Some reflections on Black July

By Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe

I now take this opportunity in the week of the remembrances carried out throughout the country on the 25th Anniversary of Black July to demonstrate the culpability of the Jayawardene regime in inciting and manipulating the pogroms prior to and during the period of Black July. This is done not with the intention of reviving old wounds but that we have to recognise historical facts for what they are and that it is only through such recognition that reconciliation can be achieved in the long run. There are some with a particular mindset who still does not wish to acknowledge that what happened in Black July was a premeditated state pogrom and to suggest that what happened were spontaneous riots by the Sinhalese people. On the contrary as this article will suggest it was a premeditated and calculated pogrom against the Tamil people. The Sinhalese people in large numbers gave sanctuary and refuge to the hapless people during those weeks.

The findings of the Presidential Truth Commission.

The mandate of the Presidential Truth Commission appointed in the year 2001 was to inquire into the nature, cause and extent of the gross violation of human rights and the destruction and damage to property committed as part of the ethnic violence which occurred during the period commencing from the beginning of the year 1981 and ending in December 1984, with special reference to the period of July 1983, including the circumstances which led to such violence. The Commission was required to investigate into the following amongst other matters: whether any person, group or institution was directly or indirectly responsible for such violence; the nature and extent of the damage, both physical and mental, suffered by the victims of such violence;

The findings of the Commission bear witness to the fact that the events of July 1983 were orchestrated and manipulated by the political authorities and the state. The systematic violence perpetrated against a helpless and defenceless people was not a spontaneous riot; rather, it was planned and executed with judicious care. It was an act of collective punishment for the acts of terrorism committed by a small group of people. The state, which has the responsibility of protecting its citizens, became a perpetrator in crimes against its own people. (my emphasis)

Ramifications of the Neo Liberal Policy of J.R. Jayawardene

In my book on Development and Conflict I outline in detail the ramifications of the Neo Liberal policies initiated by J.R. Jayewardene, and the consequences of these policies and its bearings on the pogroms initiated since 1981 to 1983. What follows is a summary of this chapter.

The introduction of the open economic policy – when regulative mechanisms were dismantled, when the system of quotas, permits and licenses was abolished, import-export trade was liberalized, the public sector monopoly of some commodities was abandoned, and subsidies were reduced – had a fundamentally differential impact on diverse communities. Whilst the objective of the government was to remove the bottlenecks of a state- regulated economy to insure the free play of market forces in all areas, this policy had unintended and far-reaching consequences on the ethnic front.

It was not only the Sinhalese industrial class that was vociferous in its complaints with regard to import liberalization; middle-level traders also interpreted the rise of commercial profits as “Tamil entrepreneurs getting rich at the expense of the Sinhala”.203 Their complaints found eloquent expression in the Sinhalese language national press as well as in the controlled Sinhalese press of the government. Unlike the Sinhalese industrial class represented by the Ceylon National Chamber of Commerce which complained against the penetration of foreign capital into the country and the general impact of import liberalization on local industry, Sinhalese middle- and small-level traders directed their agitation against the traditional Tamil entrepreneurs. Newton Goonesinghe, translating some of the articles which appeared in the Sinhala newspapers, shows how this competition in trade has been perceived by Sinhala middle and small level traders. Divayina in August 1983 published articles by a number of Sinhala merchants, for instance:

Our merchants rarely had an opportunity to import essential commodities. Up till now trade in these commodities in Pettah has continued to be a monopoly in the hands of people who are not citizens by descent. Our people had no room in the paper market, which covers an area of one square mile.204

The president of the Sri Lanka Small Industrial Association who was interviewed by the same newspaper said:

As a society which allocates first place to commerce evolved, commercial power got alienated from the majority Sinhala and went to the minority national groups.205

It is also important to note that the Ministry of Industries, Mr. Cyril Matthew, (dismissed from the Cabinet in December 1985) had been a consistent and articulate champion of the Sinhalese trading community, a most vocal protagonist of Sinhalese trading interests, and a severe critic of minority business interests. Some of his views were published in popular pamphlets and books as early as 1970 and have been widely distributed since 1983. In these publications he complains that foreign and minority owned business ventures had retarded the development of Sinhala business and calls for measures against alien traders. Some of his writings, excerpts of which have been translated, show a clear coincidence of interest between the different fractions of the Sinhala merchant community. His views are given some prominence here because during his interlude as Minister of Industries and Scientific Affairs, he became both a symbol and an expression of these Sinhalese merchants’ interest. As far back as in 1970 in “The Unseen Enemy of the Sinhalese” (1970), anti-minority views are given clear expression:

If this a genuine national government, it should appoint a commission to look into the unfortunate situation of the Sinhala traders as a result of the influence of the Indians, and take remedial measures. Also, in order to save the Sinhalese from the dangers created by foreigners and Indians controlling trade and large plantations in this country, they should be driven out forthwith.

In the central market in Colombo, in the Pettah, the local Sinhalese traders today do not control even 5% of the trade. Power is almost entirely in the hands of Indians, Borahs, and Sindhis. The export-import trade is completely in the hands of foreigners. A person who travels from Colombo Fort to Wellawatte could see how many Sindhi shops there are on either side of the Galle road. Every single one of these trading establishments was started after an independent government was set up in Sri Lanka in 1948.A fact that should be especially mentioned here is that the wholesale and retail trade which was about 68 years ago in the hands of the Sinhalese in Colombo, as well as in the Uva, Sabaragamuwa, and the central regions, is now completely in the hands of Indian Tamil nationals. This has not happened spontaneously. It is the result of an organized move by Indian Trade Unions and other organizations to supply Indians with cash and other necessities to purchase Sinhalese-owned business enterprises and buildings. Because of this farseeing and organized plan of the Indians, the number of Sinhalese traders has become reduced by about 90% and they have been replaced by a similar number of traders.206

Findings of the Government Task Force

Eye witness reports provide a vivid and terrible picture of the unfolding violence which continued to escalate for more than ten days in Sri Lanka in July 1983. What was clear from the pattern of violence which unfolded itself was its planned and premeditated nature, particularly the systematic attempt to undermine the material existence of the Tamil community living in the South.

A Government appointed task force was set up to assess the extent of damage. Its report covered only 116 industrial operations within a 20 mile radius of Colombo.

The study assessed losses in terms of production exports and employment and estimated the physical damage done to factories and the loss of working capital. Losses were heaviest in the garments industry which had grown spectacularly during the period of Import Substitution Industrialization, and in the Coconut Milling industry which had compelled the government to impose an export ban following the damage to nine of the country’s top mills. The task force estimated the physical damage to be in the region of Rs. 500 million (US $20 million). The cost or damage to buildings, plant machinery and equipment is greater than the damage to operating capital, the report stated. The loss of raw materials and finished products was particularly high due to fire and looting. Such losses accounted for 46% of the total loss to capital. The replacement value for machinery, plant and equipment alone could be about Rs. 1,75 billion. The task force report puts the total work force in damaged industries at nearly 15,000. 32 industries in the export sector, their total value of exports in 1982 estimated at Rs. 650 million and where their export orders for the next 12 months were worth about Rs. 800 million. These industries include garments, coconut oil, fruit canning, desiccated coconut, rubber and leather products.207

It should be noted that the industries damaged were entirely Tamil owned business houses, some of which had benefited from the import substitution policies of previous regimes.

The above extracts from newspapers and government surveys indicate only the extent of the damage to industries and factories within a 30-mile radius of Colombo. These reports do not analyse the damage to the numerous small and medium scale shops which were destroyed not only in the outskirts of Colombo, but also in numerous smaller towns in the Central provinces, particularly in Kandy, Badulla, Nuwara Eliya, Banderawella Nawalapitiya and Matale Neither do these reports analyse the wholesale damages to people homes, private property and savings.

The President and his handling of the ethnic conflict.

Another incident narrated by Sirisena Cooray reveals the responsibility of J.R. Jayawardene for the July riots of 1983 which virtually changed the character of “the ethnic conflict” and also Sri Lankan history for the worst: This quote is taken from the memoirs of Sirisena Cooray, a close associate of the President and who was the Major of Colombo at the time.

“The day we heard about the killing of the 13 soldiers in Jaffna I went to see Mr. Premadasa. He was on the phone to the President. There was a lot of tension in the country and we were extremely worried about the way things were moving. Mr. Premadasa turned to me and informed me that the President is planning to bring the bodies of the dead soldiers to Colombo, to be cremated at Kanatte. Mr. Premadasa had been trying to get the President to change his mind when I walked in. When he saw me Mr. Premadasa said: “Sir, Sirisena is here; you ask him”. And he put me on. The President told me: “Cooray, these people want to bring these bodies to Colombo and cremate them at Kanatte. What do you think?” I said: “Sir why do you want to bring these bodies to Colombo? These are not people from Colombo. If you bring the bodies here there will be problems”. This was precisely what Mr. Premadasa had been telling the President before I walked in. Afterwards Mr. Premadasa told me that they had decided against bringing the bodies to Colombo; we were both extremely relieved.

That was when SP Ariyaratne came to me and told me that there was a radio message from the PM asking me to contact him urgently. When I called Mr. Premadasa he too was extremely upset and worried. He told me about the new decision to bring the bodies to Colombo that evening and asked me to make the necessary arrangements. He told me that the President is planning to attend the cremations and he too was expected to be there. He knew full well there would be problems but he had no choice in the matter. The decisions were made elsewhere and he was just informed of them. If the President listened to Mr. Premadasa, the ‘83 July riots could have been avoided and the history of this country would have been different.. And as Mr. Premadasa and I predicted, rioting started immediately afterwards. I later heard that the Army wanted the bodies to be brought to Kanatte and that the President succumbed to their pressure. It was a terrible time and the worst part was that we were almost powerless. We could do nothing to stop the killing, the destruction. The President made a mistake in putting the Army in charge of restoring law and order. After the killing of the 13 soldiers the mood in the military was a very dangerous one and they were not really motivated in stopping the violence. If the Police had been given a free hand they would have done a better job. During this period President J.R. Jayawardene was reduced to a state of helplessness. Mr. Premadasa and I used to visit him every day. That was the only time I saw JRJ being speechless. The Army was not taking orders and I think we were very close to a state of mutiny. That was why the Air Force was called in eventually and they quelled the riot.”209 (President Premadase and I, Our Story)

By Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe


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