I: Editorial: “Black July 83 never again,” 21 July 2013
Remember Black July ’83’ is a print-ad campaign designed by the advertising agency JWT for the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a controversial NGO that has come in for a lot of flak from multiple quarters on grounds of financial dishonesty and aiding and abetting separatism. ‘Never to repeat’ is the payoff line. The campaign is to be launched shortly, The Nation learns. ‘Black July’ is remembered and remembered differently and for varying purposes by those who remember. Whatever these differences may be there is commonality in agreement on one thing: it should never happen again.
There’s nothing to say that ‘Black July’ will not recur. There’s nothing to say that it must. On the other hand, if it is not to happen again, it is important to remember what happened. It is important to acknowledge that it inflicted a deep wound on the nation, the people who make it, their collective and individual memory; a wound that has bled into many other lacerations. This has been a common view expressed by many across the political spectrum.
The President has in no uncertain terms said that no pains will be spared to make sure it won’t happen again. The people have had to learn the hard way that allowing emotion to overcome reason does not alleviate fear and anxiety. They can unlearn fast, however. And this is why it is important to remember and to resolve to prevent repetition.
The Nation, while saluting the CPA and JWT for using the anniversary of this national tragedy to alert the public to the necessity to prevent such horrors from recurring, joins them in calling for remembrance, learning and the cultivating of resolve. To prevent.
II: KKS Perera: “A Result of Government’s Inaction?” ….
The ‘ black July’ of 1983
The first instance where rulers appeared to be instigating violence and disorder in Sri Lanka was recorded in early/mid 1983. Minister of Industries and Technology Cyril Mathews, who had no business in the East, brought in thugs from the South to Trincomalee, and under the protection of security forces, he began a reign of terror. The minister was a close confidante of President J R Jayewardene who allowed him to have his way. JR, who made use of the votes of Tamils, both the Jaffna and Indians to become the President, when interviewed by a British reporter [Daily Telegraph – London] in early July 1983 said, “..I am not worried about the opinion of Jaffna people now… Now we can’t think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinions about us. …The more you put pressure in the North, the happier the Sinhalese people will be here…”
–Daily Telegraph-July 11, 1983;
[The interview was republished in state-run, Sunday Observer-Colombo on July 17: 1983]
Tragically, since late 50s Sri Lanka has sustained its passage of violence and destruction. People from both sides are being slain, wounded, dislocated from their normal way of life, and have had their possessions looted, damaged or ruined. The 1983 riots were noticeable by its highly organized nature, compared to previous communal disturbances in the island. The horrors and mayhem of the darkest week remain etched in the minds of people of both communities. Violent mobs in Colombo used voter lists to identify homes of Tamils residing in the city and suburbs. From Colombo, it spread to the other parts of the island. The psychological and sociological effects of this violence on island’s multi-ethnic and divided society are grave.
Nastiest episode: Wednesday, July 24, 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of ‘Black July’ which is acknowledged as the nastiest episode of ethnic violence in Sri Lanka. Around 350-500 lives were lost and more than a 50,000 were reduced to refugees and were confined to camps, while thousands migrated seeking refuge status in the West. It left the county’s economy in shreds; a week of sheer violence forced the island to war and devastation during the next two decades. A fifty percent drop in tourist arrivals were recorded in the months that followed, affecting a downturn in economic growth, loss of jobs and loss of business.
It all started at Thinnavely in Jaffna on Saturday July 23, 1983 at 11.30 pm, when a bomb was detonated under the army jeep that was leading a convoy injuring a few soldiers traveling in it. As the other soldiers traveling in a truck following the jeep arrived there to rescue their colleagues, they were ambushed by a group of LTTE fighters hurling grenades at them and 13 soldiers were killed on the spot; the highest number of Army casualty at that time in one single event planned and carried out by a team led by Kittu, a regional commander of the rebels. The army truck; for unknown reasons had changed its route at the last minute and drew into explosives and ambush.
Tamil shops and homes were attacked by mobs compelling Tamil people to seek refuge at state run camps or with their Sinhala friends and even with strangers who protected them for months. Unruly hooligans destroyed property while authorities turned a blind eye. Security forces were significantly unsuccessful in providing the minority adequate protection. They made no effort to stop the rampage.
Army retaliation: The ambush in Jaffna took place on July 23, 1983 and on the very next day army retaliated by killing a few civilians in Jaffna, while the bodies of the dead soldiers were being transferred to Colombo for burial at Kanatte. The government initial move to impose a censorship to prevent spread of bad news had little effect as the people who gathered at the cemetery commenced violence which then spread to other parts of city and then to different centers within the island. The government arranged for the burial of 13 dead bodies in the night of 24th, Sunday at Kanatte without handing over the disfigured bodies to the relatives, as it was felt that the occasion of separate interments in different parts from which the soldiers came might escalate trouble at each of those funerals.
But relatives, friends and villagers gathered at the cemetery, were joined by large crowds from in and around Colombo and they became restive. As the bodies arrived the feelings were running very high. Throughout the massive gathering there was a common feeling of strong resentment about the fact that Sinhalese soldiers had been killed by Tamil terrorists; and was purposely blown by certain chauvinistic elements. They were not aware of the killing of Tamil civilians by the army in Jaffna due to censorship. The villages and relatives claimed the bodies be handed over to them; the crowd became so impatient, compelling the government to reconsider its original plan for burial at Kanatte and return the bodies to the families. MP for Kalawana, Sarath Muttetuwegama, speaking in Parliament on August 4th, 1983 said,
“Now Sir, 13 bodies of Sinhalese soldiers …were brought to Colombo… by the night of 23rd violence irrupted…What did the censor Mr. Liyanage do? He allowed all morning newspapers a report which said, ‘Thirteen soldiers killed in Jaffna.’ What is the earthly use of the censor? The names were revealed as Sinhalese…”
[The censor Liyanage mentioned here is none other than Douglas Liyanage, the 1st accused in 1962 Coup dè tat case, who was appointed by J R Jayewardene as his Permanent Secretary at Ministry of State in 1983.]
Destruction of property: Violence irrupted on the night of 24th in Borella, the closest to Kanatte; attacks on Tamil business premises began and went on till following morning. On the first and second days violence was directed only against the properties of Tamils; the shops owned by them and their houses setting them on fire. Furniture and goods were destroyed; attacks were restricted to destruction of property, means livelihood and production. Though the motives of first attacks were only destruction, soon looting was followed by gangs different to those involved in destruction. The destruction of businesses and factories owned by Tamil entrepreneurs affected the Sinhalese as well, as majority of the workers and staff at these institutions was Sinhalese. The forty odd enterprises destroyed accounted for 25,000 loss of jobs, mostly Sinhalese.
It must be stated that out of Sinhala population it was only a negligible minority that took part in the violence. Some Sinhalese householders took the risk of sheltering many displaced Tamils, despite warning by mobs and extremist-hooligans backed by a senior government minister, that any Sinhala home harboring Tamil refugees would face drastic consequences. They threatened to set fire to any property that accommodated Tamils. Many Sinhalese shocked, distressed and sickened were tireless in their efforts to care for the Tamils in the camps, to look after them in their own neighborhoods and to help to re-house them.
A close comprehensive analysis of the July pogroms in their context points to one conclusion; apart from the provocation of Sinhalese masses for spontaneous action by the Tamil terrorists, there was a strategic plan organized and carried out by a powerful faction of the government.
Divide and rule policy: Why were the gruesome acts of manslaughter, arson and plunder allowed to last unabated? And why did the state fail to punish the ringleaders, who in many cases were close associates of certain Ministers. Why no proper plan to compensate the victims? Thirty years on, with the LTTE totally annihilated and peace in place, these demands still remain unanswered. Divide and rule policy adopted by British, in the colonial times placed minorities in positions of power: in Sri Lanka the Tamils and Christians dominated the public service, security and other professions. When Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, the elected representatives realized this as a tricky scheme adopted by colonial bosses to control the Sinhala majority.