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Remembering 1983 black July riots in Sri Lanka
Riots converted Sri Lanka into one of the most notorious killing fields in the world
 
 
The riots, which began in Colombo, spread to Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Trincomalee, areas where Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils were concentrated.

The `riots', which began on the night of July 24, 1983, saw Sri Lanka go up in flames by early August. The Government maintained that the violence was a spontaneous backlash of the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"Clearly this was not a spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala people. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organised well in advance." What, however, must not be missed is the silver lining: many Sinhalese risked their lives to save their Tamil friends from the marauding mobs.

 
 
By By V. Suryanarayan
24 July, 2003

 

Remembering 1983

The encounter is still vivid in my memory. A couple of years ago, on a Sunday morning, I met two Sri Lankan Tamil girls in the Pilliar Kovil in Kandy. Eyes closed, they were praying before the Lord. There was something strange about them. They were dressed in skirts and T-shirts; there was no pottu on their forehead, and there were no flowers adorning their hair. When they got up, we started talking. Learning of my background and the fact that I was a Visiting Professor in the Peradeniya University, the girls started speaking freely. They belonged to Jaffna and were registered for M. Phil degrees in the Science faculty. They had their education in the Tamil medium and did not know the Sinhalese language. They did not want to be identified as Tamils and, therefore, they had discarded their traditional Tamil dress. I was deeply pained. A proud community like the Sri Lankan Tamils has been compelled to discard its symbols of identity in order to live in Sinhalese areas. It was an offshoot of the sense of fear and alienation that had engulfed the Tamils following the genocide of July 1983.

The `riots', which began on the night of July 24, 1983, saw Sri Lanka go up in flames by early August. The Government maintained that the violence was a spontaneous backlash of the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). No one believed the propaganda, for it was clear that there was planning behind the `spontaneous' counter-violence. Paul Sieghart, the Chairman of the British section of the International Commission of Jurists, wrote in his report on the tragedy: "Clearly this was not a spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala people. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organised well in advance." What, however, must not be missed is the silver lining: many Sinhalese risked their lives to save their Tamil friends from the marauding mobs.

Carrying voters' lists and addresses of Tamil houses, the rioters ran amok in Wellawatte, Dehiwela and Bambalapatiya. Factories and industrial establishments owned by the Tamils were reduced to ashes. Still worse, the complicity of the authorities became evident in the massacre of the Tamil prisoners in the high security Welikade prison on July 25 and 27. The murdered included two political prisoners, Jegan and Kuttimani. Sinhalese prisoners, convicted for murder, rape and burglary, were hand picked by the officials for the deadly job. They were served alcohol and let loose on Tamil prisoners. According to survivors' accounts, the bodies were piled up in front of a Buddha the statue in the jail courtyard and were set ablaze.

The riots, which began in Colombo, spread to Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Trincomalee, areas where Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils were concentrated. Within Colombo alone, nearly 100,000 Tamils were displaced. The Government admitted to a death toll of 250, but reliable non-governmental sources estimated it at 2,000. There was hardly any Tamil family in Colombo that escaped death, destruction or displacement.

The communal holocaust was an awful turning point in Sri Lanka's recent history. During the last two turbulent decades, the savage `low intensity' conflict, which has converted Sri Lanka into one of the most notorious killing fields in the world, has taken a toll of nearly 65,000 lives and has displaced 800,000 people. What is more, the prolonged conflict has brutalised Sri Lankan society. With the benefit of hindsight, observers point out certain significant errors of judgment and misguided policies pursued by key dramatis personae. Such an exercise has to be undertaken so that all concerned can learn from the mistakes of the past.

The first big mistake was the failure of the Sri Lankan political leadership, especially the then President, J.R. Jayewardene, to rise to the occasion. JR, as he was known, could have easily entered into serious discussions with the moderate Tamil leadership soon after his landslide victory in the parliamentary election held in 1977. The United National Party (UNP) manifesto had spelt out, in a fair manner, the accumulated grievances of the Tamils. Unfortunately, JR failed to take the initiative, as a result of which the militants began to sideline Tamil moderates. Within the UNP, Sinhala chauvinists led by Cyril Mathew began to emerge as a strong pressure group. When Sri Lanka's day of reckoning came in the last week of July 1983, Jayewardene not only failed to offer any words of sympathy for the Tamil victims; he more or less justified the violence unleashed by the lumpen sections of the Sinhalese. He did not act as an impartial, non-sectarian head of state. During the last days, JR admitted his failure to take decisive action for the resolution of the national question, and began to refer, in informal conversations, to the 1983 violence as "genocidal." In retrospect, the Indian involvement also contributed to the exacerbation of the ethnic conflict. It paved the way for the emergence of the LTTE as a Frankenstein monster. The number of Tamil militants both armed and unarmed at the end of July 1983 was around 300. The Indian Government's policy of mediating in the ethnic conflict while, at the same time, arming the Tamil militants was an unwise move of calamitous proportions. What is more, the competitive nature of Tamil Nadu politics, with the two Dravidian parties vying with each other to support the Tamil cause, resulted in the State becoming a sanctuary for Sri Lankan Tamil guerrillas. The unfortunate experience of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in the North and the East of the island between 1987 and 1990 has been analysed in several accounts; nearly 1200 Indian soldiers sacrificed their lives and a much larger number suffered injuries of various kinds. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide squad of the LTTE in May 1991 swung the pendulum to the other extreme. There is a sense of revulsion against Velupillai Prabakaran and the ideology of the LTTE throughout the country, but much more so in Tamil Nadu. As a consequence, New Delhi adopted a `hands off' policy towards the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

President Ranasinghe Premadasa's policy towards the LTTE was far worse than anything that came before. At a time when, owing to the sustained military pressure of the IPKF, the Tigers were bottled up in the jungles of Vavuniya, Premadasa provided considerable money and arms to Prabakaran. When the IPKF left the shores of Sri Lanka, the Tigers moved in without a fight to take more-or-less full control of the North and the East. But the honeymoon could not last long. The negotiations were a non-starter and the President himself became a victim of the cult of violence perfected by the LTTE. In retrospect both the Indian and Sri Lankan Governments, through unwise policies designed for short-term gain, contributed to the strengthening of the Tigers. Like Banquo's ghost, these realities will continue to haunt us for a quite a while.

During this period, Indian commentators made drastic alterations in their assessment of Prabakaran as a political leader. In the days following July 1983, academics and journalists alike tended to rationalise the violence of the Tamil militants as a natural response of the victim to state violence. However, after the LTTE's massacre of innocent Sinhala civilians in Anuradhapura, the Indian perception of Prabakaran began to change slowly. The growing intolerance of the Tigers, the systematic annihilation of political opponents, the ethnic cleansing in the Jaffna Peninsula, the attack on Dalada Maligawa and the forcible conscription of children into the LTTE's `baby brigade' these and many other Pol Potist crimes have convinced most Indian observers that the gun was not only the source of power and glory, but also the instrument of terror and fear. As a result, Sri Lanka watchers in India today make a clear distinction between what the LTTE stands for and the just demands and genuine aspirations of the Tamils.

Rohini Hensman graphically describes the agony and suffering undergone by the ordinary people. She narrates the story of Anna's family the wife was a Sinhalese and the husband a Tamil. In 1983, their home in Dehiwela was attacked and all their belongings were burnt. After spending a few months in a refugee camp, the family moved to Batticaloa and began to rebuild its life. Taking the members of the family to be Sinhalese, the LTTE attacked them and the family was compelled to take shelter again in a refugee camp. Anna's mother remarked: "The problem is that neither the armed forces nor the Tigers are the least bit concerned about people... They are fighting for their own reasons... In Colombo, they wanted to kill us, because we were Tamil; in Batticaloa they wanted to kill us because I speak Sinhala and they thought I was Sinhalese. There is no freedom anywhere in this country. "What we need is peace, not Eelam." That sums up the main lesson of 1983.

(The writer is former Director of the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.)

 
 

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