Black July – Setting The Record Straight
By Usha S Sri-Skanda-Rajah (Colombo Telegraph)
Black July – Was It a Spontaneous Reaction to the Ambush killing of Thirteen Soldiers by the LTTE or A Sri Lankan Government Sponsored, Pre-meditated and Targeted Campaign of State Terror Unleashed on the Tamil People amounting to Genocide?
– Where Was I on Black July? What Caused the Hardening of Resolve for a Free Tamil Eelam?
As we mark the 33rd anniversary of Black July – the 1983 pogrom against the Tamil people orchestrated, as evidence will show, by the Sri Lankan government of J R Jayewardene, as part of a continuing Genocide, lasting 10 days, leaving more than 3000 Tamils killed, 18,000 Tamil homes and numerous businesses burned down and personal possessions lost/looted with 150,000 Tamils made homeless, resulting in an unknown number of internally displaced Tamil people and in a mass exodus of Tamil refugees fleeing the island, now part of a formidable Tamil Diaspora, my thoughts go back to where I was on Black July, what hardened my resolve for a free Tamil Eelam and more importantly the need for setting the record straight on who was responsible for Black July, whether it was a spontaneous response to the ambush killing of thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers allegedly by the LTTE or was pre-meditated?
Hence the need to write…
Additionally, it would be remiss not to forget at this time what Tamil people at the time of Black July could not foresee or ever imagine would happen in their life time – that the worst was yet to come, that there was on the horizon a much worse, far more brutal, hitherto unspeakable, horrendous mass atrocity against the same people – the Tamil people in the island of Sri Lanka, once known as Ceylon – this time at Mullivaikkal. One that happened in 2009 intended actually to finish off, on a mass scale, the Tamil race in the island.
Where Was I on Black July? What Caused the Hardening of Resolve for a Free Eelam?
Before examining whether the Sri Lankan government’s claim was true that Black July was a reaction to ambush killing of the soldiers, I want to look back and recall those fateful days and weeks in July 1983, remembering where I was and ponder on certain defining moments in my life, those that hardened my resolve for a free Tamil Eelam, which I can’t seem to shake, when nothing substantive is being offered in the form of reconciliation and a political solution. We were living in Manila in the Philippines in the late 70s and 80s until the late 90s. In the month of July 1983 we decided to go back home and also visit London. The first leg of our journey was Colombo. Once we arrived, rumours were circulating amongst the Tamil community of an impending pogrom against Tamils. We were asked not to travel around too much and hence our plans to go to Jaffna, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Kathirkamam were put off indefinitely, very much to our disappointment and dismay. With much concern for the safety of the Tamil people very much in the forefront of our minds, we proceeded on the second leg of our journey to London to visit with my sister-in-law and her husband who was then the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in the UK – with plans afoot to return home to Colombo and Tamil Eelam on our way back to Manila. We were so sure of returning that we even left half our luggage with relatives in Colombo.
But it was not to be.
A dire warning was received by the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in London as a fire bomb was thrown at the front door of his office, although swiftly extinguished, it was troubling to my sister-in-law!
Black July was Not Some Communal Riots
First things first. Black July was yet another government organised pogrom, not to be referred to as communal riots. The book ‘Sri Lanka island of Terror – An Indictment‘, one of the many historical accounts written about Black July and of the pain and suffering endured by the Tamil people, which is my main reference for this article, explains how previous pogroms (and there were many) and this one were incorrectly reported in the local and world media, as “communal riots”. A pogrom according the North American Encarta Dictionary is described as a, “planned campaign of persecution or extermination sanctioned by a government and directed against an ethnic group,” and let me tell you without mincing words that is how it should be referred to.
The book, written by E M Thornton and R. Niththyananthan in its 3rd chapter, captioned, ‘The Year of the Holocaust’ vividly describes not only the “build up to Black July, but calls it “an exercise in the genocide of a people” considering it was an “organised massacre” and “in scale and ferocity” and “in sheer barbarism, exceeded anything that they had previously endured in the hands of the Sinhalese majority”:
“The year 1983 was the blackest in history of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. It was the year of the July holocaust, an organised massacre, an exercise in the genocide of a people that in scale and ferocity, in sheer barbarism, exceeded anything that they had previously endured in the hands of the Sinhalese majority. Accustomed as they were to living in daily fear of their lives, even the Tamils were unprepared for the blind and insensate fury unleashed on them in July 1983. The pogrom will forever remain a scar that can never be effaced, a front to the conscience of the whole civilised world. The Tamils all over the globe are pledged to ensure that it will never be forgotten.”
Unable to return to the island to finish the last leg of our journey we got back to Manila as bitter people, very concerned for the safety and wellbeing of our people and more determined than ever to stand up to Sri Lankan state terrorism and educate the outside world. If the 1958 pogrom against Tamils when I was only 7 years old, crying for my parents who were caught up in Kurunagala, while I was in Colombo, had stirred up some emotions in me, if my study of government and the Soulbury constitution had some bearing on me, if events thereafter, even whilst living abroad, most notably the Vaddukoddai Resolution, had aroused more feelings of disenchantment in me, beckoning a strong desire for a separate Eelam, Black July suffice to say made me a much more hardened freedom and human rights activist, for more than one reason and there was no turning back from then on!
Having heard of the massive displacement of Tamils, most rendered homeless after their possessions were looted and houses were burned down with some of their loved ones murdered in cold blood by Sinhalese goons, (reminding me of the 300 strong mob carrying Molotov cocktails surrounding my husband’s family home, to burn it down with him, his mother, two sisters, his brother and around 90 Tamils who had sought refuge in their home – a mob whom he had held at bay in the 1958 pogrom ), I was already making plans in my mind even in mid-air flying back, to utilise the reservoir of goodwill in the international community in Manila, to seek their help to provide relief for my people.
Upon our return, my husband and I decided to collect non-perishable items especially baby milk and also new clothes to send to our people, those in dire need, who were internally displaced and had lost everything. Thankfully the Philippine Red Cross was willing to air-freight the goods free of charge – as soon as we approached them for help.
Unfortunately, mainly some Sinhalese professional staff in the Asian Development Bank (ADB) where my husband worked prevented us from collecting potentially huge amounts of relief goods from the large ADB community through the auspices of the ADB Women’s Club. They did not like our letter of appeal which mentioned the word “Tamils” as displaced and needing help – they wanted the word “Tamils” replaced by the word “Sri Lankan”. They went to the committee spreading stories that we were associated with the LTTE. And sadly some Sinhalese who were leading the objections, involved in scare mongering, were relatives through marriage, of some Tamil cousins of mine.
The rejection of the letter of appeal, put paid to our plans to send a large consignment of relief goods to our people. Although with the help of some in the Tamil community, we went ahead and collected as much milk foods and new clothes and sent it anyway.
This sour incident impacted our lives in Manila and has stayed with me, widening the ethnic divide and causing the break-up of friendships that I once thought had special meaning. No more joint Tamil – Sinhala parties or coffee mornings; no more New Year celebrations together or attendance at Sri Lankan flag raising ceremonies or independence day events; no more going to Sri Lankan Sinhala cultural events and manning Sri Lanka stalls and pavilions for me!
The LTTE Was Born As a Natural Response to Defend Against Sinhala State Violence and Oppression
Before considering the build up to Black July which would undoubtedly show. “the escalation of blatant state terrorism,” against the Tamil people, it must be remembered, the LTTE, a militant liberation movement calling for a separate state, referred to as ‘freedom fighters’ by Tamils was born as a natural response to a need to defend the Tamil people against the violence inflicted on them by the Sri Lankan state and its agents, and as a response to government policies and legislation that rendered them second class citizens in their own homeland. Egged on by a Sinhala Buddhist supremacist ideology, utilizing its majoritarian stranglehold in parliament, successive Sinhala governments, systematically engineered the establishment of a Sinhala Buddhist state, executing its plans to destroy the Tamil nation in the North East of the island through legislative enactments, policies and two illegal constitutions 1972 and 1978 that replaced the one drafted by the British which had in Section 29/2 an entrenched provision safeguarding Tamil rights that was removed without the agreement of the Tamil people.
It must be also remembered, the Sri Lankan military were occupying the NorthEast from 1956 and their numbers were growing as the government started to introduce more and more legislation and policies to curb the Tamils people’s rights to enjoy equal status – with the Sinhalese with respect to their language, to hold their government jobs with promotions and increments at par with their Sinhalese counterparts without having to gain proficiency in Sinhalese and to enter university solely on merit without discrimination and being subjected to standardization rules which demanded higher marks from Tamil students with the sole purpose of reversing the high rate of Tamil students entering university. The military was deployed by the Sri Lankan government to crush peaceful protests against government oppression, persecution, marginalisation and violence.
Who was Responsible for Black July? The Events Building Up To Black July that Amounted to a Display of “Blatant State Terrorism” plus the Sri Lankan President’s Imposition of “Press Censorship” and Promulgation of the ‘Public Security Act’ that Gave Cart Blanch Powers to the Forces to Bury the Dead without Post- Mortem Examinations, Inquest or Judicial Inquiry – Prior to Black July – Show Black July was Premeditated and Planned Ahead by President J R Jayewardene:
The Sinhalese insist the 1983 pogrom against the Tamil people was caused allegedly by an ambush by the LTTE which killed thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers. Contrary to Sinhala propaganda, I refer again to the book, ‘Sri Lanka Island of Terror – An Indictment’ – chapter 3 – that seeks to document the long build up of events, from March 1983 to Black July, that amounted to a display of “blatant state terrorism”, involving attacks including acts of torture against Tamil detainees, Tamil NGOs, the Tamil Press, Tamil students, Tamil protesters, Tamil Human Rights Advocates, men, women and children – setting cities a “blaze”, burning down the “vegetable market”, “shops” and “petrol stations”, in addition to destroying Tamil buildings, Tamil houses, crops, equipment, documents, perpetrated allegedly by Sri Lankan security forces government officials and government employed thugs. Further, the issuance of two very suspect orders – the imposition of press censorship and the promulgation of the ‘Public security Act’ that gave Security Forces powers to bury the dead without post-mortem examination, inquest, or judicial inquiry of any kind, by President the J R Jayewardene, immediately prior to Black July “lend support to the view” that Black July was premeditated, planned and executed by his government.
The security forces have gone berserk each time a soldier was killed in attacks and counter attacks between them and LTTE – going for innocent bystanders, setting the place on fire and destroying everything in their path leaving behind only “rubble and “devastation”.
Furthermore, authors, Thornton and Niththyananthan pointed to the then prevailing volatile situation in the country caused by the government press and the Buddhist priesthood inciting hatred: “All over the country, anti-Tamil feeling was being whipped up by posters and inflammatory articles in the state owned Sinhalese news papers. The ideal of a Sinhala – Buddhist state in which the Tamil people had no place was being propagated by a fanatical Buddhist priesthood that had long since renounced the Buddhist ideals of non-violence and brotherly love and replaced them by a gospel of racial hatred towards the Tamils and a false doctrine of the Sinhalese as a superior and glorious people.”
Black July – Was it a Spontaneous Reaction to an Ambush Killing of Thirteen Soldiers by the LTTE?
Here are Some Extracts, Verbatim, From the Book that Set the Records Straight that Black July was Pre-meditated, a Must Read!
- In the build up to the July massacres there had been a progressive escalation in blatant state terrorism. In March the widely respected Gandhiyam Society had come under attack…on March14th 1983, officials acting on the instructions of the Assistant Government Agent of the area, moved into the Pankullam settlement near Trincomalee, huts were burned down, farm building destroyed and crops set on fire. Tractors and trucks donated by NOVIB were destroyed. On April 6th a joint police and army operation raided the head office of Gandhiyam, at Vavuniya, seizing documents, files and books. The offices were sealed; volunteer staff were questioned about the activities of Gandhiyam, accused of lying and beaten up. Dr Rajasunderam, the 46 year old organising secretary of the society as well as 3 visiting German students were arrested and taken away…and was much later (found) to be at the infamous Gurunagar army camp. He was refused access to a lawyer.
- On April 8th, Mr. S A David. President and founder and Gandhiyam was arrested. He too was taken to the Gurunagar camp. There he and Dr Rajasunderam experienced the same regime of brutality and torture… Whenever he was in the mood, David later recalled, Commander Udugampola would come drunk, with a glass of arrack in his hand and open the cells, stripped the detainees and assaulted, kicked and cursed them. I could hear cries of pain and groans throughout the nights and see naked colleagues hanging head down from high window bars…He himself experienced Udugampola’s sadism on one occasion when he was forced to lie down while guards trampled on his naked body.
- David’s treatment was mild compared what was meted out to other detainees.. Dr Rajasunderam was severely beaten, his left hand dislocated, his ear drums broken. On several occasions he was left unconscious on the floor after beatings. Worse than the physical torments to men of the calibre of David and Rajasunderam were the sadistic mental cruelties they had to endure.
- Parties of school cadets were regularly brought in to watch their degradation and jeer at detainees.”The army is taking care to raise a new generation of Tamil haters,” David wrote later.
- The other detainees were subjected to equally sadistic and brutal treatment. Their “crimes’ included carrying posters, attending classes on Marxist philosophy, having books on Eelam in their possession and so on.
- In the Tamil areas meanwhile the reign of terror continued unabated. In April, a three day peace march, calling for the repeal of the draconian ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’ was attacked by police with tear gas. The city of Jaffna responded with a ‘hartal’ with shops and cinemas closed. On April 7th young men and girls distributing leaflets, calling for a ‘hartal’ in protest against the arrest of Dr Rajasunderam, were seized and incarcerated. While in custody they were subjected to beatings and torture.
- All over the country, anti-Tamil feeling was being whipped up by posters and inflammatory articles in the state owned Sinhalese newspapers. The ideal of a Sinhala – Buddhist state in which the Tamil people had no place was being propagated by a fanatical Buddhist priesthood that had long since renounced the Buddhist ideals of non-violence and brotherly love and replaced them by a gospel of racial hatred towards the Tamils and a false doctrine of the Sinhalese as a superior and glorious people. It was a gospel that had much in common with the Nazi propaganda of the Third Reich and the ultimate of the Tamils was to be very much akin to that of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany. The priesthood had over the years achieved an even greater dominance over the government and the ruling party with whom they shared a common objective of the subjugation and if necessary, annihilation of the Tamil population on the island.
- On the night of May 11 – 12 Tamil students at the University of Peradeniya experienced a night of terror when they were attacked by a mob of Sinhala under-graduates who broke down their doors and dragged them out of their hostel rooms. Attacking them with clubs and iron bars, they ordered them to leave the campus by 6 am. Their lecture notes were destroyed, a grater calamity perhaps to the students than the physical attacks. Organised search parties roamed the university searching for subversive literature, abortive as it happened as the Tamils were mainly medical and engineering students who had not involved themselves in politics and had kept a low profile at the university. They were obliged to flee the campus before taking their final examinations. No action was taken against the Sinhalese students by the university authorities.
- The political repression continued. The presses of the English Language Saturday Review and the Tamil language paper Suthanthiran were closed down by the police and their editors arrested. Kovai Mahesan, 46 year old editor of Suthanthiran ended up in the notorious Gurunagar camp where he was subject to the same brutality and torture as the other detainees. The closure of these two papers was a grievous loss to the Tamil cause.
- On May 18 for the second time in two years the city of Jaffna went up in flames after a shoot- out between guerrillas and army personnel in which a corporal was killed. The army descended in force on the city arriving by helicopter, truck and jeep. Six hundred armed with petrol bombs and torches surrounded one of the most densely populated areas of the city. Using their trucks to break down the gates they looted the houses of their contents before setting them on fire. Men. Women and children ran for their lives taking refuge in Temples, Churches and in the precincts of the university. Another group attacked the shopping area burning down the vegetable market as well as numerous shops and petrol stations. Innocent passersby were attacked; when eventually the last vehicles rumbled out of the city, there was only rubble and devastation left behind. Close upon a thousand people had been rendered destitute overnight.
- Throughout June sporadic outbreaks of anti-Tamil violence continued all over the island. On June 1. Following a shoot-out between Tigers and the air-force personnel when two of the latter were killed, Vavuniya town was set ablaze. Within minutes of the incident servicemen came and began indiscriminately assaulting bystanders and passersby. Shopkeepers hurriedly put up their shutters and school children were sent home. Soon the market area of the town was ablaze and the bellowing clouds of smoke visible two miles away.
- Vavuniya was left like a “blitzed town” with streets empty apart from armed patrols. Trains and buses had stopped running and the people dared not venture out of their because of the risk of being beaten-up by servicemen.
- In the eastern Tamil city of Trincomalee attacks began in early June and continued for several days. On June 4, the Mansion House was burnt down. Bombs were thrown at the city’s MP, R Sampanthan and he narrowly escaped with his life. All these acts of violence had occurred during curfew hours which raised the suspicion in Tamil circles that they had been perpetrated by the security forces themselves or by thugs acting in connivance with them.
- The Tamil Times forthrightly declared, “The pattern of violence reveals that there are forces at work which have connection at least with certain sections of the government. Hand bombs were thrown at the residence of Mr. Kumar Ponnampalam. President of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. ..Mr Ponnampalam had withdrawn his party’s candidates from local elections and called the LTTE, “freedom fighters”. After the attack Mr. Ponnampalam said the bombs had been aimed directly at his bedroom..So the intention must have been to kill rather than merely frighten.
- And so events moved inexorably towards the holocaust of July 1983.
- The July terror was claimed by the government as a spontaneous reaction to the ambush and shoot-out between the Tigers and a convoy of army lorries that had occurred a few days previously. The action by the Liberation Tigers had been in retaliation for the crimes against the Tamil people that had gone unpunished, the shooting of six innocent school boys waiting at a bus stop by army personnel and the recent abduction and subsequent multiple rape of three young Tamil girls one of whom had later committed suicide. These crimes had gone un-condemned and unpunished.
- There were two indications in the days immediately prior to the problem which led support to this view. The first was that on July 19th, only five days before the outbreak of violence and before the guerrilla incident claimed to have been its cause, President Jayewardene had issued an emergency order imposing censorship of the press and restricting the movements of journalists around the island.
- Secondly earlier in July when the situation was comparatively quiet, Jayawardene had promulgated the sinister ‘Public Security Act’ regulation permitting the security forces to immediately bury or cremate dead bodies without post-mortem examination, inquest, or judicial inquiry of any kind. – David Selbourne himself expelled in late June, writing of the measure in The Guardian of July 7, reported,” President Jayawardene has ensured that security personnel in no way be harassed by the law in the event of being compelled to use their fire power.”
Black July – Was it a Spontaneous Reaction to the Ambush Killing of Thirteen Soldiers by the LTTE or A Sri Lankan Government Sponsored, Pre-meditated and Targeted Campaign of State Terror Unleashed on the Tamil People?
Contrary to the “claims” made by the government of J R Jayewardene, the following paragraph by authors Thornton and Niththyananthan, illustrate Black July was, “a pre-meditated, orchestrated and well organised campaign, constituting, “nothing less than the systematic genocide of an entire people”:
Retrospective examination of the event immediately prior to the massacre suggested that far from being a spontaneous out break it was the culmination of pre-meditated, orchestrated and well organised plans that the guerrilla incident was merely a convenient peg on which to hang an orgy of violence that was to strike the final blow on the Tamil nation, a blow from which it could never recover. To many experienced commentators the July pogrom was a sinister portent of the Sri Lankan government’s ultimate intentions towards the Tamil nation, an intention that was nothing less than the systematic genocide of an entire people – “the final solution” in fact of the Tamil problem.
“..really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”
The words of President Jayewardene made on 11th July 1983 still echo in my ear. I wait for the day that true reconciliation between us will come and whether Sinhalese or Tamil, we will be happy for each other and what the President said, if was true, won’t be true anymore:
“I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now.. Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us…The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhalese people will be here… really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”
— from an interview with J.R. Jayewardene by Ian Ward. London Daily Telegraph, 11 July 1983.