By Imtiyaz Razak –
The incident in 1983, known as Black July, is particularly well documented. Approximately two thousand Tamils were killed in July/August 1983 by Sinhalese mobs in an attempt to begin genocide (or at least ethnic cleansing) of the Tamils. Human Right Watch documented the cruelty of the 1983 “state sponsored” Sinhalese riots. “Many neighborhoods were destroyed and nearly 100,000 Tamils in Colombo were displaced. Evidence suggested government collusion in the riots.”
Further, an eye witness who rescued a Tamil employee of the state media company-Lake House described the cruelty of the day:
Well organized gangs that had the blessings of powerful Government politicians mainly from the city of Colombo began their orgy of murder, looting and arson in broad daylight while the Police and the Armed Forces appeared to be helpless. I remember taking a vehicle out of Lake House to Wattala, with my colleagues also taking a Tamil accountant at Lake House, Mr. Edward, who also lived in Wattala. Five colleagues and the driver were all Sinhalese and we kept Mr. Edward between us in the middle of the vehicle and at each 100 meters or so gangs armed with clubs, swords and knives stopped each vehicle and inspected them to see whether any passenger or driver was a Tamil. Smoke filled the streets of Colombo and while we were leaving Lake House a flourishing textile shop, Sarathas was being looted while the armed forces and police were turning a blind eye to the crime.
With respect to the state’s role behind the violence, the witness reported:
…most notable matter that was observed was that the gangs carried official Householders Lists and stopped their vehicles in front of the homes or offices of the Tamil people. If the UNP Government of JR Jayewardene had not provided them with those official documents, how could the gangs have had access to them? It meant two things. The Government deliberately delayed the burial of the corpses of the soldiers on July 24 to plan an attack on the Tamil people in Colombo and the suburbs to provide their own goons with documents to make sure that only Tamils were attacked. Any other political party or group could not have managed both these things without State power.
“Neither the Sinhala ruling elite nor state institutions openly condemned or took any meaningful immediate measures to prevent the violence against the Tamil civilians from spreading to the other parts of the island from Colombo. Instead JR Jayewardene, then President of Sri Lanka, referred to the mobs as a “mass movement by the generality of the Sinhalese people” and praised the mobs as heroes of the Sinhalese people. Jayewardene’s complicity was reflected in the interview he gave to Ian Ward, a British journalist, prior to the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983:
I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) people now. Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us. The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… really, if I starve the Tamils, Sinhala people will be happy.
The Sinhalese atrocities against the Tamils continued unabated even after the notorious ethnic violence in 1983. According to Human Rights Watch, after 1983, tens of thousands of people ended their life in prison cell. Several studies accuse Sinhala politicians of institutionalized anti-Tamil violence and atrocities. S.J. Tambiah reported that the Sinhalese ruling elites hired some Sinhalese to butcher the Tamils.
The evidence suggests that the Sinhalese who were hired by local Sinhala politicians to kill the Tamils are deprived and they did it for some economic benefits. It is evident that the violence and ethnocentric policies of the Sinhala ruling elites contributed to the growth of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. Tamil moderate parties, such as the Federal Party (FP) led by skillful politicians such as SJV Chelvanayakam, articulated frustration among common Tamil people into a ‘defensive nationalism’ with peaceful protests. However, Sinhalese collective, competitive chauvinism responded violently to the Tamil moderates. A former Premier of Sri Lanka noted during his visit to the United States, that “the Tamils tried peaceful protests which soon degenerated into violence. With the underlying grievances being unattended the stage was set for terrorists groups to emerge.” This background helps us to understand the birth of violent Tamil movements, particularly the LTTE, toward the end of the 1970s.
The LTTE eventually resorted to violence to secure a separate state, called Eelam. The LTTE claimed that they are a product of the Sinhala violence and chauvinism, and hold the belief that Tamils will not win any justice from the Sinhala polity. Many ordinary Tamils began to share similar sentiments after they became targets of Sri Lanka police and military retaliation against the LTTE’s attacks on the state and its institutions. The state justified violence against the Tamils in the name of protecting territorial integrity of the island. Yet, the violent actions of Sri Lanka forces against the Tamils further radicalized the average Tamils, thus providing a fertile opportunity for the ethnic Tamil recruitment to fight against the state. Therefore, the Tamil separatist movement was, “Sinhalese-inspired.”
The systematic growth of the LTTE showed that when a particular community feels is being continuously terrorized by the dominant ethnic/religious or political group, many will join a politico-military movement to resist the oppression and violence of the persecutors. The LTTE could have silenced their guns, but Sri Lanka’s Sinala-Buddhist politicians and the state should embrace better ways to address the roots of the Tamil nationalism. Such measures may help to address the concerns of Sri Lanka Muslims so April 21 style horrible terrorist attacks could be avoided.
*Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz teaches courses related ethnic conflict, and China. His research interests examine ethno-religious conflicts in Asia. He is the author of several journal articles on ethnic conflict and political violence. The Journal of Asian and African Studies has accepted his research paper on the Easter Sunday Attack and it will carry Dr. Imtiyaz’ most recent research paper on Sri Lanka Muslims in its fall issue. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets regularly on Sri Lankan ethno-religious and political violence. Dr. Imtiyaz tweets @imtiyazpeace