Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Brief

Editor’s note: Forty years ago today, the deaths of 13 soldiers in an ambush in Jaffna triggered an orgy of violence against the Tamil community that started in Colombo and quickly spread to other parts of the country. As a result, thousands of Tamils left the country while others took up arms to fight for a separate state, sparking 26 years of civil war. The events of that week, starting on July 23, had a deep and long lasting impact on the country’s political, social and economic landscape that still reverberates today. Over the next week, Groundviews will run a series of articles, photo stories, poems and video interviews to mark the 40th anniversary of Black July. There will also be articles from people who were forced to leave the country and seek new lives in unknown lands.

July 23, 2023 marks the 40th anniversary of the July 83 anti-Tamil pogrom, which has left an indelible mark on Sri Lanka’s history. This dark chapter overshadowed the nation’s post-independence era and played a significant role in the long civil war that followed. The seeds of violence were sown much earlier, with numerous instances of anti-Tamil hostility in the years leading up to 1983 including 1956, 1958, 1961, 1964, 1974, 1977 and 1981.

The UNP-led government under President J.R. Jayewardene’s leadership sought to suppress both the LTTE in the north and east and the JVP in the south. This nefarious strategy led to the deaths of around 200,000 people, mostly civilians. The violence displaced hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans, turning them into refugees in their own country and abroad. The aftermath left behind countless war widows, orphans and individuals with physical and mental scars. Entire villages, including women and children, were brutally wiped out, all in the pursuit of establishing the dominance of the privileged Sinhala ruling elite over the rest of the population.

Despite the passage of 40  years, successive governments of various political affiliations have failed to address the root causes of the national question that sparked this violence. To understand the reasons behind the pogrom, it is essential to provide a concise narrative that sheds light on the discriminatory policies and acts perpetrated against non-majoritarian communities, particularly the Tamil community.

The discriminatory policies started with the Ceylon Citizenship Bill of 1948, which disenfranchised a million Malaiyaha workers. While it was presented as a means to facilitate citizenship, its real intent was to deny citizenship to these workers who predominantly supported left-wing candidates. The economic contributions of generations of Malaiyaha workers to the country were disregarded, a fact that is still underappreciated.

Tamil disempowerment through state violence reduced the Tamil population and parliamentary representation. This allowed the Sinhalese elite to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament, leaving the Tamil community powerless to prevent policies adversely affecting them. Political competition in the South became increasingly chauvinistic, compartmentalising communities based on their ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds. Sadly, this divide continues to persist to this day.

Historically, the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, introduced by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party established by Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and its coalition parties, replaced English with Sinhala and excluded Tamil from official use. This move forced Tamils to learn Sinhala for employment and career progression, even though many had already willingly learned the language in schools. It also placed the Sinhalese at a disadvantage by making them monolingual, limiting generations of Sinhalese not belonging to the elite in terms of their upward social mobility.

Efforts for reconciliation between the government and Tamil political leaders, such as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam and Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pacts, were ultimately abandoned due to extremist Sinhala Buddhist nationalist pressure. Throughout this period, Sinhalese populations were relocated to areas where Tamils were dominant, leading to demographic changes for pro-Sinhala electoral advantage. In the fifties, the Bandaranaike regime used mob violence to suppress Tamil non-violent protests. In 1958 mob violence led to about 300 deaths.

In 1972, a new Constitution favoured Sinhala and Buddhism, and the introduction of a policy of standardisation in education further discriminated against Tamil students for university admissions. These discriminatory measures were implemented in a violent environment. Using this as a pretext, the Bandaranayake regime declared an emergency and deployed the army to the north and east of the island. Colonel Richard Udugama had strict orders to clear militant elements even if this involved shooting them.

When Tamil youngsters raised black flags against the pro-Sinhala Buddhist constitution in 1972, they were detained for a lengthy period under emergency laws. The UNP regime in 1977 sent Brigadier Tissa Weeratunga to Jaffna with an order to wipe out terrorism within six months. Credible evidence has emerged that Udugama and Weeratunga were responsible for many atrocities committed in the pre-eighties in the north and east.

As a result, Tamil political parties were unable to address the issues of discrimination the Tamils were faced with. In the south Mr. J.R. Jayewardene led UNP regime was elected to power with a five-sixths majority in 1977. In the north and east, Mr. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam led Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) took the Vaddukoddai Resolution to the electorate, asked for a mandate to establish a separate state, called Tamil Eelam, and received an overwhelming mandate. The post-election period saw the worst violence unleashed against Tamil civilians. The government did nothing to control this violence as it was state sponsored.

The first attack on the army that was occupying the north took place in October 1981. It appeared to have been made to coincide with the welcome parade arranged for the new Army Commander Tissa Weeratunga, who was duly promoted for the ethnic terror he had unleashed in Jaffna. To counter state terror, attacks on army convoys and patrols increased. When security forces could not track down attackers, they turned on civilians. Attacks on civilians were not new. History affirms that during many conflicts worldwide, irrespective of who the attackers were, civilians had to bear most of the brunt of violence.

In response, Tamil youth started taking up arms instead of the ballot that failed them. The intent of the militant Tamil youth was to free their people from the discrimination they had been subjected to. Tamil youth taking up arms represented nothing more than the failure of post-independent Ceylon/Lanka to address nation building by uniting communities rather than dividing them along ethno-linguistic and religious lines.

The situation escalated with the eruption of armed conflict in 1981, eventually leading to the orchestrated July 1983 pogrom. The violence targeted Tamil civilians, resulting in thousands of deaths, disappearances, injuries and rapes, and the destruction of their properties. The government attempted to shift blame away from itself but the violence drew international attention.

In 1983, the ethno-chauvinist leadership within the UNP regime made an already volatile situation worse by orchestrating and planning the July 1983 riots. It was meticulously planned by Ministers such as Cyril Matthew, monks such as Alle Gunawansa Thero, who was a close associate of President J.R. Jayewardene and other Sinhala extremists. Ministers like Matthew maintained their own armed squads and were operating above the law. Sadly, such situations still exist. Nevertheless, as a result of the pogrom, the LTTE grew in strength with many youngsters, who fled the south due to the pogrom, joining their ranks.

The situation between the communities was like a powder keg. All it needed was a match to blow it up. The spark was provided in May 1983. An army convoy was ambushed and security forces went on a rampage. They killed 51 innocent Tamil civilians in various places of the Jaffna peninsula. During another such ambush in June, the Navy retaliated similarly in Vavuniya. Colombo was abound with rumours that the government was going to implement a final solution to wipe out Tamil militants. When 13 soldiers were killed by an LTTE ambush in Thirunelveli, the regime found an excuse to launch its plan.

The government proscribed the LTTE and other similar organisations operating in the north. The JVP, the NSSP and the CP in the south were also proscribed in July 1983, initially under emergency laws. Later it was carried out under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). This took away the fundamental rights of arrestees. Those arrested could be held without charge or trial for up to 18 months, and confessions obtained by torture were admissible as evidence in court. The regime’s policy was to continue using terror and violence on the Tamil population to force them into submission.

In July 1983, I was falsely detained on the spurious charge of leading the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. Prior to that many JVP comrades in Colombo briefed me on what happened during the pogrom. The use of electoral lists to trace the whereabouts of Tamils, organising of mobs to attack and transporting them in vehicles belonging to the Ceylon Transport Board and other state agencies. I was able to personally witness what such mobs did on the streets of Colombo.

During the pogrom, 5,000 or more Tamil civilians were brutally killed with several hundred made to disappear. Thousands more were injured and some were killed while undergoing treatment. Mobs set some Tamil people alight. Many hundreds of women were raped. Tens of thousands of properties of Tamil civilians such as their homes, businesses and industries were attacked, destroyed and set on fire while the security forces looked on. Over 200,000 civilians including business leaders, professionals and others became displaced and had to seek refuge elsewhere. More than a hundred thousand fled to India as refugees; some still live in squalid conditions in Indian refugee camps.

The regime continued to become more authoritarian and unaccountable, as evidenced by the 6th amendment to the constitution. This amendment disenfranchised the Tamil leadership in parliament by making it illegal to espouse the cause of Tamil Eelam. Black July 1983 can be seen as a successful effort by the state to escalate and legitimise its war effort. Since the pogrom, the occurrence of brutal events in the north-east became more frequent and continuous. The armed conflict came to an end with the defeat of the LTTE militancy in May 2009. Nevertheless, the causes that led to the war are yet to be addressed.

Sri Lanka is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention defines genocide as an act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnic, racial or religious group. Those who say there was no genocide in Sri Lanka have never raised any facts or pertinent arguments to debunk it. The definition does not refer to the numbers killed but the intent of the processes undertaken such as making people disappear and killings carried out in state prisons, setting the Jaffna public library ablaze[1], destroying cultural and religious symbols of the Tamil people, and the policies implemented to create conditions for preventing the survival of a community, such as economic blockades for curtailing the supply of essential needs of life. The anti-Tamil pogrom planned and executed in July 1983 and the other actions taken and not taken by the regime since then also fall within that description.

Despite President Jayewardene and his regime laying the blame for the pogrom on the Sinhalese people, many Sinhalese risked their lives to find shelter and save those who were at the receiving end of the mobs set up by the extremists. The national chauvinists would have supported the violence but the majority appeared to have been powerless bystanders. However, the violence drew the attention of the international community, especially India and its people. To shift the gaze away from the regime, it attempted to shift the blame onto the Sinhalese as a whole and then over to some of the leftist political entities.

A million Tamils were displaced due to the pogrom. Most of them settled overseas, mostly in Western countries. They were mainly professionals and experts in diverse spheres of knowledge such as medicine, engineering, accounting, teaching, law and trade. As a result, Sri Lanka lost their contribution to its socio-economic development. Many countries gained from Sri Lanka’s loss with such professionals making a vast contribution to the development of their new countries of settlement. It is not only the Tamil youth in Sri Lanka that underwent such a transformation but also the Sinhala and Muslim youth who were subjected to state terror.

To my knowledge, there have been no effective investigations whatsoever about the Black July pogrom or any of the previous and subsequent violence launched against Tamils in different parts of the island. There were several mechanisms such as the Presidential Truth Commission, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation established that could have partially addressed some of the issues to an extent. Nothing of substance has come out of these mechanisms.

These mechanisms were ultimately ineffective. This was because of the partisan makeup of the commissions and the political interferences by different regimes. In addition, there was disregard for any recommendations made to address some of the issues of the ethnic conflict. The UN Panel of Experts, human rights groups and civil society organisations have been critical of these mechanisms due to their limited mandates, lack of independence and failure to meet minimum international standards or offer protection to witnesses.

Fast forward to February 2017 when then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, during his visit to Australia, asked the diaspora to come back and help rebuild the economy. Did he think or even have an inkling of knowledge about the damage the regime in the 80s, of which he was part and parcel of as a minister, had inflicted on the first Tamil generation and the second Sinhala generation who had to flee their land of birth and the resultant inter-generational trauma that has been passed on to future generations?

How just was it for the government to simply ask for their return? This was without first addressing the state of affairs in the country to make appropriate conditions for their return. Many of them have been yearning to return and serve the people of their land of birth. Yet the conditions are not ripe for their return. The state has yet to create a political, economic, social and cultural environment for all citizens irrespective of their caste, creed, ethnicity, language and religion, to be treated with equity, equality and dignity in an environment of tolerance, empathy, safety and security.

The economic dividends many people in the South expected after the end of the armed conflict did not materialise, as socio-economic and political dividends percolated mostly upwards. The state has not entirely compensated for the damages the pogrom had caused. The pogrom triggered a major demographic movement, with hundreds of thousands of Tamil people relocated to areas outside the North and East. About 150,000 Tamils fled abroad.

Once again, authoritarianism and family cronyism have started masquerading as patriotism. With fundamentalists and extremists escalating ethnic and religious tensions by diverting attention away from the current economic, structural, institutional and constitutional morass, the country’s future looks bleak. Once again, the ruling elite and their henchmen are looking for new enemies in Sri Lanka and overseas. This will make the vital task of a democratic and reconciled nation with social justice, transparency, and accountability at its heart an even more difficult endeavour to achieve. To counter this bleak picture, what we can hope is that Sri Lankans will never forget events like the July 1983 pogrom and its subsequent tragic and violent chain of events. The citizenry must be mindful of the need to prevent such events from reoccurring in the future.

The July 1983 pogrom harmed the Tamil people in the south simply because they were Tamils. The intention was to destroy the economic base of Tamils in the South, specifically in Colombo and other metropolitan centres, and for the Sinhala ruling elite, their allies and cronies to illegally and brutally appropriate that economic base. In a reconciled Sri Lanka, every citizen must have and enjoy the right to live and conduct his/her business activities wherever he/she chooses, if he/she can legally afford to do so, The pogrom at its heart was nothing but a reflection of the economic war of the Sinhala ruling elite to destroy economic livelihoods of, and businesses held by other nationalities, whether they are Tamil, Muslim or Chetty.

The pogrom and its extension to the almost 30 year armed conflict further eroded the Tamil economic base in the South and the North. So, it is not surprising that the Tamil community is demanding devolution, decentralisation and even separation. A combination of greed, incompetence, corruption, and chauvinism has resulted in the country’s worst economic crisis since independence. The country is moving deeper and deeper into debt with the acquisition of increasingly unpayable loans. The unreformed state has mortgaged the future of many future generations to diverse creditors, both domestic and overseas.

Despite the temporary and short term respites like the one Sri Lanka is passing through now, the core structural reasons are not being addressed. This will continue to haunt the country in the future. The state under its current leadership has no intention of resolving the economic crisis or the national question, as the two issues are intertwined. Maintaining an unsettled social environment will provide key props the ruling elite, their backers and cronies need to continue their corrupt modus operandi.

The aragalaya protest movement was an expression of the aspirations of the majority of Sri Lankans for democratic and better governance and for an inclusive and tolerant society. Those aspirations are yet to be realised with the state building vast barriers to curtail their realisation. Despite this, there will be many opportunities to fight for a better, fairer, and inclusive Sri Lanka. This can be done if the country and its plurality of communities unite in destroying the colonial constructs that all successive regimes have used to thwart people’s aspirations.

Unless the people decide to get rid of such colonial constructs imposed upon them in terms of the nature of the economy and the form of the state, the future will continue to remain depressing. Despite various truth commissions and reconciliation efforts, the root issues have not been adequately addressed, with limited mandates and political interference hindering progress. Sri Lanka’s future remains uncertain, with economic, structural, and constitutional challenges compounded by ongoing ethnic and religious tensions.

This raises the question whether such mechanisms were established as a convenient smokescreen by the government to prevent an independent international investigation of the abuses that occurred. The declarations of the current regime to the effect that the 13th amendment to the constitution will be fully implemented if all party leaders agree to it need to be considered in the same light.

The country’s citizens must remember the tragic events of July 1983 and strive to prevent such violence from reoccurring in the future. To build a better Sri Lanka, people need to unite and dismantle the colonial constructs that have perpetuated division and inequality. The path to a reconciled nation with social justice, transparency, and accountability requires a concerted effort from all citizens, irrespective of their ethnicity, language or religion. Only then can Sri Lanka truly move towards a more inclusive and prosperous future.

[1] It was reported that Ministers Cyril Matthew and Gamini Dissanayake had been watching the burning library from the Jaffna Rest house.