Tilly’s Beach Hotel at Mount: Burnt-Out in July 1983

Ajay Kamalakaran, from Bombay on 26 February 2016, in http://ajayinbombay.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-gutted-building-near-mount-lavinia.html …. with this title “The gutted building near the Mount Lavinia beach”  …. see Note by Michael Roberts at the end

A gutted building that is near the beach on Mount Lavinia has been an eyesore for the last 33 years. It was once the Tilly’s Beach Hotel, which was owned by a Tamil businessman. The hotel was a favourite among residents of Colombo as well as German and Russian tourists. Colomboites would enjoy the Sunday Lunch Table Buffet, while many tourists had a mad crush on the handsome head chef, a culinary genius who understood Russian and German besides his native Tamil, Sinhalese and English.

Tilly’s was set on fire during the 1983 Colombo genocide of Tamils, which was the handiwork of racist criminal politician Cyril Matthew. The man handed voter’s lists to organised mobs, so they could hunt down Tamils. This was the exact same blueprint used in riots in neighbouring India in the 1980s and 90s.

The hotel was evacuated of its staff and occupants before a mob set it on fire.

When I asked a local about the building a few years ago, he told me the story about how the riots in Black July quickly spread to Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia and that the building was one of the first targets of the rioters (basically local criminals backed by the UNP government).

While the police turned a blind eye in many parts of Colombo in those days, W.A. Samarawickrema, Senior Superintendent of the Mount Lavinia Police had his force open fire on the rioters. The police force was overwhelmed by the mob that had the backing of the army. Army officers who were trained in Sandhurst and Dehra Dun, lost their sense of discipline and encouraged and assisted the mobs.

The building sits on prime land and many developers have been trying to seize it, but the Sri Lankan government wants to return it either to the owner or his heirs. I have heard many stories about the owner. Some say he was murdered in 1983 and had no surviving family members. Others say he lives in Canada or the UK, and is not keen to set foot in Sri Lanka again.

Maybe it is better that the building stands there as a memorial to one of the most shameful episodes in  Sri Lankan history.


The events of 1983 in Colombo were shameful and disgusting, but I cannot mention them without writing about by best Sri Lankan friend, a Sinhalese man, who risked his life by taking a Tamil colleague and his mother in his car and then to his home in Nugegoda. When the mobs came to his house, he lied and said that there were no Tamils there. If they found the mother and son, they would have murdered my friend and his family as well.

The Tamil family went to India as refugees and then moved to Canada. Every month, the mother calls my friend from Canada and talks to him. Such is her gratitude.  There were several cases of Sinhalese and Burgher families risking their lives to save their Tamil friends. The Tamil community has picked up the pieces and thrives in Colombo now, and is among the wealthiest in the country.


A NOTE from Michael Roberts, 17 December 2020:

At a moment when Chandre Dharmawardena has asked me to reproduce my old article on “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: July 1983” within Thuppahi (await this event), quite serendipitously [a term not in tune with the events] Brian de Silva of Integrity Tours in Colombo has sent me this old 2016 item from one Ajay Kamalendran presented via an Indian website.

The fortuitous coincidences mount up. I am a regular visitor to the Mount Lavinia Beach on week ends and sometimes — during Covid marooning — on weekdays as well because I hold a life membership at the Surf Club and a whole life’s engagement with beaches. So, this burnt-out shell is a familiar sight and memory.

Ajay’s article, importantly, identifies the owner and provides pointers re the culprits. His ethnographic claims and verdicts must, of course, be taken with some caution and addressed point by point.

To essay a broad classification of the 1983 events around the island as a “Genocide” is questionable because that would ask us to invent another concept to describe the Nazi-led holocaust and the horrors perpetrated by Pol Pot in Cambodia. I placed my head on the guillotine when I termed the events — generally called “riots” in the literature up to that point –a “pogrom.”

The first ‘executioner’ was my good friend and colleague Professor KM de Silva ………  in an article placed in the Daily News in 1991. His rejection of the label “pogrom” was based on the definition of the word in the Oxford Dictionary.[1] But that Dictionary rendering was “compiled effectively from the 1880s to the 1920s” according to O’Connor.[2] I therefore dismissed De Silva’s effort to “freeze us in that point of time” and went on to argue that the word had its origin in an old Russian term that meant “destruction” and had generally been used to denote the destruction of Jewish life and property.[3]

I also contended that we should move beyond “considerations of etymological primordiality” and extend the term to “all contexts in which a dominant segment of a population systematically assail[ed] another segment in their midst.” In brief, my usage was presented as an act of consciousness raising.[4]

This academic dispute arose in connection with the widespread attacks on the “Mohammedans” — as the Sri Lankan Moors were termed in the 19th and early 20th century — called in mid-1915. This debate, clearly, was informed by, and therefore embraced, any conceptual discussion of the events in Sri Lanka in July 1983 when elements of the Sinhala population assailed the Tamils living in their midst in both urban rural and plantation localities – and especially in Colombo and its environs.[5]

I was in Adelaide in 1983 and did not witness the events of July 1983. Nor did I make those events the centre of my research work though I read some of the literature on the topic. My next extended stay in Sri Lanka for over an year would have commenced circa December 1986.  At its outset I received an invitation from Neelan Tiruchelvam and the ICES to participate in a conference of Asian scholars on ethnic violence in South Asia scheduled for the Maldives as venue. For a sea person, the Maldives is Valhalla. As it turned out, the eventual venue for the gathering in February 1987 was Kathmandu.

My conference ticket depended on the completion of a paper on communal disturbances in Sri Lanka in the late 19th and early 20th century based largely on a previous article (1981) on the anti-Moor “riots” in mid-1915.[6] Sunil Bastin and Valli Kanapathipillai were among those who submitted papers and their focus was on what were termed the “July 1983 riots.”[7] The cross-regional data and interpretations, needless to say, were enlightening and conducive to reflection and led to a publication edited by Veena Das in 1990 in which my article focused on the manner in which British cultural assumptions and bureaucratic regulations stirred the ethnic friction that induced elements in the Sinhala population to assault select Moor targets.[8]

The conference and its outcomes were also conducive to reflection. My next stint of research leave enabled me to take up a short-term fellowship at Virginia University in Charlottesville in 1990. As far as I recall, this visit was prefaced by a stint in Sri Lanka. During the plane journey via London, I drifted into a meditative mood and worked out a plan for a reflective essay on the “1983 riots.” Here, then, I was moving towards a conceptualization of the event as a “pogrom.”

Though not consciously conceived as such, the outcome was a “literary piece.” It was well after I had cast the essay and given seminars on the subject in Adelaide and Perth that I began to see it as such. The penny dropped when a female postgrad student at the seminar spoke to me afterwards in approving manner and referred to it as a “literary piece” – a thought on her part induced by fact that the majority of participants were social scientists and the framework of the gathering was within that conceptualization. Albeit in stumbling fashion that was the thrust behind my exploration—a form of personal protest and lament as David Scott indicated later on in mid-1995 after the same version had been presented at the ICES in Colombo.[9] In some sense my essay on the 1983 pogrom was – and remains – an exclamation of anguish for the disaster it has wrought not only directly on so many Lankan Tamils but also on our body politic



Bastin, Sunil 1990 “Political Economy of Ethnic Violence in Sri Lanka: The July 1983 Riots,” in Veena Das (ed.) Mirrors of Violence. Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, Delhi, OUP, pp. 286-304.

De Silva, K. M. 1988 “Political Crisis and Ethnic Conflicts in Sri Lanka: A Rejoinder,” Ethnic Studies Report, vol 6: 68-74.

Kamalakaran, Ajay 2016 ” The gutted building near Mount Lavinia Beach,” 26 October 2016,  http://ajayinbombay.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-gutted-building-near-mount-lavinia.html

Kanapathipillai, Valli 1990 “July 1983: The Survivor’s Experience,” in Veena Das (ed.) Mirrors of Violence. Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, Delhi, OUP, pp. 321-44.

Kochan, Lionel 1957 Pogrom, 10 November 1918, London: Andre Deutsch.

O’Connor, Alan 1989 Raymond Williams. Writing, Culture and Politics, Oxford: Basil Blackwell,

Roberts, Michael 1981 “Hobgoblins, Low-country Sinhalese Plotter or Local elite Chauvinists directions and Patterns in the 1915 Communal Riots,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, vol 4, pp. 83-126.

Roberts, Michael 1988 “Sri Lanka:  Ethnic Conflict and Political Crisis, A Review Article,” Ethnic Studies Report, vol. 6, pp. 40-62.

Roberts, Michael 1989 “Apocalypse or Accommodation?  Two Contrasting Views on Sinhala-Tamil Relations in Sri Lanka”, South Asia, vol. 12, pp. 67-83.

Roberts, Michael 1990 “Noise as Cultural Struggle: Tom-Tom Beating, the British and Communal Disturbances in Sri Lanka, 1880s-1930s,” in Veena Das (ed.), Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots, Survivors in South Asia, Delhi: O.U. P., pp. 240-85.

Roberts, Michael 1993 “Nationalism, the Past and the Present: the Case of Sri Lanka,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 16, pp. 133-161.

Roberts, Michael 1994a “Mentalities: Ideologues, Assailants, Historians and the Pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading, Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 183-212.

Roberts, Michael 1994a “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1983,” Exploring Confrontation, Reading, Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 317-30.


[1] KM DE Silva 1988, p. 87.

[2] See O’Connor 1989, p. 53.

[3] Roberts 1994: 185.

[4] Roberts 1994: 185.

[5] Also see a relatively new account (2016) from Kamalakaran reproduced now in Thuppahi (2020).

[6] Roberts, “Hobgoblins,” 1981.

[7] See Bastin 1990 and Kanapathipillai 1990.

[8] See Roberts, “Noise as Cultural Struggle.”

[9] David Scott is a Jamaican scholar whose maternal grandparent was sri Lankan and we had considerable interaction in Colombo in 1987 and some intense engagements in mid-1995 because the ICES assembled Several Asian scholars for a conference on ethnic violence. Scott’s assessment was conveyed as we were travelling by car after my ICES seminar presentation of “Anguish”—he was in the backseat and I was in front.

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