Blurred lines: Patriotism vs. racism

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa, Photo Saman Abesiriwardana

Nearly every multiethnic country is vulnerable to the kind of ethnic violence Sri Lanka experienced last week. But the recent incidents spread fear among a majority of Sri Lankans since it gave the impression that the stage was being set for another “Black July”.

In July 1983, as a response to a deadly ambush by the LTTE, anti-Tamil rioting ignited in Colombo and spread to other parts of the country, eventually leading to the beginning of the war between the LTTE and the Government.

The International Commission of Jurist Review of the July 1983 riots stated that the acts of violence, executed in accordance with a plan, conceived and organised well in advance against the Tamils, were tantamount to acts of genocide.

Horrors of ‘83 pogrom

The anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and several other towns in Sri Lanka, which raged for nearly a week in July 1983, were unprecedented in the records of ethno-communal rioting in the country. But the most disturbing fact of the riot was that the issues erupted in ‘83 and still remains unresolved.

“I am not a Tamil, but as a Sinhalese, I felt the horror. I was in Colombo working at the same company as I’m in today. People were all over the road as they didn’t know where to go. I didn’t see any dead bodies, but we experienced the same horror as we didn’t know what was happening in the towns,” said former National Chamber of Commerce (NCC) President Thilak Godamanna, recalling the horrific experience of the ‘83 massacre.

“I had to take my staff in my car and drop them at home or half way at least. Some people didn’t know where to go,” he stated.
As Godamanna explained, the situation today is different from the situation in 1983, which was more severe than it was recently. A number of Tamil businessmen had been affected, and as a result, many of them had left the country.

The actual loss of lives and destruction of property during the Black July saga and the ruthless bloodshed are difficult to comprehend. For the first time in the history of civil commotions in Sri Lanka, 371 Tamils lay dead (unofficial estimates put the number at over 1,000).

More than 100,000 were rendered homeless and 130,000 became refugees, forced to seek shelter elsewhere both in the island and abroad. An overwhelming majority of the 162,000 Tamils, then living in Colombo, were in unliveable refugee camps. More than 100,000 fled to

Tamil Nadu in South India by every possible means of transport including country boats. There they were accommodated in scores of camps under appalling conditions.

The economic cost of the riots was $ 300 million, which is said to be 1.27 times Sri Lanka’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Tourism and foreign investments were noted as the hardest hit sectors by the violent events of 1983. The impact on foreign investments, starting from 1983, is still being felt. In 1982, tourist arrivals were approaching the half-million mark, where the total arrivals for the year 1982 were already 407,230.

Sri Lankan Tamils fled to other countries in the ensuing years, and a large number of Tamil youth joined militant groups. Black July gave rise to the LTTE which unleashed a series of menacing attacks in a ruthless offensive targeting innocent civilians, children, as well as places of worship in the southern parts of the country.

The recent attacks occurred three weeks after the Easter Sunday terror attack that killed over 250 people and injured more than 500 people in a single day. No excuse or justification should be made to pave the path to revisit the past.

A gutted building near the beach in Mount Lavinia – once the Tilly’s Beach Hotel owned by a Tamil businessman – that has been an eyesore for the last 33 years, reminding the horrors of the ‘83 riot, is a great example of what lifelong scars such violence can leave.

However, as former NCC President explained, the violent incidents reported last week could not be compared to the ‘83 riot, but the impact on the economy was somewhat similar. The tourism industry in the country had collapsed due to the recent attacks and had affected businesses at large.

“The economic loss due to the recent incidents would affect the whole nation irrespective of the ethnicity, and the compensations paid to the victims were paid with public money. The citizens in the contemporary era are comparatively more educated and act wisely. What happened in the last week was purely done by an organised group to destabilise the country,” Godamanna explained.

Attacks by anti-govt. forces

Comparing the recent incident with the 1983 riot, Parliamentarian Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, PC, who was in active politics during the 1983 riots, told The Sunday Morning that in 1983, the Government delayed in taking action against the attacks against the Tamil community, but in the recent attacks, the Government took immediate action.

“Although it was equal to what happened in the North where 13 soldiers were killed, unfortunately not only the Tamils in Colombo were attacked, but also the upcountry Tamils. Those are two separate communities, but they saw them as one and it took a couple of days for the

Government to react. There was a general belief at that time that the Government was very slow to respond. The necessary actions were not taken on time. Even Thondaman came from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo and spoke with President (J.R.) Jayewardene,” he said.

“But this time, there was no delay on the part of the Government to declare an emergency and impose curfew. We see photographs of law enforcement officers standing by while the attacks were going on. They were either helpless or they turned a blind eye – not all, but some of the police officers. There had been complaints too. This time, it was very clear that the complaints from the governing party were instrumental for these attacks and I believe that perception was justified,” Dr. Wickramaratne explained.

“I don’t have evidence to say that it was done by the Joint Opposition (JO), but it is very clear these are done by anti-Government forces including these various extremist organisations,” he added.

Swift action

Parliamentarian Vasudeva Nanayakkara said the recent attacks against the Muslim community were much less in severity than what the Tamil community had to go through in 1983 in and around Colombo. He said all the incidents had occurred only in the cities and towns where the properties belonging to the Tamil people, and these had been damaged and set on fire.

“The ability of the armed forces and the Police to bring the recent situation under control was remarkably better this time than in 1983. The involvement of sections of the Police and tri-forces in the ‘83 riot was well known unlike this time, but I have stories about their encouragement in certain places,” he said.

“The Government has been inactive from the very outset in tracing the preparations that were ongoing to carry out this blast. They actually began to look for sources from where this situation began only after the explosions on 21 April,” Nanayakkara added.

Highlighting the Government’s failure to prevent the Easter Sunday terror attack, Nanayakkara said that it should have begun long before (the attack) and monitoring differences of Islamic extremists had been totally absent. Therefore, no investigation had been set out. On the other hand, he went on to say, the Government had been hesitant to take action although they had the information, claiming there would be

Muslim reactions to it, where Muslim leaders would find reasons of grievance on account of any strong and strict investigation based on information.

“It’s a ridiculous suggestion and the blame on the Opposition is only an excuse for the Government to escape the guilt,” he averred.

Political extremism

Giving a different perspective, Purawesi Balaya Co-convener Gamini Viyangoda said the Government failed to bring back normalcy to the country even three weeks after of the suicide attacks, and that it was mainly due to political extremism.

“With the timely intervention of the Cardinal, the country would be able to implement the lessons learnt from the 1983 riot and prevent similar situations,” he said. The incidents that took place after the terror attacks were mainly part of a political conspiracy by the Opposition, Viyangoda claimed.