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

Pricking the conscience on reminiscences of ‘Black July’

by Austin Fernando

In July 1983, my Accountant Mr. Vallipuram at the Cooperative Department lived off Castle Street where his neighbour was a notorious Sinhalese thug. Until ‘Black July’ Vallipuram once told me that, that thug was the ‘assailant select’ in his mind, whenever he feared a racial riot.

When violent crowds ‘visited’ him early morning on the Day of ‘Black July’ around 3.30 a.m. he, his wife and son escaped through the back door in to the premises of the thug, as it was the safest. They hid behind some banana trees until the ‘Sinhalese nationalist friends’ disappeared.

Suddenly, who appeared in front of them? It was the nasty thug, the intended killer. They thought that that was the last of their breaths.

To their utter surprise, the thug invited Vallipuram and family in to his smoky slum for a plain tea, shelter and security. Vallipuram thought that the instantaneous death was postponed. Yes, they were in the slum for about two hours until a Police Jeep from Borella picked them up. Vallipuram learnt that the message to the Police had gone from the thug, the ‘killer select!’ He was the saviour and not the killer.

Ms. Ponnathurai of Wellawatta
I too had a similar experience on this ‘day of the great divide’ when I had to save the life of one Ms. Ponnathurai who was brought to my house at Pamankada by two Sinhalese gentlemen who were employees of either Richard Pieris or Browns. Ms. Ponnathurai was a co-worker with them and could not reach her house in Wellawatta because it was burning. When she was inside my house, hidden in fear of death, the ‘nationalists’ visited us demanding to know whether we were aware of any Tamils hidden anywhere. If we were found we would have taken our last breaths that day!

Looking back
I narrate these incidents to show that there is unexpected humanity and reflection of justice, even in an underworld thug, whom one expects to be one’s worst enemy at a vulnerable moment and unexpected humanitarianism and reflected justice in civilians like me and those two Sinhalesegentlmen. Today, I reminisce on 25 years through this gloomy darkened tunnel of time and am reminded of the harrowing episodes faced by Vallipuram and Ms. Ponnathurai. I do not think Vallipuram ever met the thug after he left Colombo. I have not met Ms. Ponnathurai even once.

However, are we in the same frame of mind 25 years later to help others, if the same incident happens today? Will we be spared if we react in the same manner? Will I not be called a terrorist sympathiser if I do so today?

Twenty five years later, with the world open to us at the tap of a computer key or pressing a button on a remote control – while calling ourselves members of a global village / family, whom have we become?
Today, we are a society who practices hatred like a fundamentalist religion. We no longer are horrified when Tamil civilians are killed, abducted or disappeared. In fact, some of our extremists may be thinking that it’s worthwhile to kill them young as ‘they will grow up to be Tigers.’

The sentiments of most LTTE’ers and even some extremist Tamil civilians cannot be different towards the Sinhalese, when innocent men, women and children are blown to pieces by suicide bombers in the South. Those blown up children may be the future Army soldiers according to them!

Concurrently, will Vallipuram today reciprocate that thug similarly in Killinochchi, if the latter is faced with threat to life by ethnically motivated Tamil nationalists? If he or Ms. Ponnathurai does so, will they not be called ‘anti-Tamil stooges of the southern Sinhalese chauvinistic Government?’

Is there any solution against polarisation?
All these threats will polarise us more. How long are we prepared to polarise like this? Has not Satan taken over our humanity?

Leave aside our brother or sister of a different community; we are unfazed even when one of our own communities dies in a bomb blast. Today, a LTTE blast is not fabulous enough,or newsworthy unless at least 10-15 innocents have died. By being numb to our brother’s pain, we have instilled in ourselves how to be numb to our own pain.

For two decades, plus on numerous occasions, countless people from different walks of life have remembered ‘Black July’ at different levels of sadness, anger, loss and hopelessness. Very rightly, the politicians who allegedly engineered these atrocities, the thugs, the underworld, the Police have been blamed. Is blaming enough?

Twenty five years after ‘Black July’ we are more venomous, more polarised, and it’s a part of life to sometimes silently (or at other times openly) celebrate the deaths of our brothers. For this, no politician can be singularly blamed, no government can be totally held responsible. It is we who elected them and we should share the major portion of the blame in that event.

Today marks one generation that bypassed ‘Black July.’ Anyway, are we going to carry on this blaming to another generation? As much as senior politicians and Generals say that they don’t want to carry on this war, can’t we unitedly reverberate with one orchestration – that we will permit peacemaking and break the shackles of polarisation to the next generation or our successors?

This could happen the day we conceive that, as much as conflict or war is of national interest, peace too is of national interest. This message will never go down the throats of the people unless the politicians of all colours, public service, judiciary, and media and in the Sri Lankan case the LTTE, swear on this dire need. It is my dream?

Blame, blame and blame!
Are politicians the only ones responsible for this erosion of our souls? Or is it the failing system? Are we a nation that has lost touch with our own conscience? I think each of us individually is to be blamed. We have become a nation that has failed to first understand the human realities in its totality. We have become a nation of men and women unable to have a decent relationship with this world of panoramic political and ethnic realities. In a sea of knowledge on coexistence and moving forward, we have become stubborn men and women who refuse to let go of hatred.

Learn from Emperor Dharmashoka
Emperor Asoka killed ninety nine of his brothers and their male offspring to sit on the throne to be Chandasoka – the violent Asoka. But one nephew of his who escaped – Nigrodha Thero preached a higher truth to him and made him Dharmasoka. Centuries later in our heart we are still ‘chanda’- violent. When will we stop killing our brother, with our thoughts, our actions, our words and sit on a higher throne as a nation? Do we just blame politicians- or do we take emotional and moral responsibility for this sinful behaviour?

If we swear to this Buddhist ideology, then it would have been worthy of reminiscing the dastardly events of July 23rd, 1983. Otherwise, reminiscing would be a silent reminder of sins!

Author of My Belly is White: Reminiscences of a Peacetime Secretary of Defence, Austin Fernando is a former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence.


For more articles on July 1983, please click here.

  • Ekcol

    Mr. Austin Fernando,
    You did your best during the time you were Defence Sec. I admired your efforts and continued concern. But your PM, GL, Morogoda and others had their own agenda to trap and divide the LTTE. They succeeded to some extent. If the ceasefire implementation was honoured; the agreements at the Peace Talks were made good instead of giving excuses to get out of it; If the LTTE was not excluded from the meeting in Wash DC and their offer to discuss Federalism was taken up; If serious response was given to the agreement at the talks to form an Interim Administration; If the PTOMS were given serious hearing, we would have a solution and peace now. But the UNP leaders and SLFP Leaders knew the Sinhala voters would not accept Federalism.

    The Black July is now repeated daily by the armed forces lead by the Rajapakse Dynasty blessed by the Mahanayakas.
    Some Tamils run away, others turn the other cheek, and still others bury their identity, but there are Tamils who hit back in return. Those who ran away support those Tamils who are hitting back. To the Sinhala Leaders this is something like a slave hitting his benevolent master, little realising that the Tamils are nobody’s slave and they are responding in kind to those who abuse the Tamil community. This is reality now Mr. Fernando. All the Pogroms since 1956 gradually has transformed the pliable and accommodating Tamil community to the aggressive community that now demands equality of communities.

    Sooner we come to a solution that would let the Tamil and the Sinhala Community to have their own self-governments with a coordinating institution, sooner we will have peace. I wonder how many Sinhalese will agree to such a solution? My guess is 33%!

  • RSR

    I too remember Black July. On Thursday a Tamil lady classmate of my sister visited UK from SL and we had such a nice chat about old times. It is a small percentage of politically motivated people, thugs and terrorists who have destroyed our national unity and country.

    During Black July a certain Dr. Thavarasah, his wife and daughter hid in the bag of our house . Sure enough the thugs came. I was then quite young but went out with my dog a Sri lankan Rice hound and smiled and chatted to them. The thugs were horrible and had all sorts of weapons and metal bars etc. Any way good thing was they trotted off without even asking to search the house or trying to break in. I hear Dr Thavarasah is in Malaysia and I hope he and his family are well.

  • Austin Fernando

    Dear Ekcol,

    What I say is that we cannot leave such a serious issue only in the hands of politicians.Can the public do something about it as civil society? Can we expect Tigers to cooperate in such efforts?

    As much as there is frustration and consternation in the minds of Tamils, there is similar concern, frustration and consternation in the minds of Sinhalese and Muslims. This gap of suspicion and unpredictability is widening every day polarizing our thinking on everything we do. Narrowing it down the only solution until the two ends meet. Are we (i.e. Government, LTTE, other political parties , civil society etc) ready for it? Have they got plans? I am uncertain of the status, other than to say “NO”. It is a pity.

    Let’s try to find solutions that will acceptable so that the sustainability will remain intact.

  • Ekcol

    Dear Austin,
    You did a lot to advance understanding and assistance to displaced Tamils and everyone who were displaced due to tsunami. Yo cut through red tapes. Why don’t you visit Kilinochchi and meet with Nadesan. You can go as a citizen visiting persons with whom you have interacted cordially and peacefully. Visit the TRO and the IDP camps. Take Bradman with you. That will be a start.