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Black July: What Really Happened At Kanatte?

2013 Jul 27

Rajan Hoole

As indicated above, there are different versions and impressions about what happened at Kanatte on the 24th evening. We give below crucial pieces of testimony, which help to fill some glaring gaps. The first is an eyewitness account by a responsible member of the Ceylon Mercantile Union and is extracted from a statement issued by the General Secretary, dated 23rd August 1983:

    “According to our member’s statement, he had first gone to the funeral parlour of A.F. Raymond & Co. near Kanatte cemetery, in the afternoon of Sunday, the 24th July, on a message given to him by the Police, as he was a close relative of one of the soldiers killed in Jaffna the previous night. The relative had been informed by the Police at about noon on Sunday that they could take the dead soldier’s body for removal to their home town. Later that evening, they and the relatives of other soldiers who had been killed in Jaffna who had assembled there were informed that all the bodies would be brought for burial at Kanatte that evening.

    “They went to the cemetery, accordingly, and a huge crowd had assembled there. While they were waiting for the bodies to be brought for several hours, the relatives of the dead soldiers had objected to the bodies being buried at Kanatte. A clash with the Police in the cemetery had taken place when the graves were being closed by many of those who had objected to the burial at Kanatte.

    “Later that night, a high official of the Ministry of Defence (said to be General Attygalle) had announced that the relatives would be allowed to take the bodies from Army Headquarters to their respective home towns or villages. Our member had been taken to Army Headquarters thereafter in an Army truck with other relatives. They had removed the body of their dead relative in the early hours of Monday (25th July) for burial in their hometown.

    “Our member stated that he had come to know that attacks had taken place on Tamil owned shops at Borella, and other places on Sunday night, only after he had gone to the Army Headquarters around midnight. Before that he had heard hooting from the direction of the Borella junction when he was on his way to the Army Headquarters. He was positive that at no time, throughout the period of about 8 hours that he had been near or inside the Kanatte cemetery, had he heard or noticed anything amongst the people assembled there or amongst the large number of army personnel and police who were there, which indicated that reprisals against Tamil people or their property were being contemplated. The only resentment that had manifested itself at the cemetery was against the contemplated burial of the bodies of the dead soldiers at Kanatte.”

This statement clears up several points. One is that, the mood at Kanatte was, if anything, anti-government. Those living closeby towards Rajagiriya had also testified that the dominant cry they heard was the demand for giving the bodies to the next-of-kin.

Also significant is the hooting from the direction of Borella, supporting some of the testimony we had from others. In Sri Lankan culture, hooting is a phenomenon resulting from the meeting of two groups at cross-purposes. For example, hooting would occur when a group of student demonstrators is confronted by a police barrier. It is also notable that the witness had not come to know of arson at Borella while he was in the area.

This witness had said more that was not in the statement throwing light on who wanted the funeral at Kanatte. The authorities had initially lied to the relatives that the bodies were mutilated beyond recognition. This will be taken up in Chapter 12.

The witness had gone to Raymond’s, bordering the cemetery, to collect the body of his nephew who was a victim of the ambush in Jaffna. It was he who had taken a plank and had pushed ASP Gaffoor. This was the man described as a Troskyite protester in some accounts. The founder-general secretary of his union is Mr. Bala Tampoe, a one time Troskyite (LSSP) parliamentary candidate for Colombo Central, who in 1960 narrowly lost to Premadasa. Another element in the Trotskyite story is featured below.

As to the goings on at Kanatte we received further testimony from student sources who later founded the Independent Students’ Union. On hearing of the funeral, six of the students had gone to Kanatte, intending to start a protest against the Jayewardene Government. Some of these students had split from the Communist Party (Youth Wing) in protest against what they regarded as the inadequate response of the Party when they clashed with the JVP. At Kanatte three of these students made powerful speeches. They told the crowd that the soldiers have come here in coffins, not because of the Tamils, but because of J.R. Jayewardene’s dictatorial government!

The students wanted to lead the crowd to Jayewardene’s residence. As the crowd streamed out of Kanatte, the students thought that they were in control. But when they came out, the students realised that the situation was beyond their control. The students left. One of them went to the Borella bus stand, took a bus and went home to Battaramulla.

We may thus conclude that the attacks on Tamils at Borella came mainly from a source different from the main actors at Kanatte. The next witness is from a leading Left party. He had been out of Colombo on a party matter and returned late on the 24th evening. He went to Dean’s Road, Maradana, and as the situation deteriorated, became worried about some Tamil party colleagues who were then in Colombo. In the night, he went with some Sinhalese colleagues to scout the Maradana area. They witnessed mobs indulging in arson. Then some colleagues drew the attention of the witness to a man who seemed prominent in the crowd. The witness had not known the man earlier, but got to know him subsequently. The man was Sangadasa, a UNP municipal councillor and a close associate of Prime Minister Premadasa. The time was, the witness recalls, a little after midnight. This was the earliest instance in the night of 24th July, where we have received direct testimony of a government mob at work.

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