Remembering Black July 1983: Sri Lanka’s pogrom

MINORITY RIGHTS  And human rights in Sri Lanka 

– ‘new internationalist’ Magazine  128 October 1983 –
Sri Lanka's pogromSri Lanka’s pogrom
Sri Lanka erupted in an orgy of mass violence against the minority Tamil population last July. But what began as a ‘minority problem’ is rapidly becoming one of human rights for all Sri Lankans.

R.L. Pereira reports.
IF I WERE in Sri Lanka today I could not publish this article. As a Sinhalesejournalist, I could not even visit Jaffna, in the North of my country, where tens of thousands of Tamils have fled since the brutal attacks on them last July. The blood-letting, according to Tamil sources, cost over 2000 lives. Few Tamil homes, shops or businesses in the South of Sri Lanka escaped unscathed and thousands of refugees still wait in makeshift camps to be transported to the North.

The pro-Western government has responded to the crisis by claiming that a foreign-backed conspiracy was trying to engineer its downfall. It also banned political parties advocating a separate Tamil state and confiscated damaged Tamil property.

The Tamils constitute 20 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 15 million population. Slightly over one million of them have lived there as long as the Sinhalese, who make up the majority. The Tamils (Hindus) are Dravidians from South India, while the Sinhalese (Buddhists) claim to have come from the Aryan North of India. The so-called indigehous Tamils have traditionally lived in the Jaffna peninsula and the eastern areas of Trincomalee and Batticoloa. Only the plantation Tamils, brought by the British as indentured labourers from India, have arrived in the last 150 years.

Discrimination against the Tamils, indigenous and indentured, has its roots in the divide-and-rule policy of the British. The British used them – as they used other minorities in Nigeria, Cyprus and India – as a source of second-tier civil servants. At Independence in 1947 the new Sinhalese middle-class resented Tamils for holding 30 per cent of posts in the administrative service, 50 per cent of clerical posts and 60 per cent of professional jobs.

Racism at every level
The 1956 ‘Sinhala-only’ Act which made Sinhala the national language was a conscious attempt by the government to redress what was perceived as an imbalance in favour of the Tamils. In 1970 the government, in a bid to appease the disgruntled, unemployed Sinhalese youth, introduced ‘standardisation’ in education. Though meant to discriminate in favour of rural children, it effectively meant that Tamil students had to score higher marks than Sinhalese to enter higher education via a quota system.

Each government since Independence has tried to appease the Sinhalese peasants by encouraging land colonisation schemes in traditional Tamil areas. Tamils allege that 1,500 of a total 7,000 square miles of ‘their’ territory has been brought under Sinhalese control. Such a claim to separate Tamil lands is a very recent phenomenon, brought about by the growing racisim of the state. For thousands of years Tamils and Sinhalese lived side by side – sharing kings, customs and foods, worshipping each others’ gods and entering into each others’ celebrations.

But successive governments have turned the ‘Tamil question’ into a political football, vying with one anotherto gain the votes of the Sinhalese majority. Racism is now becoming institutionalised at every level. A recent survey by the Movement for Racial Justice and Equality showed that Sinhala schoolbooks stereotype the Tamils and provided children with only a partial, Sinhalese history of the country. The outbreaks of communal violence against Tamils are often incited by politicians cashing in on Sinhalese fears, suggesting that the Tamils are about to swamp the country and annihilate the Sinhalese Buddhist state forever. Recent speeches by one such politician, a cabinet minister, are circulating freely in Sri Lanka under the title Diabolical Conspiracy.

Traditionally the Sinhalese are a fair-minded and tolerant people, their religion one of non-violence. But this year’s riots brought disgrace to the country and made a mockery of Buddhism. Motorists stopped by Sinhalese mobs were dragged from their cars and hacked to death if they were unable to recite a Sinhala gatha (religious verse). Children have been burnt alive, women raped. Rioting spread from Colombo, the capital, south as far as Galle, east to Trincomalee and into the hill country around Kandy and the plantations where the poorest Tamils eke out an existence.

In previous years, Tamils fled to Jaffna, where they felt safe. Today that is a less happy prospect. The people ofJaffna live in a state of near siege, with a massive army presence on their streets and a virtual blockade hindering the delivery of essential food and fuel supplies. Sent to restore law and order, the armed forces are themselves a prime cause of Tamil insecurity.

Rise of Tiger movement
Years of racial discrimination and oppression have spawned the ‘Tiger’ movement, composed of young Tamils despairing of the old methods of parliamentary pressure, pacts and round table conferences. The old methods have yielded nothing but disappointment for the Tarnils over the past 35 years. The Tigers call for a separate state of Eelam, and have taken to armed resistance. The government has replied with massive repression. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, people can be held ‘on suspicion’ for 18 months. Confessions obtained under torture are regarded as admissable evidence in court. According to Amnesty International, detainees have been kept in solitary confinement for over eight months and torture is said to include hanging victims upside down from hooks, beating them with metal bars and driving needles under their nails. Since last June special regulations allow the armed forces to dispose of bodies without a post mortem examination.

The Tigers have responded to state repression by choosing military and political targets. But every incident brings down massive reprisals on the heads of ordinary people. Last May, after the shooting of a policeman at a polling booth, the army burnt 150 houses. Last July’s riots were sparked off when the army kidnapped three girls, raping them and killing one. In retaliation the Tigers ambushed and killed 13 soldiers. This incident set off the nationwide vidlence.

In Jaffna the army took revenge on civilians, shooting at bus queues and groups of protesting schoolchildren. In Colombo the police and army stood by as mobs went on the rampage. Sinhalese prisoners at Colombo’s Welikade jail, armed with staves, clubs and knives, twice attacked Tamil prisoners in their cells, murdering 52 inmates. One of those killed in the jail was Dr S Rajasundaram, a founder of the Gandhiyam Society, which has helped thousands of Tamil refugees who fled the South after racist attacks in 1977 and 1981. Gandhiyam is run on Gandhian principles and is supported financially by international agencies including

NOVIB, Oxfam, Christian Aid and the World Council of Churches. Government officials and service personnel also attacked the Society’s property – farm buildings, houses, offices and vehicles. Dr Rajasundaram had been in jail since last April and his body bore unmistakable signs of torture prior to his murder.

President J R Jayawardene, who hoped to make Sri Lanka a capitalist showcase in the Third World, came to power promising to root out corruption. But he has ushered in a new era of gun-law and thuggery. With opposition political parties and newspapers banned, dissidents imprisoned and parliamentary elections suspended for six years, the President has created a virtual dictatorship – albeit by ‘constitutional’ means. What started off as a ‘minority’ problem is increasingly becoming a problem of human rights for all Sri Lankans.

R L Pereira is a Sinhalese freelance journalist living in London.

 A Tamil soliloquy

– By ‘Devadasan’ –

Sri Lanka's pogromThe time by my watch is 2.13 in the morning. The date: 26th July 1983 – the day after the holocaust. The place: a little room in a Sinhala home in a suburb of Colombo. Except for my wife’s fitful sobbing as she lies huddled on a settee, only occasional army jeeps and the intermittent staccato of machine guns in the distance disturb the silence of the night. I feel a deep and unutterable peace come over me, such as religious leaders and mystics say is vouchsafed only to those who are totally liberated from attachment to worldly goods. Well, yesterday evening my Sinhala brethen liberated me from all my worldly goods.

A gang of Sinhala youth, roaming the streets during curfew hours under the very noses of army patrols, put torch to all my worldly belongings. My house, which has been in my family since 1900, all our furniture and clothes, all my wife’s jewellery, our books, passports, bank statements, birth certificates – everything except the clothes my wife and I are now wearing and the 26 rupees in my pocket – all went up in flames. We have lost more than all our property. We have lost our identity. Now I cannot even prove that my wife and I are Sri Lankan citizens.

My wife and I are Jaffna Tamils. We have been Christians for two generations. My great-grandfather came down to Colombo from Jaffan in 1882, to work as a cashier in a European bank. My father studies law and I took after him. My family has been in Colombo for a hundred years. We have no property in Jaffna. So where so we go from here?

I do not see how we can continue to live among Sinhala people. And there must be at least 250,000 Tamils in our predicament throughout Sri Lanka. Overnight, a whole layer of Sri Lanka’s society has been disowned by their own country. Do the Sinhala people even dare to understand what they have done? Aren’t there even tremours of conscious deep within their hearts?

I try to comprehend this holocaust with all the spiritual resources I can draw on. But understanding evades me. My son advocates a separate Tamil state as the solution to our problem. But I am not sure. It is true that Sihaal and Tamils exist as separate kingdoms before the British brought them under one administration. But I do not think it is practicable to roll back two centuries of common history, ignoring al that has happened in the intervening years – the motorways, the railroads, the telephone and telegraph links, the interdependent commercial links and the shared struggles against colonialism – all of which make separatism a juvenile fantasy. The Sinhala and Tamil territories are no longer inhabited by simple self-subsistent farming communities, separated by impenetrable forests. We cannot undo two centuries of history overnight. Besides, where are the half-million Tamils now living in Sinhala areas supposed to go if a separate Tamil state is set up? It is easy to churn out facile slogans but I have yet to see a viable political and economic programme for the Tamil state of Eelam.

On the other hand, how can we Tamils continue to live with and among the Sinhala people? This is no longer a question of survival, of life itself.

I do not know the answers. But I do know that unless the Sinhala people and their leaders can rise above the barbarity they have shown these past few days, the Sinhala people themselves cannot long survive as a civilised community. This can hardly be the and of peace-loving people who revere the Buddha.

While I don’t share my son’s solutions, I understand his frustration. He is in the University, where he is already discriminated against and isolated. His career prospects are marginal. And there are thousands of Tamil youth who share his frustrations and incandescent anger.

What have my Sinhala friends to say to all this? And truly some are still my friends, risking their own lives by sheltering me here. But their friendship must count for more than that is they which to rescue us from perpetual fear.

As I look out of the window I see thin streaks of silver and red climb up the eastern sky. Soon it will be day. I do not know what this new day will hold, not even whether my wife and I will live through it. But we must not give in to despair and self-pity. There must be people of goodwill and understanding on both sides – masses of them. This is not the end of the road. I am reminded of Germany and Japan after the war. Out of our ashes, we too must rise again.

new internationalist 128   October 1983