Art by Sagi Thilipkumar
This year marks four decades since the genocidal violence of Black July. With the backing of the Sinhala Buddhist State, Sinhala mobs, armed with electoral rolls and transported by government-owned vehicles, unleashed a torrent of bloodshed killing over 3,000 Tamils, burning down thousands of Tamil homes and businesses, and displacing an estimated 150,000.
Whilst often seen as a precursor to the decades of armed conflict that engulfed the island and would lead to the genocide of Mullivaikkal; Black July was not an aberration in Sri Lankan history but follows from decades of anti-Tamil violence and discrimination. The seeds of this bloodshed lie in the hegemonic conception of Sri Lanka as a Unitary Sinhala Buddhist State; a toxic ideology rooted into the fabric of the island. Despite the passage of 40 years, none of the perpetrators of this violence have been held to account, nor have the perpetrators for a litany of further atrocities against Tamils.
Instead of addressing the root causes of this genocide, the ideology of Sinhala majoritarianism has continued to fester. The rampant militarisation spurred on by then President JR Jayawardene has not been rolled back. Instead, his nephew, and Sri Lanka’s current president, Ranil Wickremesinghe continues to empower their reign. The noxious Sinhala Buddhist fever has not faded, instead across the North-East Tamils fight to preserve their land against the imposition of Buddhist monuments. In turn Sinhala politicians, like Sarath Weerasaka, decry this resistance, demand Tamil leaders be arrested, and dictates that Tamils submit to the notion that Sri Lanka is a “Sinhala Buddhist nation”.
Despite the overwhelming oppression faced, Eelam Tamils continue to defy the Sinhala State to remember their loved ones who have died; to stand in defence of their land and homes; and to demand their right to self-determination. They are joined by their brothers and sisters across the globe, who refuses to forget the genocide of Black July nor the subsequent and ongoing atrocities.
Whilst Sri Lanka continues its attempts to appease the international community by touting yet another domestic mechanism; this time in the form of the new “National Unity and Reconciliation Commission” (NURC). International experts and the Tamils survivors have no faith in yet another hollow institution. Similarly, promises to replace Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act with the Anti-Terrorism Act have been rightfully decried as another smokescreen as it continues to centralise power within the presidency, the police, and the military.
A legacy of broken promises has shown that the Sri Lankan State is not only incapable of delivering on accountability for past atrocities but that it is incapable of reform. Black July stands as a testament to Sri Lanka’s unwavering commitment to impunity for mass atrocities as well as the constant cycles of violence the island will continue to face.
The international community which had turned a blind eye to the genocide of 1983 and 2009 must not make the same mistake again. Instead of accepting the empty promises of the Sri Lankan State, they must stand beside Tamil survivors in their demands for an independent, international mechanism that ensures impartial investigations and prosecutions. They must recognise the genocide that has and continues to afflict Eelam Tamils. And, to bring lasting peace to the island, the international community must recognise the unalienable right of Eelam Tamils to self-determination.