- The fortieth anniversary of ‘Black July’ should serve as a reminder to remain vigilant, actively work for justice and reconciliation, and create a society where past mistakes are not repeated
July 2023 marks the 40th anniversary of ‘Black July,’ acknowledged as the most horrific episode of ethnic violence in Sri Lanka. Around 300-450 lives were lost, more than 40,000 people were reduced to refugee status and confined to camps, while thousands migrated seeking refugee status in the West laying foundation for Global Tamil Forum.
It was claimed that Cyril Mathew, Minister of Industries and Technology at the time, played a role in initiating these actions. Mathew, who was perceived as holding racist views, had brought thugs from the South to Trincomalee with protection from the security forces. this led to a reign of terror in the region. There were claims that Mathew, being a close confidante of the president, enjoyed certain privileges and acted with impunity.
President JR Jayewardene, who relied on the votes of Tamils, both in Jaffna and of Indian origin, to become the President, made a controversial statement republished in the Sunday Observer-Colombo on July 17, 1983; from an interview with the Daily Telegraph in early July 1983.
He said, “..I am not worried about the opinion of Jaffna people now… Now we can’t think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinions about us. …The more you put pressure in the North, the happier the Sinhalese people will be here...”
Tragically, since 1956, under Bandaranaike’s ‘Sinhala only’ policy, the island experienced cycles of racial violence. People from both sides have been killed, injured, displaced from their normal day-to-day lives and their possessions looted, damaged, or destroyed.
The 1983 riot was notable for the highly organised nature, compared to previous communal disturbances. The horrors and chaos of that dark week remain etched in the minds of people from both communities. Violent mobs in Colombo used voter lists to identify homes of Tamils. The violence then spread to other parts of the island.
The psychological and sociological effects of this violence on the island’s multi-ethnic and divided society has been severe.
The most shocking destruction occurred on July 24, 1983. The country’s economy was left in ruins, as a week of sheer violence propelled the nation into over two decades of war and devastation. A fifty percent drop in tourist arrivals was recorded in the months that followed, leading to a downturn in economic growth, resulted in job losses, and business closures.
It all started in Thinnavely, Jaffna on Saturday, July 23, 1983, when a bomb was detonated under an army jeep resulting in the immediate death of 13 soldiers. On the very next day, the army retaliated by killing a few civilians in Jaffna while the bodies of the deceased soldiers were being transported to Colombo for burial at Kanatte. The ambush resulted in the highest number of army casualties at that time in a single incident.
Unruly hooligans backed by government’s powerful JSS the trade union of the UNP, destroyed houses, businesses and industries owned by Tamils while authorities turned a blind eye. The security forces were largely ineffective in providing adequate protection to the minority community. They made no effort to stop the rampage.
The government arranged for the burial of the 13 bodies on the night of July 24 at Kanatte, without handing over the disfigured bodies to the relatives. People who gathered at the cemetery turned violent, and the violence subsequently spread to other parts of the city and different locations across the island. On the night of July 24 in Borella, destruction of Tamil business premises commenced and continued until the following morning. Although the initial attacks aimed only at destruction, looting soon followed resulting in a loss of 25,000 jobs, mostly held by Sinhalese individuals.
Following a pre-planned script by government, the JVP, Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL), and Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) were proscribed and blamed for creating disturbances.
The divide and rule policy adopted by the British during colonial times is mentioned as a factor that placed minorities, such as the Tamils and Christians, in positions of power in Sri Lanka’s public service, security, and other professions. It is implied that this policy was seen by the Sinhala majority as a scheme to control them. When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the elected representatives recognised this perceived imbalance of power.
It is important to recognise that the July 1983 pogrom was not simply an ethnic, linguistic, or religious issue. It was a culmination of a series of violent riots that were instigated to preserve the interests and privileges of the ruling elite. This emphasises that the governance system inherited from the British colonial era still significantly influences the socio-economic, political, and judicial structures of the country.
The post-independent regime enacted laws such as The Ceylon Citizen Act of 1948 and the Parliamentary Elections Act of 1949, disenfranchising voting rights to nearly one million estate workers, resulting in a stateless population. This not only violated the fundamental human rights of workers, it also fueled ethnic and racial politics.
Riots erupted targeting Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1963, 1979, 1981, and 1983. The rioting included torture, looting and arson. It is crucial to emphasise that the individuals responsible for these heinous crimes, as well as their political supporters, enjoyed impunity due to an increasingly authoritarian, corrupt, and unaccountable political elite. This impunity perpetuated a cycle of violence and deepened existing divisions within society.
Overall, focus should be on fostering genuine reconciliation by acknowledging historical injustices. Only through sincere efforts to bridge divides and promote justice for all, can a long-lasting peace and stability be achieved.
The events of ‘Black July’ stemmed from long-standing ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka. While it is disheartening to see that the lessons from this tragic chapter of history have not been fully internalised. After four decades, it is crucial to assess the progress made and the challenges that remain. Efforts towards reconciliation and addressing the root causes of the conflict have been undertaken since ‘Black July.’
The establishment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in 2010 was a significant step in understanding the conflict and recommending measures for redress. Initiatives like the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation and the Constitutional Council aimed to promote inclusivity, justice, and equality.
However, there is still much work to be done to address underlying issues hindering true reconciliation and lasting peace. Healing the wounds inflicted during ‘Black July’ and the subsequent civil war requires rebuilding trust, fostering dialogue, and ensuring justice for the victims. Education plays a vital role in this process. Comprehensive and accurate historical accounts should be included in educational curricula to foster empathy, understanding, and critical thinking among future generations.
Addressing socio-economic disparities among ethnic groups, promoting equitable development, and social cohesion are also essential in bridging gaps that fuel tensions.
While progress has been made, the journey towards true reconciliation is ongoing. The fortieth anniversary of ‘Black July’ should serve as a reminder to remain vigilant, actively work for justice and reconciliation, and create a society where past mistakes are not repeated. Ultimately, the lessons from ‘Black July’ must be translated into meaningful action to ensure all communities in Sri Lanka can live in peace, dignity, and harmony.