Sri Lanka seeks to leave behind horrors of Black July 1983 but Tamil community still struggles to get their legitimate rights
Even as the Sri Lankan Parliament works on constitutional reforms, the state administration has been struggling to meet the needs of Tamil refugees returning to their homeland after decades.
Maharagama, Sri Lanka: Black July 1983. It was a dreadful month which witnessed the most brutal anti-Tamil pogrom Sri Lanka ever experienced. But there were heroes in the midst of violence. Like the head priest of a Buddhist temple in Campbell Place, Dehiwala, just a few kilometres from Colombo. And Kadeeja Umma and her family, in Kandy. The Buddhist monk twice drove away Sinhala mobs who came for the Tamil community. He could not prevent them from torching a few houses, however.
Among the Tamils living in the area was a 19-year-old MA Sumanthiran and his family. Realising their lives were in danger, Sumanthiran’s boss, a Sinhalese government official, gave them shelter. Then came a harrowing four-day boat journey to Jaffna, recalls Sumanthiran, without adequate food or water, along with hundreds of other Tamil families fleeing the Sinhala mobs. The young man survived the 27-year bloody guerrilla war that followed, going on to become a legislator in the Sri Lankan parliament. A Tamil National Alliance MP, Sumanthiran today represents Jaffna district.
Kadeeja Umma’s family was sheltering a Tamil family of four when Sinhala mobs killed and burned down homes of Tamil residents. Living in a Muslim majority community, the Tamil family had nowhere to go. Kadeeja, 19 at the time, recalls how her family sheltered the Tamil family for days until they were able to get to safety with the help of law enforcement authorities.
“I remember how scared the family was,” she recalls. Kadeeja was reminded of this incident again 35 years later in March when Sinhala extremists ran riot in Muslim areas in Digana, in central highlands of Sri Lanka, torching their homes. Kadeeja, like many others, thought back to what she saw 35 years ago. The Tamil family had found shelter in the very same house Kadeeja was living in now, but she had none to seek shelter from. Instead, they all ran into the neighbouring jungle till law enforcement authorities took control of the situation three days later.
“We are the generation born after July 1983, literally into a full-blown war,” said young activist and researcher Nayanthini Kadirgamar. More reconciliation efforts are needed to bridge the gap between the country’s community, she says. “We don’t have direct experience of the riots but have felt deeply the impact of a polarised and fearful community our whole lives. We heard the same fear being expressed by the Muslim community after the recent riots in Ampara and Digan. A fear felt while doing the most routine things, like sending their children to school or attending the mosque for prayer. Addressing this fear is important.”
“The country has learnt nothing from the violence of 1983,” echoed Marisa de Silva, a human rights activist. “Black July was a gruesome state-sponsored pogrom against the Tamil community, and even today we continue to be polarised, and continue to be manipulated by the politicians who take pride in pitting the majority community against one or the other minority community.” Kadirgamar agrees with Desilva, adding that “as an activist working with women and other social groups in the East, North and South, it has been a challenge and also an opportunity. In instances where rationality has not worked to burst myths and deep prejudices held against other communities, confronting the fear of the 'other' head on and to understand it and find ways to work together has helped. But we have a long way to go."
But National Integration, Reconciliation and Official Languages Minister Mano Ganesan insists “the country has come a long way despite shortcomings”. A victim of '83 violence himself, the minister takes solace in the absence of outright conflict. “Yes, problems are still there, but we don’t have a conflict now,” he says admitting the need to find a solution.
And today, after almost 70 years of struggle for their rights there is a “golden opportunity towards that goal”, feels Sumintharan. “In the past, be it ‘56, ‘77, or ’81, whenever the Tamil community spoke of power-sharing there was a pushback similar to ’83 although not in the same scale. Later political parties could never bring about a solution as there was always opposition. But today, with both major political parties in the government, there is a window of opportunity to find a lasting political solution through constitutional reforms,” he says. But Sumanthiran warns that time is running out and reforms need to happen soon.
But even as Parliament works on constitutional reforms, the state administration has been struggling to meet the needs of Tamil refugees returning to their homeland after decades. Many Tamil families had moved to the north after July 1983 and later when war broke out those who could left the country as refugees. India hosted close to 500,000 refugees. Since the end of the war in 2009, these refugee families have been returning to Sri Lanka but are struggling to re-integrate into the present society.
With little help from the administration, these families face problems with housing and documentation needed to get restarted in Sri Lanka, says Raga Alphonsus a Programme Advisor for Non-Governmental Organization ZOA. “The North already has a housing problem. But the returnees, with no family here and no land ownership, are worst off, missing out on state assistance under housing beneficiary programmes,” explains Alphonsus. Also, it takes months for these people to get their documentation attested and accepted in Sri Lanka. “Children born in India can’t get their birth registered, and without birth certificates they cannot get a national Identity Card, without this they cannot do anything. The government charges a penalty of 25,000 Lankan Rupees for late registration of births, which the returnees don’t have," Alphonsus points out.
Without basic documents, many returnees struggle to find decent work. Some who worked in skilled jobs in India as lab assistants, nurses and clerks remain unemployed as their qualifications are not recognised in Sri Lanka. Their plight is made worse by the economic hardships the north and eastern provinces have been thrown into. Despite many efforts, the government has failed to generate jobs for the youth and need-based borrowing has caused, as Alphonsus says, “On top of the war-trauma, now these communities have a debt trauma.”
Minister Ganesan admits there are problems in the government’s efforts to facilitate the reintegration process causing frustration in the post-war societies in North and East.
“We are aware of the situation and action is being taken,” Ganesan assures.
Chathuri Dissanayake is a Sri Lanka-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a network of grassroots reporters.
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