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Thirty years backwards

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This week marks the 30th anniversary of the anti-Tamil pogrom on the island of Sri Lanka, remembered as 'Black July'. The attacks saw Sinhala mobs roaming streets across the country, killing, burning, looting and raping their way through Tamil neighbourhoods. Tamils were singled out for attack purely on their ethnic identity - their facial appearance, their fledgling Sinhalese, their cultural symbols, and their names on electoral rolls. The pogrom was brutal - an inevitable outcome of decades of rising Sinhala nationalism and anti-Tamil sentiment. Black July was not a reactionary act of rioting. It was the persecution of one ethnicity by another, with the full endorsement of the state - an act of genocide. 

The UNP government, which was in power at the time, continued to enjoy mass support from the Sinhala populace and won the subsequent elections. Only a few days after the end of the violence, the government passed the 6th amendment to the constitution, banning the call for a separate state. This move was widely supported by the Sinhala people, but effectively criminalised Tamil national politics. The mandate that the Tamil nation overwhelmingly voted for in 1977 was made illegal, soon after the pogrom. The then-government played down the violence and even justified the attacks as a legitimate and understandable response to the LTTE assault on Sri Lankan soldiers in the North-East a few days earlier. This narrative is misleading, ignoring the organised nature of the riots, and that only a week before the LTTE attack, three Tamil school girls were raped by Sri Lankan soldiers and six schoolboys were shot and killed by security forces in Jaffna. The LTTE attack was but a convenient trigger, to release a simmering racism. The state's backing is unquestionable. Numerous testimonials from Tamils and Sinhala people repeatedly highlight the presence of security forces who idly watched by, as Tamils were slaughtered.

Through this massacre however, the bravery of some Sinhala people, who risked their lives to save their Tamil neighbours emerges. Many Tamil victims attribute their survival solely to these noble acts. These acts were exceptional. Yet, as with genocide committed else where, individual compassion is reconciled with - and fails to negate - collective apathy, silence and complicity. Thirty years on, there is yet to be an adequate inquiry into Black July, and no one has been brought to justice. Genocides cannot take place without the silent endorsement of the masses. 

Black July was one stage in a genocidal process of destroying the Tamil nation, that peaked in 2009, but continues to this day. Since Sri Lanka gained independence, there have been consistent episodes of anti-Tamil riots and pogroms, and each time, the government's anti-Tamil rhetoric has only increased in response to them. The ugly face of Sinhala nationalism was not one government or regime. Instead discriminatory measures against the Tamils have proved to be election-winning policies through the decades, including Rajapaksa's 2010 triumphant election victory.

As Tamil oppression has consistently led to widespread Sinhala triumphalism, it has also unfailingly led to an upsurge in Tamil resistance. Just as the events of 2009 have resulted in an upsurge in political activity amongst thousands of second generation Tamil youths - the direct product of the 1983 exodus of fleeing Tamils - across the globe, Black July resulted in a burgeoning of Tamil armed resistance movements. Thousands of Tamils, now convinced that the nation's only security was in taking up arms, became eager to join. It is an unavoidable observation that during the time of the LTTE's military might, another large-scale attack on Tamils by Sinhala mobs did not happen. Meanwhile, the oppression of the North-East has intensified in the years since the end of the armed conflict, with all aspects of Tamil life, social, economic or academic, subjugated by the state. Although the state itself claims the defeat of the LTTE on the island, it continues to justify the military occupation in the Tamil areas, and employs the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act to arbitrarily detain and harass Tamils. 

The bitter memories of 1983 are often purported to fuel the Tamil diaspora's call for a separate state of Tamil Eelam. This is false. Thirty years on, has not been thirty years forward, instead Tamils have accumulated thirty years of additional and ongoing grievances. A generation has passed since the riots yet the similarities between then and now are deeply concerning: an aggrieved Tamil nation is increasingly frustrated by an ageing, political representation which is dithering on meaningless policies that will not address the most pressing concerns of the Tamil nation in the North-East. Meanwhile Sinhala nationalism, buoyed by the military defeat of the LTTE, is triumphant and the state's oppression of the Tamil nation, including the Tamil economy, education, land and people, continues. Indeed, the proclamation of 'never again' by some Sri Lankans during this 30th anniversary, rings coldly hollow after the massacre of 2009. Thirty years on, as the Tamil nation finds itself at the mercy of the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhala nation, the desire for security is palpable, and so the call for Tamil Eelam continues.