Black July: How a Bloody Massacre Set Off the Sri Lankan Civil War
Over 4,000 Sri Lankan Tamils were killed and several hundreds were displaced in the riots that gripped the nation.
(It’s been 37 years since the first day of Black July, a month that became a period of mourning for Sri Lankan Tamils because it was when the country’s civil war began. On its anniversary, The Quint is reposting this article & video from its archives, originally published on 23 July 2018.)
The intervening night of 23 and 24 July 1983, when 13 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed, is said to have triggered the country’s civil war that lasted over 26 long bloody years, ending with the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The events that unfolded that night resulted in a week of massacres, which saw the deaths of over 4,000 Sri Lankan Tamils.
The month of July is generally observed as Black July by the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora around the globe, in remembrance of the pogrom that claimed the lives of their brothers and sisters on a small island nation.
What Happened on 23 July 1983?
An already simmering Sri Lanka had witnessed a spate of violence and riots in the previous decades that were brought about due to the constant tussle for power between the Sinhalese and the minority Tamil population. Things had worsened for the minority in 1956, after the Sinhala Only Act recognised Sinhalese as the only official language of the country, depriving the Tamil population of positions in government institutions.
Through the 1960s, protests marred the country, which only worsened after the United National Party (UNP) came to power in 1977. The primary incident of violence occurred soon after in 1981, when the Jaffna library, which was also a convening point for several ethnic Tamil groups, was burnt down.
By early July, the Sri Lankan government had increased the presence of its troops in Colombo and on the night of 23 July, at around 11.30 pm, the LTTE attacked a patrol vehicle, where a bomb was detonated on the floor of a jeep, injuring two soldiers. When the rest of the convoy rushed to help out their colleagues, the LTTE militants staged an ambush, killing 13 soldiers in total.
This attack was vastly touted to be in retaliation to the alleged abduction and rape of Tamil school girls by government forces.
The Funeral Trigger on 24 July
Commander of the Sri Lankan Army Tissa Weeratunga was against the funerals of the slain soldiers being held in Jaffna, and on the command of then President Jayawardane, the funeral was shifted to Colombo. The bodies were to be cremated with full military honour, rather than be handed over to the families of the soldiers. However, this move was met with resistance from the masses, who had gathered for the funeral.
Soon enough, the mob clashed with the police at the funeral site, and the bodies which were flown in from Jaffna were sent back to the families. By nightfall, the volatile crowd dispersed from the site, heading to the streets of Colombo to attack Tamil-run establishments and stores, marking the beginning of Black July.
An Uncontrolled Mob and a Bloody Massacre
By the morning of 25 July, the violence in Sri Lanka had reached unprecedented heights. Tamil homes and institutions were targeted mercilessly by the Sinhalese mobs. Tamil-run general stores, and other businesses were burnt to the ground. Several bystander accounts recall mobs setting fire to vehicles transporting Tamils, including women and children. Singular targeted attacks were commonplace as well, as the riots ran amok.
According to BBC, Tamil inmates in prisons were not spared either by their Sinhalese counterparts. Fifty-three inmates were killed over the next few days in prisons across the island nation.
Taking into account the large-scale violence, the President, on 25 July, ordered a curfew in Colombo and other riot-stricken areas. This, however, did little to curb the riots.
Allegations of "Assistance" from the Sri Lankan Government
According to the Tamil Guardian, the mobs were “openly assisted by the Sri Lankan security forces.” The mobs, equipped with voter lists, attacked homes in a systematic manner, targeting only the ones occupied by Tamil families. In Sinhalese houses that were rented out to Tamils, the mobs reportedly damaged the property inside alone and set it on fire, leaving the structure intact.
The BBC also states that the attacks in the prison were facilitated by the guards, who allegedly handed over the keys to the Sinhalese prisoners.
Further, several international organisations have accused the Sri Lankan government of assisting and even orchestrating the pogrom. In fact, the International Commission for Jurists, in its report, stated that “the suspicion is strong that this organised attack on the Tamil population was planned and controlled by extremist elements in the government UNP party, and that the killing of the 13 soldiers (by Tamil guerrillas) served as the occasion for putting the plan into operation. The reports go so far as to allege that a member of the Cabinet was actively involved in planning these attacks.”
The Government’s Response to Black July
President Jayawardane delivered his first public speech regarding the violence on 28 July, justifying it as the “expected reaction of the Sinhala masses to Tamil demands for a separate state.” Seeking to placate the majority Sinhalese, he said that “the time had come to accede to the clamour and the national respect of the Sinhalese people.”
The Tamil Guardian notes that Jayawardane even went ahead to declare that politically advocating for a separate state would be considered illegal, and the parliament would serve no place for separatist leaders. Two days later, on 30 July, Jayawardane called for an end to the violence, by when over 4,000 Tamils had been killed and several thousand had been displaced.
Refugee camps were set up in schools, temples and churches, many by the Sinhalese themselves who risked their lives to save their Tamil friends from the frenzied mobs. Additional support was called in from India, and several Tamils were ferried across the border for rehabilitation.
President Jayawardane’s interview to the Daily Telegraph, dated 11 July 1983, did not help matters either. The President was widely quoted as having said:
I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) people now. Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us...
The week of violence acted as a launch-pad for the Tamil separatists to recruit and egg the country on to a full-blown war, which would come to last 26 long years. The Sri Lankan government has time and again refused an official inquiry into the civil war, which witnessed a gross violation of human rights.
In 2004, a commission was ordered to look into the Black July riots, which ultimately concluded that over 1,000 people had died, and over 7,00,000 had been exiled. The then President Chandrika Kumaratunga also issued a public apology, comparing the deaths to Nazism.
In the meantime, the month of July continues to be observed as ‘Black July’ by the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora around the world to commemorate the loss of lives.
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