Thursday, 1 June 2023 01:27 –      – 21

Among the many tragic stories that Sri Lankans are familiar with, the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, 42 years ago, stands out as one of the most heinous of crimes. 1 June 1981, the day the library was set on fire, is not one any rationally thinking Sri Lankan can remember without remorse and anger. The fire burnt to the ground over 95,000 volumes, invaluable manuscripts, rare first edition books, microfilms, etc.

The fire was no accident but a deliberate act by a group of policemen, angry at the killing of two of their colleagues by members of a militant group the previous night and emboldened by the presence of several powerful UNP politicians who were in Jaffna in the run up to the District Development Council (DDC) elections in the district scheduled for 4 June.

The burning took place amidst heightened tensions in Jaffna with the UNP determined to win the DDC polls by hook or by crook, which resulted in the monumental tragedy which till today pulls at the heart strings of Sri Lankan Tamils and all right-thinking people in the country. The UNP’s leading candidate for the election S. Thiagarajah had been shot dead by a gunman on 24 May which prompted the Government to bring in additional police personnel numbering around 1,000 into the Peninsula and a Commission of Inquiry appointed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2002 concluded that “there is material evidence to conclude some of these police officers were responsible for the destruction of the Jaffna Public Library.”

Since the burning of the library, Sri Lanka has seen a great deal of bloodletting and relations between the two main communities in the country – the Sinhalese and Tamils – remain broken-down. The anger and mistrust are understandable given the lack of accountability in the country for this and other crimes orchestrated by the State.

There has been no proper inquiry into the burring of the library to this day nor have any statements been recorded relating to the incidents. While the Government of the day failed to carry out proper inquiry or prosecute anyone for the crime, successive governments have done no better and allowed those involved to go scot free. There is no doubt that the library burning escalated the growing militancy among Tamil youth which led to the decades of civil unrest in the country and deaths of thousands.

Holding State actors and those in power accountable is not a strong point in Sri Lanka and the country has shied away from addressing uncomfortable questions hoping that with the passing of time they die a natural death. In reality such questions may not be on people’s minds every day, but they remain etched in their hearts and minds and will not be forgotten unless those reasonable for such crimes are brought to book.

Justice delayed, is justice denied is the well-known maxim but in cases such as the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, it is not too late to open an inquiry and reveal to the country the truth of what happened on that fateful day and identify those responsible for this grave crime.

If there is a place from which to begin addressing accountability in the country, the burning of the library is a good place. Some of those behind it may no longer be alive while many eyewitnesses too may not be around but there is still hope that the truth can be established even at this late stage. Building trust among communities is a slow process but not unachievable if there is genuine effort on the part of the authorities to address past crimes.


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