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Case Study:

The massacres in Sri Lanka during the Black July riots of 1983

Last modified: 13 May 2008
Eleanor Pavey

May 2008

Cite this item

Eleanor Pavey, The massacres in Sri Lanka during the Black July riots of 1983, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 13 May 2008, accessed 22 August 2014, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/The-Black-July-riots-1983, ISSN 1961-9898

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The August 1977 riots that resulted barely a month after the UNP came to power was triggered when police attacked ticket collectors who had insisted that the police buy tickets to enter a Rotary Club carnival in Jaffna. The following day, more policemen, drunk, had begun assaulting carnival goers at random. When one Tamil youth shot a policeman, the police retaliated and began setting shops on fire. The violence gradually escalated and spread to neighbouring towns. By the time the riots ended, they had caused the deaths of an estimated 100 Tamils and considerable damage to property. Thousands of people, mostly Tamils, were also displaced (Senaratne 1997:63). Meanwhile, in 1981, a Tamil UNP candidate and two policemen were killed in Jaffna by Tamil rebels prior to the District Development Council (DCC) elections scheduled for early June. In retaliation, UNP supporters and government forces went on rampage in Jaffna burning the market area and attacking the residences and vehicles of parliamentarians from the opposition TULF.
A most deplorable act of cultural vandalism was committed with the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. The library was reputed for housing one of the best collections of Tamil books in the region. Over 90,000 volumes were destroyed, including many rare manuscripts and historical documents. The loss was estimated as being irreparable (Senatane 1997:65; Tambiah 1986:19). By August that year, these events had escalated into yet another outbreak of communal violence. At least 25 persons were estimated to have been killed during these riots (Amnesty International 1982:285; Tambiah 1986:20).
Increasingly convinced that the Sinhalese majority sought the physical as well as cultural obliteration of their community (Tambiah 1986:20), the Tamil population began to intensify its demands for a separate State.

This increasing voice of Tamil separatism led successive Sri Lankan governments to introduce many legal provisions that would ensure the national security and territorial integrity of the island. Two such provisions would have a dramatic impact on the riots of 1983. Firstly, in 1971, the government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, widow of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, proclaimed a state of emergency that would be maintained for six consecutive years, until February 1977 (Tambiah 1986:14). Although its initial purpose was in fact to control the 1971 uprising of Sinhalese youth belonging to a Marxist-Leninist organization- the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Peoples Liberation Front or JVP), successive Sri Lankan governments later resorted to declaring a state of emergency in an attmept to curb the Tamil insurgency. According to Emergency Regulation 15 A, government forces could dispose of bodies without inquest, while under emergency regulation 17, suspects deemed as a “threat to national security” could be detained without trial for an unlimited period of time (Amnesty International 1984:300,302).

Secondly, 1979 saw the passing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) by the UNP government of J. R. Jayawardene. Initially intended for a period of 3 years, until 1982, the P.TA. was integrated into the country’s permanent legislation on March 11, 1982 (Amnesty International 1983:283). The Act gave extensive powers to the executive, including detention - for up to 18 months - without resort to charge or judicial review and without access to relatives or lawyers.

The unrestricted use of the powers defined by both the Emergency Regulations and the PTA would serve to create a sense of impunity within the Sri Lankan forces who were almost exclusively Sinhalese. The absence of any concrete legal mechanism to overlook the use of such powers is also significant. Several international organizations would soon voice their concerns about these provisions, stating that many dispositions of the PTA and its retroactivity were in violation to international human rights norms (Amnesty International 1983:283).

Adding to this sense of impunity was the extension of the life of the then parliament for a further six years. This was accomplished on December 22, 1982, by means of a national referendum called for by the newly elected President J. R. Jayawardene, who, on October 20, 1982, had become the country’s first President to be elected under universal suffrage. After obtaining a slim majority (54.45%) the President extended his parliament until August 4, 1989 (Yogasundram 2006:308). Now assured of remaining in power, government politicians would begin to crack down on their political rivals, both Tamil and Sinhalese.

Several cases of detention and torture during the period immediately preceding the Black July riots serve as ominous signs of government authoritarianism. An estimated 65 persons were detained under the P.T.A. by mid-December 1982 (Amnesty International 1983:282-3). Although the majority of these cases concerned Tamil citizens, many Sinhalese members and supporters of opposition groups such as the SLFP, the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) and the Communist Party, were also taken into detention under Emergency Regulations (Amnesty International 1983:284-5).

The outcome of these developments meant that the climate immediately preceding the July 1983 riots was one of political and ethnic tension. Incidents of killings and counter-killings were being reported on a regular basis. Amnesty International noted the death of K. Navaratnarajah at the Gurunagar military camp on April 10, 1983, following his arrest under the P.T.A. (Amnesty International 1984:303). On May 18, which was also the date for the island’s legislative elections, bombs exploded in front of five polling booths in Jaffna before polling began. Tamil separatist groups who had threatened to disrupt the elections were believed to have been behind the bombings. On the same day, one soldier was killed and another two seriously injured in clashes between Tamil militants and government forces in front of a polling booth in Jaffna. Elsewhere, one supporter of the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was killed by political rivals in Mahara, north of the capital Colombo. A state of emergency was declared by the government following these acts of violence. Furthermore, in its 1984 annual report, Amnesty International reported the killing of three Tamils by government forces, apparently in retaliation to the killing of two police officers. Amnesty International also reported the killing of two other Tamils who had been shot dead (Amnesty International 1984:299). In addition, opposition leader Mr. A. Amirthalingam was quoted in The Guardian -on August 8, 1983 - as saying that 51 people had been killed in the Jaffna peninsula by government troops in previously unreported incidents before the start of communal violence. President Jayawardene’s reply to these allegations was that he had not been aware of the killings.

At the same time, although Article 4 of the 1978 Constitution stated in explicit terms that torture had been abolished, several incidents of disappearances and torture in custody were being reported (Wilson 1988:211). On July 6, 1983 Amnesty International published a report entitled “Report of an Amnesty International Mission to Sri Lanka, 31 January-9 February 1982” wherein it referred to several cases of torture in detention and extrajudicial killings. These allegations were denied by the government, who nevertheless admitted that several persons were being secretly held in detention (Amnesty International 1984:299). The government then proceeded to explain that the laws and procedures pertaining to detention were defined in such a manner that there could be no torture of detainees. However, President Jayawardene and other officials of his government refused to discuss the report with Amnesty International.

The government also began to closely monitor all media coverage on the recent developments in the country. On July 2, 1983, the government proceeded to close down two leading Tamil newspapers in Jaffna, the Saturday Review and Suthantiran (Freedom), whose editor Mr. Kovai Mahesan had been detained under emergency regulations. Reports on acts of violence and human rights violations received a major blow when on July 20, 1983, the government made use of the emergency regulations to impose a censorship on both local and foreign journalists reporting on all violent action pertaining to Tamil Tiger rebels.
It is within the backdrop of these events that the riots of July 1983 should be understood. Behind the seemingly spontaneous eruption of inter-communal hatred lay ominous warning signs which went unheeded by State authorities.

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