JR Jayewardene and the July 1983 Anti-Tamil Violence
Posted on July 30th, 2021

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj Courtesy The Daily Mirror

Lands and Mahaweli Development Minister Gamini Dissanayake warned Tamils that it would require 14 hours for Indian troops to come and rescue them but the Sinhalese could destroy them in 14 minutes if they wanted to

On Sunday July 24, mobs began moving in the direction of Borella and Thimbirigasaya from Kanatte. Tamil homes and businesses were attacked and set on fire. As the Esala full moon shone brightly from a not-so-cloudy sky, clouds of smoke from burning Tamil establishments spiralled upwards

D. B. S. Jeyaraj

July 24, 1983 was the day on which a destructive spree of anti-Tamil violence commenced in Jaffna in the early hours of the morning and began spreading to Colombo in the later hours of the evening on the same day. It continued to other parts of the Island in the following days. The 38th anniversary of those dark days – etched in history as Black July”   revives bad memories among most Tamils who lived in Sri Lanka during July 1983. 

The week long spree of anti-Tamil violence saw over 4,000 Tamils and some Muslims – mistaken for Tamils – being killed. Thousands were injured. Some of the injured were killed in hospitals. There were close upon 300,000 displaced persons as a result. Around 130,000 of these were housed in makeshift refugee camps. More than 2,500 business enterprises ranging from factories to petty boutiques were damaged or destroyed. The number of houses and dwellings and vehicles damaged or destroyed has not been correctly estimated yet.

The anti-Tamil violence of July 1983 was not a mass uprising of Sinhalese against Tamils. Prior to the outbreak of violence, there existed a pre-planned conspiracy to launch a widespread attack against Tamil life, limb and property on a massive scale. All it required was a powerful incident to be the provocative pretext to justify such an attack. The ambush of an Army patrol in the north in the night of Saturday July 23 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) resulting in the killing of 13 soldiers by the Tigers reportedly triggered off the violence beginning from Sunday July 24.

‘Four Four Bravo’ Patrol
What happened then was this. On Saturday July 23, 1983, the Army’s ‘Four Four Bravo’ routine patrol proceeded from the Mathagal military base. It consisted of 15 men travelling in a jeep and a half truck. The men were all from the 1st battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI). They were commanded by an old Anandian, 2nd Lt. Vass Gunawardane who had a sub-machine gun. The others had self -loading rifles and grenades. 

Meanwhile, the LTTE had planned to launch an attack on the Army in Thirunelvely known generally as Thinnavely about two miles away from Jaffna town. Sathasivam Selvanayagam alias Sellakkili of Kalviyankaadu, the newly appointed Tiger Military Commander planned and supervised the operation with the support of Prabhakaran. The spot picked was about 150 metres south of the Post Box junction along the Jaffna-Palaly Road. The road had been already dug up for telecommunications cable laying. This made it convenient for the Tigers to bury land mines.

Four landmines were laid and the wires linked to the exploder were concealed on the back of the roof of a boutique facing the road. Sellakkili perched himself on the roof to explode the mines at the right time. The other Tiger cadres hid themselves behind brick walls in two groups on either side of the road.

The LTTE at that time had only 30 full-time members including its supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran. Of these 19 were involved in the Thinnavely attack. They were Prabhakaran, Sellakkili, Pulendran, Ponnammaan, Reggie, Ranjan Lala, Kittu, Santhosham, Victor, Appiah, Ganesh, Lingam, Albert, Basheer, Rajesh, Suppanna, Ramu, Gnanam and Raghu (Kundappa).

When the two vehicles approached the landmines were set off. They exploded on the right side of the jeep and in between the jeep and truck. Thereafter the Tigers started firing and lobbing grenades. The soldiers also retaliated. At the end of it all, 13 soldiers including Lt. Vass Gunawardane were dead. The only two Army survivors were Cpl. Perera and Lance Cpl. Sumathipala. From the Tiger side the solitary casualty was Sellakkili, the newly-appointed Military Commander. 

Soldiers on the rampage
Once the news of the ambush became known, soldiers of the SLLI went on the rampage. The then SLLI Commanding Officer Lt. Col Upali Dharmaratne was either unwilling or unable to control them. The overall Jaffna Commander Brig. Lyle Balthazar too was unable to exert his authority and instill discipline among troops. 

The enraged soldiers went on a violent spree killing 51 civilians in Thinnavely and surrounding areas. This included a university lecturer Kala Parameswaran who was known to me. A mini-van carrying seven passengers was stopped and all eight including the driver were lined up and shot dead in cold blood. Among these was my friend Wimalathasan, a human rights activist and Editor of the journal ‘Manithan’. Later on, the then Army Commander Gen. Tissa Bull” Weeratunga transferred the SLLI 1st battalion out of Jaffna. Lt. Col. Dharmaratne was replaced by Lt. Col. A.M.U. Seneviratne.

The UNP Government headed by J.R. Jayewardene conducted a mass funeral at Kanatte for the 13 soldiers killed by the LTTE. Large crowds gathered at Kanatte on Sunday July 24. Many were brought there in Government vehicles. The situation took a violent turn around dusk. Mobs began moving in the direction of Borella and Thimbirigasaya from Kanatte. Tamil homes and businesses were attacked and set on fire. As the Esala full moon shone brightly from a not-so-cloudy sky, clouds of smoke from burning Tamil establishments spiralled upwards.

Sunday Sil, Monday Kill.”
The following Monday July 25 saw anti-Tamil violence spreading like wildfire. The plantation Tamil patriarch Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman known for his pithy comments later described the violence that followed Poya on Sunday as – Sunday Sil, Monday Kill.”

Despite repeated entreaties by the then IGP Rudra Rajasingham to declare a curfew, President Jayewardene delayed imposing one until the following Monday evening. Even after a curfew was supposedly in force, the violence went on for three days peaking on Wednesday July 27. It began ebbing on Thursday July 28, the day that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent the then Indian Foreign Minister P. Narasimha Rao as her Special Emissary to Colombo.

On Friday July 29 saw Colombo and suburbs being terrified by the rumour that the Tigers had come to town. The afternoon of that fateful ‘Koti Dawasa’ (Tiger Day) saw the goon squads massacring Tamils again after being ‘sure’ that no Tigers were in town. Finally 30 and 31 July saw the violence diminish gradually. By August the violence had ceased as international opinion and pressure compelled the J.R. Jayewardene regime to normalize” the situation. 

Indira Gandhi-Narasimha Rao
The role played by India in general and her Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in particular was of crucial importance in curbing the anti-Tamil violence in Sri Lanka then. Indira Gandhi cancelled her trip to Tamil Nadu that had been scheduled earlier. Instead she telephoned President Jayewardene on Thursday July 28 morning and sent her foreign minister PV Narasimha Rao (Later PM) in the evening to Colombo as her special emissary. 

Narasimha Rao met with President JR, Premier Premadasa and Foreign Minister ACS Hameed. He spoke on the telephone to Opposition Leader Appapillai Amirthalingam. Rao also had a private unofficial” meeting in person with cabinet minister Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman. Prior to his return to New Delhi, the Indian Foreign minister  inquired” from his counterpart  as to whether Colombo  would require Indian security personnel to establish law and order in Sri Lanka if the Lankan Police and armed forces were unable to end the anti-Tamil violence. There was a marked change after Rao’s departure. The organized anti-Tamil violence began diminishing while the law enforcement machinery got re-activated miraculously.

President  Junius Richard Jayewardene and other members of the ruling United National Party (UNP) sought to explain the Black July violence as the ‘spontaneous reaction of the Sinhala people to the LTTE attack in Jaffna. ’The Sinhala people were collectively blamed for the violence by the President and his Government. This was done to deflect the blame falling on the Govt.

Blaming Sinhala People
There is, however, a major flaw in attributing blame for the dark events of Black July ‘83 to the Sinhala people on the whole. It is correct that the perpetrators were Sinhalese and the victims Tamils. But it was by no means a mass uprising of the entire Sinhala race against Tamils. If that had happened, only a few Tamils would have been left to tell the tale.

 Many Sinhala people were horrified at what happened and were helpless onlookers, while a minority of their ethnicity unleashed havoc in the name of their race and country. It is possible that a section of the people who were non- participants may have been supportive of the anti–Tamil violence and sanctioned it by their silence. But the majority of the Sinhala people were against to what happened then. It cannot be forgotten that a large number of Sinhalese protected and saved Tamils often at great personal risk. Many Muslims too gave shelter and protection to their Tamil neighbours in those dark days. Members of my own family as well as many relatives and friends were aided greatly by decent Sinhala and Muslim people in those troubling times.

The conduct and political role played by the then President JR Jayewardene in the Anti-Tamil violence in July 1983 has been widely criticized. In fact there were many who condemn JR as being responsible for aggravating the situation. The decision to stage a mass funeral for the 13 soldiers at Kanatte in Colombo and the long delay in declaring a curfew resulted in terrible carnage. In order to provide greater insight into the alleged acts of omission and commission by JR during July 1983, I shall reproduce here an electronic mail sent to me by former DIG of Police Ramachandra Sundaralingam.

DIG Sundaralingam
Sunda, as Sundralingam was known, was a very good friend to journalists of my generation in Sri Lanka. If we wanted a good law and order news story, all we needed to do was to contact him. Sundaralingam was serving as Senior DIG in charge of ranges at the time of the 1983 July anti-Tamil violence. Sunda later took up a post at the INTERPOL in Paris and became known as an expert in combatting the narcotics trade. After retirement he took up residence in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Sunda and I were in regular contact via e-mail and telephone until his demise in December 2018.

While researching for this article I came across an e-mail sent by Sunda in July 2017. What happened then was that he wanted to talk to me about the 1983 July riots and telephoned on my land line. I was away from home and did not respond promptly. An impatient Sunda then sent an e-mail summarizing his thoughts. However, we did converse on the phone subsequently and discussed in detail the points mentioned in the e-mail. However, I feel it is worthwhile reproducing that e-mail as it sheds much light on what had happened then. Here it is:

Sunda’s  Electronic Mail

Dear DBS,
In case we miss each other’s call. Briefly the facts on the Darkest Chapter of the History of Sri Lanka July 1983;
1) Thinnavely LTTE ambush killed 13 soldiers on July 23, 1983. Army HQ informed, President JR via Gen Attygalle ordered Army Commander Weeratunge get to Jaffna immediately.

2) DIG Rajaguru in charge of NP called IGP Rudra Rajasingham and myself stating Army running berserk, Police were helpless.

3) Security Council meeting with all Service Chiefs, Air Force, Naval Commander except Army Chief already in Jaffna to monitor the happenings there and elsewhere. IGP Rudra Rajasingham requested my presence at the meeting as Senior DIG Ranges overseeing NP DIG Rajaguru.  

4) Gen. Attygalle hourly discussion (3pm/7pm) with Army Chief Weeratunge.  In Jaffna situation was deteriorating with Army revolt in Jaffna, damage to property and injury to several persons, Commander Weeratunge was unable to exercise any control .Gen Attygalle informs JR on the ground situation, JR who in turn informd Gen Attygalle that Army soldiers be buried in Jaffna, as it happens in a war situation. When this message was conveyed to Gen. Weeratunge, his prompt reply, Sir I will also be buried here, make arrangements to shift the bodies to their native places early.”

5) Security Council decides the bodies be flown to Katunayake Air Force base, after embalming be dispatched to the 13 villages of the 13 soldiers. Police were instructed to organize 13 Air conditioned Ambulances be in readiness at Katunayake on arrival of bodies from Jaffna. This arrangement was approved by JR in his conversation with Gen Attygalle, I am an eye-witness to all these arrangements.

6) Direction received at Police HQ ambulance plan has been cancelled, the bodies will be brought to Ratmalana by air for common burial at Kanatte. In the meantime, tension was mounting in Colombo, with large crowds heading for Kanatte.

7) IGP Rudra Rajasingham, DIG Ernest Perera and I visited Kanatte, everything looked tensed up. I was able to sense the situation as serious. DIG Perera and I strongly advised IGP Rudra Rajasingham to meet the President immediately to impose curfew around 9.00 pm, otherwise the situation would get out of control. IGP left Kanatte to meet JR at Ward Place. Curfew was never declared until next evening by which time serious damage was caused to Tamil persons and their property and it was the worst in the history of country. JR could have averted this situation, but he failed to declare curfew. The big question is, who made the decision to bring the bodies to Kanatte for a common burial? Minister Thondaman told me it was Cyril Mathew who insisted on Kanatte funeral. All this is history.”

The organized violence
An important point to note is that the July 1983 violence was basically an organized act. Several persons may have engaged in the violence on their own but there were core groups at different locations that planned and executed it. As is the case in mob violence, these core groups were joined by others. These groups had absolute impunity and had the protection of important members of the UNP Government then in power.

The mobs had lists of Tamil-owned houses and businesses. They also knew the details of ownership. Wherever premises were owned by Sinhalese, only furniture and goods belonging to Tamil tenants were destroyed and set on fire. The buildings were not torched or damaged.

Many of the mobs were led by functionaries of the UNP trade union Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS). Several UNP Municipal and Urban councillors and family members were involved. Many prominent supporters and strong-arm men of cabinet ministers were involved. The Police were ordered by UNP politicians in several instances not to arrest the violent elements.

In many incidents, the large groups of thugs and goons were transported in Government-owned Transport Board vehicles or in vehicles owned by semi-Government corporations. Even food parcels and liquor were distributed systematically among those elements.

When some decent UNP leaders such as Shelton Ranarajah and Renuka Herath Ranasinghe got the goons locked up by the Police in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya respectively, and later their release was secured by ministers Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake. The role of Cyril Mathew and his political lackeys in the violence were well-known. Some of those involved are still in politics and holding high office.

Responses of Govt Ministers
One of the lamentable features of the July 1983 pogrom was the abominable response of J.R. Jayewardene and senior ministers on television. Not even a single word was uttered in sympathy for the victims of the violence. JR indirectly blamed the Sinhala perpetrators, but justified the violence by saying it was a natural and spontaneous reaction of the Sinhalese people.  Instead of reaching out to the victimized Tamil people, the President announced that legislation would be brought to forbid secessionism.

State Minister Anandatissa de Alwis spoke about a hidden hand, a foreign hand, being responsible. He said there was a conspiracy to provoke clashes between the Sinhalese and Tamils, the Sinhalese and Muslims and Buddhists and Christians. Lands and Mahaweli Development Minister Gamini Dissanayake warned Tamils that it would require 14 hours for Indian troops to come and rescue them but the Sinhalese could destroy them in 14 minutes if they wanted to. Trade and Shipping Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was sorry that people had to queue up again for essentials as a result of the violence. Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel gave a lecture in history about Sena and Guttiga. Cyril Mathew, the Industries and Scientific Affairs Minister, raised the Indian bogey and saw an alien hand behind the conspiracy that led to the July ’83 violence. His cabinet colleague, Rural Industrial Development Minister Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman refuted it and said elements inside or close to the Government were responsible.

Paul Sieghart
Notwithstanding the efforts of then President Jayewardene to tarnish the Sinhala people as being collectively responsible for this carnage, respected observers such as Paul Sieghart of the International Commission of Jurists exposed the real state of affairs.

As Sieghart himself pointed out in his report (‘Sri Lanka: A Mounting Tragedy of Errors’): Clearly this (July 1983 attack) was no spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala people – nor was it as has been suggested in some quarters, a popular response to the killing of 13 soldiers in an ambush the previous day by Tamil Tigers, which was not even reported in the newspapers until the riots began. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organized well in advance.”

Planned Pogrom
What happened in July 1983 was not a spontaneous riot but a planned pogrom. A ‘pogrom’ is defined as a form of violent riot, a mob attack, either approved or condoned by Government or military authorities, directed against a particular group, whether ethnic, religious, or other, and characterized by killings and destruction of their homes, businesses, property and religious centres. The word pogrom is of Russian origin and means to destroy, to wreak havoc, to demolish violently” in the language.

One Response to “JR Jayewardene and the July 1983 Anti-Tamil Violence”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    July 83!

    I was a witness to what happened during the Black July 1983.

    The incident that took place at the Borella Kanatta proceeded towards Naranhenpita and there was only light damage to a few properties that were torched. The mini riot which was caused by the Borella Police Supt Gaffoor in trying to quell a minor incident at the Kanatte petered out by about mid night on the same day. This was later substantiated by Dr A T Ariyaratne, who met a group of us on a subsequent date to discuss the situation that arose. On hearing of the incident he had come to Colombo from his home and he said definitely the situation was under control by midnight.

    Situation was earlier mismanaged by the JR Jayawardene by complicating the situation of the 13 Soldiers Funeral.
    I was residing at Elliot Place, Borella and working with Ceylon Tobacco Co. Ltd subsidiary CTC Services Ltd. On 25 July morining I drove from Borella to our offices at Kotahena. By that time thugs breaking into Tamil owned business premises had commenced and there was no prevention by the police who were just standing to a side and took only a pedestrian interest in what happened.

    I proceeded to Kotahena through Maradana and by about 10:00am from our offices it was possible to see billowing smoke clouds all over Colombo. By noon company authorities decided to stop work and we returned and could see the destruction that was taking place unabated. Eventually the rioting and destruction of property reached Ambal Cafe at Fort only a few hundred meter from the office of the ” Man with the Professional Mourner’s Face. JR declared a curfew only at 16:00 hrs. This he could have done earlier but decided not to, as it was his thugs who were doing his and his ministers bidding.

    What happened was selective destruction of Tamil Property. We saw people thrown out of homes with their belongings and then setting fire to the dwellings. This was organised and it was not ordinary people who were doing this. It was well coordinated with Electoral Registers in hand that showed exactly where Tamils lived and where their businesse

    Earlier JR had allowed all his ministers to create their own Thug Armies. These were formed with the
    intention of intimidating voters at future elections. By the time July ’83 came they have already graduated from the attack on Prof Sarathchandra, the Sinhala Balavegaya and at DDC Elections in 1981.

    It was for happenings of 24 July ’83 and on the few subsequent days that the Sinhala Buddhists were castigated all over the world for a dastardly crime for which they were not responsible. Given below is a narrative of what took place on that fateful week, nearly 30 years ago.

    It is common knowledge that it was UNP goondas who attacked and killed Tamils in Colombo during the July ‘83 riots. It is also common knowledge that it was the then President J R Jayawardene who allowed the riots to continue unabated for a full day before a curfew was called to stop the rioting. On this day J R Jayawardene was under severe pressure from the army after the killing of the 13 soldiers in Jaffna, to take effective action against the LTTE terrorists in the North. His solution was to divert attention and use his Goon Squads to attack the Tamil residents in Colombo and other major cities and thereby avert the wrath of the army.

    It is also common knowledge that after his victory at the General Elections in 1977, Jayewardene wanted to remain in power for an extended period perhaps with the intention of completing some of the mega projects he had commenced by then. This was to be done, if necessary by terrorizing the general electorate. For this purpose, every minister in his administration was encouraged to form and develop their Goon Squads with the idea of intimidating the electorate prior to any subsequent election in Sri Lanka. In this fashion R Premadasa his Prime Minister, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ranil Wickramasinghe the present Prime Minister, Ananda Tissa de Alwis, Cyril Matthew, M H Mohammed and others went on to form their own Goon Squads.

    These Goon Squads were used most effectively in subsequent elections to intimidate, terrorize, maim or kill political opponents. viz; the 1980 District Development Council Elections, and the 1982 infamous” the Pot and the Lamp Referendum. They were the very ones who attacked Dr Sarathchandra and also the late Rev Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thero too. How the democracy in Sri Lanka deteriorated during this period is also common knowledge and is a subject that is well researched and documented.

    These Goon Squads were equipped with electoral lists and they knew in advance where their political opponents lived.
It is now common knowledge that the mini riot that originated at the Borella Kanatta on the day of the funeral of the 13 soldiers ended at Narahenpita around mid-night the same day. However, the organized and systematic torching of Tamil trading establishments and residences commenced the following morning at Borella junction. The riots and the burning continued throughout the day through Punchi Borella, Maradana, Pettah and finally on to Fort, and unabated till they reached the Ambal Café in the heart of Fort at 4:00 PM – just a few meters away from where the now infamous President of Sri Lanka had his office. It took Jayewardene 10 hrs to impose a curfew and get his Goons off the streets. Goon Squads armed with electoral lists went from house to house, this time looking for Tamil residents. Goon Squads saved the day for Jayewardene by taking the army who was breathing fire on his scrawny neck to take firm action against rising terrorism in the country.

    Once the curfew was in place, on four consecutive days, four very significant statements were made over the Television – Rupavahini Channel. While a shocked populace waited for the Executive President to address the nation, the UNP government and the Church plotted behind the scenes to place the blame entirely on the shoulders of Sinhalese Buddhists.

    This is how it was done. While the curfew was in place the following took place.

    1. Most Ven Madihe Pannaseeha Maha Nayake Thero was asked to address the Nation first. Naturally the Mahanayake Thero requested the Nation to have patience and be calm. ‘Janathava Sansun Wanna’ was his call! The nation was angry but it was in no mood to go on a killing rampage. By getting him to address the nation J R Jayewardene got the world to believe that the Mahanayake Thero was really addressing the Sinhalese Buddhists and that they were responsible for the pogrom.

    2. The second was made by J R Jayewardene (the man with the professional mourner’s face) – DB Nihalsinghe had to dress him for this occasion and it is mentioned he had a task to get his face in one place for the occasion to make him look Presidential. In his address to the nation he justified the riots as the justifiable anger of the Sinhalese for the killing of the 13 soldiers in Jaffna. Here he clearly laid the blame for the pogrom on the Sinhalese. It must also be noted that UNP Goon Squads and every shade of hooligan, Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and other took part in the universal phenomenon of looting that followed throughout the island. In many instances old scores were settled, regardless of ethnicity, taking advantage of the deplorable and unfortunate situation.

    3. The third statement was made by R Premadasa the Prime Minister. He said that behind the riots was a coup organized by a Naxalite Terror Group. This was a diversionary attempt to put the blame on the pseudo socialist group led by the Catholic – Vijaya Kumaranatunge who was masquerading as a Buddhist at that time.

    4. The fourth and final statement was made by Ananda Tissa de Alwis the then Minister of Communications and Constitutional Affairs. He said the next stage of the coup would be for Sinhalese Buddhists to attack Sinhalese Christians. His was the voice of the Christian Church who would finally go to convince the world that Sinhalese Buddhists were highest common denominator of what happened and hence responsible for the carnage.

    The curfew was lifted on Friday 29 July 1983. People who had to stay indoors came to the streets to buy essentials groceries with simple bags in their hands. It was on this day the second phase of the conspiracy was unleashed on the populace on this day. Calls went on all major transport arteries emanating from Colombo saying that Tigers have landed at the Fort Railway Station and are now on the attack. Personally, I witnessed the people and the Police running with dread in their eyes. What followed and the carnage that took place made 29 July 1983 to be called Black Friday.

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