Information on ‘Black July’ (by CTC)

Posted on 06/01/2012


history and the course of events during Black July illustrate the Sri Lankan Government’s undeniable involvement in the genocidal acts against Tamils.

Black July 1983

What does Black July mean?

Black July refers to the month of July 1983, and in particular, the organized mass killing of thousands of Tamils in Sri Lanka that occurred during the 3 days of July 24 – July 26. While tensions had been steadily building between Tamils and Sinhalese for decades, Black July was seen as an excessive, calculated action that could only imply that Tamils did not belong in Sri Lanka.

Who was responsible for the anti-Tamil pogrom?

Most people believe it is the government that carried out the killings in a systematic fashion. All of the evidence confirms this idea, and it has been reported by organisations such as Amnesty International and International Commission of Jurists, media sources including The Times (London), The Guardian and The New York Times, witnesses, and government officials. A blackout on media and travel occurred alongside the violence. Police and armed forces were deployed but did not take action to stop the violence. The government officially addressed the nation only 5 days after the start of the pogrom, but no genuine apology was tendered then or since.

What was the aftermath of Black July?

An estimated 3000 Tamils were killed. Many Tamil homes and businesses were destroyed, costing the economy at least $1 billion in damage. At least 1 million Tamils have fled Sri Lanka since July 1983. The Sinhalese and Tamil societies live irreconcilably separate from each other.

What was the response of the international community to Black July?

Some journalists were able to send out reports on the events of Black July secretly in defiance of the ban on international media. Resolutions were passed in the United Nations condemning the violence, but not much has been done to enforce them or to exact reparations.

Why did Black July happen?

Sri Lanka’s history since its independence shows a steadily intensifying trend of maintaining populist support for the government at the expense of minorities. Two of the cabinet ministers in the government were outspokenly racist in favour of Sinhalese and against Tamils, and these ministers are well-known to have instigated and planned the riots.

Unfortunately, even today, many news reports continue to incorrectly cite the killing of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers as the cause for Black July. Even a quick look at the events surrounding Black July provides a proper context. Every eye-witness, international journalist and fact-finding investigator agreed that the violence was well planned and organised. Many of them also state that, given what they had seen or heard, the soldiers’ deaths was used as an excuse by the government to launch the riots. Since Sri Lanka gained independence, its history has seen frequent anti-Tamil violence, but Black July differs greatly in its scale and the intensity of its impact.

What is the significance of Black July?

Periodic protests by Tamils against discrimination and lack of representation were subsequently met with violence by the state and/or the majority community. While Black July 1983 can be seen as following in this series of previous anti-Tamil riots that have punctuated Sri Lankan history, or in the climate of increasing counter-violence to the violent suppression of the Tamil protests, Black July is on a different scale. It was planned well in advance and executed by all apparati of the state, caused destruction and horror to an extent not yet seen nor could be justified, and can never be forgotten. Black July was the watershed moment which transformed and escalated ethnic tensions and skirmishes into an all-out civil war, which continues today.






For over 2500 years, Sri Lanka has been inhabited by Tamils and Sinhalese. By the time of the arrival of the colonialists, the island had long been divided into a Tamil kingdom in the North East, and 2 Sinhalese kingdoms in the Centre and South. During the colonial rule of the Portuguese (1505- 1658) and Dutch (1602- 1796), the Tamil and Sinhalese kingdoms were administered separately, respecting their distinct polities and geographic boundaries. Through colonial occupation, Christianity was introduced which was more widely accepted and practiced in the Tamil Kingdom – the North East region of Sri Lanka.

With the British take over in 1815, the three kingdoms were conveniently amalgamated to allow ease of administration, and Tamil laborers were brought over to work in the tea plantations of the central hills. In addition, the British introduced more missionaries and English speaking schools in the Northeast region, which led to Tamils leaving their arid farming for academic and government roles within British Ceylon.

As the British began to cede more administrative control to the people of the island, Tamil representatives in the administrative councils recognized a growing disparity between themselves and the Sinhalese representatives.


After 111 years of British colonization, Ceylon gained independence in 1948. Despite pressure from Tamil political leaders for a state with equal power sharing between the Tamil and Sinhalese, a single-level centralized government was created with a population-based electoral system. However, with the population more than 70% Sinhalese, the nature of the electoral setup soon enabled a majoritarian rule. Tamils whose ancestors came to Ceylon in the 1800’s were deprived of their citizenship rights within a year, while Sinhalese were financially supported by the government to move from traditional Sinhalese areas and settle in other areas.

In response to the sudden changes in political landscape, mistrust and distance between the different ethnic groups began to build.


With majoritarian rule in place, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike campaigned to become Prime Minister with the promise of making Sinhala the country’s official language by dropping English and Tamil. In 1956, the Sinhala Only Act was passed, which resulted in the immediate loss of employment opportunities to Tamils in government and state corporations.

Without the ability to reject the legislation in parliament, the Tamil Federal Party protested through non-violent demonstrations in north eastern provinces with initial success. Similar violence occurred in Colombo where a group of 200 Tamils, including parliamentarians, nonviolently protested the bill. Attackers came and beat the protesters and threw stones at them. Police were told to not intervene unless they were attacked first, and merely looked on. The nonviolent protesters ended early as some of them were hospitalized, and the bill was passed.

In 1957, Chelvanayakam agreed to drop demands for a federal set up to accomodate Tamils, to drop the parity of status for the Tamil language with Sinhalese, and to drop plans for future nonviolent protests, in return for the status of Tamils as a minority language that would be used in the Northeast. The pact, known as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, was abrogated by the Prime Minister in 1958, under pressure from Sinhalese Buddhist monks. At the same time, the Prime Minister ordered that “sri” should be written in Sinhalese on all buses.

In 1958, Tamils protested the “sri” on all buses being written only in Sinhala, as it represented a continuation of the protest of the unresolved issues pertaining to 1956 Sinhala-only law. The train carrying Tamils on the way to their Federal Party convention was stopped, and the Tamil passengers were beaten. In Colombo, riots occurred in which hundreds of Tamils were killed, and thousands were wounded.


After the election in 1965, Prime Minster Senanayake signed the agreement to recognize the Northeast as Tamil-speaking, to amend the laws to allow Tamil to be used in Northeast courts, and give Tamils some local rights. The agreement, known as the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact, was later not honoured or implemented by the Prime Minster on the grounds that Tamils and Sinhalese parties should trust each other enough that such an agreement is not necessary.

As the government began a program of nationalization to bring common resources under government control, Sinhalese politicians led by Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike implemented the Standardization Act in 1973 which aimed to increase representation of Sinhalese students in Universities and limiting the number of Tamils. In addition, a new constitution changed the name of Ceylon to Sri Lanka, and explicitly gave Buddhism a primary place as the country’s religion. Animosity heightens between the two ethnic groups as Tamil youth and politicians protested.

Agitated Tamil youth formed militias and began skirmishes, while national leaders responded with violence to instill fear, which only fueled Tamil youth retaliation and greater tension. In 1977, Tamil United Liberation Front campaigned the national elections on the platform of a separate state. They won seats resoundingly in all Tamil areas, officially marking in Parliament the full shift in sentiments that had occurred since independence.

Spurts of anti-Tamil riots continually broke out island-wide over the next few years. The Government enacted laws such as Prevention of Terrorism Act (allows security forces to detain anyone without trial up to 18 months) in order to deploy troops in Tamil areas and eliminate the Tamil mobilization. Similar to the 1974 killing of 9 scholars at the 4th International Tamil Research Conference, killings of the local population continued. The ranks of militia groups then swelled with more disillusioned youth.

After the 1977 election, the Prime Minster and government politicians began uttering statements that were unaccomodating of Tamils. Prime Minster J.R. Jeyawardene said he would give Tamils war or peace depending on what they wanted. Minsters such as Cyril Matthew reiterated anti-Tamil statements in Parliament repeatedly. Riots were sparked by the police and army stationed in the north, and spread to the entire island including Colombo. Hundreds of Tamils were killed, and even some hospital staff attacked Tamil patients and hospital officials.

In 1981, the Jaffna Public Library was burned by Sinhala policemen stationed in the North. In response, militants began to target security forces and government agents. Despite recommendations from International Commission of Jurists to eliminate the Terrorism Act by imposing strict control over the actions of security forces and provide greater autonomy to Tamil regions, President J.R. Jayawardene responded by providing greater power to the Army to open fire, kill and bury without inquest. His actions were met with approval and greater anti-Tamil sentiments in Parliament.


The killing of 13 soldiers is usually explained as the spark which led to the ‘spontaneous Anti Tamil riots’ of 1983. However, this is not true. With an urgency to suppress all activism and regain control of the North, many Tamil political activists were detained without charge for months prior to Black July. A plan had already been devised by Minster Cyril Mathew to carry out a large-scale systematic attack on Tamils. The plan had the approval of many top leaders in the government, including President J. R. Jayawardene himself. Following the pattern of all past governments, anti-Tamil hysteria was generated to deflect pressure on addressing growing concern for political and economic discrimination and human rights abuses. The President’s remarks on July 11, 1983 indicated the manner in which he was going to handle the “Tamil problem”.

The killing of the soldiers was exploited as the spark to ignite Black July. The state media widely publicized the killing while decisively leaving out key details that the killing was a reprisal for the abduction and rape of two Tamil girls (as reported by London Times on July 27, LAWASIA, and others) and other acts of violence by security forces. Much of the public was unaware of these incidents since the government banned Tamil newspapers in early July, and all media by the outset of violence. Despite the publicity of the initial pretense for the riots, at the conclusion of the riots, the President went on to contradict the initial reason by stating that blame for the violence lied with political parties in the opposition, namely Tamil parties and Sinhalese leftist parties.


The events of July 1983 are poignant for the entire Tamil population around the world. Between July 24 and 29, Tamils were systematically targeted with violence in Colombo and many other parts of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Governments officials categorized the violence as uncontrollable race riots instigated by the killing of 13 Sinhala soldiers on the night of July 23. However, history and the course of events during Black July illustrate the Sri Lankan Government’s undeniable involvement in the genocidal acts against Tamils.

July 24 (Day 1): At 1 o’clock in the morning of July 24, the army rounded up hundreds of Tamils in Trincomalee, Mannar, and Vavuniya in the Northeast who had fled the anti-Tamil riots of 1977 and 1981. These Tamils were forcibly taken and left without possessions in the central hills.

Before the riots broke out in Colombo, the army in Jaffna went on rampage killing 51 innocent Tamil civilians. In Trincomalee, similar violence broke out as members of the Navy randomly shot at civilians and burnt down Tamil property.

In the evening in Colombo, the state funeral was being organized for the soldiers. Thousands of people arrived at the cemetery but the bodies failed to appear. After waiting several hours, much of the crowd objecting the burial in Kanatte and demanded the bodies to be returned to the next of kin. As the large crowd began to leave the grave, a new group of people (identified as government gangs) entered the Borella junction and raised anti–Tamil cries. As the anti-government cry subsided and anti-Tamil cries became dominant, arson and murdering of Tamils broke out.

July 25 (Day 2): After the midnight lull, mobs were led by people with voter registration lists in hand torched Tamil homes, looted and destroyed Tamil businesses. All traffic was searched, and any Tamils found were killed, maimed, or burned alive. Cyril Matthew, Minister of Industries, was witnessed directly pinpointing shops to be burned down.

Many policemen were deployed throughout the city; however, they tacitly stood and watched on. Witnesses recall lorry loads of armed troops leisurely waving to looters who waved greetings back. Curfew was only declared by the President late in afternoon after the worst was over. However, the violence continued unabated. Tens of thousands of Tamils who were homeless, sought refugee in schools and places of worship.

In Welikade prison, 35 Tamil political prisoners who were awaiting trail under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, were massacred by Sinhalese prisoners with the complicity of jail guards using spikes, clubs and iron rods.

The violence spread rapidly throughout the country, engulfing towns like Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya and Trincomalee. One town was completely wiped out – the Indian Tamil town of Kandapola, near Nuwara Eliya.

July 26 (Day 3): Government imposed a strict censorship of media reporting on the anti-Tamil violence. Word spread of Sri Lanka’s state of disorder as eye witness accounts and photographs taken by returning tourists illustrated the scale of violence. They described how Tamil motorists were dragged out of their vehicles and hacked to pieces while others were drenched with petrol and set alight in full view of the security forces. The International Airport in Colombo was closed.

July 27 (Day 4): 17 more prisoners at Welikade Prison were hacked to death just two days after the prison massacre. The surviving 36 prisoners are transferred to other prisons. Rioting continued and the curfew is extended. Witnesses of the violence reported that charred corpses of Tamil victims lined the streets of Colombo, some mutilated with X’s.

July 28 (Day 5): President J.R. Jayewardene addressed the nation for the first time since the anti-Tamil pogroms, only to fan the flames of anti-Tamil sentiments by stating that anyone who advocated for separatism would lose all their “civic rights”. He states, “….the time has now come to accede to the clamour and natural request of the Sinhala people to prevent the country from being divided.” Vigilantes set up make-shift roadblocks in villages across the island, searched cars and buses for Tamil passengers. In one incident, a Sinhalese mob burnt to death about 20 Tamils on a minibus as European tourists look on in horror.

July 29 (Day 6): Tamils in Colombo began evacuating by cargo ship to the Northern city of Jaffna. Hundreds more internally displaced persons waited anxiously for the next cargo ship to transport them to Jaffna.

July 30 (Day 7): Violence began to dissipate. There was an extreme food shortage in Colombo and across the island as a result of the week long violence.

Post-Riots: Tamils fearing persecution, flee their homeland for Western countries. Tamils began to seek refugee in places such as Canada, Europe, Australia and the U.S. Canada introduced a “Special Measures” program for Sri Lanka allowing family members of those affected by the Anti-Tamil pogroms to join relatives already in Canada.


Since 1983, more than 1 million Tamils have left Sri Lanka. They have gone to countries around the world, including Canada, US, UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, South Africa, India, and Australia. Many fled under dire circumstances and sought refugee status in their adopted lands. Many fear to return.

A census has not occurred in the North East since 1981, but an estimated 3 million Tamils remain. Of those, an estimated 1 million are displaced internally.