Living At The End Of One’s Nerves

To the local Tamils and Muslims everything was stacked against them, with a number of ministries and state agencies working towards their discomfiture. Out of several moves, by the State they may protest and stop some of them. But the ones that succeed would have done a lot of damage. To those trying to protect the interests of the local community or seeing the long-term prospects, it was to live at the end of one’s nerves.

The colonisation scheme for Sinhalese at Periyavilankulam – renamed by its Sinhalese translation Mahadivulwewa – was started with European Community funds in the early 80s. Mr. R. Sampanthan, MP for Trincomalee, immediately took alarm and went up to Minister Gamini Dissanayake, whom he had known as a junior lawyer, and complained about it. With characteristic courtesy, in the presence of Sampanthan the Minister made out a written order cancelling the settlement. Bandaragoda was then GA Trinco. It was soon learnt that Nanda Abeyawickreme, Secretary Lands, had sent phone messages to the Trincomalee Kacheri, asking for the settlement to be speeded up. This was done so that the formal order to stop would be anticipated by a fait accompli. There was little the Tamils could do about a government that functioned in this manner. It again illustrates the role of the GA in Trincomalee.

There were a number of government figures scouting around Trincomalee for places to plant Sinhalese colonies. Among them, was Cyril Mathew, Minister for Industries and Scientific Affairs. There are ancient Buddhist ruins in the district of very disparate origins, representing the country’s variegated past. The ruins of Vilgam Temple had a number of Tamil inscriptions, and those at Kuchchaveli and Thiriyai were of Mahayana origin. The ideological position articulated by the State was that these ruins were proof of the region’s Theravada-Sinhalese Buddhist past, so putting forward a justification for Sinhalese colonisation. It was based allegedly on Buddhist piety – the renovation of temples.

Thiriyai was a village north of Trincomalee with a long history, and was peopled by Tamils. Neelapanikkan Kulam, a tank near the village, was renovated about the 1940s, and the villagers had since been cultivating the fields nearby. There is an old Buddhist shrine close to Thiriyai and another nearby in Mylaweva on the Thiriyai- Gomarankadawela Road, which has Tamil inscriptions. But the cultivation of the fields referred to, had not been regularised by the issue of permits. This was really default on the part of administration, which was deliberate. The farmers were themselves quite ignorant of such matters.

The Government’s moles in the Trinco Kacheri discovered this and sought to deprive the farmers of the land. About 1980 when the MP, Mr. Sampanthan, was at a TULF party conference in Vavuniya, a man from Thiriyai came there with some alarming news. In official secrecy unknown to the villagers or their representatives, 2000 acres of land in Thiriyai had been earmarked for the Cadju Corporation. And one day out of the blue, Corporation officials with tractors, labourers and cashew plants descended on the villagers to convert their rice fields into a cashew plantation. In the normal pattern of things, this was to prelude Sinhalese settlement.

Sampanthan rushed to Colombo, and went with the TULF President, Mr. M. Sivasithamparam, to meet Mr. M.D.H. Jayewardene, Minister for Plantation Industries. They pointed out to him that apart from the injustice involved, it would be the height of absurdity to use irrigated paddy land for cashew. Cashew is normally planted on dry and poorer soil closer to the sea. The Minister was taken aback. They asked him who was responsible? The Minister answered that the order had come from the very top and that he was helpless in the matter. However the Minister suggested that he would ask Mr. Ekanayake, the Chairman of the Corporation, to go on a visit to Trincomalee. Then Sampanthan could go with him to Thiriyai and take it up from there.
On the day in question Sampanthan was to meet Ekanayake at 9.00 AM, in the office of Bandaragoda, GA Trincomalee. He had asked the farmers, to be in their fields. As Sampanthan walked into the GA’s office, he heard the tail end of Bandaragoda’s conversation. He was advising Ekanayake to consider, if needed, possibilities other than cashew such as paper grass. He was evidently very averse to letting go his discovery of land without permits serving Tamils.

Upon the two going to the Thiriyai fields, they found a section of the land planted with cashew. Sampanthan in a fit of anger plunged into the fields, pulled out about four cashew plants and threw them away. He then shouted to Ekanayake, ‘Are you mad?’ The bunds and channels made it clear that this had been a rice growing area for some time. Sampanthan then went to Colombo and told President Jayewardene, “Quite apart from the question of Tamils and Sinhalese, would you like to go down in history as the first head of state who planted cashew in paddy land irrigated by a large village tank?” Jayewardene agreed to cancel the cashew project. But this was just one attempt stalled.

Minister Cyril Mathew, for one, had a secretary for Trincomalee named Piyasena Jayeweera, roaming around Trinco in a Ministry for Scientific Affairs vehicle, figuring out ancient Buddhist sites and places to plant Sinhalese. Jayaweera was the man who owned up to assaulting Professor Saratchandra on 22nd July 1982 when he was about to deliver a lecture on the ‘Decline of Sri Lankan Culture’ in the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress auditorium. The thugs had assaulted several people on the rostrum including Buddhist monks. The ‘Aththa’, the following day, published details of government vehicles used by the thugs. Jayaweera claimed that he did this to stop Professor Saratchandra attacking the ‘government’s policy’. Saratchandra was emeritus professor of Sinhalese and former ambassador to France.

Functioning in this framework, the State became extremely paranoid over Gandhiyam’s relatively small-scale attempts at settling Tamil victims of the 1977 violence from the South, mainly on land abandoned by better-off Tamils owing to insecurity. One such place was Pankulam on the Vavuniya Road. The fact that these Tamils were victims of communal violence evoked no sympathy. Bandaragoda could not evidently contain himself. He once remarked to a senior Tamil citizen, “When I go to Pankulam, I SEE ALL THOSE PEOPLE”. The senior citizen responded, “What people? Aren’t they human beings?” The State’s attitude was that any Sinhalese was welcome to settle anywhere in Trincomalee and have the encroachment regularised, but these Tamil victims had no right to be there at all.

On 28th November 1982, President Jayewardene visited Trincomalee for the opening of the Mitsui cement plant. Apparently timed for his visit were articles in the Weekend and the Sunday Island, dealing with the activities of the Gandhiyam. Finding a sinister drift in the articles, Sampanthan telephoned Navy House and went to see Jayewardene. He explained to Jayewardene the plight of those being supported by the Gandhiyam, and invited him to go with him and see for himself the laudable achievements of Gandhiyam in giving these poverty stricken, emaciated people a new self- respect. Jayewardene replied that if Sampanthan said so it was acceptable to him and there was no need for him to see for himself. (See Sect. 8.2 for the substance of these reports.)

On 14th March 1983 came the first signs that the State was getting ready to use force on those receiving Gandhiyam help, when some government officials claiming to act on orders from the AGA, went into Pankulam and set fire to 16 huts occupied by former refugees. Thereafter the Tamils of this area lived in constant terror until they were forced to flee willy nilly as refugees in 1985. The same happened to Sinhalese in the area too, as both sides increasingly took to attacking civilians (see Chapter 20).

Sampanthan recalls that in March and April 1983 when there was still no active Tamil militancy in the area, the Tamils of the area frequently fled to the jungle in terror. Then he had to go there with others and call them out.

-Rajan Hool

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