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Chapter 6

Sinhalese and Tamils: The Widening Gulf

Exiled Thucydides knew

All that a speech can say

About Democracy,

And what dictators do,

The elderly rubbish they talk

To an apathetic grave;

Analysed all in his book,

The enlightenment driven away

The habit-forming pain,

Mismanagement and grief:

We must suffer them all again...

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Or Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

·                       Wystan Hugh Auden, from 1st September 1939

6.1 Southern Perceptions Mid - 1983

6.2 Among Christians

6.1 Southern Perceptions Mid - 1983

What became increasingly conspicuous in the run up to the 1983 holocaust was the widening divergence in Sinhalese and Tamil perceptions. A common standard seemed to have become out of reach. Among the Sinhalese, as seen in press editorials and letters to the editor, the drift was that the Tamils were passively or otherwise supporting the terrorists, and to meet such a situation, anything goes. Perhaps without fully realising where it was leading them to, the Government too encouraged this. It diverted attention from the rigged Referendum of December 1982, the Government’s lack of legitimacy, the violence at the bye-elections of May and its cavalier attitude to democratic norms. There was a two way relationship in extremism in public sentiment as articulated by the media on the one hand and by the Government on the other. Each seemed to feed the intemperateness of the other. By mid-July the obsession with terrorism as Tamil terrorism seemed to supersede everything else. President Jayewardene’s interview to the Daily Telegraph of London (Sect. 4.5) about his no longer being able to take into account the lives of Tamils or ‘their opinion about us’, had the effect of raising the flag for a showdown. The Press and even the SLFP seemed to have swallowed the bait, and were rallying to the standard either vocally or passively. The UNP Government of Jayewardene’s had thus silenced opposition in the South and had secured temporary conformity; but at a disastrous price.

As for Tamil opinion, it seemed to have largely opted out of trying to find expression in the mainline media. The Jaffna-based Saturday Review was perhaps the most spirited exponent of the Tamil point of view. The fact that it was sealed under the PSO on 2nd July 1983 with hardly a whimper of protest from the Southern media was a sign of what the country was sliding towards. It is also notable that on the eve of the July holocaust, Amirthalingam pointed out that the English Press had in recent times failed to publish his letters written to the President in his capacity as Leader of the Opposition. In those times these letters accurately detailed events in the North-East, and offered a different perspective.

We first give a few examples that point to the two-way interaction between public opinion as represented in the media and the rulers.

The Island of 19th May 1983 carried a letter by A. de Silva of Wadduwa on suggestions to stop terrorism in the North. His main suggestions were the following:

Declare Emergency in the North and East. Send Army and Police reinforcements to hunt terrorists and kill at sight. Colonise the so-called Traditional Tamil Homelands with Sinhalese. Declare once and for all that under no circumstances will Eelam ever be given. The cost of maintaining the security forces in the North must be recovered by a special tax on the residents. Pay no compensation to the victims of terrorism [presumably civilian victims of counter-terrorist actions] as the former [i.e. civilians] refuse to give information.

It may be noted that some of the key suggestions became more or less open government policy from mid-1984 under Lalith Athulathmudali as National Security Minister.

Just after the commencement of relatively small scale communal violence in Trincomalee, Colombo and elsewhere, the Sun of 4th June carried an editorial that showed genuine alarm at the prospect of spreading communal violence and the upsurge of lawlessness:

“Besides the careless gibberish that usual rumour mongers resort to, there are also rabble rousers and sinister inciters who seem to be very busy these days. Compounding the crisis are habitual ‘goondas’ who would be in their element to take advantage of communal tension…In fact some of the cowardly acts of violence that have already taken place in some of the provincial towns are the work of these loathsome vermin. The authorities must also keep a vigilant eye on the activities of political bankrupts who can add their mischievous mite to create chaos that may be advantageous to their own anarchical objectives…”

But in the Sun editorial of 14th July there was a sharp change in tone. It made reference to the Massachusetts resolution. The immediate pretext as evident in the contents was President Jayewardene’s interview in the Daily Telegraph with its strong extra-legal thrust. In early June Jayewardene had, however, still been talking about the need for discipline in the Armed Forces. The 14th July editorial titled ‘All out war on Terrorism’ ran as follows:

“Up to now the President’s patience has outdone even that of the much praised Job of the Bible. We shall not quibble on this delay now that he has spoken strongly on the side of law and order and the need – once and for all – to ensure that this sovereign land shall continue to be a unitary state…

“Take the business world, the professional world and the service world. They are all heavily weighted with Tamils in whose name the misinformed representatives of Massachusetts have dared to resolve that this unitary state be bifurcated because Tamils are being discriminated against…

“It is said that a lie often repeated assumes the proportions of truth. Goebbels was a master of this art. Today an insignificant clerk turned lawyer turned a saviour of his race named Krishna Vaikunthavasan residing in London uses vast sums of money gained by ‘extortion’ from law abiding Tamils living abroad and in Lanka to do what Goebbels did for Hitler.

“Only a thin line divides the so-called responsible politicians calling for separation and the terrorists. Both profess the same aim: the treasonous act of dividing this country. The future of this country cannot be left in the hands of such Judases who in their cowardice have opted to hunt with the hounds and run with the hares…”

What is left unsaid in this restatement of popular Sinhalese prejudices are the actual words from Jayewardene’s interview – “Now we can’t think of them [the Tamils]. Not about their lives…” – which was referred to with approval. A part of the prejudice against the lawyer, Vaikunthavasan – a well known Tamil activist at that time – is again class prejudice, that he started life as a clerk. Vaikunthavasan became famous through a historic stunt in the late 1970s. He had spent time in New York getting to know the ropes at the UN, and by some smart foot-work, got into the UN General Assembly just ahead of the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed. He had delivered a good part of a prepared speech in Hameed’s place before being found out. Vaikunthavasan was largely a one-man-show. There were no ‘extortion’ rackets at that time and accusing Vaikunthavasan of such is extremely unfair.

The references suggesting that the Tamils were so privileged as to have a stranglehold on the economy were totally unfounded. During the violence that followed later in the month, Tamil establishments, particularly in Colombo, were systematically attacked. The Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel frankly admitted that the economy had received a serious setback. But this was more in the way of investor confidence. The immediate reduction in employment estimated by de Mel was 5% (Island 06.08.83).

Similar charges about Tamil privilege, albeit in a very restricted sector of the economy, are made by T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka in his War or Peace in Sri Lanka of 1995. He states that in certain government departments and in junior bank positions where locals were employed, there were more Tamils than Sinhalese at Independence, and charges that the British and their Tamil underlings discriminated against the Sinhalese. With his stated penchant for balance Dissanayaka adds the following (p. 6):

“Some kind of retaliation was inevitable and the first blow on behalf of the Sinhalese was struck way back in the decade of the 1930s by the Leader of the State Council, Mr. D.S. Senanayake…

“As Minister for Agriculture, he was responsible for the rehabilitation of disused tanks, e.g. Minneriya (1932), Parakrama Samudraya (1936) etc. in the North-Central  Province. In 1938, when he completed the rehabilitation of the Pavat Kulam in Vavuniya in the Northern Province, and the Kantalai Kulam in the Eastern Province, not unemployed Tamils, but the unemployed Sinhalese from Mirigama and Dedigama [his electorate and that of his son Dudley], and Sinhalese ruffians from Waskaduwa and Gandara, were rehabilitated in Vavuniya and Kantalai. The Tamil community resented this move bitterly. Two wrongs do not make a right…”

If D. S. Senanayake did see the Tamils as being privileged, and this was his way of righting a wrong, it only shows the feudal mindset and flawed vision of the ruling class. For, let us move from impressions to something concrete.

In 1959 the number of schools by centres offering science education at university entrance level were as follows: Galle - 4, Jaffna – 29, Colombo – 54 and Kandy – 15 (see Education and Human Rights in Sri Lanka, by K. Nesiah, 1982). Galle covers a populous region that has been at the head of two Sinhalese youth insurgencies. This was the situation after nearly 40 years of representative government, 30 years of self-rule under universal adult franchise and 15 years of compulsory universal free education. It may also be noted that the majority of the 29 schools in Jaffna offering science rose to that status from small beginnings under dedicated principals; several of whom had been influenced by Gandhian ideals, and were earlier active in the Jaffna Youth Congress. These men welcomed and actively used the 1944 Free Education Act to raise the standard of their schools so that they became second to none other in the country. Earlier science, even in Jaffna, had been the monopoly of a handful of Christian mission schools.

How does one then explain the earlier backwardness of the South (Galle), despite the fact that science teachers from Jaffna were available for any programme to expand science education in the South? The answer is surely that the Sinhalese ruling class could not think otherwise than in feudal terms and had no notion of modernising the economy. Their notions of getting even with the Tamils were therefore populist distractions based on prejudices and partial truths.[Top] 

6.2 Among Christians

It is also instructive to look at how the general drift in communal relations was affecting perceptions among the Christian leadership and the larger Christian community. This was a small minority of about 8% of the populace, who were torn between universal ideals (i.e. “In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew...”) and the strong pressure to prove their nationalist credentials in their respective ethnic camp.

Unlike in this age of ‘politically correct’ statements, back in 1983 people could be brutally frank. A short time before the violence, a writer and journalist with worldwide experience was invited to give a series of talks to Anglican clergy of a rural deanery in Colombo.  In his first talk he posed questions about the security forces using inhuman third degree methods in the North. One clergyman responded, “What else could you expect the Government to do?” This appeared to be a widely held position among the audience. Taken aback, the speaker cancelled further talks.

Such sentiments among Christian clergy were then reflected in contributions to the Press. The Sun of 13th July carried a letter by Rev. Fr. D. T. Wickremasinghe OSB attacking Amnesty International over its recent report that was critical of human rights violations in the North by the security forces. He said that the AI report was not to be taken seriously since Marxists had taken positions of responsibility in it by their notorious game of infiltration. There were also several commendable contributions of quality by members of the Sinhalese Christian clergy. A frequent contributor calling for moderation, understanding and dialogue on the ethnic question was the late Rev. Celestine Fernando.

Fr. George B. Perera in a contribution titled ‘In Search of Peace’ in the Sun of 20th June 1983 stated: “If one were to learn any lesson from the past, one cannot be complacent about the current situation of unrest, lawlessness, tension and terrorism in our land. The enforcement of law and order, the employment of the armed forces and police with more authority are only means to meet an emergency situation. The very presence of the armed forces in the North seems to be one of the reasons for the retaliatory type of violence…” He concluded by calling for dialogue.

An appeal for an end to violence by the Rt. Rev. Swithin Fernando, the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, appeared in the Daily News of 29th June. He said that Tamil citizens had taken to violence with a view to gaining redress for what they ‘believe to be injustices’ to which they are subject. We should remind ourselves constantly, he said, that no person should be subject to torture, and that such practices would be a blot on our nation. The mark of a civil society, he reminded us, was to be on guard at all times. He called for restraint by the armed forces and made a plea that young men should not be named terrorists and isolated.

These were healthy sentiments expressed with much caution about a month before the violence, before President Jayewardene set the line with his much-publicised interview. After that it became very difficult to say even this much for many years.

The ideological grip, which was then much in evidence in the air this nation breathed, was so strong that it was very hard for a Sinhalese to go further than broad generalities, even to touch lightly what the average Tamil experienced. Even the Saturday Review from Jaffna, which communicated that to concerned Sinhalese, had been sealed on 2nd July. However a remarkably frank expression of Tamil perceptions by Vinoth Ramachandra appeared in the Island of 12th July.

“If your readers visit Jaffna and talk with any sample of the populace, they would soon discover that the primary cause of terror lies in the presence of undisciplined security forces supported by repressive legislation. The arbitrary detention of young males, the intimidation of innocent passersby on trivial grounds and the general vindictive spirit of a trigger happy military are quickly driving the public into sympathy for the Tigers.

“Another contributory factor to the sad state of communal relations is the lack of an independent media. While attacks on the armed forces and politicians killed in the North are given ample coverage in the Sinhalese and English press and radio, all incidents of anti-Tamil violence are either ignored altogether or severely distorted. For example in recent weeks the Tamil students at the University of Peradeniya have been living in a state of fear and uncertainty owing to vicious attacks on them by fellow Sinhalese students. In one incident a student barely escaped death when a petrol bomb exploded in his room while he was asleep.

“This situation has been completely ignored by the media which seem to feel that the chanting of slogans outside residences of supreme court judges is somehow more criminal than the attempted murder of innocent students. Whether the silence of the media regarding Peradeniya campus Tamil students has been due to a cover up engineered by the university authorities or simply due to journalistic woefulness, I cannot say. But I do know that official apathy and biased reporting are rapidly contributing to growing alienation between the two communities.”

Ramachandra was a physicist who had given himself over to full-time work for the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS). Being a Tamil and a regular visitor to all university campuses in the country, he was able to see and feel what was developing. He was also well known and respected in Church circles with many young Sinhalese associated in his work. Yet times were such that his voice was an isolated one.

As for the Sinhalese clergy who had an enlightened position on the ethnic issue, they were rendered lost and helpless by the violence of July 1983. About the last time the Rev. Celestine Fernando had any hope was when the President about mid-July announced an All-Party-Conference. His response in the article ‘The Bells of Peace’ appeared in the Daily News (19.07.83) and at least one other daily. It stated: “All those who love Lanka and her people will be grateful to the President for his call for an all-party-conference to settle what has become the most crucial problem of our nation.”

This response also points to the general weakness of fair-minded Sinhalese from the upper segment of society. This country did not go through an independence struggle, and it was not part of their ethos to confront the State and those in power. To them the rulers were taken for granted as fairly decent and amenable. It was hard for them to grasp the level of depravity to which the State sank in July 1983. They knew many of the leading persons in politics, the administration and the security services as friends from leading schools in Colombo, the University of Ceylon or Oxbridge. Confronting them meant facing problems they were not prepared for. Celestine Fernando continued to agonise about the state of the country. In October 1984 the LTTE conducted its first massacre of Sinhalese settled by the armed forces in Kent and Dollar farms in what came to be known as Weli-Oya. These hapless convicts had taken the place of Tamils who were driven away by third degree methods. Rev. Celestine admitted privately that, as a Sinhalese, he could not condemn the massacre. That shows the extent to which such persons were made helpless by events. Of course, for the Tamils the massacre raised some pressing questions.[Top]

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