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An analysis of a deadly runway overrun

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by Capt. G A Fernando, MBA

gafplane@sltnet.lk

 

RCyAF, Air Ceylon, AirLanka, Singapore Airlines and SriLankan Airlines
President Aircraft Owners and Operators Association, Sri Lanka

Former Chief Pilot Boeing 737
Former Deputy Chief Pilot Lockheed L 1011, Tri Star

Former Member Accident Investigation Team CAASL.
Former Crew Resource Management Facilitator SIA

On the night of 1st June 1999, an American Airlines Flight 1420, a MD 82 aircraft, was approaching Little Rock Airport, Arkansas, USA, carrying 139 passengers, with thunderstorms in the vicinity. They were over two hours late and the pilots were trying to beat the onset of weather ,which was already moving in creating intense precipitation (rain), reducing visibility and causing strong cross winds at speeds well beyond the limits imposed by the Company Operations Manual which the pilots had to follow. Little Rock is subjected to frontal weather. In the USA, cold air masses moves in from the north, literally ploughing under warm moist air from the south (Gulf of Mexico) and pushing upwards to create violent thunderstorms.

The resulting rain brings about down draughts of air which manifest themselves as wind after hitting the ground and spreading out. (Microbursts) causing a phenomenon known as low level ‘Wind Shear’ that can be extremely dangerous to aircraft approaching to land. It manifests itself as a sudden change of wind speed at low level which may make the aircraft fall out of the sky with insufficient height to recover!

 

Microburst

The pilots of American Airlines Flight 1420, had been awake for a long time and they were at the tail end of their fight duty period, after a long day. They were attempting to fly, looking for visual clues outside the aircraft, (they could see the lights of the airport occasionally), when it was really instrument flight conditions. Basically, there are two rules to fly by. Visual Flight Rules (VFR) or Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). After a mid-air collision over the Grand Canyon, USA, in 1956, where both aircraft involved were flying visually, it was required that all commercial airlines will file their Flight Plans in accordance to IFR until such time the pilots declare that they have the destination airport in sight. At this time, their flight is automatically considered a flight operating, in accordance with VFR. Trying to ‘eyeball’ known traffic even today is worse than looking for a needle in a haystack.

The two pilots of flight AA1420 had been aware of the forecast weather for Little Rock, before they departed on their short flight from Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. Taking into consideration the speed of the moving weather fronts, it is relatively easier to forecast, accurately, expected weather at the time of arrival, in that part of the world, than in the weather in the Tropics. From the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) the Crew were observed by the accident investigators, to be calm and collected till the actual weather at the airport was communicated to them by the Air Traffic Controller at Little Rock. They were fully expecting to get to their destination before the weather moved in. It looked as if the weather was closing in fast.

Then the ‘human condition’ kicked in and things happened fast. Through the years, while aviation technology improved and aircraft were more and more reliable, the human has remained basically in the Stone Age, fallible, unimproved and unreliable. (Essentially not supermen but of muscle, blood, skin and bone) and subject to fear and emotion. In reality, no flight is error free. Some observers, on safety audits, have detected over 300 errors made by a single crew on routine flights even in the best of airlines. Most individual crew errors are detected or are inconsequential. The few that filter through, gets picked up by the second crew member. If a serious error that gets through undetected, and results in an undesirable situation, that, too, could be corrected, even at the last moment. Thus saving the day. “To err was human” as said by Cicero. Through intense training and continuous evaluation, It is the role of the crew to avoid and trap errors, manage threats to air safety and mitigate their effects when necessary. Pilots don’t have control over threats, such as weather. That is how the system should work. As the aircraft gets closer and closer to the destination, the tolerance limits also narrows down. For instance, airlines fly along airways that are 10 miles wide at 30,000 feet and are expected to land on a Runway strip 150 feet wide, demanding greater flying accuracy from the crew resulting in greater stress. Greater the stress, greater the chances of making errors which are classified by the behavioural scientists as ‘Slips, Lapses, Mistakes and Violations’.

To illustrate the point, using the analogy of driving a car, if one is expected to drive at 100 kph in a freeway and the speed slowly creeps up to 110 kph, before one recognises the error it is considered to be a ‘slip’. If one forgets to wear one’s seat belt, the error is considered to be a ‘lapse’. If one attempts to overtake on a dual lane road, based on one’s judgement and then realises that there is a car coming in the opposite direction and one is forced not to overtake, that type of error is called a ‘mistake’. If one is aware that one is breaking the law and one continues to do so regardless, that becomes a ‘violation’. (Like crossing double white lines, when overtaking.)

With AA1420 the presence of thunderstorms in the immediate vicinity and associated lightning, turbulence, air speed fluctuations of the aircraft, provided distractions, there is a possibility of self-induced stress. This is exactly what happened. While attempting to align the aircraft on the runway, in strong cross wind condition, they landed a bit deep. Being too busy (task overloaded) on the final approach, both crew members forgot to arm the automatic Ground Spoilers, resulting in an overrun of the wet runway. The Ground Spoilers are the devices on the top surface of the wing that pop out and literally spoils the lift of the wings a few seconds after touch down. The spoilers operate automatically when armed, pressing the wheels to the ground to improve braking action. If that didn’t happen either crew member could, reach across and physically pull a handle that can deploy the spoilers manually.

There was another human consideration known in the industry as ‘Intra Cockpit Authority Level’, between the Captain and the First Officer. The Captain, in this case, was a 10,000-hour, former US Air Force Veteran and Management Pilot, while the First Officer was a new hire with low experience, who may not have wanted to suggest that the Captain aborts the landing approach and goes around or interfere with the controls, as it would be misconstrued as ‘mutiny’. The million dollar question is, why he keep quiet when it also involved preservation of his own life?

Usually, it is left for the Captain (the team leader), at the initial briefing, to set the tone, by saying something like “if you see me do something unacceptable or dangerous, please sing it out loud even at the risk of being embarrassed”, because the Captain may sometimes give a logical explanation for his actions afterwards. Unfortunately, from what we could gather from the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) that didn’t happen. There wasn’t time for even a proper briefing which should have been done before the top of descent, covering all options including a possible diversion to an alternate airport with better weather, or to their departure airport, which was Dallas-Fort Worth where the weather was good. That could have been a far safer option than landing on a wet runway with high cross winds. While continuing the landing in high winds was a ‘violation’, in certain countries, the Captain and Crew are allowed to proceed down to a minimum altitude and ‘take a look’ and abort (go around) the landing, if the situation is deemed to be unsafe. To some airports, like London, England, it is illegal for the crew to even commence an approach if the landing conditions are unacceptable. This regulation was imposed after an Ariana Afghan Airlines approached in bad weather, with 62 people on board, to London Gatwick, England, 51 years ago, and crashed.

Anyway the final result with flight AA 1420 was that the aircraft couldn’t stop, skidded sideways, overran the runway and hit a man-made obstacle that was not frangible (Breaking on impact), destroying the aircraft, killing the Captain instantly and 10 other passengers. The wreck caught fire. The crash was avoidable if the pilots delayed their approach to land or diverted to another airport and if that killer obstacle had been removed by the airport authorities. After the accident, the Captain’s wife took the Airport Authorities to court and was awarded damages of 2 million US Dollars, against the authorities, for not having frangible obstacles in the Runway End Safety Area (RESA). A long day, Pilot fatigue and a behavioural phenomenon called ‘get -there-a–ritis’ (also known as get-home-a-titis) where the pilots were intent at landing at any cost, under self-imposed pressure may have been contributing factors. In the opinion of the Accident Investigating team, the thunderstorms were far too close to the airport and recommended that aircraft should not commence an approach for landing, if the thunderstorms were closer than five miles from the airport. It was also recommended that arming of the Ground Spoilers be included in the ‘Before Landing Checklist’ The Accident Investigation team took over two years (in the comfort of quiet, air conditioned command centre) to analyse the case of American Airlines 1420 and quite rightly stated that it would be unfair to solely blame the crew who had less than two minutes, in demanding conditions, to make crucial decisions between life and death. Their objective was to find the cause behind the cause

As a standard practice, the aviation industry learns from crashes that occur in any part of the world. Pilots in our part of the world are as human as anywhere else. It is very easy to imagine that a similar scenario could happen in Sri Lanka, where similar weather patterns are encountered during the Inter-monsoon seasons (evening thunder showers). I am sure we have all seen the mighty power and devastating effects of the wind just before the onset of a storm. They blow down trees and damage roofs. Doppler Radar, capable of spotting wind shear is still a dream. Obstacles at the end of the runway should be identified and removed because aircraft can be at the wrong place at the wrong time. It is a case of evaluating the risks, by the operating crew.

That is what Safety Management is about. According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), being proactive, predictive and preventive is the name of the game. Unfortunately, many want to be in the spotlight as ‘movers and shakers’ of the a Aviation Industry but wouldn’t give two hoots to make the system safer. We have seen in the past that It is difficult to hold anyone accountable after an accident. The easy way out is to blame the pilots.

Perhaps. as Anton Jones in his popular ‘Baila’ about the Martinair crash at Maskeliya, says “Kageda warada notherai” (We don’t know whose fault it is).

That is the stark reality.

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Features

Beyond constitutional politics and polemics

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster greet one another upon Pompeo’s arrival at the airport in New Delhi on Monday. PTI

by Austin Fernando

All quandaries on constitutional amendments are now over with an impressive victory for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the country looks forward to the implementation of the 20th Amendment (20A), to serve the people more efficiently, effectively, and economically.

Although Minister of Justice Ali Sabry declared that all 20A provisions had been in the JR Jayewardene Constitution previously, there were a few differences. Considering the volume of amendments, this stance is passable, though not exact. My observation is that Presidents Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa performed effectively in comparison to attain their development objectives through the 1978 Constitution.

Governmental performance

Economic performance is an essential ingredient in political performance and management. It is because the economics of development under all regimes has been an evaluation yardstick and also publicly questioned.

Performance by Presidents, Prime Ministers and governments are not guided and determined only by Constitutions. If Constitutions could facilitate smooth performance, why didn’t it happen during tenures of all Presidents exercising power according to the 1978 Constitution? Until 2009, they had failed to defeat terrorism. Corruption increased. The economic morass continued.

The development of a country hinges on the quality of political and business leadership, national security/stability, research/ technological /educational standards, labour legislations, foreign direct investments, foreign assistance/aid, environmental soundness, diplomacy, international political behavior, and positive responses. The Constitution could boost development, but it alone is not sufficient.

Successes do not preclude criticisms that were aplenty against the aforesaid three Presidents. Some criticisms were even acceptable as regards the moral decadence due to the open economy, proliferation of dangerous drugs, or the construction of an unoptimizable port, airport and other such infrastructural projects and debt traps.

 

Human rights

One criterion for foreign assistance is a country’s respect for human rights. I may quote Rights watchdog Meenakshi Ganguly, of Human Rights Watch- South Asia, to prove this point. After the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, she said: “The Sri Lankan government needs to hear that other countries are watching and will respond to renewed abuses.” This threat has not gone away.

Such issues will be taken up when the UNHRC meets in early 2021. Britain has already decided to withdraw the LTTE ban. Additionally, anti-China attitudes could lead to the harassment of Sri Lanka even indirectly. Contrarily, the Chinese have given assurances of bailing us out.

Even after the passage of 20A, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa cannot expect to be exempted from such attitudes, rules, and standards. I will highlight some immediate reactions experienced with selected internationals. The way foreign powers have responded to the incumbents after the presidential and parliamentary elections will be a guide to observe the trends.

 

India

Immediately after the presidential election, India showed up in Colombo. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also positively responded and the traditional first destination visit was to Delhi. Former President Maithripala Sirisena also did so, followed by another for the second inauguration of PM Modi.

Such visits provide opportunities to evaluate silently how foreign powers respond. I had the privilege of participating in all three visits by Presidents Sirisena and Rajapaksa. President Sirisena’s first visit was considered by Indians as a grand opportunity for novel openings and approaches, having experienced a deterioration of diplomatic relations under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure.

However, the agreement signed by Ministers Malik Samarawickrama and Sushma Swaraj in 2017, concerning several large-scale projects, apparently to spite Chinese political/economic interference in Sri Lanka, did not reach fruition. Indians did not forgive the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government although formal relations were maintained respectfully.

The difference in diplomatic relations is reflected in many ways. This was seen from how PM Modi responded when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited India in November 2019. Their one-on-one meeting lasted 55 minutes, and India offered US dollar 450 million to Sri Lanka in assistance. Perhaps, body chemistry of the two leaders clicked. PM Mahinda Rajapaksa once criticised Indians for having contributed to his defeat in 2015. India has proved that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in foreign relations, and it is only the mutual interests that matter.

Indians expected the fast-tracking of projects related to the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), the Mattala Airport, and Trinco Petroleum Tanks. But there has been no positive follow-up even eleven months after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s discussions with PM Modi. The COVID-19 pandemic could be one reason for this delay. But a fresh dialogue is necessary if India is to be kept in the development loops.

Recently, PM Modi offered a $15-million grant for the promotion of Buddhist cultural exchanges, but his officers are slow in finalizing requests for a debt moratorium and an additional $1.1-billion assistance discussed during the visits of Rajapaksa brothers in November 2019 and February 2020. Positively, the Reserve Bank of India signed a swap of $400 million. If such needs are not met, the vacuum will be filled by another.

For comparison, Indian External Affairs Minister committed a 100-million-dollar grant and a project loan of 400 million dollars to the Maldives in mid-August this year, showing assistance did not depend on demography, revenue generation, or socio-economy, but on other priorities. The swift assistance to the Maldives and the delay in responding to our request may be conveying a message that should be heard and understood by Sri Lanka.

I quote another Indian investment in Bangladesh for comparison. The Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority was ready (mid-2020) to start site development for an Indian Special Economic Zone, where billions of dollars in investment were expected from India. Sri Lanka was not so fortunate even though such potential was in the 2017 agreement. The government must learn from Bangladesh experience.

China

Quite the opposite response was shown by the Chinese who have already handed over 500 million dollars (March 2020). When the Chinese Minister Wang Yi met Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the latter thanked China for its consistent contribution to Sri Lanka’s development process as well as their support at numerous regional and international fora, like the UNHRC. China and Russia have been helpful throughout.

Chinese involvement in infrastructure development has drawn severe criticism. This is something common throughout the world as regards the Chinese investment through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Another Chinese intervention took place recently when Senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who reportedly said: “Sri Lanka will firmly commit itself to deepening friendship with China, and is willing to make every effort to press forward the key BRI cooperation projects such as the Colombo Port City and the comprehensive development of the Hambantota Harbour.” This would not have pleased the Indians and Americans, and even the Japanese, who recently lost a light rail investment project here.

When Yang met PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, just after the latter’s discussion with PM Modi, the PM thanked China’s support for combating COVID-19, adding that China’s strong support in various fields had helped Sri Lanka strengthen its capacity to resume work and production amid the pandemic.

Finally, it was revealed that China would also help mitigate the financial crisis faced by Sri Lanka.

The Framework of the Strategic Cooperative Partnership between China and Sri Lanka embarked on, in 2013, gave hope of advantages through development but achievements have been slow in coming. The recent high-level Chinese visit here points to a desire to accelerate it. It must be noted that such interventions with other countries (e. g. India) were slow. The delay between bureaucratic decision-making and politicized decision-making could be the reason.

 

USA, Quad, and influences

 

The incredibly positive relations build-up by Yang Jiechi is followed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Colombo. While arrangements were being made for Pompeo’s visit, the US announced that it would urge Sri Lanka “to make ‘difficult but necessary choices’ on its economic relations”. The reference to difficult economic relations invariably meant the partnering with China. The MCC is another project the US is interested in.

The US spokesperson made it abundantly clear, saying “We encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices.” Media reports show that this message was partially conveyed to several Ministers by the American Ambassador Toeplitz when she met them.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed the comments as a manifestation of the “Cold War mentality.” Its spokesman Zhao Lijian responded, “Attempts to use coercion to obstruct normal cooperation between countries will not succeed.”

Concurrently, Mike Pompeo has recently suggested (after the Tokyo Quad meeting) that the Quad should be institutionalized: “We [Quad members] can begin to build out a true security framework” for the Indo-Pacific. He also described the Quad as the “fabric” that could “counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presents to all of us.” It is clear Pompeo is gathering support against China.

In this context, meeting Pompeo after Yang Jiechi will be an embarrassment for Rajapaksas. In fact, a few months ago CCP was considered as a guide for their political party. Yet, the US will see whether Sri Lanka is prepared to counter the CCP challenges and to what extent. This is not surprising especially after India agreeing to sign a military agreement with the USfor sharing of sensitive satellite data and conducting a dialogue to counter China’s growing power in the region. It may be appropriate for Sri Lanka to remain cautious.

As commentators say, Chinese behaviour and attempts to re-order the region have caused concern among the Quad members. They believe that Quad may have to discuss a rule-based big picture of the Indo-Pacific Region, especially how to reshape China’s behaviour, and under what conditions they would reassess China as a responsible stakeholder. Pompeo is here after the Quad Foreign Ministers Meeting in Tokyo. Given this situation, how Sri Lanka should deal with him is a challenge.

 

Diplomatic conflicts and us

Countries like Sri Lanka sometimes become playing fields for powerful countries. US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz recently said that the US goal “in responding to this request (MCC) is to alleviate poverty and to boost inclusive economic growth” and identifying Sri Lanka as “a sovereign leader in maritime security”, which are indisputably favourable recognition of Sri Lanka.

But her statement “Sri Lanka should engage with China in ways that protect its sovereignty” angered China, which responded directly. The Chinese Embassy in Colombo stated that “with great shock and strong discontent, the embassy learned about the US Ambassador’s interview with a local newspaper, in which a foreign envoy from a third country openly played off China-Sri Lanka relations and severely violated the diplomatic protocol.” The Chinese are extraordinarily concerned with the US violating Sri Lanka’s diplomatic protocols. Having been a High Commissioner myself, I await such bold statements from our Ambassadors in the US or China, even violating diplomatic protocols, when a situation arises with these two governments! Am I waiting for Godot!

Further, the Chinese statement said: “Both China and Sri Lanka as independent countries have full right to develop relations with foreign countries according to our own need and will.” This reminds me of a past Chinese intervention in Bhutan. It is an example where the Chinese while seeking to mend relations with Bhutan, to make India lose ground, dropped Chinese tourist arrivals after the Doklam standoff, because Bhutan did not stand with China. It was a warning to Bhutan about the country’s vulnerability. At that point, the “full right to develop relations” with India was tabooed by China for Bhutan!

Bhutan’s obligations to act according to the Treaty of Friendship between India and Bhutan (8-8-1949) calling for peace between them and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and the additional agreement by Bhutan to let India “guide” its foreign policy and consultative action on foreign and defense affairs were not considered by the Chinese, as the legal “need and will” of Bhutan.

Similarly, India’s wrath was unleashed (2012) when the then Bhutanese PM Jigme Thinley met the Chinese PM, Wen Jiabao, on the sidelines of the Rio+20 Summit. India retaliated by withdrawing fuel subsidies to Bhutan. New Delhi’s heavy-handed response was deeply resented by Bhutan.

We complain of powerful countries using the proverbial stick, but these examples show that anyone could be the perpetrator to satisfy his needs. Let us be realistic without resorting to rhetoric, which emanate from boisterous politicians mostly- even ministers.

The Chinese strongly suggested “the US quit the addiction of preaching others and applying double standards” and named four areas of misdeeds, i. e. slandering, pretending as the guardian of free trade while violating the WTO rulings, holding high the banner of transparency, and smearing others’ normal cooperation against sovereignty, while militarily misbehaving and imposing unilateral sanctions. Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines or Taiwanese in China Sea or Indians in Ladakh may blame the Chinese for not adhering to some of these principled behaviours and preaching to the US. Can Sri Lanka challenge President Xi on the same lines?

 

Conclusion

I quoted the aforesaid references to point out the difficulties faced by Sri Lanka in the big diplomatic picture. They are thrust on us. Sri Lanka must take informed positions due to practicalities.

With the Indians, the proximity, centuries old relationships, strategic location in the Indian Ocean region, which became a focused area due to Indo-Pacific Regional bias, India and Japan, etc., must be valued. The busines alliances between India and Japan on ECT and Liquified Natural Gas projects send another message. The potential/ possible Indian influence on other countries, some parliamentarians, demographic and political groups must be considered for internal political stability purposes.

The Chinese factor must be considered in the light of past transactions and potential investments that could be received faster than from borrowing agencies or formal lenders. Sri Lanka’s economic problems need immediate solutions. How far could the government wait for external interventions satisfying all criteria?

The above quoted financial requirements and responses received from India may help understand the reality of financing, for which China responds faster than any other country. Any political intervention should address this problem and adapt to systemic assistance. Of course, the disadvantages of Chinese interventions, even highlighted by the World Bank study, about procurement procedures could push countries like Sri Lanka into difficulties. What alternatives could evolve is an issue.

Immediate response to the statement by Dean Thompson was experienced with Sri Lanka’s government bonds falling heavily last week. This is the danger that could be created by big brothers. The African proverb, ‘When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’, is always valid.

It is time for those who yelled last week that restrictions on stability/development could be remedied by constitutional amendments to keep quiet because it is not the absolute truth. The 20A had other objectives as is obvious. They should look afresh realistically and consider whether ignoring the international developments is possible. Let saner counsel prevail.

Simply stated, it is time to ditch camouflaged rhetoric heard in the House last week and look incisively, realistically, logically, and face the international challenges caused by the financial crisis, COVID 19, political conflicts, etc. Being a small nation, we need everyone’s support.

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Features

Soon…a celebrity Doctor!

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Dr. Nilanka is a name to be reckoned with in the local showbiz scene – not as a doctor, but as a vocalist/entertainer.

Although she has not been in the vocal spotlight, on stage, in a big way, this awesome singer has been churning out some beautiful music, in the studio, and uploading them on social media – her Facebook page – and, especially, on YouTube.

When ‘Arise Sri Lanka’ was taking shape, in August, I came across a video clip of Dr. Nilanka singing the Roberta Flack hit ‘Killing Me Softly.’

Obviously, there are several versions of ‘Killing Me Softly’ (Frank Sinatra, Fugees, Lauryn Hill), but Dr. Nilanka’s version just blew me away.

Since I was in the ‘Arise Sri Lanka’ committee, I thought we should have this singer on our show and immediately sent her video clip to those concerned. And, they were all unanimous in their decision.

And…Dr. Nilanka was there, on stage, on the night of Saturday, August, 29th, 2020, impressing everyone with her version of ‘Killing Me Softly.’

Those who heard her sing, that particular night, had only superlatives to describe her performance.

Yes, and a star was born – Dr. Nilanka Anjalee Wickramasinghe.

Her latest contribution, via a video clip, is The Bangles hit song, ‘Eternal Flame.’

Sohan Weerasinghe describes her as a singer with a marvelous voice and he did mention that he would feature her as a guest star, with The X-Periments, as often as possible.

He went on to say that she is in a class of her own. “A very talented singer with an absolutely seductive voice. Awesome talent, indeed.”

And, that means, we are going to see, and hear, a lot of Dr. Nilanka in the near future….

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Women in Power

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The Revolutionary Lives and Careers of Siva,Doreen,Vivi and Srima

By Kusum Wijetilleke (kusumw@gmail.com) and
Rienzie Wijetilleke (rienzietwij@gmail.com)

(Continued from yesterday)

US President John F. Kennedy modified a policy on the release of US rubber stockpiles after Ms. Bandaranaike wrote to him explaining the consequences of the policy on Sri Lanka’s rubber export earnings. She exchanged further letters with JFK on the most critical issue of the period, nuclear proliferation, expressing her dismay at nuclear tests undertaken by the US. Citing her speech at the 1961 Non-Aligned conference, JFK wrote back stating “…although there may be some differences between us as to what constitutes ‘effective’ inspection and control, I am heartened that we seem not to differ over the need for it.”

The 1962 Sino-Indian War led to some 6,000 deaths and Ms. Bandaranaike, realizing how devastating war between the super powers would be for Ceylon’s economic aspirations, travelled between China and India seeking compromises. Her efforts were some time before the term “shuttle diplomacy” entered the lexicon of international relations. A team of six non-aligned nations led by Ms. Bandaranaike and Sri Lanka led to a dramatic de-escalation in hostilities and earned her further recognition on the international stage. Her close relationship with Indira Gandhi led to a negotiation between PM J.R. Jayawardena and Indian Diplomat J.N. Dixit, on the restoration of her civil rights and parliamentary membership, after she had been convicted of abuses of power in 1977.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s political career was full of peaks and valleys, but her ascension to power was not merely a twist of fate caused by the assassination of her husband. At the age of 19, she took up social work in rural areas of the country, distributing food and medicine to villages and joined the Lankan Women’s Association, the largest voluntary women’s organization and served as its Treasurer, Vice-President and President. It might be unfortunate that her performance as a leader is defined by the decline of the Sri Lankan economy during her stewardship. It diluted a ground breaking career as a woman of formidable intellect with unrivalled power in a new political frontier.

A similar fate would befall another pioneering woman of Sri Lankan politics, its first female cabinet minister; Ms Wimala Wijewardene, whose political career was inextricably linked to the SWRD Bandaranaike assassination.

Ms. Wimala Wijewardene contested the seat for Kelaniya in 1952, at the 2nd Parliamentary election, but was defeated by her nephew J.R. Jayewardene. She would enter parliament and become a Cabinet Minister in 1956, but her career would be overshadowed by her close association with the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara and its Chief Priest, “Ven.” Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera. The Chief Priest had long been suspected of racketeering and other not so venerable business dealings. He was also the founder of the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (United Bhikku Front) which represented the politicized section of the clergy. Pamphlets, anonymously distributed, implied an affair between Buddharakkita and Sri Lanka’s first female Cabinet Minister. When Ms. Wimala urged SWRD to take action, he disregarded the request and allegedly retorted “Wimala, after all, aren’t some of these things true”. Investigations following the assassination of the Prime Minister revealed that Buddharakkita had convinced a fanatic nationalist monk to murder the PM and reportedly even provided the weapon. Further investigations revealed SWRD Bandaranaike’s wavering patronage to Buddharakkita and his business interests; the refusal of a shipping contract and a sugar manufacturing license, as prime motives for his assassination.

Ms Wijewardene was arrested along with Buddharakkita as a suspect in the murder assassination, but was later released. She did not return to politics but the dramatic events should not dilute a crucial political career which peaked with her appointment as the Minister of Health in 1956. Twenty years later, another equally skilled administrator would be appointed as the Minister of Health.

Sivagami Verina “Siva” Dassanaike and her husband James Obeysekere lll, were early supporters of the breakaway faction led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the 1950s. Thus, “Siva” became politically active in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at the age of 22 and contested the Mirigama seat in 1965 at the age of 36. Her victory as a first time candidate was even more impressive considering that she was an Anglican contesting a majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist district.

As Health Minister, Siva formulated a National Health Programme that would be adopted by the United Nations as an international model, earning her a special award of appreciation from the United States Senator for Massachusetts: Edward Kennedy. However Ms Obeysekere’s career was characterized by more than an award from a Kennedy. Despite, or may be because of a privileged upbringing, she was ahead of her time in realizing that the poorest in Ceylon had no meaningful income through employment and what work they did do was often exploitative, both in deed and remuneration. During her visits to far flung villages around the island she noticed that local artists in rural towns and villages, many of them women, would lovingly create handicrafts and handlooms but received very low prices for their labour. That was until Ms Obeysekere created ‘Laksala’ to earn better prices for handicrafts, an income generator to this day. Ms Obeysekere’s work towards uplifting the poor earned her the title of “Deshamanya” (Pride of the Island); the first female recipient of the award.

Sri Lanka’s independence heroes are rightly revered, with monuments, institutes and street signs bearing their names. D.S. Senenayake, Henry Pedris, C.W.W. Kannangara, Leslie Gunawardena, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Colvin R. De Silva and the like are cemented in history, but there are others who deserve recognition. Sri Lanka’s independence movement was partly the result of the agitation of a broad coalition of leftist political parties, thus Sri Lanka’s original socialists deserve more than an honourable mention.

The country’s first political party was the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), formed in 1935 by Colvin R De Silva and Philip Gunawardena on an anti-imperialist platform. The party aimed to dismantle the colonial government from within by fielding popular candidates to positions in the State Council. Yet the first leftist to be elected to the State Council was Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe (1931), who later founded the Communist Party of Ceylon, and had met the aforementioned Colvin R.de Silva and Philip Gunawardena many years earlier in the UK. Whilst socializing amongst the radicals in London, Dr. Wickramasinghe would also meet his future wife, Doreen Young, whose parents were ardent British socialists and ingrained in her a revolutionary streak that would serve Ceylon well in later years.

Ms. Young would relocate to Ceylon as Principal of Sujatha Vidyalaya in Matara and made her mark almost immediately by launching a campaign of formal training for Ceylon’s predominantly female teachers, so they may obtain qualifications and improve their bargaining positions in the labour market. Her career as a revolutionary and radical in Ceylon had begun. She learnt Sinhala and proceeded to update the local curriculum to replace British history with Sri Lankan and world history. Her marriage to the leader of the Communist Party and their anti-imperialist campaigns led to the revocation of an employment offer from Vishaka Vidyalaya. She was later also removed as the Principal of Ananda Balika Vidyalaya in 1936, accused of spreading anti-British propaganda.

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