Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Remember the Riots

July 1983: Looking back in anger and despair 25 years on

Photo by Chandragupta Amarasinghe

What happened in mid-1983 and in the last week of July 1983 was obscene, a monumental atrocity, a disaster for Sri Lanka. In a context marked by the push for self-determination by the principal forces representing the Sri Lankan Tamils and an armed underground insurgency involving restive youth in the extreme north, government functionaries and elements of the ordinary populace took it upon themselves to unleash punitive attacks on Tamils living in the Sinhala-majority areas in the south. In both the towns and in several parts of the supposedly idyllic countryside Tamils were killed, assailed, maimed, terrorized and forced to flee or hide.

It was not an ethnic “riot,” a term left over from the British Raj and one that covers a wide array of affrays (inadequately, of course, because of its wide sweep). Nor was it a holocaust. It was something in between in the lexicon of assaults: a pogrom.

Apart from the immorality of the acts, whether viewed singly or collectively, the consequences were quite counter-productive even in terms of the thinking that inspired the various stirrers and perpetrators. The attempt to “teach the Tamils a lesson” backfired. The militant movement for separation gathered thousands of new Tamil recruits and a rejuvenation of commitment among most SL Tamils, as well a wave of support in international quarters. Sri Lanka also received pariah status on the world stage.

One Easter weekend two years later I was on a bush walk in the Gammon Ranges of South Australia and woke up early. I did not stir out of my sleeping bag because it was bitterly cold and pitch black outside. My thoughts were as lucid as the night was black. They were lucid ‘black’: in my fantasizing mind’s imagination I lined up the whole of the UNP Cabinet and mowed them down with a machine-gun.

This because they had ruined Sri Lanka as I knew it – for it did not take a rocket-scientist to realize that an absolute disaster had been consolidated by the events of July 1983. The country, my Sri Lanka, was, as local slang would say, “now down the pallam” — and going, going down pallam, pallam yet further.

This utopian act of retribution by my hands there in the Gammons that dark night was not constrained by personality or friendship. I knew Lalith Athulathmudali as acquaintance and had participated in official dealings with JR Jayewardene in the course of my archival operations. No exceptions were made in the catholic sweep of my imaginary sten-gun.

This was a form of paligänÄ«ma (revenge, vengeance) in mind’s wish. I must be Sri Lankan to the core because Sinhalese, Tamils and others share this tendency in seemingly equal measure (read Obeyesekere on murder by sorcery practice).

The focus on the UNP in my act of fantasia is a simplification. Let me render the tale more complex. The responsibility for the atrocities that July were/are not restricted to segments of the UNP. Grapevine stories suggest that Sinhalese from all political parties, all religious persuasions, all classes and walks of life participated in the acts of instigation and acts of assault. Women too stirred the assailants and were among the looters. Looting, of course, was opportunistic and could even include Tamils from slums and shanties targeting the homes of well-to-do or shops broken down and open.

Stirrers and assailants probably added up to a minority of the stunned Sinhala population writ large (otherwise the kill-count would have been much larger than the estimated 3000 odd). But – an important “but’ this – there were some Sinhala non-participants who remarked aloud that the “Tamils deserved what they got.” These were (are) also many apologists among those on the sidelines of action.

A particularly intriguing category of persons/families are the Sinhalese who provided refuge for Tamil neighbours and friends, or arranged for their protection, while yet instigating the pogrom. I have at least three anecdotal tales marking such instances, two of them UNP cabinet ministers. So here we see ambiguous categories of action, no less obscene and atrocious than the assailant work of the Tamil-haters.

Such stories of Sinhalese activism in generating Black July must be balanced by the many anecdotal tales of horrified Sinhalese, Burghers and others who assisted Tamils-in-strife, and those who worked tirelessly in the refugee camps. And we must surely salute the courageous few who rescued Tamils on the road from Sinhala killers and those who stood firm in their little streets and withstood bodies of assailants intent on battering mayhem against Tamil householders therein. All this information, I add, is based on first-hand or second-hand tales lodged in my memory bank and he occasional first-hand account in print.

As yet we do not have a comprehensive, or even a near comprehensive, study of Black July. Here, again, the pogrom of July 1983 cannot be viewed in isolation. There were attacks on Tamils prior to that. Apart from the relatively minor instances in 1956, 1970, 1981, the two most significant were the mini-pogroms: those of mid-1958 and mid-1977. The former has only attracted brief or inadequate reviews (Vittachi, Manor), while the latter in August 1977 is largely unexplored terrain as far I am aware.

Though unexplored in depth by analysts both clearly remain inscribed in the minds of Tamils who were threatened or victimized by these acts of atrocity; while anecdotal tales of harrowing suffering would have circulated across Sri Lankan Tamil networks – and also among the Malaiyaha Tamils of the plantations who were victimized in 1977. July 1983 compounded these tales thousand-fold.

Photo by Chandragupta Amarasinghe

Clearly, none of these atrocious events can be reviewed in isolation. They have to be set within a study of the complex political processes since 1931, a study that takes note of the political economy and social developments that interlaced with the structured political processes to gradually sharpen the competition between Sinhalese and Tamils to the point of no compromise. So, the story is complex and cannot be summarized briefly except, perhaps, to say it as a tragedy.

Arguably, albeit speculatively, if Sri Lanka had received proportionate representation in 1947/48 instead of a Westminster system of first-past-the-post, then, the political chasm may not have sharpened to the degree that it did, As I have contended long ago, the Westminster scheme within the peculiar demographic distributions in the island rendered it difficult for Sinhala-politicians to give concessions – the problem was political/structural, though a lack of ideological vision did exacerbate matters (see my article in Modern Asia Studies 1978 reprinted in Exploring Confrontation, 1994).

While agreeing thus with the several Sinhala scholars who have attributed the fundamental blame for our present dilemma to the Sinhala peoples and their polity over the recent decades, a proviso must be entered. At various points of time the Tamil political leaders, from GG Ponnambalam to Chelvanayakam and the Federal Party personnel, seem to have contributed their mite to the sharpening of conflict – through rhetorical excess as well as machination. This, let me note, is an impressionistic comment and not developed clearly in any of my writing.

Thus contextualized, we can return to the present situation. The “1956 ideology” was rejuvenated during the last Presidential campaign and reigns again. “Ape Anduva” is commanded by four brothers who tell the Sinhala masses what is good for them. It is a new version of the cakravarti figure of old, the “Asokan Persona” as I once described this figure of the modern populist era (also in Exploring Confrontation). While presenting an amiable, moral face, the decision-making is top-down in its flow and provides the best returns to those subordinates who take a propitiating stance, a stance that thereby reproduces the top-down patronage-authoritarianism that is already in place. But one should not forget that this recrudescence of currents from “the 1956 revolution” has been made possible by the LTTE-cum-complicit-Tamil role during the last presidential elections, and by a longer history of LTTE obduracy and duplicity. This truism does not make this picture any less palatable.

This is to digress. Let me conclude by linking back to the themes arising from the “1956 ideology” associated with Sinhala cultural nationalism and its outcomes in May-June 1958 and July 1983 (see pictures). It is important for those attached to the Sri Lankan polity in its multi-ethnic form and its desire to appease those Tamils who are still Lankan in spirit that BLACK JULY should not be obliterated from memory.

That is what some Sinhalese – alas, I have no statistics on their numbers or proportions – desire. Recently in a cyber-net exchange which embraces me (unsolicited) one Bodhipala Wijesinghe asked a moderate Tamil gentleman Kathirevelu searching for compromise this question: “Tell me, in what way have the Tamils been bullied?” — truly an amazing question that, to my mind, revealed a monumental blindness. Wijesinghe, at least, asked the question with a desire to learn from Kathirevelu albeit with shutters already half-way up. Not so other obdurate Sinhala chauvinists: they remain in denial. Thus a few years back HLD Mahindapala wrote a review of politics in recent decades in his usual acid style in which the events of July 1983 did not receive one mention.

There is a measure of incorrigibility here that is as debilitating as a cause for despair.

A passenger taken out of the vehicle and being beaten up in the anti-Tamil riots of 1958. Photo courtesy Victor Ivan.


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  • July 1983 – 25 years after – NEWSFLASH – Elvis has left the building

    On 23rd July 1983, a peaceful race, predominantly ‘turn the other cheek’ type philosophy, chilled out citizens committed some of the biggest atrocities in the world. Sri Lankan’s established themselves firmly in the world map amongst the Nazi’s and similar minded people for whom genocide was a leisure activity of choice.

    With that has come our beautiful countries downfall.

    As a Sri Lankan, I am sorry, I apologise profusely to all those Sri Lankan’s whose homes were burnt, relatives killed, and businesses looted.

    I urge for the healing process to begin.

    At least now.

    The GOV of SL to officially acknowledge what happened. A monument in remembrance.

    Everyone’s experiences recorded.

    So that we learn. And move on.

    Move on we must. PLEASE.

  • I total;ly disagree with the reason given by Michael Roberts on the reason for the disgraceful and disgusting anti Tamil violence in 1983

    The reason forr anti Tamil violence was sol;ely the then president of the country JR Jeyawardene. He made a speech to the Sinhala race after the military attack on a convoy of soldiers in the north and 13 soldiers wwere killed.

    He Said that the Sinhalese will not just wait but will teach Tamils a lesson. He instigated the masses, emotionalised them, justified violence both directly and indirectly and sent them on a Tamil destruction mission. The stupid president never knew that he was doing this against his own citizens, the Tamils.

    I disagree with the writer when he wrote “In a context marked by the push for self-determination by the principal forces representing the Sri Lankan Tamils and an armed underground insurgency involving restive youth in the extreme north, government functionaries and elements of the ordinary populace took it upon themselves to unleash punitive attacks on Tamils living in the Sinhala-majority areas in the south. In both the towns and in several parts of the supposedly idyllic countryside Tamils were killed, assailed, maimed, terrorized and forced to flee or hide.”

    As a president he should have approached the self determination to Tamils sdifferently with much wisdom, which he was lacking.

    You can refer to the Hansard. He said to late Amirthalingam, who was then the leader of the opposition, in Parliament, indirectly that he would give the right of self determination to Tamils.

    When Amirthalingam stated that the people of North East want self determination JR said “what makes you think that I will not give it?””

    Again a tragic story of deceiving Tamilss politically to prevent them getting their legitimate right to rule themselves.

  • I distinctly remember July 1983. I was abroad, often listening to the reports from the BBC correspondent from Colombo.

    The Correspondent was seeing destruction, killing and violence to its utmost. He walks along the streets of Colombo and spots out a mob doing destruction. And in that mob he saw a few monks robed in saffron.

    He went near one of them and asked “you are a Buddhist monk, and you dont believe in killing even a life in an egg. How do you justify killing of Tamils?”

    He replied “yes we must not break an egg and kill the life in it, but it is alright to kill a Tamil”.

    Even Buddhism was twisted to be anti Tamil since 1983, and became the reason for the present brutal and bloody war in the North East.

    Now anti Tamilism exists as a function carried out by the state. Sinhala mobs are no longer necessary to kill Tamils. Now there is planned, calculated and militarised genocide by the state. The situation has become worse than ever before.

  • Ekcol

    Prof Roberts,
    As a new graduate you were considered the future historian of Ceylon. You lived up to the expectation and beyond. I am glad you mentioned 1958, 50th anniversary of the Pogrom. If better judgement prevailed in the Buddhist Sinhala political and religious Leadership, the path of the history since then would have been an envy of any other states. Many Sinhala and Burgher officials and lay persons were given praise for the yeomen service they did to those who had to flee to the North and to refugee camps in Colombo. One name often missed is Superintendent of Police Arndt. May his soul rest in peace.

    I am glad you made reference to the dearth of documents about the 1977 Pogroms. Scholars of conflict resolution and historians from both side of the divide and the human rights NGOs – of which there were only a few at that time.

    Here is a story of the Tamil who was born in Anuradhapura(m) and had a family, house, thrivng business enterprise, and long term close friend of K. B. Ratnayake. His business enterprise , and house were looted and burnt. He and his family escaped to Jaffna. Mr. Ratnayake could not help him.They stayed with my brother and family. He never went back. He died after an year. A first cousin of mine and her husband who was a policeman, and two children, escaped from Kandy to Jaffna to their home. Her sister and her husband who lived in Ratmalana escaped from a mob that were threatning their lives and ready to burn down the house. They ran away and then ended up in Jaffna and lived with her sister. A niece of mine, her husband escaped from Kandy to Kilinochchi. Their rice mill was looted and the empty building burnt. I hope people will tell their stories.

    In 1956, I was near Galle Face hotel on the Galle Road, when two of my friends and I met the Mob going down Galle Road towards Wellawatte. I am not yet ready to tell that shameful story, but I will someday soon. Sam Wijesinha’s Book, “All Experience.” mention an event that shows that SWRD would make a pact with the devil to become Prime Minister, and the frame of political strategy he used that backfired and began the pogroms. I quote, “In an election rally at Polannaruwa in 1956 he unleashed a tirade that dug deep into issues of race and language. When he was returning to Colombo, in MWH de Silva’s car, MWH said to him,’You have sowed the wind, our people will have to reap the whirlwind.’ Pat came the reply from the master of the metaphor, ‘We will cross that bridege when we come to it’ “.

    He came to that bridge. But the forces that made him PM never let him step on the bridge. His wife, personally a woderful person, and her Ministers made things worse for the unity of the Tamils and Sinhalese. His daughter tried to bridge the widening gap, but the forces she encountered were stronger and numerous and wanted unity only on their terms. She and her advisers increased the intensity of the problem.

    Now it is the turn of the Rajapakse Dynasty to subdue the Tamils like Duttagemunu did. Did anyone know that the password to send an email to the President of SL is duttagemunu? Check the SL website and try to send an email to him.

  • punitham

    Please tell all you know( you seem to know intimately a lot that is useful to figure out our post-independent history)e about those days when you can before it is too late. I mean we never know when we will die.