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The Backstory of Black July 1983 and its Aftermath

An Amirthalingam interview with the Madras Hindu

"That gives one the impression that it has been planned by somebody in authority who could have combined the action of the armed forces along with that of groups of civilians who were acting in a very organized way. I get the impression that this was a deliberately planned campaign to beat the Tamils down into total submission and drive them out of the Sinhala areas, destroy their economic base by destroying their industries and also cow down the Tamils in the Tamil majority areas."

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

Black July 1983 Colombo Sri Lanka anti-Tamil pogrom Appapillai Amirthalingam (1927-1989), the then Leader of the TULF as well as the then Leader of the Opposition in the Sri Lankan Parliament, was in a vantage position to comment about the Black July 1983 pogrom and its aftermath. From my decades-old files, I have retrieved a two-part interview Amirthalingam gave to the Madras Hindu in August 1983, which I provide below. The interview was published in two parts; part 1 on August 25, 1983 and part 2 on August 26, 1983 (which incidentally was Amirthalingam’s 56th birthday).

To the interviewer, Amirthalingam has traced the origin and growth of the Eelam movement in a political sense. Some of his notable assertions in this interview, relating to the origin of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots as well as to how the then UNP government took anti-victim decisions, include the following:

(1) “I think the attack on the Tamils in Trincomalee started long before the violence in the rest of the country broke out. It started shortly after the Urban Council elections there and continued unabated for nearly two months. Actually, the local elections took place on May 18 and the attacks started on June 3. It was started by the army and the police, and the hoodlums were drawn in whenever it was necessary.”

(2) “[T]he police are 95 percent Sinhala and the armed forces are 99 percent Sinhala. Mr. Jayewardene agreed that Tamils should be given representation in the police and the armed forces in proportion to their numbers in the population. But he did nothing about it”

(3) “At one stage the Sri Lanka Government said that about 135,000 people were in the refugee camps. Apart from this, there were a number of people who did not go to the refugee camps; they went to the houses of some friends, there were Sinhala friends, Muslim friends, to whose houses these Tamil people went, because of the conditions in the refugee camps….If you take all these people into consideration it will be in the region of about 150,000 people who were dislodged from their residences and their work places.”

(4) “The Government seems to be giving priority to the rehabilitation of the Sinhala workers who lost their employment as a result of the factories of the Tamils and Indians having been damaged. They have had a conference and the Labour Minister has called upon the Tamil proprietors who have lost everything to pay the wages of the Sinhala employees. You can just imagine the heartless way they are setting about it…”

(5) “In Sri Lanka, insurance is fully a State monopoly. These business houses and factories are insured with the State Insurance Corporation. So all that the Government is trying to do is to get the insurance money and rebuild them, thereby the proprietors will not get even the insurance money into their hands. Some of them may not want to rebuild them there, they may want to take the insurance money and invest it in some other ventures because they may not have any faith in their ability to carry on. The Government is seeking effectively to block them from doing this, which I think is not fair.”

Lately, we notice a rather obscene practice indulged in by the Sinhalese politicians (including President Mahinda Rajapakse) and polemicists in dressing up Amirthalingam’s name as a mascot for their anti-LTTE propaganda. Whatever flaws he had and however inept he was in tackling the wily President Jayewardene in the political arena, Amirthalingam was not Anandasangaree and he certainly would have resented the lip service paid by the Sinhalese politicians to his memory. Because of his blind adherence to parliamentary democracy, Amirthalingam lacked an effective tool to counter the extra-parliamentary thuggery perpetrated by President Jayewardene and his racist Cabinet cronies like Cyril Mathew, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. That was the fault of Amirthalingam’s leadership strategy. Last year, on Amirthalingam’s death anniversary, to score a propaganda point, President Rajapakse quipped as follows:

“On July 13, 1989, he was assassinated in his own home, with his colleague Mr. V. Yogeswaran, by LTTE cadres who came under the guise of discussing politics with an ever trusting man. It is part of the tragedy of our politics, poisoned by terror and violence that the LTTE which claims to seek liberation for the Tamils saw in Mr. Amirthalingam one of their biggest enemies. Irrespective of language or ethnicity one will always lament the loss of persons of moderation such as Appapillai Amirthalingam, and more so their forcible and violent removal from amongst us.” [Message to the Asian Tribune website]

But, President Rajapakse may not be aware that in his 1983 interview to the Madras Hindu, Amirthalingam had told his interviewer, that “I will not regard them [Tamil youth] as terrorists. I do not agree with their methods. I do not approve of the method of violence and in fact we think that in certain instances they are counter-productive and are not in the best interest of our people. But I will not deny the fact that we appreciate the spirit of sacrifice of these young men who had laid down their lives, and their courage.”

Furthermore, President Rajapakse should be reminded that Amirthalingam’s forehead was first targeted by the Sinhalese thugs in June 1956 during the premiership of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, when El Presidente was probably in his short pants as a 9 year-old boy. Between 1956 and 1983, the same Amirthalingam was assaulted, manhandled, detained, house-arrested, jailed, subjected to a Trial-at-Bar inquiry and orally abused within and beyond the Sri Lankan Parliamentary precints, [in the name of “democracy”] umpteen times by indecent and uncivil Sinhalese elements. So, it is a bit preposterous for a Sinhalese President to sympathize (for political spin) with Amirthalingam’s ultimate fate.

I issue a challenge to President Rajapakse. If he is sincere about his words on Amirthalingam’s contribution to the island's politics, will he prove his words by rectifying the lopsided ethnic imbalance in the Sri Lankan armed services and in the public sector, by reducing the current Sinhalese representation (at 97-99 percent) to be on level with the population ratio of 70 percent? This is what Amirthalingam decried in 1983, as lack of democracy in Sri Lanka. Politicians like Mahinda Rajapakse earn the right to talk about “democracy” in Sri Lanka, only when this equity becomes a reality.

Interview with A. Amirthalingam: “Not the Cause but the Culmination” – Part 1.

[courtesy: Madras Hindu, August 25, 1983, pp.8 and 10; the dots, wherever noted, are as in the original.]

The Hindu: By all accounts, the Tamils in Sri Lanka are facing the grimmest crisis they have faced in the island in modern times. What is your analysis of the overall situation? How does this differ from the earlier riots in which also the Tamils were the target?

Mr. Amirthalingam: I think, there is one fundamental difference in that the latest riots have been more systematically organized and the armed forces have played a decisive role in the attacks on Tamils and their property. That gives one the impression that it has been planned by somebody in authority who could have combined the action of the armed forces along with that of groups of civilians who were acting in a very organized way. I get the impression that this was a deliberately planned campaign to beat the Tamils down into total submission and drive them out of the Sinhala areas, destroy their economic base by destroying their industries and also cow down the Tamils in the Tamil majority areas. This was a three-pronged attack.

Tamil refugees during Black July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom in Colombo Sri Lanka The Hindu: Many, other than leaders of TULF have pinpointed the army’s active participation. This is a very significant new factor in the attack. Would you say that, or was this foreshadowed by earlier happenings?

Mr.Amirthalingam: There were earlier incidents where some individual members of the armed forces had shot down, killed or gone on a rampage, but I think, here all the three sections of the armed forces, the army, the navy and the air force, played a part in the latest violence. And this has happened in all parts of the country.

In Jaffna the army personnel shot and killed at least 51 civilians on July 24 and 25. It was a killing of the most brutal type because in certain places students were lined up and shot and killed. In certain places, they were just pumping bullets at passing vehicles crowded with people and people in those vehicles died. In certain places they shot and killed people in their beds – a university lecturer by name Kalaparameswaran and his aged father-in-law were killed while they were sleeping in their house, and even women were shot and killed this way. That happened in Jaffna.

In Trincomalee, the navy personnel had gone on a planned rampage and within six hours, from 9:30 in the night to 3:30 in the early hours of the morning, 150 navy personnel destroyed every Tamil-owned business establishment in Trincomalee town.

Anti-Tamil pogrom Black July 1983 Colombo Sri Lanka In Colombo, in Badulla and other places wherever thugs had gone and tried to loot and were repulsed by people, the army intervened and shot and killed everybody who resisted the thugs. This happened in Badulla where in one place, in front of a business place called Yogam Stores, 14 people who resisted – one Sundaram and his four sons and others, people of Indian origin, who had done well in business – were shot and killed and tyres were piled on their bodies and they were all burnt beyond recognition by the army.

And, in Colombo also, they did the same thing in a place called Sea Street, where there was resistance to the thugs the army had gone to the scene and shot and killed the people. So one gets the impression that they were acting on definite instruction, putting the thugs in the forefront; if they failed or if they were repulsed, the army was to go on the scene and kill.

The Hindu: One gets the impression that Trincomalee, if not the focus of attack, was one of the major focal points of attack. Why single out Trincomalee?

Mr.Amirthalingam: I think the attack on the Tamils in Trincomalee started long before the violence in the rest of the country broke out. It started shortly after the Urban Council elections there and continued unabated for nearly two months. Actually, the local elections took place on May 18 and the attacks started on June 3. It was started by the army and the police, and the hoodlums were drawn in whenever it was necessary.

And in certain instances, the navy personnel acted directly; in certain places they had gone for some sort of investigation, ahead of the thugs, and made sure that there was no likelihood of any resistance, arrested any young fellow who could offer resistance. Then immediately, hard on their heels, thugs followed and set fire to houses.

I think this is definitely connected to the attempt to hand over some interests in Trincomalee to the Americans. Mr.Cyril Mathew is the Minister in-charge of the Petroleum Corporation and he is the one who is interested in this matter. We have definite evidence that one of his Assistant Secretaries was present and had discussions with the army and police personnel at the height of the troubles in Trincomalee.

There was also an attempt to destroy Hindu temples in Trincomalee because Cyril Mathew has been trying to make Trincomalee a Sinhala area, using Buddhism as an instrument. Under the pretext that they have discovered Buddhist ruins in various places, using the funds of Government industrial corporations, they have put up Buddhist centres in various parts of Trincomalee district. So this is a multi-pronged attack using religion, armed forces and racist elements to dislodge Tamil elements and make it a predominantly Sinhala area so that there may be no resistance to their move to enable the Americans to get a foothold there.

The Hindu: There is a version put out by Mr.Jayewardene to the effect that the riots were really related to a revolutionary conspiracy to destabilize the UNP Government and its experiment and to install a Leftist regime, perhaps, a militarist solution. What kind of credibility would you give that?

Mr.Amirthalingam: I don’t think that there could be any truth in this story. I think the forces that organized all this violence and carried it out were sources very close to the Government, and it was more right-wing than left-wing. I think the attempt to ban the Communist Party and the hint at certain dark forces being in the background are only an attempt to please the Western countries and win their sympathy at a time when a great deal of public feeling has been created against the atrocities, particularly incidents like the killing of prisoners. So they wanted to make out that certain Left forces were in the background.

But I will not discount the possibility of some contact between these forces of the UNP and certain sections of the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) in this matter. But the other left wing parties could not have had any hand in it.

The Hindu: There has been an attempt, initially, to depict Mr.Jayewardene as the ‘best bet’ of the minority Tamils and those who wanted a negotiated settlement. You have already dealt with the points of difference, if any, between the UNP and the SLFP. Would you like to add anything on this particular point? How he could raise himself as somebody who had a soft corner for you?

Mr.Amirthalingam: Mr.Jayewardene’s record in the past was not that of a man who would do justice to the minorities. In 1957, when Bandaranaike entered into a pact with my late leader, Chelvanayakam, Mr.Jayewardene was the man who led the march to Kandy and created the feeling which ultimately resulted in the abrogation of the pact and also the subsequent riots against the Tamils in 1958.

I would say that we all expected that in 1977 when he came to power with such a large majority and in an unassailable position, with the SLFP almost totally destroyed and in a shambles, we thought that Mr.Jayewardene will be able to work out a solution to the Tamils problem and it was in that belief that we started negotiations with him even after the riots of 1977.

But I should say one thing, on paper he conceded quite a lot of our rights, certain rights of the Tamil language were included in the 1978 Constitution; he gave a promise about granting citizenship rights to the Plantation Tamils, the stateless persons; then, he introduced the District Development Councils [DDCs].

Actually, in the implementation of all these things, one has to say that the record is very, very unsatisfactory. Not one syllable of the Tamil language rights embodied in the Constitution was implemented though five years had passed and no attempt was made to register as citizens the stateless persons. And, though the DDCs were introduced, nothing was done to make them function effectively.

That is why we came to the conclusion that apart from certain paper rights and paper safeguards, in fact there was no improvement; on the contrary there was a deterioration in the position of the Tamil people under his Government. Particularly in matters of employment, his record is worse than that of the governments of the past.

After 1977, in the public and semi-public sector, there has been a decrease in the number of Tamils employed. We have challenged the Government to show that anything more than five percent of the posts have been given to Tamils whereas the Tamil population is over 20 percent. So, his record leaves quite a lot to be desired in the matter of action.

And, with regard to colonization which was one of the matters which the UNP itself accepted as a deep-seated grievance of the Tamil people, though he propounded the principle that the ethnic ratio in any district, particularly in the northern and eastern provinces should not be altered by colonization; in fact, under various industrial projects, by employment being given to Sinhalese from outside the area, there has been a definite attempt to increase the Sinhala content of the population in Tamil districts like Trincomalee. So, in none of the matters affecting us has he been helpful.

In 1981, we made certain representations and he gave us a definite undertaking that in the police and the armed forces a larger percentage of Tamils will be given a place. Even the International Commission of Jurists in their report on the 1981 riots had indicated that one of the reasons why the police and the armed forces in the Tamil areas acted in this way was that they were predominantly Sinhala. In fact, the police are 95 percent Sinhala and the armed forces are 99 percent Sinhala. Mr.Jayewardene agreed that Tamils should be given representation in the police and the armed forces in proportion to their numbers in the population. But he did nothing about it for the last two years.

The Hindu: Mr.Jayewardene has said that the police chief is a Tamil and the next Chief Secretary is going to be a Tamil, and a number of Deputy Inspectors-General are Tamils…

Mr.Amirthalingam: That is true; in fact, the first Inspector-General of Police [IGP] was Mr.Ana Seneviratne, his relative. Then, when he wanted to make his nephew the army commander, Mr.Seneviratne was asked to retire because they could not possibly have both, one in charge of the police and the other in charge of the army. And the next man in the list according to seniority, Mr.Rudra Rajasingham, was made the IGP.

But the presence of a few Tamils in the higher ranks of the police is actually an accident of history; they were people recruited in the good old days and they have, by efflux of time, come to this position. But when these people retire which is due very soon, there will be hardly any Tamil to take their place.

Actually, some of the DIGs themselves were attacked during the recent riots. A DIG by the name of Mr.Vamadevan had his house razed to the ground in Colombo; he had to run away to save himself; he has now retired from service and gone away; this is the sort of thing that his happening. So, they are ineffective even if they are there because all the people lower down are Sinhalese and they never carry out the orders of the Tamil officers.

The Hindu: Could you trace for us the origin and growth of the Eelam movement in a political sense? What were the efforts made by the TULF, or the Tamils as a community before the TULF was formed in 1976, to have your social, political and economic grievances redressed? And what was the response to these efforts from various governments?

Mr.Amirthalingam: The Sinhala leaders have tried to create an impression that the Tamils have never been cooperative, that they obstructed even the Independence struggle. But it is a historical fact that the Ceylon National Congress itself was formed by a Tamil and the first President was Ponnambalam Arunachalam who was a Tamil and the Tamils were in a forefront of the freedom movement. But once independence was granted, the Sinhalese who got power into their hands on the basis that they were the majority, used that power to almost eliminate the Tamil elements altogether.

The first target was the weaker section of the Tamils, the Plantation Tamils. They introduced citizenship laws which made the Plantation Tamils stateless persons, deprived them of their franchise and deprived the Tamils of nearly half of the representation that they had in Parliament at the time of Independence.

Then, they also started another attack by a systematic planned colonization of the traditional Tamil areas, similar to what Israel is seeking to do in Occupied Palestine, in such a way as to make the Tamils a minority in their own homelands. In times of crisis, in times of communal violence, the Tamils become the target of attack in their own traditional homelands and they have been chased out of some of those parts in the Eastern Province.

Then, the third thing that happened was, having weakened the Tamils position politically and having made Sinhala representation in Parliament predominant even beyond the numbers that their population warranted – the Sinhalese who at that time formed 65 percent of the population got 85 percent of the representation in Parliament after the Citizenship Act.

So using this majority, they passed the Sinhala-Only Act, whereas before independence, in 1944, they had accepted the position that Sinhala and Tamil shall be the official languages of Ceylon. It was also calculated to drive Tamils out of the public services in which they said, they held a predominant position during British rule.

So we started an agitation in a non-violent way against this Sinhala-Only Act and the deprivation of Tamils of their legitimate place. In response to our agitation, Prime Minister Bandaranaike entered into a pact with the late Chelvanayakam guaranteeing the use of Tamil as a language for correspondence with Government in all parts of the country, to make Tamil the language of administration in the Northern and Eastern provinces, to establish regional councils and grant a fair measure of autonomy for the Tamils to look after their own affairs in their territory and to ensure that there was no planned colonization of Tamil areas by Sinhalese.

But the moment Bandaranaike did this, Mr.Jayewardene led the march to Kandy and spearheaded the movement to get the pact abrogated. The Buddhist priests also joined in it and Bandaranaike ultimately succumbed to the pressure and abrogated the pact. In the wake of the abrogation, unprecedented communal violence was let loose on Tamils all over the country which resulted in thousands being dislodged from their homes, taken to refugee camps and by ships to places in the Northern and Eastern parts and settled there.

Incidentally, I may mention, an attempt is being made today to say that the violence now is because we are demanding Tamil Eelam, we are demanding a separate State; but in 1956, 1958 and even in 1961, we were subjected to violence when it was not even dreamt of by anybody that we should ask for a separate State. So this demand for a separate State cannot possibly be said to be the cause of the violence.

Then, again, after the 1960 March elections, when neither of the Sinhala parties had an absolute majority they wanted our support. We said we will support any one of the parties which would grant us the same rights that were granted under the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact. The SLFP agreed to do that and we supported them. The UNP Government was defeated. In three months we had another election, the SLFP came to power, but they did not honour the promise they gave us, went back on it.

Actually they went a step further and introduced the law to make Sinhala, the language of the Courts as well and they tried to make Sinhala, the language of administration even in predominantly Tamil areas like Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Mannar. So we had a non-violent struggle, we had a satyagraha campaign and for two months we paralysed the administration. They left loose the army, ill-treated the people and arrested all the leaders and locked them up.

In 1965, the UNP needed our support to form the Government. Dudley Senanayake and Mr.Jayewardene entered into a pact with Chelvanayakam, again undertaking to establish district councils as a measure of autonomy, to stop Sinhala colonization of our areas and to grant the use of the Tamil language in those areas and certain rights all over the country. They introduced certain regulations to provide for the use of the Tamil language but to date, those regulations have remained a dead letter.

When the UNP tried to do something, the SLFP opposed it and when the SLFP tried to do something the UNP opposed it and all our efforts to come to terms with successive Sinhalese governments failed. Then, in 1970, Mrs.Bandaranaike came to power and set up a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution, a Republican constitution.

We put forward certain demands, we did not ask for separation or any such thing. We asked for a federal form of government and presented a draft constitution. The Government did not even consider it; they just rejected it off hand. We asked that at least the Tamil language regulations which had been adopted by the UNP Government earlier be included in the constitution. The reply we got was there was a specific provision in the Constitution by which, they said, any regulation will not be regarded as part of the Constitution. They specifically saw to it that it was excluded from the ambit of the Constitution.

It was in this situation that all the Tamil parties got together – the Federal Party, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, the Ceylon Workers Congress of Mr.Thondaman and various other smaller Tamil groups – and formed the Tamil United Front.

Even the Tamil United Front never asked for separation at that time; we merely put forward a six-point programme. We asked for justiciable fundamental rights, we asked for the rights of the Tamil language, we asked for decentralization and autonomy and we asked that the State be made a secular State, not giving the foremost place to Buddhism.

The Government of Mrs.Bandaranaike did not even acknowledge receipt of our letter putting forward these demands. And in this situation, while we were agitating on the basis of these demands, in 1974, the police ran amuck at the World Tamil Research Conference without any provocation. At a meeting where 50,000 people assembled and a professor from Tiruchi was speaking on Tamil language, the Sinhala police came on the scene, used teargas and batons and even fired shots. Nine people were killed at that meeting.

It was after that the Tamil people came to the decision that they no longer could live with the Sinhalese and if they could not have even a cultural meeting without having to pay the price of nine people being killed, then they will have to assert their right to be free and independent which they felt they were historically entitled to demand.

Before the Portuguese conquered Sri Lanka, we had three kingdoms – a Tamil kingdom in the Northern and Eastern provinces and two Sinhala kingdoms. It was the British who unified the country for the first time. Though we made common cause with the Sinhalese we were reduced to the position of a completely subject race without our language rights, rights of our religion, rights of employment and rights of even education.

That was another feature that came to the fore in 1971. They introduced standardization in admission to universities, media-wise standardization. Thereby they could reduce the percentage of Tamil students who got admission to medical, engineering and such science-based courses from about 45-46[%] in 1970 to about 15-16[%] in 1974-75. This caused a tremendous amount of feeling among the Tamil youth. This, coupled with the police violence, was the beginning of youth violence among the Tamil students. Actually, the massacre in Jaffna was regarded as a challenge to the manhood of the Tamils by the youth and they started hunting the policemen who were responsible for it. They equated it with the Jallianwalabagh massacre in India which caused a great upsurge of feeling and gave rise to violent movements in Punjab like the one led by Bhagat Singh and youth movements of that type. Similarly a youth movement emerged in Sri Lanka; it started in Jaffna and spread to the other Tamil areas.

It was in this situation that in 1976, at the First convention of the Tamil United Front, we decided that we will have as our objective, the setting up of an independent Tamil State and we changed the name of the Tamil United Front to the Tamil United Liberation Front; this is how we came to this decision. And, then, in the 1977 election, we asked for a mandate from the Tamil people to work towards that objective and out of 19 Tamil electorates in the Northern and Eastern provinces, the Tamil people returned us in 18 electorates with a preponderant majority and we got a mandate to work towards that objective.

Interview with A.Amirthalingam: “Immediate Tasks” – Part 2.

[courtesy: Madras Hindu, August 26, 1983; the dots, wherever noted, are as in the original.]

The Hindu: You have had various rounds of talks with the President and there have been experiments like the Development Councils which have been portrayed as a partial response to your demands…

Mr.Amirthalingam: Though we got a mandate for an independent State, right from the start we indicated that we cannot go back on the mandate we got, but if a reasonable alternative which will meet the grievances which gave rise to this demand for a separate State could be worked out, we are willing to place that alternative before our people and then try and work it.

In fact, in the 1977 election, the UNP itself accepted that it was the grievance that the Tamil people had about their language rights, colonization, employment, education and economic development of the Tamil areas, that had driven them to demand a separate State. They gave an undertaking that if they came to power they would have an all-party conference and work out a solution, but the UNP failed to do that.

We tried to press them many a time; whenever the Government called us for talks we went and talked to them and tried our best to work out a solution. We were never intransigent and we did not try to say that we will not compromise. Though we had our problems we tried out best to peacefully work out a solution.

The Government accepted some of these things and started the District Development Councils but it failed to make them effective and I should say, there was so much resistance on the part of the Government, both at the political and bureaucratic levels to the working of the DDCs that they have proved to be the most ineffective instrument of decentralization. We have got just the empty shell of an organization and not the substance of decentralization.

It is in this situation coupled with repeated violence against Tamils after this Government came to power – we were attacked in 1977, 1979, 1981 and the biggest and the most destructive attack came in 1983 – we decided at our convention at Mannar that we will not have any more talks with Mr.Jayewardene, that we will resign our seats in Parliament because we were elected for six years, and will launch a non-violent struggle to get the Prevention of Terrorism Act repealed, to get the army withdrawn from our areas and to get the Government’s promises relating to decentralization of power implemented. That was the decision we took.

The Hindu: Apart from the TULF there are other groups, the most prominent among them being ‘the Tigers’. The Sri Lanka Government invariably refers to their activity as terrorism. In some other quarters they are regarded as immature, politically; others regard them as patriots. How do you see the rise of such groups in the historical sense?

Mr.Amirthalingam: As I said in the course of my remarks earlier, it started as a result of frustration among the Tamil student population arising from the standardization in admission to universities. It was given an impetus by the police violence at the World Tamil Research Conference and the first targets of youth attack were the policemen who were responsible for the killings at the conference. Then, some of the young men who were responsible for it were arrested and tortured by the police. Then the policemen  who tortured became the target of attack, and in this way it started working in a vicious circle and it escalated. Thereafter these groups got better organized in the face of continued police and army violence against Tamil people and Tamil youth.

I will not regard them as terrorists. I do not agree with their methods. I do not approve of the method of violence and in fact we think that in certain instances they are counter-productive and are not in the best interest of our people. But I will not deny the fact that we appreciate the spirit of sacrifice of these young men who had laid down their lives, and their courage.

We have tried our best to wean them from the path they have chosen and they have themselves reacted against us in certain instances when we tried to work out peaceful solutions with the Government. But in spite of everything, I will not agree with any branding of them as anti-social or terrorist elements. They may be misguided but they are genuinely, in their own misguided way, working towards what they believe is in the best interest of the Tamil people.

The Hindu: There is an impression that the section of Tamils of which you are the political leader, has been somewhat standoffish or distant from the problems of the other stream, namely, Indian Tamils, and their longstanding attempts to get their grievances settled. Is this a valid, or even a partly valid, impression?

Mr.Amirthalingam: The Tamils in Sri Lanka, as Tamils in other parts of the world, have their own differences of caste and region. In the past, politicians used those differences and even among the indigenous Tamils – the Jaffna Tamils and the Batticaloa Tamils - had their differences in the past. I think since our movement led by Chelvanayakam came to the forefront, we have tried our best to get over these differences and unify the Tamil people in Sri Lanka as one nation.

At the time the Tamils of Indian origin were politically attacked by the citizenship laws, Chelvanayakam broke away from the Tamil Congress which at that time had joined the Government, and opposed that bill and formed the Federal Party. I was a student at that time and that was the beginning of my entry into politics; I was a founder-member with Chelvanayakam of the Federal Party in 1949 and from that time, even in fighting those Citizenship Laws in courts right up to the Privy Council and giving full support to the Ceylon Indian Congress which later became the Ceylon Workers Congress, the Federal Party and the leaders of the party fully made common cause with the Tamils of Indian origin.

The core of the TULF was the Federal Party and the main leader was Chelvanayakam. When we formed the Tamil United Front, the main organization of the Plantation Tamils, the CWC, was with us, and in 1977, when we fought the elections, our president was Mr.Thondaman of the CWC, so that it is absolutely wrong to say that the TULF had left the Plantation Tamils out of the reckoning. Even today, though Mr.Thondaman is with the Government and the CWC is cooperating with the Government, in matters of common interest affecting the Tamil people we have always worked with an understanding.

It is only a few businessmen and people of that class even from the Ceylon Tamils community who feel that our political activities caused problems for them. So, self-interest makes them think that if the TULF or the militants keep quiet they will have peace and they can carry on with their business and make money, and that is all they are interested in. But apart from them, I do not think the TULF has ever ceased to voice the grievances and fight to redress the grievances of the Plantation Tamils.

In fact, after every spate of violence, when Tamils of Indian origin in the plantation areas were dislodged and had to move to the Northern and Eastern provinces, the TULF and the organizations working in conjunction with the TULF provided for their accommodation, looked after them and rehabilitated them. After the 1977 riots and after the 1981 riots we provided for over 50,000 people from the plantation districts who migrated to our areas and no one can say that they have not been looked after in any way.

The Hindu: What is your current assessment of the approach of the Ceylon Workers Congress, in particular, its leader Mr.Thondaman who is in the Government – a rather tricky situation? How has he reacted to this crisis in which both the sections of the people (Tamils) have beeen attacked?

Mr.Amirthalingam: Mr.Thondaman is in a very unhappy position, he is a member of the Government. But he had to look on when the very people whom he represents were being attacked by the armed forces of the Government. This happened in 1981 as well as in 1983. But he and his organization seem to think that because he is in the Government at least certain safeguards could be obtained for these people which he will not be able to get if he threw up the portfolio and got out of the Government. This seems to be their thinking. I may not agree with him but I understand and sympathise with their point of view.

Their position is slightly different from that of the TULF because we represent people from the Northern and Eastern provinces where we are in a majority though we are also being attacked by armed forces. There are no Sinhala thugs to attack us except in Trincomalee with the connivance of the armed forces. And so, if the armed forces are withdrawn we are masters in our territory. But this is not the situation in the plantation districts. So Mr.Thondaman is anxious to work out certain safeguards for the people living there. We have been working with an understanding of the differences in the problems of each other and the different handling that the two problems needed. But on common matters we have stood together always.

When the vote of no-confidence against me was brought in Parliament, Mr.Thondaman refused to vote for it and he made a fairly strong speech. Even on the occasion of the recent Sixth Amendment, though the censored versions that were published here gave a different picture, Mr.Thondaman had not minced his words and had told the Government in a pointed way that the TULF was always prepared to work out a solution with the Government and that it was the Government which failed to carry out its promise, failed to control its armed forces and failed to safeguard the lives and property of the Tamils.

Though I do not agree with his being a member of the Government, I think I understand the reasons and we are able to work together in the common interest of the total Tamil population without creating any bitterness or animosity between the two groups and organizations. I think, Mr.Thondaman is also reconsidering his position within the Government. He has put forward certain demands arising from the recent situation, and of course, as usual Mr.Jayewardene has said that he can do those things. This is his normal modus operandi – if any problem is put to Mr.Jayewardene, his answer is: ‘I don’t see any difficulty, we can do that’. But it is never done.

So Mr.Thondaman also has put certain matters before Mr.Jayewardene. It may be that if those things are not carried out he may reconsider his decision. Whatever it may be, I feel, in the larger interest of the Tamil people, we have to work with an understanding and this is what we are trying to do.

The Hindu: Mr.Amirthalingam, regarding the question of what is to be done on an immediate basis in the context of the current tragedy and the intense feeling that has been generated, do you see any way of normalizing relations between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamils in the period ahead?

Mr.Amirthalingam: I think, immediately it may be difficult. Feelings are very very hard on both sides and particularly among the Tamil people there is a very strong feeling that they have had the worst treatment possible in their history. So if anything is to be done immediately I think, measures for rehabilitation have to be undertaken in a big way and security of life and property has to be ensured and along with it measures for a long term solution have to be undertaken. These three matters have to be undertaken in the order that I mentioned.

I say rehabilitation because quite a large number of people who lived in Colombo and other places have no place to stay. People who lived comfortably in houses of their won have been completely dehoused and those houses cannot be repaired for them to get back to live. This is the situation in which we are placed so that it is not easy to make them forget this scar and I do not get the feeling that the Government is setting about in a correct way in trying to rehabilitate the Tamil people who have been affected.

The Government seems to be giving priority to the rehabilitation of the Sinhala workers who lost their employment as a result of the factories of the Tamils and Indians having been damaged. They have had a conference and the Labour Minister has called upon the Tamil proprietors who have lost everything to pay the wages of the Sinhala employees. You can just imagine the heartless way they are setting about it and the Government, I think, is seeking to take over these factories and rebuild them with the Government having a hand even in the management in order to ensure that all those employees and all those Sinhala people regained their positions.

In fact in quite a number of factories, the employees themselves were the people who attacked. Some of the Tamil businessmen and proprietors involved have told me that some of their own personal employees attacked. One person who was a trader – he used to distribute biscuits and other things all over – had got them loaded into his vehicle and when he got a report that these were being attacked he locked them up and took the key. The driver of the vehicle had gone there, broken open the vehicle and taken it and gone away, and then was looking for the proprietor to kill him so that his ownership may become absolute. This sort of thing has happened in several places.

So, the Government is seeking to ensure that these same elements get back into these factories and business places. The Government should rethink its whole policy. Otherwise this rehabilitation will become only expropriation of the property of Tamils and handing it over to the Sinhala elements who were responsible for all the violence.

The Hindu: In this connection, how do you see the law which enables the Government to take over the damaged property?

Mr.Amirthalingam: I am not aware of the exact details of the law. But from what I can gather from the interviews given by the Competent Authority in Colombo over the radio, it seems to be calculated to achieve two or three purposes which are not in the interest of the Tamil people and of the proprietors. In Sri Lanka, insurance is fully a State monopoly. These business houses and factories are insured with the State Insurance Corporation. So all that the Government is trying to do is to get the insurance money and rebuild them, thereby the proprietors will not get even the insurance money into their hands. Some of them may not want to rebuild them there, they may want to take the insurance money and invest it in some other ventures because they may not have any faith in their ability to carry on. The Government is seeking effectively to block them from doing this, which I think is not fair.

Some of the proprietors have told me that they do not want to restart the industries in the same place; they want to start them again in places where they are sure there would be security for them, if possible in the Tamil areas. The Government wants to prevent them from doing it by vesting the property in the Government and the Government itself taking a hand in the restoration. These are moves which are actually antagonistic and hostile to the interest of the Tamil people and the Tamil proprietors.

The Hindu: What is your estimate of the number of people who are displaced, the number of people who have moved away from their places of work?

Mr.Amirthalingam: I think it is over a 100,000. I think, already about 40,000 people have gone to the North. Smaller numbers have gone to Trincomalee, Batticaloa and other places. A certain number of displaced persons have been sent to the plantation areas which were not affected, where the concentration of Tamil population is such that Sinhala hoodlums would not venture to attack. A certain number had no place to go and they are yet in the refugee camps in Colombo. At one stage the Sri Lanka Government said that about 135,000 people were in the refugee camps.

Apart from this, there were a number of people who did not go to the refugee camps; they went to the houses of some friends, there were Sinhala friends, Muslim friends, to whose houses these Tamil people went, because of the conditions in the refugee camps. Each camp had about 10,000 people. These camps were mostly school buildings, so the toilet and other facilities meant for 1,000 students had to be used by 10,000 people. And men, women and children were crowded like that – people who were used to comforts. Some of them went into big hotels – Oberoi, Holiday Inn, and so on.

At one stage some of the hotels did not take in Tamils. They said their own employees may give them trouble, so they did not want to take them. People with means went to stay in places like that but even they have no place to go back to because their houses have been destroyed. If you take all these people into consideration it will be in the region of about 150,000 people who were dislodged from their residences and their work places.

The Hindu: Apart from this task of rehabilitation there is a question of immediate relief. There have been reports here that the relief being made available to Sri Lanka from India and elsewhere is not being properly channeled to the victims. At least in certain specific instances there have been complaints. Have you had any authoritative information on this?

Mr.Amirthalingam: In fact I have not been able to check on the way the large sums of money, items of food, drugs, clothes and various other articles received from all over the world have been used. Some part of it may have been used for feeding the refugees in the camps in Colombo. But once they were shipped to Jaffna and other places the relief did not ever reach those people. In fact I told the Government of India that whatever relief India sent, the disbursement should be supervised by the High Commissioner for India. It should earmark the financial assistance it is giving for specific purposes.

First priority, I said, should be given to immediate relief to families where the breadwinners have been killed. There are a large number of Tamil families like that; maybe that whole families have been destroyed but there are a number of families where the breadwinners, the husbands had been killed and the wife and children are left in the lurch.

In a number of middle class families where the husband was employed somewhere, he was killed and the family has no means of living. People like that should be given immediate relief. In the past, my experience was the Government gave a few rupees as dole – sometimes Rs.20 or Rs.30. These days a family can never live with that money. Some substantial relief must be given to such families.

Then there are a number of people whose homes have been destroyed. They may today go and live in Jaffna, Trincomalee and Batticaloa with some relatives or friends. How long can they live with them? Something has to be done to build their homes for them where they could live in security and without being dependent on somebody else. In an emergency a relative may be able to house them, but if they continue to live there they become unwanted guests and are subjected to humiliation. These are matters in which I do not think the Government of Sri Lanka is setting about properly. It seems to be concentrating on the restoration of the factories, reemployment of the Sinhalese who lost their jobs and then only they may be giving a few items of food to the others.

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