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Remembering the Tragedy and Horror of “Black July” Thirty Years Later

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By M. A. Sumanthiran – Member of Parliament, Tamil National Alliance


For the past 30 years, July 23, 1983 has been remembered in Sri Lanka as ‘Black July’. It marks the tragedy and horror of thousands of Tamil people being attacked by rioting mobs acting with impunity. Hundreds of Tamils were killed and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. Many Tamil people who survived these attacks fled the country, fearing they would never be able to see their home again. The repercussions of these brutal actions are still felt by the Tamil people in Sri Lanka and abroad. The ’83 pogrom is widely seen as a trigger to Sri Lanka’s civil war.

The importance of remembering such atrocities cannot be underestimated. It is only remembrance of such tragedy that will, one hopes, ensure that such horrors will never again take place. It is only such remembrance that will ensure that action is taken to prevent Sri Lanka ever having to face yet another ‘Black July’.

It is, however, most unfortunate that we, as Sri Lankans, have not seemed to come very far from ‘Black July’. Instead of dealing with, and eradicating the root causes of the conflict, we seem to be intent on exacerbating them.

Today, more than four years after the end of a bloody war, reconciliation amongst Sri Lanka’s peoples is still very far away. In fact, sadly, 30 years later, not much has changed.

Black July was widely recognised as a genocidal act unleashed against the Tamil people; as Sri Lanka’s holocaust. This was recognised as Genocide not merely because a large number of Tamil people were killed and injured, but also because assets and property owned by Tamils – Tamil homes and businesses – were attacked and demolished. Thirty years on, we are still seeing such genocidal acts being committed against the Tamil people. It is internationally recognised that the term Genocide includes acts that force a community of people to leave the land that has been traditionally occupied by them for several generations. This is taking place in our country today, with the mass land grabs by the government and the military in the North and East.

The horrendous killings of Tamils during Black July 30 years ago are largely believed to have been carried out with the support of the government of that day. The rioting mobs that attacked Tamil homes and businesses acted with impunity. In fact, even in the then President J.R. Jayewardene’s first speech on the event made on July 27, 1983, he offered little sympathy to what the Tamil people had faced.

Today, four years after the end of the civil war, the incumbent President has declared that Sri Lanka has ‘no minorities’. The reality, however, is vastly different. The government turns a blind eye to the repeated attacks against various minority groups. Today, that includes not only the Tamil people, but the Muslim people as well.

One of the recent incidents was an attack carried out against a Muslim owned business. Video footage taken during this attack clearly showed a Buddhist monk vandalising the building in question while policemen looked on, doing nothing. Other religious minorities also continue to come under attack, with threatening and violent acts being committed against not only mosques, but churches as well. Following the events of Black July, despite rioting mobs openly attacking Tamil civilians for several days, no perpetrators were apprehended or held accountable for these brutal actions. Today too, few, if any, of the individuals responsible for attacks against members of minority groups are ever apprehended. Hate speeches against minority groups are made; processions threatening minority groups are openly conducted, and the government does nothing.

The blind eye of the government is turned not merely to attacks against minorities, but to other quarters as well. Scores of journalists have been attacked, seriously injured, killed and made to disappear, but the perpetrators of these attacks are almost never apprehended and brought to justice. The crime rate in the country has risen dramatically over the past months and years. The riots in July 1983 were symptomatic of a complete breakdown in the Rule of Law of the day. It is indeed disheartening to see that breakdown today as well.

The ‘83 pogrom is seen as a determined effort by a portion of the majority community, backed by the government of the day, to teach the Tamil people who had been for a long time calling for meaningful power sharing, a lesson. Until 1983, these calls had been for the most part, non violent. Following the attack in 1983, the violence by Tamil youth increased significantly. It is this that led to the 26 year long conflict in our country. To date, the Sri Lankan state has been unable to address the Tamil question in a meaningful way. The only concession to power sharing in Sri Lanka’s Constitution is the 13th Amendment.

Even this has, to date, not been fully implemented despite the government’s repeated promises to its people and to members of the international community that it will do so. In fact, the government now proposes to do away with it altogether! Instead of making a realistic effort to arriving at a meaningful power sharing arrangement through genuine, constructive political dialogue, the government now proposes to take away even the limited concession to power sharing in the constitution. The Tamil National Alliance has stated, time without number that the solution to the ethnic conflict cannot be by military means, but by political ones. However, 30 years on, the Sri Lankan government seems more unwilling than ever to either engage in any meaningful, genuine process to this end.

In 2004, then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge acknowledged the role played by the government and made a public apology for the atrocities of ’83. Despite being seen by many as 21 years too late, in my opinion the gesture was tremendously significant. For Sri Lanka and its peoples to move past ’83, this acknowledgment, and with it the accountability for the atrocities committed, was absolutely necessary. Today, four years after the end of a bloody civil war, despite assurances given to the international community and its own peoples, the government of Sri Lanka has yet to put in place any credible process for accountability for what occurred during the war. The tragedy of ‘83 should have taught us that in order for us as a country to move past the tragedy of the civil war, there must be accountability for atrocities committed on both sides.

Thirty years on, the environment and circumstances that made Black July possible have not changed in any significant way. A war has ended, but we have failed to address, far less eradicate, the root causes of the conflict behind it. If anything, we have exacerbated them. Thirty years on, can we claim to have come very far from Black July at all?

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