Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Revisiting July 1983

A re-enactment in the making

by NESOHR, July 27, 2006

This growth of racial hatred is amply demonstrated in the communal pogroms that have ensued many times under the stewardship of  successive governments...From a human rights perspective, successive governments of this island need to be indicted for crimes against humanity - the Tamil people in this instance.

The NorthEast Secretariat on Human Rights (NESoHR) notes with grave concern the accelerating pace of state military violence against the Tamil people living in the military-occupied parts of the Tamil homeland.

Killings, abductions, mass arrests after midnight round-ups, detention based on hooded individuals’ ‘nods,’ and disappearance thereafter have become commonplace today. It is no secret that these hooded men are the hirelings from the paramilitaries and armed groups working with the state military.

Our concern as a human rights body of the Tamil people is aggravated by the unprecedented level of collective Tamil remembrance of the horrific Black July of 1983, and the many similarities with the current situation. Today, however, the violence against the Tamil people is hidden away in the military-occupied areas of the Tamil homeland, while in 1983 it took place before the horrified eyes of the world in the capital.

The current situation is in contrast to the initial period of the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) when the Tamil people believed that the time had come to forget the bitter past and to re-start their life with a new impetus. The CFA did provide to the Tamil people the ground to build hope.

Hope has been dashed to the ground with a government that has been dragging its feet for four and a half years without implementing the CFA and is allowing its military to go on the rampage again. The Tamil people are seeing the making of another Black July.

Implementation of the CFA is the key to delivering the basic peace dividend to a people who lost 80,000 of their brethren in the two decades of a horrendous war. These very same people are now forced to live under the boots of the very same military and are, therefore, understandably fearful of a re-enactment of the pogrom of 1983 and its predecessors.

Conscious of the reality that almost every nation state in the world has had civil wars, racial oppression, despotic and tyrannical rulers who oppressed people who asked for justice and equality, we are also familiar  with the transformations that have taken place in those parts of the world. The bitter past was erased from the minds of those oppressed by the righteous actions of men of wisdom in statecraft who learnt from past mistakes.

Not so with Sri Lanka. It is appropriate here to quote from the introductory pages of Emergency '58, written and published by the eminent journalist of the time, Mr.Tarzie Vittachi. His words, penned about the first communal assault on the Tamil people, in the year 1958, are prophetic. It is worth perusing Tarzie Vittachi’s reference to one of Mahathma Gandhi’s statements on communal strife in India:                        

   No cabinet worthy of being representative of a large mankind can afford to take any step merely because it is likely to win the hasty applause of an unthinking public. In the midst of insanity, should not our best representatives retain sanity and bravely prevent a wreck of the ship of state under their care?

Vittachi’s comparison of the Indian context, of course, is  obviously to the cowardice and lack of political wisdom and courage  the then  Prime Minister of Ceylon Mr.S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike exhibited during a state of national crisis. Tamil people, who demonstrated their protest against the discriminatory Sinhala Only language law were beaten up, killed in hundreds, their properties destroyed or looted and the survivors sent in government-arranged ships to the Tamil districts of the NorthEast to which they originally belonged. Such ethnic cleansing demonstrated, ironically, that there lies the Tamil homeland. Tarzie says:

Emergency 58 ends with a question: ‘Have we come to the parting of the ways?’ Many thoughtful people believe that we have. Others, more hopeful, feel that the bloodbath we have emerged from has purified the national spirit and given people a costly lesson in humility.

Civilized parts of today’s world have had many Vittachis and, hence, the lessons learnt on good governance are accompanied with equality, dignity and justice to all citizens irrespective of race or religion. Ceylon, and later Sri Lanka, have miserably failed to learn from past mistakes, but studiously believe in nurturing racial hatred, for that is a handy instrument in the search for political power in the local context. This growth of racial hatred is amply demonstrated in the communal pogroms that have ensued many times under the stewardship of  successive governments. The cumulative effect of this addiction to state and state-aided violence, paying scant respect to human rights and ironically the welfare of the nation, was the staging of Black July 1983.

The Tamil people believed, as Tarzie Vittachi says, that the bloodbath of 1958 had purified the national spirit. They believed it over and over again after every assault on them till 1983. It was different in 1983: Innocent unarmed civilians were butchered, thrown alive into hot tar barrels, Tamils were pulled out from their residences with the help of voter lists provided by government ministers, who masterminded the pogrom to make it appear like mob violence. 52 Tamil political prisoners in the state prison in Welikada were brutally killed in the most inhuman manner by hardcore Sinhala criminal inmates, aided and abetted by the guards.

The international community and the civilized world at large would do well to do some soul searching  vis-à-vis the human rights record of successive governments of Ceylon and Sri Lanka to ascertain whether any of these perpetrators of crimes against humanity have been indicted locally or at the international level.

Commencing in 1958, running through 1961, 1968, 1977 and finally 1983 - that uprooted a million Tamils to flee their homeland for safety - the Tamil people have been given a clear message: “Do not ask for anything, be satisfied with what we give and keep shut.”

When it comes to negotiations, one has to look into the pages of history that has on record the various pacts that have been abrogated just because some extremist elements in the south opposed granting of any rights to the Tamil people.

From a human rights perspective, successive governments of this island need to be indicted for crimes against humanity - the Tamil people in this instance. Tragically, the innumerable disappearances, inhuman displacements caused by military offensives, mass murders, aerial bombardments and the mass graves, make Black July 1983 just one of the human rights violations that the Tamil people remember every year.

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