The authors, a lecturer at the London School of Management Education and a graduate student at the University of Wolverhampton, consider the legacy of Sri Lanka's Black July through a poetic lens...
In the summer of 1983, ethnic violence swept the island nation of Sri Lanka. Known as Black July, the outbreak of communal violence between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority communities left thousands dead and hundreds missing. Four decades later, the legacy of the violence lives on, searing Sri Lanka‘s social and political landscape. This is part three of a five-part series compiled by JURIST contributor Dr. Thamil Ananthavinyayan, lately of the University of Nottingham Human Rights Law Centre, who has gathered a group of scholars from his home country of Sri Lanka to reflect on the lasting impact of Black July.
Inter-cultural relationships among ethnic groups in Sri Lanka have historically resembled a simmering cauldron of racism, segregation, and polarization. These dynamics have been inflamed by the lingering impact of the colonial ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy, as well as the nationalist and ethno-centric agendas pursued by the country’s leaders. While the academic community has extensively examined the detrimental consequences of ethnic power imbalances, relatively fewer endeavors have been undertaken to explore inter-cultural relationships that showcase the essence of shared humanity, transcending the venomous political manifestations of ethnicity.
The Black July (1983) is a fateful incident in Sri Lankan history which affected the relationships between the Sinhalese people and the Tamil people. It brought forth agony and displacement to thousands of Tamils and at the same time left a pestering wound on the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ Identity. One analyst pointed out that attributing the dark events to all Sinhalese is a major flaw, and most of the Sinhalese were horrified and vulnerable too. Thus, any account on Black July is incomplete if the emotional paralysis of the ‘Sinhala-Buddhists’ and their display of inter-cultural emotion, empathy and sincerity are excluded.
Our contribution to this series attempts to conceptualise the emotion, empathy, and sincerity of the Sinhalese majority who were unable to prevent the bloodlust of the political elite and ethnically-motivated perpetrators. Discourse-analysis forms the methodology of the study focusing on three poems by three Sri Lankan poets: Yamine Gooneratne (born 1935): Indran Amirthanayagam (born 1965); and Anne Ranasinghe (1925-2016).
‘Big Match, 1983’ by Yasmine Gooneratne
Gooneratne’s poem sheds light into the social and political atmosphere which paved the way to Black July and explores how both communities reacted. While her portrayal of violence presents a strong criticism and abhorrence against those responsible, she does not forget to include the inter-cultural emotion, empathy, and sincerity within society.
In her poem, Gooneratne narrates an anecdote of a Tamil man who awaits his death after sending his family to a neighbour’s house. He knows that the Sinhalese extremists will burn down his house along with him. He receives a phone call from one of his former neighbours, a Sinhalese who is concerned about his welfare. He ends the conversation with:
‘Thanks, by the way for ringing.
There’s nothing you can do to help us but
It’s good to know some lines haven’t yet been cut’.
This response indicates that he has accepted his fate, and that his Sinhalese friend cannot do anything to stop the barbarism. His response is still appreciative of his mate who has a genuine concern over his wellbeing. He acknowledges that he is comforted by his knowledge that some connections remain undistorted by political cynicism.
Gooneratne remarks towards the end of the poem:
‘The joys of our childhood, friendships of our youth
Ravaged by pieties and politics’
is a realistic portrayal of how identity politics have imperiled co-existence between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities who previously had strong inter-cultural relationships.
‘Aflame: Remembering Black July, 1983’ by Indran Amirthanayagam
Amirthanayagam’s poem revolves around a man hiding in the cellar of his neighbour’s house. It is reasonable to believe that it is a Sinhalese who is attempting to keep him and his family away from racial violence. During Black July, some Sinhalese neighbours provided shelter and made efforts to ensure the safety of their Tamil neighbours. Jayatunge (2015) narrates some of the survival stories, including that of a respected Tamil dentist whose neighbours attempted to protect him, his family and relatives although their houses were burnt; a neighbour who stood against the Sinhalese mobs and asked the thugs to leave; and fire fighters who saved a Tamil girl and her mother from a building as it burned.
Amirthanayagam in his poem acknowledges how:
This highlights that some of the neighbours aided the victims, and at times attempted to stand up to the perpetrators amidst great risks. For example, not a single Tamil household in the Bambalapitiya flats was affected due to the bravery of the neighbours who not only prevented a mob attacking the flats but also organized a day-and-night neighborhood-watch service.
On one hand, the majority of the Sinhalese were horrified and were forced into the roles of helpless onlookers and on the other hand, they were in fear that the inhumanity of the extremists would be directed towards Tamil sympathizers. Thus, quite undisclosed, they were emotionally paralyzed as they were unable to comprehend the brutality and bloodlust of a minority of their ethnicity whose political ideologies contradicted both innate cultural values and humanity.
‘July 1983’ by Anne Ranasinghe
Ranasinghe’s poem begins with her childhood trauma as a Jewish genocide-survivor and how her experience connects to the Sri Lankan context. As a woman married to a Sri Lankan Sinhalese-Buddhist, her moral paralysis is evident in the lines:
‘and I – though related
Only by marriage –
Feel myself both victim and accused,’
Ranasinghe sees herself as both a victim and an accused. She was a victim of the Nazi genocide and now an emotional victim too as she has been accused. By virtue of her marriage, she belongs to the Sinhalese community; yet to her, the brutality and barbarism is no more or less of her Nazi experience.
Victimization during the 1983 Black July was a fateful experience for the Tamil community. To much of the Sinhala community, it was clear that this was pure barbarism incited by identity-politics. While some Sinhalese stood against barbarism or strategically opposed the extremists, the majority was scared to stand up against the extremists. Though, portrayed as a communal uprising, much of the Sinhalese displayed emotion, empathy, and sincerity towards those victimized and became emotionally vulnerable in their helplessness to retaliate against those who utilized the context for narrow political gain. For policy makers and legal practitioners, this highlights a major loophole: the lack of exploring and harnessing social solidarity across cultures against identity-politics and to embrace humanity beyond ethnic boundaries.
J.K.J.P. Perera is a lecturer at the London School of Management Education. W.S.G. Wickramathilake is a graduate student at the University of Wolverhampton. This is part three of a five-part series. A list of sources the authors referred to in preparing this article is available upon request.
Suggested citation: J.K.J.P. Perera and W.S.G. Wickramathilake, The Cultural Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms, JURIST – Academic Commentary, August 16, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/08/black-july-part-3/.
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