Reviewed by Lochana Liyanage
This eponymous novel by Seneka Abeyratne (published Dr. Cicero Books, New York, in 2017) is a fast-paced narrative which relates the life of a beautiful, highly-intelligent, freelance prostitute from Colombo 7. At 23, she reveals much of her life in flashbacks. Asmita is just nine years old when she hears her mother screaming in the bedroom, one warm, sunny afternoon. Peeping through the keyhole, she is shocked by what she sees. The housemaid pushes her aside and chides her for peeping. But the damage is done. The girl is completely traumatized by what she sees.
After a one night stand, a Canadian businessman (John) falls desperately and inexplicably in love with Asmita. Later, the pervasive influence of the subconscious over rationale behaviour is analysed and presented to the reader by the protagonist herself in psychological terms. An existentialist reader would be disappointed when the story delves into surrealism, with rebirth playing an important role. But when Asmita dreams of her previous life (as Kanthi), she is oblivious to the consequences of this startling surreal experience.
However, what is great about this novel is not the supernatural elements but the will, attitude and honesty of Asmita (self in Sinhalese) when set against the corruption, pretence and brutality she has to deal with from the outside.
The crux of the matter is: Why does Asmita hate herself? Why does such a cultured girl, groomed for an Ivy League education turn, to prostitution? The answers to these questions, which she herself struggles to find, are both internal and external to Asmita; in the latter sense, they are embedded in a mosaic of domestic violence, poverty, alcoholism, political machinations and traditional/religious beliefs that inhibit rational thinking.
The main female characters are heroic and – except for Aunty Amrita (Asmita’s yoga teacher) and Mihiri (Kanthi’s elder daughter) – destined to suffer some form of martyrdom. Asmita, the protagonist, is self-willed and refined:
… Can the life of a hooker have purpose and meaning? Indeed it can, if she has a peg to hang her coat on – not any kind of peg, but a spiritual peg. As contradictory as it may sound, it is possible for someone like me, who is both a skeptic and an atheist, to be spiritual if she has a leaning towards philosophy and incorporates some kind of systematic spiritual and physical training into her lifestyle, such as yoga.
She has a passion for geography and an addiction to sex, as well as discerning tastes in psychology, classical music, and art. She is sarcastic and snappish when provoked. She is also a noble soul, giving money to Theruni (her masseuse) to buy a motor scooter when she learns that Theruni had been obliged to sell hers in order to help her financially strapped brother. She is a victim of corrupt/terror politics and misogyny as well as cruel rejection by a father (Mahesh), who is obsessed by wealth and social status and is quite immune to the emotional needs of a deeply sensitive child.
Asmita and Theruni come from different social classes, but both are victims of misogyny – the main theme of the novel. Kanthi, whose loyalty to her violent and abusive husband, Senerath, is as profound as her love for her two daughters; the dismissed servant (with no name); and Rashmi, Asmita’s emotionally tormented mother: all invoke pity. Senerath is a symbol of corruption and brutality and his repentance at the end is unforgettable.
The innocence of John and Asmita, juxtaposed against the brutality of Senarath and his henchmen, will leave a hallucinatory impression in the reader’s mind. Asmita’s words to John, I love you, are poignant because they come a little too late.
Abeyratne commands the attention of the reader through suspense and visual imagery. The world-weary Rashmi’s decision to renounce her possessions and spend the rest of her life in an ashram recalls Narayan’s protagonists in The English Teacher and The Vendor of Sweets. The usually reticent mother’s sudden urgency and calm decisiveness is dramatic, if not heroic. Asmita’s negative vibes about Senerath’s island lair and how her heart skips a beat when Senerath reveals his true identity are instances of masterful storytelling. When at the end Asmita snubs her father and decides to fight her battles alone, the latter is deeply wounded.
Visual imagery in ASMITA is provocative and haunting. It is seductive from the very first scene where the enchanting hooker and the blue-eyed millionaire sip alcohol to the soft music of a deluxe bar before slipping into bed. The language describing Kanthi’s last moments in the asylum and her younger daughter’s (Sabeetha’s) tragic death create haunting images.
ASMITA is a timely criticism of a cross section of Sri Lankan society. It analyses the forces that inhibit progress and drag us into poverty and violence.
The protagonist, in a stream of reflections, identifies the root causes as the absence of an empowering educational system and the tendency of humans to view violence as the logical means to an end. The power of the subconscious and social neuroses are key terms. Abeyratne is bold in his criticism of religious practice. He points to the pseudo-fatalistic approach to karma, and the preach-only policy that many people adhere to. Aunty Amrita, whose yogic discipline is exemplary, represents the zenith of humanity:
Do not judge a person by his appearance or the size of his house or the brand of his car. Respect those who are kind, sincere, industrious and self-reliant.
The language of ASMITA is very much like the protagonist herself: powerful and sophisticated. Apart from local terms, foreign expressions are sprinkled throughout the novel. The language tries to convey a Sri Lankanness and succeeds to a great extent. However, a sensitive reader would notice a few minor lapses in this regard. For example, children from rural/suburban backgrounds would rarely call their parents ammi/thaaththi, as Sabeetha and Mihiri do. They would normally call them amma/thaaththa. Make no mistake though. Abeyratne’s command of prose is technically brilliant and this is what makes the book unputdownable.
(Lochana Liyanage – firstname.lastname@example.org – is a teacher with a degree in English, French and Archaeology from the University of Kelaniya.)
Brecht’s Chalk Circle Again and Again
by Laleen Jayamanne
Soldier: Your Honour, we meant no harm. Your Honour, what do you wish?
Azdak: Nothing, fellow dogs. Or just an occasional boot to lick!
Fetch me wine, red wine, sweet red wine.
‘In a faraway and long-ago, dark and bloody epoch, in a sunburnt and cursed city, there lived a Duke…’ sang the storyteller. In the mid-’60s when Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle was first performed there, Colombo had ceased being dark and bloody. April ‘71 was yet a few years away. But the effects of the Sinhala Only Act of ‘56 were taking root in educational institutions, like the National School of Art and Crafts, creating a myopic, monolingual culture. In this context, Henry Jayasena and others in the Sinhala theatre who were interested in developing contemporary drama, began to translate modern European plays, originally written in German, Russian and Italian. Crucially, these Sinhala versions were drawn from English translations of the original languages of the plays. So English worked as the essential ‘link’ language without which we would not have had any access to world theatre and much else. Henry had a good command of English, learnt in high school and at Teachers’ College. Like his similarly brilliant contemporary Sugathapala de Silva, he was not a University educated artist. But Jayasena’s superb theatrical imagination allowed him to translate from English the Chalk Circle into a most wonderful colloquial poetic Sinhala idiom. So much so that it feels like the play was written originally in Sinhala! Reading the Sinhala script was a pleasure in itself and sections have remained in my old brain, as good poetry does. The epic techniques of supple shifts from the songs of the narrator, to the every-day racy, bawdy dialogue of the soldiers, to the lyrical love passages between Grusha and Simon Shashava, to the absurdist folk utterances of Azdak, are all memorably crafted and differentiated.
Bertolt Brecht’s Epic play written in 1944 while he was in exile in the US, fleeing Hitler’s fascist Germany, continues to be a vibrant part of Lanka’s living ‘theatrical epic-memory’. Also, as a text for the O’Level, a large number of Lankans must have become familiar with it. The play has a ‘play-within-a-play’ double structure but in scene 4, Azdak’s story, there is a further third level. That is, a ‘play-within-a play-within-a play’. The first play is set in the present postwar Soviet Republic of Georgia in 1945, where workers of two Collective Farms meet with a State official to decide, through discussion, as to who should have the stewardship of a particular valley. The Farmers who have been in the valley since birth claim it as their own for their goats to graze in, while the other group say that through irrigation they can make the valley more productive of fruit and wine. Its key question is, ‘who is good for the land?’
The play-within the play, set in the Imperial past of a fictional Georgia or Grusinia, at war with Persia. The folk parable of the Chalk Circle is performed as entertainment after the debate about the valley has been reasonably decided. The key question there becomes, ‘who is the good mother for the child?’ – (hadu mavada, vadu mavada? The third level of a play-within a play-within a play is a mock trial between a prince who wants to be the Judge and Azdak pretending to be the deposed Grand Duke, as the defendant. In all there are six or seven judgments that involve Azdak in one way or another. The intricacies of each of these legal cases and their differences from each other, make scene 4 a most fascinating aspect of the episodic structure of the play itself. In contrast, scenes 1-3 involving Grusha the kitchen-hand and her dilemma are expressed memorably and clearly by the narrator: “Terrible is the temptation to be good.” This is Grusha’s decision to save and nurture the Governor’s abandoned infant, without counting the terrible cost to herself. Her scenes, engaging as they are, do not have the kind of intricacy and complexity of the six or so episodes where Azdak plays with several ideas of Law and of Justice.
Animals’ Rights and the Folk Imagination
An Epic Contest is staged in the play, between the idea of The Law as a written code by absolutist rulers, and ideas of Social Justice, which include a sense of fairness towards the poor and powerless. This ample human feeling of fairness is encoded in folk tales of peoples across Eurasia where animals also have a claim on Justice from humans. For example, the Mahavamsa tells us of the remarkable sense of justice embodied by the Tamil King Elara when he ruled Anuradhapura. He had a bell hung at his palace gate, which anyone could ring to make a claim when an injustice had been committed. So, when a cow complained to Elara that his son in his chariot had run over and killed her calf, he did not hesitate to put his son to death. We are told that taking pity on them, both lives were restored by a god. According to my friend Amrit MacIntyre who is a lawyer and legal scholar that story is found in various forms in the Middle East to Europe. Each version of the story is about a king from the distant past who is known for his justice. Critically, in each version the person seeking justice was an animal, a serpent in Italy seeking justice from Charlemagne, and an ass in the Middle East seeking justice from an Iranian Emperor (Khusro I). What is intriguing in all of this is a common conception of justice equally applying to all, including animals, that forms part of the mental landscape across Eurasia from very early on. Interestingly, a 2017 decision of the Supreme Court of India referred to the story of Elara as part of its reasoning! The folk tale of the Chalk Circle is found in an ancient Chinese play, as well as in the Judgment of Solomon in the Old Testament, and both were points of reference for Brecht in radically rewriting the tale as a modern epic parable influenced by Marxist ideas.
Azdak, the town scribe and rogue judge, was played memorably by Winston Serasinghe in Ernest MacIntyre’s English production. Henry Jayasena played the same in his own production, also in the mid-60s. And MacIntyre also acted as the priest in Henry’s production – one of the earliest exchanges between English and Sinhala Theatre in the ‘60s. That is to say, between the Lionel Wendt and Lumbini theatres, respectively. Azdak was the village scribe who, when the State collapsed and the official judge hanged by the rebellious carpet weavers, was forcibly roped in to act as a judge by the illiterate soldiers. But it turned out that he had his own eccentric ideas of Justice and fair play and was a bit drunk, sexist and openly took money from plaintiffs. Though Azdak appears only in the last 2 scenes, he leaves a powerful impression in one’s memory as a character like Shakespeare’s Falstaff. But he is unlike Falstaff whose fall from grace, after rejection by his former buddy Prince Hal, is full of tragic pathos. Azdak is a creature of the folk imagination.
Sumathy Sivamohan concludes her recent article on the links between the two Republican Constitutions of Sri Lanka (‘72 & ‘78), by invoking Azdak as a figure relevant to this moment of the People’s Aragalaya, (The Island 8/8). Azdak is a Brechtian Epic-Character through whom the very ideas of Law and Justice are examined, played with, debated and put into crisis, theatrically. He is also a great comic figure introducing laughter into the court where it is thought to be unseemly. In this way Brecht’s Epic Theatrical practice offers us several unusual angles on the process of making Judgements, the reasoning behind them. Through these scenes, the idea of Justice appears paradoxical, not altogether just in one case, but also both reasonable and yet ‘unlawful’, if judged according to the letter of the Law, in another. And some downright absurd. This complexity, of plot lines and intricacy of comic procedural ‘legal’ detail, is significant in demonstrating the class basis of judgements and how they are reached. The hilarious comic absurdity of some of Azdak’s arguments and rulings parody seemingly rational, legalistic linguistic power-play in regular courts. ‘Demonstrability’ is a strong concept in Brechtian theatrical theory and is linked to the idea of the pedagogical function of Epic Theatre.
A Brechtian Parable for the Aragalaya?
The comedic demonstration of the interplay between the Law and Justice, appears to be relevant to Lankans now, poised in their struggle to make politicians accountable for their actions which have plunged the country into economic, political and existential chaos. Azdak is an epic construct and as such we don’t quite empathise with him or like or dislike him. Rather, we observe this comic figure with enjoyment, as he plays with a variety of judgments, with no rule book as guide. He excites our curiosity about the mechanics of the Law, its different avatars, (Totalitarian Law, People’s Law, a judgment without a precedent), which, in an Imperial regime, as in the world of the play within the play, seems invincible and arbitrary. The two lawyers of the Governor’s wife Natella Abashvili are, however, immediately recognisable social types aligned with social power, contrasting with Azdak’s Epic singularity. They argue for the right of the blood-line to obtain the child from Grusha, to return to his biological but callous and predatory mother, only so that she can claim the property bequeathed to the child.
A Palace Revolution
The Chalk Circle opens on a seemingly normal Easter Sunday, with the wealthy Governor and family attending church to great fanfare that soon turns violent – palace revolution creates chaos and soldiers go to war against distant Persia. The Governor is beheaded, his head impaled on a lance and displayed, nailed to a wall, while his wife flees forgetting to take their baby. The Grand Duke has also gone into hiding. The Carpet Weavers, taking advantage of the revolt, hang the Judge. So it comes to pass that the village scribe Azdak becomes the accidental Judge, under a state of emergency. Not knowing the Law is no impediment to Azdak. Some of these events and scenes of the play have an uncanny resemblance to the farcical misrule seen in the Lankan Parliament not too long ago. Before we look at Azdak’s celebrated Judgments it’s worth looking at Brecht’s original theatrical structure, which is Epic rather than Dramatic.
Epic Theatre vs Tragic Drama
Brecht’s play is not a tragedy, a genre he rejected as an Aristotelian Greek notion driven by an idea of Destiny and causality and heroic action. The presence of a singer-narrator who introduces us to the play is an epic device in that, as the story-teller, he conducts the action. He stops characters in their tracks and sings of what they feel, but cannot say. He explains the action when necessary and advances the story. The famous singer who knows twenty-one thousand lines of verse becomes the story-teller. He announces that the play consists of ‘two stories and will take two hours to perform’. The Soviet expert from the city is impatient and asks him, (after the disagreement between the two collective farmers is resolved), “can’t you make it shorter?” The singer responds with a firm ‘No’. Brecht offers a play, which is profoundly episodic in its construction. Each episode is autonomous, has a relative freedom from a tight causally driven dramatic structure. What Brecht wanted was a theatrical structure which didn’t have any inevitable causal links propelling events as in the case of, say, Oedipus Rex. In this way he demonstrates how History and its presentation in the Epic, hold alternative possibilities. The Epic form can reveal in its episodic structure ‘the many roads not taken’. Some academics in the Aragalaya have begun to examine Lanka’s post independent history and the many roads not taken in structuring the economy, in race relations and education and development policy, for instance.
Why do I think that a ‘close reading’ of Azdak’s judgements matter, especially now? Because he has a window of opportunity during a palace revolution, to play with and interrogate ideas of Law and Justice. It is quite by chance that he is made a judge because the official judge has been hanged, the Governor executed and the Duke has fled during the civil war. Now is a time when a large number of people in Lanka are feeling that the Laws that govern them and their sense of Justice are at variance. And Azdak’s idiosyncratic process of judging and his rulings offer several unusual angles on both. He is unprincipled and we can’t tell which way his Judgment will fall, regardless of his own precedent. He is inconsistent but not amoral, he shows feelings on the bench, he is not ‘Blind Justice’. He has a strong conscience. Guilt-ridden, he has himself arrested and shackled by Sauwa the cop, for having unwittingly given the fugitive Grand Duke refuge in his hut and helped him escape, during the palace revolution.
In the mock trial Azdak impersonates the Grand Duke. The soldiers who call the shots say they want to test if the Nephew is fit and proper to be a judge as recommended by his uncle Prince Kazbeki. So they create a legal play within the play by making Azdak play the role of the Grand Duke as the defendant and the Nephew the acting judge. Azdak as the Grand Duke is accused of losing the war and in his comic defense he demonstrates how the Princes actually won by war-profiteering and enabling the Persians victory. All this is done in a brilliant quick-witted, punchy question and answer session where Azdak twists words and wins the argument with relish. Proven guilty of embezzlement, the soldiers arrest the acting judge and Prince Kazbeki and plonk Azdak on the throne, unceremoniously throwing the cloak of the dead judge across his shoulders. It’s high farce with linguistic fireworks in court.
A judgement Azdak makes from the bench deals with a farmer’s complaint against his farmhand who is accused of raping his daughter-in-law, Ludovica. By contemporary feminist standards Azdak’s judgment that Ludovica by virtue of her seductive walk, seduced and thereby ‘raped’ the man, is idiotic and sexist. But the scene is more ambiguous. It might be the case that what was called rape by the father-in-law may have been consensual sex, which he happened to stumble in on. We are told by the narrator that the Ludovica’s speech was well rehearsed. The scene remains ambiguous, open to several readings especially because Azdak orders Ludovica to accompany him to examine the scene of the crime after the verdict has found her guilty! The narrator has called him, ‘Good judge, bad judge, Azdak.’
Another judgment shows that Azdak is indeed a ‘people’s judge,’ ruling in favour of a grandmotherly old woman, against the three farmers who accuse her of theft. The old woman wins the case by virtue of being poor, despite the fact that the items were stolen on her behalf by a relative who is a Bandit. The plea she offers in her defense is her belief in miracles. So, taking up her cue Azdak reprimands the Farmers for not believing in miracles! To save time, Azdak decides to hear two similar cases of professional negligence and blackmail, together!
The judgment of the Chalk Circle is what Azdak is most famous for. But the previous ones, with their pileup of parodic absurdity, are crucial for Brecht’s politics in Demonstrating how social class, wealth and power determine legal ritual. Once the normality of the Grand Duke’s authoritarian rule is restored, Prince Kazbeki is beheaded as a traitor. The chaos of the revolutionary moment (‘a Golden age’?) that saw Azdak become a judge, with his own unique sense of justice, is reversed with the return of the Grand Duke. He is now attacked by the illiterate soldiers, bloodied and humiliated, soon to be hanged. But at the last moment a messenger from the Grand Duke arrives with a document ordering Azdak to be exonerated and made judge for having saved the Duke’s life. It is jarring to register that the Grand Duke does have a sense of aristocratic honour (unlike Lanka’s rulers) despite his reputation as a swindler and butcher.
Azdak wipes the blood from his eyes as he finds himself plonked on the judges’ chair yet again, and makes the celebrated progressive modern judgment of the Chalk Circle. It is reached through an ingenious process based on an ancient wordless contest. Grusha repeatedly refuses to pull the child out of the circle lest he be injured and so she is deemed the ‘true’ mother and given custody of the child, against the predatory biological mother who pulls him out. The singer then concludes the epic parable with a poetic summary of how Azdak aligned a feeling of Justice with eminently reasonable new rules. In that legal thinking, human emotion becomes the sister of rational thought.
“The people of Georgia
Remembered him, and remembered
For a long time,
The times when he was judge
As a short, golden age
When there was justice – nearly.
Take to heart,
All you who’ve heard
The Tale of the Chalk Circle
And what that ancient song means.
What there is should belong
To those who are good at it.
Children to true mothers,
That they may thrive.
Carts to the good drivers,
That they may be driven well,
And the valley to the waterers,
So that it bears fruit.”
Sri Lanka is a country in which Chalk Circle has been seen and enjoyed for generations. Doing a close reading of the play, while following the non-violent political uprising and struggle of the people from afar, gives one hope that changes good for Lanka are imaginable so that the land may bear fruit.
Deferred China ship visit takes place amidst diplomatic row
” Sri Lanka cannot do without IMF’s support. Having declared its inability to service its foreign debt, Sri Lanka is struggling to reach a consensus with lenders and the IMF. Two of Sri Lanka’s major creditors, India and China, locked horns over a port visit by a Chinese ship. Sri Lanka should be wary of these developments as they tend to influence other lenders as well.”
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Navy deployed SLNS Gajabahu (formerly USCG Sherman) to safely move then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from Colombo to Trincomalee, in the wake of the massive public protests, apparently financed and instigated by hidden hands that brought the curtain down on his presidency. The President abandoned Janadhipathi Mandiraya, before 12 noon, on July 09.
The first couple disembarked at the Trincomalee harbour, on the morning of July 10, having left the Colombo port, on the evening of the previous day. First lady Iyoma like late first lady, JRJ’s spouse Elena, is a fine woman, the whole country can be rightfully proud of, under whatever adversity.
Sri Lanka took delivery of SLNS Gajabahu, formerly of the United States Coast Guard, in June 2019, during the tail end of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency, a time of political turmoil and uncertainty. The Vietnam War era vessel is one of the largest vessels, acquired by the Navy since Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in May 2009. Sri Lanka paid for the upgrading of USCG Sherman, about 50 years old (the Vietnam war ended in 1975 with the last Americans fleeing Saigon, in helicopters, with their local dependents), along with the required spares and training for the Lankan crew.
Against the backdrop of controversy over the Chinese research and survey vessel Yuan Wang 5 docking at the Hambantota port, leased to China, it would be pertinent to discuss the transferring of vessels, and other equipment, as well as supply of fuel by the Quad grouping, comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan. In spite of China, and international shipping sites, recognizing the Yuan Wang 5 as a research and survey vessel, the Indian media referred to it as a dual-use spy ship.
The Chinese vessel, which was originally scheduled to reach Hambantota port, on August 11, and leave on August 17, finally docked therein on Tuesday (16). The Chinese Embassy invited former Public Security Minister and retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera to visit the vessel. The invitation was extended in the wake of lawmaker Weerasekera single handedly defending the right of the Chinese vessel to visit Sri Lanka, like vessels of other countries’ navies, at the government parliamentary group meeting, on August 08, to ensure the scheduled visit, while the other government MPs had kept mum.
Ambassador Julie Chung’s predecessor Alaina Teplitz, in a special message issued in 2019, to mark the 243rd Independence Day of the US, addressed several contentious issues, including the alleged setting up of an American base here, as well as transferring of the US vessel to Sri Lanka. Ambassador Teplitz is on record as having said: The sea lanes that pass beside Sri Lanka are important for many nations, which is why the United States is helping Sri Lanka’s capacity to protect its coast and waters. In June, I joined President Sirisena at the commissioning of SLNS Gajabahu, the Sri Lankan Navy’s largest vessel. A gift from the American people, the former US Coast Guard Cutter represents the United States’ commitment to strengthening Sri Lanka’s ability to protect its security and prosperity….Just like the gift of the USCG Cutter, our military cooperation is open and mutually beneficial. Every joint exercise, training in disaster response, is done at the invitation of our Sri Lankan hosts. The United States has no intention of building a base here. Instead, we are building relationships that help keep both our countries safe”.
In addition to the US vessel, Sri Lanka took delivery of two new advanced OPVs, namely SLNS Sayurala and SLNS Sindurala, built in India. Advanced OPVs were built at the Goa shipyard in terms of an agreement signed in Feb 2014. India built them at a cost of USD 66 mn and were commissioned in Aug 2017 and April 2018, respectively. Sri Lanka paid for them.
In late Oct 2021, Sri Lanka took delivery of another US Coast Guard Cutter Douglas Munro, the third such American vessel.
The first was USCG Courageous (SLNS Samudura P 621) acquired during President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency, in early 2005. SLNS Samudura took part in the hunt for LTTE arms smuggling vessels (floating arsenals) in the high seas.
In July 2019, Sri Lanka also took delivery of the ‘Jangwei’ class missile frigate, previously called the ‘Tongling’ in the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) and served until 2015.
Controversial H’tota port visit
The controversial decision to suddenly rescind permission, granted on July 12 for the Chinese ship visit, due to lobbying by India and the US, caused turmoil in China-Sri Lanka relations. China questioned the very basis of Sri Lanka’s decision, at the behest of New Delhi. China rightfully asserted that the development was quite unacceptable and a hindrance to bilateral relations. The government group meeting, held at the Presidential Secretariat on August 08 evening ,revealed the failure on the part of the new administration to address the issue at hand, properly. One-time Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera didn’t mince his words when he strongly urged the government to go ahead with the already approved visit. The meeting, chaired by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, was attended by Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP.
The former Navy Chief of Staff challenged the very basis of cancelling the ship visit as a result of pressure exerted by India. Weerasekera didn’t receive any support from his colleagues. The Colombo district lawmaker was quite clear that Sri Lanka’s relations with the West and India shouldn’t be at the expense of all-weather friend China. Weerasekera reminded the gathering that Sri Lanka, over the years, conducted military exercises with the US, and India as well. However, the most pertinent question that had been raised by the naval veteran was the cancellation of approval given by the previous administration.
Sri Lankan ports, including Hambantota, receive warships from major powers. In spite of Hambantota port being leased to China, the port received warships, even from the US. Destroyer USS Spruance and large transport vessel USNS Millinocket had been at the Hambantota port at the time of the April 2019 Easter Sunday massacre. The 7th Fleet vessels were here for Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT) exercise. The attacks compelled the US to cancel the planned exercise. According to US Navy statement, issued ahead of the suicide blasts, during CARAT’s Sri Lanka phase, the Navy and Marine Corps planned to work with Sri Lankan armed forces at sea, to test communication, coordinate and respond to scenarios, at sea, to include maritime patrol operations, maneuvering exercises, surface gunnery drills, visit, board, search and seizure drills, vertical replenishments operations, flight operations and search and rescue swimmer exercises.
There had never been opposition to US and Indian warships’ visit to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka even received Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, at the Colombo port, during the yahapalana administration. The visit, undertaken in late January 2019, marked a higher status in Indo-Lanka relations. INS Vikramaditya, one of the two aircraft carriers operated by the Indian Navy, was accompanied by missile destroyer INS Mysore.
In August 2017, President Maithripala Sirisena renewed the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) with the US that paved the way for unhindered access here to US forces. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration first signed the ACSA, in March 2007, that facilitated specific US intelligence on LTTE arms smuggling ships on the high seas. The US-Sri Lanka relationship cannot be examined without taking into consideration the solid US-India partnership meant to counter China. Obviously, vis- a-vis Sri Lanka, Indian and the US stands appear to be the same. Both countries are deeply resentful of China securing the Hambantota port for commercial purposes, on a 99-year-lease, in 2017.
Contrary to concerns expressed by various interested parties, even commercial vessels cannot be berthed at the Hambantota port, without the approval of the Harbour Master of SLPA and the Sri Lanka Navy. In addition, a naval vessel cannot be berthed at the Hambantota port, without the approval of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).
In fact, two Indian navy vessels visited the Hambantota port for replenishments, in March this year. Naval vessels from Japan, Indonesia, Russia and the USA have called at the port of Hambantota. But, the recent Chinese ship visit has caused such an uproar by the unfair intervention of India, egged on by the US to block it, that the public may tend to think that navies of other countries are not allowed to visit Hambantota.
Speaking on the occasion, High Commissioner Gopal Baglay emphasized
that induction of the aircraft would help in creating a peaceful environment for progress and prosperity of the people of India and Sri
Lanka. Gifting of Dornier aircraft underscored the cooperation
between the two maritime neighbours in the defence and security
spheres, Baglay declared, adding such cooperation is envisaged to add further capability and capacity to Sri Lanka and is in line with the
vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)
In keeping with India’s much-touted ‘Neighbourhood First Policy,’ New Delhi has provided critical financial and material support in the wake of the economic fallout. Although the Covid-19, and the war in Ukraine, contributed to the crisis, Sri Lanka must accept responsibility for her plight caused by years of financial mismanagement, waste, corruption and irregularities coupled with the failure of our intelligence to prevent outsiders from exacerbating matters here, like how the Galle Face protests were well financed from outside our shores and how it was allowed to be projected as a non-partisan and non-violent indigenous movement. All we can say is that all the masterminds there were very good paid actors.
Amidst controversy over the Chinese ship visit, President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday (15) accepted a maritime surveillance Dornier aircraft from India. Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral S. N. Ghormade, handed over the aircraft. Interestingly, Sri Lanka received the Dornier from the inventory of the Indian Navy while the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is in the process of building two Dornier aircraft for Sri Lanka. Once India delivered them, the aircraft Sri Lanka took delivery on Monday would be returned.
There had never been a previous instance of China and India publicly commenting on a situation involving their assets visiting Sri Lanka. India has rejected Chinese accusations that New Delhi pressured Colombo against the visit by Yuan Wang 5 to the Hambantota port. India declared that it would take decisions based on its security concerns.
External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi (former Indian Deputy High Commissioner) is on record as having said that Sri Lanka, as a sovereign country, made its own independent decisions and noted that India would make its judgment on its security concerns, based on the prevailing situation in the 1region.
Sri Lanka must be mindful of India’s security concerns but that shouldn’t be at the expense of her relations with China. Former General Secretary of the Communist Party D.E.W. Gunasekera told the writer that there had never been a similar interference by a third party in Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations with any country.
Wikileaks, in the past, disclosed a range of classified diplomatic cables pertaining to Sri Lanka. One quite interesting cable, that originated from the US mission, in New Delhi, dealt with India’s concerns over the planned Chinese building of an international port at Hambantota. The project got underway in January 2008 as the military was clearly gaining the upper hand as it battled the LTTE on the Vanni front.
Let me reproduce the relevant section of the US diplomatic cable that dealt with the April 26, 2007, meeting a New Delhi-based US diplomat had with the then Joint Secretary, at the External Affairs Ministry Mohan Kumar. Having functioned as the Desk Officer in charge of the Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (1990-1992), Kumar received the appointment as Deputy High Commissioner, in Colombo, in late 2001. At the time Kumar had taken up the Hambantota port issue, with the US, as revealed in the Wikileaks cable, he had been head of the division that handled relations with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Kumar has discussed the Indian Navy stepping up patrols in the waters, between India and Sri Lanka, while expressing concern over the Chinese role in the Hambantota port project. Kumar has also bitterly complained about Chinese taking advantage of the situation in Burma, at the expense of India, and warned that the US pressure on New Delhi to take up democracy and human rights issues with the Burmese military leadership facilitated the Chinese project there. The US diplomat quoted Kumar as having told him “We’re getting screwed on gas”.
“The situation in Sri Lanka is bad, really bad – beyond bleak” in Kumar’s judgment. Characterizing the government and the LTTE as two sets of people with scant regard for the international community,
Kumar was skeptical that political progress could be achieved anytime soon. He confirmed reports that the Indian Navy has stepped up patrols in the Palk Strait, and said that India and Sri Lanka are doing coordinated patrolling to prevent the smuggling of weapons from the Tamil Nadu coast. Kumar said it would be helpful to get the American assessment of the port being built in Hambantota, which he estimated China was willing to spend $500 million to help develop. He noted that China has increased its influence with President Rajapaksa, opinioning that Rajapaksa had a ‘soft spot’ for China, following his visit to Beijing on March 9″.
India worked overtime to thwart Chinese projects here. Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa once alleged that Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval asked him to cancel the USD 1.4 bn Chinese flagship project, the Colombo Port City. Declaring that demand shouldn’t have been made, Gotabaya Rajapaksa also quoted Doval as having called for the taking over of the highly successful Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT), a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (CMPH) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). CMPH holds 85% of the partnership whilst the balance 15% is held by SLPA.
Rajapaksa further quoted Doval as having told him that India wanted all Chinese-funded infrastructure projects stopped and for Sri Lanka to have full control of the Hambantota port. Rajapaksa quoted Doval as having said: Sri Lanka is a small country; you don’t need such development projects.
The Quad has dealt with Sri Lanka in a systematic way. Australia donated two large patrol vessels years ago and recently has been providing fuel for both the Navy and the Air Force as part of the overall support to ensure ongoing operations meant to thwart would-be asylum seekers. In spite of a change of governments, Australia has maintained strong links with Sri Lanka to derail would-be asylum seekers’ plans to smuggle themselves there in multi-day fishing craft, despite so many such odysseys being thwarted.
The other Quad member Japan entered into a comprehensive partnership with Sri Lanka in Oct 2015. The then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe signed the agreement on behalf of Sri Lanka whereas the late Shinzo Abe endorsed it for Japan. Japanese warships frequently visit Sri Lanka. Consequent to the signing of the comprehensive partnership agreement, the Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera even visited the Hambantota port.
Sri Lanka will have to deal carefully with Quad as well as China. The unprecedented economic crisis has weakened the country and exposed it to external interventions, in different forms. The failure on the part of those political parties, represented in Parliament, to reach a consensus on a far reaching political arrangement to restore public confidence as well as secure international backing for recovery efforts, might be all part of the overall plot by the West to destabilize us for being friendly with China.
As for New Delhi she must remind herself that going by history China never had any evil intentions against her unlike the West that plundered and enslaved much of the world, including India.
Blasphemy and Judgment
By Lynn Ockersz
The revenge-seekers bided their time,
Nursing self-righteous anger all the while,
Upholding, they claim, the good name of God,
But there’s this nugget in moral thought,
That needs to be held close to their hearts,
By those claiming the moral high ground,
And daring to take a judgmental stance,
In this bloody attempt on Salman Rushdie’s life;
‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’, says the Lord.
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