By Lionel Bopage –
Ayubowan, Vanakkam, Assalamu alaikum – Greetings to all.
My name is Lionel Bopage, one of the co-convenors of the Voice for Democracy in Sri Lanka International Collective and President of the Australian Advocacy for Good Governance in Sri Lanka. I welcome all of you who have joined us via Zoom, Facebook and YouTube.
This webinar is being conducted from the traditional lands of the First Nations people – the Wurundjeri of the Kulin Nation – who are the Traditional Custodians of this land. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging, and the Elders of other communities.
Before I go to the subject matter of the webinar, let me express our solidarity and deepest respects and admiration for the peaceful protestors in Sri Lanka who are calling for a holistic system change. They have been twice subjected to brutal attacks. Once, on last May 9 by the Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thugs; and day before yesterday, by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s thugs, allegedly by the ex-servicemen of Rakna Lanka Security Company affiliated with Nissanka Senadhipathi’s Avant Garde Maritime Services. These ex-servicemen are said to have been dressed up as an Air Force unit. By doing this, Ranil has started the inexorable process that will lead his regime to the dustbin of history. We have a direct question: Who directed those midnight attacks and under whose orders? Did those orders come from Ranil Wickremesinghe? Were ex-servicemen used as paramilitaries, as was done in the 1988-89 period?
Protest movements have existed throughout the world whenever people were oppressed. This month is known as Black July because of the brutal killings and devastations done by J R Jayawardena’s regime in 1983, in which Ranil Wickremesinghe played a critical role. Now Ranil Wickremesinghe has made the month of July even darker by attacking peaceful protestors. We strongly condemn the inhumane and atrocious attack on the protestors in Galle Face Green by the security forces and Ranil’s thugs, less than 24 hours before he was appointed President.
The so-called “democratic leader” took away the democratic right to freedom of expression and freedom to peaceful protest. Both local and international journalists and social media activists were attacked and their equipment was damaged – all this was fully broadcast over the international media. Already many in the international community including the United Nations have condemned such attacks. How can such an undemocratic, violent regime be supported by anybody in the diaspora? It is a legitimate question the international community and the expatriates needs to ponder.
Nevertheless, we wish the people and the protest movement in Sri Lanka all the best in achieving their objective of building a better and a fairer society.
Friends! We cannot have any realistic hope of overcoming the present crisis in Sri Lanka unless we critically look at the issues that led our society into it. The economic issues are inseparable from the social and governance problems that underlie the crisis. Also crucial is the need for genuine reconciliation between communities. The July 83 pogrom was the culmination of a series of increasingly violent riots against the Tamils. These were issues that were deliberately created for sustaining the interests and privileges of the ruling elite since 1948. The Parliamentary Elections Act of 1949 disfranchised almost a million Tamil estate workers and served as a harbinger of a unitarist authoritarian state.
The first riot targeting Tamils took place in 1956 in Gal Oya, with 150 reported dead. Then came the 1958 riots in which around 300 were killed, mostly Tamils. With the riots against Tamils becoming more repetitive, the ethnic relations became increasingly inflamed. In 1963, 1977, 1981 and1983, many hundreds of Tamils tortured and killed, thousands of their properties looted and set on fire, and many Tamil women were raped. In each instance, the perpetrators and their political backers were granted impunity for their crimes by the increasingly authoritarian, corrupt and unaccountable political elite, who used the poor as scapegoats for their felonies.
At the time of the July 1983 pogrom, I was General Secretary of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). I was helping out our publications at ‘Shakthi’ Press at Kohilawatta. I did not have a clue as to what was going on. I proceeded to the party head office and then home in Kadawatha. On my way, I witnessed many properties were being set ablaze, some have already been gutted. Some groups were assaulting and torturing innocent individuals. Security forces on the streets did not try to prevent violence or arson attacks. The next day, the guardian angels of the law were strangely absent while armed mobs, equipped with voting lists, were ferried frequently by government lorries. They went systematically to the households and shops owned by Tamils in Colombo, many of whom had voted for the UNP government that was in power. The mobs stole their possessions, money and jewellery, and burnt the houses of any Tamil they knew of, in many cases incinerating or beating the people to death.
Around 150,000 fled from the South to the North and Tamil Nadu. Scapegoats were conveniently found, and the JVP, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) and the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) were proscribed. On news media, several leaders of the JVP including myself were named as ‘wanted’ as the masterminds behind the riots. In early August, I was detained under Emergency Regulations based on an order made by the Colonel C A Dharmapala, the then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence.
Was the ambush by the LTTE of a patrol of Sinhalese troops that killed 13 soldiers the catalyst for the pogrom? The army retaliated by killing around sixty civilians that nobody talked about and no investigations were ever held. The dead bodies of the Sinhalese soldiers were publicly displayed in Colombo with the intention of initiating the riot. I insisted that the CID should arrest the Ministers, Buddhist monks and others who according to the information I had were responsible and/or led the riots.
Detained with me were many comrades, some of whom you may know. Dr Nihal Abeysinghe, the current General Secretary of the National People’s Power (NPP), comrade Vijitha Ranaweera, former JVP MP for Tangalle and Prof Athula Sumathipala. The investigation of the CID concluded that the JVP was not involved in the July 1983 riots. With no success in their effort to get my support for the regime, I was detained and kept incommunicado.
My wife, Chitra filed an application for quashing detention orders and Habeas Corpus directing that I be produced before the Court of Appeal. I need to express my gratitude to late Mr Nimal Senanayake, the then President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and his team of lawyers who appeared for me pro bono.
The unbelievably horrifying Sinhala fanaticism drew more and more Tamil youth to the LTTE. After the riots, an amendment to the Constitution enacted in August 1983 outlawed the advocacy of separatism. As a result, all TULF MPs were expelled from Parliament. This autocratic move of the Jayawardene regime not only deprived Tamils of their democratic right to political representation but reinforced the views of the Tamil youth that the only way forward was an all-out armed struggle for a separate state. We are still living with the wounds of this deadly legacy.
That is why this webinar seeks to explore the context and history of the July 1983 anti-Tamil Pogrom, its impact on the subsequent violent episodes in Sri Lanka, and its inherent negative influence on the country’s economy.
*Introductory remarks Dr. Lionel Bopage made last evening at the webinar “July 1983 Riot: A spontaneous racial outburst or planned pogrom or both?”