The Black Week That Impacted Sri Lanka Forever

July 1983 Pogrom

by Lionel Bopage, Groundviews, Colombo, July 24, 2022

The political leadership of Sri Lanka has yet again demonstrated that even in the midst of the worst socio economic and political crisis the country has faced since independence, they do not wish to follow a path of  honesty and fairness to end the suffering of the people who put them in power. The leaders who were previously  acting like political foes have come together once more in solidarity to safeguard their interests and privileges, rather than working in unison in the interest of the nation. Otherwise, how could the election of a political  stooge like Ranil Wickremasinghe as President be explained?

Just as worrying, the protestors have no unified leadership or a concrete set of demands. The groups and  individuals in such a decentralised and dispersed movement have competing interests. Historically it is hard to  find such a disunited movement achieving success in either winning their demands or being brought to power via elections.

If we do not critically look at the issues that led Sri Lanka into this crisis situation, we cannot have any realistic  hope of coming up with credible and lasting solutions the country desperately need. We as a nation also need  to understand that the economic issues besetting us cannot be separated from the social and governance issues  that perpetuated the crisis in the first place.

There will be no exit strategy unless we build a bridge to genuine reconciliation among the communities across  the ethnic, social and religious divide. Otherwise, we will only be moving from one crisis to another with the  country even more mired in debt.

Hence, it is worthwhile to see how we as a country got into this mess. The 1983 pogrom was the culmination  of a series of violent riots against the Tamils. Two of the more notable ones were in 1958 and 1977 in which  hundreds of Tamils lost their lives and property. In each instance the perpetrators of the riots and their political  backers were granted impunity for their crimes by the increasingly authoritarian, corrupt and unaccountable  political elite who used the poor as scapegoats for their felonies.

Prior to the July 83 riot was the brutal August 77 riot, just a month after the UNP regime was elected in a  ‘landslide’ victory with only 51 per cent of the vote. Many Tamils voted for the UNP, especially in the South.  Mr. A. Amirthalingam became the Leader of the Opposition as TULF won the second largest number of seats  in the parliament. Although the TULF had a solid mandate from the people of the north and east for the  formation of a separate state, Amirthalingam was prepared for a negotiated settlement with the government  for the Tamil people’s quest for self-determination. However, their optimism was rewarded with a riot, which also targeted the Malaiyaha Tamil workers. Over 300 hundred Tamils were killed and thousands were forced  to flee to the north and east. How did the guardians of the law act? They set up a Commission and then nullified  its findings by the Indemnity Act of 1982, which gave anybody from Ministers down to security personnel  immunity for their actions during the disturbances! Lack of transparency and impunity was the response while  the guilty parties got off scot-free, emboldening them, even more, when it came to the 1983 riots 6 years later.

The lessons of 1983 is very clear: a corrupt, inequitable and underdeveloped economic structure of colonial  origin is at the heart of most of the crises that have beset the nation of Sri Lanka. Attention is diverted to  various ‘scapegoats’, the system’s fundamental flaws unacknowledged, and cultural, linguistic and religious  differences take centre stage. The ruling elite, in particular the Rajapaksa clan are experts in this black art of  deception. If serious long-lasting change is to occur, then the emphasis should be on the need for radical  institutional and economic change to resolve these pressing and festering issues. That is what the protest  movement from Galle Face Greens to many other rural protest centres is demanding today.

It is in this light we need to examine what happened during the July 1983 riots.

The July 83 pogrom was the culmination of a series of increasing violent riots against Tamils and it was not  simply an ethnic, linguistic or religious issue. These were issues that were created for sustaining the interests  and privileges of the ruling elite since 1948 to whose hands the British colonial governance system was handed  over. You may see the prevalent system of governance still comprises the socio-economic, political and  judiciary constructs and frameworks that the colonialists used.

One of the first acts of the post-independent regime was to disenfranchise almost one million Malaiyaha Tamils (estate workers), effectively making them stateless under The Ceylon Citizen Act of 1948. The Parliamentary  Elections Act of 1949 denied them citizenship and voting rights. For the first time a Sinhala majoritarian  government took the basic human rights of the Tamil workers away. This step had limitless political  ramifications among the non-Sinhala people, and strengthened the trend towards ethnic and racialist politics.

The bourgeois leaders made use of it not only to challenge the growing working-class influence, but also to  divert their attention away from the growing socio-economic crisis. This gave an outward expression to the  class interests of the “national” bourgeoisie. Harmonised feelings of national awakening against colonial  subjugation started unfolding with streams of discordance emanating from diverse ethno-linguistic and  religious viewpoints.

Nevertheless, my recollections about the riots targeting Tamils take me back to 1956. The first riots targeting  Tamils were reported in Gal Oya, a new settlement in the Eastern Province with 150 reported dead. Then came  the 1958 riots that led to an estimated 300 dead, mostly Tamils. With the riots against Tamils becoming more  repetitive, the ethnic relations became increasingly inflamed. In 1963, 1977, 1981 and1983, many hundreds of  Tamils tortured and killed, thousands of their properties looted and set on fire, and many Tamil women were  raped. In each instance, the perpetrators and their political backers were granted impunity for their crimes by  the increasingly authoritarian, corrupt and unaccountable political elite, who used the poor as scapegoats for  their felonies.

At the time of the July 1983 pogrom, I was General Secretary of the JVP. I saw firsthand the violence and  terror that were being unleashed. I was helping out our publications at ‘Shakthi’ Press at Kohilawatta, when I  noticed the people on the road and in the vicinity running away saying Tigers have attacked Colombo. I did  not have a clue as to what was going on. From the press, I proceeded to the party head office and then home  in Kadawatha. On my way, I witnessed many properties that had been already set ablaze and several mobs were attempting to set many more buildings on fire. Some groups were assaulting and torturing individuals.  Security forces on the streets did not try to prevent the violence and arson attacks. Following the riots, with a  pre-planned script, the regime proscribed the JVP, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) and the Nava  Sama Samaja Party (NSSP).

The 1983 pogrom was a methodical attempt by a major section of the UNP and its supporters to destroy the  economic, cultural and physical presence of Tamils in the Sinhala majority areas. In every area the attack was  carried out with precision. The attackers had been supplied in advance with the details and addresses of the  Tamils. The mobs stole the possessions, money and jewellery and burnt the houses of any Tamil they knew  of, in many cases incinerating or beating to death the inhabitants of the household. How many died and how  many fled this holocaust, the real figures we do not know. Around 150,000 fled from the South to the North  and Tamil Nadu.

While the riots were instigated, between 300 and 400 armed Sinhala prisoners massacred 35 Tamil political  prisoners who were being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in Welikada Prison, Colombo.  Two days later on 27 July, this horror was repeated, with another 18 Tamil prisoners being butchered. The  inability or unwillingness of President Jayewardene and the UNP to forge a workable settlement for the  National Question, mainly due to his eccentric views on the power balance during the peak of the cold war  between the West and the East, brought India to the centre of the crisis.

On news media, several leaders of the JVP, including myself, were named as ‘wanted’ as the masterminds  behind the riots. In early August, I was detained under Emergency Regulations based on an order made by the  Colonel C A Dharmapala, the then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. After thoroughly searching my house,  the security forces took into custody a copy of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, several magazines on foreign  trade and philosophy, and an audio cassette of Sangeetha Visharada Nanda Malini’s lullabies. I was held  incommunicado at the fourth floor of the CID in the New Secretariat Building in Colombo.

It is claimed that the catalyst of July 1983 pogrom was the ambush of a patrol of Sinhalese troops by the LTTE,  resulting in the death of 13 soldiers. The army retaliated by killing around sixty civilians of which nobody  talks about. It was never investigated. The dead bodies of the Sinhalese soldiers were publicly displayed in  Colombo that initiated rioting. The next day, the guardian angels of the law were strangely absent while armed  mobs, equipped with voting lists, were ferried frequently by government lorries. They went systematically to  the households and shops of Tamils in Colombo.

I resigned in 1984 from the JVP due to the reversal of their policy on the National Question in July 1983. Until  then, the JVP opposed autocratic separation or centralisation as a solution to the national problem. Our solution  was based on establishing a constitutional, judicial and political framework that ensure equality, fairness,  justice and dignity of everyone resident in the country. As an individual I accept the right of Tamil people to  determine their own political destiny. However, this does not necessarily imply advocating for a separate state.

Despite the problems I had with JVP policy and the leadership, I did not desert the party and become a turncoat.  It was my responsibility and duty to defend all that we stood for and the membership and followers. I insisted  that the CID should arrest the Ministers, Buddhist monks and others who according to the information I had,  was responsible and or led the riots. I was detained and kept incommunicado.

Detained with me were many well-known comrades: Dr Nihal Abeysinghe, the current General Secretary of  the National People’s Power (NPP), comrade Vijitha Ranaweera, former JVP MP for Tangalle and Prof Athula  Sumathipala, whose political views I do not want to discuss here. The investigation of the CID concluded that  the JVP was not involved in the July 1983 riots. My wife, Chitra, filed an application for orders in the nature  of writs of certiorari quashing detention orders, and Habeas Corpus directing that I be produced before the  Court of Appeal. I express my gratitude to late Mr Nimal Senanayake, the then President of the Bar Association  and his team of lawyers who appeared for me pro bono.

The unbelievably horrifying Sinhala fanaticism drew more and more Tamil youth to the LTTE. After the riots,  an amendment to the Constitution enacted in August 1983 outlawed the advocacy of separatism. As a result,  all TULF MPs were expelled from Parliament. This autocratic move of the Jayawardene regime not only  deprived Tamils of their democratic right to political representation but reinforced the views of the Tamil youth  that the only way forward was an all-out armed struggle for a separate state.

The reaction of the government of the day was revealing. Before the pogrom, President Jayewardene, in an  interview with the Daily Telegraph, had this to say:

“I have tried to be effective for some time but cannot. I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna  people now… Now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion.”

At the end of the day, 2,000 to 3,000 Tamils were killed; nearly 200,000 were made refugees; and over 5,000  properties belonging to the Tamils were destroyed.

While the memory of the riots was still raw, the government, through the Minister of State, stated that all  property affected by the pogrom would be vested in the state. In an explanatory speech, he made it known that  as the government had spent so much on reconstruction, it would be unjust to hand back the property to its  previous owners!

Dr Rajan Hoole, in his meticulous account of who was behind the pogrom (The Arrogance of Power: Myths,  Decadence and Murder), singles out a number of UNP luminaries. Foremost amongst them was Cyril Mathew.  The trucks used to ferry the goons and the petrol used to ignite Tamil businesses came from the public  corporations under the jurisdiction of his Ministry. Others who either participated or turned a blind eye to the  use of government property and employees under their control included R. Premadasa, who was Prime Minister  at the time; he probably was not physically involved, but his power base was the lumpen elements in Pettah  and its environs. Siresena Cooray, Mayor of Colombo and a protégé of Premadasa who filled the Ceylon  Transport Board with his thugs; and while there is no direct evidence of involvement of Ranil Wickremasinghe,  then Minister of Education and Youth Affairs, his right-hand person Gonawela Sunil and members of his gang did participate in the riots. The result was a tragedy for the country. A bloody thirty-year civil war ensued in  which tens of thousands lost their lives.

The lessons are stark and simple. The current crisis and the huge popular protests have made business as usual  untenable. The executive presidency that is currently reinforced with extra power needs to be abolished and  parliament needs to play the key role in safeguarding people’s sovereignty as their representative body. In  addition, all transactions of the political representatives and the bureaucracy at all levels of government need  to be made more transparent and accountable, ensure arm’s length operations, and be subject to the rule of law.

Different wings of the government – the judiciary, executive and legislature – need to be separated, with clear  defining laws and regulations governing their behaviour. Such separation can be achieved only via adopting a  new constitution that is people-centred and would bury the unitarist state and the executive presidency with its  base – the 1978 constitution. These are the morals of Black July. Otherwise, they will yet again cover their  culpability and venality.

The disparate protest organisations must unite, organise and civilly negotiate their demands for a better,  fairer and more inclusive and equitable Sri Lanka. It is time for us to start this monumental national  rebuilding political exercise. Otherwise, horrors of the past like the July 1983 pogrom will come back to  haunt us again. 

Comment by Michael Johnpulle:

The dichotomy, Mr. Bopage makes between the “political leadership of Sri Lanka” and the general population of the country who are considered merely as the “scapegoats” is inexcusably cowardly and glaringly pretentious. One cannot separate the leadership from the people who they represent, like the head which cannot function devoid of the body. Sri Lanka, post-independence, has always had a Sinhala Buddhist ethnocentric leadership. The majority Sinhalese were always beholden to their political leadership to safeguard, strengthen, and be supportive of their religion. And, the Sinhala Buddhist ruling elite (the bourgeoisie) have always fell down at the feet of the Sinhala Buddhist clergy to receive the blessings of the triple-gems to rule over people. There has always been an inalienable interdependence and an inseparable mutuality between the Sinhala Buddhist clergy and the Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lankan leadership. Sinhala people have always willy-nilly nursed and nurtured this raison d’être of the Sinhalese socio-political matrix. This slavish, ever-ready-to-pander-and-please relationship based on bondage and a very deep fear and phobia has been the bane of the Sri Lankan society. The Sinhala people have always contributed to this societal malady, especially, the educated and erudite Sinhalese who have always been in the forefront of virulent and vicious racist undertakings, be it cultural, literary, or socio-political. They have always provided the sustenance for such racist ventures by their tacit silence or active support ( I have read many racist articles written by educated Sinhalese pretending to be sincere Buddhists). It is true that there should be system change, institutional or constitutional. But primarily, there should be a radical change in the system of governance. There should be a separation of state and church or the Buddhist religion. Will the people who are doing a peaceful “Aragalaya” look into this bane of the society. Let them put the horse before the cart, and the country will move forward swiftly without being taken hostage by fanatical religious and ethnocentric concerns which give rise to racial and ethnic conflicts.

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