By Mohamed Harees –
‘Violence is a disease, a disease that corrupts all who use it regardless of the cause’ ~ Christopher Lynn Hedges-Author, Journalist and Activist
Known as Black July, Anti-Tamil violence of July 1983 in Sri Lanka, was a watershed in its’ contemporary history, which altered the course of ethnic tensions in the country. The riots also marked a decisive shift in the course of ethnic politics in the country when non-violent approaches gave way to Tamil militancy which ultimately led to a 30 year old bloody war, economic collapse and international outcries about the abject failure of the government to protect minorities. L. Piyadasa or CR Hensman in his book “Sri Lanka” The Holocaust and After”, described the July 1983 violence as a pogrom and made a solid case against the JRJ Regime for it. It was in-fact not a spontaneous riot but a planned pogrom indeed; anti – Tamil violence became institutionalised and legitimised as an integral component of the war which later solidified into ‘anti-other’ State attitudes. The Black July riots were indeed well-planned and organized (Yogasundram 2006:310).
A. J. Wilson wrote about our insensitive Head of State at that time, “President Jayewardene was unequal to the task. At first he seemed numbed and unable to confront the crisis, but he then proceeded from blunder to blunder. He appeared on television on 26 July 1983 with the purpose of assuaging the fears and hysteria of the Sinhalese people, but he did not utter a word of regret to the large number of Tamils who had suffered from Sinhalese thuggery masked by nationalist zeal.” His senior ministers were no different. Minister Gamini Dissanayake warned Tamils that it would require 14 hours for Indian troops to come and rescue them but the Sinhalese could destroy them in 14 minutes if they wanted to. Lalith Athulathmudali felt sorry that people had to queue up again for essentials as a result of the violence, while Minister Ronnie de Mel gave a lecture in history about Sena and Guttiga. Cyril Mathew, who was widely thought to be the brain behind these racist attacks chose to raise the Indian bogey, seeing an alien hand behind the July 83 violence, which was clearly refuted by Minister Thondaman, accusing elements inside or close to the Govt to be responsible.
Government involvement in this mass uprising was highly suspected. Certain elements of the government in power were suspected of issuing copies of voters’ lists to the mobs. In some instances, it is believed that the mobs were dropped off at particular points in vehicles owned by government establishments. Many reports indicate that certain members of the armed forces stood by and watched while much of the looting and arson was taking place (Meyer 2001:121-2). In some instances, security forces even took part in the riots. An element of pre-meditation was also noted, as in the case of the prison riots that broke out on July 25 which targeted the Tami inmates, and it was suspected that prison guards may have provided the Sinhalese inmates with tools to break in to the Tamil ward. Amnesty International would later note that prison authorities had assisted the rioters at the Welikade prison (Amnesty International 1984:301).
JRJ indirectly blamed the Sinhala people by saying it was a natural reaction. However, it is wrong to blame the whole Sinhala people for the dark events of Black July 83; they need not assume collective guilt for this tragedy as it was no means a mass uprising of the entire Sinhala race against Tamils. As a matter of fact, the majority of the Sinhala people were against what happened then, and also protected and saved Tamils often at great personal risk. However, the critics still blame the overall silence of the majority community in not holding the rulers to account for failing to protect the Tamils from the Sinhala well-organized mobs, and allowing the tragic consequences of 1983 to follow while leaving fundamental problems facing the country and the communities remain beneath the surface, unresolved.
The 1983 massacres in Sri Lanka are thus best understood within the context of the post-independent state of affairs that prevailed in the country at that time. Post independence Sri Lanka also brought in several official dispositions that gave preference to the Sinhalese majority. Many of the irrigation projects, such as the Gal Oya, Kantale and Mahaweli, involved the colonization of Tamil lands in the north and the east by the Sinhalese of the south. The government also began to closely monitor all media coverage on the recent developments in the country. On July 2, 1983, the government proceeded to close down two leading Tamil newspapers in Jaffna, the Saturday Review and Suthantiran (Freedom), whose editor Mr. Kovai Mahesan had been detained under emergency regulations. It is within the backdrop of these events that the riots of July 1983 should be understood, behind the seemingly spontaneous eruption of inter-communal hatred lay ominous warning signs which went unheeded by State authorities. Whatever the explanation, the immediate and long-term consequences of the 1983 riots have had devastating effects on the country, (The Massacres in Sri Lanka during the Black July riots of 1983- Pavey Eleanor 2008)
As the July 1983 anti–Tamil pogrom is fading into distant memory, senior journalist DBS Jeyaraj correctly cautioned, in his column in 2010, that ‘the inherent danger in the pogrom of July 1983 being forgotten is that it may very well happen again. As the truism goes “those who do not remember the lessons of history are condemned to relive it again. Arguably had the memory of 1958 anti – Tamil violence been frequently re-visited the incidents of 1977 and 1983 may not have recurred…The ugly head of neo-fascism masquerading as patriotism is being raised. The Tamil people in particular and the minorities in general are being pilloried as “aliens” and “visitors”. The old terror of registering Tamils in Colombo has re-commenced despite the defeat of “terrorism”. ..The purveyors of racial hatred are spreading their evil gospel and irresponsible sections of the media are peddling it regularly. Communalist propaganda in the garb of pseudo nationalism is gaining ground’. This was evidently seen in the Post-war era.
What happened in 2009, after the defeat of the Tigers militarily showed that Sri Lanka demonstrated that it lacked the political will to change the course of history or address serious allegations of abuse or to end impunity .It did not have the courage to identify government personnel alleged to be responsible for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law allegedly committed in the final stages of the armed conflict, let alone initiate steps necessary to ensure that justice is served. Further, Postwar govts were not interested in offering a long term vision or solutions to make Sri Lanka an inclusive one, except offering lip service. This allowed the sheer depth of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian influences in statecraft to begin to re-surface in the Post-war period. With an aura of euphoria, triumphalism and deceived by the people’s misplaced love for a ‘saviour’, which overtook sanity and long-sightedness, Mahinda Rajapaksa considered himself as the uncrowned king of Sri Lanka and the champion of Sinhala Buddhist people, alienating the minorities in the process. Even most recommendations of the ad-hoc special commission (LLRC) MR established, ostensibly to investigate and address wrongdoing, which stood exposed as a ruse to deflect international pressure and silence internal critics, were not implemented.
Post-war discourses produced fresh tensions and fault lines, thus starting off another war- this time a religious one, thereby fostering an environment in which attacks on religious minorities, including Muslims and Christians, took place with impunity. Muslims particularly became the next target of the racist lobbies with visible support from the higher ups in MR government. Many civic bodies blamed the government and JHU for providing the fuel and energy to these anti-Muslim outfits such as BBS, Ravana Balaya and others to operate without fear or sanction. It was an open secret that Gotabaya became the godfather of the BBS and the local face of Buddhist terror Ven Gnanasara. Further, whether anti-Halal or Anti-hijab campaign or spreading canards about ‘Muslim conspiracies’ to reduce the growth rate of the majority Sinhalese and ‘Muslim expansionism’, the campaign was well-organized and well-oiled and saw parallels with Wirathu’s anti-Muslim( 969) campaign and/or global Islamophobia which cannot be launched without the support of the government higher-ups.
This virulent hate led to the infamous Aluthgama anti-Muslim violence carried out under the cover of curfew and darkness as well as news censorship, after the fiery hate speech of Ven.Gananassra. Thankfully, due to committed independent journalists using social media, the government sponsored plot stood exposed. It was an open secret that Gota’s man DIG Anura ensured that his men facilitated the massive destruction wrecked upon the Muslim community; STF too stood indicted on that count. What the MR govt. did was to ask SL’s UNHRC representative to even portray the Muslim victims perpetrators of their own destruction. The studies done Post war revealed that political ambitions of our political masters to attract the Sinhala Buddhist vote base en-bloc by demonising the Muslims and concerted campaign to hit at their economy base led to this disaster, while the law enforcement and even the Judiciary became complicit .
What happened after Yahapalanaya govt. came into power was a bigger disappointment to those who saw dreams of better times for the nation -to promote national reconciliation and to ensure all communities are allowed to live as equal citizens. No culprits of the Aluthgama disaster were prosecuted. In hindsight, voter Perera did not realize then that no decisive change can be expected without changing the political culture and political majoritarian mind-set of the ruling class. Thus, the same ‘parties’ who instigated the hate attacks in1983 against Tamils continued to wreck mayhem on the minority communities- the political elements in government with ambitions to aim for the vote base of the majority race and their sycophant law enforcement authorities(Police+STF)/ government machinery/ Media who supported their cause! Thus, the same old drama/same old cast and the same old drama plot with different set of actors! It was crystal clear in Aluthgama, Ampara and Digana, there was a ‘set-game’, a well organised plot, meticulously carried out by hate groups, to achieve the ends envisaged by their political masters of different colours and facilitated by a biased and conniving law enforcement arm. Thus, 1983 ghosts who were responsible for the anti-Tamil pogrom (majoritarian political class and their racist cat-paws/forces) were seen in 2014 and 2018, and will still continue to hover over the country, which cannot be eradicated by changing a government or having discussions with a government/authorities with tainted hands.
Fresh thinking and open minded initiatives are necessary ably promoted by progressive intellectuals and religious leaders and a well-planned strategy to educate the grass-root levels of our society about the need to live and let live as equal citizens. Specially, the peace loving majority community should be made to realize the vicious plans of the political class hell-bent on exploiting their emotions based on their race and religions for petty gains making other minority communities demons who are all out to destroy them. Otherwise, 1983 ghosts will continue to hover and more 2014 or 2018 or even another 1983 style operation will be inevitable. With many past missed historic opportunities, and more bleeding in the future, Sri Lanka will surely join the ‘Failed States Club’ while the internal and international conspirators will have a last laugh at the expense of the nation. Let sanity prevail in Mother Lanka! Let the flower of an inclusive Sri Lanka bloom!