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Report of the Presidential Truth Commission on Ethnic Violence from 1981 to 1984

Facing the truth of July 1983

by Kumar Rupesinghe

Before I begin an assessment of the final report of the Presidential Truth Commission on Ethnic Violence from 1981-1984, I would like to recollect some encounters I had with former President J. R. Jayewardene.

Immediately after the elections of July 1977, there was mayhem and disorder in the country. Political violence was taking its toll and many houses were being burnt and people assaulted. The Samadhi which was the memorial for the late S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was being desecrated by mobs. Mrs. Bandaranaike was under siege by rampaging mobs in Horagolla and was not in a position to use the telephone as it was disconnected. In the circumstances she asked K. Shinya and I to proceed to the house of J. R. Jayewardene in Ward Place and convey a message to Mr. Jayewardene requesting him to make an appeal on the radio to stop the violence.

It was with some trepidation that we then proceeded to Ward Place. There were hundreds of young people on the road with green caps. When we entered the residence of J. R. Jayewardene it was crowded with well-wishers and we sought an immediate meeting with him, which he promptly granted. I explained to him the mayhem and violence around the country and the desecration of the Memorial. I also informed him that Mrs. Bandaranaike's telephone was cut off. He listened patiently and responded to our entreaties.

The next encounter I had was immediately after Jayewardene was sworn-in. I was then lecturing at the University of Peradeniya, when I received a call from a friend asking me to return to Colombo since an order had been issued for my arrest and that I together with Seneke Bandaranaike and Sunimal Fernando had been transferred to Jaffna.

When I arrived in Colombo I called J. R. Jayewardene at Temple Trees and asked him why such an order was issued. He asked me if I could come over to Temple Trees immediately. When I arrived at Temple Trees he received me with a broad smile and wanted to know if he could serve me with a Thambili. I politely declined. He then assured me that he did not give this order and that I should remain in Colombo for a few weeks. He then wanted to talk to me about what I thought would be some of the major problems which would confront his government. I was delighted at the opportunity presented to me and then went on to tell him that the Tamil National Question required a political solution. I told him that the problem was a political one and force should not be used. I told him that the moderate Tamil parties were losing ground to a more militant and radical force of youth who were demanding equality and dignity in their relations with the South. The Standardisation policy had severely affected the aspirations of Tamil youth. Since I had visited the North on numerous occasions I told him that the country was already divided and there were deep divisions.

Ten years later I met J. R. Jayawardene for the last time. By this time he was out of office and was residing in his Ward Place residence. I was keen to visit the Jayewardene Centre and study the archive and documents, but also obtain an understanding of Mr. Jayewardene's own interpretation of his period in office. J. R. Jayewardene and his wife received me very graciously. During our conversation I asked him if he had learnt any lessons from the historical process that he had initiated in the country. I asked him whether he would do things differently if he was given another chance. I also reminded him of our earlier conversation when I had asked him to seek a political solution rather than use violence as a means of settling the dispute between the two peoples. He was whimsical and went on to say very thoughtfully that if he could rewrite history again he would never have taken the actions that he did then. But then there was nothing to learn from. Mr. Jayewardene said that if he had the knowledge he had now he would have done things differently. However Mr. Jayewardene never apologized to the Tamil people.

Today the UNP, under the leadership of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is leading the negotiations process, seeking to end the war and to find a permanent solution to the ethnic conflict. It was for this specific purpose that the United National Front received a clear mandate at the last General Election from a people disillusioned with the war for peace strategy and no longer willing to tolerate racist politics. The UNP's effort for peace reflects a strategic shift in thinking where the party has realized that a military solution was no longer viable.

The Report of the Presidential Truth Commission on Ethnic Violence from 1981 to 1984 has just been published. It is overdue by twenty years.

The mandate of the Presidential Truth Commission was to inquire into the nature, cause and extent of the gross violation of human rights; and the destruction and damage to property committed as part of the ethnic violence, which occurred during the period commencing from the beginning of the year 1981 and ending in December 1984, with special reference to the period of July 1983, including the circumstances, which led to such violence; The Commission was required to investigate those responsible for the atrocities, the nature and extent of damage caused, compensation for victims and the measures that can be taken to prevent the reoccurrence of such incidents by promoting national unity and reconciliation.

The Commissioners have had a difficult task. They had to avoid making the Commission appear as a witch hunt against a political party. In this they have done an admiral job. They have also had a constraint of time, since they were provided with little resources and personal to engage in a systematic inquiry.

The Sri Lankan Truth Commission's draft terms of reference are only restricted to investigating events but not for holding the perpetrators of the crimes accountable for their actions. This is of course a major drawback of the Commission. Impunity need not be encouraged and perpetrators of Crimes against Humanity need to be made accountable to their actions and punished. The Sri Lankan Truth Commission unlike other similar Commissions was held during the period of conflict. The other Commissions were held after the resolution of the conflict and when a peace settlement was reached. In South Africa for instance the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was held after the Apartheid regime was overthrown through democratic means.

The findings of the Commission are noteworthy and bear evidence of close scrutiny and follow up. It is my hope that this report does not suffer the same fate as those of the past, where recommendations are not followed up and the reports are stockpiled in bookshelves gathering dust. The findings of the Commission bear witness to the fact that the events of July 1983 were orchestrated and manipulated by the political authorities and the State. The systematic violence perpetrated against a helpless and defenceless people was not a spontaneous riot, but planned and executed-with judicious care. It was an act of collective punishment for acts of terrorism committed by a small group of people. The State, which has the responsibility of protecting its citizens, became a perpetrator in crimes against its own people.

The events of Black July were an unprecedented and catastrophic historical event, which has transformed the entire destiny of the country. The scale of violence, the loss of lives and property but above all the psychological harm it has caused is incalculable.

The events of 1983 Black July created deep divisions of fear and insecurity amongst all peoples of the country. It generated a mass exodus from the country and helped to nurture and swell the ranks of Tamil militancy. These events have had many ramifications to date. It was the beginning of the civil war.

The recommendations of the Commission are important. Their first recommendation is that the President and Prime Minister must "give leadership to a new era of ethnic reconciliation and national unity".

I hope that neither party misuses this report for partisan and sectarian politics. Much has happened since Black July 1983. Black July was the sequel to a cycle of violence which gripped this country until the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2001. We hope that the two leaders would utilize this opportunity to unite and to end the cycle of violence by creating a consensus necessary for a negotiated solution.

The Truth Commission also provides us with an opportunity to explore the root causes of the events which led to Black July. Black July did not fall from the sky. It was the culmination of the thinking, feelings, routines and mindsets that were developed since the gaining of independence. We need therefore to reflect collectively on the tragic circumstances which led to these events. Much has been written about it.

The Citizenship Act of 1948 took away the Citizenship Rights of an entire community of Tamils who were the country's main earners of foreign exchange. Tamils and Muslims were denied their language rights in 1958 and there was discrimination in employment and educational opportunities for Tamils. We must not forget the pogrom against the Tamils in 1958 which created the first fundamental rifts between the two communities and paved the foundation stones for a crime wave against the ethnic minorities in this country. The then administration was responsible for the atrocities committed against the Tamils, which eventually reached its peak in 1983.

There is still much to do if we are to transform ourselves into a truly multiethnic plural society. The state continues to be a Sinhala State with all its ramifications. Even today the fundamental rights of Tamils with regards the use of Tamil cannot be exercised in the South and the North East. Ordinary citizens cannot engage in their daily business in their own language. This denial constitutes a daily source of humiliation and frustration. The Administration consists of only 7% Tamils and the resources transferred to the North East for purposes of relief, rehabilitation and development is still insufficient. 86% of government offices do not have translators to translate from Sinhala to Tamil while 89% of government offices do not have translators to translate from Tamil to Sinhala.

Black July, we need to remember, is only one part of the story. Atrocities committed by the State in containing the Tamil insurgency, carpet bombings of, the war for peace and the reciprocal terrorism conducted by the LTTE and other militant organizations against the Sinhalese people must also be remembered. The inexcusable expulsion of Muslims from the North in just 24 hours, attacks on religious places, Sinhala settlements in the border villages, assassinations and bombings in various parts of the island must also be noted.

To ensure the sustainability of the reconciliation and healing process I would strongly suggest that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission be established as a matter of urgency. This Commission should have a larger mandate where it can find ways and means of acknowledging the truth and seeking means of reconciliation and healing.

The Truth Commission report should encourage all citizens to initiate a movement for national reconciliation. In this sense the report needs to be widely distributed and studied. It should become compulsory reading at all schools.

The events of July 1983 touched all of us in some way or another. It changed our lives in countless ways. The report should therefore be the basis of a national dialogue between and amongst all communities. We have, as a people and as distinct communities have the resolve to say "NEVER AGAIN"!

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