Major events that shaped Lankan history from the 1980s to this day

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July has been a significant month in the recent history of Sri Lanka where some of the major events have determined the trajectory of the island. The dramatic and ignominious end of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency took place in July this year. Gotabaya Rajapaksa would go down in history as the first Sri Lankan Head of State to flee from the country, that too,as a result of a public uprising. Adversity struck the winner of the war against the formidable LTTE when he was in the middle of his 5-year tenure. Mismanagement of the pandemic and the economy made a mockery of his claim of opening ‘vistas of prosperity’ for his people.

It was also in July 2022, that,for the first time in the island’s history, the offices and residences of the President and the Prime Minister were stormed and occupied by agitators. Again, for the first time, the Premier’s personal residence housing thousands of books and works of art, was burnt to ashes by an insensate rabble.

July 2022 witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of Ranil Wickremesinghe, a National List MP whose party did not win a single seat in Parliament in the last General Elections, being elected President of the country by the Members of Parliament, none of whom belonged to his party. Sri Lanka had not seen political pole-vaulting of this magnitude before.

Black July

It was in July 1983 that Colombo saw an unprecedented anti-Tamil pogrom, which, according to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, claimed about 1,000 lives, destroyed 18,000 properties, and forced the migration of 700,000 Tamils, though many Sinhalese and Muslims courageously sheltered Tamils against politically backed hoodlums. On 25 July thirty-seven Tamil militants detained in the Welikade prison in Colombo were killed with knives and clubs by Sinhalese fellow prisoners.

The ‘July 23-30’ pogrom was triggered by the killing of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Tirunelveli in Jaffna. The pogrom led to the intensification of Tamil militancy, which along with the muscular State response, devastated the country in the next 26years.

Devanesan Nesiah,writing in Groundviews in 2013,said the government had been preparing the ground for a crackdown on the Tamils before the riots. Steps taken included the Regulations of 3 June, authorising Police officers of the rank of ASP in the North to apprehend without any inquest or other inquiries. Then there was the order of 2 July, prohibiting the publication and sealing of the offices of Suthanthiran and Saturday Review (both Jaffna-based).

Nesiah recalled that President Jayewardene broadcast on State radio (and published in the London-based Daily Telegraph of 12 July) saying: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now. Now we can’t think of them. Not about their lives or their opinion about us… on terrorist issues. We are going to deal with them ourselves, without any quarter being given”.

Nesiah pointed out that the regulation permitting the Police to dispose of dead bodies without a judicial inquiry was extended island-wide with effect from 18 July, a week before the commencement of the pogrom. On 20 July the total censorship of news about terrorism was imposed.

Truth Commission

In 2001, President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed a Truth Commission under the chairmanship of former Chief Justice S. Sharvananda. According to Kumaratunga, the Commission found it difficult to obtain data because of the time gap. Referring to the impact of the pogrom on Sri Lanka, she said some of the best-qualified professionals of Sri Lanka had had to flee. The entire fabric of Sri Lankan society changed for the worse, she said. “Violence became a major tool of socio-political behaviour in this country.”

First Suicide Bombing

Come July 1987,Sri Lanka saw the first suicide bombing. On 5 July 1987, Vallipuram Vasanthan alias Capt. Miller, an LTTE cadre drove a truck laden with explosives into a Sri Lankan Army camp in Nelliady in Jaffna killing 40 soldiers. This day is observed as ‘Black Tiger Day’ by the LTTE and its supporters. After Nelliady, hundreds of suicide attacks took place. According to the LTTE, between 1987 and 2008, 356 suicide cadres, called ‘Black Tigers’, had laid down their lives, 254 of them in sea operations.

Indo-Sri Lanka Accord

The Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was signed by Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on 29 July 1987, aimed at ending the fighting between the Government Forces and the LTTE and laying the foundation for the devolution of power to the provinces, principally to a united Tamil-speaking Northeastern province. Eventually, the Lankan Parliament enacted the 13th constitutional Amendment to implement the Accord’s aims to the extent it could.

But the Accord got a violent public reception. A day after the Accord, Rajiv Gandhi was hit on the neck and shoulders by a Naval Rating’s Rifle butt during the Guard of Honor at the Presidential palace.

The opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led an agitation and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) took to violence. Its military wing, Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya (DJV), attacked the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which was stationed in the North and East.

After reluctantly accepting the Accord, the LTTE began a war against the IPKF in October 1987 and kept fighting till the Indian troops left the island in 1990 at the request of President R.Premadasa, who had made a deal with the LTTE. The IPKF’s casualties in its 32-month operation were 1,165 dead and 3,009 wounded.

Recalling the events in 1996,the Mullaitivu Army Base was overrun by the LTTE on 18 July 1996. Around 1,400 Sri Lankan troops were killed, and large amounts of military equipment were captured by the LTTE. Around 330 LTTE cadres were also killed. This was a major blow to the Lankan Army which had wrested Jaffna from the LTTE only a year earlier. A few days later, on 24 July 1996, bombs placed by the LTTE in railway carriages in Dehiwela, south of Colombo, killed 64 and injured 400 civilians.

Airport Attack

The next major LTTE strike was at the Bandaranaike International Airport cum Air Force Base near Colombo. On 24 July 2001, fourteen LTTE Black Tiger cadres, armed with RPGs, anti-tank weapons and assault rifles, infiltrated the airport in the night, cut off the power supply, and destroyed or damaged 26 military aircraft including jet fighters and choppers. Parked Airbus civilian aircraft were also damaged causing a loss of US$ 350 million. Tourism caved in and the GDP growth became negative as a result of the attack on the country’s only international airport.

Hambantota Port

On 29 July 2017, a very controversial agreement was signed by Sri Lanka and China leasing out Hambantota Port, built with ‘China money’, for 99 years to a Chinese State-owned company for US$ 1.1 billion. Sri Lanka said the money was needed to pay off foreign debts and the Chinese agreed not to use the port for military purposes.  

While locals protested the deal which involved giving 15,000 acres in the hinterland, for a Chinese-managed industrial zone, Opposition parties said it was a sellout, and India and the West had apprehensions about China’s using the port as a naval base and pulling Sri Lanka into a debt trap.

By P.K. Balachandran