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WHO BURNT THE JAFFNA LIBRARY?

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

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:

 

a)

“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”.

 

b)

“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.

 

(To be continued next week)



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Form-ation of Higher Education in Sri Lanka

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By Hasini Lecamwasam

Improving higher education in Sri Lanka is not only important, but essential and long overdue. However, seeking to achieve higher ‘quality’ by ‘form-ising’ the performance of teachers (or the practice of forcing the entire teaching-learning exercise into forms designed to communicate exactly what and what transpires in a classroom) may not be able to bring about the desired change. A new set of four forms introduced recently to this end requires, among other things, drawing up a minutely detailed plan of each and every lesson to be delivered in class, aligned with the Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs), in turn, to be aligned with the Programme Learning Outcomes (PLOs), which should all then be tied to the graduate profile, or the kind of graduate we seek to ‘produce’ at the end of it all. This may, on the surface of it, sound reasonable enough and not encourage serious debate or resistance because, after all, it is only some forms that need to be filled.

Form by tedious form, however, the teaching-learning process at state universities is becoming increasingly constricted, fragmented, monitored, controlled. In this piece, I wish to briefly ponder on the implications of these requirements and the larger trends they signal, while also attempting to reflect on what instead we may do to ensure ‘quality’ in the delivery of higher education.

The problem with form-ation

The larger ‘Quality Assurance’ (QA) landscape in which these developments take place was discussed in detail in an earlier Kuppi Talk by Kaushalya Perera. In a nutshell, QA seeks to standardise education such that study programmes can be assessed against each other, assigned numbers, and ranked accordingly. The deployment of overarching yardsticks for programmes with hugely varying mandates, methods, and content has been the subject of much critique lately the world over, not the least due to its rather warped understanding of ‘quality’ as something that can be objectively established through metrics and audits.

While I do not question the bona fide motives behind the initiative taken with the aforementioned forms, I do think serious reflection on where these developments push us in the longer term is needed. My primary reservation here has to do with the impact of this lesson-wise breakdown on the creative and democratic exercise that the teaching-learning process is supposed to entail. When each topic is broken down into such fine detail prior to the actual occurrence of the ‘lesson’ (for want of a better word), outcomes are foreclosed rather than collectively and organically evolving in the course of the ‘lesson’, which is particularly important to many of the subjects offered in the Arts Faculties. Exactly how many of us are actually quite so democratic in our classrooms is a valid question in this regard, and one I will return to. The point for me here, however, is that for those who do have a sincere commitment to such a democratic classroom environment, such forms and the limiting of the teaching-learning experience they constitute, may be tantamount to strangulation.

Even if the majority of us admit to being very controlling in our classrooms anyway, does that justify going one step further with these forms and institutionalising such control? Should not our commitment be to the emancipatory ideal, rather than simply what most are on board with? There should be meaningful space for creative, organic, and democratic teaching-learning processes to unfold for teachers who wish to make that choice, and for students to explore and think beyond the teacher’s frame of thinking. Micromanaging beyond the general content of a course (laid down in enough detail in the course syllabus) is inimical to even a possibility of democracy existing in the classroom and within the larger university space.

This complete subservience of the teaching-learning process to red tape signals a larger and troubling trend of corporatisation. Corporatisation may be defined as the restructuring of a publicly owned institution to be managed as a business place would be, with a view to privatising in the long term. In state universities, this shift is couched in the supposedly ‘progressive’ language of student-centered approaches and interactive classrooms, hijacked from the democratic pedagogy of the likes of Paulo Freire, but bereft of any of the emancipatory politics within which these methods assume meaning. Despite the use of these catch-phrases, however, such minutely detailed forms signal a return to an extremely teacher-centered model due to the absence of the possibility for students to meaningfully influence the outcome of a lesson, as it is predetermined for them.

The result, as the Kannangara report worried with remarkable foresight some 80 years ago, is students “with much knowledge and little understanding. They have not read books; they have “studied” texts. They cannot write, they produce essays after a set style. They can answer questions but not question answers … Their imagination has been stunted, their originality suppressed, their capacity for thought undeveloped, their emotions inhibited.”

What alternative can we propose?

A valid question countering what little resistance there is to form-ation asks how we can ensure the education we currently deliver is of an acceptable standard, and that everybody observes such. There seems to prevail tacit and widespread agreement that the ‘democratic nonsense’ within universities is what has allowed many to hide behind debates, deliberations, appeals to creative freedom, and so on, without actually doing their work.

In my view, this is an arbitrary causation to draw. Blaming internal democracy for negligence of duties fails to take into account the highly anti-democratic practices at universities that may better explain such behaviour.

Specifically, I think it is the rigidly entrenched hierarchy within universities that blocks the possibility of even dialogue, let alone debate, particularly when it comes to holding those higher-up in the ladder accountable for their actions (or the lack thereof, as the case may be). Hierarchy is why, among many other things, students cannot question the content or the methods chosen by their teachers. As previous Kuppi Talks have endeavoured to show, hierarchy is silently, and therefore very effectively, observed at every level, ensuring the trumping of students by teachers, juniors by seniors, women by men, minorities by the majority, and originality by tradition. It impedes questioning, stifles dissent, and smothers alternative thinking altogether. The problem, therefore, is not that we have too much democracy in universities, but too little of it.

We must make a sincere and sustained effort to radically democratise the university space by relaxing the classroom to allow open and honest exchange between students and teachers; changing the relations of power between seniors and juniors, starting with undoing the practice of deferential treatment; refusing to tolerate snide and not-so-subtle references to ways of dressing and similar gendered remarks; questioning the exclusive use of the majority language in official communications, as a starting point. In doing so, we would be subverting the crippling hierarchy that inhibits thought and practice within the university. Such a radical change geared towards improved quality through mutual accountability, for me, is the only acceptable way of introducing accountability to a space that, admittedly, sorely lacks it.

(Hasini Lecamwasam is attached to the Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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THE LOGIC OF PRESIDENT’S PLEDGES IN NEW YORK

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by Jehan Perera

The significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly, in New York, last week, was his use of the time allocated to him to provide an outline of the government’s policies towards the main challenges besetting the country. The President covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included measures to contain the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence. In the final section of his well-crafted speech, the President went into some depth regarding the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response within the country, has been muted and for good reason. Those who voted for the government, on an entirely different platform, which emphasised ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments, are quite probably at a loss.

It is only recently that the government has started to speak in terms of reconciliation and obtaining international support for it. At the two elections that brought this government to power, the Easter Sunday bombing and the consequent threat to national security, took centre stage. The majority, who voted for the government, did so to protect it from a variety of security threats they were told of, both within and outside the country. The wretched failure of the previous government to prevent the bombing, the first terrorist act of any magnitude since the war ended a decade earlier, was attributed to the personal weakness of the then government leaders. It was also attributed to the 19th Amendment which sought to give state institutions protection from use for partisan reasons by government politicians and to consequent disintegration of the system of command and control.

A second theme, at the two elections, was depiction of ethnic and religious minorities as potential security threats. This stemmed from the country’s experience of three decades of internal warfare with the armed Tamil separatist movements. This was followed by the Easter bombings by extremists from the Muslim community, who were feared to be having a vast support base both internally within the country and also externally. In these circumstances, the re-centralisation of power within the government hierarchy and greater role given to the security forces, received public acceptance as being part of the government’s democratic mandate. At the same time, by denying the equally legitimate concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities, the electoral results demonstrated the existence of an acute polarisation, and wound, in the body politic that continues to fester to the point of bringing in involuntary and imposed international interventions.

EU MONITORING

The challenge for the government is to represent the interests of all communities and not only the majority who voted it into power. The problem is that the government’s mandate comes, by and large, from the vote of the ethnic and religious majority in a country that has been polarised on ethnic and religious lines, for many decades. An ugly part of this reality is that in the prisons are several hundreds of Tamils and Muslims for the most part who are in custody for periods ranging from a few months to many years without trial. They are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, ostensibly until the security forces find adequate evidence to put them before the courts of law. This contradicts the rule of law and the presumption in our legal system that we are innocent until proven guilty can have negative consequences.

In June this year, the EU parliament passed a resolution that the GSP Plus tariff privileges, made available to Sri Lanka should be withdrawn unless the government fulfilled its obligations in regard to the upholding of human rights. The resolution, expressing “deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations”, and makes specific reference to the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The resolution notes the “continuing discrimination” against and violence towards religious and ethnic minorities, while voicing “serious concern” about the 20th Amendment passed in 2020, and the “resulting decline in judiciary independence, the reduction of parliamentary control, and the excessive accumulation of power with the presidency”. It also highlights “accelerating militarisation” of civilian government functions in Sri Lanka.

A delegation from the EU is currently in Sri Lanka to meet with members of the government, Opposition and civil society, to ascertain whether the country is fulfilling its obligations to be a beneficiary of EU trade benefits. It is likely that the delegation will be provided with evidence of human rights violations and acts of impunity. There are hundreds of persons languishing in prisons without being put on trial, many of whom are Tamils, suspected to be LTTE members, and more of them are Muslims, suspected of having links with the Easter bombings. When questioned in parliament about the latter, the minister in charge justified those detentions on the grounds that Muslim youth, including the Muslim parliamentarian who had questioned him, could contain Islamic State ideology in their heads and therefore be security threats.

NEW DIRECTION

At the last elections, the most potent theme was the failure of the then government to act effectively to protect the country from the Easter suicide bombings and the pressures from human rights actors in Geneva. Among the issues that loomed large at the last election was also the charge that the previous government was giving in too much to the Muslim community within the country. The fact that the Easter attacks were by Muslim suicide bombers added force to this charge. The prioritisation of national security in the election campaign had popular support. The influential religious clergy, associations of professionals and mass media also joined the battle in earnest and their messages reinforced one another. The recent debate in Parliament suggests the government’s thinking continues to be in sync with the mandate it received at those elections.

However, in his speech in New York, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown signs of diverging from the politics of the past. The President said “Fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace. So too is ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development. It is my Government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. We are ready to engage with all domestic stakeholders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the United Nations, in this process.” However, the President’s speech continues to be at variance with the ground realities at the present time and the general manner of governance since the President took office in November 2019.

So far the pledge of a new direction is articulated in words. The time for the government to make the President’s words real and act accordingly is now. This will help to overcome the deep and dark cynicism that has enveloped the country regarding promises made by politicians. The first step would be to apply the logic of the Justice Minister in Parliament. Replying to an Opposition Parliamentarian who called for the arrest of Minister Lohan Ratwatte who stands accused of entering a prison and threatening prisoners with his gun, the justice minister said that everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This also applies to the hundreds of Tamils and Muslims in jail without evidence to charge them in a court of law. The better way to deal with the threats to national security is to win the confidence of all the communities in the Sri Lanka by treating them without discrimination, as children of one mother, as our national anthem proclaims.

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Face shields, sans masks, on TV shows!

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Face shield ONLY does not provide protection from Covid-19

Covid-19 has claimed many lives, in our part of the world. Quite a few musicians, too, have had to face the music, where this deadly virus is concerned.

However, one is perturbed with the setup seen on some of our TV shows, especially where musicians are concerned.

The Covid-19 guidelines are never adhered to – no masks, no social distancing, etc.

There were reality shows held, post pandemic, where judges were seen even hugging their favourite contestants – with no masks.

With the virus turning deadly, some of the judges took to only wearing face shields. And, we now know the results of their stupidity.

By their irresponsible behaviour (wearing only face shields), they seem to be setting a trend for others to follow.

The question being asked is what are the health authorities doing? Why haven’t such folks been taken to task!

If the man on the street is arrested for not wearing a mask, how come these law-breakers go scot-free!

If wearing a mask is a hassle in an air conditioned setup, then such shows should be put on hold, or held virtual…live stream, zoom, from home, etc., and not with the participation of several artistes, in a studio.

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