This year will be the 30th anniversary of the heinous Black July incident that led to so much tragedy in Sri Lanka. It is frightening to read a lot of revisionist historians are trying to white wash the fact that this crime against humanity occurred during President JR Jayawardene’s regime where the UNP was indomitable and extremely powerful. It was not a spontaneous attack on innocent Tamils as some claim sparked by the ambush. While the attack by LTTE terrorists in the North against an Army patrol may have triggered some violent emotional reaction, it is clear that what happened for many days was a result of organized gangs and powerful union forces associated with the regime of the day.
I recall three incidents I can never erase from my memory
First, I was on the road after a late dinner with two friends and my cousin Kamal at the famous Park View Chinese hotel on July 23rd 1983. I was driving a friend’s car, a Mercedes Benz 180 with tinted glasses(there is a reason I am describing it). We had no clue about what had happened in the North. Going down Horton Place heading to Battaramulla to drop my cousin, close to Kanatta junction we saw people standing on the road and two mini-buses in flames. We pulled up and asked people what was going on. They said “demala minissu hoyanawa, mahattayaala balaagena yanna”. “They are looking for tamil people you better be careful. Nevertheless we proceeded and closer to Kanatta on the side where the crematorium is, we were stopped by a gang further up just as we were warned. Now I still remember my legs shaking and my foot on the clutch as we rolled down our windows. The thug said “This looks like a Tamil vehicle” and asked us our named. I proffered my Driver’s License and my good friend late Manjula Jayasinghe said “aiy apiwa nawaththanney?”(why are you stopping us) and one of the thugs said again “this looks like a tamil vehicle” because a lot of wealthy Tamils drove Benzes with tinted glasses.
For some reason I was more afraid than my friend Manjula. Then they asked us for a lighter and cigarettes. Manjula had both but said “no, we will not give you that” and told me not to be afraid. We were allowed to drive off. On the road close to the Parliament junction we could sense this was going to be an ugly night. After I dropped my cousin in Battaramulla we drove back through Narehenpita to see shops being attacked. It was the start of something far more evil that changed the course of Sri Lanka’s future,
The second incident that is still in my mind happened on the third day of street violence against innocent Tamils. My uncle the Late Monty Gopallawa was traveling on Torrington Road(Bullers road) leading up to Thimbirigasyaya road with his family and personal assistant. He was in a Mitsubishi Delica van which a lot of people said was a vehicle that was normally driven by tamil people. He was held up in a queue of vehicles being searched by a gang of thugs from the neighbourhood surrounding Jawatte. For some reason he panicked and asked his driver to ignore the thugs and drive off. A thug smashed the windshield and proceeded to attack the vehicle with the frightened family inside. Then someone in the gang had recognized Monty and he had also shouted that he Sinhalese and William Gopallawas son. Thankfully these murderous thugs “generously” let him proceed with his frightened and crying kids. Because the windshield was smashed and lights broken, my uncle(podi maama to me) drove to our house instead of proceeding to his own house in Nawala because he feared that he would be attacked again for traveling in a “Tamil looking” vehicle. So he came to our house and that is how I got to know what had happened. Two frightened crying little children and a totally shaken up family and his assistant who was driving had some cuts on him. After awhile, we put his van in our back yard hidden from the road and I along with a close friend of mine from Fife Road offered to take him and his family to his house. My father gave me his station wagon, and both cars proceeded down Kirula Road towards the Narehenpita/Labour Secretariat junction, when we were stopped by an organized gang right next to the Survey Department building. I remember seeing a thug with a silver coloured pistol. They were stopping all cars and searching for tamil people and also asking for petrol to burn . Fortunately for me, my father’s car was very low on petrol and possibly only had two gallons in it. My brave friend who was driving a Peugeot 404 had a full tank of Diesel and he stepped up and said “mey Ratwatte mahatayya gey kaar ekey petrol poddai thiyenne, oyata onenum magey waahaneng diesel adhinna”. You see friends they had organized thugs with cans and tubing to suck petrol out. My friend from the deep south knew very well that they will not take diesel but wanted to distract them and stop them from harassing me. One of the gang leaders said “diesel giniganna wela yanawa” (it will take too long to ignite) and let us through. While we were out of our vehicles I saw two diplomatic vehicles with the French Flag going through and these murderous thugs new better than to interfere with those vehicles. I could see frightened innocent people possibly Tamil staff members being whisked to safety. We were allowed to go without having to give them diesel or petrol. These were not spontaneous emotional Sinhalese people rioting over the ambush of 13 brave soldiers. These were murderous thugs from Shanty towns encouraged by their political lords and by the absence of any law and order, police or army presence on the streets who were hell bent on destroying Tamil businesses and killing innocent Tamils. Even an upper class English speaking Tamil gentleman married to a Sinhalese lady on Park Road with old school ties had his house destroyed and his business ravaged. The same great and brave friends the Jayasinghes from Fife Road had to protect some friends in their own neighborhood; it was again a family of a secular legendary LSSP Tamil doctor who was married to a Sinhalese with all kids studying in Sinhalese medium in Colombo. How could they be “Tigers”? By a twist of fate, we happened to be Sinhalese and got away simply because of that.
The third was seeing people riding around in blue Datsun/Nissan Pick up trucks from the Building Materials Corporation in the back singing as if they were going to a party heading into the Anderson Flats right opposite where we lived. Where were these JSS types going? Were these the people who reportedly had electoral lists and addresses of Tamils?
Please don’t make excuses for that murderous act or the aftermath. We can examine the causes of separatism and India’s vile role in fostering LTTE terrorism in Sri Lanka. However, the single vile murderous genocidal act that made the LTTE look like legitimate protectors of Tamil rights, and caused thousands of young men and women to join them and fight and also support them was this ugly murderous week of ethnic cleansing. The government of the day was responsible for that savage act and their failure to protect all Sri Lankan citizens is the singular reason for the spread of war and how the LTTE received so much sympathy overseas.
Lest someone gets defensive or tries to make this the fault of Buddhists please note that is not so and that is not my intent. I lived in India in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. Her assassination led to organized attacks on innocent Sikh civilians by Hindu political gangs. There too it was the work of political thugs; in that case, Congress I led Hindu murderous gangs who massacred over ten thousand innocent Sikhs in and around New Delhi and in Haryana. That ugly incident bore the hallmark of Congress I thugs and led to mass sympathy and recruits for the Khalistani terrorism movement which called for the secession of Punjab.
In both cases it led to prolonged war, tragedy and great economic costs both in Sri Lanka and India. A failure or refusal to acknowledge what happened is dangerous. Such vile incidents should never be allowed to happen. I shudder to think of it even today. It may make us feel better that this was not Rwanda when upper class elites sip Scotch and talk about “those Africans”, but we cannot simply ignore a salient fact; for a while there was savagery against innocents in Sri Lanka just like in Rwanda.
Those were organized attacks against innocent people who just happened to speak a different language than the other group. For one hellish week, Sri Lanka’s savagery was no different from the savagery of Hindu thugs attacking Sikhs or the Hindu RSS thugs attacking Muslims when the BABRI Mosque was destroyed on Dec 6, 1992. In its gory wake, 3,000 Muslim Indians were also slaughtered. These were the days of the continued rule of the Indian Congress just like the halcyon days of all powerful UNP rule in Sri Lanka. We should be ashamed that thugs and gangs were allowed to cause so much bloodshed while the government of the day remained paralyzed, fearful or deliberately indifferent; that to me was immoral.
A failure to stop identify ethnic or religious targeting can only lead to mayhem and war again. Chandrika Kumaratunge was the first President of Sri Lanka who acknowledged and apologized to all innocent Tamil people in Sri Lanka for that heinous Black July that forever should be lesson to everyone. NEVER should that sort of ugly violence against any group of people, of any faith be allowed to happen again in a nation that prides itself as being a Buddhist nation.
Imagine if the people inside that Mitsubishi Delica were Tamils and not my uncle and his family? They would have been burnt alive.