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Midweek Review

A Literary appreciation of the “Commando Regiment”

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By Capt Elmo Jayawardena
Elmojay1@gmail.com

When the presentation of the book is excellent, a prospective reader would be encouraged to see what is inside. That is where the Colonel won his first round. I will jump over the Author’s writing and talk about the Foreword to the book. It is written by Major General Lalin Fernando. What he has written reminds me of a similar sentiment I read years ago by Jean-Paul Sartre for the eternally popular ‘Wretched of the Earth’ by Frantz Fanon.

General Fernando’s Foreword gives the essence of the story reduced in size but done with military precision. I wasn’t varnishing anything when I linked Sartre and Fanon to the commando book.

Now, I come to the photos. The ‘man of the match’ is there, The Colonel, and he is flanked by another Colonel and a Major General. They were regiment leaders. Then comes the ‘salt of the earth’ two Warrant Officers and an elderly Sergeant, the men that mattered.

Right along, the book is filled with what the soldiers of the Commando Regiment did. The braid was there to lead and so were the brave in uniform who fought to the demanding order. It sure is nice to see the recognition spreading from the ranks to the top even before the story begins to unfold.

When I received a copy of the Commando Regiment, courtesy of the author, I noticed an invitation, too. It was for the launch of the book at the BMICH. What caught my eye, at first glance, was the rank and name of the Chief Guest who would grace the occasion. Strangely, he was no Julius Caesar nor a local Hannibal. But someone who had served in the Commando Regiment from its inception. Warrant Officer Colin Silva, who hails from Tudella was to be the Chief Guest. He’s been the Colonel’s shadow from Day One. Selecting W/O Silva as Chief Guest was not only an honour to him but to all those commandos who toiled, sweated, fought and died for the regiment and the country.

The ‘First Person’ for the event at the BMICH being a Warrant Officer was nothing but a platinum performance by the author. To recognise and honour the ranker who stood by him from the birth of this unit to the day they retired was a magnificent tribute. I salute you Colonel, for your choice of a Chief Guest who has more than earned the laurel than picking one from the “Nodding Crowd” purely for the pomp and pageantry.

That alone made me think of the worth of the man who wrote this book. So, I started reading the story of the Commando Regiment and ‘The Colonel’ who started it all.

The book gives in detail the author’s entry into the military, the usual young blood in search of adventure in a peace-time army. The ambition had been fostered from early teens and shared with younger brother Eksith; they both collected and read and learnt about combat matters and especially about Task Forces around the world trained for dare-devil operations. All that was home-grown till they both joined in tandem the school Cadet Corps that may have cemented the zest they both had to seek careers in the armed forces.

Young Sunil joined the military. He had been a top all-round student at the school by the beach and reached the pinnacle of being appointed as the Head Prefect. All that you can read in the book, including the rigorous training he went through at Diyatalawa to pass out as a Second Lieutenant in the Gemunu Watch.

Next, we see him as a young Captain, 29 years old, and attached to Army Headquarters. One day, out of the blue, he gets a message to accompany the head of the Army, General Dennis Perera, to meet Prime Minister JRJ. The Big shots who flanked the Prime Minister on the ‘power side’ of the table were the who’s who that ran the country. Some were of the great grade, and some were merely those who thought they were great. I leave you to read the book and do your own separating of the wheat from the chaff.

Our author had been called to set up from the ground-up a Commando Unit, the first of its kind in the country. Captain Peiris was to be the Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill. There was one on the Prime Minister’s side of the table who was not from the ‘Dream Team’, Capt Rakitha Wickremanayake. He had just been appointed the Chairman of the new airline JRJ was planning. The setting up of the Commando Unit was a deterrent to anyone who might highjack a plane of Air Lanka, the new airline that was to take wings in an year’s time.

Better read the book and make your own conclusion. This was November 1977. The country was at peace. Prosperity trumpets were blaring away. I could not figure out why the high powers wanted to set up a specialised Army unit to protect two secondhand Boeing 707s from being hi-jacked? True the PFLP with the blessings of Yassar Arafat skyjacked jetliners and took them to Dawson’s Field in Jordan and blew them up. Names like Leila Khalid, Carlos the Jackal, Bader Meinhof, Japanese Red Army and ‘freedom fighters’ as such were scaring the skies toting machine-guns. But that kind of terror in peaceful Sri Lanka was hard to imagine. Maybe someone at that power table was hearing the rumble of distant drums blowing across the island from the north?

“We have decided to select you to set up this exclusive unit” (page 43 will tell the reader the rest, I need not elaborate).

Either way, our Captain Peiris was no politician. They wanted a Commando Unit and his job was to obey orders and get the special unit operational. It is clear that Captain Peiris had great respect for his Commander General Dennis Perera and more than that, he knew the integrity of the man and had total confidence that the General would never scapegoat him and sell him down a political drain.

On the other side of the coin was his wife Manisha. I can imagine what role she played in the Commando Unit drama. I have worked with her before and know how valuable her ‘still water’ personality is. Captain Peiris would have received the unstinted support and much needed encouragement as well as the sincere salient criticism from Manisha, the Captain’s Captain.

When reading the book, it was clear to me that the author was a man of deep faith. His reliance on God was a major factor that boosted his confidence in himself. No wonder when the crossroads blocked the path, he knew which way to go.

Setting up an entire new unit in the military was no walk in the park. Amidst a hundred logistical hurdles there were officers with more brass on their shoulders who wished that the young Captain would falter and become a defeated orphan. The criticisms came direct and in camouflage. Yet, the man had the grit to fight it through and snigger the last laugh. Sunil Peiris had what it takes to survive. General Dennis Perera had chosen wisely a round peg for a round hole that fitted perfectly.

The soldier selection was from people recommended by their respective units. Thirty were chosen, out of which 29 reported. The training started and four dropped out leaving a mere 25 passing out after their final exercise of a march from Inginiyagala to Sigiriya.

The entire planning structure and the detailed training procedures are all in chapter 4 from page 71. It gives the reader a very good idea of how men were moulded to fight the impossible.

The first home of the Commando Unit was established temporarily at Diyatalawa. The numbers were small but well-trained, tinkered and minted to become fierce fighting machines. Reminded me of Thermopylae. The 25 were the first to represent the unit. And the numbers increased as the new recruits added their names to the muster. The operations they carried out and the battles they fought are detailed in the book and makes interesting reading. Very interesting, indeed.

The years rolled by and the conflict exploded plunging the country into a brutal war. The death toll rose on both sides which also included innocent civilians who were caught in the crossfire. The leadership of battle adversaries, often politically motivated, moved their pawns and sent them to die. Some for their country and some for their cause. Simplified – it was our soldiers, their war.

By this time the Commando Unit had moved out of Diyatalawa and found its permanent residence in Ganemulla.

Chapter 13 is about a personal tragedy that the author wrote perhaps to seek some solace or maybe he just did not want to tell his story without baring what was tucked at his very soul. This chapter has nothing to do with the Commando Regiment of the Army. Yet, it is about an event that took place in 1985 in a lonely airfield in Batticaloa (pages 175-180). I have no heart to write about that. Mine would be meaningless words with hardly any comfort to someone who will carry the sorrow to his grave. I leave you to read and digest how absurd and fickle life could be.

The fighting had intensified, and the political jigsaw puzzle was being fitted by the powers that be with some of the key pieces missing. The IPKF arrived adding a strange dimension to the already abstract equation. Parents buried children, what did it matter whether they were Sinhalese or Tamil? I clearly remember the times, the mid-80s and what a political mess it was. The Commando Unit increased in strength and was in the forefront fighting the enemy and protecting civilians.

The Colonel left the Army in 1988. Whichever way you look at it, the parting was a sad farewell to a dedicated career soldier. The band played ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and the ‘Father of the Regiment’ took his last salute from the Commandos in the Ganemulla Camp and walked to his jeep and was driven away.

The reason was nothing strange. It was purely political.

In 2009, when the guns went silent in Nandikadal the Commandos went back to Ganemulla. What started with 25 soldiers in 1978/79 had grown to four regiments of tough men who wore the maroon beret. Some had died for their country, 43 officers and 689 other ranks. Some suffered injuries and were marked for life. There were 49 officers and 890 soldiers among them. Such figures are on record. My fervent wish is the continued remembrance of the sacrifices they made.

Maybe not now, but in the coming years,

Possibly in a better land, without conflict and corruption, but in lasting peace

We might recall the swollen mounds that buried the unknown soldier,

Or a cemetery memorial of a lost young life

At such times we could imagine the meaning of the shed tears

Perhaps then, we will understand.



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Midweek Review

NADAGAMKARAYO

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By Capt Elmo Jayawardena
elmojay1@gmail.com

Some days ago, a fellow Captain dropped in to see us at home. He was accompanied by his wife. Amidst a light conversation and pleasant chatter, they mentioned NADAGAMKARAYO.  He swore it was a great teledrama and that we should give it a go. I had never watched teledramas because I could not allocate a fixed time for sitting in front of the television. The same goes for my wife, who is ultra-busy with our own dramas in life. Somehow the following day we got a break from a tight schedule and went to YouTube and watched Episode 1 of Nadagamkarayo.

Then we watched Episode 2 and then 3 and 4 and 5.Now after two weeks we are at Episode 184 and well set on Nadagamkarayo to light-up our evenings. I called a dear friend. I know his taste. By profession he is the Head Honcho of a prominent bank.  But he’s still got grass-root vernacular taste, yes, from Spielberg masterpieces to Indika Ferdinando’s ‘Ho Gaana Pokuna’.  The bank boss has not been a tele-drama man. The next day he texted me, “Thank you for the gift my friend, the programme is great, I am hooked on Nadagamkarayo.” A few days later, he emailed me that he was on Episode 58. I called another friend, a leading corporate lawyer married to an ultra-busy surgeon. They have three young children, and the lawyer is a multi-tasker from the ‘A’ Team. She too has taken the Nadagamkarayo drug and was watching the teledrama at 8.00 in the morning, the only interval in her roller-coaster daily road map.   So, what is all this hype about Nadagamkarayo? It certainly is no quick fix for lockdown blues. It is much more. Pure Sri Lankan simple story with excellent creativity.

The cast bar none is acting at Sarasavi or Sumathi level.  Kawadiya, who has traces of Dustin Hoffman, gets the Oscar nomination, and Kukul Bada, the young domestic, deserves an honourable mention purely for his varying facial expressions. The totality created by director Sivagurunathan is amazingly watchable.  The insatiable appetite of the TV audience to watch Nadagamkarayo stems from the clever way the drama rolls on, keeping all characters alive and active. If this is watched by anyone as a ‘Daily Bread’ at 9.30 in the night, that is fine, so long as you have that half-hour free to sit in front of your TV. But like us, if you are a late starter and going through the episodes to catch up with the current stage, then you are in trouble. Watch one and then go to the next and the next and the next in an unstoppable frenzy and the wake-up call comes when you hear the clock striking midnight. That is how strong the addiction could be. I do not know who the scriptwriter is or the brilliant cinematographer who is responsible for depicting rural scenery of high pastoral quality.

There will be so many others who added their smidgen to make this a first-class entertainment to all and sundry.  They say cocaine, LSD and pure Kerala ganja are addictive?

Try Nadagamkarayo, you get bewildered from episode to episode which is hard to switch off until you watch the entire story.  Kukula Mudalali seems a veteran from either stage or screen. As bald as a doorknob and with a ‘Taras Bulba’ moustache he is the perfect all-round villain for the drama. Not only is he a thug selling moonshine but a failed Romeo with any skirt that swings in the wind. Manamalan driving his red imitation Ferrari is difficult to define from the audience point of view. He is brash and bawdy and is always the ultimate liar. That is his role, and he sure brings a different dimension to the bucolic village setting with his patch-work denims and action-filled behaviour which has the unique distinction of being pleasing and annoying at the same time. This is what we traded for Netflix and HBO.

At the start it was curiosity, but in no time Nadagamkarayo became an addiction. We have not seen the evening television news for weeks. No, we missed nothing. We do not want to know who stole the garlic and created the Sudulunu scandal or who runs the rice mafia and hides the harvest. Pandora’s Box and how Uhuru Kenyatta and Vladimir Putin looked for reliable laundries to clean their money is way above what we need to know. The same goes for those who bid for a Cypriot passport at 1.3 million dollars.

We do not want to know how 600 plus items were blacklisted for importing and then in a flash a new magician came on stage like Gorgiya Pasha and swung his multi-coloured wand and Ooppss – the restrictions vanished into thin air. No more dollar-saving cutbacks. We can be clad in St Michael’s underwear and feast on Cadbury chocolates stocked in a brand new two-door refrigerator imported from Germany. No, I certainly do not need all that twisted jargon camouflaged as current head-lines to crowd my evening by watching local television channels. Maybe, it is not the fault of these stations but the politically- dominated mundane news that is available or ‘has to be’ shown by order.

I will gladly trade all that to see Loku Hamuduruwo on Nadagamkarayo screen with his serene behaviour and exemplary attitude to life which soothes our very souls. At all times the soft words of Loku Hamuduruwo are always a simple wisdom-filled lesson in life to all of us. Cap it up with the daily occurrences at the tea kiosk by the paddy field where the shop owner, manager, and tea-maker Mudalali and his golaya Gajaman colour the show.  His customers are the banana-eating and kahata-drinking clan who spice the story with palatable ‘Gamey Talk’.

The champion of this mini-stage is Sirisena the erudite goat-milk-seller who has his own interpretations and anecdotes to anything and everything political that happens in the country.Sudu Chooti comes to the story as a village Juliet. She is the daughter of the Music Master and his comely wife Kusumalatha who is ‘all perfect’ in her role as a village mother. Here the village damsel Sudu Chooti falls in love with the Kassippu-selling Sara, the scourge of the village.  No doubt, Sara carries the show wrapped in a rugged flamboyance which is nothing but raw talent. He sure is the ultimate ‘Village Hampden’ from Gray’s Elegy, a rebel against constant village tyranny. He and his Kassippu boys, Kawadiya, Suddha and Kiri Putha depict clearly to the audience the sadness of the youth of today.

The poverty that plagues their young lives with no answers visible to make a decent living is an unchangeable tragedy. They are outcasts in the village and are branded for life with no avenue for redemption.  That part of Nadagamkarayo is a lesson to us all. The underlying message is clear; It is not the core of the man that is rotting, it is the system that denies him the opportunity. Where and when is the brighter day that would give him a chance to wake up and make attempts to be a decent human being?Rasika is poor, her husband has left her and run off with another woman. Rasika is a single parent taking care of an innocent little daughter. They live in a hovel that is called home. Her father is sick, a heart patient, and the mother is unemployed.

The day that dawns for them is always a struggle.A stranger is kind to her. Gives Rasika a lift to visit her father in hospital and brings her home. She invites him for a cup of tea. He is reluctant and hesitates. Even though we are poor we can afford to give you a cup of tea,” she tells the stranger. That line says it all. It defines the soul of Sri Lanka and what is Sri Lankan.Where would we be without it?

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Midweek Review

Is Buddhism pessimistic teaching?

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By Dr. JUSTICE
CHANDRADASA NANAYAKKARA

Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. Unlike many other religions it does not believe in a god or a creator. It is not only a religion but also a philosophy with a moral discipline. It originated in northern eastern India and was founded by Gautama Buddha. Today, Buddhism has become one of the major religions in the world, with more than 500 million adherents. Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who later became Gautama Buddha, having realised the immense human suffering looked for a way of easing their pain and suffering. He pursued strict spiritual disciplines to become an enlightened being. Having achieved enlightenment he preached a path of salvation to his followers, so that they could escape the samsaric cycle of suffering, rebirth and death. In brief, the entire teaching of the Buddha can be summed up in one stanza from the Dhammapada. “Sabba papassa akaranam kusalassa upasampada sacitta pariyodapanam etan buddhana sasanam” (not to do evil, to cultivate merit, to purify one’s mind, this is the teaching of the Buddhas}.

Criticism of Buddhism has taken many forms. Some incline to the view that Buddhism is overly pessimistic in outlook, and always takes a gloomy and melancholic view of life. While others were of the opinion that Buddhism was unscientific, idealistic and impractical. These misconceptions have prevailed from the time of the Buddha to this day. It should be stated that these beliefs are fallacious and misleading, as Buddhism is neither pessimistic or optimistic. If anything at all, it is realistic as it takes a realistic and dispassionate view of life and of the world, and teaches us to look at things as they really are. Buddhism promotes rational and empirical investigation, and invites people to put the teachings of the Buddha to test before accepting it. Buddha does not stop at analysing suffering [dukka], but proceeds to show us the practical way out of it, which is the Noble Eightfold Path.

The erroneous view that Buddhism is pessimistic has come about as a result of many scholars giving a restricted meaning to the word dukkha (Suffering) in the First Noble Truth. They have interpreted dukka (suffering) as nothing but suffering and pain. This has led many to regard Buddhism as a pessimistic religion. But viewed from a Buddhist perspective the word dukkha (suffering) has a deeper and wider connotation and dimension.

It should be noted that other than the ordinary meaning of dukkha (suffering), the word dukkha in the First Noble Truth also connotes such things as ‘’imperfection “, “impermanence” and “insubstantiality”.

Dr. Walpola Rahula Thero in his book “What the Buddha Taught” has stated thus: “First of all, Buddhism is neither pessimistic or optimistic. If anything at all, it is realistic, for it takes a realistic view of life and world. It looks at things objectively (yathabhutam). It does not falsely lull you into living in a fool’s paradise, nor does it frighten and agonise you with all kinds of imaginary fears and sins. It tells you exactly and objectively what you are and what the world around you is, and shows you the way to perfect freedom, peace, tranquility and happiness”.

Pessimism is a philosophy of suffering, while Buddhism is a philosophy of the relief of suffering. Had the Buddha in his discourse proclaimed that there was nothing but misery in life, and there was no happiness to be found anywhere, without showing us the way out of it, we would have been justified in characterising Buddhism as pessimistic.

It is true that the Buddha exposed the unhappy part of life. However, while doing so he explained the way to come out of it.

Buddhism does not countenance a melancholic, sorrowful, gloomy attitude to life, and it does not foster an attitude of hopelessness to life. The Buddha didn’t ask his adherents to contemplate only on the gloomy side of life. He did not expect them to brood over misery only, but wanted them to know that both the happy and sad sides of life are equally fleeting and impermanent.

No one can deny the reality of suffering associated with birth, decay, old age, death, association with the unpleasant and disassociation from the pleasant. In reality there is none in the whole world other than the Buddha, who can be described as a preacher of happiness or sukhavadi. A true Buddhist is the happiest of all beings.

Buddhism is a religion of salvation. It is an ethical philosophy which preaches the unsatisfactory nature of the world. Unlike other religions in the world, which talk about an almighty god on whom people depend for salvation. According to Buddhism, one is indeed one’s own lord {attahi attano natho}.

The entire teaching of the Buddha when summed up, amounts simply to insights into “impermanence” [annicca] suffering or unsatisfactoriness” [dukka] and “non-selfhood” [annitta]. These three characteristics were the aspects of teaching, which the Buddhas stressed more than any other. The three characteristics annicca, dukkha and anatta which facts of life can be realized and grasped by everyone. Even the most placid person would admit that dukka is omnipresent and universal. This truth can be easily realized by anyone who can think soberly and dispassionately. It can be seen everywhere around us. Infatuation with transient pleasures prevents us from seeing things as they truly are.

Walpola Rahula Thero in his book states the Buddha does not deny happiness in life when he says there is suffering. On the contrary he admits different forms of happiness, both material and spiritual, for laymen as well as for monks. In the Anguttara-Nikaya, one of the five original collections in Pali containing the Buddha’s discourses, there is a list of happiness (sukhani), such as the happiness of family life and the happiness of the life of a recluse, the happiness of sense pleasures and the happiness of renunciation, the happiness of attachment and the happiness of detachment, physical happiness and mental happiness etc.

Misery arises because of craving and aversion, which in turn arise from tanha. If these causes are eradicated the root cause of misery is eradicated. The Buddha said pain is followed by pleasure, and pleasure is followed by pain. In other words, pleasure and pain follow each other as day follows night.

If you observe the reality around us it is evident it consists of birth, sickness, old age, sorrow, pain, distress, decay, grief, death, lamentation, etc. Empirical observation of human existence makes it clear. Buddha laid emphasis on knowing things as they really are [yatha bhuta nana] if you take a critical look at life and all its concomitants, it is clear to everyone everything is in a state of flux. Life is a succession of fleeting moments of arising and dissolution. And every cell in the body of a being would die and be replaced by a new cell which in turn would die to be replaced by another. From conception to death the process goes on uninterrupted. Buddha’s definition of suffering is clear and empirical to anyone.

The Buddha has preached that the following come into being and pass away. Release from them is bliss—Annicca vata sankara Uppada vaya dhammino Uuppajjitva nirujjhanti Tesam vupa samo sukho).

He also preached “he who sees dukkha sees also the arising of dukkha, sees also cessation of dukkha, and sees also the path leading to the cessation of dukkha“. This does not make the life of a Buddhist melancholy or sorrowful at all.

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Midweek Review

The Runaway Rash

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By Lynn Ockersz

Drained of its nutritional sap,

Thanks to a runaway rash of scams,

The fabled isle sees red on multiple fronts;

On the one hand, it faces an economic slump,

On the other, it’s being greedily milked dry,

By a political class answerable to none,

And on top of it all, people who most matter,

In revered bodies that help build the land,

Are thrusting aside the Voice of their Conscience,

And vitalizing the gangrenous growth of corruption.

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