YEAR 16: THE HOLOCAUST CONTINUES

S Sathananthan &
Sabiha Sumar
28 July 1998

A moral weakness
The five days, from 25th to 29th July 1998, constitute the 15th anniversary of the Holocaust of July 1983. Fifteen years ago the Tamil people living outside the Northern and some parts of the Eastern Provinces were targets of the pogrom, unprecedented in its scale and brutality. The events of that fateful week have been burnt into Tamil memory as Black July.

The anniversary brought forth numerous retrospective commentaries on the Holocaust. Some writers accurately noted the evidence indicating how senior members of the then United National Party (UNP) government had a direct hand in meticulously organising the pogrom; and how the State security forces colluded with the armed Sinhalese men who killed and raped defenceless Tamil civilians and looted or destroyed their property. Indeed they deplored the instances where the security forces participated in the pogrom; and they underlined the refusal of the then President JR Jayawardene to hold a judicial inquiry into the Holocaust, which omission amounted to a cover-up and in effect confirmed the complicity of the State. Some writers demanded that an official inquiry should be held – however belatedly – to investigate the events and identify the perpetrators of the tragedy.

Hardly any commentary dealt with the fact that the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) did not aggressively demand an inquiry into the Holocaust, whether in 1983 or at any time thereafter. In effect the TULF collaborated with the UNP government in the cover-up. An objective of TULF’s opportunistic collaboration was to ensure that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is made the scapegoat so that the TULF could retain the political leadership of the Ceylon Tamil people.

The writers who conceded that the violence was premeditated and was orchestrated by the State nevertheless apportioned a share of the blame to the LTTE. They viewed as a terrorist act the killing of 13 soldiers by the LTTE in the ambush, in which an army vehicle was blasted by a land mine, two days earlier in Tirunelvely on the 23rd of July 1983. They held the LTTE’s deliberate attack responsible at the least for intensifying Sinhalese hostility against Tamils and for providing the Sinhalese ultra nationalists within the UNP government the opportunity to launch the pogrom.

The more reactionary writers deceptively described the violence as ‘a communal riot’. They disingenuously placed almost the entire blame for it upon the LTTE by portraying the pogrom as an unfortunate but involuntary response of some sections of the Sinhalese people to the killing of the 13 Sinhalese soldiers by the Tamil LTTE. They misleadingly projected the Holocaust as ‘an episodal defection from the democratic norm’ and absolved the vast majority of the Sinhalese by shifting the responsibility for the atrocities to the lumpen elements within the Sinhalese community.

What is remarkable is the convergence of views among writers from across, virtually, the entire political spectrum. They equated as violence the killing of the Sinhalese soldiers in the course of battle by their adversary, the LTTE, to the murder of defenceless Tamil citizens by the armed minions of the duly constituted Sri Lankan government, which is bound by the Constitution to protect all citizens. The intention of the writers may have been to maintain so-called ‘neutrality’.

But the two cannot be compared and the result of ‘neutrality’ is the crippling moral weakness. Almost all writers are incapable of making the crucial political distinction between the violence of the aggressor and the violence of the victim, that is, between the repression by the aggressive Sri Lankan State and the resistance of the victimised Tamil people.

Informal and formal State terror
In the Tamil view, the Sinhalese consensus that the Holocaust was not repeated after 1983 is pure political fiction. The violence never stopped.

Between 1983 and 1987, the pogroms continued albeit on a low key. Tamils remember the repeated and brutal attacks they suffered whilst travelling between Jaffna and Colombo. They were waylaid in trains. They died of sniper fire in the coaches. Buses to and from Jaffna were frequently intercepted and Tamil passengers were dragged away, and rarely seen again. Indeed travel through Sinhalese-majority regions, particularly in the north-central part of the country, became for Tamils a deadly game of Russian roulette. Not one Sinhalese person was convicted for these crimes.

The military systematically mowed down Tamil civilians by the hundreds in the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern Provinces under the pretext of attacking the LTTE and other Tamil resistance groups. The slaughter was characterised by Mr Narayan Swamy as ‘the dance of death’ (Tigers of Lanka, 1994, p.170). In 1987, the State escalated the violence when it unleashed Operation Liberation to conquer Jaffna, the cultural heartland of Ceylon Tamils.

Ceylon Tamils view the military operations as extensions of the Holocaust to the two Tamil-majority provinces. The Tamil people correctly understood the violence as State terror, unleashed by the Sinhalese-controlled State. In a refreshing departure from the beaten path, Mr Izeth Husssain focused on State terrorism as the central problem (Social Justice, no 135, 1998).

Furthermore, Tamils drew a clear difference between informal State terror (pogroms) from formal State terror (military repression). Informal State terror against Tamils is carried out by non-uniformed minions of the State and it began with the pogrom of 1956. Formal State terror is executed by the uniformed men and women of the armed forces, which were first deployed to crush non-violent Tamil resistance in Jaffna in 1961. The conquest of Jaffna in December 1995, the atrocities and disappearances in the North-Eastern Province (NEP), the current Operation Jayasikurui and the alleged existence of mass graves of Tamils in Chemmani are manifestations of the continuing formal State terror against the Ceylon Tamil people.

Apology for formal State terror
The claim that Black July has not been repeated since serves to mask formal State terror. It lends credence to the military fiction, disseminated by official propaganda, that the war is only against the LTTE and not directed principally at the Tamil people. Whether or not all those who make the claim are aware of its diabolical implications is not the point. The effect of their argument is, however, to legitimise formal State terror as ‘counter-insurgency’ military operations.

Formal State terror is also legitimised by reinforcing the political fiction, that Black July was not repeated, with the political myth that the Peoples Alliance (PA) government seeks to devolve power in order to reach a negotiated settlement to the Tamil Question. For instance, Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu asserted not only that ‘there has been no repetition of the carnage’ but also that ‘the political agenda has been moved far to accommodate devolution’ (Social Justice, no 135, 1998, p.17).

Those who believe in that political myth should reflect on the following provisions of the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions and the October 1997 Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on Constitutional Reform. They are sufficient to indicate the implacable opposition of the PA government to the devolution of power.

(a) The delegation of principle legislative power was made discretionary under the 1972 Constitution drafted by the United Front (UF) coalition government, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP): ‘The National State Assembly may not abdicate, delegate or in any manner alienate its legislative power nor may it set up any authority with any legislative power other than the power to make subordinate laws’ (Art 45(1)).

(b) In the 1978 Constitution of the UNP government, the word ‘may’ is replaced by ‘shall’ to make the devolution of power unconstitutional: ‘Parliament shall not abdicate or in any manner alienate its legislative power, and shall not set up any authority with any legislative power’ (Art 76(1)). The use of the word ‘shall’ makes the provision mandatory and, in the words of President JR Jayawardene, ‘all but closed the door on federalism’ .

(c) October 1997 Report of the PSC on Constitutional Reform of the PA coalition government, led by the SLFP, also seeks to make the devolution of power unconstitutional: ‘Parliament shall not abdicate or in any manner alienate its legislative power and shall not set up any authority with any such legislative power’ (Art 92(1)).

The above provisions allow the establishment only of local government institutions. The Provincial Councils (PCs), for example, set up under the 13th Amendment without the repeal of Article 76(1) were dishonestly palmed off as institutions for the devolution of power. In fact they are glorified Municipal Councils entirely irrelevant to resolving the Tamil Question. Given Article 92(1), the claim that power could be devolved through the Regional Councils (RCs) proposed by the PA government is similarly an unconscionable deception.

Toward genocide
Having abdicated the moral responsibility to distinguish between the repression of the aggressor and the resistance of the victim, the writers in general internalised government propaganda and treated the war as a conflict essentially between two armed groups, the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE. The following observation by Dr Jehan Perera typifies this ahistorical perspective: ‘as in the case of the riots, the civilian population is more or less disengaged from the direct fighting, but remain on the sidelines giving each side necessary logistical support’ (Social Justice, no. 135, 1998, p.27). The above view deliberately ignores the carpet-bombing and artillery shelling of Tamil civilian areas in the north. The unprecedented Tamil refugee population of about half million in the NEP is very unlikely to concur with Dr Perera, that they are perched ‘on the sidelines’.

Moreover, the cultural myopia of most writers has blinded them to the unfolding tragedy of genocide. For the PA government has created famine conditions by severely curtailing the supply of food, agricultural inputs and fuel. The restrictions imposed on the supplies of antibiotics and essential drugs have placed the lives of Tamil children at great risk. The government announced in early July 1998 that the meagre supplies will be pruned further in August.

The deprivation of food and medicines to civilians by the PA government qualifies as genocide under Article 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention, which specifies that actions calculated to create conditions in which a part or whole of a people could be destroyed constitute genocide. This point has been cogently argued by the Law Foundation Professor at the University of Houston and Co-Chair of the International Criminal Law Interest Group, Professor Jordan J Paust (‘The human rights to food, medicine and medical supplies, and freedom from arbitrary and inhuman detention and controls in Sri Lanka’, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, vol 31, no 3, 1998).

What is needed is not impotent breast-beating, however cathartic it may be, over past atrocities. What is more important and urgent is to reveal the past within the present. The need of the hour is to condemn the continuing Holocaust, the draconian war against the Tamil people and to expose the genocidal intent of the Sinhalese-controlled State.

Are those who grieve Black July capable of forcing the Sinhalese-controlled State to stop unconditionally the genocidal war? Are they ready to demand and struggle for the immediate withdrawal of the Sinhalese armed forces from the NEP?

Or will they continue to effectively condone the genocide of Ceylon Tamils on the spurious ground that the withdrawal of the armed forces from the NEP will strengthen the LTTE?

28 July 1998