Jaffna Library Fire - A Response to Gamini Gunawardena’s Comment


As a colleague and friend I was pleased to read Gamini Gunawardena’s article in the Sunday Island of 24th February entitled, Jaffna Library Fire — A Comment. However, this is more than a comment, consuming a whole page of a broad sheet newspaper. I hope to be brief, but comprehensive.

Gamini has faithfully answered a call of duty. Tyrell Gunatillake (TG) apart from being his senior and boss in the CID was a man much admired by him. Indeed, TG was GG’s role model.

At the outset I must thank him for not venturing to contradict the gravamen of Chapter XI of my book as to who burnt the Jaffna Library. More importantly I appreciate the sober and temperate manner in which he has presented his arguments. This is in striking contrast to the impolite and vituperative language used by at least one of the earlier critics of my book. In this respect GG must necessarily stand out with his admirable Peradeniya and Harvard background.

At the time of the burning of the Jaffna Library by his own admission GG was neither in Jaffna nor in the CID. Nor is GG specific about the post that T.G. held in 1981. Giving several reasons GG concludes `it is highly unlikely that Tyrell headed any investigation into the Jaffna Library fire or that he enjoyed any special confidence of President Jayewardene.

As for me I am absolutely certain that TG, whatever post he held in the CID or elsewhere, in fact headed, a team of investigators hand-picked by him from the CID, not for an investigation to arrest suspects and obtain evidence for a prosecution but the limited purpose of immediate damage control. With Jaffna politicians (not the LTTE leaders) pointing the finger at government politicians TG’s assigned task was to find some evidence and take me into custody. One screaming headline ‘DIG to be questioned re the Jaffna Library Fire’, would certainly have diverted the focus of attention from the accused government ministers to an official of no importance. This was not to be, as no police officer was prepared to implicate me even with promises of rewards and promotions.

GG has gone on to say that he did go to Jaffna in the aftermath of the event to audit the arms and ammunition of the Jaffna police station. This was as the commandant of the Field Force H/Q, the post he held at the time. But to conclude, "Hence, I am fairly certain that TG had no hand in the investigation", is to put it mildly, not convincing. This investigation could have had nothing to do with arms and ammunition.

As regards the’ fixing’ of Vijaya Kumaratunga as a Naxalite, l am inclined to believe GG’s version that, in fact, "it was J.R. Jayewardene, who had Vijaya Kumaratunga arrested alleging that he (VK) was involved in a Naxalite like movement". Surely to get VK arrested J.R.J. would have had reasonable evidence to convince TG. And it is highly unlikely that President JRJ would have made a false complaint.

But Vijaya Kumaratunga, "insisting that he would not sign the statement recorded by TG, unless he could not end the statement asserting that he appreciated the fair manner in which he was interrogated", is indeed hilarious. Any officer who had worked in the CID will know that this is standard procedure, a defence mechanism against a witness going back on a statement on grounds of coercive threats or inducements. It would be unethical and unfair by the police if I were to elaborate further on such police tactics.

Inasmuch as G.G. has personal knowledge of the fair and honourable manner in which VK was treated by TG I have personal knowledge of the other side of TG in a case where the stakes concerned personal professional esteem. Sixty years ago I was attached to the CID as a trainee ASP where TG was an Inspector of Police. Entrusted with the initial investigation of a murder where the first information was vague, within two days I with the assistance of the late R.C. Thavarajah (IP then) had made dramatic progress including the arrest of the suspect and the recovery of highly incriminatory productions. TG saying that I was too inexperienced to face the Supreme Court misappropriated all that I had done and claimed that for himself! The shocking impression that I got of the CID then as an institution of questionable integrity remained indelible throughout my police career. This was a landmark murder case in Sri Lanka’s annals of crime. I would certainly have liked my name inscribed in the records of this case as an investigator.

T.G. was more than a, "mere police officer." Enjoying the slavish admiration of his subordinates and some colleagues he had established a reputation as a ruthless and unrelenting investigator who took a sadistic delight in agonizing suspects in his custody. Having continuously acted as the Personal Assistant to the IGP on several occasions while holding the substantive post of Director Police Planning and Research in the early seventies, I am personally aware how even the IGP of the time was discreetly dissuaded by TG from visiting a ‘torture house’ on Paget Road off Brownrigg Road where even media reports exposed that suspects in exchange control frauds including Muthkar and Thaha were held incommunicado by the CID chained to their beds!

I am certain that GG would not have been aware of this. Had he known about this ‘torture house’ he would not have remained in the CID. Or may be that he was not in the CID at that time. GG is too honourable a gentleman to be a party to barbaric behaviour.

Contrary to what GG has opined, T.G. with the reputation he enjoyed as the shrewdest investigator in the police and with his wile and guile was infact "someone like Rasputin who went round mesmerizing top officials of the government". I am personally aware of the holy respect that top officials like Colonel Dharmapala, Menikdiwela and G.V.P. Samarasinghe had for TG even as far back as the late seventies. At that time as the Director Intelligence and member of the National Security Council I had the opportunity of associating closely with these officials. With these same officials as the President’s closest advisors, TG had no difficulty in outfoxing even the ‘Old Fox’! GG will not disagree with me when I say that the relations between the AG’s Department and the CID were such that TG was certainly to law officers of the state more than a ‘mere police officer’.

As regards the ‘successful investigation’ etc. mentioned in page 361 of the book I did in fact provide the President with a confidential report giving even the names of some of the student leaders of the JVP who were personally known to me. Perhaps it was this report that prompted the President to persuade me not to leave the country and appoint me as the Advisor to the University Grants Commission on highly attractive terms even before I had shed my police uniform.

I might also mention that of all the top officials of the time General Sepala Attygala was a most sincere, honourable and understanding person. If not for the timely warning he gave me I would have resisted and invited upon myself the wrath of TG.

True, I may have be thrown in the towel tamely. But it was indeed a honourable retirement. surprisingly as time has proved it has been a rewarding decision too. I wonder whether the public attention I receive today is a bonus!

In hindsight, as GG has reminded me in his concluding paragraph I could have and should have done many things. The recurring question is why I did not volunteer a statement earlier, particularly to the investigators. The answer is simple but many will not understand. I was the most hunted man. As mentioned earlier, the scapegoat in waiting. It would certainly have been foolish to volunteer a statement and open myself for further grilling and even detention.

Furthermore, the significance of some of the things I saw, observed, and came to know dawned on me only after stringing together with meticulous reasoning many events and factors relevant to the event. GG will agree with me that no police investigator would have been prepared to listen to me, even if I knew in the immediate aftermath of the event, of the caste factor in Jaffna society, the anti-Hindu stance of the LTTE, the Indian interests in the politics of the region or the role of R A W in the disruption of the DDC elections. I have highlighted all these in my book with quotations even from the writings of Tamil journalists. It is the indirect and circumstantial evidence buttressed by the strong motive that has made the case against the LTTE irrevocable.

Yes Gamini, there is one other thing I could have done or should have done. At the risk of being thrown out I should have defied the Presidential order and avoided going to Jaffna in May 1981. Like what many of my junior colleagues did I too could have joined the election bandwagon of Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994, claimed ‘political victimization’ and retired as the IGP with a massive packet of back wages too. I valued my honour more! Once again I raise my hat to you for gallantly stepping forward to defend a friend.

Edward Gunawardena

This topic is now closed.


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