Black July 1983: the Charge is Genocide
The Memory of July 1983 Anti-Tamil Pogrom Must Remain High
- a Response to "Using Black July to Score Political Points" by Jehan Perera
Statement by Asian Human Rights Commission
27 August 2001
All attempts to diminish the importance of
remembering the July 1983 colossal violence perpetrated by the then
government of the United National Party (UNP), through the use of
the political power and by the use of party cadres, are attempts to
destroy democratic consciousness in Sri Lanka. Such attempts are
acts of injustice against the victims of violence. The expected
result of such attempts is to help perpetuate a tradition of
unprincipled political compromise that is prevailing in the country.
Such attempts are dangerous and anyone concerned with democracy,
human rights, peace, justice and avoidance of re-occurrences of
colossal and organized violence, must take special effort to be
aware of such attempts and to prevent the spread of influence of
views that promotes such attempts.
There had been some
attempts in the past to play down Jewish Holocaust by modern
pro-Fascist groups. Some of the arguments of such groups were that
this is history, which must be buried; that Fascists were not the
only people who have prosecuted Jews during the Second World War but
that even before that Jews have been prosecuted. Recently, when the
Khmer Rouge leaders were to be brought to justice, Cambodian leader
Hun Sen argued that for the sake of present day peace, past must be
forgotten. During the Pinochet’s case before the House of Lords in
Britain, Margaret Thatcher argued that for present day democracy in
Chile, it is important to let Pinochet go free. Similar arguments
are made in every country where political leaders have committed
massive crimes against the people and where justice has become a
primary requirement for the return to normalcy.
international jurisprudence is developing in the opposite direction.
The decision of the House of Lords in Pinochet’s Case is a landmark
judgement, which finally set out the principles of legal liability
of the leaders regarding the crimes organised by the state. Several
war crimes tribunals that are functioning now are also based on the
same principle. The discussion on the International Criminal Court
(ICC) is another international effort in this direction. There is a
rich literature that has emerged on this subject. The link subject
is reconciliation. On this theme too much thinking has developed in
In Asia one of the very rich examples of a
positive development in this direction is the experience of Kwangju
people who reacted to brutal military crackdown in Kwangju, south
Korea. The struggle to return to democracy was made through a
relentless struggle to find justice to the 241 people killed by the
military during the Kwanju Uprising. At the end Korean people
successfully defeated the military, returned to democratic
government with an internationally reputed democrat, Kim Dae-Jung as
the head of state. The two Presidents who ordered the coup were
arrested, brought to trial and found guilty. The fact that they were
later granted amnesty before expiry of the full term does not
diminish the importance of the process through which people found
their path to return to democracy and to undo the damage done by
gross violations of people’s rights by brutal use of violence by the
state. In Sri Lanka Presidential Commissions on Inquiry Into
Involuntary Removal or Disappearances of Persons have concluded the
responsibility of the State to the violence they inquired into.
An experience in opposite direction is the Indo-Pakistan
relationship. The separation itself caused millions of deaths. The
sub-continent is now famous only for its violence. The concept of
leaders’ liability is almost non-existent in most cultural
traditions of the sub-continent. Over 230 million people remain as
Dalits in India itself, subject often to worse conditions than
slavery. The dominant ideas relating to reconciliation is to forgive
the leaders regardless of whatever they do. The most that is
expected of the leaders is to shed a little crocodile tears to
appease the masses.
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
make this statement as a response to a published article entitled:
Using Black July to Score Political Points by Jehan Perera. In fact,
the article is an attempt to play down grave violence used against
Tamils in July 1983, which shocked the whole world. The means that
are used for this purpose is subtle and deep.
"It is the duty of the people’s people to bring the victims of
violence face to face with the political criminals who have used
violence against them. It is people who can ensure that it Never
The article appears from its title and opening paragraph as a
protest against misuse of the 1983 Black July events by the leaders
of the present government who have given lot of publicity to the
anniversary of this event this year. One would have thought the
author will demand real actions to help the victims and to punish
the perpetrators of the Black July event, to be accompanied by such
publicity. The government must not just talk but must act. It must
keep its promises and cure the country of the continuing ill effects
following this violence. The abuse of power by the military and
police during this event and the resultant loss of rule of law,
remain a problem up to date. In fact, these hands that abused Tamils
in 1983, touched the Sinhalese since 1988 causing over officially
admitted over 30,000 disappearances. By now, this situation of
lawlessness have sunk into civilian life threatening everyone. Sort
of crime that takes place in Sri Lanka now is stupendous. Civil
policing has virtually collapsed and the military has taken a
greater grip over many aspects of life. If the government was
challenged to take action on these matters, if they were honest
about the publicity they give to 1983 Black July event, people would
have found that a voice has been raised at least to point out to
their plight. Instead, Perera’s plea is that giving such publicity
to 1983 Black July is itself wrong.
According to the author, 1983 Black July is linked to other
violence as in 1956, 1958 (he carefully leaves out 1978). So What?
Since the political responsibility for earlier events is with the
Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is the dominant partner in the
ruling coalition at present, they also are responsible for July
1983. If the author said, let them be also held responsible, we
would have agreed. That is not the logic behind the author’s
argument, let earlier violence cancel the guilt for 1983 violence!
Therefore he thinks it self-defeating to give publicity to 1983
Black July itself. He calls such publicity tragic. Why? Because,
these politicians have played politics with the event. How to
prevent politicians playing politics? Well, one would have thought
it would have been the civic organisations, peace organisations,
human rights organisations and concerned persons to raise the
serious issues relating to moral and legal responsibility and to
agitate for concrete actions to punish the political criminals on
every side of the fence. It is the duty of the people’s people to
bring the victims of violence face to face with the political
criminals who have used violence against them. It is people who can
ensure that it Never Happens Again. It is childish to expect the
politicians to take the initiative to say never again.
Unfortunately, the author does not seem to be people’s person. In
fact, he put the whole blame for violence not on the politicians but
on the people. He says "Riots on the scale of those that occurred in
1956,1958 and 1983 could not have been engineered by a handful of
politicians from the top alone. They had to have a mass base of
ethnic hatreds to work on."
AHRC disagrees with this view
both on the basis of facts and also theoretically. We consider this
view as extremely dangerous as the only hope for peace lies only in
the faith in the good sense, good humour and the humanity of the
ordinary Sri Lankans, be they Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims. The
blame for the crisis must be shared by the politicians and some
intellectuals who have prepared the ideological backbone to criminal
politicians. Whether these intellectuals do so deliberately or
simply because they are disoriented, or because of both we do not
know. However, it is a fact that many intellectuals have added fuel,
often in the name of peace, to the fire burning in Sri Lanka.
All the interventions of the Asian Human Rights Commission on the
situation of Sri Lanka and other conflict situations as well, have
been on the basis, that the ordinary people of whatever gender, race
or nationality, given the chance live peacefully with each other. It
is the political elite who saw the seeds of conflicts and this they
do for their own purposes. The ordinary people, if they are left to
themselves are not haters. They are generally lovers of each other
and they enjoy each other despite differences. (A classic example of
this are Veddhas of Sri Lanka, who despite of all the historical
slanders against them have a better record of civilised and humane
behaviour than the Sri Lankan elite who created such things as caste
and race discrimination).
The problems are created at the top, nurtured at the top,
intensified at the top and maintained at the top. It is true that
the people become victims of manipulations which comes down to them.
Those who are at the top have vast machinery of manipulation both by
way of violence and propaganda. Coercion and propaganda have some
effects on the people. The level of people’s resistance to such
coercion depend on many factors, most important of which is the
level of intimidation used on them. Long-term pressures some time
creates habits which requires better conditionings to overcome. The
truth of all that does not alter the fundamental fact that the
ordinary people are NOT the originators of violence. They are
primarily seekers of peace. The people are the primary peace lobby.
Intellectuals who associate mainly with their own, often mistake
middle class gossip with people’s talk. The middle class often tends
to create talks leading to hatred. This often happens due to the
needs of middle class itself, which are sometimes linked to economic
or social factors. Sometimes the reasons are purely psychological.
The middle class often refers to themselves as the people. They make
their problems appear as "our problems," meaning people’s problems.
In fact, it is this middle class that builds links with some
politicians and also derive some benefits from the conflicts.
"This tradition of history-re-writing will have to continue, if
people who did worse crimes in Sri Lankan history is to be portrayed
as necessary peace makers. That is the main argument in Jehan
In Perera’s article, people are blamed to
exonerate the politicians. If "there was no mass base to work on,"
the politicians would not have created the 1983 Black July, they
would not have caused thousands of disappearances a little later,
and they would not have displaced the machinery of the rule of law!
What a horrible mass base, this must be! So the great task of a
modern Don Quixote is to save the politicians from the terrible mass
base. How should the politicians be saved from the mass base in the
Sri Lankan situation? Jehan Perera states, "By heaping blame on the
United National Party (UNP), and alienating its leadership, the
government is effectively closing the door on the prospects of
People's Alliance and United National Party (PA-UNP) collaboration
in the national interest. It also undermines the peace process by
over-simplifying the ethnic conflict as being largely a creation of
UNP goons. But this is a caricature of reality." To prove this point
of view Mr. Perera will have to rewrite a good part of the history
of Sri Lanka. Again, he will not be the first do so? Rewriting
history is particularly a United National Party pre-occupation. Just
take those historians who wrote biographies of J.R. Jayawardene.
This man, whose doings makes what Pinochet did just peanuts, was
portrayed as a genius and the best brain that any Sri Lankan
politician ever had! He was also portrayed as an honest politician.
This tradition of history-re-writing will have to continue, if
people who did worse crimes in Sri Lankan history is to be portrayed
as necessary peace makers. That is the main argument in Jehan
Now what must the politicians of both sides
do? The author tells us, "The ethnic conflict has a long history and
includes other watersheds in addition to the July 1983 riots. There
is a need on the part of all sectors of society, north and south,
and especially their leaderships, to act in a spirit of penitence
and reform themselves and the country." All that politicians must do
is to be penitent. What does being penitent means in political
rhetoric? It means to cry a little bit in public. The truth is that
United National Party has never regretted 1983 Black July or other
havoc they have caused to the country. Not a single party resolution
to that effect or any other statement to that effect. Admitting
faults is not a part of Sri Lankan political culture.
only the people and who make the people’s interest come first that
can make a change in this culture. People have ousted many bad
politicians. However, beyond elections, no system of accountability
has been created. It is these that peace movement, human rights
movement and democratic movement must help to create.
We suggest the following as basic elements of any peace plan:
1. Trust the ordinary people and create conditions for
ordinary people to participate in the process of deciding their own
2. Make establishment of political and moral
responsibility an indispensable component of any peace plan.
3. Keep the victims of violence in the spotlight always.
4. Do not get trapped in middle class gossip and middle
5. Let the international community know
the full truth of all politicians
- be they government,
opposition or the rebels.
6. Do not de-link ethnicity
related human rights abuses from other gross abuses of human rights
that have been taking place in the country;
7. Do not create masks for political criminals. They will use
these masks to hurt the people again.
8. Create a culture of
9. Bring the issues of rule of law - demilitarisation and
rebuilding of civil policing to the center of the debate.
10. Make no exception to international laws relating to conduct in
war and use of emergency regulations.
11. Commemorate all
violations and never let their memory die. Help the victims in every