On the 23rd of Black July, one man destroyed his nation

| by Basil Fernando

( July 25, 2012, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian) Many things are said about Black July, 1983. That there were many culprits who caused the havoc that virtually destroyed the image of Sri Lanka and which gave justification for a prolonged period of violence. However, there was one man who was the creator of this havoc. It was then-President of the country, Junius Richard Jayawardene.

His work of destroying the fabric of Sri Lankan democracy started from the very first day after he won the election as the leader of the United National Party, in 1977. His very first act as the Prime Minister elect was to grant a “holiday to the police”. That holiday lasted for two or three weeks. That was the first act done to intimidate his political opponents. With an ambition to hold onto power and not to give up what he had won, he knew one of his major strategies needed to be to launch a period of violence in order not to allow space for internal challenges from disaffected democratic forces. That process went on through various kinds of initiatives, which are well-recorded. The 1982 referendum was a major assault he made on the electoral politics in Sri Lanka. He was seriously pursuing his ambition to “close the electoral map” of Sri Lanka for some time.

By 1983, he was fully aware of the dissatisfaction among the democratically minded sections of society due to the erosion of democracy that he was causing. He needed a lot more violence and he was looking for events that could enable the unleashing of greater violence. That opportunity came when the news of thirteen soldiers being killed in the north arrived. He was aware that the discontent was growing in the armed forces. He also knew that there were suggestions to have a common funeral for the thirteen soldiers in Colombo Cemetery.

According to accounts published by his own close collaborators, Prime Minister Premadasa himself advised JR Jayawardene of the unavoidable consequence of there being riots in Colombo if this was allowed. However, JR Jayawardene made his own calculations about the opportunity that he had before him to divert the attention of the country away from him. He quite deliberately allowed the funerals to take place in a manner that would bring about what we know today as Black July. It was a calculated action to take advantage of a situation for his own political survival.

Jayawardene’s legacy of causing Black July and for what came after needs much closer scrutiny and exposure. The institution of the Executive Presidency, which was coming under severe resistance from democratic forces, was thus saved. Those who are today benefiting from the survival of the executive presidency owe it to what JR Jayawardene did in July 1983. This aspect of the political history of Sri Lanka has not been adequately highlighted because there are still those who are benefiting from this executive presidential system. Understanding the catastrophe that came about on all Sri Lankan public institutions and political life requires much reflection on the initiative that JR Jayawardene took to unleash Black July.

The following narrative by B. Sirisena Cooray, the former mayor of Colombo and a strong UNPer at the time, describes the situation vividly:

An excerpt from President Premadasa and I - our Story (pp 60-63)


The day we heard about the killing of the 13 soldiers in Jaffna I went to see Mr. Premadasa. He was on the phone to the President. There was a lot of tension in the country and we were extremely worried about the way things were moving. Mr. Premadasa turned to me and informed me that the President is planning to bring the bodies of the dead soldiers to Colombo, to be cremated at Kanatte. Mr. Premadasa had been trying to get the President to change his mind when I walked in. When he saw me Mr. Premadasa said: "Sir, Sirisena is here; you ask him". And he put me on. The President told me: "Cooray, these people want to bring these bodies to Colombo and cremate them at Kanatte. What do you think?" I said: "Sir why do you want to bring these bodies to Colombo? These are not people from Colombo. If you bring the bodies here there will be problems". This was precisely what Mr. Premadasa had been telling the President before I walked in. Afterwards Mr. Premadasa told me that they had decided against bringing the bodies to Colombo; I remember we were both extremely relieved.

That afternoon I went for a wedding at the Shalika Hall in Narahenpita. Mrs. Jayawardene was also there. I was talking to her when she suddenly said: "Mr. Cooray, you know that they are bringing those 13 bodies to Colombo today". I was thunderstruck. I said: "Madam, the President promised the Prime Minister only a little while ago that the bodies will not be brought to Colombo". She responded: "No, no they are going to go ahead and bring the bodies here. I do not know whose idea it is". I had the impression she too was unhappy about it.

This was madness. Like Mr. Premadasa I knew that all hell was likely to break lose when those bodies are brought to Colombo. I just got up and walked to my car. But I had no clear idea about where I wanted to go. I couldn't think clearly. I didn't want to go home and I didn't want to go to the CMC. Finally I went to the Sugathadasa stadium. That was the time we were reconstructing the Stadium. I walked into the middle of the grounds and just stood there. That was when SP Ariyaratne came to me and told me that there was a radio message from the PM asking me to contact him urgently. When I called Mr. Premadasa he too was extremely upset and worried. He told me about the new decision to bring the bodies to Colombo that evening and asked me to make the necessary arrangements. He told me that the President is planning to attend the cremations and he too was expected to be there. He knew full well there would be problems but he had no choice in the matter. The decisions were made elsewhere and he was just informed of them. If the President listened to Mr. Premadasa, the '83 July riots could have been avoided and the history of this country would have been different.

Like Mr. Premadasa I too had no choice but to do what bad to be done, given the situation. The Kanatte is owned and managed by the CMC and as Mayor my tasks were clear. So I went to the Municipal Workshop and made all the arrangements. I also phoned the Municipal Commissioners and told them to come to the cemetery. After that I went to the cemetery. As soon as I entered I could feel the tension. There was an organized crowd present, making a huge show of grief, weeping hysterically. I walked up to DIG Edward Gunawardane and I asked him why they allowed this madness. He and the other senior police officers present told me that they had nothing to do with the decision, that they were just following orders. I warned them that this drama would end with a riot. Though the bodies were not brought yet, the crowd was organised and ready. I realized that if I stayed here I too would be thrashed. Gamani Jayasuriya was also there waiting for the bodies to be brought. I went up to him and said: "Sir, what are you doing here? Don't wait here. There is going to be trouble". Then I called Mr. Premadasa's security personnel who were waiting for his arrival and told them: "Tell the PM that there is going to be trouble; tell him not to come here and tell him I said so". I told the same thing to the President's bodyguard. I explained that amidst the inevitable disturbance even if a stone hits the President it will be humiliating and therefore he should stay away. I was able to issue orders since the General Cemetery came under the CMC and I was the Mayor.

Fortunately the President decided to heed my warning; this enabled Mr. Premadasa also to stay away (he would have been forced to attend, even though he was not happy about the whole thing, if the President attended). Once I got confirmation that neither the President nor the PM would be attending the cremations I informed the Municipal Commissioners who were present that I will go and change and come back. Of course I did not go back. And as Mr. Premadasa and I predicted, rioting started immediately afterwards. I later heard that the Army wanted the bodies to be brought to Kanatte and that the President succumbed to their pressure.

It was a terrible time and the worst part was that we were almost powerless. We could do nothing to stop the killing, the destruction. The President made a mistake in putting the Army in charge of restoring law and order. After the killing of the 13 soldiers the mood in the military was a very dangerous one and they were not really motivated in stopping the violence. If the Police had been given a free hand they would have done a better job. During this period President Jayawardene was reduced to a state of helplessness. Mr. Premadasa and I used to visit him every day. That was the only time I saw IRJ being speechless. The Army was not taking orders and I think we were very close to a state of mutiny. That was why the Air Force was called in eventually and they quelled the riot.