“The Tragedy is that it is Becoming Harder in 1983 for Sinhala Christians to Acknowledge that what was done is a Moral Crime than in 1958.:- Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe

(Text of the final Pastoral letter written by the Anglican Bishop of Kurunegala , Rt. Rev. L Wickremasinghe, in September 1983 after the July 1983 Violence.Bishop Lakshmn passed away some weeks after this on October 23rd 1983.)

Dear Church Members and Citizens assembled in Council

We are in the midst of our worst national crisis since the regaining of our independence. Attitudes have hardened among the Tamils and the Sinhalese. There is still an uneasy calm. We do not know what will be the consequences of this escalating violence, bitterness and fear.

Various persons and organisations have been engaged in protecting victims, providing relief and supporting rehabilitation. It is a matter of deep gratitude and pride that a number of Sinhalese and others have engaged in humane action at much risk to themselves, in the midst of inhuman brutality and destruction. I quote some words from the Sansoni Commission about such people who so acted in 1977:

“These splendid persons proved that courage and charity can survive – when most needed. There is no law which compels a person to defy a howling mob, or to hide a neighbour or even an unknown man fleeing like some poor animal from a crowd bent on killing him. Yet, they understood and practiced the duty of the unenforceable, which is the test of civilization in any country.”
We must acknowledge whatever is good at this time both for its own sake and to overcome our sense of despair. But such action is not enough. To courage and compassion we must add insight. We need a further kind of action based on a deeper awareness of what has happened. In the words of Thomas Merton: “Contemplation is the spring, action is the stream.”

Reflections On Our Present Situation- Personal Comments

I was not present in the island when the violence erupted at the end of July 1983. But I have been present and witnessed similar violence in 1958 and 1977. I also experienced the other period of violence in April 1971 when there was an armed insurrection by Sinhala youth. But during July 1983 and afterwards I was able to follow closely the events that took place from abroad. A friend had collected all the news and comments in the English press from July to August, and gave the documents for me to read. Since I returned a local friend gave me a similar file of documents from the Sri Lankan press from early July till the end of August. I was able to visit the damaged areas, talk with various people and also meet people in the Jaffna peninsula. Our own Tamil church-members within this diocese had their stories to tell. In short, the comments I will make on the situation we face are based on much reflection. They also express twenty five years of experience in seeking to find a solution to our ethnic conflict. I am among those who have tried hard and failed. But I know and trust in God, who is ever creative in bringing good out of evil.

Basic perspectives

I am against the arson, loot and murder and insurrection associated with armed groups of indigenous Tamils. I do not support the demand for a separate state. I do not condone the biased propaganda of certain expatriate Tamils in various parts of the world. I do not respect those Tamils who ask for a negotiated settlement of their grievances and at the same time support these armed groups. But I do feel a deep sympathy for those indigenous Tamils who are faced with a real dilemma. They have a strong sense of resentment and also grievances which they want remedied. But they do not support the demand for a separate state and are also unable to approve the activities of the armed groups, though they may appreciate the outlook of those from whom they differ.

Since the security forces cannot protect them and they fear the swift revenge from the armed groups, they remain silent. It is too risky to speak in public.
Likewise, I am against the arson, loot and murder of innocent people and torture by the security forces in Jaffna, Trincomalee, Vavuniya and elsewhere. These are unjustified acts of revenge for the activities of the armed groups whom they cannot eliminate. I do not support the demand for the domination of the Tamils by the Sinhalese majority. Nor do I condone the biased propaganda to be found in the national daily papers. I do not respect those Sinhalese who want a negotiated settlement of mutual grievances and at the same time want domination of the Tamils by the Sinhalese majority.

But I feel much sympathy for those Sinhalese who are faced with a real dilemma. They genuinely want mutual grievances remedied by negotiation. But they are against the domination of the Tamils by the Sinhala majority, and against the unjustified activities of the armed forces, though they may appreciate the genuine problems raised by those from whom they differ. Since they fear the revenge of thugs with political patronage and know that they are not likely to receive protection from the police, they remain silent. It is too risky to speak out in public.

My deepest sympathy is for all the Tamils whose ancestors arrived during the period of British rule. And it is especially so, for the estate labour, who have contributed so much to our income from exports. They have been innocent victims who have faced arson, loot and death in 1977, 1981 and 1983, as a result of a conflict in which they have no part. Even in 1976, some of them within the region covered by our diocese, faced eviction, arson, loot and starvation owing to the activities of thugs with political patronage. They have suffered and have been humiliated because they have been defenceless. I feel deeply ashamed for the pain and loss they have undergone. It is a moral injustice that cries out to heaven.

There is one last aspect to my basic perspective. It is my rejection of those who twist the facts of history to create myths. By myths I mean these theories which misinterpret facts, false notions. It is such myths that harden prejudice and rouse violence, whether among armed mobs or armed guerrillas. Sinhalese and Tamils have to erase from their minds false notions about themselves and their island history, by allowing facts to control theories. That is why I am against those who make and spread such false notions. False rumour has cost many lives. But it is false notions about each other that have made these false rumours effective.

What happened at the end of July 1983?

There are theories and there are facts. Theories vary. Some say that the originators were left-wing groups aided by foreign powers. Others say that the originators were thugs and private hirelings of powerful politicians connected with the Government. Still others say that both these groups were involved for different motives. This is not the place to discuss these rival theories.
The facts however cannot be denied. Thousands of Tamils old and young and even little children were assaulted, robbed, killed, bereaved and made refugees. They saw their homes, possessions, vehicles, shops and factories plundered, burnt or destroyed.

These people were humiliated, made to live in fear and rendered helpless. Business premises run by Tamils or Indians were selected and burnt. The homes and possessions of Tamils in the professions and government services were also selected and destroyed. On two occasions Tamils were selected and killed in Welikade prison. Such selectiveness indicates a prepared plan of action. It is not that poor Tamils were also not killed or made refugees. They were. It is simply that in their case the mobs did not reveal a method in their madness. But there was more. A large number of people lost their employment as a result of destruction, and these included not only Tamils but Sinhalese and others. Even some kovils, churches and vicarages were not spared. As a result of all this, economic development and foreign exchange suffered an immense loss. Public services were disrupted. Our image abroad was damaged.

The people responsible for all this violence and destruction and suffering were mostly Sinhalese. The fact that Ja-Ela, Wattala, Kotahena, Kelaniya and the Galkisse-Wellawatte areas were places where mob-rule was evident points to some Christians being involved. Those Sinhalese responsible were not confined to Buddhists. People other than Sinhalese may also have been part of certain mobs on the rampage. And according to available evidence, the police and armed forces were seen in different places, to be either inactive spectators or active supporters of these mobs who attacked the lives and properties of Tamils.

The main issue – Was all this justified or not in the circumstances

There are those who say that this massive Sinhala retaliation of Tamils in the southern parts of Sri Lanka was justified. They say that the killing of at least 83 persons, including the 13 soldiers on 23rd July, the attacks on police stations, damage by bombs on an aircraft, a passenger train, and government institutions, banks robberies and acts of arson on public property in the North, were such crimes as to deserve the revenge exacted by the Sinhalese. They add that Tamils in the South of Sri Lanka did not for the most part condemn these acts by the armed groups. But those who say this forget three facts:

First, the retaliation for these actions were being taken by the police and armed forces in Jaffna district, Trincomalee and Vavuniya through the killing of many more than 83 persons, damage to private property, arson, looting, assault on civilians, destroying of public property such as the Jaffna Public library in 1981, and the torture of detenus in police stations and army camps.

Secondly, indigenous Tamils who lived in the South of the Island had already faced arson looting and death and become refugees in 1977.

Thirdly, the Tamils who faced such retaliation in 1977, 1981 and 1983 included Tamils of Indian origin, who had no part in the attacks made by the armed groups in the North.

In view of these facts, to say that the retaliation in July was justified is to advocate tribal vengeance. In fact the verse in the Old Testament which says ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ was a reminder that Jews should not engage in tribal vengeance. A tribe should not destroy the whole of another tribe for the crimes of one of its members. Jesus in the New Testament pointed out that this ancient Jewish law was a moral standard that was no longer justified. This shows that those who say that the massive Sinhala retaliation on Tamils living in the South was justified have a lower standard of morality than the ancient Jews. Their conscience is distorted. We must rise above such tribal morality.

There are others who say that the personal suffering and murder which took place in July may not be justified. But they feel deep down in their hearts that the enforced departure of indigenous Tamils from the professions, government services, universities and schools and of Tamils of Indian origin from retail-trade and other occupations in South Sri Lanka was justified. They have questions of conscience about the methods adopted, but not about the final result. Because they feel that the undue advantages which the indigenous Tamil had in relation to their percentage of the population, and which the Tamil of Indian origin had in the internal trade especially within the Sinhala areas were not justified, they are not willing to condemn the methods adopted to get rid of them. They had compassion and were helpful in many instances. But they did not feel a sense of moral outrage.

I would like these people to reflect on three questions:

First, were these undue advantages solely the result of what happened in the colonial period, and to mutual help among themselves at the expense of the Sinhalese? Did not the middle class Tamil move southwards and abroad because Jaffna district did not provide enough avenues for prosperity through economic enterprises, as South Ceylon provided for the emerging Sinhala middle-class? Did not the quality of hard work, thrift and ability help the Tamils to prosper where they came to work and reside?

Secondly, who enabled them to remain in the Sinhala areas? Did not the successive Sinhala political leaders make use of the skills of the indigenous Tamils to implement their programmes?

Did not the traders of Indian origin have easy credit facilities with people in India, which enabled them to provide certain goods speedily and efficiently?

Did not Sinhala politicians and officials permit them to remain also because of the presents they took from these traders?

Thirdly, can the final result of removing those with undue advantages, through methods that are not condemned, be restricted to the Tamils? In Kandyan areas, people from the low country have undue advantages in the professions, government services, universities, leading schools and in the trade?

The Muslims have such undue advantages in the trading sector. Are these undue advantages due solely to what happened in the colonial period and to the mutual help at the expenses of the Kandyans? Did not the qualities of enterprise, hard work and ability enable them to prosper in these areas? Do these undue advantages justify the final result of securing their enforced departure, if the Kandyan Sinhalese were to adopt the same methods as were adopted in July 1983 towards the Tamils?

Another question follows. Certain families in our rural areas have such advantages as undue ownership of land, access to the best schools and to the best occupations, which the poorer people in these areas do not have. Are such advantages due solely to what happened in the colonial period and to mutual help at the expense of poorer people?

Did not the qualities of hard work, thrift and ability them to prosper as these areas were developed?

Do these undue advantages justify the final result of securing their displacement, if the poorer people adopt the methods used towards the Tamils in July 1983?

Did not the insurrection led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in 1971 have this result in view?

So, let those who justify the final result of what happened in July 1983 to the Tamils in South Sri Lanka consider further the implications of their moral standards. To restrict what they justify when it happens to the Tamils is to hold double standards. This is hypocrisy. To think in this way at all is really to hold the moral standard that the end justifies the means. None of the great religions we profess upholds this morality.

There are still others who justify the role of several of the police and armed forces during this massive retaliation in July 1983. Some people say that these security forces did nothing to stop the violent mobs and encouraged them, because they were angry that their own personnel had been killed by armed groups in the North. Such solidarity with those killed or resentment against the killers in the North does not justify what they did or failed to do in the South. The security forces are trained and armed to eliminate armed groups. They are paid to protect the lives and properties of civilians, and to maintain law and order. Their inefficiency in being unable to eliminate armed gangs of Tamils in one part of the Island does not justify their ensuring that revenge is taken on innocent Tamils in the other part of the Island. This is not the kind of behaviour that can be justified on moral grounds.

Then other people say that the security forces could not be expected to harm or kill their own Sinhalese people to save Tamils. But, in fact, I saw some security forces do so in 1958. I witnessed the army doing so in 1977 though not the police. They did their duty in enforcing law and order against mobs on the rampage. To give reasons why this was not done in 1983 is to provide psychological explanations. It is not to provide moral justifications.

Finally there are still others who say that there were several instances where the police and armed forces simply could not disperse the mobs. This was because there were too few in numbers in some places, not properly concentrated in the right areas, and in some instances they were faced with young students placed in front of the advancing mobs. Or else some had lost their morale owing to the success of the armed groups in the North. We can sympathise with some of the police and armed forces who were faced with such situations. These reasons may be an explanation for inefficiency, for which such persons may not be responsible. They do not justify failure to protect the lives and properties of defenceless people. This must not prevent us however from expressing our deep gratitude to those in the police and armed forces who did their duty, in spite of risk and division within their own ranks.

Shame and Apology

The arguments that have been stated so far point to one basic moral fact. It is that the massive retaliation mainly by the Sinhalese against defenceless Tamils in July 1983 cannot be justified on moral grounds. We must admit this and acknowledge our shame. And we must do so for the right reasons. It is not enough to be ashamed for the reason that inhuman passions enslaved a section of the Sinhalese for a short period. Nor must we be ashamed because our sense of moral outrage will improve our image abroad. We must be ashamed because what took place was a moral crime. We are ashamed as Sinhalese for the moral crime other Sinhalese committed.

We must not only acknowledge our shame. We must also make our apology to those Tamils who were unjustified victims of this massive retaliation. An apology must be made for three reasons.

First, as Sinhalese we share in the total life of our people. We share in all that is good and great in our Sinhala heritage. These good and great aspects were due to the lives and achievements of only a section of the Sinhala people. But as members of the whole group we claim what one section did as belonging to us all. We share in the joy and the responsibility of their lives and labours.

That is why in this diocese we acknowledge and rejoice in all that is good and great not only in our Sinhala heritage, but also in Sinhala Buddhism. We have absorbed all this into the life and mission of this diocese, except that we have our basis in Jesus Christ. In the same way, when a section of the Sinhalese do what is morally wrong or bad, we share in it. As members of the whole group we claim that what one section did belongs to us all. We share in the evil they have done.

Secondly, it is a mark of moral maturity to acknowledge moral crime on behalf of those closely knit to us, who do not realise that they have done so. And an apology is made on their behalf. Parents do so on behalf of children. Others do so on behalf of relatives and friends. There is a solidarity of family, of kinship, of friendship, in things both right and wrong. Gandhiji used to acknowledge the moral crimes of those who engaged in violence. He fasted in order that they would come to the point of acknowledging the evil they had done and change their ways.

there is the example of Jesus in the midst of brutality and suffering. He shared in the guilt of all those who were involved in the moral crime of bringing about his unjust death, because he shared in our humanity, he apologised for all those who did not know the moral evil they were doing. His compassion acknowledged both shame and guilt. He apologised so that He might begin the process of setting right what was wrong in a broken relationship. It was between Jesus and those who had done wrong to him. It was also between God, whose will Jesus had done, and all those who thereby had done wrong against God. In setting right their wrong done to Jesus, they would also set right the wrong they had done to their Heavenly Father. As He apologised, He also prayed that all would come to recognise the wrong they had done, duly apologise and change their ways.

It is only by such a kind of apology that we shall also recover our proper moral and religious values. Then, we can begin the process of setting right what went wrong in our relationship with the Tamils. A section of the Sinhalese must acknowledge the wrong done to those Tamils who were innocent victims. And they must do so with compassion for their fellow Sinhalese who did the wrong, and for those who do not want to admit that a wrong was done. Christians will know that in setting right a broken relationship with those Tamils who suffered unjustly, they would be setting right a broken relationship with God, who is the Heavenly Father of us all. At the same time, they must pray that those who did the wrong and those who are unable as yet to admit the wrong done by others will come to a new level of moral insight. The tragedy is that it is becoming harder in 1983 for Sinhala Christians to acknowledge that what was done is a moral crime than in 1958. Our moral sense in this matter is getting dull. We must ask that the Holy Spirit may enlighten our consciences.

It may be that this process of setting right the moral wrong that was done by a section of the Sinhalese may evoke a softening of attitudes among a section of the Tamils. To so admit the wrong, to make the apology and to change past attitudes may awaken a new moral sense among a section of the Tamils. They may come to acknowledge the moral wrong of condoning violence, especially the seeking of revenge among their own people. The main point however is that the true basis of reconciliation is admission of wrong done and an appeal for forgiveness. When forgiveness is given or a mutual apology is evoked, reconciliation begins to take effect, slowly but surely. Hardened attitudes begin to change.


Relief work has been done, and continues to be done. But this is not enough as we all know. Rehabilitation of the lives of those who suffered is much more difficult. There is the public aspect of rehabilitation. This involves guaranteeing Tamils residing in or returning to Sinhala areas genuine security of life and property. It includes regular payment of wages, and assistance to rebuild homes and restart business enterprises. We can only hope that those in power will take the necessary action. We must keep those issues alive in our own minds and in the minds of politicians and officials. We can do so effectively by supporting those who influence public opinion.

There is the personal side of rehabilitation. We can invite refugees to share our homes until they are ensured of personal security. We can form groups of neighbourhoods to help others rebuild their homes, send their children to school and regain confidence in their neighbours. This is not easy. We may be opposed by others who want to take personal advantages of the situation. People with power may frustrate our efforts. But we need the grace to persevere. Re-building relationships between Tamils and Sinhalese at this time is a vocation and a ministry under God. This is real Christianity.

Political Solutions

We know that this is not a matter about which we can do much ourselves. But we also know that, if there is no sustained dialogue and negotiation the situation will get worse. The deadlock at present between the different Sinhala leaders, and between the Sinhala leadership and the Tamil leadership is disheartening. A consensus among the Sinhala leaders is essential. This consensus must have the support of the leading monks in all the Nikayas. The urgent demands of our national crisis must overcome personal party and petty interests. We must pray for and support those who are trying to build convergence in the midst of divergence.

Renewed dialogue between the Sinhala and Tamil leadership should not be delayed. The possibility of renewed violence remains in the background like a dark shadow. India’s interests as the regional power in our midst cannot be disregarded. The All Party Conference which was promised in the Party manifesto needs to be implemented now. The issues remain the same in regard to the indigenous Tamils and the Tamils of Indian origin. Various concessions have been made. Now a genuine sharing of power between the majority and the minorities has to emerge. Actual realities have to be faced by all those negotiating. The security of ordinary people, of minorities and of the whole Island has to be assured. What we have to pray about and work for in every way is this; there must be real determination to reach a settlement. Otherwise, there will be increasing disorder along with increasing dictatorship.

An independent Commission of Inquiry similar to the one presided by Mr. Sansoni can be of real use. The inquiry will need to consider not merely how and why the recent violence took place. It will need to examine the role of the mass-media and of the educational system in relation to communal attitudes and conflicts. Its sitting should be adequately protected from the intrusion of political thugs and hirelings. It should be conducted both in Sinhala and in Tamil, with the use of English only when desired. The Commission should have the support of all the major political parties. We must pray and work for this as well.

We must continue also to hope, as the late D. T. Niles used to say: ‘Hope in God arises out of the ruins of our expectations’

(This is the final Pastoral letter of Rt. Rev. C. L. Wickremasinghe
prior to his death on 23rd October)