Harim Peiris, in Daily News, 23 July 2018, where the title reads “‘Never again’: The enduring lesson of July 1983, after 35 years” …. with highlights being the work of The Editor, Thuppahi
July 23 marked the 35th anniversary of one of post-independent Sri Lanka’s darkest chapters, the July 1983 pogrom against Tamil civilians throughout the country. The pogrom was sparked by an ambush of an Army patrol in Jaffna, by the LTTE, then one of several militant groups operating in the North, in which the entire platoon of 13 soldiers was wiped out.
A couple of days later, as the bodies of many of the soldiers were brought to the General Cemetery in Colombo for burial with full military honours, an anti-Tamil pogrom commenced. Several thousand Tamil people were murdered throughout Sri Lanka and many more were displaced. Thirty-five years later and 10 years after the war which it sparked has ended, we can look back now at this shameful chapter in Sri Lanka’s history and learn some lessons for our slowly progressing post-war reconciliation process.
Current and prior responses
Thirty-five years after the fact, the response of the Sri Lankan state to July ’83 has been more thoughtful and meaningful. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Finance and Mass Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera were in Jaffna on the occasion and engaged in a series of measures including the launch of Enterprise Sri Lanka in the North, laying out a vision for a future of hope, engaging with the people, and very importantly, for women’s issues, cancelling micro credit loans up to Rs.100,000, mostly for the single-women-headed households, among other measures. Prior to that, in July 2004, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had issued a national apology for the July ’83 riots as an interim reconciliation measure and appointed a special commission to pay compensation to victims who lodged claims with the Commission.
The initial response, however, by the Sri Lankan state and the political establishment in 1983 was a disaster and weakened democratic and pluralist Sri Lanka and strengthened extremism, the direct beneficiaries of which were the LTTE in the North and the JVP in the South, the latter which launched its own second insurrection several years later, in 1988.
Basically, the Sri Lankan state failed to protect her Tamil citizens from gross violence and accordingly demonstrated a significant state failure in that the most fundamental of state responsibilities, the protection of life (of persons) and property. The name of a then well-known Cabinet minister was often mentioned as an instigator, organiser and patron of the anti-Tamil violence, which, as is often the case with political violence, is not spontaneous but organised. President J.R. Jayewardene was silent for several days as Sri Lanka burned and only emerged later to express his empathy with the just outrage of the majority community, thereby transforming the discourse on Tamil militancy, as an attack on a pluralist Sri Lanka to a Sinhala-verses-Tamil conflict. Sri Lanka burned for nearly 25 years thereafter, and now, a decade after the end of the war, there are lessons to be learnt from those failures of July 1983.
Delegitimisation of democratic Tamil politics
The anti-Tamil riots of 1983 were not without consequences. The Tamil militancy movement which was still very much on the fringes of Tamil politics was vastly strengthened as the democratic Tamil political leadership lost legitimacy in the light of their inability to get the Sri Lankan state machinery to ensure the basic physical and economic security of the Tamil people. Further, the Sri Lankan state lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Tamil community, as articulated best by former TULF Member of Parliament, the late Neelan Tiruchelvam, who described it as “the anomaly of imposing a mono-ethnic state on a multiethnic polity.” The Sri Lankan state began to be increasingly seen, and perhaps also acting, as a Sinhala state rather than a pluralistic, multiethnic and inclusive state.
With the escalation of the armed conflict following July ’83, any accountability for the gross violations of human rights which occurred, including that most basic human right – the right to life, was never ensured by the state, until perhaps President Kumaratunga’s Commission, 21 years later. However, the low-key nature and relative lack of publicity given to the initiative due to naysayers even within her own Cabinet meant that many victims as well as the general public were generally unaware of the same.
The recent lesson
It is to the credit of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans that July 1983 was never repeated though the LTTE escalated violence thereafter. However, the mentality, the politics and rhetoric which enabled and created July’83 has sadly not entirely left our public discourse. When the LTTE attacked the Army, the countermeasures should have been solely a state response against the perpetrators and not rampaging mobs against innocents. To our collective shame, an entire ethnic minority countrywide were targetted, innocent men, women and children.
Worryingly, the same rhetoric is emanating from the self-proclaimed saviours of the Sinhala people today in relation to the Muslim community. We, and democratic Sri Lanka, need to be protected from these ‘protectors’. As the Maha Nayaka Thera of the Malwatte Chapter, the Most Venerable Thibbotuwawe Sri Sumangala Thera observed after the anti-Muslim violence in Kandy, there is no need for ‘Balsenas and Balakayas’ when we have a democratic state and security structures. In the post-war decade since 2009, imaginary and perceived threats from the Muslim community are being bandied about to instigate mini-pogroms from Dharga Town to Ampara and Digana.
Today terrorist groups like ISIS are household names and claim to wage their war on Islamic principles and for Muslim objectives. However, we cannot concede to a self-appointed violent few, the mantle and leadership of the whole. ISIS never represents Muslims, while 969 in Myanmar cannot be considered as representing the Bamar people of Myanmar nor indeed did the LTTE during the war years, legitimise its self-appointed claim to represent the Tamil people. Most interestingly, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) which contested the 2015 general elections basically lost their deposits with a few hundred votes per electoral division in the Sinhala constituencies. Perhaps the most enduring lesson of July ’83 should be ‘never again’ and violent extremism should always be challenged and not allowed to flourish.