SRI LANKA: Twenty Years Later, Wounds of Anti-Tamil Riots Fester
By Feizal Samath
COLOMBO, Jul 23, 2003 (IPS) - Twenty years after Sri Lanka's worst pogrom of minority Tamils, an event that shamed a nation while the world looked in horror, bitterness and pain among Tamils toward the majority Sinhalese has eased, but remains hard to forget.
"How can one forget (Tamils) being stripped in public or escaping frenzied mob violence?" Maheswary Velautham, a Tamil who was a fledging lawyer then and now a human rights campaigner, asked, although she says relations between the ethnic communities have since improved.
"We are still hurt by the violence that was unleashed on our community," she said, recalling how she jumped over a wall at her small apartment in downtown Colombo and hid in a neighbour's house, watching in fear and anger as Sinhalese mobs set fire to the apartment.
Jul. 23 marks an anniversary that most Sri Lankans want to forget - the 'Black Friday' riots in 1983 in which at least 600 Tamils were massacred by Sinhalese mobs and their properties destroyed.
"We lived amicably for many years until this violence occurred. I hope to God it won't happen again. That was like a curse on this country. We lost so much," said Kusumalatha Sewandy, a 45-year old Sinhalese selling lunch packets, shaking her head in disbelief.
The rampage was sparked, among others, by the killing by Tamil Tigers rebels of 13 soldiers in the northern city of Jaffna.
The pogrom fed the expansion of Tamil militancy and the ranks of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Afterwards, thousands of Tamils fled the country and professionals from all ethnic communities scampered overseas. According to the World Bank, 65,000 people have been killed and 800,000 internally displaced while another 700,000 have left the country since 1983.
Over the decades, more than 600 billion rupees (about 6 billion U.S. dollars) has been spent on campaigns to quell the Tamil rebellion for their own homeland, economists estimate. Looking back, Professor S S Colombage, an economist, believes that if not for the war, Sri Lanka's growth rates would have been 7 to 8 percent, or about double what it has been in the last two decades. Income per capita, he estimated would have reached 2,000 dollars by now, instead of 870.
But the social wounds are as deep, if not deeper, than the economic costs of the war. Calls for public healing have also been coming.
On Tuesday, a Sri Lankan women's group from the Sinhalese community, known as the Mothers and Daughters of Lanka, publicly apologised to Tamils and said a horror like the 1983 riots should never occur again.
"We recall with deep regret and remorse the tragic events of July 1983 in which thousands of Tamil women, men and children lost their lives and homes due to politicised and organised ethnic violence," movement coordinator Thushari Madahapola said in a statement
Today, two decades after the riots and while the peace process between the Tigers and the government holds, some Tamil academics and media want the ruling United National Party (UNP) government to tender a public apology to the Tamils. The same party was in power in 1983, when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was a junior minister.
"It takes a lot of courage to make an apology but such a public statement would go a long way to heal the wounds of the Tamil community," Kethesh Loganathan, a director at the private think-tank Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), said in an interview.
In an editorial, the 'Sunday Leader' newspaper urged the government and Tamil rebels to resume peace talks that were suspended in April. "What better place to start than for the government on behalf of us all, formally apologise to our Tamil brethren for the events of July 1983?"
The government and LTTE differ over the creation of an interim administration in the war-torn north-east. The rebels want control over finance and use of foreign aid and the latest power-sharing proposals were published last week.
Only now are attempts at accountability coming out in official inquiries. In a strongly worded report released last week, the Truth Commission said the government of then President Junius Jayewardene was ''guilty of gross negligence in failing to appeal to the people for restraint, peace, calm on Jul. 25-26 and the evening of Jul. 23".
"There were witnesses who testified that this was due to the complicity of a section of the government in 'teaching the Tamils' a lesson for terrorism in the north," it added, noting that the not a single Cabinet minister appealed for a halt to the carnage at the time.
Both Loganathan and Velautham believe the gulf between Sinhalese and Tamils has narrowed over the years. But they also agree that the gap among the political parties to the conflict - the government, opposition parties and the LTTE - is widening. "All sides view each other with suspicion," said Velautham. "That's the problem. There is no sincerity, no common ground."
Loganathan says unless the two main Sinhalese-dominated parties - UNP and the People's Alliance - agree on a unified stand on the peace process, any solution thrashed out by one party with the LTTE is unlikely to succeed.
Then there are the old hurts. Velautham, secretary of the Forum for Human Dignity, says Tamils still face discrimination in state institutions. She cited a recent case of a specialist doctor whose promotion was withheld in a hospital purely because he is a Tamil, forcing him to go to the courts.
"People and society are by and large friendly but if there is another war, ordinary Tamils will be treated by the state and security forces as if they have links with the Tigers,'' Velautham added.
At the same time, the Tamil Tigers have been killing their political opponents and even those who have given up politics. "No one cares about freedom and dignity, not even the international community who is turning a blind eye to the behaviour of the Tigers,'' she argued.
Loganathan says that while hardline Sinhalese political parties were initially blamed for attacking the peace process, now the UNP and PA, as well as the Tigers, are seen as spoilers of the process.
"Look at the way the government has handled the peace process, talking to the LTTE while ignoring other Tamil parties and opposition parties. The LTTE is wiping out at will its opponents,'' he said. ''The Norwegian mediators can't get the talks back on track while their peace monitors are unable to bring the rebels to book for numerous ceasefire violations.''
The ceasefire, he added, is being sorely tested. Said Loganathan: "Last year if you asked me about the ceasefire, I would have said it would last for at least six to 12 months. Now I'm reluctant to make any guesses." (END/IPS/AP/IP/HR/CR/FS/JS/03)