Perhaps the clearest test of a pluralistic outlook amongst Sri Lankans, to say nothing of basic decency too, is their response to the events of July 1983. Anyone fit to pass the test sees it as an aberration in Sri Lankan history, an outrage in which defenceless Tamils were systematically persecuted.
Those who offer excuses or play down the event seem to me morally repugnant. That is why, despite his comparative efficiency and honesty, I think Ranil Wickremesinghe would not be a suitable leader for Sri Lanka. His comments soon after the riots, when he played down their impact, and claimed that far worse things had happened to the Sinhalese because of the Bandaranaike policy of nationalization of businesses, were disgusting.
Since he also claimed that that policy had not affected businesses in the hands of minorities, he was in a sense parroting the Cyril Mathew line that was one of the reasons behind the attacks on Tamil businesses in Colombo, namely greed and the use of emotive racism to suppress competition. I can only hope that those politicians and decision makers now in government who are encouraging the Bodhu Bala Sena, and the shadowy forces behind it that are trying to knock out successful Muslim commercial enterprises, realize that they are repeating history and behaving just as a more callow Ranil Wickremesinghe did in his youth.
But while that sort of indulgence to the racists of 1983 was appalling, equally negative are those Tamil nationalists who play down the exceptional nature of what happened thirty years ago, and present it as simply something in a continuum of Sinhala persecution of Tamils. That is nonsense, parallel to the nonsense of those who do not recognize the exceptional nature of the LTTE, and use it to attack all Tamil politicians. We should not allow such obfuscation of the difference between Tamil political agitation and the terrorism of the LTTE.
Apologists for the LTTE, as many members of the TNA were (with more reason given that they were under threat), behaved badly as Mr Wickremesinghe did in 1983. But they are qualitatively light years away from those who actually perpetrated brutalities, the thugs of 1983 as well as the LTTE – with the quantitative excesses of the LTTE and the refinements of brutality over the years (as were graphically described to me last week during a visit to Batticaloa by someone who had escaped from the place where sentences of death were carried out) making them infinitely more dangerous and therefore necessitating the sustained war we finally realized we had to fight against them to conclusion.
What made 1983 such an aberration? Apologists for the LTTE argue that there were similar riots in 1958 and 1977 and 1981, and there were similar excesses during the conflict such as happened in Chenmani and more recently to the students in Trincomalee. But the riots in 1958, and I believe those in 1977 too, were excesses by individuals which government stopped as soon as possible. In the former case, when Mr Bandaranaike did not feel able to give the necessary orders, he handed over control to the then Governor General who, together with the armed forces, dealt firmly with the rioters. Similarly, while there were excesses by the armed forces, systemic in the eighties, from the nineties on policies have been markedly different, and in line with international law. Those who committed crimes at Chenmani were charged and several are still in jail, and finally we have realized the need to deal firmly with those who killed the youngsters in Trincomalee.
But, no action was taken against the rioters of 1983, and they were in fact provided with support by elements in the government, voters’ lists to identify Tamil houses, and transport to Colombo in the first days of the riots, and then to other places when the riots spread. I believe the same thing happened in 1983, when a Member of Parliament led the riots in Ratnapura, to be only demoted afterwards, but then brought back into power and prominence when men of violence were needed to lead the government lists in the first Provincial Council Elections in 1988.
In both instances the mayhem stopped not because civilized forces in government had asserted themselves, but because of foreign pressure. In 1981 it was after an Indian tourist was killed, and the Indian government made it clear that this could not be tolerated, that Jayewardene reined in his forces, forces he had unleashed when the media ran a stream of propaganda against Tamils as defence against efforts to highlight the abuse the government had engaged in during the Jaffna District Development Council elections. In 1983, the West, which had backed Jayewardene unquestioningly before then, to the extent of condoning his crooked referendum that postponed elections for six years, made it clear he had gone too far, so that in mid-stream as it were he changed tack.
So the man who on July 28th claimed that the riots were the understandable reaction of the Sinhalese to efforts to divide the country, and used this as an excuse to introduce a constitutional amendment that drove the TULF out of Parliament, three days later allowed his Ministers to claim that the riots were the actions of Marxists. He therefore arrested members of the Communist and the Revolutionary Trotskyist parties, while the JVP was proscribed and went underground, from where it organized much more effectively than before.
In the late eighties the country suffered from that wholly unfair persecution of the JVP. For thirty years we suffered because of course the main effect of the riots of July was dwindling of the influence of moderate Tamils and an increase of the power of the terrorists – with the LTTE swiftly eliminating its rivals and taking centre stage. Their activities were helped by the bitterness of a now swollen diaspora, with many of those who had left Sri Lanka after July 1983 unable to forget the terror and the humiliation they had suffered at the hands of what they understandably saw as government forces.
I have long been suggesting to those in charge of such matters that we should have a day of mourning for all those who have suffered, and the most suitable day for this would be July 23rd. Such a step has also been suggested by the LLRC and I fail to understand why we have not acted on this. It is high time that, thirty years on, we reflect on the enormity of what was done then, and try to make some belated amends on behalf of the collective nation.