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The Tamil Pogram: The Black July of 1983

The Tamil Pogram: The Black July of 1983

The Tamil Pogram: The Black July of 1983

In late July 1983, Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital literally burst into flames as unruly mobs of Sinhalese went on a rampage burning, looting and terrorising the occupants of Tamil homes in an orgy of violence unparalleled in the Island’s history then.
 
The marauding Sinhalese mobs had little difficulty in locating Tamil homes as they were armed with electoral lists in which Tamil households had been clearly marked. The attacks on Tamil homes were systematic and in the early stages of the pogrom, only those who resisted or chose to stay in their homes were killed. Those who chose to flee were more often than not permitted to leave, provided they did not take any valuables with them. This, however, did not last long as the mobs, drunk with violence and alcohol became increasingly ugly as time went on.
 
According to Stanley Tambiah, professor of Anthropology at Harvard University and curator of the South Asian Ethnology at the Peabody Museum, between 1958 and 1983 there have been “seven occurrences of mass violence unleashed by segments of the Sinhalese population against Tamils”.
 
The events of July 1983 (in which an estimated three thousand Tamils were killed and thousands forced to flee the Island) was only a culmination of this series of organised violence against the Tamils.
 
In the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 thousands of Tamils were killed by mobs which waylaid them. Vehicles suspected of carrying Tamils were set ablaze with the occupants inside, Tamil pedestrians were killed on sight, and entire Tamil neighbourhoods were torched. Within days Colombo came to resemble a war zone, as Tamil-owned factories shops and homes were burnt to the ground, and the skyline marked by pillars of smoke. The violence soon spread to other cities.
 
The speeches made by parliamentarians belonging to the ruling UNP just prior to and soon after the attack, the findings by several independent agencies, and eyewitness accounts, leave little in doubt. The violence was nothing less than a state-orchestrated pogrom.
 
Just two weeks before the attacks on Tamil people and property, President J R Jayawardne was quoted by the (London) Daily Telegraph of 11 July 1983 as saying
“I am not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people.. now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion ... Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy”.
 
Nine months after the event, in March 1984, following his fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka, Paul Sieghart, the Chairman of the British Section of the International Commission of Jurists had this to say,
“Clearly this was not a spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala people. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organised well in advance.”
 
Nothing was heard from the President for 5 days into the pogrom, and when he appeared on television it was to say that the attacks were “not a product of urban mobs but a mass movement of the generality of the Sinhalese people and that “the time had come to accede to the clamour and the national respect of the Sinhalese people”.
According to Professor Stanley Tambiah, 
“On the same television program in which the President had bowed to the action of the generality of the Sinhalese people, Lalith Athulathmudali, who was later to be appointed Minister of security, nearly wept with ponderous histrionics over a sight that he never dreamed he would see-lines of Sinhalese people waiting to buy food as a result of the violence. He had not a word to say in sympathy for the frightened Tamils crowded in indescribable conditions in refugee camps”
 
The active support given by the army, the police and the navy to the mobs engaged in the attack was clearly visible. Although there was little coverage of these events in the Sinhala-owned local media, the foreign media carried several reports highlighting the role played by the Island’s armed forces and the police in the attacks.
 
The correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph reported on the 26th of July how “several army vehicles drove through the city, packed with troops shouting encouragement to the rioters”.
 
The Irish Times of 29th July reported the attack on (Tamil) shops and homes by 130 sailors who had broken out of their barracks on Monday, 25th July.
 
The Observer of 31st July 1983, reported security forces joining the rioters in the looting and burning in Trincomalee and other cities.
 
The London Times of 5th August reported how “…Army personnel actively encouraged arson and the looting of Tamil business establishments and homes in Colombo” and how “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.”
 
According to John Elliott of the London Financial Times, “Troops and police either joined the rioters or stood idly by.”
 
India Today reported how a jewellery mart (Fifty yards from the Indian High Commission, right next to a police station’) was ransacked with army assistance. “The shops in this block had heavy grille doors” recalled an eye witness, “ so an army truck was used as a battering ram to break through them, then the soldiers sprang in with Sinhala battle cries to claim the lion share of the loot”
 
During this time, the bloodstained hand of the authorities was clearly exposed in the brutal slaughter of 52 Tamil political prisoners held in the maximum-security prison at Welikade in Colombo. The killing of these political prisoners was carried out over two days. Thirty-five of them were killed on 25th July around 2.30pm when Colombo was supposedly under a curfew.
 
According to an eyewitness, Airforce helicopters hovered over the jail while the killings took place under the supervision of the deputy jail superintendent, aided and abetted by the army and security guards. After the killings the blood-soaked bodies were piled in front of a statue of Buddha in the jail courtyard and, in a macabre ritual the assailants offered the blood of the Tamil victims to the statute of Buddha.
 
S.A. David, another survivor of the prison massacre recalled that the murdered included two political prisoners (Kuttimani and Jegan) whose eyes were gouged by their attackers.
 
The Madras Hindu of 10th August 1983 reporting on this said,
“Selvaraja Yogachandran, popularly known as Kuttmuni, a nominated member of the Sri Lankan parliament who was one of the 52 prisoners killed in the maximum security Wellikade prison in Colombo two weeks ago, was forced to kneel in his cell, (where he was under solitary confinement), by his assailants and ordered to pray to them. When he refused, his tormentors taunted him about his last wish, when he was sentenced to death. (He had willed that his eyes be donated to someone so that at least that person would see an independent Tamil Eelam.) The assailants then gouged his eyes. He was then stabbed to death and his testicles were wrenched from his body. That was confirmed by one of the doctors who had conducted the post-mortem on the first group of 35 prisoners.
 
According to S.A David, the thirty-five Tamils were then heaped in front of the statue of Gautama Buddha in the yard of the Welikade prison and when some yet alive raised their heads they were clubbed to death.
 
The second round of killings on July 27 was lead by Sepala Ekanaike, undergoing life imprisonment for the hijacking of an Alitalia plane on its flight from Delhi to Bangkok a year previously. Sinhalese prisoners convicted of murder, rape and burglary charges were handpicked by the warders, who after plying them with liquor, let them loose on the remaining Tamil political prisoners. Seventeen prisoners were killed on this occasion.
 
A Norwegian tourist Mrs. Eli Skarstein and her 15-year-old daughter, Kristen, witnessed an equally harrowing mass murder as a mini bus full of Tamils was stopped by a Sinhala mob, petrol poured and the bus set on fire, after ensuring that the doors were locked. The eyewitnesses reported that over a hundred spectators watched as twenty Tamils were burnt to death.
 
The Methodist Church in Kollupitya (an affluent suburb in Colombo) was hurriedly converted into a refugee camp to save hundreds of Tamils who had lost their homes or were driven out of their homes and were on the run from marauding mobs.
In this camp alone, which accommodated around 500 displaced Tamils, there were many who had their own tales to tell. It included a severely traumatised young girl in her teens who related (with no sign of any emotion) how her father and brother were killed as she looked on, a senior executive with a multinational company who had watched his home burnt to the ground, a young man who had narrowly escaped being burnt alive (after being doused with petrol) when the lighter failed, giving him just the opportunity to escape, an eighty-year old woman who had scaled a ten foot wall when hunted down by a mob; a middle-aged lawyer who had to plead with a mob to spare the lives of his family; a young couple whose child had suffocated to death when the mother had attempted to keep the child quiet when on the run and several others who had equally harrowing stories to tell.
 
According to N Sanmugathasan, the General Secretary of the Ceylon Communist Party:
“In Colombo at least 500 cars some with drivers and passengers inside were burnt. Tamil-owned buses, running between Colombo and Jaffna were burnt. Tamil patients in hospitals were attacked and killed. Some had their throats cut as they lay in their beds”
 
Francis Wheen wrote in The London Times of 30th July 1983:
“When presented with evidence that the army had committed atrocities against the Tamils, the Government has reacted with a shrug of the shoulders”.
 
The London Guardian in its editorial of 1st August 1983 referred to the Sri Lankan President as someone who has “increasingly come to resemble a dictatorial and racist third World autocrat”.
 
Professor Wilson, the author of “The Break-up of Sri Lanka” provides further evidence of the Government’s role in the planning that went into the July 1983 pogrom. He quotes a letter written to him by George Immerwahr, a United Nations civil servant and a US citizen who had worked in Sri Lanka in the late 1950s. The letter dated 13 February 1985 said:
“ ... the most shattering report came from a friend who was a civil servant; he told me that he had helped plan the riots at the orders of his superiors. When I heard him say this, I was so shocked I told him I simply couldn’t believe him, but he insisted he was telling the truth, and in fact he justified the Government’s decision to stage the riots. When I heard this, I telephoned an official in our own (US) State Department, and while he declined to discuss the matter, I got the impression that he already knew from our embassy in Colombo what I was telling him.”
 
The Review, a publication of the International Commission of Jurists said:
“The evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhala rioters on the Tamils amounted to acts of genocide.”
 
35 Years and on. The Tamil Genocide continuous and Many more thousands perished. The justice still elude the victims.
 
- Nehru Gunaratnam -