Emergency '58 – The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots

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The Padaviya Panzers
Two days after the emergency was proclaimed an epic battle took place in the Anuradhapura district. It is likely to be remembered long after the horror and shame of the riots of ‘~8 are forgotten. To appreciate the story fully it is necessary to get some idea of the character of the area in which this event occurred.
The story begins in Padaviya where Government works have recently been concentrated to speed up settlement: a place very like a Wild West pioneer colony in a cowboy film. There were the settlers, the hired labourers and the Government officials. There was no real community life, no law except that of the Jesse James school. There was no middle class to speak of—no steady, moderating influence except the farmers who had been settled longest and who had already got themselves a valuable stake in the soil.
On May 30 the labourers employed by the Land Develop­ment and Irrigation Department at Padaviya, and the newly-arrived squatters in the allotments, could no longer contain themselves. One of the hot-heads made a self-denunciatory speech: ‘Comrades,’ he said. ‘We are not men. We are women. We have not yet shed a drop of Tamil blood although our countrymen are suffering at their hands.’ It did not take long for the blood lust to get a hold on the ‘Padaviya Panzers’, as they were to become.
A relative quiet had settled on Polonnaruwa and Anurad­hapura since the emergency was declared and there were already signs of normal human relations being restored. On May 28 and May 29 Sinhalese people had been seen bringing exhausted Tamils out of hiding into the refugee camps on bicycle pillions and in carts. Government Agent Aluwihare had apparently decided it was safe to leave Polonnaruwa and go to his ‘substantive’ station at Anuradhapura to check on the situation there.

In the station there was stranded a refugee train carrying 2,000 Tamils fleeing from Colombo. The drivers had refused to go further north into ‘Tamil country’, where a derailment had occurred during the last strikes. In addition there was the refugee camp at the Kachcheri where 6oo Tamils were being looked after. The Government Agent, the army and the police officers were very anxious to prevent bloodshed in the Holy City of Anuradhapura and so far their luck had held. Two army units, one under Major Eardley McHeyzer, the other under Major M. O. Gooneratne, were keeping guard on the town, to be on the safe side.

But there were still thugs in Anuradhapura town, and they had made a pact with the Padaviya Panzers that they would, as soon as the time was propitious, join forces and sack the town.

Around midmorning of May 30 the restless labourers at Padaviya decided that the time had come. Or perhaps it was prearranged—no one will ever know the real truth. They intimidated the Irrigation Engineer with threats of butchering his family and secured the keys to the dynamite magazine. From the Land Development Officer they wrested the keys of the petrol dump.


They packed the dynamite into empty kerosene and cigarette tins. The cigarette tins were to be used as medium range hand-grenades. The kerosene tins were potential block-busters. The Panzers were preparing for a full-scale battle and would go far afield to wage it! Their staff work was uncannily thorough. They filled a bowser full of water and another full of petrol. They filled up the tanks of seven trucks and two giant Euclids. One truck was loaded with hand-bombs, the kerosene-tin block-busters, katties, knives, grass-cutting blades, home-made swords, elephant guns, ancient matchlocks and some modern shot-guns.
Six trucks were jam-packed with men. The two Euclids led the procession as this weird mechanized unit set out to sack Anuradhapura. About 6oo managed to find room in the vehicles, and many more set out gaily on foot, shouting slogans and shrill war-cries. Their enthusiasm vanished before two miles were behind them. But the mechanized army, oddly reminiscent of Hanni­bal’s bizarre forces, persisted.

They did not take the direct road to Anuradhapura. The leaders of this mechanized Panzer Division were ex-service­men who had seen some action abroad. They obviously knew the drill and had a shrewd practical knowledge of field strategy. They took the Padaviya—Kebitigollewa—Vavuniya Road, instead of the direct road to Medawachchiya, burning what Tamil kiosks they came across on the way. At Vavuniya they turned south taking the Medawachchiya—Anuradhapura Road. The Government Agent of Vavuniya telephoned a frantic message to Anuradhapura that they were heading for the town.

The rough sketch-map … will help to illustrate the story. Government Agent Aluwihare left Major Guneratne in charge of the refugees and with Major McHeyzer and his unit of fifty men rushed north towards Medawachchiya to meet the Padaviya Panzers before they reached Anuradhapura.
As they were charging along the Anuradhapura—Medawachchiya Road they had a hunch that the Panzers would feint again: that they would turn off at Medawachchiya to Kebitigollewa, go south to Kahatagasdigiliya and west again to Anuradhapura while the army was chasing them round the perimeter of the quadrilateral. Major McHeyzer turned back towards Anurad­hapura, took the turn towards Kahatagasdigiliya and placed a machine-gun nest to ambush the Panzers should they come that way. Then he returned through Anuradhapura towards Medawachchiya, in case they were coming by that route. At Medawachchiya the defenders found their hunch had been right. The Panzers had indeed turned left and were moving to­wards Kebitigollewa for their three-sided dash for Anuradhapura.
The army met the Panzers halted at a point a few miles short of Kebitigollewa. They had run into a police patrol of five, headed by Inspector Daya Ranasinghe.12 Ranasinghe held the Panzers up with five rifles, ordered them to dismount and held them covered, hoping and praying that something would turn up to save the situation. He knew very well that he and his men could not expect to stall an army of blood-thirsty hoodlums for long. But the shooting at Polonnaruwa had taken the gleam off their Apey Aanduwa complex and their sense of discretion was now more dominant than their self-assurance.

When the army arrived Major McHeyzer ordered his men to surround the rebels and take them into custody for violating at least half a dozen Emergency Laws. But when the soldiers began to circle round them, the Panzers tried to make a bolt for it through the jungle. A brief burst from a Bren stopped the stampede. When it was all sorted out it was found that eleven men had been killed and eighteen injured. The army took 343 prisoners and brought them, in the trucks they had stolen, to Anuradhapura. The thugs who had planned to enter Anurad­hapura as conquerors were brought in as prisoners.

The army halted at about 7.30 p.m. in the bazaar while Government Agent Aluwihare sent word to the Magistrate and the coroner. While waiting for them he noted that the curious crowd was becoming restive. Noticing the local thugs among them he warned them that if they were found guilty of any looting, arson or violence they would be given the same treatment.
Later this warning was to be interpreted as a piece of sadistic barbarism on Aluwihare’s part. He had not realized that while he was talking some men had peeped into the truck carrying the eleven bodies of the men who had been shot. The politicians told the story of the brutal manner in which Aluwihare had exposed corpses in the bazaar and intimidated innocent people. As the story became more embellished they came to believe that the army had, without cause and without remorse fired at a peaceful party of unarmed people who were going home minding their business.
The cover story of the Padaviya Panzers was indeed plausible. The men who had escaped had run bleating to the politicians. Their version of the story was that they were going home peacefully after a brief tour of Vavuniya when they met a police party. The police ‘requested’ them to rest awhile on the rocks, smoke and chew the fat. The army, said the police party, had expressed a desire to discuss one or two matters with them and would appreciate it if they waited for them in that spot. The army arrived with the Government Agent, Mr Deryck Aluwihare, who ordered the army to fire without giving them a chance to explain their innocence. They were squatting peacefully on the rocks, they insisted, when the army fired. Hence, they explained, the blood smears on the rocks. The first version was the one that was given official recognition by the Governor-General. The reader can make a shrewd guess as to which version the politicians preferred.
General Oliver

The first casualty in the emergency was the national press. Since the riots started the press had reported the incidents all over the country with care and discretion. Editors exercised their own ‘censorship’—on the principle that while it was the duty of the press to record events of the day, they were morally obliged to ‘play down’ or, if necessary, ‘miss’ stories which, if published, were certain to exacerbate communal tensions fur­ther and endanger the safety of the State. In fact, up to this moment, the newspapers had displayed a greater sense of re­sponsibility and a keener appreciation of the state of the coun­try than the politicians who were flapping their hands help­lessly and hoping that the chaos they saw round them would sort itself out. With the announcement of the emergency came the simultaneous imposition of press censorship and the appointment of an Information Officer as Competent Autho­rity for this purpose.

Two hours later the editors of the newspapers were invited to a conference by M. J. Perera, the Competent Authority. He met them at the head of the stairs and by way of an open­ing gambit he pointed through the window at the neon sign atop the Grand Oriental Hotel building which read: ‘2500 Years of Buddhism’. He remarked: ‘Two thousand five hun­dred years of Buddhism—and see what we’ve come to!’ One of the editors replied: ‘Two thousand five hundred years of Buddhism and two and a half years of Bandaranaike!’ If the Competent Authority was amused, he did not show it.
‘Gentlemen,’ he observed as the conference began, ‘I have been appointed Competent Authority but I must confess that I feel quite incompetent to deal with journalists.

‘I propose,’ he continued, ‘to delegate my authority to you so that you, as responsible journalists, can impose your own censorship.’


This seemed an ideal formula in theory but the editors present, accustomed to the vagaries of politicians’ moods and their talent for breaking mutual faith, would have none of it. Their attitude was that the very fact that the Government had decided that press censorship was necessary was proof of their unwillingness to trust the editors’ discretion and that in a com­petitive business like newspaper publishing they could not accept the responsibility for censorship.
They argued that in the emergency they would be completely at the mercy. of the whims and prejudices of the politicians managing the country if the discretion was left to them. It was pointed out, with con­siderable cogency, that any voluntary censorship on the part of the press could only be possible if there were no censorship regulations simultaneously operating as a threat. The Govern­ment could not have it both ways.

The Competent Authority felt that he was incompetent to settle this issue at his level. The entire conference walked across to Queen’s House for a man-to-man talk with the Governor-General.

That conference will live in my memory for a long while. It was farce at its most accomplished. From the moment we entered Queen’s House the comic unreality of it began to im­press itself upon me. At the gate the sentry challenged us but was ignored as though he were a street urchin begging for coins.
We were a motley crowd, perhaps the most informally-clad visitors ever to enter those marble halls. We were met at the door by a glamorous aratchi who wore a quaint little tor­toise-shell comb in his hair. He passed us on to a resplendent senior aratchi who wore a fancy waistcoat of a more intricate design. He wore his hair in a bun and a mantilla-comb of enor­mous dimensions ornamented his coiffure. The ludicrousness of these costumes and the old-world characters who wore them with such peacock pride had never struck me so forcibly as now when the whole country was in upheaval outside the cold, formal, out-of-this-world luxury of Queen’s House.13
Upstairs, as we were ushered into the air-conditioned ‘office’ room of the protagonist of the great tragicomedy, H.E. the Governor-General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, C.G.M.G., KCVO K B.E., was already trying out his lines.
As the curtain went up he was ‘discovered’, as the play­wrights say, sitting at a desk with six telephones and no papers on it. He held a telephone to each ear. He did not even look up as we entered. We stood inside the door as he told the mouthpiece of one telephone—’sh-sh-sh-shoot them.’
That settled, he cradled that telephone and said into the mouthpiece of the other: ‘O.E.G. here. Clear them out even if you have to sh-sh-sh-shoot them.’ The second telephone clicked back on its cradle.

I was definitely impressed. In two short sentences, one of the most polished players ever to bestride the public stage had created the atmosphere he needed for the drama that was to unfold.

I watched silently, marvelling at the facility with which Sir Oliver had slipped into the old ‘O.E.G.’ role which he had played with such extravagant distinction as Civil Defence Commissioner during World War Two. The only difference was that he was no longer plain Mr O. E. Goonetilleke, Civil Defence Commissioner, but ‘General’ Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, Supreme Commander of the Armed Services of Ceylon and of the Civil Liberties of the people.
Having delivered his two opening lines, Sir Oliver rose and walked round the table towards us, the look of stern determina­tion still on his face. Then, when he was at a hand-shake’s dis­tance, the tight look was peeled off and that completely con­vincing and completely simulated smile cracked his face from east to west. He pumped a round of hands, with special words of greeting for old acquaintances and more special words of welcome for the strangers.
As soon as the conference began it became clear that the liberal interpretation of the press censorship regulations given to us by the Information Officer was very far from Sir Oliver’s understanding of them. His words, which I report as nearly verbatim as I can give them, were:
No news of any incidents or about any aspect of the present situation. No editorials, no comment, no columns, no photographs or cartoons of any kind on the emergency without reference to me.
It was pointed out that such harsh censorship had never been imposed even during the worst days of the war—in Ceylon or in Britain during the Blitz.
Sir Oliver’s response to that was to shunt the subject on to another line but close enough to convey his meaning:
I advise you to read up the Detention Laws under the Emergency Regulations. Detention without trial. No writs of habeas corpus, no bail, no .

He broke off with a sunny apology, to make another telephone call. All we heard was:

‘Maurice de Mel. Not Royce. Maurice. Is that Maurice? 42nd Lane, Wellawatte? Clear the place. If necessary sh-sh­shoot.’

By this time not even the most obtuse among us needed a diagram to know which way things were going. But Sir Oliver couldn’t resist making the point clear by telling us: ‘Gentle­men. One favour. One personal request. When you report the news in future please don’t say that I am running the sh-sh­show. I don’t want all kinds of jealousies to come up, you know. . .

That made it official. Sir Oliver was running the show.


As we rose to go Sir Oliver, smiling beatifically, improved the shining hour by throwing away a loaded line with the grace and timing of an Olivier: ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘bear with me for a few days. A few weeks. Maybe months. Then you can call me a rn-rn-murderer if you like.’
As we went back to our offices we knew that the emergency regulations had already resulted in two major casualties. The first, as I have said, was the freedom of the press. The second casualty was the civil liberties of the people and their right to know the truth about the way in which the Government they had elected was dealing with the national crisis.
It is difficult to find a parallel for the harshness of the cen­sorship imposed on the national press of Ceylon. Even during the Battle of Britain, when the British people, almost over­powered by a well-prepared and well-equipped Luftwaffe, were fighting back with their knees and their knuckles for their very existence, the press had never been gagged as tightly. News which was likely to create ‘alarm and despondency’ was left out and reports of troop, naval and air force movements were necessarily censored. But comment was always free. The British press and the reading public were still free to comment on and criticize the conduct of the war by the Government.
Ethereal Buccaneers

Queen’s House was now the venue of the daily press conference and, although the impression was given that the conference was being held by the Information Officer, it was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke himself who conducted it. The Information Offi­cer was but a civil service cipher in the proceedings—a role which that officer, I am sure, much preferred to the one for which he had been billed.

From the first day of the censorship the public was treated to the finest examples of the kind of pre-fabricated news that they will assuredly get if the press is ever nationalized. The news given by the Competent Authority had not even a nod­ding acquaintance with the facts. Censors must, when the occasion demands, keep news out—but the Competent Authority went ten times better and altered the facts to suit the purposes of the Government. For instance, a foreign press correspondent in Ceylon filed a cable referring to the fact that a quarter of the population of Ceylon is Tamil speaking. The ‘one-fourth’ was deliberately altered by the Competent Authority to read ‘one-sixth’.14
The Government was anxious after the first day or two to shift the focus of interest from the events in the Sinhalese areas to Jaffna and Batticaloa. The news was therefore carefully but crudely twisted to suit this purpose. The ‘news’ breaks from the Northern and Eastern Provinces were given exclusive promi­nence.
The headlines read:

Substantial Increases of Military strength in Batticaloa area, N.P. (Ceylon Observer—May 30).

No Air Trips to the North (Times of Ceylon—May 30).

Tighter Security Measures in North and East.


On May 31 the Competent Authority reported. ‘The situa­tion in the Northern Province is now becoming hourly the chief problem of the Authorities, with a growing suspicion that just as the secret wave-length and calling sign of the police radio has fallen into the hands of a widespread organization, the police secret cipher is also in the hands of the same organiza­tion.’
Obviously a Master was at work. The mixture of fact and fiction was expertly dispensed. At the press conference Sir Oliver was asked why this pirate radio could not be tracked down.

His answer was: ‘Notice of that question, please. We are on the verge of locating it.’

People spoke freely of the pirate radio and the uncanny knowledge displayed by the ‘secret organization’ that was operating it. A couple of innocent radio hams had to surrender their equipment. But it soon became clear that no one had actually heard this radio station.

Everyone who talked about it knew someone else who had heard it but they themselves had no direct experience. And, as it must happen, a rich crop of theories sprouted on the false ground prepared by the rumour-mongers. Sir Oliver, enjoying the melodrama of his role, gave official impetus to the pirate radio theory by ‘appealing’ to the public through the press conference to demonstrate their patriotism by refusing to listen in to the pirate radio.
Like a police commissioner in an Eric Ambler thriller he spoke with calculated reticence about the breaking of the secret police code and the secret wave-length by these ethereal buccaneers.
The theories grew multifold. Some said it was a short-wave station, others said it was the same wave-length as Radio Ceylon. Some said that the radio was operated off a Russian ship in the Bay of Bengal, others said it was a British vessel engaged in the fleet manoeuvres off the coast of Trincomalee. Some said that the pirate radio had been located in the Flower Road area; others claimed that it had been traced to a spot near the Galle Face Hotel. Some spoke of a Russian hide-out in the Katukurunda area where a transmitter could easily be secreted; others were certain that it was the Voice of America indulging in a clever game of ventriloquism.

Some located it in the Hendala area where a relative of a Communist boy has his country cottage and ‘work-shed’; others were certain it was a mobile transmitter.

The truth of the matter was that the pirate radio was an imaginative masterpiece, used by Sir Oliver for the specific purpose of making the emergency ‘big’ enough to call for really ‘big’ and unprecedented counter measures. Already Members of Parliament were showing alarm at the ferocity of the military activity in the country. Moreover the possibility of having to ‘get tough’ in Jaffna if reprisals began there on a mass scale had occurred to Sir Oliver. Hence the big build-up of the atmos­phere of conspiracy and ‘foreign intervention’.

Hence the story of the technological skill and uncanny omnipresence and omni­science of the radio privateers.
There was, no doubt, another consideration in Sir Oliver’s mind. lie knew that as long as the press was fed with sufficient quantities of raw meat it would be so preoccupied that it would not protest much about censorship regulations or start asking awkward questions about the suppression of civil liberties in the country.
It is an interesting speculation to consider whether, if the heat of the early days of the emergency had continued, Sir Oliver would have dragged the Martians and Flying Saucers into Ceylon’s troubles in the role of Arch Conspirators.
By the second week of June, the pirate radio was already a wispy memory. But what about those who still may claim that they had heard a radio transmitter which was definitely not Radio Ceylon? The C.I.D. answer: Very possibly it was the police radio-network on to which people had unwittingly tuned.
Governor's Rule
As soon as the emergency was proclaimed the political com­plex of Ceylon underwent a complete transformation. The first significant evidence of this was the virtual abdication of the legislative authority in the first week of the emergency. The Governor-General made this abundantly clear on May 27— three hours after the emergency was announced—when he told pressmen, ‘Please don’t publish the fact that I am running the show.’

The events that followed proved that such indeed was the case. The legal aspect of this situation must be stated briefly in order to appreciate what was happening. Under the laws of Ceylon the Governor-General’s role in an emergency is that he proclaims a State of Emergency on the advice of the Head of the Government. This act has the effect of shifting authority temporarily to the Governor-General but, under the law, he is obliged to delegate these powers back to the Prime Minister and his Ministers. The Prime Minister is then armed with extraordinary powers in order to take action to cope with the emergency.

The analogy of what took place in Britain when that country was in a state of war is illuminating. The King proclaimed a State of War on the advice of the Prime Minister who was then given back the authority to carry on the war. Thus Sir Winston Churchill who took over from Mr. Neville Chamberlain was dejure as well as defacto in full control of the conduct of the war. He gave the orders and he shouldered the responsibility for winning the war and for the mistakes of his command.
In Ceylon a curious phenomenon occurred. The Prime Minister, for reasons never openly stated by him anywhere, took the unprecedented step of passing the buck back to the Governor-General—thus making Sir Oliver Goonetilleke virtual ruler of Ceylon. Although his reasons were not stated, they are not far to seek. The first and obvious reason was that Mr Bandaranaike felt inadequate to deal with a situation which could not be tackled with words, however eloquent and polished they might be.
The time for decision and action had arrived. Mr Bandaranaike, like all three previous Prime Ministers of Ceylon who had increasingly learnt to lean more and more on Sir Oliver whenever they were in trouble, particularly towards the last days of their tenancy of Temple Trees, was not slow to recognize the advantage to him of letting Sir Oliver bring the country under control. Sir Oliver’s experience as a public servant, Minister, diplomat, negotiator, War Councillor and Civil Defence Commissioner during World War Two fitted him magnificently for the job of hand­ling an island-wide emergency.

The personal qualities which had made him a success in all his previous undertakings—his razor-sharp mind, his adeptness at bluffing his way through the stickiest mess, his ability to visualize the opponent’s manoeuvres three moves ahead, his sweeping cynicism, his blasé attitude to scruples which would baulk another man over weighted with conscience, qualified him eminently for the job.

There was also a keener and more subtle reason for Mr Bandaranaike’s uncharacteristic self—effacement. His experi­ence of tide watching15 has given him a sharp prescience about the force and direction of the next wave of popular emotion. He realized that the administration of the Emergency Regula­tions. and the military activity necessary to bring the extremists under control, while giving a sense of temporary relief through­out the country, would inevitably cause a strong reaction among the people - both Sinhalese and Tamils.
As most of the disorders were in predominantly Sinhalese districts and since more Sinhalese were likely to be jailed, beaten tip or killed by the armed services, the reaction from the Sinhalese against the Government was bound to be powerful. It is even possible - indeed even probable, to judge by Mr. Bandaranaike’s previous actions - that he expected the communal conflict to become deflected into a war between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Christians. The Prime Minister had decided to allow the Governor General to take the spotlight so that he could also take the rap.
Sir Oliver Goonctilleke, an old fox himself, was quite aware that when the day of reckoning came he would be called to answer by the Prime Minister. This was what he had in mind when he told the press ‘Gentlemen, hear with me for a few weeks. ‘Then you can call mc a murderer if you like.’ But he was gambler enough to depend on the outside chance of escaping intact and if possible of doing well for himself out of the situation.
He had also sufficient love for his country and enough personal conceit to realize that he was the man of the hour and that lie alone among Ceylon’s public men was equipped to cope with civil disorder on a massive scale.

Mr Bandaranaike’s instinct was perfectly right. The reper­cussions to the military control of the country and the punitive treatment of the rioters and trouble makers in the Sinhalese districts built up within four weeks to formidable proportions.


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