Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Guardian

July 1983 was one of the grimmest months in Sri Lankan history as state-organised anti-minority “riots” paved the way for decades of violence and human rights abuses across the country. The effect on Tamils was shattering but ultimately all communities were affected.

In a world marked by impermanence, history never repeats itself precisely. For example, technological advances offer new approaches to repression. Multiple small-scale attacks, or leaving people to die through sickness or starvation, may seem less conspicuous than large-scale ethnic cleansing. Yet the current situation has disturbing echoes of the run up to the appalling events of 38 years ago.

Indeed the stakes are, if anything, higher, if the downward slide continues. Ministers may be tempted to take drastic measures in response to rising discontent about their failings to re-establish their dominance. In this era marked by the threat of mass infection, environmental damage, powerful technologies of violence (and, perhaps, a weakening of solidarity), the risks are huge. Although the poor and minorities are most vulnerable, a far wider swathe of society may be badly affected.

Yet the government seems oblivious to the possible consequences of its power games, leaving it to others to act to protect the wellbeing of Sri Lankans outside the Rajapaksa family and their immediate circle. While it is important to acknowledge the fear and loss which so many suffered, there are lessons to be learnt too, if further suffering is to be averted.

Setting the scene for arson, murder and ethnic cleansing

Many of us vividly remember what happened in 1983 while others who are younger will often be all too familiar with the sequence of events. Most disturbingly, this was well-organised, state-sanctioned violence, which was far removed from any spontaneous act of the Sinhalese people (though a few were caught up in the tide of hatred or took part in later looting).

Thugs belonging to the ruling party-connected trade union Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) had been made ready to play their part when the time was right, while government ministers such as Cyril Mathew and their associates had been spreading virulent anti-Tamil propaganda. “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now…Now we can’t think of them. Not about their lives, or their opinion about us,” President J.R. Jayawardene told a reporter in the first half of July.

A Tiger ambush on 23 July killed 13 soldiers, providing an excuse. The government stoked the tension, flying the bodies back for a mass funeral on 24 July in Kanatte cemetery, Colombo’s main burial ground and crematorium. The deaths were treated as if they had been an attack on the Sinhalese rather than the result of a rebel attack on the army and news of reprisals in which dozens of Tamil civilians were killed was not reported in the South.

That night the killings and arson began, with no effort by the police to halt these – rather the opposite – while the President refused to impose a curfew for days, despite pleas. Many ordinary Sinhalese sheltered Tamil neighbours. But from the top, there were no official words of sympathy for those who had lost loved ones, homes or livelihoods, been physically hurt or traumatised. By the end of July, the violence had died down but many people’s trust in a Sri Lanka where they would be safe and valued, even if not equally treated, had been destroyed. The foundations had been laid for large-scale violence to be treated as normal, within as well as between ethnic communities. In the years that followed, state forces, their armed opponents and shadowy paramilitary bodies all rode roughshod over respect for human life.

This is not to say that the country had been idyllic for everyone before the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There had been longstanding forms of oppression which made it easier to slip into more extreme and highly visible human rights abuses, although these had also met resistance.

Class exploitation and caste prejudice meant that large swathes of the population were treated as unequal, although working class and left movements were able to advance at least some rights, for instance in education and healthcare. Patriarchy not only blighted the lives of numerous women and girls (especially if younger) but also made the later spread of state authoritarianism and militarism easier, as power imbalances in the home shored up those in wider society. Veddas and Plantation Tamils had been marginalised even before independence while Tamils of Northern and Eastern descent and to some extent Muslims also found themselves treated as if less than fully Sri Lankan. Yet matters worsened sharply just before, during and after July 1983.

While the deliberate fuelling of prejudice and discrimination against minorities helped to lay the ground for the horrors of that July, other developments also played a part. These included misuse of the concept of a “terrorist” threat to justify repression and militarism (which fuelled actual terrorism); trampling of workers’ rights; closing off democratic and peaceful channels of dissent; distortion of religion; and a rhetoric of extreme nationalism, indeed chauvinism, combined with making the country far more dependent on overseas states which acted as patrons to the ruling elite.

Ethnic and religious minorities were increasingly portrayed by those in power as a threat to the integrity and security of the nation and Sinhalese people in particular, despite the contribution they made in practice to a multi-cultural Sri Lanka. Schoolchildren, for instance, were taught about ancient battles between rival kings as if they reflected a permanent state of ethnic conflict. The parallels with today’s situation are clear, as is the distortion of Buddhism, one of the world’s great faiths, as if its core precepts were the opposite of those taught by the Buddha.

A draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in the late ‘70s, as well as creating a framework for lack of state accountability which was later rolled out elsewhere, alienated large numbers of youth, in practice encouraging terrorism. Today we see yet more legislation being pushed forward which trivialises the very real cruelty of terrorism and creating grounds for locking up yet more people under the flimsiest of pretexts.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, independent trade unions and workers seeking better pay or conditions found themselves under attack, as JSS thugs attacked bank staff and teachers, among others. A union branch president was killed by a bomb. Students too were assaulted. Today, workers’ rights are again under attack, sometimes using the pandemic as a pretext or cover for repression.

Economic “liberalisation” was a key government policy back then, as an increasingly undemocratic Sri Lankan regime sought to fit in with the economic dogma of overseas leaders such the US president Ronald Reagan and UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher. It was one of the great ironies that a leadership which appealed to crude chauvinism as well as ethnic nationalism was, in reality, heavily beholden to foreign powers, which helped to shore it up when its credibility was shaky. The budget deficit was ratcheted up, dependence on foreign finance grew. Today, a regime which indignantly shrugs off any criticism of its own track record as a slur on the nation has entered into agreements with backers, most blatantly China, which hugely compromise economic and political independence.

In the years leading up to July 1983, even the semblance of democracy was largely abandoned. An executive presidency was brought in and the then president’s main opponent banned from standing for election. The independence of election staff was undermined, judges were threatened if they failed to toe the government line and intimidation became common. In a rigged referendum, the people of Sri Lanka supposedly gave up their right to vote, as the parliamentary election due to have been held in August 1983 was “postponed”. Instead of having a right to choose their own government, the people of Sri Lanka were instead faced with the brutalities of that July 38 years ago, which continues to cast a malignant shadow over the island today.

Afterwards, the government sought to shift the blame for the violence it had orchestrated itself, cracking down still more on opposition parties. Among other consequences, this blocked off electoral routes for citizens to express their dissatisfaction in non-violent ways. The effects were predictable. Today, too, we witness an undermining of democracy and state accountability.

The need for solidarity

As mentioned before, the events of July 1983 will not be repeated precisely. But there is little doubt that freedoms are being eroded, marginalisation increased and sections of the population – especially Muslims – being placed in peril. Stark economic pressures may increase the risk that the Rajapaksas, and those members of the ruling elite who are part of their inner circle, will look at ways to bolster their power and privilege through scapegoating and increased repression. This may deepen divisions among those affected in different ways unless those seeking justice of various kinds can strengthen solidarity and mutual care.

The COVID situation has highlighted how vulnerable so many of the population are, if they do not have friends in high places and cannot afford adequate care or lifestyles which keep them safe. If the state targets particular sections of the population, or succeeds yet again in turning ordinary people against one another, shared vulnerability increases. Even when coronavirus is no longer a major threat (and this may be quite a while), other health hazards loom, such as further global pandemics or growth in antibiotic resistance, which may leave people at increased risk of untreatable infection. Ecocide in Sri Lanka and the potential impact of rising sea levels internationally on an island such as Sri Lanka should also not be forgotten. If sizeable numbers find themselves displaced or without bare necessities, they will be at heightened risk during emergencies.

Conventional weapons have grown in deadliness since the 1980s (even setting aside nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry). So has sophistication is using mainstream media to stir up hate, while social media, when misused, has proved a powerful tool to spread misinformation and orchestrate violence. Governments have also found skilful ways to censor and suppress information they do not like, which could make it harder to find out about, and oppose, harm to individuals and communities.

Yet those seeking to build a more just and peaceful future have also perhaps learnt over the past few decades and new methods of communication, for instance, can also be used to increase empathy, compassion and awareness. There is greater understanding of the power of non-violent action (seen at times in Sri Lanka’s history, as well as that of other nations) to bring about change.

If Sri Lankans can face up to the sorrows and horrors of the past and the hazards of the present, building bonds of mutual support which can push back against attempts to promote hatred or vilify dissidents, much can be achieved. It is vital not only to mourn July 1983 but also to learn from what happened then and afterwards if a better future is to be secured.