Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Printer-Friendly Version

Remembering Black July

and the failed state of Sri Lanka

by Dr. J.S.A. Jeyaretnam**, TamilCanadian, July 12, 2006

“At a time when the West is awake to the evils of racialism, the racial persecution of the Tamils and denial of their human rights should not pass without protest. The British have a special obligation to protest, as these cultivated people were put at the mercy of their neighbours less than thirty years ago by the British Government." -- Sir John Foster, et. al., London Times, September 20, 1977

The 23rd of July 2006 marks the 23rd anniversary of the Sri Lankan state's continuing genocidal attack on the Tamil community. This day has left terrible unhealed scars and will be remembered as the one of the saddest days in the history of Tamils around the world. The impact of the 1983 communal violence on the Tamils was catastrophic. Thousands of people were slaughtered, properties worth billions were destroyed and more than 100,000 people sought refuge in temporary camps set up across the country.

Tamil properties being burnt, Colombo, Black July 1983

Tamil property being burnt, July 1983

In March 1984, Mr Paul Sieghart, QC [Queen's Counsel] and Chairman of Justice, the British section of the International Commission of Jurists, commented in his article ‘Sri Lanka - Amounting Tragedy of Errors’ said that the “July '83 violence was not a spontaneous upsurge….it was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organised well in advance. Communal riots in which Tamils are killed, maimed, robbed and rendered homeless are no longer isolated episodes; they are beginning to become a pernicious habit.”

Historical origins of a tragedy

Turning back the leaves of history, ethnic Tamils of Sri Lanka had been betrayed right from the time the Soulbury Constitution was introduced in 1946 with a unitary structure of government. When the freedom for Ceylon was negotiated in 1946, the British were interested on making provision in the proposed constitution for the protection of Tamil rights and demanded that the Sinhalese obtain the consent of the Tamils for the transfer of power to the people. The Sinhalese gave a solemn promise to the British that they will never use their majority power to discriminate against the Tamils (State Council Hansard 1946).

In 1948, when Ceylon gained its Independence, the government of Ceylon changed from British imperialism to Sinhala imperialism. The Sinhalese government passed the Citizenship Act in 1956, resulting in one million up country Tamils of Indian origin becoming stateless. The Sinhalese majority started to assert its dominance and the emergence of a separate national identity was reinforced by the actions of the Sinhalese, which regarded the island as the exclusive home of the Sinhalese.

Tamils are a nation of people enriched with a very ancient culture and art with a history dating back 2500 years. The Tamil language is an ancient language (like Latin, Greek, Sanskrit), but still written and spoken by more than 75 million people all over the world. Tamil literature dates back to the 10th century B.C.

There are over 55 million Tamils in the state of Tamil Nadu in India, with the other main country that has a significant number of Tamils being Sri Lanka. The ethnic violence of 1983 resulted in a mass exodus of Tamils from Sri Lanka as refugees to Western countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Canada, the USA and Australia.

History has it recorded that Ceylon was ruled by Tamil and Sinhalese kings, the Tamil Jaffna kingdom in the North East and the Sinhalese kingdom in the South. These kingdoms fell to the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British in succession during the period from 1505 -1948. When the island was in the hands of the Portuguese and the Dutch, the Tamil kingdom in the North East was administered as an entity separate from the rest of the island. As far back as 1879, Sir Hugh Cleghon, British Colonial Secretary, said that Tamil nation differs entirely in their religion, language and manners. Tamils and Sinhalese were politically independent of one another and occupied their traditional homelands until 1883, when the British united the distinct Sinhala and Tamil nations into one administrative unit, for their own convenience.

Discrimination since independence

For more than five decades, the Tamil community has been disadvantaged by the Sinhalese governments which, under the guise of democracy, effected a program of ethnic cleansing. Tamils were discriminated against in government jobs and in educational opportunities. The standardization legislation of the government blocked the Tamils from entering universities. The redrawing [gerrymandering] of district and provincial boundaries resulted in demographic changes which weakened the Tamils' electoral power. Colonization was a deliberate and systematic effort of the Sinhala government to encroach into the Tamil homeland.

Mr S.W.R.D Bandaranayake broke away from the United National Party (UNP) and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with a ‘Sinhala Only’ slogan before the election of 1956. This cry was taken up by Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawela of the UNP, who said "I want Sinhala to be the sole official language of Ceylon as long as the sun and the moon last." In 1956, the ‘Sinhala Only Act’ was passed by the Sri Lankan government. The law mandated Sinhala as the sole official language of Sri Lanka, ensuring that Tamils became a disadvantaged when applying for positions in the state administration.

The introduction of the ‘Sinhala Only Act’ began to tarnish the identity of the Tamils in Sri Lanka as full citizens. The peaceful resistance movement from the Tamil parliamentarians was broken up by Sinhalese hoodlums, followed by the 1956 riots, which was the beginning of large scale racial violence in Sri Lanka. Periodically, over the years, since Independence until today, whenever Tamils resisted oppressive legislative and administrative acts through parliamentary agitations and non-violent protests, they were physically attacked, burnt alive and their homes and properties were looted and destroyed.

The feelings of the successive Sinhala governments towards the Tamil population in Sri Lanka have been appalling. This is evident from the statement made by the then President Mr J.R.Jayawardena, which was published in the Daily Telegraph on 11 July 1983. “I am not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people… Now we cannot think of them, nor about their lives and their opinion… the more you put pressure in the North, the happier the Sinhalese people will be..… Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”

Violence against Tamils

In March 1986, Senator A.L.Missen, Chairman of the Australian Parliamentary Group of Amnesty International informed the Australian Senate that “some 6000 Tamils have been killed altogether in the past few years. These events are not accidental. It can be seen that they are the result of a deliberate policy on the part of the Sri Lankan government.”

No one can easily forget, for instance, the gruesome massacre of passengers in a ferry by the Sri Lankan navy. On 15 November 1985, the passenger ferry ‘Kumudini’, the only sea transport available for the people of Delft island, off the Northern tip of Sri Lanka was stopped in mid-sea by the Sri Lankan navy and all 46 passengers on board, including women and children, were brutally bludgeoned and cut to death with knifes, swords and axes by the Sri Lankan navy.

The invasion of the North by the Sri Lankan forces in 1996 resulted in the disappearance of hundreds of young men and women. The Sinhala armed forces went on a rampage committing horrendous human rights violations in the form of torture, rape and extra-judicial killings of innocent Tamil civilians. Hundreds of civilians held in custody without charges or trial disappeared. Fifteen years after the 1983 ethnic violence, one of the Sri Lankan soldiers who went on trial for the rape and murder of a teenage girl confessed that he was personally involved in the burial of over 400 bodies of Tamil civilians killed by the armed forces and brought to the Chemmani area every night near a military checkpoint. The exhumation confirmed that these victims have been tortured and killed.

As part of the ethnic cleansing, murdering of religious dignitaries and laymen inside and outside the places of worship has also been taking place repeatedly over the years. In 1985, Rev. Fr. Mary Bastian, a native of Vankalai and about 20 others were killed by the security forces. Again, on 25 August 1997, Rev. Arulpalan was taken into custody by the Sri Lankan army and subsequently his body was found on 9 September 1997. This has been confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In yet another incident in May 2000, nine children from an orphanage in Ayithiyamalai, when traveling to the town accompanied by the parish priest, Jeyachandra to view decorations put up to celebrate the Buddhist Vesak Day were shot and killed by the security forces, who fired at the van killing all the children and wounding the priest, who pleaded, “Please don’t shoot the children; shoot me instead.”

The extra-judicial killings and violations of civilian rights can also be seen by the abduction, rape and murder of Tharshini Ilayathamby (20) by the Sri Lankan navy in December, 2005. Her body was found dumped into an abandoned well in Pungudutivu, an islet in the North of Sri Lanka. This reminds of another brutal killing of Sarathambal Saravanabavanathakurukal (29) a Hindu Brahmin woman at Pungudutivu in December 1999 who was dragged out of her home by the Sri Lankan navy soldiers before she was gang-raped and murdered in cold blood.

The situation in Sri Lanka at present no doubt reminds one of the ethnic cleansing of July 1983. The nation’s security situation has deteriorated immensely within the past few months with continued brutal violence, rape and murder of innocent Tamil civilians of Sri Lanka. The indiscriminate, genocidal attacks in the past year make one wonder whether the island of Sri Lanka is heading for another July 1983.

The execution-style killing of five Tamil students on 2 January 2006 in Trincomalee town was carried out by “ a team of Police Special Task Force (STF) commandos,” said Colombo's Sunday Times in its 8th January edition. The paper further mentioned that the deployment of the STF was ordered by “A retired police official who has now been named as advisor in the Defence Ministry.”

On 25th April 2006, many villages in Trincomalee were indiscriminately bombed and shelled from land and sea by the Sri Lankan army and navy, targeting civilian areas, resulting in over 40,000 people fleeing for safety. One of the bombs directly hit an orphanage where 40 children had been housed after the Tsunami. This is one of the recent examples of pre-planned bombing and shelling of civilian areas.

The bombing of St Peter’s Church in Navaly, in the Jaffna District, on 9 July 1995 killing over 100 innocent civilians including 13 babies in their mothers’ arms and wounding almost 150 people cannot be forgotten by the Tamil people. This pre-planned attack by the Sri Lankan air force took place after leaflets were dropped asking civilians to move to places of worship for safety. Following this incident, the Bishop of Jaffna, Dr Thomas Savundranayagam, called upon the President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumarathunga, to stop attacks on churches, temples and schools where displaced civilians had sought shelter.

On the night of 13th May, 2006, eight Tamil civilians, including a 4 month old baby and a child along with their parents, were shot and killed in an execution-style massacre by the Sri Lankan navy at Allappiddy in the North of Sri Lanka. Amnesty International reported that it received credible reports that the Sri Lanka navy with the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP), a paramilitary group, were present at the scene of killings.

Within a month of this brutal killing, another family of four were tortured and hacked to death at Vankalai in the North-Western District of Mannar. Their bodies were found hanging inside their home. It was reported that ‘the intestines of the seven year old boy were seen protruding. The vaginal area of the twenty-seven year old mother and nine year old daughter were extremely bloody. Only people crazed with callous hatred or those whose senses had been distorted through narcotics could have inflicted such gruesome cruelty.’ It was suspected that the mother was raped before she was murdered. Many residents and the Catholic Bishop of Mannar blamed the army, reportedly saying some soldiers were in the area on the day of the killing.

The Bishop of Mannar, Rev. Dr Joseph Rayappu, in his letter to the Vatican informed that the exchange of fire between the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), made people numbering 6000 to take refuge in the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Pesalai. He further said that according to eyewitnesses, on Saturday, June 17, 2006, the Sri Lankan navy set fire to and gutted several huts belonging to the fisherfolk, along with their fishing nets, outboard engines and other valuables. The refugees inside the church could not escape from the perpetrators. The Sri Lankan troops stormed this Church, shooting, throwing grenades and then attacking fishermen in an assault that killed 5 people and injured 47 more.

Churches and temples where people seek refuge have been the target of massacres by the armed forces. Mr Joseph Pararajasingham, a Tamil parliamentarian, was gunned down on Christmas Eve, 2005 while he was attending Christmas mass with his wife at St Michael’s Church in Batticoloa. It was alleged that military intelligence and paramilitaries controlled by them were involved in this killing. On 7th June 2006, the body of Venkata Krishna Sharma, a Hindu priest (50) who went missing on 26th May 2006, was discovered 200 meters inland from the Kaithady Bridge in Jaffna near an army checkpoint. The discovery of his body led to the exhumation of three more bodies in the vicinity.

Ethnic cleansing

The recent climate of terror with massacres carried out by the armed forces has compelled most of the Tamils in the NorthEast of Sri Lanka to become internal refugees, while a few have managed to flee to other countries, including the neighbouring India by boat, risking their lives in the high seas in desperate attempts. Over 4,000 Tamils have fled to India in the recent past and more than 10,000 are waiting to leave. As a result of the ethnic cleansing from 1983 to 1987, more than 130,000 Tamils have sought asylum in Tamil Nadu, India, while over 200,000 asylum seekers have moved to Western countries and many more to other parts of the world, including Africa, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.

Failed State Index

The atrocities unleashed by the government of Sri Lanka against the Tamil civilians have signal that the nation is a failed state. Sri Lanka has been rated as the 25th nation in the list of failed states next to Rwanda (24), and ahead of Ethiopia (26) and Colombia (27) in the Second Annual Failed State Index, 2006 collated by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace. The continued violence and genocide committed by the armed forces during the past few months against Tamil reporters, parliamentarians, students, men, women and children undoubtedly would cause Sri Lanka to be pushed into the top 10 failed states in this ‘Failed State Index’ by next year.

Solve the problem

Sir John Foster and his associates in a report to the London Times as far back as on 20 September 1977 said, that “at a time when the West is awake to the evils of racialism, the racial persecution of the Tamils and denial of their human rights should not pass without protest. The British have a special obligation to protest, as these cultivated people were put at the mercy of their neighbours less than thirty years ago by the British Government.’

Mr Nagendra Nath Jha the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo in a statement to the Island newspaper in February 1992 said “Every one is tired of conflicts…Emphasis should now be on giving full thought to solving of the problem… I am sure that there may be better ways, is to see the writing on the wall and to recognize it for what it is and try to work out some form of Federal set up in which certain powers are guaranteed which means the Tamil unit will have its own entity or fully established identity.”

Furthermore, the views of the Former Prime Minister of Singapore, Hon. Lee Kuan Yew on the ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka suggest that the country failed because they had weak leaders or the wrong leaders. In his comments published in the book ‘The Man and His Ideas’ in 1998, Hon. Lee Kuan Yew states that "We have got to live with the consequences of our actions and we are responsible for our own people and we take the right decisions for them……….. One-man one-vote led to the domination of the Sinhalese majority over the minority Tamils who were the active and intelligent fellows who worked hard and got themselves penalized….. They got quotas in two universities and now they have become fanatical Tigers. And the country will never be put together again. Somebody should have told them - change the system, loosen up, or break off. And looking back, I think the Tunku was wise. (The reference is to Tunku Abdul Rahman the Malaysian Prime Minister under whose rule Singapore separated from Malaysia). I offered a loosening up of the system. He said: "Clean cut, go your way." Had we stayed in, and I look at Colombo and Ceylon, I mean changing names, sometimes maybe you deceive the gods, but I don't think you are deceiving the people who live in them. It makes no great difference to the tragedy that is being enacted.”

** Dr J.S.A Jeyaretnam -
PhD(Aus), MSc(Aus), MSc(SL), BVSc & BSc AH(Myn) JP (Aus)

  • Publication date: