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CaptureSome years back, when I thought Ranil was honest, I said he would have been an admirable politician had he entered politics under Dudley Senanayake rather than J R Jayewardene. Though I had welcomed Jayewardene’s opening up of the economy, I was increasingly worried about the authoritarianism he sought to entrench, using violence for the purpose.

The treatment of the July 1980 strikers, the violence in Jaffna and then countrywide in connection with District Council elections, the suppression of opposition during the 1982 referendum (as to which Chandrika has obviously forgotten her husband’s suffereing and also Ranil’s role in collecting the undated letters of resignation from MPs that J R demanded) the pogrom of July 1983, were mounting evidence of his contempt for decency, let alone democratic norms.

I had begun to understand Ranil’s role in all this through a remark of Henry Gunasekera, an old style UNP stalwart, unlike his younger brother D E W, the last representative of the old upper class commitment to social justice exemplified by the original pillars of the Communist Party, S A Wickremesinghe and Pieter Keuneman. The parallel with my oldest and youngest maternal uncles, Esmond who was for a long time J R’s intellectual right hand while Cyril Mathew was his coercive left, and Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, struck me after I came to know and appreciate D E W’s idealistic sincerity.

But Henry too was sincere and, unlike Esmond, was not willing to go along with the shenanigans of his party when it changed course. He told me, way back in 1980, that there were only two honest Ministers in the UNP. Rather naively I thought he was referring to my two relations in Cabinet, Ranjith Atapattu and Ranil Wickremesinghe. But his response was no: though Ranjith was one of them, the other being Gamini Jayasuriya, he said Ranil, though financially above board, was not honest in that he used thugs.

How true this was became clear as evidence emerged of his connections with individuals such as Gonawala Sunil and Kalu Lucky, who led demonstrations against Supreme Court judges who had found against the government in a fundamental rights case – which I recalled when Ranil’s cohorts decided to demonstrate against the bond commission. Read the rest of this entry »

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

I have entitled this series ‘Looking Forward’, because it is meant to suggest positive measures that would strengthen institutions. That seems to me the best outcome of the tensions that have arisen, with all sides now seeming to be convinced that, because of the inequities of others, they do not need to ensure that their own mistakes will also not be repeated.

JR-jayawardene

There were five distinct steps that Jayewardene took that led to protracted suffering for the country.

In this light, it may be useful also to look back at the mistakes of the Jayewardene government, because it is vital that, having so successfully overcome the terrorist threat, this government does not repeat some of the mistakes that Jayewardene did in his consolidation of a monolithic power structure.

There were five distinct steps that Jayewardene took that led to protracted suffering for the country. In essence they all arose from his determination to brook no dissent.

The first was the deprivation of Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights, using a Kangaroo Court, which he claimed was acceptable since it consisted of members of the Judiciary. The manner in which the three individuals he handpicked to destroy Mrs Bandaranaike made their decisions is ample evidence that judges are not necessarily trustworthy or guardians of democratic practice. Read the rest of this entry »

Lakshman Jayakody 1930 - 2010

I am honoured to be able to speak today to record my appreciation of the service rendered by the late Lakshman Jayakody to this Parliament and the country. I got to know him in the seventies, when he was Parliamentary Secretary to the then Prime Minister, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, whom he served loyally throughout his political career. Those were difficult days, when the JVP insurrection had just been overcome, but the socialist measures taken by the government led to hostility and misrepresentation in the West. I recall meeting Mr Jayakody in those days at the house of Tilak Gooneratne, our High Commissioner in London, who had served in the Commonwealth Secretariat, and could not understand the hostility that we then had to face.

I remember in particular efforts to claim that the government had used excessive force in overcoming the insurrection, ignoring both the danger we had faced and the manner in which government soon restored normality, leading to the respect in which the JVP, after undergoing trial, subsequently held our judiciary. The rehabilitation process then, though slower than what the present government has achieved, was thorough and much appreciated at the time.

Even more telling with regard to the challenges the then Deputy Minister of External Affairs faced was the concerted attempt of the British press to highlight conditions on the plantations and claim that these were due to racism on the part of the government. That was shortly after the plantations had been nationalized, and government was trying to improve the appalling treatment of estate workers which the British plantation companies had indulged in, while claiming – as has been graphically explained by Colomel Derrick Nugawela in his fascinating memoir, ‘Tea and Sympathy’ – that the welfare measures Sri Lankan managers proposed could not be implemented because of obligations to shareholders. But the balance sheet has always been more important than politicians will acknowledge, and I suppose we need to keep that in mind in analyzing and developing international relations.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2018
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