Instigated by a chauvinistic minister, hooligans set the city on fire and President JR Jayewardene played Nero for four days, fearing a military reprisal. His inaction worsened the situation.
“I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now…we can’t think of them. Not about their lives or their opinions of us... The more you put pressure on the North, the happier the Sinhalese people will be here…” JRJ
Daily Telegraph-July 11, 1983;
President Jayewardene who used the votes of Tamils, both in Jaffna and in the upcountry at the Presidential polls a year before, made the above statement during an interview with a British journalist. July 1983 :Daily Telegraph—London.
(The full interview was republished in the Observer-Colombo on July 17: 1983)
There will never be a recurrence; the Sri Lankan people are a mature lot; on January 8, thanks to the previous regime, they attained age; and over the past eighteen months they grew up in maturity thanks to ‘good governance’. Today, they have proved Lincoln wrong. No politician can fool some of the people for some of the time, let alone all the people all the time. Possessing strong secular beliefs, humans are the offspring of pre-existing primates. Random mutation and natural selection, a processes began many millennia ago, resulted in humans evolving from primates. The truth of our evolutionary past, as per widespread scientific facts, demonstrate that we are all one species; despite various racial, ethnic or phonotypical differences.
A brief history: cause of conflict
Our ethnic conflict has many origins and consequences that are intimately interconnected. The most common causes of the ethnic conflict lie in the politics of language, education, employment and land; in the limitations and uneven educational opportunities, cultural and religious practices and the restrictions on the usage of Tamil. The conflict is typically not about ethnic disparity but about political, social, economic, cultural and territorial issues.
In the mid 1940s, JR Jayewardene introduced a proposal in Parliament to declare Sinhala the official language. A resolution in 1944 specified that Sinhalese and Tamil would become the languages of instruction in schools and in courts. The resolution was approved but there was little progress in its implementation. In 1956, Bandaranaike fulfilled his election promise, “Sinhala only in 24 hrs.” giving no status of parity to Tamil. The Standardization policy by Sirimavo in 1971 guaranteed that the numbers qualifying for university from each medium was proportionate to the number who sat for entrance in that language. This, together with the district quota system introduced in 1972 had a serious impact on Tamil students. These issues in many ways contributed to the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict, even though Tamil had been declared an official language by the 13th Amendment in 1987. The harm caused by the politics of language remained unsolved.
On the night of 24th July, 33 years ago…
On the night of July 24, 1983, anti-Tamil pogroms began in the city of Colombo and spread to other areas of the country. For over five days, hooligans, mainly Sinhalese, massacred Tamil civilians- looting, burning and killing over 400 men, women and children. They destroyed an estimated 4,000 houses and 1,600 large and small business establishments. More than 30,000 people were left on the streets. A large number of Tamils fled the country during the following years, forming a powerful diaspora; and hundreds of youths sought refuge with terrorists.
Upon closer analysis, the July pogrom points to one conclusion; that apart from the provocation of the LTTE, this spontaneous act was a strategic plan organized and carried out by an influential faction of the then government. The Minister of Industries and Technology, Cyril Mathews was a well known Sinhalese chauvinist who transported thugs from the South to Trincomalee and who received protection from the security forces during his reign of terror.
The 1983 riots were conspicuous for its highly organized character, receiving direct support from the ruling party, whereas the communal riots of 1915, 1958 and 1977-79 occurred due to mishandling by the state and were instigated by sections of the Opposition’s racist elements.
The horrors and turmoil of the ‘Black week’ remain etched in the minds of both communities. Goons in Colombo used the voter’s lists to trace the homes and businesses of Tamils. With security men turning a blind-eye (having received no orders to act during the early stages), the riots soon spread to other areas. The sociological and psychological effects of this violence on the nation’s pluralistic society were grave. The riots resulted in war and destruction during the next two decades. A 74% drop in tourist arrivals were observed in the next few months, affecting a downturn in the economic growth and an incalculable loss of jobs and loss of business.
Landmine and grenades kill 13 soldiers
At 11.30 pm on Saturday, July 23, 1983 at Thinnaveli, Jaffna, a bomb was detonated under an army jeep leading a convoy, injuring a number of soldiers. As a group of soldiers travelling in a truck behind the jeep arrived to help their colleagues, they were ambushed by a group of LTTE rebels who hurled grenades at them. 13 soldiers were killed on the spot; the highest number of casualties sustained by the army in a single event at the time.
The attack was planned and carried out by a team led by Kittu, a regional commander of the rebels. The army truck, for unknown reasons had changed its route at the last minute and were ambushed. The army went on a rampage in the area, indiscriminately killing innocent people in the vicinity.
In Colombo, hooligans destroyed property while the authorities turned a blind eye. The security forces failed to adequately protect the Tamil minority and made no effort to stop the rampage. Tamil shops and homes were attacked by mobs, compelling the Tamils to seek refuge at state-run camps, with their Sinhalese friends and even with strangers who protected them for months.
MP for Kalawana Sarath Muttetuwegama, speaking in Parliament on August 4,1983, said,
“Now Sir, 13 bodies of Sinhalese soldiers …were brought to Colombo… by the night of the 23rd violence erupted…What did the censor Mr. Liyanage do? He allowed all the morning newspapers to carry a report which said, ‘Thirteen soldiers killed in Jaffna’, What is the earthly use of the censor? The names were revealed as Sinhalese…”
(The censor Liyanage mentioned here is none other than Douglas Liyanage, the first accused in the 1962 coup d’etat, who was appointed by J.R. Jayewardene as his Permanent Secretary as ministry of State in 1983.)
During the first two days, the violence was directed at Tamil properties. Led by the trade union arm of Sirikotha, this was the aim of the attackers; however another set of hooligans began the looting and killing. The 43 enterprises destroyed in the violence accounted for 25,000 job losses, mostly Sinhalese. The rioters threatened to set ablaze any property that accommodated Tamils. Only a small section of the Sinhalese took part in the violence. Certain Sinhalese and Muslims took the risk of sheltering displaced Tamils, in spite of warnings by mobs backed by the senior government minister. A great many Sinhalese were distressed and sickened by the violence and took great efforts to care for Tamils in the camps, as the state machinery was dead.
These gruesome acts of arson, manslaughter and plunder were allowed to continue unabated. The government failed to punish the ringleaders; who in many cases were close associates of certain Ministers. There were no proper plans to compensate the victims either. Thirty-three years on, with the LTTE annihilated and peace in place, these demands remain unmet.
The Truth Commission
Black July 83, the worst riots since 1958, created fear and insecurity among minorities, resulting in a mass exodus to the West. This in turn helped in the creation of a powerful Tamil diaspora, with whose support the local terrorist movement was strengthened to engage in a prolonged civil war. Though delayed, an attempt to inquire and report on racial riots from 1981 to 1984, a ‘Presidential Truth Commission on Ethnic Violence’ was appointed. It revealed details concerning the growing gap in the ethnic issue that finally led to the July holocaust; it also posed several questions regarding the government’s wrong ‘messages’ and the inaction that helped trigger the violence. It also revealed the government’s decisions in the preceding months and on the eve of the Jaffna ambush that resulted in a failure of law and order. The Commission pointed out several instances of communal hostility directed against the Tamils in many parts of the country, from the end of 1977 through August 1981. It was found that even Tamils of Indian origin in the plantation sector had been attacked. The Prevention of Terrorism Act -PTA, passed in 1979 and the order of Executive President J.R. Jayewardene to Army Chief of Staff Major General Tissa Weeratunga, his nephew, with absolute powers to ‘eliminate the threat of terrorism in the Jaffna district’ and encouraged soldiers to commit a series of atrocities, the consequences of which became catastrophic.
Censorship and Propaganda by foreign media
The Government appointed Competent Authority was given powers to shut down any printing press that infringed upon the rules. Foreign correspondents were not allowed to leave their hotels. An American journalist was deported for reporting biased information which created a poor image of the Sinhalese. The Gaurdian, UK report on July 7, 1983, quoted President JR:
‘The new law will ensure security personnel will in no way be harassed by the law in the event of being compelled to use their fire power... Hundreds of bodies are being buried in mass graves…’
Ian Ward of the Daily Telegraph reported a blatant lie on July 26, 1983:
“A mob attacked a Tamil cyclist riding near Colombo’s eye hospital, a few hundred yards away from President Jayewardene’s residence. The mob drenched the cyclist in petrol and set him alight...as he ran screaming down the street, the mob set upon him again and hacked him with jungle knives”.
The 6th Amendment
After a four-day silence, on the evening of the 28th, the President addressed the nation via state TV to announce the cabinet’s decision to introduce an Amendment to the constitution for clipping the wings of Tamil politicians both in and out of Parliament. The 17 TULF members who refused to take the oath of compliance in Parliament had to leave the house. The Amendment was a clear indication of JR’s design to move the country towards authoritarian rule.
‘Infiltration of Colombo by Terrorists?’
Panic swept through the capital on the 5th; thousands of workers rushed home early after a rumour spread that a group of LTTE terrorists were firing at soldiers from the upper floor of a building opposite the Fort Railway station and that Colombo had been infiltrated by the LTTE. The government censor issued a statement announcing that 12 LTTE members had been arrested in Colombo and taken to a Police station in the city. The rumour spread like wildfire; further inciting criminal acts. Unprecedented panic caused traffic blocks. Goon squads drawn from the JSS became active for the second time in six days. They were taken in CTB buses by junior trade union bosses to various locations. The ‘rumour’ was a deliberate construction of interested groups to persuade mobs to attack the refugee camps. Goons entered a camp run by the church and slaughtered two refugees. However, the police and security forces moved in eventually to restore order by nightfall.
JR’s indirect justification of the crimes which had taken place over the past four days apparently inspired rioters on Friday the 29th.
The President said, “We feel there is an attempt to steer this violence towards the purpose of destroying the political and economic progresses that this government has been able guarantee the people… In 1976 Tamil politicians initiated a movement for the separation of our motherland and it became violent …innocent people were killed…members of the Armed services and politicians were assassinated. The Sinhalese have reacted to this violence by the terrorists, …the government has now decided to accede to the request of the Sinhala people that we will not allow the movement to grow… ”.
Looking for Scapegoats
Minister, S. Thondaman [Snr.] – speaking in Parliament said - “…for four days nobody came on TV or radio. The country was virtually burning: unprecedented acts of violence had taken place in Colombo and in the suburbs…” -Hansard: Aug. 4 1983, [col. 1354]-
An interview of the President in August was quoted in the editorial of ‘Times of India’ on August 10, 1983; “…asked why troops did not fire at rioters…he has said, ‘I think there was a big anti-Tamil feeling among the forces. They also felt that shooting the Sinhalese who were rioting would have been anti-Sinhalese and in some places we actually saw them encouraging [rioters]’”.
The ruling UNP blamed three Marxist parties, namely the JVP, NSSP and the Communists party of Sri Lanka as well as a ‘foreign hand’ for the calamity. 18 members of the above parties were arrested and kept under detention without trial for indefinite periods, using Emergency regulations. The three political parties were banned for ‘committing acts prejudicial to public safety’. The government issued a statement which read, ‘violence has arisen from a foreign plot to overthrow the government…with the backing of the Soviet affiliated Communist Party, to destroy our economic development’.
On August 22, JR addressed the nation.
“…we have evidence that a certain group called ‘Naxalites’ are inflaming the people’s minds, making them violent-minded against the government, against the President… the JVP made statements that they should take to non-parliamentary tactics in order to defeat the government…Vasudeva of the NSSP said he would use his powers for extra Parliamentary activity…we have therefore reviewed certain parties, the JVP, NSSP and CP as not committed to the democratic way” Daily News- Aug.23, 1983
However, Minister S. Thondaman remarked, ‘racist elements’,… in ‘our own people’, led by ‘important men’…part of this government, just as I am…”--International Commission of Jurists.
The LTTE suspects who were detained under the PTA at the Panagoda army Camp were transferred to Welikada two weeks prior to the July outburst. This was in response to a visit by Amnesty International in 1982 and a subsequent report by the International Court of Jurists in June 1983 which recommended the transfer of the custody of the suspects to civilian prisons.
The 73 Tamils at Welikada prison were attacked with clubs and iron bars by a section of Sinhala inmates on July 25, with 35 being killed- among them Kuttimany-an LTTE leader. The prison authorities too did little to control the attack. It was later revealed that one of the Sinhalese prison guards had managed to save the lives of a few inmates at Wing C3. The authorities failed to conduct a proper investigation in this instance as well. The prisons commissioner giving evidence said, “I contacted DIG Sunderalingam, he could not help. General Atigalle, Secretary to Ministry of Defence told me that troops are not used inside the prisons but for guard duties at the main entrance and periphery.” The authorities did not remove the remaining suspects or provide sufficient security to ensure their safety after the disastrous event. On the 27th, in a second attack, another 18 were killed. Among the victims were Dr. Rajasunderam, a medical practitioner attached to a Social service organization.
Role played by politicians in Bloody July ‘83
The opposition raised in the Welikada issue on August 4th : for its failure to prevent the catastrophe, the Prime Minister R. Premadasa replied,
“One Sinhalese prisoner also had been killed…” Hansard; Aug 4, 1983: col. 1285
Analysts believe that Bloody July 1983 was planned and manipulated by the political authorities and the State; it was not an isolated act but was executed meticulously. The President failed to impose a curfew as soon as the violence broke out. Even if a curfew had been imposed, it would not have made a difference, given the lacklustre attitude of the Police and Armed forces under his eroding powers.
Things have changed over the last three decades; lessons have been learned and a recurrence is highly improbable.