July still black after twenty years 

[July 23, 2003 - 11.15 GMT] 

Twenty years down the road, memories of July 1983 still make Sri Lankans quiver. Most now agree it was Sri Lanka’s ‘week of shame’; it began on the 23rd of July and in fact has not yet ended. State controlled media of the day described the events as an ethnic disturbance. But discerning citizens knew what they were witnessing was nothing short of a holocaust Sri Lankan style. The details of the horrors and mayhem after two decades remain sketchy; they are not fully chronicled for obvious reasons. They will however remain etched in the minds of people both Sinhalese and Tamils. Most politicians to this day use ‘Black July’ in their regular rhetoric but go no further; it is clear now politicians of the day crafted this pogrom against the Tamil people. 

Mobs armed with iron poles, swords and gasoline systematically went about the business of killing, looting and burning Tamil establishments and homes. A trail of destruction and human misery was all that was left at the end, with Tamil people being forced to seek refuge with their Sinhala friends and even with strangers who protected them for months on end, while authorities looked the other way, making little or no effort to stop the rampage.

The riots were triggered off by a landmine attack in Jaffna, which killed 13 soldiers on July 23, 1983. No one at the time could have predicted the sheer magnitude the riots would reach or that this would change the course of history and cause Sri Lanka to become what it is today.

The post Black July period saw a virtual exodus, scores of disgruntled Tamils left for the West and neighboring India, others went to the North, young men and women joined the militants. Black July strengthened militancy and the Tamils’ resolve to do something about their grievances. The Eelam demand began in earnest and a civil war raged on for 18 years, over 60,000 lives were lost on both sides of the divide. The Sri Lankan dream if there was one, was shattered. The economy came to a virtual standstill.

July in Sri Lanka has always been a month when security was tightened in anticipation of an attack by the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). July 2001 saw the most devastating assault on a soft target; much of the country’s only international airport was destroyed by terrorists. 

Are the Sinhalese racially prejudiced?

A Sri Lankan lecturer of anthropology at Harvard, Professor Stanley Thambiah caused quite a stir when he termed the Sinhalese ‘ A Majority with a Minority Complex’ and the Sri Lankan Tamils ‘A minority with a Parity Claim’. Professor Thambiah thinks the Sinhalese are chauvinistic. The Oxford educated Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar himself a Tamil, in his address at the 49th session of the UN General Assembly on September 26th 1994 said, ‘Let it never be said if it could ever have been said that the Sinhala people are racists. They are not. They are absolutely not and I think this election has demonstrated that so handsomely, that particular argument can be laid to rest for ever’.  Kadirgamar was addressing the UN a month after his People's Alliance had won the General Election on a pledge of peace with dignity for all. 

The two Tamil scholars Thambiah and Kadirgamar hold diametrically different views about the Sinhalese and why? Professor J B Dissanayake of the Department of Sinhala, in the Colombo University appears to have the answer; Mr. Kadirgamar lives in Sri Lanka and better understands the Sinhala culture. Professor J B Dissanayake in his book ‘Understanding the Sinhalese’ says “one has to learn to decode Sinhala culture to understand the contradictions, paradoxes, and other strange ways of behaviour of the Sinhalese. Culture communicates says Professor J B, though in a silent language. In Sinhala culture deeds more than words are used to communicate: a genuine smile or a gentle bow of the head says more than words. This perhaps explains why even after two decades, a formal apology has not been made by the Sinhalese. It is then a cultural phenomenon; they would rather put the past horrors out of their minds, than rekindle it by an open act of atonement. 

Twenty years on Sri Lanka is still recovering. Thankfully open hostilities have ceased and a fragile peace process has been in place for the past 17 months.

On this twentieth anniversary of Black July, maybe it is time to look back. Look back and ‘heal the wounds’, to establish the truth, repent and reconcile, we as a nation need to make an honest attempt at peace.

 "Reconciliation should be accompanied by justice, otherwise it will not last. While we all hope for peace it shouldn't be peace at any cost but peace based on principle, on justice."
Corazón Cojuangco Aquino  President of the Philippines







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Last Updated Date: July 23, 2003  -11.00 GMT.


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