No nation is perfect, and many have ugly chapters in their histories. Almost every Western European nation carries the stench of their colonial crimes, the Americas is filled with nations that committed genocide against the native peoples who occupied those lands and eventually enslaved many millions of Africans, and in Africa and Asia countless massacres and genocides have been committed by one group over the other for reasons ranging from race, religion and even caste. Yet amongst these many imperfect nations are those rare ones which have the ability to introspect, acknowledge and rectify their own shortcomings, unimaginable atrocities committed in its name.
Such nations usually can move past those historical wrongs, learn from them, and build nations that are resilient, peaceful and developed. Those nations that do not confront their past usually suffer the cyclic consequences of those historical crimes.
Sri Lanka unfortunately falls to the latter group. Be it the youth insurgencies of the South in 1971 and 1987-89 or the ethnic conflict from 1983 to 2009, Sri Lankan society has shown little interest to learn the lessons of these devastating conflicts. Even worse, successive governments have intentionally not allowed society to heal from these conflicts and intentionally perpetuated the divisions that resulted in these national tragedies for their own political agenda.
This week marks such a monumental tragedy and history defining crime for which not a single individual has been held accountable to this date. ‘Black July’ in 1983 witnessed the killing of 3,000 Tamil civilians by Sinhalese mobs while the Government of the day watched in silence and some segments of it actively participated in the pogrom. Over 150,000 Tamils were displaced and some 500,000 more forced to flee the country.
It is often cited that the 1983 anti-Tamil pogroms were triggered by the killing of 13 soldiers by the LTTE on 23 July 1983. However, while that might have been what lit the proverbial fuse, anti-Tamil violence and rhetoric had been building steadily, much of it through the State, in the preceding months. While there has never been an official investigation into these incidents there is ample proof that the violence was not spontaneously carried out by enraged, ordinary citizens but an orchestrated pogrom that in the very least had the tacit approval of powerful persons, including then president. Indeed, even as the riots were ongoing, President J.R. Jayewardene, in a speech, gave no sympathy to the affected minority, choosing to emphasise Sinhalese grievances instead.
And by the end, the events of Black July had set Sri Lanka on an inexorable path of war and destruction, one that would forever be etched in its history. A whole generation of youth lost their lives, the brightest of them left for foreign shores where they have thrived and the Sri Lankan economy that was performing at a remarkable level since 1978 slumped to its lowest ebb.
The ghosts of July 1983 will haunt Sri Lanka as long as they are not laid to rest through a comprehensive truth-seeking process that holds perpetrators accountable, acknowledges the harm caused by the State, offers reparations and makes commitments towards reconciliation and non-recurrence. Collectively as a people, Sri Lankans must face this shameful chapter in our history and strive to address those lingering ghosts that haunt us and attempt to build a more inclusive country for all our peoples.