Black July: the War is Over, the Struggle for Justice Continues

By Pragash Pio

On July 23rd thousands from the Tamil community of Toronto gathered in pouring rain at Queens Park to remember the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka. In July of 1983 anti-Tamil Pogroms swept through the island of Sri Lanka killing thousands of Tamils while the Sri Lankan government stood idly by. The Black July riots, as they came to be known as, were the culmination of decades of growing persecution of the islands minority Tamil community by the majority Sinhalese community that controlled the Sri Lankan government. The riots stemmed from the denial of the Tamil communities’ rights to linguistic, cultural, and political freedoms.

Black July is especially poignant for the Toronto Tamil community because it was the event that sparked the mass exodus of Tamils from Sri Lanka to the West. The riots also marked the beginning of the Sri Lankan civil war and the ascendency of Tamil militant groups such as the Tamil Tigers. The violence was sparked off by an attack on Sri Lankan soldiers by Tamil militants, but the riots only managed to popularize Tamil militants such as the Tamil Tigers. The 27 year old civil war ended in 2009 with the complete destruction of the Tamil Tigers and deaths of thousands of Tamil civilians.

While the international community has begun to demand an investigation into to the deaths of thousands of Tamil civilians during the final months of the civil war, Black July is the reminder to the community that Tamil civilians were attacked in Sri Lanka since long before. Several speakers at an event put together by the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) and the Tamil Students Association (TSA) at University of Toronto recounted their own personal experiences of Black July.

Anton Philip, a speaker at the July 28 event, recounted surviving the massacre of Tamil political prisoners detained by Sri Lankan authorities during the riots. Mr Philip watched as a mob of Sinhalese prisoners were given access to the segregated cells of Tamil political prisoners while guards watched. Many of the Tamil prisoners had been detained under Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The internationally condemned PTA allowed Sri Lankan authorities to jail Tamils for up to 18 months without trial or due process. As the mob of Sinhalese prisoners came for Mr Anton Phillip’s cell, he and the other men in his cell had to break a table into pieces to defend themselves while guards stood by and did nothing. In total 53 Tamil political prisoners were massacred and mutilated during Black July.

Another survivor recounted her experience as a Tamil child in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka, during the Black July riots. The principal at her school let all the classes out early because of the rumors of possible violence. As a child she had been oblivious to the tense atmosphere before the riots, unaware anything was wrong until her Tamil neighbors grabbed her and hid her inside the house as mobs started roaming through their neighborhood. One of the most traumatic elements of the experience was  seeing the very neighbors, store clerks, bus drivers that she saw everyday and lived beside roving in mobs attacking Tamil houses and businesses. Through government collusion the mobs received voter lists for neighborhoods and were able to identify each Tamil home and business. As one of these mobs approached the house, the family had to jump a fence in the backyard into a Sinhalese neighbors house. She and a young Tamil boy had to hide in their neighbors closet for 3 hours. After which she had to stay in a Police station which had been turned into a temporary refugee camp for Tamils. She spoke on the striking realization that all the families hiding in the police station were Tamils. It took her another month to be reunited with her family who had all been dispersed in the chaos of the violence. The haunting part of her remembrance was the realization that the continuing violence targeting the Tamil community taught her at a young age the Sri Lankan state’s intent to drive the Tamil community from the island.

All these first hand accounts of the Tamil experience during the riots made me return to my own family’s experience of Black July. My father still carries the police report he submitted when our family’s home was burnt down and looted by mobs like other Tamil families. No one was ever apprehended for that attack against our family. This is the same for the thousands of other Tamil families that lost loved ones, homes, and their livelihoods from the violence. This impunity with which perpetrators can commit violence against the Tamil community haunts Sri Lanka even 2 years after the end of the civil war. Perpetrators of violence, even those accused of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes sit in seats of power in Sri Lanka while Tamils flee and rebuild their lives in places like Toronto.