Friday, July 24, 2020

The July 1983 Riots that Created a Collective Trauma

Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D. 

“With Black July, dawned the era of gun culture, disappearances, child soldiers, collapse of rule of law and erosion of democracy. Within the first ten years of UNP rule from 1977, the draconian Constitution was further strengthened with 16 further constitutional amendments - with the two notorious 4th and 6th.”
 Dew Gunasekara- General Secretary Communist Party of Sri Lanka

Race riot is a form of collective violence caused by hatred for one another of members of different races in the same community.  In the 20th Centaury alone there had been over 300 racial riots reported from most parts of the World. Among these   Denver Riots 1901, Toronto riots against Greeks in 1918, Brisbane riots 1942, Singapore riots in 1950, Dutschke Easter Riots in Germany 1968, May thirteenth race riots in Malaysia 1969 , Southall riots in England 1979, Black July in Sri Lanka 1983,  Los Angeles Riots 1992,  Tutsi massacres in Rwanda 1994, Anti Immigrant riots in Spain 2000  represent a huge proportions  of man made disasters. 

Mukami McCrum of the Central Scotland Racial Equality Council defines racial violence as follows…..

The use of violence as a method of control and domination of those who are deemed to be inferior and powerless is practiced in many cultures, societies and countries of the world. Racial violence differs from other forms of violence in that the root causes are to do with assumption of superiority and dislike of other people who are deemed to be inferior because of their identity, ethnic origin, nationality, national origins or descent; and because of their appearance and physical characteristics such as colour, language and dress.  

Riots typically involve assaults, murders, vandalism and the destruction of private and public property. The Philosopher, historian and political economist Pierre-André Taguieff debates that racism and racial hatred is based on xenophobia and ethnocentrism (evaluate other cultures in terms of one's own).  The distinction between one specific ethnic group and one outside that ethnic group gives rise to feelings of fear, hatred, and rejection. It is a primitive feeling, which came through the human evolution. One outside the ethnic group identifies as an alien and feelings of dangerousness and absolute possession projects onto the uncanny stranger.  

From the Freudian perspective, there are fundamental tensions between civilization and the individual. Freud identifies aggression and killings as humankind's primitive instincts. According to Freud, violence is deemed as the basis of human existence on two levels; the violence in the uninhibited instinct and the violence, which the culture practices against one another.

According to the Sociologist Noël A. Cazenave, racism is a highly organized system of 'race'-based group privilege that operates at every level of society and is held together by a sophisticated ideology of color/'race' supremacy.  Racial tensions frequently link with poverty, economic recessions and unemployment. Often riots are instigated by the extremist groups and they use mob elements to commit violence. 

Psychologist Arnold Goldstein   defined a mob as “a crowd acting under strong emotional conditions that often lead to violence or illegal acts.” He further explained that a riot is “an instance of mob violence, with the destruction of property or looting, or violence against people.”  To Goldstein, “mobs are the product of a process of evolution” and they are formed by people sharing the same “conscious or unconscious needs. Psychologists have observed that riots develop a life of their own once they begin. The first stage of the riot is an attack on property and the riot then moves to attacks on people. As the riot grows and more people join in, the duration of the riot depends on the resistance met by rioters, their organization and leadership, the “success” of their violence and the “degree to which extant authorities send permissive signals encouraging continuance or vigorously intervene.” The riot may also spread to other areas, sometimes distant from the precipitating site, (The Psychology of the Wilmington Riot)

The Black July
In July 1983, communal violence erupted in Sri Lanka and between 400-3000 Tamils were killed (Frances Harrison BBC correspondent in Colombo). However, some claim that the number of people who got killed in 1983 were less than 500 and later these numbers were exaggerated by various agencies. But these numbers do not minimize the viciousness of the race riots of 1983. The Black July was a highly organized mob violence that had political backing. Following the conflict, more than 18,000 houses and numerous commercial establishments were destroyed. The property damage was estimated over $300 million US Dollars. More than 150,000 Tamils fled the island-seeking asylum in India, USA, Canada, UK and Australia. 

 In 1984 Paul Sieghart, the Chairman of the British Section of the International Commission of Jurists stated his views on Black July. He stated that   the Black July   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 organized well in advance.

Tirunaveli ambush – The immediate catalyst for the racial riots 
On the 15th of October 1981, Tamil militants killed two soldiers of the Sri Lanka Army and from 1981 to 1983 July; nearly 35 members of the armed forces were killed in the North. The militants disrupted the civil administration.  Public transport was crippled due to setting CTB buses on fire. Banks were robed. The tension was rising in the South. The killing of 13 soldiers including the Second Lieutenant Vaas Gunewardene of the 1st battalion of Sri Lanka Light Infantry at the Tirunaveli junction became an immediate catalyst for the racial riots.  Violence broke out in Borella and spread to other areas. 

Political Hands behind the Black July
Some historians point out that the racial violence against Tamils in 1983 had a political backing or a politically sponsored program against Tamils. Some politicians facilitated unprecedented violence. According to Professor Rajan Hoole several weeks prior to the Black July the former Minister of Fisheries Mr. Festus Perera had mentioned to his supporters at the Browns Beach Hotel that “let them wait a few weeks , they will learn a good lesson” which meant that   a mass attack against Tamil civilians would be launched soon. When the clashes broke out some cabinet ministers, local politicians, and their henchmen launched violent attacks against Tamil civilians openly. The perpetrators used voter lists containing home addresses to make precise attacks on the Tamil houses.

Violence against Tamil Students at the Peradeniya University in 1983 May
Nearly two months before the Black July Tamil students of the Peradeniya University were savagely assaulted by a group of Sinhalese students led by W.A.D.T. (Thulsie) Wickremasinghe and A. Ekanayake -   4th year science students from Arunachalam Hall and another group led by Dr. S. Gamage, a passed out dentist who was motivated by personal considerations. (Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence and Murder - Rajan Hoole). The violence against the Tamil Students at the Peradeniya University could have had links with assaults and expulsion of the Sinhalese students from the Jaffna University by some radical Tamil students in early years. In 1976, the University Registrar Mr Wimal Sundara was beaten and chased out from the university by these radical groups. Although the university’s head, K Kailasapathy wanted to maintain the multiethnic character in the Jaffna University by 1978 most of the Sinhalese students of the Jaffna University were moved to other universities.

Weilkada Prison Massacre
On the 25th  of July 1983, prison riots  broke out and thirty-seven Tamil prisoners who were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act were murdered by the inmates. Within a few days, the second riot erupted and further 15 prisoners were killed. Following the riots Selvarajah Yogachandran, (Kuttimuni )   Thangathurai,  and Jegan  lost their lives.

Fr. Philip Anton Sinnarasa of St. John’s, Church Delft was arrested under the PTA and kept under detention at the Welikada Prison. He was one of the very few survivors of the 1983 Welikada prison massacre. He had published his experience in a web page - Remembering silenced voices Black July 83.

I remember that on the first day, the 25th, we were brought outside of our cell and we could see that the whole sky was in smoke. There were big riots taking place outside. We also heard that there was a lot of burning and killing going on.

That evening, we a heard a lot of screaming and crying. We quickly found out that there was an attack on the political prisoners in the Chapel section. All the Singhalese criminals were let out. They took whatever they could, and they were killing the Tamil prisoners. 35 people were massacred on this day.

…..Eventually the army came in and fired tear gas. It was a closed building, so we were also affected, but they were able to chase the criminals outside. The soldiers came in with guns to see whether we too had done anything. We were asked to kneel down. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We thought that they were going to just finish us off! Luckily, a high-ranking officer came and he ordered us all to leave.

Sepala Ekanayaka ’s  involvement in the Weilkada Prison Massacre

Sepala Ekanayaka earned the title to become the first Sri Lankan to hijack an aircraft. In 1982, Sepala Ekanayake hijacked an Alitalia aircraft with 300 passengers on board and he threatened to blow up the aircraft unless his demands were met.  His major request was to reunite with his Italian wife and his son Free Ekanayaka. After his demands were made, Sepala Ekanayaka came to Sri Lanka with his family. He received a hero’s welcome by the public. Sepala Ekanayaka could not enjoy his freedom with his family for a long time. After he returned to Sri Lanka Sepala was arrested and indicted.  He had to serve a prison term at the Welikada prison.

Professor Rajan Hoole the author of - Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence and Murder indicates that Sepala Ekanayake was involved in prison riots.  When the Commandos entered the Welikad prison to prevent prisoners escaping Sepala Ekanayake went in front of Major Sunil Peris of the Commando Unit and showed him a human part, which could have been removed from a Tamil prisoner. The officer was horrified and assaulted Sepala Ekanayake. The detainee Prof Nithyanandan too had confirmed that he saw Sepala with the other inmates who attacked the Tamil prisoners. According to Professor Rajan Hoole, some jailors (Rogers Jayasekere, Samitharatne alias Samitha Rathgama) played a key role conspiring the massacre.

 (Soon after the 1983, Weilkada Prison riots Sepala Ekanayake made a public statement and denied any participation of the measures. He was released in 1987. )

The media propaganda that ignited the racial conflict 
The  media played a crucial role in the 1983 riots. The local media fuelled the tensions between two groups. These newspapers used ethnic stereotyping and ethnic prejudices as well as dramatization of ethnic events to keep high emotions. 

When the terrorism was emerging in the North some Sinhala newspapers  took a dramatic turn and started spreading  hateful words and racist propaganda. This may be a response to some Tamil newspapers that spread racially motivated emotions against the Sinhalese population. The newspapers of both sides attempted to influence public opinion through igniting racial hatred.  

 6 – 8 weeks before the Welikada prison massacre one article appeared in   a  Sunday newspaper that carried the title – Siragedara Balkana Maheshakyo (The Privileged who have a good time at the Prison) In this article the writer  had   heavily criticized the prison authorities for giving extra comforts to the Tamil prisoners who were detained under the PTA at the Weikada prison. This article could have made an impact on the Welikada prison massacre.

Media and Racial Violence- Example from Rwanda
How the media can control the minds of the people in a period with racial tension?  Allan Thompson gives a detailed account in his book Media and the Rwandan Genocide.

In March 1992, Radio Rwanda was first used in directly promoting the killing of Tutsi in a place called Bugesera, south of the national capital. On 3 March, the radio repeatedly broadcast a communiqué supposedly sent by a human rights group based in Nairobi warning that Hutu in Bugesera would be attacked by Tutsi. Local officials built on the radio announcement to convince Hutu that they needed to protect themselves by attacking first. Led by soldiers from a nearby military base, Hutu civilians, members of the Interahamwe, a militia attached to the MRND party, and local Hutu civilians attacked and killed hundreds of Tutsi (International Commission 1993: 13–14).

The role of the radio in inciting killing demonstrated the importance of controlling the media. Opposition parties, having proved their strength in massive street demonstrations, were able to push Habyarimana into conceding to them the right to participate in government and one of the ministries they wanted to control was a newly created ministry of information. In the new coalition government formed just after the Bugesera massacre, a member of one of the opposition parties was named to head this ministry. He gradually instituted policies meant to end the MRND monopoly on the media and to guarantee equal access to members of other political parties. Nahimana was removed as head of the information office and so lost control of the radio as well (Chrétien 1995: 61).

The Eye Witnesses  Accounts of the Black July

 Sanjeevan Selladurai

I was returning home from grade 5 scholarship exam on 1983 July 23rd. The day was horrible. Everywhere it looked clouded with smoke. I rushed  home around 12:30 p.m. and found everyone looking tense. Around 3:00 P.M, a mob of 50 people came to my home and started beating my brothers. My mother tried getting in front of them to protect them but still two of my elder brothers were beaten with wooden sticks. All the neighbors simply looked on and enjoyed the scene. Only one person named Kakka who was Sinhalese, came forward and talked for us. He asked the thugs to leave the place immediately.

I think we are all alive today because of that single person. Later, we were taken to his house and we were there for 3 days. Then, we decided to move to a refugee camp set up within the St. Lucia Church in Kotehena and then we went to Jaffna by a cargo ship called Lanka Kalyani. It took 3 days to reach KKS and we all were starving inside the ship without any food or water. 

(Sanjeevan Selladurai  who is a Sri Lankan Canadian had published his experiences in the web page -  Remembering silenced voices Black July 83)

 A student who witnessed the events at Boralla and Maradana
It was a Monday morning and I was going to school. Our bus suddenly stopped in front of the AF Raymond’s building and we saw a vehicle that was burnt in the middle of the road. The driver stopped the bus and we all got down. I walked up to the Borella junction and saw many destroyed shops. The firefighters were trying to extinguish the BCC building that was on fire. I overheard someone was telling that the fire fighters saved a Tamil girl and her mother who were trapped on the top floor. 

I met some of my schoolmates there and we walked towards Maradana. Near Kupiyawattha Rd I saw Tamil wedding photographs thrown on the ground. We presumed that the looters had taken the photo album throwing the wedding photos. That was an awful thing to do, destroying wedding photographs – someone’s memorable event of life.

Maradana was full of flames. We climbed the Marada  overhead bridge to get a clear view. I saw the crowd assaulting a man probably a Tamil. He fell down and over 25 people assaulted him. There were several policemen on the street, but they did not pay any attention and controlled the traffic turning their back. 

A Resident at W.A Silva Mawatha -Wellawattha – The invisible Perpetrator
Several weeks before the 1983 July riots, I went to buy some food items at the nearby boutique. The shop owner who was a Tamil told me that a little while ago, he listened to the Kotihanda (the voice of the Tigers) and their boys are attacking the Army. He said this in a proud and daring voice to insult me.  I was so furious but speechless. When the riots stated after several weeks,  a group of mob came to our area and attacked Tamil shops. I went near one of the ringleaders, showed the boutique, and said “in that boutique you will find a Tiger supporter, go and teach him a lesson” The mob went and attacked that boutique.  Within a few minutes, I could see the flames.

(The invisible perpetrator revealed this story  soon after the 83 communal riots)

 The Plight of Dr. Emerson
Dr Emerson was a respected Tamil dentist lived in Colpetty near the Liberty cinema. When the violence started the local gangs gave him an assurance that he would not be touched. However, Monday afternoon a group of mob from another area attacked his house. Although Dr. Emerson his wife and children escaped without any physical harm, their house was burnt.  The Emerson family came to Milagiriya and stayed in a relative’s house. In the evening, another group of thugs came to attack the relative’s house in Milagiriya.   A Sinhalese neighbor came forward and gave them shelter. Dr. Emerson’s young daughters and son were hidden inside  the Sinhala neighbor\s house until the mob went away. The kind neighbor gave rice and other dry rations to the Emersons. On the second day, Emerson Family went to a refugee camp. After a few months, the entire family got asylum in UK. After living in UK for several years, Dr. Emerson died in United Kingdom as a refugee.

The Story of a System Analyst
 A 28 year-old systems analyst, a Sri Lankan Tamil who wishes to remain unidentified, had an even ghastlier experience to relate: ‘That morning, we were having a meeting in the office when we heard the sounds of mob fury. We went out onto the balcony and what we witnessed was systematic looting and arson by a merciless mob. The leader had a voters’ list with him to identify Tamil houses. They would mark a Tamil house, forcibly enter, smash the furniture and window panes, drag the inmates out and kill them. Another passing mob would stop cars, extort petrol and set fire to what was left of the houses. I rushed home and told my parents we must leave. Hardly had I said that when we heard the next house being ransacked. We grabbed our passports and a change of clothes and rushed out. A Sinhalese swung at me with a spear. Luckily, a Sinhalese shopkeeper nearby stopped him by telling him we spoke Sinhalese and had done a lot of social work locally. It was like being born again when we got out of the country.’

 (from “Tamil Nadu: Backlash” by S.H. Venkatramani. India Today. 31 August 1983, p.18)

The Tamil houses that were saved by the neighbors
When 1983 Communal riots erupted, Bambalapitya flats was the only community in Colombo, which was not affected. Sinhala dwellers of the flats protected their Tamil neighbors. Hence, not a single Tamil house was attacked. When a group of mob came to attack the Bambalapitya flats from the seaside  on the July 26, 1983 at about 3.30 pm,  a young man named Chamley Abysuriya and a group of Sinhala boys rushed to them and  said to them in Sinhala “we are attacking here you guys go somewhere else “ so the mob believed them  and went towards Wellawatte. Soon the Sinhala youth of Bambalapitiya flats organized a vigilant service to protect the lives and property of their Tamil neighbours. Gamini Walgama who is a STF officer now gave the leadership to organize the day and night vigilance service. Up-to-date no one has admired the courage and leadership demonstrated by Chamley and Gamini Walgama on the 26th  of July 1983. 

Are you a Sinhalese? 
A group of mob were screening people to find Tamils in July 1983 and one person was stopped. The leader asked from the man   “Are you a Sinhalese?” The man said yes , to verify the man’s identity further the mob leader asked the man to say Buddunta Wandina Gathawa Kiyanava – (tell me the stanza that you warship the Lord Buddha )  the man said the correct stanza and he was released.  Then the man asked from the mob leader “Are you a Sinhalese?” The mob leader arrogantly answered  Yes. Then the man had asked from the leader “Ok tell me the stanza that you say to the Lord Buddha when you offer him flowers.  The mob leader was thunderstruck he did not know the stanza.
(This incident was reported by the late Mr. Amitha Abesekara- the journalist Island Newspaper)

The Truth Commission
In 2001, the President Chandrika Kumaratunge appointed the Truth Commission under the chairmanship of the former Chief Justice, Mr. S Sharvananda and the commission made some recommendations. But unlike in South African Truth and Reconciliation committee the 1983 Truth Commission was unable to reach the hearts and minds of the general public and it could not make a deep impact in our society. The Truth Commission of Sri Lanka failed to promote national unity and reconciliation. The commission failed to achieve its goals.

The psychological effects of Black July
The Black July created a collective trauma among the Tamils that lasted for a long time. It was a  shock wave that gave a destructive domino effect. People encountered and witnessed horrific events beyond usual human experience. Many victims had faced NDE experiences that affected their psychological wellbeing. Some victims still suffer from the psychological repercussions of the Black July. Most of the victims lost the sense of trust. Some have deposited deep hatred and resentment towards Sinhalese people. Many youth joined the militant groups to retaliate. Some actively took part in anti-Sinhalese propaganda exhibiting deep-rooted prejudice. 

Professor Rajan Hoole points out the anger and revulsion exhibited by some Tamil expatriates revealing the deep-rooted prejudice of   Fr Sinnarasa

Fr. Sinnarasa who escaped to India in September 1983 distanced himself from the LTTE for several years, but is now in North America campaigning for the LTTE in a spirit of blind hatred not different from that which moved the Cyril Mathews of July 1983. (Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence and Murder - Rajan Hoole).

The experience of the racial riots 1983 made long-lasting negative impression on the minds of the victims, their family, community and society as a whole. The psychological scars of the Black July was passed on from person to person in the community and remembered by generations to come.  Therefore reconciliation and peace building has become utterly difficult.

How did the Sinhalese people react to the Black July? The majority of Sinhalese people did not approve such brutal attacks against the Tamil people and many risked their lives to save the Tamil neighbors. Many years after this tragic event, Sinhalese people are still trying to dis-associate with the Black July. These hurtful and guilty feelings were repressed to the collective Sinhalese unconscious and scheme of silence has been maintained. Many Sinhalese educated masses are reluctant to talk about the Black July. Some Sinhalese fractions argue that the Black July occurred due to the provocation by the Tamil minority and justify it with the mass violence such as Arantalawa massacre ,the Gongala Massacre,  Central Bank bombing etc  that were unleashed against the Sinhalese people  But these fractions do not understand one thing . That is one crime does not erase another.  This form of an eye for an eye does not represent the mainstream thinking.

The Black July 1983 created a collective trauma in Sri Lanka and it affected the country’s political, economical, social and moral structures. It escalated further violence distancing Sinhalese and Tamil people hindering the development and advancement of Sri Lanka. The racial violence of the 83 tarnished the image of Sri Lanka changing the course of the nation's history. The Black July 1983 taught many bitter lessons to the Sri Lankans. Now the time has come to these two groups to rectify the past errors, think, and work for a common peaceful future.

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