|Part of Riots in Sri Lanka|
Location of Sri Lanka
|Date||24 July 1983
30 July 1983 (UTC+6)
|Target||Primarily Sri Lankan Tamils|
|Burning, decapitation, stabbing, shooting|
|Weapons||Axes, guns, explosives, knives, sticks|
Number of participants
in Sri Lanka
|Gal Oya (1956)|
|Black July (1983)|
Black July (Sinhala: කළු ජූලිය Kalu Juliya) is the common name used to refer to the anti-Tamil pogrom and riots in Sri Lanka during July 1983. The riots began as a "response" to a deadly ambush on 23 July 1983 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Tamil militant group, that killed 13 Sri Lanka Army soldiers. Beginning in the capital Colombo on the night of 24 July 1983, anti-Tamil pogroms spread to other parts of the country. Over seven days, mobs of mainly Sinhalese attacked Tamil targets, burning, looting and killing. Estimates of the death toll range between 400 and 3,000. 8,000 homes and 5,000 shops were destroyed. 150,000 people were made homeless. The economic cost of the riots was $300 million. A wave of Sri Lankan Tamils fled to other countries in the ensuing years and many thousands of Tamils youths joined militant groups.
Black July is generally seen as the start of full-scale Sri Lankan Civil War between the Tamil militants and the government of Sri Lanka. July has become a time of remembrance for the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora community around the world.
- 1 Background
- 2 Government's response
- 3 Eyewitness accounts
- 4 Casualty estimates
- 5 Prosecutions and compensations
- 6 As a remembrance day
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 External links
During the colonial period many Sri Lankan Tamils, particularly those from the Jaffna peninsula, took advantage of educational facilities established by missionaries and the British policy of divide and rule which placed minorities in positions of power in colonies, and soon dominated the civil service and other professions. When Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, a majority of government jobs were held by Tamils, who were a minority of the country's population. The elected leaders saw this as the result of a British stratagem to control the majority Sinhalese, and deemed it a situation that needed correction.
In 1956 the Official Language Act (commonly known as the Sinhala Only Act) was introduced. Hitherto English – spoken by only 5% of the population – had been the sole official language, with the use of Sinhala (spoken by 75%) and Tamil (spoken by 25%) being severely restricted. Protests against the Sinhala Only policy by Tamils and by the leftist parties were met with mob violence that eventually snowballed into the riots of 1958. The implementation of the Sinhala Only Act deprived the Tamil populations in the north and east of the country of their right to fully integrate into government institutions and was the foremost injustice brought upon the ethnic minority group.
In 1958, the Tamil political leadership acquiesced to a formula of Sinhala as the official language, but with the "reasonable use of Tamil". Only the leftist parties opposed this, holding out for parity of status between the two languages. However, after the Tamil people gave an overwhelming mandate to the Tamil nationalist Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (Federal Party), which had agreed to a subordinate status for the Tamil language, the leftist parties eventually abandoned parity of status.
Throughout the 1960s, protests and state repression against these protests created further animosity. In 1972, the policy of standardisation that affected Tamils' entry into universities strained the already tenuous political relationship between the elites of the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. The quota entitlement in political representation became another cause for contention between Sinhala and Tamil people. There was also a series of ethnic riots in 1977 following the United National Party (UNP) coming to power. In 1981, the renowned public library in Jaffna was burnt down by a violent mob. The Jaffna Library was well known at the time as a nexus of Tamil activity with various Tamil groups vying for control. Until 1983, there were similar incidents of low level violence between the government and the mushrooming Tamil militant groups with a significant number of murders, disappearances and cases of torture attributed to both sides.
On 23 July 1983, at around 11.30 pm, the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the Tamil Tigers or the LTTE) ambushed the Four Four Bravo military patrol in Thirunelveli near Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. A road-side bomb was detonated beneath the jeep that was leading the convoy, injuring at least two soldiers on board. As soldiers travelling in a truck which was following the jeep dismounted to help their colleagues, they were ambushed by a group of Tamil Tiger fighters, who fired at them with automatic weapons and hurled grenades at them. In the ensuing clashes, one officer and twelve soldiers were killed immediately, while two more were fatally wounded, bringing the total death toll to fifteen along with a number of rebels. Kittu, a regional commander of the LTTE later admitted to planning and carrying out the ambush.
Sunday 24 July
The Army, including its Commander Tissa Weeratunga, didn't want the soldiers' funeral held in Jaffna and they didn't want to hand the bodies over to their families to avoid disturbances at multiple locations. The decision was made at the highest levels to hold the funeral, with full military honours, at Colombo's General Cemetery at Kanatte. Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, fearing violence, had been against holding the funeral in Colombo but President J. R. Jayewardene over-ruled him. The President, Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet were to attend the funeral which would take place at 5pm on 24 July. This was going against standard procedure where the fallen members of the armed forces were buried in their home villages.
Preparations were made for the funeral and the riot squad at Borella Police Station were put on stand-by, but by 5pm the bodies hadn't arrived in Colombo. The soldiers' families wanted the bodies handed over to them to be buried according to tradition. Procedural issues meant that the bodies were still at Palali Army Camp near Jaffna. The bodies eventually left Palali Air Force Base shortly after 6pm. Back at Colombo General Cemetery tension grew due to the delays and a large crowd, including around 3,000 people from the Wanathamulla slum, started gathering at the cemetery, angered by news of the ambush, which was magnified by wild rumour. The Avro plane carrying the bodies arrived at Ratmalana Airport at 7.20pm by which time the crowd at the cemetery had swollen to more than 8,000. The crowd were agitating for the bodies to be handed over to families rather than buried at the cemetery. Violence broke out between the crowd and police and the riot squad were called in. They fired tear gas at the crowd and baton charged them before handing control of the situation over to the Army. The President then decided to cancel the military funeral and hand the bodies over to the families. The bodies had left Ratmalana at 8.30pm and were heading for the cemetery before they were diverted to the Army Headquarters so that they can be handed over to the families. The crowd at the cemetery were informed of the President's decision at around 10pm. The crowd left the cemetery in a restive mood.
A section of the crowd marched up D. S. Senanayake Mawatha to nearby Borella where they destroyed Tamil-owned Nagalingam Stores. The mob, which was now around 10,000, attacked, looted and set fire to any building near Borella junction that had a Tamil connection, including Borella Flats and the Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club. Then houses belonging to Tamils in the neighbourhood were targeted. The police fired tear gas at the crowd but after exhausting all their stock were forced to fire rifles into the air. The crowd then dispersed in the direction of Dematagoda, Maradana, Narahenpita, Grandpass and Thimbirigasyaya where they attacked and looted Tamil properties and set them on fire. Members of underworld criminal gangs then joined in.
Monday 25 July
President Jayewardene met the country's Security Council at President's House, Colombo at 9.30am on 25 July. 100 yards away at the Bristol building the Tamil owned Ambal Cafe was ablaze. Also close by on York Street the Tamil owned clothier Sarathas was ablaze as well. Soon all the Tamil owned shops on Baillie Street, opposite the President's House, were on fire. Every Tamil owned business in the Fort area was on fire by the time the Security Council meeting finished. The President ordered a curfew in Colombo from 6pm. The mob moved on to Olcott Mawatha where the Tamil owned thosai boutique Ananda Bhawan, oilman store Rajeswari Stores and Ajantha Hotel were set on fire.
The rioting had spread to the slums of Canal Bank, Grandpass, Hattewatte, Kirilapone, Kotahena, Maradana, Modera, Mutwal, Narahenpita, Slave Island and Wanathamulla by 10am. Mobs armed with crow bars and kitchen knives roamed the streets, attacking and killing Tamils. Wellawatte and Dehiwala, which contained the largest number of Tamils in Colombo, were the next target of the mob. Homes and shops were attacked, looted and destroyed. Tamil shops on Main Street and Bo Tree Junction were also attacked. The riots then spread to the middle class residential areas of Anderson Flats, Elvitigala Flats, Torrington Flats and Thimbirigasyaya. Tamils targets in the exclusive Cinnamon Gardens were also attacked, as were those in the suburbs of Kadawatha, Kelaniya, Nugegoda and Ratmalana. The residence of the Indian High Commissioner was attacked and ransacked. By lunchtime virtually the entire city was on fire. The curfew was brought forward to 4pm and then to 2pm and was extended to Gampaha District due to the violence spreading as far as Negombo. In Kalutara the TKVS Stores was set on fire. The owner jumped out of an upstairs window but the mob threw him back into the fire. The curfew was extended to Kalutara District.
The police were unwilling, or unable to enforce the curfew. The army was then called in to help the police.
The rioters were now becoming organised, using voter registration lists to target Tamils. 81 out of the 92 Tamil owned flats at Soysa Flats were attacked, looted and set on fire. The mob attacked the industrial areas of Ratmalana which contained a number of Tamil owned factories. Jetro Garments and Tata Garments on Galle Road were completely gutted. Other factories attacked included Ponds, S-Lon, Reeves Garments, Hydo Garments, Hyluck Garments, AGM Garments, Manhattan Garments, Ploy Peck, Berec and Mascons Asbestos. Indian owned factories such as Kundanmals, Oxford and Bakson Garments were not attacked, giving credence to the suggestion that the mob was deliberately going after Sri Lankan Tamil targets. Seventeen factories were destroyed in Ratmalana. Capital Maharaja, a Tamil owned company, is one of Sri Lanka's largest conglomerates. Six of their factories in Ratmalana, their headquarters in Bankshall Street and their Hettiaratchi were destroyed. The mob ended the day by setting fire to Tilly's Beach Hotel in Mount Lavinia.
One of the most notorious single incident of the riots took place at the Welikada Prison on 25 July. 37 Tamil prisoners, most of them detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, were killed by Sinhalese prisoners using knives and clubs. Survivors claimed that the prison officers allowed their keys to fall into the hand of the Sinhalese prisoners, while at the subsequent inquest, the prison officers claimed the keys were stolen from them.
The mobs were equipped with voter registration lists, thereby giving credence to an organised attack with support at government level, burning and attacking mainly Tamil residences and business, while army and government officials were deployed late. While a number of Tamils fled the city, many of the Sinhalese and Muslim people saved the lives and properties of many Tamils despite the activities of the gangs. Many Tamils were sheltered in government buildings, temples as well as Sinhalese and Muslim houses during the following days.
Tuesday 26 July
The mob continued their attacks in Wellawatte and Dehiwala on 26 July. There were 53 houses on Ratnakara Road. The 24 Tamil owned/occupied houses were burnt. Three houses were owned by Sinhalese but were rented by Tamils. The mob removed the property in these three houses to the road and burnt it. These three houses weren't burnt down, as weren't the 26 Sinhalese owned/occupied houses. In many parts of the city the Army merely looked on as property were destroyed and people killed.
The violence spread to the country's second largest city Kandy on 26 July. By 2.45pm Delta Pharmacy on Peradeniya Road was on fire. Soon afterwards a Tamil owned shop near the Laksala building was set on fire, and the violence spread to Castle Street and Colombo Street. The police managed to get control of the situation but an hour later a mob armed with petrol cans and Molotov cocktails started attacking Tamil shops on Castle Street, Colombo Street, King's Street and Trincomalee Street. The mob then moved on to nearby Gampola. A curfew was imposed in Kandy District on the evening of 26 July.
In Trincomalee false rumours started spreading that the LTTE had captured Jaffna, the Karainagar Naval Base had been destroyed and that the Naga Vihare had been desecrated. Sailors based at Trincomalee Naval Base went on a rampage, attacking Central Road, Dockyard Road, Main Street and North Coast Road. The sailors started 170 fires before returning to their base. The Sivan Hindu temple on Thirugnasambandan Road had been attacked.
The curfew was extended nationwide on 26 July as a precautionary measure, as there were more outbreaks of violence against Tamils in areas where various ethnic groups lived together and looting. By the evening of the 26 July the mob violence began to slacken off, as the police and army patrolled the street in large numbers and began to take action against the rioters. The soldiers killed in the Thirunelveli ambush were quietly buried during the night curfew.
Wednesday 27 July
In the Central Province the violence spread to Nawalapitiya and Hatton. Badulla, the largest city in neighbouring Uva Province, had so far been peaceful. At around 10.30am on 27 July a Tamil owned motorcycle was set on fire in front of the clock tower in Badulla. Around midday an organised mob went through the city's bazaar area, setting shops on fire. The rioting then spread to the city's residential areas where the homes of many Tamils were burnt down. The mob then left the city in vans and buses they had stolen and headed for Bandarawela, Hali-Ela and Welimada where they set properties on fire. The riot had spread to Lunugala by nightfall.
The daytime curfew was lifted in Colombo on 27 July and the city started the day relatively calmly. At Fort Railway Station a train heading for Jaffna was stopped as it was pulling out of platform 1 after cartridges were found on the track. Sinhalese passengers on the train started attacking Tamil passengers, killing twelve. Some Tamils were burnt alive on the railway tracks.
Following the riot at Welikada prison on 25 July, Tamil prisoners had been moved from the Chapel Ward to the Youth Offenders Building. On the evening of 27 July Sinhalese prisoners overpowered their guards, armed themselves with axes and firewood, and attacked the Tamil prisoners in the Youth Offenders Building, killing 15 Tamil prisoners. Two Tamil prisoners and a third prisoner were killed during a riot at Jaffna prison on the same day.
Thursday 28 July
President Jayewardene and his Cabinet met in an emergency session on 28 July after which Jayewardene made a prime time televised address in which he appealed for an end to the violence. Jayewardene blamed the violence on "the deep ill-feeling and suspicion that has grown between the Sinhalese and the Tamil people" caused by the calls for an independent Tamil state which began in 1976. The Tamil United Liberation Front, the largest political party representing the Tamils, had passed the Vaddukoddai Resolution in 1976. He blamed the violence committed by the Tamil militants for the way "the Sinhalese people themselves have reacted". Jayewardene vowed that the "Sinhalese people will never agree to the division of a country which has been a united nation for 2,500 years [sic]" and announced the government would "accede to the clamour...of the Sinhalese people" and ban any party which sought to divide the nation.
Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called Jayewardene on 28 July and informed him of the impact the riots had had in India. She requested that Jayewardene receive Minister of External Affairs P. V. Narasimha Rao as her special envoy. Jayewardene accepted and a few hours later Rao arrived in Sri Lanka.
Friday 29 July
Colombo was still peaceful on 29 July. Tamil residents were visiting their friends and relatives who had taken refuge in the many refugee camps in the city. But at around 10.30am two Sinhalese youths were shot on Gas Works Street. A large crowd gathered at the scene and soon rumours started circling that the youths had been shot by Tamil Tigers in the Adam Ali building. The building was surrounded by the army, navy and police who proceed to fire at the building using submachine guns and semi-automatic rifles. A helicopter also fired machine gun at the building. The security forces stormed the building but didn't find any Tamil Tigers, weapons or ammunitions inside. Wild rumours started spreading around Colombo that the army was engaged in a battle with the Tamil Tigers. Panicking workers fled in any mode of transport they could find. Mobs started gathering in the streets, armed with axes, bricks, crow bars, iron rods, kitchen knives and stones, ready to fight the Tigers. The Tigers never came, so the mobs turned their attention to fleeing workers. Vehicles were stopped and searched for Tamils. Any Tamil they found was attacked and set on fire. A Tamil was burnt alive on Kirula Road. Eleven Tamils were burnt alive on Attidiya Road. The police found an abandoned van on the same road which contained the butchered bodies of two Tamils and three Muslims. Police shot dead 15 rioters. At 2pm on 29 July a curfew came into force which was to last until 5am on Monday 1 August.
Badulla, Kandy and Trincomalee were peaceful on 29 July but there was violence in Nuwara Eliya where, around midday, the Tamil-owned Ganesan and Sivalingam stores were attacked and set on fire. The violence then spread to Bazaar Street and Lawson Road in the city. Violence was also reported in Kegalle District and Matara District. In Kegalle District the violence spread from Dehiowita to Deraniyagala to Avissawella. In Matara District the worst affected areas Deniyaya and Morawake. There was violence in Chilaw as well.
Saturday 30 July
Violence was reported in Nuwara Eliya, Kandapola, Hawa Eliya and Matale on 30 July. The rest of the country was quiet. That night the government banned three left-wing political parties – Communist Party of Sri Lanka, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Nava Sama Samaja Party – blaming them for inciting the riots.
There was a growing tension between the Sinhala and Tamil communities of Sri Lanka, even before the actual riots, and with the formation of rebel Tamil groups, there was a rising anti-Tamil sentiment among the Sinhalese majority. Although it started as a spontaneous reaction by Sinhalese mobs gathered at the Colombo cemetery where the bodies of the soldiers were to be buried, later joined by elements associated with the Sinhalese political activists actively involved in the organisation of the riots. Also, during the early stages of riots, it is alleged the local police officers and military stood by doing nothing. By 26 July however, police and the army were out in the streets taking actions against the mobs and most of the violence died out. The government extended the curfew to prevent violence from spreading to other parts of the country. A brief span of rioting broke out on 29 July when police shot and killed 15 Sinhalese looters. The Sri Lankan government is accused from various corners, of being complicit during the pogrom, and of supporting and encouraging the Sinhala mobs. President Jayawardene, was quoted saying, in an interview to the Daily Telegraph:
'I am not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people … now we cannot think of them, not about the lives or their opinions … the more you put pressure on the North, the happier the Sinhalese people will be here … Really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhalese people will be happy.
Even though some Tamil politicians accused the ruling UNP for not taking appropriate actions to prevent the riots, according to the government it took vital counter measures from the very early stages to combat rioters and safeguard the Tamil community. Curfew was enforced immediately after the riots broke out. The attacks, according to the government, were carefully organised and government properties such as trains, buildings and buses were the initial targets. Prime Minister Premadasa formed a committee to organise shelter and feeding for an estimated 20,000 homeless Tamils in Colombo. These temporary shelters were situated at five school buildings and an aircraft hangar. After the number refugees increased to around 50,000 and the government with help from India took measures to send Tamils north by ships.
The rioters initially targeted government properties. As it had happened many times before and after, most of the people who gathered at the Borella Kanatta, where the dead army soldiers were supposed to be buried, directed their anger towards the government. Later it developed into full scale violence, targeting Tamil citizens and their properties.
The murder, looting and general destruction of property was well organised. Mobs armed with petrol were seen stopping passing motorists at critical street junctions and, after ascertaining the ethnic identity of the driver and passengers, setting alight the vehicle with the driver and passengers trapped within it.
Mobs were also seen stopping buses to identify Tamil passengers and subsequently these passengers were knifed, clubbed to death or burned alive. One Norwegian tourist saw a mob set fire to a minibus with 20 people inside, killing them all.
The estimates of casualties vary. While the government initially stated just 250 Tamils were killed, various NGOs and international agencies estimate that between 400 and 3,000 people, believed to be Sri Lankan Tamils or Hill Country Tamils, were killed in the riots. 53 terrorism suspects alone were killed in the Welikade prison massacre. Eventually the Sri Lankan government put the death toll at about 300 dead.
More than 18,000 houses and numerous commercial establishments were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled the country to Europe, Australia and Canada. Many Tamil youths also joined the various Tamil groups including the Tamil Tigers.
Prosecutions and compensations
There was a presidential commission appointed during the subsequent People's Alliance government that estimated that nearly 300 people killed and 18,000 establishments including houses were destroyed and recommended that restitution be paid. Thus far, no restitution has been paid or any criminal proceedings against anyone involved begun.
As a remembrance day
July has become a time of mourning and remembrance amongst the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora around the world. Tamil diaspora around the world come together to commemorate the loss of Tamils. This has happened in countries such as Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Black July.|
- Black July '83 – Extensive survivor stories and documented history about Black July
- Remember, Groundviews Articles from Government Ministers and civil society on the 25th commemoration of Black July and the 50th commemoration of the anti-Tamil riots of 1958
- July still black after twenty years, The official website of the Sri Lankan government
- Horror of a pogrom: Remembering "Black July" 1983 by D
. B . S . Jeyaraj