Yesterday, July 24 marked the 35th anniversary of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots or the commonly known “Black July.” Much water has flowed under the bridge since that national shame. It is an even bigger shame that the country is still without a clue as to how to find a lasting solution to the root cause of the issue -- ethnic problem -- that triggered the riots. All stake holders of the problem -- the government, Tamil leaders and nationalist forces on either side of the ethnic divide -- are politically and ideologically still back at square one.
The Black July was a week when the entire country was at a standstill due to riots where goons torched the houses of Tamils, looted their houses at their will apart from killing hundreds of them for no reason. The country witnessed total anarchy with no signs of the existence of a government in the country.
It was said that the riots were organized by the then ruling party and the goons used the electoral registers to single out houses owned by Tamils in towns where the population was mixed. Whether it was state sponsored or not, it is clear that the riots were ignited due to the folly of the government of the day. Goons started mayhem after the bodies of 13 soldiers killed by the LTTE at Thinnaveli, Jaffna on the previous night were flown to Colombo for the last rites at the Kanatte cemetery. Later the government was blamed for taking them to Colombo instead of sending them to the respective villages.
It is wrong to describe, as many do that the Black July was the starting point of the thirty year long war that might have claimed nearly a hundred thousand lives of soldiers, members of various armed groups and civilians belonging to all three major communities of the country. Even prior to this catastrophe, police stations at Annakottai and Chavakachcery had been attacked by the PLOTE and the LTTE respectively. Yet, it is not gainsaying that Black July and the immediate consequent events resulted in the strengthening of the Tamil armed groups and a leap in the violence against the state. It also paved the way for foreign interference, especially that of India.
At the beginning the government was attempting only to militarily crack down on the Tamil armed groups. It was India that persuaded or in fact forced the Sri Lankan government led by President J. R. Jayawardene to talk to the armed groups, and it was the same India that laid the ideological foundation -- the concept of devolution -- for the talks. Former TULF Parliamentarian and a constitutional expert, Dr. Neelan Thiruchchelvam once in a newspaper article quoted former Indian Foreign Secretary Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy as saying that it was with great difficulty that he (Parthasarathy) convinced the acceptability of devolution of power to President Jayawardene, despite the latter also being a constitutional expert. Parthasarathy was India’s first special envoy to handle the Sri Lankan ethnic issue.
Then the history saw a plethora of peace attempts with and without foreign mediation or facilitation, The All Party Conference (APC) of 1984, Thimpu talks of 1985, Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, Political Party Conference (PPC) of 1989, peace talks between the Premadasa government and the LTTE in 1989/90, Talks between Chandrika Kumaratunga government and the LTTE in 1994/95, Liam Fox agreement and the peace initiatives with Norwegian mediation under President Kumaratunga, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Mahinda Rajapaksa were the main among them. So many constitutional reform packages were also put forward by the governmental and the nongovernmental entities for the resolution of the problem, only to be vetoed by one or the other major party to the problem.
Yet, even after 34 years of those efforts, we have not changed. The stakeholders are still debating over the very basic points pertaining to the problem -- whether there is an ethnic problem in the country, the aptness of devolution of power as a solution, the acceptability of federalism as a mode of governance etc. with no party willing to come down from their stance. Isn’t it a bigger shame than the Black July?