Image courtesy Thuppahi’s blog

June 2013 saw violent clashes between small groups of Sri Lankans at cricket grounds around the UK. Although barely reported by the mainstream media, for members of Voices for Reconciliation (VfR) – a peace-building network that facilitates dialogue within and between every Sri Lankan community in the UK- these altercations served as a potent reminder that communal divisions still run deep. In July 1983, exactly 30 years ago, the fire raged much longer and harder, ending countless lives and disrupting many more. Even three decades later, the impact of ‘Black July’ continues to reverberate, as it is constantly invoked at our reconciliation-focused events. It was an outbreak of anti-Tamil violence so defining and shattering for Sri Lankans that, even now, the terms ‘Black July’, ‘the riots’ or simply ‘1983’ can still stir or silence a room.

Three decades on, how has July 1983 affected different groups within the multi-faceted diaspora that its events helped create?  How has it affected second-generation Sri Lankan Britons?  How do we explain the significance of 1983 today to Sri Lankans and non-Sri Lankans? These are the questions that motivated this project, ‘Remembering the Riots’, for which we interviewed a wide range of Sri Lankans living in the UK, of varying ages and ethnicities, about their first-hand memories or their second-hand knowledge and awareness of the riots, and its role in their lives and their perceptions of the island. Our hope was that this simple snapshot might allow us, and others, to better understand 1983’s lasting impact on the Sri Lankan diaspora.  From this greater, more nuanced understanding, we might then be able to distil the wider relevance of those events. July 1983 was clearly part of a complex chronology of history and cannot be viewed in isolation from the wider Sri Lankan context; nevertheless, we felt it important to reflect on this particular period’s significance, and its implications for the future. In this article, we share what we have learnt from the project: about the diaspora, about Sri Lanka and about ourselves.

Loss and remembrance

We expected diversity of opinion amongst the diaspora, and we found it along every dimension; often within the same ethnic group, and sometimes even within the same family.  To some, the term ‘Black July’ served as a haunting and humbling memory, a painful reminder of loss, escape, or migration; to others, it invoked an unfathomable story heard from an older generation or the media; to all, it was a fear-inducing warning of what is possible in a divided society.

Loss resonated in the words of our interviewees; Tamil, but also Sinhalese and Burgher individuals who lost or fled their homes during the riots. For many, the most indelible memories were of the “little things”; cherished personal objects lost forever, and small details of home.

I remember I had these little cars, even at 23 I still valued them. And we lost it all. Little things like that. My books, my toys, whatever memorable things. Compared to others my loss is nothing. But you still feel what is yours. – Sinhalese aged 53, whose home in a mixed area of Colombo was burned down

Even for others who were not there in 1983, amidst tales of great tragedy it was small details that struck them most powerfully. Yet some second-generation Sri Lankans who did not feel their families had been affected by the riots questioned their right to speak of the events of that July.

So in terms of magnitude, (the loss) may be different. We weren’t affected at all. – Sinhalese, aged 30

Other second-generation Sri Lankans believed that awareness about July 1983 had grown amongst their peers thanks to the shadow of war being lifted, and thanks to the opportunities of the digital era for individuals to share stories, in words and pictures, with others across the globe and come together in collective remembrance. Many participants, first and second-generation alike, expressed a need to commemorate the riots; some viewed remembrance as a key prerequisite to preventing future outbreaks of violence, whilst others felt it was required for communal grieving.

I think it’s a way of mourning, and mourning is really important in terms of moving on. You need to be able to grieve, and I think people are still grieving. – Second-generation Tamil 

But a physical sense of loss was clearly not the only lasting effect.  For many individuals directly affected, the riots were transformative on a personal and political level, shaping their views and relations with other communities.

‘I’ve probably become more of a nationalist because of the riots. That doesn’t mean I’ve become racist, because I grew up amongst the Sinhalese, and many remain my good friends… but I became more convinced than ever that no Sinhalese can ever understand the Tamil point of view, because their mind-set is totally different to ours. – Tamil, aged 65 

The first-hand testimonies of individuals who experienced the events of 1983 provided a valuable insight into the Sri Lanka of their youth. We discovered a fascinating duality to reminiscences of the pre-riots period. On the one hand, participants expressed nostalgia for a more harmonious era, recalling a time of warmth and cordiality amongst Sri Lanka’s different ethnicities. Often simultaneously, however, they revealed memories of brewing racial tensions that rendered the events of Black July unsurprising. The deep complexity of pre-riots Sri Lanka was evident.

I used to stand in front of the mirror and imitate what I thought was Tamil! Because I loved the sound of it. It was just grand, in terms of the respect and the friendships that we had. …[but when the riots broke out] I think the feeling was unsurprised…we [had] started to see the writing on the wall; I remember as a child in the 1970s already feeling very nervous, there was a sense of rather menacing thuggery that you could witness in the neighbourhood, there was a lack of tolerance. – Burgher

What story is being told?

This complexity is epitomised by the terminology surrounding July 1983. Many participants felt that the common designation of the events of 1983 as “riots” was problematic, and proposed a varied set of alternative terms. More than once, the violence was described as a ‘pogrom’; a term that some interviewees found not only more accurate in conveying the ethnic dimension of events, but also their severity and the bitterness left behind.

These words are used interchangeably but actually riots and pogroms are two completely different things.  I mean we had riots in London, right [in 2011].  Those are riots.  What we had in Sri Lanka was actually an anti–Tamil pogrom… systematic killing of certain people and people seeking them out.  For me, when I actually made that connection, that was when something clicked in me to say ‘Aha! Now I can see the anger’.  – Muslim, aged 35

The historically anti-Semitic connotation of the term ‘pogrom’ was not lost on several participants, who referenced the persecution of Jews when describing the violence against Tamils. A comparative approach was common, with many interviewees drawing parallels with other conflicts, such as that in Bosnia in the 1990s, thereby placing Black July within a much wider context. Yet, despite assertions of the ethnic nature of the events of July 1983, many interviewees also highlighted differences in class, education and economic opportunity as drivers of tension.

If I was an average Sinhalese person, I would have felt that the Tamils got what they had coming to them, because it is a fact that Tamils had more than their proportion of public sector jobs, and were in so many positions of power compared to the ratio in the population. – Tamil, aged 65

One of the most controversial topics, touched on by everyone albeit in different ways, concerned the role of the Sri Lankan authorities in the violence.  Many interviewees remain shocked and disturbed by alleged official complicity in the events of July 1983, whether by politicians, the police, the army or other authority figures.  Some saw the government as key instigators and the violence as being “politically sanctioned”.

They [were] looking for particular households, they had electoral lists and they knew exactly where Tamil people lived. And when we asked, you know, what are you doing, I remember, I particularly remember one of the rioters saying “well we’ll chase the Tamils and give one of the big houses to you, you can have one of those”. – Sinhalese, aged 53

Some saw the police and fire brigade as neglectful in their lack of action, or opportunistic in joining the wave of looting. Others, in contrast, perceived the authorities as quite separate to the ‘mob’ perpetrators; as a protective force, albeit one that failed to prevent the violence escalating.

It escalated into something it shouldn’t have…it should have been stopped… that’s what the authorities are there for. – Sinhalese, aged 30

On one issue all participants who experienced the riots were in agreement; they took place amidst a grave lack of information where uncertainty and false rumours -for example of imminent LTTE attacks on Colombo- spurred an atmosphere of panic and chaos. Several interviewees spoke of a level of propaganda and bias on all sides that began in the aftermath of July 1983 but that has continued unabated to the present day, exacerbating and entrenching divisions.  Almost everyone interviewed spoke of the need to piece together information from many, sometimes conflicting, sources to find any semblance of the ‘truth’ they sought. A concern raised by many, however, was that the views and knowledge being passed down to subsequent generations is partial, and misleadingly incomplete.

1983’s long shadow

Many of the relevant factors thirty years ago- the juxtaposition of ethnic harmony and discord, socio-economic disparities, political inflammation of tensions, and a lack of unbiased media sources- remain pertinent today. Other, more recent, developments were also highlighted by our participants. A commonly expressed view was that one could “draw a very straight line” between anti-Tamil feeling in 1983 and anti-Muslim sentiments in Sri Lanka today. In this light, July 1983 was viewed as an ominous foreshadowing of potential violence to come. The prevailing opinion amongst participants was that the lessons of 1983 have not been learnt, and that communal violence could well erupt again.

Some encouraging signs over recent months, such as popular online and offline campaigns against intolerance in Sri Lanka, show that there are many who will stand against such violence. Yet lingering division and discontent, and sparks of violence –such as that in June within the diaspora, and recent episodes targeting Muslims in Sri Lanka- are worrying portents for the future. Whilst we profoundly hope that Sri Lanka never again experiences the events of July 1983, it is vital to remember what happened. In part, we remember simply to reflect on both the barbarity and the humanity on display. The last week of July 1983 was a week of collective madness in Sri Lanka: neighbour turning on neighbour, people being burnt on the streets, family heirlooms and family businesses being gutted for sport. Yet there were also so many stories of solidarity and courage on the part of all communities: neighbour sheltering neighbour, monks and churchmen and citizens arguing with mobs intent on violence, friends helping friends rebuild their lives.

We also remember in order to reflect on the key lessons for today. Firstly, we must never ignore society’s ability to rapidly descend to barbarity; it only takes a relatively small number of frenzied individuals to band together and cause wide-scale destruction, although it is the silent complicity and tacit approval of many others that facilitates such activity. Secondly, words matter, and while political leaders, religious leaders, and ordinary Sri Lankans may not literally pour petrol on one another today, when we use hateful, stereotyping words we may as well do so, for the ideology behind such actions is provided by these words. Finally, ‘ethnic’ riots may in part be driven by a genuine prejudice against a particular group but, more often than not, this is only part of a complex mix of economic, social, and political grievances. Until both hate-based rhetoric and these underlying grievances are addressed, a repeat of such violence surely cannot be ruled out. The murders, assaults, arson, and looting of July 1983 were directed at one specific community, but the lessons are universal and bear remembering by every policy-maker, community leader, and citizen, in Sri Lanka and beyond.

1983 is a black mark in Sri Lanka’s history.  And this is something that we need to be reinforced with; that we never again allow ourselves to be so blinded that we are able to commit the crimes that we did. – Muslim, aged 35


Voices for Reconciliation would like to thank all those who participated in the ‘Remembering the Riots’ projects. We unfortunately could not include all of the insights that were shared with us, but we are very grateful to every participant for telling us their stories.