|Sri Lanka: The Background to July 1983|
|Monday, 08 September 2008|
by:Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
(Edited Text of the speech given by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary General, Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) at the introduction to the seminar ‘Lest We Forget: the tragedy of July 1983’, arranged by SCOPP and the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies in commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the event)
“I wonder whether I could begin by asking for a moment’s silence in memory of the victims of July 1983.
The reason for having this program is that, as I believe everyone is aware, July 1983 was a watershed in the history of this country. I think it is fair to say that we had ethnic problems before that, difficulties caused, some would say, because of legislation based on majoritarianism, whereas others would argue that there were demands that did not reflect the realities of the Sri Lankan polity. But there was a salient distinction between 1983 and what had happened before that, even the previous riots, of 1958, and then 1977 and also 1981, though it could be argued that that was the precursor of the full horror two years later. The point is that 1983 seemed part of a pattern that was subsequently reinforced, and I think this was the full horror, by the response of the government at the time. The first response was legislation that in effect drove the democratic Tamil political party at the time, out of Parliament. And that particular measure seemed to confirm the view that Sri Lanka was a polarized society.
It may not be fair to say that the government in general was responsible for what happened, but certainly there were members of that government who seemed to be given full rein, probably to initiate, certainly to take full advantage of, what happened in that last week of July 1983. And that approach was both the beginning of the disasters we now face and also the culmination of a process of authoritarianism that had become entrenched, in a manner not seen before, and thankfully not since. Of course, there are those who say that the 70-77 government was also pretty dogmatic, and that may be correct, but its authoritarianism was not institutionalized. But what we saw after 1977 was the taking over of all aspects of the State, whilst some elements in that government, which were dominant in July 1983, seemed to think that this State had no room for minorities.
The most obvious example of what I am saying is the assertion in parliament of a nexus between the Tamil political party and militant or terrorist movements at that time. This was asserted pretty early, though it flew in the face of all evidence. I think many people are aware that the first successful attempt at devolution, constitutionally, was the 1981 District Development Council Bill, which did not give much, but which was accepted by the TULF. They were ordered to boycott that election by the LTTE, but they were in a position to resist and to tell the LTTE that they were not the important players in this regard, since this was a political question. But because of what happened in 1981, within a year, the strength of the LTTE had increased and they were able to enforce boycotts of elections for the future. And the strengthening of terrorism that began with government action in 1981, the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, the attack on the house of the MP for Jaffna, was only confirmed in 1983.
I think therefore that it is important to recognize the fact that this was the most significant event that transformed a dispensation that was political - a dispensation in which mistakes were made but in which those mistakes could be corrected, politically - into a scenario in which violence became the dominant factor. And it is only now, 25 years later, that we can begin to hope that we are on the way to going back to politics with what I hope will soon be the ending of violence. And in that respect, I am extremely grateful to Professor Tissa Vitharana for consenting to be our Chief Guest today, because he represents a move towards a political solution to the political problem that this country created, not 25 years ago, but 50 or 60 years ago, or even perhaps in the twenties when the unity of the Ceylon National Congress was shattered.
But we have to accept that it was because of 1983 that what was a political problem, with a certain terrorist element by then, turned into a terrorist problem that sometimes makes us forget the original political problem. And I hope that by two official bodies, the Secretariat for Co-coordinating the Peace Process and the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies, joining together in this commemorative exercise, we will be making some amends, officially, for what happened 25 years ago and that we can look to a better future.
Before I conclude, I owe you another apology. We were meant today to launch a book entitled ‘Lest We Forget: The Tragedy of July 1983’. I am sorry that it is not available here, due to the usual problems with printers.
The blurb at the back tells you about the structure of the book. It begins with analytical essays, five of them, that look at different aspects of what happened in 1983 – including one that deals with what its writer saw as a dress rehearsal for July, the attacks on Tamil students at Peradeniya University in May. Then there is a small portfolio of poems, written at the time of the events of July 1983. And let me note here that I am happy that it was the Peace Secretariat that began this commemorative exercise at the beginning of the week before last, in publishing one poem each day on our website. I am very pleased that many newspapers also contributed, some of them publishing what we had sent them, some producing very moving current reflections on what happened. I think it was important that there was recognition of the significance of July 1983 in our media, not emotive on the whole but sensitive and focusing attention on the enormity of the tragedy.
The third section of our book contains fiction, a story that won an award in a competition for South Asian writers, and also an extract from a novel. The concluding section contains reflections, not only what came after but also one that indicates something of the political background, namely the speech of Cyril Mathew in Parliament in August 1981. That was when, after the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, after the refusal of the Speaker to accept a motion of no confidence in him with regard to that event, the Government then proposed a motion of no confidence in the Leader of the Opposition. It was an unheard of attack, designed to create communal feeling. And the speeches made on that occasion contributed, as reported in what was, you may all remember, an entirely State dominated media, to the ill feelings that led to riots against Tamils all over Sri Lanka. I should say all over Sri Lanka except for Colombo, which is why Colombo did not care, in August 1981, though the elite, both Sinhala and Tamil, should have realized that this was a precursor of what could happen later, and which did indeed happen, two years later.
Let me finally ask you to look at the cover, which was designed by one of our best professionals in the electronic media who looks after the website of our Mission in Geneva. I wanted a picture of the Jaffna Public Library that had been burnt two years earlier, and you see that at the top, between Cyril Mathew and J R Jayewardene, who had chosen to send his most racist Minister up to run the election campaign. Then, most crucially, I wanted the picture which you see on the right hand side, a gruesome record of what happened during the riots. It was taken by the photographer of the Aththa newspaper on the night of July 24th. The Aththa, the Communist Party newspaper, was then closed up, and Communist party members, NSSP members, were arrested. When the Government finally realized that, instead of celebrating the riots, they should condemn them, they tried to indicate their innocence by blaming the Marxist parties, none of which had been involved, which had tried, as that picture shows, to make clear what was really happening. That particular photograph has since been used in other contexts, fraudulently, which I explain in my introduction, which is why it should be on record for what it really portrays.
But what I really appreciated was the fact that the web designer, having put all these in, told me that he was going to introduce another picture which was entirely his idea. The picture on the left ‘The children’. And he said that is where we should be heading. The bringing together of our young people for a future in which we will not think of ourselves and of others as Sinhala or Tamil or Muslim or Christian, or whatever, but as Sri Lankans. And it is in that hope, the hope of reconciliation through truth and acknowledgment of realities, that we are having today’s event.
Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
|Last Updated ( Monday, 09 March 2009 )|
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