The historic public library of Jaffna, with the totality of its content, was set fire upon on 1 June 1981, by an armed group directly commanded by a cabinet minister of the Jayewardene administration. It was an act of horrendous cultural and intellectual genocide. The library was home to irreplaceable manuscripts and collections, that were all burnt in that ruthless night, fuelled by the fires of Sinhala majoritarian nationalism and the petty arrogance of political egos.
Thirty five years later, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, whose only qualification to enter politics was being a nephew of President Jayewardene, and who himself is known to have been personally associated in brutally suppressing the youth revolts in the ‘Tamil’ north/east as well as in what is loosely termed the ‘Sinhalese south’, made a passing remark in parliament, in the middle of a speech he was delivering in Sinhala (his Sinhala, needless to reiterate, is of a sorry level, and the speech was also being interrupted by the opposition benches), that himself (and consequently his party – implied in the emphatic අපි) apologises for torching the Jaffna Library in 1981.
The Sri Lankan media reported this as a formal apology extended by the prime minister about the role of his party and his (then) ministerial colleagues in burning down the library. This is simply inaccurate and wrong. He was simply making a passing comment, in order to counter allegations and accusations being thrown at him by the opposition benches. It was only a petty exit strategy to claim ‘we apologise for our past deeds, including the Jaffna Library’.
Let’s be crystal-clear – this was not a formal, solemn apology. This was all but a mere political gimmick by a petty politico from the Colombo elite, so far removed from the general public and the lived experiences of ethno-national hatred that the political class he represents is historically responsible for propagating.
It is very important for the media to be more accurate in their reporting and hold politicians into account, especially those who share substantive guilt on highly divisive issues. This is a case of giving a two-penny politico carte blanche, and of portraying him as some kind of a gentlemanly politician (which he may like to present himself as, but he is clearly not).
PS: To evoke another issue that shows the current government’s duplicitous approach to policy issues on a parallel note, it also needs to be said that the inclination among some LGBTQI activists and human rights advocates in Sri Lanka to laud the present Sri Lankan government as LGBTQI-friendly is erroneous. It is a government with LGB people, especially cis gay men, in powerful positions, but are not so willing to raise a finger for fellow LGBTQI citizens. There’s also no need to get too excited about the proposed equality clause, as it is a clause to be included in a NEW constitution, which will replace the Constitution of the 2nd Republic. The ratification of the new constitution is a long process, and there lies a long route ahead – a route replete with obstacles (which can be overcome with foresight – and whether the current government has such foresight at its helm is a different question). If those in power were keen to stand for the fundamental rights of ALL citizens, they should be working to repeal the Victorian sodomy laws NOW, and to complement the existing equality-related clauses of the current Constitution with a clear mentioning of gender identity and sexual orientation. The fact that these two vital issues are relegated to a ‘future’ constitution is itself proof that the political class, despite having powerful cis gay men in power, has next to no interest in the fundamental rights of the Sri Lankan LGBTQI community.
A long way lies ahead, for all of us. #LGBTQISriLanka #TransSriLanka #lka #fundamentalrights