Forty years On: Denial, Remembrance, Resistance and Hope

By Savitri Hensman

The horrific events of July 1983, when a wave of state organized arson and murder against Tamils left many dead, displaced or traumatized, shocked people in Sri Lanka and internationally. Many people who lived through those times are still affected; the resulting instability and violence took a heavy toll across the island as norms of decency were undermined, ways of achieving change by democratic means closed off and bonds of trust systematically fractured.

There was widespread astonishment as well as dismay at the time. Though anti-minority discrimination was common, along with occasional brutality against ordinary people of all communities by politically connected thugs, the police and others meant to safeguard law and order, organized violence so blatant and on this scale took most people aback. Yet what happened did not come out of the blue; previous events paved the way. And as human rights abuses persist and many lose hope, while others are manipulated into hating or despising their neighbours, there is a risk of yet another downward spiral if the warning signs are not heeded. In the immediate term, needless suffering is being inflicted, values of compassion and justice in public life eroded and potential skills and capabilities wasted.

The world has changed considerably over the past four decades and the past is never repeated in precisely the same form. Yet there is an alarming overlap between the conditions then and now which, even more alarmingly, many in positions of responsibility and influence ignore.

In the run up to the grim events 40 years ago, minorities were facing frequent discrimination in society, encouraged by political and religious leaders and harassment and violence by the police or security forces. Drastic laws, supposedly aimed at reducing terrorism, increased it, as youth were alienated. Authoritarianism within minority communities as well as among Sinhalese Buddhists grew. Some overseas governments and international bodies promoted or overlooked human rights abuses to benefit their own elites and strategic interests. Economic “reforms” harmed the poor, including starkly increasing levels of hunger. Trade unions were undermined, dissidents physically attacked. Democracy was overridden and an election “postponed”. When the state allows discontent to simmer on various fronts, blocks channels for seeking peaceful change and fosters division or allows its associates to do so, there are grave dangers.

The misuse of cultural heritage and religion, in particular a violent distortion of Sinhala Buddhism, which is completely at odds with the Buddha’s teaching, has not gone away. Although President Ranil Wickremesinghe is no longer ideologically aligned to champions of such destructive fanaticism, an inflammatory spreader of hate speech such as Sarath Weerasekara can be appointed as Chairman of the Oversight Committee on National Security. To add to the mix, some in India’s far right ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that in its violent pursuit of power has similarly distorted what is best in Hinduism, are attempting to win support among Tamils. For now, it may be in the interests of both the Sri Lankan and Indian governments to keep a rein on any forces which might get in the way of profits for their business associates. But if matters go downhill, the possibilities are frightening.

The July 1983 pogrom and its aftermath were, and are, not simply a national problem. Then and now, governments, organisations and individuals overseas played a part, for good or ill, and in turn were affected as things unravelled. Yet at times those in Sri Lanka who stood firm against the inhumanity and destructiveness around them contributed to human rights globally. Learning from history and taking prompt action can make a difference, nationally and internationally.

July 1983 in context

Sometimes what happened that July is portrayed as a matter of straightforward communal violence, leading to decades of conflict especially affecting Tamils and Muslims and laying the foundations for ongoing treatment as, at best, second class citizens. The impact of the decades-long civil war and plight of ethnic and religious minorities has been, in certain ways, unique. The refusal to investigate properly the most extreme acts or at least answer questions asked by the families of victims or to guarantee safety and treat people equally even now, has deepened the hurt.

Yet violence within communities has taken a heavy toll too, even more so because it is harder to talk about and less often acknowledged in the media and beyond. The discovery of mass graves across so much of the island is a grim reminder of shared suffering and the dangers of militarism and lack of accountability. The murder in 1975 of Jaffna’s mayor, Alfred  Duraiappah, by fellow Tamils who would go on to build the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) into a formidably violent movement after he had been labelled a traitor, prefigured a type of politics which would wreak great physical and psychological damage. After July 1983’s events and ministers’ callousness to survivors, some of the resulting fear, anger and sense of loss would be channelled against fellow Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese civilians, not just an oppressive state. And attempts to recruit fighters and raise funds would take unethical forms, causing problems in other countries too. Southern rebels too would target non-combatants. When governments set an example of no holds barred dealings with the defenceless, the risks are huge.

And the backdrop of harm inflicted on the bodies and minds of so many people who are poor, women, children, disabled people and those marginalized because of caste, sexual orientation or gender identity (some of whom face racial or religious victimization too) has helped to desensitize Sri Lankans and people internationally to the dangers of hatred or indifference, as well as often being stoked by the same leaders who have promoted communal prejudice for their own ends.

Similarly the interconnectedness of the erosion of economic, civil and social rights in the run up to July 1983, with the tacit or active support of some in the international community, is often forgotten. Yet the adoption of strong arm tactics by the government was seen by some overseas allies as acceptable if it was seeking to push policies of “liberalization” that were seen as desirable by many in the West. These included cuts to welfare, supposedly targeting this to people in greatest need. There was a shift away from food subsidies and price controls. At that time, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund deemed this wise.

Supposedly the economy was prospering; yet as inflation rose and wages fell in real terms, harsh suffering was inflicted on the worst off. Research indicates that the percentage of individuals getting less than 1,600 calories per day rose from 7.0% to 10.2% (a rise of 45%) and acute wasting among children grew. The percentage of current expenditure on health and education fell. Overseas assistance played a part in the drastic military tactics used against Tamils, then turned against fellow Sinhalese by the notorious Special Task Force, among others, when the regime was somehow regarded as pursuing responsible policies. Different alignments of power internationally are at work now, yet the wellbeing of ordinary Sri Lankans is still sometimes sidelined by those pursuing now discredited economic dogma or trade deals.

How history was taught and understood was also a feature of the build-up to 1983’s grim events which is not perhaps addressed enough today. Sinhalese school children were increasingly led to believe that a battle between two kings over two millennia ago, in which Dutugemunu, who was Sinhalese, killed Elara, who was Tamil, was the defining moment in the nation’s history, which reflects an ongoing need boldly to repel or contain alien invaders in ways that might justify total war. In reality it was a probable example of an ancient code of chivalry even amidst conflict and just one incident in a South Asian and wider landscape of migration, trading, alliance, intermarriage and rivalry, sometimes violent, after which peace was re-established, which led to the cultural richness of today. Being able to question dominant narratives about the past and embrace complexity is a skill that is not taught enough.

At the same time as recalling the sorrows and failings of the past, it is worth remembering those at the time who refused to be either embittered or intimidated into submission, even if sometimes they had to be discreet. They included protestors who held firm to dreams of a more just land for all, people of faith who refused to accept its distortions, majority community members who did not swallow vicious anti-minority rhetoric and minorities who kept insisting that they had as much right to live with dignity as anyone else in the country. There were also people outside Sri Lanka who went to great lengths to care for refugees, comfort survivors or support Sri Lankans calling for human rights for all. What happened in July 1983 and subsequently was appalling, yet without the many acts of humanity across communal barriers and resistance to treating injustice and violence as normal, things would have been even worse.

Facing the past to build a better future

Many Sri Lankans in recent years have expressed a wish to address what has happened in the past and the aragalaya, along with other developments, created openings. Yet barriers remain.

Unsurprisingly self-interest, in terms of clinging to excess wealth and/or power, may motivate the few in whose interests Sri Lanka is run. If others can be distracted or divided, their own rule can be prolonged. Some, perhaps, might genuinely find it difficult to understand the sorrows and hopes of others who are not as privileged.

Among those not as comfortably placed, a number might see it as irrelevant. Others might perhaps shy away from all or part of what happened that July and subsequently because of suppressed grief, shame or guilt or engage in selective remembering, so as not to imperil their bonds with relatives or neighbours or own self-esteem or reputation. Yet accountability is not about punishing everyone who erred; many were manipulated into a temporary loss of their moral compass or took up arms in good faith, believing they were defending their community or nation. But trying to make sure that those in charge of major human rights abuses over the past 40 years, and are unrepentant, cannot harm anyone else is a minimum. Without confronting the past and human cost, healing is difficult, maybe impossible. This may also mean confronting the prejudices which deem some lives as worth less than others.

In addition, some may perceive injustices against their own community or people they see as important as the only ones worth noting. Understanding others’ plight can be genuinely challenging. Yet the lessons of 40 years ago and the decades that followed, surely underline the vital importance of solidarity, mutual listening and care, which can open the door to a better future.

In a world fraught with mistrust, hatred and indifference and in which human rights violations are widespread, as well as where international relationships are sometimes volatile with the potential for destruction on a major scale, this would make a real difference. In 1983, many looked on with shock and concern. In contrast, despite the reluctance of those in charge, perhaps ordinary Sri Lankans, with support of friends across all nations, can find a way forward which encourages others committed to compassion and justice.

– Savitri Hensman is an activist and writer based in the United Kingdom and this article was originally featured on



Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.

otc high blood pressure treatment blood pressure guidelines medications blood pressure pills that is safe for the liver high blood pressure medication levothyroxine blood pressure medication that reduces blood pressure is there any difference in blood pressure pills high blood pressure child medication blood pressure medication recommendation nose blue blood pressure medication blood pressure is 150 68 should i take my medication blood pressure medication while nursing taking a bunch of high blood pressure pills aerobic exercise and blood pressure medication good blood pressure medication acupuncture treatment for low blood pressure best over the counter pills for high blood pressure blood pressure pill amlodipine besylate high blood pressure signs and treatment moderna vaccine blood pressure medication which blood pressure drugs do not cause tinnitus blood pressure medication fights cancer blood pressure medication skin rash side effects of high blood pressure medication impotence medication to avoid on blood pressure medications high blood pressure rx medication peripheral neuropathy caused by blood pressure medication high blood pressure in pregnancy treatment nice runny nose do to blood pressure medication how to get off of blood pressure pills hiv medication and high blood pressure niacin treatment for high blood pressure two drugs for blood pressure that caused cancer high blood pressure causing medications high blood pressure medication names canada blood pressure medication side effects alcohol i take 3 blood pressure medication blood pressure pills that help with anxiety what iv drug raises blood pressure list of doctors who formulated blood pressure medications how to remember blood pressure medications sleeping pills blood pressure how fast does blood pressure medication take effect sweet n low high blood pressure medication home treatment for blood pressure high blood pressure medication matrocet high blood pressure medication doses blood pressure drug bystolic iberstaron blood pressure medication blood pressure medications st alphabetical celexa and high blood pressure medication does blood pressure pills irritation skin can i take combivent with high blood pressure medication blood pressure medications beta blockers list what to do if blood pressure medication does not work drugs to lower your blood pressure red beet pills for blood pressure taurine and blood pressure medications how ling for garlic pills to lower blood pressure blood pressure medication list and side effects can i take aspirin with high blood pressure medication blood pressure medication teaching about hot tubs water pills high blood pressure over counter what is an arb medication for blood pressure resveratrol high blood pressure medication high blood pressure medication and weight loss gum disease and blood pressure medication benzenesulfonic acid in blood pressure medication taking two blood pressure pills by mistake allergy pills for high blood pressure blood pressure prescription drugs safety blood pressure medication in pregnancy trazodone and blood pressure medication which blood pressure medication is linked to skin cancer list of blood pressure medications with the least side effects could blood pressure medication make blood thicker disadvantages of high blood pressure medication blood pressure medications ludipril typical drugs for high blood pressure otc water pills for high blood pressure blood pressure medications that do not doncause bowel blockage high blood pressure after corrosion treatment how soon does high blood pressure medication work blood pressure medication teaching amertyrine high blood pressure medication increased blood pressure and heart rate after drug overdose over the counter drugs high blood pressure blood pressure medication 25 is blood pressure medication a nitrate most effective blood pressure pills blood pressure medical does red yeast rice interfere with high blood pressure medication can apple cider vinegar pills lower blood pressure does blood pressure medication give you headaches high blood pressure medication and driving should you take blood pressure pills with food inn blood pressure drugs can you eat bananas if taking blood pressure medication popular high blood pressure medication blood pressure medication los blood pressure medication second drug low blood pressure and hypertension medication do water pills lower blood pressure high blood pressure pill aqunadine high blood pressure cholesterol medication how does medication lower blood pressure acetaminophen blood pressure medication blood pressure medication 30 mg that works around the heart what does grapefruit do to blood pressure medication can red yeast rice be taken with blood pressure medication pharmaceutical treatment for high blood pressure are blood pressure pills statins blood pressure pills that start with r blood pressure medication and male impotence taking baby aspirin with other high blood pressure medications what is the medical name for a blood pressure cuff leg cramps and blood pressure medication blood pressure pill name starts with p natural high blood pressure treatments blood pressure medication names losartan higher blood pressure with radiation treatment medical marijauna high blood pressure how to avoid medication for high blood pressure what time is best to take blood pressure medication medication for palpitations and high blood pressure latest news on blood pressure treatment what if i take two blood pressure pills does xanax interfere with blood pressure medication amlipan blood pressure medication vitamin e and blood pressure medication tell me the side effects of high blood pressure medication herbs pills to lower blood pressure blood pressure medication urge to urinate what medication will safely replace lisop as blood pressure medicine active ingredient in high blood pressure medication blood pressure medications cause adrenal tumors is biktarvy ok to take with high blood pressure medication alembic blood pressure medication sandoz blood pressure medication exercise high blood pressure medication grapefruit pills blood pressure treatment for high blood pressure at home blood pressure medication for patients with osa cycle on off blood pressure medication blood pressure drugs that do not cause heat sensitivity blood pressure medications that do not cause coughing what blood pressure medications do not cause rosacea pfizer blood pressure medication side effects do garlic pills really help lower blood pressure should i take medication for anxiety induced blood pressure treatment for uncontrolled blood pressure decongestant medication high blood pressure can stiff days be used with high blood pressure medication how long does it take medication to lower blood pressure what if i miss a blood pressure pill tribenzor high blood pressure pills law lawsuit 2023 treatment of sudden drop in blood pressure zoloft and blood pressure medication orange high blood pressure pill cancer blood pressure pill why cant people with high blood pressure take keto pills how long for blood pressure to go down mini pill should i get second opinion before taking blood pressure medication blood pressure erectile dysfunction medication high blood pressure medication m lot ben medical device lowers blood pressure puppy ate blood pressure pill are there medications for low blood pressure dod blood pressure medication is losartan a blood pressure pill combination drugs for blood pressure marijuana and blood pressure medication interaction blood pressure medication interactions with grapefruit can you eat bananas while taking high blood pressure medication steps before going on high blood pressure medication blood pressure medication when to cut down foods to avoid on blood pressure medication blood pressure medications depression blood pressure medication non beta blocker tattoos and high blood pressure medication what is the medications used to lower blood pressure quickly high blood pressure medication leg swelling blood pressure medication men in your 40s blood pressure medication wieight loss blood pressure medication hy can blood pressure medication lower blood sugar does blood pressure medication make you pee natural treatment high blood pressure during pregnancy can you take l arginine with high blood pressure medication what class of blood pressure medication can can blood pressure pills reduce appetite faa approved medication for high blood pressure high blood pressure medication during pregnancy best blood pressure medication for type 2 diabetes blood pressure and pain medication pain medication that does not affect blood pressure best high blood pressure drugs on the market if you take incorrect medications to lower blood pressure low blood pressure treatments does your body have to adjust to blood pressure medication why water pill for high blood pressure drugs for treatment of very high blood pressure during pregnancy can i drink grapefruit juice with high blood pressure medication can blood pressure pills make you feel cold high blood pressure medication that helps with weight loss amlodipine blood pressure drug blood pressure medication for infants varicose veins blood pressure medication life extension high blood pressure medication does tylenol interfere with blood pressure medication can i take diamox with other high blood pressure medications prestige medical blood pressure cuff calibration drugs used for high blood pressure chamomile tea and high blood pressure medication narcotics stored alongside blood pressure medications in does nutrigrove blood pressure pills work extremely low blood pressure treatment blood pressure medication for iga nephropathy blood pressure medication low side effects can i increase my blood pressure medication what is the best blood pressure medication to take drugs that cause increased blood pressure does biotin interfere with high blood pressure medication cani od on high blood pressure pills blood pressure medication that also helps with jerking blood pressure medication categories first line treatment of high blood pressure medication for low blood pressure in usa armour thyroid drug interactions blood pressure meds hepatitis c treatment high blood pressure high blood pressure arb drugs low blood pressure treatment with essential oils high blood pressure medication list for pregnancy blood pressure medication and snake venom blood pressure medication low dose liquid blood pressure medications ivf drugs and high blood pressure left my blood pressure medication does it matter when you take blood pressure medication can you take blood pressure pills twice a day privilin blood pressure medication how big are blood pressure pills once you start blood pressure medication can you stop diuretic in blood pressure medication what medication reduce blood pressure new blood pressure treatment prescribed home medications for high blood pressure blood pressure medication side effects forums taking blood pressure pills dizzy when bend over a lot blood pressure medication and nyquil cinnamon pills and high blood pressure temporary high blood pressure treatment single agent blood pressure medication blood pressure medication made in china fda approved medications to reduce blood pressure immediate treatment for high blood pressure at home best time to take blood pressure pills muscle loss on high blood pressure medication blood pressure medication when needed treat high blood pressure without medication blood pressure medication side effects for men cbd pills for high blood pressure blood pressure regulation without medication blood pressure medication and pre workout high blood pressure alzheimer disease and antihypertensive treatment miss blood pressure medication blood pressure pills suicide peaceful emergency drugs for low blood pressure common blood pressure medications in canada systolic blood pressure define medical viril and high blood pressure pills can statin drugs help lower blood pressure do you have to wean off blood pressure medication new drugs for blood pressure when is high blood pressure medication necessary drugs for hi blood pressure cold medications and blood pressure taking 2 blood pressure pills mistake why doctors stopped prescribing blood pressure medication common high blood pressure medication canada what side effects does blood pressure medication have ulcer medication high blood pressure can high blood pressure medication elevate alkaline phosphatase blood pressure medication warning getting blood pressure medication jamaica alkaline water and blood pressure medication blood pressure going up and down with medication drugs reduce systolic blood pressure treatment for rapid high blood pressure low blood pressure alternative treatment do all high blood pressure medications cause weight gain medication for increasing blood pressure blood pressure medication for african american males vitamins for high blood pressure treatment aleve with blood pressure medication how to lower blood pressure without pills blood pressure triple pill who blood pressure guidelines for hygiene treatment what drug reduces blood pressure blood pressure medications enalapril met blood pressure medication