Black July

Last updated
Black July
Part of Riots in Sri Lanka
Black July - from Commons.jpg
A Tamil youth stripped naked by Sinhalese rioters near Borella bus stand. [1] [2]
Location of Sri Lanka
Location Sri Lanka
Date24 July 1983 (1983-07-24)
30 July 1983 (1983-07-30) (UTC+6)
TargetPrimarily Sri Lankan Tamils
Attack type
Burning, decapitation, stabbing, shooting
WeaponsAxes, guns, explosives, knives, sticks
Non-fatal injuries
VictimsTamil civilians
No. of participants

Black July (Tamil : கறுப்பு யூலை, translit. Kaṟuppu Yūlai; Sinhala : කළු ජූලියKalu Juliya) is the common name used to refer to the anti-Tamil pogrom [3] and riots in Sri Lanka during July 1983. The riots began as a response to a deadly ambush on 23 July 1983 by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), one of the many Tamil militant groups of that time. The LTTE had killed 13 Sri Lanka Army soldiers in the ambush. [4] As a reaction, on the night of 24 July 1983, anti-Tamil pogroms started rioting from the capital city of Colombo and then spread to other parts of the country. Over seven days, mobs (mainly Sinhalese) attacked, burned, looted, and killed Tamil targets. Estimates of the death toll range between 400 and 3,000 [5] and 150,000 people became homeless. [6] [7] Around 8,000 homes and 5,000 shops were destroyed. [8] The economic cost of the riots was $300 million. [6] A wave of Sri Lankan Tamils fled to other countries in the ensuing years and a large number of Tamil youth joined militant groups. [5] [7]

Tamil language language

Tamil is a Dravidian language predominantly spoken by the Tamil people of India and Sri Lanka, and by the Tamil diaspora, Sri Lankan Moors, Douglas, and Chindians. Tamil is an official language of two countries: Sri Lanka and Singapore and official language of the Indian state Tamil Nadu. It has official status in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry. It is used as one of the languages of education in Malaysia, along with English, Malay and Mandarin. Tamil is spoken by significant minorities in the four other South Indian states of Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and the Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is one of the 22 scheduled languages of India.

Sinhala language language of the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka

Sinhala, also known as Sinhalese, is the native language of the Sinhalese people, who make up the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, numbering about 16 million. Sinhala is also spoken as a second language by other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, totalling about four million. It belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. Sinhala is written using Sinhala script, which is one of the Brahmic scripts, a descendant of the ancient Indian Brahmi script closely related to the Kadamba script.

Pogrom The deliberate persecution of an ethnic or religious group either approved or conducted by the local authorities

A pogrom is a violent riot aimed at the massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group, particularly one aimed at Jews. The Russian term originally entered the English language in order to describe 19th and 20th century attacks on Jews in the Russian Empire. Similar attacks against Jews at other times and places also became retrospectively known as pogroms. The word is now also sometimes used to describe publicly sanctioned purgative attacks against non-Jewish ethnic or religious groups. The characteristics of a pogrom vary widely, depending on the specific incidents, at times leading to, or culminating in, massacres.


Black July is generally seen as the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War between the Tamil militants and the government of Sri Lanka. [7] [9] July became a period of remembrance for the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora community around the world.

Sri Lankan Civil War armed conflict in Sri Lanka (1983–2009) between the government and the separatist organization Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

The Sri Lankan Civil War was an armed conflict fought on the island of Sri Lanka. Beginning on 23 July 1983, there was an intermittent insurgency against the government by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which fought to create an independent Tamil state called Tamil Eelam in the north and the east of the island. After a 26-year military campaign, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, bringing the civil war to an end.

Government of Sri Lanka central government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

The Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) is a semi-presidential system determined by the Sri Lankan Constitution. It administers the island from both its commercial capital of Colombo and the administrative capital of Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte.

Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora

The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora refers to the global diaspora of Sri Lankan Tamil origin. It can be said to be a subset of the larger Sri Lankan and Tamil diaspora.


During the colonial period, many Sri Lankan Tamils, particularly those from the Jaffna peninsula, took advantage of educational facilities established by missionaries. They also benefited from the British policy of divide and rule, which placed minorities in positions of power in colonies and soon dominated the civil service and other professions. When Sri Lanka became independent (Dominion status) in 1948, a majority of government jobs were held by Tamils, who were a minority of the country's population. Elected leaders saw this as the result of a British stratagem to control the majority Sinhalese, and they deemed it a situation that needed correction.

British Ceylon former British Crown colony

Ceylon was the British Crown colony of present day Sri Lanka between 1815 and 1948. Initially the area it covered did not include the Kingdom of Kandy, which was a protectorate from 1815, but from 1815 to 1948 the British possessions included the whole island of Ceylon, now the nation of Sri Lanka.

Divide and rule

Divide and rule, or divide and conquer, in politics and sociology is gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy.

Sinhalese people ethnic group

The Sinhalese are an Indo-Aryan- ethnic group native to the island of Sri Lanka. They constitute about 75% of the Sri Lankan population and number greater than 16.2 million. The Sinhalese identity is based on language, historical heritage and religion. The Sinhalese people speak Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan language, and are predominantly Theravada Buddhists, although a small percentage of Sinhalese follow branches of Christianity. The Sinhalese are mostly found in North Central, Central, South, and West Sri Lanka. According to the 5th century epic poem Mahavamsa, and the Dipavamsa, a 3rd–5th century treatise written in Pali by Buddhist monks of the Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese are descendants of settlers who came to the island in 543 BCE from Sinhapura, in India, led by Prince Vijaya.

In 1956, the Official Language Act, commonly known as the Sinhala Only Act, was introduced. Up until that time, English was the country's official language, despite only being spoken by five percent of the population. The use of Sinhala, spoken by 75 percent, and Tamil, spoken by 25 percent, had been severely restricted during British colonial times. This policy was reversed by the new Sinhalese government, which replaced English with Sinhala as the nation's official language. Protests against the Sinhala Only policy by Tamils and by the nation's leftist parties were met with mob violence that eventually snowballed into the riots of 1958. Political parties and groups representing Tamil Sri Lankans felt that the implementation of the Sinhala Only Act deprived the Tamil populations in the north and east of the country of their right to fully integrate into government institutions. The policy was viewed as an injustice brought upon the ethnic minority.

The Sinhala Only Act, formally the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956, was an act passed in the Parliament of Ceylon in 1956. The act replaced English as the official language of Ceylon with Sinhala. The act failed to give official recognition to Tamil, which had not received official recognition before.

English language West Germanic language

English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England and eventually became a global lingua franca. It is named after the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to the area of Great Britain that later took their name, as England. Both names derive from Anglia, a peninsula in the Baltic Sea. The language is closely related to Frisian and Low Saxon, and its vocabulary has been significantly influenced by other Germanic languages, particularly Norse, and to a greater extent by Latin and French.

An official language is a language given a special legal status in a particular country, state, or other jurisdiction. Typically a country's official language refers to the language used in government. The term "official language" does not typically refer to the language used by a people or country, but by its government, as "the means of expression of a people cannot be changed by any law",

In 1958, the Tamil political leadership acquiesced to a formula of Sinhala as the official language, but included "reasonable use of Tamil". Only the leftist parties opposed this, holding out for parity of status between the two languages. However, after the Tamil people gave an overwhelming mandate to the Tamil nationalist Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (Federal Party), which had agreed to a subordinate status for the Tamil language, the leftist parties eventually abandoned parity of status.

Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism is the conviction of the Sri Lankan Tamil people, a minority ethnic group in the South Asian island country of Sri Lanka, that they have the right to constitute an independent or autonomous political community. This idea has not always existed. Sri Lankan Tamil national awareness began during the era of British rule during the nineteenth century, as Tamil Hindu revivalists tried to counter Protestant missionary activity. The revivalists, led by Arumuga Navalar, used literacy as a tool to spread Hinduism and its principles.

Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi

Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) is a Sri Lankan political party which represents the Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic minority in the country. It was originally formed in 1949 as breakaway faction of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC). In 1972 ITAK merged with the ACTC and Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC) to form the Tamil United Front, which later changed its name to Tamil United Liberation Front. ITAK remained dormant until 2004 when a split in the TULF resulted in ITAK being re-established as an active political party. ITAK is constituent party of the Tamil National Alliance.

Throughout the 1960s, protests and state repression against these protests created further animosity. In 1972, the policy of standardi zation that affected Tamils' entry into universities strained the already tenuous political relationship between the elites of the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. The quota entitlement in political representation became another cause for contention between Sinhalese and Tamil people. There was also a series of ethnic riots in 1977 following the United National Party's (UNP) coming to power. [10] In 1981, the renowned public library in Jaffna was burnt down by a violent mob. The Jaffna Library was well known at the time as a nexus of Tamil activity, with various Tamil groups vying for control. Until 1983, there were similar incidents of low-level violence between the government and the mushrooming Tamil militant groups. There were many murders, disappearances, and cases of torture attributed to both sides.

United National Party Political party in Sri Lanka

The United National Party, often abbreviated as UNP, is a political party in Sri Lanka. It currently is the main ruling party in the government of Sri Lanka and is headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNP is considered to have right-leaning, pro-capitalist, and liberal conservative policies.

Jaffna City in Sri Lanka

Jaffna is the capital city of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It is the administrative headquarters of the Jaffna District located on a peninsula of the same name. With a population of 88,138 in 2012, Jaffna is Sri Lanka's 12th most populous city. Jaffna is approximately six miles from Kandarodai which served as an emporium in the Jaffna peninsula from classical antiquity. Jaffna's suburb Nallur served as the capital of the four-century-long medieval Jaffna Kingdom.

On 23 July 1983 at around 11:30 pm, the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the Tamil Tigers or the LTTE) ambushed the Four Four Bravo military patrol in Thirunelveli near Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. [11] A road-side bomb was detonated beneath the jeep that was leading the convoy, injuring at least two soldiers on board. Soldiers traveling in a truck behind the jeep dismounted to help their colleagues. They were ambushed by a group of Tamil Tiger fighters who fired at them with automatic weapons and hurled grenades at them. In the ensuing clashes, one officer and twelve soldiers were killed immediately, and two more were fatally wounded. The total death toll was fifteen. A number of the rebels were also killed. [12] Kittu, a regional commander of the LTTE later admitted to planning and carrying out the ambush. [12] This attack has been described as retaliation for the killing of one of the LTTE's founding members, Charles Anthony, by Sri Lankan forces [13] and for the abduction and rape of Tamil school girls by government forces. [14]

Black July

Sunday, 24 July

The Army, including its Commander Tissa Weeratunga, didn't want the soldiers' funerals to be held in Jaffna. And because of possible disturbances at multiple locations, they didn't want to hand the bodies over to their families. [15] [12] So the decision was made at the highest level to hold the funeral, with full military honours, at Colombo's General Cemetery at Kanatte. [15] Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, fearing violence, was against holding the funeral in Colombo, but President J. R. Jayewardene overruled him. [16] The President, the Prime Minister, and the rest of the Cabinet were to attend the funeral, which was to take place at 5 pm on 24 July. This plan was against the standard procedure of burying the fallen soldiers in their home villages. [12]

Preparations were made for the funeral, and the riot squad at Borella Police Station was put on stand-by. But by 5 pm the bodies hadn't arrived in Colombo. [17] The soldiers' families wanted the bodies handed over to them to be buried according to tradition. Due to procedural issues, the bodies were still at Palali Army Camp near Jaffna. [17] The bodies were eventually moved from Palali Air Force Base shortly after 6 pm. Back at Colombo General Cemetery, tensions were growing because of the delay, and a large crowd, including around 3,000 people from the Wanathamulla slum, started gathering at the cemetery, angered by news of the ambush, which was magnified by wild rumour. [17] The Avro plane which was carrying the bodies arrived at Ratmalana Airport at 7:20 p.m. by which time the crowd at the cemetery had swollen to more than 8,000. [17] The crowd wanted the bodies to be handed over to the families rather than to be buried at the cemetery. Violence broke out between the crowd and police, and the riot squad was summoned. The riot squad fired tear gas at the crowd and baton-charged them before handing control of the situation over to the Army. The President then decided to cancel the military funeral and hand the bodies over to the families. [18] The vehicles carrying the bodies had been driven away from Ratmalana at 8:30 p.m. and the drivers were heading to the cemetery. But they were diverted to Army Headquarters so that they could be handed over to the families. The crowd at the cemetery was informed of the President's decision at around 10 pm. [18] The crowd left the cemetery in a restive mood.

A section of the crowd marched up D. S. Senanayake Mawatha to nearby Borella, where they destroyed Tamil-owned Nagalingam Stores. [18] The mob, which by that time numbered around 10,000, attacked, looted, and set fire to any building near Borella junction that had a Tamil connection, including Borella Flats and the Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club. [18] Then houses belonging to Tamils in the neighbourhood were targeted. The police fired tear gas at the crowd, but after exhausting all of their stock, they were forced to fire rifles into the air. [19] The crowd then dispersed in the direction of Dematagoda, Maradana, Narahenpita, Grandpass and Thimbirigasyaya, where they attacked and looted Tamil properties and set them on fire. [19] Members of underworld criminal gangs then joined in.

Monday, 25 July

President Jayewardene met the country's Security Council at the President's House, Colombo at 9:30 a.m. on 25 July. A hundred yards away, the Bristol building, the Tamil-owned Ambal Cafe, was ablaze. [19] Also close by on York Street, the Tamil-owned clothier Sarathas was ablaze as well. [19] Soon all the Tamil-owned shops on Baillie Street opposite the President's House were on fire. Every Tamil-owned business in the Fort area was on fire by the time the Security Council meeting finished. [19] The President ordered a curfew in Colombo from 6 pm. [20] [21] The mob moved on to Olcott Mawatha, where they set fire to the Tamil-owned thosai boutique Ananda Bhawan, oilman store Rajeswari Stores, and Ajantha Hotel. [19]

The rioting had spread to the slums of Canal Bank, Grandpass, Hattewatte, Kirilapone, Kotahena, Maradana, Modera, Mutwal, Narahenpita, Slave Island, and Wanathamulla by 10 am. Mobs armed with crow bars and kitchen knives roamed the streets, attacking and killing Tamils. [19] Wellawatte and Dehiwala, which contained the largest number of Tamils in Colombo, were the next target of the mob. Homes and shops were attacked, looted, and destroyed. [19] Tamil shops on Main Street and Bo Tree Junction were also attacked. [22] The riots then spread to the middle class residential areas of Anderson Flats, Elvitigala Flats, Torrington Flats, and Thimbirigasyaya. Tamil targets in the exclusive Cinnamon Gardens were also attacked as were those in the suburbs of Kadawatha, Kelaniya, Nugegoda and Ratmalana. [23] The residence of the Indian High Commissioner was also attacked and ransacked. [21] By lunchtime, virtually the entire city was on fire. The curfew was brought forward to 4:00 p.m. and then to 2:00 p.m., and it was extended to Gampaha District due to the violence spreading as far as Negombo. [23] In Kalutara the TKVS Stores were set on fire. The owner jumped out of an upstairs window, but the mob threw him back into the fire. [24] The curfew was extended to Kalutara District.

The police were unwilling, or unable, to enforce the curfew. [25] The army was called in to assist the police.

The rioters started to organise, using voter registration lists to target Tamils. [24] The possession of electoral lists by the mobs, which enabled them to identify Tamil homes and property, implied prior organization and cooperation by elements of the government. [26] As President Jayewardene would later admit in a statement, "a pattern of organization and planning has been noticed in the rioting and looting that took place." [27] Eighty-one out of the 92 Tamil-owned flats at Soysa Flats were attacked, looted, and set on fire. [24] The mob attacked the industrial area of Ratmalana, which contained a number of Tamil-owned factories. Jetro Garments and Tata Garments on Galle Road were completely gutted. [24] Other factories attacked included Ponds, S-Lon, Reeves Garments, Hydo Garments, Hyluck Garments, AGM Garments, Manhattan Garments, Ploy Peck, Berec and Mascons Asbestos. [24] Indian-owned factories such as Kundanmals, Oxford, and Bakson Garments were not attacked, giving credence to the suggestion that the mob was deliberately going after Sri Lankan Tamil targets. [24] Seventeen factories were destroyed in Ratmalana. Capital Maharaja, a Tamil-owned company, is one of Sri Lanka's largest conglomerates. Six of their factories in Ratmalana, their headquarters in Bankshall Street, and their Hettiaratchi were destroyed. [28] [29] The mob ended the day by setting fire to Tilly's Beach Hotel in Mount Lavinia. [24]

One of the most notorious incidents of the rioting took place at the Welikada Prison on 25 July. [25] [30] Thirty-seven Tamil prisoners, most of them detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, were killed by Sinhalese prisoners, using knives and clubs. Survivors claimed that prison officers allowed their keys to fall into the hands of Sinhalese prisoners. But at the subsequent inquest, prison officers claimed that the keys had been stolen from them. [25]

Outside of the Western Province, there was violence in Galle, Kegalle, Trincomalee and Vavuniya on 25 July. [31]

The mobs were equipped with voter registration lists. The mobs burnt and attacked mainly Tamil residences and businesses. Army and government officials were late in being deployed to control the mob. All of this gave credence to the idea that it had been an organised attack with support at the government level. While a number of Tamils fled the city, many Sinhalese and Muslim s saved the lives and properties of Tamils despite the activities of the gangs. Many Tamils were sheltered in government buildings, temples as well as Sinhalese and Muslim houses in the following days. [25] [32] [33]

Tuesday, 26 July

The mob attacks continued in Wellawatte and Dehiwala on 26 July. There were 53 houses on Ratnakara Road. The 24 Tamil owned/occupied houses were burnt. [28] Three houses had Sinhalese owners but were rented by Tamils. The mob removed the property from these three houses out to the road and burnt it. [28] The three houses were not burnt down, neither were the 26 Sinhalese owned/occupied houses. [28] In many parts of the city, the Army merely looked on as property was destroyed and people were killed. [28]

The violence spread to the country's second largest city, Kandy, on 26 July. [30] By 2:45 p.m. Delta Pharmacy on Peradeniya Road was on fire. [31] Soon afterwards, a Tamil-owned shop near the Laksala building was set on fire, and the violence spread to Castle Street and Colombo Street. [31] The police managed to get control of the situation, but an hour later a mob armed with petrol cans and Molotov cocktails started attacking Tamil shops on Castle Street, Colombo Street, King's Street, and Trincomalee Street. [31] The mob then moved on to nearby Gampola. [31] A curfew was imposed in Kandy District on the evening of 26 July. [31]

In Trincomalee, false rumours started spreading that the LTTE had captured Jaffna, that the Karainagar Naval Base had been destroyed, and that the Naga Vihare had been desecrated. [34] Sailors based at Trincomalee Naval Base went on a rampage, attacking Central Road, Dockyard Road, Main Street, and North Coast Road. [35] The sailors started 170 fires before returning to their base. [35] The Sivan Hindu temple on Thirugnasambandan Road had also been attacked. [35]

The curfew was extended nationwide on 26 July as a precautionary measure. There were more outbreaks of violence and looting against Tamils in areas where various ethnic groups coexisted. [30] By the evening of the 26 July the mob violence began to slacken off as police and army units patrolled the streets in large numbers and began to take action against the rioters. [36] The soldiers killed in the Thirunelveli ambush were quietly buried during the night curfew. [36]

Wednesday, 27 July

In the Central Province, the violence spread to Nawalapitiya and Hatton. [35] Badulla, the largest city in neighbouring Uva Province, had so far been peaceful. But around 10:30 a.m. on 27 July, a Tamil-owned motorcycle was set on fire in front of the clock tower in Badulla. [35] Around midday an organised mob went through the city's bazaar area, setting shops on fire. [35] The rioting then spread to residential areas, and the homes of many Tamils were burnt down. [35] The mob then left the city in vans and buses that they had stolen and headed for Bandarawela, Hali-Ela, and Welimada, where they continued to set properties on fire. [37] The riot had spread to Lunugala by nightfall. [37]

The daytime curfew in Colombo was lifted on 27 July, and the day began in relative calm. But then at Fort Railway Station, a train heading for Jaffna was stopped as it was pulling out of Platform One after cartridges were found on the track. Sinhalese passengers on the train started attacking Tamil passengers, killing twelve. [37] Some Tamils were burnt alive on the railway tracks. [37]

Following the riot at Welikada prison on 25 July, Tamil prisoners had been moved from the Chapel Ward to the Youth Offenders Building. On the evening of 27 July, Sinhalese prisoners overpowered the guards, armed themselves with axes and firewood, and attacked the Tamil prisoners in the Youth Offenders Building. Fifteen Tamil prisoners were killed. [37] [30] [38] Two Tamil prisoners and a third prisoner were killed during a riot at Jaffna prison on the same day. [30] [39]

Thursday, 28 July

Badulla was still on fire on 28 July, and the rioting spread from Lunugala to Passara. [40] There was also rioting in Nuwara Eliya and Chilaw. [40] But the violence had subsided in Colombo, Kandy, and Trincomalee. [40]

President Jayewardene and his cabinet met in an emergency session on 28 July. Jayewardene then made a primetime televised address in which he appealed for an end to the violence. [30] [41] [40] Jayewardene blamed the violence on "the deep ill feeling and suspicion that has grown between the Sinhalese and the Tamil people", caused by the calls for an independent Tamil state which began in 1976. [42] The Tamil United Liberation Front, the largest political party representing the Tamils, had passed the Vaddukoddai Resolution in 1976. He blamed the violence committed by the Tamil militants for the way "the Sinhalese people themselves have reacted". [42] Jayewardene vowed that the "Sinhalese people will never agree to the division of a country which has been a united nation for 2,500 years [sic]" and announced that the government would "accede to the clamour...of the Sinhalese people" and ban any party which sought to divide the nation. [43] [39]

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called Jayewardene on 28 July and informed him of the impact the riots had had in India. [44] She requested that Jayewardene receive Minister of External Affairs P. V. Narasimha Rao as her special envoy. [44] Jayewardene accepted, and a few hours later Rao arrived in Sri Lanka. [44]

Friday, 29 July

Colombo was still calm on 29 July. Tamil residents visited friends and relatives who had taken refuge in the many refugee camps in the city. Around 10:30 a.m. two Sinhalese youths were shot on Gas Works Street. [45] A large crowd gathered at the scene, and soon rumours started circling that the youths had been shot by Tamil Tigers in the Adam Ali building. [45] The building was surrounded by the army, navy, and police who proceeded to fire at the building using submachine guns and semi-automatic rifles. [45] A helicopter also fired at the building with a machine gun. The security forces stormed the building but found no Tamil Tigers, weapons, or ammunitions inside. [46] Rumours began to spread around Colombo that the army was engaged in a battle with the Tamil Tigers. [47] Panicking workers began to flee in any mode of transport they could find. Mobs started gathering in the streets, armed with axes, bricks, crow bars, iron rods, kitchen knives, and stones, ready to fight the Tigers. [47] [36] The Tigers never came, so the mobs turned their attention to the fleeing workers. Vehicles were stopped and searched for Tamils. Any Tamil they found was attacked and set on fire. [47] A Tamil was burnt alive on Kirula Road. [47] Eleven Tamils were burnt alive on Attidiya Road. [47] The police found an abandoned van on the same road which contained the butchered bodies of two Tamils and three Muslims. [47] Police shot dead 15 rioters. [38] At 2 pm on 29 July, a curfew came into force which lasted until 5 am on Monday 1 August. [48]

Badulla, Kandy, and Trincomalee were calm on 29 July but there was violence in Nuwara Eliya where around midday. The Tamil-owned Ganesan and Sivalingam stores were attacked and set on fire. [48] The violence then spread to Bazaar Street and Lawson Road. [48] Violence was also reported in Kegalle District and Matara District. In Kegalle District the violence spread from Dehiowita to Deraniyagala to Avissawella. [48] In Matara District the worst affected areas were Deniyaya and Morawake. [48] There was violence in Chilaw as well.

Indian External Affairs Minister Rao held discussions with President Jayewardene and Foreign Minister A. C. S. Hameed before visiting Kandy by helicopter. [44] [48]

Saturday, 30 July

Violence was reported in Nuwara Eliya, Kandapola, Hawa Eliya, and Matale on 30 July. [48] The rest of the country was quiet. That night the government banned three left-wing political parties, Communist Party of Sri Lanka, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, and Nava Sama Samaja Party, blaming them for inciting the riots. [48]

Government's response

There had been growing tension between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities of Sri Lanka before the actual riots began. With the formation of rebel Tamil groups, there rose an anti-Tamil sentiment among the Sinhalese majority. Although the violence began as a spontaneous reaction by Sinhalese mobs who had gathered at the Colombo cemetery where the bodies of the soldiers were to be buried, they were later joined by elements associated with Sinhalese political activists actively involved in the organisation of the riots. [49] Also, during the early stages of the riots, it is alleged that the local police and military stood by and did nothing. [50] Numerous eyewitness accounts suggest that "in many places police and even military personnel joined the rioters." [51] However, by 26 July the police and army were out in the streets taking action against the mobs, and most of the violence died out. The government extended the curfew to prevent violence from spreading to other parts of the country. A brief span of rioting broke out on 29 July when police shot and killed 15 Sinhalese looters.

The Sri Lankan government was accused from various corners of being complicit during the pogrom and of supporting and encouraging the Sinhalese mobs. [52] [53] [54] President Jayewardene has been accused of failing to condemn the violence or to express sympathy to the survivors, blaming Tamils for bringing it upon themselves, [51] failing to take any meaningful measures to punish the perpetrators of the violence, and praising the mobs as heroes of the Sinhalese people. [55] In an interview to the Daily Telegraph on July 11, 1983, about two weeks prior to the riots, Jayewardene expressed the state's complicity in the violence against the Tamils:

I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) 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, Sinhala people will be happy... . [56]

Even though some Tamil politicians accused the ruling UNP of not taking appropriate actions to prevent the riots, according to the government it took vital counter measures from the very early stages to combat rioters and to safeguard the Tamil community. Curfew was enforced immediately after the riots broke out. The attacks, according to the government, were carefully organised, and government properties such as trains, buildings and buses were the initial targets. Prime Minister Premadasa formed a committee to organise shelter and feeding for an estimated 20,000 homeless Tamils in Colombo. These temporary shelters were situated at five school buildings and an aircraft hangar. After the number of refugees increased to around 50,000, the government, with help from India, took measures to send Tamils north by way of ships. [36]

Eyewitness accounts

The rioters initially targeted government properties. Just as many times before (and since), most of the people who gathered at the Borella Kanatta, where the dead army soldiers were supposed to be buried, directed their anger towards the government. Later it developed into full-scale violence, targeting Tamil citizens and their properties.

The murder, looting, and general destruction of property was well organised. Mobs armed with petrol were seen stopping passing motorists at critical street junctions. After ascertaining the ethnic identity of the driver and passengers, they set alight the vehicles, with the drivers and passengers trapped inside.

Mobs were also seen stopping buses to identify Tamil passengers, who were subsequently knifed, clubbed to death, or burned alive. One Norwegian tourist saw a mob set fire to a minibus with 20 people inside, killing them all. [49] [57] According to eyewitness testimony of a victim who survived the riots, Buddhist monks were among the rioters. [58]

The Tamil Guardian lists more eyewitness testimonies from various sources: [59]

London's Daily Telegraph (July 26) wrote:

Motorists were dragged from their cars to be stoned and beaten with sticks. Others were cut down with knives and axes. Mobs of Sinhala youth rampaged through the streets, ransacking homes, shops and offices, looting them and setting them ablaze, as they sought out members of the Tamil ethnic minority. A mob attacked a Tamil cyclist riding near Colombo's eye hospital. The cyclist was hauled from his bike, drenched with petrol and set alight. As he ran screaming down the street, the mob set on him again and hacked him down with jungle knives.

In his book, The Tragedy of Sri Lanka, William McGowan wrote:

While travelling on a bus when a mob laid siege to it, passengers watched as a small boy was hacked 'to limb-less death.' The bus driver was ordered to give up a Tamil. He pointed out a woman who was desperately trying to erase the mark on her forehead—called a kumkum—as the thugs bore down on her. The woman's belly was ripped open with a broken bottle and she was immolated as people clapped and danced. In another incident, two sisters, one eighteen and one eleven, were decapitated and raped, the latter 'until there was nothing left to violate and no volunteers could come forward,' after which she was burned. While all this was going on, a line of Buddhist monks appeared, arms flailing, their voices raised in a delirium of exhortation, summoning the Sinhalese to put all Tamils to death.

The London Daily Express (29 July) wrote:

Mrs Eli Skarstein, back home in Stavanger, Norway, told how she and her 15 year old daughter, Kristen witnessed one massacre. 'A mini bus full of Tamils were forced to stop in front of us in Colombo', she said. A Sinhalese mob poured petrol over the bus and set it on fire. They blocked the car door and prevented the Tamils from leaving the vehicle. 'Hundreds of spectators watched as about 20 Tamils were burnt to death.' Mrs. Skarstein added: 'We can't believe the official casualty figures. Hundreds, maybe thousands, must have been killed already. The police force (which is 95% Sinhalese) did nothing to stop the mobs. There was no mercy. Women, children and old people were slaughtered. Police did nothing to stop the genocide.'

The Times of London reported on 5 August that "...Army personnel actively encouraged arson and the looting of Tamil business establishments and homes in Colombo", and that "absolutely no action was taken to apprehend or prevent the criminal elements involved in these activities. In many instances army personnel participated in the looting of shops."

The Economist of 6 August wrote: "...But for days the soldiers and policemen were not overwhelmed; they were un-engaged or, in some cases, apparently abetting the attackers. Numerous eye witnesses attest that soldiers and policemen stood by while Colombo burned."

Paul Sieghart of the International Commission of Jurists stated in Sri Lanka: A Mounting Tragedy of Errors, two months after the riots, that

Clearly this (July 1983 attack) was no spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among the Sinhala people – nor was it as has been suggested in some quarters, a popular response to the killing of 13 soldiers in an ambush the previous day by Tamil Tigers, which was not even reported in the newspapers until the riots began. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organized well in advance. [60]

Casualty estimates

The estimates of casualties vary. While the government initially stated just 250 Tamils were killed, various NGOs and international agencies estimate that between 400 and 3,000 people, believed to be Sri Lankan Tamils or Hill Country Tamils, were killed in the riots. [5] [7] Fifty-three terrorism suspects alone were killed in the Welikade prison massacre. Eventually the Sri Lankan government put the death toll at about 300 dead. [61] [62]

More than 18,000 houses and numerous commercial establishments were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled the country to Europe, Australia and Canada. [61] [63] Many Tamil youths also joined the various Tamil groups, including the Tamil Tigers.

Prosecutions and compensations

A presidential commission appointed during the subsequent People's Alliance government estimated that nearly 300 people were killed and 18,000 establishments, including houses, were destroyed. The commission recommended that restitution be paid. Thus far no restitution has been paid nor have any criminal proceedings begun against anyone involved. [61]

As a remembrance day

July has become a time of mourning and remembrance amongst the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora around the world. Tamil diaspora around the world come together to commemorate the loss of Tamils. This has happened in countries such as Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.

Panorama of the Black July's 26th anniversary remembrance day observed at Trafalgar Square in London in 2009 Black july 2009 panaroma.jpg
Panorama of the Black July's 26th anniversary remembrance day observed at Trafalgar Square in London in 2009


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  2. Jeyaraj, D. B. S. (24 July 2010). "Horror of a pogrom: Remembering "Black July" 1983".
  3. Community, Gender and Violence, edited by Partha Chatterjee, Pradeep Jeganathan
  4. Nidheesh, MK (2 September 2016). "Book review: The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by Neena Gopal". Live Mint. Retrieved 1 November 2018.
  5. 1 2 3 Harrison, Frances (23 July 2003). "Twenty years on – riots that led to war". BBC News .
  6. 1 2 Aspinall, Jeffrey & Regan 2013, p. 104.
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  11. Dissanayake 2004, pp. 63–64.
  12. 1 2 3 4 O'Ballance 1989, p. 21.
  13. Skutsch, Carl (2013-11-07). Encyclopedia of the World's Minorities. Routledge. ISBN   9781135193959. Tensions reached a breaking point on July 23, 1983 when the LTTE ambushed and killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers in retaliation for the murder of Charles Antony, the LTTE's second-in-command.
  14. Pavey, Eleanor (2008-05-13). "The massacres in Sri Lanka during the Black July riots of 1983". Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence. Retrieved 2016-02-06. Even though the origins of the 1983 riots were widely attributed to the killing of 13 Sinhalese soldiers by Tamil rebels, many Tamils point out that it was the abduction and rape—by government forces—of three Tamil schoolgirls that led Tamil rebels to attack government forces. This incident took place in Jaffna during the week of July 18, 1983, following which one of the victims committed suicide.
  15. 1 2 Dissanayake 2004, p. 66.
  16. Cooray, B. Sirisena (2002). President Premadasa and I: Our Story. Dayawansa Jayakody & Company. pp. 60–63. ISBN   955-551-280-9.
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  19. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Dissanayake 2004, p. 69.
  20. "Travellers warned on Sri Lankan strife". The Free Lance–Star/Associated Press . 26 July 1983. p. 11.
  21. 1 2 "Mobs burn shops in Sri Lanka". The Times/Reuters . 26 July 1983. p. 1.
  22. Dissanayake 2004, pp. 69–70.
  23. 1 2 Dissanayake 2004, p. 70.
  24. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Dissanayake 2004, p. 71.
  25. 1 2 3 4 O'Ballance 1989, p. 23.
  26. Pavey, Eleanor (2008-05-13). "The massacres in Sri Lanka during the Black July riots of 1983". Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence. Retrieved 2016-02-06. The systematic and well-planned nature of the attacks against the Tamils - to which the government itself later alluded - ruled out the spontaneous outburst of anti-Tamil hatred within the Sinhalese masses. Moreover, the possession of electoral lists by the mobs - which enabled them to identify Tamil homes and property - not only implied prior organization, for such electoral lists could not have been obtained overnight, but it also pointed to the cooperation of at least some elements of the government, who had been willing to provide the mobs with such information.
  27. Pavey, Eleanor (2008-05-13). "The massacres in Sri Lanka during the Black July riots of 1983". Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence. Retrieved 2016-02-06.
  28. 1 2 3 4 5 Dissanayake 2004, p. 72.
  29. "The Group". Capital Maharaja. Archived from the original on 2013-07-31. Retrieved 2013-07-22.
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  41. Wilson 2001, pp. 113–114.
  42. 1 2 Dissanayake 2004, p. 78.
  43. Dissanayake 2004, pp. 78–79.
  44. 1 2 3 4 Dissanayake 2004, p. 79.
  45. 1 2 3 Dissanayake 2004, p. 80.
  46. Dissanayake 2004, pp. 80–81.
  47. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Dissanayake 2004, p. 81.
  48. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Dissanayake 2004, p. 82.
  49. 1 2 Hoole et al. 1990.
  50. Swamy, M. R. Narayan (2003). Inside an Elusive Mind: Prabhakaran. Literate World. ISBN   1-59121-003-8.
  51. 1 2 Bose, Sumantra (2007). Contested lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 28. ISBN   978-0-674-02447-2.
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  53. "USTPAC Remembers 30th Anniversary of "Black July"- A State-abetted Pogrom Against Tamils in Sri Lanka". PR Newswire. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
  54. Pavey, Eleanor (2008-05-13). "The massacres in Sri Lanka during the Black July riots of 1983". Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence. Retrieved 2016-02-06. Government involvement in this mass uprising was highly suspected. Certain elements of the government in power were suspected of issuing copies of voters' lists to the mobs. In some instances, it is believed that the mobs were dropped off at particular points in vehicles owned by government establishments such as the State Timber Cooperation, the Cooperative Wholesale Establishment, the Ceylon Electricity Board and the Sri Lanka Transport Board (Senaratne 1997:45). In other instances, there were unconfirmed reports that buckets petrol was kept ready in white cans for the mobs at the Ceylon petroleum cooperation. Also, many reports indicate that certain members of the armed forces stood by and watched while much of the looting and arson was taking place (Meyer 2001:121-2). In some instances, security forces even took part in the riots. President Jayawardene himself would later admit that "[…] there was a big anti-Tamil feeling among the forces, and they felt that shooting the Sinhalese who were rioting would have been anti-Sinhalese; and actually in some cases we saw them [the forces] encouraging them [the rioters]" (Tambiah 1986:25).
  55. Razak, Abdul; Imtiyaz, Mohamed (2010-03-09). "Politicization of Buddhism and Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka". Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. SSRN   1567618 . The government neither condemned the violence that killed approximately two thousand Tamils, nor took any meaningful measures to punish the perpetrators of the violence. Instead J.R. Jayewardene, then President of Sri Lanka, praised the mobs as heroes of the Sinhalese people.
  56. Imtiyaz, A. R. M. (2008). "ETHNIC CONFLICT IN SRI LANKA: THE DILEMMA OF BUILDING A UNITARY STATE". In Chatterji, Manas; Jain, B.M. Conflict and Peace in South Asia. Emerald Group Publishing. p. 136. ISBN   9780444531766.
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  61. 1 2 3 "We must search for unity in diversity – President". Daily News (Sri Lanka) . 26 July 2004. Archived from the original on 20 February 2005. Retrieved 22 July 2013.
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  63. Nadesan, Kumaran (July 23, 2015). "Riots helped to define Canada's Tamil community". Toronto Star.

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