Photo courtesy of Chathuranga Pradeep

The horrific events of July 1983, when a wave of state organised arson and murder against Tamils left many dead, displaced or traumatised, shocked people in Sri Lanka and internationally. Many people who lived through those times are still affected; the resulting instability and violence took a heavy toll across the island as norms of decency were undermined, ways of achieving change by democratic means closed off and bonds of trust systematically fractured.

There was widespread astonishment as well as dismay at the time. Though anti-minority discrimination was common, along with occasional brutality against ordinary people of all communities by politically connected thugs, the police and others meant to safeguard law and order, organised violence so blatant and on this scale took most people aback. Yet what happened did not come out of the blue; previous events paved the way. And as human rights abuses persist and many lose hope, while others are manipulated into hating or despising their neighbours, there is a risk of yet another downward spiral if the warning signs are not heeded. In the immediate term, needless suffering is being inflicted, values of compassion and justice in public life eroded and potential skills and capabilities wasted.

The world has changed considerably over the past four decades and the past is never repeated in precisely the same form. Yet there is an alarming overlap between the conditions then and now which, even more alarmingly, many in positions of responsibility and influence ignore.

In the run up to the grim events 40 years ago, minorities were facing frequent discrimination in society, encouraged by political and religious leaders and harassment and violence by the police or security forces. Drastic laws, supposedly aimed at reducing terrorism, increased it, as youth were alienated. Authoritarianism within minority communities as well as among Sinhalese Buddhists grew. Some overseas governments and international bodies promoted or overlooked human rights abuses to benefit their own elites and strategic interests. Economic “reforms” harmed the poor, including starkly increasing levels of hunger. Trade unions were undermined, dissidents physically attacked. Democracy was overridden and an election “postponed.” When the state allows discontent to simmer on various fronts, blocks channels for seeking peaceful change and fosters division or allows its associates to do so, there are grave dangers.

The misuse of cultural heritage and religion, in particular a violent distortion of Sinhala Buddhism, which is completely at odds with the Buddha’s teaching, has not gone away. Although President Ranil Wickremesinghe is no longer ideologically aligned to champions of such destructive fanaticism, an inflammatory spreader of hate speech such as Sarath Weerasekara can be appointed as Chairman of the Oversight Committee on National Security. To add to the mix, some in India’s far right ruling Bharatiya Janata Party that in its violent pursuit of power has similarly distorted what is best in Hinduism, are attempting to win support among Tamils. For now, it may be in the interests of both the Sri Lankan and Indian governments to keep a rein on any forces which might get in the way of profits for their business associates. But if matters go downhill, the possibilities are frightening.

The July 1983 pogrom and its aftermath were, and are, not simply a national problem. Then and now, governments, organisations and individuals overseas played a part, for good or ill, and in turn were affected as things unravelled. Yet at times those in Sri Lanka who stood firm against the inhumanity and destructiveness around them contributed to human rights globally. Learning from history and taking prompt action can make a difference, nationally and internationally.

July 1983 in context

Sometimes what happened that July is portrayed as a matter of straightforward communal violence, leading to decades of conflict especially affecting Tamils and Muslims and laying the foundations for ongoing treatment as, at best, second class citizens. The impact of the decades long civil war and plight of ethnic and religious minorities has been, in certain ways, unique. The refusal to investigate properly the most extreme acts or at least answer questions asked by the families of victims or to guarantee safety and treat people equally even now, has deepened the hurt.

Yet violence within communities has taken a heavy toll too, even more so because it is harder to talk about and less often acknowledged in the media and beyond. The discovery of mass graves across so much of the island is a grim reminder of shared suffering and the dangers of militarism and lack of accountability. The murder in 1975 of Jaffna’s mayor, Alfred  Duraiappah, by fellow Tamils who would go on to build the LTTE into a formidably violent movement after he had been labelled a traitor, prefigured a type of politics which would wreak great physical and psychological damage. After July 1983’s events and ministers’ callousness to survivors, some of the resulting fear, anger and sense of loss would be channelled against fellow Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese civilians, not just an oppressive state. And attempts to recruit fighters and raise funds would take unethical forms, causing problems in other countries too. Southern rebels too would target non-combatants. When governments set an example of no holds barred dealings with the defenceless, the risks are huge.

And the backdrop of harm inflicted on the bodies and minds of so many people who are poor, women, children, disabled people and those marginalised because of caste, sexual orientation or gender identity (some of whom face racial or religious victimisation too) has helped to desensitise Sri Lankans and people internationally to the dangers of hatred or indifference, as well as often being stoked by the same leaders who have promoted communal prejudice for their own ends.

Similarly the interconnectedness of the erosion of economic, civil and social rights in the run up to July 1983, with the tacit or active support of some in the international community, is often forgotten. Yet the adoption of strong arm tactics by the government was seen by some overseas allies as acceptable if it was seeking to push policies of “liberalisation” that were seen as desirable by many in the West. These included cuts to welfare, supposedly targeting this to people in greatest need. There was a shift away from food subsidies and price controls. At that time, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund deemed this wise.

Supposedly the economy was prospering; yet as inflation rose and wages fell in real terms, harsh suffering was inflicted on the worst off. Research indicates that the percentage of individuals getting less than 1,600 calories per day rose from 7.0% to 10.2% (a rise of 45%) and acute wasting among children grew. The percentage of current expenditure on health and education fell. Overseas assistance played a part in the drastic military tactics used against Tamils, then turned against fellow Sinhalese by the notorious Special Task Force, among others, when the regime was somehow regarded as pursuing responsible policies. Different alignments of power internationally are at work now, yet the wellbeing of ordinary Sri Lankans is still sometimes sidelined by those pursuing now discredited economic dogma or trade deals.

How history was taught and understood was also a feature of the build-up to 1983’s grim events which is not perhaps addressed enough today. Sinhalese school children were increasingly led to believe that a battle between two kings over two millennia ago, in which Dutugemunu, who was Sinhalese, killed Elara, who was Tamil, was the defining moment in the nation’s history, which reflects an ongoing need boldly to repel or contain alien invaders in ways that might justify total war. In reality it was a probable example of an ancient code of chivalry even amidst conflict and just one incident in a South Asian and wider landscape of migration, trading, alliance, intermarriage and rivalry, sometimes violent, after which peace was re-established, which led to the cultural richness of today. Being able to question dominant narratives about the past and embrace complexity is a skill that is not taught enough.

At the same time as recalling the sorrows and failings of the past, it is worth remembering those at the time who refused to be either embittered or intimidated into submission, even if sometimes they had to be discreet. They included protestors who held firm to dreams of a more just land for all, people of faith who refused to accept its distortions, majority community members who did not swallow vicious anti-minority rhetoric and minorities who kept insisting that they had as much right to live with dignity as anyone else in the country. There were also people outside Sri Lanka who went to great lengths to care for refugees, comfort survivors or support Sri Lankans calling for human rights for all. What happened in July 1983 and subsequently was appalling, yet without the many acts of humanity across communal barriers and resistance to treating injustice and violence as normal, things would have been even worse.

Facing the past to build a better future

Many Sri Lankans in recent years have expressed a wish to address what has happened in the past and the aragalaya, along with other developments, created openings. Yet barriers remain.

Unsurprisingly self-interest, in terms of clinging to excess wealth and/or power, may motivate the few in whose interests Sri Lanka is run. If others can be distracted or divided, their own rule can be prolonged. Some, perhaps, might genuinely find it difficult to understand the sorrows and hopes of others who are not as privileged.

Among those not as comfortably placed, a number might see it as irrelevant. Others might perhaps shy away from all or part of what happened that July and subsequently because of suppressed grief, shame or guilt or engage in selective remembering, so as not to imperil their bonds with relatives or neighbours or own self-esteem or reputation. Yet accountability is not about punishing everyone who erred; many were manipulated into a temporary loss of their moral compass or took up arms in good faith, believing they were defending their community or nation. But trying to make sure that those in charge of major human rights abuses over the past 40 years, and are unrepentant, cannot harm anyone else is a minimum. Without confronting the past and human cost, healing is difficult, maybe impossible. This may also mean confronting the prejudices which deem some lives as worth less than others.

In addition, some may perceive injustices against their own community or people they see as important as the only ones worth noting. Understanding others’ plight can be genuinely challenging. Yet the lessons of 40 years ago and the decades that followed, surely underline the vital importance of solidarity, mutual listening and care, which can open the door to a better future.

In a world fraught with mistrust, hatred and indifference and in which human rights violations are widespread, as well as where international relationships are sometimes volatile with the potential for destruction on a major scale, this would make a real difference. In 1983, many looked on with shock and concern. In contrast, despite the reluctance of those in charge, perhaps ordinary Sri Lankans, with support of friends across all nations, can find a way forward which encourages others committed to compassion and justice.