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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 »


bishopLakshman Wickremesinghe, Bishop of Kurunagala from 1962 to 1983, died 30 years ago, on October 23rd. He was undoubtedly the most impressive Anglican Bishop Sri Lanka has produced, and with every year that passes his stature seems to grow.

Much has been written about him recently, most notably in Rajan Hoole’s detailed assessment of what happened in July 1983. Hoole shows how those events contributed to his premature death for, though he had a heart condition and had been advised to take things slow, he threw himself into trying to assuage the hurt felt by Tamils who had suffered in the state sponsored attacked on them.

He had been in England in July, taking the much needed break his doctors had advised, and trying to set down his thoughts on an oriental view of Christianity. In the last conversation we had, on the phone for I got to England on the day he was due to leave, he assured me that he would take things slow, in trying first to understand what had happened, and how the social dispensation into which he had been born had turned rabid. But seeing the suffering and the bewilderment, he did not rest, being the first Sinhalese dignitary to go up to Jaffna to apologize for what had happened.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

December 2018
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