Twenty four years ago this month the Tamils of Sri Lanka suffered the worst racist rioting in the island’s post colonial history. The massacre, which has infamously been referred to since as ‘Black July’ (and occasionally as the Tamils’ Holocaust), was not merely an eruption of mob violence, but a systematic and violent cleansing of Tamils from Colombo and much of the south by the Sinhala-dominated state. Over three thousand Tamils perished as our people were driven first into refugee camps and then dispatched by ship to the north. In one week almost all Tamil homes and businesses in the south had been looted and burnt. The armed struggle that escalated amid the resultant Tamil grief and anger has since evolved into what is today a substantive state-building project.
However, in the near quarter century since Black July, despite the tens of thousands of lives that have been lost in the conflict, there has not been an iota of change in the Sinhala leadership’s thinking – nor, for that matter, in the sentiments of the international community. The military campaign now being waged by President Mahinda Rajapakse is underpinned by the same racial superiority and exclusive, even annihilatory logic as that of President Junius Jayawardene in the eighties – and President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ‘war for peace’ in the nineties; namely that Sri Lanka is a majoritarian (Sinhala) state in which Tamils would be tolerated provided they accept their secondary minority status and abandon their demands that political power be shared.
For well over a year now, President Rajapakse has openly waged a brutal war against the Tamils. We say Tamils, rather than Tigers, firstly because the Sri Lankan strategy is directed primarily at raising popular (i.e. civilian) suffering to undermine support for the LTTE’s armed struggle and, secondly, the calculated purpose of this suffering is force the Tamils to lower, if not entirely abandon, their demand that the Sinhalese share power. Collective punishment was also President Jayawardene’s logic in 1983 when he unleashed the murderous Sinhala mobs, assisted by the security forces and armed with voters lists: to teach the rebellious Tamil the price of defying Sinhala rule. Last month President Rajapakse forcibly expelled hundreds of Tamils from Colombo, deeming them a security threat. The move was halted amid international protests, but the point had been made: the Tamils had better know their place in Sri Lanka. Now, as three decades ago, state terror remains the primary method of governing the Tamils - though the violence of the Sinhala mob has been replaced by that of the Army’s multi-barrel rocket launcher.
President Rajapakse’s battlefield strategy, as executed during the past year in Sampur, southern Trincomalee and especially Vaharai, is identical to that of President Jayawardene’s twenty years earlier: militarily seal off and starve the population while subjecting it to relentless bombardment and air strikes. Jayawardene blockaded the Jaffna peninsula for months, relentlessly blasting the northern peninsula from land, sea and air. His siege was famously broken by the Indian airdrop which presaged the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987. President Kumaratunga’s strategy was the identical during her subsequent efforts to destroy the LTTE. For six years (1995-2001) the Vanni was subject to the same draconian embargo which blocked food and medicine from the residents as Jayawardene imposed on the northern Jaffna and Rajapakse on the eastern Tamil areas.
The point is that throughout the conflict, every Sinhala leadership has readily inflicted widespread suffering amongst the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Tamils, as part of its bid to crush the Tamil liberation movement - which every government has always paradoxically insisted was numerically insignificant and on the verge of defeat. Like a mantra President Rajapakse, just like Kumaratunga and Jayawardene before him, repeatedly assures the Sinhalese and the rest of the world of the Tamil struggle’s imminent military destruction.
And just like Jayawardene and Kumaratunga, Rajapakse also inflicts this suffering in the name of the Tamils themselves. Every Sinhala leader has declared his or her vicious violence as necessary to ‘liberate the Tamils from the Tigers’ (though it is underpinned by barely disguised notions of Sinhala racial superiority – ‘in Defence of the Dharma’ - as much as raison d’etat). Jayawardene’s merciless onslaught on the Tamil militant controlled Jaffna peninsula (exactly 20 years ago) was mockingly codenamed ‘Operation Liberation.’ Kumaratunga declared her self-styled ‘war-for-peace’ (waged a decade ago) was to liberate the Tamils from the ‘fascist’ LTTE. And now President Rajapakse is terrorizing the Tamils to ‘free them from Tiger rule’ and provide them with ‘democracy’.
Amid reprehensibly weak international pressure for them to solve the ethnic conflict, all these Sinhala leaders have sought to delay and prevaricate on sharing power with the Tamils until the sole reason for that need to compromise – the Tamil armed struggle – has been destroyed. Rajapakse’s All Party Representative Council (APRC) has the same dissembling logic as Jayawardene’s All Party Council (APC). (And in another farcical parallel just as the SLFP walked out of the UNP’s sham APC, the UNP has today quit the SLFP’s APRC charade). President Kumaratunga unveiled her much-vaunted Devolution ‘Package’ in 1995 just as she unleashed her unrestrained assault against the Tamils of the Jaffna peninsula. In the wake of subsequent successes against the LTTE, the ‘Package’ was watered down until it was utterly meaningless, (even disillusioning the Tamils who collaborated in drafting what was arguably nothing more than a tool in the state’s counter-insurgency campaign).
Nevertheless, the international community has supported each of these leaders in their pernicious efforts to break Tamil defiance. Each of these leaders has received near absolute military, financial and political support from the international community. (Yes, we know there are subtle variations amongst the positions of countries involved, but collectively it matters little in the killing fields of the Northeast.) For decades our people suffered and died in their thousands as the Sinhala military, unrestrained by law or morals, laid waste to our homeland. But it was our efforts to resist this genocidal violence that has been condemned by the international community as unacceptable, as terrorism. The Sinhala state was instead hailed as a struggling democracy and strengthened anew.
Black July is thus not just a historical event. Rather, it is an emblematic act of Sinhala rule. In remembering Black July, we not only commemorate the thousands of Tamils who perished in the state-sponsored Holocaust of 1983, but we also remember the tens of thousands who were slaughtered before and since in the state’s internationally backed pursuit of Sinhala hegemony. Thus we also remember at the same time why the Tamil liberation struggle began, why it changed from ahimsa to arms, why it necessarily continues today. We remember that we are a nation resisting oppression.