Absurd and ridiculous tales -The burning of the Jaffna Library


by Maj. Gen. (retd) Lalin Fernando

"The moving finger writes and having writ moves on, none of all thy piety or wit shall lure it back or cancel half a line. Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it "(Omar Khayyam)

Retired DIG Edward Gunewardene’s (EG) book ‘Memorable tidbits and the burning of the Jaffna library’, launched recently marks a chronic trend in autobiographies. It is a shock and awe WMD type attack on the sensibilities of the readers. It has speculative assertions unsupported by verifiable facts. It appears to be based on personal agendas, festering prejudice and conjecture. The author’s rank service in the SL Police acts as an impressive spring board from which to pounce on the credulity of readers. The result? His police colleagues especially and most citizens believe silence is golden – which is also a telling response.

People in SL from June 1981 believed with very good reason that the Jaffna library was burnt down either by the then UNP government supporters from Kurunegala in retribution for the killing of Tamil UNP candidates for the DDC elections or state security personnel for the killing of three policemen on 31 May 81. Significant parts of Jaffna town were torched but brought under control by the Army and the SL Navy. No one had said anything different ever since. Until EG did.

Former President Premadasa in 1991 famously accused two of his own ministers of the wanton act. He said "During the DDC elections (1981) some of our own party members took many people from other parts of the country North and created havoc and disrupted the elections in the North. It is the same group of people who are causing trouble now also. If you wish to find out… you have only to look at the faces opposing us" The Jaffna District Minister UB Wijekoon stated unambiguously that "the library was set on fire spontaneously and not pre- planned after several UNP candidates were shot and killed" (Sunday Times) . The Hartley College and Valvettithurai libraries were later burnt in 1984. (BBC report 2010). Minister Champika Ranawaka when visiting Jaffna (24 June 2010) said it was the work of ‘goondas’. He said ‘I have to apologize and beg pardon of the Tamil community’. President Rajapaksa is quoted as having said "The UNP is responsible for large scale riots and massacres against the Tamils in 1983, vote rigging at the DC elections and the burning of the Jaffna library".

Despite above EG has 31 years after remarkably concluded that it was a ‘diabolic perpetration’ of the LTTE. This must be based on pure speculation and no less diabolically.

According to EG (page 349) "The tactics the LTTE adopted to confront the police reached a crescendo on the night of June 1 (1981) … to give them the maximum propaganda. There was nothing else for the LTTE to destroy in Jaffna than the public library. To the world the Jaffna library was symbolic of Tamil Hindu culture…and the Vellala aristocracy. But the world knew little of the rigid caste structure that dominated the social fabric of Jaffna. It was certainly not an institution to be admired or venerated by non Vellala Tamils. What better target for destruction". Was he so advised by the non Vellala Tamils or is this purely vintage EG? Certainly none of his colleagues present there told him that.

EG now rivals Channel 4 for damaging reports on SL. Nothing could have been more appropriate to harm communal relationships, energize the GTF and convince the international community than this blatantly untrue story by a senior police officer who also had a stint in Police Intelligence. It kicks the eminence granted to the LLRC report in the teeth.

He had apparently sat on his theories for 31 years while SL was left to rot being called ‘barbarians’ for this and other apparently dastardly acts. Yet EG kept mum. Was this then a confession of professional negligence or culpability that he had hidden? What compelled him to maintain silence for so long and then shatter it with what has to be the somersault of the century?

Did he then report his ‘findings’ to the IGP? No. He knew personally at least one DIG who had gone directly to President JRJ bypassing his IGP before. That however turned out with the EQD’s help to be something more revealing or was it embarrassing? So why did he not do the same with this? It was surely information of great import that would have taken SL more quickly off the international pariah list.

EG did not even inform any of the later IGPs he served under about this ‘revelation’ either. Neither did he tell his buddy the next President, Premadasa, who gave him chairmanship of the Lotteries Board in retirement. Presidents DB Wijetunge, Chandrika BK or even the present President was not taken into his confidence. This alleged war crimes exploit of the LTTE was all stored for his ‘tidbits’.

Had EG died before he wrote his piece, this wondrous tale would never have surfaced. SL would have been deprived of his life’s most profound work, if it was not found reckless. His ‘exposure’ may if it is believed bring the police specially its special branches which had thought otherwise for the same length of time, contempt and ridicule as never ever before. It surely has not. Is it because it reflects only on the former DIG? His naivety is beyond belief. His credibility is questionable. He has like many politicians, mistakenly taken the people of SL to be unrivalled country bumpkins.

EG wants readers to believe that it was the LTTE that burnt down the 93,000 book Jaffna library. The same LTTE that the world was told was venerated as saviours by all but a few of the over 30 million Tamils of SL and India, that had fought with tremendous courage that drew admiration even from its foes and which finally died fighting to the last man. Would separatist insurgents anywhere and not just this ‘most formidable terrorist organization in the world’ (CIA) that fought even the Indian army to a standstill, burn down the very symbol and pride of their people on ‘caste’ grounds and still retain its support and image as a savior? EG must think it could.

EG turned up in Jaffna just a few days before both the fatal DDC elections and the ‘burning’ took place. What took EG there when the DIG Jaffna, the enormous and jovial ‘Brute’ Mahendran, a Tamil, had been in situ from 1980. A formidable UNP civilian strike force was also sent to Jaffna at the same time. Two or three cabinet Ministers too arrived. Their names are known. Were these arrivals a mere coincidence after the fact?

Could it have been because EG or someone else had a premonition of what the likely course of events in Jaffna would turn out to be? And is it an amazing coincidence that many of the police witnesses like Mahendran are dead? Not all of them though. The writer contacted some. What they said could make readers if not EG blush.

Of course there are Tamils who have their pet theories too .They say that the pogroms of 1977 and 1983 were led by the Sinhala elite! Does this ring a bell for EG when he recounts what happened in Jaffna in 1981? It was only after 1983 that the ranks of the LTTE swelled, when over 100,000 Tamils displaced from Colombo went to Jaffna and more to India. The taunts of Lokubandara MP later Speaker of the house ‘why don’t you go back to India"? were apparently echoed shamelessly by Neville Fernando MP and Chandrapala MP (all UNP). They may have made many people, and not only Tamils, squirm.

EG recklessly gambled with his professional background when he based his deductions merely on caste. There is just one small step from caste to the giant step of race.

What has EG to say of the Tamils whether Vellala or otherwise or even those opposed to the LTTE who up to now have never blamed anyone but the Sinhalese for the ‘burnings’ not only of the library? Could it be that while Sinhala mobs rampaged without let or hindrance from the security, an incipient insurgent movement aided them?

Sadly he did not tell his (Peradeniya?) University batch mates Prof. Carlo Fonseka and Prof Gunadasa Amarasekera who were his honoured guests about it either for the same 31 years. Instead he called them for the book launch and kept mum until he sprang like a tiger. Or so we are led to believe. What was their response?

With possibly a shout of ‘eureka’ Carlo announced his mea culpa! Carlo admitted he had for 31 years been spreading nasty canards about Gamini Dissanayake‘s involvement in the burning. What was Carlo’s job that made him employ himself so diligently for nearly a half a life time to spread what he now admits were false rumours? O tempora! O mores!

Interestingly an assembly line of memoirs of retired SL service officers appears to be rolling out. Since dead men tell no tales, facts have been scattered with rare abandon to the winds. O Sri Lanka I weep for thee.

If this trend in memoirs continues, SL will very soon take an unsurpassable lead in the world in fairy tales of conflict resolution.

‘What in the name of God is this fellow doing with Napoleon’s b…s" (‘Wellington’ in ‘Black Adder’)


animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...