(Transcript of my sharing at the Black July commemoration in London, 25th July 2016)
I’m thankful to British Tamils Forum (BTF) for inviting me to share some reflections and thoughts on this occasion.
Many of you gathered for this commemoration might be Tamils. Some may be survivors and families of victims of Black July and numerous other abuses which may have compelled you to leave Sri Lanka. Black July, and much of your sufferings have come at the hands of the Sinhalese dominated state, its military and police and an ideology of Sinhalese – Buddhist superiority. And also due to Sinhalese society’s refusal to acknowledge your identity and specific problems you have faced due to your ethnicity. As a Sinhalese, I share my thoughts today in a spirit of humility and introspection, but also with hopes of moving forward together towards a better future.
I understand that an apology from an ordinary individual like me might not mean much. But as a Sinhalese, I would still like to apologize to all those Tamil brothers and sisters who have suffered much during Black July and countless other such horrific incidents.
I regret I’m not in London to join this event in person. But I thought that being in Sri Lanka during these days would be more meaningful. The last few days, I had chances to share and reflect about Black July with group of Sinhalese journalists in Ampara and also be part of Sinhalese Radio program which was dealing with ethnic conflict, in which we talked about Black July. These were difficult but important conversations.
Riots against minorities in Sri Lanka
25th July 1983 is the day thousands of Tamils in Colombo and other Sinhalese majority areas were slaughtered by Sinhalese mobs, on the streets, in their houses, in vehicles. The killings and looting continued for several days. They were supported by the UNP government of the day, with an extremely powerful Executive President and massive 5/6 majority in parliament. The present Prime Minister and the leader of the UNP, Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe, was a Minister at that time. I don’t know whether he actively or tacitly supported the riots like his leader, President J. R. Jayawardena, or whether he opposed and condemned the riots.
Sadly, riots against minorities in Sri Lanka are not a thing of the distant or recent past. Riots against Tamils have been reported in 1956, 1958, 1977 and 2006. The earliest and latest riots against minorities, specifically the Muslims, have been reported in 1915 and as recently as 2014. Sinhalese mobs, backed by the UNP or SLFP government of the day, have been responsible for these. Police and Military, the majority of whom are also Sinhalese, have actively participated in some of these riots or at times refused to intervene in a timely manner to stop the carnage. Some Buddhist Monks are also reported to have participated in some of these riots, and actually instigated and led the last one against Muslims in 2014.
Among the different riots, Black July had gained most visibility locally and internationally, and is remembered most often. It’s also probably the biggest factor that led to hundreds of thousands of Tamils to seek refugee overseas, leading to numerically, politically and financially powerful “Tamil Diaspora”. I understand that Black July also led to thousands of youth joining the LTTE, as a way of defending themselves from the Sinhalese state.
Black July and other such riots have not been spontaneous acts, but crimes that have been deliberately planned and executed. The state, which should be protecting the citizens, was behind the crimes or complicit. Electoral lists were a key weapon to single out Tamils during Black July. Even if triggers for some riots may have been violent or provocative acts by the LTTE or other individuals or groups, extra-judicial, barbaric collective punishment for whole groups of peoples, and that too repeatedly, is absolutely unjustified and unacceptable under any circumstances.
Massacre of prisoners
Prisoners – suspects, those charged and those convicted – are amongst the most vulnerable in society. They are dependent on the protection and care of the state. How we treat them could indicate our humanity and civility. One of the most horrific parts of “Black July” was the massacre of Tamil detainees at Colombo’s Welikada Prison. 35 were reported as killed on 25th July and 18 more on 27th July. Tamil detainees were also killed in 1997, 2000 and 2012 in Kaluthara, Bindunuwewa and Vavuniya. In 2012 November, 27 Sinhalese and Muslim prisoners were killed in the same Welikada prison. Irrespective of their guilt or innocence, they didn’t deserve to be massacred. I know some of their mothers and family members are still awaiting justice. Today, let’s also remember them and their families in a special way.
Truth Commission & Apology for Black July
In 2001, then President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed a Truth Commission to look at Black July.
Later, during a commemoration of Black July in 2004, President Kumaratunga made a historic public apology. Nominal and symbolic compensation was offered to some survivors and victim’s families, which was reported to be on average Rs. 77,000 per person. According to President Kumaratunga, the Commission’s work had indicated nearly 1000 persons killed, 1000s injured and 18,000 properties destroyed. She acknowledged that the scale of tragedy would have been much more, as all facts may not have been available to the Commission and many incidents would not have been reported. Coming from the head of state, this was important. But sadly, she didn’t apologize or even acknowledge massacres of Tamil detainees in Kaluthara and Bindunuwewa and numerous other abuses under her own presidency. Today, she leads the Office for National Unity & Reconciliation under the Presidential Secretariat.
Latest government promises
This year, we remember Black July, after the new Sri Lankan government has announced an ambitious transitional justice agenda, with commitments for truth seeking, reparations, criminal justice through prosecutions and measures to guarantee non-reoccurrence. Plus a new constitution, which is expected to address power sharing and degree of autonomy for Tamil majority areas.
Black July this year could indicate the genuineness of government’s commitments and provide yet another opportunity for the country to move forward. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are leaders of the two major Sinhalese dominated political parties which have ruled Sri Lanka since 1948 and under whose watch, and with whose support, all the riots have happened. In fact, both have been Ministers when riots against minorities were unleashed. Today, there’s a unique opportunity for them to go beyond what President Kumaratunga did, by jointly acknowledging the riots against minorities and extending a formal public apology.
Beyond acknowledging and apologising, Black July anniversary could be an opportunity to assess damages and plan towards awarding meaningful reparations, going beyond the rather measly compensation offered for some survivors and families of victims of the Black July under the Kumaratunga presidency. It’s very late, but not too late to try and make up for wrongs done.
Today would also be an opportunity to initiate fresh investigations and initiate arrests and prosecutions against those responsible for Black July and other such incidents. Not just those responsible for their implementation, but politicians and high level military, police and prison officials who would have planned or supported these atrocities. Or deliberately turned a blind eye and ensured others responsible did the same.
More than rhetoric and promises, it’s such actions that will indicate to survivors and victim’s families, and minorities as a whole, that this government is sincere towards reconciliation.
Individual Sinhalese heroes and Collective responsibility of Sinhalese society
Riots against minorities will forever be a black mark against Sinhalese as a community. Despite the many heroic acts by individual Sinhalese to save Tamil lives and their properties during Black July. There were also Muslims and Burghers who had come forward to save Tamils. We must acknowledge and appreciate these individual acts of solidarity beyond ethnic lines, at a most critical and dangerous time. But we must not let these individual acts cloud the collective responsibility of Sinhalese society, for allowing Sinhalese majoritarian racism and superiority complexes to flourish, leading to historical and structural discrimination, domination and violence against minorities. Till today.
Black July and other riots are just part of the story of Tamils in Sri Lanka. We cannot forget the systemic atrocities committed during the last months of the war in 2009 and throughout the three decade war. Extrajudicial executions, disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, sexual and gender based violence and mass and multiple displacements are part of the history of Tamil peoples of Sri Lanka.
Even under the good governance and reconciliation agenda of this new government, there are reports of initiatives to dominate and assimilate Tamils, such as continued occupation of Tamil’s lands and building of new Buddha statues and temples in areas where there are no Buddhists. The military is complicit in these. Till today, military is involved in many civilian affairs such as pre-schools, farms, tourist centres, hotels and shops in the Tamil majority North. Tamils still complain of being under the jackboot of a pre-dominantly Sinhalese military, which stands accused of very serious crimes and human rights violations against Tamils. There had been an alarming rise of abductions and arrests under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in the 3 preceding months.
Appeal to Tamil brother and sisters
As a Sinhalese, I struggle to come to terms with horrific crimes unleashed by political, military and religious leaders from Sinhalese community against Tamils and the complicity of Sinhalese society as a whole. But I also would like to make an appeal to my Tamil brothers and sisters, which I hope you will consider, even though some may be offended or ask “who are you to ask us”.
It’s important that you remember the atrocities against yourselves and your community. But please don’t ignore and forget the “minorities” in the North and East and along it’s borders. And the horrific crimes committed against them by the LTTE, an almost exclusively Tamil group, who claimed to represent the Tamils. Stories of people I have met in Sinhalese “border villages” which has seen horrific massacres by the LTTE appear to be as gruesome as stories I have heard from Tamils who had survived riots at hands of Sinhalese state and mobs. When I listened to families and neighbours of Muslims massacred at the Kathankudi Mosque and Muslim friends forcibly evicted from the Northern Province, both by the LTTE, it sounded as terrible as experiences narrated to me by Tamils who had survived riots in 1983. In my visits to interior villages of the Vanni, I have heard stories of hill country Tamils and their marginalisation, frustrations and difficulties living in the North, after having fled due to riots by Sinhalese. I believe remembering, acknowledging and reflecting on these will deepen our experiences of Black July and help understand and address broader patterns of discrimination and oppression.
Looking towards the future
Discrimination, domination and marginalisation of Tamils by Sinhalese dominated state are the root causes of the conflict and led to war. During the war, horrific abuses were committed against Tamils as well as against Sinhalese and Muslims, by the state and the LTTE. Today, there appear to be some opportunities to address these through political and legal processes in Sri Lanka. Despite terrible experiences with series of failed mechanisms of the past, problems with today’s processes, ongoing violations such as the ones I noted above and indications of lack of seriousness and sincerity on the part of the government, I believe these are opportunities that should not be missed. It would be good to analyze and reflect on opportunities and limits of the present moment and other alternatives available for survivors and victims of violations, before deciding to engage or disengage or limits of engagement.
I also believe it’s important for ordinary Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka, along with Diaspora and international friends, to join hands to take measures that will lead to truth, reparations, justice and non-reoccurrence. We can’t move forward by sweeping tragedies of the past under the carpet and forgetting about them. That’s why commemorations such as Black July are important. Despite efforts by the previous government and to lesser extent by this government, to restrict remembrances, people, especially survivors and families of victims of violations, have refused to forget. We will need to accept what we had done to each other, and what has been done in our names, without being selective. Despite the horrific experiences of the past, I hope we can walk together in pursuit of an equal, free and dignified future.
By Ruki Fernando