Posted on July 24th, 2021

Excerpted from SDIG (Retd.) Edward Gunawardena’s memoirs Courtesy The Island

The burning of the Jaffna public library in 1981 is not only a controversial subject, it is a sensitive one. Much has been written on it mainly for propaganda purposes and political advantage. It is significant that nobody who was a witness to the incident or was even present in Jaffna at the time of the incident has written anything on the subject.

Having kept mum for three decades, except once in 2006 when I was compelled to come out with the truth when an admirer of Anton Balasingham, writing to a Sri Lankan newspaper, alleged that I was responsible for the burning of the library, I decided that I should write particularly to dispel the untruths clouding this event; of what I witnessed, what I came to know of and the deductions and conclusions I arrived at particularly with my training and experience as an intelligence officer. I will elaborate this later in this chapter.

I thought the best way to make a start on this all important narrative is to present the reader with a reminder of the common perceptions regarding the burning of the library that existed in the eighties and even prevails to the present day. An article on the subject that appeared in a Sri Lankan newspaper in 2008 projecting the common perceptions in a nutshell provided me with a suitable platform to commence this effort.

‘Burning Memories’

A journalist named Aboorvan Prabanjana (I don’t know whether this was a real name or a pseudonym) writing on ‘Tamil Matters’ in the Sunday Lakbima of October 16. 2008, has opened his article titled, ‘Burning Memories’, thus: The burning of the Jaffna library in 1981 is an event that has left indelible imprints in the minds of Sri Lankan Tamils. It marked the destruction of the intellectual heritage preserved down the ages by the Jaffna community. It is now an open secret that the crime was plotted and perpetrated by the politicians of the then ruling party”.

This article written twenty 27 years after the event has been meant primarily to draw attention to a documentary film entitled ‘Burning Memories’ directed by one S. Someetharan. Among other things this article alleges:


Mobs brought to Jaffna from the southern part of the country allegedly led by a prominent politician of the then ruling party who was active during the campaign for the District Development Council elections of 1981, created a frenetic situation in Jaffna. The mobs were reportedly aided by the police. They set fire to several important buildings in the Jaffna town including the public library”.


President Ranasinghe Premadasa who in a public speech hinted about the culprits responsible for the wanton act, speaking at a Muslim College in Puttalam in October 1991, in the aftermath of the impeachment against him sponsored by the UNP dissidents Lalith Athulatmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, reportedly said,

During the District Development Council elections in 1981, some of our party members took people from other parts to the North, created havoc and disrupted the elections in the North. If you wish to find out who burnt the priceless collection of books in the Jaffna library you have only to look at the faces of those opposing us”.

The above assertions of Prabanjana, to me who was an eye witness to the happenings in Jaffna including the library going up in flames, are baseless and unsubstantiated. The present generation has been fed on writings of this nature and made to believe that mobs, politicians and police officers were the culprits. All these assertions have to be critically looked at without bias to arrive at any reasonable conclusion as to Who burnt the Jaffna library”.

In the penultimate paragraph of Prabanjana’s article he has made an observation on the formal opening of the renovated library, an observation that will become increasingly significant as we go along. The narrator of Someetharan’s documentary has stated that the renovated library began to function without any formal opening as opposition grew to the Government’s and Municipal Council’s willingness to declare open the library”.

But Prabanjana, wittingly or unwittingly adds, There is however another version of this story relating to the canceled opening ceremony which the documentary fails to mention. Many a ‘Dalit’ activist has pointed out that the move to declare open the library faced strong opposition because the event was to be headed by the then Jaffna Mayor Sellan Kanthaiyah who was from an oppressed caste. It is said that those who belonged to the dominant caste in Jaffna could not tolerate the public library being declared open under the chairmanship of a ‘low caste’ man”,

The question that comes to my mind and should to any prudent person is: if the dominant caste in Jaffna (vellala) could not tolerate a ‘low caste’ man opening the renovated library, with what restraint would the ‘low caste’ non vellala community have for decades tolerated the existence of the library which was symbolic of the intellectual and social superiority of the vellalas? Did they bide their time and wait for an opportune moment to destroy this symbolic edifice of the Hindu aristocracy? It was the oppressed non vellala castes that comprised the bulk of the Prabahakaran led LTTE.

To this LTTE with its unquestionable caste foundation the destruction of the intellectual heritage preserved down the ages”, was of little or no consequence. In fact it was not too long ago that the library was the exclusive preserve of the Vellalas. There is reason to believe that Prabahakaran and his young followers imbued with Marxist thinking would have viewed the public library symbolic of the establishment — the intellectually and socially superior elite Hindu vellala aristocracy. This was indeed a major stumbling block to the forward march of ‘the boys’. They certainly could not have had any qualms even of destroying this symbol if it were to give a turbo-boost to their ambitions.

The Beginnings of LTTE Terrorism

The lies and dubious assertions – all of which can be countered by facts – repeated over and over again even in our not so prestigious parliament, by individuals who pose as intellectuals interested in the so-called ethnic question and by mercenary NGO’s have come to be believed without question. The propagandists of the LTTE undoubtedly got maximum mileage out of the burning of the library as people in Sri Lanka and abroad had been made to believe that it was the work of Sinhalese politicians, police officers and goons.

More importantly, the present generation believes or has been made to believe that the LTTE’s quest for a separate state of Eelam through a war characterized by terrorism was motivated solely by acts such as the burning of the library and the anti-tamil riots of 1983.

If I were to recount briefly from memory, sporadic acts of terrorism began to emerge particularly with the promulgation of the Republican Constitution of 1972. As far back as May 1972 attempts were made by militant youths to topple a key high-tension electricity tower and also kidnap the children of a Tamil cabinet minister, Chelliah Kumarasuriyar.

Organized Terrorism

Organized Terrorism began to emerge by the mid-seventies. Alfred Duraiappah was personally assassinated by Prabahakaran. Police officers including retired officers and police informants began to be brutally killed. Robberies of banks, co-operatives, petrol filling stations and even passenger bus collections had become the order of the day.

Before the end of the seventies the LTTE had advanced to become a well-knit terrorist outfit that was seeking world attention. The meticulous planning that went into the explosion of the Air Ceylon Avro aircraft on Sept. 7, 1978 showed that the ‘boys’ had come of age. Fortunately the plan misfired. The explosion that was planned to take place over the Galle Face Green when the ceremonies connected with the promulgation of the new constitution were taking place, in fact occurred before the Avro took off from Ratmalana. Had it exploded as planned it would certainly have hit the world headlines like the Lockerbie crash.

Another sensational act of terrorism in the same year, in April if I remember right, was the brutal killing after much torture of IP Bastiampillai, SI Perampalam, PS Balasingham and PCD Siriwardena at Murunkan. The first information was of four decomposing bodies received by the Intelligence Services Division (ISD) of the Police of which I was the Director at the time.

It was about this time, 1979 to be more precise, when I was the Director of Intelligence that I accompanied Brigadier ‘Bull’ Weeratunga to Jaffna. His mandate from President Jayewardene was ‘to eliminate terrorism from the peninsula’. But the militant youths who began to be hunted down fled to India where they continued their training by Indian and the PLO experts on terrorism. By 1981 most of the trained youths had returned to commit murders and robberies with impunity. Their ranks were also beginning to swell, with more youth enamored by the adventurous nature of the movement, joining it.

It was in this atmosphere that the government decided to hold the District Development Council (DDC) elections. The Jayewardene government believed that the strengthening of the state’s hold over the peninsula by holding elections and having a democratic peripheral administration would help to break the back of the Tigers. To the latter, who by then not only had the backing of India, but had announced to the world of their existence as a formidable group of ‘freedom fighters,’ it provided a challenge of a different nature.

Anton Balasingham who by then was firmly in the saddle as the mentor of Prabahakaran was to tell the ‘boys’ that under no circumstances should the government of J.R. Jayewardene be allowed to take political control of Jaffna. The Indira Gandhi government that had strained relations with JR was also interested in ensuring that the central government did not have control over Jaffna. India wished for a manipulable power set-up in the North of Sri Lanka. Indian intelligence, (RAW) – Research and Analysis Wing – had been given the task of disrupting the DDC elections. I shall later recall an incident where I had an encounter with a RAW agent during the elections in Jaffna.

Reaching maturity

It is indeed significant that when the eighties commenced the separatist movement of the Tigers had reached a high degree of maturity. Splinter groups had been eliminated and Prabahakaran who had built up an image as a strong and dynamic leader had become the supreme commander. Uma Maheswaran who believed that a separate state could be achieved by resorting to urban guerilla tactics had lost his appeal.

Prabahakaran firmly believed that a well planned multi-pronged approach was required. He had realized the need for a sound theoretical base that would appeal to the youth, the importance of the collection of funds and getting the support of the western world where there were Tamils in influential positions in many cities. Above all he was determined to make the world know that the LTTE had launched a liberation struggle for the oppressed Tamil people.

The shrewd Prabahakaran also realized that to win the sympathy of the West he had to demonstrate an affinity with the Catholic faith. By indirectly portraying the Vellalas as the protectors of the Hindu tradition he had successfully won over the Catholic bishops to his cause. Dr. Anthonypillai Stanislaus Balasingham, a Catholic Marxist theoretician married to an Australian radical had become

Prabahakaran’s main propaganda organizer. Pamphlets craftily authored by Balasingham even with a map demarcating the boundaries of the proposed Eelaam were being circulated in all western capitals. These were freely available even in Pettah, Wellawatta and Wattala.

Balasingham who authored a book entitled, Towards a Socialist Eelaam”, was also a member of the Communist Party of Britain. A keen student of world terrorist movements he had hardened himself as a brutal strategist not opposed to the killing of non — Christians for the furtherance of the movement he represented. Had he not died before the war ended in 2009, perhaps he would have successfully used his clout with powerful elements in Europe, America and Canada or even Australia to provide safe passage out of the country for Prabahakaran, Nadesan and others.

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