By Gagani Weerakoon
BLACK JULY 1983 -4
Leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), Veerasingham Anandasangaree is known for his denouncement of violence committed by any party.
Sangaree, who is a staunch supporter of federalism, was awarded the 2006 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence, for being an indefatigable advocate of democracy and a promoter of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
When the July 1983 riots were burning the country, Sangaree was serving as an elected Member of Parliament representing Kilinochchi. He shared his experiences as a Tamil politician, who was based in the North at that time, with Ceylon Today.
“It all began as a result of an LTTE attack on an army convoy where 13 soldiers died. At that time, we were having our annual convention. If I am not mistaken, it was a Friday and all of us were in Mannar making preparations to hold the convention, which was scheduled for Saturday and Sunday,” he said recalling the events that led to the July Riots.
Riots after the cremation
Blaming the authorities for mishandling the situation and letting it spiral out of control, Sangaree said the black mark on Sri Lanka history could have definitely been avoided: “Normally, when such an incident takes place, the burial or the cremation takes place in silence, without much fuss. They dispatch the bodies quietly to the parents. However, what happened in July ‘83 was done deliberately to provoke people to retaliation. Instead of the usual quiet funeral, the government made arrangements to bring the 13 bodies to Colombo. The cremation was the signal – they had set up goondas to start the riots soon after the cremation,” he recalled.
Many business establishments as well as hundreds of private residences were set ablaze: “If my memory is correct, the first place the goons went to was the house of M. Sivasithamparam, who was the President of the TULF and the ex-MP for Nallur. That was the first house to be set on fire. He, as a leading lawyer at the time, had a nice library with a great collection of books. His only daughter and wife had to jump over the parapet wall to the other premises to save their lives. After that, it was simply a rampage of killing.”
He noted the Tamils who were able to save their lives and flee the country at the time had a high regard for the Sinhalese, and added, only a handful, including groups of paid goons, turned to violence at that time.
“If I am honest, the violence was perpetrated by a handful of government-sponsored Sinhalese civilians. About 99% of the rest despised such behaviour. Most of those, who lived in Colombo and the suburbs put the blame on President J.R. Jayewardene for the mass destruction that took place. It is a pity that the two communities, who lived in harmony for decades and centuries were separated. It is only during this generation and the last that the Sinhalese and Tamils fought. Even though there were a few communal riots here and there, the Sinhalese and Tamils lived in harmony right throughout. The Tamils were living amidst the Sinhalese in the South and the Sinhalese had business establishments in the North. Though only a small portion of the civil society, instigated by vested parties, engaged in the riots and killings blindly, I must say that if not for the Sinhalese civil society that rose to the occasion, the number of casualties could have been much more. They protected women and children by keeping them hidden under beds and in attics,” he added.
Sangaree also said, before the July ‘83 events unfolded, the plan was to pass a resolution asking for a separate state, as a tactical measure to awaken the rulers.
“By doing so, we wanted to bring it to their notice that things have come to a point, where people ask for a separation and that they must wake up and find a solution. In fact, J.R. Jayewardene took it up when he came to power with a five sixths majority that created history. You know what he told the people; that Tamils have arisen and were asking for a separate state and the time has come for us to wake up and find a solution. He never did, and even the Round Table Discussions he promised did not take place. Instead, he made things worse.
When the stage was set for Jayewardene’s government to run for a second term, he resorted to a referendum seeking the incumbent Parliament to continue for further six years. An extremely unwanted, unwarranted and unnecessary move, whereas he could have amended the Constitution, had he wanted it. We could not agree with the referendum or the way it was conducted,” he added.
Sangaree considers the biggest mistake committed by the Jayewardene Government was introducing the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits any person from advocating the establishment of a separate State within the territory of Sri Lanka.
All 18 Tamil MPs resigned
He said all 18 Tamil MPs from the North resigned in protest of JR’s referendum, as they could not agree to stay in Parliament without being elected by the people in a proper manner.
“The government was compelled to call for fresh elections to fill the vacated seats. Unlike today, none of the resigned members, or any other person for that matter, came forward to contest, despite perks and privileges they could have enjoyed by being elected as parliamentarians. That was the beauty of it,” he added.
Sangaree said the most important lesson to be learnt from the events that unfolded in that era is that the people cannot be fooled. “There are so many new buildings coming up in the North. Roads are beautifully done. But, what is the use of all these materials, if the people are still deprived of their lands and properties? They do not have access to proper employment. What about those thousands of widows there? I am very happy that the government is doing something for the widows of soldiers, but, what about the rest? No matter whether you are from the North or South, if you are a widow, you should get the same treatment or consideration,” he said.
Referring to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s remark that there are no minorities in this country, Sangaree said, those words would have more value if they came from the minorities: “If at all, it is us minorities who should come forward and say that. To do that, they should make us feel genuinely accepted.” courtesy: Ceylon Today