By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
There is no doubt, whatsoever that the 1983 July pogrom was one of the most shameful events in the recent history of Sri Lanka which irrevocably tarnished the image of the country. How it was viewed then by the foreign media formed the basis of two opinion pieces by Jayantha Somasundaram, “July 1983: As the world saw Sri Lanka” (The Island, 25 July) & “July 1983: Tamils do not blame Sinhalese people” (The Island, 26 July), which was very difficult reading for anyone with a conscience. Though the description of events seems to be mostly accurate, what is in my memory does not tally with the descriptions of some events but then, as the Buddha rightly pointed out, memory can be very selective. Then again, as I pointed out in my opinion piece “Whither Freedom of Speech” (The Island, 28 July) ‘Mainstream media have always been guilty of giving a slight slant to the truth to advance their agendas.’ Considering that subsequent distortions, which were shown to be gross at times which I would expand on later, anyone with a critical mind would be excused for looking at these reports with a degree of scepticism. Irrespective of all that, it goes without saying that what happened was totally inexcusable.
I vividly remember a conversation with Prof. John Carson, who was instrumental in setting up the Department of Management Studies in Sri Jayewardenepura University. He was the Chairman of the Public Services Commission of Canada in 1960s and had great fondness for Sri Lanka, visiting frequently. He became very friendly with us as he was convinced that my wife, who was the senior medical officer of the university, had cured a chronic skin condition he had. He pointed out to us that the incidents of July 1983 not only changed the international perception of Sri Lanka but also ruined the reputation of JRJ. He said “Up to this time, JRJ was considered a statesman by other world leaders but his behaviour during this period completely changed that to his being yet another self-serving politician”
No doubt, JRJ should be held largely responsible because, even if he was not the architect of the ‘reaction’ to the atrocities of ‘Tamil terrorists’, it was launched with his approval. I learned later, from a very reliable source, that the attacks on Tamil shops in Colombo were started by goons of not only Cyril Matthew, which is well known, but also of M H Mohamed. What the government intended to be a limited attack went out of control completely and the subsequent inaction of JRJ as well as his statements to the media were pathetic.
It is a great shame that the entire Sinhala community was blamed for the action of a manipulative government headed by the ‘master manipulator’, whose misguided manipulations led to disaster. Those who took part in the violence were government goons initially, shady characters who took over from them subsequently taking the opportunity to loot shops and plunder from rich Tamils. True, some extreme nationalists too joined but the vast majority of Sinhalese were against this violence, having lived harmoniously with Tamils and continuing to do so even today. They considered their prime duty to be offering protection to their fellow countryman who were being persecuted for no fault of theirs. It is very unfortunate that foreign media failed to report about the vast majority of Sinhalese who protected and looked after their Tamil friends and neighbours.
We were living in the Keppitipola Mawatha Summit Flats, built for the foreign delegates attending the non-aligned summit and subsequently let to senior government servants. The adjoining flat 25B was occupied by the Tamil family of a senior government servant. They had a son of our son’s age and our children were his playmates. Though Summit Flats were shielded, naturally, they were anxious. We looked after them and I remember waiting in Prima bread queues for hours, to get bread for them. As they were keen to leave for Jaffna, I was in regular touch with my friends in high places, and was able to get them accommodated in the first ship leaving for Jaffna. Though I would very much have liked to learn from them that they arrived safely and how they progressed afterwards, I have never heard from them since. I had no way of contacting them but they could have contacted me easily, either at home or in Cardiology Unit, where I served till, I left five years later. Speaking to a lot of my friends, I find that they have had very similar experiences. In fact, one friend, who now lives in London told me that he met one of his neighbours, whose family he sheltered in his house, in London but refused to recognise him! Perhaps, the trauma has evoked a sense of hatred towards the entire Sinhala race. In fact, I have my doubts regarding the title of Jayantha Somasundaram’s second article “Tamils do not blame Sinhalese people”
The biggest distortion of facts since this sad episode is in the reporting of the number of casualties at the conclusion of the war. The British newspaper The Times was the first to report that there were 20,000 deaths and very soon others copied and some doubled it. A relative of mine, when he was the High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to London, had been in close touch with the lady journalist who wrote that piece. Once he had developed a rapport, he had inquired from her how she got that figure. Her reply that astounded him was: “After the conclusion of the war when foreign correspondents were taken on an aerial tour, having seen the devastation, I guessed that 2000 deaths was a reasonable figure!” That guess has been multiplied and continues to be used in spite of evidence to the contrary.
True, JRJ let us down badly but it is continuing distortions of the truth that is preventing true reconciliation. The curse of the 1983 July Pogrom seems to live on, unfortunately!