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30 Years Since Sri Lanka Race Attacks

30 Years Since Sri Lanka Race Attacks

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Published by: Thavam on Jul 25, 2013
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07/25/2013

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Jul-24-2013
The 1983 Black July pogromswere the beginning of a history of persecution and racistviolence for Sri Lanka's Tamils. Liam Brown reminds ourpoliticians why there are so many Tamil refugees.
(COLOMBO, Sri Lanka) - Todaymarks marks the 30thanniversary of a watershedmoment in Sri Lankan history: theBlack July pogrom againstmembers of the Tamil ethnicgroup. The pogrom claimed thelives of perhaps thousands of people, displaced thousands moreand marked a start to the civilwar that would consume thecountry for nearly 30 years.Black July and its origins areworth discussing, if for no other reason than the recent attacks on therights of asylum seekers and the prevailing perception that there is nopersecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka.The pogrom took place in July 1983, by ethnic majority Sinhalese. Itwas not a spontaneous outburst of violence, as is commonly thought.Rather, it was a well-planned, calculated attack upon the minoritygroup in an attempt to drive them from the island’s main populationareas. This was the finding of a
following the events.The Tamil minority on the island had been a marginalised group sincethe Sri Lankan independence. Contrary to accounts that claim a longhistorical difference between the two main ethnic groups on theisland, the repression and violence against Tamils is a modernphenomenon.At a time of growing Sinhalese nationalist sentiment, the Tamils wereviewed by many as unwanted and alien. Their language was givensecond-class status when Sinhalese was recognised as the officiallanguage on the island by the Sinhalese Only Act of 1958. Peaceful
 
protests against this marginalisation were put down with force by thegovernment and led to the first anti-Tamil riots in 1958.
Photo by Sangam.org
A growing Nationalist fervour that was taking hold amongst the nation’sSinhalese political elites, who merged Buddhism with nationalist ideology.Tamils were portrayed as invaders from the Indian subcontinent. Thisbecame a powerful tool for politicians to whip up anti-Tamil hysteriaamongst the growing urban poor.When small groups of Tamil separatists began to carry out armedoperations in the north to protect their communities against the military,the government stepped up raids into Tamil Jaffna and pushed the localTamil community to breaking point.The
, in Sri Lanka: The Holocaust andAfter, details how the pogrom began. A Tamil girl was gang raped by a SriLankan military unit in Jaffna on 20 July 1983. Tamil Tiger (LTTE)
 
insurgents ambushed the same unit three days later, killing 13 soldiers inretaliation. When two of these soldiers were to be buried the following day,word spread amongst Colombo’s Sinhalese community that the ambushhad taken place. This news brought large Sinhalese gangs to the streets.Beginning in Colombo and quickly spreading throughout the country therioters sought the destruction of the Tamil community. Tamils were singledout in the street, chased and beaten or killed. One Norwegian touristwitnessed a bus of 20 Tamil civilians doused in petrol and set alight.The riots showed clear signs of prior planning and governmentcollaboration. The rioters were organised in groups who sought out Tamilhouses for destruction and appeared to have a detailed knowledge of wholived where and who worked at what business. This is because they hadgotten hold of, or more likely were given, voter lists, and so were able toprecisely identify their Tamil targets.Some politicians conceded government involvement. Others had directlyincited racial hatred. Industry Minister Cyril Matthew had for yearspublished a series of racist books and pamphlets about Tamils, many of which were used in schools and distributed at government expense. Alongwith other cabinet ministers Matthew organised and coordinated gangsboth before and during the pogrom. The then President Jayewardene wasquoted in the New York Times as conceding that members of his party hadencouraged the violence, rapes and murder that took place.The police and military were mostly reluctant to intervene and in casesparticipated in the killing. The pogram was allowed to happen because of  “the active participation or passive encouragement of the ultimateguardians of law and order – the police and the army”, according toHistorian SJ Tambiah.These events, which are commemorated by Tamil communities in Australia,are not isolated instances that began and ended that week. The politicalcorruption and violent nationalism that lead to the pogrom continuestoday, even though the civil war proper has come to an end.Today, many Tamils continue to suffer. Human Rights Watch
earlier this year documenting the systematic use of rape againstTamil women in both official and secret prison camps. The abuse of civilians within the camps is
. The policy to forciblymove the internally displaced Tamils after the end of the war may actuallyviolate the genocide convention, according to an Australian spokesman forthe
. The purpose of the camps has been totransfer the Tamil population out of population areas and change theirethnic makeup.

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