After Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made an apology in Parliament on December 5 over the burning down of the Jaffna Library in 1981, some had criticized him saying that it was an unintended and off-the-cuff apology, which is true.
Some argue that it was just a snarky retort of the Opposition heckling in the House.
If the members of the Joint Opposition had not recalled during their heckling of the Prime Minister that the library was set on fire during a UNP regime, he definitely would not have apologized to it, they argue. However, it similarly seems to be an apology not made in two minds or against his conscience.
In spite of the UNP’s unwillingness to admit the guilt or to repent publicly for the culpability of its former leaders in the arson attack on this precious collection of human knowledge, due to political reasons during the initial years of the conflict, the majority of the South was ashamed of that horrendous crime.
Not a single person in the South including the leaders and the supporters of the UNP had attempted to justify the destruction of the priceless library during the past thirty five years. Hence, the regret by the leaders of the UNP then or now over this incident cannot always be deemed to be insincere.
What is important is that the Prime Minister has apologized, though in passing, for the dastardly crime not only committed during a UNP regime but also the UNP leaders had been accused of.
As a learned man who is said to love books he would not have been reluctant to do so and most probably would not withdraw what he had said.
Media had already carried it to the people. Therefore it would have made at least a slight impact on the southern psyche which is important in search of reconciliation. On the other hand, the UNP has to defend now its leader’s stance on the matter.
Former Spokesman of the Jathika Hela Urumaya and the current Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila had said that the Prime Minister had apologized on behalf of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a report prepared by a former IGP had said that the library was burnt down by that organization.
However, his erstwhile colleague and the national organizer of the JHU Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe had appreciated the Premier’s magnanimity in apologizing, while calling for reciprocity on the part of the Tamil leaders for the destruction of temples by the Tamil armed groups. Also it was while Gammanpila was among the top leaders of the JHU that his party General Secretary and the then Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka apologized to the Tamils in June 2010 for the same arson attack on the library.
Ranawaka made his apology when the JHU leaders visited the Jaffna Public Library on June 21, 2010 to hand over books worth more than Rs. 2 mn donated by well-wishers to Ven. Maharagama Mahinda Thera. Ranawaka called the burning down of the library an ‘unpardonable and disgraceful’ attack carried out by ‘violent elements within the UNP’.
He also said that it was unfortunate that the attack came from identified UNP elements belonging to “our” community.
The Jaffna Public Library stood as an educational and cultural monument for decades. It was one of the finest in South Asia, serving as a repository of rare archival material written in palm leaf manuscripts (ola), original copies of regionally important historic documents on the political history of Sri Lanka and newspapers that were published more than a hundred years ago in the Jaffna peninsula.
It was said that there were more than 95,000 books in the library at the time of the arson attack. It had thus become a place of historic and symbolic importance to the local Tamil people.
The first and the only District Development Council elections were scheduled for June 4, 1981 throughout the country, which were marred by violence allegedly orchestrated by the ruling UNP.
The last meeting of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) campaign for that election at Nachchimar Koviladi in Jaffna on May 31, 1981 was disrupted by the goons and Policemen who went berserk following an attack by PLOTE gunmen, who shot dead three Policemen and injured another two at the site of the meeting.
The thugs who were said to have arrived on a truck at the dead of night, had set fire to the library buildings.
They also set fire to the head office of the main Tamil political party in the north and the east, the TULF in Jaffna and then looted about a hundred Tamil owned houses and shops before setting some of them ablaze as well.
The house belonging to TULF Parliamentarian, V. Yogeswaran was destroyed. The office and the press of the Tamil language newspaper Eelanadu were burnt to the ground.
It was said that they also defaced or demolished a number of statues of Tamil cultural and religious figures erected at junctions in the town.
On election day six ballot boxes went missing and were never found.
Interestingly, the DDC system was the first ever power sharing mechanism in the effort to solve the national question.
However, the UNP leaders who brought in the system, instead of instilling confidence in the Tamil people through their mechanism, ruined the little confidence on their own mechanism as well as on the coexistence that was still remaining in Tamil people, due to their arrogance borne out of the five sixths of Parliamentary power they wielded then.
The thugs it appeared were first motivated by the political ambitions of their master, the UNP led by President J.R. Jayewardene, and then by racism instigated by the immediate leaders of the mob.
Thus, the UNP had a double obligation in apologizing to the Tamils in this regard.
However, the party which still enjoys more Tamil support than any other national party never before the Prime Minister made his apology on December 5 thought it was fit to say at least just “sorry” to the Tamils for the crime committed about three decades ago.
That is the significance of Prime Minister’s apology, though in passing and long belated.
Apart from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Minister Champika Ranawaka President Chandrika Kumaratunga also had apologized to Tamils, but for a more horrendous crime, the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, which is generally known as “Black July.”
It was not made off-the-cuff or due to circumstantial drive, rather it was a well-planned and fully conscious apology. She made this apology in a special address to the nation as the leader of the State on July 23, 2004 to mark the 21st anniversary of the 1983 pogrom.
Even then 1983 riots are not the entire history of ethnic strife. There had been thousands of incidents and instances for which leaders of various communities had to apologize to each other communities. It is also true that no such clear reciprocal gestures had been shown so far by the Tamil leaders as Warnasinghe had stated above.
But, we could recall that TNA leader R. Sampanthan and Spokesman of that party M.A. Sumanthiran calling upon the Tamil people recently to look at the recent history retrospectively, which was a welcome sign.
Thus leaders from either side of the ethnic divide on various occasions have shown their willingness to heal the wounds of the ethnic strife.
However, since they had made these isolated efforts at occasions years or sometimes decades apart and no one had come forward to supplement or reciprocate them, they had been buried in the sands of time or destined to be so.
Hence, they need to make their efforts collectively, reciprocally and comprehensively covering all crimes related to the ethnic conflict.