In Retrospect: Burning of Jaffna library and the genocide thread

Every nation, every ethnicity or grouping of people with a common identity has its own cultural icons that distinguish its values, aspirations and history.

No icon defined Tamil culture more than the Jaffna library, a beautiful building of immense stature and aesthetic value to the entire country.

Most important, though, was its’ significance as a centre of knowledge and learning, with 95,000 books,  the personal collections of many revered scholars, centuries-old newspapers and ancient palm leaf manuscripts that were invaluable records in the contested history of Sri Lanka.

On this day 32 years ago, the Jaffna library, and its priceless contents, were a smouldering wreck, gutted by a fire deliberately lit by raging Sinhalese mobs helped by police and encouraged by the Sinhalese Government, which openly supported the regular pogroms that killed thousands of Tamils and destroyed their businesses and homes.

Those manuscripts that define ancient Jaffna culture and those records from the lives of the famous Tamil scholars were lost forever.

As Tamil people commemorated another tragic day in their modern history this week, it is worth recording the link between the state-run persecution of Tamils today and this 1981 travesty;  a travesty not just against Tamils but against a civilised world that places inestimable value on knowledge and education.

What happened then, and what is still happening now in Sri Lanka, is a genocide, plain and simple. No ifs, not buts.

When those mobs torched the 48-year-old Jaffna library building on May 31, 1981, it was a highly symbolic attack upon Tamil culture, one meant to send a message that Tamil knowledge and learning, which was so widely-recognised and respected in the world, was being snuffed out, killed off, reduced to ashes, a black, grey nothingness that would never again blossom.

No people or government encourages and participates in the destruction of such important symbols of culture for isolated reasons. This was pre-meditated, part of a genocidal plan that, in modern terms, can be traced back to the departure of the British in 1947 and the arrival into power of a Sinhalese chauvinist movement, hell-bent on ignoring a constitution supposedly meant to  protect the Tamils and other minorities’ rights, but which was nothing more than a green light for genocide.

Of course, the world today prefers to keep discussion on Sri Lanka confined to a relatively-recent human rights issue, but, as has been said many times, keeping within this framework might suit duplicitous world powers motivated by strategic interests in south Asia but it does nothing to get to the heart of the problem.

The world’s powers could easily connect the dots of genocide by looking straight into the torture chambers, the jails, the rapes, the Israeli-like land thefts and building of new Sinhalese settlements, the permanent Sinhalese militarisation of the north and east, the destruction of Hindu temples and replacement with Buddhist shrines, and the re-naming in Sinhala of Tamil streets and villages.

Instead, by using only a human rights’ framework, they are able to avert their eyes and talk limply about the need to inquire into atrocities on both sides of a civil war and, of course,  maintain engagement with a Government accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity because, they say, it can lead to reconciliation in the country.

It is, of course, a load of codswallop. As the South African truth and reconciliation commission showed in the 1990s, there can be no reconciliation without proper truth-seeking and justice to those who have suffered for generations through institutionalised oppression.... and certainly not while the oppression continues.

This engagement of countries, such as Australia and the UK, with the Sri Lankan Government is doing nothing more than giving a brutal regime elbow-room to carry on with its’ genocide and ethnic-cleansing programs.

As the Jaffna University academic, Guruperan Kumaravadivel, observed recently, without the history of Tamil oppression and the on-going structural genocide, the story of the Tamils has little meaning. People need to look at the disenfranchisement and oppression from which the Tamil Tigers emerged to understand the situation, then and today.

As he said, the language of terror paints absolutist pictures that remove the possibility of context and history.

The language of reconciliation also hides the stark reality of a genocide that is revealed in so many ways today. It’s there  in the scars on the back of a Melbourne Tamil man tortured only last month with heated metal rods in a Sri Lankan police station; in the deaths of at least 34 journalists who have sought to uncover the truth of this ruthless Rajapaksa regime.

It’s also there in the growing numbers of Tamils undertaking life-threatening boat journeys to Australia as they flee the unrelenting terror in their lives; and sadly, it’s there in the jailings, beatings and torture of Tamil asylum-seekers cruelly returned under the illegal, inhumane policies of the Australian and UK governments.

On this day of commemoration, let us not forget the common thread that links all these despicable, undeniable human rights abuses and the smouldering ruins of the Jaffna library 32 years ago today; a thread called genocide.

Image courtesy of Myra Veres |


Trevor Grant is a former chief cricket writer at The Age, and now works with the Boycott Sri Lanka Cricket Campaign and the Refugee Action Collective.

More articles by Trevor Grant:

An endless nightmare: Asylum seekers tell of their fears of deportation
Sri Lanka: 'I was hung upside down and beaten with metal rods'
Hushing up crimes: Politics of deceptions, fabrications and lies
Big country, small heart: The story of Paartheepan Ranjini