Remembering Black July

2019 marked 36 years since the 1983 riots or Black July pogroms. Armed with voter registration lists, government-sponsored anti-Tamil pogroms killed at least 3,000 Tamil civilians, destroyed 5,000 shops, 8,000 homes, and displaced 150,000 Tamils. It also prompted the first large exodus of Tamil people: 500,000 of them fled the island.⁣⁣

Black July contained all the hallmarks of genocide. In commemoration of the pogroms, PEARL released various media that attempted to historicize the violence while honouring stolen Tamil life. The following is a collection of our efforts to remember the massacre, redefine our history, and uncover the truth.

The often-repeated myth around the pogroms conveniently reduces the violence to a reaction by Sinhala mobs to the LTTE's attack on 13 Sri Lankan soldiers. Through analyzing newspaper reports months leading up to Black July, the following thread exposes the degree of state-inflicted violence against Tamils at the time. It becomes wildly apparent that Black July was a well-planned, coordinated genocide against Tamils.

Violence from state actors had been increasing in the months ahead of Black July. Tamils were being killed at will. Human rights activists, political activists and militants were being detained and tortured. Local newspapers, including the Saturday Review, documented the violence.

In April, SA David and Dr Rajasundaram of the Gandhiyam Movement were arrested and held. They were severely tortured throughout. The Gandhiyam Movement was a non-violent movement, which assisted refugees, by setting up farms and distributing food.

An inquest into the April 10 death of a Tamil detainee at the Gurunagar army camp found 35 injuries. Navaratnarajah, 28, of Kiliveddy, Trincomalee was detained two weeks prior, under the PTA.

After a call for a boycott of the May 18 local elections by the LTTE, a shoot out killed one army corporal. Later that day the army went on a rampage, leaving Jaffna in flames. Sinhala soldiers burnt homes, shops and vehicles, while looting and robbing.

In the south of the island, Tamils were facing increasing discrimination, harassment and violence, including at universities, hospitals and government offices. See articles in the Saturday Review from May 21 and June 4.

On May 30 Sabaratnam Palanivel from Valvettithurai was dragged into the towns army camp and killed. As his relatives watched, a truck was driven over his dead body by a soldier, flattening his body.

Meanwhile, verdicts of homicide were returned in two separate judicial inquiries into Tamil deaths in military custody. Kathirgamathamby Navaratnarajah (28, Kiliveddy - as above) and Ratnasingham Sriskandarajah (25, Karainagar) were both killed in army custody.

On June 1 after two Sri Lankan Air Force men were killed in a Tamil ambush in Vavuniya, military personnel went “berserk”, burning buildings and attacking Tamils. Gandhiyam’s offices and farm were also attacked.

On June 3 emergency regulations were gazetted which permitted the disposal of dead bodies by armed forces without a judicial inquest and a post-mortem. The regulations came into effect soon after judicial inquiries found the army to have killed Tamil men in Jaffna

Throughout June, racist violence occurred all over the island. Dozens of Tamils died. The army killed and refused to hand over the bodies of several Tamil youths in Jaffna. In Trincomalee homes and businesses were burned. Bombs were thrown at Sampanthan’s house during curfew.

More Tamils were killed, including in Trinco, Jaffna, Negombo, Ratmalana and Kurunegala. Tamil businesses were being attacked, including a garment factory in Kurunegala. Harassment of Tamil students at universities also continued. Under the new regulations, no inquests were held

In their June issue, the London-based Tamil Times reported that “Not a single day has passed since 18th of May without attacks upon Tamils in some part it other of the country.

On July 1 the government banned the publication of Saturday Review and Suthanthiran, the two main papers reporting and printing in Jaffna. Information beyond this point was largely reported in diaspora media, as strict censorship was imposed. The last issue before BlackJuly.

Throughout July, violence increased further. On July 22, the army abducted three Tamil girls in Jaffna and took them to their camps. News spread that they were raped and one had killed herself.

On July 23 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam conducted the most successful attack on the Sri Lankan military by the Tamil resistance movement till date. 13 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed in an ambush in Thinnevely.

Violence against Tamils spread across the country. The premeditated violence caused over 3,000 Tamil deaths mostly in Colombo and in other Sinhala majority areas. The Tamil economy was destroyed. Over one hundred thousand were displaced, with thousands fleeing abroad.

As the news of the pogroms reached the outside world, it became apparent that the violence occurred with support of the state and the security forces and was planned “well in advance”.

The International Commission of Jurists in December 1983 said: “The evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhala rioters on the Tamils amounted to acts of genocide.”

The thread does not delve into the violence of the pogrom itself. The sheer horror and evil committed by Sinhala mobs in #blackjuly remains a deep wound for the Eelam Tamil people. Many of those responsible for are still alive.

Till date, justice has not been served.

Understanding Black July As Widespread

It is commonly believed that the horrific violence of Black July was confined to Colombo alone. This is not true. On July 26, we released a map detailing all the other towns and villages that suffered anti-Tamil violence during Black July. While our infographic is not exhaustive of all of the affected areas, it served to expand knowledge of the pogroms and honour the victims everywhere.

Understanding Black July As Widespread

On July 23, we published an infographic that showed the Black July pogroms to possess all the characteristics of genocide according to the legal definition provided by the UN. This compliments the infographic we created for the 2009 genocide of Tamils and was similarly used to encourage people to sign our petition demanding formal Tamil genocide recognition and criminal justice from the UN.

Remembering The Welikada Prison Massacre

On July 25, we focused our attention on the Welikada Prison Massacre. During Black July, 53 Tamil political prisoners were violently murdered by Sinhala prisoners under the supervision of Sinhala prison guards. Amongst the dead, was TELO militants, Sellarasa "Kuttimani" Yogachandiran, Ganeshanathan Jeganathan, and N. Thangathurai. Kuttimani and Jeganthan are famously remembered for asking for their eyes to be grafted onto the Tamils who would see the birth of Tamil Eelam. In their torture, they were forced to kneel and their eyes gouged out with iron bars before they were killed.

Highlighting Sri Lanka's Lasting Impunity

On the anniversary of the final day of the Black July pogroms, we highlighted quotes from political leaders, journalists, and witnesses in the aftermath of the brutal violence. Most notably, President J.R. Jayewardene’s first address to the public following the riots, expressed no accountability or sympathy for the Tamil population that had been massacred. Instead, he condemned the Tamil liberation struggle and outlawed Tamil demands for self-rule. This emboldened Sinhala mobs and reignited further violence.⁣ Following a report conducted by the International Commission of Jurists in December of 1983, they concluded, “the violence of the Sinhala rioters on the Tamils amounted to acts of genocide.”⁣ ⁣

Beneath the Ashes: Remembering Black July and the Violence Before 

We published an op-ed on Tamil Guardian detailing the atrocities of Black July and the anti-Tamil violence that gave rise to the pogroms. You can read it here.

"The Black July pogrom carried all the hallmarks of genocide: most notably, mobs were armed with voter registration lists distinguishing Tamils as targets of violence. In this nightmarish rampage against the Tamil people, it is unsurprising that the motivations behind such horror have been reduced into a cause-and-effect narrative. Many of us are familiar with this version: the LTTE killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers, the next day Sinhala mobs ran amok, supposedly in an outburst of rage in response to the Sinhala deaths. The underserved truth, however, is that the pogrom began before the Tigers’ attack reached public consciousness."

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