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Compensation for Sri Lankan Tamil victims of 1983 pogrom

By V.S. Sambandan

COLOMBO, JULY 20 . The Sri Lankan Government today announced a compensation package of Rs. 72.3 millions for the victims of the island-nation's worst anti-Tamil pogrom, which took place 22 years ago.

The first instalment of the compensation is to be handed over personally to 30 victims by the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, on July 23. A total of 937 victims identified by a Presidential Truth Commission on Ethnic Violence are to be compensated before the end of August, the President's office said. The Commission, which submitted its findings and recommendations to Ms. Kumaratunga on September 30, 2002 wanted "victims, their dependents or heirs to be compensated as a matter of right and not as a matter of charity.''

The compensation is to be given to the 30 victims on the eve of the 22nd anniversary of the July 1983 State-backed anti-Tamil pogrom, which shook the island between July 24 and July 28, 1983. During those four days, which earned the month the epithet `Black July', Tamils and their properties in Colombo and other parts of the island outside the Tamil-majority northern and eastern districts were targeted by gangs of attackers armed with knives and sickles. The targeted killings and violence, triggered an exodus of Tamils from the island, drew international condemnation and considerably escalated the island's Tamil militancy.

A Tamil political leader, welcoming the move as one that was overdue and "something is better than nothing,'' hoped that priority would be given to the poorest among the refugees. "The first help should go to those who have lived their lives as refugees for the past 22 years without any other means,'' he said.

The memory of July '83, however, continues to rankle its survivors in Colombo. "Even now I am uncomfortable when I see a crowd,'' said a Tamil survivor, who was saved by a Sinhalese colleague. Though the violence was targeted on Tamils, "even those who looked like Tamils were attacked,'' he said.

The pogrom started on the evening of July 24 after the bodies of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers, who were killed in ambush by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the northern Jaffna peninsula the previous day, were brought to Colombo for the last rites.

The compensation announced today is being administered by the Ministry of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation — headed by Ms. Kumaratunga — which is "in the process of contacting the persons now domiciled overseas,'' the President's office said. The Presidential Truth Commission, which recommended the compensation comprised the retired Chief Justice, S. Sharvananda, the President's Counsel, S.S. Sahabandu, and M.M. Zuhair.

Debates on media

Parliament, in its first day of business today since the April 2 Parliamentary polls, witnessed heated exchanges between the Government and the Opposition on the role of the state and private media institutions.

The highpoint of the over six-hour debate were remarks made by a debutant MP from the LTTE-backed Tamil National Alliance (TNA) who criticised a Tamil Cabinet Minister and held out a warning on the consequences of a return to war. The remarks — condemned by the ruling United Freedom People's Alliance (UPFA), the Opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) comprising Buddhist monks — were expunged.

Taking offence against the expunged comments, made by S. Gajendran (TNA) the Government, the Opposition and the JHU said they were not in accordance with Parliamentary democracy. Other Tamil MPs, particularly the debutants from the eastern Batticaloa district — S. Jeyanandamoorthy and P. Ariyanethiran — highlighted the threats faced by eastern Tamil journalists as a result of the continued violence in Batticaloa.

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