Black July 1983

4 09 2009

Black July is the commonly used name for the anti-Tamil attacks carried out by Sinhala mobs starting in Sri Lanka on July 23, 1983. [2] It is estimated that between 400-3000 [1] Tamils were killed, tens of thousands of houses were destroyed, and a wave of Sri Lankan Tamils left for other countries. The riots occurred following a deadly ambush by a Tamil militant organization known as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam which killed 13 Sri Lanka Army soldiers.

Black July is generally seen as the start of full-scale armed conflict between Tamil militants and the government of Sri Lanka.[3][4][5] It has become a day of remembrance for the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora around the world.


During the colonial period many Sri Lankan Tamils, particularly those from the Jaffna peninsula, took advantage of educational facilities established by missionaries, and 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 in 1948, a majority of government jobs were held by Tamils, who were actually a minority of the country’s population. The elected leaders saw this as the result of a British stratagem to control the majority Sinhalese, and deemed it a situation that needed correction. In 1956 Sinhala Only Act which initially restricted the fair use of Tamil and English languages. Protests against this policy by the Tamils was met with mob violence that eventually snowballed into the 1958 riots. Throughout the 1960s, protests and state repression against protests created further animosity. In 1971, the policy of standardization that was implemented strained the already tenuous political relationship between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. There was also a series of notable ethnic riots known as the 1977 riots following the United National Party coming to power in 1977.[6] 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 with a significant number of murders, disappearances and cases of torture attributed to both sides.

Events of July 1983

The events dubbed Black July began after members of the rebels Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the Tamil Tigers or the LTTE) organization ambushed a military convoy in the North of Sri Lanka on the evening of July 23, 1983 outside the town of Jaffna in the North of Sri Lanka. This was the latest of a string of Tamil rebels attacks targeting Sinhalese civilians and policemen. In the July 23 massacre of 13 soldiers, initially, a road-side bomb was detonated beneath the jeep that was leading the convoy, injuring at least two soldiers on board. As soldiers traveling in a truck which was following 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 12 soldiers died immediately, while two more were fatally wounded, bringing the total death toll to 15 along with number of rebels.[7] Kittu, a regional commander of the LTTE later admitted to planning and carrying out the ambush.[8]

In order to avoid a violent backlash from the population due to the ambush,[8], the government decided to quietly bury the 15 soldiers at the Kanatte cemetery in Colombo[citation needed]. They would therefore be going against standard procedure where the fallen members of the armed forces were buried in their home villages.[8] On July 24, the day the 15 servicemen were to be buried, some Sinhalese civilians who had gathered at the cemetery, angered by news of the ambush, which was magnified by wild rumor,[9] formed mobs started attacking, and assaulting Tamils, while looting and burning their properties in retribution for what happened. Members of the underworld criminal gangs, then joined in. The mobs were equipped with voter registration lists, thereby giving credence to an organized attack with support at government level, burning and attacking mainly Tamil residences and business, while army and government officials were deployed late. While a number of Tamils fled the city, many of the Sinhalese and Muslim people tried to save the lives and properties of Tamils despite the activities of the gangs. Many Tamils were sheltered in government buildings, temples and Sinhalese and Muslim houses during the following days.[10][11][12]

The government declared an emergency curfew in Colombo on the evening of the 24th; however, the police were unwilling, or unable[10] to enforce the curfew. The army was then called in to help the police. However the violence continued the next day, and began to spread all across the country, engulfing areas with sizeable Tamil populations, including Kandy (where curfew was declared at 6 p.m), Matale, Nawalapitiya, Badulla and Nuwara Eliya. Vehicles on the streets were burnt, and Tamil people were dragged from cars and beaten or killed.[10].

One of the most notorious single attacks of the riots[10] took place at the Welikada high security prison on July 25. Thirty-seven Tamil prisoners, most of them detained under the Prevention of rebels Act, were killed by Sinhalese prisoners using knives and clubs. Survivors claimed that the prison officers allowed the keys to fall into the hand of the Sinhalese prisoners, while at the subsequent inquest, the prison officers claimed the keys were stolen from them.[10] A second riot at the prison took place on July 28, in which a further 15 prisoners were killed.[13]

The curfew was extended nationwide on July 26 as a precautionary measure, as there were more outbreaks of violence against Tamils in areas where various ethnic groups lived together. By the evening of the 26th, the mob violence began to slacken off, as the police and army patrolled the street in large numbers and began to take action against the rioters.[14] The soldiers killed in the Jaffna ambush were quietly buried during the night curfew.[15] The daytime curfew was lifted in Colombo the next day, although sporadic violence continued in other parts of the country over the next few days, mainly in response to rumors that “kotiyas” (i.e. Tamil Tiger) were coming to attack the city.[16]

Brief rioting broke out on the 29th, after which police shot dead 15 rioters.[13] A 24-hour curfew was imposed on the capital, and the security forces were able to regain control of the city.

Government’s response

There was a growing tension between the Sinhala and Tamil communities of Sri Lanka, even before the actual riots, and with the formation of rebels Tamil groups, there was a rising anti-Tamil sentiment among the Sinhalese majority. Although it started as a spontaneous reaction by Sinhalese mobs gathered at the Colombo Cemetery where the bodies of the soldiers were to be buried, later joined by Tamil and Muslim members of the underworld and Prabhakaran’s smuggling contacts, elements associated with the ruling United National Party (UNP) was actively involved in the organization of the riots.[17] Also, during the early stages of riots, it is alleged the local police officers and military stood by doing nothing.[18] By July 26, however, police and the army were out in the streets taking actions 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 July 29 when police shot dead 15 Sinhalese looters.

Even though some Tamil politicians accused the ruling UNP for 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 safeguard the Tamil community. Curfew was enforced immediately after the riots broke out. The attacks, according to the government, were carefully organized and government properties such as trains, buildings and buses were the initial targets. Prime Minister Ranasingha Premadasa formed a committee to organize 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 refugees increased to around 50,000 and the Government with help from India took measures to send Tamils to north by ships.[19]

Eyewitness accounts

The rioters initially targeted government properties. As it had happened many times before and after, 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 organized. Mobs armed with petrol were seen stopping passing motorists at critical street junctions and, after ascertaining the ethnic identity of the driver and passengers, setting alight the vehicle with the driver and passengers trapped within it.

Mobs were also seen stopping buses to identify Tamil passengers and subsequently these passengers were 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.[17][20]

Tamil civilians in other cities, including Galle, Matara, Gampola, Nawalapitiya, Pussellawa, Ginigathhena, Hatton, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, and Anuradapura, were also attacked by Sinhalese mobs.[17]

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[1] and 3,000[1] people suspected of being Sri Lankan Tamils or Hill Country Tamils were killed in the riots. 53 terrorism suspects alone were killed in the Welikade prison massacre. Eventually the Sri Lankan government put the death toll at about 300 dead.[21][22]

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.[21] Many Tamil youths also joined the various Tamil terrorist groups including the LTTE.

Prosecutions and compensations

There was a presidential commission appointed during the subsequent People’s Alliance government that estimated that nearly 300 people killed and 18,000 establishments including houses were destroyed and recommended that restitution be paid. Thus far, no restitution has been paid or any criminal proceedings against anyone involved begun.[21]

As a remembrance day

July 24, or Black July Day, has become a day of mourning and remembrance amongst the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora around the world. The Canadian Tamil Congress sponsored an event in downtown Toronto on July 24, 2009, for Tamil-Canadians to gather and thank Canada for granting them asylum. Similar events were held in Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, France, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.[23]


Sinhalese mob stopping cars to look for Tamils, Colombo, July 26, 1983

Sinhalese mob burns Tamil shops, Colombo, 25 July 1983

A car after it and its passengers are set alight by a Sinhalese mob, Colombo, July 1983

Some of the Tamil businesses and homes that were singled out by Sinhalese mobs and burnt to the ground, July 1983

External links


  1. ^ a b c d BBC NEWS | South Asia | Twenty years on – riots that led to war
  2. ^
  3. ^ Senewiratne, Brian (2006-07-28). “Sri Lanka’s Week of Shame: The July 1983 massacre of Tamils – Long-term consequences. Retrieved 2006-08-01.
  4. ^ Wilson, A. Jeyaratnam (1989). The Break up of Sri Lanka: the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1211-5.
  5. ^ Tambiah, Stanley (1984). Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-78952-7.
  6. ^ Rajasingham-Senanayake, Darini (May 2001) (PDF). Dysfunctional democracy and dirty war in Sri Lanka. AsiaPacific Issues, No. 52. East-West Center. Retrieved 2006-08-01.
  7. ^ O’Ballance, Edgar (1989). The cyanide war : Tamil insurrection in Sri Lanka, 1973-88. London: Brassey’s (UK). ISBN 9780080366951. p.21 see also Edgar O’Ballance
  8. ^ a b c O’Ballance, The cyanide war, p.21
  9. ^ O’Ballance, The cyanide war, p.22
  10. ^ a b c d e O’Ballance, The cyanide war, p.23
  11. ^ Piyadasa, L. (1986). Sri Lanka: The Holocaust and After. Zed Books. ISBN 0-906334-03-9.
  12. ^ Anti-Tamil Riots and the Political Crisis in Sri Lanka“. Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (Questia) Vol. 16: 27. 1984. Retrieved 2006-08-01.
  13. ^ a b O’Ballance, The cyanide war, p.25
  14. ^ O’Ballance, The cyanide war, p.24
  15. ^ O’Ballance, The cyanide war, p.24
  16. ^ O’Ballance, The cyanide war, p.24
  17. ^ a b c The Broken Palmyra – The Tamil Crisis in Sri Lanka: An Inside Account. Claremont, CA: The Sri Lanka Studies Institute (online: University Teachers for Human Rights). April 1990. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 90 – 61314.
  18. ^ Swamy, M.R. Narayan (2003). Inside an Elusive Mind: Prabhakaran. Literate World. ISBN 1-59121-003-8.
  19. ^ O’Ballance, The cyanide war, p.24
  20. ^ History of Tamil struggle for freedom in Sri Lanka: A photo album“. Quoted from the London Daily Express, 198308-29. Ilankai Tamil Sangam: Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA.
  21. ^ a b c President Kumaratunga’s speech on the 21st Anniversary of ‘Black July’“. South Asia Terrorism Portal. 2004-07-23.
  22. ^ Grant, Patrick (2008). Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-9353-9. p. 132
  23. ^