Trincomalee, called Thrikanaamale in Sinhala and Thirukonamalai in Tamil, is once again very much in the news. A cycle of violence in mid-April resulted in more than 35 deaths and 60 injuries. The seriousness of the situation saw Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressing concern to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse over the telephone, and evoked stark memories of the July 1983 anti-Tamil violence on the island. While the hostilities had ceased by the time of writing, the smouldering tension can once again erupt at the slightest provocation.
‘Trinco’, known for its geo-strategically important deepwater natural harbour, has in recent times become a communal powder keg. At the beginning of the 20th century, the coastal town had a Tamil majority of just under 80 percent, but their numbers decreased over the years. Today, Tamils make up about half of the population, with Sinhalas at 30 percent and Muslims making up 20 percent.
In the larger district, also called Trincomalee, the three communities can be found in nearly equal proportions. With such a heterogeneous ethnic mix, both the town and the district could easily have been a showpiece of racial harmony. But the downhill slide of ethnic relations throughout Sri Lanka is also reflected in Trincomalee, where again and again the underlying tension results in bouts of violence, as happened last month.
It all started with an assassination, when on 7 April 51-year-old Vanniyasingham Vigneswaran was gunned down at the bank where he worked, located amidst a high-security zone in close proximity of the police and navy headquarters. Vigneswaran was a reputed Tamil political activist and regarded as an important supporter of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It is widely believed that the killing was done by Tamil paramilitaries affiliated with the state.
The LTTE made much of the murder, and a series of condemnatory meetings were organised. On a different track, a Tiger front called the ‘Tamil Upsurge Force’ began targeting security forces with claymore mines. 11 navy personnel were killed when their vehicle hit a landmine in Thambalagamam, while two policemen were killed in another attack in Kumburupiddy. As a matter of course the LTTE disclaimed responsibility, even though few believed them.
Trinco was a tinderbox waiting to ignite, and the moment came on 12 April. The town was bustling with commercial activity in preparation for the traditional April New Year, common to both Sinhalas and Tamils. Around 3:40 that afternoon, an explosion occurred in the vegetable market, when a parcel bomb tied to a bicycle was triggered by a remote device. The 14 victims were Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim.
Reprisals began barely a half-hour later. The official line was that the victims were all Sinhala, and that the infuriated populace had risen in spontaneous violence. The truth was somewhat different: this was no instance of angry mobs going berserk, but a case of cold-blooded calculation. It appears that a plan had been formulated to attack Tamils beforehand, and that the explosion was like a green-light signal.
Gangs of young Sinhala-speaking men in civilian garb arrived in trucks and vans. Most of them had close-cropped haircuts and wore shorts and t-shirts. Some of them carried clubs, rods, knives and swords. A few threw bombs. Tamil houses and vehicles were singled-out for assault. Some Tamils were hacked to death and incinerated with gasoline. If these were crimes of passion, there were profit-oriented crimes, too. Tamil businesses were systematically ransacked and looted, while the spoils were carefully loaded into vehicles and taken away, leaving several of the shops on fire.
At the time, Trinco was teeming with security men from the army, navy and police, with additional men having been deployed for the New Year festivities. Despite their numbers, the security personnel did not attempt to prevent or restrain the mobs. Instead, most stood nearby, offering tacit encouragement. Some men in naval uniform were seen aiding and abetting the rioters. The marauders are now believed to be members of the armed forces, auxiliary home guards and criminal elements of Sinhala society.
For those with any memory, this was a repeat performance of the violence that took place in the country in July 1983, when massive premeditated attacks were launched against Tamils after a landmine blast killed 13 soldiers. Then as now, security personnel simply stood by or outright assisted the mobs. Then as now, a palpable fear and terror hung over the Tamils.
Local authority elections had just been held on 30 March. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), with close links to the LTTE, had swept the polls in the Trinco urban council, as well as the Trinco Pradeshiya Sabha, or regional council. This was the result of bloc voting by Tamils concentrated in the town. The victory was greatly resented by some elements – an anger to which Vigneswaran’s killing was originally attributed, for he had been in charge of poll propaganda for the TNA.
Now the rumour spreading like wildfire was that Sinhala ‘heroes’ were going to ‘remedy’ the situation, and an ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign was going to be conducted in Trinco town. Tamil homes were to be destroyed and burnt. Tamils were to be attacked and driven away as refugees. Trinco was to be purged of Tamils overnight. As drunken gangs celebrated that night, the talk of ethnic cleansing began to gather momentum.
It was obvious that neither the police nor the security forces were going to protect the Tamils or prevent any violence. Agitated Tamil politicians from the district contacted the Indian High Commission in Colombo, and New Delhi was alerted, setting in motion important high-level developments. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tried to contact Mahinda Rajapakse. When the latter called back, PM Singh urged that, whatever the provocation, civilian lives needed to be protected at all times. He requested the president to take all steps to stabilise Trincomalee and protect the vulnerable Tamil civilians.
President Rajapakse acted quickly. He despatched police chief Chandra Fernando and Joint Operations command chief Daya Sandagiri to Trinco, along with Investment Promotion Minister Rohitha Bogollagama and North-Central Province Chief Minister Bertie Dissanayake. A curfew was declared, and slowly the situation was brought under control. Although security forces fired into the air to disperse mobs, no one was arrested and a major calamity was averted.
This limited Indian ‘intervention’ also recalled the July 1983 episode. At that point, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had called President J R Jayewardene with concern about Tamils victimised in the pogrom, even sending Foreign Minister P V Narasimha Rao to Colombo. Meanwhile, local newspapers also reported that Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva had gone to New Delhi during the critical period.
According to analysts, there were several reasons for India’s prompt response on the Trincomalee violence, beyond the purely humanitarian. India has a vested interest in Trincomalee, with a 1987 India-Sri Lanka pact having awarded New Delhi special rights over the Trinco harbour. India has also leased the strategic Trinco oil tank farm, having allocated USD 30 million for its development. India is also committed to constructing a coal-fired power plant in the area.
With elections scheduled in the Tamil-majority Tamil Nadu state in May, New Delhi did not want violence against Trinco Tamils to become a passionate pre-election issue. With its overt show of interest in what was happening in Sri Lanka, India was also conveying a subtle message to both parties in Sri Lanka. To the Sinhalas, it was to confirm India’s concern for the welfare of Tamil civilians. To the Tamils, the message is that in the end, it is India and not the LTTE that can ensure their protection.
There was a brief climb-down of violence, but it erupted two days later due to a landmine attack in the area, killing two air force personnel. The dead body of a Sinhala youth was also discovered around this time. Fearing reprisals from these incidents, many Tamils vacated their dwellings. There were sporadic attacks against them, and three died, including an Indian national. A Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva was torched.
Although a reliable estimate of the deaths and destruction has yet to be made, preliminary figures indicate that at least 36 people were killed. Of these, 16 were Sinhala-speaking security persons, who had been killed by LTTE-inspired mine and bomb attacks. Of the 20 civilian deaths, 11 were Tamils, seven Sinhalas and two Muslims. At least six Sinhala civilians had previously been killed in the vegetable-market explosion. More than 1500 people were displaced in the unrest with at least 60 injured, 32 seriously. The record of destruction also includes about 40 businesses looted, 31 of which were gutted. At least 15 vehicles were burnt and 60 more smashed.
At the time of writing, normalcy was yet to return to Trincomalee, both town and district. Very few businesses were open and people had not yet returned to work. Only a few vehicles ply the roads and Trinco town bears a deserted look. But there are still gangs moving freely about town, much to the concern of the Tamil population. To date, no one has been arrested for committing the violence in Trincomalee, let alone charged.
There seems to be a repetitive pattern at work in Trincomalee. The racial violence that visited Sri Lanka in 1977 and 1983 saw Trincomalee Tamils badly affected. The district has also been severely hit over the course of the long war. The reason why it faces extra rigour seems to be linked to its strategic importance as well, as the ethnic mix. The local Tamils have long suspected a design in the violence, and they fear that conspiracies are underfoot to depopulate the town of Tamils. The recent violence has strengthened suspicion of a ‘cleansing’ campaign in the cards. Indeed, the pattern of events has demonstrated that another ‘July 1983’ is quite possible, for the similarities are frighteningly striking.
Political commentators have long talked of an impending paradigm shift in Sri Lankan politics. The country was said to be moving away from the unitary state model, and towards a devolution amounting to federalism. The recent presidential elections, however, have reversed the trend, even if it was real. The new president, Mahinda Rajapakse, dismissed the very concept of devolution and argued for the retention and preservation of the unitary state. Aligning with Sinhala hardliner groups like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya, Rajapakse won handsomely in the polls, with massive support in the Sinhala electorate.
It was said that the country had learned its lesson in the 1983 riots. There would no longer be a repetition of that dark period, it was argued. The Trincomalee violence, however, has shown otherwise: all of the ingredients for renewal of anti-Tamil aggression remain in place. If political will and authority are lacking in Colombo, a flare-up is inevitable, and last month’s happenings in Trincomalee could be the harbinger of terrible times ahead. The sad lesson from the presidential election and the Trincomalee violence is that the so-called paradigm shift has not taken place after all. Sri Lanka may be going forward to the past.