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Black July of 1983 Revisited

by Ana Pararajasingam, 1996

In the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 thousands of Tamils were killed by mobs which waylaid them. Vehicles suspected of carrying Tamils were set ablaze with the occupants inside, Tamil pedestrians were killed on sight, and entire Tamil neighbourhoods were torched. Within days Colombo came to resemble a war zone, as Tamil-owned factories shops and homes were burnt to the ground, and the skyline marked by pillars of smoke. The violence soon spread to other cities.

Originally posted in the Sangam website here.

Pictures of Black July posted on Sangam at that time here.

In late July 1983, Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital literally burst into flames as angry mobs of Sinhalese went on a rampage burning, looting and terrorising the occupants of Tamil homes in an orgy of violence unparalleled in the Island’s history. 

Anti Tamil mob stopping cars to look for Tamils July 26 1983 Colombo Sri Lanka Black July pogrom

Sinhalese mob stopping cars to look for Tamils, Colombo, July 26, 1983


The Government line was that this was a spontaneous backlash by the Sinhalese people to the killing of thirteen Sinhalese soldiers in the north by Tamil guerrillas (LTTE -Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,) fighting for an independent state of Tamil Eelam comprising the North and Eastern parts of the Island.

Although, a low-intensity conflict between the Tamil guerrillas and the Sri Lankan security forces had been under way since the late 1970’s, never before had so many soldiers been killed in such a single incident! It was a spectacular victory for the LTTE guerrillas who at that time numbered not more than thirty, and were poorly armed. However, the Government claim, that the attack on Tamil civilians was a spontaneous backlash by ordinary Sinhalese, was hardly supported by the behaviour of many ordinary Sinhalese who risked their lives to save Tamil neighbours and friends from the marauding mobs. On the other hand, the evidence pointed to considerable advance planning and organisation behind the “spontaneous” action.

To begin with, the marauding Sinhalese mobs had little difficulty in locating Tamil homes as they were armed with electoral lists in which Tamil households had been clearly marked. The attacks on Tamil homes were systematic and in the early stages of the pogrom, only those who resisted or chose to stay in their homes were killed. Those who chose to flee were more often than not permitted to leave, provided they did not take any valuables with them. This, however, did not last long as the mobs, drunk with violence and alcohol became increasingly ugly as time went on.

Nine months after the event, in March 1984, following his fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka, Paul Sieghart, the Chairman of the British Section of the International Commission of Jurists had this to say,

“Clearly this was not a spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala people. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organised well in advance.”

Such a conclusion was hardly surprising given that state-sanctioned anti-Tamil violence had become a common feature in the Island’s post-colonial political landscape. Such violence had in fact preceded the emergence of Tamil militancy by about twenty years.  According to Stanley Tambiah, professor of Anthropology at Harvard University and curator of the South Asian Ethnology at the Peabody Museum, between 1958 and 1983 there have been  “seven occurrences of mass violence unleashed by segments of the Sinhalese population against Tamils”.

These attacks were not only reminiscent of the anti-Jewish pogroms of Europe, but also each more violent than the preceding one. As such, the events of July 1983 (in which an estimated three thousand Tamils were killed and thousands forced to flee the Island) was only a culmination of this series of organised violence against the Tamils.

Writing immediately after the first serious anti-Tamil pogrom of 1958, Sinhala journalist Tarzie Vittachi, (who was later to become a regular columnist with Newsweek) , ended his book “Emergency 58”The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots” [i] leaving his readers pondering the question “Have the Sinhalese and Tamils reached the parting of the ways?”

Then onwards state-condoned attacks on Tamils living in the Sinhala region were to occur with alarming regularity in attempts to intimidate the Tamil people whose political demands were anathema to the Sinhala political establishment. There was, however, an ugly qualitative change in the nature of the violence from the 1970s. Until then, the violence, though condoned and sometimes even encouraged by the Sinhala politicians in power, did not involve direct participation by the armed forces. The armed forces generally remained independent of the government, often intervening on their own to bring an end to the violence. Since the mid 1970’s this was to change with the armed forces and police becoming directly engaged in perpetrating anti-Tamil violence. These bouts of Sinhala army-and police-aided anti-Tamil violence were to occur in rapid succession from 1977, culminating in the climactic violence of July 1983.

In the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 thousands of Tamils were killed by mobs which waylaid them. Vehicles suspected of carrying Tamils were set ablaze with the occupants inside, Tamil pedestrians were killed on sight, and entire Tamil neighbourhoods were torched. Within days Colombo came to resemble a war zone, as Tamil-owned factories shops and homes were burnt to the ground, and the skyline marked by pillars of smoke. The violence soon spread to other cities.

There was of course, no attempt on the part of the authorities to stem the violence and it soon became impossible to persist with the canard that the violence was a spontaneous backlash to the killing of thirteen soldiers by Tamil guerrillas in the north. It was soon apparent that the anti-Tamil violence was a blatant attempt by the authorities to indicate to the Tamil guerrillas the vulnerability of Tamils in the south. The speeches made by parliamentarians belonging to the ruling UNP just prior to and soon after the attack, the findings by several independent agencies, and eyewitness accounts, leave little in doubt. The violence was nothing less than a state-orchestrated pogrom.

Just two weeks before the attacks on Tamil people and property, President J R Jayawardne was quoted by the  (London) Daily Telegraph of 11 July 1983 as saying

“I am not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people.. now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion ... Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy”.

Nothing was heard from the President for 5 days into the pogrom, and when he appeared on television it was to say that the attacks were “not a product of urban mobs but a mass movement of the generality of the Sinhalese people and that “the time had come to accede to the clamour and the national respect of the Sinhalese people”.

According to Professor Stanley Tambiah, [ii]

“On the same television program in which the President had bowed to the action of the generality of the Sinhalese people, Lalith Athulathmudali, who was later to be appointed Minister of security, nearly wept with ponderous histrionics over a sight that he never dreamed he would see-lines of Sinhalese people waiting to buy food as a result of the violence.  He had not a word to say in sympathy for the frightened Tamils crowded in indescribable conditions in refugee camps”

Industries Minister Cyril Matthew[1] whose anti-Tamil views were well known and who controlled the powerful UNP-run labour union called the Jatika Seveka Sangamaya (JSS), was widely suspected of being the ‘master mind” behind the violence. According to India Today of 31st August 1983, Cyril Matthew was involved in pin pointing Tamil-owned shops and factories.

The Review, a publication of the International Commission of Jurists said:

“The evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhala rioters on the Tamils amounted to acts of genocide”

Paul Seigart of the International Commission of Jurists was to echo the same sentiments in a much more detailed report entitled “Sri Lanka: A Mounting Tragedy of Errors” by stating,

“Clearly this (attack in July 1983)  was not a spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala people - nor was it, as has been suggested in some quarters, a popular response to the killing of 13 soldiers in an ambush by Tamils Tigers on the previous day, which was not even reported in the newspapers until after the riots began. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organised well in advance”

The active support given by the army, the police and the navy to the mobs engaged in the attack was clearly visible. Although there was little coverage of these events in the Sinhala-owned local media, the foreign media carried several reports highlighting the role played by the Island’s armed forces and the police in the attacks.

The correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph reported on the 26th of July how “several army vehicles drove through the city, packed with troops shouting encouragement to the rioters”.

The Irish Times of 29th July reported the attack on (Tamil) shops and homes by 130 sailors who had broken out of their barracks on Monday, 25th July.

The Observer of 31st July 1983, reported security forces joining the rioters in the looting and burning in Trincomalee and other cities.

The London Times of 5th August reported how “…Army personnel actively encouraged arson and the looting of Tamil business establishments and homes in Colombo” and how “absolutely no action was taken to apprehend or prevent the criminal elements involved in these activities. In many instances army personnel participated in the looting of shops.”

According to John Elliott of the London Financial Times, Troops and police either joined the rioters or stood idly by.”

India Today reported how a jewellery mart (Fifty yards from the Indian High Commission, right next to a police station’) was ransacked with army assistance. “The shops in this block had heavy grille doors” recalled an eye witness, “ so an army truck was used as a battering ram to break through them, then the soldiers sprang in with Sinhala battle cries to claim the lion share of the loot”

During this time, the bloodstained hand of the authorities was clearly exposed in the brutal slaughter of 52 Tamil political prisoners held in the maximum-security prison at Welikade in Colombo. The killing of these political prisoners was carried out over two days. Thirty-five of them were killed on 25th July around 2.30pm when Colombo was supposedly under a curfew.

According to an eyewitness (K Devanadan a survivor of the prison massacre), Airforce helicopters hovered over the jail while the killings took place under the supervision of the deputy jail superintendent, aided and abetted by the army and security guards. After the killings the blood-soaked bodies were piled in front of a statue of Buddha in the jail courtyard and, in a macabre ritual the assailants offered the blood of the Tamil victims to the statute of Buddha.

S.A. David,[2] another survivor of the prison massacre recalled that the murdered included two political prisoners (Kuttimani and Jegan) whose eyes were gouged by their attackers.

The Madras Hindu of 10th August 1983 reporting on this said,

“Selvaraja Yogachandran, popularly known as Kuttmuni, a nominated member of the Sri Lankan parliament who was one of the 52 prisoners killed in the maximum security Wellikade prison in Colombo two weeks ago, was forced to kneel in his cell, (where he was under solitary confinement), by his assailants and ordered to pray to them. When he refused, his tormentors taunted him about his last wish, when he was sentenced to death. (He had willed that his eyes be donated to someone so that at least that person would see an independent Tamil Eelam.) The assailants then gouged his eyes. He was then stabbed to death and his testicles were wrenched from his body. That was confirmed by one of the doctors who had conducted the post-mortem on the first group of 35 prisoners.

According to S.A David,[iii] the thirty-five Tamils were then heaped in front of the statue of Gautama Buddha in the yard of the Welikade prison and when some yet alive raised their heads they were clubbed to death.

The second round of killings on July 27 was lead by Sepala Ekanaike, undergoing life imprisonment for the hijacking of an Alitalia plane on its flight from Delhi to Bangkok a year previously. Sinhalese prisoners convicted of murder, rape and burglary charges were handpicked by the warders, who after plying them with liquor, let them loose on the remaining Tamil political prisoners. Seventeen prisoners were killed on this occasion.

A Norwegian tourist Mrs. Eli Skarstein and her 15-year-old daughter, Kristen, witnessed an equally harrowing mass murder as a mini bus full of Tamils was stopped by a Sinhala mob, petrol poured and the bus set on fire, after ensuring that the doors were locked. The eyewitnesses reported that over a hundred spectators watched as twenty Tamils were burnt to death.[iv]

Apart from the two events of mass murders, which were widely reported, there were thousands of other incidents in which people were maimed, killed or rendered homeless.

Several refugee camps came to be established as Tamils, driven out of their homes, sought sanctuary in numbers by crowding into schools, temples and churches. The exact nature and scale of the attacks came to be known only when Tamils in these refugee camps began to share their experiences.

The Methodist Church in Kollupitya (an affluent suburb in Colombo) was one such camp. The church was hurriedly converted into a refugee camp by Sinhalese Christians, many of whom risked their lives in the subsequent days to save hundreds of Tamils who had lost their homes or were driven out of their homes and were on the run from marauding mobs.

In this camp alone, which accommodated around 500 displaced Tamils, there were many who had their own tales to tell. It included a severely traumatised young girl in her teens who related (with no sign of any emotion) how her father and brother were killed as she looked on, a senior executive with a multinational company who had watched his home burnt to the ground, a young man who had narrowly escaped being burnt alive (after being doused with petrol) when the lighter failed, giving him just the opportunity to escape, an eighty-year old woman who had scaled a ten foot wall when hunted down by a mob; a middle-aged lawyer who had to plead with a mob to spare the lives of his family; a young couple whose child had suffocated to death when the mother had attempted to keep the child quiet when on the run and several others who had equally harrowing stories to tell.[3]

 According to N Sanmugathasan,[v]  the General Secretary of the Ceylon Communist Party:

“In Colombo at least 500 cars some with drivers and passengers inside were burnt. Tamil-owned buses, running between Colombo and Jaffna were burnt. Tamil patients in hospitals were attacked and killed. Some had their throats cut as they lay in their beds”

The official figure for the deaths, according to the Sri Lankan government, was 358 while the Tamil survivors’ estimate was “well over three thousand”.

On 28th July, Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister telephoned the Sri Lankan President to express her concern about the fate of the Tamils and convey her decision to send her External Minister, Narasimha Rao on a fact finding mission. It was a veiled threat designed to show that India would not remain unconcerned in view of its own substantial Tamil population, which was becoming increasingly restive by the events in Sri Lanka. In the light of the Indian role in Pakistan’s civil war in 1969, resulting in the birth of Bangladesh, the Sri Lankan government could ill-afford to ignore this message from its powerful neighbour.[4]

Francis Wheen wrote in The London Times of 30th July 1983:

“When presented with evidence that the army had committed atrocities against the Tamils, the Government has reacted with a shrug of the shoulders”.

The London Guardian in its editorial of 1st August 1983 referred to the Sri Lankan President as someone who has “increasingly come to resemble a dictatorial and racist third World autocrat”.

The Australian Government announced a relaxation of its immigration laws, permitting Tamils affected by the troubles to migrate under a Special Humanitarian Program and the Canadian government threw its doors wide open to any Tamil who could get across to Canada.

The burning, looting and killing were to go on for two weeks before the authorities intervened to bring an end to the violence. Faced with the growing condemnation by the international community (as reflected by newspaper articles, and the decision of the Australian and Canadian governments to grant sanctuary to the Tamil victims) and India’s veiled threat, the Sri Lankan regime found it could no longer permit events to go unchecked.

The Government touted various conspiracy theories in a hurried and clumsy attempt to shift the blame, and distance itself from the perpetrators of the violence. Government spokesmen thereafter spoke of an anti-Government plot, a communist conspiracy, and foreign involvement, to explain the unchecked anti-Tamil violence of the previous weeks. Ananda Tissa de Alwis, a prominent member of the government saw in the violence, the hand of the KGB, while the President spoke of the possibility of the events being engineered by sections of the armed forces, and of a Naxalite plot, at the same time. The virulently anti-Tamil and anti-Indian Cyril Matthew saw only “the dirty hand of India”.

All of these theories were quickly dismissed in the face of irrefutable evidence.

The evidence included the systematic manner in which the attacks were carried out, the use of electoral lists to identify Tamil homes, the commandeering of state-owned vehicles to   transport the goons and the direct participation by the armed forces. Several Tamil-owned businesses of whatever type - grocery shops, small kiosks, hotels etc., were gutted in the presence of the armed forces. The attacks were similar and in many cases the attackers exhibited a perverse discipline which again indicated that this was no spontaneous backlash.

The goon squads were organised in two ways. There was the first group under the command of UNP youth leaders and well-known local thugs often used by UNP politicians as their local militia. Then there were the more organised squads drawn from the pro-government trade union called the JSS-Jathika Seveya Sangaya. These squads had come into existence early during the UNP regime and were under the control and command of Minister Cyril Mathew who was a cabinet minister in the Jayewardene Government.

Mathew had been conducting a semi-official anti-Tamil campaign long before the violence of July. He was responsible for the propagation of several extremely chauvinistic pamphlets enumerating privileges being enjoyed by Tamils at the expense of the Sinhala Buddhists. He was a fervent advocate of the “bhumi putra” concept which saw the Sinhalese as the only true sons of the soil who deserved a “lion’s share” of the country’s wealth, and was openly critical of the “privileges” enjoyed by the Tamils. In the parliamentary debate shortly after the July 83 massacres, Mathew justified the pogrom by implying that the destruction of Tamil property was long overdue and only  a spark was needed to make it happen and that the spark fell on 24th July.[5]

In May 1981, Mathew was widely suspected to have been responsible for instigating the violence by Sinhala policemen that led to the burning of the Jaffna Public library which held over 95,000 manuscripts.

Amirthalingam, the TULF leader was unequivocal in identifying Mathew as the chief perpetrator. In a letter to the President on 10th August 1983 Amirthalingam was to say 

The attack on the Tamil people is pure ethnic violence planned well ahead and executed with ruthlessness by forces close to the Government. These forces include the armed forces for whom Mr Cyril Mathew always holds a brief in Parliament.”

Professor Wilson, the author of “The Break-up of Sri Lanka” [vi] provides further evidence of the Government’s role in the planning that went into the July 1983 pogrom. He quotes a letter written to him by George Immerwahr, a United Nations civil servant and a US citizen who had worked in Sri Lanka in the late 1950s. The letter dated 13 February 1985 said:

“ ... the most shattering report came from a friend who was a civil servant; he told me that he had helped plan the riots at the orders of his superiors. When I heard him say this, I was so shocked I told him I simply couldn’t believe him, but he insisted he was telling the truth, and in fact he justified the Government’s decision to stage the riots. When I heard this, I telephoned an official in our own State Department, and while he declined to discuss the matter, I got the impression that he already knew from our embassy in Colombo what I was telling him.”

“Black July 1983” was in fact the last of the pogroms. It had claimed 3,000 Tamil lives within two weeks. Thereafter, state-terror against the Tamil people was unleashed under the guise of fighting “terrorism”. This has so far claimed another 60,000 Tamil lives.

[1] It is a view widely held by Tamils that it was at the instigation of Cyril Mathew and his cabinet colleague Gamini Dissanayake that the Public Library in the Tamil City of Jaffna was burnt down in 1981. The Public Library contained over 95,000 volumes, many of which were irreplaceable and historical documents. Both these ministers well known for their virulent anti-Tamil stance were in Jaffna at the time of the burning. Tamil suspicions were confirmed many years later when the Sinhala President, Ranasinghe Premadasa implied that the ministers were responsible for this act of vandalism. According to Harvard professor Stanley Tambiah, " This book burning by the Sinhala police has come to signify to many a Tamil the apogean barbarity of Sinhalese vindictiveness that seeks physical as well as cultural obliteration. "

[2] S A David is a qualified architect who now lives in South India having escaped from captivity two months after the massacres when Tamil militants freed the surviving prisoners in a daring bloodless operation. The breakout occurred two months later (on 23rd September 1983) after the surviving prisoners had been transferred to another prison in the Tamil City of Batticaloa. David himself played a vital role in the escape by drawing a sketch of the prison building which was then passed onto the militants.

[3] The writer was an inmate of this refugee camp and was privy to these and many other accounts.

[4] A counter threat was made by Minister Gamini Dissanayake, 5 weeks later on 5th September 1983, at “ Sri Kotha (The Head Quarters of the ruling UNP)..Addressing the UNP-controlled labour union , "Sri Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union", the minister said referring to any attempt by India to intervene on behalf of the Tamils, " It will take 14 hours to come from India. In 14 minutes, the blood of every Tamil in the country can be sacrificed to the land, by us.

[5] Based on the Notes & Documents on Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka per the  September (Summer ) 1984 issue of the journal Race & Class .(Race & Class is a  publication of the Institute of Race relations, UK) Summer 1984.

[i] Vittachi T, Emergency '58-The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots, Andre Deutsch (London) 1958.

[ii] Tambiah S.J., Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy, The University of Chicago Press (Chicago), 1991.

[iii] David S.A., Detention Torture & Murder in Sri Lanka , a pamphlet published by the People's Liberation Organisation of Thamil Eelam (November 1983)

[iv] London Daily Express, 29th August 1983.

[v] Shanmugathasan N.,   in an article entitled  Sri Lanka : the story of the holocaust in “Race & Class ( Vol: XXVI; Summer 1984)  a  journal of  the Institute of  Race Relations, UK.

[vi] Wilson A.J., The Break-Up of Sri Lanka, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1988.



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