1983 Anti-Tamil riots and militarization of the ethnic conflict

"While this was aimed at the TULF. the message was clearly one of justification rather than remorse, diversion rather than acceptance. Further, the organized nature of the anti-Tamil pogrom, which could not have taken place without an element of State-sponsorship, was attributed to the ‘Left' who were tagged with the label ‘Naxalites’. In private it seemed that J R Jayewardene was ‘disconcerted by the tragic events of the previous few days’."

by Kethesh Loganathan

(July 13, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The period immediately following the elections to the District Development Councils (DDCs) in June 1981 witnessed the further development of Tamil militant organizations - particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO). In addition the Eelam Revolutionary Organizers (EROS), whose founder-leaders were based in London, split resulting in the formation of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). All of the above organizations, which were to play a key role in the parallel processes of militarization of the ethnic conflict as well as those of negotiations mediated by the Government of India, had succeeded in establishing areas of influences in Tamil Nadu by the late 70s.

The most telling evidence of the role of Tamil Nadu as an external sanctuary was the shoot-out at Pondy Bazar, a congested shopping area in the heart of Madras City, in May 1982, between the leaders of LTTE and PLOTE - Vellupillai Prabhakaran and Uma Maheswaran respectively. Both were arrested and later released on conditional bail. The ‘sanctuary’, then, included important Tamil Nadu politicians, with New Delhi keeping a watchful eye. It was also believed that Indian Intelligence, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), maintained contacts with the various Tamil militant organizations with the objective of keeping all options open.

In the meantime, back home, the activities of the Tamil militant organizations were no longer confined to attacks on security personnel, bank robberies and assassination of Tamil politicians belonging to the UNP and SLFP. It began to turn inward. Internecine conflicts and lamp post killings of ‘anti-social elements’ were on the increase. The Saturday Review, an English weekly coming out from Jaffna, cautioned against the above tendencies in the following words, which later turned out to be eerily prophetic: ‘The truth is that there is a new underground force in the making. an underground force without ideals, which if allowed unchecked could even bring about a state of civil strife in Jaffna and plunge the whole peninsula in chaos’.

Yet another development during this period was the widening chasm between the TULF and the militant groups which openly opposed the decision by the TULF to contest the local elections scheduled for May 1983. Further, UNP candidates were threatened and some assassinated. On April 29th, three candidates of the UNP were gunned down by the LTTE. On May 8th, at a public meeting of the TULF, Amirthalingam's vehicle was spirited away and the crowds ordered to disperse. A call for the boycott of the local elections was issued. And, unlike the DDC Elections of 1981, when more than 80% of the electorate had polled, this time more than 80% of the people decided to stay at home.

The response by the State was ambivalent. On the one hand there was a certain degree of glee in Colombo over the internecine conflict between PLOTE and LTTE and the humiliation being meted out to the TULF by the militant organizations. On the other, activities by the militant organizations were beginning to take their toll - not so much in terms of numbers - but on the morale and credibility of the Government. Five years had lapsed since the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with hardly any signs of terrorism abating. On the contrary, there were increasing signs of legitimate dissent in the Tamil areas, manifest in public protests, demonstrations and hartals. The feeling of impotence by the State was compensated by greater repression against the civilian population.

The following excerpts from an interview given by Major General Tissa Weeratunga, Army Chief of Staff, to David Selbourne, an academic-cum-journalist who spent a considerable period of time in mid-1982 touring the troubled North-East, reveals the growing frustration in the ranks of the security forces: ‘We are not on top ... ln Jaffna. they say that a whole truck-load of troops goes out to buy a tube of toothpaste. or a box of matches ... They choose the time and place. We can only be reactive’.

On May 18 1983, after an ambush on an army convoy in Jaffna. reinforcements went on the rampage in key residential and commercial centres of Jaffna, resorting to arson and looting. Similarly on June 1st, Vavuniya Town was set ablaze, following an ambush on Air Force personnel. In the midst of growing anarchy in the ranks of the security forces. combined with conscious punitive actions against Tamil civilians, the Tamil militant organizations benefited through growing adverse international opinion against the government and support from amongst those affected. The policy of ‘terrorising into submission’ was not quite working - it only led to charges of ‘State terrorism’.

Further, the attack on Tamil students, branded as subversives and sympathizers of the ‘Tigers’ by sections of the Sinhalese students at Peradeniya University on May 11th and 12th was yet another indicator of worse things to follow. The most ominous manifestation of the carnage that was soon to follow could be found in an interview given by President Jayewardene to Ian Ward of the London Daily Telegraph. To quote: ‘I have tried to be effective for some time but cannot. I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now ... Now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or of their opinion about us’.

The ‘final solution’, or at least an attempt at it, came in the wake of an ambush on an army convoy by the LTTE in Jaffna on July 23rd 1983. What followed was a carnage unprecedented in the sequels of anti-Tamil riots commencing in 1958. And all that the Head of State. President J. R. Jayewardene could do was to announce to the Nation that legislation would be brought before Parliament to bar political parties that espouse separation from entering the Legislature and to deprive members of such parties of their civic rights: ‘We are very sorry that this step should be taken. But I cannot see, and my Government cannot see, any other way by which we can appease the natural desire and request of the Sinhala people to prevent the country being divided, and to see that those who speak for division are not able to do so legally.’

While this was aimed at the TULF. the message was clearly one of justification rather than remorse, diversion rather than acceptance. Further, the organized nature of the anti-Tamil pogrom, which could not have taken place without an element of State-sponsorship, was attributed to the ‘Left' who were tagged with the label ‘Naxalites’. In private it seemed that J R Jayewardene was ‘disconcerted by the tragic events of the previous few days’.

Notwithstanding his official or personal views and sentiments. the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted. The amendment was passed by Parliament on 4th August 1983. It basically required any person holding elected office to take an oath affirming/swearing that he/she would not directly or indirectly, in or outside Sri Lanka, support, espouse, promote, finance, encourage or advocate the establishment of a separate state within the territory of Sri Lanka. By this act the TULF ceased to be in Parliament while the Tamil politico-military organizations could not care less.

Following the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983, which led to the exodus of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to Tamil Nadu and emotive demonstrations of cross-border ethnic affiliations, the involvement of India was, in a way, pre-destined. In addition, it was also clear that Delhi was far from pleased with Colombo's increasing closeness with countries like the USA, UK, China and Pakistan in relation to security concerns. As Prof S D Muni explains, the attempts by President Jayewardene to canvass support from these countries was perceived by Delhi as an attempt to ‘isolate India in the region by facilitating the strategic presence of the forces inimical to India's perceived security interests ... Mrs Gandhi in her telephone conversation with President Jayewardene on 5 August also strongly disapproved of Sri Lanka seeking external military support’.

At the political and diplomatic level, the first initiative by Indira Gandhi, after urging the western bloc to assume a ‘hands off' policy, was to send her Foreign Minister, Narasimha Rao, with a message to President J R Jayewardene on 28th July. It is now common knowledge that the message delivered to J R Jayewardene went beyond diplomatic niceties. Curiously, the worst carnage took place the following day, on 29th July on ‘Black Friday’, when scores of Tamils were set on fire following rumours that ‘Tigers’ had infiltrated the city.

Following a stern message from the Indian Prime Minister, the President sent his brother H W Jayewardene, a reputed lawyer, to New Delhi. A message was conveyed that the Sri Lankan Government had intended holding a round table conference to resolve the ethnic conflict, but had been unable to proceed in view of the TULF's decision not to partake in the proposed conference. The proposals that the Government had intended placing before the Conference were:

* Full implementation of the DDC laws

* The use of Tamil as a national language as provided in the constitution.

* A dialogue on amnesty, provided violence is abandoned.

* Discontinuing the active use of the armed forces in Jaffna once terrorist violence stops.

* Repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Statement in Parliament, as regards the situation in Sri Lanka, as well as the visit to New Delhi by H W Jayewardene, combined diplomacy with a veiled expression of intent. While reaffirming that India stood for the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka, Mrs Indira Gandhi announced that she was establishing a ‘Sri Lanka Relief Fund’ and called on ‘fellow citizens. including those living abroad, to contribute generously to the fund and thereby express their anguish and sympathy for the unfortunate victims of this senseless violence in a tangible and positive manner’.

As regards the proposals that President J R Jayewardene had intended placing before the round table conference, which never took place, Mrs Indira Gandhi stated: ‘I expressed my view that these proposals may not meet the aspirations of the Tamil minority. Mr Jayewardene told me that the Sri Lankan government is willing to consider any other proposals which would give the Tamil minority their due share in the affairs of their country within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

I gave my view that discussion between the Government and the Tamil community on this broader basis would be useful and that a solution has to be sought at the conference table. I offered our good offices in whatever manner that may be needed. Mr Jayewardene expressed his appreciation of this offer made in the context of the traditional friendly ties between our countries. He later informed me that his President welcomes the offer.’

It was evident that Prime Minister Mrs Gandhi's offer to mediate was an offer that could hardly be refused by President Jayewardene. This was despite a growing anti-Indian wave in the South and J R Jayewardene's own aversion to the ‘big brother’, in this case the ‘big sister’.

The diplomatic initiative was to soon follow. G Parthasarathy or GP, as he was known in Delhi circles, was a retired diplomat and a well-known educationist. He arrived in Colombo on 25th August for discussions with President Jayewardene. His mandate was to initiate and mediate a dialogue on a political settlement between the TULF and the Sri Lankan Government.

Interestingly enough, the LTTE expressed its own reservations about any diplomatic initiative. According to a report by the Weekend Sun, a spokesman of the LTTE in Madras had asserted in a speech in Madras that: ‘The fight for Eelam will be by bullets and not by words across the table. For this we are raising a national liberation army and we need Indian help. But right now the Indian government is riding the wrong horse. It has created a serious diplomatic blunder.’ The reference was clearly to the pride of place given to the TULF in the diplomatic initiatives.

Between August and December of 1983 Parthasarathy had a series of discussions with President Jayewardene and other Sri Lankan Government officials. He similarly held discussions with leaders and representatives of political parties. Intense discussions took place with the TULF in Colombo and in New Delhi with a certain amount of publicity. However GP also held discussions with leaders and representatives of the Tamil politico-military, in particular PLOTE and EPRLF, in order to ascertain their views and opinions. 13 Such meetings were at the unofficial level and often in the wee hours of the morning at his residence. Contrary to the impression in Colombo where Parthasarathy was seen as a Brahmin -Tamil and therefore suspect, he was actually stressing the need for moderation and reconciliation.

On the other hand, a mandate had also been given to RAW, India's external intelligence service, to sustain the resistance capacity of the Tamil militant organizations as part of ‘India's double-track strategy of talking while pressurizing through the arming of the Tamil militants’. Further, RAW had to ensure that Tamil militants organizations did not find other ‘patrons’ inimical to India's interests, or strengthen themselves to the extent of making their secessionist demand a reality. The division of Sri Lanka and its repercussions in India, through Tamil Nadu, was clearly something that India wanted to avoid.

The presence of training camps in India was exposed when an Indian fortnightly, India Today, in its issue of 31st March 1984, gave details of the location of various training camps in Tamil Nadu. Although some of the locations mentioned were erroneous, the gist of the article could not be disputed. This issue was promptly taken up for discussion in the Sri Lankan Parliament. Prime Minister Premadasa declared: ‘We stand by all what we have said in this House, that is, that there are training camps on Indian soil and Indian territory. I repeat it once again. It is for the Government of India to take note of it and take suitable action. I make this statement on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka ... India cannot bully Sri Lanka. We may be a small country but we have our self-respect and we will stand up to any challenge.’

It was evident that Delhi's multi-linear agenda was beginning to spill over. The slip was beginning to show. And this provided Colombo with the pretext to seek the military support of the Western bloc and neighbouring countries in the region, (ie, Washington-London-Pretoria-Tel Aviv-Islamabad-Beijing). The opening-up of the Special Interests Section of Israel In Colombo, in return for the services of Israel's intelligence agencies, Mossad and Shin Beth, and Sri Lanka's support for Britain on the Falklands crisis at the United Nations, as a gesture of goodwill for the military assistance and training facilities provided by Britain, overtly or covertly, were clear instances of a rupture in Sri Lanka's foreign policy orientation and its previous adherence to strategic alliances within the framework of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It was also a clear manifestation of Sri Lanka being sucked into the geo-politics of the region, with extra-regional implications.

India's involvement, similarly, began to keep pace with developments at the geo-political level, as well as with developments within Sri Lanka that had a direct bearing on the Tamil Question and cross-border affiliations.

The All Party Conference (APC) met on 10th January 1984, following the initiatives by Parthasarathy. Prior to that, on 21st December 1983, President Jayewardene summoned a meeting of 8 political parties to consider the question of holding an All Party Conference on ‘the daily growing problems of the country in regard to ethnic affairs and terrorism’. Although at that meeting it was decided that the TULF, NSSP and the JVP be invited, the latter two were excluded since they stood ‘proscribed’.

The Political Parties which eventually participated included the United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Communist Party (CPSL), Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), Democratic Workers Congress (DWC) and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). In addition, a decision was taken to widen the participants to include a medley of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim religious organizations.

(Kethesh Loganathan was a Sri Lankan Tamil political activist, a Human Rights advocate and deputy secretary general of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP). He was among the fiercest critics of the ethnic separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and the LTTE are widely blamed for his death.)
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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T.Douglas said…
The Sri Lankan Government and the global community are culpable in the creation of the LTTE movement. From 1947 to the 1970s, the Sri Lankan Government engaged in Horrific abuse and Discrimination against the Tamil minority, and yet peaceful Tamil protests yielded zero results. This provoked the creation of a violent separatist movement the LTTE. The Black July of 83 is a well planned Genocide against the Tamil Minority in Sri Lanka. Over 5000 Tamils have been killed by the Sri Lankan Security forces and more than 40,000 Tamil homes been looted and burnt down. several hundreds of Tamil women were raped by the Majority Sinhalese.
The lesson to be learned is that when oppressive dictatorships like Communist China and Islamic Malaysia commit horrific abuse against peaceful minorities, like Tibetans and Malaysian Hindus, other democracies must intervene and force justice for the oppressed. Otherwise, frustrated minorities may be forced to take up arms to achieve justice.
This applies only to dictatorships which abuse human rights, not democracies like India and Israel.
Unknown said…
Your comments are not completly true.Seperatist movements and armed struggle were pland by Some Tamils in UK since 1970s or beyond that. 83 uprising was not planned just escalated because of the brutal act of northeern terrorists

Unknown said…
Your comments are not completly true.Seperatist movements and armed struggle were pland by Some Tamils in UK since 1970s or beyond that. 83 uprising was not planned just escalated because of the brutal act of northeern terrorists