Featured image courtesy Forum for Peaceful CoExistence

July 23 marked the 35th anniversary of one of post independent Sri Lanka’s darkest chapters, the July 1983 pogrom against Tamil civilians throughout the country. An ambush of an Army patrol in Jaffna, by the LTTE, then one of several militant groups operating in the North, in which the entire platoon of thirteen soldiers was wiped out, sparked violence. A couple of days later, amidst rumours the bodies of many of the soldiers were to be brought to the Borella cemetery in Colombo for burial with full military honours, an anti-Tamil pogrom commenced. Several thousand Tamil people were murdered through out Sri Lanka and many more displaced and disposed. Thirty-five years later and ten years after the war which it sparked has ended, we can look back now at this shameful chapter in Sri Lanka’s history and learn some lessons for our slowly progressing post-war reconciliation process.

Current and prior responses

Thirty-five years after the fact, the response of the Sri Lankan State to July ’83 has been more thoughtful and meaningful. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Finance Minister Samaraweera were in Jaffna on the occasion and engaged in a series of measures including the launch of Enterprise Sri Lanka in the North, laying out a vision for a future of hope, engaging with the people and very importantly for women’s issues, cancelling micro credit loans up to Rs.100,000 mostly for the single women headed households, among other measures. Prior to that in July 2004, President Kumaratunga had issued a national apology for the July ’83 riots as an interim reconciliation measure and appointed a special commission to pay compensation to victims who lodged claims with the Commission.

The initial response however by the Sri Lankan State and the political establishment in 1983  weakened democratic and pluralist Sri Lanka and strengthened extremism. The direct beneficiary of which was the LTTE in the North and the JVP in the South, which launched its own second insurrection several years later in 1988.

The Sri Lankan State failed to protect Tamil citizens from gross violence and accordingly demonstrated a significant State failure in that most fundamental of state responsibilities, the protection of life (of persons) and properties. The name of a well-known then Cabinet Minister was often mentioned as an instigator, organizer and patron of the anti-Tamil violence, which as is often the case with political violence is not spontaneous but organized. President J.R. Jayawardena was silent for several days as Sri Lanka burned and only emerged to express his empathy with the just outrage of the majority community, thereby transforming the discourse on Tamil militancy, as an attack on a pluralist Sri Lanka to a Sinhala versus Tamil conflict. Sri Lanka burned for nearly twenty-five years thereafter. A decade after the end of the war, there are lessons to be learnt from those failures of July 1983.

Delegitimising democratic Tamil politics

The anti-Tamil riots of 1983 were not without consequences. The Tamil militancy movement which was still very much on the fringes of Tamil politics was vastly strengthened as the democratic Tamil political leadership lost legitimacy in the light of their inability to get the Sri Lankan State machinery to ensure basic physical and economic security of the Tamil people. Further the Sri Lankan State lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Tamil community, as articulated best by former TULF Member of Parliament late Neelan Tiruchelvam, who described it as “the anomaly of imposing a mono ethnic state on a multi ethnic polity”. The Sri Lankan State, began to be increasingly seen and perhaps also acting, as a Sinhala State, rather than a pluralistic, multi-ethnic and inclusive state.

With the escalation of the armed conflict following July ’83, any accountability for the gross violations of human rights which occurred, including that most basic right to life, was never ensured by the State, until perhaps President Kumaratunga’s Commission twenty-one years later. However, the low-key nature and relative lack of publicity given to the initiative, due to nay Sayers even within her own Cabinet meant that many victims as well as the general public were generally unaware of the same.

Learn the lesson with regard to Muslim Community

It is to the credit of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans that July 1983 was never repeated though the LTTE escalated violence thereafter. However, the mentality, the politics and rhetoric which enabled and created July’83 has sadly not entirely left our public discourse. When the LTTE attacked the army, the counter measures should have been solely a state response against the perpetrators and not rampaging mobs against innocents. To our collective shame, an entire ethnic minority countrywide were targeted, innocent men, women and children.

Worryingly the same rhetoric is emanating from the self-proclaimed saviors of the Sinhala people today, in relation to the Muslim community. We and democratic Sri Lanka need to be protected from these protectors. As the most venerable Maha Nayaka Thero of the Malwatta Chapter observed after the anti-Muslim violence in Kandy. There are no need for “Balasenas and Balakayas” when we have a democratic state and security structures. Which has at least to date, never failed the majority community, unlike the Tamils in 1983.  In the post war decade since 2009, imaginary and perceived threats from the Muslim community are being bandied about to instigate mini pogroms from Dharga Town Beruwala, to Ampara and Digana Kandy.

Today the names of terrorist groups like ISIS, are household names and claim to wage their war on Islamic principles and for Muslim objectives. However, we cannot concede to a self-appointed violent few, the mantle and leadership of the whole. ISIS never represents Muslims, while 969 in Myanmar cannot be considered as representing the Bamar people of Myanmar nor indeed did the LTTE during the war years, legitimise its self-appointed claim to represent the Tamil people. Most interestingly the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) which contested the 2015 general elections basically lost their deposits with a few hundred votes per electoral division in the Sinhala constituencies. Perhaps the most enduring lesson of July 1983 should be “never again”. Violent extremism should always be challenged and not allowed to flourish.

Editor’s Note: To read more content to mark the 35 years since Black July, click here.