Apology to the Victims of Black Friday and the Nation
The 21st Anniversary of Black July
Colombo, Sri Lanka
June 23, 2004
I would like to first welcome all of you here today on this occasion when we commemorate one of the most shameful crimes ever perpetrated on this nation. Today is the 21st anniversary of what we commonly call ‘Black July’ of 1983. We know what occurred on that day and I don’t think I need to remind anyone of you here of the details of that day and the week that followed. Twenty one years is a long time, but I’m happy that at least today I have the opportunity to correct, even in a small way the tragedy that was perpetrated upon some of the Tamil people of this country.
Many years after 1983, my Government had the occasion to appoint the Truth Commission under the distinguished chairmanship of former Chief Justice, Mr. S Sharvananda and two other distinguished members, Mr. M M Zuhair and Mr. S S Sahabandu, both legal luminaries; and that we were able even to some extent to elucidate the details of the incidents that occurred on those days. I dare say much of the facts were not available to the Commission because of the long period that had ensued between ‘83 and the appointment of the Commission in the year 2001. Whatever representations and facts that were made available to them, I am aware the Commissioners went into in great detail and took much trouble to investigate these complaints placed before them. And as you know they have been able to find evidence of what was nearly a 1000 killings during that period and I believe 18,000 properties were destroyed, mainly by fire, and thousands of others were injured in incidents of violence. We suppose that there must have been many more incidents that have not been reported to the Commission, simply because there is nobody to report them anymore, either in this world or in this country.
The Commission has recommended certain amounts of monetary compensation to these victims of the various forms of violence. I must hasten to say that we do not believe that these small amounts of monetary compensation will in any way make up for the suffering undergone by those people. It is only symbolic of what the State wishes to do or say to those people, it is only symbolic of the apology that we wish to make to all those victims who have been identified and whose who may never be identified. The consequences of those incidents are horrendous. I don’t think I need to elaborate, those of you who are here are only too well aware of it. Over 700,000 Tamil people out of a total of about 1.2 million Tamil people living in this country at the time had to run away and find homes in other countries. Amongst these we count some of the best qualified professionals of Sri Lanka; committed qualified professionals and decent people. In addition these incidents of 21 years ago have radically changed the entire fabric of Sri Lankan society. From the top, right down to the bottom, vertically, horizontally and entirely. Violence became a major tool of socio-political behaviour in this country since then. Violence has rulers, leaders and those who govern; and thereafter in consequence many others have learned to use this tool of violence as a form of resolution of all problems. Sri Lanka has thereby become famous or rather infamous as one of the world’s most violent countries; All this in 21 years. As we know all nations have great achievements which they are proud of, they also have moments in their history which they need to be ashamed of. Only very few nations seem to have had the courage or the right leadership to accept the blame for their moments of shame. Some nations have done this and have been able to put their past behind them and move forward to becoming the world’s most developed nations. Many others like us have failed to look truth in the face, they have failed for some reason which I do not comprehend; maybe the sociologists and other types of researchers could tell us, tell us how to honestly and truthfully look at what happened on that fateful day in Black July 1983, the reasons that led up to this and the consequences of that day.
I believe at 21 years, one is supposed to come of age, human beings are said to come of age at 21 years. At least now I believe that we as a nation & especially the Sri Lankan State should come of age, look the truth in the face and make a national apology, first to all the victims of that day in Black July and then beyond them to the entire Nation.
Perhaps it is the responsibility of the State and the Government to engage in that exercise first and foremost, and then all of us as the Nation, every citizen in this country should collectively accept the blame and make that apology to all of you here who are the representatives or the direct victims of that violence, and through you to all the other tens of thousands who suffered by those incidents. I would like to assign to myself the necessary task on behalf of the State of Sri Lanka, the Government and on behalf of all of us; all the citizens of Sri Lanka to extend that apology. It is late but I think it is still not too late.
There is one other country… well there are several others, but I will only mention one, Germany, which also engaged in pogroms of this type, though on a much more massive scale. There was one man in that country who 61 years ago believed that he could annihilate a whole community of people in order to resolve the problems of his nation and the rest of the world. He is today called a mad man, but he managed to annihilate six million Jewish people before he could be stopped. I thank God that it did not go that far in this little Island of ours, also we don’t have so many people, but I believe honestly that what happened in 1983, the attitudes that led up to it, and the consequences are similar to what Germany suffered in the 1930’s and 40’s. We are still suffering the consequences of that day, 21 years later. Germany managed to resolve it very soon after that particular regime was done away with, and today they are marching forward as one of the worlds fiercest most democratic and developed nations.
Maybe if all of us can collectively put behind us all the little pettiness that has bound us in shackles, free ourselves from those many and numerous hatreds, jealousies that make of us little men and women, then I’m sure we could move forward towards working, living as one nation in harmony, in a search for that very necessary unity within the diversity that is Sri Lanka, the diverse ethnic communities, the diverse religious communities, and various other social groups that live together in this country.
Sri Lanka is not a new nation, we speak of a history of 2500 years, but now we know that it goes back to more than 5000 years according to recent archeological discoveries, maybe even more. We are proud we have a civilization, one of the world’s most developed civilizations, that we have had a technology that was one of the most advanced the world knew at that time, we can boast of the flourishing of the arts that had been stupendous; but somewhere down the line we lost our way and meandered off into all kinds of paths of conflict, without a vision, without knowing where we want to go, and I believe the cut-off point was the moment of Independence. We fought for our Independence together; we had great Sinhala leaders, great Tamil leaders, Muslim, Malay and Burgher leaders. Leaders of all the religions who worked and fought together, cried and laughed together, to achieve that freedom from the shackles of colonialism.
I do not venture to explain the whys and wherefores, the reasons and causes of what divided us and how we became divided, I shall leave that to the researchers and the scholars. I have also attempted to write many things about this, but this is not the moment to make exposes.
All I wish is that we can all do collectively; all I would like to ask you at this moment is that we put that unpleasant past of about 50 years or a little bit more behind us and attempt to move forward. I honestly believe we can do this successfully, but for that once again I would like to appeal to this entire nation. We cannot forget, we cannot blind ourselves to the mistakes we have made; we will have to accept collective guilt for the wrongs, and then move forward. When I say collective guilt I mean first the State of Sri Lanka for the horrors they perpetrated upon one section of our peoples, 21 years ago and at other lesser moments, but I also mean all the others on the other side of the divide who have also used young children as suicide bombers, and killed hundreds of people and caused much suffering to other people. They will have all kinds of justifications, they will say, we have been wronged so therefore we must do the same thing. I do not think any of the religious leaders here or anyone of us would accept those excuses. Those who use violence as a response to violence will have to understand as Lord Buddha has said and many others, Jesus Christ and all the other religious leaders, violence begets violence, it will never resolve the problem. It is only through understanding, love for each other, friendship and most of all understanding of each other’s problems and limitations that we can understand what has bedeviled this nation for many decades. We will have to move beyond the frontiers of our needs and our selfish requirements of what we think we should have as leaders, we will have to learn to think of our peoples, to forget ourselves, specially as leaders before anybody else, and think what the majority of our people need, even if we lose our positions of leadership, we will have to resolve this problem for our peoples.
I hope on this day, and I know that all of you here would hope and pray with me that all those who call themselves leaders, amongst the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims, the Hindus and everybody else would be able to reach at least for a brief moment that level of greatness that is required of us mere humans, those of us who pretend to be leaders to reach that greatness in order that we resolve this problem for our peoples.
We are willing to do that, I hope all the others are also ready to do that. I’m sure the Government will receive the support from all the citizens of this country, irrespective of who they are, or to what community they belong, in this enterprise which is the most difficult, the most challenging and the most dangerous any Government of this country has undertaken.
Finally I would like to thank the religious leaders who have agreed to participate in this simple ceremony with us today at short notice, to give us their blessing and their advice and their counsel. I would like mostly to thank all of you who have travelled from afar to come here today at our invitation and to be part of this occasion that we have organized. And lastly all the members of my Cabinet and the Government, the officials, the secretaries, and all the rest of you for being present here today. I would like to thank the officers of the Ministry of ‘Triple R’ for accepting to organize this function together with my officers of the President’s Office at very short notice. Today we are compensating just a handful of the victims, because we could not get together all the others, but from Monday onwards my office will be ready to undertake the task of distributing the relevant compensations to all those who would wish to present themselves, all those who have been identified in the Truth Commission Report. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my deep and sincere gratitude to Justice Sharvananda and the members and the Secretary of the Truth Commission for having painstakingly gone into all the details and the complaints that were presented to you and for having done this gigantic job with great success.
I thank you very much.