downloadIn July 2008, when I was head of the Peace Secretariat, I published a volume entitled ‘Lest We Forget’, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the ethnic violence of July 1983. I had wanted the President to preside over a meeting to express regrets, but he did not think this appropriate at the time. However I had no doubt that, as a member in 1983 of the opposition that also suffered from the authoritarianism of the Jayewardene government, he understood the enormity of what had happened in 1983.

Now I am not so sure. Though he has reacted much better to the events at Aluthgama than Jayewardene did, he has not been firm enough in ensuring zero tolerance for racism. And though he recognizes that the activities of the BBS and its leader are destructive, he seems to think that they have emerged through an international conspiracy. The pronouncements of close associates in government who have encouraged the attitudes propounded by the BBS (or, on a charitable view, fallen headlong into the trap laid by the supposed international conspirators) is ignored.

Worse the President also seems to believe in the danger presented by Muslim extremists. It is unfortunate that he does not see that a more irrational version of such fears is the purported raison d’etre of the conspirators he criticizes. What is then an essential ambiguity suggests that, unless he assesses the situation more carefully, we are in danger of descending into the mess caused by the Jayewardene government in 1983.

When, with a view to reproducing it, I got out this introduction to the book that was published, I tried changing the references to 1983 to relate the article to recent history. Though obviously the President behaved much better than President Jayewardene, who justified the attacks of 1983 and used it to introduce legislation that drove the TULF from Parliament, the changes by and large worked, and indicated that current tensions and hardening attitudes could lead us to further excesses.

My fear is that, unless the President takes action soon, things will spiral out of control. The fact that J R Jayewardene knew what Mathew was up to made it easier for him to control the man when it became clear that his approach was destroying the country and alienating all except those who subscribed to his views and his ambitions. President Rajapaksa’s relative innocence may render him less effective if and when the crunch comes. The fact that he was kept in ignorance of the warning conveyed by one of this own Ministers to the Inspector General of Police before the emotive rally that led to mayhem is symptomatic of the isolation to which he is subject. Perhaps his most loyal supporter in the inner circle said recently that he was being kept in ignorance of what is going on in the country. That must change if he and the country are not to suffer what we all went through after 1983.

It is in the hope that there will be rational reflection on the lessons of history that I republish the Introduction to ‘Lest We Forget’ which was published in July 1983 and launched at a meeting at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies.


The events of July 1983 were a watershed in Sri Lankan history. At its simplest, there was an attack on Tamils in Colombo and elsewhere in the country, an attack that seemed to have at least some official sanction. This was evident not only from what seemed official resources to which the attackers had access, but also the reaction of the President, J R Jayewardene. In his first address to the nation, several days after the attacks started, he declared that the attacks were the reaction of ‘the Sinhalese people’ to the violence of Tamil terrorists. His first official response then was to introduce legislation that had the effect of driving from Parliament the elected representatives of the Tamils.

This had two predictable consequences. The first was the wider perception that the attacks had official sanction, which led to an even greater outbreak of violence on the following day, July 29th. The second was the superseding of the Tamil United Liberation Front by terrorist movements, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. And the events of July seemed to justify this, for it suggested that the Sri Lankan state was a racist oppressive state against which violence was justified.

This perception has continued, fuelled by the enormous resentment felt by many Tamils who fled the country at this time and later. Though after July 29th the government called a halt to such violence, and though this has never been repeated in the quarter century that has passed, it is understandable that many Tamils, especially those who left in 1983 or soon afterwards, see Sri Lanka through the prism of 1983. They, and their descendants, feel understandably bitter, and have striven since to ensure that nothing of the sort can happen again. This has led to support for the concept of a separate state, as canvassed most effectively by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and hence continuing funding of what is now one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world. A collateral result of this perhaps has been total ruthlessness in dealing with other Tamil groups, for the Tiger determination to ensure a monopoly of support is fuelled by the enormous financial and political rewards of such a monopoly as far as it concerns the Tamil diaspora.

For such support to continue, they have to convey the impression that another July 1983 is always imminent. The firm manner in which, with one or two very small scale but dishonourable exceptions, successive Sri Lankan governments have dealt with anti-Tamil racism, has made this unlikely, but of course it would take only one major lapse for the case to seem cast iron. And, though successive governments recognize this, there are political forces that wish to undermine elected governments, and may therefore encourage racist violence for their own shadowy reasons.

One reason therefore to publish this book is to make it clear that such violence can only benefit the far more sophisticated racist violence of the Tigers. It is therefore vital, not only that governments, which tend to understand this already, but also society at large, recognizes the enormity of what happened in 1983 and ensures that it is never repeated.

Another reason is to actually clarify what happened. For it is in the interests of all proponents of extremism to suggest that the events of 1983 were not the results of the particular policies of particular elements in government at the time, but were rather the natural outburst of Sinhalese resentment against Tamils. Sinhala extremists would thus suggest that what happened was an assertion of strength against separatist violence that should be replicated. Tamil extremists, more practical in their approach, seek to declare that such violence is endemic in Sri Lanka, and that under any political dispensation this is likely to recur. This can be presented, and relentlessly has been, as a justification for separatism.

Central to both these partisan interpretations is a denial of the actual role of the government at the time. Tamil extremists claim that the Jayewardene government was typical of Sinhalese governments, ignoring the central role of Jayewardene himself in subverting earlier attempts at political compromise (namely his opposition, along with the overtly racist opposition of his close ally in the United National Party, Cyril Mathew, to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1958 and the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam District Councils Bill of 1968). Indeed, Jayewardene’s constitutional as it were abhorrence of compromise can be seen in the manner in which he even subverted the District Development Councils he had allowed to be set up in 1981, first by designating Cyril Mathew to head the UNP election campaign, and then by financial strangulation of those Councils.

Conversely Sinhalese extremists play down the role of Jayewardene in their efforts to assert that the violence was spontaneous. They thus see his failure to quell it as due to diffidence in the face of nationalist emotion he could not comprehend. The illogicality of this argument, given the effectiveness with which he quelled the less structured violence of July 29th, is not important in comparison with the purportedly patriotic point they wish to make.

Sadly, not only do these two agendas converge, but they find support in what might be termed the intrinsic support for the Jayewardene wing of the UNP of elite decision makers in Colombo. Though some of them subscribed to the Mathew argument that Tamils had had unfair advantages in business, most are not racist in their approach. Their enemies rather are the left wing forces against which they see Jayewardene, and his reintroduction of the open economy in 1977, as the chief bulwark. So they cannot see Jayewardene as a villain, and instead subscribe to the interpretation some members of his cabinet put forward after July 29th, that the violence was perpetrated by leftists who wanted to spread mayhem.

Such an argument indeed emerged three years ago, when the photograph that appears on the cover of this book, showing an incident that occurred on the night of July 24th, was used in an advertisement designed to dissuade people from voting for the current President, Mahinda Rajapakse. The text of the advertisement suggested that a vote for him would be a vote for the leftist forces that had engaged in violence in the late 80s, ie the JVP. Ironically, voting against Mahinda Rajapakse meant supporting Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had been in the Cabinet in 1983 and spoken after the events of July in a manner that suggested he subscribed wholly to Cyril Mathew’s social and economic views. That the eminent and very able businessman who devised the advertisement should propagate such a view seems astonishing, and suggests that the facts of 1983 have now been forgotten in comparison with the propaganda value to be obtained from it for particular purposes. The appalling suffering that so many Tamils underwent is therefore ignored, as they become statistics and images to be bandied about for various political agendas.

This volume therefore attempts simply to clarify the record, by republishing a number of writings that addressed the issue direct, very shortly after the actual events. It begins with a section of descriptive essays that also analyse, including the detailed description of what happened in the Welikada Jail massacres, perhaps the most hideous episode in a hideous week. The relentless account of state complicity in what occurred, along with descriptions of the courage of particular officials, the prison guards who risked their own lives to save their charges, Major Sunil Pieris who promptly restored the order that others in the security forces had subverted, is perhaps the best proof that the situation was as I have described it above.

This section also includes an account of what might be termed the run up to the events, the racism at Peradeniya which struck the student who wrote this account, Qadri Ismail, as a symptom of what statist interference had wrought.

The next section contains poetry that deals with the events, and with attitudes that contributed to them. This is followed by fiction that addresses both the situation itself, and also the political background.

The final section deals with relevant points of view, beginning with Cyril Mathew’s equation of all Tamils with terrorists, which formed his defence to criticism of his part in the attacks on Tamils in Jaffna in 1981, the precursor – during which the Jaffna Public Library was burnt down – to the events of 1983. In part because of the emotions roused by Mathew’s style of defence, which involved a Motion in Parliament of No Confidence in the Leader of the Opposition, Appapillai Amirthalingam, there were attacks on Tamils in the south of the country in that year too, but because Colombo was exempt, decision makers in society were not aware of the enormity of what was brewing.

On a personal note, it was after such events that I took the International Centre for Ethnic Studies to task for not having worked on problems in Sri Lanka, only to be told by its Executive Director in Colombo that they were forbidden to look at events in Sri Lanka according to the agreement by which they operated in Sri Lanka. The Executive Director in Kandy refuted this claim in a press article, but there seems to have been a secret understanding, given the close links between Kingsley de Silva, the Chairman of the Board, and President Jayewardene, because nothing was forthcoming until the events of July 1983 burst the dam.

Even then however the initial response was not by ICES itself, but through a hastily set up Committee for Rational Development that could be claimed to be independent even though it was sponsored by the Colombo office. Its work was largely forwarded by Dayan Jayatilleka, now Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, whose commitment not only to pluralism but to speaking up for it when it was not so popular must be recognized. I am grateful to him for authorization to reprint material here that appeared previously in the Lanka Guardian. Other material appeared previously in The New Lankan Review and in An Anthology of Sri Lankan Poetry in English, while the account of the Welikada massacres was by the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights, whose yeoman work continues to raise issues that should be addressed more promptly than they usually are.

Following a report of the response of Ranil Wickremesinghe to the riots, exemplifying the Mathew approach to economic analysis, I include an appeal by Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, the first Sinhalese leader to visit Jaffna after the events. He made the journey though he was already very ill, because he felt it imperative that the process of healing should start immediately. The ideas he expresses here, had they been implemented then, might have averted some of the polarization that has taken place, but he died soon after, a martyr to his sense of duty. This book then is dedicated to his memory, and concludes with my impressions of that period, culminating in his death.