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A view from the ‘crow’s nest’

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A long watch: War Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka

Reviewed by Ransiri Menike Silva

I have just been released, for the second time from the grip of ‘A Long Watch’ after an interval of about two years, and found it as arresting as before but this time with an added awareness and sensitivity that had eluded me the first time. Authentic accounts of escapee prisoners of war (POW’s) had always interested me, irrespective of the era or the nationality. But this was different. It was OUR story revealed by a senior ranking Naval officer who had been captured by the LTTE and held prisoner for eight years.

My first introduction to it took place some years ago. I was visiting my brother, a retired Naval officer, to find him in animated conversation with a lady visitor. At the end of her stay, she left behind some papers which my brother waved at me saying that it was the manuscript of a book being compiled for publication about the Naval officer Ajith Boyagoda who had been a prisoner of the LTTE for eight years. As my brother was also a well-known writer, she had requested his comments. This was Sunila Galappatti who had interviewed Boyagoda.

I was excited at the thought of reading it when it was published, but it reached the public only a long while later. I grabbed several copies of it, when at a leading bookshop I found it leaning contentedly against my own book, ‘The Blue Door’, on a crowded shelf.

It is a well compiled book with short informative chapters whenever possible, which gives the impression that the narrator is speaking to you direct and not through a third party. For this novelty in presentation, Sunila Galappatti has to be congratulated and applauded for it is she who listened to his story, gently drawing out lurking details, some extremely painful, to set them in a proper sequence that could be absorbed in its entirety without a break. An onerous task performed with dedication that reveals Sunila’s versatile literary skills.

The narrative leads gradually up from his youth to the point of his capture by the enemy, along with a few others and not by himself. This fact has been deliberately omitted from the twisted, falsified versions touted in order to (wrongfully) convince the public that he went over willingly. It is ironic that this same little group of captives were together during their incarceration and released almost together, thereby forming a bond that has continued to this day through direct contact with one another whenever possible.

From the point of his capture, the story undergoes a change of mood. The overnight change in their status, from free men to captives, causes a subtle alteration in the character of individuals, each affected in a different way.

The fluctuations in their daily routine caused by the sudden unpredictable moves indulged in by their captors, is an added obstacle to any form of acceptance of their situation. These involved being shepherded into trucks, sometimes blind-folded, and driven in the night for long hours through unknown territory to be deposited in yet another camp. Hearing a familiar bark in two different locations convinced Boyagoda that the journey taken through a long circuitous route was a ruse to give the prisoners the impression that it was a long distance away and not the short direct one it really was.

Surreptitiously exchanging facts about the LTTE among themselves, the Sinhala prisoners became aware of the fact that some of their fellow captives were themselves unwilling slaves of the LTTE movement. Arrested on fake charges these civilians were inducted into their labour force which had many gaping vacancies. (Shades of the South!)

The majority of people, in both the North and the South, are ignorant about the origins of the LTTE movement, which was a fight against the caste system practiced by the Hindus, which debarred low caste people from entering a Kovil even for religious worship.

Velupillai Prabhakaran belonged to a low caste, and began to realize the unfairness of it and the implications it had on the majority of the citizens, on reaching adolescence. Exposure to Christianity where all men are considered equal had him converting to that faith.

After that, his eye focused on one target; the annihilation of all High Caste Hindus. Gathering a band of like-minded youth around him they created as much destruction as they could.

At this time, across the seas in Tamil Nadu a secret movement had been formed with the aim of creating a Tamil Homeland, with Jaffna as their chosen site.

Hearing of Prabhakaran’s activities they decided to use him as their cat’s paw. Taking him and his supporters to Tamil Nadu they indoctrinated them with their ideas while also giving them military training, thereby subtly moulding them into the shape required. They were brought back to Jaffna with the main target of a Tamil Homeland implanted firmly in their immature brains, the original anti-caste goal pushed to the sidelines.

Prabhakaran was instigated into assassinating Alfred Duraiappah after which he was rowed away to a haven in Tamil Nadu. Many years later he returned as an adult, with an over inflated ego and besotted by an insatiable greed for power. He even distanced himself from his own family who refused to be converted to his new way of thinking, his father remaining a loyal clerk in the Jaffna Kachcheri, who had served under my brother when he was the Government Agent there.

His activities attracted western powers who considered him the perfect tool for the manipulation of their own hidden interests and so stepped in the USA, the UK, Norway and others assisted by Anton Balasingham who had acquired a ‘white’ wife through dubious means. It was only after Jaffna was over-run completely by the Government Forces that it revealed to what horrendous extent they had assisted.

An entire city had been created underground with housing, car parks, offices, residential areas and a highly advanced fully equipped hospital with vital drugs and qualified medical staff.

Air power was assured with ground to air missiles, air planes, trained pilots and a proper airstrip that our own helicopter pilots had spied from above.

The Sea Tigers had their diving and other underwater training at a vast swimming pool. A special, secluded heavily guarded area was also set aside for King Prabhakaran to indulge in jogging and other health enhancing activities. My family and I saw these as ‘tourists’ soon after the destruction of the LTTE and before they were rightfully reduced to rubble by our Army.

All these developments had taken place with the full knowledge of succeeding governments in power at the time which had had underhand dealings with the enemy under the guise of ‘Peace Pact’, ‘Peace Accord’ and other such fanciful labels. The LTTE was also rewarded substantially when at the request of the President in power at the time, they eliminated those whom he believed were a threat to his position of TOP DOG in the country.

The lower ranks were not spared either, with 600 young policemen being offered on a golden platter to Prabhakaran.

“Into the Valley of Death

Rode the six hundred”

It was Boyagoda’s misfortune to be a participant in a disturbing situation when a highly placed ‘officer’ of the LTTE patted jeeps and other valuable equipment and declared sarcastically “Gifts from Premadasa.” That was the infamous era of the ‘Premadasa Yugaya’ which is now being glorified by his son who is threatening to inflict upon us the same once again.

Boyagoda’s captors and fellow prisoners comprised a collection of ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’, which gave birth to an intimacy in relationship between individuals irrespective of age or position in life, though an unexpected hurdle was encountered in the incompatibility between the generations. The detailed descriptions of the terrible tortures they had to endure is searing as some are inhumanly savage. Yet this is nothing new to us who are aware of the interrogating tactics of Police Forces everywhere. Although they themselves were not too brutally tortured physically, occasional muffled screams would reach them from some unlocatable source convincing them that hidden torture chambers existed elsewhere.

Their apparent journey through a dark unending tunnel despaired them until a faint glimmer at the far end appeared with the involvement of the ICRC. That was when Boyagoda had a new status thrust upon him, that of ‘SHOW’ prisoner. As public eye-wash he was ordered to have a proper bath (a luxury!) then spruced up in new attire and given a good feed before being displayed to groups of media men, university students, merchants and other curious folk, with cameramen working overtime.

After each such exhibition he was whisked away, divested of the false costume and dropped back in the same cesspit he had wallowed in, prior to the charade, in which he had been an enforced actor.

Being the highest ranking officer of the government forces they held on a leash, he became the LTTE’s chief bargaining tool. This transparent ruse did not fool the ICRC which was an independent institution and tolerated no spies in disguise at their meetings with the prisoners thereby enabling Boyagoda to speak freely. He revealed the terrible conditions under which they were forced to exist – not live, and appealed for help. Positive results followed. Their next visit saw them loaded with ‘goodies’ for the prisoners; books, magazines, outdated newspapers, letters from their families, clothes, extra nourishment, medicines etc.

By this time Boyagoda had undergone a significant change. His eye-sight and hearing had deteriorated badly along with his mental faculties. He was weak, almost a walking skeleton and physically inactive. Announcing their discovery to the outside world the ICRC invited assistance from whoever was interested in helping them. It was then that Boyagoda began receiving monthly issues of Newsweek and National Geographic Magazines which Vijitha Yapa had gifted as a two year subscription in Boyagoda’s name. Thank you Yapa for that act of unreserved generosity, a true Dana in the Buddhist sense.

Later the ICRC also succeeded in arranging meetings between the prisoners and their immediate families, which carried with it the faint possibility of release through an exchange of prisoners. This did not affect Boyagoda, who was fully aware of his unchanging position – that of main bargaining tool of the LTTE. Finally, after eight long excruciating years in captivity he was chosen for release, but ironically not as a personal reward but in exchange fora very important LTTE member they wished to have back.

Now another phase of Boyagoda’s life begins. His transition from captive to free man is as excruciatingly painful as the ordeal he had endured in reverse order eight years earlier.

He was unable to adapt himself to ‘normal’ life either socially or domestically. He did not belong anywhere and was a stranger even in his own home. At first, he would walk around the house searching for a member of the household to obtain permission to use the toilet. The poignancy of this impacted most forcefully on me, being almost moved to tears by the deep sadness it generated.

His professional life was equally devastating. The Navy he rightfully belonged to, did not want him, as his presence was an embarrassment to them. They were keen on ridding themselves of him whom they believed to be a traitor. Much had changed in the period between his capture and his release. There had been an escalation in violence which affected the priorities in duty and performance. An added ordeal was the mid-ocean smuggling of drugs and other dangerous things which forced them to be extra vigilant. Had there been informers? Perhaps, but they would never be able to identify them. Personnel death rate was high.

So they mistrusted anything that had even a brush-stroke of the enemy daubed on them. They could not afford to be negligent. Such situations are inevitable in a state of war and have to be accepted.

When he was released he was sick; malnourished and weak with an unsettled mind. But instead of giving him the vital care he needed, he was treated like a flea infested mongrel. Even some wives of Navy personnel whom I know, were firmly convinced that Boyagoga had gone across to the enemy willingly, with the LTTE according him a high position and also financially supporting his family in his absence. Seeped in self-righteous misconceptions they shunned the devastated family of their colleague who were treated like lepers. Learning of this shocking behavior on the part of people I knew, I lost all regard for them. To such pitiable people, I have only this to say, remember the words of Jesus Christ – “Let him who has not sinned cast the first stone.” But on reflection I have the feeling that these bigoted buffoons may even refuse to acknowledge the existence of Jesus Christ!

The same clique of Navy personnel who were captured along with and shared their period of incarceration together with Boyagoda were released about the same time as he. The Navy welcomed them back in to the service where they ran into one another at Naval Head Quarters, and still keep in touch after retirement.

Now here is an interesting conjecture. Many, including the Navy had vehemently denied the existence of these people, so how come they suddenly manifest themselves in human form now? I suppose one has to trek to the Himalayas to get a solution from the hermit ascetics there!

The excellent training given to its cadets by the Navy was proved by the ‘Old Guard’, Boyagoda’s colleagues and friends who stood loyally by him as they had done with his family throughout his incarceration. Treated like something ‘the cat brought in’ he would on occasion be hauled out of obscurity whenever it suited various groups of people, mainly the politically motivated ones. Suddenly he would find himself hauled up to the main stage sharing it with prominent personalities. A (comic) repetition of his former role of ‘SHOW PRISONER’!

The personal revelations and reflections recorded in the book was an eye-opener for me. My attitude to life was changed by the over-all view I had gathered, even though I had myself weathered many a storm in my own life.

This is not only a ‘must read’ book but also one to be ‘re-read’ many times over. It should also be shared, lent, gifted, passed around and talked about at every turn. I am grateful to the great duo; Commodore Ajith Boyagoda and Sunila Galappatti for gifting us this panorama of life, the over-all view one gets from the ‘Crow’s Nest’ of a ship.

And now to end this on a hilarious note. Those of our vintage will remember the infamous IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) deal, with its ‘Parippu Drop’, struck between our President, J.R. Jayawardena and the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The entire country was against it, even inciting schoolboys to parade the streets in protest. At a ceremonial parade for the visiting dignitary, a young Naval rating had suddenly raised his rifle and brought it down in an attempt to hit Rajiv Gandhi and failed. Years later, this boy had confessed to his senior officers that he still regretted missing his target that day, which had been J.R. and not Rajiv!



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Features

Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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