Black July

By Together Against Genocide (TAG, formerly Tamils Against Genocide), Wednesday, July 31 2013
Black July – 30 Years On
 
The attack on the Tamil people is pure ethnic violence planned well ahead and executed with ruthlessness by forces close to the government”.
 
The quotation is taken from a letter written by the then Secretary General of the Tamil United Liberation Front and Leader of the Opposition,  Appapillai Amirthalingam, to President J.R. Jayawardene, 10th August 1983. It refers to the events of July 1983 in Sri Lanka, now known as Black July, pogroms against Tamils in which estimates posit 3000 died, but as a result of which many thousands more were left homeless and or fled the island. But the quotation could describe a multitude of events in Sri Lanka, going back 30 years and more. Replace the “by forces close to the government” with “government forces” and you have a near exact description of the systematic killing of Tamil civilians in the Vanni, 2009.
 
In the build up to the great spikes of violence, 1983 and 2009, in the nature of those attacks, in the aftermath and the international reaction, the similarities resound. The sameness of events three decades apart is chilling.
 
1983 is a defining moment, a Tamil 9/11, splitting events into before and after. It is imprinted in the Tamil psyche, has become an identity marker. So too has 2009, May 18th. But the horror of these particular events must not blind us to the overarching continuity in Sri Lanka of ideology and policies including of violence across the decades. In 1983, “violence against the Tamil people did not break out suddenly as a result of the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna”, Parliamentary Leader of the Opposition. The events preceding 1983 are significant, so too the events after 2009. The two are not isolated, freak events, but the inevitable violent peaks of genocidal policies and nationalist ideology.     
 
Black July was not the first communal bloodletting in post-independent Sri Lanka. It had been preceded by anti Tamil riots in 1958 and 1977. Nor of course was it the last. The riots of ’58 and ’77, the pogrom of 83, all foreshadowed what was to come. In 1958, it took the Government 5 days of inaction before they declared a state of emergency. Where the Sri Lankan state officials and security personnel stood by in 1983, at best permitting the violence by their silence and inaction, at worst participating and even orchestrating it, in 2009 they were directly responsible. Political will sustained the terror that was the Sri Lankan military so-called “counter insurgency” campaign in Eelam War IV, 2006-2009.
 
That Sri Lanka was first and foremost a Sinhalese and Buddhist isle was neither a chauvinism that was new nor particular to 1983. “The time has come for the whole Sinhala race which has existed for 2,500 years, jealously safeguarding their language and religion, to fight without giving any quarter. … I will lead the campaign. …” J.R. Jayewardene, then a U.N.P. leader, promised in June 1957. The Sinhala only act of 1956 had already enshrined the preeminence of the Sinhala language in law. After Black July, the Sixth Amendment prohibiting the violation of the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, was rushed through Parliament, it endures today. Indeed the Upper Tribunal of the Immigration and Asylum Chamber in their assessment of risk to Sri Lankan Tamils, in the Sri Lankan Country Guidance Asylum Case, 2013 noted that “The government’s present objective is to identify Tamil activists in the diaspora who are working for Tamil separatism and to destabilise the unitary Sri Lankan state enshrined in Amendment 6(1) to the Sri Lankan Constitution in 1983.”
 
In an interview with Ian Ward from the London Daily Telegraph, 11 July 1983, President Jayawardene declared, “… I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now… Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us… The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy”. The then President was expressing a widely held sentiment, namely that a Tamil life was of less worth than a Sinhalese. It is a belief that runs deep in the national psyche, with long roots in mythical history, stretching back to the Dutugemunu saga recorded in the Mahavamsa. The 2009 death toll, and the popular support for President Rajapaksa’s administration which was responsible for ending the civil war and for the thousands of Tamil dead, is testament to the continued longevity of the belief in Sinhala and Buddhist superiority.
 
Impunity keeps the scars of 1983 fresh. Wholesale lack of accountability set the conditions for continued abuses, on greater scales, to the present. There has never been accountability nor adequate reparations for Black July. Today in place of Justice, the Sri Lankan State offers countless denials and parades in triumphal fashion, emboldened by decades of international misunderstanding and inaction.
 
During the Sri Lankan civil wars, the international community attempted to solve without seeing. The International community stood back and applied to Sri Lanka the universal salves that constitute the liberal peace - good governance, democratic elections, human rights, rule of law and market relations. International actors did not engage with the local specifics, the particularities of the Sri Lankan conflict, confident as it was in its own prescriptions.
 
Still today there is a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of the violence in Sri Lanka. Post 2009, the Government of Sri Lanka’s rhetoric of transition, from war and terror to peace, is seized upon by a securitized world too consumed by the fight against terrorism, to see through anything but that lens. Violence and human rights abuses in Sri Lanka today are understood not in the context of decades of genocidal persecution but as a feature of transition, divorced from matters of ethnicity and ideology.
 
Surely, if the last 30 years can teach us anything it is that nothing has changed, nothing new. 1983 was not the beginning, 2009 is not the end, the years in between, before and after to the present, all are testament to an unwavering genocidal intent. Take them as a whole and the reality is self-evident, the wood takes shape. Take each in isolation and only the trees are visible.