Beginning of the End - July 1983, Sri Lanka

by Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Lalin Fernando. Published here with permission from


On Sunday morning at about 2 AM on July 26, 1983 I heard the shocking news of the ambush and killing of 13 soldiers of the SLLI at Thinnevelly (Jaffna). As I grieved the loss in SL’s senior most regiment in which my brother, Eshin, had served, I like everyone else did not for a moment think that this incident would lead to 70,000 deaths and the sundering of the fabric of a nation during the next 26 years.

I heard of ‘incidents’ during the day in Colombo and thereafter of worse in Jaffna where apparently the army Commander had been sent and asked to stay on due to ‘incidents’. Gradually as there appeared to be little state response I feared the worst. In my army career I had seen how these incidents escalate and become conflagrations unless tackled firmly and with conviction by the state.


During this period my family stayed in as I determined they were not going to be exposed to the hideous scenes that would unfold and traumatize equally those suffered and those who witnessed them. Incidents were already taking place at the cemetery in Kanatte and in Borella. No one expected then that this was to be the worst of all riots in SL ever.

It was possible only because the leaders of the government of that time did not have the courage and the moral fiber to stop the pillagers and murderers and worse.

Colombo burning

On my way to office at the Central Bank where I was Controller of Security, having retired from an army that had become political with a vengeance, I observed some shops burning at the Thimbirigasyaya junction. At the bank my senior security staff recounted what they had seen. It was grim. I had just warned them to be prepared for extra duty when I received a call from the Governor of the Bank, Dr. Warnasena Rasaputram, to see him in his office on the top floor where he was with his senior staff. On entering I saw black plumes of smoke arising over the city sky line and many more forming as I watched more horrified than fascinated.

He asked me what would happen now. I told him we were committing suicide burning down our own capital city and that the government had to declare an immediate curfew and take vigorous action against trouble makers to prevent any more violence.

He did not look happy and asked me to secure the Bank and help any employee who requested assistance. He later changed his name to Rasaputra to avoid it being mistaken for a Tamil one.

Bank’s Response

During the day several calls came in and I responded fast. I remember one was to make sure Mr. Baku Mahadeva’s daughter met up with him. Such calls were to become commonplace in the days to come. Another was from Assistant Governor Subramanium to allow him and his family to live in the Bank. That a person who was in such a high and responsible post was forced, just because of his race, to seek refuge for himself and his family in his own work place, fearing death, saddened me greatly.

To avoid creating a precedent I compromised by parking my car down his lane near Bambalapitiya Station Road in the night. Fortunately for both of us I soon found that an army volunteer colonel, Kenneth Abeywickreme, lived down the same road. He assured Subramanium protection by posting some soldiers at the top of the very short road.

Paralysis in state’s response

I rang Army HQ for information hoping for encouraging news. There was none. The Captain to Major promotion exams were on at Panagoda. I was told later that although the concerned officers believed they would be called out that morning, nothing happened as in the absence of the army commander who was in Jaffna, the senior officer at AHQ could not take a decision to postpone the exams.

By the time the officers came out of the exam hall the damage to the Tamil people and their property in Colombo was beyond recall. The government too appeared to be completely paralyzed while Colombo burned and Tamils fled their homes

Challenged by mob

The bank closed early. I left for home collecting some people who had asked for an escort. They had been directed to the Bank’s Training School at Bagatelle Road to be picked up. On our way I picked up some other stranded people and ended up in Piliyandala dropping them along the way.

The last person, a girl, was the only one to thank me. I turned for home and had the mortification of being challenged by a crowd very near my home. They demanded petrol from my car to burn the cars of Tamils. I refused (in any case there was very little petrol left in the car). The mob started threatening me when Cooray bass who had done repairs in our house, came up drunk and waved me on telling the mob that the ‘Mahatmaya’ (gentleman) was known to him. I came home very angry and sad and also relieved that the confrontation had ended without further repercussions.


My wife calmed me down and took me to into the house which was unusually dark as the curtains had been drawn even before sunset.

In our bedroom was Shanthi Kumaraswamy, a young colleague of my wife at the UNICEF office. She was a Jaffna girl from Nallur, more resigned than frightened. I was to notice this in many Tamils during that tumultuous time.

I told her to make herself at home and she would be safe. It shamed me horribly to see that it was though they accepted the fate that awaited them however terrible, was a penance they paid for living amongst the Sinhalese.

I remember taking bread regularly to a doctor and his family who were forced to seek refuge in their neighbour’s house on Elibank road. They all lived in the pantry, having abandoned their sprawling house next door. His brother, also a doctor, was in the SLAF. The family lost a lot of their considerable commercial property in Borella to arson attacks and later immigrated to the UK.

Happily they have now returned and are back in their own house.

Targets for mobs

I suddenly realized now that we too were targets for the mobs in search of Tamils. My wife explained that when they were coming in the UNICEF van to drop the staff they had noticed fires in the houses down the road that Shanthi lived. She asked what she should do. There was pin drop silence in the van from the males, broken by my wife who said "Shanthi you are welcome to my home".

Mob comes home

After dinner my wife complained that our daughters, aged 8 and 11, had let the side down when a screaming mob, none of them from the neighbourhood, came down the road during my absence.

The children had not answered the mob’s demands to know if there were "Tamils in the house". I asked them why. My eldest almost in tears answered "Thaathi we were on the mango tree. They came yelling with clubs, swords, axes and other cutting implements. We did not know what they were saying. We were transfixed by what we saw. We could not open our mouths for fear".

I reassured them and told them they had done well and not to fear as our neighbours, well off or not, were good people. The servant was told not to venture even into the garden in case she spoke to someone and leaked out our secret.

Rescue work

The Governor of the Bank rang shortly after and asked me to go the houses of Bank employees mainly in the Dehiwala/Mt Lavinia area who asked for help and rescue them.

A vehicle with a driver was put at my disposal. I briefed my family on keeping a log to take down the details of incoming calls and that whenever I called they should give me the contact details of those who wanted help. I set off on my task as soon as the vehicle came as there had been calls already as the bank had informed its employees to contact me if necessary. Some of the calls were for helping their friends and relatives, and some were from people known to us. All calls were acted upon. My daughters kept accurate duty logs during the day supervised by their mother who took the calls in the night.

At Ratmalana I searched a house with the driver and seeing only blood on the inside walls feared the worst but found no one. I looked in the outhouses and even the chicken coop. A person came up and told me the inmates had been taken in by Sinhalese neighbours. This was a common occurrence. As far as I can remember no Central Bank employee was hurt during this time, although one abused me later about the conduct of the army.

There was a Bank of Ceylon manager I helped. He passed on my telephone number to others to increase my clientele. I called home from known houses periodically to check on calls for help. There were no mobile phones then.

I heard later from family members that Mr. Mahendran who had been our Ambassador to China had tried to get help by calling the MOD but received none. When he asked the Navy they responded immediately. His brother-in-law, Major ‘Harry’ Kumaraswamy, had been in the SLLI.

Secret armies

After about a week UNICEF sent a vehicle to take Shanthi to an alternative place under their control. We made sure no one saw her getting into the van which then sped off. Within a few minutes in came a neighbour who said "hey what’s going on here? I saw a van come with two people and leaving with three". She was Sally, an English lady married to Gemunu Molligoda.

They lived in an upstairs house overlooking ours. Gemunu’s brother, Parakrama, was a Lieutenant Colonel in my regiment –The Gemunu Watch. They said it was like something in the TV series ‘Secret Army’. They had not a clue about Shanthi’s presence in our house until she had left.


About five years later Shanthi came to Oman on a UNICEF attachment. She came over for dinner with my SL Officer friends on my birthday at the Sultan of Oman’s Army HQ Mess.

When towards the end of the evening she was asked about the situation in Jaffna she said that Prabakaran was treated as a demi God and that he made two crucial decisions which made the Jaffna people venerate him even more. One was to allow the government servants to continue to work for the government and others to collect their pensions. The other, despite the huge risk, was to take on the IPKF of the fourth biggest army in the world.

Help from Bank Colleagues

My Central Bank colleagues were very sympathetic and generous. They sent food and clothing to the refugees, mainly Ms. Manel Silva, the Director of Information, who organized the collection. However, when I asked her to come with me to distribute the items she declined saying that some bank employees may misunderstand her, and the others, but as I was an ex army man I was doing what they expected me to do.

Ratmalana refugee camp- AT Ariyaratne and Athulathmudali

Very soon calls came for me to go to refugee camps and search for missing people.

At Ratmalana airport which had been converted to a refugee camp, I was told by Mr. A. T. Ariyaratne (Sarvodya) that Minister Lalith Athulathmudali had come there about four days after the violence had broken out, and asked him what he was doing. He explained that he was giving daily meals through Sarvodaya to the inmates. Ariyaratne in turn asked the Minister what he was doing to be told he was there as a Minister of the government. Ariyaratne asked him "of what government"?

There seemed to be none at the time.

A SLAF officer from my old school by the sea, who was also ministering to the needs of people he knew, asked me what I would have done in the circumstance if I was Tamil. I told him it would be the same as he would have done.

Batticaloa group

At the Ratmalana airport refugee camp there was a group of young girls from Batticaloa who were working in Metropolitan Agencies who asked me if I could inform their parents in Batticaloa and their company bosses of whom they spoke highly, that they were safe. I told them I would, and asked them if there was anything they wanted. Shyly they asked for basic toiletries which I was able to give them together with towels and linen the next day. Their office people also sent them various food and clothing items when told of their plight.

I also arranged their early repatriation to Batticaloa (Batti) by speaking to the authorities and keeping their families and the local MP informed daily of their progress. He then contacted me almost daily. They asked me what would happen next. I jokingly told them that after they had gone back and rested, they should return to Colombo and work here, and after a few years there would be another chance for them to make a sudden return to Batti. We all laughed but I was exasperated as I felt things had come to the point of no return.

Anger in the Tamil youth

No group of people could stomach the brutality the Tamils were being subjected to without a harsh response.

The young men I saw had haunted faces of those who had gone through terrible encounters and would be hard pressed not to look for revenge. I remember a young boy from my old school who told me that he was being ostracized by his age group as he spoke little Tamil coming from mixed parentage. He said the other boys had told him to speak only in Tamil. English too was not tolerated. My worst fears were growing.

Thurstan College camp-Rail Wickramasinghe

At the Thurston College refugee camp while I was looking for the son of a Bank employee I met Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe who asked me what I was doing. I told him. I knew him from my time in the army when I had to help in his youth leaders training programme at Eriminiyaya off Ranna in the Hambantota district.

He knew why I had left the army. He then asked me "what happened to the army that they could not deal with the situation?"

I said in response "You had a 2/3rds majority in Parliament but could not go out into the streets and order your 2/3rds supporters off the streets. What did you expect the army to do while all of you hid"? He as I expected, did not reply. Instead, he said "come and see me when this is over. We need to talk."

When we met in his Malay street office eventually he voiced his concerns about the fallout and asked whether the army could defeat the terrorists. I told him amongst other things that the army could, provided skilled commanders were recognized, who were also respected by their soldiers, and were given their place instead of those who were patronized politically. I felt he was not reassured, but agreed with my views and was anxious that the blood letting be stopped.

In the early nineties he asked me to see him again. He was in the company of Arjuna Mahendran, son of the Ambassador, who I had known well when he was in the Central Bank. I proposed that Gen Sir Michael Rose, a friend I had kept close contact with from 1969 when we were both captains, advise the government. Although Gen Rose agreed, he was chosen to be Commander of the UN Protection Force in Bosnia in 1994. He did eventually come in 2002 when Wickramasinghe was Prime Minister.

Tracing and dispatching

I traced the young man I was searching for with the information I got from an elderly Tamil refugee. He was at first suspicious of why I wanted to know but relaxed when I said I was ex army and worked in the Central Bank.

The youngster’s parents were in Sierra Leone on an IMF attachment from the Central Bank and wanted me to trace him and put him on a plane to the USA, where he had become a green card holder within two years, purely on his brilliance in IT.

I was asked to go to an address in Borella where I met with similar suspicion from a Sinhalese family who eventually told me that he was moved daily to different Sinhalese homes to prevent busybodies knowing of his presence.

I traced the boy, took him to the Sinhalese contact from Mt. Lavinia, who joined me in the search, and put him on the plane to the USA. I also helped a good family friend’s doctor's son to leave for UK by escorting him too to the airport.

At the Kelaniya Bridge a policeman spoke to me in Sinhalese to inquire who we were and where we were going. On being told he asked the young doctor to show him his baggage saying in a friendly way to me in English "Sir I have to search the Tamil b...’s bag." We passed without incident. I know the boy was more embarrassed for me than insulted.

Tamil medical students

I was asked to collect the medical student grandson of one of the Ramanathan's, who lived in Ward Place, from the medical student’s hostel near the General Hospital. I did so but not before a young doctor (Weerasinghe?) approached me and asked me to take away the remaining Tamil medical students (30 odd), to the Thurston College refugee camp.

I told him I would and did so making three runs in the jeep. It was the day before ‘Tiger Friday’ when Colombo, which was burning, went out of control completely. The young men later came to the Bank to thank me when the situation returned to an uneasy calm. The doctor, after the last of the young men were loaded on to my jeep, thanked me for helping, and then opined that what was happening was not communal rioting but "economic warfare."

I sadly knew better.

Koti (Tiger) Friday

Then there was ‘Koti (Tiger) Friday’ when some people in Pettah hallucinated and sold a story that the Tiger terrorists were getting ready to attack Colombo from one of the taller buildings.

An SLAF/Army attack, on a by now abandoned building, commenced with armoured cars being deployed firing volleys up into the building and an air force helicopter shooting bursts down, and infantry running up and down the stairs in the building.

The result was one soldier killed and one thoroughly frightened Tamil boy with a stray bullet in his shoulder being rescued from his normal lodging place.

At Army HQ, staff officers, suddenly galvanized, called their wives in Panagoda and spread panic. If there wasn’t mayhem before there was bedlam and murder now all over Colombo. It stopped only at Attidiya when the First Field Engineer Regiment opened fire and brought the situation under complete control as word spread that the army instead of being spectators was in business. A cross connection (very common then when there was a communication overload) on the home telephone the next day picked up the following conversation:

"What happened friend".

"I went down Attidiya road on Friday to fight for my country, my race and my religion when I heard the ‘Tigers were attacking us".

"So what happened then"?

"The soldiers came and opened fire and I think killed one man. I fled abandoning my race, religion and country".

Leadership – Maj Gen Stanley de Silva late SLE

My own observations during my constant moves along the Galle Road was that the same Engineer Regiment, then on the Dehiwala bridge, was one with a sense of purpose and meant business under its commander, Lt Col (later Maj Gen deceased) Stanley de Silva.

Later during the 1990's peace talks he dared a LTTE checkpoint which tried to prevent him from proceeding towards Chavakkachcheri from Pallay. He responded by telling his General Staff Officer Brig (later Maj Gen) Nammuni to tell the terrorists he was GOC Jaffna, and could go where he pleases. The LTTE did not fire on him, no doubt impressed not only by their knowledge of who he was, but also by his single minded insistence and fearlessness that what he was about was correct. They knew it. The legend is that the cadres saluted him as he drove past and again on his return!

Exchange Controller

One of the people who I had to help a lot over several days, after which he was beginning to become a pain, was Mr. Jehoratnam, the Exchange Controller at the Central Bank, who has since immigrated to Australia.

We had to do several trips moving his many possessions from Borella to Rosmead Place where the Hemachandras had given him and his family refuge. I think it was on the day before ‘Tiger Friday’ when I was moving out of the Rosmead house finally that Jehoratnam asked me to stay to listen to President JR Jayewardene’s speech to the nation on the TV.

To many Tamils JRJ was their man. He was expected to be like a knight coming to rescue them. They waited with bated breath to listen. He betrayed them completely and shamed the nation when he opened his mouth.

Minister’s concern

I had been appalled two days before when Minister Athulathmuudali, despite continuing bloodshed, with thousands in refugee camps and a total breakdown of order, callously told the public on TV not to worry as he would not let ‘food queues’ form again.

There was also Minister Anandatissa de Alwis who tried to con the country that it was the JVP that was behind the riots and murder. He went on to press home his fairy tale that it would be followed by attacks on Christians and then on Muslims.

My Buddhist children were frightened for their mother. They wrapped their arms around her and my eldest said "they’ll have to kill me first’’ and cried. I have not still forgotten this needless cruelty and deceit of the late Minister who was obviously put up to say so.

JRJ’s bombshell

Then came JRJ’s bombshell when he explained that the "fury" (he used the chilling Sinhala word –krodaya-) of the Sinhalese had been aroused due to the killing of the 13 soldiers and hence what happened was simply revenge. There was no sorrow expressed or an apology.

The very next day was Friday, after which for a long time internationally the Sinhalese were to be considered beasts and SL a pariah state.

Later, when a thousand soldiers died in 36 hours at Mullaitivu in 1996, not a single Tamil was harmed anywhere in SL. It did not amaze anyone here but did in the world. JRJ was not in power.

Rioting spreads

The pillage and murder spread all over the country and the death toll was about 300 and not in the thousands as commonly rumoured. There were some particularly gruesome incidents in Badulla and Bandarawela. In the latter place a doctor and his family were killed very close to the police station.

India prepares

As feared, India made threatening moves. Paratroops were sent to Tiruchchirappalli (Trichy) in South India to be at 30 minutes flying time from SL. Nothing further happened just then. India had more diabolical plans hatching.

The end (of the beginning)

My task finished I was being driven down the Galle Face Centre road when my faithful bank driver, who had driven for me day and night to refugee camps, homes and hospitals bringing relief to many, said he would like to say some thing.

"Sir, I have been with you during these three weeks day and night and seen what you did. You have done so much for these innocent Tamils. You will gain great merit".

I said "no we did it together."

When smug people of Colombo say that it is the poorer, less educated classes often referred to as "yakkos" who were racially biased, ignorant and responsible for the communal strife in SL, this is the story I tell them.

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