Far reaching impact of July 1983 anti-Tamil riots on Sri Lanka
Posted on July 28th, 2018

By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express

The anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and several other towns in Sri Lanka which raged for nearly a week in July 1983, were unprecedented in the annals of ethno-communal rioting in the island. But the most disturbing aspect is that the riots’ impact is still being felt. The issues which triggered them are still unresolved and the country continues to pay for the folly of unleashing  unbridled violence on a seemingly powerless minority.

For the first time in the history of civil commotions in Sri Lanka, 371 Tamils lay dead (unofficial estimates put the number at over 1000). More than 100,000 were rendered homeless; and 130,000 were turned into refugees forced to seek shelter elsewhere both in the island and abroad. An overwhelming majority of the 162,000 Tamils then living in Colombo, were in unlivable refugee camps.

Far reaching impact of July 1983 anti-Tamil riots on Sri Lanka

More than 100,000 fled to Tamil Nadu in South India by every possible means of transport including country boats. There  they were accommodated in scores of camps under appalling conditions.

According to Eleanor Pavey (https://www.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/en/document/massacres-sri-lanka-during-black-july-riots-1983) the total damage caused to commercial and residential property in Colombo was officially estimated at U$140-180 million or 4% of the country’s Gross National Product at that time.

Planned Massacre

Even though the Black July” riots were triggered by overwhelming anger among the majority Sinhalese over the killing of 12 army men by Tamil militants in the North, their scale and intensity betrayed meticulous planning and  organization with the active (though clandestine) assistance of the then regime.

The J.R.Jayewardene government feigned innocence initially. But later, Information Minister Ananda Tissa de Alwis said that a pattern of organization and planning has been noticed in the rioting and looting that took place. Some organized force set this violence in motion. We have to find out who it was. It was not a haphazard hit-and-run operation.”

But government involvement in this mass uprising” was there for all to see. To quote from the Broken Palmyra: The General Secretary of the government union the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) was identified as the leader of gangs which wrought destruction and death all over Colombo and especially in Wellawatte, where as many as ten houses a street were destroyed. A particular UNP municipal Councilor of the Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia Municipality led gangs in Mount Lavinia. In the Pettah (the bazaar area, where 442 shops were destroyed and murders were committed) the commander was the son of Aloysius Mudalali, the Prime Minister’s right-hand man.”

In some cases, uniformed military personnel and police were seen leading the attack. They used vehicles of the Sri Lanka Transport Board and other government departments and state corporations. Trucks of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation’s Oil Refinery came from many miles away.”

Later, President Jayawardene himself admitted that there was a big anti-Tamil feeling among the forces, and they felt that shooting the Sinhalese who were rioting would have been anti-Sinhalese; and actually in some cases we saw them  encouraging the rioters.”

Prison Massacres

On July 25, in Colombo’s Welikade prison, angry Sinhalese inmates wielding spikes, clubs and iron rods broke into the ward housing Tamil prisoners including convicted separatist guerillas and massacred them. Prison guards had provided the Sinhalese inmates with tools to break in to the Tamil ward. Thirty-five Tamil prisoners were massacred,” Eleanor Pavey writes in her detailed paper. Among the dead was Dr. S. Rajasundaram, the secretary general of the Gandhiyam Movement. On July 27, a further 17 Tamil prisoners were killed by Sinhalese inmates in the same jail.

Jayewardene’s Address

It took five days for President Jayawardene to address the nation on the carnage. He expressed no sympathy for the Tamils, nor did he mourn the dead. On the other hand he promised to ban all Tamil separatist movements in the country and stated that all persons advocating the division of the country would be stripped of their civil rights, be banned from holding office and prevented from practicing a profession.

He said that the riots were not a product of urban mobs but a mass movement of the generality of the Sinhalese people.”  For the President, the time had come to appease the natural desires and requests of the Sinhalese people to prevent the country from being divided.”

On July 29, panic spread across Colombo following rumors (that were later proved to be false) that Tigers had infiltrated the capital. The ensuing violence left 100 Tamils dead and made another 30,000 flee to refugee camps, Pavey recalls.

1983 riots took a heavy toll of Tamil properties

International Odium

During and after the riots, Sri Lanka was condemned in the harshest possible terms in the international media. Western nations threw their borders open to Lankan Tamil refugees. But the Sinhalese could not say good riddance” and relax. The refugees were to come back as the dreaded Diaspora” to torment the Sri Lankan State to this day with the unabashed backing of Western governments and international human rights organizations.

The massive influx into Tamil Nadu created a stir in the South Indian state adjacent to North Sri Lanka. Pan-Tamil nationalism was whipped up in India to an unprecedented crescendo. Tamil Nadu tormented Sri Lanka by giving shelter and money to Tamil militant groups, especially the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The humongous pressure applied by Tamil Nadu politicians on New Delhi led to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s sponsoring Tamil militant groups and using them to pressurize the Sri Lankan government to yield to the Tamils’ demand for autonomy, if not an independent Tamil Eelam.

To Sri Lanka’s discomfiture, its  bid to resist India’s interference found no support elsewhere in the world, including India’s adversary at that time, the United States.

With armed militancy gaining ground and the Western and Eastern powers looking the other way, President Jayewardene had no option but to sign the humiliating India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987. Parliament was forced to pass the 13 th.Constitutional Amendment, which gave a newly united Tamil majority North-Eastern Province a modicum of autonomy. And Sri Lanka also had to accommodate India troops on its soil from 1987 to 1990 for the first time since independence.

However, India failed in its well-meaning efforts to bring the Sinhalese and Tamils together and make them agree to a constitution  which will give a modicum of rights and powers to the provinces in a united Sri Lanka.

Brazen Indian intervention had whipped up strong nationalistic sentiments among the majority Sinhalese, who became more rigid in their stance. As for the Tamils, they were emboldened by the support they were getting from Tamil Nadu, India, and the West to pitch for the highest, an independent Tamil Eelam.

Search for a middle ground had to be abandoned because the LTTE decided to fight for independence without outside support and use talks only to gain time. The fact that it had gained ascendency by its ruthless intolerance of opposition ruled out any other option. It fought a full scale war with the Indian army from 1987 to 1990 until the Indians were asked to withdrew.

While the Tamils fell in line with the LTTE, the Sinhalese rallied round the military, ethnically dividing Sri Lanka like never before. A  full scale war with the use of artillery, air and naval power ensued in the north as the LTTE took civilian lives indiscriminately in the South. By the time war ended in 2009, thousands had lost their lives and 290,000 Tamils were displaced.

The government won the war, but political troubles ensuing from the Tamil question continued. The UN charged government troops of committing war crimes” and passed resolutions calling for remedial measures, which Sri Lanka has been reluctant to implement. And the Tamils’ demand for autonomy within Sri Lanka is nowhere near being conceded as is the demand for a probe into alleged war crimes. Colombo’s hegemony over the Tamil areas continues with no sign of a let up.

In fact, attitudes of both the Sinhalese and Tamils have hardened. The riots consolidated the Tamil identity and gave it a broader meaning over-riding traditional, caste and class divisions which had historically made the Sri Lankan Tamil community a very hierarchical and divisive one.

The shared experiences of a common event served to strengthen an already strong ethnic identity. In many ways, the common memory of Black July has become the focal point of modern Tamil identity,” writes Eleanor Pavey.

Dr.Sasanka Perera, Sri Lankan sociologist and Vice President of the South Asian University in New Delhi says:  The 1983 July violence against Tamil in Sri Lanka (as much as 1984 violence against Sikhs in India) had established very clearly that when orchestrated violence targeting ethnic or religious minorities takes place with the sponsorship of the State or powerful political entities, justice will never be served.”

In so far as July 1983 violence is concerned, it had established precedence for similar acts followed by a similar travesty of justice.  Worse, it has immunized most of us from feeling the pains of others.”

3 Responses to “Far reaching impact of July 1983 anti-Tamil riots on Sri Lanka”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Out of context. Compared to events that took place elsewhere in South Asia like the India partition, Bangladesh creation, Burma, Tibet, Afghanistan, etc. July 1983 is nothing. It must be seen in the regional context.

    For the record, war didn’t start in July 1983. It started in 1975. Tamils bombed an Air Ceylon passenger plane in 1978 and obvious act of war and terrorism.

    Tamils benefited enormously from the riot as they got refugee visas from developed countries. Only a few thousand Tamils died in the riot but a few hundred thousand got refugee visas. There is a genuine suspicion that some Tamil elements fueled the riot. Some Tamils in positions of power to stop it, failed.

  2. Randeniyage Says:

    Tamils keep on spreading this lie as “war started after 1983 and because 1983 riots”.
    Some Sinhalese also benefited from riots. I know one big (but honest ) business man who got a big push because who managed to buy a property in Colombo for his business at a very cheap price.
    Our successive politicians became very rich thanks to war.
    They want to keep this conflict going even if there is no war. Otherwise their pay and benefits do not fit their luxury life styles.

    Anyway, incompetence of our successive government should be blamed for the plight we are in now.

  3. Christie Says:

    Bala as you personally know butchering of 13 unarmed off duty officers was well planned by the Indian Intelligence services. You cannot compare it to Sikh killings.

    Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her own body guard and there was no conspiracy or organized terrorists behind him.

    13 unarmed officers were gunned down by Indian trained and armed terrorists.

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