The 1977 election brought a new UNP government to power, led by J.R. Jayewardene, with a massive parliamentary majority. Indeed, so great was the UNP's electoral success in the south that the TULF formed the official parliamentary opposition, the first and only time a Tamil party has done so.
On taking office, Jayewardene had promised to provide redress for certain Tamil grievances. He soon fulfiled his pledge to abolish the district quota system for university entrance, although access to higher education remained a sensitive issue. In 1978, he sped through a second republican constitution, under which he became the country's first executive president. Under this constitution, Tamil language rights were incorporated for the first time, while a new system of proportional representation ensured minority parties a greater voice in national politics. In addition, protection of fundamental rights was enhanced, with the Supreme Court given jurisdiction over alleged violations. These initiatives did not quell the rising Tamil militancy, however, and it was not long before the president was extending new powers to security forces in the north, and suspending certain constitutional safeguards against human rights abuses.
Communal violence 1977-81
Within a month of the 1977 elections, there was a significant decline in the security of Tamil people living in the south including, for the first time, the Up-country population. In the last two weeks of August 1977, Sinhalese gangs killed over 100 Tamils. At the same time, tens of thousands were displaced, leaving their homes and property looted and burned.
In the north, the 1981 District Development Council elections were also marred by violence. The LTTE killed the leading UNP candidate in Jaffna as well as two police officers and several other people. Then, during a campaigning visit to Jaffna by two government ministers, the police went on a retaliatory rampage through the town. They killed several people, destroyed the market area, numerous homes, a Tamil newspaper office, the TULF headquarters and the public library. The library contained some 95,000 books and manuscripts and was considered a key repository of Tamil history and culture. Its destruction remains one of the landmarks in any chronology of the Sri Lankan conflict.
In April 1978, after a Jaffna police inspector had been killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government hurriedly passed a new law to proscribe the militant group and 'other similar organisations'. In July 1979, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was also passed. This enactment, together with a declaration of a state of emergency in the north, marked a new, more intensive phase in security operations. Reports of human rights violations committed by the security forces increased, exacerbating resentment among Tamil civilians and fuelling growing support for the militants.
While seeking to suppress militancy through force, President Jayewardene looked to satisfy Tamil demands for greater political autonomy through an island-wide system of decentralisation under the District Development Councils Act, passed in August 1980. While declaring the District Development Councils (DDCs) would not satisfy their demand for Eelam, the TULF participated in the presidential commission which prepared this legislation, and also in the DDC elections of July 1981. Once the DDCs were elected, however, they found themselves insufficiently funded, inadequately empowered, and subject to central government interference.
Amid heightening tension and increasing militarism on all sides, the key turning point in the conflict came in July 1983, when anti-Tamil violence in the south erupted on a scale never seen before. The violence broke out after the LTTE ambushed and killed 13 soldiers near Jaffna, the first time an attack of this scale had taken place. After the soldiers' bodies were flown to Colombo for a mass funeral, retaliatory attacks commenced against Tamils in the city, and soon spread elsewhere. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. In Welikade prison, 52 Tamil prisoners were killed on successive days by Sinhala inmates with the apparent complicity of prison staff. In the north, the security forces went on a killing spree. Despite the considerable evidence of official involvement in the violence, however, no government investigations were held.
Far from offering redress to the victims of the violence, in fact, the government sought instead to 'appease' the perpetrators, presenting the riots as a 'natural' response to armed militancy and introducing a constitutional amendment banning advocacy of secessionism, even by peaceful, political means. TULF Parliamentarians, who had been elected on a separatist platform, had to forfeit their seats. The constitutional path for Tamil nationalist aspirations was effectively blocked.