Featured image by author: Tilly’s Beach Hotel, Mount Lavinia, which was burned by mobs in July 1983
The true stories of the violence on July 1983 are not captured in newspaper headlines. 36 years ago, Page One of the Daily Mirror read, “Anti-Govt forces behind rioting and looting.” A small box, front and centre in every newspaper, noted that censorship was in place under the Public Security Act. “Tough action eases rioting” read the State-owned Daily News, noting that the looters had been shot.
Instead, these stories remain locked away in personal and collective memories. So too are the stories of defiance, and of courage from the majority community who tried to help their Tamil friends and neighbours.
Today, the places where violence occurred have been all but forgotten – many of them erased.
This year, the country is once again recovering from violence. Three months after Easter Sunday, St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya has just been reconsecrated, while in Batticaloa, the Army is only now beginning to clear out debris. Muslim shops in towns like Minuwangoda are struggling to bring in customers following the Easter Sunday attacks.
Across the island, people are being arrested for the clothes they wear, or their posts on Facebook.
The headlines in today’s newspapers are not unfamiliar. As in 1983, they fail to fully capture the extent and impact of the violence.
In light of this, Groundviews asked people to reflect on past violence, in the context of the present.
Black July is part of Aaranya’s personal story, even though the events of July 1983 unfolded before she was born. Today, Aaranya drives past what was once her family home on her way to work. The mobs destroyed the house, making off with anything valuable. Eventually, her family sold the property before migrating.
“Interestingly, they didn’t steal the books. They burned them. I think that’s really symbolic of how the 1983 violence aimed to destroy social and cultural capital as well as a community’s wealth.”
Aaranya’s family decided to come back to Sri Lanka even after migrating. Many of their relatives did not. “They felt that their home had betrayed them,” she explains.
Aaranya still has her mother’s torn saree, retrieved from a thorn bush, and a bag containing two sets of clothes, gifted to her parents while they were in the refugee camp. “They kept it because it was symbolic of the generosity they received when they had nothing. That was humanity at its best.”
Aaranya’s parents Shanthi and Manoranjan, activists themselves, felt strongly that if they worked towards social change, they could prevent 1983 from happening again. In the audio clip, Aaranya reflects on the Easter Sunday attacks, the resulting backlash on the Muslim community and the similarities she sees between the current situation and the violence of 1983.
Aisha Nazim‘s family were among those of the Muslim community who were targeted following the Easter Sunday attacks. “My brother was called in for questioning because, according to his Uber driver, his name sounded like Osama Bin Laden, when in reality his name is Bilal. My uncle’s vehicle was mobbed by people in Kadawatha because they saw a girl wearing a hijab inside. My mother didn’t go out of the house for 2 weeks because she wasn’t sure whether she could go out with a headscarf or not,” Aisha recalls. “It’s a very alienating experience in that even those who you trusted as friends became strange afterwards.”
Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy
Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy knows that the impact of violence is felt across generations. At the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, her nephew staged a play in Sydney (the award-winning “Counting and Cracking“) about his mother’s flight from the country in 1983, their attempt to rebuild their lives as survivors of violence. His mother refused to talk about Sri Lanka, so Dr Coomaraswamy’s nephew traveled to Sri Lanka to learn more about why his mother had to leave.
Dr Coomaraswamy says that the perpetrators of both 1983 and the events of Easter Sunday and afterwards saw relative impunity, despite the very real fear that the actions of rioting mobs had on the whole populace. “I realised I was reliving those moments in 1983, where you knew no one would protect you if a gang came into your neighbourhood, with torches, and beat on your door. When I saw the footage of the attacks in the North-Western Province, I got gooseflesh,” Dr Coomaraswamy recalls.
Sri Lankans appeared to have erased the memory of 1983, and forgotten the impact not just of mob violence, but of being the target of hate. “There has to be an unequivocal statement lobbied by people of authority that certain acts are not accepted. Unless you fight impunity with words and by law, nothing will matter. Only then can you deal with hate and anger, through working with the community.”
Aamina Nizar grew up hearing frequent references to 1983 from her mother, who would continually connect the impunity around the events of Black July with the many obstacles to coexistence in Sri Lanka. “We have painted a rosy picture of coexistence, but as a nation, we have failed to counter injustice of any kind.” It would only be through resolving these past injustices before moving forward as a country that further radicalisation, hurt and violence could be prevented, she said.
Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thero
Although Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thero did not directly experience the violence of July 1983 (he was a teenager then) he has spoken at length to those who did witness the violence. Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thero said that in 1983, as now, widespread rumour and conjecture and calls to boycott places of business by the majority community were key factors that exacerbated the violence, as was the call for the Sinhala majority community to unite together against a minority community that was perceived as a threat. In order to prevent violence from reoccurring, Ven Galkande Dhammananda Thero said, there needs to be collective responsibility. “People cannot think this is the responsibility of politicians or any other person. In every way a citizen can intervene, they have to intervene. They cannot be silent.” The consequences, as Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thero recalled, were also economic. Targeting a minority community economically would lead to the entire community suffering since the community was interlinked, he noted.
In the clip, Ven Galkande Dhammananda Thero reflects on the impact of conflict on the wider community and offers thoughts on what can be done to prevent the recurrence of violence.