Contrary to popular belief, the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, sometimes referred to as their Holocaust, was not a spontaneous reaction to the ambush of a Sri Lankan army patrol by Tamil guerrillas. In a report on the attacks, the International Commission of Jurists said “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”.
Sri Lanka had already seen unprovoked anti-Tamil riots before, albeit in a smaller scale; in 1956, in 1968, in 1977 and 1981. Hundreds of Tamils had been killed in these bouts of island wide violence. The involvement of Sri Lankan government officials in these have been documented, especially in 1981, when ruling party MPs supervised the violence in Jaffna.
Since 1981, the violence by the predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan security forces against the Tamil populace had enhanced the public support enjoyed by Tamil guerrillas fighting for a separate state, and attacks on the security forces escalated. President J. R. Jayawardene responded with draconian security measures, giving his forces sweeping powers.
Scattered, but continuous anti-Tamil violence had taken place in several parts of the island in the months preceding the Holocaust.
Through early 1983, the predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan army was deployed in strength in the Tamil areas of the island. There was a sharp escalation in violence and abuses. Sinhalese troops shot Tamil civilians on the streets, entered houses and raped Tamil women, arrested and tortured at will, with complete impunity.
In early July 1983, Sri Lankan troop levels in Colombo were increased. At the same time, the notorious ‘Public Security Act’ was introduced. This law permitted security forces’ personnel to dispose of dead bodies without post mortem examination, inquest or judicial inquiry. In effect, it allowed for killing with impunity provided under the guise of ‘maintaining security’.
President Jayawardene was quoted in the Daily Telegraph of 11 July 1983 as saying: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people.. now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion ... Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy”.
On July 19th 1983, the movement of (foreign) journalists was abruptly limited and strict press censorship imposed throughout the island. All the factors necessary for a crackdown on the Tamil populace were, it seems, in place.
However, on July 23rd, Tamil guerrillas carried out their first major attack on the Sri Lankan security forces. An army patrol on night duty in the northern Tamil town of Jaffna was ambushed and 13 Sinhalese soldiers killed - an unprecedented number.
The attack stunned the Sinhala populace. The government, however, saw the incident as an opportunity to mobilise support amongst the Sinhala people. The deaths of 13 Sinhala army privates were treated as a national tragedy and a state funeral planned.
On July 24, the bodies of the dead soldiers were brought to Colombo. Attacks on Tamil residents started, almost on cue, in several parts of Colombo on the night of July 24. There was also violence by the security forces in Jaffna, where over 50 Tamils were killed, and in other locations on the island.
The Law Asia Human Rights Standing Committee Report said: “The violence had broken out in different parts of Colombo almost simultaneously on the night of July 24th and on July 25th, extended during the course of the next few days to different centres throughout the country.”
Despite the increased possibility of world condemnation, the Sri Lankan government remained silent as anti-Tamil rioting escalated to horrific levels on July 25.
The Sri Lankan security forces openly assisted the Sinhalese rioters. Sri Lankan army lorries moved gangs of armed Sinhalese from district to district in Colombo. As they arrived in each area, the attackers were given the local voting lists. The addresses occupied by people with Tamil names were systematically ‘cleansed’. Defenceless residents were hacked to death, women were raped, often in front of their relatives. Many young girls were raped before having their throats cut. Sri Lankan army lorries removed heaps of Tamil corpses for destruction, and supplied the gangs with refreshments.
London’s Daily Telegraph (July 26) wrote: “Motorists were dragged from their cars to be stoned and beaten with sticks. Others were cut down with knives and axes. Mobs of Sinhala youth rampaged through the streets, ransacking homes, shops and offices, looting them and setting them ablaze, as they sought out members of the Tamil ethnic minority. A mob attacked a Tamil cyclist riding near Colombo’s eye hospital. The cyclist was hauled from his bike, drenched with petrol and set alight. As he ran screaming down the street, the mob set on him again and hacked him down with jungle knives.”
In his book, ‘The tragedy of Sri Lanka’, William McGowan wrote: “While travelling on a bus when a mob laid siege to it, passengers watched as a small boy was hacked ‘to limb-less death.’ The bus driver was ordered to give up a Tamil. He pointed out a woman who was desperately trying to erase the mark on her forehead - called a kumkum- as the thugs bore down on her. The woman’s belly was ripped open with a broken bottle and she was immolated as people clapped and danced. In another incident, two sisters, one eighteen and one eleven, were decapitated and raped, the latter ‘until there was nothing left to violate and no volunteers could come forward,’ after which she was burned. While all this was going on, a line of Buddhist monks appeared, arms flailing, their voices raised in a delirium of exhortation, summoning the Sinhalese to put all Tamils to death.”
The London Daily Express (29 July) wrote: “Mrs. Eli Skarstein, back home in Stavanger , Norway, told how she and her 15 year old daughter , Kristen witnessed one massacre. ‘A mini bus full of Tamils were forced to stop in front of us in Colombo’ she said. A Sinhalese mob poured petrol over the bus and set it on fire. They blocked the car door and prevented the Tamils from leaving the vehicle. ‘Hundreds of spectators watched as about 20 Tamils were burnt to death’ Mrs. Skarstein added: ‘We can’t believe the official casualty figures. Hundreds, may be thousands, must have been killed already. The police force (which is 95% Sinhalese) did nothing to stop the mobs. There was no mercy. Women, children and old people were slaughtered. Police did nothing to stop the genocide.’”
The London Times of 5th August reported how “…Army personnel actively encouraged arson and the looting of Tamil business establishments and homes in Colombo” and how “absolutely no action was taken to apprehend or prevent the criminal elements involved in these activities. In many instances army personnel participated in the looting of shops.”
The Economist (6 August) wrote: “...But for days the soldiers and policemen were not overwhelmed; they were un-engaged or, in some cases, apparently abetting the attackers. Numerous eye witnesses attest that soldiers and policemen stood by while Colombo burned..”
According to the London Financial Times, “Troops and police either joined the rioters or stood idly by.”
Tamil detainees held in Colombo jails, mostly for political ‘crimes’ (which usually meant advocating a separate Tamil state), were killed jointly by about 300-400 Sinhalese prisoners and their guards. In Welikande jail, 35 Tamil detainees were killed on 25 July, and another 17 were murdered on 27 July. In a horrific perversion of religious belief, the blood of the victims were reportedly offered to the statue of Buddha in the prison’s shrine.
Dr. Rajasunderam, the secretary of the Gandhiyam society (a community workers organisation who had helped resettle people affected in previous anti-Tamil riots) was amongst the detainees killed on July 27.
One imprisoned Tamil leader, Kittumani, was forced to kneel by his assailants and ordered to pray to them. When he refused, he was taunted about his last wish and had his eyes gouged out (Kittumani, a nominated MP, had appealed in court on being sentenced to death, that his last wish was his eyes be donated, that one day a separate Tamil state be seen through his eyes). After watching his agony for a few minutes, the Sinhalese hacked him and wrenched his testicles from his body.
Amnesty International said in their report on Sri Lanka (published June 1994) “Amnesty International has itself interviewed one Tamil detainee who survived the killing and has received a sworn statement from another survivor, both of whom state that the same prisoners who had come to attack them later told the surviving detainees that they had been asked to kill Tamil prisoners. According to the sworn statement: ‘We asked these people as to why they came to kill us. To this they replied that they were given arrack (alcohol) by the prison authorities and they were asked to kill all those at the youth offenders ward (where the Tamil prisoners were kept).”
All Tamil owned businesses and homes were systematically looted and then torched. If the property had been rented from Sinhalese, it was usually only looted. Sinhalese shopkeepers attacked neighbouring Tamil businesses. Sinhalese households attacked neighbouring Tamil homes. Tamil patients in Colombo hospitals were murdered, often by Sinhalese hospital attendants.
According to N Sanmugathasan, the General Secretary of the Ceylon Communist Party, “In Colombo at least 500 cars some with drivers and passengers inside were burnt. Tamil-owned buses, running between Colombo and Jaffna were burnt. Tamil patients in hospitals were attacked and killed. Some had their throats cut as they lay in their beds.”
However, in some cases, Sinhalese residents, horrified at the violence, shielded and hid Tamil friends. However, a significant proportion of the Sinhala populace joined in the violence, which clearly had the backing of the Sri Lankan army and government.
Many Tamils attempted to flee the city, in whatever transport they could obtain. As the days progressed, some Tamils emerged from hiding and ran the gauntlet of rioters. As one busload of Tamils left Colombo, it passed a wall on which the heads of dozens of murdered Tamils had been neatly arranged.
Several refugee camps came to be established as Tamils, driven out of their homes, sought sanctuary in numbers by crowding into schools, temples and churches. The Methodist Church in Kollupitya (an affluent suburb in Colombo) was one such camp. The church was hurriedly converted into a refugee camp by Sinhalese Christians, many of whom risked their lives in the subsequent days to save hundreds of Tamils who had lost their homes or were driven out of their homes and were on the run from marauding mobs.
Despite condemnation and protests from all over the world, the violence continued for several days as the mobs searched Colombo for Tamils who had escaped the initial bloodletting.
On the 28th of July, President Jayawardene, in his first public speech since the violence began. He did not condemn the violence, but sought to placate the Sinhalese and virtually justified the mass killings as the “expected reaction of the Sinhala masses to Tamil demands for a separate state.”
Insisting the violence was “not a product of urban mobs but a mass movement of the generality of the Sinhalese people” Jayawardene asserted that “the time had come to accede to the clamour and the national respect of the Sinhalese people.”
Furthermore, in keeping with his avowed Sinhala supremacy mandate, he announced the Sixth amendment to the constitution, which declared even politically advocating a separate Tamil state illegal. Those who supported separatism would not be allowed to sit
in parliament, practice a profession or even to hold a passport. In effect the government itself outlawed any discussions with the Tamil political leaders, many of whom fled the island.
The UK’s Guardian in its editorial of 1st August 1983 referred to the Sri Lankan President as someone who has “increasingly come to resemble a dictatorial and racist third World autocrat”.
President Jayawardene called an end to the violence on the sixth day. By then, an estimated 3,000 Tamils had died, and the Tamil population of the island was in shock. Over 200,000 Tamils (including 35,000 Indian Tamils) were displaced. 18,000 Tamil homes and 5000 businesses were destroyed, with economic losses totalling $300 million.
A publication by The International Commission of Jurists observerd: “the evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhala rioters on the Tamils amounted to acts of genocide.”
George Immerwahr, a United Nations civil servant and a US citizen who had worked in Sri Lanka in the late 1950s wrote to Professor Wilson, the author of “The Break-up of Sri Lanka” that “... the most shattering report came from a friend who was a civil servant; he told me that he had helped plan the riots at the orders of his superiors. When I heard him say this, I was so shocked I told him I simply couldn’t believe him, but he insisted he was telling the truth, and in fact he justified the Government’s decision to stage the riots. When I heard this, I telephoned an official in our own State Department, and while he declined to discuss the matter, I got the impression that he already knew from our embassy in Colombo what I was telling him.”
The Sri Lankan government of the time rejected demands for a proper judicial investigation by international organisations, including Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists. Subsequent Sri Lankan governments have also done so. Twenty years ago, Sri Lanka’s ethnic tensions erupted again, this time in an orgy of bloodletting in which thousands of Tamils perished.