July 23 marks the 36th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s month of shame -- the month in which the then government of the country, permitted, aided and abetted armed mobs to attack a section of its citizens -- the Tamils.
What was more shocking was that unlike other countries in the South Asia region, where the literacy rates are low, and minorities are attacked regularly and with impunity, Sri Lanka boasts of a highly literate population, with over 85% being literate. At the same time (1983) in Pakistan, the literacy rate was below 30%. The literacy rate in India at the same period was between 41% to 48%, while the literacy rate in Bangladesh at the time stood at a little over 20%.
During those dark days, hundreds of Tamils were killed by government-supported mobs, thousands lost their homes and livelihood, and Tamil-owned businesses destroyed. The fact that the police and armed services though present, did very little to protect the victims, pointed to state involvement in the attacks. As though this was not bad enough, Ministers of State were seen egging the attackers on.
In this country, we have seen many riots, we experienced the anti-Tamil riots in 1958, more recently we had anti-Muslim riots. But what we saw in 1983 was different, it was actually an anti-Tamil pogrom -- where organised groups, with lists of Tamil-owned houses and businesses in hand, sought out and killed members of the Tamil community in cold blood. Exact statistics are not available, but it has been estimated several thousand Tamil civilians were killed and thousands of others injured, Tamil prisoners were targeted and killed in the country’s high-security prison, around 200,000 families were displaced and over 2,500 Tamil-owned businesses -- big and small -- either damaged or destroyed. The exact number of homes destroyed is as yet unknown.
The events of July 1983 ultimately led to a near three-decade-long civil war, during which thousands upon thousands more lost their lives. Every July reams are written on those atrocities and are published and re-published.
But what we seem to be missing is that after that month’s terrible events, civilians (be they Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims) have been prime targets of armed attacks. Tamil militants of the LTTE have selectively attacked unarmed civilians and ethnic cleansing was practiced, unarmed Sinhalese, religious places of worship and religious dignitaries were targeted and killed.
Among the massacres which come to mind are:
The Massacre at Aranthalawa of 33 Buddhist monks, most of them young novice monks, on June 2, 1987.
The forcible expulsion of the 72,000 strong Muslim population from the Northern Province in October 1990.
The Palliyagodella massacre of Muslims in the village of Palliyagodella, including women and children by LTTE cadres and Tamil civilians armed with machetes on October 14, 1992. 45 children were among the victims.
The June 2006, targeted bombing of a bus carrying civilians at Kebethigollewa in the Anuradhapura district where 68 Sinhalese men, women and infants were killed in the attack.
The Kattankudy Mosque Massacre:Over 147 Muslim men and boys were killed during a prayer in 1990.
In like-manner, the armed forces, to their shame, singled out civilian Tamils all over the country, with the worst attacks being during the closing stages of the war when an estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians lost their lives. Three decades-and-a-half, after the events of ‘Black July’, and a near decade after the civil war ended, how are we as Sri Lankans coping? How have these events affected the second generation of Sri Lankans? Have we as Sinhalese and Tamils truthfully and honestly confronted ourselves and taken responsibility for the atrocities committed during the civil war which followed? Or are we trying to sweep the events commencing ‘July 1983’ and the atrocities which followed, under the carpet?
We need, as Sinhalese and Tamils, to stop denying and making excuses for the atrocities committed on each other. We need to take responsibility, singly and severally, that by our silence, by our acquiescence we too are as guilty as those murderers who physically used the machetes, knives, clubs, swords and guns to kill, loot and murder. We need to apologise to the other, and not try to hide behind the the words of Franz Fanon, who in a completely different context said “The atrocities of the oppressed cannot be compared to those of the oppressor.”
Until such time, we will never be able to bring closure to the crimes of commission and omission we perpetrated on each other. It’s time to say ‘mea culpa’ and come together as fellow countrymen and women to build a better tomorrow. Or else, in another decade, we will still be writing negatively on ‘Black July’.