Remembering the riots that triggered 25 years of conflict

For a quarter of a century, Selvadurai Sornalingam has treasured a faded, yellowing document. "It is a reminder of my honeymoon," he told IRIN, only half-jokingly.

He received the document when he registered at a welfare centre established in an airport hangar south of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, during the fourth week of July 1983, when deadly anti-Tamil riots spread through the Sri Lankan capital and into outlying neighbourhoods.

Part of the minority Tamil community, Sornalingam and his wife of seven days arrived in Colombo from Jaffna, 400km to the north, on 23 July, just a day before the riots broke out. Only a week later, they found themselves seeking safety at the welfare centre. When they filled out the registration card, it was the first time the couple signed as "Mr and Mrs".

"There were around 15,000 Tamils, as well as some Muslims and Sinhalese, mostly married to Tamils in the camp - people from all walks of life," Sornalingam recalled. "Professional government servants, women, children, rich and poor, young and old and the infirm – they were all there."

Attack leads to riots

The riots were triggered by the killing of 13 government soldiers in Jaffna city on the night of 23 July 1983. The ambush was carried out by what was at the time a relatively small, armed group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who wanted an autonomous region for Tamils in the north and east. The incident was the most deadly ever carried out by the LTTE against government security forces up until then.

By the time the civil unrest throughout the country subsided a week later, more than 800 people, Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim, had been killed, according to government figures, though others have put it much higher.

The Sornalingams escaped with their lives, thanks to their Sinhalese landlord, who resisted a Sinhalese mob that was targeting Tamils.

More than 300,000 people, mostly Tamils, were displaced. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils sought refuge in South India and other countries.

The rest is history: military analysts, including the former spokesman for the Sri Lankan military, the late Major-General Sarath Munasinghe, said that after the 1983 riots the Tamil militant groups based in the north and east received ever-increasing support, including fresh recruits and funding, toward their objective of establishing an autonomous region.

Worsening humanitarian crisis

Humanitarian workers feel the 1983 riots changed the political and military landscape irreversibly. Jeevan Thiyagaraja, executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), a national umbrella body of international and national humanitarian agencies, told IRIN: "The country has not yet looked back from the path of violence."

Photo: Ruwansiri Warakapola/IRIN
An Anglican priest takes part in a commemorative event including Tamils and Sinhalese to mark the 25th anniversary of the riots in Colombo on 23 July 2008. The writing on the posters say "Safeguard Minority rights"

"Areas affected by conflict as we know now were not a phenomenon then. July 1983 ultimately created such a theatre of conflict with territorial and geographical representation," said Thiyagaraja.

In the ensuing 25 years, the conflict evolved into a full-blown war, with more than 70,000 people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, their homes and livelihoods destroyed. And it continues.

The Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) completed a review of the Common Humanitarian Action Plan (CHAP) for 2008 on 21 July, which states that 25 years after the initial conflict the needs remained immense: US$195 million was needed for humanitarian and early recovery programmes in the north and the east of the country, with only $64 million yet received.

Civilians living under trees

Hundreds of thousands more people have been displaced by recent fighting and the latest IASC situation report reveals that some civilians who were fleeing the recent fighting in the northwestern Mannar region were living under trees due to lack of access to assistance from UN agencies and other humanitarian groups. "According to field reports, displaced persons are sheltering under trees with limited access to basic facilities," IASC said in a report released on 19 July.

The report also said the fighting had forced 30 schools, a hospital and storage facilities used by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to be relocated to safer areas.

CHA head Thiyagaraja believes the riots of 1983 played an integral part in worsening the bloodshed and humanitarian suffering. "One cannot be certain, but the intensity, fracturing and destruction to life and limb may not have got such justification if not for July 1983."

Sornalingam agrees that life has never been the same since that fateful week. "Every day has felt as if I am in a battlefield, every day you just keep remembering it."