6 December, 2022


Event, Structure, History: July 1983, May 2009

By Pradeep Jeganathan –

Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan

The modern history of Sri Lanka is punctuated by two massive events that we are yet to fully understand; the civilian led anti-Tamil violence of July 1983, and the armed forces led destruction of LTTE in May, 2009. Other events that might claim to be such ruptures in temporality, events that structure both time and society, so that they are embedded in history; April 1971 or December 2004, don’t have the same weight. And weight it what matters, in this process I isolate, ‘Event, Structure, History.’

And yet, these ruptures that punctuate not just our modern history, but punch out its more somber, brutal, chilling episode, that drew us down what seemed to be an ever spiraling vortex of no return, are also so very different. July, 1983 was an event without parallel, a moment of ‘horror,’ that had many Sri Lankans throwing their hands up in disgust. Many of those worked against the tide, but many also went with the flow. People were killed, houses burnt, livelihoods destroyed. However, it was, for most, who remember it to this day, lived through, experienced. Even today, you can in a gathering of older people, Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, ask, what were you doing in July, 1983 and they will remember and reminisce.

Great contributions to the structure of society and history from the event also seemed to come from this lived experience. It happened. Some were killed; many were burnt down to nothing. They left. And we, who always lived in broken, fractured place we call home fighting over the house and garden, moved to other places, not to give up the fight, but to keep at it, long distance. The Sri Lankan Diaspora, no, the Sinhala and Tamil Diaspora, fractured in its own, special, unhappy way, was born. A Diaspora of patriots is not new. Indeed the very word comes from the old biblical idea of the scattering of the tribes of Israel, once mythical place, and now, real state, imagined origin of many more than it is lived home of. Or the Irish of Boston. Such is old, it predates the internet and inexpensive, shared video recordings. It makes for a distributed nation; a small country, that’s a huge challenge.

Perhaps this is a reason we are much less in agreement as what might have even happened, in May 2009, than July 1983. Of course, there are nay Sayers still, of that first event, those who say it never really happened, that no one was killed, they it was faked. Indeed. But I trust they are a small number, and more that their views have little authority. Not so with May 2009. Reasonable people, with considered views, seem to differ so dramatically on what happened and why. War crimes. Geneva. UNHRC. It is of course, no longer a private fight between two people in a bad arraigned marriage, who have to stay together for the sake of children and house and garden. It’s in the court of world opinion. Indeed it is a sign of how far we have traveled on new roads that we cannot map, far away from home.

Perhaps it is also because May 2009 is too complicated to boil down into a simple, ‘we did this that to them.’ It wasn’t 1983; it was the end point of one of the most complex, bitter and sophisticated wars the world as ever lived through. And so, yes, it would be hard to understand, let alone arrive at the shared understanding of it. And yet, we have not tried. I think this is where we have failed, failed ourselves and failed our children, failed our nation, and our country, and what left of it. We have not tried, to simply ask those who were there, to speak of what they remember. Not that they don’t remember of course. They do. But no one wants to listen. So the biggest difference between July 1983 and May 2009, is that the second exists in video on YouTube, and first really doesn’t. And it is the first, that was the simple event, indeed, it could be a 30min documentary. The second with all its complexity, is now understood by many, who were not there, who didn’t live through it, as a simple moral story of evil vs. good. Their ‘May, 2009’ is on YouTube; it’s a film. It is as if, July 1983 went to the movies, and came out a sequel. Yes, it is that simple and that convoluted.
I don’t know when we will get out of this mess we’ve made of things. But I do know that someday, we will be able to hear through the competing, contradictory, claims and counter claims of ‘I patriot, you terrorist,’ the unbearably sad, unspoken lament of our collective melancholia, for all we have lost and cannot name.

You can read Dr.Pradeep Jeganathan‘s wrtings @ www.pjeganathan.org

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Latest comments

  • 0

    You can understand the Sinhalese oblivion by the support it received from the international communinity:the obvious help from China and the still latent, hidden complicity of India.
    Second, the Tamil diaspora is very reluctant to distinguish between the Tamil nationalism and its aspirations, from the atrocities committed by the LTTE.
    This led to the third pole. When we are talking of war crimes, we are not talking of Tamil Eelam. In the first place we are talking of a state that is uncapable of living under a common roof of civil and humanitarian principles. The victims in 2009 were Tamils, in the future they could be Muslims.
    In 2009 it was a massacre, a bloody massacre of people: old, young, women, man, everybody.This must not have been.

  • 0

    Nice point that July 1983 should be remembered alongside May 2009!
    Please rally AGAINST Gota the white van goon’s latest pet project to build a Prison Museum! And FOR a Museum for cultural diversity and reconciliation in Lanka.

  • 0

    This will not be solved without B52s over Temple Trees

  • 0

    Mr Pradeep Jeganathan! From where did you find out that the 1983 riots was Civilian led?
    There are over whelming evidences and reports by journalists who investigated found out the it was JR led Govt. atrocity against it’s own people.
    Further, the head of the combine forces challenged the defenceless civilians at the height of the riots; “If you want war, Let’s have it. If you want peace, lets have peace”.
    2009 war was inevitable, but the fault of the Govt was that it massacre it’s own defenceless civilians with the full knowledge that they have been held as human shield by the terrorists.
    There was no hurry as the terrorists were captivated. Trapped, overwhelmed by Land,sea & Air power with modern warfare and equipments. Ample time & opportunity to redeem the captured Sri Lankans Civilians.
    When the West & India being our partners in eliminating the LTTE, offered help to save the trapped Sri Lankans, we accused them of taking sides with terrorists and delaying our Victory. That was most irresponsible War Crime of modern era.

    • 0

      Yes, indeed 1983 was a pogrom i.e. state sponsored and supported violence and murder by Ministers like Cyril Mathew and his thugs at the port authority.
      The pogrom snowballed into a riot along various social fault lines..
      Also, there were victims of the pogrom, riots and war from all communities, although the Tamil community had by far the highest death toll.
      There should a MEMORIAL for the VICTIMS of 1983. There are too many monuments and sculptures to boast about war violence and victory in Sri Lanka by the Sinhala state and armed forces and too little to mark the suffering of victims and say NEVER AGAIN.. Indeed, Gota goon will soon have museum for white vans and prisons!

  • 0

    As the previous comment said, the 1983 violence was not civilian led. It was perpetrated by the JRJ government. I still remember where I was on that day.
    A lot of people died in 2009 but to lay the entire blame on the government is ludicrous. War is brutal. War is inhumane. Collateral damage is inevitable. The democratically elected government, however flawed, has a right to protect its citizens. Everyone seems to ignore the fact that the majority of the citizens got their right to life back. Its time to stop communal politics. None of the politicians or leaders care about “citizen average” regardless of ethnicity. They have nothing to offer their people.

  • 0

    Dr Pardeep Jegahathan,your point of view base on as Tamil person.
    Yes 1983 riots aginst Tamils people had been responsiblity by UNP-JRJ ruling power click; NOT BY CIVILIAN ORINTED RAITOS AGAINST TAMIL PEOPLE IN SOUTH.
    Since 1983 LTTE war crimes are people of Island had been no accountbality by LTTE terrorist outfit.
    2009 May was final battle between LTTE army and Govt of Security forces.Is face to face battle between TWO ARMIES, NO WAR CRIME HAD BEEN COMMITTED BY SECURITY FORCES OF SRI LANKA.
    Dr Jegatahtan your interpertion of historcial incidenace of 2009 May by as Tamil person pre-judice verdit of judgement.Its against TRUTH OF THE MODERN HISTORY OF SRI LANKA.

  • 0

    How old was Pradeep in July 1983?
    Ellison is spot on and so many others too.

    I was in Colombo and a victim as well as a target, of the GOSL and not the real thugs…
    It was well planned and executed by the GOSL and JR, Premadasa, Lalith and Gamini were involved and to a lesser extent Cyril Mathew which might be a big surprise to many.

    The thugs were brought from outside, as well as the South by train, and were also armed with voters register. So they knew which house to enter, loot, molest and attack/burn.

    The trains stopped in Dehewela and Wellawatte. Sometimes not at the station but before the station near Ramakrishna mission. Top of the road was former SLFP Minister Chelliah Kumarasuriyar’s house. He was assaulted mercilessly in public and nearly killed on Galled road where his big house was located. House was thrashed and burnt. My father had a retail store for 30 years nearby which was also burnt for the 3 rd and last time…

    One of My offices was ransacked and trucks and machinery burnt. The Ceylinco House office was intact as the building had security and I shared the floor with the Indo-Suez bank in the first floor…

    I can write a book on the pre riots and post riots….

    3,333 Tamils were murdered, some brutally and mercilessly, some molested and raped before death. Some burnt alive including a very good friend of mine from Pattah. Mr. Sangarasivam the GM for the famous Shanmugam brothers, who themselves were murdered in broad day light in Pettah by gunmen mafia style in 1986. Murderers never found. What a bloody freaking surprise in Sri Lanka?

    So Pradeep please go and do your research at the right Bath Kadde!!!
    You are free to contact me for details if you would like.. Man, We know history because we lived through it and part of it..
    Not rerading teh Veerakesari, or Raavya, or Mahinda Chintana or these new breed of racist-chauvinist Sinhala editors who have only read the Mahavamsa and write like idiots, thinking that they are pundits…

    We have one character in the Tamil side too who claims to be connected to the royalty and the first Eelamist in 1942… OMG!!!!

  • 0

    As for 2009 war crimes there was no ambiguity who was responsible and how people died and when.

    There are 310,000 eyewitnesses, as well as tens of thousands of soldiers..

    Gotabaya and Fonseka carried out the well planned attacks and although Fonseka was in China for ten days in May he exactly knew what went on and what weaponry was used… The various army, navy and air force commanders are also part of the guilty lot for war crimes but most of them will go unpunished.

    Not the 4 US citizens.

    Using heavy artillery on civilians, hospitals, homes, as well as chemical weapons, phosphorous bombs, and cluster bombs are clear war crimes. There are satellite photos as I have said for the last 3 years being the founder of Tamils For Justice,(2007) and a few days ago, Groundviews published some of the photos.

    US military/CIA also had photos, and US embassy had them for certain in March 2009. So they and EU were fully aware of the civilian loses although they initially argued that there was only 60,000 civilians stuck.

    There is 1000% more evidence and live testimony from witnesses available for a real investigations and trial, and Sinhala soldiers phone cameras. lol.

    Furthermore, There are records of the landmines imported by the army between 2002-2009. If they have not used any, the entire quantity would be in stock with them?? LMAO.. Freaking lying Morons..

    Fonseka and Gotabaya have to rewrite the history of the army records as well, on this subject and when they lie they get caught badly… Fonseka should give up bloody politics and power games and focus on redeeming his soul.. Let him not start washing his hands in the Mahaweli as the whole river will turn red and the farmers cannot use the water for farming….

    Let him wash his hands with Gota and the brothers in the Port of Hambantota…Since nobody is using the $3 Billion dollar port, it won’t matter if the water turns red…lol..

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