On July 7th, we saw on social media postings, a team of police officers drag a Buddhist Priest and take him into custody; a woman wearing a mask was kicked and dragged into a van by a contingent of police officers as she stepped out of court after posting bail. According to reports, the police routinely took dissidents to distant locations to be “quarantined”, to silence voices of dissent. The next day Basil Rajapakse took oaths as the Minister of Finance of Sri Lanka, thus strengthening the Rajapakse clan’s dynasty in Sri Lankan politics.
Social media in Sri Lanka is ripe with video blogs, Facebook posts, and online commentaries, leveling scathing attacks on the current administration. However, many believe the government is hesitant to charge these dissenters, fearing it might further jeopardise the E.U. government’s GSP+ policy towards Sri Lanka.
Recently, one of these commentators, a young woman, Achala Seneviratne, a human rights lawyer, called July 7th. “Black July”!!
I have news for Ms. Seneviratne – the July 7th event she refers to is a picnic in Vihara Mahadevi park compared to the July 1983 massacre of the Tamils appropriately labeled “black July.” in Sri Lanka’s history.
In July 1983, in a skirmish between the military and Tamil separatists in the North that killed seventeen soldiers, President J.R. Jayawardene, by his deliberate inaction for three days, let goons attack Tamils, burn down their houses and businesses.
J.R. Jayewardene made his position clear:
“I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people… now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion… the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.” – President J.R. Jayewardene, Daily Telegraph, July 1983
“Mobs of Sinhala youth rampaged through the streets, ransacking homes, shops and offices, looting them and setting them ablaze, as they sought out members of the Tamil ethnic minority.” – London Daily Telegraph July 26th, 1983
As a result, over 4,000 innocent Tamils were tortured and brutally killed. The July 1983 event caused a mass exodus of Tamils to abandon their homeland and settle down in Canada, The U.S., Australia, and Europe. Thus, July ’83 is the “Black July.” that contributed to the beginning of the civil war that lasted some thirty years.
I see a sudden awareness among the Sinhalese of the suffering of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka over the past seventy years. This awareness is happening at the grassroots level in Sri Lanka; I see an awakening of consciousness among the Sinhala diaspora scattered worldwide.
In Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, and other major cities, zoom meetings and socially distanced community gatherings of Sri Lankans of both ethnicities speak out about the injustices meted out to the Tamils over the years. This open dialogue has come about because of the current situation in Sri Lanka, namely: the Covid-19 crisis, the state of bankruptcy of the Sri Lankan treasury, human and civil rights violations by the government, increasing military infiltration into civil administration, use of police to quell dissent and muffle social and other media, harmful environmental policies, complete breakdown of law and order, lack of independence of the judiciary, etc.
In meetings I attended, my Sinhala brethren, who in the past have taken a nationalist stance of Sinhala nationhood for Sri Lanka, now speak of the ill-fated “Sinhala Only.” policy introduced by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Sunethra, S.W.R.D.’s daughter, came out recently, calling her father’s Sinhala Only policy “disastrous.”
Recently two young Tamil diaspora entrepreneurs speaking in fluent Sinhala gave interviews in local media, claiming they, along with a group of Tamil diaspora businessmen, presumably the ones who fled the country in July 1983, are ready to come to the aid of Sri Lanka and bail out the country from its present financial crisis.
Venerable Dambara Amila Thero has been appealing for communal harmony directed at the Sinhala Buddhist community, lamenting that they should stop thinking about Sri Lanka as a Sinhala Buddhist nation and started embracing Tamils Muslims and ethnic minorities – as fellow citizens of the nation of Sri Lanka.
Now that the magician, the mythical Basil Rajapaksa, has appeared with his magic wand to perform miracles on the financial front, all eyes will be on him, the new Finance Minister. But, what kind of magic will he perform that highly educated, eminently qualified, and experienced economics and Finance professionals have not been able to achieve thus far?
The Rajapaksas have ruined the economy since they took control of the administration in 2005. Rampant corruption, nepotism, and complete disregard for the rule of law have driven the economy to the ground, currently on life support. They were riding on the war victory buoyancy, siphoning off international aid, and misappropriating the L.T.T.E. treasury; Rajapaksas built an empire onto themselves. First, they stashed their loot in California, Texas, and elsewhere. Then, to keep the masses happy, they created vanity projects such as the Port in Hambantota, a dormant airport in Mattala, with exorbitantly priced loans from China, thus strapping the nation in crippling debt. The port city project is the latest in the Rajapaksa schemes to enrich themselves by entrapping the country into further debt and becoming victims of China’s stranglehold. These actions of the Rajapaksas on the economic front have made Sri Lanka a high-risk country in the eyes of the major credit rating agencies. Therefore, I.M.F., the last resort lender, will place several restrictive conditions before any bailout for Sri Lanka.
The writing is on the wall. The Rajapaksas will not want a repeat of the rude shock they experienced in 2015 when an alliance of Wickremesinghe-Sirisena ousted them. The recently increased arrests of media personnel, restrictions on protests and strikes, and military personnel in civil administration all point to an impending emergency declaration that will give President Gotabaya Rajapaksa unlimited powers.
I wish July 1983 remains “Black July” in the annals of the history of Sri Lanka, and July 2021 or any other July should not earn that dubious distinction.
Given the degree of current dissent among the citizens and the ruthless nature of the Rajapaksas, and the brutality of their means to justify their end – one cannot be sure.