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1980s Riots

In June 1981, local elections were held in the north to elect members of the newly established district development councils. TULF had decided to participate and work in the councils. In doing so, TULF continued to work toward autonomy for the Tamil areas. Extremists within the separatist movement, however, adamantly opposed working within the existing political framework. They viewed participation in the elections as compromising the objective of a separate state. Shortly before the elections, the leading candidate of the UNP was assassinated as he left a political rally. The sporadic communal violence that persisted over the following three months foreshadowed the devastating communal riots of 1983. When elections were held a few days later, concomitant charges of voting irregularities and mishandling of ballots created the nation's first election scandal since the introduction of universal suffrage fifty years earlier.

TULF decided to boycott the 1982 presidential elections, partly in reaction to the harsh Prevention of Terrorism Act and partly in response to pressures exerted by Tamil extremists. Only 46 percent of the voters in Jaffna District turned out. In Sinhalese districts, 85 percent of voters turned out. Increasing violence by Tamil youths in the north and east of the island accompanied the call for a Tamil Eelam. The rising level of violence in 1983 led the government to pass a sixth amendment to the Constitution, which specifically banned talk of separatism. All sixteen TULF members of parliament were expelled for refusing to recite a loyalty oath, thus removing a critical channel for mediation.

In July 1983, the most savage communal riots in Sri Lanka's history erupted. Conservative government estimates put the death toll at 400-- mostly Tamils. At least 150,000 Tamil fled the island. The riots began in retaliation for an ambush of an army patrol in the north that left thirteen Sinhalese soldiers dead. The army was reputed to have killed sixty Tamil civilians in Jaffna, but most of the violence occurred in Colombo, where Sinhalese mobs looked for Tamil shops to destroy. More than any previous ethnic riot on the island, the 1983 riots were marked by their highly organized mob violence. Sinhalese rioters in Colombo used voter lists containing home addresses to make precise attacks on the Tamil community. From Colombo, the anti-Tamil violence fanned out to the entire island. The psychological effects of this violence on Sri Lanka's complex and divided society were still being assessed in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the communal rioting, a selfevident truth was that the island's history, and the complexity of its society, had a portentous message for the present: Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans were fated by history and geography to coexist in close proximity. This coexistence could be discordant or amicable, and examples of both could be drawn from Sri Lanka's history. It was a message, however, whose meaning was forgotten as the ethnic communities were drawn increasingly into a vortex of rancor and violence that made the restoration of harmony a persistently elusive goal for the Sri Lankan government.



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