Rajiva Wijesinha on the Riots of July 1983

Rajiva Wijesinha,  being Chapter 7, entitled “The Riots of 1983,” in his book JR Jayewardene’s Racism, Cold War Posturing and the Indian Debacle, …. pubd in 2021 by Godage & Co 


The initial outbreak

The sixth anniversary of the election of 1977 fell on July 22nd. JR summoned his conference for the week previous to that. But not one single opposition party turned up, only his own UNP and Thondaman’s CWC. The absence of the others made it clear that no one was willing to continue playing a game in which the President not only held ail the cards, but also changed the rules as and when he required.

But JR was not prepared to give in easily.  He announced the postponement of the conference for a week but in the days that followed he made no mention of the political solution he envisaged or the proposals he would put forward, as had been requested by the other parties. For their position was that, since the problem had been exacerbated by him, he should make suggestions which they were prepared to examine. But his technique throughout had been, having made clear his own continuing absolute power, to encourage others to put forward proposals from  positions of weakness which he could then modify as he wished.  For the moment that technique seemed to have failed; aware of their limited strengths the others were not prepared to participate until he placed an agenda before them for discussion.

But he saw no reason to alter his approach, given that it had brought him to a position of unparalleled power in what had hitherto  seemed  a modern democratic state. In the days that followed therefore all that seemed necessary to him no doubt was the mixture as before, but in still stronger measure. Given his capacity for resentment, it is probable that his irritation at the contempt evinced for his initiative prompted what happened, designed to intimidate as he had so successfully done in the past.

That was the context in which, on Saturday July 23rd, thirteen men of the Sri Lankan army were killed in an ambush in Jaffna. The newspapers on the next day gave prominent coverage to this. What was not mentioned was that the armed forces had promptly gone on the rampage in the area where the incident had occurred and killed over forty people.

Thus the impression created in the south of the country was that Sinhalese youngsters were dying unavenged, and that something had to be done about this. And so the country faced the pogrom of July 1983, riots clearly orchestrated by government. The manner in which government and its attendant media reported what was happening was bound to create tensions, with increasingly violent actions of the terrorists being highlighted without commensurate reporting of even more violent retaliation.

In addition the funeral arrangements also contributed to the chaos that ensued. The bodies were not disposed of in Jaffna itself, which would have been the least inflammatory course of action, nor handed over to relatives at different places in the country. Instead there was a mass funeral at the general cemetery in Colombo on the evening of July 24th.


This led to demonstrations at the cemetery, followed in the night by fires in the area round about. But the government took no action. And even when the situation got worse the next day, nothing was done till evening when at last a curfew was declared. By then containment was not easy, though it was by no means impossible. But there were no efforts to enforce the curfew or control mobs on the rampage. The reason for this was all too obvious, for right through the 25th and the 26th groups of well organized individuals, usually equipped with electoral registers so that they were able to distinguish which houses belonged to whom, swept through the streets burning the houses of Tamils.

On these days it seemed the mobs were generally careful to spare the occupants, making people leave before houses were burnt. Goods however were kept within and went up in the flames, the explanation given being that the purpose of the exercise was to teach the Tamils a lesson. But such discipline could not be maintained everywhere, given the privileging of violence that was obvious. Mobs proliferated and violence increased and perhaps temptation and their own momentum overtook some of those under instructions not to kill. Looting took place with increasing frequency. Cars were stopped in the streets and, when Tamils were discovered inside, they were set on fire and those in them assaulted and on occasion put back in the cars. But the number of actual deaths inflicted during this period was comparatively small, suggesting that the original aim had been to terrify not eliminate.

Meanwhile truckloads of men kept coming into Colombo and its environs, to which the trouble was restricted on these two days, from areas where no curfew was in force. They had no trouble in travelling through the areas under curfew to add to the mayhem. Later it was argued that the government was not confident enough about the authority it commanded to have ordered the armed forces to put a summary stop to the rioting.  Members of the armed forces however, who acted promptly once the order to shoot on sight had been given, themselves expressed surprise at the government’s initial failure to act.

The record of what JR did not do, and then of what he said, makes it crystal clear that he was behind the violence, for his own nefarious ends. And typically, when it was much worse than he had perhaps planned, he was not capable of changing course. So, whether it was due to culpable cowardice or to policy, for two days the government abandoned the capital to anarchy. But then on the evening of the 26th the armed forces were ordered to quell anything in Colombo and succeeded swiftly enough contrary to the earlier assumption the government claimed to have made.

So on Wednesday July 27th the curfew was lifted. But then the scene shifted to the central areas where the Tamil population was largely of recent Indian origin.  Over the next two days they too suffered in the same way, only now the violence was more brutal, the callousness for life more marked. And it was obvious that the mobs were not indigenous to the areas they attacked but were  transported from outside. This development nailed the canard used later by some government supporters to play down the enormity of what had occurred in Colombo by claiming that the Tamils of Colombo had in a sense asked for it in not having clearly and openly opposed terrorism. But inasmuch as Thondaman had loyally supported the government over the previous five years, as had his supporters, it is difficult to see what more they could have done to avert the holocaust that now fell upon them.

Meanwhile government made no official pronouncements at all on the subject. The news rather was full of descriptions of how supplies to the capital were being maintained. Other aspects of what if anything the authorities were doing to remedy the situation were left unmentioned. It was finally only on the evening of Thursday July 28th that JR appeared on television and radio to address the nation. But his remarks came as a surprise and created enduring bitterness in the Tamils who had suffered. Many of them still looked to him as a responsible leader and hoped for some comfort from his pronouncements. Wherever they were, skulking in their own homes or amongst those who had taken them in or in the various schools or other public places that had been turned into refugee camps, they had awaited his address in eager anticipation.

But instead of assuaging their feelings he announced that what had taken place  was the understandable reaction of the Sinhalese to the attempt that had been made to divide their country. He declared lugubriously that he had been too lax on separatists but had now decided, in response to what had happened, to introduce legislation to proscribe any Party that advocated separatism and to make all public servants and members of parliament take an oath of allegiance to an unitary state.

Black Friday

The day after this performance hell broke loose more virulently than before. Newspapers reported that morning that several Tigers (as all terrorists were now called) had attempted the previous morning to blow up the main railway station in Colombo in the Fort and been killed in the attempt by vigilant public spirited citizens. This was simply a rumor, and the unfortunate individuals who had been killed had as it turned out had no such intention at all.

But the propagation of this story, which the censor permitted, combined with the President’s speech that seemed to characterize as patriots all those who had attacked Tamils in the interests of the unity of the country, had an irresistible effect. Fuelled by the accidental discharge in the crowded Fort area of a soldier’s shotgun, the rumour gained currency that Tigers had arrived to attack Colombo. The mobs that ran riot on this occasion killed without quarter any Tamils they came across. The precise figures have never been established, but the loss of life in Colombo on Black Friday as it came to be called probably equalled that of the previous few days put together.

But after that, with the damage too great now to gloss over, it was blamed on others though no one was fooled. For it was clear after the brutal excesses of Black Friday that the circus had to be stopped. Curfew was declared fairly promptly on that day, right through until the Sunday, and in the course of the weekend and thereafter the ministers who appeared on television sang a different song from their leader’s earlier response.

But still hardly any of them expressed any regret with regard to the sufferings of the Tamiis. Rather they expressed anguish at the deprivation the country at large had undergone through the disruption of supplies. But what was different now, and most significant, was that every speech asserted that what had occurred was the result of a Marxist conspiracy. It was not Sinhalese patriots, as Jayawardene had averred (though no formal correction was made of this lapse), but rather – in a frenzy of propaganda reminiscent of the wild allegations during the referendum campaign – diabolical leftists who had planned and executed the whole business to cause damage to the country in general. In addition to the TULF, which was to be proscribed in accordance with the wishes of those who, according to the President earlier, had been responsible, three leftist parties were now to be proscribed as having been responsible instead.

Before long the ban on two of these leftist parties was lifted and their leaders who had been jailed were released. And the speech in parliament of Sarath Muttetuwegama, who was not arrested, documents clearly the racism of the UNP throughout its history, as opposed to the attitude of his own Communist party. Instructively some of his statements were echoed in the speech made by Thondaman who insinuated that he thought Cyril Mathew responsible for the outbreak of violence.

But while the traditional left resisted the attempt to blame them, the JVP gathered new strength from the proscription. It promptly went underground and became a much stronger force there than it had ever been outside, But it always denied the government’s allegation and no evidence was ever produced to connect it with the events.

Though some of the most active of the rioters and arsonists were arrested towards the end, most of them were swiftly released after the intervention of government politicians at all levels. Though the exact extent of government complicity remains uncertain there is no doubt that much of the destruction was by the government’s own storm troops, the forces seen earlier with regard to the strikers of 1980, the elections in Jaffna and the riots of 1981, the referendum in 1982, and then earlier in 1983 the demonstration against the judges.  Equally certainly they believed they were carrying out a policy of which the government approved.

Intimidation, of Tamils, not only ordinary Tamil citizens who were thus made to see what the activities of the northern terrorists could entail for them, but also the Tamil politicians who might thus be driven to accept the invitation to negotiate on Jayewardene’s terms, was doubtless the main aim of the exercise. So even though the perhaps relatively mild lesson originally planned had got somewhat out of hand, Jayewardene’s speech on July 28th suggests he was not really upset. Since the violence had subsided and it was clear that the government could maintain control, the TULF could be proscribed with the Tamils having been put on the defensive.  The government was to be seen therefore as representing the will of a majority now on the warpath.

But after Black Friday that position could not be sustained. Obviously government must have worried about the extensive disorder, and perhaps elements in the cabinet felt humanitarian qualms. But in addition there was a repeat of what brought the violence of 1981 to a halt. For after the events of Friday the Indian government made it clear that unless the situation was brought under control within a couple of days it would feel obliged to interfere, by means of an invasion if necessary. It was primarily to forestall this that the government had to take prompt action. Attributing the troubles to leftists was the surest way of making it clear that it was dead serious in its call for restraint, and also, in JR’s book, to win favour in other countries. For he was Pavlovian in his responses to events, in the sense that he pressed time worn buttons when his dogs of war started to salivate, rather than the other way around.

And in line with this approach there was a characteristic attempt at diversion that sprang from the belief he clung to, that his Cold War antics had made him the darling of the West and they would not let India harm him. So Foreign Minister A. C. S. Hameed was despatched to London to find out whether the British government would respond positively in the event of Jayewardene invoking a long forgotten mutual defence treaty of 1947 in the face of an Indian invasion. The reply was very definite that the British government would not. It was probably at this point that help was also requested from the United States, which also responded negatively. Later it was claimed, when the Sri Lankan government asked for and received aid from Israel, that this was because it had tried everywhere else and had been denied.

After that attempt to get assistance from the West against India failed, it was clear Indian pressures could not be resisted. Besides, once the the damage done to the Sri Lankan state was properly assessed, it was clear the problems that had given rise to this needed to be soon resolved. Obviously this could best be done with Indian assistance and so in the next few months there was a great deal of diplomatic activity involving India. For Indian involvement could no longer be summarily dismissed as unwarranted interference, given that the TULF parliamentarians had almost all of them fled to India at the first hint of trouble, and in effect thrown themselves on Indian mercy.

Even Neelan Tiruchelvam, whom JR had thought of as a reliable Colombo oriented ally, was amongst this group. Interestingly the other Tamil with whom he had negotiated, the Canadian professor A. J. Wilson, had been in Colombo when the riots began and, with touching presence of mind in the midst of the mayhem, JR had telephoned him and offered safe passage out of the country, which he had promptly accepted, to thereafter become a fervent opponent of the Sri Lankan state.

Wilson went back to his home, but the violence prompted many Tamils for whom this country was home to seek a safer life abroad. Australia and Canada both opened their doors wider than before for Tamils, and as many as possible went there straight away, while over the next few years several more followed. Many also sought refuge in a number of European countries, such as Britain and in particular West Germany that had relatively liberal provisions for such. And this mass exodus, of those who had suffered and those who feared further suffering, was fatal for Sri Lanka for in their new homes they were motivated to work against the country.

And a vast number of Tamils simply went to Jaffna. For most of them, though they kept up contact with connections in the area, it was a question of settling into a place and a lifestyle unlike anything they were accustomed to. But in the immediate aftermath of the rioting that seemed a safer place than anywhere else. But a different sort of danger now arose for those who just wanted to live their lives in peace inasmuch as what had happened gave rise to greater authority and better organization amongst terrorist groups, and they could demand both financial support from the people and also conscripts.

Similar to what took place with regard to Jaffna there was an exodus, though on a smaller scale, back to the east of Tamils originally from that area. After a few months therefore it was on the whole only Indian Tamils who were left in the refugee camps. For they were relatively lacking in skills and ability to exploit the enhanced opportunities for emigration, while many of them were unwilling, without roots in the north or east, to make the break and move to those areas. Some of the younger people amongst them however did do so and, together with the younger Ceylon Tamils who had moved from the south, bitter as they were about what they had suffered, added swiftly and substantially to the strength of the militants.

There is one more incident that took place at the height of the troubles that needs to be recorded before we look at what followed. Or rather there were two incidents for what happened when the riots started was replicated a few days later.

On the morning of Monday July 25th about forty Tamil prisoners were massacred within the high security prison of Welikada in Colombo.  And then two days later twenty more were killed in the same fashion.

Amongst those disposed of on the first day was Kuttimani and most of the others included in the toll were also those who were suspected or in some cases actually convicted of terrorism. But amongst them too was S. Rajasunderam, the Secretary of the Gandhiyam Movement which had been instrumental in the settlement of Tamils and in particular Indian Tamils in the Vavuniya District, the southernmost in the Northern Province. There had been a suspicion that the Gandhiyam Movement was in collaboration with the terrorists but it seems his death was an accident, which occurred because he had put himself forward when the others were being killed.

The killings were done by other Sinhalese prisoners but there can be little doubt that they were officially instigated. According to Esmond Wickremesinghe, confidante of both JR and Cyril Mathew, allowing these murders to go ahead was a way of defusing tension, the aim being to publicize a forceful reaction to the massacre of the thirteen soldiers in the north. The repetition of the incident two days later, when it might have been thought precautions might have been taken, suggests that the complicity of the authorities went deeper, and it was not simply a question of indulging murderers to stop further murders.

Deep complicity can further be deduced from that at the inquiry that was held no one could provide details of what had happened, and none of the murderers could be identified. Wickremesinghe’s account of how an over-zealous magistrate who tried to question the prison guards more thoroughly had to be called out and reined back substantiates further the view that his description of the entire incident came from the perspective of those in authority.

The massacre in cold blood of sixty prisoners of state within the confines of their jail passes therefore into an act of state craft, uninvestigated and unpunished.



In my interpretation the events of July 1983 were not merely “riots.” They can be termed a “pogrom.” The literature on this set of events is considerable and one of the initial readings should be that in Wikipedia because that presentation is a good beginning: see …………………….. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_July

That account even displays a chilling photograph of a hapless Tamil man being assaulted at Borella Junction on the night of July 23rd — with one assailant swivelling to adminsiter a karate kick. The snap was taken by a brave cameraman, Chandragupta Amarasinghe who provided me with graphic details orally when he visited me in Wellawattte in the early 1990s. I stress, here, that this Tamil was then killed (as Amarasinghe told me).

The photograph was one pillar in the article that I presented as “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom. July 1983,” in a collection of my essays entitled Exploring Confrontation (Harwood Academic Publications, 1994, chap. 00). I stress, here, that this essay is NOT a thorough survey of that awful set of events in July 1983. As a young Aussie postgraduate indicated to me in thoughtful appraisal after I presented it at a seminar in Perth in the early 1990s, it is a “literary piece.” Her tone indicated that this was a comment with a question mark — a kind of musing thought that was also complimentary.

ALSO SEE …………….. Panorama of the Black July’s 26th anniversary remembrance day observed at Trafalgar Square in London in 2009

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One response to “Rajiva Wijesinha on the Riots of July 1983

  1. N. Goonewardena

    Yes, we are still ashamed of what happened in July 1983. But, the vast majority of Sinhalese loathed this behaviour of fanatic extremists.

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