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What Black July means for the future

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Based on a speech at the  vigil in London on July 23, 2011 to remember the victims of Black July.

Every year, for 28 years, the Tamil people and our friends across the world have come together in July to remember a crucial turning point in our history. Black July was the largest and most significant of Sri Lanka’s pogroms, more horrific and unrestrained in its violence than the Nazis’ Kristallnacht.

In just six days starting on July 23, 1983, Sinhala mobs supported by police and troops attacked the Tamils in the island’s south, killing several thousand and driving the survivors into camps before they were internally deported to the northeast, thereby ethnically cleansing the capital Colombo and other parts of the south.

Black July was, and remains, hugely symbolic for the island’s future. It was the first act of genocide in Sri Lanka to be internationally recognised - by the International Commission of Jurists, no less.

This ‘event’, this act of genocide, changed the course of Tamil people’s lives and was a watershed in our history. Yet, amid the numerous ‘analyses’ of the Sri Lanka’s protracted ethnic crisis, this orchestrated project of targeted bloodletting is rarely paid attention beyond serving as a marker for the ‘start of the war’.

Nonetheless, like the killing fields of 2009, Black July is also a milestone in another development; that of the critical role of accountability in shaping the future, not just of the Tamil nation, but peace and stability in South Asia.

While there was a tremendous international outpouring of sympathy following the 1983 pogrom, international recognition of state-sponsored murder was not matched by substantive international action.

To date, there has not been a single prosecution for the murders of thousands of Tamils, either in the domestic or international courts. Notwithstanding the pogrom being recognised as an act of genocide. Notwithstanding there being no limitation on time under the UN convention on prosecution for genocide.

Black July remains a standing challenge to international commitment to accountability not just in Sri Lanka, but elsewhere.

Black July is also a challenge to the fundamental core of the island’s ethnic relations. Accountability goes further than bringing one or more perpetrators to justice. It means also an unreserved admission and reform of the systemic factors and social structure that culminated in the pogrom. Recognition – or, rather, the refusal to recognise – is itself a fundamental reflection of Sinhala-Tamil relations, then and now.

Reflection of societal racism

For Black July was not the result of the efforts of an errant few thugs as some apologists for the Sri Lankan state insist. It was a result of state action and, above all, mass racism, institutionalised within the state, the political system, and in society.

This racism was exemplified by the then President who gave state approval for the mobs’ participation with his infamous but astonishingly truthful remark a few days before the pogrom: “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”.

The state was a crucial enabler of this act of genocide. The Sinhala-dominated army transported and armed the mobs while the police stood by; ruling party cadres accompanied the mobs with voting lists so that no Tamil house or business escaped the torch.

The ideological underpinnings, meanwhile, came from the Mahavamsa, a story of ageless holy war to be waged by the Sinhala against others, which is part of the curriculum for Sri Lanka’s schools.

Black July is ultimately, like Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, a manifestation of an all pervasive mass xenophobia that is reproduced year after year by the state and majority polity. Until this dreadful truth about the Sri Lankan society, then and now, is acknowledged there will be no change.


As Sri Lanka moves into another, now internationalised, phase of ethnopolitical strife, it is important to focus on the propagandist myths about Black July and earlier anti-Tamil pogroms.

Firstly, Black July cannot be attributed, as some international analysts do, to popular majoritarian rage at the Tamil demand for secession. Though there were indeed anti-Tamil riots shortly after the 1976 Vaddukoddai resolution, Black July comes five years later. (Nor does this explain earlier anti-Tamils pogroms such as that of 58 that preceded the demand for secession and impunity for which arguably established the pattern for the future.)

Neither was Black July, as is often claimed, simply mob retaliation for an LTTE attack that killed 13 soldiers – a myth Sri Lanka assiduously promotes and others reproduce. There were many devastating attacks by the LTTE in subsequent months and years as the war escalated, but there was no repeat pogrom.

This was because following Black July and the rise in Tamil militancy, the state was able to retaliate directly with its armed forces under the guise of ‘counterinsurgency’, this time punishing the Tamils of the Northeast. The long list of government forces’ gratuitous massacres, of entire villages erased, of scores wiped out by a single aircraft, underlines this change from organised mob to official mass violence.

To return to July 1983, even before the first Tamil was murdered, just as in Kristallnacht and the Rwandan genocide, the event had been planned, the weapons gathered, lists of target homes and business drawn up, and the killers recruited. Only the signal was required.

Just as the Nazi regime used a shooting at the German embassy in Paris to unleash a pre-planned pogrom, President Jayawardene’s regime used the LTTE attack to unleash Sri Lanka’s most violent pogrom to-date

Ethnic economics

Black July is also a milestone in the destruction of Tamil economic capability.

To quote from the Economist of August 1983, in its article titled the ‘Wages of Envy’: “Two weeks ago Tamils owned 80% of the retail trade and 60% of the wholesale trade in the capital Colombo. Today that trade is gone. Food shortages and inflated prices are one result. The Tamil industrial base, built up over generations, is no more.”

As the Economist also observed, “Restoring Sinhalese rights is a code phrase for dislodging the Tamils from their disproportionate influence over large sectors of the Sri Lankan economy. This is what the Sinhalese mobs set out to do when they put their torches to thousands of carefully targeted Tamil factories and shops.”

Since then, there is body of scholarly research that holds that Black July arose as a direct result of the liberalization of the Sri Lankan economy, as a direct result of international capital flows and connections that allowed Tamil businesses to compete and flourish without reliance on state patronage or inclusion in state- or Sinhala-owned businesses.

Sri Lanka today visibly continues to resist further liberalisation, especially in the Tamil areas. Recognition of economic dynamics is important, because it demonstrates clearly why a mantra of economic development without structural judicial reform and political autonomy will result in nothing but failure.

And it is important to remember that Sri Lanka, since well before the war began, had been destroyed the centuries-old Tami economic base on the island. Today’s reality is thus not simply a side effect of ‘armed conflict’ but rather a desired outcome of a xenophobic state.

It is also important to remember that the destruction of the economic foundations of life of a society is part of Raphael Lemkin’s definition of genocide.

The Nazis also gave by way of justification for their actions, the supposed ‘disproportionate’ economic power of European Jewry. And, not surprisingly, The Economist’s August 1983 article also referred to a familiar term, “a term on the tip of many Sinhalese tongues - the need for a ‘final solution’ to the Tamil problem.”

Part of the past, and any future

And, ironically, Black July is a milestone in another then unintended trajectory: the internationalisation of the Tamil struggle for self-rule. Because the pogrom generated the mass flight of Tamils from the island to form today’s global diaspora communities.

While Black July destroyed the Tamil economic base in the island, it created the now flourishing global Diasporic economic base. While it sought to silence Tamil political struggle ‘for once and for all’, it instead spread Tamil activism across the world. It sought to erase the Eelam Tamil cultural symbolism and identity, but instead rendered them globally recognised. Say ‘Tamil’ anywhere in the world, and it is Sri Lanka, not India that first enters the hearer’s mind.

The present is thus inextricably linked to the past. And the past will also define the future.

Until there is accountability for the mass atrocities against the Tamil people, until justice – the bedrock for any lasting peace - emerges, until Tamils are recognised as a people with equal rights and a rightful place in their homeland, the island’s northeast, Sri Lanka will be synonymous with ethnic strife.

Because despite the anti-Tamil pogroms - what the scholar Sankaran Krishna has rightly termed “annihilatory violence” – and Sri Lanka’s subsequent genocidal violence, the Tamil people have endured and globalised; as has our determination to overcome the violent constraints of the Sri Lankan state.

Today, we again remember those who were slaughtered in July 1983. In doing so, we also steel ourselves for the long path ahead to freedom, security and the opportunity to reach their full potential for all our people.

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