Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Revisiting Mervyn de Silva for Candid Thoughts on ‘Black July 1983’ 

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

The horrendous events of July 1983 which scarred the bodies, minds and properties of Eelam Tamils deserve to be remembered annually.  I feel, however, that it is better to re-read what one of the erudite Sinhalese journalists or our generation, Mervyn de Silva, contributed to the Far Eastern Economic Review (Hongkong) magazine six months afterward.  In a two-page commentary, de Silva contributed a history tutorial to those who would like to learn why Sinhalese and Tamils have never mingled in the blessed island. What Mervyn de Silva wrote then still has a lot of relevance.  The political personalities named in his commentary then [such as Cyril Mathew, K.W. Devanayagam, J.R. Jayewardene and Sirimavo Bandaranaike] have died and left the stage now.  But their kin, surrogates and model proteges run the show in Colombo for the Sinhalese, as well as the Tamils, now. 

If one overlooks the specific details of events which act as time-markers of the early 1980s, the crux of Mervyn de Silva’s portrayal of the dilemma of the Sinhalese society – its belligerence, its insecurity and its duplicity - in sharing the island’s administrative power with indigenous Tamils was true then, and remains true now as well.

It is unfortunate that now we do not have journalists who can write lucidly like Mervyn de Silva, among the Sinhalese.  Now we have only talking heads [which includes Mervyn de Silva’s son, Dayan Jayatilleka] and servile pen-pushers who spew anti-Tamil venom to earn their monthly paychecks. 

In this 1984 commentary, de Silva signalled the entry of the LTTE fleetingly in one sentence [as, "a new generation of Tamil radicals took to the gun"], but its leader Pirabhakaran was not named.  Then, this name had not yet come into the open.  It was Pirabhakaran who thumbed his nose at the wily Jayewardene and thwarted the anti-Tamil designs of Jayewardene’s coterie – the Mathews, Athulathmudalis and Dissanayakes – in a no-nonsense fashion.  How apt it seems now, that last sentence [worded as a question] in this commentary "Has political power already slipped out of the hands of the politicians?"  It certainly is a back-handed compliment to Pirabhakaran’s vision.

Twenty-two years later, Eelam has arrived without fanfare and so-called diplomatic recognition.  Reality speak for itself.  The Sri Lanka we have now is not the Sri Lanka what was in 1983.  The Sinhalese politicians, any who have sense, realize that the state they can administer in 2005 is a rump state without the traditional Tamil homelands inthe  NorthEast.

For the convenience of those who are not so knowledgeable about the historical events mentioned by Mervyn de Silva in his essay, I provide a few chronological frames below.  This I hope will facilitate in digesting the essence of de Silva’s rendition of the gulf between Sinhalese and Tamils.

205-161 BCE: Tamil king Ellalan [pronounced as Elara, by Sinhalese] of Chola origin, ruled the island for 44 years from Anuradhapura. [This makes this year, the 2200th anniversary of King Ellala’s ascendancy to the throne.  He deserves a separate essay, which I plan to prepare shortly].  In 161 BCE, King Ellalan - then probably in his sixties - was killed in a duel by a youthful Sinhalese prince, Dutugemunu, from the southern Ruhunu region of the island, then probably aged in his mid-twenties.

161-137 BCE: The reign of the Sinhalese hero, King Dutugemunu, lasted 24 years.

AD 459-478: First version of the Mahavamsa chronicle, written by Buddhist priest Mahanama, an uncle of King Dhatusena [reigned between AD 455-473], who was a victim of notorious parricide by his elder son Kasyappa in the year 473.  Glorification of Dutugemunu’s victory over King Ellalan was written in Pali language, with embellishment for religious purposes, 620 years after the real event.

1957 Oct 3-Oct 4: J.R. Jayewardene’s infamously interrupted ‘March to Kandy’, against the Solomon Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact granting Tamil political rights, stopped at Imbulgoda.

1966 Jan.8: The day of agitation against the granting of Tamil political rights, led by the then Oppositionists [SLFP-LSSP-CP], in which a Buddhist priest was killed in police shooting


Paradise – and Hostage to the Past

by Mervyn de Silva

[courtesy: Far Eastern Economic Review, January 26, 1984, pp. 22-23]

The main resolution at the annual conference last December of Sri Lanka’s ruling United National Party (UNP) read: ‘The UNP, which was founded on 6 September 1946 on the broad-based principle of eschewing communal and religious differences, has ruled Sri Lanka for 20 of the 35 years since independence.

‘The constant principle of our party has been to avoid thinking in terms of race, religion or caste, and give equal rights and privileges to every citizen…We request all party branches, youth and women’s leagues, trade unions and student unions to take strong steps towards building a united nation, and peace and prosperity."

The motion was proposed by Industries Minister Cyril Mathew, the most consistent and uncompromising champion of majority Sinhalese rights. The seconder was Home Minister K.W.Devanayagam, the party’s most senior Tamil member. The resolution thus seemed to represent a clear-cut commitment from both sides of the racial fence to eradicate the problems which sparked last year’s communal violence.

It is significant, however, that Devanayagam represents a constituency in the Eastern Province, which, though it has a large Tamil community, is not a Tamil majority area. The Northern Province, on the other hand is almost 100% Tamil, and Jaffna, its capital, is the traditional home of Tamil culture and the centre of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka.

However, neither the UNP nor Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party have a single MP representing the Northern Province. All its MPs represent the secessionist Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). This is a measure of the great divide between the two sides and the appalling difficulty of bridging it.

A further measure of those difficulties came in the debate accompanying the conference resolution. Mathew told the conference he was opposed to the TULF because it was ‘not a political party but a communal organisation that supports terrorism.’ The history of Sri Lanka, he added, was the history of the Sinhalese, ‘and nothing else.’ His resolution to the national question was ‘to settle Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in all parts of the country on a system of proportional representation.’

It is this sort of polarisation and distrust which, running through the whole tragic history of the Tamil issue, now permits the past to hold the future hostage. And it is in these singularly unpropitious circumstances of lost opportunities and lately renewed enemities that President Junius Jayewardene embarked on the 10-20 January all-party conference as the first step in the delicate and possibly dangerous task of trying to defuse tensions and pull the country back from the brink.

To suggest that Jayewardene’s self-imposed endeavour may require him to dismantle the intricate, centuries-old mechanism of distrust could seem fanciful. In fact, it is depressingly close to the truth. Separate identities have been sustained and fortified by deep antagonisms and wildly contested facts which extend over two millenia and more.

The island’s pre-colonial (16th century) history was so persistently punctuated by South Indian – Tamil – incursions which often decided the rise and fall of Sinhalese kingdoms that the Sinhalese mind is crammed with atavistic fears. So before he goes into polemical battle, the Sinhalese combatant – be he politician, teacher or trader – reaches for the Mahavamsa, the great Pali chronicles written over centuries by Buddhist scholar-monks, and now the repository of all that is Sinhalese.

‘For the Sinhalese,’ wrote E.F.C.Ludowyk, the first Sri Lankan to be professor of English at Ceylon University, ‘the legend provides the story of a tribe miraculously descended from the union of a lion and a princess…the people of the Lion race, who – banished for their misconduct from the Indian mainland – fled over the seas and set up a kingdom in Ceylon.

‘Buddhist legend gave the migration of a totemistic tribe a special significance and endowed it with the qualities of divine election…In the Sinhalese legend, as the Buddha lay dying…he foresaw that the Sinhalese prince, Vijaya, would arrive in Ceylon. He therefore entrusted the people and the island they were to inhabit to the special protection of Sakka, king of the gods, for there the religion of the Buddha would be established and flourish.’

Thus it is that, though not all Sinhalese are Buddhists – many are Christians – the term ‘Sinhalese-Buddhist’ has quietly and predictably infiltrated the Sinhala-language press, and to a lesser degree, the other newspapers to replace the formerly usual ‘Sinhalese’. In a periof of special stress, numbers are sacrificed in the interests of a more rigorous exclusivity in self-identification.

As well as having this feeling of being a ‘chosen people’ many Sinhalese are deeply affected by a myth which goes to the heart of the conflict with the Tamils. This is the story of the best-loved warrior prince of the Sinhalese, Prince Dutugemunu, who marched with 10 paladins and a hastily gathered people’s army to confront the Tamil King Elara. He defeated Elara in single combat and set up the Anuradhapura Sinhalese kingdom.

Each fresh confrontation and every violent eruption becomes an instant invitation to an overpowering onrush of self-righteous recidivism, against which reason can only erect the feeblest defences. Nonetheless, not all members of the liberal intelligentsia, mainly English-educated Sinhalese, are swept away by the tidal wave of tribal loyalty and militancy.

Speaking on the ‘nature of aggression’, a Sinhalese consultant to one of the island’s leading government hospitals told a distinguished audience that two myths have contributed to the present discontent. The first had to do with race and racial origins; the second with the Dutugemunu-Elara battle. Patriotism, he observed, was a composite manifestation of three animal instincts: herd, hunger, aggression. ‘We find high-sounding excuses such as ‘save the race and country’ to justify arson and murder. If our social status does not permit participation we give it armchair approval, blind to the consequences, which may include suicide’, he concluded.

Also among the liberal voices is a group called the Committee for Regional Development (CRD), which in a new year report argues that in the chronicles the crucial identification of Buddhism and Sinhalese ethnicity was asserted ‘in opposition to external enemies’, whereas it was the late 19th and early 20th century Buddhist revivalist movement which reasserted that identification in relation to internal adversaries, notably British colonialism and colonial policies.

The early establishment of Christian missionary schools, a seemingly beneficial and neutral but, in fact, discriminatory system of state grants for education, and British government recruitment procedures in the much-coveted field of public administration nurtured the suspicion and anger of a deprived majority. Since the colonial regime tended to use Christianity as a political instrument, the Sinhalese leaders turned Buddhism into a counter-weapon, resulting in the politicisation of the religion.

The British have long departed. But a disquieting conviction that the minorities, Tamil as well as Christian, were the pampered children of a crafty ‘divide and rule’ colonial policy has remained. So have the scars on the Sinhalese-Buddhist psyche. The limited delivery capabilities of a post-independence political system increasingly gripped by chronic Third World economic pressures have failed to erase those scars by fulfilling rising aspirations of social and economic advancement.

Thus, the questions posed by an earlier CRD report offer a surer guide to understanding the ethnic tensions which now threaten the Sri Lankan polity:

Why is there a popular impression that Tamils have an unduly high share of state-sector jobs?

Would this position be changed by ethnic quotas?

How do the communities stand in relation to employment in general?

What is the position in respect of income levels?

Do Tamils gain admission to universities in numbers far in excess of their population ratio?

Why should Tamil students fare better in the competition to get into certain ‘coveted’ university faculties?

What of the allegation that Tamil examiners cheat?

Are the sources of credit for business have been one of the main avenues of Tamil social advancement?

The CRD received a spirited reply from a former member of the Sri Lankan and international civil service, a Sinhalese. Welcoming the report as a ‘catalyst’, and appreciating its effort in ‘a laudable and necessary cause to redress the balance in favour of the Tamils’, the rejoinder makes the basic point that it is the ‘rural poor of both communities’ which constitute the most disadvantaged group.

But if this is true, the killers, the arsonists and the looters did not rise from the ranks of the most most disadvantaged. It was Colombo that was burning on 23 July 1983. The fires spread to other towns and distant bazaars later. The social complexion of the marauding mobs was markedly urban – not only such marginal metropolitan groups as shanty dwellers, but strong-arm brigades and ‘rapid-deployment forces’ which recently emerged under political patronage and semi-educated youths tantalised by a new cult of violence and captivated by newly acquired life-styles.

The tourist cautiously returning for another ‘taste of paradise’ (the somewhat tattered slogan of national flag-carrier Air Lanka) finds to his delight that the rural countryside still wears a sweet serenity. But Colombo, the more politically conscious and commercialised south-western coastal belt, and the island’s principal towns continue to be centres of mounting discontent. Six years of soaring consumer prices, rents and transport fares have steadily made poorer the urban salariat, which includes a bloated bureaucracy, the corporation executive class and the mid-level professional.

The Sinhalese traders and businessmen have joined the disaffected for other reasons. Indian dominance of the wholesale trade has been a traditional source of Sinhalese hostility and the Indian business community was as much a target of envy in Sri Lanka as in some African countries. Unable to look to a solution such as Uganda’s deportation programme, the local trader and a nascent national bourgeoisie have relied on the state for protective intervention.

Under the ‘state capitalism’ of Mrs Bandaranaike and her late husband Solomon Bandaranaike, a new merchant class was attentively nurtured. Now Jayewardene’s so-called open economy has allowed the Indian and Tamil industrialist to bounce back, often as the hand-picked collaborator of foreign investors because of their overseas contacts and better access to capital and credit. Their Sinhalese rivals’ perception is that the Indians and Tamils have not been dislodged after all from the commanding heights of the economy’s private sector.

In 1977, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United States administration greeted Sri Lanka as a potential Third World showcase. At a free and fair election, a mature constitutency had rejected an etatist regime and voted overwhelmingly for a party that stood for private enterprise and for opening the door to foreign capital. The island’s human-rights record was clean by Third World standards; its non-aligned credentials were impeccable; the population of 15 million was manageable, and the infrastructure quite adequate.

But now, just as the World Bank and IMF are urging the removal of even those controls and subsidies which have been retained, the question of whether the new economic strategy has in fact exacerbated old conflicts presents unexpected dilemmas for both policymakers and their foreign advisers and patrons.

Ordinarily, the urban Sinhalese upper middle class could hardly offer any serious challenge to a government led by a president who won a second term in October 1982 and then postponed elections for six years through a national referendum. From 1977 onwards, the regime has very effectively dealt with all its opponents – Mrs Bandaranaike has been deprived of her civic rights, the Left is fatally fragmented; the trade unions demoralised and cowed, the students and radical intelligentsia battered into submission.

But, as in the Shah’s Iran, suppressed dissent has found refuge in an impregnable forum, the temple, and an articulate spokesman whom nobody dares to touch, the monk. Having co-opted the clergy, can militant Sinhalese-Buddhism rely on support from the armed services, too?

Frustrated Tamil regionalism-nationalism raised the separatist banner. But, however successful it was as an election slogan, the separatist gesture was largely rhetorical, and the ‘Liberation Front’ label adopted by the party had a touch of bravado. But a new generation of Tamil radicals took to the gun and the expertly planned ambush of 22 July 1983 in which 13 Sinhalese soldiers died, cannot be read as anything but a clear military challenge.

Having swept to power on an emotional tide of Sinhalese-Buddhist revivalism, Bandaranaike made a deal with the Tamils. The pact promised them regional councils. Jayewardene, then the UNP’s No.2, launched a march from Colombo to the Sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy to denounce Bandaranaike as a traitor. Riots broke out. Bandaranaike scuttled the pact and ducked for cover. It did not save him from a monk’s bullet 18 months later.

In 1966, it was Mrs Bandaranaike’s turn to repeat history. Dressed all in white, the Buddhist Boadicea hit the vengeance trail against a bill to introduce district councils, part of a UNP agreement with the Tamils. Police opened fire and it was a monk this time who died. The UNP abandoned the agreement as quickly as her late husband had abrogated his.

Now regional councils are coming up for air for the third (and last?) time. All the political parties are discussing the proposal, a shrewd Jayewardene move to gain endorsement from a national consensus. But has political power already slipped out of the hands of politicians?


Posted August 13, 2005