30 September, 2023


Sri Lanka’s Years Of Shame: ‘1983’ Ghosts From Aluthgama To Digana

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman 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!           

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Lukman Harees: all over the world muslims have problems, particularly muslims are killing muslims and muslims are killing christians and harassing devotees of all other religions. Muslims also kidnap women and children of other religions and marry and convert by force. Tell me where did any muslim group acknowldge these things. Never and none. In Sri lanka, there is information that four muslims youth killed a sinhala driver who had a family with two children. With respect to STerlizing pills, it is said that there were women had been caught who were sleepng after eating food from that restaurent and it looks they had been given sleeping pills at one point. I do not know whether muslim men raped these girls and brought to the restaurent for meals. I heard one girl had run away straightly to thee home, once she found out it. I against, there two muslim politicians who wanted these roudy muslims be penalized and made them obey law. theri intentions are not clear. Definitely, politicians, INGOs are behind. BBS Monks had gone and talkedd to both the msulims nd sinhala people, what was wrong with that. ARE YOU MUSLIMS SOME KIND OF SPECIAL GROUPS AND THAT BUDDHISTS SHOULD LISTEN TO YOU AND OBEY YOU. what is your contribution in Sri lanka and in the world. Just complain and suggest a way that works for you. Understanad that some muslim groups are head ache to you too. SO blme them and not always the non-muslim. Who made CHANGED THE NAME OF ENDERALMULLA to AKBAR TOWN ?. IS that fiar. How many places you have changed that. I heard, you muslims want to invade Sri pada area, anuradhapura……….. YOu had problems in Dambulla, Kataragama, Mahiangana. YOu cahnged the name DARGA TOwn which did not exist. So, muslims from one side, Tamil another side, christians are also busy. Should buddhists stay silent ?

    • 3

      as usual Jim talks out of the point . Utter rubbish not worth a reply.
      This is about the danger of the country slipping towards another 1983 if we do not act .

    • 4

      Jim, do not you understand what is written. Do you want anarchy? Cannot you think properly?

  • 14

    I’m a Muslim living in the UK and I work in multicultural company with different nationalists..
    I can tell you among all nationals I met sinahslese are one of best races I ever met and interacted.( some European nationals are exceptional) they are very good ..
    But in Asia Sinhalses are good people ..
    Kind; compassionate; loving: supportive and helping ..
    Helping any one at any time of danger ..
    For instance; I’ve seen by taken eyes many times…how they help people in time of accidents and emergency in Sri Lanka..they would rush to help victims..no matter who they are ?
    Do not generalise?
    1% of hatred is not equal to 99% of kindness ..
    This is politics but nothing..
    I know 100 hundreds of my friends who are sinahsle ..
    I.trust them more than my own brothers..
    They give their lives you if you are good with them.
    One of best and thankful people on earth.
    This is not to exaggerate or make show off .
    They are really good if you know them ..
    But this BBS and some other groups are political ones ..
    They are used as curry leaves for some political gains..

    • 13

      Dr. Sulaiman,

      You are very true. We too have the same respect for the Sinhalese. They are not opportunist like Muslims in SL or most of them do not expect anything in return when they help others. We, the Muslims should also look at things from their angle and their legitimate views. It is also not right to make them look racists in the world’s eye when we, the Muslims provoke them act violently misusing the freedom that we enjoy. Today, the Muslims are lacking many things that make them look worthless among the rest. This is the area they should be concerning instead of spreading Islam or getting into radicalization. I am ashamed when a Muslim says he/she eleted Yahapalanaya with the priority to protect them.

      Mohamed Rishard (Not an impostor)

      • 2

        “the Muslims provoke them act violently misusing the freedom that we enjoy. Today, the Muslims are lacking many things that make them look worthless among the rest”

        What exactly did Muslims do to provoke?? How, when and where did Muslims miss use freedom?

        Please elaborate and be specific .

      • 4

        please read the article properly and understand what the writer is trying to say. this is a call to take heed of 1983 signs and not allow this country to slip into a failed state situation due to the racist elements

        well said Harees

    • 4

      This writer stresses the fact that Sinhalese need not bear collective guilt and it was political elements who are responsible . Please read the article well before jumping to conclusions . I have been living with the Sinhalese all my life and they are great. But it is a fact that these hate elements carry Sinhala Buddhist boards and a disgrace to the entire Sinhala community
      This article talks of the danger of 1983 being repeated if those political elements are not tackled . The initiative should be led by the majority community and other communities should support.

      It is regrettable that you based in UK cannot understand the gist of this article.

    • 1

      @Dailymirror?SL: Most Sinhalese happy about recent riots:

      Dismissing the popular view on the attitude of a majority of Sinhalese towards the attacks on Muslim-owned properties and mosques during the recent riots in Ampara town and the Kandy District, Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya claimed they seemed happy about what happened.

      “The claim that a majority of Sinhalese were against the recent attacks on Muslims is wrong,” he said.

      At a workshop on ethnic harmony on the theme, “building Bridges” held on Saturday at SLIDA, Mr. Deshapriya was quick to observe that a majority of Sinhalese were happy to see the Tamils too being attacked in 1983, only to regret it a few years later.

      He said embracing some aspects of Arab culture by Muslims in Sri Lanka is fanning fires of distrust while Muslim girls were being further and further pushed into an insulated society since they had been compelled to go to the mushrooming small international schools run by Muslims, as they have no schools to attend.

      Mr. Deshapriya urged the Muslims to assimilate themselves into a Sri Lankan nation and reminded the Sinhalese that there is no unmixed community in the country or in the world.

      “Didn’t the 14,000 people brought by King Gajaba from India father anyone here,” he asked.

      Mr. Deshapriya said the word “Marakkalaya” and “Hambaya” were derived from the names of the vessels that were used by the early Muslims to come to Sri Lanka and added that in that sense, even King Vijaya was also Marakkala, as he too used that vessel to come to Sri Lanka.

      He threw a challenge to the Muslims with a question whether they would invite a Buddhist monk for a lecture in a totally Muslim institution. (M.S.M. Ayub)

  • 4

    I am a tamil and totally agree with regard to the comments made about the Sinhalese people =I like them a lot -they are world class

    but the 1% of them do enough damage to the relationship with other communities that create a wrong impression about them

    Post war period the seeds of hatred was sown by MR and his clan whilst the UNP did the best to create anti tamil feeling from 1981 to 1983

    • 3


      One-to-one the Sinhala are affable people; there is no doubt about that at all. However, collectively they mistrust the other. This is because they are chronically insecure to the core. This is why they turn a blind eye to the historic and present attacks on the minorities!

  • 3

    Agree with comments by Dr Sulaiman and Mohamed Rishad. We Muslims must stop blowing things up and calling every thing we don’t like ‘racism’. There are no races in the world and all are human beings. As Muslims we need to understand that our ancestors abandoned the Sri Lankan royalty after 1815 when the monarchy ended, thinking there won’t be any use in going behind the kings anymore. Then Churchill bought us with the idea of Pakistan. We showed our ungratefulness by this action alone, confirming the idea about we go in the direction the thoppiya turns. Our people don’t do business with Sinhalese or other groups and we live among ourselves in the slums of Maligawatta to posh subsurbs Kollupitiya and Bambalapitiya. Then we scream the sinhalese backlash that comes out of frustration. We must stop blaming, look at ourselves, and start changing our behaviour if we want change.

  • 0

    It was the ‘Wanda Pethi’ rumour which started the present crisis.
    We are waiting for our leaders to say that the ‘Wanda Pethi’ rumour is an absolute canard. None have the courage to say so.
    Remember the 1958 pogrom was started with a rumour that India is about to invade with Tamil help!

  • 1

    Most parts of this article is just recycling of propaganda spewed by LTTE and their sympathisers years ago. Hope Mohamed Harees gets the message from Dr. Sulaiman and Mohamed Rishard. The writer acknowledges that 1983 was a planned riot by groups linked to then govt of JRJ (who himself has a Muslim ancestry). Yet writer is not hesitant to hoist blame on Sinhalese as a community. Though the writer omits certain details it is also a common knowledge some of those mobs who carried out attacks in Borella area were linked to the Muslim UNP strongman in that electorate, MH Mohammed. It is also known to many that the instigators of Aluthgama riots became major sponsors of yahapalana project and now are enjoying perks of power. Yet Mohamed Harees appear to have voted for yahapalana project in 2015 consist of the masterminds of Aluthgama riots. One could not be blamed if one would come to the conclusion that Mohamed Harees is writing with a completely different agenda in mind which is nothing to do with Muslim/minority rights or ethnic amity.

    • 4


      “The writer acknowledges that 1983 was a planned riot by groups linked to then govt of JRJ (who himself has a Muslim ancestry).”

      The problem is with the converts who has/had to be immensely zealous in order to fit in with the fellow Sinhala/Buddhists and grab and enjoy larger proportion of power and wealth.

      For example, Percy, Yourself, somass, Shenali, ………………………. Dimwit….. have to be excessively zealous and racists if you want to be successful in this island where hard-work, intelligence, knowledge, ………… take you nowhere. Only competitive racism help you to reach the top in terms of position and wealth.

      Watch out for Navin Dissanayake, soon he will …………… replace Wimal Sangili Karuppan Weerawansa and the saffron clad thug Gnanasara.

  • 4

    Instead of putting the blame on Sinhalayo, blame these people.

    G.G Ponnambalam who formed All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC),
    S.J.V. Chelvanayakam who formed Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) and Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF),
    M H M Ashraff who formed Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and
    Champika Ranawake who formed Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) are responsible for strengthening the division of Sinhale (name of the country before colonial parasites came) people on ethnic lines done by British and creating the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. British used ethnic division to rule the country and exploit resources and these guys used racism for their political advancement.
    I am sure someone will come forward to add S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake’s name to this list but let me tell he formed Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) not Sinhala Freedom Party (SFP).

  • 0

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  • 3

    Some of the comments made by Dr.Sulaiman are true and praiseworthy even after some unwanted incidence that took place recently in Sri Lanka against Muslims. But, 1983 pogrom was a meticulously calculated act by Sinhala goons ably aided and supported by some ministers and it was organized well ahead of 1983.July 23 on which day that most wanted trigger worked in favor of the rioters. When we were undergraduates in the Peradeniya campus, we were attacked and chased away from the campus on the 11th May 1983 after some posters were pasted on the walls which carried pro-Eelam slogans. In that particular chaotic situation, the Sinhala goons attacked the properties of the Tamils but most of the business places and houses were looted by Muslim goons. Soon after the riots, the properties hurriedly sold by the Tamils all over Sri Lanka were bought by the Muslims at a cheaper prices. Incidences and the situations that followed also helped the Muslim people to further their interests in the country.

    • 0

      Muslims understand or like the word, “Profit” more than other words like Mother, Respect, Dignity etc…etc. The banking world knows well about this, and replaced the word, Interest with Profit.

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