Welikada prison massacre

4 09 2009

The Welikada Prison Massacre took place during the 1983 Black July pogrom against Sri Lankan Tamil minority in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Fifty-three prisoners were killed inside a high-security prison.[citation needed] No one has been convicted of crimes relating to these incidents.[1]

Crime scene

The prison is shaped as a Cross-with four divisions- A, B, C and D. A3 B3 C3 and D3 were all on ground floor. B3, C3 and D3 all housed Tamil detainees and A3 had dangerous criminals who were almost all Sinhalese.


The incident occurred in two different series of actions: the first on 25 July, 1983 when 35 Tamil prisoners were attacked and killed by Sinhalese inmates. The second massacre was two days later when Sinhalese inmates killed another 18 Tamil detainees and 3 prison deputies.


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. ^ http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1190&var_recherche=sri%20lanka
  3. ^ Senewiratne, Brian (2006-07-28). “Sri Lanka’s Week of Shame: The July 1983 massacre of Tamils – Long-term consequences. http://sangam.org/taraki/articles/2006/07-28_Consequences.php?uid=1866. 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. http://www.eastwestcenter.org/stored/pdfs/api052.pdf. 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. http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=97784500. 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. http://www.uthr.org/BP/Content.htm.
  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. http://www.sangam.org/FB_PHOTOHISTORY/ONE.htm.
  21. ^ a b c President Kumaratunga’s speech on the 21st Anniversary of ‘Black July’“. South Asia Terrorism Portal. 2004-07-23. http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/papers/BlackJuly2004.htm.
  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. ^ http://www.blackjuly83.com/

Burning of Jaffna library

4 09 2009

The burning of the Jaffna library (Tamil: யாழ் பொது நூலகம் எரிப்பு) was an important event in the Sri Lankan civil war. An organized mob went on a rampage on the nights of May 31 to June 2, 1981, burning the Jaffna public library. It was one of the violent examples of ethnic biblioclasm of the twentieth century.Term[›][1] The library at the time of destruction was one of the biggest in Asia containing over 97,000 unique books and manuscripts. [2][3]


The library was built in many stages starting from 1933, from a modest beginnings as a private collection. Soon with the help of primarily local citizens, it became a full fledged library. The Library also became a repository of archival material written in Palm leaf manuscripts, original copies of regionally important historic documents in the contested Contest[›]political history of Sri Lanka and newspapers that were published hundred of years ago in the Jaffna peninsula. It thus became a place of historic and symbolic importance to the local minority Sri Lankan Tamil people.[4][5]

Eventually the first major wing of the library was opened in 1959 by then Jaffna mayor Alfred Duraiappah. The architect of the Indo-Saracenic style building was one Narasimhan from Madras, India. Prominent Indian librarian S.R. Ranganathan served as an advisor to ensure that the library was built to international standards. The library became the pride of the local people as even researchers from India and other countries began to use it for their research purposes.[4][5]

The riot and the burning

On Sunday May 31, 1981, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) a regionally popular democratic party held a rally in which three majority Sinhalese policeman were shot and two killed.Political situation[›]

That night police and paramilitaries began a pogrom that lasted for three days. The head office of TULF party was destroyed. The office of the Eelanaadu, a local news paper was also destroyed. Statues of Tamil cultural and religious figures were destroyed or defaced.

Four people were pulled from their homes and killed at random. Many business establishments and a local Hindu temple were also deliberately destroyed.

On May 31, night according to many eye witnesses saw police and government sponsored paramilitias set fire to the Jaffna public library and destroying it completely.[1] Over 97,000 volumes of books along with numerous culturally important and irreplaceable manuscripts were destroyed.[5]Among the destroyed were scrolls of historical value and the works and manuscripts of philosopher, artist and author Ananda Coomaraswamy and prominent intellectual Prof. Dr. Isaac Thambiah. The destroyed articles included memoirs and works of writers and dramatists who made a significant contribution toward the sustenance of the Tamil culture and those of locally reputed medical physicians and politicians.[5]

Nancy MurrayNancy Murray[›] wrote in a journal article in 1984, that several high ranking security officers and two cabinet ministers were present in the town of Jaffna, when uniformed security men and plainclothes[6] mob carried out organized acts of destruction.[7] After 20 years the government owned Daily News, newspaper in an editorial in 2001 termed the 1981 event as an act by goon squads let loose by the then government.[8]


Two Cabinet ministers who saw the destruction of government and private properties on the verandah of the Jaffna Rest House (A government owned hotel) claimed that the incident was

“an unfortunate event, where few policeman got drunk and went on a looting spree all on their own”

The national newspapers did not carry information about the incident and in subsequent parliamentary debates some majority Sinhalese members reminded minority Tamil politicians that if Tamils were unhappy in Sri Lanka, they should leave for their homeland in India.[1] A direct quote from a United National Party member is

“If there is discrimination in this land which is not their (Tamil) homeland, then why try to stay here. Why not go back home (India) where there would be no discrimination. There are your kovils and Gods. There you have your culture, education, universities etc. There you are masters of your own fate”

– Mr.W.J.M. Lokubandara, M.P. in Sri Lanka’s Parliament, July 1981.[9]Reaction[›]

Of all the destruction in Jaffna city it was the destruction of the Jaffna Public Library was the incident which appeared to cause the most distress to the people of Jaffna.[10][11] Twenty years later mayor of Jaffna Nadarajah Raviraj still grieved at the recollection of the flames he saw as a University student.[1] He was later killed by unknown gunmen in the capital Colombo in 2006.

For Tamils the devastated library became a symbol of “physical and imaginative violence” of majoritan extremists. The attack was seen as an assault on their aspirations, value of learning and traditions of academic achievement. The attack also became the rallying point for Tamil radicals to convince the Tamil populace that their race was targeted for annihilation.[1][5]

President Ranasinghe Premadasa

In 1991 the then president of Sri Lanka Premadasa publicly proclaimed that

“During the District Development Council elections in 1981, some of our party members took many people from other parts of the country to the North, created havoc and disrupted the conduct of elections in the North. It is this same group of people who are causing trouble now also. If you wish to find out who burnt the priceless collection of books at the Jaffna Library, you have only to look at the faces of those opposing us”

He was accusing his political opponents within his UNP party Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, who had just brought an impeachment motion against him, as directly involved in the burning of the library in 1981[9]

President Mahinda Rajapakse

In 2006 the President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapakse was quoted as saying,

UNP is responsible for mass scale riots and massacres against the Tamils in 1983, vote rigging in the Northern Development Council elections and burning of the Jaffna library”

He was also further quoted to say referencing a prominent local Tamil poet, reminding the audience that

“Burning the Library sacred to the people of Jaffna was similar to shooting down Lord Buddha

He concluded in that speech that as a cumulative effect of the all these atrocities, the peaceful voice of the Tamils is now drowned in the echo of the gun referring to the rebel LTTE‘s terrorism.[12]

Government investigation

According to Orville H.Schell, Chairman of the Americas Watch Committee, and Head of the Amnesty International‘s 1982 fact finding mission to Sri Lanka, the UNP government at that time did not institute an independent investigation to establish responsibility for these killings in May and June 1981 and take measures against those responsible.[13] But since 1991 all governments have taken responsibility for the destruction of the library[9] although no one has been indicted for the crimes yet.

Reopening of the Library

1982, one year after the initial destruction, the community sponsored Jaffna Public Library Week and collected thousands of books. Repairs on parts of the building were on progress when the Black July pogrom induced civil conflict began in 1983. The library building was damaged by bullets and bombs. In 1985 after an attack on a nearby police station by Tamil rebels, soldiers entered the partially restored building and set off bombs that shredded thousands of books yet again. The library was abandoned with its shell and bullet pocked walls, blackened with smoke of burnt books.[1]

As an effort to win back confidence of the Tamil people[5] and also to mollify international opinion, in 1998 under president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the government began the process to rebuild it with contributions from all Sri Lankans[14] and foreign governments.[15] Approximately US $ 1 million dollars was spent and over 25,000 books were collected. By 2001 the replacement building was complete but the 2003 reopening of the rebuilt library was opposed by the rebel LTTE leading to all twenty one members of the Jaffna municipal council led by Mayor Sellan Kandian to tender their resignation as a protest to the pressure exerted on them to postpone the reopening of the library.[16] Eventually the library was opened to the public.[17] (See photo here)


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Destroying a symbol“. IFLA. http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla72/papers/119-Knuth-en.pdf. Retrieved 2007-02-14.
  2. ^ Fire at Kandy public library“. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2007/02/070202_kandy_library.shtml. Retrieved 2006-03-14.
  3. ^ Wilson, A.J. Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, p.125
  4. ^ a b History of the Public Librray“. Dailynews. http://www.dailynews.lk/2002/12/12/fea01.html. Retrieved 2007-04-13.
  5. ^ a b c d e f The reconstruction of the Jaffna library by Dr. Jayantha Seneviratne“. PRIU. http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/features/20020130jaffna_library.htm. Retrieved 2006-04-17.
  6. ^ Chronology of events in Sri lanka“. BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/country_profiles/1166237.stm. Retrieved 2006-03-14.
  7. ^ Nancy Murray (1984), Sri Lanka: Racism and the Authoritarian State, Issue no. 1, Race & Class, vol. 26 (Summer 1984)
  8. ^ EDITORIAL, DAILY NEWS“. Daily News. http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/EditorialReviews/erev200106/20010608editorialreview.html. Retrieved 2006-03-14.
  9. ^ a b c d Over two decades after the burning down of the Jaffna library in Sri Lanka“. The Independent. http://www.independentsl.com/cgi-bin/newsscript1.cgi?record=1034. Retrieved 2006-03-15.
  10. ^ Peebles, Patrick (2006) [2006]. “chapter 10”. The History of Sri Lanka. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 133 & 134. ISBN 0313332053.
  11. ^ Ponnambalam, Satchi (1983) [1983]. Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle. London: Zed Books Ltd.. pp. 207 & 261. ISBN 0862321980.
  12. ^ Mahinda promises compensation for high security zone“. BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2005/11/051104_mjaffna.shtml. Retrieved 2006-03-14.
  13. ^ Burning of the Jaffna Library“. Amnesty International‘s 1982 fact finding mission to Sri Lanka. Tamilnation.org. http://www.tamilnation.org/indictment/indict016.htm.
  14. ^ Building a bridge of peace with bricks and books“. The Sunday Times. http://sundaytimes.lk/970601/news3.html. Retrieved 2006-03-15.
  15. ^ French government donates books to the Jaffna library“. Museum Security. http://www.museum-security.org/03/020.html. Retrieved 2007-05-03.
  16. ^ Jaffna library opening put off as Mayor, councilors resign“. Tamilnet. http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=8343. Retrieved 2006-03-14.
  17. ^ Story of Jaffna Library“. The Hindu. http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2006/stories/20030328000505900.htm. Retrieved 2006-03-15.
  18. ^ Fragile Guardians of Culture By Nicholas A. Basbanes“. Los Angeles Times. http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/byform/mailing-lists/exlibris/2004/01/msg00087.html. Retrieved 2007-04-16.
  19. ^ History from the LTTE“. Frontline. http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2103/stories/20040213000206000.htm. Retrieved 2007-04-15.
  20. ^ Nancy Murray: Hyper-Nationalism and Our Civil Liberties“. Democracy Now. http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=03/04/07/0249214. Retrieved 2006-03-15.
  21. ^ The Failure of State Formation, Identity Conflict and Civil Society Responses – The Case of Sri Lanka. Brad.edu. 1999. http://www.brad.ac.uk/acad/confres/assets/CCR2.pdf. Retrieved 2006-04-16.
  22. ^ How it Came to This – Learning from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars By Professor John Richardson“. paradisepoisoned.com. http://www.paradisepoisoned.com/PDFs/Preview21.pdf. Retrieved 2006-03-30.