27 May, 2022


The Living Seeds of Black July

By Tisaranee Gunasekara –

“Nations are made not of oak and rock but of men, and, as the men are, so will the nations be”
Milton Meyer
(They Thought They Were Free: The Germans – 1933-1945).

A concoction of toxic myths and noxious perceptions created the soil from which the horror that was Black July sprang into bloody life 29 years ago.
There was the myth that Sinhala-Buddhists are the sole owners of Sri Lanka. There was the myth that ethno-religious minorities are aliens, descending from invaders.
There was the perception that Tamils, Muslims and Christians are essentially unreliable and untrustworthy, that they are a perennial ‘fifth column’ which must be kept on a very short leash.
The confluence of these myths and perceptions created a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ version of history which reduced the past, present and future of the island to a long war between its majority-owners and minority-interlopers.

Black July 83 - A Tamil boy stripped naked and later beaten to death by Sinhala youth in Boralla bustation | Photo - Chandraguptha Amarasingha

People follow the history they believe in.
When history becomes an ‘us vs. them’ Manichean drama, it renders unacceptable, ipso facto, any demand by any minority for justice and equality, because non-owners of a country do not have any inalienable rights. It also prevents the majority from accepting the possibility of minority grievances, let alone understanding them. And it labels any attempt to resolve minority issues as rank betrayal.
Sinhalese and Tamils coexisted in this small island for millennia. But the Mahawamsa-inspired history focuses on the shorter episodes of conflict with such virulent single-mindedness, that it effectively effaces the far longer periods of mutually tolerant coexistence. It is this history as ‘Sinhala vs. Tamil war for Lebensraum’ children learn in schools, and in homes, a history filled with imagery of carnage and destruction, glorified in the name of patriotism.
The history of Sinhala-Muslim relations is presented in an even more distorted form. Islam was brought to Lanka by traders and the island never faced a Muslim invasion.
The British policy of divide-and-rule was applied to Sinhalese and Tamils and not to Muslims. And yet, the first racial riot in Ceylon targeted Muslims who were not demanding a separate state or even political rights – proof positive that the ‘us vs. them’ version of history can cause outbursts of bloody intolerance, even without the excuse of separatism.
This Manichean version of history led to ‘Sinhala Only’; it was, is and will be a mammoth politico-psychological obstacle to a political solution to the ethnic problem.
It also provides an unfailing-justification for majority assaults on any minority seen as too assertive or successful, too demanding or intrusive, by covering such outbursts with the cloak of patriotism – as in July 1983.
The perpetrators of Black July were not just thugs, or UNPers. Ordinary law-abiding citizens of all political hues and none actively participated in the horror while a far greater number of ordinary, law-abiding citizens looked on with approbation or indifference or (occasionally) shame. The active participants could not have destroyed, burnt and killed, and the approving spectators nodded assent, day in day out, for almost a fortnight, if they were not fortified by the belief that they were warriors in a just war.
Without the amoral strength and irrational justification provided by the belief that the alien Tamils must be stopped from destroying Sinhala Sri Lanka, the fires of Black July may not have burnt so infernally and for so long. Or left behind, not ashes of shameful repentance, but embers of angry aggressiveness.
As the Mahawamsa clearly implies an atrocity becomes a virtue when committed against ‘unbelievers’ for the protection of the true faith and its sole refuge.
This mindset was at the centre of many an abomination, not just 29 years ago, but even in the recent past; such as the incarceration of around 300,000 civilian Tamils in open prison camps masquerading as ‘welfare villages’. Instead of encouraging the innate kindness and generosity of ordinary Sinhalese to come to the fore, instead of allowing ordinary Sinhalese to feel compassion for the plight of ordinary Tamils and to reach out to them in solidarity and fellow-feeling, the South was told that Tamils in their camps were safe, happy and lacked for nothing (plus that no civilian Tamil died in the war). So the Sinhalese celebrated; and descended on the North en masse as pilgrims and pleasure seekers, blind to the destruction and destitution around them, while the Tamils festered in terrified and resentful silence in shattered homes and barbed-wire camps.
The same Manichean mindset which led post-independent Lanka into a brutal war is now poisoning the peace and driving the search for other enemies to replace the beaten Tamils.
And in the attempts to stereotype and demonise the Muslims, one can hear the distant echoes of the words which enabled Black July.
They are almost the same words used against Tamils in the years preceding Black July: unpatriotic, encroaching, taking our land and dominating our economy…
Religious-racism is as blindly inane as ethnic-racism. In the emerging attempts to subsume all Muslims under the fundamentalist-hijab, the courageous voices of moderate Muslims are lost – such as the article by a Lankan born Muslim scholar, Dr. Ameer Ali  (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/prophet-not-perfect-says-sri-lankan-islamic-scholar/). Just as Black July and its unrepentant aftermath enabled Vellupillai Pirapaharan to decimate Tamil moderates and dominate Tamil polity and society, attacks on Muslims by Sinhala-Buddhist extremists will strengthen fundamentalist Muslims at the expense of moderates, to the detriment of all concerned, not least the Muslims themselves.

An Alliance of Moderates

As Hannah Arendt points out in ‘The Banality of Evil’ there is a fundamental similarity between opposing fundamentalisms. Ethnic-racists refuse to share power with other ethnicities. Religious-racists agree that life and society should be reordered in accordance with religion, the only difference being whose religion. Both oppose the secular humanist values of Radical Enlightenment, including universal human rights and pluralist democracy.
Intolerance and extremism are not the sole properties of one race or one religion. The ‘reflex of despair’ (Hobsbawm) generated by violence and injustice encourages the victims to become violent and unjust. Sinhala intolerance and extremism gave birth to Tamil intolerance and extremism personified by the Tigers, who subjected the Tamils to a worse tyranny than ever by the Sinhalese and followed a policy of religious cleansing vis-à-vis the Muslims. There are reports of fundamentalist Islamic groups violently attacking other Muslims whose interpretation of the Koran is different from theirs. In the recent past we witnessed two incidents of Buddhist-on-Buddhist violence.
Unless these internal demons can be defeated, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians will continue to be the victims of their own aggression, in a ‘war of all against all’.
Politicians often appeal to the demon of intolerance in the national-psyche, in the hope of harnessing its power.
The long Lankan tragedy is a result of the outstanding success of such appeals, and the inability of moderates of all ethnicities and religions to resist them. Black July was the most horrendous symbol of that monumental failure.
Can the moderates do better this time?
Will Sinhala-Buddhists learn that Sri Lanka can be saved from disintegration only if the polity accepts pluralist democracy (including devolution) and society is cleansed of the ethno-religious racist seeds which gave birth to Black July?

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Latest comments

  • 0

    I strongly believe our sinhalese majority will sell this small island to Chinese and Indian global players and never share powers with any of the minorities in Sri Lanka

    The GoSL party members fill their pockets whether they come from SLFP or UNP

    Muslim Congress fill their pockets independent from the ruling party

    People like Dayan Jayathilake, Rajeeva, Vasudeva Nanayakara, Tamara Kunanayagam will enjoy their diplomatic status to fullfill their desideratum which they missed in their childhood

    People like Wimal Weerawamsa and Sambika Ranawatha ( or similar) talk about sinhala purity and missuse all the resources to profit for their next generations ( their own )

    We again will be the best MODAYAS!

    • 0

      The parliamentarian who told the parliament (without any shame) that the parliamentarian Amirthalingam’s legs should be tied to two poles and the poles must be pulled apart and on investigation he revealed that President Jayawardene asked him to say so.
      It’s well-known that President Jayawardene was interviewed by Ian Watson (of UK daily, The Telegraph) on 11 July 1983 in which the President had said that Sinhalese would be happy if the Tamils are starved.
      In 1978 Cyril Matthew stated to ”teach Tamil businessmen” by giving import quota and permits to Sinhalese and denying Tamils who began to feel the ”pinch”.
      Minister Cyril Matthew was torching a series of Tamil targets in 1981, 1982, 1983… In June 1983 a bus full of Tamils was burnt in Trincomalee by thugs who ‘trails’ Cyril Matthew wherever he went. In July 1983 when towns were burning, there was a regular pattern of Cyril Matthew’s visit followed by the burning. In May 1983 some Tamils were hacked to death in Vavuniya.

    • 0

      Very true! Arnt you that one (Vasu)?

  • 0

    “As Hannah Arendt points out in ‘The Banality of Evil’ there is a fundamental similarity between opposing fundamentalisms.”

    Could the author please let know where does she point this out? I have been through the book and I cant remember where she makes such a statement.

  • 0

    Yes undoubtedly the Black July of ’83 gave a sordid picture of the Sinhalese to the outside world. But the truth is otherwise. Except the thugs and Political Goons although few in number, were better organised and managed to cause absolute mayhem bringing this carnage, while the Majority Sinhalese provided shelter to many Tamils even at the risk of facing the onslaught themselves. I was housing two Tamil families in my house for a number of days till the heat died down.

    • 0

      gamini says:

      “I was housing two Tamil families in my house for a number of days till the heat died down.”

      You must be a stupid Sinhalese and forgot to swim with flow. Next time around do not make the same mistake otherwise you would be caste as a LTTE lover hence a Sinhlese traitor. If you are not with the mob you will be seen as against them.

      Regarding the July 83 pogrom this is what Shenali Waduge has to say in her Sri Lanka Guardian article titled

      “Black July’83 was staged to humiliate the Sinhalese and create the Tamil Diaspora”:

      “If foreign mercenaries were involved in the uprisings in the Middle East with arms supplied by the West should we not wonder which country would have gained most by staging such a riot in Sri Lanka? Thinking logically, why would the Sinhalese ever want to create a situation wherein they would end up the condemned people internationally?”

      I know for sure Tamils and Sinhalese are stupid people however I didn’t know they have this determination to become stupider by the second until I read this revisionist analysis.

      • 0

        Native you are nicely sitting on the fence and aportioning blame for both the Tamils and the Sinhalese as stupid. You think you are the only wise guy, being a Muslim who is not a fanatical Muslim either. Well for your information it was not only Sinhalese mobs that attacked the Tamil buisnesses, but Muslims as well who joined the Sinhalese mobs, for buisness rivalry. Yet the fact remain that the majority Sinhalese housed and saved many a Tamil family from the goons, if not the carnage would have been thousand fold more.
        For you to accuse me as stupid for sheltering Tamils when in distress, which I would have done even for a Muslim, is because I view all as humans. You sound even stupider to suggest to avoid doing the same in the future. Yes I will in the future, if I have to. The Sinhalese became Lions attacking unarmed Tamils in the South in ’83. Thereafter when the LTTE suicide bombers came on the scene, these Sinhalese Sandos had to hide under beds and today the Forces are addressing the LTTE cadres like Karuna Amman, Pillayan, KP, Daya Master, George Master et al as ‘Sir’ and saluting them, serving at their beck and call. So much for the Sinhala Pride eh!? It is said that God did not create all men as equal, but Colnel Colt did.

    • 0

      These are exceptions and circumstantial and does not answer the
      basic attitude of a Sinhala Political Beast that continues to
      exist and creates more animosity with time, while the pleading cry for existence peacefully by the tamils is evident everywhere.

      The rabid Politician of today can only carry on with an ethnic
      issue as the subject for his very existence. This mentality must
      cease for the betterment of all Sri Lankans, for once.

    • 0

      If “Majority Sinhalese provided shelter” how come the whole bunch of Tamils shipped to Jaffna. Were the Sinhalese ppl minority in the areas of riots?

  • 0

    Today is the 29th Anniversary of one of the darkest days in the history of the country, since the British amalgamated 3 diverse kingdoms to, hopefully, build a single, peaceful and sustainable union.It is for those dark forces that ushered in Black July to reflect if their ill-adventure did good to the Sinhalese or the country in the long run. True, it destroyed many Tamils in the South.
    I venture to suggest other than satisfy the animalistic hatred and prejudices of some jealous Sinhalese it achieved nothing positive. How did it help the Sinhalese – except for the riff-raff who stole their moveable assets all over – that included men in uniform as well. It held out the Sinhalese negatively to the world – except for those hundreds of decent Sinhalese folk who realised the bestiality and provided safety to their Tamil friends and neighbours.

    Blaming the Tigers and the diaspora is not going to help us economically or take us to the path to better social conditions. It is the right time for the Rajapakses to unite a more divided people (than in 7/83) They have the political power, the country’s support and the world’s goodwill to usher in lasting peace and unity. This is no time for cheap politics. It is time for courage, resolve and Statesmanship.


  • 0

    July 1983 is an act of shame at its highest grade. All sinhalese should be shameful whethter they activly participate or not.
    However the UNP government’s intentional failure to prevent violence using state machinery had resulted thia unfortunate situation growing into such high degree.
    But the writer’s the remarks are more or less aiming to put the complete blame of common Sinhalese buddhists.Thus the writer miserably failed in conveying any valuable message to the reader.
    Perhaps, writer wants to make sure her patrons are kept happy by this type of an occasional article as previously done !!!!

  • 0

    This writer persists scribbling nonsence seeking to patronise the minorities with her archaic thoughts denegrating the Sinhala Buddhists. If she has a psychological problem with her ‘Buddhist’ name she should seek professional help.

    • 0

      Chandra is it the writer who is denigrating the Buddhists or the Sinhalese Buddhists denigrated themselves committing heinous crimes?

  • 0

    So the Singhalese Buddhist is the Lucifer himself eh ?
    I wonder if the writer knows who gave her the freedom to write garbage about the very people who gave her the freedom.
    I wonder if prabahakaran himself being the kinn of the oppressed minorities would have given her the freedom to express ?!

    BTW, never heard a Singhalese refer to Champika Ranawaka as Sambika Ranawatha ……. all about discrediting the Singhalese eh ?
    Better use a non-singhalese name as your used ID friend !

    Sri Lanka is the land of the Singhalese. PERIOD. Others can live equally ofcourse but none of the divisional crap of eelam and federalism will be tolerated!

    Comprende Senors and Senoritas ?

  • 0

    Also I’d like to ask the writer what proof she has that the tamil youth in the picture was later beaten to death by Singhalese youth ?
    Dont hijack pictures from other websites and write nonsence !!!

  • 0

    This article is written by a confused person or by a one who is very dishonest most probably with a reason. that is she is catering to her beliefs. The priority is not the majority culture and the civilization. The need of the minority to become the prominent group.

    Article has begun with a saying by a German. Germans are responsible for Holocaust.

    Now, the world is a small place. WE are no longer in the 18th centurry or before. Muslims and Christians/Catholics both boasts or having TWO billion devotees for each religion. They are in a COLD WAR to become the prominent religion in the world. Buddhists are only 300 million in all over the world. In that Sinhala – buddhists are about 14 million. Sinhala civilization is mostly Buddhist civilization except for the part adulterated by the Colonials.

    Then the black July is something orchestrated by LTTE. LTTE wanted similar “BLACK JULY”s and that is why they killed many Anuradhaoura temple or Mahanuwara temple, Aranthalawe killing of 40 monks etc.,

    Sinhala peole protected Tamils. Tamils themselves participated in 1983 riots. People looted even the Muslims shops. Those things are not mentioned.

    In the USA, People looted even the houses of those who had lost everything after the KATRINA cyclone. I have read Tamils saying that they left 1956 riots and cme to Britain and landed in another riot between protestants and Catholics.

    • 0

      People like you gave the moral support for this mob during 1983.

      Original religion of sinhalese was not buddhism, you were colonized and diverted to buddhism by indians

      Be proud to have people like Tisaranee Gunasekara, one from the civil society, otherwise we all estimate the mindset of sinhalese according to your ( people like you ) argumentation and intepretation

  • 0

    srilankans know only to burn and kill peoples? unforgettable thing is jvp members was burn alive in 1989 by the same buddhist ppls. still the same situation in our country.

  • 0

    Well, most of the incidents of july happened in and around Colombo where almost 65% are non buddhists. These are christian magiority areas where sizable muslims and hindus live. Take from colombo to kalutara through moratuwa. Even the likes of Cyril Mathews are being labeled as Buddhists here. Don’t forget Junius Richard Jayawardana was a Christian too later converted to buddhism to gain votes. Of course sinhala buddhists must be ashamed because they couldn’t stop that from happening in this land that’s supposed to be so tollerant and accommodating all religions with every street corner is proudly hosting religious places of all religions like no where else in the world. So I think putting the entire blame on buddhists is not correct.

  • 0

    What goes around, comes around.

    In early July, 1983, President Jayawardne gave an interview to the “London Daily Telegraph” (LDT) journalist, Ian Ward. This interview was carried in the LDT on 11 July, just 13 days before the “Black July” pogrom. This is the most insensitive, inhuman quote from that interview, coming from a Head of State.

    “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna 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 out, the Sinhala people will be happy…”


    We don´t have a real winner of this war even after 2012.

    Share powers, give everyone equal rights!

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