40 years since ‘Black July’, little space in Sri Lanka to remember the dead

The anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 claimed thousands of lives and rendered several thousand homeless; The Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka termed the series of incidents a ‘holocaust’

Updated - July 29, 2023 12:23 pm IST

Published - July 28, 2023 09:48 pm IST - COLOMBO

Police try to disperse a group commemorating the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, at an event held in Colombo on July 23, 2023. The week-long violence targeting Tamils 40 years ago changed the course of Sri Lanka’s history. 

Police try to disperse a group commemorating the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, at an event held in Colombo on July 23, 2023. The week-long violence targeting Tamils 40 years ago changed the course of Sri Lanka’s history.  | Photo Credit: AFP

When a handful of individuals convened near the Borella Cemetery in Colombo on July 23, to mark the 40th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983, a few angry young men disrupted the proceedings despite heavy police presence.

Members of an extremist Sinhala nationalist outfit — known for its visceral hate for the island’s ethnic minorities — the men barged into the gathering with familiar aggression and hurled abuse at the participants at the peaceful remembrance, branding them as “Tiger” (to connote the LTTE) and “terrorist”. It was an exact replay of the scenes witnessed at the same venue on May 18, at a rare Colombo commemoration of the end of the civil war. On both occasions, the huge contingent of riot police asked the activists, not disruptors, to disperse immediately.

‘Can’t remember, Can’t forget’

For families of Tamil victims killed in the many cycles of violence in Sri Lanka, remembering the dead has not been easy. Forgetting those traumatic times is even harder.

Cheryl Arnold recalls the events that unfolded over the last week of July 1983 like they happened yesterday. She was 13 and studying at a famous girls’ school in Colombo, with children from different ethnic backgrounds. “Until that time, I was not conscious of my ethnic identity. We were all in the same class, we were friends. But that week changed everything for our family.”

The tension was palpable and everyone around was talking about it. “I couldn’t follow everything at the time, but I understood that the Tamils were in danger.” And very soon, the danger came close to her home located at the heart of Colombo, when the family saw a mob set fire to the house on top of their lane, where an elderly couple lived. “My brothers tried to douse the fire there and had apparently been noticed by the mob... days later, the mob came to our home and threatened us. One of them put a knife to my brother’s neck,” she said, of her older sibling’s narrow escape.

Ms. Arnold comes from a mixed ethnic family, her mother is Sinhalese and her father is Tamil. “My mother somehow spoke to them... while my father and I stayed at a neighbour’s home.” As violence began escalating on July 24, some friends drove her, along with her parents, to an uncle’s home. “It must have been barely two hours since we left, we heard that our house was ablaze.” Her three brothers each had their own “equally traumatic escape story” before the family converged at a church days later. It had turned into a refugee shelter for many like them who were “fortunate to be alive”.

Her parents subsequently left the country and sought asylum abroad. Deeply affected by the violence and loss of their home built with his hard-earned life savings, her father took ill. It was when Ms. Arnold tried to visit her ailing father that the reality of being Tamil in Sri Lanka hit her hard. In her case, even being half a Tamil was enough to face high risk and discrimination from fellow citizens and foreigners. “The embassy treated me like some sort of suspect... as someone who was trying to migrate to never return. They rejected my visa…by the time I reapplied and got it, it was too late,” she said, fighting tears. Her father had passed on. The family was scattered across countries and could never live together as they did before.

Although the Tamils living on the island, including the Malaiyaha (hill country) Tamils, faced periodic bouts of mob violence right from the 1950s, the pogrom of 1983 that claimed thousands of lives and rendered several thousands homeless, proved a watershed in Sri Lankan history. ‘Black July’, as the period is often described, propelled a festering ethnic conflict into a full-blown civil war lasting decades.

It changed every Tamil individual’s life in significant ways. Many families, including professionals from various walks of life, fled the country. Tamil women dreaded wearing the pottu (bindi) for years, fearing it would give their ethnic identity away. “1983 brought about a drastic shift in our lives changing the course of our history... somewhat like BC and AD,” said Jaffna legislator M.A. Sumanthiran, recalling his family’s unsettling journey by sea from Colombo to Jaffna.

Challenging the dominant narrative

The death and destruction during the time have been documented in detail.

The Civil Rights Movement (CRM) of Sri Lanka, one of the oldest human rights organisations in the country, termed the series of incidents a “holocaust”. “The shock and horror of recent events when many Sri Lankans were hunted out, assaulted, killed, their homes and possessions destroyed, and places of business burnt for no other reason than that they belonged to the Tamil community permeate our lives today and will continue to do so for a long time to come,” the CRM said in its report.

It especially drew attention to the massacre of 53 Tamil prisoners at the high-security Welikada prison in Colombo during the week of gruesome violence.

Further, ‘Sri Lanka: The Holocaust and After’, authored by L. Piyadasa — a pseudonym of scholar-activist C.R. Hensman — offers crucial information based on eyewitness accounts on the role of the police and army during the violence.

However, the dominant narrative about the 1983 violence reduces it to a spontaneous southern retaliation to the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna in an LTTE ambush. As per this version, “riots” erupted on the evening of July 24, when the bodies of the slain soldiers were brought from Jaffna, and that the Government “lost control” of the situation.

The well-known activist group University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna (UTHR-J) called this retaliation claim “pedestrian”. Similar, targeted attacks on Tamils in the central hill country and the eastern Trincomalee districts in the preceding months, suggested there was little spontaneity in the July 1983 manifestation of what appeared a gradual but definite buildup of violence against the Tamils, only aggravated by the killing of the soldiers.

Angry mobs identified Tamil homes based on electoral lists, smashed up their property and set their homes on fire, knowing well there were people inside. “The fact that there was no investigation into the violence of July 1983, made it easy for Sinhalese in general to opt for versions that distanced their government and hence themselves from the holocaust,” the UTHR-J observed in its characteristically in-depth, meticulously corroborated report on July 1983.

President J.R. Jayewardene swiftly proscribed the LTTE, as well as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Nava Sama Samaja Pakshaya (NSSP) and the Communist Party from the southern left that he saw as a threat. Neither Mr. Jayewardene’s government in power then, nor any of the successive governments, has condemned the mass atrocity. Nor has a single perpetrator been brought to book in these 40 years.

Awaiting justice

Those reeling under the impact of 1983 are acutely aware of the absence of justice. “Bringing a perpetrator to justice is not a reality in this country,” Ms. Arnold said matter-of-factly. “Not only in the case of 1983, but this is true in every other instance of injustice in our history.”

“You can’t diminish the experience, the struggle or the impact this [1983 pogrom] has had on individuals or communities, but we also must recognise that we are not the only ones who have had this experience,” she said referring to Sinhalese youth killed during the JVP-led armed insurrections, or Muslims who came under attack more recently. “It is one of the many injustices that we see.”

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