In the week beginning 23rd of July 2018, Sri Lankan Tamils across the world marked the thirty-fifth year of the horrors of the anti-Tamil pogrom of Black July 1983 (Kaṟuppu Yūlai). By all account what happened was a horrific bloodbath when Tamils were killed by Sinhala mobs in Colombo and across the country.
In the western press and elsewhere these atrocities are often presented as race riots. But according to A.Sivanandan who left Colombo after an attack on his family home during the widespread pogrom in 1958, there have been no race riots in Sri Lanka since independence. What there has been a series of increasingly virulent pogroms against the Tamil people by the Sinhala state.
The turning point was the 1956 election, when Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, launched a new party, Sri Lankan Freedom Party(SLFP), with a racist platform of Sinhala-Buddhist first to win the majority of Sinhalese Buddhist vote and on winning a landslide,swiftly legislated to make Sinhala the official language and Buddhism the state religion. This attacked Tamil livelihoods and achievement because English education had been a passport for social mobility into the professions and administrative services. Peaceful protests were crushed by the police; any attempts at reconciliation were suppressed by the Sinhalese reaction. This set off a vicious political race to the bottom when the defeated United National Party (UNP) adopted the same platform in competing for power.
Sivanandan succinctly summed up five decades of developments thus: “From then on the pattern of Tamil subjugation was set: racist legislation followed by Tamil resistance, followed by conciliatory government gestures, followed by Opposition rejectionism, followed by anti-Tamil pogroms instigated by Buddhist priests and politicians, escalating Tamil resistance, and so on – except that the mode of resistance varied and intensified with each tightening of the ethnic-cleansing screw and led to armed struggle and civil war”
Successive Sinhalese governments have carried out demographic changes in the Tamil homelands. State-aided colonization has settled Sinhalese, specifically placed between the Northern and Eastern provinces of the Tamil homeland, in order to break up the contiguity between them.
In 1971 the university system abandoned admission based on merit and substituted ‘standardisation’ through examination results – with lower marks required for Sinhalese than for Tamil students. In a single move, this blighted the future prospects of the Tami youth. Non-violent protests and political actions had reached into a blind alley. Their language demoted, their land increasingly grabbed, their educational and job opportunities curtailed and their culture marginalised, Tamil youth turned to arms in the 1970s responding to pogroms with counter-violence.
In 1979 the government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act and sent the army to Jaffna with instructions to “wipe out terrorism within six months”. The imprisonment and torture of innocent Tamils that followed in the wake of the PTA drove the civilian population further into the arms of the emerging militant groups, all demanding a separate Tamil state, Eelam, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) the most militant of them.
In June 1981 the security forces set fire to the Jaffna Public Library destroying 95,000 volumes and rare manuscripts of historic Tamil literature, considered to be the epicentre of Tamil cultural heritage. In the same year, the police attacked a peaceful refugee camp, Gandhiyam, set up by Tamil doctors to give refugees succour and killed or imprisoned its organisers.
On 23 July 1983 the Tigers ambushed a Sri Lankan army unit killing thirteen soldiers in Jaffna to avenge the killing of Charles Anthony (nom de guerre ‘Seelan‘), now of the LTTE’s top commanders. Their bodies were put on public display in Colombo by the government to provoke Sinhalese fury which resulted in the killing of Tamil prisoners in Welikade jail by Sinhalese prisoners with the collusion of the guards.
A widespread pogrom against Tamils commenced immediately and over a week reached genocidal proportions. Abductions, torture, rape, killings, disappearances and arbitrary arrests became widespread. Many attackers used electoral registers to destroy Tamil homes, shops, factories, etc built by Tamils over generations thereby destroying their capital assets accumulated over generations. These planned abuses were carried out with impunity by the armed forces, special task forces, police, home guards and paramilitary forces.
A cruel ethnic civil war of attrition followed over more than two decades with violence and counter-violence on both sides. The Sri Lankan armed forces with an airforce and navy, well equipped with advanced weapons acquired from the UK and US had always had an upper hand. The North East Secretariat on Human rights (NESOHR) documented more that 150 massacres of Tamils between 1956 and 2008. The LTTE resorted to suicide bombings, assassinations and skirmishes with Sri Lankan armed forces.
In July 1987 India signed a pact with Sri Lanka to end the conflict by sending peacekeeping troops (IPKF) to disarm LTTE. As soon as the Tamils realised that India would never support a separate Tamil state, the showdown between the IPKF and LTTE resulted in thousands of deaths. The disaster led to withdrawal of IPKF in March 1990 and the bitterness on the part of LTTE resulted in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May, 1991.
Apart from the peace talks in October 1994 which ended when Jaffna the main city in the north in December 1995, a major effort mediated by Norway in February 2000 led to a 20 month long fragile ceasefire agreement and talks only to be scuppered by President Chandrika Kumaratunga declaring state of emergency on 5 November 2003.
Meanwhile, the LTTE was already designated as a terrorist organisation in Britain, Europe, India and US, giving a greater confidence to the Sri Lankan government to go on the offensive to seek a final solution militarily. Geopolitical machinations ensured that the Sri Lankan government would have diplomatic and material support from UK and US. There is sufficient evidence that behind the scenes Britain provided training for the Sri Lankan armed forces to improve their performance and the modern weapons to defeat Tamil nationalism.
The election of Mahinda Rajapaksa in April 2005 brought in a regime which conducted a ruthless war not only against the Tamil Tigers but against innocent Tamil civilians. This parliamentary dictatorship tilting to fascism, instituted blanket censorship, abducting and killing any critical journalists and activists and feeding the Sinhalese public with government manufactured propaganda. In 2009 it intensified the military campaign and cornered the Tamil Tigers in Wanni with tens of thousands of civilians. The north of Sri Lanka was destroyed field by field, street by street, hospital by hospital. The UN failed to protect civilians, because it showed a lack of political will to stop atrocities when it could, mainly under pressure from the United Kingdom, which was preserving its strategic interests.
The defeat of the LTTE brought to end the attempt to establish a Tamil state. A survey showed that in 2016, seven years after the end of the war, 96 percent of Tamil land was occupied by the army. There has been little change since then, with many people still unable to return to their lands and access to water resources so that they can farm and fish to sustain their livelihood.
After the massacres in Wanni, On May 18, 2009, Colombo declared the end of the 26-year civil war and presented this as the beginning of a new era of peace, national reconciliation and development. But the PTA still remains in force enabling the security forces to detain people and subject them to torture, bypassing due legal process. There are many who are still looking for disappeared relatives. Nine years later the Sri Lankan government has set up an Office of Mission Persons (OMP) which has yet to gain the confidence of the Tamil community. Whilst the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena has promised to stop abductions and censorship of journalists, the national security state and the fundamental strategy of the ruling class to divide and rule remains unchanged. The political will to look back at the past and bring about reconciliation between the different communities is absent. Little progress has been made to implement The UNHCR resolution 30-1 passed in 2015 to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights. For this to happen, the fundamentalist Buddhist monks must return to their monasteries and army to the to its barracks.
The Permanent People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka held in December 2013 upheld the charge of genocide against Sri Lanka government and of complicity by the UK and US governments. Like the Palestinians and Kurds, the Sri Lankan Tamils have suffered ethnic cleansing and dispossession over the last seven decades. In none of these cases have the Western powers and the United Nations designated this as genocide. These are good examples of the prevailing politics of genocide. For the US and UK, ethnic cleaning by its allies such as Israeli, Turkey and Sri Lankan governments are benign genocides. It is only those committed by their enemies that are considered to be nefarious and requiring rapid intervention. In Kosovo, the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia) was briskly set up to indict the Yugoslav President Milosevic for genocide. The strategic interest of UK and US ensured immunity to the President Rajapaska for war crimes. Such double standards are with us and undermine the credibility of the current world order dominated by the US. All attempts to use international institutions to hold the Sri Lankan government to account retrospectively, worthwhile as they are, are not likely to result in any significant action.
Every community has to draw lessons from the history of their struggles. The Tamil liberation movement suffered a crippling defeat. The Sri Lankan Tamils have entered new phase. They have to regroup and radically innovate new strategy and tactics. They face a dual challenge- one at home in Sri Lanka and the other in the diaspora in the UK and elsewhere. Wherever they are they need to build strong civil society organisations with solidarity to fight against injustice legally and politically. They have no choice but to reconstruct their lives. In Sri Lanka holding on the land they have and recovering the lands they have been displaced from is the utmost priority. They must develop strategies for this. More importantly, they need to bring to an end the domination of the Sri Lankan military in civil society and public spaces such as schools. For this, they must build communities of resistance based on participatory democracy. Tamils in the diaspora should set up organisations and funding to support reconstruction of the communities in Sri Lanka, beyond mere charities. They will need to build their political organisations to contest any opportunities electorally at local and national levels.
They came for Tamils and now they are increasingly going after the Muslims. Given the triumphalism of Sinhalese nationalism and the increasing attack on Muslim community, the Tamil community must make common cause with all minorities and oppose injustices. This would show a principled position on defence of dignity, security, justice and human rights based on their experience. It will win them respect and friends at home and across the world.
In the UK, the Tamil community are still intimidated by the fact that the Terrorism Act 2000 banned LTTE and by association, any Tamil political activity can be linked to terrorism. They need to resist this by making common cause with the Kurdish and other communities facing a similar problem. Organisations such as CAMPACC have supported the Tamil community over more that a decade. The Tamil community must learn from the Kurdish experience. Kurds under the guidance of their imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan have abandoned nationalism as their aim and have attempted to build grass root democratic institutions uniting diverse communities in Rojava. They face formidable obstacles and geopolitical machinations but their strategy is both visionary and right.
Inevitably we confront the question of why the Sinhalese polity descended into barbarism with Buddhist religious bigotry having a sway contrary to Buddhist tenets of truth, virtue, morality, non-violence etc. The roots of this lies in the colonial past when the British colonial authorities imposed a unitary central state without regard to Tamil territorial claims and invented the ‘Sinhala Buddhist Aryan’ national identity privileged to rule the island in 1833. In sharp contrast to its brutal treatment of the Indian people across the water the British awarded universal suffrage in their model colony coupling it with an island wide census to instil the Sinhala identity with a majoritarian consciousness. They developed a narrative that the Tamils were not indigenous to the island but invaders. Despite the repeated demands by the Tamils for constitutional safeguards that would preserve their collective rights as a nation, the British transferred the power to the Sinhala elite in 1948 leaving Tamils at the mercy of the sectarian state.
This beautiful island still described as ‘the jewel of the Indian Ocean’ in tourist brochures is tarnished. Maybe sometime in not too distant future, coming generations of Sinhalese and Tamils will look back at the last 70 years with horror and seek to build a multicultural, multi-faith and multilingual society where all will flourish and none will be left behind, none will be marginalised and demonised. In a turbulent world they will face urgent challenges of climate change and economic survival. Hopefully it will dawn upon them that the inhabitants of this island have a history and geography so intertwined that ethno-nationalism can only be destructive and an inclusive politics and culture will enrich all of them. Without such hope, how can one face the future.
How can one remember all the victims of this carnage. Innocent children, women and men who were slaughtered for nothing but for the demigods of nationalism. Perhaps it is best to leave it to Faiz Ahmad Faiz who witnessed such the carnage in Bangladesh in 1971 by the Pakistani army and reacted to it with this poem:
This is how my sorrow became visible
its dust, piling up for years in my heart,
finally reached my eyes,
the bitterness now so clear that
I had to listen when my friends
told me to wash my eyes with blood.
Everything at once was tangled in blood-
each face, each idol, red everywhere.
Blood swept over the sun, washing away its gold.
The moon erupted with blood, its silver extinguished.
The sky promised a morning of blood,
ant night wept only in blood.
The trees hardened into crimson pillars.
All flowers filled their eyes with blood.
And every glance was an arrow,
each pierced image blood. This blood
-a river crying our for martyrs-
flows on in longing. And in sorrow, in rage, in love.
Let it flow. Should it be dammed up,
there will only be hatred cloaked in colours of death.
Don’t let his happen, my friends,
bring all my tears back instead,
a flood to purify my dust-filled eyes,
to wash this blood forever from my eyes.
(translated from Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali)