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Black July and the Fallout Thereafter

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On July 23, 1983, Tamil separatists, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), stepped up militant attacks in northern Sri Lanka and killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers who reported for duty only a day earlier in Thirunelvely, Jaffna. The LTTE was fighting for a separate Tamil state in the northern and eastern parts of the country. This day became known as the beginning of Black July, an organized, ethnically-charged massacre of the Tamil people.

After the incident in Jaffna, Sri Lankan soldiers killed 51 civilians in Jaffna. The violence in the country lasted for several days and approximately 3,000 Tamils were killed. The death of the 13 soldiers was propaganda used to justify violence against Tamils. Shops that Tamils owned were looted. People were stripped naked. Women were raped. Tamils were even burnt alive. In Colombo and provincial towns, soldiers stood by and even supplied gasoline to help set the cities ablaze. Thousands of Tamils fled to Jaffna, believing that staying in a Sinhalese area was not safe for them. To root out Tamils in the area, many Sinhalese would show suspected Tamils objects and demand to know the Sinhala word for it.

There was government complicity and gangs operated at the behest of hardline ministers. On July 27, 1983, the then President JR Jayewardene made his first speech on the events, offering no sympathy to the minority and instead emphasizing Sinhala grievances. More killings followed. By the time the violence dwindled on July 31, 1983, tens of thousands of Tamils had fled to the northern and eastern provinces or abroad. Black July was a recruiting agent for Tamil militants. The incident started a civil war that lasted 26 years between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE. The Sri Lankan military forces finally defeated the LTTE in May 2009. Approximately 700,000 Tamils were sent into exile during these 26 years and at least 100,000 people were killed.

Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict remains unresolved. Abductions, arbitrary arrests and sexual violence perpetrated by the military have not decreased. Military involvement in the North and East is still strong. Most military camps have become permanent and Sinhala colonization is on the rise. The idea of a separate Tamil homeland—an illegal as a political platform—became more powerful because so many Tamils fled to the areas of the island where they were the majority. Since 1983, many Tamils have not felt comfortable living in southern Sri Lanka, apart from the capital. Four years after the war victory, the government says there are “no minorities” and everyone is equal, yet Sinhalese nationalist sentiment and speeches are on the upsurge. There remains nervousness, not only among Tamils but also amongst Muslims who have seen their mosques attacked and their lifestyle under sustained assault from Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists, including monks. With the Tigers crushed in 2009 and unknown numbers of Tamil civilians killed as the war ended, hardline ministers now advocate reducing devolution for the Tamil areas despite a constitutional clause meant to increase it.

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