Golden or Black July? – the Month of Destiny
Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Brief
It is in this month that Sri Lanka chose its people’s revolution, on July 9. The people’s revolution in its spirit carried by hope (and anger) was quickly followed by disillusionment; the election of a representative of the political caste that is so despised. Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected on July 21 as the eight executive president of Sri Lanka, the nephew of J.R. Jayewardene from the United National Party (UNP, otherwise called the Uncle Nephew Party). Indeed the same J.R. Jayewardene who presided over the darkest days of younger Sri Lanka, Black July 1983. We are commemorating for 39th time a month, which is widely considered as the starting point of the gruesome civil war that lasted for 26 years from 1983 to 2009. In the end, this war was nothing other than a biopolitical exercise to confront enemies to the Sinhala body politic rooted in elitist hegemony. Racial violence was the smokescreen for elitist state capture.
What is Black July? To be precise, it marked the end of everything. If there was any sign of multiculturalism left, it was suffocated during Black July. The end of cultural plurality. The end of racial harmony. The end of religious coexistence. Black July exemplified the brutal depiction of the use of mobs by the Sinhala political elite to underscore their power. The horrors of Black July included an orgy of frenzied violence directed at Tamils, which started after the LTTE ambushed the Army in the north killing 13 soldiers. This led to a statewide pogrom that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Tamils. State agents, using organised squads of goons and criminal gangs, assisted by the police and security forces, were behind the massacre of Tamil prisoners at Welikada and other mass killings, maiming, rape and sexual savagery. It wasn’t the first time that Tamils have experienced orchestrated racial terror. The horrifying July 1983 events get attention because to its size, severity, cascading ramifications and widespread effects. It has sparked significant political change and had far reaching effects including the civil war of nearly 26 years and an exodus of Tamils. Sri Lanka was a broken country but it became irreparable after Black July, a key moment in Sri Lankan political history that is so emblematic of the impunity that is the political culture on the island. There are many episodes of extra legal measures that, through the use of violence, annihilated Tamil lives and increased livelihood of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority.
Dr. Asanga Welikala writes, “[B]lack July 1983, which without doubt epitomises the darkest moment in the contemporary history of Sri Lanka. The unspeakable tragedy of this pogrom, a kind of social delirium tremens that afflicted our society for a few days, and in which we took leave of both our senses and our morality, requires no retelling. It transmogrified our society, and changed the trajectory of its historical evolution onto a path that ensured, and promises, suppurating conflict for years.“
The racial violence of July 1983 stands out as an example of how Sri Lanka used its control over death as part of its biopolitics to defend the race or species it managed or fostered while securing the Sinhala Buddhist ethnocratic elitist state order, which was founded on ethnic entitlements and nationalist rhetoric, turning the state into a “[e]thnic provocateur”. Tamils were at the mercy of Sinhala Buddhists. The government sat over these mass massacres and pogroms without intervening.
Back then and now, it is about racial justice. Elites used the identity card to intoxicate the people to distract and maintain themselves in power. Racial injustice has morphed into religious injustice against Muslims. It has now morphed further into economic injustice. Against this background the words, therefore, of President Ranil Wickremesinghe have to be taken in with great caution when he called upon the military to restore law and order by all means. It is the same man who is associated with the Batalanda torture camps. Is there any chance that the state violence would erupt again to turn into another Black July? The state apparatus is militarised. It could be capable anything to maintain the status quo.
Third World elitism, postcolonality and racialised governance
A perception of elitism, patronage and a lack of democratic culture was brought about by the establishment of indigenous authority, which was centred on the building of identities. Harshan Kumarasingham explains that “Sri Lanka’s elite operated British institutions in an anachronistic eighteenth-century manner such as in having a patronage-based Cabinet dominated by its prime ministerial leader/patron rather than by collegial attitudes or values. The weakness of party institutionalisation and the ambiguity in the constitutional arrangements laid the foundations for future political conflict and marginalisation of segments of society.”
The elites of the island nation have been making use of identity politics ever since to maintain their grip to power to create a comfortable ecosystem of clientele politics. Be it D.S. Senanayake, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, J.R. Jayewardene or Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, they were not mistakes of history. Their loyalties lie with global financial capital. They are part and parcel of the manipulation of the international law and the perpetuation of hegemony. To build counter-hegemonic resistance, the population needs to realise that our resistance roots in common suffering at the hands of the elite that has used the differences in the country for their neoliberal paradigm of a post-colonial society. This neoliberal paradigm had assisted in building a world economy that submits to Western institutions and international laws.
Instead of campaigning for political reform Sri Lanka’s elites, particularly the Sinhala elites, were more interested in gaining access to the administration and bureaucracy that the British had previously dominated. The national leadership did not need to make a public call for support in order for there to be a mass movement. However, there was significant mobilisation in support of other causes that were frequently related to matters of ethnicity and religion. The fact that elites in Sri Lanka have networks that straddle sectors and classifications is one of their distinguishing characteristics. Through social and familial networks, political power and private capital are strongly correlated. The fact that economic expansion, particularly in the private sector, has mostly been restricted to the rich Western Province, and more specifically the Colombo area, makes the situation even worse.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the end, could depend on support of the Rajapaksa clan, which organised the majority. In turn he could shield them from investigations. He has appointed an ally of the Rajapaksa family as new prime minister. The elite does not betray each other to safeguard their wealth. The battle had many different forms but its main goal was to establish the identity and self-serving providence of the Sinhala people. Identity politics served as a ruse for Third World elites to divert attention, block progress and profit themselves while ethnic rivalries contributed to the post-colonial era’s corruption of solidarity. State capture is a phenomena that has not just occurred in Sri Lanka; governments in other Third World nations are exact replicas of Sri Lanka’s. But it wasn’t until injustice became personal, when hunger and empty bellies became intolerable, that the understanding set in that “they” had also deceived “us.” Will the current turmoil result in critical uprising?
The militarisation of the public space in the aftermath of the war serves one purpose – advertising racial hegemony to the local Sinhala person and demonstrating supremacy within strict and rigid racial parameters. But in fact they have been solely a theatre behind which the elite has empowered and enriched itself. It created an architecture of corruption built on the toxic soil of racism, religious fundmentalism, supremacist biopower and militarism. The search for justice is interconnected. There cannot be racial justice without economic justice. Capitalism depends on inequalities. Racism enshrines it. The moment has come for not only one people but all peoples to challenge, resist and overcome the hegemony of a corrupt Third World elite who never served the peoples but only themselves, pitting the people against each other.