Black July 1983, 40 Years On

July 23, 2023 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

Forty years ago today, on 23rd July 1983, a mass anti-Tamil pogrom broke out in Sri Lanka, in which an estimated 3,000 Tamil people died at the hands of Sinhalese mobs. Since then, narratives both in Sri Lanka and internationally have presented the events as the start of the ethnic conflict in the country, which came to a brutal end in 2009. However, a careful consideration of the history and situation on the ground points to the seeds of the pogrom going back decades, finding its origins during colonial times and in the immediate aftermath of Sri Lanka’s independence.

As we reflect on the experiences of Tamils in Sri Lanka in their proper historical context, we are confronted with the legacy of the island’s long culture of impunity and the abject failure of successive governments to deliver accountability for past human-rights violations. We waited until 2001 for President Chandrika Kumaratunga to appoint a Presidential Truth Commission to investigate the ethnic violence between 1981 and 1984. After 18 years of waiting, the commission’s mandate lacked any clear power to hold the organisers and perpetrators of violence to account and limited the commission’s work to the period from 1981 to 1984, with some powers to identify and address the grievances of the Tamils over events from this period and recommend compensation.

As there has never been a fully trustworthy accountability process for this violent episode in Sri Lanka’s history, this report aims to paint a longer-term trajectory and highlight the lessons that should be learned, especially considering the Sri Lankan government’s latest plans for a truth and reconciliation commission.

To understand Black July is to recognise the event as one of many cycles of violence that have plagued Sri Lanka. Black July is often cited as the start of the Sri Lankan civil war which would go on to consume the island for three decades. In this report, we place it in its historical context of previous communal violence and an ongoing culture of impunity and failed accountability mechanisms. Note: This report contains some information which was communicated to SLC staff during a visit to Sri Lanka in May-June 2023.