No July passes without Sri Lankans recalling the horrendous anti-Tamil riots in Colombo from July 25 to 30, 1983. But July has seen many more events that have shaped the island’s history. The latest events had taken place only last year, 2022.

In 2001, eight years after the anti-Tamil riots, President Chandrika Kumaratunga set up a three-man commission to go into the causes of violence in Sri Lanka between 1981 and 1984. Headed by S. Sharvananda, the commission had S. S. Sahabandu and M. M. Zuhair as its other members.

The commission submitted its report on September 30, 2002 and stated that the violations of human rights directed against the Tamils were “unquestionably the worst in Sri Lanka’s modern history.” It went on to say that “the killings, torture and harassment of unarmed Tamils went hand in glove with the more widespread destruction of and damage to Tamil homes, businesses and industries.”

“Over 75,000 Tamils in Colombo alone and nearly 100,000 in all, were temporarily located in nearly 27 refugee camps. Refugees in large numbers were sent to the North by ships since the government had failed to stop the violence which raged for a period of ten days.”

On the death toll, the report said that it had no time or facilities to gather fresh data but noted that the government acknowledged 350 dead but Tamils claimed the number of deaths to be over a thousand. The toll included 51 killed in the North by the army on July 24, the 35 Tamil prisoners killed in Welikade on July 25 and another 18 prisoners on July 27, both done by fellow prisoners.

More than 18,000 houses and numerous commercial establishments were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled the country to Europe, Australia, Canada and India, “though many Sinhalese and Muslims courageously sheltered Tamils against the politically-backed hoodlums,” the report said.

The pogrom that was triggered by the killing of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Tirunelveli (Jaffna), led to the intensification of Tamil militancy, which along with the muscular State response, devastated the country in the next 26 years.

The Sharvananda report quotes President Jayewardene’s telling the London-based ‘Daily Telegraph’ of July 12: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna people now. Now we can’t think of them. Not about their lives or their opinion about us… on terrorist issues. We are going to deal with them ourselves, without any quarter being given”.

Civil servant Devanesan Nesiah recalled in an article in ‘Groundviews’ in July 2013, that the regulation permitting the police to dispose of dead bodies without a judicial inquiry was extended island-wide with effect from July 18, a week before the commencement of the pogrom.

On July 28, on the fifth day of violence, President Jayewardene appealed for calm over television and admitted that he had not fulfilled the promises made to the Tamils in the 1977 election manifesto. But he had no message for the victims or apologies, the Sharvananda report points out.

On July 5, 1987, Sri Lanka saw its first suicide bombing. Vallipuram Vasanthan alias Capt.Miller, an LTTE cadre, drove a truck laden with explosives into a Sri Lankan army camp in Nelliady in Jaffna killing 40 soldiers. This day was observed every year as ‘Black Tiger Day’ by the LTTE. Between 1987 and 2008, 356 called ‘Black Tigers’, had laid down their lives, 254 of them in sea operations.

The India-Sri Lanka Accord was signed by President Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on July 29, 1987. It aimed at ending the fighting between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE and laying the foundation for the devolution of power to the provinces, principally to a united Tamil-speaking North Eastern province.

Subsequently, the Sri Lankan parliament passed the 13 th. Constitutional amendment to give effect to this amidst protests outside.

The Opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led an agitation and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) took to violence. On July 30, Rajiv Gandhi was hit on the neck by a naval rating participating in the Guard of Honor at the Presidential palace given to him before his departure from the island.

Wijemuni Vijitha Rohana de Silva, the naval rating, had taken a swipe at the Indian leader’s head with his Lee-Enfield rifle butt, but only managed to graze his neck.

Rohana de Silva faced a Court Martial that charged him with attempted murder, acting contrary to navy discipline and insulting a state leader. But his defence team, made up of top lawyers like Sarath Wijesinghe, Susil Prmajayantha, Stanley Thilakaratne and Nalin Laduwahetty, argued that he was not aiming to kill Rajiv Gandhi since he did not stab him with the bayonet affixed to his rifle but only hit with the butt.

But the court martial found him guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and insulting the Indian Prime Minister. He was sentenced to six years in prison, but was pardoned by President R. Premadasa, two and a half years into his prison term.

Subsequently, he became a graduate, a professional astrologer and a seller of Buddhist and Hindu religious videos. He even contested the 2000 general election as a “Sinhala Urumaya” party candidate.

On July 18, 1996, the Mullaitivu army base in the North was overrun by the LTTE, killing 1,400 Sri Lankan troops. This was a major blow to the Lankan army which had wrested Jaffna from the LTTE only a year earlier. On July 24, 1996, bombs placed by the LTTE in railway carriages in Dehiwela, south of Colombo, killed 64 and injured 400 civilians.

The next major LTTE strike was at the Bandaranaike International Airport cum air force base at Katunayake on July 24, 2001. Fourteen LTTE Black Tiger cadres destroyed or damaged 26 military aircraft including jet fighters and choppers.

Parked Airbus civilian aircraft were also damaged causing a loss of US$ 350 million. Tourism caved in and the GDP growth became negative as a result of the attack on the country’s only international airport.

On July 29, 2017, a very controversial agreement was signed by Sri Lanka and China with the former leasing out Hambantota port for 99 years to a Chinese State-owned company for US$ 1.1 billion. Sri Lanka said that the money was needed to pay off foreign debts and that the Chinese had agreed not to use the port for military purposes.

Still, India and the West harboured apprehensions about China’s using the port as a naval base and also pulling Sri Lanka into a debt trap.

The dramatic and ignominious end of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency took place in July 2022. Gotabaya Rajapaksa would go down in history as the first Sri Lankan Head of State and government to flee from the country as a result of a public uprising.

Adversity struck Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he was in the middle of his five-year term. Mismanagement of the COVID 19 pandemic and the economy made his agenda to open “Vistas of Prosperity” for Sri Lankans, a resounding farce.

It was also in July 2022, that, for the first time in the island’s history, the offices and residences of the President and the Prime Minister were stormed and occupied by agitators.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s personal residence, housing thousands of books and works of art, was burnt to ashes by a mindless rabble demanding the removal of every one then in power. On July 13, Gotabaya Rajapaksa submitted his resignation from the Presidency.

July 2022 witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of Ranil Wickremesinghe, a National List MP whose party had not won a single seat in parliament in the general elections, becoming President, having been voted in by members of parliament, none of whom belonged to his party.

Wickremesinghe had been appointed Prime Minister by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in May 2022 following the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe became Acting President on July 13 and was elected President by Parliament on July 21. Sri Lanka had not seen political pole vaulting of this kind by any leader,previously.