July ’83: Telling it like it was


The gist of your correspondent P. S. Mahawatte's letter, "The role of an exploder in the July '83 riots" published in your issue of Wednesday, 27th February, 2013, surprised me beyond belief. Most incredible was his assertion that "WHAT HAPPENED IN JULY '83, I REITERATE WAS NOT A PRE-PLANNED ATTACK ON THE INNOCENT TAMIL CITIZENS IN COLOMBO, BUT A SPONTANEOUS FEELING OF ANGER CAUSED BY THE WAILINGS OF THE PARENTS AND RELATIVES OF THE DEAD SOLDIERS AT BORELLA, KANATTA." If so, from where did the hordes of men who savagely attacked Tamil homes and businesses, spring up? It's possible that some who witnessed the sad scene at Kanatte went on the rampage that same night (which happened to be a Sunday), in Borella and adjacent areas, but JR's Government did absolutely nothing and we, the general public in the rest of Colombo, had no inkling of the mob violence that was about to be unleashed on us during that nightmarish week, not only in Colombo,but in many other parts of the country as well. No curfew was immediately imposed to prevent further violence from spreading and neither JR nor any Govt. spokesman even appeared on television to make any pronouncement, until the Thursday of that week. And then, not a single one of them - J.R. himself, Lalith Athulathmudali and Premadasa uttered one word that might help to defuse the dangerous situation. Their sympathies, as evidenced in the words that each one uttered, seemed to be entirely with the majority community which hadn't suffered. On the very next day, Friday, the mobs did their worst and went about murdering innocent Tamils of all ages, with impunity.

The media maintained what someone described as "a deafening silence" and carried on as usual, with not a word written about the burning (the pun is unintended!) issue of the day. I wrote a regular column for the "old" Sunday Times of which the editor was then the late Rita Sebastian. She warned me against making any reference to the the catastrophic events that had engulfed our nation. It went against the grain to keep silent, but I had no option until, in August, Mr. Premadasa suddenly came out with our having suffered "a crisis of civilisation" in July - I'm not quite sure where he spoke, it may have been at a school prize-giving. That gave me the signal to write an article, 'TELLING IT LIKE IT IS', which I sent to the SUN newspaper published by the now- defunct Independent Newspapers Ltd. They published it and better still, above my piece they published a noteworthy and courageous indictment in an article by Prof. Palihawardhana, entitled: "VIOLENCE IN A BUDDHIST SOCIETY".I would remind Mr. Mahawatte that the mobs who carried out the July '83 riots were armed with electoral lists which gave them the names of Tamil households. When they marched down our own lane, they by-passed Sinhala and Muslim homes and targetted Tamil homes, although hardly any of us had name-boards on our gates at the time. Incidentally, at the height of the hub-bub, a police car with its siren screaming tore down our lane, utterly ignoring the mob. Why? When I went to see how a Sinhala friend living on Ratnakara Road, Dehiwela, had fared, I found her safe and sound, but this lane which had housed a number of Tamil people, looked as if it had been devastated by an air-raid. In Wellawatte where I live, the Galle Road was littered with the rubble of what had been thriving Tamil boutiques, eating-houses, pharmacies. etc. In many areas, long-time residents claimed that the mobs were not composed of local people, but had been brought in from outside. Certainly, there were many Sinhalese whose humanity prompted them to offer immediate succour and shelter to Tamils in distress, sometimes at great risk to themselves. There was also some, however, who hardened their hearts and said, "Serves them right!" The killing of 13 soldiers in Palaly was tragic, but it could hardly justify the wholesale attacks on our Tamil population by way of reprisals. What happened in July '83 was a blot on our history

Anne Abayasekara

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