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The July 1983 Anti-Tamil Riots

As viewed by the Communist Party legislator Pieter Keuneman

July 1, 2008


Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

The Sunday Observer (Colombo) of May 28, 2006 carried a feature penned by Ranga Chandrarathne on Ouida Keuneman, the wife of Sri Lanka’s Communist Party leader Pieter Gerald Bartholomeus Keuneman (1917-1997). An excerpt:

“Ouida Keuneman recalled that her husband had been worried about the burning of the Jaffna library and had expressed his desire to donate his entire collection of books to the library, perhaps, to compensate in a little way for the great loss of knowledge. Most of the books of Pieter Keuneman's private collection consisted of political literature and a lot of books by Indian authors on Indian politics and also English Literature. Later, Ouida flew to Jaffna and personally handed the collection over to the rebuilt library.”

One may consider this one generous act of Pieter Keuneman as an attempt to atone for the dented public image he had among the Tamils, as a Cabinet member of the repressive Sirimavo Bandaranaike-led socialist regime of 1970-77. Currently available information on the internet about Keuneman’s long-standing public career is rather meager. As such, I fill in some details here. From 1947 to 1977, Keuneman was the most prominent face of the Burgher community in post-colonial Ceylon. Standing as the representative of the Communist Party at the multi-ethnic, three member Colombo Central constituency, Keuneman won in seven consecutive general elections from 1947 to 1970; but, he was defeated at the eighth general election in 1977.

Pieter Keuneman in 1947

Pieter Keuneman in 1947

During the 30 years Keuneman represented the Colombo Central constituency, the ethnic distribution of this constituency was stabilized at 36% Sinhalese, 33% Muslims, 24% Tamils and 6.5% “Others” (Malays, Burghers and other minorities). Religious distribution of Colombo Central constituency amounted to 39% Muslims, 34% Buddhists, 16% Hindus and 11% Christians. Considering that the lingua franca of Muslims was Tamil, the Colombo Central constituency of those days had nearly 55 percent of Tamil-speaking population. Between 1947 and 1970, quite a few individuals with name recognition had attempted to win at the Colombo Central constituency by puncturing the voter base of Keuneman, but failed. These included, V.A. Sugathadasa (Independent and later UNP), V.A. Kandiah (Independent), P. de S. Kularatne (SLFP), P. Bala Tampoe (LSSP) and N. Sanmugathasan (Communist Party-Peking wing). Among these, Sugathadasa and Kandiah later got elected to parliament from other constituencies. At the Colombo Central constituency, ethnically, “religiously” and politically, Keuneman was a prominent exception, as he belonged to a minority cubed. Still, he stood tall among his multi-ethnic constituents for his personal charm. In these days of Sri Lankan politicians changing their party affiliations at the drop of a hat for personal profit, Keuneman remained a Communist Party loyalist to the end. It has been said that, though the Communist Party label was somewhat a cumbersome load on his neck, Keuneman’s personal charm, debating skills and gravitas endeared him to his voters.

An obituary of Keuneman’s first wife Hedi Stadlen (a Vienna-born Jew), penned by Alan Rusbirdger, that appeared in the Guardian (London) of Jan.29, 2004, provides the following tidbit:

“The historian Eric Hobsbawm remembers in his memoirs how he fell ‘vainly in love with the ravishing Hedi Simon’, who instead fell in love with the president of the [Cambridge University students] union, a Ceylonese undergraduate named Pieter Keuneman. The two of them married at the outbreak of war and settled in Colombo, where he became general secretary of the Communist party and Hedi became a well-known anti-colonial activist, leading several strikes and organising trade unions. Fifty years later, she was still remembered for the figure she cut as, barefoot and in a sari, she led direct action in the cause of independence. At the end of the war she returned to London, where she met up with an old friend from Vienna, Peter Stadlen, a distinguished concert pianist who had premiered the Webern Opus 27 Variations. She divorced Keuneman and, some years later, married Stadlen.”

Colette cartoon circa 1956
Colette cartoon circa 1956

Following the dissolution of his first marriage, at the age of 30, Keuneman was first elected to the Ceylon parliament in 1947 as the 3rd MP on the Communist Party ticket. In the subsequent two general elections (1952 and 1956), Keuneman was returned as the 1st MP of the Colombo Central constituency. The 8 years between 1952 and 1960 can be counted as Keuneman’s pinnacle years of popularity.

In one of the humorous cartoons that appeared before the 1956 general election, Collette (a gifted cartoonist of that era and a Burgher ethnic), vividly etching the prevailing political divisions, drew a fleeing Mother Lanka with raised hands, screaming ‘Help, Help! I don’t want to be saved!’ Six political types, each with a placard, were shown harassing her. From the facial lines and the garments adorning them, each of the types could be easily identified. From left to right, the politicians with their placard slogans were as follows:

C. Suntharalingam – “Lanka must be saved from majority oppression.”

John L. Kotelawela (then Prime Minister) – “Lanka must be saved from communism.”

W. Dahanayake – “Be saved from English.”

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike – “Lanka must be saved from UNP dictatorship.”

Pieter Keuneman – “Be saved from US capitalism.”

R.G. Senanayake – “Be saved from the Indians.”


It could be noted in the cartoon that Suntharalingam (the first vocal proponent for Eelam) representing the indigenous Tamils, was drawn as an ‘out of sync’ type from the other five, who were rushing towards Mother Lanka. Pieter Keuneman was caricatured as one who had lost ground to the exponents of Sinhala nationalism, excluding the ultra-eccentric R.G. Senanayake.

In the two general elections held in 1960, with Muslims indicating their preference for Muslim candidates, Keuneman’s standing in the Colombo Central constituency dipped to 2nd MP status. In the 1965 and 1970 general elections, Keuneman lost ground further, but was returned consecutively as the 3rd MP. His final 7 years in the Sri Lankan parliament (1970-76) as a Cabinet minister of the unpopular Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime has to be considered as a blot in his popularity. Nevertheless, Keuneman’s standing as a leading Oppositionist legislator for 23 years (from 1947 to 1970) was, in relative terms, a stellar one.

So that there is no misunderstanding, I do not imply that Keuneman was an angel in Sri Lankan politics; he had his crafty, chameleonic moments when he let down the Tamils who expected too much from his Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL), whose tent has willingly offered accommodation to Sinhalese racists spouting the language of equality. At times, Keuneman himself played the race card against a fellow Tamil communist of standing (N. Sanmugathasan), when the latter deviated from the pro-Moscow ideology espoused by the CPSL, to espouse a pro-Peking ideology in early 1964.

While at the University of Illinois, I photocopied the responses of Pieter Keuneman that appeared in the World Marxist Review of February 1984, to six questions, in which he had presented his candid view on the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983 in Sri Lanka. For its relevance as the view of a prominent Sri Lankan politician who represented the ethnically miniscule Burgher minority, I have transcribed below the candid observations of Keuneman on Black July 1983. The two foot-notes at the end are as in the original.

Cause Against Chauvinism: View of Pieter Keuneman

Deputy Chairman and CC Political Bureau Member, Communist Party of Sri Lanka.

[courtesy: World Marxist Review, Feb.1984, vol.27, no.2, pp. 40-44]

Question: Communal discord between Sri Lanka’s two main nationalities, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, has repeatedly erupted into violence since 1948, when your country won independence. That was also the case last summer, when the disturbances assumed major proportions in Colombo and elsewhere. What causes these recurrent outbreaks of national strife?

Keuneman: To begin with, I wish to stress that, despite their distinct national identities and cultures, the Sinhalese and the Sri Lanka Tamils [1] have lived and worked together in the same country for over 2,000 years. Members of both communities took part in the independence struggle. They continue to work and fight together in the trade unions, left political parties and democratic movements.

This is paramount. Conflicts and violence between them are extraneous and secondary. Some of these conflicts date from the feudal past, when, in the course of dynastic disputes over succession, rival Sinhalese princes fought one another with the help of mercenary armies recruited from India. Inter-community friction has become permanent under foreign rule and was fomented and exploited by the colonialists, especially the British, whose policy was ‘divide and rule’.

Nevertheless, there are political and economic reasons why Sri Lanka has not yet been able to shake off the negative legacy of its past. Take, for example, the fact that Sri Lanka’s population has more than doubled since independence, while its economy has remained stagnant, due above all to increased dependence on the crisis-ridden capitalist world economy. Our economic woes stem chiefly from the fact that throughout the past decades all governments have tried, with diminishing success, to develop the country on capitalist lines.

Economic stagnation, coupled with the marked population growth, has made competition harsher in areas like employment in the public sector, the distribution of state land among the landless peasantry, and access to higher, scientific, technical and professional education. It has also aggravated rivalries in trade and industry for a bigger share in financial assistance from state banks. In step with this, competition for state power prerogatives opening opportunities for state patronage has intensified.

The bourgeoisie, the ‘elite’ of both the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities, have used this situation to further their class economic and political interests, and sometimes their own, personal ends. By appealing to nationalistic sentiment and inciting communal prejudices, they have sought to win support from the petty bourgeoisie and the broad masses in their respective ethnic communities. This line of action has divided the workers of different nationalities and to some degree diverted the attention of the masses from the real causes of their problems.

The present government of the United National Party (UNP) has made things much worse by its wholesale acceptance of the neo-colonialist economic program that imperialist-controlled financial agencies like the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development, as well as Western commercial banks, insist upon as a precondition for loans and credits. In the six years of President Junius Jayewardene’s term in office there have been four major outbreaks of communal violence. Each outbreak brought ever greater loss of life and vandalism. Last summer’s violence was the worse in the history of independent Sri Lanka.

Question: How spontaneous, if at all, are these communal outbreaks?

Keuneman: There may be some degree of spontaneity. But what was striking in the dramatic events of July and August 1983 was that they were well-organized and politically motivated. This has been the case more than once. As far back as 1981, President Jayewardene himself admitted that leading members of his party had a big hand in communal violence.

Anti-Tamil violence virtually enjoyed the patronage and support of an influential group of cabinet ministers and MPs representing the most reactionary and chauvinist circles of the Sinhalese capitalist class. This group is both anti-left and anti-Tamil and has strong connections with the press, armed forces and police. Moreover, it controls special storm-trooper goon squads for the suppression of strikes and other democratic actions. These goons have killed workers on picket lines and beaten up distinguished academic and cultural personalities who disagreed with government policies. Intimidation is also practised against members of the Supreme Court committed to the defense of democratic rights. Goon squads played a leading part in the violence of the recent period, often moving from place to place in government vehicles.

State terrorism and violence against Tamils under the Jayawardene government are part and parcel of a general onslaught on the democratic rights and freedoms of the people of Sri Lanka as a whole. The present UNP regime has brought the country to the verge of bankruptcy, a fact admitted by the President himself and confirmed by the government’s inability to pay the annual interest on its foreign borrowings or meet the ever increasing deficits in its budgets. Appeals by the government to the Reagan administration and its allies for more loans and grants have been met with counter-demands for even more humiliating concessions in the spheres of finance, trade, investment, and last but not least, foreign policy and involvement in Washington’s aggressive strategic plans. The regime’s increasing shift from authoritarianism to more and more openly dictatorial and terroristic forms of rule, which strike down even the forms of bourgeois parliamentary democracy that Sri Lanka has had for nearly half a century, is prompted by its efforts to fulfill the preconditions insisted on from with out and to prove its ‘stability’ to hesitant foreign investors.

It is safe to say that under the present government inter-community relations have deteriorated to a point where the Tamils’ basic national rights are flouted and there is a threat to their fundamental right to live and work in peace and security in any part of the country.

Question: What are the effects of the recent cases of communal violence? In what ways they differ from previous cases?

Keuneman: There is, above all, a difference in dimension. Even official statistics set the number of killed at 300, and there are indications of a much larger figure, ranging between 600 and 1,000. As many as 100,000 became homeless refugees. Numerous Tamil-owned small factories and shops were destroyed. Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs.

In the 1950s, the violence was mainly against the Tamils, who have lived in Sri Lanka for centuries and are its citizens. Under the present government the violence has been extended to the descendants of nearly one million Tamils of Indian origin who arrived on the island much later and work on plantations in hilly, predominantly Sinhalese areas. Deprived of citizenship and franchise rights, they have lived as ‘stateless’ persons for nearly four decades. Even so, they have never supported the demand for a separate Tamil state but have, instead, concentrated on regaining the rights which they lost under the first UNP government in 1948. Discrimination against this population group and attacks on Tamil plantation workers have been a major cause of tensions in the good-neighbourly relations between Sri Lanka and India, which imperialism exploits to the utmost.

Attacks on the Tamils are now made in areas where they are a majority and have lived for centuries. This was made possible by the government’s military occupation and virtual military control of these areas. The armed forces and police have been involved in anti-Tamil violence.

The main responsibility for present situation rests undoubtedly with the government. The regime aimed not at redressing the Tamils’ just grievances but at winning the support of the leaders of the Tamil community with the view to forming a united reactionary front against the Left and democratic movement.

Question: What was the Tamil response to the violence?

Keuneman: The government’s policy has only helped to fuel divisive tendencies and to boost the demand for a separate Tamil state which enjoys only limited support among the Tamils. State terrorism also provoked some sporadic, isolated retaliatory armed attacks by small groups of Tamil youth on government supporters and military patrols. Our party has pointed out that such methods are counter-productive and damaging to  the unity of the masses irrespective of nationality and to their joint struggles against all forms of exploitation and oppression. True, these acts of individual terrorism, however negative, paled compared with the policy of state terrorism practised against the Tamils. The domestic situation was further compounded by the opportunism and vacillation of the bourgeois Tamil leaders.

Question: What was behind the regime’s attempt to put the blame for the events on the Left? How were these events reported in the bourgeois press?

Keuneman: It said at first that a ‘powerful foreign nation,’ acting through three Left parties of Sri Lanka [2], had ‘master-minded’ these events with the view to overthrowing the government. Although the Soviet Union was not specifically named, the implication was unmistakable. In case anyone failed to get the message, the government followed this up by banning the Communist Party and detaining its General Secretary and several other members of our Political Bureau. The CPSL printing plant was closed. Pro-government newspapers went as far as to demand that diplomatic and other government-to-government relations with the Soviet Union and the socialist countries should be severed.

This propaganda pursued a two-fold purpose. First, to create a suitable political climate for further financial assistance from the USA. Secondly, to divert domestic and world attention from those really responsible for what happened and to find a scapegoat.

However, the anti-Soviet insinuations were so absurd that they were received with derision. This attempt to please the Reagan administration and give credibility to its propaganda about a ‘Soviet threat’ was seen in Sri Lanka as dangerous and likely to have negative effects on the good relations between our country and the USSR, which has always been a staunch friend of our country and people. Significantly, it was not long before the government tried to back away from this clumsy propaganda. In the autumn of 1983, strong public pressure forced the government to lift its ban on the CPSL, and release the party’s leaders, including, K.P. Silva, General Secretary of its CC.

Our people are deeply concerned about what is not an imaginary but a most real threat to the countries of the Indian Ocean by the policy of the Reagan administration, which is making every effort to militarize and nuclearize this vast region. The USA openly defies the appeal of the United Nations and the littoral states, which was the Indian Ocean to be a zone of peace. It is actively fomenting tensions and strife between neighboring nations and seeking to encircle India with hostile countries in order to pressure it to abandon its independent policy of peace and denounce the Indian-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, which is a powerful factor for détente and peace and a barrier to U.S. imperialism’s strategic plans.

Sri Lanka, which is situated in the center of the Indian Ocean, at the southern tip of India and a short distance from Diego Garcia is given an important place in this strategy. The Reagan administration has been trying to impose its military presence on our country in return for financial assistance. What it seeks primarily is logistic facilities for its Seventh Fleet at Trincomalee and a communications Center at Puttalam. It is true, however, that although the ruling quarters are more than favorable to these designs, public opposition has prevented them from accommodating Washington.

The imperialists tried to use the strained domestic situation last summer, the tensions which it generated in Indo-Sri Lankan relations and the protests it elicited in India. They painted a false picture of the state of affairs alleging that military intervention by India was dominant and expecting that this would make Sri Lanka appeal to the USA, Britain, Pakistan, and Bangladesh for military aid. This play was exposed in time. However, there is growing evidence of more and more subtle attempts to exploit any internal tension to promote aggressive geopolitical plans.

Question: What is the communist program for countering the activities of chauvinist communal forces?

Keuneman: Our record in the fight against communalism, for friendship, equality and unity among the different ethnic communities of Sri Lanka, is well known in our country. The slander put out against our party during the recent events was entirely baseless. We have fought consistently against attempts to deal with the problem through military repression. Our principled approach to it was reaffirmed almost two months before last summer’s events, in a letter which our General Secretary, K.P. Silva, sent to the President of the Republic. The Central Committee of the CPSL, the letter said in part, ‘wishes to stress the need for fresh attempts to find satisfactory and permanent solutions to the many problems of the Tamil nationality in Sri Lanka. Failure to do so has been a major cause of internal tensions, repeated communal riots and states of emergency, and consequent disruptions of social peace, racial harmony and the economy of the country. The country’s image abroad has also been spoiled by such occurrences.’ And further the Central Committee pointed out that ‘our party has always condemned and opposed resort to individual terrorism as a means of solving political or social questions. But we are equally convinced that state terrorism is no answer to this state of affairs.’

The same letter urged the early convocation of the conference of all Sri Lankan political parties, as well as the Sri Lanka Tamils’ organizations, promised by the government to seek a political settlement through a democratic dialogue. Had the conference been convened as promised, much of what has happened could have been avoided. It is noteworthy that although the Left parties banned along with the CPSL have many differences on home and foreign policy, they all demand a settlement based on recognizing the Sri Lanka Tamils’ right to self-determination.

Our approach to inter-community relations is based on the twin principles of (1) recognizing the territorial unity of Sri Lanka, and (b) the Tamils’ right to self-determination. It is our opinion that the solution lies in preserving a united Sri Lanka with regional autonomy for the Tamil areas.

As far as the ‘stateless’ Tamil plantation workers of Indian origin are concerned, our party considers that all who wish to become citizens of Sri Lanka should be allowed to do so on a basis of equality with other citizens ruling out all discrimination. Suitable arrangements should be made with the government of India in regard to those who may wish to become Indian citizens and return to India.

However, official policy has so far blocked a just approach to the existing problems. A political settlement was prevented by a constitutional amendment outlawing the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), the main party of Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Not surprisingly, the TULF was denied an invitation to the All-Parties Conference called last autumn, all negotiations with the Tamil leadership being made conditional on their renunciation of the idea of a separate Tamil state.

The communists maintain that the Tamil problem cannot be discussed without the TULF and other recognized parties, including those that have been banned ever since last summer. It is highly important to resume the dialogue between the government and the opposition on a truly democratic basis. Only by meeting the just aspirations of the Tamil minority, restoring its national and political rights, and firmly discarding the chauvinist communal policy can the way be paved for inter-communal peace in Sri Lanka.



[1] The Sinhalese make up 73 percent of Sri Lanka’s population and the Tamils of local or Indian origin, about 20 percent.

[2] Meaning the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and the likewise banned People’s Liberation Front and New Socialist Party of Sri Lanka.


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