This year is the 23rd anniversary of the Black July of 1983. In
a book published in June 2002, Sirisena Cooray, very much an insider to the
regime in power in 1983 gives the story of the manner in which the racial riots
in Colombo broke out and the responsibility of president Jayawardene for not
The death of 13 soldiers in the North had provoked a natural
reaction from the military and some sections of the armed forces wanted to bring
the bodies to Colombo. The purpose was clearly to express the military's
The president was made aware of this plan. According to Sirisena
Cooray there were protests from the Prime Minister who saw that this would lead
to serious trouble. However, Jayawardene, known to be a Machiavellian
politician, knew that if he stopped this move there would be a conflict with the
military and ultimately there might be some challenge to him personally. Instead
of letting that happen he allowed a situation to occur that was bound to provoke
a terrible riot. By now his regime was already illegitimate politically since
the members the parliament held their power only due to a referendum for an
extension of their term of office for a further six years.
The essential aspects of Jayawardene's policy throughout his
regime were to divert challenges to his regime by the creation of other forms of
social unrest through which the focus on the protests against the regime was
lost. And this was what Jayawardene did on this occasion. To view the ethnic
conflict purely on racial terms is to ignore the politics of this conflict which
go far beyond racial parameters. The power crises in the regimes that have been
in power have much more to do with the present 'ethnic crisis' than ethnicity.
This is an issue that the AHRC has highlighted regularly in its statements. This
insider story helps to look into this same issue once again during the month
that marks a historically black period which took a decisive turn for the worst
An excerpt from President Premadasa and I - our Story (pp 60-63)
ERRORS AND MISTAKES
"The day we heard about the killing of the 13 soldiers in
Jaffna I went to see Mr. Premadasa. He was on the phone to the President.
There was a lot of tension in the country and we were extremely worried
about the way things were moving. Mr. Premadasa turned to me and informed me
that the President is planning to bring the bodies of the dead soldiers to
Colombo, to be cremated at Kanatte. Mr. Premadasa had been trying to get SRI
LANKA: Revelations of the former president J.R. Jayawardene's liability for
Black J... Page 1 of 3
the President to change his mind when I walked in. When he saw me Mr.
Premadasa said: "Sir, Sirisena is here; you ask him". And he put me on. The
President told me: "Cooray, these people want to bring these bodies to
Colombo and cremate them at Kanatte. What do you think?" I said: "Sir why do
you want to bring these bodies to Colombo? These are not people from
Colombo. If you bring the bodies here there will be problems". This was
precisely what Mr. Premadasa had been telling the President before I walked
in. Afterwards Mr. Premadasa told me that they bad decided against bringing
the bodies to Colombo; I remember we were both extremely relieved.
That afternoon I went for a wedding at the Shalika Hall in
Narahenpita. Mrs. Jayawardene was also there. I was talking to her when she
suddenly said: "Mr. Cooray, you know that they are bringing those 13 bodies
to Colombo today". I was thunderstruck. I said: "Madam, the President
promised the Prime Minister only a little while ago that the bodies will not
be brought to Colombo". She responded: "No, no they are going to go ahead
and bring the bodies here. I do not know whose idea it is". I had the
impression she too was unhappy about it. This was madness. Like Mr.
Premadasa I knew that all hell was likely to break lose when those bodies
are brought to Colombo. I just got up and walked to my car.
But I had no clear idea about where I wanted to go. I
couldn't think clearly. I didn't want to go home and I didn't want to go to
the CMC. Finally I went to the Sugathadasa stadium. That was the time we
were reconstructing the Stadium. I walked into the middle of the grounds and
just stood there. That was when SP Ariyaratne came to me and told me that
there was a radio message from the PM asking me to contact him urgently.
When I called Mr. Premadasa he too was extremely upset and worried. He told
me about the new decision to bring the bodies to Colombo that evening and
asked me to make the necessary arrangements. He told me that the President
is planning to attend the cremations and he too was expected to be there. He
knew full well there would be problems but he had no choice in the matter.
The decisions were made elsewhere and he was just informed of them.
If the President listened to
Mr. Premadasa, the '83 July riots could have been avoided and the
history of this country would have been different.
Like Mr. Premadasa I too had no choice but to do what bad to
be done, given the situation. The Kanatte is owned and managed by the CMC
and as Mayor my tasks were clear. So I went to the Municipal Workshop and
made all the arrangements. I also phoned the Municipal Commissioners and
told them to come to the cemetery. After that I went to the cemetery. As
soon as I entered I could feel the tension. There was an organized crowd
present, making a huge show of grief, weeping hysterically. I walked up to
DIG Edward Gunawardane and I asked him why they allowed this madness. He and
the other senior police officers present told me that they had nothing to do
with the decision, that they were just following orders. I warned them that
this drama would end with a riot. Though the bodies were not brought yet,
the crowd was organised and ready.
I realized that if I stayed here I too would be thrashed.
Gamani Jayasuriya was also there waiting for the bodies to be brought. I
went up to him and said: "Sir, what are you doing here? Don't wait here.
There is going to be trouble". Then I called Mr. Premadasa's security
personnel who were waiting for his arrival and told them: "Tell the PM that
there is going to be trouble; tell him not to come here and tell him I said
so". I told the same thing to the President's bodyguard. I explained that
amidst the inevitable disturbance even if a stone hits the President it will
be humiliating and therefore he should stay away. I was able to issue orders
since the General Cemetery came under the CMC and I was the Mayor.
Fortunately the President decided to heed my warning; this
enabled Mr. Premadasa also to stay away (he would have been forced to
attend, even though he was not happy about the whole thing, if the President
attended). Once I got confirmation that neither the President nor the PM
would be attending the cremations I informed the Municipal Commissioners who
were present that I will go and change and come back. Of course I did not go
back. And as Mr. Premadasa and I predicted, rioting started immediately
afterwards. I later heard that the Army wanted the bodies to be brought to
Kanatte and that the President succumbed to their pressure.
It was a terrible time and the worst part was that we were
We could do nothing to stop the
killing, the destruction. The President made a mistake in putting the
Army in charge of restoring law and order. After the killing of the 13
soldiers the mood in the military was a very dangerous one and they were not
really motivated in stopping the violence. If the Police had been given a
free hand they would have done a better job. During this period President
Jayawardene was reduced to a state of helplessness. Mr. Premadasa and I used
to visit him every day. That was the only time I saw JRJ being speechless.
The Army was not taking orders and I think we were very close to a state of
mutiny. That was why the Air Force was called in eventually and they quelled
The attempt by Sirisena Cooray (a life long
supporter of Prime Minister Premadasa) to blame President Jayawardene
for his "error" and 'mistake" in bringing the bodies of the 13 soldiers
to Colombo may be understandable. After all, this absolves Prime
Minister Premadasa from the 'error' and 'mistake' of his President.
But the reality is more sinister. The
New Statesman reported on 28 August 1983 -
'In Mount Lavinia, a suburb of Colombo,
thugs were led by (a) UNP Councillor... In the Maradana area of Colombo,
thugs brought in from upto 100 miles away and loyal to Prime Minister R.
Premadasa.... and Industries Minister Cyril Mathew were identified by
The 1983 pogrom was not a 'riot'
caused by 13 dead bodies being brought to Colombo. Nor was it a case of
an 'army mutiny'. To suggest that it was is to confuse and
Paul Sieghart in
his Report of a Mission to Sri Lanka on behalf of the
International Commission of Jurists and its British Section, Justice,
March1984, concluded: "Clearly
this was not a spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala
people.. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance
with a concerted plan, conceived and organised well in advance. But
who were the planners?... "
Bringing the bodies of the soldiers
to Colombo was a part of the concerted plan, conceived and organised
well in advance. And to repeat Paul Sieghart's question: who were the
The features of the planners of the contingent plan
emerge from the nature of the
plan. The planners were persons
little regard for the opinion or the lives of the Tamil people. The
planners were persons
who were in a
position to command considerable organisational resources.
The planners were persons
who were in a
position to mobilise an existing strong arm net work at short notice.
The planners were persons
who were able to
assure the goondas that no harm would befall them and that the army and
the police would look the other way.
The planners were persons
positions of power which rendered such assurances credible.
The planners were humans, if such they were, who were
in a position to influence and direct the police and the army to look
the other way and ensure that such directions were not countermanded.
The planners were persons who were secure in the
knowledge that they themselves would be safe after the event - that the
thousands who implemented the plan would not and could not 'tell on
The planners were persons
who were secure in
the knowledge that there would be no investigation by the government
- because the planners themselves were persons who were in a position to
direct and influence government action.
Cabinet Minister S. Thondaman (who continued to serve
in the Sri Lanka government) remarked in an interview in the Illustrated
Weekly of India on 18 December 1983:
''We all know who these people are. I am not naming
them right now... How can any action be taken against them? They are
important people. They are part of this government, just as I am. Behind
all this are our own people... We all know them.''
And Professor Wilson writing in 'Break
up of Sri Lanka' quotes a letter written to him by George Immerwahr,
a United Nations civil servant and a US citizen who had worked in Sri
Lanka in the late 1950s. The letter dated 13 February 1985 said:
" .. the most shattering report came from
a friend who was a civil servant; he told me that he had helped plan
the riots at the orders of his superiors. When I heard him say this,
I was so shocked I told him I simply couldn't believe him, but he
insisted he was telling the truth, and in fact he justified the
Government's decision to stage the riots. When I heard this, I
telephoned an official in our own State Department, and while he
declined to discuss the matter, I got the impression that he already
knew from our embassy in Colombo what I was telling him." "
And then Sri Lanka Prime Minister,
R.Premadasa speaking on the
debate on the 6th
Amendment in the Sri Lanka Parliament on 4 August 1983 declared:
''The purpose (of the Amendment) is to provide the severest punishment
to those who advocate or attempt to establish a separate State...
Accordingly we have formulated the offence in the widest possible