Thursday, September 11, 2008


Communal disturbances in S. Thambyrajah

Many articles have appeared in the media during the past weeks on Black July 1983. But it took 18 years for the government to appoint a Truth Commission to probe the 1983 riots, inter alia ‘to ensure that there would be no repetition of such brutal communal violence in the future’.

Whereas the Commission of Inquiry under section 2 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act (Cap 393) appointed on November 9, 1977, almost immediately following the incidents which occurred during 13.8.77 - 15.9.77, had wider terms of reference, including above, among others," to recommend such measures as may be necessary 3(a) to rehabilitate or assist in any other manner the persons affected by such acts; and (b) to ensure the safely of the public and to prevent the recurrence of such Incidents". Chapter VI and V of the Report , pages 260 to 273, (Sessional Paper No VII of 1980) deal with these terms at length . The under noted are reproduced from these two chapters:-

(p 262) "Whatever may be the rule in this Island under normal conditions, the incidents which occurred during the specified period were of such an extreme nature and so widespread , that an exception should be made as regards the payment of compensation to all those persons who were adversely affected. I suggest that full compensation for all losses sustained should be paid to all such persons by the Government.

"I recommend that all persons who suffered damages arising out of the incidents which occurred during the period 13th August 1977 to 15th September 1977 be paid full compensation to the extent of such damages. Any sums already received from the Government or payable by reason of insurance policies in their favour should of course he deducted"

(N.B. IN 1982 THE MINISTER OF SOCIAL SERVICES APPOINTED A COMMITTEE WITH THE APPROVAL OF THE PRESIDENT TO MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS in’ REGARD TO THE PAYMENT OF COMPENSATION FOR LOSS AND DAMAGE TO PRIVATE PROPERTY AND INJURIES CAUSED TO PRIVATE PERSONS DURING THE PERIOD 13.8.77 TO 15.8.77, AS, RECOMMENDED BY THE SANSONI COMMISSION. This Committee never sat. Thus it will be clearly seen that Government not only defaulted in this matter but deliberately gave false hopes and cheated the victims. A large number of our family members including myself were victims Of daylight looting, while a 36 hours curfew was on. The hooligans brought lorries and tractors and transported the loot. We were left only with our houses completely/partly damaged and /or burnt. When the Commission of Inquiry sat in Kandy, victims feared to give evidence but I volunteered and gave evidence first and thereafter there was such a rush to give evidence., that the Commission stopped it at one stage and wanted the others to submit affidavits.

(p269) "I would also refer, while I am on this subject, to the considerable turmoil that existed in certain tea plantation areas in the first half of 1977, after the nationalization of estates particularly in the Gampola, Pussellawa and Kotmale districts. Tamil citizens by descent or registration were ignored, and Sinhalese peasants were preferred when estate land was alienated and re-allocated. The Tamil estate workers in several estates were thrown out of them. Their displacement in a heartless manner was followed by the shooting of workers on Devon Estate., and looting and arson and physical violence on Sanquhar and Delta Estates, in a wave of communal terrorism."

(P269) "Another regrettable feature of those tragic days was the long delays that occurred both in the launching of prosecutions and the hearing of cases in the courts. A case was filed on July, 1977 over the incidents on Delta estate against 42 accused, was still pending on 12th July, 1978. No case was filed over the incidents on Sanquhar estate until 25th July, 1978 and that too only after pointed attention had been drawn to the omission by lawyers who appeared before the Commission".

(p270) " The lessons to be learnt from the facts I have mentioned are that (1) if lawlessness is not immediately nipped in the bud, it can grow fast and spread over a large area; (2) if the law is not enforced both by the Police and the Courts with all speed, it will cease to exercise the essential discipline over the lives of lawbreakers, which is a guarantee of peace and order in the country.

I would attribute the callous and criminal behaviour of villagers and colonists towards the many thousands of estate workers living near them in August 1977, to the success which attended their incursions in March and May, 1977.

It is deplorable that as Mr. Jayasinghe stated (reference is to the Secy-Min/Defence) some Members of Parliament aided and abetted or instigated the wrong doers. He also said that a Member of Parliament was responsible for selecting and settling villagers on estates around Gampola and ousting the estate workers from there.

The tragedy was heightened by the failure of the Police, who had been warned, to take preventive action at once."

The Sansoni Commission Report runs into 277 pages; 952 victims have given evidence and another 275 persons have filed affidavits. A large number of organisations led by eminent counsel have also given evidence. So much of valuable material, prepared in detail after hearing victims as well as public spirited men and organisations concerned with the welfare of the people and the country should have been debated in Parliament. The leader of the Opposition in Parliament was the late A. Amirthalingam. This was not done. Why? The Commission was critical of both Sinhala and Tamil communal and violence -rousing elements in and outside Parliament. Therefore there was common ground among both Sinhala and Tamil politicians to shelve the Report. They failed even to note the recommendations under the terms of reference (3) (b.) to ensure the safety of the public and to prevent the recurrence of such incidents. Had meaningful and pragmatic steps been taken on this, Black July 1983 would have been a non event. There is no useful purpose served by recapitulating all the events relating to looting, arson, raping, killing etc which went on in waves like the Tsunami for a period of one month. What is quoted above would be useful and have relevance even today.

The under noted elsewhere in the Report are reproduced for purposes of building unity, which the country is in dire need of:-

(p 54 para 277) "I want to make it quite clear, that what is objectionable and worthy of condemnation in the speeches from which I have quoted, is the expression of views which encourage and instigate the use of violence and weapons in a bid to obtain a separate state. So far as the population of the whole Island is concerned, the claim to a separate state is unpopular and will he resisted by the majority community. Intolerance and persecution of those who hold minority opinions, is wrong. So also the killing of those who obstruct the achievement of the aims which a minority desires to achieve. It must be remembered that violence or the advocacy of it begets violence and that is one lesson which the disturbances of August and September 1977 should have taught us all".

(p 67) ‘He cited the story In the Mahavamsa that "Soon after Elara’s death at his hands, Dutugemunu caused the drums to he beaten, and having summoned the people, he himself celebrated the funeral rites for King Elara at the spot where, he had fallen. Dutugemunu burnt the body, built a monument, and ordained worship. Even in his day the princes of Lanka, when they drew near to the place of Elara’s tomb, were wont to silence their music because of the continuous worship of the tomb". The Mahavamsa accepts Elara as a great and righteous king, respected by his subjects. Rains were said to come in due season owing to him. It was only in the 20th Century that this story was used as communal propaganda.

(P68-69). "He (reference is to Dr. Wijesundera, Consultant Physician General Hospital, Kandy, President Sri Lanka Paediatric Association) referred to some aspects of an ethnic study he had made of the Sinhalese and the Tamils and their relationship to South India. I shall refer to them now.

(!) He pointed out a close identity, between Sinhalese, Ceylon Tamil, and South Indian names

(2) The Sinhalese find it easy to learn Tamil and the Tamils Sinhala. There are basic similarities between the languages.

(3) There is the same custom between South Indians and Sinhalese in regard to marriages between the children of a brother and sister. New year customs, marriage customs, superstitions, the konde of the older generation, the simple dignified national dress are all the same among the Sinhalese and the South Indians.

(4) There is an equal prevalence of Hb, D and E in Sinhalese and Tamils. ABO blood group distinction also shows no statistically significant difference.

The conclusion he has come to is that if the Sinhalese are Aryan, the Tamils are as Aryan as the Sinhalese. If the Tamils are Dravidian, then the Sinhalese are as Dravidian as the Tamils. But he thinks it would he more accurate to call the Tamils, the Tamil- speaking Sinhalese and the Sinhalese the Sinhala- speaking Sinhalese.

I wish to quote, the following paragraphs before 1 pass on to his observations on religion:- ‘We Sinhalese should be proud of our Dravidian ancestry" (In his evidence he mentioned that the Dravidians belong to a civilisation going back as far as 3000 BC.) ‘The great longing shown by some of our countrymen to be a little more Aryan, to be a little more North Indian, a little more fair, is pathetic and degrading. Some of the greatest patriots and Buddhist leaders of recent times have been from the more recent additions from South India to the Sinhala peoples: Puran Appu, Megettuwatte Gunananda and Munidasa Kumaratunga.

"Dr. Wijesundera said: ‘ In the context of today’s international politics which is still one of national tribalistic competition, it is necessary to encourage a separate tribalism common to the whole Island. It is fortunate that we Buddhists are in practice Hindu Buddhists, so that we, kneel side by side with our Tamil brethren in the same kovil, in the same temple.’ He concluded his address with these words: "If what 1 have said today causes even a minor storm, I will he gratified. I could then say with Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Truth raises against itself the storm that scatters its seed broadcast".

"There is much to be learnt from Dr. Wijesundera’s contribution to the subject of inter-communal relations. If I may add another saying of Rabrindranath Tagore, it is this: ‘The deepest source of calamity in history is misunderstanding. For where we do not understand, we can never be just".


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