Black July: The Unspoken and the Unspeakable

by Ambika Satkunanathan, Groundviews, Colombo, July 29, 2020

Photo courtesy of Sangam

Black July 1983 / Young Asia TV

Burning Tamil houses, July 1983

July. Referred to as Black July to mark the pogrom against Tamils in 1983 carried out by Sinhala mobs. Pogrom is a Russian word meaning ‘to wreak havoc, to demolish violently’, that has come to mean organized, state sanctioned violence that targets a certain group.

Blurred memories

My memories of the 1983 riots are like snapshots or short video clips. They are disjointed. In pieces. I remember not being sent to school that day. Hearing conversations of smoke being seen and the panic laced voices of the adults. My sister and I didn’t understand what was going on because we were not told, but we could sense the fear and a certain panic took hold of us as well. We didn’t express it nor did we ask any questions. I saw black smoke, lots of it, and could see it getting closer to us. I remember the adults saying ‘it’ might not get to our house. We didn’t really know what ‘it’ was but knew we should be scared of ‘it’. I then recall being handed/carried over the wall into the neighbouring Muslim house and about ten persons crowded into the storeroom. A few minutes later I remember hearing loud noises, like glass being shattered that continued for what seemed like forever. I remember we were seated in that room for hours until evening. I still didn’t understand what was happening or why.

I remember some people leaving the room and then I, my sister, my mother, grandmother and uncle walked along the lane, which was empty and eerily quiet, to my uncle’s house further along the lane, which had not been attacked because the owner knew certain local Sinhala local youth who had protected her houses. That night we saw the neighbouring house being burnt. We saw huge orange flames that grew larger. Once again we feared that the flames would spread to the house we were in. We learnt that my father and other family members, who were supposed to follow us to our uncle’s house, were trapped that night in the kitchen of the house along with many neighbours as mobs roamed around looting. They had sat on their haunches all night on broken glass and debris to avoid detection by the mobs.

My next memory is of Hindu College, Bambalapitiya, where we lived for a few weeks. I can’t remember if it was one, two or three weeks. I remember the long classroom and queues. I remember asking my parents many times when our turn would come to leave by ship to Jaffna. I remember being in the cavernous crowded cargo hold of a ship. I then remember going up to the deck because I felt nauseous. I remember sea spray and seeing land. We then had lunch, which according to memory was delicious, in a school. That’s all I remember of 83.

Post-83: an era dominated by the fear of violence

Post 83, for many years, the lives of my family and many like us were governed by the fear of impending violence. The fear of violence made us always keep our valuables, such as important documents, in an easy to access place ready to be taken if we had to flee our homes. If there was a bomb blast or a battle in the North or East and soldiers were killed by the LTTE, we would set a few things aside, or even pack a bag ready to be taken ‘just in case something happened’ in Colombo. One night, I don’t remember what happened that day, we even discussed leaving a high stool next to a neighbour’s wall in case we had to flee. For many years after 83 my sister would start crying whenever she saw smoke.

It was only later that I learnt that 83 was a watershed moment in our political history. Personally, as I became older I realized that the events of 83 meant that I was not viewed as an equal in the country I call home where I was made to feel I didn’t belong. I learnt that my identity made me vulnerable to violence about which many others did not have to worry. I learnt that my Tamil identity made people treat us differently.

As a child I saw many dimensions of the war even in Colombo. Young men known to my family would be arrested in cordon and search operations and my parents would help the families secure their release. We would have relatives from the North reside with us for months while they obtained their passports and visas to leave Sri Lanka. My parents, both public servants, experienced discrimination at their work places. They were accused of being LTTE because being a Tamil was equated with being LTTE. My father, who retired from the public service and began working in the private sector, was summoned a couple of times to the police station and kept overnight because a couple of persons he had hired for an organization with hundreds of employees, was suspected of having links to the LTTE.

As an adult, I remember one instance when we were travelling home from the airport, late at night when I had returned to Sri Lanka from university, soldiers at a checkpoint were aggressive and very rude to us. They asked me to open my suitcases to be checked after they checked our national identity cards, which identified us as Tamils. Other cars weren’t checked the same way. When driving in Colombo I would always take off my pottu and wear it again when I reached my destination since I didn’t want to be stopped at checkpoints. The pottu marked me as a potential threat to the state, which made me vulnerable to harassment or even violence. It was a vicious cycle dominated by the fear of violence. A friend always says that the size of the pottu is the barometer to measure how secure Tamils feel at any given moment – the smaller the size of the pottu, the greater the insecurity. Wearing the pottu during my tenure at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka was a conscious decision not only to make people accept my identity, but also to make them realise that my identity didn’t automatically make me biased or prejudiced.

After the riots of 83 the Black July that is seared in my mind is July 1999 when Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, a quiet, gentle, kind and generous mentor who helped me articulate and make sense of my value system and what I wanted to do with my life, was assassinated on 29 July 1999 by a suicide bomber. The violence, loss and pain of Black July continued.

The next time I felt the same fear of possible impending violence that I’d felt during 83 was after the end of the armed conflict in May 2009. During the days after the end of the war, one heard of incidents of communalism, of comments being made to individuals that the treatment that was meted out to the Tamils ‘up north’ should be repeated in Colombo. One night at around ten p.m. I heard loud chanting and when I looked out found that it was a group of men in a truck shouting slogans using a speaker. The slogans referred to the President as king and were mostly about the superiority of the Sinhalese. Once again, my identity made me feel vulnerable to violence and my sense of belonging diminished.

The model minority and the burden of the majority

I have never spoken or written about 83 or of my experience of being a Tamil in Sri Lanka because I didn’t want to centre myself in my writing, advocacy or activism on human rights and justice issues, as I felt it would distract from the importance of the issues. In this regard I always remember the statement of Regini, one of the members of Poorani Women’s Centre in Jaffna in the 1980s who said, ‘I am not going to use my own pain to paint the story of our community’. I am doing so now because I realize that we still find it challenging to openly discuss issues of discrimination, violence, loss, pain and privilege in many of our interpersonal, inter-ethnic relationships. We speak of them in historical, technical and legal terms but not in human or social terms. We sanitize them and make them impersonal and distant as if they affect others and not us.

Our conversations hence contain invisible and unacknowledged silences that we often dare not breach in order to maintain social niceties. Perhaps we also don’t breach the silences because open and honest conversations about ethnicity, identity and discrimination require us to reflect how our daily interactions are shaped by our privileges, fears and prejudices. When we speak of equality and non-discrimination, are we aware how our ethnic/religious/class/caste privilege blinds us to what is discrimination or a violation of another’s right, and how that blindness leads to the normalization of the act? The most common example is language, where it is assumed everyone is proficient in Sinhala, and in my experience I have come across little concern being expressed, even by those who would self-identify as progressive, about a document that is available only in Sinhala. Are we aware that even within a marginalized community, there are different degrees of privilege based on class, wealth, caste etc.?

The reluctance to and discomfort in speaking openly of these issues is linked to the need for social acceptance, because if one is labelled strident or ‘radical’ then one would be marginalized as ‘extreme’. In order to be accepted those who are not part of the majority community are expected to be the model/good minority. Being moderate forms the core of being a ‘model minority’. The meaning of moderate however depends on one’s socio-political position and is constantly shifting. For instance, some in the Sinhala community viewed Dr. Tiruchelvam as a traitor as he worked on a political solution to the ethnic conflict and raised issues of impunity, violence and justice. If he were alive today he would most likely have been subject to vicious attacks because he advocated for a federal solution, which is now erroneously equated with secession. At the same time he was seen as an enemy by the LTTE because he worked with the state on a negotiated peaceful settlement to the ethnic conflict. I too have experience of vicious attacks based on falsehoods that have questioned whether I was Tamil enough, whether I have betrayed the Tamil people etc. Therefore, the plight of ‘the moderate minority’ is precarious indeed.

Tamils, and more recently Muslims, have been labelled anti-national, terrorist, LTTE, Muslim fundamentalist etc. which serves many purposes. Labelling demonizes the person and creates an environment in which the person can be subject to any form of censure, harassment, intimidation or violence. It also seeks to delegitimize the person’s voice by portraying them as biased and prejudiced. Labelling someone LTTE and diaspora could make those so labelled wary of challenging certain state action, such as the treatment of those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), for fear of validating the labelling. If you are Sinhalese, being labelled LTTE/diaspora could result in the person losing the approval of their friends, acquaintances and other social or professional contacts. Considerable personal experience of being labelled LTTE and diaspora, especially during my time at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, has shown me that the aim of such labelling is to silence through creating fear. To create fear of social ostracism, verbal attacks, possible arrest and detention, and violence, which serve as deterrents to dissent and challenges to injustice.

A Sinhala colleague once said that we must be aware of the burden of the majority because if you are a Sinhala Buddhist you are by default thought of as racist. I discussed what I felt was the astounding lack of awareness of privilege in my colleague’s remark with a friend. My friend pointed out to me that even though I may often be labelled LTTE I would be viewed as occupying a privileged position by my colleague because I can claim victimhood due to my ethnicity. My colleague, as a member of the majority community, could lay no such claim. This exchange illustrates that in Sri Lanka discussing issues of discrimination and privilege is complex, contentious and rife with potential for further conflict.

In this context, Tamils and Muslims engage in self-censorship for reasons ranging from protecting themselves from potential intimidation, threats, harassment or violence to gaining social acceptance. For instance, a number of Tamil and Muslim friends and colleagues have told me they feel awkward raising issues affecting their own communities as they are concerned they would be seen to be biased in favour of their communities or appear accusatory of the Sinhala community. The fear of violent and abusive rhetoric or action leads them to, as a friend referred, ‘celebrate crumbs’, i.e. to be content with less than minimum. This in turn leads to silences that bury loss, pain, feelings of injustice, and can even extend to the denial of one’s own identity. For instance, following 83 some Tamils enrolled their children in the Sinhala medium in schools and even went to the extent of changing names to assimilate and protect themselves from potential future violence. They divested their ethnic identity and embraced another ethnic identity for the sake of safety and security.

We do not live in a post-ethnic Sri Lanka. We live in a Sri Lanka where ethnic and religious diversity are feared. Diversity is not celebrated or seen as strength but as an obstacle to the construction of a mono-ethnic and mono-religious country. We live in a Sri Lanka where there are attempts to erase or subsume diverse identities under a faux Sri Lankan identity founded solely upon on a Sinhala Buddhist identity, and there is denial that a Sri Lankan identity is the collective of diverse identities. Hate speech against Muslims, and reports of statements by the Buddhist clergy, that ‘a river of blood will flow in the North and East if Tamils demand devolution’[1], create a climate in which Tamil and Muslim communities live in fear of possible violence.

Allies are integral to the success of any struggle for justice and peace. However, those who are allies, those who wish to be allies, and those who claim to be allies should be aware that those who are affected do not wish to be viewed only as victims. They have agency, which they want to exercise. They want to be heard. They do not wish to be silent while others always speak on their behalf. They wish for assistance to gain space to speak for themselves. Moving beyond performative allyship means being mindful not to appropriate the voices of the affected but standing by them, helping them be heard and amplifying their voices. It means acting not only when egregious violations or incidents take place but being conscious of one’s own privilege and how it contributes to perpetuating inequalities at the micro, everyday level, and countering that as well.

[1] Kalaikathir, 20 July 2020.

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