More Reader Participation on 1983 Riots

Dear Mr. Sabaratnam,

I am a regular visitor to Sangam website to learn about the Tamil history on “Pirapaharan story.” I was encouraged by Mr. Bala’s e-mail and wish to contribute my part as well.

From 1979 to December 1983, I was working at Browns Group at Darley Road, Colombo.  I was staying in a house at Gregory’s road in front of D.S. Senanayake Maha Vidhiyalaya in the middle of 1983. It is closer to the “Kanata” end of the Gregory’s road. The house was owned by one of my relatives who was living in UK but visited Sri Lanka with his wife at the time. He was repairing the house. Therefore, he and his wife were staying near Hultsdrof and I was staying with two of my friends in that house. On Sunday night, we visited the house owner to inform him about the repairs. We came back after having dinner at their place. We usually come up to Borella junction by bus and walk to our home. On Sunday night, we had to “negotiate” ourselves through the crowd near Kanata junction because of large crowd. We saw army bands and thought “A minister or a dignatory must have died”. We didn’t know anything about “Thirunelveli incident”. Before we went to our home, we crossed over to “Baudda loga mawaththa” to buy some “coke”. The shop was owned by a Sinhalese man but there was a Tamil boy working. When we went to the shop, the boy was in tears. He was beaten up by his boss. He said to us in Tamil that his boss hit him because kottiya killed his people in Jaffna. Obviously, he could not make the connection. We realised that there is going to be problem but we strongly believed that nothing will happen in Colombo. We quickly came back home.

The house we were living in is situated between two houses in a by-lane in front of the D.S Senanayake College. On the right hand side, the occupant was the daughter of Prof. Sunderalingam, “the Adangaa Thamilan” of Vavuniya. On the left hand side which towards the main road, were Messers M.R. Fernando who has a large estate in Hatton. As it is in a by-lane, we have a house in front of ours, as well. It was occupied by Mr. Senanayake, the owner of D.S.I shoes. His wife owned a shop that sells “Grandfather Clocks” in Ford. It was near the “Rajeswari Hotel.” Apart from “Vastha Aunty,” Prof. Sunderalingam’s daughter, we had never spoken to anyone, near our house. We had been living there only for a short while, just to supervise the building repair work.

“Vastha Aunty” is a smart lady like her father and a very kind person, too. Messers. M.R. Fernando used to park their tank vehicles which transport “Acetic Acid” to Hatton. But he never comes out and speaks with the drivers. In fact, we never saw him, in person. But “Vastha Aunty” always had a chat with the drivers who were mostly Sinhalese. These drivers usually had the habit of calling us “Kottiya”, whenever we went pass them. But we also slow down and chat with them as we were proud to be called "kottiya."

On Sunday night, 24th of July, we woke up because of a huge roaring noise. A Sinhalese driver went to “Vastha Aunty”’s house and told her something. She called us and asked us to stay put and not to make any noise or turn on the radio. The night passed without any other incidents. In the morning, I walked to Darley Road. It is a long walk but there was no direct public transport. Near the Town hall, I saw thick smoke in the sky. But still, I walked up to “Walker & Graig” building at Darley Road. There weren't many people there. I was met by Mr. Sangaratne who was my senior.The Browns Group employed one of the largest group of Tamils in those days. People like Mr. Sangaratne give us the hawkish look every time. For us Tamils he is a Sinhala racist.  He shouted at me for coming to work on that day. He said there were lots of trouble in Colombo and no Tamil employees had come to work. He asked me to get back home first, then he called one of the Browns Group drivers and asked him to drop me near the Town Hall. He told me not to take the driver to my house, even if he offered. Then only, the situation sunk in to me. When I came back home, my other friend who was working at Maharaja’s factory, Ratmalana was at home. He was in a state of shock and panic. Mr. and Mrs. Senanayake who owned the D.S.I shoes company were at our house, too. They were trying to calm him down. He had gone up to Bambalapitya. He saw ca ouple of Tamil shop owners had been stabbed by the crowd. He got off the mini bus and managed to come back home by another bus. He is a fair skinned boy.  It was the first time we spoke with them and they told us not to go out at all. They provided us the food for the following couple of days. On the day that “Kottiya awa” Mr. Senanayake rushed to us and told us that we may have to help him because Tigers were in Pettah. We told him that it was impossible as we knew better.

Mrs. Senanayake’s clock shop was completely burnt down because the adjoining shops were Tamil shops in Fort, including Rajeswari Hotel. She did not show any hatred because of that. She helped not only us but also a lot of other Tamil families that she knew.
As far as “Vastha Anti” is concerned, she told us that one of the Sinhalese drivers of M.R. Fernando came and told her in the middle of the night that a group of people asked them whether there were any Tamil houses. He told them there were none. But he came to warn her and promised to protect her and the “boys” next door. “Vastha Anti’s” treatment of ordinary Sinhalese people with respect saved our lives on that night.  Mr and Mrs. Senanayake kept us under their watchful eyes till we went back to Jaffna, safely.

It is because of the people like them, I personally can’t hate ordinary Sinhalese people. They are just like us. They have the same problem as Tamils. Just because Buddhism and Sinhala language are given “foremost place” in Sri Lanka, their problems won’t go away and haven’t gone away. I am sure that thousands of Tamils feel the same. The 1983 riots shocked the ordinary Sinhalese people like Mr & Mrs. Senanayake, as well. Mr. Sangaratne, my senior at Browns, was very smart and had quick thinking, too. He had the love for the fellow human being even though he didn't like the group of Tamils who dominated the job market at Browns. The madman who organised the 1983 riots wanted the people like Mr & Mrs. Senanayake, the driver of M.R. Fernando and Mr. Sangaratne to be swept away in due course as well as "teaching a lesson" to Tamils. He may have succeeded in that as well. This is not because ordinary Sinhalese people have changed their attitude towards fellow human beings but because this madman has managed to produce a new breed of Sinhala chauvinistic ruling class like him. Tamils are left with fighting this ruling class who, not only could manipulate the ordinary Sinhalese people and the international community against the Tamils, but also some of the Tamils against the Tamils, too. This is the irony of the Tamils. This is the strong force that Tamils have to fight.

Rajkumar Sivapatham



Posted June 18, 2004