Never Again | Daily News

Never Again

Exactly 35 years ago this day, Sri Lanka sank to the lowest depths possible with the sordid events of Black July, which is widely regarded as a pogrom aimed at the Tamil community. It was seemingly precipitated by the killing of 13 soldiers in the North, although there were other machinations at play to target innocent Tamils living in Colombo and elsewhere as a reprehensible act of “vengeance”. While the violence was apparently orchestrated by street mobs armed with clubs and machetes, there was an unseen hand behind them.

The events that occurred from July 23 to 30 would mark a turning point in the escalation of the conflict in the North and the East. It would last for the next 30 years in varying degrees of intensity. Yes, the ambush of soldiers in the North was an act of terrorism but there was no excuse or justification whatsoever for killing and maiming innocent Tamil civilians in revenge. “Black July” as these attacks were collectively called, also tarnished Sri Lanka’s reputation almost beyond repair and led to international condemnation and isolation.

How did Sri Lanka get to Black July? When Ceylon, later to be known as Sri Lanka, gained independence from Britain in 1948, it was one of the most prosperous countries in Asia, with the possible exception of Japan which itself was devastated by the Second World War. However, our power hungry politicians in the North and the South worked quickly to lose this advantage through their communal rabble rousing. They created mistrust and divisions among Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities, ending centuries of friendship and trust. They built ethnicity-centred schools that kept the children of various communities apart. They derided the “other” community in public in the hope of igniting ethnic passions in the voters’ minds to ensure their election and survival. Power-hungry and opportunistic politicians on both sides sabotaged every attempt that strove to bring all communities on an equal footing. Compromise was anathema to these politicians.

Above all, they alienated the country’s youth in both the North and the South, denying opportunities in a variety of sectors. Although Governments did have lofty aims on development, they neglected to take the youth factor into account. It would be easy to think of the LTTE as the country’s first insurgent group, but that dubious honour goes to the JVP, which instigated a rebellion that exploited youth frustrations in 1971. Although it was crushed, there was a lingering feeling among youth in the North and the South that the Government was alienating them. Certain politicians added fuel to this fire to meet their own ends. This seeded the youth militant movements in the North from around 1972. Their first victim was eminent lawyer and Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah who was gunned down, incidentally on July 27, 1975. The killing was the work of the Tamil new Tigers, which later became the LTTE. The rest, as they say, is history but the events of July 1983 took the conflict on an even more dangerous course with disastrous consequences for all Sri Lankans.

Regrettably, we may not have learned the proper lessons from the events of Black July and even the massive conflict that followed. Nine years after the war ended in the North, most of us cannot still get rid of the ethnic mindset. Unfortunately, there are extremist politicians on both sides who try their best to rekindle these feelings to gain an electoral advantage, which is all that matters to them. Be it in the North or the South, their only strategy is portraying the other community as the ‘enemy’. The resultant strife is their only salvation. They simply cannot survive without the oxygen of ethnic conflict.

But survive we must – as a great nation that eschews such communal, religious and other man-made divisions. To the credit of the present rulers, they have made great strides in terms of achieving reconciliation and lasting peace. Unlike the previous regime which only paid lip service to the concept of reconciliation, this Government has actually implemented most recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Contrary to the views expressed by certain military-minded individuals allied with the Joint Opposition, ethnic harmony and national security are not incompatible. In fact, national security will be strengthened through ethnic harmony and peace. But the Government alone cannot establish ethnic harmony. Each of us – and all of us – must reject the politics of communalism and hatred and restore our faith in the oneness of humanity.

The biggest lesson of Black July is that we urgently need to work towards crafting a truly Sri Lankan identity that has no place for ethnic division. Regardless of whether we are Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher we must think and act as Sri Lankans. Many multi-ethnic countries such as Singapore have achieved this feat and there is no reason why we cannot. It is a feeling that has to come from the heart – not from the ink of the passport or the NIC. Unity in diversity will bring us peace and victory. 


 

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