Veeramunai Riot

Published: April 18, 2024

April 18, 1954

Drunken brawl

Tamil New Year celebrations in 1954 came to Veeramunai, a small Tamil village in the Batticaloa District, and with it, the attendant inebriation. A Tamil man got into a drunken brawl with Manikkam, the vice chairman of the town council of Sammanthurai, a nearby Muslim town. The man’s sister complained to the DRO about Manikkam, and the DRO subsequently asked two village headmen, one of whom was a Muslim, to investigate. When the headmen arrived to arrest Manikkam, he resisted, and his Tamil supporters came to his aid. The supporters assaulted and bound the two headmen, and then stabbed the Muslim.1

A nearby group of Muslims was angered by this and assaulted Manikkam’s posse. Manikkam then pulled out a gun and opened fire on the Muslims. As the situation deteriorated, a Muslim opened fire back, killing Manikkam. At this point, what started as a factional clash turned into a riot. The Tamil mob attacked Sammanthurai while the Muslim mob attacked Veeramunai, and both sides committed assault and arson on the other.2 The Kalmunai MP, A. M. Mirza, had gone to houses in Sammanthurai and Veeramunai and called for calm.3 Police had managed to eventually bring the situation under control, but were largely “unable to prevent looting and arson.”4

On the Muslim side, a twelve-year-old boy and a man were injured so severely that M. S. Kariapper, former MP of Kalmunai, wrote dying depositions on their behalf.5 The latter succumbed to gunshot wounds, likely those inflicted by Manikkam.6

But the bulk of the affected were Tamils in Veeramunai. Nearly every single one of the over three hundred resident families fled to a minimum of twelve different villages.7 Tamils reported Muslim mobs storming and looting their houses.8 Officially, 68 houses at Veeramunai were burnt and 88 were looted. The government agent reported that, overall, four people were killed due to the riot.9

No return

The Tamil refugees were staunchly against returning to Veeramunai. The assistant government agent, himself a Tamil, had asked them to, but they instead asked him for allotments two miles from the Veeramunai temple. They also refused offers to take residence in Gal Oya Development Board camps or colonist cottages.10 Subsequent requests by the DRO and the Kalmunai MP were similarly unsuccessful. Many refugees took shelter under trees in Malwatte, a small nearby village, and demanded that the government grant them permanent residence there, along with some rehabilitation assistance.11 After a six-hour conference with several MPs, village leaders, government officials, and junior ministers, eight families were persuaded to return to Veeramunai. Ismail, an irrigation engineer of the Gal Oya Development Board proposed to auction off some of his land and use the money for the people of the village. The government agent promised that a police station would be built nearby.12 Those who returned complained of being constantly threatened with violence, and alongside a police station, asked for a school and market.13

Over a month after the riot, many of the refugees lived, according to one observer, “like monkeys.” They were given provisions by nearby villages, including Muslims, and government rations, but following the termination of rations, they were nearing starvation.14 However, assistance was still given to those at Malwatte. In July, the minister of housing, Kanthiah Vaithianathan, visited Malwatte and asked the displaced to forget the past and to return home, guaranteeing safety. Mirza reminded them that the Muslim community had generously supported them, and Ismail noted that it had, the day after the riot, started a fund to compensate the Tamils.15 Furthermore, the government had given the refugees Rs. 200 to compensate for their material losses.16

Tensions revived

Ultimately, about three quarters of the villagers sold their property to Muslims at low prices, and what remained of Veeramunai turned into a Tamil enclave of Sammanthurai. The displaced Tamils had instead founded new villages in places like Malwatte and Veeracholai. After 1954, Tamils and Muslims in the area lived together peacefully, if not uneasily. However, there had been fears among the Tamils that elements among the Muslims were waiting to re-enact the April 1954 riot and fully absorb Veeramunai into Sammanturai.17

During the civil war, these tensions re-emerged. The Batticaloa and Amparai Districts generally became scenes of violence between Tamil militants on the one hand and Muslim home guards on the other, committing crimes against each other’s civilian populations, repeating the events of 1954 in a more brutal manner. Veeramunai and its vicinity became receptacles of violence in 1990, as Muslim home guards attacked Tamils, often in retaliation for militant violence against Muslims, and just as often triggering even more militant violence. What started as a run-of-the-mill drunken brawl during New Year’s celebration turned into an ethnic riot, and not even the passage of decades could prevent the wounds from being re-opened.18


Fernando, Laksiri. Police-Civil Relations for Good Governance. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2005.

Pullenayagam, A. B. S. N. Administration Report of the Government Agent, Batticaloa District, for 1954. Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1955.

The War And Its Consequences in the Amparai District. Jaffna: University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), 1990. Accessed April 13, 2024.


  1. “Factions Clash in Samanturai,” Ceylon Daily News, April 19, 1954. Hereafter, Ceylon Daily News will be abbreviated as “CDN.”
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Samanthurai Now Quiet: Second Death,” CDN, April 21, 1954.
  4. Laksiri Fernando, Police-Civil Relations for Good Governance. (Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2005), 28.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Samanthurai Now Quiet: Second Death,” CDN, April 21, 1954.
  7. “They Are Too Scared to Return,” CDN, April 24, 1954.
  8. “Riot & Arson in Veeramunai,” Indian Daily Mail, April 26, 1954.
  9. A. B. S. N. Pullenayagam, Administration Report of the Government Agent, Batticaloa District, for 1954, (Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1955), A154.
  10. “They Are Too Scared to Return,” CDN, April 24, 1954.
  11. “Residents Shun Riot-Torn Village,” CDN, April 23, 1954.
  12. “Veeramunai Refugees Persuaded to Return to Riot-Torn Village,” CDN, April 27, 1954.
  13. “Riot Refugees Told to Go Home,” CDN, July 8, 1954.
  14. “Riot Refugees Living ‘Like Monkeys’,” CDN, May 23, 1954.
  15. “Riot Refugees Told to Go Home,” CDN, July 8, 1954.
  16. Pullenayagam, Administration Report, A154.
  17. The War And Its Consequences in the Amparai District. Jaffna: University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), 1990. Accessed April 13, 2024.
  18. Ibid.