Sri Lanka: Black July After Four Decades

That good relations with India must be a cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is a reality that cannot be ignored.

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[File Photo]

The 40th anniversary of Black July which fell last week (July 23) was marked by some articles, telecasts etc. but relatively few reported commemorative events. The J.R. Jayewardene government of the day chose to turn a blind eye to the horrors perpetrated that resulted in some of the best and the brightest of this country permanently emigrating. In addition, Sri Lanka’s image was blackened globally and the scars of what happened remain to haunt this country to the present day.

Apologists claim that the terrible violence of July 23 and the days that followed was provoked by the terrorism of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and like-minded organizations later annihilated by the Tigers. Undoubtedly terrorist events in the North that left dozens of policemen lynched on lamp posts and troops blown to bits in landmine ambushes provoked widespread resentment in the South. Comments in Colombo Tamil society of “our boys” giving it back to an undefined but clearly identifiable “them” certainly fueled the flames. But whatever the provocation, it was the obligation of the country’s president and his government to protect its citizen from the violence inflicted. History will judge, if it has not already done so, President J.R. Jayewardene, elected six years earlier with an unprecedented mandate, for this colossal failure.

There have been allegations that the president himself had given the nod to a senior minister in his government who made no secret of his anti-Tamil tendencies, to give that community “a knock.” But the situation went horribly out of control and that knock blew up into a pogrom, holocaust or what have you. Urged to call out the military soon after the violence began, there were reports that the commander-in-chief dragged his feet fearing that his orders may not be obeyed. In his first address to the nation after the horror was unleashed, the president focused on the immediate event that triggered the violence and did not offer a word of sympathy to the victims. However that be, the fact was that July 1983 became a landmark that tarnished Sri Lanka’s image globally, created a Tamil diaspora that funded the LTTE either willingly or through extortion, won support for the separatist cause and gave impetus to a civil war that dragged on for nearly three decades.

There is no need to labour the facts of what it cost this nation, on both sides of the lines, in terms of lives lost and treasure. A small island like ours with a population of around 22 million today has a military that is nearly 350,000 strong in the three armed services. Before the war we had a mere internal security force of a few thousand. Although we have not had any conscription in our contemporary history, the needs of the civil war made our forces grow, according to an internet report, to the 18th largest military force in the world. However that be, since the war ended there have been perhaps perfunctory efforts to downsize the military but budgeted defence expenses have been going up annually.

The upshot of the civil war, as Rajan Philips has noted in his regular column on this page, was Indian military involvement in Sri Lanka. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed here in terms of the Indo – Lanka Agreement of July 1987 signed by President J.R. Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The IPKF was here for 32 months but failed to disarm the LTTE which it relentlessly battled losing 1,165 soldiers for whom a memorial stands close to Colombo. The fatalities on the Indian side was higher than the number of troops India had lost in two wars with Pakistan. Tragically, India which had trained and based LTTE fighters in its territory during the course of the conflict had to pay the price of losing Rajiv Gandhi who had by then ceased to be the prime minister but was campaigning to return to office when an LTTE suicide bomber took his life.

This newspaper scooped the correspondence exchanged between President Premadasa who succeeded Jayewardene regarding the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka. While Premadasa armed the LTTE to fight the IPKF and the Tamil National Army which fought alongside it, he failed to secure its withdrawal during Prime Minister Gandhi’s tenure. The withdrawal was concluded when V.P. Singh became the prime minister of India after Gandhi’s electoral defeat. We published the first part of this exchange of letters the previous Sunday and conclude it today.

That good relations with India must be a cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is a reality that cannot be ignored. India proved to be very much a friend in need during the worst economic crisis faced by this country which had to declare bankruptcy earlier last year. Indian economic assistance and investments continue to flow in. While being grateful for the benefits accruing, we must grasp the reality that there’s no free lunch in this world.

Manik De Silva

Manik De Silva is the Editor of Sunday Island, a Colombo based weekly published by Upali Newspapers Ltd.

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