Whilst the anniversary of the end of the military offensive in Sri Lanka fast approaches, we are reminded it is also the anniversary of an another “significant nail” in the coffin of a vibrant Tamil culture.
Roma Tearne, a native Sri Lankan writes in The Independent to remind us. “There is another anniversary that occurs this May. Unnoticed by the West, it marks a tragedy from almost 30 years ago: an event of such significance that even today, educated Sri Lankan Tamils cannot speak of it without a tremor. I am not talking about the violence perpetrated by government and terrorists alike. Nor am I talking about those genocidal crimes against tens of thousands of Tamils, the human rights abuses, or even the continued hounding of the press. I am talking of something simpler, older, more symbolic: the burning of the public library in Jaffna over a period of three days and nights in 1981.”
Sri Lanka is the latest to use “biblioclasm” which is defined as “the deliberate destruction of books, a cultural offence of the first magnitude”. The greatest library of the ancient world, at Alexandria, put together over a period of 900 years, was destroyed in 48BC. In 213BC the Chinese Emperor Shih Huang-ti ordered a similar book-burning session. This evil was repeated in Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 20th century. In 1914, the Germans destroyed the University of Louvain library. Then in 1943, the ancient archives of Angevin in Naples were burnt by the Nazis.
Roma urges the Sri Lankan born writers to get off the fence and speak out. “Like rare orchids they are visible, but silent. Theirs are not the voices one hears first proclaiming the injustices of the last 50 years. For when the official line of the Sri Lankan government is zero tolerance of any criticism, how can writers, in their struggle against forgetting, speak out?” Such is the pernicious impact of supremacist culture, making victims of writers too.
“So how can Sri Lankan writers deal with what has gone on in their country for half a century? How can we be released from the ties of silence by which we are bound?”
The Southbank Centre in London, recently hosted the European premiere performance of a “Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony” based on the South African Truth and Reconciliation commission. One striking message echoed in many of the testimonies, along with the deep personal tragedies was …”I am sick that my story has not been heard”.
Perhaps like Dr Helen Lewis (an Auschwitz survivor ) who blossomed as a writer and wrote “A Time to Speak” , Sri Lankan writers may be able to help enable the stories of the people to be heard and the healing that comes from it.
Roma is one writer who is looking at ways to be creative in her activism to challenge this. Where are all the others?
Roma Tearn is on the advisory panel of the Sri Lanka Campaign and you can read her full article at: