On the 30th Anniversary of the Pogrom of July 1983

Photo courtesy Ilankai Tamil Sangam

I was GA and District Secretary Jaffna at that time, and was not directly a victim of the pogrom, but was very much involved with the care of around 60,000 victims who moved into Jaffna in the days and weeks following the pogrom. But that is not all. My story starts earlier, around 1980, during the time that I was posted to the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration. I had an unexpected visit from Prof. A.J. Wilson and Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam. I did not know it then, but the pogrom was already in the making.

The objective of the visit of Wilson and Neelan was to inform me that the island-wide District Development Council (DDC) elections were likely to be held soon, and that I was likely to be posted as the Government Agent and District Secretary of Jaffna immediately after those elections. They were keen that I should accept the appointment and help to develop the Jaffna DDC as a model for all others. I expressed my opinion that the DDC scheme provided for little or no devolution and that any decentralization was to the District Minister, Hon. U.B. Wijekoon, an admirable man but who was appointed by, and answerable to, the President and not to the District Councils. They agreed, but said that the President had promised them that if the scheme proved to be viable, substantive powers would be devolved to the District Councils. That was why the Tamil leaders were keen that I should be Jaffna’s Government Agent and District Secretary.

I asked them if they believed in that promise. They confessed that they too had reservations, but that in addition to the unconvincing carrot of future devolution, the President had referred to a compelling stick in the form of a pogrom planned by unknown persons, of which the President came to know of. He had suggested that the way to avert the pogrom was to sustain an ongoing political partnership between the Sinhalese and Tamil leaders. In the circumstances, I agreed to accept the appointment if and when I received it.

Some months later, some tragic events occurred in Jaffna on the eve of the scheduled DDC elections. Two senior ministers, Gamini Dissanayake and Cyril Matthew, had arrived, presumably to secure the election of pro-government candidates by hook or by crook. The Tamil militant groups, who were at that time working together as one, killed two pro-government candidates and two policemen. The regular police were under the direction of the highly respected D.I.G. Mahendran. But after the killings, a large number of police reservists arrived, taking orders from another D.I.G. sent specifically to deal with the militant groups. These reserve policemen went on a rampage, burning down the precious Jaffna Public Library with 90,000 manuscripts, highly valued by all of Jaffna. They also burned down several other buildings and killed or attempted to kill several persons, including the popular MP for Jaffna, V. Yogeswaran and his wife. Fortunately, the Yogeswarans escaped, but much later, under changed political situations, they were killed by the LTTE along with many others. It does not appear that either Cabinet Minister was responsible for these killings, but when the officer in charge of the Navy in Jaffna (Sandagiri) attempted to save the public library by dousing the flames, it is believed that they ordered him to desist so as to avoid conflict between the Navy and the police.

Our election laws and procedures as well as our record of conducting elections had been excellent up to the1981 DDC elections, which marked the 50th anniversary of universal adult franchise, introduced to Sri Lanka by the Donoughmore Commission in 1931. Sadly, the 1981 Jaffna DDC elections were blatantly rigged, with the meticulously trained polling staff dismissed when they came to collect ballot boxes and ballot papers and replaced with untrained and unruly personnel brought in from outside the district by the two cabinet ministers. The then Government Agent went along with the rigging and, under the direction of the two cabinet ministers, signed the letters sacking the trained polling staff and appointing untrained, unruly personnel in their place. This was blatantly unlawful, because under our election laws, it was the Government Agent who was the returning Officer, and, in election matters, outranked everyone else, including Cabinet Ministers. To his credit, the young elections officer, Jayaratnam, after discussing the matter with the Commissioner of Elections in Colombo, refused to cooperate.  The District Minister too was not party to the rigging. In the event, the rigging of the election was so badly bungled that the Federal Party won all the seats and Chairman Nadarajah became the head of the DDC. All this I learnt a few days later when I took over as Government Agent and District Secretary.  I consulted hundreds of public servants and civil society leaders, all of whom agreed on the basic facts.

My first few weeks in Jaffna were spent in day-to-day administration, in getting to know the Secretariat staff and Members of the Council and in setting up the trappings of the DDC (Council chambers, flag, mace, etc.) while coping with recurrent violence involving the armed forces, police, Tamil militant groups, and the public. I established a practice of visiting the scene of each incidence of major violence as quickly as possible, visiting the casualties at the scene of the violence or in hospital, together (whenever possible) with the District Minister and the Chairman of the DDC. This helped to contain the violence. I also recorded and followed up on each of hundreds of complaints of political violence. These practices not only enabled me to get to know many of those involved, voluntarily or involuntarily, on all sides, but also helped to build up goodwill, which proved to be critically important throughout my tenure in Jaffna and, in particular, in the events relating to the July 1983 pogrom and consequent in-migration of over 60,000 IDPs into Jaffna. I took particular care to build up and maintain good relationship with the leaders of the armed forces. Happily, I had the unstinted cooperation of the public services in Jaffna and also the goodwill of both the District Minister, Hon. U.B. Wijekoon, and DDC Chairman Nadarajah.

In the meantime, Chairman Nadarajah and all Council members, disillusioned with the lack of devolution, had decided to resign, effectively putting an end to the Jaffna DDC. Cabinet Minister Gamini Dissanayake heard of this and flew in to dissuade Chairman Nadarajah. Minister Dissanayake expressed agreement on the need for real devolution and invited Chairman Nadarajah to Colombo for talks on this matter with President Jayawardene, Prime Minister Premadasa, Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, and others. Chairman Nadarajah insisted that Mr. S. Sivathasan, Director of Planning for Jaffna, and I should participate in these discussions and this was agreed to. The three of us made several trips to Colombo and had many meetings. We were told again and again that much more money would be allocated to the Jaffna DDC and to DDC Members than hitherto, and that there would be major development projects for Jaffna, such as very substantial expansion of Jaffna Hospital, a well-equipped sports stadium for Jaffna, etcetera. But Chairman Nadarajah kept saying that, more than such development, he wanted devolution. After many fruitless meetings, he was told that more money could be allocated to Jaffna, but there would be no meaningful devolution.

Chairman Nadarajah sought one more meeting with President J.R. Jayawardene to hand in his resignation. The President fixed the date, time, and venue (President’s house in Colombo Fort) for that meeting. We did not at that time realize the significance of the date, time, and venue. This we discovered when, in the course of that meeting, the Secretary to the President came in to announce that the Vel Chariot was outside the gates and awaiting the blessing of the President. The President invited Chairman Nadarajah to join him to receive the Vel Cart. This was a newsworthy photo opportunity—perhaps a last-minute attempt to influence Chairman Nadarajah. But it did not work. The letter of resignation was handed over and reluctantly accepted by the President. The next day, we left by car for Jaffna.

On arrival in Jaffna, we heard details of an ambush by a group of militants of an army vehicle, resulting in 13 soldiers being killed. By the time the army reinforcements arrived, the militants, as usual in such cases, had vanished from the scene. Army personnel, in retaliation for the 13 soldiers killed, went round the peninsula killing people at random and burning their bodies. The dead bodies of the 13 soldiers were dispatched to their respective villages for cremation and funeral rites, but under a Presidential directive that many found to be inexplicable, all the bodies were transferred to Kannatte for a common funeral and cremation. There were fiery speeches made at the funeral, and these sparked off the July 1983 pogrom. It was then that I realized the significance of what Wilson and Neelan told me three years earlier about the existence of a blueprint for a pogrom. This was a well-planned diabolic plot. Chairman Nadarajah’s resignation was seen as severing the cooperation between the Sinhalese and Tamil leaders, and triggered the planned pogrom. Clearly, if the Tamil leaders had continued to go along with the DDC farce, they could have delayed, but not averted, the meticulously planned pogrom.

That there were civilian deaths in Jaffna related to the ambush of the 13 soldiers was public knowledge and could not be denied. Accordingly, the state media put out the story that there was a shootout after the ambush, and some 20-odd persons, mostly terrorists, were killed in that shootout at the scene of the ambush. I was extensively questioned by the local and foreign media as well as High Commissioners and Ambassadors on what really happened. I told the truth, which flatly contradicted the state media reports; I estimated that the number of deaths was at least 50 civilians, spread over the peninsula and therefore unrelated to the ambush except as revenge killings. This was carried by foreign media.

The state response was prompt. I was told that I was going to be interdicted and served charges for spreading misinformation. I knew that once I was interdicted and charges were framed, it would be very difficult for me to prove that what I had said was correct. I quickly went round the peninsula, personally checking on the dead and burning bodies and sent a message to Colombo that my statement was correct. I further said that I was conducting a quick survey of the events and that within a day or two I would give them a full list (well over 50) of the civilians killed: their names, gender, ages, the location of their burning bodies, and other relevant data. My message reached Colombo before the order for interdiction came and the charges for spreading misinformation were framed. The response of the state, again, was prompt. I was asked to desist from carrying out the survey and assured that there would be no interdiction and no charges. As far as the state was concerned, the file was closed. Clearly, the last thing the state wanted was documentary evidence of the widespread killings of civilians. I accepted their order to desist from carrying out the survey because my priority at that time was to look after the thousands of IDPs who were streaming into the peninsula and for this I needed the cooperation of Colombo. Although I was informed that the file was closed, I knew that it was not, that my days/weeks/months in office in Jaffna were numbered and that I was likely to re-enter the ‘pool’.

The immediate problem that I had to resolve was to find a way to cope with the unprecedented influx of over 60,000 IDPs in the context of extensive shortages of resources and supplies. Many came on their own, by walking through the woods with bleeding feet, or in private vehicles such as buses and lorries, or, in the case of a few affluent persons, by air. A very large number remained in IDP camps in Colombo and elsewhere. They were fed by the state in those camps but received little else. There was virtually no privacy and bathing facilities were utterly inadequate. Many had fled in their nightclothes and had no change of clothing for weeks. Moreover, these camps were susceptible to attacks and the IDPs occupying them lived in constant fear. I was told that they would be transferred to Jaffna by sea, but I informed the President’s Secretariat that I was not in a position to accept them. This upset the President’s Secretariat and, quite naturally, the IDPs concerned as well as the Tamil political leaders. Many thought I was being indifferent to the concerns of the IDPs.

I was in fact very much concerned about the welfare of the new batch of IDPs but had very good reason to take the position I had articulated. The government had virtually stopped the import of petrol and diesel into Jaffna on the grounds that they would be used by militant groups. Medical supplies were also cut to the bone on the same grounds. Most of these items were available to the public only in the black market at prices which were far in excess of what all but the very rich could afford. Without the fuel, the IDPs transferred to KKS harbor would be stuck there indefinitely without shelter, medication, or means of access to any place where they would be sheltered and safe. I would then have thousands of IDPs in my charge, dying on my hands. This would have been even more cruel than keeping them in IDP camps in Colombo.

The President summoned me for a meeting with top security personnel, top Petroleum Corporation management, and others concerned. I explained my position on what needed to be done to prevent large-scale deaths of IDPs sent to Jaffna. The President kept silent, except to ask the officials one by one to explain why the items I wanted sent to Jaffna, especially petrol and diesel, could not be sent. He then closed the meeting. After the meeting, I informed Wilson and Neelan, who had originally persuaded my to accept my appointment as GA and District Secretary of Jaffna, that I would rather quit the public service than preside over IDPs in my charge in Jaffna dying in the thousands. The next day, Professor Wilson informed me that President J.R. Jayawardene wanted to see me again. I met him, but this time he was alone. I repeated what I said on the earlier occasion, but he now seemed to understand. He told me that a full fuel train would be sent to Jaffna before the IDPs arrived. I then informed him that the IDPs would be well-received at KKS Harbor and transported promptly, either to IDP camps in Jaffna or to the homes of their choice.

Fortunately, all concerned, from the District Minister to the DDC to the public servants of Jaffna to the local population, were very supportive. It was agreed that the IDP camps would not be run by the public servants (as elsewhere), but by local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Accordingly, NGOs were invited to offer their services to run IDP camps. There was an abundance of offers, and we had to choose the most suitable. The NGOs would get the (meager) government per capita rations for the IDPs in their charge, but they were all welcome to find additional resources so as to supply superior services. In fact, they all found resources and donors to supply special meals from time to time and also special services, such as TV sets, clothing for those who needed it, toys for children, etcetera. India had offered a fleet of luxury ships to transport all the IDPs from Colombo to Jaffna, but the Sri Lankan government did not want to be over-dependent on India in the treatment of IDPs, and had accepted only one luxury ship called Chithambaram. Thus, most of the IDPs were sent in ramshackle cargo ships used to transport coal, with no cabins, no proper toilets, no privacy, and no facilities for freshly cooked meals. Those who arrived in these cargo ships after two very rough days at sea were in pitiful condition, mentally and physically. In contrast, those who arrived in the luxury ship had comfortable cabins, three course meals and waiter service. They were all received at Kankesanthurai by a mixed group of officials and community leaders. I was present whenever possible. The IDPs were provided with facilities for washing and changing, followed by a good freshly cooked meal. They were then requested to board any of the fleet of buses assembled there to travel to the place of their choice: the homes to which they wished to go or the IDP camps they were assigned to

Those who went to their homes received appropriate daily rations, as did those who ran the camps. The camp officials had complete freedom to operate them as they thought fit, subject to certain rules set out at the outset. These rules included equal treatment of IDPs, and in particular no class or caste distinction; no political indoctrination; high standards of hygiene, etc. There was some monitoring by government officials but no interference, and even the monitoring turned out to be superfluous, because the camps were run even better than specified.

A sad fallout of this program was that the military rounded up the Sinhalese settled in Jaffna and took them south—all but a few Sinhalese who refused to leave. Perhaps this was a wise precaution, but as far as I know, none of the Sinhalese civilians in Jaffna were attacked or hurt. It was particularly sad for me, because the Jaffna I grew up in during the 1930s and ‘40s had a strong Sinhalese presence and an even stronger Muslim presence. I cannot remember a single incidence of communal tension in those days. The evacuation of the Sinhalese by the army in 1983 and the expulsion of the Muslims by the LTTE in 1990 reduced Jaffna to a virtually mono-ethnic peninsula—much less rich and less lively than it was. It is my hope that the Sinhalese who were evacuated and the Muslims who were expelled will return before long. I also hope that the thousands of Tamils who were displaced or who fled Jaffna will return. To be realistic, not everyone who was evacuated or displaced or expelled will return, but at least a partial reversal will be most welcome.

As a footnote, my own transfer from Jaffna followed a few months later in 1984, but I managed to find a place at Harvard University and the funding to follow, although at that time I would have preferred to continue in Jaffna. In retrospect, my entry into Harvard University opened up opportunities for me and brought me unforeseen benefits. But to this date the fate of those displaced to Jaffna and the suffering that I witnessed weigh heavily on me.

  • Dev

    Thank you for your first hand account, its important that not only the events in colombo but also the rampage in Jaffna after the ambush.

    I am reminded of a quote I read recently that I looked up again..by General Eisenhower after world war II

    “The things I saw beggar description…The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering…I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda.”

    Its is first hand account and its important that you have recorded it (and thanks to GV for this) as evidence.

    I already see the “changing of the story” behind the pogrom and I am sure despite the efforts of colombo telegraph, GV and other few journals/papers this will happen till one day the story will be that Tamils went on the rampage killing and burning their houses and eventually it might even change that they did it to the Sinhalese.

    Another thing that must be noted and preserved is the large number of Sinhalese and Muslims (even monks) who put their lives on the line to save the Tamils (something MP Sumanthiran recently highlighted in parliament). Just like we remember the Nazi atrocities we also remember the good people who saved the Jews taking enormous risk themselves.

  • N. Ethirveerasingam

    Thank you Devanesan for your eye witness account. I have heard from other eye witnesses of the pogrom in Jaffna and elsewhere in the North in, 1958, 1977, 1983 and what happened from 2008 and 2009. I have and am witnessing what is happening in the North since 2010. The cycle starts, pause and restarts spiraling up to where oneknows not but one could only guess.

  • hiru

    Thanks to the gentleman Mr. D.Nesiah for taking me to that unpleasent past in 1983 where i was a A/L student. I, a singhalese buddhist, lived in colombo is still shocked with the memories ( while returning from school on that day) of a kind tamil retail businessman who was also a gentleman in every way, being a hindu but a good ‘daayakaya’( caring member of the neighborhood buddhist temple) burnt death in the drain opposite his shop by an unknown set of people( neighbors were too late & unexpected, to protect him).I felt how ungrateful people were to him, with tears. But,I know ,a lot has happened during past 30 years, to both or all ethnicities with war. I wish PEACE for everybody & to this country not by forgetting the past, but remembering it, to get much value to its meaning and achievement.