- What lessons have we taken from the atrocities of Black July?
Last Sunday (24) marked 39 years since Black July 1983, the first of six days of rioting, looting, and violence that claimed the lives of anywhere from 400 to 3,000 Tamil civilians (figures differ, and sadly, official figures seem incomplete at best) and displaced and harmed many thousands more (an estimated 25,000 people).
Official recollections and lived recollections of Black July 1983 tend to vary a great deal, from root causes to the damage caused, to most importantly, reparation and reconciliation.
Today, amidst the high tensions wrought by the economic crisis and also amidst a show of what looks like unprecedented unity in calling for political change, it seems like a poignant moment to look back on one of the bloodiest moments in our recent history and see just how Black July and its aftermath has shaped us as Sri Lankans – and how far the issues around Black July are from being resolved, and if anything, are still very much at play, albeit arguably under a different name.
The context behind Black July
Black July was the gruesome culmination of decades-long ethnoreligious tension. The roots of this tension go back to British colonial rule when the colonial administration recruited many English-speaking Tamils to the civil service and other professions on a merit basis to the point that by 1956, 50% of clerical jobs were held by Tamils, although they were a minority of the country’s population.
Post-independence, Sinhalese leaders saw this imbalance as a problem that needed rectifying and this rectification came about through the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956, commonly known as the Sinhala Only Act.
Throughout the late 1950s, the 1960s, and into the 1970s, protests and resulting State repression created further animosity as well as Sinhalese nationalist legislature that impacted and limited the rights of the Tamil community. A series of anti-Tamil pogroms took place in 1977, and 1981 saw Jaffna’s renowned public library burnt down by a violent Sinhalese mob.
Instances of organised violence against the Tamil community were most certainly not limited to 1983. The almost-complicit role of the State in the violence of 1983 would be questioned many times, both then as well as in the intervening years: a key factor of Black July was largely Sinhalese mobs carefully tracking down Tamil homes using electoral lists to violate, loot and burn such homes.
The Police and the military’s actions to stem the violence were ineffective at best, with many eyewitnesses reporting that Police and military joined in the violence rather than opposed it; no official reparation has been made, save a public apology by then President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2004.
1983 in our greater social and national fabric
In the Sri Lankan psyche, Black July is our version of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the catalyst that sparked our devastating Civil War which claimed an official estimate of 100,000 lives (as reported by the UN in 2009) and affected the life of every Sri Lankan in living memory.
That said, the truths of Black July (details of what happened, how and what led to it happening), and to a large extent, our Civil War itself, are oral histories. They’re not really covered in great detail in our schools and most of what we know of the war and of 1983 is not what we’ve learned in school; it’s what we’ve lived through or heard from others who have.
Simply put, 1983 is a milestone for Sri Lanka, but of entirely the wrong kind. Peace-builder and Communications Strategist Benislos Thushan said: “Being someone who comes from the minority (minority only in numbers but not in equity or the place of us here) and who grew up in the north but wasn’t born when Black July happened, you always hear of Black July, in discussions on war or on the legacy of ethnic oppression that we have gone through. Especially being Tamils, we cannot escape 1983. It’s a milestone in the wrong way, a historic dark age that exacerbated a lot of things.”
The divisions caused by 1983 run deep even to this day for many reasons, despite peace-building efforts to unite communities. “Having been someone who has worked among communities on peace-building and reconciliation, sometimes efforts are of the ‘kumbaya’ nature – holding hands and forgetting the past. But when we talk of the end of the conflict in 2009, we don’t ask if we have really succeeded in eradicating the root cause of the conflict.
“If we scrutinise the key events that led to the second longest-lasting civil war in the world, including 1956 and 1958 and other significant violence, 1983 became the epitome of that racial oppression, not simply because it targeted a minority (any riot is bad), but because it went to show how systematic, internalised, and institutionalised that oppression was.
“The President turned a blind eye to that oppression (that same President is incidentally the great-uncle of our current President), the Police and the military also turned a blind eye.”
Thushan also shared the view that the wounds of State oppression had not healed because in a system inherently skewed towards Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, State oppression against minorities still took place, and 1983 was simply a crystallising year in recognising State oppression, which was what led to so many people leaving the country for better pastures.
“In 2022, looking back, you can sometimes forget to see some of the main immediate impacts of 1983 and how it translated in the course of Sri Lanka’s conflict. The burning of the Jaffna Public Library took place in 1981, but 1983 really crystallised the conflict. It was a statement to the world from the Government and the majority that this is the status of minorities in Sri Lanka, and also legitimised grievances long felt since independence.”
Sociologist, researcher, and author Hasini Haputhanthri also spoke about 1983 and how we relate to it, or rather, how we should relate to it, highlighting that it was vital that we not forget Black July.
“As a nation, we have many lessons to learn from both mistakes and the glories of our past. The Black July riots of 1983 are a huge stain on our history connected to many years of violence and led to a huge exodus of people from Sri Lanka – a huge loss for the country in terms of talent and diversity. Looking back at this dark and unsavoury period is very important for our political future. The events of 1983 happened when I was a young child so I have no memories of it, but where do I or the generations that came later learn about it? Where is it documented?”
Haputhanthri stressed that sweeping events like Black July under the rug did nothing to fix the problems that created them in the first place, and from a sociological perspective, it was vital to memorialise our history, the good and the bad.
“If we’re not to repeat the same kind of mistakes, we need to remember. The importance of memorialising is that we can actually create a space and place of understanding of what happened in 1983 in order not to repeat it again. This is important regardless of race and who the victim is. We need to transcend this point in our history, and learn from it to make sure we’re not repeating that mistake.”
Reparation and reconciliation: Still only skin-deep?
What of reparation and reconciliation for 1983? The war ended 13 years ago, and with it, apparently, all hostilities. But what is the reality? What progress has been made towards meaningful reparation and reconciliation on a social level, to healing the wounds of the conflict that (officially) began with the events of 1983?
Of course, meaningful reconciliation is easier talked about than achieved, but true reconciliation starts with accountability, and this is something that has not happened regarding 1983.
“Despite the years that have passed, there is still a lot of reckoning that needs to take place about what happened, not just in terms of the role of the State, but also of the citizens. We need to ask ourselves as citizens why it happened and why it spread. That reckoning hasn’t been sufficient, and the fact that the root causes of the conflict haven’t been addressed is why we see new cycles of violence happening. There’s a lot more to be done in terms of reconciliation, and we’re still a long way off,” Thushan said.
Peacebuilding and reconciliation researcher and activist Sarah Kabir also shared her thoughts on reconciliation over 1983, noting that there was a big difference in narratives on either side of the conflict, and until this was addressed there could be no real reconciliation.
“1983 is still largely a silent topic that is not heavily discussed, despite it being the catalyst for the Sri Lankan conflict (albeit not the beginning). It has never got the sort of discussion or debate one would expect after such an event. It’s also very polarised when it comes to individual recollections.
“When I speak to Tamil kids (mainly overseas), they’ve heard one version through their parents and grandparents, but in the south, it’s very different – it’s a blank record. Many don’t discuss it. 1983 has remained largely undiscussed and polarised which means there are no interactive discussions between communities on why this happened and what it meant, both to the Tamil community and to the country at large.”
Kabir also highlighted that political opportunism came into play on this topic on both sides of the divide. Sri Lankan politicians have long used ethno-religious differences to sway voters, and Tamil political parties too capitalise on the polarisation caused by 1983 and the national lack of discussion and accountability to further their own personal political agendas, which further sets back attempts at reconciliation.
Meaningful reconciliation will never be formulaic or easily achieved, but there are things that can be done to drive it, especially if such efforts are sustained and not limited to political agendas, election cycles, and specific events.
“There are statements made by leaders from time to time, but no sustained plan that speaks to different challenges citizens face while also recognising that all citizens are equal,” Thushan explained.
“We continue to have successive governments and politicians who espouse that minorities are second-class citizens and don’t help when it comes to reconciliation. Much work has been done in connecting communities in recent years, but there is still so much polarisation. There needs to be more work done in terms of connecting communities and recognising the structural violence and discrimination faced by minorities. It is incumbent on the majority community to play a more robust role in this.”
Are we finally turning a corner?
In 2022, there have been unprecedented shows of unity in calling for change through the protest movement commonly called the Aragalaya. This feeling of unity is certainly inspiring, but in the context of our complex past, is this unity a turning point for us as a nation in the long run or something more temporary?
Haputhanthri shared that the Aragalaya did serve as a positive symbol of unity and inclusivity, and was certainly a long way from where we’ve come, especially when considering instances like the national anthem being performed in Tamil and representation in core groups by different religious leaders.
“It’s quite positive symbolically,” she noted, “but we still have a long way to go, and concerns remain in the long-term. For instance, communities in the north are observing what’s happening with the Aragalaya very carefully to see where it goes. There is the fear that once all the economic issues are resolved that we will go back into our normal supremacy mindset.”
Kabir also spoke of the Aragalaya as a point in our history, agreeing that while the Aragalaya showed visible forms of inclusivity, this inclusivity was somewhat akin to tokenism.
“If you dig a bit deeper and ask national questions of ethnicity, those answers won’t be as inclusive as you’d expect. I’m not faulting the ordinary citizen for this, it’s largely because we’ve not been exposed to these discussions. But we’re far behind where we should be some 10 years after the war when it comes to reconciliation and inclusivity.
“We’ve discussed very little on the root causes and tend to see repeats of the same cycles of violence swept under the rug. I want to be optimistic about the Aragalaya, since even though it can be tokenist, it does provide a good platform to start work on, but it can also be a negative should it function like a band-aid, causing people seeing it to think everything is okay and there is nothing more to do.
“We must not let it blind us but use it as a platform to now ask the hard questions. Just because we have come together to share Ramadan food and remember Mullivaikkal Day, doesn’t mean that there has been concrete reconciliation and that we have addressed the grievances of a community.”
Thushan also commented on the Aragalaya as a possible turning point in national unity, noting that one key incident from the Aragalaya that gave him and the Tamil community hope for longer and more sustained unity was the inclusive commemoration of the dead on 18 May.
“All these 13 years, the mere act of remembering the dead was controversial. The narrative of the war means that the south thinks that us commemorating our dead is condoning LTTE violence, but for us in the north and east, it’s about remembering our mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, and children. There is a massive divide in terms of narratives and how this day is remembered.
“The coming together of communities, from the majority to the Muslim community at Galle Face in front of the Presidential Secretariat – a hall of power and arrogance that has seen so many agreements torn apart – really resonated with a lot of people,” he explained.
“I always believe that when talking about war, the fact that war is over doesn’t mean anything unless we are talking about the root causes of the conflict. We must seek the opportunity to rise together as Sri Lankans out of systemic violence and build bridges. As we remember 1983, let’s also remember the root cause of the conflict and prevent it from recurring.”