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Sri Lanka

The Riots of July 1983

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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Informative general histories of Sri Lanka include K.M. de Silva's A History of Sri Lanka, E.F.C. Ludowyk's A Short History of Ceylon, Zeylanicus's Ceylon, S. Arasaratnam's Ceylon, and Chandra Richard de Silva's Sri Lanka: A History. Source books on medieval history are Wilhelm Geiger's translations of the Pali chronicles, the Mahavamsa and Culavamsa, and the comprehensive The Early History of Ceylon by G.C. Mendis. Highly informative for the study of modern political events and ethnic disturbances are S.J. Tambiah's Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide, and the Dismantling of Democracy, A. Jeyaratnam Wilson's Politics in Sri Lanka, and Government and Politics in South Asia by Craig Baxter, Yogendra K. Malik, Charles H. Kennedy, and Robert C. Oberst. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of October 1988