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Midweek Review

Alborada: Dawn Song or Dawn Rape?



By Carmen Wickramagamage

Ashoka Handagama’s latest film, Alborada, introduces itself as “the poem that Neruda never wrote.” What is this poem? Released on February 14 to coincide with Valentine’s Day, the irony of the timing is hard to miss for Alborada culminates in the horrific rape by Neruda, the great love poet, of a female latrine cleaner during his brief stay in Ceylon as the Chilean Consul. Hardly a subject that lends itself to poetry though the recitations in the film, in the original Spanish, of poems that Neruda did write are mesmerizing. Perhaps this explains why Garcia Marquez chose to characterize Neruda as “the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language”. What is Handagama’s intention in the film?

In interviews, Handagama has spoken of his film as a challenge to Western hegemony that he claims operated to push this ignominious act under the carpet. But he has made it clear that unearthing a little-known fact about a poet hailed today as a critic of capitalism and champion of the oppressed is not his only intention. He sees his film as making an intervention into the contemporary discourse on women’s right to bodily autonomy in the age of #MeToo. Handagama is clearly well-intentioned. It is therefore necessary to examine how Alborada intervenes, through its representation of the scene of rape, in the rape culture that naturalizes masculine privilege and feminine vulnerability.

Source of the story

The source of what we know about the incident is Neruda himself. While he may not have composed a poem about the rape, he did “confess” to it in his memoirs translated into English by Hadley St. Martin as I confess I have lived: memoirs (1977). Written some forty years later, one page of the eleven pages (out of three-hundred fifty) that he devotes to his Ceylonese sojourn concerns itself with this incident. Though it created hardly a ripple in Sri Lanka, in Chile, Neruda’s admission stirred up a storm when the Chilean Parliament voted in 2018 to rename the airport in Santiago after him, with women and human rights activists vociferously protesting against the plan citing this incident. Not that the incident was completely unknown in Sri Lanka but the rumour that was doing the rounds was more along the lines of “something” between Neruda and his “domestic”. Handagama has said that he first read about it in a book by Tissa Abeysekera which, according to Sarath Chandrajeewa, went this way: “the great poet, the Nobel prize winner who loved a scavenger woman in Wellawatte”. No mention of rape there. Transferring a brief reference in Neruda’s memoirs into film and making it the pièce de résistance of a visually powerful medium is a radical gesture but how radical is it in its contribution to the ongoing conversation on rape?

Handagama has tried to distance himself from Neruda, calling the film his “creation” just as Neruda’s memoirs were his but the film is in large measure faithful to Neruda’s recollections of his stay in Ceylon, highlighting the theme of solitude that runs like a refrain through the young poet’s account and offering a sympathetic portrait of a man ill at ease in the “narrow colonialism” of the British but intrigued by the sights, sounds and people of Ceylon. Just as Neruda is the subject of his memoirs, so is he in the film. In only one respect is there a significant deviation: the representation of rape.

The Incident

In Neruda’s account, his interest in the woman begins with his curiosity about the mysterious workings of his latrine. When he finally sees the woman who cleans it, he is not repulsed, calling her instead the “the most beautiful woman I had yet seen in Ceylon” (p. 99) and elevating her above the rest through appellations such as “queen” and goddess”. But, when she disdains his tokens of love in the form of silks and fruits, he exercises his white male prerogative over native women’s bodies by raping her: “One morning , I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist and stared into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and was soon naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, the brimming cups of her breasts made her like one of the thousand-year-old sculptures from the south of India. It was the coming together of a man and a statue” (p. 100).

Neruda plays down the violence of the encounter in his penitential recounting, resorting instead to euphemisms. The woman does not struggle. She “let herself be led” (Is she deterred by the “strong grip on her wrist”?). She does not scream for help (Is she aware of its futility given the isolated location of the bungalow?). She was “soon naked”, how she came to be naked elided, its place taken by an aestheticized description of the female form reminiscent of classical Sanskrit poetry that deflects attention from the violence. Some trace of the woman’s resistance is acknowledged in her unresponsiveness. At the climactic moment, when he forces himself on her, she turns into a sculpture in his eyes, turning Neruda in turn into a Pygmalion in reverse. Where Pygmalion (in Ovid’s Metamorphosis) manages to obtain his heart’s desire by turning a statue (thanks to Venus’ intervention) into the woman of his dreams, Neruda’s touch turns a living, breathing woman into a sculpture. The description ends with lines that have self-loathing write large over it: “She was right to despise me . The experience was never repeated” (p. 100).

Its Representation

How does Handagama render this incident in film? Unlike in the memoirs, here, the audience is prepped from the start for the impending climax through the sighting of the Parvati statue by Neruda on arrival, his frolics with members of the Sakkili community that has Ratné Aiya incensed, and the rhythmic chiming of the latrine-cleaner’s anklets that wakes him up at dawn from a night of love-making. When the rape finally occurs, it is portrayed on screen in all its brutality. The woman screams, she struggles valiantly to escape, she has to be forcibly detained and stripped naked before the final humiliation of rape. There is nothing subtle or indirect about it. Why this directorial decision to deviate? Is it that Handagama wanted to dispel any illusions that his audience may entertain about the great poet Neruda? Or did he want to force his audience to confront head on the brutality of rape against the backdrop of a rape culture that thrives on misconceptions regarding women’s consent?

I find Handagama’s directorial decisions problematic on many fronts. For one thing, in the eyes of the law, ‘rape’ is sexual intercourse without consent, what constitutes “absence of consent” carefully delineated to accommodate the different scenarios that qualify as “rape” in the eyes of the law. Here, the woman violently struggles, thus confirming a misunderstanding “if there is rape, there must be evidence of struggle.” In a culture where the tendency is to hold the victim responsible for triggering the rape situation, this is dangerous. In anchoring rape in “consent”, the law recognizes the extenuating circumstances where a victim may not be able to physically resist or even say ‘no’. In Neruda’s account, the circumstances that prevent the woman from resisting or saying ‘no’ vocally are very clear. In hindsight, he too acknowledges her ‘no’: “She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive” (p. 100).

Beyond the issue of consent, his portrayal of the scene of rape also raises questions on how to represent violence on screen. Much has been written on the intrinsic violence of representation in attempts to represent violence. The risk is doubled when it comes to sexual violence as Laura Mulvey and others have pointed out as it turns spectators into voyeurs who wittingly or unwittingly participate in the violence enacted on screen. In Alborada, we all join Ratné Aiya at the “keyhole” or aperture to gaze at the scene unfolding within, whether we derive a vicarious pleasure from that or not. Handagama tries to draw the attention of the audience to the very real pain of the woman by having a tear course down her cheek as she stares directly at the camera and at us while averting her gaze from the perpetrator. By doing so, he restores the flesh-and-blood woman to the scene of the rape where Neruda had seen a statue. Unfortunately, the protracted violence of the rape scene is in danger of slipping from pathos to bathos. Sarath Chandrajeewa has already said that he found the scene where the predator and his prey circle round the massive four-poster bed comical. I agree. The scene was too reminiscent of “ottu sellang”, a children’s game of “catch me if you can”, for me!

Life after rape

Feminist critics such as Sharon Marcus and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan have emphasized the importance of rewriting the normative rape script which sees the woman as victim and her defilement as marking her for life. In Sri Lanka, women are enjoined to protect their character (a euphemism for sexual purity) as if it were their life, its loss a fate worse than death. Marcus and Sunder Rajan, therefore, argue that it is essential to speak of rape survivors, not rape victims, who thereby refuse the powerlessness assigned to them in a “gendered grammar of violence”(Marcus).

In Neruda’s memoirs, at the end of the account, attention is redirected to Neruda himself albeit on a note of self-recrimination: “She was right to despise me” (p. 100). The woman’s subsequent fate is of little concern to him. In the film, the lines translate into an image of Neruda trading places with the latrine cleaner, first taking up the brush and cleaning the latrine and then walking towards the sea carrying the latrine bucket on his head in a show of abject humility. As for the woman, the camera follows her out of the bedroom and into the sea where she tries frenziedly to rid herself of the defiling touch, her facial expressions indicating her disgust. She is then seen swimming deeper into the ocean, with the ocean waters gradually submerging her completely. Only the red cloth survives to create patterns in the water as it did at the start of the film. Clearly, there is no life after rape.

The film, however, adds another scene in an attempt to locate the phenomenon of rape in the present. In this scene the woman resurfaces from the sea framed against a skyline featuring a jet-ski. How to read it? Is it to remind the audience that, some one hundred years later, nothing much has changed? Or is to hold out hope that in the age of #MeToo, something is about to change?

But, according to Sarath Chandrajeewa (in “Beyond the Fiction of Alborada“)who claims to have traced the identity of the woman raped by Neruda, the “real” woman did not drown herself. She returned to her community but was married off by her family to an older man because she had “lost her virginity” and, when her husband died shortly after, the now pregnant woman jumped into the funeral pyre of her husband and committed suicide, which some in the community described as “Sathi Pooja”. Chandrajeewa even speculates that the husband’s death from alcohol poisoning was “either because he was delighted with his beautiful young bride or perhaps due to grief” (!). This information that Chandrajeewa says he gathered as part of his research among the Sakkili community who lived in Wellawatte and Bambalapitiya in the 1970s raises many questions for me. Did the community that the woman belonged to (the lowly scavenger caste) uphold norms of feminine sexual purity that have their basis in the genteel classes? Did they practice “Sathi Pooja” of which there are no documented cases in Ceylon and which, even in India is very much tied to region, class and caste as scholars like Lata Mani and Gayatri Spivak have pointed out? Pregnant women in any case do not commit Sathi Pooja. They wait until they give birth. How much does Chandrajeewa “know” of their ways?

This is not the only attempt at endowing the woman with an afterlife. Another account of the nameless woman’s subsequent fate has been doing the rounds of late due to an article by Kumar Gunawardena in The Island in 2020 where he, drawing on a story titled “Brumpy’s Daughter” in Tissa Devendra’s On Horseshoe Street, claims that the raped woman’s story had a happy ending. According to Gunawardena, Neruda “did the right thing” by the woman, who now has a name, Thangamma, by marrying her off to his retainer Brumpy. And when a daughter (Neruda’s) was born in due course, she was named Imelda after Neruda’s mother at his behest and supported financially by Neruda through George Keyt. Devendra meets Imelda Ratnayake (last name from the foster father Brumpy) much later when he is heading a Kachcheri where she too works and attracts his attention because of her striking appearance. She ends up marrying a Chilean, a Neruda devotee, who had worked for a while in Ceylon. After her marriage, Imelda settles in Chile with her husband and meets Devendra again at a conference in Mexico. It was a feel-good story. But the feeling was short-lived. When Michael Roberts reprinted Kumar Gunawardena’s account in his blog Thuppahi, someone by the name of Manel Fonseka intervened to spoil it by declaring “If I’m not mistaken, Devendra’s whole story was exactly that! A STORY! No basis in truth”. If Manel Fonseka is right, Gunawardena, a medical doctor by training, had failed to recognize the difference between fact and fiction!

In all this, there is no room for the subjectivity of the woman who was raped. She does not speak. For Neruda, the reason is the language barrier though he turns that into something more by comparing her to a “shy jungle animal” belonging in “another kind of existence, in another world” (p. 100). Handagama restores some humanity to her by adding that artistically placed single tear but that’s where he stops. She never speaks. The gaze in the film is predominantly Neruda’s, the camera angles adopting Neruda’s perspective on the receding figure of the latrine cleaner reminiscent of a classical South Indian sculpture although, unfortunately, her walk could well be that of a model on the runway. Similarly, her face takes on a bronze sheen when Neruda intercepts her to remind us that, in his mind, she resembles a statue. Given the race, caste, class and gender of the latrine cleaner, it is unlikely we will ever know what happened to her. Chandrajeewa, who claims he found the “real” woman, assigns her an exceptional fate as a “mad” woman (suffering from “Idiopathic Psychological Disorder”) who commits Sathi Pooja. Even Tissa Devendra’s story ultimately fails to imagine for her a life that is not defined by the rape. I like to think that there was life after rape for her, that she, though no doubt traumatized, survived the rape without having to play the prescribed role in the normative script for the rape victim–forced marriage and unwanted pregnancy–although, gender norms at the time being such, she could not cry out loud #HeToo!

(Carmen Wickramagamage is Professor in English at the University of Peradeniya)

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Midweek Review

Ranil takes premiership amidst BASL bid for all party-consensus



A smiling Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe reacts to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after receiving the premiership. Gamini Senarath, Secretary to the President looks on. Mrs Maithri Wickremesinghe was present at the brief ceremony at the President’s House, Fort last Thursday evening (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Retired Supreme Court Justice Rohini Marasinghe, in her current capacity as the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), directed the police to provide adequate protection for the President and the Prime Minister while protecting the freedom of speech and assembly through necessary and proportionate measures.

Justice Marasinghe, who received the appointment in Dec, last year, would never have believed she would be compelled to issue such a statement.

The HRCSL statement, issued on April 26, 2022, over a month after the eruption of violent protests at the private residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at Pengiriwatta, Mirihana, that lasted for several hours, didn’t name the President and the Prime Minister.

Mahinda Rajapaksa quit Temple Trees on May 10, less than 24 hours after he announced his resignation, in the wake of unprovoked violence directed at those demanding the resignation of both the President and the Prime Minister and the so-called peaceful protesters who lay siege to his official residence Temple Trees virtually making, him a prisoner therein.

The first protest, targeting President Rajapaksa, was held at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on March 31, 2022. What began as a peaceful protest in the vicinity, quickly turned violent after the crowds made attempts to advance towards the President’s private home. The deployment of the Army, in support of the beleaguered police, failed to bring the situation under control.

Protesters set ablaze several vehicles, including two buses that brought Police and Army reinforcements to the scene of the unprecedented confrontation. Therefore, it would be pertinent to discuss the circumstances, Justice Marasinghe called for sufficient protection for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, over two weeks after the launch of the protest campaign, in front of the Presidential Secretariat, on April 09, 2022.

Perhaps, the HRCSL should have also advised the Army, as well as the Special Task Force (STF), regarding adequate protection for the President and the Prime Minister. The Army and the STF play an integral role in the protection of key leaders. The HRCSL cannot be unaware of the involvement of the Army and the STF in the protection of the President and the Prime Minister.

Justice Marasinghe called for ‘necessary and proportionate measures’ to meet the threat on the two leaders as those who had been demanding their resignation stepped up the campaign.

The HRCSL consists of five Commissioners, namely Justice Rohini Marasinghe (Chairperson), Venerable Kalupahana Piyarathana Thera, Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara and Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan. The President constituted the HRCSL in terms of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in Dec. 2020. Justice Marasinghe and Ven. Kalupahana Piyarathana Thera were brought in Dec. 2021 in the wake of the resignation of HRCSL Chairman Jagath Balasuriya and NGO, guru Harsha Kumara Navaratne taking up the post of Sri Lanka High Commissioner to Canada.

Did HRCSL make an assessment before Justice Marasinghe issued instructions to the police? The HRCSL intervened in the wake of the erection of a new protest site, opposite Temple Trees, as the government struggled to cope up with an unprecedented political-economic-social crisis that brought the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to its knees.

The writer, over the last weekend, sought a clarification from Justice Marasinghe. The HRCSL Chief said that instructions were issued as access to the residences of the President and the Prime Minister had been blocked. The HRCSL was also informed of possible threats to their lives, Justice Marasinghe said, adding that the issue at hand should be examined on the basis of equal protection of the law.

In spite of HRCSL’s instructions, the police, and at least an influential section of the SLPP government, appeared to have been caught napping. Was it due to the fear of the wrath of the HRCSL or they being under the so-called international community spotlight? In fact, the law enforcement authorities had contributed to the rapid deterioration of the situation to such an extent that mobs took control of roads. Had the police top brass realized the gravity of the situation, in the first week of May, they would have definitely advised the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa not to summon several hundreds of his supporters to Temple Trees. The failure on the part of the police to advise the ousted Premier was nothing but a monumental blunder.

In fact, the police appeared to have been part of a political project meant to dismantle those who had been protesting against the government, while laying siege to both Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat. The operation was meant to regain control. Therefore, a primary objective was to silence those who had been asking Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, too, has been of that view, in the wake of about one-third of the SLPP parliamentary group demanding Premier Rajapaksa’s resignation to pave the way for an all-party interim administration.

PM, family take refuge in SLN base

Just two weeks after HRCSL asked the police to ensure protection of the President and the Prime Minister through ‘necessary and proportionate measures’ the latter had to move out of Temple Trees, under heavy security escort. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to authorize the deployment of SLAF assets to evacuate the ex-Prime Minister and some members of the family. They took refuge at the strategic Eastern Naval Command premises, Trincomalee.

By then, Yoshitha Rajapaksa, the ousted PM’s second son and Chief of Staff and his wife, Nitheesha Jayasekera, had left the country. Interestingly, Yoshitha left for Singapore at 12.50 am on May 09 on Singapore Airlines flight SQ 469 several hours before SLPP activists started arriving at Temple Trees.

Yoshitha Rajapaksa couldn’t have been unaware of the meticulous plans underway to bring in hundreds of supporters from all parts of the country to Temple Trees where the Prime Minister was to address them. Those who believed Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa was to announce his resignation were proved wrong. Instead, lawmaker Johnston Fernando and the then Premier Rajapaksa created an environment conducive for an ‘operation’ to evict those who had been protesting against the Prime Minister and the President. The operation boomeranged. The end result was the Prime Minister having to take refuge in the Trincomalee Navy base.

Two days later, the Fort Magistrate’s Court issued a travel ban on Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP Namal Rajapaksa and 16 others. They are Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Johnston Fernando, Sanjeewa Edirimanne, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, C.B. Ratnayake, Sanath Nishantha, Kanchana Jayaratne (Pavitra Wanniarachchi’s husband), Sampath Athukorala, Mahinda Kahandagama, Renuka Perera, Nishantha Abeysinghe, Amitha Abeywickrama, Pushpalal Kumarasinghe, Dilip Fernando and Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon. The Senior DIG had been present at the time, SLPP goons broke through the police line, near the Galle Face hotel, to demolish the Galle Face protest camp.

The Magistrate also imposed a travel ban on seven others who had been wounded during the violence on the fateful Monday or were eye-witnesses to the attacks.

President of the Colombo High Court Lawyers’ Association Lakshman Perera told the writer that the Attorney General‘s Department moved the Fort Magistrate’s court amidst preparations made by his outfit to move the court. Speaking on behalf of the Association, Perera underscored the pivotal importance of ensuring the safety and security of all, regardless of whatever the accusations directed at them.

For how long would the ex-Premier have to live under the protection of the Navy? In response to media queries, Defence Secretary retired General Kamal Gunaratne told a hastily arranged press conference, at the Battaramulla Defence Complex, that as a former head of State Mahinda Rajapaksa was entitled to required security. When would the ex-PM be able to move freely as protests demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation continue amidst traffic disruptions on main roads, especially over shortage of cooking gas? The situation remains extremely dicey.

Politically-motivated mobs destroyed many properties belonging to the Rajapaksa family. Mobs set ablaze the Rajapaksas’ ancestral home at Medamulana, Hambantota, and did not even spare the memorial built for their parents also at Medamulana, while the former Premier’s home in Kurunegala, too, was destroyed.

Properties belonging to elder brother, Chamal Rajapaksa and his son, Shashendra were also destroyed.

Gangs set fire to Green Ecolodge, situated very close to the Sinharaja rain forest. The hotel, situated close to the UNESCO heritage site, is widely believed to be owned by Yoshitha Rajapaksa, who recently warned JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake of legal action against the accusations made in respect of Green Ecolodge. But the JVP instead of backing their accusations regarding that prized eco-property (torched by the politically-motivated mobs early last week) with facts, issued a veiled threat to expose Yoshitha on some other issues if he dared to go to courts. Comrade Nalinda Jayatissa told the media that they would raise his fake qualifications, how he managed to enter the famed British naval college Dartmouth, etc., if he ventured to challenge them in court.

Well organized mobs also looted and set fire to properties of over 50 MPs, mainly of the government, across the country. They and their families were left with only the clothes on their backs.

Politicos under threat

The government should do everything possible to prosecute those responsible for incidents of violence, regardless of their status. Destruction of lawmakers’ properties should be denounced and punitive action taken against all those responsible. Who would take the responsibility for killing SLPP Polonnaruwa District MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale and his police bodyguard at Nittambuwa? The slain MP was on his way home, after attending the Temple Trees meet earlier in the day. Did Atukorale open fire on those who blocked his path? Did his police bodyguard, too, open fire? The post-mortem revealed the MP had been lynched and contrary to initial reports there were no gunshot injuries. The post mortem also set the record straight that the MP didn’t commit suicide with his own weapon as initially claimed by interested parties over the social and mainstream media. Having allowed SLPP goons to go on the rampage, the police pathetically failed to intervene when the public retaliated. Politically-motivated groups obviously took advantage of the situation. At an early stage of the ongoing protest campaign, German Ambassador in Colombo Holger Seubert tweeted: “I’m impressed with how peaceful the proud people of Sri Lanka are exercising their right to freedom of expression. It reminds me of German unification back in 1989 when we experienced how powerful peaceful protests can be. Wishing all parties involved the strength to remain peaceful.”

During the second JVP inspired-insurgency, the then JRJ government issued firearms to members of Parliament. Some lawmakers formed their own death squads. The government accepted extra-judicial killings as part of the overall defence against the JVP/DJV violence perpetrated against the UNP and those connected with that party.

Members of the SLPP raised security issues at a meeting they had with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the President’s House last Saturday (14). The government shouldn’t expect normalisation of the situation until tangible measures are taken to stabilize the national economy. Lawmakers wouldn’t be safe as long queues for diesel, petrol and cooking gas exist with the vast majority of the electorate struggling to make ends meet. The government should be mindful of interventions made by foreign powers and other external and internal players hell-bent on exploiting the situation to their advantage.

Recent demonstrations near the Parliament compelled the police to close several roads for traffic on May 05 and 06. The police closed the section from Diyatha Uyana junction (Polduwa junction) to Jayanthipura junction and from Jayanthipura junction to the Denzil Kobbekaduwa road to deter mass invasions by well organised demonstrators. The police asserted that closure of the roads were necessary, in spite of the inconvenience caused to the public, to prevent hindrance to lawmakers entering and leaving the parliamentary complex.

The police closed down the same sections of the roads yesterday (17) to facilitate parliamentary proceedings. Trade unions combine and the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) have vowed to lay siege to the Parliament. The warning that had been made several days before the May 09 mayhem should be reviewed. The trade union grouping and the IUSF affiliated to the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), the breakaway JVP faction, should be mindful of the crises the country is experiencing.

A tragedy

War-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa having to take refuge in the Trincomalee SLN base is a tragedy. Mahinda Rajapaksa gave resolute political leadership to Sri Lanka’s war effort at a time the vast majority of lawmakers felt the LTTE couldn’t be defeated. Therefore, many accepted peace at any cost. They were prepared even to give up Sri Lanka’s unitary status in a bid to reach a consensus with separatist Tamil terrorists mollycoddled by Western powers. Mahinda Rajapaksa had the strength and political acumen to take on the LTTE. The country should never forget how President Rajapaksa, in spite of strong objections from the military, flew into Kebitigollewa on June 15, 2006, in the immediate aftermath of a claymore mine attack on a passenger bus. The blast killed over 60 men, women and children. Having visited the survivors, President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave an assurance that the terrorism would be eradicated. The promise was made two months before the LTTE resumed large-scale offensive action in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful end in May 2009. But, the President, who restored peace, has ended up virtually running for his life and had to seek refuge in a military installation for the time being as post-war policies and strategies take their toll with interested parties taking advantage of the tragedy facing the country.

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Midweek Review

Up for Grabs



By Lynn Ockersz

It’s the Horse Trader’s hour once again,

And fierce bargaining unfolds on Stage;

Creatures stomping with iron hoofs,

Displaying teeth of menacing length,

And merciless whips for tongues,

Are receiving top most billing,

By ‘Strutting and Fretting’ business Heads,

Trying now to sit in saddles under siege,

But in a hitherto nodding land,

That’s suddenly come rudely awake,

These are risky sleazy deals to make,

For, the moment has already arrived,

Wherein hunger has turned Ploughshares,

Into Spears of divisive hate and vengeance.

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Midweek Review

Possible link between TID head’s arrest and Easter Sunday massacre baffles retired DIG



Retired DIG Priyantha Jayakody, one-time police spokesman, last Saturday (07) advised the police on how to deal with the current wave of protests. Jayakody addressed the media in the wake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declaring a State of Emergency following police crackdown on protests near the Parliament. The retired top cop urged his former colleagues not to give into illegal orders, under any circumstances. Jayakody is the first retired top cop to declare his support for the ongoing countrywide campaign for political reforms.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Actor Jehan Appuhamy carried a life-sized cross on his shoulder from Katuwapitiya, in the Katana electorate, to the entrance of the President’s Office (Old Parliament), Galle Face, where a high profile ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign was underway.

The three-day trek began at the St. Sebastian Church premises, on April 19, where exactly three years ago Achchi Muhammadu Muhammadu Hasthun detonated his suicide device, killing over 100. Hasthun is widely believed to be one of the bomb makers, responsible for six suicide blasts, in the space of 20 minutes, beginning at 8.45 am on that particular day. The first detonation occurred at the St. Anthony’s Shrine, Colombo, Kochchikade, at 8.45 am. Other blasts ripped through Kingsbury, Colombo, at 8.47 am, St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya, also at 8.47, Shangri-La, Colombo at 8.54, Cinnamon Grand, Colombo at 9 and Zion Church, Batticaloa at 9.05.

In addition to those planned blasts, there were two explosions – one at the Tropical Inn Guest House, Dehiwela, where one terrorist triggered his explosive device, and the last blast at Dematagoda, where Fatima Ibrahim, the wife of Inshaf Ibrahim (the Cinnamon Grand bomber), blew herself up, killing three police commandos. The blast also claimed the lives of her three young sons and her unborn child.

Actor Appuhamy’s endeavor received the blessings of the Catholic Church, campaigning for justice. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference has repeatedly demanded that the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday massacre, as well as those who failed to thwart the conspiracy, due to sheer negligence, or some other reasons, be punished, regardless of their standing in the society.

Appuhamy completed a 25-mile long journey, on April 21, on the 13th day of the ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign. A group of Catholics joined a protest launched opposite Temple Trees, three days later, demanding justice for the Easter Sunday carnage. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference members, and the Archbishop of Colombo, Rt. Rev. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, has pledged their support for the ongoing campaign, demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the entire Cabinet-of-Ministers, including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Quite a number of Catholics displayed placards, demanding justice for the Easter Sunday victims, an issue that has sharply divided the country, experiencing the worst-ever post- independence economic-political and social crisis.

Retired Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Priyantha Jayakody, in an open letter, addressed to Defence Secretary, retired Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, published in Annidda, in its May Day edition, has questioned the failure on the part of the incumbent dispensation to bring the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday massacre to justice. Jayakody also queried the inordinate delay in completing the high profile investigations, launched during the yahapalana administration, into the alleged attempts to assassinate the then President Maithripala Sirisena and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the incumbent President.

The current dispensation couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for not adequately addressing the grievances of the Catholic Church, Jayakody told The Island. It would be a grave mistake on the government’s part to believe the issues, at hand, would be forgotten in a couple of years, therefore the current protests could be ignored. Jayakody, who had served the Police Department for almost 40 years, retired in late April 2021.

Namal Kumara affair

Ex-DIG Jayakody asserted that the arrest of DIG Nalaka Silva, the head of the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) on Oct 25, 2018, over his alleged involvement in an attempt to assassinate President Maithripala Sirisena and incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (then an ordinary citizen) may have facilitated the Easter Sunday suicide mission. Declaring that at the time of Silva’s arrest, the officer had been tracking the would-be Shangri-La bomber, and the leader of the suicide squad, Zahran Hashim, Jayakody questioned whether the investigator was falsely implicated in an alleged assassination plot to clear the way for the dastardly suicide attacks.

Jayakody emphasized that the conspirators had intervened when the investigation reached a crucial stage. Did the government pay sufficient attention to the unwarranted delay at the Attorney General’s Department, in respect of its failure to deal with Zahran Hashim’s file? The National Catholic Committee for Justice, in a missive, dated July 12, 2021, addressed to President Goabaya Rajapaksa, referred to the conduct of the Attorney General’s Department. The Committee pointed out to the President, the PCoI (Presidential Commission of Inquiry) recommendation to the Public Service Commission (PSC) that disciplinary action be taken against State Counsel Malik Azees and Deputy Solicitor General Azad Navavi (PCoI Final Report, Vol 01, p 329).

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) arrested Silva after having questioned him over a period of five days. At the time of his arrest, Silva had been suspended on the instructions issued by the National Police Commission (NPC).

Jayakody pointed out how within 24 hours after the TID Chief’s arrest, President Maithripala Sirisena sacked the Cabinet-of-Ministers, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In spite of Mahinda Rajapaksa being sworn in as the Prime Minister, he couldn’t prove a simple majority in Parliament. A disappointed President Sirisena had no option but to dissolve Parliament, on Nov 09, 2018, and set January 05, 2019 as date for parliamentary election. But, the Supreme Court intervention restored Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership. Thus President Sirisena’s plan for January 05, poll was thwarted; thereby the stage was set for scheduled presidential election.

According to Jayakody, the arrest of the TID Chief, over alleged assassination plots, automatically crippled the unit. Those who had been attached to the TID were looked down, both by other police officers and men, as well as the public.

The retired top cop questioned the role played by the media, particularly the television channels, in propagating claims made by police informant Namal Kumara, as regards alleged plots to assassinate President Sirisena and incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Pujith Jayasundera, who had served as the yahapalana IGP, is on record as having told the PCoI that Namal Kumara was paid by the Presidential Secretariat. Jayasundera quoted Dr. Saman Kithalawarachchi, the then Chairman of the Presidential Narcotics Bureau, as having told him that Namal Kumara served as a lecturer and was paid by the Presidential Secretariat.

Jayakody, in his open letter to Gen. Gunaratn, asked for the status of the investigation launched, following Namal Kumara’s unprecedented claims. “The people have a right to know. The government, under siege over the economic fallout, should come clean,” Jayakody stressed, adding that the ongoing countrywide protests reflected the crisis the country is in today.

Key issues

The Police Department owed an explanation to the public regarding the status of the investigation into the disgraced TID Chief’s alleged involvement in planned political assassinations. DIG Jayakody said that the incumbent dispensation, having repeatedly assured justice for the Easter Sunday victims, was yet to bring a critically important investigation into the Namal Kumara affair, to a successful conclusion. The need for a thorough investigation into the constitutional coup, perpetrated by President Maithripala Sirisena immediately after DIG Silva’s arrest, cannot be ignored. Would Zahran Hashim have gone ahead with the attacks if the constitutional coup succeeded? DIG Jayakody raised the following unresolved accusations leveled by Namal Kunara:

* DIG Silva dispatched a police hit squad, that had been assigned the task of carrying out VIP assassination, to Batticaloa

* DIG Silva sought special weapons used by snipers

* DIG Silva conspired with the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

* Involvement of Thushara Peiris, a person living overseas, in the assassination conspiracy

*Conspiracy to involve ‘Makandure Madush’ in the conspiracy

Suspected drug baron, Samarasinghe Arachchige Madush Lakshitha, alias ‘Makandure Madush,’ was shot dead in the early hours of Oct 21, 2020. Madush was killed, under controversial circumstances, while being in police custody. At the time of the incident, Madush had been in the custody of the Colombo Crime Division (CCD). The police claimed that Madush received gunshot injuries at the Lakshitha Sevana apartment complex at Applewatta, in Maligawatta. Madush was brought to Colombo on May 05, 2019, from Dubai, where he was arrested on February 05, 2019.

Jayakody questioned the rationale in Namal Kumara’s accusations, TID Chief’s arrest and delivering a crippling blow to investigations into Zahran Hashim’s outfit. Finally, the wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had been the alleged target of a police assassination attempt, won an opportunity to contest the 2019 presidential election, on the SLPP ticket. Gotabaya Rajapaksa received the mandate of 6.9 mn votes whereas the other claimed target, Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the SLFP leader, contested the 2020 General Election. Sirisena re-entered Parliament having contested the Polonnaruwa electoral district. The SLFP group, in the current Parliament, comprised 14 lawmakers, including one National List MP. Except for Angajan Ramanathan, elected on the SLFP ticket (Jaffna District), the remaining 13 entered Parliament on the SLPP ticket.

Ex-DIG Jayakody said that in the wake of the SLPP victory, they expected rapid progress, not only in the Easter Sunday massacre probe, but also investigations into the Namal Kumara affair. Jayakody compared the investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks, and the Namal Kumara affair, with that of the 1962 coup attempt meant to remove the then Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike from power. Jayakody recalled how top military personnel, who had been accused of the bid to assassinate Premier Bandaranaike, were dealt with the following investigations. Unfortunately, investigations into Namal Kumara’s disclosure hadn’t been completed, even over three and half years after the arrest of TID Chief.

In his open letter, Jayakody posed the following questions to Gen. Gunaratne: (i) Would you disclose the current status of the investigations into claims made by Namal Kumara (ii) Would you explain why cases hadn’t been filed in court against ex-DIG Nalaka Silva or other suspects involved in the alleged assassination attempts (iii) Have the investigators succeeded in verifying the claims made by Namal Kumara? If the accusations could be verified, what delayed all suspects being arrested? In respect of those who had been arrested so far, what caused the delay in the government moving court against them? (vi) Have the investigators realized that there is no basis for Namal Kumara’s accusations? If so, why a case hadn’t been filed against the former police informant over making false accusation and finally (vii) Could you explain the failure on the part of the government to conduct investigations speedily in spite of one of the two main targets of ex-DIG Nalaka Silva, as alleged by Namal Kumara, is serving the incumbent administration as the President, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and the other leader of a constituent party and a lawmaker.

Cardinal’s stand

The government should be mindful of the consequences of further delay in bringing the investigations into a conclusion. The widely held belief that the incumbent dispensation deliberately delayed, or undermined the investigations, may cause quite a serious situation, particularly against the backdrop of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) taking up the issue last year. Sri Lanka Co Chairs at the UNHRC, too, have taken up the issue.

Jayakody warned that unless the government, at least now, dealt with the Namal Kumara affair properly, the public would believe it was related to the Easter Sunday conspiracy. According to Jayakody, the public are gravely suspicious of Namal Kumara ‘drama’ being the precursor for later developments. Jayakody questioned Gen. Gunaratne’s response to Archbishop of Colombo Rt. Rev. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s repeated demands for justice. Referring to Gen. Gunaratne’s recent response to the Cardinal’s public criticism of the handling of the Easter Sunday investigations, Jayakody asserted that the Defence Secretary’s advice to the Cardinal that he should inform the CID of any relevant information without making public statements sounded like a challenge. Jayakody emphasized that the Cardinal had taken the issue beyond the CID against the backdrop of growing suspicions that justice couldn’t be expected under the current dispensation.

Jayakody, identifying himself as a Catholic, drew the government’s attention to the Cardinal’s fight, both here and abroad, that has attracted the attention of the international community. The retired top cop stressed that the government hadn’t so far been able to counter the spate of issues raised by the Catholic Church regarding the Easter Sunday massacre. Instead of challenging the Catholic Church, the government should answer pertinent questions.

Responding to The Island queries, Jayakody emphasized that he didn’t want to issue a character certificate to DIG Nalaka Silva. Jayakody said the issue at hand is whether Namal Kumara, at the behest of some interested party/parties, directed a spate of allegations, at the then TID Chief Silva, to create an environment conducive for law enforcement authorities to move against DIG Silva. Had Silva received the wrath of the powers that be, as he pursued the now proscribed National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) responsible for the Easter Sunday massacre?

The Easter Sunday massacre created an environment that undermined the yahapalana administration. The public responded to the SLPP’s assurances to ensure security in the run-up to the 2019 Presidential Election. Three years later, those who vowed to deal with extremism and terrorism are under fire over the failure to unravel the Easter Sunday mystery.

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