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Seeing Beyond the Black Smoke of July 1983

"In 1971 there were 25,000 Sinhalas in the Jaffna district but after the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 and resultant racial violence, this number fell to around 4,000. Then it fell to zero where it remains until this day. By 1991 there were over 30,000 Muslims until they too were wiped out from Jaffna and today their number is zero."

by Thomas Johnpulle

(July 25, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was the smell of burning tyres. Thick black smoke was rising far away from all directions. Men and women rushed to schools to pick up their children and then sped home, gathered whatever they could and rushed to safety. Riots spread like a tsunami engulfing the city. By the evening it was all over for many Tamil families in Colombo. Their life savings destroyed, some killed in the most horrific manner imaginable, displaced and facing an uncertain future. However, riots continued for a few more days until there was nothing left to burn, loot or vandalise.

Amidst all this chaos there were kind hearted men and women who despite great risk to their own lives protected helpless Tamils from marauding hooligans. We never thanked them as it seemed least disturbing for us and them. Armed forces and the police, to say the least, were not helpful at all. Apparently they were not given orders to quell the riot! Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced despite having a house to go to and property to lead a comfortable life. Government and religious organisations came to the rescue but provisions were far from sufficient. Life at schools and churches was unimaginably hard especially for the children and the elderly. Many young men resolved to avenge it one way or the other. It seemed everything was stacked up against Tamils in Sri Lanka. When language based discrimination, standardisation, burning down Tamil icons and pushing buckets to the face in public places demanding to pronounce an alien word with the threat of assault all failed, rioting seemed the tool used to suppress Tamils.

The war turned brutal after July 1983. Those affected and disgraced by the riot found it comforting to hear that an apt punishment is being meted out by the LTTE. Tamil Tigers fought back for the lost honour of Tamils in the island. Fear of the LTTE meant no more riots. Hatred thick as the black smoke of that fateful day blinded many from seeing the truth. Decades have passed and the war has ended. It didn’t take long to see the true colours of the LTTE. Far from being the defenders of Tamil people, LTTE became the ruthless rulers of Tamil people. Caught between two merciless forces, Tamils saw no way out than to leave the island behind and fly to greener pastures abroad. However, it must be admitted that time has indeed healed the wounds of July 1983 to a great extent. Some Tamils have found that they cannot be separated from the country they always loved and some of them want that cosmopolitan Sri Lankan feeling back in their lives. Seeing beyond the thick black smoke reveals many disturbing things that were literally not seen by many Tamils for decades. Revisiting some key events that defined the ethnic conflict in this island with this new clarity would put things in perspective.

It All Started with Racism

Like magma in an inactive volcano, racism was breeding in the Lankan society for a very long time. At the turn of the twentieth century communal politics dominated both Sinhala and Tamil politics. Things started to change in the 1940s with more emphasis on a united political front. But not everyone was in favour of this move. Citing various reasons tied to racism, some opted not to join it. In 1944 All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) registered as a political party making it the first communal based political party. Communalism was surely its main agenda although it entered into an alliance with the United National Party (UNP) to rule the country. Still there were major disagreements from matters ranging from the national flag to citizenship. In 1949 more than one and a half years after the Citizenship Act that disenfranchised upcountry Tamils, a more radicalised communal party by the name Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) was formed. It literally meant “Tamil Kingdom Party”. So the truth is the decision to create a Tamil kingdom in Sri Lanka was made in 1949, seven years before the “Sinhala Only” Act. Sinhala dominance spread with new found power that was not imagined by them for over 450 years. Tamils faced the blunt of growing Sinhala dominance under the guise of democracy.

Unfortunately communal politics dominated Tamils in the North and the East while Tamils outside the North east rejected it. Sinhalas and Muslims rejected communal politics totally and embraced multiethnic politics with MPs and ministers from all racial communities represented in their parties. Politics in the North and the East was dominated by political parties with names ranging from Tamil Congress to Tamil Kadchi to Tamil Front, talking about Tamil Homelands and Tamil grievances and demanding Tamil aspirations. These leaders escalated the problems without reaching out to the other party trying to resolve it within a cosmopolitan framework. For instance in 1956 there was no riot following the language law. In 1958 there were no riots following the tearing of the B-C pact by the Prime Minister. Riots started after tar was put on Sinhala letters in Jaffna and Batticaloa by Tamil leaders setting a wave of riots against them. Former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka revealed in 2008 how his family was driven from their home in 1958 when he was seven years old by Tamil hooligans into the jungle where they spent three days. However at the end of the day Tamils sustained more damage and no government action followed. This helped further escalate the communal confrontational approach until the baton was grabbed by the ‘boys’ who were guerrillas. After a number of internal skirmishes young Pirapaharan emerged unassailable leading the LTTE that survived the Indian involvement, the end of the Cold War and ruling party changes in both India and Sri Lanka. His journey ended in 2009.

Even after the war, communal demands by communal political parties have not stopped. They continue to follow the same confrontational approach with communal demands. Until the day Tamil grievances give way to peoples’ grievances, Tamil aspirations give away to peoples’ aspirations and Tamil homelands demand is dropped in favour of Sri Lankan cosmopolitan homelands, this problem will not end.

Unseen Tragedies

In 1971 there were 25,000 Sinhalas in the Jaffna district but after the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 and resultant racial violence, this number fell to around 4,000. Then it fell to zero where it remains until this day. By 1991 there were over 30,000 Muslims until they too were wiped out from Jaffna and today their number is zero. This event came to be known as Black August. Jaffna was also house to many other smaller minorities numbering a few thousands including Chetties, Burgers, etc. They too are not found there today. The same fate befell these communities in many other districts in the North including Kilinochchi, Mannar and Mulaitivu. In contrast the Tamil population in all Sinhala majority districts grew during this time. Why didn’t people see these horrific tragedies? What blinded people from seeing these tragedies?

Following July 1983, most displaced Tamils went back to their homes. But the Sinhalas and Muslims who lived in the North could not go back to their homes for over 20-30 years. Most of them have no known whereabouts which raises fears of the worst possibility. No one talks about them as if they were mere numbers in the censuses. That is why this is a worse tragedy, a nameless tragedy.

Amidst the Black July tragedy, there were plenty of Sinhala people who risked everything they valued including their lives to help Tamils but when the same tragedy befell the Sinhalas and Mulims in Jaffna, absolutely no one came to save them. What’s worse is when some of them visited their homes and businesses they left behind whenever there was a respite in war they could not find even a brick of their properties. New dwellings had come up and occupants denied knowledge of any previous owners since they purchased these properties, in most cases from their neighbours. The Thesawalamei law didn’t help matters either.

Then there is the case of universities. All taxpayer funded universities in Sri Lanka admit Tamils but at least one major university - the Jaffna University - does not admit Sinhalas. Why isn’t it discussed in the open?

In the 1970s people in the North immensely benefited from the economic system that was very unpopular elsewhere. Farming families moved into much better houses and their produce was highly valued and fetched high price consistently. Kilinochchi had the island’s largest agricultural produce market. However, at the 1977 election, people of the North overwhelmingly voted against both the government and the nation. No wonder all the economic prosperity of the 1970s came crashing down. Cheap agricultural imports drove the entire agricultural industry into diaster.

In 2002 after bouts of horrendous war, the newly elected government reached out to the LTTE and a ceasefire agreement was signed. Although the ceasefire was confined to book, it drastically scaled down the war. However, at the 2004 General Election people in the North who were the biggest beneficiaries of the ceasefire voted against the ruling party in favour of another massive mandate for the Tamil National Alliance. UNP even lost the few seats it won in 2001 in the North. The 2005 Presidential Election had a similar outcome. What blinded the people from seeing the obvious?

Communalism in Politics and Confrontational Approach Continues

LTTE was a mere manifestation of communalism in North-East politics that was there even before Pirapaharan was born. That is why the end of the LTTE didn’t end communalism. Today communalist politics and the associated confrontational approach have gone international. This will not have a winner as Tamils in Sri Lanka will be the losers once again. In response to the ever intensifying confrontational approach of pro-LTTE sections of the Diaspora, the government increases militarisation of the North and the East. Despite the absurdity of communal ideologies that bled the nation and particularly the Tamil community, holders of these views have not dropped them. Their claim of “Gandhian ways” doesn’t hold water as Gandhi never used his non-violent methods to win racial demands. He fought for the demands of a multitude of races and for the most cosmopolitan nation on earth.

Sadly communalism has crept into proposed political solutions as well. This renders political solutions worthless and breeders of the same problem they meant to address. If peace is the goal, there cannot be any space for communal political demands in a political solution. If peace is the desire, there is no better peace model in Sri Lanka than the tried and tested Colombo Model. Within a few years of the Black July, Colombo regained its past glory through ethnic integration. This is the reason why there were no more riots after 1983. And this is the reason why voters in Colombo always rejected communalism in favour of multiethnic political parties. Expatriates who are enjoying the fruits of multiethnic societies should press the government to devise a political solution based on ethnic integration throughout the island, not on communal demands. What benefited them will certainly benefit their brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka as it did in Colombo.

Sri Lanka must adopt its own reconciliation model and reject the international reconciliation model. The peace model that actually worked for Sri Lankans through times of war and peace is out there. If only we can see it through the thick clouds of communism and residue hatred, by defying the game of smoke and mirrors played by sections of the international community with vested military interests in the region.-

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