, while Sinhalese thugs rampaged around the streets of Colombo and many other towns, the President broadcast to the nation. He did not utter a single word of regret or sympathy for the Tamils who had been massacred or made homeless. Instead, the man who likes to think of himself as the grand old statesman of the Third World announced that "the time has come to accede to the clamour and the national respect of the Sinhala people", for all the world as if the Sinhalese were the victims
Attacks on Tamils in Trincomalee began several weeks before the eruption of violence in Colombo. By the time that Colombo started to burn, on the night of Sunday 24 July, there were already over 1,000 Tamils sheltering in nine refugee camps :around Trincomalee. Many of them were so-called "Indian Tamils", descendants of the South Indians who were shipped over by the British in the 19' century to work on the coffee and tea estates. After fleeing from the tea estates at Ratnapura and Matale during the violence of 1977, they had settled in the village of' Pankulam, just outside Trincomalee, where they erected simple mud huts and began to cultivate paddy. Two months ago, the Pankulam settlement was destroyed by gangs r air force volunteers.
There then occurred an alarming and hitherto unreported incident. Late on the night of 24 July, armed police and air force men went to the Trincomalee refugee camps, accompanied by a convoy of 13 buses. "They came just after midnight," according to an eye witness, "and they told everyone to get into the buses. We asked what authority they had and where they were going, but they just waved their guns". All but one of the nine camps were completely emptied in this way, and nearly a thousand Tamil refugees were then driven through the night to the towns of Nuwara Eliya and Badulla, nearly 200 miles away. In the morning they were dispersed around several estates and told to start picking tea.
Many of the refugees who were effectively kidnapped from the Trincomalee camps were stateless "Indian Tamils" from the Pankulam settlement.....The Government's dread of "Indian" Tamils moving away from the tea estates is well illustrated by the official treatment of the Gandhiyam Society. This charitable organisation set up a number of settlements around the northern town of Vavuniya in 1977 and helped to rehabilitate the hundreds of Indian Tamils who had fled from the violence in the hill country. Gandhiyam taught these refugees simple methods of cultivation and irrigation; it helped them to build huts; it set up schools and medical centres.
The authorities watched all these with mounting alarm and in April this year arrested Gandhiyam's two leaders, Dr.Somasunderam Rajasunderam and Mr.S.A.David, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act which allows suspects to be held for up to 18 months without being charged. They were both tortured in army camps before being transferred to Welikade prison in Colombo. There, at the end of July, Dr.Rajasunderam was one of the 54 Tamil prisoners massacred in their cells by a small army of commandos, prison officers and Sinhalese prisoners.
Of course the government has hotly denied that prison officers - let alone commandos from outside took part in the massacre at Welikade jail. The official, account is that a group of Sinhalese prisoners got "out of control" and set upon the Tamils; that the prison staff tried in vain to stop them. This has been accepted uncritically by the Sri Lankan newspapers, despite the rather obvious flaw in the official explanation: Welikade is a maximum security prison and most of the Tamils who were killed were supposedly dangerous guerrillas. The idea that Sinhalese prisoners could amble into the cells and beat 54 of them to death without official cooperation beggars belief. But, in any case, I have received accounts from people in the1983 jail which made it clear that the massacre was conducted with the support of the authorities - with the notable exception of the prison's superintendent, who is now to be transferred.
The apparently limitless Sinhalese capacity for self-delusion these days is also exemplified by the story I was told by a number of people in Colombo: these people "knew for a fact" that the Jaffna public library which was destroyed in 1981, had been burnt down by the "Tigers", a Tamil guerrilla group in the north. In fact it has long been established beyond doubt that the police were the culprits. But the Sinhalese cannot allow themselves to admit such things, and their terror of the Tigers is such that they are more than willing to credit the group with anything ..."