UNP Leaders Who Set Jaffna on Fire in 1981

by Nandana Weerarathne, Facebook& Substack May 27, 2023

Why is it important for the present and future generations to know what happened in Jaffna from the end of May to June 8th, 1981? That is the question we asked ourselves prior to writing this book. The concealment of these atrocities from history is a significant issue.

Furthermore, we firmly believe in the significance of providing a detailed account of the 1981 Jaffna burning within the present context. This is primarily due to the involvement of one of its key perpetrators, who happens to hold the position of the current head of state and commander-in-chief of Sri Lanka. It is essential to shed light on this historical event and its implications, as it serves as a reminder that such grave offenses may potentially occur again in the future. By understanding the past, we can strive to prevent the repetition of such atrocities and ensure a better future for generations to come.

Ranil Wickramasinghe

It’s the responsibility of every citizen to acquaint themselves with this history, particularly because there are plans being made by a leader and their followers, who were part of the political group responsible for these crimes, to pass a new ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’. It is crucial to understand that similar ‘Acts’ in the past have facilitated the concealment of crimes committed by those in power.

During 1981, the Development Council election took place on June 4th. Subsequently, a massive terror attack was orchestrated in the Jaffna district of the Northern Province by the leadership of the ruling United National Party government which was in power at that time. This wave of violence, encompassing arson, looting, and brutal murders, persisted for nearly two weeks. These heinous acts were carried out by the state police and government-sponsored thugs, all under the leadership of a government that had attained power through a popular vote.

It is indeed significant to highlight that four chief government ministers, two state ministers, and two district ministers were present in Jaffna, leading this wave of crimes. Additionally, high-ranking officials such as the Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, the Secretary of the Council of Ministers, the brother-in-law of then-President J.R. Jayawardane, a Brigadier, and even the Inspector General of Police, who was a Tamil national, were sent to Jaffna in support of these politicians.


Indeed, during the same regime, there were also serious crimes committed in the South of Sri Lanka, in addition to the incidents in Jaffna.

These incidents include:

1982 referendum for the postponement of the election, The Black July of 1983, the presidential election in December 1988 and, General Election in February 1989. The ruling UNP utilized similar tactics in all these instances

The South had no way of knowing about any of the crimes committed by the government in May and June 1981, because the country’s Sinhala, English, and Tamil newspapers were subject to severe media control. Every newspaper had to obtain permission from the ‘News Authority’ before publishing. Most of the national newspapers willingly complied with the government’s control over the news. It has been confirmed that even after the end of the news control, these national newspapers ensured that they did not report on what had occurred in the past two weeks. Perhaps the owners and editors of these newspapers did not recognize the significance of reporting the crimes committed in Jaffna to the South, or maybe they wished to avoid being despised and reprimanded by the Jayawardene regime. The manner in which this news control was implemented confirms that it was a premeditated criminal operation orchestrated by the same political group.

The State media director during that time was none other than the influential news authority of the Jayawardene government, Dr. Sarath Amunugama. The responsibility of controlling the media was given to the State minister, Ananda Tissa Alwis. Later, when Minister Alwis assumed the role of Minister of Information and Radio, Amunugama was appointed as the Secretary of that Ministry. Dr. Amunugama served as the government’s spokesperson throughout the Jayawardene administration [1977-1988]. Despite being a junior officer in the Public Administration Service, he obtained these positions based on political affiliation rather than following the promotion procedure of the Ministry of Public Administration. The manner in which he regulated the country’s newspapers exhibited the characteristics of a future political leader of the country. Following his retirement, Amunugama entered politics and held ministerial positions in the UNP, Common Front, and Rajapaksa governments.

Only the “Aththa” newspaper had the courage to report on these crimes and do justice to history. Therefore, its courageous author, B. A. Siriwardena, who is no longer with us, deserves the respect of the nation. Despite the news ban, “Aththa” not only reported on the events in Jaffna but also covered everything that was subject to censorship by the authorities.

During my time as a regional reporter, I discovered the destruction of the Jaffna library, the burning of the ‘Elanadu’ printing press and office, the burning of Jaffna MP Yogeswaran’s house, the burning of the head office of the Tamil United Liberation Front, election rigging, and the burning of the city in Jaffna through these reports published by “Aththa” newspaper.

The burning of the Jaffna library was particularly devastating to us who gained much of our knowledge from public libraries. It was even more profound because we had heard that the Paranavithana [Dr. Senarath] library and the Kumaraswamy [Dr. Ananda] collection of research papers were also housed in the Jaffna library.

Lands, Irrigation and Waterways Minister 1981

Gamini Dissanayake

However, until 1993, we had no means of finding out about the burning of the Jaffna library. In August 1993, as a war correspondent, we entered the LTTE-controlled area without obtaining government permission. Among our special investigations in Jaffna, apart from reporting on the war situation, was the burning of the Jaffna Library. The “wound of burning the Jaffna Library” in our hearts was deepened due to the loss of Professor Senarath Paranavithana and Dr. Ananda Kumaraswamy.

The libraries of both individuals, containing their own manuscripts, were acquired through auctions by the wealthy cultural elite of Jaffna. We suspected that these virtuous and civilized Tamil elites might have donated the Paranavithana and Kumaraswamy libraries to the Jaffna Central Library. If that were the case, we feared that the history of Sri Lanka would suffer the same fate as Abahayagiri, where thousands of manuscripts were burned.

On our first day in Jaffna, we made it a priority to visit the library that had been destroyed by fire. Since the distance from our accommodation at the Gnanam Hotel to the library was less than a kilometre, it was not difficult to see the devastation caused by the fire.

When we inquired about the burning of the library in Jaffna to Tamil Chelvam, the political leader of the LTTE at the time, he responded with a derisive laugh. “It was set on fire. It doesn’t matter now,” he said, seemingly taking pleasure in the act. Despite Chelvam’s lack of understanding or appreciation for libraries and education, his response did not diminish our interest. He directed us to meet with the heads of Jaffna University to gather more information, and accordingly, we were able to learn about the fate of the Paranavithana collection and the Kumaraswamy collection.

Ironically, by burning the library, the Jayawardene government inadvertently provided a significant advantage to the LTTE. It conveyed a message to the education-minded Tamil youth, “Learning is useless. There is only freedom from tyranny”. This act had several unintended consequences. First, it created a conducive environment for the emergence of 36 Elamist Organizations. Second, it elevated the LTTE to the status of the world’s most feared guerrilla movement. And third, it contributed to the formation of the world’s largest youth human bomb army.

The burning of the library not only caused irreparable loss to the cultural and educational heritage of Jaffna but also had far-reaching implications for the future of the region and the trajectory of the LTTE’s activities.

A joke in history…! One of the leaders of this destruction is now the President of Sri Lanka!

In October 1994, during our return to Jaffna, we commenced the filming of the documentary film ‘The Library on Fire.’ Nimalarajan Mylvaganam graciously volunteered as the researcher and translator, and we immediately got down to business. A comprehensive description of this undertaking has been included in our book, ‘The Elam Days of the Past’.

Industries Minister Sri Lanka 1981

Cyril Mathew

When the police and political thugs set fire to the Jaffna library, we have eyewitness accounts of Lands, Irrigation and Waterways Minister Gamini Dissanayake, Education, Welfare and Youth Affairs Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, Industries Minister Cyril Mathew, and Fisheries Minister Festus Perera observing the fire from the Jaffna Inn. There was information that Deputy Minister S. G Punchinilame, Deputy Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, Kurunegala District Minister S. G. Premachandra, and Jaffna District Minister U.B. Wijekoon were also amongst this criminal gang during the incident.

We discovered detailed evidence regarding the Police Force and the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya thugs from Kurunegala District who were sent to Jaffna Station under the orders of President J. R. Jayawardene, whose ambition was to secure victory in the 1981 Development Council elections. One crucial piece of information we uncovered was that the government navy brought water bowsers to extinguish the fire at the Jaffna library, which had been set ablaze by these high-profile thugs. However, these official thugs did not allow the Navy firefighting team to save the burning library, which housed 95,000 books. The lack of this vital information allowed the perpetrators to evade the accusation that “government forces set the Jaffna library on fire.”

The main article written about the burning of the Jaffna Library was handed over to the author of the ‘Ravaya’ newspaper the very next week upon returning to Colombo, but it was never published. The VHS cassette tapes with video footage were in my desk drawer in the office. Chandana Suriyabandara, who worked at the T.N.L. channel at that time, suddenly called one day and asked for some ‘visuals’ of the Jaffna city. We, who were always generous with any media information, sent the cassettes to Suriyabandara through his driver. Those cassettes never came back, and the article written about the Jaffna library and the documentary that was prepared did not go down in history.

Fisheries Minister 1981

Festus Perera

The Jaffna library came to our mind again in May 2022 when Ranil Wickramasinghe, the only Member of Parliament for the UNP, lamented about the burning of his house and library at Cambridge Place, Colombo 7. To a serious Buddhist, this may seem like ‘ditta dhamma vedaniya karma,’ or karma that has received punishment in this world, but we were forced to re-explore the events of Jaffna in 1981. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the written report or the filmed cassettes. The only solution was to rediscover this history from parliamentary Hansard records and newspaper reports. Newspaper reports and Hansard reports confirmed that the aforementioned ministers, deputy ministers, and district ministers were the leaders of these crimes. When the debate about the crimes that happened in Jaffna was held on 9th and 10th June 1981, Minister Cyril Mathew, Minister Ananda Tissa Alwis, and Deputy Minister G.V. Punchinilame, along with Panadura councilor Dr. Neville de Silva, were the only ones who made speeches in a disturbing manner while other ministers shattered the proceedings by making noises. However, Minister Gamini Dissanayake apologized on behalf of the government for the series of crimes committed in Jaffna.

Thereafter, Gampaha Councilor S. D. Bandaranaike was sent to Jaffna by Sri Lanka Freedom Party leader Sirima Bandaranaike on June 8th to investigate and report these crimes. After his visit to Jaffna, he addressed the Parliament, which met at 3.00 pm on June 10, and accused the above-mentioned four ministers of being responsible for the crimes committed in Jaffna. None of the UNP ministers, including Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, who was in the parliament at that time, denied the accusations of the Gampaha MP. However, the Tamil United Front and Sri Lanka Freedom Party agreed to bring a motion of no confidence against these criminal ministers, but it was not successful. The Jayawardene government never conducted an investigation into these crimes. As a result, no one was convicted or punished for this in the history of Sri Lanka.

We present you this document as a souvenir to commemorate the 42nd year of the 1981 Jaffna fire and burning of about 74 houses of ministers, including Ranil Wickramasinghe’s house, 41 years later. These past crimes in history, led by these political thugs for almost two weeks, are very important to us today because one of its key perpetrators is Ranil Wickramasinghe, the President of the country. Having led these crimes, he is now making promises about democracy and development. On the other hand, when a thug leader is the leader of the country, he can be challenged by writing down this history and giving the opportunity to the present and future generations to read and analyse state terror past and present.

We did this to fulfill our responsibility as a journalist. It’s your duty now to fulfil yours.

Nandana Weeraratne
[Jaffna Burning 1981, Prelude to Black July – Book Preface]

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No Responses to “UNP Leaders Who Set Jaffna on Fire in 1981”

  1. Patrick Easton

    Intriguing stuff in the article, thanks. Can you say where one can find the documentary film ‘The Library on Fire’ and the book “Jaffna Burning”?

  2. Dr Kavan Ratnatunga

    Late Commander Nihal G. A. Fernando who was in command of that Navy ship on that day stated in a RASSL Symposium presentation about 10 years ago, that the Navy first went to extinguish a fire at nearby petrol shed which otherwise would have created a bigger devastation of Jaffna. The abstract of that presentation should be available in RASSL archives.