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Midweek Review

All praise for Lanka’s saviours!



Julie Chung with Ranil Wickremesinghe, a week after Parliament elected him President

By Shamindra Ferdinando

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Finance Minister, recently named three persons – all women -whose intervention supposedly brought relief to bankrupt Sri Lanka.

UNP leader Wickremesinghe paid glowing tributes to Indian Finance and Corporate Affairs Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, US Secretary of State Janet Yellen, and IMF Managing Director and Chairman of the Executive Board Kristalina Ivanova Georgieva-Kinova. The IMF Chief is Bulgarian.

Wickremesinghe declared that Sri Lanka would have experienced extreme difficulties if Sitharaman, Yellen and Georgieva-Kinova had not thrown their weight behind Sri Lanka.

The President said so at an event held at the Waters Edge Hotel, Battramulla, on March 08 to mark International Women’s Day.

It would be pertinent to mention that Sitharaman, Yellen and Georgieva-Kinova are all economists. The Indian Minister, and the IMF Chief, received top posts, in 2019, before the economic crisis gripped Sri Lanka, whereas Yellen was sworn in as US Treasury Chief, on January 26, 2021. Yellen is the first person, in American history, to have led the White House Council of Economic Advisors, the Federal Reserve, and the Treasury Department.

Wickremesinghe attended the event, on the invitation of actress turned lawmaker Geetha Kumarasinghe, Minister of Women and Child Affairs. Kumarasinghe successfully contested the Galle District, at the last parliamentary elections, on the SLPP ticket, after she was previously ousted from Parliament on the basis that she was a dual citizen. Kumarasinghe thereafter gave up her foreign citizenship, which she had obtained when she was married to a foreigner.

Wickremesinghe declared that Sitharaman loaned Sri Lanka USD 3 bn in spite of Colombo being declared bankrupt. in April 2022. Wickremesinghe described Sitharaman’s response to the Sri Lanka crisis as very brave. The UNP leader said that there was a need for him to explain the situation on the ground because if India didn’t make available USD 3 bn, within three to four months, our country would have simply collapsed.

US Ambassador, in Colombo, Julie J. Chung, whose interventions in not so ‘mysterious ways’ in support of a high profile protest campaign, that led to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, on July 14, 2022, was among the guests. Wickremesinghe succeeded Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa on May 12, three days after the latter resigned. Wickremesinghe received appointment as the Minister of Finance, Economic Stability and National Policies, on May 25. We will give the benefit of any doubt we now have about New Delhi being aware of the not so mysterious interventions here, by Washington, as we are almost certain that mandarins in New Delhi would be naturally aware how gleefully the West is looking forward to a bust up between China and India as it would be like disposing two their certain successors in the world

The US support for Sri Lanka, at the IMF, seems natural against the backdrop of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Joseph Burns’s recent clandestine visit to Colombo, in the dead of night. The US group flew in two C 17 Globemasters iii, on February 14, around 7-7.45 pm, and departed on the following day, around 3-3.40 pm. But the country is still in the dark as to what was unloaded from those two giant flying Trojan Horses, just as much as the human cargo. Beware when Americans bear gift horses!

The continuing foreign exchange crisis is broadly attributed to flawed policies, such as tax cuts, debt monetization, banning fertiliser and agrochemical imports, real appreciation of the exchange rate, etc. However, the issues at hand can be also characterized as a liquidity trap in the foreign exchange market, enforced by the economic structure and exploitative market structure, in the import and export sector of the economy, in the long run.

Wickremesinghe’s references to Sitharaman, Yellen and Georgieva-Kinova should be examined, taking into consideration early Indian and US support for the USD 2.9 bn IMF bailout package for Sri Lanka. All stakeholders made such a noise, over the IMF facility spread over a period of four years, that some ordinary people may have felt the country was down on its knees, before the Washington-based lender, for the first time.

In fact, we have secured IMF packages on 16 previous occasions and could have avoided the crisis if President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the warning signs seriously and the plotters, surrounding him, had not overwhelmed him with the help of outside evil forces. Unfortunately, the wartime Defence Secretary, who handsomely won the November 2019 presidential election, allowed the deterioration. The sharp drop in tourist arrivals, in the wake of the April 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, and the overall shrinking of the global economy, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, made matters worse for Sri Lanka.

What may have sealed his fate must have been how those conveniently called peaceful protesters, by the likes of Julie Chung, and local NGO quislings, etc., went on the rampage across the country, with meticulous intelligence, from the evening of last May 09, targeting Opposition politicians and their supporters. In fact that afternoon/evening, the US Ambassador even issued a media release, literally ordering the armed forces and the police not to touch those “peaceful protestors”. How convenient?

This also brings us to the question whether our comrades, too, had done a deal with the real devils in Washington. Can anyone imagine how these comrades, who literally burnt down the country, in the wake of the JRJ government, under military pressure from Delhi, signed the Indo-Lanka Accord that brought in the controversial 13th Amendment, are now pretending to be innocent babes and got their proxy Harini to say it is alright to fully implement that piece of legislation, almost in unison with Ranil Wickremesinghe!

And who could have furnished so many foot soldiers to cause so much spontaneous havoc across the country and, especially, against government politicians, many of whom have still not recovered? We do accept the fact that like all politicians in general they were no angels, either, but they had come up playing the available corrupt system through legitimate elections.

Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, one-time Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (July 2016-Dec 2019), blamed the current crisis on the failure on the part of successive governments to manage the expenditure since the country gained Independence. Sri Lanka had been plagued by a toxic combination of populist politics and an entrenched entitlement culture among the people, Dr. Coomaraswamy told the writer, in response to a query posed during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency. Dr. Coomaraswamy added: “Time and again, the electoral calendar has undermined fiscal discipline.”

However, according to critics Dr. Coomaraswamy only told one side of the truth. What he didn’t say was that as the CB Governor, he was also directly responsible for the Yahapalana government borrowing a record USD 12.5 billion from the international bond market, at high interest rates, from private lenders, primarily in the West. So what did that government achieve with such huge borrowings? All that the Yahapalana regime achieved, with all that money, we cannot see, except to lay the foundation for the current debt crisis?

Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, too, delivered a lecture, to the members of Parliament, on the same lines. Dr. Weerasinghe launched a no holds barred attack on the irresponsible political party system, several weeks after Wickremesinghe succeeded Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Pointing out that measures that had been taken by the Yahapalana government (2016-2019), following an agreement with the IMF, were disregarded by those who regained power, in 2019/2020, Dr. Weerasinghe said if the government/Opposition reneged on the latest arrangements, the country would face a similar crisis, in three years. Dr. Weerasinghe issued the warning on August 31, 2022, in the presence of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.

A fraudulent partnership

President Wickremesinghe has now appreciated the role played by three economists in Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. The President should also take tangible measures to investigate political parties, and individuals, responsible for the economic meltdown.

A group, representing trade union and civil society, collective, recently raised quite an important issue that had been largely ignored by successive governments, over the past decades. They called for tangible measures to tackle the well-organized influential public–private sector partnership engaged in ‘over invoicing’ and ‘under invoicing’ of imports/exports, with the blessing of successive governments.

Their invitation for a discussion with the print and electronic media didn’t attract sufficient attention. The briefing, and discussion, at the Centre for Society and Religion, Maradana, Colombo, attracted just a few journalists. However, economic analyst Dhanusha Pathirana, civil society activist Tharindu Uduwaragedara and Attorney-at-Law Lakmali Hemachandra explained how ‘over invoicing’ and ‘under invoicing’ contributed to the economic crisis.

They didn’t mince their words when they discussed the ongoing high profile operation that involved both the private and the public sector.

Pathirana asserted that a sharp reduction of capital, as a result of mispricing by importers, in respect of duty/tax free goods and taxable imports, was far more serious than the parking of funds overseas by exporters.

The group underscored the need to examine capital flows, through four forms of trade mis-invoicing, namely import over-invoicing and under-invoicing and export over-invoicing and under-invoicing.

Responding to queries raised by the writer, they alleged that regulatory mechanisms were not being implemented, regardless of the continuing economic decline. The failure on the part of the government to act on such disclosures is really disturbing. The country is in such a precarious state, those having regulatory powers should go flat out against the culprits, unless they were part of the fraudulent capitals flows.

Pathirana was adamant that absolutely nothing had been done so far to address the issue at hand.

Culpability of Cabinet

The Parliament continues to ignore extremely serious disclosures, pertaining to economic mismanagement. Shocking revelations that had been made before the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) in late May, last year ,hadn’t been investigated at all. Instead, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government has sought to manipulate the parliamentary watchdog, much to the dismay of the public. In fact, the powers that be had no qualms in interfering in all three watchdog committees, especially the Committee on Public Finance.

The COPE, during the courageous leadership of Prof. Charitha Herath was told how the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who also served as the Finance Minister, in spite of receiving warnings in March-April 2020, on the impending financial crisis of unprecedented magnitude, chose to ignore the advice.

Mahinda Rajapaksa held the Finance portfolio till early July 2021. By the time Basil Rajapaksa succeeded, the economy had suffered irreparable damage.

The parliamentary watchdog was told how the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had warned the then Governor of the Central Bank, Prof. W. D. Lakshman, and Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle, of the country’s inability to procure loans, unless the country undertook debt restructuring, immediately.

The COPE members received a briefing, on the circumstances leading to the crisis, when senior officials of the Central Bank appeared before the all-party body. CBSL Governor Dr. Weerasinghe declared that the IMF warning hadn’t been heeded at all.

The COPE received confirmation of what has been widely speculated, hours after Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the new Finance Minister.

Janakantha Silva, Director Legislative Services/Director Communication, Parliament, quoted Dr. Weerasinghe as having told COPE that following technical talks held in terms of the Finance Act, pertaining to the IMF’s stand, recommendations were made to the then Premier and other senior officials. Dr. Weerasinghe has stated that the relevant decisions should have been made by the Premier, in his capacity as the Finance Minister and the entire Cabinet of Ministers.

The IMF has made its position clear after having asserted Sri Lanka lacked debt sustainability.

Asserting the failure on the part of those who managed the economy for causing a massive crisis, Prof. Charitha Herath called it a crime. The first time entrant to Parliament recommended the setting up of a Special Parliamentary Select Committee to probe those who neglected their responsibilities, thereby causing the current debilitating crisis. Prof. Herath blamed those few who managed the economy during that period.

But, absolutely nothing has been done. The disclosures before COPE had been quite conveniently forgotten.

SLPP National List MP Basil Rajapaksa succeeded Mahinda Rajapaksa, in July 2021, as the Finance Minister, whereas President Gotabaya Rajapaksa brought in SLPP National List MP Ajith Nivard Cabraal as the Governor of the Central Bank, in Sept 2021. Cabraal quit in March, 2022 to pave the way for Dr. Weerasinghe, the former Bank Deputy Governor, to return from retirement in Australia, as its new Governor.

Dr. Harsha de Silva has repeatedly pointed out how the then Finance Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa delegated his responsibilities to the then State Finance Minister Cabraal, who refrained from briefing the Parliament as regards the actual situation. Dr. de Silva is on record as having said that the IMF’s declaration of debt sustainability should be examined against the backdrop of the revenue cut imposed on the recommendation of the then Secretary to the President and one time Central Banker and Treasury Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera that deprived the Treasury of Rs 600 mn in taxes.

Dr. de Silva asked who decided on the tax cut in spite of the IMF specifically advising the government not to do so. The top SJB spokesperson has asked who decided on such a reckless course of action.

When the COPE raised a contentious issue of the Central Bank wasting precious funds to prevent depreciation of the Sri Lanka Rupee, Dr. Weerasinghe said this was the responsibility of the Monetary Board, comprising five persons. The then Monetary Board member Dr. Ranee Jayamaha has revealed that the then Governor Prof. W.D. Lakshman, Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle, and nominated member Samantha Kumarasinghe, decided on that course of action in spite of her and Sanjiva Jayawardena, PC, opposing them. They had registered their protest in writing.

However, can Dr. Jayamaha and President’s Counsel Jayawardena absolve themselves of the responsibility? They remain members of the Monetary Board.

The proposed Special Parliamentary Select Committee should have also summoned Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, deposed President’s Secretary. But, the Yahapalana decision to repeal the time-tested Exchange Control Act No 24 of 1953 remains a mystery. A section of the Opposition alleges enactment of Foreign Exchange Act, No. 12 of 2017, during Wickremesinghe tenure as the Prime Minister, facilitated ‘parking’ of export proceeds, overseas, to the tune of billions of USD. Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, is on record as having said that well over USD 50 bn had been stashed overseas. But what has he done to convince the Cabinet-of-Ministers to restore the repealed Act.

Former State Minister Jayantha Samaraweera (National Freedom Front) recently told this writer that Basil Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, rejected their leader Wimal Weerawansa’s proposal to restore the old Act.

The Yahapalana government passed the new Act on July 25, 2017. The Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), as well as the SLFP, voted for the new Act. Altogether 94 voted for the new Law, whereas 18 voted against. Then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya certified the new Act.

Contrary to reports, the new Act was brought in during the late Mangala Samaraweera’s tenure as the Finance Minister. Samaraweea succeeded Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, on May 22, 2017.

Another matter that needed attention is Sri Lanka’s International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs) as of USD 15.5, USD 12.5 had been obtained during the Yahapalana administration (2015-2019) or, in other words, in Wickremesinghe’s tenure as the Prime Minister.

In late January, 2022, the then Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal told US-based CNBC that Sri Lanka had to pay USD 12.5 bn of debt in ISBs’ over the next seven years. Cabraal resigned three months later.

The country is in a catch-22 situation. Caught up in US Indo-Pacific strategy, the political leadership here is struggling to avoid the scheduled Local Government polls for obvious reasons. Contrary to the US call for holding of LG polls, the superpower perhaps may facilitate their overall strategy. A certain defeat at the mini-polls is sure to weaken Wickremesinghe’s hold, hence the decision to sabotage the polls. Regardless of the Opposition efforts to galvanize public protests to pressure the government over the LG polls, the incumbent administration seems confident a gradual turnaround of the economy may facilitate its efforts to keep the situation under control, for the time being.

Midweek Review

Blind security sector reforms:



State Defence Minister Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon greets US State Department official Afreen Akhter (pic courtesy MoD)

Assurance to US on the size of military

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Defence Ministry recently quoted State Defence Minister, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, as having assured US State Department official, Afreen Akhter, that the military would be ‘right-sized’ to perform their classic role.

The assurance was given on 15 May at his office, in Colombo, just ahead of the14th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when our security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of 19 May with the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) troops wiping out a small group of hardcore LTTE cadres, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Among the dead was LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Why did the State Defence Minister make such a pledge? Did Akhter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asia Bureau of the State Department, seek a clarification as regards security sector reforms? If the military had continued to perform their classic role of being a ceremonial Army, the LTTE could have achieved Eelam. But the nearly three-year long sustained offensive brought the LTTE to its knees, 14 years ago.

Afreen Akhter oversees Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives, as well as the Office of Security and Transnational Affairs.

Her visit was the first by a State Department official, since National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, last month alleged, in a published book ‘Nine: The Hidden Story;, that the US had a direct role in the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year. The former industries minister is on record as having disclosed that US Ambassador here, Julie Chung, personally offered Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena an opportunity to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, regardless of constitutional impediment, to bypassing Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an unannounced visit to his official residence.

Ambassador Chung swiftly rejected the allegation made no sooner ‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ was launched at the Sri Lanka Foundation on 25 April. However, Speaker Abeywardena gave credence to lawmaker Weerawansa’s shocking claim by remaining dead silent.

Since the conclusion of the war, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government quietly began downsizing the SLA, which was little above 200,000 at the height of the war. However, the present government officially acknowledged the downsizing of the war-winning, Army on 13 January, 2023. State Minister Tennakoon was quoted as having said that the SLA strength would be further reduced to 135,000 by the end of next year and 100,000 by 2030.

Of course there cannot be an issue over the need to gradually decrease military strength in peace time, taking into consideration post-war national security requirements and the pathetic economic situation, confronting the country.

Regardless of the developing political-economic-social crisis, it would be the responsibility of the military top brass to brief the political leadership of the ground situation. Post-war national security requirements shouldn’t be looked at only on the basis of economic indicators. That would be suicidal. In other words, the country is in such a precarious situation, political leadership may tend to conveniently ignore basics, especially to please Uncle Sam, the obvious king-maker here now, thereby jeopardizing the country’s national security.

Declaration that the SLA would be reduced to 100,000 by 2030 means the total strength would be cut by half, from its peak.

The Defence Ministry statement didn’t refer to any other issue. But that doesn’t mean contentious issues hadn’t been taken up with Akhter during her visit. The US continuing to needle Sri Lanka, 14 years after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability, despite Washington’s own hands dripping with so much innocent blood from so many of its worldwide military misadventures, to retain its international hegemony, is mired in continuing controversy.

The designation of Sri Lanka’s most successful Navy commander (2005-2009) Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, in late April, this year, over a spate of abductions carried out in 2008-2009, at the height of the war with the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, as was even acknowledged by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, highlighted how the Washington establishment continues to pursue an agenda severely inimical to Sri Lanka.

Sanctioning of Karannagoda is the latest in a series of US measures directed at the war-winning military here. Among the sanctioned are Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and General Shavendra Silva, the controversial travel ban on the celebrated wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 58 Division formerly Task Force 1, the Numero Uno among the SLA fighting formations that literally took the fight to the LTTE, was imposed in Feb. 2020.

Expansion of SLA

The LTTE couldn’t have been defeated if not for the rapid expansion undertaken during the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as Commander of the Army (2005-2009). The SLA lacked the wherewithal to sustain a large scale ground offensive while deploying sufficient troops on a holding role. For want of adequate infantry battalions, the SLA couldn’t undertake large scale offensives, simultaneously. But the rapid expansion, since the launching of operations on multiple fronts, in Vanni, from 1997, paid dividends soon enough.

Sri Lanka should review post-war developments, taking into consideration the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July last year. The overall failure of the security apparatus to meet the public protest campaign that had been backe, clandestinely by the US, as alleged repeatedly by lawmaker Weerawansa, quickly overwhelmed law enforcement authorities and the military. Law enforcement authorities and the military should have been prepared to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately, a public protest campaign that was launched on 31 March, last year, targeting the private residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, exposed the serious weakness in overall government response to hitherto unknown threat.

Military strength should be the prerogative of the government. The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, now headed by retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera MP, should closely examine the developments and take up matters of importance, both in and outside Parliament. It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to consider/implement defence sector reforms at the behest of literally bankrupt external powers, with sinister motives. Defence sector reforms should be in line with overall security-political doctrine, instead of piecemeal restructuring. There cannot be a better example than the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s readiness to enhance the SLA’s strength by nearly 100,000. That decision, taken in the aftermath of Velupillai Prabhakaran declaration of Eelam War IV, in August 2006, was perhaps the single most decisive factor in Sri Lanka’s final victory over terrorism against so many odds placed against it.

Conclusive factor

In spite of the increasing military strength, as the LTTE gradually stepped up the offensive, and, finally, its threat became conventional in 1990, Sri Lanka never gave a real boost to military personnel numbers as explained in the chart published on this page. The period from 1981 to 1987 can be categorized as the Eelam War l. The Eelam War ll and lll were fought from 1990 to 1994, and 1995 to 2001, respectively.

Sri Lanka launched Division-sized ground offensives during Eelam War lll that began with the sinking of two gunboats, berthed at the Trincomalee harbour, and the downing of two Avros, with 100 officers, and men all, in April 1995, during an informal ceasefire with the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. But the military top brass, or the political leadership, at that time, never felt comfortable in executing a real expansion of the SLA.

In hindsight, they never wanted to go the whole hog. Operation ‘Riviresa.’ launched in Oct. 1995. was meant to bring Jaffna town under military control and consolidate government positions in the Jaffna peninsula. The operation that involved three Divisions was the largest combined security forces campaign until the Vanni campaign in 2007-2009.

However, the SLA never received the boost it desired during Eelam War lll. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga authorized Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ (victory assured) to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna peninsula. Having launched the offensive in May 1997, the government called it off, in 1999, following unbearable debacles. It was a miracle that the Army did not crumble at the time down to Anuradhapura or even beyond with a Commander in Chief like that, who was nothing but a cunning chatterbox with no sense of time. The government quite conveniently refrained from making a real difference on the ground by enhancing the number of infantry battalions available for ground commanders. According to the chart on this page, the SLA strength had been 117,705 officers and men (volunteers included) in 1996, the year before the launch of Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ and by 1999 when it was called off the paid strength in that particular year was 121,473.

The chart reveals a drop in the paid strength in 2000 to 116,739 in the wake of a series of humiliating battlefield defeats, culminating with the worst single debacle in the entire war when SLA abandoned the strategically located Elephant Pass base. A Division plus troops couldn’t repulse the LTTE offensive and the base collapsed in April 2000. Regardless of the Elephant Pass fall, the following year paid strength recorded a marginal increase. According to the chart, the paid strength in 2001 had been 118,331 while the strength dropped again in 2002 and 2003 during the operation of Oslo-arranged infamous Ceasefire Agreement.

The situation started gradually improving in 2004 and by 2007 paid strength stood at 151, 538. Having neutralized the LTTE in the Eastern theatre, the SLA was on the move on the Vanni west in 2007. That year marked the turning point in the war against the LTTE as the latter was overwhelmed on the Vanni front. The opening of multiple fronts on the Vanni theatre wouldn’t have been possible without the continuous flow of fresh recruits for newly raised Divisions as well as Jaffna-based formations.

It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka acquired Mi-24 helicopter gunships in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, MiG27s in 2000 and a range of naval platforms since 1980s, though successive governments that ignored the need to expand the fighting strength. During the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987- March 1990) the military ignored the basic requirement to provide sufficient troops to protect the MSR northwards from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The situation was so bad, Vavuniya-Elephant Pass stretch was held by isolated and poorly manned detachments at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990 following 14-month-long ‘honeymoon’ between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Velupillai Prabhakaran.

At the time Eelam War ll erupted in 1990, the paid SLA strength had been 60,596 whereas it consisted of 37,759 officers and men. Sri Lanka, in 2015, cancelled the war Victory Day parade following Western pressure. The last Victory Day parade was held in Matara in 2014. The rest is history.

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Midweek Review

Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka



The Popular Sinhala Cinema:

~ Part two ~

by Laleen Jayamanne

Ethnicity perhaps was not a political problem in the fledgling film industry, unlike in the wider political world, after the ‘Sinhala only’ Act of 1956, which made it the sole national language. In fact, without the entrepreneurial skills and vision of a group of indigenous and Indian Tamil businessmen, it’s very likely that the first steps towards the creation of a Lankan film industry of sorts would have been delayed at least by about a decade or so after political independence in 1947. The connection with India was essential. The first Sinhala film Kadawuna Poronduwa (Broken Promise, dir. B.A.W. Jayamanne, 1947), was in fact filmed in a studio in South India, belonging to the Indian producer S.M. Nayagam, who, subsequently, came to Ceylon and established the Sundera Sound Studio and obtained citizenship. The lack of capital, technical know-how, infrastructure and technology meant that the fledgling industry was dependent on India, in several ways, including the robust Indian melodramatic genre films in Tamil and Hindi which provided a durable prototype for many years to come.

However, despite the fundamental contribution of Tamil and Muslim, businessmen, technicians and artists in developing the Sinhala film industry, since the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the history of Sri Lankan cinema is blood stained. The pioneer entrepreneurs who established the national film industry were a group of astute Lankan and Indian Tamil businessmen not unlike the pioneering American Jewish entrepreneurs (immigrants from Eastern Europe), who established the major Hollywood studios in the 1920s in a foreign tongue. Despite this contribution to the national culture, the director K. Venkat was burnt alive in his car in July 1983 anti Tamil pogrom, by a Sinhala nationalist mob. Also, the most high-profiled pioneer film producer and industrialist, K. Gunaratnam’s house was attacked in July ’83 but he managed to escape the mobs and found refuge in the Holiday Inn. But his Vijaya Studio was burned down along with a large number of Sinhala films stored there. A large number of imported modern looms he had stored there, to be installed in a new factory for weaving a specialist textile, were also destroyed. In 1989 a JVP gunman shot him dead in his car, at point blank range, during a period of extreme Sinhala terrorist and state violence, between 1988-89. He donated the Tower Hall cinema, which he owned, to the state at President Premadasa’s request, but I read that there was no visible sign of acknowledgment of this magnanimous, rare, public-spirited gesture of Gunaratnam’s. Gunaratnam has been referred to as a movie Moghul because he established and controlled significant assets in all three tiers of the Ceylon film industry, namely production, importation and distribution and exhibition, from the early 1950’s on, producing Sinhala films that were highly successful at the box office. He also astutely diversified his business portfolios into the manufacture of plastics, and other industries, such as tourism, as it grew in importance after the open economic policies of 1977. Sir Chittampalan Gardiner’s Ceylon Theatres funded Lester James Peries’ Rekava, considered the foundational film for a new realist cinema after the nationalist revival of Sinhala culture in 1956, which also introduced Irangani Serasinghe to film. When this pioneering film flopped at the box office, Gunaratnam took a big risk and funded Lester’s historical epic, Sandeshaya which was a box office hit. This is a turning point in Lester’s career and therefore in the fledgling Lankan film history, too. Jabir Cader owned several theatres, including the New Olympia, where Hollywood films were screened.

Two approaches to Lankan Film History

One might approach Lankan film history from two different perspectives or with two different emphases. The first approach is the perspective formulated by the Royal Commission on the Film Industry established in 1962-1965, chaired by Regi Siriwardena, the eminent film critic and independent scholar. The second approach is one that would ask how the Lankan popular Sinhala cinema was produced from 1947, its economic foundations and examine the specific aesthetic reasons for its durable mass appeal in the country for about three decades, focusing especially on the songs, which is where Rukmani Devi and Master Baig come into the picture.

The huge popular appeal of the genre cinema and its songs and lyrics (printed on attractive song sheets sold at cinemas), rather than the rather poor dances, often as many as 10 songs per film, has been acknowledged and discussed in the circles of older cinephiles, who collected song sheets and Rukmani Devi’s records for instance from their youth. I am not sure what the younger contemporary critical intelligentsia thinks of this past film culture though. Here, Aruna Gunarathna’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lankan film history, as a long term, but now retired, editor of Sarasawiya and his extensive YouTube programmes on the early popular cinema are in a class of their own. He calls himself a ‘pictur-pissa’, someone crazy about cinema as such, a medium like no other. One would also have to agree with the Royal Commission’s approach outlining the reforms needed to create a local product that was economically, aesthetically and culturally viable. This entailed the rejection of the Indian prototypes. Though the exclusive emphasis on vernacular Sinhala subjects and language, effectively implied an erasure through silence, of the ethnic minorities from the new desired model of a national (appema ‘our very own’ Sinhala) cinema. This idea of ‘our very own’, meaning ‘Sinhala only’, is one that had considerable currency then. This desire for ‘original purity’ resulted in considering the popular Tamil and Muslim artists as ‘honorary Sinhala folk’! That these confident artists from the minority communities (with access to other traditons), were all creating together, durable, hybrid films and songs, which also might have resonated with the minority communities in the country. Such a possibility was rarely actively explored, the exception being Garmini Fonseka.

So, it’s a matter of emphasis now, from this historical distance, when we can assess that past in a non-polemical sophisticated way, after a 30 year civil war waged on the competing, exclusionary claims of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. That is, to not simply reject the ‘song and dance’ films, as they were referred to, in a dismissive manner by critics, who called for a true national cinema, which was ‘Sinhala’ in themes and use of language. The emphasis on songs and dance were abandoned in favour of more ‘serious’ concerns. But it’s worth noting that some ‘serious’ directors still loved using songs and those from say Bambaruawaith and Hansavilak scored by Khemadasa master, have by now become classics with their poetic lyrics. However, once a popular cinema is lost it’s not possible to recreate the conditions that gave rise to it, especially its devoted mass fan base in the first instance. This was so with Classical Hollywood cinema during the studio era with its mass audience and it was so with the Sinhala films made during the first 30 years or so. But India remains the striking exception to this mass cultural historical decline, especially after the advent of Television. India with its diverse folk songs, including Thumri and several classical musical traditions (Drupad, Khayal and Karnataka), and vibrant hybrid pop cultures should teach us that musical and cinematic creativity flourishes only when artists are open to outside influences and exchange of ideas. Indian films inherit all of this diverse cultural patrimony with unshaken confidence, while Lankans in power turn inward by sustaining an obsolete idea of cultural purity.

(To be Continued)

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Midweek Review

Nation’s State



By Lynn Ockersz

In cozy Board rooms,

Of the imperiled Isle,

It’s the ‘bigger picture’,

That’s made to count,

And that goes down well,

With those holding the reins,

But the pain is in the details,

And these easily unfaze,

Those of sound conscience,

For, we have unemployed men,

Furiously tramping the streets,

Their tools lying limp on shoulders,

Hunger gnawing at their innards,

Some taking leave of their senses,

To the amusement and laughter,

Of entertainment-starved fellow men.

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