• Tuesday, May 21, 2024


Sri Lanka on high alert as activists observe anniversary of anti-Tamil riots

Several dozen activists lit coconut oil lamps and candles outside Colombo’s main cemetery, where the inter-communal violence started 40 years ago

Sri Lankan rights activists hold banners during a protest outside the main cemetery in Colombo on July 23, 2023. (Photo by ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Pramod Thomas

SRI LANKA tightened security last Sunday (23) as activists lit oil lamps in Colombo commemorating the hundreds killed in 1983 anti-Tamil riots that fuelled a deadly civil war.

“Let’s not forget the slaughter of Tamils,” read a banner carried by members of North-South Solidarity, a group of rights defenders from the country’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities.

Several dozen activists lit coconut oil lamps and candles outside Colombo’s main cemetery, where the inter-communal violence started 40 years ago.

The then-government attempted a mass burial at the cemetery for 13 Sinhalese soldiers killed in a Tamil rebel land mine attack on July 23, 1983.

Relatives demanded individual funerals for the soldiers and clashed with police, before turning their attacks on Tamils and Tamil-owned shops in the area.

What began as a spontaneous backlash against Tamils degenerated into state-led deadly violence that lasted six days.

Official estimates place the riot death toll between 400 to 600, but Tamil groups say the actual number is in the thousands.

There have been no prosecutions, even though some members of the then-government were seen leading the Sinhalese mobs.

At last Sunday’s commemoration, authorities deployed a heavily armed troops that outnumbered demonstrators, while a journalist saw police kicking and stomping on oil lamps placed along the pavement just outside the cemetery.

A Tamil insurgency demanding a separate state for their ethnic minority developed into a full blown civil war that eventually claimed the lives of at least 100,000 people, before the rebel leadership was defeated in May 2009.

Sri Lanka’s president Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party was in power when the 1983 riots broke out.

The then-president Junius Jayewardene, Wickremesinghe’s uncle, is widely accused of not doing anything to prevent the violence.

Last Saturday (22) a minister said Wickremesinghe will convene an all-party meeting next week on the implementation of the contentious 13th Amendment to the country’s Constitution, a long-pending demand of the Tamil community, that provides for devolution of power to the minority group.

The amendment was brought in after the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement of 1987. It created nine provinces as devolved units with a temporary merger of the northern and eastern provinces.

The minister’s announcement came a day after the issue figured prominently in the talks between India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and Wickremesinghe, with the Indian leader highlighting the need for the implementation of the amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution.

Modi is said to have conveyed to Wickremesinghe, who arrived in New Delhi last Thursday on a two-day visit of India’s expectations from Colombo to fulfil the aspirations of the Tamil community in the island nation.

In a statement after their talks, Wickremesinghe said last Friday (21) he shared with Modi the “comprehensive proposal” he presented last week for “furthering reconciliation, power sharing through devolution and the multiple elements of the Northern development plan.” Jeevan Thondaman, the minister of water supplies who was part of Wickremesinghe’s delegation to India, said the all-party meeting would be convened next week.

Thondaman, who represents the Tamils of Indian origin in the central hill plantations, said with the implementation of 13A, any outstanding issues of Indian-origin Tamils would also be addressed.

Prior to his India visit, Wickremesinghe last Tuesday (18) met the Tamil parties and assured them the 13th Amendment will be fully implemented, without police powers, in the provincial councils.

“The president outlined plans for devolution, stating that the 13th Amendment with full powers except for police powers as outlined under List 1 (the subjects reserved for provincial councils) will be implemented, including specified functions in List 3 in the provincial councils list subject to agreement among political parties in Parliament,” the president’s office had said in a statement.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ran a military campaign for a separate Tamil homeland in the Northern and Eastern provinces of the island nation for nearly 30 years before its collapse in 2009 after the Sri Lankan Army killed its supreme leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

According to Sri Lankan government figures, more than 20,000 people are missing due to various conflicts including the three-decade brutal war with Lankan Tamils in the north and east which claimed at least 100,000 lives.


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