Black July: A Tamil Genocide
The 1983 Anti-Tamil pogroms in Sri Lanka, commonly referred to as Black July, was a brutal state-sponsored genocide lasting from July 23rd to July 30th. Armed with voter registration lists, Sinhalese mobs took at least 3,000 Tamils lives, destroyed 5,000 shops, and displaced over 150,000 Tamils. At least 500 Tamil women were raped and many families were burned alive. It also prompted the first large exodus of Tamils: 500,000 fled the island, giving seed to a global Tamil diaspora.
The following is a collection of our efforts to remember the massacre, redefine our history, and uncover the truth.
The Months Preceding Black July
An often repeated myth is that the 1983 Black July pogroms, were a response to the killing of 13 soldiers by the LTTE on July 23, 1983. This is false. 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.
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 Prevention of Terrorism Act.
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 21.05. and 04.06.1983.
On 30.05.1983, 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 01.06.1983, 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.
June 1983: Disposal Of Dead Bodies Without Inquiry
On 03.06.1983 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
“Not a single day has passed since 18th of May without attacks upon Tamils in some part it other of the country”.
— Tamil Times (London, UK; June 1983)
July 1983: Press Censorship
On 01.07.1983 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 Black July.
On July 20th, days prior to the violence of #BlackJuly, the Sri Lankan government imposed local and foreign press censorship on all news related to national security, law, and order. See the excerpt from The London Times dated 21.07.1983.
July 1983: Sexual Violence Against Tamils
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.
July 1983: LTTE Attack in Thinnevely
On 23.07.1983 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.
July 1983: Island-wide Anti-Tamil Violence
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.
July to August 1983: The Outside World’s Response
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”.
Paul Seigart of the International Commission of Jurist in his report entitled, “Sri Lanka: A mounting tragedy of errors”:
Clearly this (attack on July 1983) was not a spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhalese people – nor was it, as has been suggested in some quarters, a popular response to the killing of 13 soldiers in an ambush by Tamil Tigers on the previous day, which was not even reported in the newspapers until after the riots began. It was a series of deliberate acts executed in accordance with a concerted plan conceived and organised well in advance.
On August 4th, The London Times reported: “Sri Lanka Army personnel actively encouraged arson and the looting of Tamil business establishments and homes in Colombo. … Absolutely no action was taken to apprehend or prevent the criminal elements involved in these activities. In many instances army personnel participated in the looting of shops.”
Black July Was A Genocide
Black July carried all the hallmarks of genocide according to the legal definition provided by the UN. For the Tamil people, genocide recognition is important because Black July was neither the first, not the last instance of an ethnic pogrom — even a genocide — against the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.
The Geography Of Black July
It is commonly believed that the horrific violence of Black July was confined to Colombo alone. This is not true. This map shows many of the other towns and villages that suffered anti-Tamil violence during Black July. While it is not exhaustive of all of the affected areas, it serves to expand knowledge of the pogroms and honour the victims everywhere.
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.
I request that my eyes be donated to some blind person, so that Kuttimani will be able to see through those eyes the reality of Tamil Eelam.
— Sellarasa “Kuttimani” Yogachandiran
Sri Lanka’s Lasting Impunity
These are quotations 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.”
People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) is 501(c)3 non-profit organization advocating for justice and self-determination for the Tamil people in the North-East of Sri Lanka.
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