Sri Lanka: the Tamil population

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Background + 1983

Sushmita Choudhury, July 23, 2021: The Times of India

Sri Lanka has, for decades, dealt with internecine strife between its Sinhalese and Tamil populations. The island nation has been in the throes of a civil war for close to 40 years now — the majority Sinhalese against the ethnic Tamil population. Almost since its independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has had to deal with demands for a separate Tamil state in the north of the island, where the majority population is Tamil.

One of the fall-outs of this repression was the creation of the terrorist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its leader V Prabhakaran. The LTTE used terror tactics to hit back at the Sinhalese, often choosing government targets to destroy. Till the early 1980s, much of the violence was directed at property — the Sinhalese destroyed Tamil-owned property, the LTTE responded similarly. In 1983, that changed. On July 24 that year, Sri Lanka erupted into the worst communal riots since its independence in 1948. Described by many as a genocide, an anti-Tamil pogrom, and even holocaust, the week-long bloodbath left 400-3,000 people dead, depending on who you ask, and over 700,000 people displaced, giving birth to the now formidable Tamil diaspora.

Black July also saw India’s involvement in Sri Lanka go up. The Indian government initially provided support to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and there were even training camps for LTTE members set up in parts of Tamil Nadu, where the various political parties were loud in support of the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. By 1987, the Rajiv Gandhi government signed a peace accord with the Sri Lankan government under J R Jayewardene, as part of which India was to send a peace-keeping force to Sri Lanka. The LTTE was not part of the peace accord, and had several run-ins with the peace-keeping force. Ultimately, Gandhi withdrew the force, but the clash with the LTTE led to his assassination in 1991.

Racial divide in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was no stranger to communal violence even before Black July. The strained ties between the Sinhalese majority — over three fourths of the population — and the Sri Lankan Tamils is rooted in deeply-contested political and ethnic issues such as power sharing and the preservation of distinct cultures. Before Sri Lanka gained independence, the Tamils had an edge over the Sinhalese in terms of jobs and due to British favouritism, which fanned feelings of oppression among the majority.

But things rapidly took a U-turn post the 1950s with successive Sinhalese governments at the helm of affairs, which the Tamils claimed had been denying them their fair share of development outlays and restricted their access to government jobs. For instance, the enactment of the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 led to multiple instances of violence culminating in the state of emergency declared in 1958. Similarly, in January 1966, widespread communal riots broke out in Colombo following the passage of the Tamil Language Special Provisions Act.

All these discriminatory policies and the growing feelings of isolation gave birth to the idea of Tamil Eelam, a separate state of their own, in the 1970s. At that time, the Tamils accounted for around 18% of the population. “While the idea appears to be extreme, the two groups already lived in somewhat separate spheres of the country: the Sinhalese in Southern, Western, and Central Sri Lanka, and the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern parts of the island. Tamil Eelam aimed to formalise this existing geographic separation,” explains the Harvard International Review.

The events of Black July

On the night of July 23, 1983, the LTTE conducted its hitherto most successful ambush attack on the Sri Lankan army that left 13 soldiers dead. The Sri Lankan government at the time, headed by President JR Jayewardene, claimed that it was this event that triggered the riots that followed.

But experts and human rights activists point out that violence from state actors had been steadily increasing since the UNP came to power in 1977. “Behind the seemingly spontaneous eruption of inter-communal hatred lay ominous warning signs which went unheeded by state authorities,” Harees told the Colombo Telegraph, a public interest website run by a group of exiled journalists.

“On July 22, the army abducted three Tamil girls and took them to their camps. News spread that they were raped and one had killed themselves,” claims People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), a non-profit organisation led by human rights activists. Many say it was this atrocity on schoolgirls that prompted the LTTE attack. The portal also displays numerous newspaper clippings talking about Tamils being killed, human rights activists being detained and tortured, government authoritarianism and army atrocities in the run-up to Black July.

The Sri Lankan army’s response was swift. “In the hours that followed, the Armed Forces went berserk in Jaffna, killing some 51 innocent Tamil civilians, including 7 passengers in a van in Manipay. Some hours later, the Navy ran riot in distant Trincomalee, killing Tamil civilians at random and burning down Tamil property,” wrote author, human rights advocate and Brisbane-based physician Brian Senewiratne in his blog. Though he belonged to the ruling majority community, his activism for the rights of Tamils eventually forced Senewiratne to emigrate to Australia.

He added that the authorities in Colombo had published and broadcasted the news about the soldiers being killed by the LTTE but blacked out the reprisals by the armed forces on Tamil civilians. It’s important to keep in mind that the government had imposed press censorship just a few days before these events.

In a further inflammatory move, the military decided to conduct a mass public funeral for the [martyred] soldiers in Colombo on July 24. Jayewardene was reportedly warned about the likelihood of racial riots if such a funeral was conducted, but he did not expressly halt plans. And by noon the same day, riots broke out in Colombo and spread to other towns rapidly, including Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Matale, Gampaha, Kalutara and Trincomalee.

On July 25, the Welikada prison massacre took place, where 35 Tamil prisoners were killed by the Sinhalese inmates. The government reportedly tried to portray it as a prison riot, but with the butchering of another 18 Tamil prisoners on July 27, the entire episode was seen by many as a pre-planned operation with the complicity of the Sinhala prison officers.

The violence showed no signs of abating for the next three days, while the political leaders stayed mum. Then on July 29, a rumour that LTTE had invaded Colombo fuelled panic and hysteria, prompting Sinhalese mobs to gather to defend themselves. But when the rumours proved unfounded, the mobs unleashed another spate of arson, murder and destruction that “dwarfed anything that had occurred before”, read the blog post. The violence only abated on July 31.

The list of crimes also includes sexual violence and depravity, human rights violations, massive property damage — 18,000 Tamil properties were destroyed — and the complicity and participation of Sri Lankan security forces. “Whereas in the past communal violence was directed primarily against property, this episode included unprecedented attacks on individuals,” read a declassified CIA note dated August 1983. “We believe the extraordinary organisation and precision with which the Sinhalese attacked — using voter lists to identify Tamil dwellings, for example — indicates an ominous degree of premeditation.”

The Tamil Guardian, a London-based news portal, pegs economic losses during this week of violence at $300 million. That’s over 5% of Sri Lanka’s GDP in 1982.

The government’s response to Black July

In the aftermath of the communal violence, the Sri Lankan leadership was criticised for its paralysis in the first few days of fighting, with neither the President nor the Prime Minister issuing even token appeals for calm. On July 28, when Jayewardene finally made a speech calling for an end to the violence, he tried to justify it as expected Sinhalese reaction to Tamil militants. He also announced that any organisation supporting the division of Sri Lanka would be proscribed, which eventually led to the LTTE taking centrestage.

Significantly, the CIA reports concluded that Jayewardene’s initial inaction stemmed less from indecisiveness than a “conscious surrender to pressure from hardline Sinhalese colleagues and Army commanders who wished to vent frustrations with the Tamils by allowing security forces free rein to retaliate against the numerous killings of Sinhalese soldiers in the north”.

Meanwhile, the security forces were largely ineffective in controlling the mobs, in many cases due to a pro-Sinhalese bias. “Numerous reports indicate that troops and police often stood by during the fighting, and several suggest that they actively participated in the widespread looting and arson,” said the CIA, noting that the government subsequently failed to discipline the security forces responsible for the violence. “We believe this indiscipline and communal bias in the security services will aggravate tensions and may intensify future sectarian violence.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Outraged by the atrocities witnessed during Black July, disillusioned by the government and fired by the Tamil Eelam cause, thousands of Tamil youth joined the LTTE and gave their all in the civil war that followed.

According to Lukman Harees, a UK-based Sri Lankan human rights activist, none of the perpetrators of the 1983 violence were brought to trial. It was only in 2004 that then Sri Lankan President Chandrika B. Kumaratunga made a belated national apology for Black July. “These incidents of 21 years ago have radically changed the entire fabric of Sri Lankan society,” she said at an event commemorating the 21st anniversary of Black July. “Violence became a major tool of socio-political behaviour in this country since then.”

Sources: Harvard International Review, Colombo Telegraph, CIA, Tamil Guardian, International Commission of Jurists, Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po)

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