“The evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhala rioters on the Tamils amounted to Acts of Genocide.” ~ The Review, International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Dec. 1983
July 2020, represents the 37th anniversary of “Black July”. It is a poignant reminder to the Tamil people and to our fraternity across the globe, of the precarious existence of our people in this ‘blessed’ isle, evoking a keen sense of anguish, grief and loss. A lot of water – nay, blood – has since gone under the bridge. The echoes of cries of pain of our people continue to reverberate in our hearts. While reflecting on the horrible past and the parlous state of our present, we need to brace up to risk further frontal attacks from the ultra-nationalist Sinhala-Buddhist (SB) forces. These tribal forces are led primarily by the Rajapaksas, who are primed to return after the General Election with renewed vigour and vengeance.
A cacophony of campaign slogans emanating from SB fascist fraternity, accentuate their ethno-religious superiority and suzerainty over the Tamil citizenry. Predatory politics fostering rabid racism continues to underpin Sinhala leaders’ winning strategy. Taking a cue from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent tirade decrying Federalism, his acolytes from the saffron brigade, Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero et al, have warned of a “blood bath” if the Tamils opted for a federal state. Rants by Omalpe Sobitha Thero rationalizing the 1983 genocidal attacks are disconcerting. Perhaps, remorseless savages are driven by a craving for re-enacting another “Black July”!
The sordid history of post-1948 Sri Lanka, spanning over 70 years, is interspersed with grisly scenarios of anti-Tamil pogroms. Flexing their majoritarian muscles and being imbued with Mahavamsa myths and medieval traits, SB oligarchs holding the reins of power had mobilized the fascist forces, the saffron brigades and the military mafia, and launched a campaign to politically exterminate the Tamil people – to systematically eliminate the Tamil element from the body politic of the country. For that matter, assimilation is another subtle form of annihilation.
The genocidal campaign has been a work in progress initiated by the putative “Father of the Nation” D. S. Senanayake, with his premier legislative enterprise to decitizenize and disenfranchise our “Malayaha” (upcountry) Tamils. Expounding the “Ten Stages of Genocide”, Dr. Gregory H. Stanton, of “Genocide Watch” has identified “Extermination” as the penultimate stage in the process and explained the theme: (Excerpts):
“Extermination begins, and quickly becomes the mass killing legally called “genocide.” ……..When it is sponsored by the state, the armed forces often work with militias to do the killing.……….. Acts of genocide demonstrate how dehumanized the victims have become. Already dead bodies are dismembered; rape is used as a tool of war to genetically alter and eradicate the other group. Destruction of cultural and religious property is employed to annihilate the group’s existence from history………. Mass rapes of women and girls have become a characteristic of all modern genocides…..”
Orgy of violence
The horrors of “Black July” 1983, featuring an orgy of frenzied violence targeting Tamils, commenced on 24 July – mass killings of several thousands, maiming, rape, sexual savagery, looting, arson and destruction, besides the massacre of Tamil prisoners at Welikada – orchestrated by State agents deploying organized squads of goons and criminal gangs and aided and abetted by the police and security forces. It was not the maiden experience of Tamils suffering organized racist terror. By reason of its enormity, intensity, ripple effects and global reverberations, the ghastly July 1983 experience sticks out. It has been a catalyst for new political developments and far-reaching fallout, including the 30 years ethnic war.
Mass atrocities – Glimpses
Dark days of the mass atrocities suffered by our people from time to time have not passed into distant memory.
* 1956 “Sinhala Only” Bill: On June 5, 1956 Tamil political leaders and volunteers performing peaceful Satyagraha (non-violent protest) on the Galle Face maiden across the (former) Parliament building in protest against the introduction of the “Sinhala Only” Bill in Parliament that day, were beaten up by Sinhala hoodlums led by Junior Minister K.M.P. Rajaratne and Buddhist monks. The Satyagrahis were left bleeding and bruised under the watchful eye of the police. The same mob went on a looting spree in the city targeting Tamil-owned shops.
* Gal Oya Massacre, June 11 to 16, 1956: On the heels of the Galle Face attacks, Sinhala colonists and employees of the Gal Oya Development Board commandeered government vehicles, dynamite and weapons and massacred over 150 Tamils in the Eastern Province. The murderous mob invaded Tamil homes and businesses on a looting spree. Although initially inactive, after 5 days of turmoil, the police and army were able to bring the situation under control.
* Emergency ’58, by Tarzie Vittachi: The book published in UK in the wake of the 1958 anti-Tamil pogrom gives detailed account of the gory events – murder, rape, pillage and arson – carried out during the dark days of May 22 to 29, across the country. The author Tarzie Vittachi, an eminent journalist of international repute who was the Editor of “Ceylon Observer” at that time, had exposed the government’s involvement in the riots which, though won him the Magasaysay Prize in 1959, rendered him persona non grata in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
* August 1977 & May-June, 1981: JR Jayewardene assumed office as Prime Minister in July 1977. Soon after, in August 1977, anti-Tamil pogrom erupted leaving behind a trail of deaths, destruction and devastation. JR and his foot soldiers had tasted blood. In 1981 (May 31 – 2 June), truckloads of police gangs in uniform and in civvies went on a rampage and burnt down chosen targets in Jaffna – the Public Library, with its over 97,000 priceless books and manuscripts, offices of the “Eelanadu” newspaper, TULF headquarters, Jaffna M.P. Yogeswaran’s bungalow. Mercifully, Yogeswaran and his wife had escaped narrowly. Homes and shops across Jaffna town were set alight. The burning continued unchecked for two nights. President JR’s trusted lieutenants, Ministers Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake were present in Jaffna and had personally orchestrated the orgy of terror.
Incidentally, Cyril Mathew’s satanic sermons, delivered in 1970, capture the impulses of the majoritarian psyche: “Oh you Sinhalese!, who are full of patriotism and nationalism, we pray that, just as the disaster you are preparing to leave for the future generations of Sinhalese, by permitting the governments that you have set up in your name to betray Sinhalese rights, one by one, thereby strengthening Tamil power, is very clearly visible to us, it will become as visible to you also. We pray that your political blindness will vanish, and that you may see the truth! Let us unite as Sinhalese to repress the threats of the Tamils!…” (Vide: “Sinhalayage Adisi Hatura” (‘The Unseen enemy of the Sinhalese’), by Cyril Mathew, 1970. Chapter 10 (“The future of the Sinhalese”) – (Reproduced in “The Mathew Doctrine.” –Race & Class, XXVI, 1 (1984). pp.133-4.)
The mainstream media blacked out the brutal attacks on Tamil targets. They did not carry any news on the incidents, lest it may expose the cruel and racist ethos of a sick society to the discerning outside world. Media outlets, owned and operated by “patriotic” barons have always played an active role in promoting Sinhala-Buddhist nationalistic campaign defending majoritarian aggression whilst sanitizing/ suppressing information on atrocities committed against minorities.
Welikada Prison Massacre
(As I was personally associated with these momentous events, perforce, I am inclined to revisit some of them which I had previously shared with Colombo Telegraph readers in these columns).
The Prison massacre was yet another cruel chapter in the Black July chronicle. On Saturday, 16 July 1983 morning I visited prisoners Thangathurai, Kuttimany and Jegan at Welikada prison. Senior lawyer M. Sivasithamparam and I had represented them (among several other political prisoners held at Welikade) in the Colombo High Court. While leaving them, I promised to see them again the week after next. But, that was not to be!
On Saturday, 23 July 1983, I was in Mannar town to attend the TULF party Annual Convention. I was a Politburo member of the TULF. The 1st day sessions were over and 2nd day sessions were scheduled for Sunday, 24 July. TULF Members of Parliament A. Amirthalingam (TULF Secretary), M. Sivasithamparam (President), V. Yogeswaran, R.Sampanthan (now, TNA leader) and Neelan Tiruchelvam and I ( not a M.P. ) were staying at Mannar Rest House. In the early hours of 24th there was a phone call from Jaffna M.P. Yogeswaran’s wife. She conveyed the grim message that a barrage of explosions were heard the previous night and that the army in Jaffna was running amok on a shooting spree. Follow-up calls from different sources, ominously informed us that attacks on Tamil targets were spreading out. Because of menacing military movements in Mannar we were compelled to cancel the Sunday political sessions.
Lawyer Manouri’s Call
On 26 July morning some of us met at (Mannar M.P.) P. Soosaithasan’s residence. There was a call to Sivasithamparam (Siva) from lawyer Manouri Muttetuwegama (Communist M.P. Sarath’s wife and Dr. Colvin’s daughter). She informed Siva that some of his clients in Welikada jail had been killed, the previous day (25th July). She could not give details. Thereupon, Siva telephoned Mr. Jansz, the Deputy Commissioner of Prisons in Colombo and the latter confirmed that there was “some bad news”, but politely declined to give details. Mr. Amirthalingam, who arrived there a bit later, telephoned President Jayewardene. JR confirmed that some Tamil prisoners were killed and added that he was “not going to hush it up” and that the victims’ names would be broadcast over the radio that night.
53 Prisoners butchered
Even as army threats intensified in and around the neighbourhood, we moved out to the house of a party stalwart, V. Kayilayapillai in Iluppakadavai village. On the way we came across a group of local TULF functionaries, including Mannar DDC Chairman Sebamalai, with bleeding injuries. Army men lurking under a culvert had attacked them, damaged their vehicle and left them bleeding. After arranging for them to be taken to hospital, we proceeded to Iluppakkadavai. It was a spartan house of a farmer and there was no electricity. In the evening we all gathered in the front yard, with a battery-operated radio, anxiously awaiting the broadcast. Those were agonizing moments. At 9.00 pm, names of 35 victims, including Kuttimany, Thangathurai and Jegan were announced. The government tried to make out it was a prison riot. Slaughter of further 18 Tamil prisoners on 27 July 1983 said it loud and clear that it was a pre-planned operation, organized and orchestrated by Sinhala prison officers.
They had served alcohol to hardcore criminals in the jail, armed them with machetes, kitchen knives, clubs etc, opened the cells for them and set them upon the Tamil prisoners. In the two days of gory attacks, 53 Tamil prisoners were butchered to death and their bodies were piled up in front of a Buddha statue (within the prison complex). There was a strong contingent of army on guard outside the Welikada jail. Responding to the clamour and commotion inside, they had rushed to the spot and figured out what was going on. Waving at the armed convicts, the soldiers continued to watch the “fun” apathetically. Perhaps, to them, the victims were not humans, but vermin. (BTW, on 25 July 1983 Siva’s house at Colombo-Norris Canal Road was looted and razed to the ground , and my house at Cotta Road, Borella was attacked by a mob led by a saffron-robed monk.)
Indian Foreign Minister calls
Late in the night, a messenger from the local sub-post office showed up with an urgent message: There was an important telephone call waiting for Mr. Amirthalingam. (In that village, only the local post-office cum dwelling had the telephone facility). Taking care not to alert the restive army, we avoided using the vehicle headlight and instead using a torch light, gingerly proceeded to the post office. The call was from ‘India House’ (Indian High Commissioner’s residence) in Colombo. The caller was Indian Foreign Minister Mr. Narasimha Rao. Mr. Rao expressed condolences on the loss of lives and wanted Amirthalingam to travel to India early for “discussion”.
Evidently, feelings were running high in Tamil Nadu over the killings of Tamils and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had dispatched her Foreign Minister with a strong message to President JR Though an impulsive small step that Mrs. Gandhi had taken, it was a watershed moment in Indo-Sri Lanka relations. Mr. Amirthalingam arrived in India in 1st week of August 1983. I had left for India before he did. On my way to Katunayake airport, I passed by the skeletal remains of burnt out houses, business places and charred remains of hundreds of vehicles strewn all over. Mercifully, I did not come across any human remains. Probably, they had already been removed. Nonetheless, the cruel scenes conjured up images of brutal attacks on hundreds of Tamils who were hacked to death or burnt alive.
In 2009, the Vanni war witnessed acts of consummate savagery committed by the government forces in furtherance of their genocidal campaign against Tamils. Tens of thousands of Tamil civilians had perished at the hands of the security forces in the “No-fire Zones” in Mullivaikal. Post-war postures of the SB political class have increasingly become belligerent. If our collective memory serves us right, we have heard them striking quite a conciliatory note in the face of LTTE’s destructive and formidable firepower. Of course, SB leaders had always been impervious to the sober entreaties of our erstwhile leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, but had readily understood and were more responsive to Prabakaran’s lingua franca!