Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Lest We Forget!

by Charles Somasundrum, July 21, 2008

Please, therefore, do not refer to such incidents as ‘riots’ since they were state planned pogroms...

What was more serious and irreplaceable was the loss of life. There were many instances of houses being set on fire with the occupants still inside. There were occasions when cars were set alight with the occupants still within. There was one reported instance, when a Tamil family comprising husband, wife and two young children had been attempting to make their way from the scene of slaughter. Their car was surrounded and, after it was drenched with a flammable liquid, set on fire. One of the crowd noticing two young children, opened the car door and took the children out. The father, immediately opened his door, took his children back into the car and shut the door. He had decided that if they were to die, they would die with dignity as a family.

Friday, the 25th of July of this year (2008) sees the 25th anniversary of what all Eelam Tamils will always remember ‘Black July’. This date is permanently etched in the minds of all Eelam Tamils – never to be erased! There are today, some young Tamil men and women in their 20s, who were born after this traumatic event. They were fortunate in that they were personally spared the trauma and tension that their parents may have undergone. I am sure these youth will have read, at least a small cross section, of the many books and articles published by persons who had been in the thick of ‘Black July’. The fact that their parents and consequently, their progeny are alive today is just plain luck! One such person, who now lives in the USA has written a book that describes vividly, his experiences, is Siva Pragas, best known to Sri Lankans as Sivapragasam. He was driven by necessity to break up his name into two short manageable parts, to make it easier for the Americans, among whom he and his family had since settled, to pronounce. Sadly, his wife died some years back.

Siva, as he was popularly known, was my contemporary both at St John’s College in Jaffna and at the university in Peradeniya. He was, at the time of the pogrom on the 25th of July 1983, the chief editor of the Express Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd, who published the well known twin Tamil national newspapers, the daily Virakesari and the weekly Virakesari. He was therefore, one of the many Tamils singled out, by the ‘ministerial team’ entrusted with the task of exterminating, or driving out the Tamils from the island.    

But before I proceed, let me get one matter straight. There are many persons both Sinhala and Tamil who tend to refer to these incidents as ‘riots’. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary defines ‘riot’ (n) as a disturbance of the peace, by a crowd legally, three or more). What took place under the presidency of the man called J R Jayawardene and some of his blood thirsty ministers, especially a man with the unlikely name of Cyril Mathew, for a Sinhala ethno nationalist, was a ‘pogrom’. This word ‘pogrom’, is a Yiddish word of Russian origin and dates from the devastation of the Jews in 1903.  It means, ‘an organised massacre of Jews (eg. the pogrom of 1915 in Russia); to massacre or destroy in a pogrom.’ As was the case with all pogroms, the July 25th pogrom in Sri Lanka was state planned. It was planned in the ministry offices of a government minister, by a team of specially selected persons who worked with copies of electoral registers and road maps. There was even a branch of men who, perhaps because they could not read or write in their own tongue, were entrusted with the more mundane task of getting ready to commandeer buses of the state owned Ceylon Transport Board (CTB), to provide the necessary transport for the wreckers and arsonists on the day in question. These persons were given sinecure jobs in certain CTB depots, till the due date.  

Please therefore, do not refer to such incidents as ‘riots’ since they were state planned pogroms. Do give credit to these Sinhala persons, for the months of careful planning and scheduling that they put in, preparing   for their ‘great day’! They poured their hearts and souls (if they had any), into the task that faced them, in the minister’s office. They were preparing for the final ‘pogrom’ that would finally rid the island of these ‘bothersome’ Tamils. Sadly for them, the Tamils are still there, though President Jayawardene and Minister Mathew and some of their henchmen are no more. What these Sinhalas did not realise and apparently still do not, is that one cannot ever ‘erase’ an entire nation. Hitler tried it with the Jews and failed.

There is a book titled ‘Assignment Colombo’ by J N Dixit who was a former Indian Foreign Secretary and India’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka from 1985 (shortly after the ’83 pogrom) to 1989 when India attempted to involve herself directly in Sri Lanka and burnt her fingers in the process! As is the case with senior officials who attempt to write about events in which they played a large or small part, Dixit tries to show himself as the ‘man of the moment – perhaps he was.. He does however make mention of Jayawardene’s actions following the July 1983 pogrom. He says that Jayawardene appeared on the television network six days after the worst of the pogrom. He says in his book, ‘What was even more significant was that in his television speech, no assurance of security or safety was held out to the Tamils, nor was any sympathy conveyed about their victimisation. It was a bland and defensive message which Mr Jayawardene gave.’ It was clearly not possible for Jayawardene to extend sympathy or commiserations when he was himself, reportedly involved in its planning!    

This was the pogrom in which Buddhist monks played an active role in the arson and destruction while women played an equally active part in looting the Tamil houses from which the occupiers had fled for their lives. There were reported instances, of women and girls carrying away fridges – in most cases, along with their contents, apart from television sets, radios and the like. But then, these were just material things that did not last the looters indefinitely. The loss to the self respect of these people, if they had any, would have been longer lasting.  After all, they were ‘stealing’ the property of their Tamil neighbours who they had known over a number of years. In one instance, the house occupied by my widowed sister and her married son and his family was looted as they fled. Months later, after matters had returned to normal and my sister and her son and his family had returned home, it so transpired that the shopkeeper living across the road died. My sister and her son visited the funeral home. They were politely offered seats in the garden along with the other mourners. The seats they were offered were their own chairs, part of the dining table suite that had been looted!

What was more serious and irreplaceable was the loss of life. There were many instances of houses being set on fire with the occupants still inside. There were occasions when cars were set alight with the occupants still within. There was one reported instance, when a Tamil family comprising husband, wife and two young children had been attempting to make their way from the scene of slaughter. Their car was surrounded and, after it was drenched with a flammable liquid, set on fire. One of the crowd noticing two young children, opened the car door and took the children out. The father, immediately opened his door, took his children back into the car and shut the door. He had decided that if they were to die, they would die with dignity as a family. This tragic incident did not stop the arsonists and looters and murderers from their mission. They continued to spread havoc and destruction. Incidents like this should never be forgotten. I was told by a good Christian, to whom I mentioned these incidents that one should forget and forgive. If a person strikes you on one cheek she said, turn your other cheek to that person. I wonder what that Christian would have done had she been in that car surrounded by that bloodthirsty screaming mob. 

A nephew who was working in a tourist frequented hotel near Sigiriya had to flee the hotel with a few other Tamil employees and take refuge in a slaughter house in the jungle. He was there for three days without food till he made the dangerous journey, on foot, with occasional lifts, back to his parents in Jaffna. He was lucky in that he could speak Sinhala and has a fair complexion. He passed himself off as a Burgher. He is today, a resident of Toronto, Canada but has never forgotten his ordeal. His children, born in Toronto, have a detailed knowledge of what happened on ‘Black July’.

A nephew of my wife was born in and lived all his life in Colombo and studied at St Thomas’ College. He played school cricket and later club Rugby and had a wide circle of friends from a cross section of Sri Lankan society. His experiences, when he barely escaped with his life, have disillusioned him. I met him in Toronto where he now lives, some years back, and after dinner at his sister’s house, he gave me details of his experiences. Though they took place a number of years ago they are still vivid in his mind. His story took us into the early hours of the morning. It was many years since the pogrom took place but his personal experience remains crystal clear in his mind as though they took place yesterday!  

A doctor friend had built himself a beautiful house in Jaffna, in readiness for the day when he would retire. He was one of the many who were forced to flee for their lives, first to South India where he lived briefly, till he finally made his way to Australia where he now lives. He has never forgotten his experiences. He believes, like many others, in an independent Eelam and is today one of Eelam’s strongest advocates like many of his kind.

I give above, these few examples from personal knowledge, to show that Black July was not just a passing incident. Readers will themselves, be aware of many more such incidents where they were involved or where friends or kin were involved. These incidents must never be forgotten. They should be passed on to children and grandchildren. I see a time in a free Eelam when the 25th of July will be observed by all Eelamites, who will remember the many acts of Tamil heroism in the face of a bloodthirsty Sinhala mob, which was aware that they had the state behind them.

This brings me finally to Sinhala attitude to the Tamils. I have been reading a book gifted to me be a Sinhala friend on a recent visit to Sri Lanka and Eelam. The book is titled ‘War or Peace in Sri Lanka’ (Volume V). The author is a man called T D S A Dissanayake. The flyleaf states that since 1975, Mr Dissanayake has published 16 books, 12 of which he claims were ‘best-sellers. Modesty is apparently not his forte! This man, for all his profession of religion (Anglican Christianity), liberalism and education (Royal College, Peradeniya and Harvard) is a close friend of and apologist for, the Sri Lankan military big brass. His views have a clear pro military bias. Page 6 of this particular book is in fact devoted entirely to a colour picture of the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, Lt. General Sarath Fonseka in all his glory. The blurb accompanying the picture reads ‘The Commander of the Army Lt. General Sarath Fonseka is a highly respected officer who leads in war and peace through personal example’. The picture is of a smug, uniformed man at a desk in a plush red upholstered chair. Readers will be aware, that this General is in his current position, because he is a personal friend of the all powerful Rajapakse triumvirate.

One contribution Dissanayake has made in this particular book (or volume), is to give the full text of Jayawardene’s address to the (Sinhala) nation 6 days after the destruction and bloodshed. For reasons of space, I will give only a few relevant extracts. ‘The Sinhalese people will never agree to the division of a country which has been a united nation for 2,500 years.’ Apart from the historical inaccuracy of this statement, the President virtually admits that the Tamil nation have been in the island for at least, 2,500 years. He then goes on to say ‘Because of this violence by the terrorists, the Sinhalese people have themselves reacted’. So now we know from the President’s own mouth, that all the violence and burning and looting was the work of ‘violence by the terrorist’ Tamils to which the Sinhalese people ‘reacted.

So, what positive action had the President taken? ‘The Cabinet therefore, this morning decided that we should bring legislation, firstly to prevent people from entering the Legislature if they belong to a party that seeks to divide the nation.’ So, representatives of the Tamil nation will not be permitted to sit in the legislature. He then went on to say, ‘those who advocate the separation of the country lose their civic rights and cannot hold office, cannot practise any profession, cannot join movements or organisation s in the country.’ This is fine! First, you chase the Tamils out of their homes, then you loot them and burn them (with the Tamils in them if possible) and then you declare that they no longer have any civic rights or even the right to practise a profession! The President finally ends, ‘my government cannot see any other way we can appease the natural desire and request of the Sinhalese people.’ So, appeasement of the Sinhalas was the President’s main concern, in the face of all this destruction and bloodshed!

This is what the President had, to tell the Tamil nation, after 6 days of silence, while they were being beaten, looted, stoned or burnt by his Sinhala ‘goons’.

A large number of professional people left the island immediately and many more followed in the years to come. This is what Jayawardene and his ‘goons’ wanted. But, the Tamil nation is not made entirely of professional people. The grass roots Tamils still remain along with their protectors, the freedom movement and the army of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. They are still there, 25 years after Jayawardene’s talk to the nation.

The Tamils who migrated to countries in the west and east have done well with the typical tenacity of the Tamil man. Yet, they continue to support the Tamil demand for self determination and keep the fire of Tamil freedom burning. People like T D S A Dissanayake and his pal D B S Jeyaraj (who is not a ‘Tamil’ as claimed by Dissanayake, but a Chetty from the Chetty Community), claim that 38% to 40% of the Tamils from the northern and eastern provinces have left their homes permanently. They claim that Paris and Rome have 50,000 Tamils with 400,000 in Canada.  

People like Dissanayake want the whole island for themselves. This is the reason for the continuing 40 year war against the Tamil nation yet; Dissanayake shows a tinge of envy for the Tamils who had fled to pastures new, as the Tamil Diaspora. I end with a passage from Dissanayake’s book, ‘The Tamil populations in the Districts of Batticaloa, Jaffna and Trincomalee have left either as immigrants or as refugees, their destinations being Canada, Australia and the UK in that order…….For instance there are more Sri Lankan (Tamils) living in Toronto, Canada than in Colombo. In the suburb of Scarborough in Toronto there are streets where 90% of the population consists of Sri Lankan Tamils. Advertisements appear in Tamil like in Colombo and Tamil foodstuffs are readily available like in Wellawatte. The new Tamil population is no longer on immigrant visas, the final step in obtaining citizenship, not of Tamil Eelam but of Canada!

The envious Dissanayake must be aware that today, there are more Jews in America than in the nation of Israel. That does not prevent Israel existing as a viable nation. The worldwide Tamil Diaspora is there, to invest funds in an independent Eelam, by starting industries, hotels and the like. Eelam will be the holiday resort of choice of the Tamil Diaspora. They will flock to Eelam hotels and holiday homes with their western friends. I see a time when the Eelam International Airport at Palaly will be a hub of activity, much more active than Katunayake.