Black July: Unforgettable month for Sri Lankan Tamils
By Satheesan Kumaaran
Aug 3, 2008

Sri Lankan Tamils throughout the world remember and commemorate the victims of Black July'83. Twenty-five years ago, the state-sponsored pogrom against Tamils in Sri Lanka resulted in the deaths of 3000 people and property damages of over $300 million U.S. The days between July 24 and July 30, 1983, were tragic and unforgettable for the Tamils. For Tamils July is the month to reflect and remember. July to Tamils is like February is to Black people around the world. Tamils the world over observe this occasion with rallies, vigils and prayers to draw international attention.

Many people believe that the root cause for the violence in July 1983 was the death of 13 Sinhalese solders in Jaffna. So the violence of July 1983 was not only against Tamils, although violence against Tamils has been ongoing since 1956. The tragic events of July 1983 drew international attention to the region, and India's central government directly intervened in support of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Peradeniya Tamil students victims
On May 11, 1983, two months prior to the July 1983 violence, Sinhalese students in Peradeniya University attacked Tamil students. Tamil students experienced the brunt of the Sinhalese community's hatred for three consecutive days. University authorities, intellectuals, and the country's ruling authorities did very little to stop the violence against the Tamil students during those three days.

The old students of the university witnessed the university administration and authority's unprecedented conduct at the time. Tamil students were asked to attend the lecture sessions during these periods even though the Tamil students felt they needed to get away from the University to their homes to reflect on what had happened to them from May 11 to May 13, 1983. The University authority failed to provide the Tamil students with a safe environment to continue their studies.

The motive of the attacks on the Tamils students was to evict them from the university permanently. The unprecedented behaviour of the university administration helped the attackers reach their aims. Almost 95 percent of the Tamil students left the university and returned home. Even after this exodus, the university continued to conduct lectures and exams. The university authority had shown very little if not any sympathy towards the Tamil students during this time of crisis.

Thirteen soldiers set fire to violence
The death of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers in Jaffna on July 23, 1983, ignited the hatred of the Sinhalese general public towards the Tamils. Sri Lankan armed forces retaliated with a non-stop attack from July 24 to July 30 on innocent Tamil civilians who had never committed any crime except having been born Tamil. These attacks included the looting and damaging of Tamil-owned properties. GoSL officials refused to step in to control the riots against Tamils claiming that the Sri Lankan State was failing.

Some of the more notable events of the conflict were:

On July 25, after the midnight lull, mobs led by people with voter registration lists in hand torched Tamil homes, and looted and destroyed Tamil businesses. All traffic was searched, and any Tamils found were killed, maimed, or burned alive. Cyril Matthew, Minister of Industries, witnessed directly the pinpointing of shops to be burned down. The many policemen deployed throughout the city stood by and watched. Witnesses recall lorry loads of armed troops leisurely waving to looters who waved back. Curfew was only declared by the president late in afternoon after the worst was over. However, the violence continued unabated.

Tens of thousands of homeless Tamils sought refuge in schools and places of worship. In Welikade prison, 35 Tamil political prisoners who were awaiting trial under the Prevention of Terrorism Act were massacred by Sinhalese prisoners with the complicity of jail guards using spikes, clubs and iron rods. The violence spread rapidly throughout the country, engulfing towns like Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Trincomalee. The Indian Tamil town of Kandapola, near Nuwara Eliya was completely wiped out.

On July 26, the GoSL imposed strict censorship on media reports on the anti-Tamil violence. Word spread of Sri Lanka's state of disorder as eye witness accounts and photographs taken by returning tourists illustrated the scale of violence. They described how Tamil motorists were dragged out of their vehicles and hacked to pieces while others were drenched with petrol and set alight in full view of security forces. The International Airport in Colombo was closed.

On July 27, 17 more prisoners at Welikade Prison were hacked to death just two days after the first prison massacre. The surviving 36 prisoners were transferred to other prisons. Rioting continued and the curfew was extended. Witnesses to the violence reported that charred corpses of Tamil victims lined the streets of Colombo, some mutilated with X's.

On July 28, President J.R. Jayewardene addressed the nation for the first time since the anti-Tamil pogroms, only to fan the flames of anti-Tamil sentiments by stating that anyone who advocated for separatism would lose all "civic rights". He stated, "...the time has now come to accede to the clamour and natural request of the Sinhala people to prevent the country from being divided." Vigilantes set up make-shift roadblocks in villages across the island, searched cars and buses for Tamil passengers. In one incident, a Sinhalese mob burnt to death 20 Tamils on a minibus as European tourists look on in horror.

On July 29, Tamils in Colombo began evacuating by cargo ship to Jaffna. Hundreds more internally displaced persons waited anxiously for the next cargo ship to transport them to Jaffna.

The Colombo-based National Peace Council said in a statement to mark the 25th anniversary of the pogrom that: "On July 23, 1983, law and order in Sri Lanka virtually collapsed as mobs went on a rampage, inciting anarchy and fear, uprooting Tamil people, looting and burning their property and killing many of them....These mobs backed by sections of the then Government claimed they were motivated by the desire to avenge the killing of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers by the LTTE in the northern city of Jaffna."

The NPC said further: "July 1983 has testified to the fact that violence knows no territorial delimitations or fundamental concepts of civil society - we are all victims of war, with our human rights and civil liberties threatened."

Black July events around the world
The Tamil Forum of Switzerland which is an umbrella organization consisting of about 30 Tamil organizations in Switzerland organized a picket in Lugano city on July 12 to mark the 25th anniversary of Black July. Mr. Giorgio Gali, a Human Rights Activist, lit the traditional oil lamp and inaugurated the event. Tamils living in and around the province of Lugano issued hand bills to the Swiss people and explained the painful effect of July pogrom perpetrated by the Sinhala chauvinists in 1983. Tamil youths also explained to onlookers about the root of the Tamil-Sinhala conflict and the Sinhala government's ethnic cleansing activities. More than 3000 hand bills were issued.

The British Tamils Forum in association with the Tamil Councillors Association held a vigil on July 23 between 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 the Parliament Square. The Forum said they defeated the attempts made by the GoSL through its mission in London to sabotage the vigil. It reported that the GoSL instructed all its missions abroad to disrupt the programs organized by Tamil expatriates. Over 2000 Tamils took part in the vigil held at the Parliament Square with the participation of British parliamentarians and representatives of NGOs. The protesters said that the vigil also meant to protest against the current GoSL's approach in ending the ethnic conflict through war rather than addressing Tamil grievances.

Australian Tamils also hosted similar programs in Burwood Park in Sydney on July 25. The organizers said that their aim was to reach the Australian government and locals about the treatment of Tamils at the hands of the GoSL. The Australian Tamil organizations organized events in several other venues in the country.

The U.S.-based People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) organized a protest rally and vigil in Washington DC on July 24. The rally was held at the Russell Senate Park, at the intersection of Constitution Avenue and Delaware Avenue, Washington DC. About 600 people took part in the rally and vigil. US Campaign for Burma also joined the rally to remember the victims of the Burmese uprising on 8-8-88. The joint rally protested against Chinese military support of Sri Lanka and Burma whose governments are accused of committing grave human rights violations. Members of Congress and human rights representatives spoke at the rally. The rally was followed by a silent vigil to remember the victims and honour the survivors of Black July. The vigil started at 3:30 pm. Survivors of Black July got the opportunity to share their experiences with the general public, and testimonials of other survivors were also read at the event.

Canadian Tamils remembered the Black July victims in most major metropolitan cities, including Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Hundreds of Tamils across British Columbia took part in prayer on July 26 in honour of all those who lost their lives and the victims still living with the memories. This was held at Thurkadevi Hindu Temple in Burnaby.

A vigil was held in Toronto at Albert Campbell Square in Scarborough on July 25 under the banner of the "Remembering Silenced Voices" exhibit, a must-see, powerful collection incorporating the work of local artists, archival footage from international press, haunting survivor stories, and inspirational testimonials on the Tamil Canadian immigrant experience. Of particular interest was the work of two young emerging artists, a photographer and a painter, who chose to express their thoughts on Black July through their art. Also, a play performed in association with Asylum Theatre Group, the Canada-based Canadian Tamil Congress presented "What if the Rain Fails", chronicled the life of a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka who escaped the anti-Tamil violence in 1983 and sought refuge in Canada.

The Canadian Tamils praised Canada for opening its doors and hearts to the hundreds of Tamil refugees fleeing the anti-Tamil violence that took place in July 1983. The CTC said that it is launching a wide campaign to collect blood in gratitude for the kindness offered by Canada in providing a safe haven for Tamils.

Black July is a month for Tamils to remember and to bring the global community together. Black July 1983 has no doubt resulted in a sense of national identity among the Tamils and recognition of their need to live in freedom with justice and dignity. The Tamils who lived in Colombo thought that they could live safely in their homeland. However, after July 1983, the LTTE and Sri Lankan armed forces engaged in military operations, causing further destruction to properties and heavy human casualties. And the suffering continues despite efforts by India, Norway and the international community to bring peace to the island.

It is pathetic that this violence against a particular community came out of the desire for political gain. The resulting conflict has created great divisions among the ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. The misunderstandings of the old wounds continue to widen with no optimism in reconciliation among Sinhalese and Tamils, making it further unlikely that these two ethnic groups will ever co-exist as a family.

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