The Sinhalese and the Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms Commentary
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The Sinhalese and the Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms

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 five 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. 

Anticipating independence from British colonialism, Sinhala politicians had early struck a path of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism as the easy path to power. The manipulation of history was made to indicate that the Sinhalese were the original settlers in the island though in reality they came in successive waves. The Dutch had brought cinnamon peelers from India who now constitute the Salagama caste among the Sinhalese.

All this is now denied through the creation of an identity, the grabbing of Tamil lands and, worst of all, the massacre of thousands of Tamil civilians by government sponsored thugs and agents of the Sinhala state. The first of these incidents are the events of Black July, now remembered every year by the Tamil communities around the world, were incidents commencing on 24th July 1983 and lasting over a week, when government sponsored thugs roamed the streets of Colombo killing Tamils, raping Tamil women and setting their homes on fire.

The International Commission of Jurists regarded the incidents as amounting to genocide. President Jayawardene, the uncle of the present President gloated over the incidents, stating that he did not care about the loss of Tamil lives. Jayawardenes stated that “if I starve the Tamils the Sinhalese will be happy”. The lack of response in the Sinhala public to the incidents are regarded as the trigger for the beginning of the massacred. It indicates that he was right in his assessment. The civil war lasted thirty years. The state victory lead to Sinhala triumphalism, the denial of atrocities committed during the war and began a decline in the economy which reduced the Sinhala state to a beggar nation. Black July also began the diaspora of the Tamils to other states creating an entity far richer and more influential than the Sinhala state that remains committed to ensuring that justice is secured for the Tamil nation in Sri Lanka and that the atrocities committed against the Tamils during Black July, the civil war and later are redressed.

The international community has responded by condemning the atrocities, annually calling through the UN Human Rights Council for the demands of justice to be met and imposing sanctions on some perpetrators of war crimes. This is unfinished business. The law takes its winding course but it ensures that war criminals are eventually brought to justice. Black July serves as one in the chain of events that justifies the view that the persistent course of events of maltreatment of a minority in possession of a distinct territory gives rise to a legitimate claim to self-determination. This proposition has been recognized by the international community in several instance. It has been approved by the International Court of Justice and other international as well as domestic tribunals. That such a persistent conduct exists in the Sinhala state has been made evident in events preceding Black July as well as events after it.

It is in the interest of the Sinhala state to solve this problem, which is the root cause of the economic maladies that affect the island.

M Sornarajah is a professor of law at the National University of Singapore.

Suggested citation: M Sornarajah, The Sinhalese and the Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms, JURIST – Academic Commentary, August 18, 2023,

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