The Jaffna Public Library in Sri Lanka was burnt down during a violent rampage by an organised mob of ethnic Sinhalese.

The Jaffna Public Library was built in 1933 to serve the capital city of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. By the 1980s it had become one of the largest libraries in Asia and the foremost repository of Tamil literature and culture. The attack on the library resulted in the burning of over 97,000 books and manuscripts of enormous cultural and historical value. The attack was racially motivated, and was a major cause of the Sri Lankan Civil War that broke out two years later.

Ethnic tensions had been developing between Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese for much of the 20th century. Official discrimination against the Tamils by the government led to young Tamils increasingly turning to militant groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers, who sought the creation of a separate Tamil state.

The burning of the Jaffna Public Library came after three Sinhalese policemen were shot and killed during a political rally by the Tamil United Liberation Front who sought an independent state for the Tamils. This triggered three days of violence by the police that saw the indiscriminate killing of four civilians and the destruction of Tamil-owned businesses and property. The library was attacked in an aggressive act of biblioclasm, the deliberate destruction of books.

The government’s failure to respond to the attack and to protect the Tamils and their cultural heritage helped to consolidate opposition. The burning of the library therefore acted as a rallying call for militant Tamils, and helped to bring about the Sri Lankan Civil War that erupted in 1983 and lasted for almost 26 years.

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© Scott Allsop