Face-to-Face in 1977: Early Moves towards Civil War in Lanka

Jane Russell ... with highlights imposed by the Editor, Thuppahi

These are the scratched graffiti of Sinhalese soldiers and policemen abandoned by their government [1991]. They are uncertain of their future. Some believe they will be airlifted to safety. Others have realised that they are about to be overrun by Tamil Tigers camped outside the perimeter walls of the Fort in Jaffna which they have been tasked to defend,  and that no-one will come to save them.  Whatever their hopes and fears, they are all doomed to die. These graffiti are etched into the rock walls of the entrance to the Dutch built Fort (photo top right). They were carved not so long ago. 1991, 29 years, just a generation since.

 Jaffna Fort entrance 2015


The announcement of a meeting of all patriotic Tamils in Wellawatte was made in the press shortly after JRJ’s United National Party had trounced the SLFP government of Mrs B. in 1977. The meeting ‘was to coordinate a Tamil response to the government statement that a new constitution with an elected executive President’ would be enacted. The TULF was the official opposition, having more MP’s than the SLFP or minor left parties, so this meeting was significant.  

I went. There was maybe 200 Tamils in the wedding hall; the TULF leaders, some obvious police spies and a uniformed officer or two, a few journalists taking notes, lots of  young Tamil firebrands plus the older ‘wise heads’,….and me, trying to look unobtrusive.

I didn’t take notes…just listened.

A few weeks later, KN Eeleventhan, who had noticed me at the meeting, and had made inquiries as to who I was, tracked down my whereabouts. He had found my address and phone number of the house that belonged to my female partner’s mother. Mali and I shared a flat at the back of the big house off Inner Flower Rd.  Mr Eeleventhan requested a meeting. He was then working at the Central Bank. He came one evening from his workplace and we sat on cane chairs in the courtyard of Mali’s flat under an Hawaiyan araliya that shed its red flowers and green leaves around us.

He spent maybe an hour trying to persuade me to become an international spokesperson for the Jaffna Tamil cause. He was very persuasive, very eloquent, very sincere in retailing the grievances, both actual and perceived, of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. But I was equally adamant. On no account would I take sides in a dispute in which I had no personal stake. I was a scholar, an historian, interested only in trying to get at the evidence and make as neutral a judgement as possible – one that might stand the test of time. I was an outsider and staying an outsider gave me a perspective that was of far greater significance than becoming a propagandist. I was looking at the long, not the short, term.

I was personally sympathetic to Elevenethan who had been physically attacked for his political views  during the 1977 anti-Tamil riots that followed and besmirched JRJ’s resounding electoral triumph. His house had been burnt down and his family made homeless: he had also been attacked by thugs as he had left the Central Bank. His views were rigid and extreme, but he was constantly being censored and censured for them…  his treatment by the Sinhalese was frankly appalling…

He left as it grew dark.

   Jane in 1976

Some months later, Parinda Ranasinghe, later the Chief Justice, then a top official at the Ministry of Justice, which was housed in the Presidential Secretariat, also asked to meet me through an intermediary, a good friend  and fellow scholar Upali Elepata-Katugaha (now long dead, but fondly remembered).

I went to the Secretariat, the 18th century palatial British Governor’s residence in Colombo Fort. Once past the colourful sentries, I was escorted by an AK47-toting soldier in fatigues to the high-ceilinged, multi-windowed office of the charming jurist,  brother of the famous  British-based Sri Lankan sculptor, Tissa Ranasinghe, whom I had met years earlier through my sculptress  partner.

Parinda sat me down and using all his forensic skills tried to get me to assist the government in drafting a reply to the United Nations on charges made by Tamil jurists against the Sri Lankan government concerning alleged human and civil  rights abuses and discrimination, and accusations of genocide of the Sri Lankan Tamil community.  Again, I refused all the blandishments he threw my way, including easing my visa situation which was always precarious. But I reiterated the arguments I had rehearsed with Eeleaventhan: I would not, could not, take sides. I was an outsider and like many outsiders, saw more of the game that way.  Also, there was no right and wrong in this dispute – only wrong – and wrongs were being compounded one upon another by both sides. In all conscience how could anyone possibly make a decision as who had the better case? It was like the film ‘ Sophie’s Choice’ —there was no better case…..only misery upon misery redounding on everyone’s head.

I left his air-conditioned office and walked out in the hot morning sun, past the bronze statue of Queen Victoria, the old Colombo lighthouse and clock tower, the General Post Office, bank headquarters, department stores and five-star hotels. I caught a three-wheeler home. The Indian Ocean was a delicious bright blue beneath a bright blue, cloudless sky.


Over the next thirty-two years, this ‘island paradise’ would spawn a dirty civil war that would result in somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 “excess deaths”.

  Jane Russell, London     02/06/2020


Parinda Ranasinghe: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parinda_Ranasinghe

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One response to “Face-to-Face in 1977: Early Moves towards Civil War in Lanka

  1. Chandra Wickramasinghe

    Thanks Mike. I knew Jane Russelll well that time.

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