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Another Sketch of 1971 Events

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by ACB Pethiyagoda

Mr. Gamini Gunawardena’s appreciation of the late Inspector General of Police, Stanley Senanayake, in The Sunday Island recently brought to my mind personal ‘Random Sketches of Events in Contemporary History’ (the subtitle of GG’s article).

To start at the very beginning I had the pleasure of meeting the elegant Stanley in the mid 1950s at a mutual friend’s home in Kalutara when he, Stanley, was Director of the Police Training School. The friend and his family migrated; we went our separate ways according to the dictates of our employment; and out of the blues I had, in late 1971, an official note from the Inspector General of Police together with a personal note appended. Its tone and contents spoke volumes for Mr. Stanley Senanayake’s geniality.

Toward the end of 1970 and very early the next year, JVP activity was not that evident in the upcountry plantation areas except for some scribbling on walls of public buildings. However, a general build up of their activity in other parts of the country, except in the North, was reported in the newspapers, making one and all sit up and expect an impending flare up — when, where and in what form was anybody’s guess.

The guesses were as many as the expressions of admiration of Rohana Wijeweera’a ability to hold a crowd captive at his public meetings, whether they agreed with his ideologies or not.

Early in 1971 a real jolt was felt by me when driving back to work very early of a Monday morning after a weekend out; a group of four on the road was discerned in the dim light partly hidden by a roadside tree between Ginigathena and Hatton. They appeared to be khaki clad. While realizing this as strange, I noticed one stepping forward and signaling me to stop.

Without so much as a pause to think, I sped away and stopped only outside the Hatton Police Station. The scary incident was related to the OIC who said there were no police patrols at that time on that stretch of road. After an entry was made, I proceeded to Mayfield Estate where I was Superintendent at the time.

Night travel was given up; serious thought given to contingency plans in the event of possible disturbances and consequent disruption of work on the estate. Safety and food supply to about 1,000 workers with a total population of around 6,000 was the sole responsibility of the superintendent.

Although friends and fellow managers discussed this tense situation there is no recollection of any announcements or advice from government departments or the Planters’ Association. It was on account of this apparent lack of preparedness that when the JVP attacked several police stations on the night of April 5, 1971, the entire country, except the Northern and Eastern Provinces, was jolted and galvanized into action —even to the extent of appealing to India and Pakistan for help.

Action as far as the upcountry plantation sector was concerned for about the first day and a half was a collective wringing of hands faced with the enormity of the anticipated problem. In addition to safety and continued food supply, the scarcity of liquid fuel would result in the cessation of manufacture and extended stoppage of work. These were too frightening to even consider at that early stage of the possible conflagration. Another consideration was the safety of buildings — factory, stores, offices, bungalows, dwellings of workers, vehicles, which were then not covered against riot and civil commotion.

Newspapers and mail ceased to arrive. With no TV and radio and signals from Colombo not being received by those beautiful contraptions known as radiograms (radio and record player of different rpms in one unit), we were starved of news. Telephones which at the best of times functioned only off and on, were permanently off. When calls to Colombo and other outstations were booked, the operators, if any of them had reported for work, declared lines were out of order.

We were thus cut off and left to fend for ourselves. In this situation, about seven of us superintendents of neighbouring estates met to form a mutual help club. The Europeans backed out on the excuse their embassies had advised them to keep their hands off local politics. They could not, or did not want to differentiate between politics and strategy for survival under difficult circumstances by sharing available resources.

Hence, the four Sri Lankan superintendents decided to band together to face the common problem as best as they could. I write entirely from memory, so inaccuracies are possible, though not probable.

Labour union leaders on each estate were summoned by the respective superintendents and made aware of the prevalent situation.

They readily agreed to conserve food stocks in hand and not demand more than the rationed quota of rice and flour for a week issued by government until fresh stocks arrived. When? There was no answer to that question. As for security they agreed to an unofficial curfew- workers nor their family members would be allowed to wander around after dark outside their quarters; and strangers apprehended forthwith.

A day or two after the first attacks on police stations, news seeped through that the Nanu Oya Police Station had been abandoned. The station serving Mayfield and some surrounding estates and villages was at Patana on the Talawakelle-Nawalapitiya road. One of the cooperating superintendents and I rushed there early in the morning to find the sergeant in charge preparing to lock up and decamp with his three constables, without a semblance of authority from his superiors.

Reasons for this intended dereliction of duty which could result in their dismissal from service was that four men could not perform duties day and night with the possibility of attack by the insurgents. The station had only two kerosene lamps and two hurricane lanterns for lighting and there was no fence round the building, leaving the entire premises vulnerable to attack. These shortcomings had been reported to inspecting officers but to no avail.

After some discussion a deal was struck: three of us planters would guard the station in the nights while the policemen could rest after day duty, the ancient bolt action rifles and ammunition being handed over to us. As for lighting, by nightfall that day the station had electric lights with power tapped from Craigie Lee tea factory just across the road.

The fence was completed the next day with barbed wire from the stores of the concerned superintendents. Mention must be made here that superintendents of reputed companies in those times had a great deal of discretionary powers and such powers were hardly ever misused. The day after the gentlemen’s agreement, at least three planters assumed guard duty at the station every night – one in the building and two in a hillock behind.

In spite of our inexperience in this type of work and constant fear that we could be attacked, there was a feeling of bonhomie as we knew we were performing a duty by the people of the area, our families, shareholders and employees. We had no doubt that they would appreciate our sense of responsibility, and they certainly did.

Conditions seemed to be changing for the better for the country in the news that came down the grapevine. Large numbers of insurgents were giving themselves up or had been arrested. Evidence of this was seen at the small Patana Police Station in the backwoods when cells filled with the overflow from the Hatton Police Station were brought in.

The young men were in pitiable condition, physically and mentally due to exposure – hiding in the wildernesses for several days and the trauma of arrest and possibility of being beaten up as well. Conversations (certainly not interrogation – that was for the police) revealed that these men were highly motivated and committed and had undergone tremendous personal hardships for long periods of time for the Movement, and even after capture would not decry the road they had taken to rectify the actual and perceived social injustices prevalent in the country. Such loyalty to an ideology was to be admired and sympathized with, had it not been violent. Sacrifices made by them would not lead to their Utopia.

Giving my name and the estate I was managing to one of them, I asked whether I was on their rumoured hit list. He replied that he knew of me and where I worked as he was a teacher in the Agrapatana area and said that I would have been spared as I was not a hora. Thanks to all the gods above, I intoned!

Asked whether they would uproot all tea and plant bathala, he replied: “Yes.” Such planting would be in areas where tea lands bordered habitations which the British had plundered, leaving the displaced villages landless and in poverty. Food for thought that day and even now forty years later.

During the first few days of April’ 71, our homes were also very tense. With no communication with the outside world, foodstuffs unreplenished, constant fear of attacks, we felt marooned. Some relief was felt when two other superintendents’ young families came over to stay with us, bringing their provisions as well. There was a welcome sense of security in numbers — however small.

By the third week of April conditions were fast returning to normal. One evening returning home from work, I found the ASP Hatton at the entrance with two fully armed policemen. Heavens! Am I being arrested for something untoward at Patana? Such fears were soon dispelled when the officer walked up, thrust his hand to shake mine while thanking me for assisting his men and him.

Some months later, the government’s letter of appreciation for the support given to it during the insurgency, signed by the IGP, was received. It was good to have such a letter — the first of its kind —because letters from government always contain some unwelcome message or call for payment. Better still was the personal note from Stanley Senanayake recalling our meetings a decade and half earlier.



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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