According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “In 1983, riots broke out throughout the country, but the most severe were in Colombo, where the Pettah district (the market center), controlled mostly by Tamils and Muslims, was looted and many buildings razed. After the outbreak of hostilities, several hundred thousand Tamil civilians fled the island. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

As of mid-1999, approximately 66,000 were housed in 133 refugee camps in south India, another 40,000 lived outside the Indian camps, and more than 200,000 Tamils had sought refuge in the West. Many fled to Germany and Canada, where they were granted political refugee status. These refugees are now the primary source of financial support for the LTTE. Besides the hundreds of dead from the rioting and the destruction of property, perhaps the biggest blow to the collective psyche of Tamils was the bombing and destruction of the Jaffna library, which housed extensive collections on Tamil culture. Tamils considered this intentional “culturocide” conducted by the Sinhalese government to be a deliberate attempt to expel Tamil culture and history from Sri Lanka.

As of 2001, the ongoing civil war had left an estimated 80,000 dead. Both sides have committed terrible atrocities against civilian populations. The LTTE has recruited young boys and girls, and Tamil “Tigers” wear a necklace with a cyanide pill, attached to it like an amulet, to swallow if they are ever captured by the enemy. The war continues despite the fact that the majority of the population on both sides seems to want peace. The LTTE demands an independent state in the northeastern portion of the country and the government, while willing to discuss federation or regional autonomy, utterly rejects the idea of dividing the island into two independent states. Most Tamils, particularly those living in the north and northeast, doubt that they can ever be incorporated into the nation-state of Sri Lanka as anything more than second-class citizens.

Tamil Insurgency Develops

The Tamil youths began to feel that their political leaders had miserably failed to protect their rights, and give them an appropriate place in the country. In the existing desperate conditions, frustrated youths can easily be motivated by a charismatic leader who may mobilise them towards a cherished goal like their own independent, sovereign country (Eelam for Tamils) for a persecuted ethnic minority community. Consequently, the Tamil Tigers launched a terrorist movement to achieve their objective. The extremist activities assumed intensity in the 1970s. But in the eleven days of violence in July-August 1983, the Tamil community suffered enormous destruction and loss of life. Horrible atrocities were committed on the Tamils and efforts were made for completely destroying the economic base of the Tamils. [Source: South Asian Free Media Association]

In the 1970s and 80s various radical pro-Tamil groups began calling for the establishment of a Tamil homeland called Eelam. The neglect of Tamil interests in the Constituent Assembly and the enactment of the new constitution in 1972 marked a turning point in Tamil political participation. The older generation of Tamil leaders had been discredited: their activity in the political process had accomplished little, and the Marxist JVP insurrection of 1971 had set a new model for political activism. Two new groups emerged as an expression of the growing alienation and frustration in the Tamil community. The first, the Tamil United Front, was a coalition of Tamil interest groups and legal parties united by an urgent call for Tamil autonomy. The group espoused nonviolent means to achieve its goals — demonstrations, strikes, and roadblocks — and yet it offered tacit support to other, more confrontational tactics. The second of the new groups, the Tamil New Tigers (TNT), abandoned the political process altogether and geared itself for violence. The TNT was founded in 1972 by Velupillai Prabhakaran, an eighteen-year-old school dropout who was the son of a minor government official. Both the name and the emblem of the new group included the tiger, the traditional symbol of the ancient Tamil kingdoms and one that clearly opposed the lion symbol of Sinhalese nationalism. Despite this obvious ethnic affiliation, the TNT publicly espoused a Marxist ideology and claimed to represent the oppressed of all ethnic groups. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In July 1975, the TNT gained wide public attention with the assassination of the Tamil mayor of Jaffna, who had ordered the police to open fire on a Tamil rights demonstration outside city hall. Except for this act of violence, the activities of the TNT in this period are largely undocumented, and little evidence exists of widespread public support for its violent methods. Moreover, the prospects for a political solution had improved by 1976; the general elections scheduled for 1977 offered hope that the fiercely pro-Sinhalese Bandaranaike government could be ousted and replaced by the more moderate United National Party. At the local level, the Tamil United Liberation Front, a political party, spawned by the Tamil United Front, launched a major campaign for a separate state in Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern provinces.*

The victory of the United National Party and the emergence of the Tamil United Liberation Front as the leader of the parliamentary opposition seemed to give substance to those political hopes. With the enactment of a new constitution, however, it became clear that no major party could turn its back on Sinhalese nationalism. In the Constitution of 1978, as in the previous one, Sinhala remained the sole official language, Buddhism retained "the foremost place" under law, and federal autonomy was denied the Tamil areas. The political disillusionment that emerged in the early 1970s increased after the 1977 elections and gained added impetus after the anti-Tamil riots of 1981 and 1983. A progressive radicalization of the Tamil population led to a growth in the size and level of activity of militant groups, and the insurgency emerged as a growing threat to the power of the government.*

Founding of the Tamil Militancy

M.R.Nayaran Swamy wrote in “Tigers of Lanka": It is virtually impossible to set a date for the genesis of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka. Tamils began weaving dreams of an independent homeland much before militancy erupted, albeit in an embryonic form, in the late 1960's and early 1970's. After 1956 riots, a group of Tamils organized and opened fire at the Sri Lankan army in Batticaloa. Two Sinhalese were killed when 11 Tamils, having between them seven rifles, fired at a convoy of Sinhalese civilians and government officials one night at a village near Kalmunai. There was another attack on army soldiers in Jaffna after Colombo stifled the Federal Party "satyagraha" in 1961, but no one was killed. [Source: “Tigers of Lanka" by M.R.Nayaran Swamy]

The failure of the 1961 "satyagraha" set several of its leading lights thinking. Mahatma Gandhi, they argued, succeeded in India with his concept of non-violence and non-cooperation because he was leading a majority agains a minority, however powerful; whereas in Sri Lanka, the Tamils were a minority seeking rights from a majority. And the majority was not willing to give concessions. Some of 20 men associated with the Federal Party thought Gandhisam had no place in such a separate state. Most of them were civil servants and had been influenced by Leion Uris Exodus. At a meeting in Colombo, they christened their group Pulip Padai (Army of Tigers). On August 12, 1961, the Pulip Padai members converged at the historic Koneswaran Temple in the eastern port of town of Trincomalee and, standing in its holy precincts facing the sea took a solemn oath to fight for a Tamil homeland.

Pulip Padai immediately got into the act, putting out leaflets and pamphlets printed clandestinely, advocating militancy. A student wing called the Manavar Manram (student's council) was set up in 1963. Two Federal Party leaders the Pulip Padai strongly backed were Amirthalingam and V.N. Navaratnam (chavakachcheri MP). The 1965 decision of the Federal Party to support the UNP government broke up the Pulip Padai and it eventually withered away. But many of its activists remained strongly committed to the concept of an independent nation. Two of them were A. Rajaratnam and Sivagnanasundaram. Rajaratnam died in 1975 in Madras of asthma. Sivagnanasundaram became the staunch supporter of the LTTE. He was killed in Jaffna in 1988 by the EPRLF.

In 1969, Thangathurai and Kuttimani and a few friends gathered in Jaffna to form an informal group that the former wanted to name the Tamil Liberation Organization (TLO). A college professor's house at Point Pedro, in Jaffna, was a regular meeting point for the group. It included among others Periya (big) Sothi, Chinna (small) Sothi, Chetti, Kannadi (a radio mechanic), Sri Sabaratnam (TELO leader) and V.Prabhakaran (LTTE supremo).

In April, 1971, Thangathurai, known as mama (uncle) and some 15 others were making explosives at the Thondamanaru high school when a bomb went off, seriously injuring Chinna Sothi. The next year, a similar blast occurred, causing burn injuries to Thangathurai, Chinna Sothi, Prabhakaran and V. Nadesuthasan. Earlier, in 1970, Ponnudorai Satyaseelan founded the Tamil Manavar Peravai (Tamil Students League), which was joined by Sivakumaran.

Bandaranaike had in the meanwhile begun to take a hard line towards Tamils, cutting off foreign exchange for Tamil students going to India for higher studies, banning the import of Tamils films, books and Magazines from Tamil Nadu, and proscribing the small Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in Jaffna. The formation of TUF in 1972 led to the Tamil Elaingyar Peravai (TYL-Tamil Youth League) in January 1973. It was founded by some 40 youths, many of whom subsequently were in the forefront militant movement. The TYL drew support from Thangathurai, the TLO leader. Satyaseelan's arrest in February 1973 set off the second round of mass arrests in Jaffna and virtually crippled the TYL as well as the older Tamil Students League. Several young men languished in prison until 1977, although some gained amnesty on the eve of the Kankesanthurai by-election in 1975.

By then two developments had occurred in the Indian subcontinent which had a bearing on the Tamils. One was the JVP insurrection which was stamped out. The second was the India Pakistan war which led to the birth of Bangladesh. Both events took place in 1971. The JVP was never popular among Tamils, although it did have marginal support in Jaffna. In 1973, the Sri Lankan navy seized a boat belonging to Kuttimani filled with dynamite. Kuttimani fled to India, but was arrested and deported from Tamil Nadu to face a Sri Lankan prison sentence. Tamil Nadu was then governed by M. Karunanithi's DMK party.

Ponnudorai Sivakumaran: the First Cyanide Martyr

M.R.Nayaran Swamy wrote in “Tigers of Lanka": “One man who drifted by the Tamil Liberation Organization (TLO) meetings but broke away to chart an independent course was Ponnudorai Sivakumaran, who was to become one of the first martyrs to the Tamil cause. Sivakumaran attempted to assassinate Sri Lankan deputy minister for Cultural Affairs Somaweera Chandrasiri in September 1970 and Alfred Duraiyappah, the Jaffna Mayor, in February 1971. In 1974, .Sivakumaran had been lying low for a while, but took an active interest in the 1974 International Tamil Conference in Jaffna. He had been influenced by his parent's pro-Federal Party views. He studied at Urumpirai Hindu College which was to several recruits to the Eelam campaign-up to the advanced level, majoring in Chemistry. He is the only one among the Tamils of that era who is remembered fondly by everyone. [Source: “Tigers of Lanka" by M.R.Nayaran Swamy]

He was a very sensitive person. He believed that despite the need for militancy, the Federal Party was important and often compared Chelvanayagam with Mahatma Gandhi and the boys with Subash Chandra Bose. He was a restless character. He would discuss all night, emphasizing the need for an armed struggle.

Since breaking off from Thangathurai, Sivakumaran had set up his group, which came to be known as the Sivakumaran's group. The 1972 and 1973 mass arrests had slowed down his pace. His contemporaries say he was a shattered man after the Tamil Conference fiasco. He had worked for its success, and it pained him that nine people died for no fault of theirs. Since then he had passionately advocated vengeance-against Duraiyappah, the Mayor, and a Sinhalese police officer he held responsible for the deaths.

On June 5, 1974, Sivakumaran was trapped by the police while attempting a bank robbery in Jaffna's Kopai town. He was 17 years of age and knowing about police torture if he were caught, he used to carry a cyanide pill. On that day he swallowed it without so much as an afterthought and died almost instantly. Thus was born Sri Lanka's cyanide culture.

Hundreds thronged Sivakumaran's funeral. All shops in Jaffna downed their shutters in mourning and hundreds of pamphlets were distributed in the town and its outskirts, eulogizing the martyr as Eelam's Bhagat Singh. At the funeral, several TYL members slashed their fingers and with the blood that dripped placed dots on their foreheads, pledging collectively to continue the fight for an independent state. Tamils later put up a bronze statue outside Jaffna in the memory of the young man-it showed a defiant youth, his clinched fist outstretched and dangling a broken chain.

Forces Behind the Creation of Tamil Militant Groups

Many of militant Tamil groups that developed on the 1970s were militant youth groups made up of unemployed graduates and unmarried and rootless youths and were often led by a single charismatic leader. Some of the groups had strong Marxist leanings. The suicide aspect of the movement was set when Pon Sivakumaran, a spokesman for young separatists in Jaffna, committed suicide in 1974 to avoid arrest.

The de facto policies of preference that the Sri Lankan government adopted in order to assist the Sinhalese community in such areas as education and public employment affected most severely middle class Tamil youth, who found it more difficult during the 1970s and 1980s to enter a university or secure employment than had their older brothers and sisters. Individuals belonging to this younger generation, often referred to by other Tamils as "the boys," formed the core of an extremist movement that had become, by the late 1980s, one of the world's most violent. By the end of 1987, they fought not only the Sri Lankan security forces but also the armed might of the (Indian Peacekeeping Force) and terrorized both Sinhalese and Tamil civilians with acts of random violence. They also fought among each other with equal if not greater brutality. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In a sense, the militant movement was not only a revolt against the Sinhalese-dominated status quo but also an expression of intergenerational tensions in a highly traditional society where obedience to parental authority had long been sacrosanct. Militant youth criticized their elders for indecisiveness at a time when they felt the existence of their ethnic community clearly was in danger. The movement also reflected caste differences and rivalries. The membership of the largest and most important extremist group, for example, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was generally drawn from the Karava or fisherman caste, while individuals belonging to the elite Vellala caste were found in considerable numbers in a rival group, the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE, also PLOT).*

Crackdown on Tamils Under Jayewardene

In the Parliamentary elections of July 1977, the UNP came to power with an overwhelming majority and Junius Jayewardene became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. From the Tamil standpoint, the 1977 polls were momentous in 3 ways. 1. For the 1st time, one of Sri Lanka's main parties admitted publicly that there existed a Tamil problem; 2) For the 1st time, a Tamil party was propelled as the main opposition in the Sri Lankan parliament. 3) The sweeping outcome in the northeast polls catapulted Tamil militancy.

The communal violence erupted again the next month. Since then, violence against the Tamils has become a regular feature of communal politics in the country. The Presidential form of government was adopted in the new Constitution of 1978. The Tamils were agitating for autonomy in their region and a federal form of government. Instead, the unitary form of government was reaffirmed and the Parliamentary form of government was abolished. In other words, the majority community leader would not only be all powerful but also not a member of Parliament where he would have to personally listen to the grievances of the minority community. Though the new Constitution recognised both Sinhala and Tamil as the national languages, Sinhala remained the sole official language in the country. Moreover, Buddhism was given the foremost place in the country, though the rights of all other religions were assured.

The Jayewardene government adopted a plan to eliminate Tamil extremists through ruthless military action. Some 40,000 Sri Lankan refugees were reportedly moved into Tamil Nadu by August 1984. The ethnic crisis took a new turn as the Hindu Tamils and Muslims also clashed in the Eastern Province in 1985. The Indian government expressed its concern about the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis. The crisis assumed more seriousness as a result of the massacre at Anuradhapura. Consequently, the Indian Prime, Minister Rajiv Gandhi, met President Jayewardene in Sri Lanka. It was agreed that India would stop supply of arms and men to Sri Lanka and the latter would impose strict control over military operations against the Tamils. Subsequently, representatives of the Sri Lanka government and the leading Tamil groups met in Thimpu (capital of Bhutan) to work out a solution to the bloody ethnic crisis. But no progress could be made towards resolving the ethnic imbroglio.

The ethnic crisis became more serious as President Jayewardene imposed an economic blockade on the Jaffna peninsula in January 1987 in view of the LTTE's threat to take control of the civil administration of Jaffna. As the situation in Jaffna became serious, the Indian government decided to send relief supplies to the suffering Tamils in the area. However, an Indian flotilla carrying the supplies could not reach its destination because the Sri Lanka naval authorities did not permit it to proceed to Jaffna. Consequently, India paradropped the packages of some essential commodities in the Jaffna peninsula. Though the Sri Lanka government criticised the Indian action, it agreed on the modalities for the supply of relief materials.

Tamil Revolts in the 1970s and 80s

There were major Tamil revolts in 1971, 1977, 1981 and 1983. After riots by dissatisfied Sinhalese youth in 1971, the government set up job banks for them, redistributed land, and resettled many people — mostly Sinhalese — from the crowded southwest to the sparsely populated north, where the Tamils have traditionally lived. The Tamils responded with their own revolt.

In April 1971 the government violently clamped down on an insurrection led by the pro-Tamil People's Liberation Front. As many as 15,000 people may have been killed. Some of the victims were forced to dig their own graves and then were lined in front of them and shot. Others were hung by their feet and tortured in front of crowds of people to set an example. Afterwards a state of emergency was declared in Tamil areas. Government forces sent to enforce it were regarded as undisciplined and corrupt. The Tamils resented their presence.

In July 1977 — Black July — Sinhalese mobs looted Tamil shops and homes and threw firebombs. More than a hundred people were killed. After this there were frequent clashes between Tamil “boys” and government security forces as well as series of tit-for-that reprisal killings. Often innocent civilians were the victims.

In June 1981, Sinhalese police raided the Jaffna Public Library, one of the great repositories of Tamil culture, and set it on fire. Among the 97,000 volumes of material that were destroyed were rare of manuscripts written on palm leaves and stored in sandalwood boxes, miniature versions of the Ramayana and extinct Tamil-language newspapers. The attack was reportedly taken with the tacit support of cabinet ministers in Jaffna and was viewed as one episode in a cycle of revenge to retaliate for the killing of two police officers. It provoked widespread anger among Tamils and was a pivotal event.

1977 Anti-Tamil Riots

Early on the morning of August 15, 1977, three unarmed constables stopped 3 boys riding bicycles at Puttur, Jaffna. Without warning, one of the boys took out a revolver and fired, injuring one of the policemen in the thigh. The cyclists escaped. The next day, police shot and killed four persons and wounded 21 others in a bloody shoot-out in Jaffna after the policemen were obstructed from seizing arms carried by some youths. [Source: South Asian Free Media Association]

JR, angry at what he thought was the audacity of the "boys", ordered the army into Jaffna, where the old market was almost totally gutted in a fire the Tamils blamed on the security forces. The 1977 anti-Tamil riots had begun.

Sinhalese mobs began attacking Tamils outside the northeast. For the first time, a large number of Hindu temples came under attack during the two weeks of arson and rioting, which left more than 300 people dead and many more wounded. Thousands of Tamils left their homes and fled to the northeast for safety. They included an estimated 40,000 Indian Tamils, many of whom became destitute overnight even though they were opposed to the Eelam campaign. Many of them went to Vavuniya in the North, where several voluntary groups helped them to begin a new life. Many were sent to Jaffna by 3 ships, as in 1958.

In parliament, JR accused Amir of promoting secessionism and thundered amidst applause from his MP's: "If you want to fight, let there be a fight. If it is peace, let there be a peace. It is not what I am saying. The people of Sri Lanka say that". The riots provoked indignation in Tamil Nadu, which until then had remained largely indifferent to the plight of the island Tamils. The Tamil Nadu assembly expressed "rude shock" over the violence, in which some Indians had also been hit.

Previously, no Sinhalese living in Jaffna came under attack from Tamils. Until Tamil militancy took deep roots in Jaffna, almost 10 percent of its population was Sinhalese, who were bakers, traders, civil servants and businessmen. The 1977 anti-Tamil riots were different from earlier Sinhalese onslaughts. Previously Tamils had rarely hit back in an organized way. But now the Tamil society had its "boys" who were more than willing to take revenge. On August 31, 4 young men came in blue Morris car robbed the People's Bank in Manipay and walked away with 26,000 rupees. Around that time unidentified decamped with 8 rifles and revolvers from a customers office in Jaffna. Also several cases of theft of chemicals from schools were reported in the peninsula.

1983 Riots

On July 24, 1983, the Tigers killed thirteen soldiers in a land-mine ambush in Tirunelveli, triggering anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and elsewhere. Hundreds of Tamils were killed in Colombo and tens of thousands fled to south India. Members of the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front, the main Tamil political party) were thrown out of parliament and the security forces moved into the north and east of the country to try to drive out militant groups. This marked the start of what Tigers call “First Eelam War.” [Source: BBC, 16 May, 2000]

Many of the attacks were against Tamils in Sinhalese areas, particularly in Colombo and the hill country towns. "Tamils were not so easy to distinguish from Sinhalese," one Tamil intellectual told National Geographic. "The rioters would literally have to stop a man and ask his ethnicity. If they doubted he was Sinhalese they would make him recite a Buddhist text.” Government security forces and police did little to stop the violence and in some places were accused of participating in it.

In the evening of July 24th, crowds has started gathering outside the Colombo’s main cemetery where the Government had made initial arrangements to bring the dead bodies of the 13 soldiers died at Tirunelveli for cremation. For reasons unknown, the cremation did not take place in Colombo and the Government decided to send the slain army personnel to their respective villages for cremation. The disappointed crowd who were waiting at the cemetery in Borrella grew restive and started attacking the Tamil shops and houses in and around Borrella and also at Ward Place, as well as in the Rosemead place in Colombo. On the 25th Monday, newspapers in Colombo carried the vivid account of the Tirunelvely attack with the gory details, fueling anti-Tamil attacks. The riots spread to Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Trincomalee, areas where Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils were concentrated. Within Colombo alone, nearly 100,000 Tamils were displaced. There was hardly any Tamil family in Colombo that escaped death, destruction or displacement.

Conservative government estimates put the death toll at 400 — mostly Tamils. At least 150,000 Tamil fled the island. The army was reputed to have killed sixty Tamil civilians in Jaffna, but most of the violence occurred in Colombo, where Sinhalese mobs looked for Tamil shops to destroy. More than any previous ethnic riot on the island, the 1983 riots were marked by their highly organized mob violence. Sinhalese rioters in Colombo used voter lists containing home addresses to make precise attacks on the Tamil community. From Colombo, the anti-Tamil violence fanned out to the entire island. The psychological effects of this violence on Sri Lanka's complex and divided society were still being assessed in the late 1980s. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The authorities, seemingly paralyzed during the bloody days of July 24 to July 31, did little or nothing to protect the victims of mob violence. Curfews were not enforced by security personnel even though they were required under a nationwide state of emergency in effect since the May by-elections. Jayewardene withdrew to his presidential residence, heavily guarded by government troops, and issued a statement after the riots that "the time has come to accede to the clamor and the national respect of the Sinhala People," that expressed little sympathy for the sufferings of the Tamils.*

Violence During the 1983 Riots

Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “Sinhalese residents of Colombo turned on their Tamil neighbors. In a murderous orgy that spread quickly across the southern part of the island, they hacked, raped, burned, and shot as many as three thousand people. The killing went on for a week, and thousands of Tamil homes and businesses were torched and looted. The authorities, by and large, did not intervene, and in some cases coöperated with the mobs.” [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]

After the 1981 attack on the Jaffna Library, many Tamils came to the conclusion that only the militant Tamil youth gangs could protect them. Hostilities escalated to the most savage communal riots in Sri Lanka's history in July 1983, when the Tamil separatists ambushed a Sri Lankan patrol, killing 13 soldiers in the Jaffna area. Government-supported Sinhalese gangs went on a rampage for three days, looting, burning and attacking Tamils throughout the country. At least 400 people were killed, most of them Tamils, including 53 Tamils held at Welikade Prison outside Colombo that were attacked by a mob. Some estimate 3,000 people were killed.

According to Tambiah, the mutilated corpses of the 13 ambushed soldiers were brought to Colombo by their comrades and displayed at a cemetery as an example of the Tigers' barbarism. In an explosion of rage, local Sinhalese began attacks on Tamils and their property that spread out from Colombo District to other districts and resulted in at least 400 casualties (the official figure) and perhaps as many as 2,000 (an estimate by Tamil sources). Damage to property, including Tamil-owned shops and factories, was initially estimated at the equivalent of US$150 million, probably a low figure. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

V. Suryanarayan wrote: “The riots', which began on the night of July 24, 1983, saw Sri Lanka go up in flames by early August. The Government maintained that the violence was a spontaneous backlash of the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). No one believed the propaganda, for it was clear that there was planning behind thespontaneous' counter-violence. Paul Sieghart, the Chairman of the British section of the International Commission of Jurists, wrote in his report on the tragedy: "Clearly this was not a spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala people. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organised well in advance." What, however, must not be missed is the silver lining: many Sinhalese risked their lives to save their Tamil friends from the marauding mobs. [Source: By V. Suryanarayan, July 24, 2003]

“Carrying voters' lists and addresses of Tamil houses, the rioters ran amok in Wellawatte, Dehiwela and Bambalapatiya. Factories and industrial establishments owned by the Tamils were reduced to ashes. Still worse, the complicity of the authorities became evident in the massacre of the Tamil prisoners in the high security Welikade prison on July 25 and 27. The murdered included two political prisoners, Jegan and Kuttimani. Sinhalese prisoners, convicted for murder, rape and burglary, were hand picked by the officials for the deadly job. They were served alcohol and let loose on Tamil prisoners. According to survivors' accounts, the bodies were piled up in front of a Buddha the statue in the jail courtyard and were set ablaze.

1983 Welikade Tamil Prisoners’ Massacre

Fifty-three Tamils held at Welikade Prison outside Colombo that were attacked by a mob and killed. Douglas Devananda MP, a survivor told the Asian Tribune: At “midnight we were awoken and our cells were opened up and the jail guards asked us to follow them. We were taken to the Youthful Offenders Section and ordered to occupy the cells on the ground floor. We began to wonder why we have been removed suddenly from the Chappell section of the prison to the YO section....We were kept in our section. Here we were able to converse easily with the other inmates freely without any problem. However, we all had some tense feeling within us. We all had a feeling that something might happen to us soon. [Source: Douglas Devananda MP, an eye-witness account, Asian Tribune]

“On 27th afternoon, we saw hundreds of the prisoners converging towards YO section. As we were on the ground floor we were able to see the marching crowd which included Sinhalese prisoners, jailors, prison guards and others in civil clothes. The time would have been nearly 2.30 in the afternoon and our attackers were menacingly marching towards the YO section brandishing swords, axes, crowbars, iron pipes, firewood and so many other unconventional weapons and making threatening noises as they neared the main entrance of YO section. It dawned on us that this was the battle formation to attack us and we realized that we must do something to save us - do or die and we prepared ourselves to face the consequences bravely and made our weapons out of aluminum eating plates and drinking cups and waited for the attackers boldly, though we were unarmed and outnumbered.

They managed to snatch the key to entrance of YO Section from the guard and to enter into the section. I saw a group going upstairs menacingly while the balance remained downstairs trying break open the doors leading to our cells. It was a pitched battle. Some of us managed to grab the weapons of our attackers and kept on keeping them at bay, but we find that they had an upper hand in the battle as they had all the weapons needed for the attack and they outnumbered us They managed to kill Muthukumar Srikumar, Amirthanayagam Philip, Kasalingham Kumar, Sellachami Kumar, Kandasamy Sarweswaran, A. Marianpillai Sivapalan Neethirajah Devanayagam Paskaran S.Rajaratnam - in total they killed 18 of us. We also attacked them very ferociously and I think we too managed to give them severe blows and I saw in the end they were dragging more than a dozen of their people. When the fight was evenly poised, suddenly the attackers withdrew.

“When I looked around, I saw Rajan, Panagoda Maheswaran, and Tractor Sri including me, a total of 10 of us remained alive. We all had sustained injuries, but survived. Even though we all sustained injuries, something in us was telling that we should continue to fight, defense was the best alternative left in us to counter the offence and challenges posed by our attackers. We were holding on and by 4 pm soldiers from the army entered the scene by firing tear gas to disperse the attackers.

“Army personnel armed with modern sophisticated weapons, fired tear gas and simply ordered the attackers to leave the scene, without arresting anyone of them and ordered us to come out of our cells to the verandah of the YO section. I saw many of our brothers who were with us in C3 section fallen and their bodies lying in pool of blood and flesh, body parts and blood scattered all over.

When we were ordered to come out of our cell I saw many of them still alive and struggling. I started carrying them to the entrance of the YO section and laid them in the floor, hoping that the Army people might rush them to the hospital to give necessary medication and make them to survive. Thus I carried almost seven of our colleagues who were not dead but they lay unconscious.” Later, “I saw a group of prison guards releasing heavy blow on the heads of those unconscious prisoners whom I carried and laid in the front entrance of the YO section, thus ending the lives of six of them.”

Forces Behind the 1983 Riots

There was ample evidence, reported in the Indian and Western media, that the violence was more a carefully planned program than a totally spontaneous expression of popular indignation. According to a report in the New Delhi publication, India Today, "the mobs were armed with voters' lists, and detailed addresses of every Tamil-owned shop, house, or factory, and their attacks were very precise." Other sources mentioned the central role played by Minister of Industry and Scientific Affairs Cyril Mathew in providing personnel for the violence and the ease with which the mobs found transportation, including government vehicles, to move from place to place. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

According to political scientist James Manor, the eagerness of powerful politicians such as Mathew to stir up ethnic trouble stemmed at least in part from factional struggles within the ruling UNP. Mathew reportedly used the riots to compromise the aging and seemingly indecisive Jayewardene and undermine support for the chief executive's all-but-designated successor, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa. According to India Today reporting in August 1983, five UNP factional groups, including Mathew's and Premadasa's, competed for influence. With deep reservoirs of anti-Tamil sentiment among poorer Sinhalese to draw upon, Mathew could not be ignored in any post-Jayewardene political arrangement within the UNP. His schemes, however, ultimately backfired. In December 1984, Mathew was obliged to resign from the cabinet for opposing negotiations between the government and the Tamils on regional autonomy, and he subsequently faced expulsion from the party. *

The 1983 violence had a caste as well as ethnic dimension. Mathew was a leader of the Vahumpura caste. This group has a lower status than the politically dominant Goyigama caste but comprises more than one-third of the Sinhalese population. Traditionally, Vahumpura occupations included the making of jaggery (brown sugar derived from palm sap) and domestic service in higher caste households. Nevertheless, they trace their descent from the attendants of Mahinda, the brother or son of the Indian emperor Ashoka, who came to Sri Lanka as a Buddhist missionary in the third century B.C. and thus claimed an esteemed status among Sinhalese Buddhists. The Vahumpura also had been actively involved in commerce, but in the 1970s and early 1980s they were forced out of the business by their Sinhalese Karava and Tamil competitors. The resultant decline in their fortunes was a source of much resentment toward the other groups.*

Impact of the 1983 Riots

The riots and violence of 1983 effectively eliminated the Tamil business community in Colombo and other Sinhalese areas throughout Sri Lanka. There was a mass exodus of Tamils from Colombo and from Sri Lanka itself. All the moderate Tamil members of Parliament fled to India. Many Tamil intellectuals and members of the middle class fled abroad. This radicalized the Tamils even more and earned violent Tamil militants support among ordinary Tamils. The 1983 violence caused irreparable divisions between Sinhalese and Tamils. The riots set in motion a cycle of violence that has escalated over the years and triggered the Civil War with the Tamil Tigers.

The year 1983 can be regarded as a psychological turning point in the ethnic crisis. The brutal anti-Tamil riots of July in Colombo and other towns, and the government's apparent lack of concern for Tamil safety and welfare seemed to rule out a peaceful resolution of differences between Tamils and Sinhalese. Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: The violence was a historic watershed. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils who had lived in the south fled to the north and east; many of them entered the Tigers’ training camps, where a movement was growing for a separate Tamil homeland. Another wave of refugees moved abroad, and these “diaspora Tamils” began to support the Tigers’ cause. India’s sizable Tamil population was outraged, and their politicians called for action. In response, Indira Gandhi’s government began providing the militants with covert financial assistance and military training. Sri Lanka’s civil war had begun.” [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]

Some observers speculated that the LTTE had moderated to a slight degree its attacks against government forces in the north, because of the presence of Tamil "hostages" in Colombo and other Sinhalese-majority urban areas, but that the July 1983 riots removed such inhibitions. The vicious cycle of violence intensified as attacks by the LTTE and other groups against troops brought harsh retaliation against Tamil civilians, especially in the Jaffna Peninsula. Reports issued by Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, told of random seizures, tortures, and executions of hundreds of young Tamil men by the armed forces in Northern and Eastern provinces. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

These actions forced the great majority of Sri Lankan Tamils, whatever their point of view on the goals or methods of the guerrillas, into the arms of the extremists. In the words of one observer, the Tamil population in the north was "visibly afraid of the Tigers, but they disliked the [Sri Lankan] Army even more." As the civil war intensified, government troops were besieged inside the seventeenth-century Jaffna Fort, and most areas of Jaffna City and the surrounding countryside were under Tiger control. The government ordered serial bombings of the city. Thousands of Tamils sought refuge from government attacks across the Palk Strait in India's Tamil Nadu State. As indignation among Tamils in India grew over the atrocities, Colombo was filled with rumors of an impending Indian invasion that would have resulted in a permanent division of the island.*

By 1984 the violence Tamil uprising had all but driven Sinhalese security forces out of the Tamil north and east. In May 1985, more than 150 people (mostly Sinhalese) were gunned down by terrorists in what became known as the Anuradhapura massacre.

Sinhalese Militant Groups

During the 1980s, extremist groups operating within both Tamil and Sinhalese communities were a grave threat to political stability and democratic institutions. Like Northern Ireland and Lebanon, Sri Lanka had become a country in which the vicious cycle of escalating violence had become so deeply entrenched that prospects for a peaceful resolution of social and political problems seemed remote. Extremism was generationally as well as ethnically based: many youth, seeing a future of diminished opportunities, had little faith in established political and social institutions and were increasingly attracted to radical solutions and the example of movements abroad like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Perhaps surprisingly, the first major extremist movement in postindependence history was Sinhalese and Buddhist rather than Tamil and Hindu. The JVP, an ultra-leftist organization established in the late 1960s by Rohana Wijeweera, attracted the support of students and poor Sinhalese youth in rural areas. In April 1971, the JVP led an armed uprising that resulted in the death of thousands of the rebels at the hands of the security forces (one estimate is 10,000 fatalities). The historian, K.M. de Silva, calls the 1971 JVP insurrection "perhaps the biggest revolt by young people in any part of the world in recorded history, the first instance of tension between generations becoming military conflict on a national scale." Although it suppressed the poorly organized revolt with little difficulty, the Bandaranaike government was visibly shaken by the experience. Fears of future unrest within the Sinhalese community undoubtedly made it reluctant, in a "zero-sum" economy and society, to grant significant concessions to minorities.

Although the JVP was recognized as a legal political party in 1977 and Wijeweera ran as a presidential candidate in the October 1982 election, it was banned by the government after the summer 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and went underground. By the late 1980s, it was again active in Sinhalese-majority areas of the country. The JVP cadres organized student protests at Sri Lanka's universities, resulting in the temporary closure of six of them, and led sporadic attacks against government installations, such as a raid on an army camp near Kandy in 1987 to capture automatic weapons. But they were also suspected of establishing links with Tamil militant groups, especially the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS). Government intelligence analysts believed that the JVP, in tandem with EROS, was attempting to organize a leftist movement among Indian Tamils in the Central Highlands. This was a disturbing development since the Indian Tamils had traditionally been docile and politically apathetic.*

In 1987 a splinter group of the JVP, known as the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV — Patriotic Liberation Organization), emerged. The DJV threatened to assassinate members of Parliament who approved the conditions of the July 29, 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord, which it described as a "treacherous sell-out to Tamil separatists and Indian expansionists" and said that it would take the lives not only of parliamentarians who approved it but also of their families.*

Tamil Insurgent Groups

The largest and most influential of the Tamil insurgent groups was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Eelam is the original Tamil name for Sri Lanka). Founded in 1972 as the Tamil New Tigers, the group changed its name in 1976 as it accelerated its violent campaign for Tamil independence. The growth of the insurgency in the late 1970s brought with it an increasing fragmentation as personal, caste, and tactical differences divided the original movement. One of the earliest groups to break away was the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (known variously as PLOT or PLOTE). The group was formed in 1981 by Uma Maheswaran, a disgruntled member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who had major disagreements with LTTE leader Prabhakaran. The new group claimed to represent a purer form of Marxist orthodoxy. Although ideological disputes may have been involved in the split, caste also seems to have played an important role; LTTE members were largely from Karaiya and low-caste urban backgrounds, whereas PLOT contained mostly Vellala, a high-caste rural group. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

A host of other groups emerged in the early 1980s. Observers in the late 1980s counted at least thirty separate guerrilla groups of which five, including the LTTE, were the most important. The other four major groups were: 1) the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), led by K. Padmanabha; 2) the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), led by Sri Sabaratnam until he was killed by the LTTE assassins in May 1986; 3) the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), led by V. Balakumar; and 4) the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), headed by Uma Maheswaran. Like the LTTE, most of these organizations espoused a Marxist ideology that appeared prominently in their publications but seemed to play only a minor role in their activities and indoctrination.

Known collectively as "Tigers" or simply "the boys," these groups operated in changing patterns of competition and cooperation, forming a variety of coalitions (such as the Eelam National Liberation Front and the Three Stars). These groups differed significantly in terms of strategies and ideologies. EROS was said to prefer acts of economic sabotage. In March 1985, the LTTE, EPRLF, TELO, and EROS formed a united front organization, the Eelam National Liberation Front (ENLF). PLOTE, probably the most genuinely Marxist-Leninist of the five major guerrilla groups, remained outside the coalition. By mid-1986, ENLF had become largely inoperative after the LTTE quit, although the other groups sought to form a front without its participation. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The Liberation Tigers proceeded to devour their rivals during 1986 and 1987. TELO was decimated in 1986 by repeated LTTE armed attacks. By late 1986, LTTE had established itself as the dominant, if not the sole, spokesman of the Tamil insurgency. During 1987 the Tigers battled not only Indian troops but members of PLOTE and the EPRLF.*

Financial and technical support for the Tamil movement came from a variety of domestic and foreign sources. Internally, the Tigers relied on "taxes" either willingly donated or extorted from the local populace which were supplemented by a number of bank robberies. External support came from Tamils overseas, most notably in southern India, North America, and Western Europe. Many of the insurgent groups maintained headquarters and training facilities in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where the state government and a predominantly Tamil population were sympathetic to their insurgent brethren in Sri Lanka. Official Indian support was curtailed sharply, however, following the signing of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in July 1987. There were also unconfirmed reports that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had provided training at its installations in the Middle East.*

Sri Lanka and the LTTE in the 1980s

Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: In December, 1986, I arrived in Sri Lanka with my brother Scott. The conflict was only three years old, and its body count — around five thousand — was still relatively modest. But the Tigers were already notable for their unusual discipline and ferocity. In addition to carrying out a few massacres of their own (including an especially brutal one in 1985, in which a hundred and forty-six civilians were killed in a raid on one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka), the Tigers had instituted a reign of terror among their fellow-Tamils, imposing absolute authority, levying war taxes, and eliminating their rivals. A master of battlefield innovation, Prabhakaran devised a form of execution for collaborators with the enemy: the victim was tied to a lamppost and blown to pieces with Cordex explosive fuse wire.” [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]

“During our visit, Colombo was quiet, and the Sinhalese areas of the country remained largely untouched by the war. In the eastern city of Batticaloa, however, we found an atmosphere of violence and contained hysteria. The Army’s antiterrorist Special Task Force, created for the purpose of fighting Tamil insurgents, had taken over the city’s police stations; its soldiers were bunkered in behind sandbags and razor wire, their guns pointing out through sniper holes. After dusk no one ventured out on the streets. Groups of women in saris recognized us as foreigners and beseeched us to help them find their sons, who had been detained by the S.T.F. The Army had developed a pattern of mass arrests, torture, and, with growing frequency, murder. A Tamil Catholic priest, Father Chandra Fernando, told us that disappearances and indiscriminate shootings occurred daily in the area, and that every male between fifteen and forty had been arrested at least once. The conflict had grown so terrible, he said, that he had come to question the very existence of God.

“Both sides of the Sri Lankan civil war insisted on their victimhood, which only prolonged the fighting. A few hours’ drive from Colombo, we visited a camp for Tamil political suspects who had been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. There were a hundred and twenty-five inmates, ranging in age from fifteen to sixty-seven, all of whom had been picked up by the Special Task Force. Although most of them were uneducated farmers and fishermen, and denied having anything to do with the Tamil militant organizations, they had been tortured and humiliated, they said. Their guard, a Muslim, nodded sympathetically as they spoke. At one point, he whispered to us, “They are all innocent.”

“At the day’s end, we joined our host, Bobby Wickremasinghe, the deputy minister for prisons, on the veranda of the camp administrator’s house. “Nobody sees our problem,” he said. “We are just a few Sinhalese, but the Tamils are millions, here and in South India. They can go to India, where there are so many Tamils. They can go all over the world. Who will take me, a Sinhalese? I must live and die on this island! . . . Does no one see that for us, the Sinhalese Buddhists, it is a problem of survival? It is the perishing of a race.” The Sinhalese, of course, constituted three-quarters of the population. “If we wanted to, we could wipe out the Tamils in an hour or two. But we haven’t done that, because we are Buddhists.”

Tamil Tiger Camp in the 1980s

Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: Through Father Chandra, we made arrangements to visit the Tigers’ nearest camp, a journey that took us by motorcycle, ferry, and jeep into a remote area of sparse jungle. When we arrived, wicker chairs had been placed in a half-circle inside a thatched hut. A group of perhaps forty fighters, teen-agers mostly, stood by, armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. The Tiger commander of the Eastern Province, Colonel Kumarappa, appeared. A heavyset Tamil with a drooping mustache, he wore khaki trousers and a white shirt and had a revolver tucked in his belt. He sat down in one of the chairs and motioned for us to do the same. His fighters crowded into the hut around us. [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]

Guerrilla commanders often lay out a philosophical and historical argument for their use of violence, but Kumarappa’s case for war seemed almost offhand; for the Tigers, killing and dying seemed to be virtues in themselves. When I asked him what kind of government he wanted for the new Tamil state of Eelam, he paused for a long while before replying, “Oh, yeah, socialist. A socialist country, yeah, because in here sixty per cent of the people are poor — only ten per cent are very rich. Corruption, you know?” The Tigers, like insurgents who came later in other parts of the world, led constrained lives; they were denied alcohol, cigarettes, and premarital sex, and maintained a worshipful devotion to Prabhakaran, which they demonstrated with their willingness to perform suicide missions. Kumarappa boasted that his fighters were obliged to wear cyanide capsules around their necks and to swallow them if they were captured. “I think the cyanide helps our morale, you know?” Recently, he said, Army commandos had captured a handful of fighters without their cyanide, and the Tigers had evaded interrogation by struggling until their captors were forced to shoot them.

Kumarappa acknowledged killing civilians: “Sometimes, you know, we don’t have any alternatives. Sometimes we have to do that job, too.” But the Tigers had a higher purpose — the cause of a Tamil homeland — and therefore had no choice but to punish those who collaborated with the enemy. Kumarappa said that he had captured many spies; he had one in camp at that moment, a woman of thirty-six. He ordered his men to bring her in. She was tiny, with unkempt hair and a bad limp, and her eyes were wide and unfocussed. She was made to sit in a chair next to Kumarappa. Her name was Athuma, he said. His men had caught her two days earlier, after she infiltrated their area, and accused her of spying for the Sri Lankan Army. Kumarappa said she had already confessed: “Without any torture, she accepts everything.” Her relationship with the Army had begun when an officer agreed to take two of her children to be adopted by his sister in Colombo. Afterward, he had demanded that she collect information.

Athuma mumbled in Tamil, and her eyes roved around. Kumarappa translated: “She asks me for her life.” “Has she said why she did it?” “Because of money. She’s suffering in poverty, you know.” Scott asked, “What does she think is going to happen to her?” Athuma said something in a soft voice. Kumarappa said, “She knows very well the final decision. She knows we’re going to kill her.” “Rosalie — your poor performance this year has reduced your parents’ investment in you by almost seventy per cent.”

Athuma spoke to Scott and me, repeating something over and over. Kumarappa said, “She’s pleading, ‘They’re going to take my life.’ ” I asked if people had died as a result of her information, and Kumarappa said no. “Then why can’t you forgive her?” I asked. Kumarappa sighed. “Because, you know, she made a big mistake.” He waved, and Athuma was taken away by several fighters.

Major LTTE Incidents in the 1980s

After the assassination of Jaffna's mayor in 1975, the militant groups accelerated their campaign of violence and destabilization. Their early targets included policemen, soldiers, and a number of Tamil politicians who were seen as collaborators with the Sinhalese-dominated government. The attacks were sporadic, relying largely on hit-and-run tactics. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In July 1983, the LTTE ambushed a military convoy in Northern Province, killing thirteen soldiers. The attack sparked off a conflagration of communal violence in which approximately 350 Tamils were killed and as many as 100,000 were forced to flee their homes. Indiscriminate violence by Sinhalese mobs and members of the security forces led to insecurity and alienation among the Tamil population, and support for the insurgency grew dramatically. The year 1984 was marked by a substantial increase in terrorist attacks, and the militants turned increasingly against civilian targets. Major incidents included an armed attack against civilians in the ancient Sinhalese city of Anuradhapura (May 1985 — 146 dead); the detonation of a bomb aboard an Air Lanka jet at the Bandaranaike International Airport (May 1986 — 20 dead); and a massive explosion at the Pettah bus station in Colombo during rush hour (April 1987 — 110 dead).*

As the Tamil movement grew and obtained more weapons, it changed tactics. A full-fledged insurgency that could confront the armed forces replaced the isolated terrorist incidents that had characterized the early period. By early 1986, the LTTE had won virtual control of the Jaffna Peninsula, confining the army to military bases and taking over the day-to-day administration of the city of Jaffna. In January 1987, the Tigers attempted to formalize their authority over the peninsula by establishing an "Eelam Secretariat." LTTE leaders claimed that this was intended simply to consolidate functions that the insurgents were already performing, i.e., collecting taxes and operating basic public services. Nonetheless, the government interpreted this move as a unilateral declaration of independence and thus a challenge to governmental authority.*

Major Attacks in the 1980s (Attack: Date, Location, Death toll) listed based on the number killed :
Anuradhapura massacre: 14 May 1985 in Anuradhapura, Anuradhapura District, killing 146

Habarana bus massacre: 17 April 1987 in Habarana, Anuradhapura District, killing 127

Central Bus Station Bombing: 21 April 1987 in Pettah, Colombo, Colombo District, killing 113

Kent and Dollar Farm massacres: 30 November 1984 in Mullaitivu District, killing 62
Aranthalawa Massacre: 2 July 1987 in Aranthalawa, Ampara District, killing 35
Air Lanka Flight 512: 3 May 1986 at Bandaranaike International Airport, Gampaha District, killing 21
Kokilai massacre: 1 December 1984 in Kokilai, Mullaitivu District, killing 11 [Source: Wikipedia]

Eastern Province Question

Indian pressure was apparently a major factor in persuading the four major guerrilla groups included within the Eelam National Liberation Front (the LTTE, TELO, EROS, and EPRLF) and the Tamil political party, TULF, to hold talks with a government delegation headed by the president's brother, Hector Jayewardene. The meetings were convened in July and August 1985 in Thimpu, capital of Bhutan. Jayewardene advanced a proposal involving, as in the 1984 All Party Conference, the granting of autonomy to district councils. He also proposed the creation of a separate legislature for the Tamil-majority northern region of the island. The Tamil groups made four demands: recognition of the Tamils as a distinct national group, the creation of a Tamil state (Eelam) from Northern and Eastern provinces, the right of self- determination for the Tamil "nation," and full citizenship rights for all Tamils resident in Sri Lanka. The government rejected the first three on the grounds that they amounted to separatism, which was prohibited by the Constitution and the talks broke off abruptly on August 18, 1985, when Tamil delegates accused the armed forces of continuing to perpetrate atrocities against Tamil civilians. The fourth demand, for granting Sri Lankan citizenship to 96,000 Indian Tamils, was met in January 1986. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In December 1985, TULF broke ranks with the militants and announced support for a Tamil-majority federal state remaining within Sri Lanka with the devolution of substantial executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The government, however, objected to the controversial joining of Eastern Province with Northern Province in the proposed federal unit. Although Northern Province clearly had a Tamil majority and limited economic potential, the position in Eastern Province was ambiguous: 58 percent of its population was either Sinhalese or Muslim. Although Eastern Province Muslims spoke Tamil, the great majority were descended from Arab settlers. Also, Eastern Province contained large areas of fertile and economically exploitable land and the strategic port of Trincomalee. Although a second All Party Conference was held in June 1986, neither TULF nor the militants participated. Talks in Colombo between TULF and the government were snagged on the issue of the status of Eastern Province.*

The Eastern Province issue brought the Muslims into the negotiations not only because they viewed themselves as a community quite separate from both the Tamils and Sinhalese but also because there had been communal violence involving Tamils and Muslims in Eastern Province during the 1980s, and the latter were not enthusiastic about being included in a separate, Tamil- dominated state. According to the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, M. Ashraff, "we are a community being oppressed both by the Sinhalese and the Tamils." Some younger Muslims expressed sympathy for the LTTE, but the leadership of the community wanted the government to grant them some kind of autonomous status separate from any settlement with the Tamils.*

By late 1986, Jayewardene's government found itself tied down by conflicting communal interests that included not only the Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims but Sinhalese who rallied behind the nationalist appeal of Sirimavo Bandaranaike's Movement for Defense of the Nation. Against a background of unremitting violence that included bloody Tamil terrorist bombings in Colombo, the status of Eastern Province remained a major stumbling block. Given the stalemate, India's participation loomed larger in any formula that had a chance of achieving peace.*

In November 1986, Sri Lankan and Indian leaders conferred at the annual summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Bangalore, India. They outlined a settlement that included provincial councils for Northern and Eastern provinces and special provisions for Eastern Province that would entail the establishment of local councils for Sinhalese in Trincomalee, Tamils in Batticaloa District, and Muslims in the southern district of Amparai. This arrangement was scrapped in the face of Tamil opposition. On December 17-19, 1986, President Jayewardene met cabinet-level Indian officials in Colombo and agreed to another set of proposals, described as a "beginning point for further negotiations," which conceded the possible merger of Northern and Eastern provinces and the joining of Sinhalese-majority areas of Amparai District to the inland province of Uva. This proposal, too, was scrapped, because of the objections of Amparai Muslims.*

Indian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Conflict

As the situation in Sri Lanka deteriorated in the 1980s, with human rights violations on both sides, President Jayawardene sought to involve India through an agreement with its Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. India has a population of around 55 million Tamils, mainly in the state of Tamil Nadu and some Sri Lankans felt that the LTTE was gaining considerable support from them. Negotiations began in 1985 and the Sri Lankan government made a number of concessions to the Tamils with some devolution of power and official status for the Tamil language. [Source: BBC, 16 May, 2000]

According to the Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments: “India played a controversial role in the civil war by giving military and medical aid to Tamil rebels in the city of Jaffna. It parachuted tons of food into areas that were under siege by government forces. Some observers say the intervention was aimed at appeasing India’s large Tamil population, which supported the independence movement in Sri Lanka. In 1987 Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene (1906–1996) met with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (1944–1991) to negotiate a peace treaty. Among other minor concessions, the Sri Lankan government agreed to merge the northern and eastern provinces; to give additional governmental powers to the provinces; and to make Tamil an official language of the region. [Source: Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments, Thomson Gale, 2008]

In July 1987, India and Sri Lanka signed an accord, which the LTTE at first went along with, to try to settle the problem through devolution and greater autonomy for the Tamils while an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) would disarm the rebels. Concessions of autonomy to the Tamils led to a backlash among the Sinhalese population, especially around proposals to merge the northern and eastern parts of the island into a Tamil-dominated province.

In 1987 the Sri Lankan government went on a major military offensive in the north of the island but India raised objections to the methods used and warned that it would intervene on humanitarian grounds if it thought the Tamils were being starved out. Relations between the India and Sri Lanka deteriorated rapidly after Indian planes dropped supplies into Jaffna.

Sinhalese nationalism began to grow and was fanned by Sirimavo Bandaranaike's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It found violent expression in the JVP, who fought against the accord with India, undermining the government's position.The JVP assassinated a number of political figures and tried to intimidate voters during the 1988 election.

In 1989, peace talks resumed between the LTTE and newly elected Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa led to Mr Premadasa calling for the withdrawal of Indian troops. The IPKF began withdrawing from Sri Lanka in 1989,The last IPKF contingents left Sri Lanka in March 1990.When the IPKF left the shores of Sri Lanka, the Tigers moved in without a fight to take more-or-less full control of the North and the East. On May 21, 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in India during an election campaign trip. The Tigers were held responsible for the killing. Attempts were made intermittently after that to try to resolve the conflict but all have proved unsuccessful.

India's Perspective on the Conflict in Sri Lanka

By the close of 1984, it was becoming clear that the parties within Sri Lanka were incapable of reaching a workable compromise on their own. The new Congress (I), I for Indira Gandhi, government of Rajiv Gandhi in India assumed an active mediation role at the request of the government of Sri Lanka. Gandhi's own interest in containing the ethnic crisis was self-evident. Thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees were fleeing to Tamil Nadu State, which was also a sanctuary for most of the militant groups and the now disenfranchised TULF (the number of Tamil refugees was more than 100,000 in early 1987). Local politicians, particularly Tamil Nadu's chief minister, M.G. Ramachandran, demanded initiatives on the part of New Delhi to halt the violence. Ramachandran's AIADMK was one of the few southern regional parties friendly to Gandhi's Congress (I). An appearance of insensitivity to Tamil suffering on the part of New Delhi might cost it the support of the AIADMK or strengthen the hand of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the state's major opposition party. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

At the same time, Gandhi, whose predecessor as prime minister (his mother) had been assassinated by Sikh extremists on October 31, 1984, had no desire to encourage separatist forces within his own ethnically and religiously divided country by sponsoring separatist sentiments in Sri Lanka. New Delhi wished to rein in the Tigers without appearing to be too enthusiastic a backer of Jayewardene's government.*

A third problem for Gandhi was strategic. As the ethnic crisis deepened, the Jayewardene government sought increasing military aid from countries of which India was suspicious or which seemed to challenge New Delhi's primacy in the Indian Ocean region. China, Britain, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), and South Africa supplied Sri Lanka with arms. Israel operated a special interest section in the United States Embassy in Colombo, and Israeli experts provided training in counterinsurgency and land settlement strategies. Retired members of Britain's Special Air Service also trained Sri Lankan military personnel. India also feared that the United States naval forces might establish an Indian Ocean base at the strategic port of Trincomalee ("another Diego Garcia" charged India). The most ominous foreign presence, however, was Pakistan's. In March-April 1985, Jayewardene made an official visit to Islamabad to confer with President Mohammed Zia ul Haq and other top Pakistani officials. According to Indian sources, Sri Lankan forces were trained by Pakistani advisers both in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Gandhi, like his mother before him, referred to Sri Lanka's inclusion within a "Washington-Islamabad-Beijing axis".*

India Steps Up Its Involvement in the Conflict in Sri Lanka

By early 1987, India had grown impatient with the lack of progress on an accord and threatened to end its mediating role. A still more serious problem was the apparent determination of the Sri Lankan government to use military means to solve the crisis. In late May, a large-scale offensive, dubbed Operation Liberation, was launched against the LTTE in the Jaffna Peninsula. The offensive caused considerable hardship among local civilians. Indian efforts to bring relief supplies by boat were rebuffed by the Sri Lankan Navy on June 3, 1987, but an airdrop of supplies by the Indian Air Force took place the next day. Sri Lanka labelled this action a "naked violation" of its territorial integrity. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

By July 1987, however, Jayewardene — weary of the bloodletting and sincere in his desire for a peaceful solution — and Prime Minister Gandhi, perceiving that he could not afford an indefinite prolongation of the crisis, had groped to within reach of a viable accord. In a July 1 letter, Gandhi urged Jayewardene to come up with some "new ideas" on a settlement. On July 16, Jayewardene, his cabinet, and the Indian high commissioner in Colombo, Jyotindra Nath Dixit, conferred on an "improved version" of the December 19, 1986, proposals which were sent two days later to New Delhi and subsequently formed the basis for the July 29, 1987, Indo-Sri Lankan Accord.*

The major task for Gandhi, acting as middleman, was to draw the Tamil militants into the settlement. On July 28, after a last minute meeting with the Indian prime minister, LTTE leader Prabhakaran announced his support for the accord. In an interview with India Today, he reconciled this decision with the longstanding LTTE demand for an independent state by citing the accord's recognition of the Northern and Eastern provinces' status as places of "historical habitation of Tamil-speaking people." But Prabhakaran also noted that he had not been a party to the accord and doubted that it would bring lasting peace. The four other major guerilla groups also gave their backing to the pact on July 28, though they expressed concern about its "deficiencies."

Rajiv Gandi Visits Colombo

On July 30, 1987, Gandhi arrived in Colombo to sign a comprehensive settlement that had, as its main points the turn of weapons by militant groups, a merger of Northern and Eastern provinces to create a single administrative unit; nationwide elections for eight (instead of the former nine) provincial councils before December 31, 1987 (not held until 1988); recognition of both Tamil and English as official (rather than national) languages on an equal status with Sinhala; amnesty for Tamil guerrillas and detainees; a cease-fire; return of Sri Lankan security forces to their barracks; the disbanding of Sinhalese militia units (who had acquired a reputation of viciousness toward Tamil civilians); and a referendum for Eastern Province, originally scheduled for December 31, 1988 but postponed until January 1990, to decide whether the merger of Northern and Eastern provinces should be permanent. India agreed to assist implementation of the accord by posting a peacekeeping force in the northern part of Sri Lanka (subsequently known as the Indian Peacekeeping Force) and helping to oversee the surrender of arms by Tamil militants, to be accomplished by August 3, 1987. New Delhi would also oblige Tamil militants to abandon their bases in Tamil Nadu State and assist the Sri Lankan Navy in patrolling the waters of the Palk Strait. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Rather predictably, the accord sparked the ire of the Sinhalese population. Gandhi was physically attacked by a rifle- wielding sailor while reviewing an honor guard in Colombo on July 30. Demonstrations against the accord in Colombo and other places resulted in nearly forty deaths. At the same time, the pact caused a cabinet crisis. Several factions within the UNP opposed the merger of Northern and Eastern provinces and the alleged surrender of Sri Lankan independence to India. The opponents included Prime Minister Ramasinghe Premadasa, Minister of Defense and National Security Lalith Athulathmudali, and several other cabinet members. Premadasa signalled his displeasure by not attending the official functions held for Gandhi in Colombo on July 29 and 30. As the fighting in the north subsided following the cease-fire, however, so did the cabinet crisis.*

Fighting and Peace Accord in 1987

In May 1987 the Sri Lankan military went on a major offensive in the north of the island and pushed the Tamil Tigers back in Jaffna. But India raised objections to the methods used and warned that it would intervene on humanitarian grounds if it thought the Tamils were being starved out. Relations between the India and Sri Lanka deteriorated rapidly after Indian planes dropped supplies into Jaffna. There were some worries that India might intervene on the side of the Tigers. This lead to a peace agreement involving India, See Below.

During the offensive against Jaffna in May and June 1987, Sri Lankan government security forces succeeded in destroying major insurgent bases and regaining control of most of the peninsula, but at the cost of growing political pressure from India. Reports of army brutality and high civilian casualties among the Tamil population made the offensive increasingly unacceptable to the Indian government, which had its own substantial Tamil minority to worry about. In early June, Indian Air Force planes invaded Sri Lankan airspace to drop relief supplies into embattled Tamil areas, sending a message to the Sri Lankan government that the offensive would not be allowed to continue. Within a week, the Sri Lankan government announced the successful completion of its campaign.* [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In July 1987, India and Sri Lanka signed an accord, which the LTTE at first went along with, to try to settle the problem through devolution and greater autonomy for the Tamils while an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) would disarm the rebels. Concessions of autonomy to the Tamils led to a backlash among the Sinhalese population, especially around proposals to merge the northern and eastern parts of the island into a Tamil-dominated province.

Optimism over the accord soon turned to disappointment when the LTTE refused to turn in its weapons and hostilities flared up again, this time between the LTTE and the Indian Peacekeeping Force. By October 1987, approximately 20,000 Indian troops were engaged in pitched battles with between 2,000 and 3,000 LTTE guerrillas. The fighting represented a major loss of face for New Delhi. India had promised Sri Lanka that the Tigers would be completely disarmed, but it was apparent that the militants had surrendered only a fraction of their arsenal in August. In the face of mounting Indian military and Tamil civilian casualties, pessimists on the subcontinent speculated whether the accord signalled the beginning of India's "Vietnam" or "Afghanistan." In Colombo, SLFP leader Anura Bandaranaike declared that "the Indian Army is like the Trojan Horse. We accepted them and expected them to bring peace, and they then started watching as our people were butchered.... They have come here to stay. They won't take the President's orders." [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Jayewardene, who survived a grenade attack in the Parliament building on August 18, 1987, was faced with the daunting task of obtaining the legislature's approval of the radical political changes outlined in the July 29 accord. Provincial autonomy was embodied in the Thirteenth Amendment to the 1978 Constitution, which the Supreme Court, in a five to four ruling, declared would not need to be submitted to a popular referendum if minor changes were made. Against the background of the JVP-instigated terrorist attacks in Sinhalese-majority areas and assassination threats against members of Parliament who approved the amendment, it was passed by 136 to 11, or substantially more than the required two- thirds majority. Few observers believed, however, that the establishment of new provincial political institutions would bring lasting peace to this strife-torn country.*

Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi

Rajiv Gandhi was killed on May 21, 1991 in the southern temple town of Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu just as he was ready to begin a political rally in southern India in an effort to regain the office of Prime Minister. The bomb that killed him contained one pound of RDX plastic explosive and was packed with 10,000 metal pellets. Seventeen people, including nine policemen were killed, along with Gandhi. The partial head of the assassin was found on the grass near where Gandhi was killed.

The bomb was strapped to the body of a female suicide commando who working for the Liberation Tigers if Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the pro-Tamil terrorist group in Sri Lanka. The bomb exploded as the assassin went to shake Gandhi's hand and offer him flowers. In 1987, Gandhi sent troops to disarm the Tigers under an agreement with the Sri Lankan government. The troops were withdrawn in 1990 but that didn't stop the Tigers from getting revenge by assassinating Rajiv.

In 1998, 16 Sri Lankan and 10 Indians were sentenced to hang for conspiring or playing a part in the assassination. Only two were directly involved in the murder, including the man who built the bomb. The rest were charged with lesser charges such as conspiracy, for helping the killers by providing transportation, housing or food. The trial lasted for five years, compared to two years for the killer of Mahatma Gandhi and 15 months for the killer Indira Gandhi.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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