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Black July: Remembering the 1983 Riots in Sri Lanka

"Shoot! I am telling you, shoot! Shoot and run!" Seelan was demanding that his childhood friend Aruna kill him and escape. Aruna saw tears in Seelan's eyes as Aruna pointed the gun and fired. This would be the catalyst for one of the most damaging periods in Sri Lankan history.

"Shoot! I am telling you, shoot! Shoot and run!" Seelan bellowed. Seelan was demanding that his childhood friend Aruna kill him and escape. Aruna saw tears in Seelan's eyes as Aruna pointed the gun and fired. Seelan collapsed dead.

A sudden death in the small village of Messalai in northern Sri Lanka would be the catalyst for what was to become one of the most damaging periods in Sri Lankan history. Seelan and Aruna were both Tamil Tiger cadres, and were being pursued by government forces when Seelan demanded that he be sacrificed. Seelan was one of Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran's closest friends.

This month marks the 28th anniversary of what became known as Black July. The riots of July 1983 in Sri Lanka would forever alter the course of ethnic tensions in the country, and would lead to the movement of Tamils out of Sri Lanka and into countries like Canada in increasingly dramatic numbers. The riots also marked a decisive shift in the course of ethnic politics in the country as non-violent approaches gave way to Tamil militancy.

When Prabhakaran received the news of Seelan's death, he went silent and plotted vengeance. A plan was hatched to ambush a military convoy on a narrow road in Tinneveli. On the night of July 23, a 15-man army patrol codenamed Four Four Bravo left camp and approached Tinneveli. Mines had been laid and the Tigers were putting the final touches on the detonators when the army patrol neared the site. As they drew nearer to the ambush, a heavy explosion sent the jeep flying into the air and the Tiger cadres opened fire, killing thirteen of the fifteen soldiers as they scrambled out of the truck.

Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene tried to keep the funeral for the dead soldiers from turning into a political demonstration. However, plans would not go smoothly. The arrival of the bodies from Jaffna to Colombo on July 24 was delayed by several hours, and the funeral had to be cancelled. In the meantime, a large group of people had gathered at the cemetery. As hours passed, the crowd grew more agitated. Around 10 p.m., violence erupted.

The rioting on this night continued for another week. Hundreds of Tamil and Indian businesses were burned, homes were destroyed, and many were beaten, shot, or burned alive in their houses or vehicles. Many women were raped or forced to exhibit themselves in front of heckling crowds of people. Perhaps the most infamous incident occurred at the Welikade maximum-security prison, about four miles north of Colombo. On the afternoon of July 25, Sinhalese prisoners gained entry into the wing of the prison holding Tamil political detainees and killed thirty-seven of them with knives and clubs while guards stood idly by.

Estimates of the number of people killed range from two hundred to two thousand, mostly Tamil. In addition to lives lost, the events of July 1983 also forced some 100,000 Tamils into refugee camps when their homes, vehicles, shops and belongings were destroyed. Around 30,000 people also became unemployed due to work sites being destroyed. A key element of many survivor stories is the random act of kindness provided by some in the Sinhalese community. As one Sinhalese individual recalled recently: "I was completely shattered for months (I was actually hospitalized of exhaustion) after running around transporting my friends and unknown Tamil-speaking families to safe places. We had nearly 15 people in our house."

Prior to Black July, many Tamils sympathized with the idea of separatism, but were wary of an armed struggle against the Sri Lankan government. Most militant movements in the early 1980s were small and fledgling organizations. In the early days, the Tamil Tigers were quite selective in their recruitment of cadres. A former LTTE cadre I spoke with in Toronto told me that at the time, the "LTTE was very careful in taking people. They didn't just take a bunch of people. They had studied the people, looked at their background.. they would give a person the run-around and then only take him in." After Black July, there was a marked increase in membership among all of the Tamil militant groups in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government's response to Black July was dismal. As A.J. Wilson has argued, "President Jayewardene was unequal to the task. At first he seemed numbed and unable to confront the crisis, but he then proceeded from blunder to blunder. He appeared on television on 26 July 1983 with the purpose of assuaging the fears and hysteria of the Sinhalese people, but he did not utter a word of regret to the large number of Tamils who had suffered from Sinhalese thuggery masked by nationalist zeal." What Wilson calls Jayewardene's "ultimate blunder," however, was the passing of the Sixth Amendment in August 1983. The Amendment outlawed support for a separate state within Sri Lanka, and required all Members of Parliament to take an oath of allegiance "to the unitary state of Sri Lanka."

The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), a separatist political party, refused to take the oath. As Asoka Bandarage points out, "The TULF was committed to separatism, but it was also the main opposition party in parliament and the only democratic political voice of the Tamils." Refusing to take the oath abjuring separatism, the TULF leadership left for Tamil Nadu. With the TULF gone, armed Tamil militant groups began to fill the vacuum. Over the next several decades, Sri Lanka would descend into a protracted civil war -- one of the bloodiest in recent memory.

The story of Black July also runs as an important thread through Tamil Canadian history. The Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) has done an admirable job in collecting some personal testimonies from survivors now living in Canada. Their website, Black July 83: Remembering Silenced Voices, was founded on the 25th anniversary of Black July in 2008. As one CTC member told me, "We wanted it to become an online Black July museum of sorts accumulating these testimonials over the years into the future. We knew these testimonials were an integral part of Tamil Canadian history as this incident triggered a large number of Tamils to flee to countries like Canada."

Most Tamils in Canada have a story to tell about Black July, from hiding in fear from Sinhalese mobs to stories of shelter provided by Sinhalese strangers they would never have the chance to thank. Almost three decades later, the memory of the Black July riots continues to serve as a reminder of Tamil grievances and a potent symbol for political mobilization.

Amarnath Amarasingam is completing his doctoral dissertation on Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism in Canada at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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