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Black July

Riots May 1958 – A Tamil passenger was taken out of the vehicle and beaten up

In July 1983 it is claimed that a spontaneous violence of the Sinhalese population spurred against the Tamils. It wasn’t the first time. Most notably in 1958, but during the ’60s and ’70s, tension was registered amongst the two ethnic group. Or better: anger and violence from the Sinhalese majority towards the Tamil minority. In fact the killing of the Four Four Bravo patrol was the first example of organized, Tamil aggression. Critically, against a military target.

So, from independence in 1948 to 1983, you have 30 years of growing animosity towards the Tamil minority, which is less and less tolerated. And precisely for that, the Tamil population tried to maintain a very low profile. Indeed the request was simply to exist as a distinctive community, with its own language and cultural identity, within the Sri Lankan state.

Pogroms against Tamil

This is crucial: the Tamils demanded only to exist as Tamils. And they conducted a very peaceful and non violent struggle. And the constant denial of the Sri Lankan state produced a very logical and obvious outcome: if the Sinhalese can’t tolerate the Tamil presence within the same state, it will be better to have a separate one. The request of an independent, separate state indeed came to prominence only in the ’70s, when it was clear that the state couldn’t or didn’t want to protect the Tamil citizens.

This is a point. The official position of the Sri Lankan state has been of mediator between the violent request of the Sinhalese majority and the peaceful resistance of the Tamil minority. It seems as the Sri Lankan government identity is shaped by the containment of Sinhalese justified violence against the Tamils. And sometimes you have to let steam off. It is only but natural that once in a while the majority will overcome its barely repressed tolerance and slash the obnoxious presence of the minority. This is more or less the message. That the Tamil presence is unnatural and it is not completed eliminated only because of mercy by the majority. But you can really blame it if reacts when provoked.

And when a military action took place like in 1983, the reaction involved all the Tamil community. And that was one example where the government couldn’t really defend the minority.

But this impotence was an act of will. In fact the pogroms done by the so-called ‘mob’, were actually quite organized and planned. Properties were carefully targeted, people picked up, check point set up and weapons made available. Most important, the police and the army didn’t really intervene and crack down this form of violence. The state has the right and the duty to eliminate any challenge to its sovereignty. The LTTE attack is an example and the ‘spontaneous mob violence’ is another one. But in the latter, nothing happened. The government actually accepted that kind of violence. You have two possible reasons: the mob violence is actually just an extension of the state will. The government is acting through the thugs, beyond its own legal framework.

Black July ’83 Sri Lanka

Or the government can’t really act against the force that intimately legitimized its authority: the assumption that the Sri Lankan state is founded on the Sinhalese affirmation, which is more grounded that the rule of law. And when the Sinhalese affirmation take a violent form, it is granted legitimacy by its own force. This is a tribal law, whose constitution is illiterate and drawn with blood.

In either cases if you are Tamil, your chances of survival are quite low. Because your state made a point of erasing your identity. Assimilation or elimination. Sri Lanka is not a country for Tamils. Cornered in such a way, some in the Tamil community felt that they had little to lose in fighting till death the Sri Lankan state.

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On July the 23rd 1983 a small group of Tamil rebels ambushed the Four Four Bravo convoy of the Sri Lankan Army. The rebels, a cell of the LTTE, killed 13 out of 15 soldiers of the patrol. A very severe and negative judgement should be expressed on the overall activity of the LTTE: the Tigers committed several crimes; precise and detailed account are available from international and independent sources. Any Tamil should be more aware of the dark side of the Tigers. The LTTE in many, too many occasions hit civilians and innocents. But in that infamous July of 29 years ago, the target was military, completely military. Within the legal framework of a state is clearly an act of aggression, but it is not even criminal. In fact the rebels stands precisely to contest that framework and they suspend themselves from the law of a state they consider oppressive and unjust. Other laws stand, though. It’s the beginning of war and wartime laws apply. For example, it’s not murder to kill a man of the opposite faction, under appropriate circumstances. But must of all, the laws of humanity apply. Civilians per definition are exempted by the hostilities (and soldiers who surrender).

On the other hand, the state has all its right to eliminate this challenge to its authority and sovereignty. The Sri Lankan army would have been on the right side, had responded to Tigers’ fire.

But it didn’t.

President Jayawardene, few days before the riots, said on the Daily Telegraph:

‘I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now… Now we cannot think of them. Not about their lives or of their opinion about us… The more you put pressure in the North, the happier the Sinhala people will be here…really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy’

This is very clear statement that the government is not interested in suppressing violence against the Tamils. These words came out two weeks before the riots.

What happened is that ‘spontaneous mob’ targeted Tamil citizens and properties. People have been decapitated, burned alive, massacred. And the police and the army took very bland and superficial measures. Some members of political parties actually took active part in the violence, leading groups of thugs. Nobody has been seriously prosecuted for those events. The lack of intervention of the state was a clear message that the killing of the Tamils is a legitimated action. At least in the framework of an ethnic pogrom.

Now, in political theory the state has the monopoly of violence: the government had the right of responding to the LTTE attack precisely and only for this reason. From a theoretical point of view, the mob violence is a form of insurgency and a challenge to the state sovereignty of the same nature as the one of the LTTE. Mob violence should be treated as terrorism. Instead the government let it go. It didn’t take appropriate counter measures, it didn’t punish people responsible. In other words, it tacitly condoned the event. Well, as we have seen, not even so tacitly. The words of president Jayawardene are heavy as rocks and sharp as swords, in the agitated context of the July 1983. The pogrom of the Black July is a responsibility of the Sri Lankan state. The Tamil insurgency started appropriately with an army to army aggression, whereas the government reaction continued to target civilians and to be ethnic oriented. No surprise that this single-minded racial violence escalated to a civil war. It is out of the question that the start of war was caused by the oppressive and violent stance of the Sri Lankan government.

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