Featured image by Raisa Wickrematunge
By Raisa Wickrematunge and Amalini De Sayrah
With contributions from Hafsa Razi
The flat, cardboard boxes are stacked almost to the ceiling. The neatly glued label of one of them is clearly visible when a door opens – briefly releasing a puff of air-conditioned chill before a librarian yanks it shut.
“Divaina” it reads.
Most people would think of the National Archives as their first stop when accessing historical records. The Archives contain an impressive repository of information, including thombus(land registers) dating back to colonial times. People looking to trace their genealogical history might visit the Archives, or researchers looking to browse through a collection of some 300,000 photographs, or documentary film footage.
Just a few steps away, the National Library keeps a stock of records that is equally fascinating, for those who’d care to search for it. There is a collection of ola leaf manuscripts in Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit on display. The Intangible Cultural Heritage Collection includes folk songs, music and drama. A few of these are accessible through the National Library’s Digital collection, though it’s evident that this is very much a work in progress – many of the mp3 files don’t download, and some of the sections, such as for ‘Rare Books’, are empty. The Library is also home to audiovisual records and maps, Government publications, and a number of theses and dissertations.
On this occasion, Groundviews is here for the Newspaper Collection. The National Library archives copies of newspapers dating back to 1976, in English, Sinhala and Tamil. This is what the boxes contain. The newspapers have been arranged in chronological order and neatly bound with twine.
What we are looking for are the ripple effects of an event familiar to every Sri Lankan, though few want to dwell on it – Black July.
On July 24, 1983 and afterwards, the newspaper coverage, in English, Sinhala, and Tamil gives little indication of the sheer violence unfolding in Colombo. The Daily Mirror gives prominence to a drop in the accident rate – the report of the 13 soldiers killed in the North receives an inset. There is no record of the riots. The Island also reported on the killing of the 13 soldiers – a small box on page 1 notes that photos or comments on terrorism, university affairs, armed forces and the police are subject to censorship. The now defunct Thinapathi newspaper also mentioned the killing of the 13 soldiers, but not the rioting in Colombo. This is reminiscent of the silence from many mainstream media outlets during the riots in Aluthgama (with the exception of publications like the BBCand the Daily FT) in 2014, with most coverage on the riots coming from social media.
On July 27, 1983, the Daily News focuses on the tough action taken by the Government to stop the rioters, including shooting as its lead story.
35 years later, Sri Lanka is still grappling with violence, even though the civil war ended in 2009. In March this year there were riots targeting Muslims. Many question whether Sri Lankans have forgotten the lessons of the horrible violence from July 1983.
“There has been a cycle of violence and ceasefires, war and peace with low-intensity conflict always simmering in the background,” Dr Daya Somasunderam writes.
Groundviews wanted to examine the reverberations of the violence unleashed on Black July. One year later, what did headlines look like? What was the Page 1 lead story 10 years later? Three and a half decades later, are the ripple effects of 1983 being felt? What are the words used to capture or describe violence?
Groundviews looked specifically at newspapers during the month of July, marking key events from 1984 to 2009 in order to examine how the events of Black July were remembered – if they were at all – over time. The scanned pages here are a selection of all the pages studied for the month of July.
1984: One Year Later
One year has passed since the violence.
The reporting in July 1984 captures the tension, even one year after especially among decision-makers and law enforcement authorities. Unlike the Sinhala news from around the same time, English publications run several reports that advise caution given ‘the anniversary of the violence’. The vague terminology used is also interesting. This tension results in the restriction of a group of Norwegian film team from entering the country, as authorities are afraid that they will attempt to ‘sensationalise’ the first anniversary since the riots.
Many reports on the front pages illustrate the LTTE’s propensity towards violence. ‘Terrorists kill’, ‘terrorists burn’ and ‘terrorists capture’ are regularly recurring headlines. Warnings from then-Minister of National Security Lalith Athulathmudali also caution that ‘terrorists plan to repeat violence’.
Some believe that this is actually deliberate. Journalist D.B.S Jeyaraj writes that the ‘annual scare’ of Black July actually diverted national attention toward a possible threat from the LTTE, turning what should have been a day for remembrance, reflection and perhaps remorse into a reminder that the nation, including the Sinhala majority, was perceived to be ‘cruelly vulnerable to LTTE violence’.
There are a few reports across English media of the killing of ‘low-caste’ Tamils in the North by the LTTE. The stories detail methods that end with public display of the bodies, and offer vague explanations that the person’s ‘unsavoury’ nature caused their death. The term used to describe them in one newspaper, ‘harijans’, was introduced by Mahatma Gandhi, and has come to be rejected by Indian lawmakers due to its purpose of making Dalit people more ‘pleasing’ to society, while allowing the caste system that perpetuates these divisions to go unchallenged.
Also at the forefront of the news in 1984 are talks between Indira Gandhi and President J.R Jayawardena. These conclude with India claiming that Sri Lanka’s issues are ‘internal’, and must be resolved domestically. This is key, given the interactions between the two heads of State during the violence of 1983. It is also important to note that after the riots, India is reported to have begun military trainings to arm the rebel groups based in the North. Indira Gandhi’s assassination in October 1984 is said to have left the Tamil community in Sri Lanka ‘in mourning’, but was a cause for celebration among the Sinhalese. R.K Narayan Swamy writes that ‘many Sinhalese soldiers fighting Tamil guerrillas in war-torn Jaffna danced on the streets.’
There is heightened reporting on the violence carried out by the LTTE, within the span of a single month. Sri Lanka in 1984, even outside the month of July, saw a series of killings of both Sinhala and Tamil civilians.
The riots led to a large number of Tamils becoming displaced. Fearing that Tamils living in the North-Eastern area of Manal Aru were being trained by the LTTE, the State evicted them from the area, and in the ensuing violence killed more than 100 Tamils. Survivors and other residents were relocated to the South of the country, apparently to ‘suppress Tamil nationalist aspirations’. Many of those living in this area were up-country Tamils, displaced from the hills due to violence that erupted following the general election of 1977. This attack that left close to 300 Tamils dead, demonstrates long-standing violence against Tamil people, indicating that Black July was far from the ‘start’ of hostilities.
The Manal Aru massacre was met with retaliation in what is suspected to be the LTTE’s first attack on Sinhalese civilians. Nearly 65 new settlers in the Kent and Dollar farms were killed by the rebels in a single night. The displacement and resettlement continued in several small coastal fishing villages too.
1988: Five Years Later
During the period of the second Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection, Black July is passed over as a fresh wave of violence engulfs the country. On July 25th 1988, the Virakesari publishes excerpts from a speech made by then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa (who would go on to become the President later that year), on the importance of protecting equal rights of all citizens, irrespective of language or ethnicity. It also runs a news piece about the commemoration of the massacre of 53 prisoners at Welikada during the 1983 riots. This is the only mention of Black July in the front pages of this month.
Across the national English media, there is almost no reporting on the extent of the violence carried out by the JVP and its military arm, the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (Patriotic People’s Movement). Relatively smaller attacks and incidents involving the LTTE still regularly make the front-page news, despite there being a similar anti-state movement at the time.
The language used to describe these two groups, and indeed differentiate between them, is jarring especially when juxtaposed on a single front page, in both English and Sinhala language media. Where the LTTE continue to be referred to as ‘Tigers’ and ‘terrorists’, and those suspected of terrorism as ‘terrorist suspects’ the youth who were mobilized by the JVP are labelled ‘students’, ‘young men’ or at most, ‘subversive elements’.
News reports highlight campaigns for the students to be released, since they are being held without any charges, share page 1 with reports of suspects detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
While some news reports mention JVP rebels by name, there is no such effort to identify the LTTE or even LTTE suspects by name. [Following the 1986 bombing of Air Lanka Flight 512, six photos are published in the Daily News showing the dead bodies of those who were suspected to be involved in the plan.]
Tamil media use different terminology in describing the JVP, referring to them as ‘destructive forces’ and ‘social enemies’. It is only foreign media, other that this, that refer to the government-operated ‘death squads’ sent to quell the rebellion in the south.
These differences in reporting are interesting, revealing double standards administered to two groups similarly fighting against the state.
As the month of July comes to a close, we see newspapers across all three languages reporting on hartal and a curfew across the island around the 29th– 30thof July. In English, we are told that security forces are on alert. The Sinhala Divaina reports curfew and increased military presence in the North and South of the country. It is only in the penultimate line of the article, that we are told that the tension is due to several JVP pamphlets in circulation.
In August, a grenade would be thrown at then President J.R Jayawardena and Prime Minister while in session in parliament. Jayawardena would go on to blame the ‘Sinhalese terrorists’for this, and they would go on to take responsibility for the attempt owing to his ‘betrayal’’ of Sinhalese interests in granting greater political autonomy to ethnic Tamil areas.’
1993: Ten Years Later
Ten years after July 1983, there is tacit acknowledgement of the violence that occurred.
A few newspapers explicitly refer to the 1983 riots as “a Holocaust”. Evidence of the “annual scare” as Jeyaraj calls it, is still in effect - the Island notes that the police, security forces have been put on alert. Embassies in London, India and Europe have also been notified to ‘expect trouble’ from LTTE supporters.
Ten years later, the violence continues. On July 25, a group of LTTE soldiers entered the Sinhala majority Janakapura settlement in Weli Oya and killed 15 civilians and at least 18 soldiers. Several newspapers, including the Island, ran unedited photos of the dead civilians on their front pages – a jarring visual reminder of the ongoing violence. The accompanying captions describe “cold-blooded Tiger brutality”. It is interesting to see this type of violence openly displayed and condemned, juxtaposed against the headlines of July 1983, which focus on the attacks on the soldiers in Jaffna rather than on the rioting in Colombo. There are also reports of negotiations between the Government and LTTE to hand over the bodies of the 18 soldiers killed Weli Oya attacks. The Sinhala media also covers this in detail, mentioning that the bodies of the soldiers were put on display by the LTTE. In the Divaina this is juxtaposed with a report noting the importance of ‘public support and unity to solve issues.’ The Daily News refers to the Weli Oya attacks as an “anniversary strike” indicating that it was planned to mark Black July.
The escalating violence in 1993 targeted key figures in Government as well. On 23 April 1993, former Cabinet Minister of Trade, National Security, Agriculture, Education and Deputy Minister of Defence Lalith Athulathmudali is shot and killed. The murder is initially attributed to the LTTE but a Presidential Commission of Inquiry launched by then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1994 found former President Ranasinghe Premadasa responsible. One week after Athulathmudali’s death, Premadasa is killed by a suicide bomber during a May Day rally.
Most of the front pages are also devoted to a crisis within the SLFP following the suspension of Minister of Higher Education Anura Bandaranaike from the party, in the wake of disagreements between himself and his mother, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Bandaranaike would eventually cross over to the UNP following the suspension.
July 1993 also sees stalled progress on political solutions - a Parliamentary committee working towards a political solution is on the verge of disbanding, according to the Island, due to the withdrawal of Tamil and Muslim MPs.
1995: A Political Solution
With Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga being elected President in 1994, there are hopes for a political solution to the conflict. The Government enters into talks with the LTTE. The talks with the LTTE come to a standstill as the group are unwilling to compromise on certain conditions, and eventually collapse when the LTTE sinks two Navy boats in April.
Kumaratunga then puts forward draft constitutional proposals calling for decentralisation of power, advocating for a political solution for the Tamil people while pushing forward with the conflict in the North.
The coverage of the proposals on devolution are limited to current developments, with the newspapers often quoting political parties opinions on the devolution proposals verbatim. In some instances, commentary comes from the international rather than local media - a Reutersreport asks “Will the Tigers buy the devolution plan?” The report notes that the LTTE have been ‘fighting for a homeland’ since 1983 and adds that the devolution package presented is ‘federalism in all but name’. These reports are interspersed with coverage of speeches by the then President noting that the ‘country is at a crossroads’ and calling for unity in supporting the proposals.
At the same time, the ‘Sudu Nelum’ (White Lotus) movement is launched. While part of its mandate includes providing support for the troops, it also aims to promote the political solutions proposed by Kumaratunga. Alongside this, the ‘Sama Thavalama’ (Caravan for Peace) uses street theatre and posters in an attempt to reach the public, particularly in the South. However, observers consider some of these efforts lacklustre.
It is notable too that the coverage of the ongoing process is limited to whenever statements are made about the ‘political solution’ or ‘devolution package’ by members of different political parties, be it President, the UPFA, UNP or the SLMC. Parallels can be drawn with Sri Lanka’s current constitutional reform process, which has been covered by the media in a similar manner.
Attempts for reform will end in a stalemate, with the Government eventually submitting a draft constitution to Parliament in 1997.
2000: Round Two
President Kumaratunga invites Norway to help negotiate a peace settlement in January. The LTTE continues to ask for the lift of economic blockades and the lifting of a ban on them in Sri Lanka.
Talks resume for a political solution. The State news initially reports that the “PA –UNP make history” with the successful resumption of talks on their front pages. Again the Daily News, as a State newspaper, devotes much of its front pages to Bandaranaike’s speeches calling for unity and peace. Interestingly, the Daily Newsalso reports that leading members of the Maha Sangha endorse the new constitution.
Other media reports however, reveal that the stalemate between the PA and UNP continues. At one point, there are reports that Wickremesinghe held secret talks with a businessman connected to the LTTE during a visit to Singapore, causing him to walk out of talks held to achieve consensus on constitutional reform, and the UNP to refuse to continue discussions until the allegation is investigated.
Other newspapers highlight opposition – the Island notes that the LTTE has rejected the devolution proposals as ‘having no basis’ for resolving the ethnic issue. An AFP article notes that the ‘deadline’ for resolving the deadlock between the Opposition and the Government has passed, noting that consensus must be achieved with the UNP if the reform process has any hope of moving forward. Interestingly, the Island quotes Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhita thera opposing the constitutional reform bill, adding that the Maha Sangha was not consulted. The report quotes the Sobitha Thero as saying that the Government has consulted the Muslims and Tamils but not the body that “represents more than 78% of the Sinhalese”
Similar to in 1995, coverage around the devolution proposals in July is limited to the statements made by political figures, quoted more or less verbatim without context or different points of view. Once again, much of the commentary around the proposals comes from foreign news reports, which the local newspapers often republish.
Kumaratunga will lose the election next December, leading to the creation of a UNP government. In 2004, she will apologise on behalf of the Government for the suffering caused during 1983, in an emotional speech. The Truth Commission appointed by her in 2001 will recommend that compensation be given to over 900 families for the damage caused during the 1983 riots.
2009: The End of the War
The year is a pivotal one. It marks the end of the war in May, and several incidents took place over the course of the year that had lasting impact on relations among Sri Lankans, and the country’s relationship with the international community.
Any reflection that there might have been around Black July, in the media discourse at least, is swept under the rug with the conclusion of the war on May 18, 2009. The violence of this conclusion, resulting in widespread death and displacement, and continued allegations of human rights violations, is not covered in front page news, two months later in July 2009.
The front page of the Daily News on July 23rd 2009 heralds the resumption of the bus service from Colombo to Jaffna, on the newly repaved and reopened A9 highway.
There is an almost singular focus on the military’s ‘victorious’ efforts, and little reporting on the ground realities of displaced civilians living in refugee camps. The Virakesari does quote the TNA in noting that the first priority should be to resettle the displaced who are currently living in camps, but apart from sporadic coverage from comments made by politicians, there is little to no coverage on this growing crisis (perhaps due to a lack of access for media personnel). The situation of IDPs living in Menik Farm, at the time the largest refugee camp in the world, was first brought to light by Groundviews. The site broke news of flooding due to torrential rains in the area, and the impact these conditions had on the population.
Infrastructure development and promises of reintegration of former LTTE fighters makes the daily headlines. It is revealing that just two months after its conclusion the on-going human cost of the war has been forgotten by the media in its reporting.
Throughout the month of July, reporting revolves around large sums of money spent on various aspects of development in the affected areas. It also focuses on supposed efforts being taken by the State to benefit those displaced. Interestingly, there is also reporting on plans to increase the presence of security forces in the North.
While it is interesting to note the way that the violence that occurred in July 1983 has resurfaced and even been specifically referenced, these references are made in passing, without any attempt at analysis or reflection, beyond reporting on current realities. Black July is mentioned as a warning or an explanation for violent events that occur, 1 year and 10 years later. Looking at the differences in reporting around the JVP insurrection, especially in English and Sinhala media is particularly interesting - stories about ‘subversive’ student elements share space with stories about ‘suspected terrorists’. In 2009, and around the end of the war, recollection of the events of 1983 is buried in favour of stories with a focus on development.
There is no effort to contextualise, or comment on differences (such as during ‘bheeshana yugaya’). In some instances, this may be due to censorship – on some of the front pages in 1987 for example, there are announcements of censorship coming into effect. Yet this was not the case in 2009.
35 years later, conflicts continue, most recently in March, with riots targeting Muslims.
The front pages of the newspapers captured here are flawed repositories of memory. The news articles displayed do not capture the violence, the loss and fear experienced in July 1983 and since. Years from now, these newspapers may be the only records left.
The question is whether these alone are the stories that are worth preserving.