07/23/2010, 00.00
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Remembering “Black July” to encourage Sri Lankan reconciliation

by Melani Manel Perera
In July 1983, Sinhalese killed up to 3,000 Tamil civilians and destroyed 18,000 houses. Today Catholic communities and NGOs remember the 27th anniversary of the tragic event. The head of a law association said that Black July should be “an opportunity for genuine national reconciliation”, but for a Catholic priest, all Sinhalese fanatics want “is to control Tamil areas”.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – Catholic communities and NGOs are marking today the 27th anniversary of the Black July riots that left thousands of Tamil civilians dead at the hands of ethnic Sinhalese on 23 July 1983. Remembrance ceremonies are being held in the hope that reconciliation might come to the people of Sri Lanka.

After Tamil Tiger fighters ambushed and killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers on that tragic day, 27 years ago, ethnic Sinhalese attacked ethnic Tamils. Up to 3,000 Tamils are thought to have died in the violence, 18,000 Tamil homes and 5,000 shops were destroyed, whilst more than 100,000 Tamils fled to India, setting off a civil war that ended only last year with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers.

“Eyewitnesses and victims reported that on the streets cars were stopped by gangs and the people inside were asked whether they were Sinhalese or Tamil,” wrote Patricia Hyndman, senior lecturer in Law at the University of New South Wales, in Democracy in peril : Sri Lanka : a country in crisis : report to the LAWASIA Human Rights Standing Committee (1985).

“Some Sinhalese words are extremely difficult for people who do not speak the language fluently to pronounce,” she explained. Hence, “people were tested by being made to pronounce these words. The mobs were also demanding to see identity cards to establish whether or not people were Tamils . . . . People identified as Tamils as a result of the questioning were told to get out of their cars and their cars were set alight . . . . In cases where any resistance was offered, killings were likely to take place.”

AsiaNews has spoken to people, including ordinary people as well as Sinhalese Buddhist monks, who are involved in Colombo in activities designed to encourage national reconciliation.

“Tragic events like those of Black July can be an opportunity for genuine national reconciliation,” said Rukshan Fernando, head of the Lawyers and Society Trust. “Sadly, Sri Lankan society seems far from” that goal. “Not only July but every month of the year continues to be black for thousands of people who have had family members killed, missing or detained without charges . . . . Instead of recognising wrongs, the authorities seem eager to deny and cover them up.”

Fr Sarath Iddamalgoda, a human rights activist, has also not seen any steps towards reconciliation. “Black July was one of the greatest mistakes committed by Sinhalese fanatics,” he said. “Even now, that the war is over, Sinhalese leaders do not seem interested in power sharing. What they want is to control Tamil areas. Genuine reconciliation will only occur by seeking a shared political solution.”

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