July 1983: A Review

by Sabesan, Melbourne

This article is a translation of the political analysis broadcast on Melbourne's 3CR Tamil Voice on the 11th July 2005.  The full Tamil version is published in www.tamilnathaam.com .  The translation is by Arvalan.

"The July riots was not only aimed at the physical extermination of our people, but also at the destruction of the economic power base of the Tamils."

- V. Pirapaharan, Leader of Tamil Eelam in an interview with Anita Pratap, March 1984

This year is the 22nd anniversary of the pogrom executed by the Sri Lankan government.  The barbaric events of July 1983 have left an unforgettable scar in the memories of the Tamil people.

The 1983 ethnic riots was planned and executed with certain objectives in mind.  The most important of them being destroying the economic well-being of the Tamil people.  The value of destruction caused to properties and assets was estimated at over US$ 300 million, which is monumental.  This is on top of the economic attacks executed by the successive Sri Lankan governments since independence from the British.  Further, the subsequent military offensives, coupled with prolonged economic embargos, rendered the day-to-day life of the Tamil nation miserable.

A World Bank report states that in the last 22 years more than 65,000 people have lost their lives, whilst more than 800,000 people have been internally displaced.  The report also states that over 700,000 people have migrated overseas due to unsettled conditions at home.  Economic analysts estimate that the Sri Lankan government has spent over US$ 6 billion as defense expenses during this period.  It should be noted that at present the Sri Lankan government needs the cooperation of the Tamils to obtain a few billion dollars of foreign aid.

In an interview given to Japan’s TBS–TV and Sri Lanka’s MTV in June 2003, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said "because of the nagging, neuralgic war that was dragging on for almost twenty years, the United States, about two or two and a half years ago, was thinking about stopping our assistance program.  When the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe came into office, he seemed to offer a real chance for peace.  We re-evaluated and we think that Sri Lanka, which becomes a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society which can be involved successfully in conflict resolution -- that could be a great, great signal for the rest of the world.  We are in for the long haul now."

Therefore, it is quite evident that the economic offensive unleashed by the Sri Lankan government on the Tamil nation has boomeranged and now needs to the cooperation of the Tamil nation for survival.

In addition to the economic objective, there was also a psychological objective to the 1983 pogrom executed by JR Jeyawardene’s government.  That objective was to destroy the moral of the Tamils and impose the thinking that they are destitute and have to live under the superiority of the Singhalese Buddhists.

Over the last 22 years Tamil people have risen again with pride.  This is a time when the Tamil people, both at home and abroad, have come together under the able leadership of our national leader, contributing towards our liberation struggle.

However, 22 years ago the expectation and the objective of the Sinhalese Buddhist supremacists were different.  The late former Cabinet Minister Gamini Dissanayake, who was also then the President of the UNP-controlled Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union with a membership among plantation Tamils, saw the situation in a different light.  He put it bluntly to his Tamil members and without ceremony in a widely reported speech on 5 September 1983:

''Who attacked you?  Sinhalese.  Who protected you?  Sinhalese.  It is we who can attack and protect you.  They are bringing an army from India.  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.  It is not written on anyone's forehead that he is an Indian or a Jaffna Tamil, a Batticaloa Tamil or upcountry Tamil, Hindu Tamil or Christian Tamil.  All are Tamils.''

History has recorded that in the subsequent years the Tamil nation successfully defended itself against not only the Sri Lankan army, but also the Indian army.

The Washington Post in the US capital was constrained to comment editorially on 4 August 1983: ''If living together is so hard, what about a separate state in the north for the Tamils?  They have as good a claim to a nation of their own as most members of the United Nations.  But as always it is a question of power, and in Sri Lanka the Sinhalese have the power.  Do they also have the wisdom to see that the Tamil minority is treated in a way that justifies its retention within a unitary state?''

The 1983 pogrom awakened the international community, except for one country.  That country was none other than Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lanka.  President JR Jeyawardene portrayed the image of a typical Singhalese Buddhist supremacist through his words and action during and after the July pogrom.  Let me recollect some of those actions and words.

JR maintained silence for 5 days starting from July 24 1983 when the riots actually started a few kilometers from his residence.  It was only on the 28th of July 1983 that he made his first address to the nation.  When he spoke, he expressed no word of regret, no word of sympathy, no word of horror at the humiliation and suffering of thousands of innocent Tamil people - innocent of any crime other than that of being Tamils.

"It was from 1956 that this suspicion between the Sinhalese and the Tamil people first began.  This violence has been aimed particularly against the Tamil people, and it has been caused by the deep ill feeling and the suspicion that has grown between the Sinhalese and the Tamil people for several years.  When there is distrust, when there are grievances, it is easy to lead people to violence," said the 77 year-old Sri Lankan President.

He further added, "The Cabinet, therefore, this morning decided that we should bring legislation, firstly, to prevent people from entering the Legislature if they belonged to a Party that seeks to divide the nation.  Secondly, the legislation will make Parties that seek to divide the nation illegal or proscribe them.  And once they are proscribed, the Members cannot sit in the Legislature.  We will also see that those who belong to this Party or those who advocate the separation of the country lose their civic rights and cannot hold office, cannot practice professions, cannot join movements or organizations in this country"

"The President did not see fit to utter one single word of sympathy for the victims of the violence and destruction which he lamented," said the International Commission of Jurists in a report.

"Not a syllable of sympathy for the Tamil people or any explicit rejection of the spirit of vengeance... Next day, Colombo was a battlefield.  More than 100 people are estimated to have been killed on that Friday alone, and 30,000 Tamils fled to refugee camps,'' said The Economist issue of 6 August 1983.

The atrocities committed during this pogrom and the destruction to the lives and properties of Tamils are yet to be completely documented.  At this juncture a famous quote by a so-called "terrorist" Nelson Mandela comes to mind.  He said "To forget and forgive, we need to know the whole truth."

In conclusion, the Tamil Nation should rely on itself for its economic well being, social development and, most importantly, security.


Posted July 19, 2005