Category Archives: riots and pogroms

Encountering Extremism: Biographical Tracks and Twists

Michael Roberts reproducing an article that originally appeared on the 19th March 2010 in https://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/

One’s academic trajectories and journeys are invariably subject to vagaries and contingencies. The events and researches leading to my interest in “communal violence” and “zealotry” in the 1990s, and thereafter to what I have called ‘sacrificial devotion” (embracing the topics of “terrorism,” suicide bombers and Tamil Tigers),[i] were shaped by such contingencies. Since my web site will present some short essays on both these topics in the course of this month, let me detail some moments during my research work that resulted in the journeys that produced such outcomes.

In 1986-87 I spent about 14 months in Sri Lanka on research work during my sabbatical year. I was completing my research and writing on the history of Colombo in British times and the associated rise of a Westernized middle class-cum-bourgeoisie – work that resulted in the book People Inbetween (Sarvodaya, 1989).[ii] The island was still under the clouds cast by the attacks on Tamils in the southern parts of the island in July 1983. Following the British colonial lexicon this momentous and tragic set of events was generally described as the “1983 riots.” But such politically-aware scholars as Newton Gunasinghe and Shelton Kodikara were among those who depicted the event as a “pogrom.” This was a sensitizing revision that I accepted.

 Riots May 1958 – A Tamil passenger was taken out of the vehicle and beaten up

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Confronting Ethnic Violence and Its Roots in Vengeance

Michael Roberts

In presenting Basil Fernando’s book to the public, I have been led back in time to critical data he presented to me in the early 1990s re the “riots of July 1983.” As an act of condemnation THEN, my essay on those events depicted the MOMENT as a “pogrom.”[1] This label was guided by my awareness that in Russian usage this label meant “destruction” and thus went beyond the English dictionary translations of that word. Though I have been rapped on the knuckles by Kingsley M. de Silva for this nomenclature,[2] I remain adamant. What occurred in late July 1983 was a horrific set of events that cannot be buried inside that relatively mundane label “riots.”

 

Jubilant {Sinhala) rioters celebrate their mayhem at Borella Junction in Colombo on the 24/25th July night 1983

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Basil Fernando’s Searing Protest against Violence in All Its Forms

Basil Fernando: A Short Abstract re the book Body, Mind, Soul, Society: An Autobiographical Account

 This book (176 pages) is an attempt to contribute towards an understanding of the impact of violence on human persons and the society. It is based on the direct experience of living and working in Sri Lanka and Cambodia. However, references are also made to several more developing countries in Asia with which I have been engaged in working after the experiences in Sri Lanka and Cambodia. The book is written from the perspective of a victim who is also an observer.

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Debating Modern Ceylon History with Daggers Drawn: Roberts vs De Silva, 1986-91

Two Peradeniya colleagues from yesteryear, Professor Kingsley de Silva and Michael Roberts, took sharply different positions on facets of the island history in British colonial and post-1948 times in hardhitting essays in local journals and newspapers in the period 1986 to 1991. The series began with Michael Roberts’s article-length review of KM De Silva:  Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-Ethnic Societies: Sri Lanka, 1880-1985  (Lanham, University Press of America) ….. and continued with KM De Silva’s hard-hitting review of the book, People Inbetween (Colombo, Sarvodaya, 1989) where Roberts was the principal author in a triumvirate that included Percy-Colin-Thome and Ismeth Raheem.

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The Power of Poetry: Learning from Ashley Halpé

Aparna Halpé, in The Island, 23 May 2021, where the title reads  “Learning from My Father, Five Years After his Passing”

I was mingling with the audience at a poetry reading in Toronto, where I had been reading some of my new poems, when I was approached by an audience member. He asked me a question that I’ve encountered before in some form or another throughout my entire artistic and professional career… “Excuse me, are you by any chance related to Professor Ashley Halpé?” When I answered that I was his youngest daughter, the gentleman proceeded to tell me this story.

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Political Crisis and Ethnic Conflicts in Sri Lanka: A Rejoinder to Michael Roberts

K. M. de Silva, being an article published in the Ethnic Studies  Report, Vol. 6/1, January 1988 …. a riposte to a Review of his book Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-Ethnic Societies: Sri Lanka, 1880-1985, (1985)

                                          I 

I have long believed that the author of a book under review should not bother to write replies to reviewers however perverse he believes the latter to be. After all he has had his say at greater length than the reviewer. My present departure from this practice, and the response I write to Michael Roberts’s review of my book Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-Ethnic Societies: Sri Lanka 1880-1985 stems from two considerations. Invited to write a short review (1,500 words or so) in the style of the present journal Michael Roberts writes a review essay of 20,000 words. It has been reduced to about 2/3rds its length for our journal but it is still the longest review we have published. Secondly, he proceeds to write two reviews of the same book, one for this journal, and one for another [see p. 61 above, Michael Roberts 1987 (a)]

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Diluted Sinhalaness in the Crucible of Violence

Anoma Pieris** with an introductory note in response to my invitation that is pertinent & runs thus Hello Uncle Michael, Nice to hear from you. Afraid you reach me at a time when I am overwhelmed with work, in fact that has been the case throughout the pandemic. I dont know if I have the mental space to address your text but offer instead reflection on my understanding of the theme. Best, Anoma.”

 

My childhood sensibilities of being Sinhala were formed in two ways which were moral and monstrous: (1) First by being educated in a language stream with specific texts like the Guttila Kavya, Saddharma Ratnavaliya, Ummaga Jatakaya, which being religious texts, educated even a nominally Christian child in a missionary college into Sinhala Buddhist forms of cultural patrimony and morality. But because it was a Christian school the lines between Sinhala and Tamil classes were lightly drawn and we came together for sports activities, and after 1983 for many more subjects, partly due to the depletion of numbers but also a deliberate strategy initiated by our principal Sirancee Gunawardana, who was committed to empathetic coexistence. (2) The second way in which being Sinhala was made evident to me was through the 1983 pogrom when for a short time I volunteered in the camp set up in our school, seeing people like myself from my social background who had been displaced, dispossessed and fearful and witnessing and being made aware of Sinhala identification as behind monstrous acts. It also made me aware that I was part of a Christian minority and that a division was being drawn within the Sinhala community because of our greater empathy for Tamil friends.

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The Murder of Lional Silva by the JVP in 1984

Sanjeewa Karunaratne, whose favoured title is  “Stories from Sri Lanka’s Civil War – Lional Silva

During 1984-89, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (“JVP”) or People’s Liberation Front launched a clandestine attack against the Government of Sri Lanka. Since its fighters were mingling among the public, the military and its militia groups were struggling to cope with this invisible enemy. As a result, spies were everywhere—one wrong word, move or contact may bestow a gruesome death on top of a burning tire. It may be an “in-kind” response to the JVP, whose piece of paper was enough to close down an entire city; and who did not hesitate to execute a school principal, government servant, singer, politician, or an ordinary person who disobeyed their orders, in front of their loved ones. It was a crisis of epic proportions and a very uncertain time in the country.

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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.

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Experiencing Denigration in Sri Lanka: The Muslims Yesterday and Today

Shamara Wettimuny, in History Workshop, 7 September 2020, where the title runs “The Colonial History of Islamophobic Slurs in Sri Lanka”**

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-faith island. Yet despite centuries of physical coexistence, ethnic, religious and linguistic differences continue to bring communities into conflict. Muslims in Sri Lanka (comprising around 9.7% of the population) are often vilified by both the Sinhalese majority (who are either Buddhist or Christian) and Tamil minority (either Hindu or Christian) for their religious beliefs, practices, and dress. Following the Easter Sunday suicide attacks in April 2019 – carried out by a group of extremists linked to the Islamist group, the National Thowheed Jamaat – the wider Muslim community faced a discriminatory and sometimes violent backlash. In 2020, as COVID-19 spread in Sri Lanka, Muslims were blamed for ‘spreading the disease’, and for wanting to bury their dead in line with traditional Islamic burial practices (as opposed to cremation as stipulated by the Sri Lankan government).

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