By Rasika Jayakody –
Thirty years ago, there was a July that turned out to be black. The blackness of that July was made up of discriminate and indiscriminate violence against Tamil civilians, state-sponsored terrorism coupled with the inaction of armed forced, impunity and immunity seamlessly enjoyed by goons and killer squads all over the country etc. Reasons, consequences, ramifications and repercussions of the infamous black July have been discussed over and over again for the last three decades with great fervour and enthusiasm. Good!
Some argued the ‘Black July’ was a well-orchestrated plan while some claimed it occurred on the spur of the moment. The general perception was that the Jayawardena regime triggered the anti-Tamil violence by arranging the funeral of the 13 soldiers at the General Cemetery, Borella, in the vicinity of President J.R. Jayawardena’s residence. However, there is a flip side to this argument. Had the government sent the dead bodies to the hometowns of the slain soldiers, it would have taken the risk of anti-Tamil riots in thirteen different parts of the country. Instead, the UNP government decided to hold the funeral ceremony at the heart of the capital city of Colombo, which was one of the safest areas during the previous anti-Tamil incidents and the 1971 JVP insurgency. Nevertheless, things didn’t quite work that way. Anti-Tamil riots erupted in Colombo and spread across the country. But this does not mean that the Jayawardena regime should be exonerated for not being able to bring the anti-Tamil violence to a halt. Moreover, some of its ministers and some members of the armed forces went on to sponsor it, overtly and covertly. President J.R. Jayawardena, in my view, went by the mood of the moment.
The Black July, however, brought victory only to one man i.e., Velupillai Prabhakaran, who sparked off the anti-Tamil violence by killing 13 Army soldiers in Thinnaveli, Jaffna. The Black July brought him money, arms, fame, cannon fodder and legitimacy in the eyes of some. That transformed the LTTE from a hit-and-run military group to an organized guerrilla army. More than anyone, Prabhakaran knew the benefits he reaped from the ‘Black July’ in 1983 and tried his best, again and again, to trigger a similar pogrom at the expense of the Tamils who lived outside the Northern Province.
Two years after the Black July Prabhakaran carried out a massive attack on civilians in Anuradhapura which claimed the lives of 146 Buddhist monks and devotees. It was the first time Sri Lanka experienced a gruesome terrorist attack of that nature against civilians. The chillingly brutal attack, launched on May 14, 1985, took everyone by surprise. The LTTE cadres hijacked a bus and entered the main bus station, opening fire indiscriminately at civilians who had no clue of what was going on! Then they stormed the Sri Maha Bodhi shrine, located at the heart of the Anuradhapura city, and gunned down Buddhist pilgrims and monks who were worshiping inside the Buddhist shrine.
The sole purpose behind the attack was obvious. Velupillai Prabhakaran wanted a similar carnage in Colombo and its outskirts where a sizable proportion of Tamils were still living. Any pogrom similar to that of July 1983 would have further buttressed Prabhakaran’s notion that the Tamils in Sri Lanka had no alternative other than secession. It would have drawn him more money, more arms, more resources and more cannon fodder. But, the carnage which took place at the heart of a sacred city did not provoke the Sinhalese into a similar riot. Although Prabhakaran was able to accomplish the numerical target of the attack, its intended denouement was not achieved because the Sinhalese, as a community, acted with great self-restraint.
From 1985 to 2009, until the LTTE heaved the last breath, it never failed to display sheer brutality whenever they carried out an attack outside the battle-field targeting civilians in an indiscriminate manner. Bomb blasts targeting Dalada Maligawa (one of the most sacred sites of Buddhists all over the world), Fort Railway Station, Central Bank, public transport services, tourist hotels and crowded roads speak volumes of the sheer brutality unleashed by the LTTE on civilians. Even during ceasefire times, the LTTE never bothered to stop the activities of black tigers (the suicide squad) and the Pistol Wing which was instrumental in hunting down Army Intelligence Unit officers during the 2002-2004 ceasefire period. One should be mindful of the fact that each attack provided potential flashpoints for the Sinhalese to take revenge from ordinary Tamils who were living outside the so called “Tamil homeland” of the North and East. But that never happened!
The LTTE, needless to say, was gambling with the lives of ordinary Tamils. The Tigers desperately needed another ‘Black July’ and were constantly attempting to elicit one. But the Sinhalese, much to their disappointment, acted with prudence and sensibility. Even when the heads of state, presidential candidates, senior cabinet ministers and other political leaders were targeted by the LTTE, at times successfully and at times unsuccessfully, not a single Tamil shop in Colombo was attacked by mobs. In the face of such adversities, Tamils living outside the LTTE held areas were guarded and protected by the Sinhalese.
It is true that the Sinhalese, as a community, should accept the responsibility for the ‘Black July’ in 1983. At the same time, they should be honoured for their commitment to prevent the repetition of any such incident for nearly three decades, despite constant provocations by the LTTE. If the Sinhalese are responsible for one, they are also responsible for preventing 200 odd anti-Tamil pogroms over a period of three decades. That is the reality to which the so called critics of the “Black July” are still oblivious. Had it not been for the great deal of self-restraint exercised by the Sinhalese in the aftermath of the 1983 violence, the black July would have been blacker and blacker vis-à-vis the LTTE’s brutality.
*Rasika Jayakody is a Sri Lankan journalist who may be contacted at email@example.com