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Midweek Review

Canadian acceptance of genocide jolts Sri Lanka

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On the eve of war victory anniversary

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion on the morning of May 19, 12 years ago. The nearly three-year-long combined security forces campaign ended on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon with the elimination of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the undisputed leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

 The then President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave resolute leadership until the armed forces eradicated the LTTE. The President disregarded intense Western pressure to halt the Vanni offensive, east of the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road. Western powers made a determined bid to throw a lifeline to the LTTE, in order to save the LTTE-TNA (Tamil National Alliance) alliance. So much so, the British and the French sent their Foreign Ministers, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, respectively, to pressure President Rajapaksa. Their combined visit took place in the last week of April, 2009.

The writer was very fortunate to visit the SLN, deployed off Mullaitivu on the northern coast, to prevent the top LTTE leadership fleeing the country. The SLN threw a four-layered cordon, consisting of small boats (Arrows), Inshore Patrol Craft (IPCs), Fast Attack Craft (FACs) and Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) in January 2009. The SLAF, deployed a pair of jets at China Bay, in case of an emergency. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, quite determined to bring the LTTE menace to an end, told the visiting European ministers the offensive wouldn’t be stopped, under any circumstances. The Sri Lankan leader had no qualms in telling British and French Foreign Ministers, so, bluntly. Like a spurned lover, no wonder the West is so hell bent on going after those who made that victory possible against their then oft repeated mantra that Sri Lankan security forces were incapable of defeating the LTTE. This brings us to the question whether the West was throughout supporting the terrorist outfit, though outwardly they were condemning terrorism.  

“They’re not willing to do that,” Miliband said in an interview soon after talks with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. “The furthest the government has gone is to commit to no heavy weaponry and to minimize, what they call, collateral damage, mainly damage to civilians,” the media quoted him as having said.

If President Rajapaksa succumbed to Western pressure, the LTTE would have received the much-needed respite to re-group again. Their political arm in Parliament would have pursued the combined strategy. Had the LTTE-TNA coalition survived, the eruption of Covid-19 pandemic would have definitely presented the alliance an opportunity to exploit the situation.

Remember how they took advantage of the Dec 2004 tsunami to push for P-TOMS (Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure) during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. The JVP challenged P-TOMS in the Supreme Court. The SC ruled four clauses of the P-TOMS illegal. Among the four clauses, termed illegal, were the ones as regards locating the regional fund headquarters in Kilinochchi and the operations of the regional fund. The JVP asserted that P-TOMS impacted on the country’s sovereignty and dubbed the mechanism as one which would confer legitimacy to a terrorist group.

If the LTTE had been around now, even with a much weaker conventional military capability, the crisis caused by the raging Covid-19 pandemic would have paved the way for the lethal alliance to seek a consensus on a vaccination drive in predominantly Tamil-speaking areas, under some pretext.

Failure of 2006 talks, subsequent developments

 The LTTE, always cleverly used opportunities to press for legitimacy. Successive political leaderships, too, played into their hands. Every national election presented the LTTE with a chance to press ahead with its despicable strategy. The 2005 presidential election was not an exception. Even the war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa, much to the discomfort of those who had backed his 2005 presidential polls campaign, gave into the LTTE’s demand for talks at overseas venues. Talks took place in Feb and Oct. 2006, in Geneva, under the auspices of the Norwegians, who took us trusting natives for many a ride, like the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British before them. The Norwegians inveigled the peace carrot, regardless of the abortive bids to assassinate the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka (April 25, 2006) and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Oct. 01, 2006). If the LTTE achieved its targets, Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism wouldn’t have been possible. That is the undeniable truth.

As the country marked the 12th anniversary of triumph over terrorism, today let me remind you the despicable way the previous administration treated the victorious armed forces. The treacherous Oct. 1, 2015 Geneva Resolution, co-sponsored by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, betrayed the military during an extremely difficult situation. Perhaps, it would be pertinent to briefly discuss the high profile arrest of the then Commodore D.K.P. Dassanayake (retired on Feb. 16, 2021) in July 2017 in connection with the wartime disappearance of 11 persons. Dassanayake played a significant role during Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda’s tenure as the Commander of the Navy. Regardless of the absence of credible evidence to link him to the disappearances blamed on the SLN, Dassanayake was called back from the USN Naval Post Graduate School, Monterey, California. At the time Dassanayake was called back, he had completed six months of the one and half year-long course.

Wartime Navy spokesperson, Dassanayake served as coordinator of the SLN cordon off of Mullaitivu – Nayaru (January-May 2009) stretch and was present when the writer visited the naval units, in April 2009. The then Commander of the Fast Attack Craft Flotilla Captain Noel Kalubowila (retired over a year ago in the rank of Rear Admiral), too, had been present during the media visit to the ‘naval frontline’. Instead of bringing the case to a successful conclusion, the previous administration played politics. The police as usual quite blatantly cooperated with the diabolical political project. The police had no qualms in falsely naming Dassanayake as Director Naval Operations (DNO). The police also falsely asserted Dassanayake supervised two teams accused of carrying out abductions. Finally, a disappointed Dassanayake retired in Feb. 2021 as the high profile case that had even been taken up in Geneva dragged on.

Dassanayake’s role in Sri Lanka’s seizure of an LTTE ship, in Dec. 2009, at an overseas harbour – seven months after the eradication of the LTTE – is something the country can be proud of. A small SLN team seized ‘Princess Christina’ — said to be one of the largest LTTE arms ships — and brought  it to the Colombo harbour.

 In spite of the change of government, in Nov. 2019, the armed forces are yet to take tangible measures to set the record straight. There cannot be any dispute over the need to punish those who had engaged in clandestine activity outside legitimate overt and covert operations undertaken by the armed forces and police to eradicate the LTTE. The previous administration’s treachery and the incumbent government’s failure, so far, to address accountability issues properly, is quite contrary to the assurances given in the run-up to the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary polls. The external environment is so bad, that the Commander of the Army and Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Shavendra Silva remains blacklisted by the US. America’s bosom allies like Canada and Australia, too, have followed suit in blacklisting our war heroes.

The US imposed travel restrictions on wartime General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the celebrated 58 Division/formerly Task Force 1, in Feb. 2020. The US State Department declared travel restrictions were imposed on General Silva “due to credible information of his involvement, through command responsibility, in gross violations of human rights, namely extrajudicial killings, by the 58th Division of the Sri Lanka Army during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009.”

 Accountability issues (or, in reality, trumped up charges) should be addressed without further delay. The continuing failure to set the record straight should be closely examined, taking political developments into consideration. A recent exchange between lawmakers, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka (Samagi Jana Balavegaya, Gampaha District) and Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, Colombo District) emphasized how politics divided the country. Having served the country for over three decades, they accused each other of pursuing personal agendas in this most unfortunate cockfight. Furious accusations and counter allegations, in Parliament, on May 5, when they clashed over the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) denying a suspect in the Easter Sunday attacks, SJB MP and ACMC (All Ceylon Makkal Congress) leader Rishad Bathiudeen, an opportunity to attend Parliament, painted a bleak picture. Weerasekera, who retired having finally served the SLN as its Chief of Staff, accused Fonseka of being part of the Tamil Diaspora project whereas belligerent Fonseka alleged his political opponent of taking advantage of Geneva sessions for personal gain. Their clash underscored Sri Lanka’s pathetic failure to keep the country’s war victory out of politics.

 

Post-war politics

 Fonseka’s unexpected entry into politics, in 2009 with the backing of a UNP-led alliance, weakened the country’s defence against war crimes accusations. By switching his allegiance to the new coalition, that included the LTTE political wing, the TNA, Fonseka undermined the country’s defence and after quite a turbulent political career has ended up with the breakaway UNP faction, the SJB.

Fonseka and Weerasekera clashed over the latter’s assertion that lawmakers arrested in terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) shouldn’t be allowed to attend parliamentary proceedings. Weerasekera’s declaration that he couldn’t agree with TNA heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran, PC’s stand as regards the issue at hand, is understandable. However, can there be a dispute between Fonseka and Weerasekera over the use of PTA in respect of lawmaker Bathiudeen, arrested in connection with the Easter Sunday carnage. Fonseka and Sumanthiran taking a common stand on the issue, at hand, should be examined against the latter publicly justifying the Easter Sunday attacks. Both served the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that investigated the Easter Sunday attacks. The then Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, who had been present when Sumanthiran justified the Easter Sunday attacks a week after the carnage, accommodated him in the PSC. Actually, the former Speaker, now Chairman of the NMSJ (National Movement of Social Justice), owed an explanation why he disregarded Sumanthiran’s declaration when accommodating him on the PSC, chaired by Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri.

Sumanthiran alleged that the Easter Sunday carnage was a result of Sri Lanka’s failure to ensure certain basic values. Sumanthiran warned of dire consequences unless the government addressed the grievances of the minorities. The lawmaker said so at an event, organized by the Sinhala weekly ‘Annidda’ to celebrate its first anniversary at the BMICH. Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, the then Human Rights Commissioner Dr. Deepika Udagama, J.C. Weliamuna, PC and the then Constitutional Council member Attorney-at-Law Javid Yusuf and filmmaker Asoka Handagama  dealt with the topic ‘Sri Lanka beyond 2020.’

Except for The Island no other print, or electronic media, bothered at least to report on what Sumanthiran said as the country was still in shock in the aftermath of the slaughter of 270 people. Even the Catholic Church refrained from taking a strong stand on Sumanthiran’s declaration, though the Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith condemned the statement when The Island raised the issue at a media briefing at the Archbishop’s House.

Sri Lanka obviously hadn’t been able to come to terms with political realities, even 12 years after the war ended. Canada recently recognized that Sri Lanka subjected the Tamil community to genocide. The unprecedented Canadian move was taken against the backdrop of Geneva adopting an anti-Sri Lanka resolution, with 22 countries voting for, 11 against and 14 skipping the vote.

On May 6, 2021, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in the world to recognize Sri Lanka genocide as a result of Scarborough MPP’s (Member of Provincial Parliament) private bill passed the third reading in that legislature. Let me emphasize it was adopted without a vote, under controversial circumstances, and, subsequently, received the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Elizabeth Dowdeswell’s approval, two days after Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena raised the issue with Canadian High Commissioner in Colombo, David Mckinnon.

The Bill 104 (the Tamil Genocide Education Week Act), allocated seven days each year, May 11 to 18, during which Ontarians “are encouraged to educate themselves about, and to maintain their awareness of, the Tamil genocide and other genocides that have occurred in world history.”

On Twitter, Scarborough-Rouge Park MPP Vijay Thanigasalam, a Canadian of Sri Lanka origin, who spearheaded the project, called the passage of his Bill ‘a historic event for the Tamil people in Ontario and across the world.’ The first reading of the Bill took place on April 30, 2019, the Second Reading on May 16, 2019 and the Third Reading on May 06, 2021. It received Lieutenant Governor’s approval on May 12.

But where is the justice for acts of real genocide committed by white settlers against natives of Canada to grab their land and, of course, also in rest of Americas and even Australia?

 The Canadian recognition of Sri Lanka genocide underscored the pathetic handling of the accountability issue. In fact, Canada, a member of the Sri Lanka Core Group, in the Geneva process, relentlessly pursued the issue at hand. Wouldn’t it be pertinent to examine what Sri Lanka did during April 2019-May 2021 to reverse the process? It would be a serious mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to consider the genocide rap as a project of the Ontario Legislative Assembly instead of a Canadian move. The Canadian move is severely inimical to Sri Lanka. The incumbent government, struggling to cope up with the rampaging Covid-19 pandemic, shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the threatening Canadian move. With major Canadian political parties seeking to win over the large Canadian population of Sri Lankans of Tamil origin, at Sri Lanka’s expense, the Ontario project would further strengthen the Geneva-led campaign meant to weaken Sri Lanka.

Canada-based Dr. Neville Hewage, who had made representations to the Ontario Legislative Assembly, in respect of Bill 104, and was engaged in a campaign against the move throughout this period, says the propaganda project should be thwarted. In response to The Island queries as regards his decision to move the Canadian judiciary against Bill 104, Dr. Hewage said; “I am the Applicant. I submitted a constitutional question in respect of Bill 104 at the Superior Court of Justice. We expect the Superior Court of Justice to take it up within 60 days. But there may be a delay due to COVID-19 restrictions. Facts presented in Bill 104 were completely false. Truth is a Fundamental principle of the Rule of Law. Therefore, it has to be defeated in the best interest for all parties.”

Dr. Hewage stressed that he moved the court as a Canadian Citizen. Declaring he acted as an individual, Dr. Hewage explained how he could much easily navigate the legal process as a Canadian. Asserting the action would represent the interest of all groups opposed to the ongoing harassment of Sri Lanka, Dr. Hewage said some groups, such as Sri Lanka Canadian Action Coalition (SLCAC) would make interventions.

Sri Lanka should carefully examine the Canadian challenge. Those at the helm of current dispensation should realize the impact the Canadian acceptance of the genocide charge could undermine Sri Lanka’s overall defense at the Geneva HRC. Political parties, represented in Parliament, should study Bill 104. The Parliament should take up this matter on behalf of Sri Lanka and make every effort to set the record straight or be ready to face the consequences.

Over 12 years after the conclusion of the war, Sri Lanka remained divided over her finest post-independence achievement, thanks to despicable petty politics practiced here. Perhaps, the whole Geneva process should be examined now against the backdrop of Canadian acceptance of Genocide in Sri Lanka. The Geneva onslaught will take a new turn with the recognition/acceptance of Genocide charge.



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Midweek Review

GR’s exit and developing crisis: Different interpretations

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

President’s Counsel Manohara de Silva recently questioned the failure on the part of the cash-strapped Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to provide electricity, without interruption, at least during the GCE Advanced Level examination.

The outspoken lawyer raised the issue with the writer, on January 23, the day the delayed examination began at 2,200 centres, with 331,709 students sitting the examination, countrywide. It was, originally, to commence on Dec. 05, 2022.

The constitutional expert pointed out how even in the implementation of daily power cuts, the CEB, obviously, discriminated against the population, at the behest of the political leadership, by excluding selected areas from, what he called, the daily scourge of living without electricity. Pointing out the responsibility of the media to take a strong stand on this issue, the President’s Counsel said that certain areas, categorized as ‘VIP,’ received a 24-hour, uninterrupted, power supply.

The CEB resorted to daily power cuts, last year, after a long time, during President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s time, as the economic crisis gripped the country, with the government unable to pay for the import of even basic needs, like gas, fuel, medicines, etc. At one time, there were 10- to 12-hour power cuts. The then Power and Energy Minister, Udaya Gammanpila, is on record as having said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ignored his plea for immediate small power cuts, to conserve what we had, at the beginning of the total breakdown, in January 2022, to lessen the full impact of the developing crisis hitting us at once down the road. Attorney-at-law Gammanpila pointed out that the President’s failure finally led to 12-13 hour power cuts, leading to the explosion of public anger, in the last week of March, 2022.

The continuing power crisis reflected the overall waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement, at every level, not only at the CEB, but the entire public sector, as well, over the past several decades.

The intervention made by the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) last Wednesday (25) to compel the CEB to ensure uninterrupted power supply, failed.

In spite of Commissioner, Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, of the HRCSL, on its behalf, proudly claiming that it had secured a consensus with all stakeholders to suspend power cuts, ignoring all that, the CEB went ahead with the routine electricity supply interruptions.

The power crisis, coupled with an explosive cocktail of issues caused by Sri Lanka’s failure to meet its international loan commitments, contributed to the further deterioration of the country’s economy. The crisis affected Sri Lanka in the first quarter of 2021, with the Easter Sunday carnage, and the pandemic, already having done much damage, especially to the vital tourism sector, among others, but President Rajapaksa’s government ignored the threat.

Appearing in a live programme, telecast simultaneously, both on stateowned and private television networks, the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, recently alleged the then government hid Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status before its inability to service foreign debt was officially acknowledged in early April last year. Having accepted the hot seat, in early April, last year, Dr. Weerasinghe announced suspension of repayment of loans, temporarily. In spite of progress made, the IMF USD 2.9 bn extended loan facility remained yet to be implemented.

What really caused the economic meltdown? Could President Gotabaya Rajapaksa averted public humiliation if he sought IMF’s intervention in early 2020? Who prevented Gotabaya Rajapaksa from doing so, as Sri Lanka had knelt before the IMF on 16 previous occasions? His elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who held the Finance portfolio, could have advised the President. Didn’t Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa advise his brother in this regard? And what was the role played by former Treasury Secretary, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, not just another run-of-the-mill economist. Having been seconded to the Treasury, from the Central Bank, from the time Ronnie de Mel was the Finance Minister, his exceptional talents were tapped by the Finance Ministry, even under President Premadasa, when R. Paskaralingam, of the Pandora Papers’ notoriety, was the Treasury Secretary. And he continued to serve the Treasury, under successive Presidents, thereafter, especially in the hot seat, as the Finance Ministry Secretary, in one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history, during the final phase of the conflict, when it was a fight to a finish with the LTTE, especially after President Mahinda Rajapaksa telling the then British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, and his French counterpart, Bernard Couchner, to get lost when they went all the way down to Embilipitiya to tell Mahinda to stop the war to enable them to rescue Velupillai Prabhakaran, and what was left of his terrorist movement, by a flotilla of vessels they were ready to dispatch to the coast of Mullaitivu. PBJ, no doubt, ensured that no expense was spared when waging the most costly war of attrition, while keeping the economy humming with massive infrastructure projects, like building expressways, Hambantota Port, Mattala International Airport, etc. So it is quite puzzling why PBJ failed to guide President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the path of correct economic decisions. Surely it can’t be due to him past the retirement age.

After being Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during this turbulent period, Dr. PBJ was asked to go in Dec. 2021, when the former’s presidency had suffered irrevocable damage.

Leaving all the above aside, it must be stated here that whatever disagreements, or misunderstandings we may have had in the past, with New Delhi and Beijing, we should be eternally grateful to both India and China for being unwaveringly behind us in that most difficult final phase of the war.

Ex-CP Chief D.E.W. Gunasekera recently discussed the downfall of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after having polled a staggering 6.9 mn votes at the last presidential election, in Nov 2019. President Rajapaksa resigned on July 14, 2022, in the wake of snowballing violent protests that began on March 31, outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatta, Mirihana.

In a brief but fiery speech, the former Marxist minister explained how the wartime Defence Secretary caused the rapid deterioration of his government for want of a sound economic strategy. The retired public servant, who served as a lawmaker (2004-2015), found fault with President Rajapaksa for the ongoing political-economic-social crisis.

The veteran politician recalled how he suggested to the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa to advice brother Gotabaya to seek Chinese assistance to overcome the impending financial crisis. The outspoken politician blamed it all on the economic reasons.

Gunasekera said so at the opening of Eastern School of Political Studies, at the newly renovated CP party office, at Dr. N.M. Perera Mawatha, Borella, with the participation of Chinese International Department Vice Minister, Chen Zhou, and Acting Chinese Ambassador, Hu Wei.

Declaring that he himself warned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the impending crisis and provided a recovery plan in the run up to the last presidential election, held on Nov. 16, 2019, Gunasekera accused the fallen President of turning a blind eye.

The ex-minister placed the blame squarely on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

A different interpretation

Derana Chief, Dilith Jayaweera, at one time, one of the closest associates of ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a YouTube interview with Eraj Weeraratne, discussed political developments, since 2018, leading to a violent public protest movement that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office. Jayaweera, who is also the Chairperson of the George Steuart Group, as well as George Steuart Finance Limited, squarely blamed the Rajapaksa family, including Gotabaya, for the turbulent end to his rule.

Responding to a Weeraratne’s query, Jayaweera, declared lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa had no political future. The outspoken entrepreneur was unhesitant. Asserting twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, currently a member of Parliament, representing one-time Rajapaksa bastion, the Hambantota district, has lost his bearings, Jayaweera questioned the young politician’s sincerity.

Jayaweera didn’t mince his words when he declared that having failed to deprive Gotabaya Rajapaksa of an opportunity to contest the 2019 Presidential Election, the one-time first family worked overtime to undermine his authority at every level. The first family went to the extent of supporting the ‘GotaGoHome’ campaign that compelled the President to give up power, without a fight.

Jayaweera attributed to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second son, Yoshitha (formerly of the Navy) with #GotaGoHome# hashtag that became the clarion call of the high profile protest campaign to oust the previous President.

That tagline doesn’t belong to Aragalaya, Jayaweera declared, alleging that it grew out of the former first family’s inability to stomach Gotabaya Rajapaksa exercising executive power.

The controversial political strategist revealed the ex-first family’s angry reaction to his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “They believed I was trying to move the President out of the family’s orbit. But, the people wanted a Rajapaksa who didn’t represent the interests of the family.” Jayaweera said.

The intrepid local entrepreneur is convinced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa couldn’t overcome the combined challenge posed by the Rajapaksa family.

Responding to another rapid-fire question, Jayaweera explained how the Rajapkasa family thwarted President Rajapaksa’s move to appoint senior public servant, Anura Dissanayake, as his Secretary. But, the Rajapaksa family forced their loyalist Gamini Senarath, who had been Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Secretary, on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, following the exit of PBJ, Jayaweera claimed. According to him, that was definitely the worst example of the Rajapaksa’s family’s interference that rapidly weakened Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency.

The appointment of Dr. Jayasundera, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Secretary, should be examined against the backdrop of Jayaweera’s disclosure that Gotabaya Rajapaksa hadn’t been so critical of any other individual during private conversations he had with him.

Cardinal sin

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cardinal sin was nothing but the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Jayaweera declared. That controversial piece of legislature created an extremely hostile political environment and gradually weakened President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s authority, Jayaweera said, recalling how Basil Rajapaksa forced his way into Parliament, on the SLPP National List, regardless of political consequences.

Jayaweera said that he received an assurance from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in the presence of SLPP National List MP, Gevindu Cumaratunga, that enactment of the 20th Amendment at the expense of the 19th A was not meant for Basil Rajapaksa’s re-entry into Parliament. “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t keep his promise. Therefore, he should be accountable for the subsequent developments which preceded the demise of his political authority.”

Jayaweera explained how the Rajapaksas interpreted Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the 2019 presidential poll for their advantage. “The family asserted that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a staggering 6.9 mn votes due to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity. So, the family asserted that the new President should pursue their agenda. The family appointed Dr. Jayasundera as the Presidential Secretary.

Basil Rajapaksa believed he should be able to control Parliament. Basil Rajapaksa justified his overall political authority on the basis his SLPP secured a near 2/3 majority in Parliament, in addition to Opposition support that underlined their supremacy.”

Jayaweera described how President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to take up residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, do away with gaudy practice of hanging pictures of the President in government buildings, excessive use of vehicles and, most significantly, approval of unsolicited bids, angered the former first family. Those who immensely benefited from such ‘unsolicited bids’ reacted angrily, he said.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s actions jolted racketeers, Jayaweera alleged, pointing out that the new leader quickly lost support within the Cabinet-of-Ministers, by denying those corrupt elements an opportunity to make money, through the promotion of unsolicited bids. They couldn’t bear the shock of Cabinet papers submitted through the family or the intervention of the family being rejected, Jayaweera said, alleging that those who lived off such racketeering spearheaded the campaign against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The ‘Aragalaya’ entered the scene much later and exploited the situation to the hilt as the government parliamentary group quite conveniently abandoned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Those present in Parliament didn’t challenge SJB MP Harin Fernando when he ridiculed the President repeating the ‘Sir fail’ mantra, Jayaweera said.

The parliamentary group, particularly those corrupt in the Cabinet, felt there was no point in defending a President who didn’t allow them to make money.

Jayaweera also ridiculed the inclusion of four persons who wore kurahan satakaya (maroon shawl) among President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Cabinet. Jayaweera questioned the justification of bestowing five Cabinet portfolios on Namal Rajapaksa.

Relationship with JVP

The Derana Chief discussed a range of other issues, including his long standing relationship with the JVP, subsequent disputes with the Marxist party, and differences with the current leadership.

Dilith Jayaweera seems to be on a collision course with JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, especially over allegations directed at him as regards corruption in the procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Denying any wrongdoing on his part in spite of his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Jayaweera declared his readiness to battle it out on a public platform. While acknowledging that his enterprises handled procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process, Jayaweera challenged the JVP leader Dissanayake to prove publicly how he engaged in corrupt practices.

Jayaweera gave an open undertaking to personally lead JVP’s Local Government polls campaign if the record could be set straight by such a debate.

Recalling his close contacts with the JVP in the past and him having participated in their well-known five classes’ indoctrination programme to all new comers, Jayaweera disclosed how he spearheaded Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 presidential election campaign in which the Marxist party played a significant role. Slain Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s residence had been their meeting point where they discussed political strategy. Wimal Weerawansa had been the JVP representative at such meetings on some occasions, Jayaweera said.

Reference was made to the JVP split in the wake of the then Somawansa Amarasinghe led party declaring its intention to vote against the 2008 budget. Had that happened, the military campaign would have been derailed, Jayaweera said, comparing the JVP’s political strategy with that of the UNP.

“At a time, the vast majority of Sri Lankans desired the eradication of the LTTE, the JVP adopted a strategy that clearly aligned with the UNP’s treacherous approach,” Jayaweera said. Reference was made to the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his MPs, Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella and the late Mangala Samaraweera questioning the military strategy and even the competence of the then Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

Jayaweera commented on a possible deal the JVP had with some party while referring to the availability of large scale NGO funding for those who undermined the war effort.

Recalling the success of his high profile ‘Api Wenuwen Api’ campaign in support of the war effort, particularly meant to attract the youth to join the armed forces, Jayaweera also criticized the JVP strategy towards the end of its second rebellion 1987-1990 when it targeted those in the socialist camp as it was being decimated by the then government death squads.

Answering questions regarding Derana coverage as well as editorial policy of his daily and weekly newspapers, Jayaweera emphasized that he never interfered with them under any circumstances. The media mogul pointed out how Derana TV and newspapers followed different policies while reminding of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s angry reaction to their reportage of developments taking place. “Our reportage reflected the reality. We couldn’t save the government,” he said.

Jayaweera discussed how his strategy differed from that of late Raja Mahendran of the Capital Maharaja Group. Although TNL was launched before Sirasa, the latter received the attention, Jayaweera said, emphasizing Raja Mahendran’s steadfast policy that the owner of the private channel controlled the news content.

Pressed for further explanation, Jayaweera acknowledged that he always exploited situations and created an environment necessary to influence the media. “That strategy is meant to inspire all media, not only Derana,” Jayaweera said.

Jayaweera and Weeraratne also discussed the simmering controversy over the JVP having as much as Rs 8 bn in funds as alleged by Jayaweera, with Derana Chief stressing that whatever the counter arguments the fact remains the JVP had substantial amount of funding. Questioning the credibility of lawmaker Anura Kumara Dissanayake against the backdrop of a section of the media highlighting lies propagated by the JVP leader, Jayaweera declared his readiness to help the party. But, that would depend on the JVPers willingness to appear with him in a live debate to clear the whole gamut of issues at hand.

Jayaweera also recalled the allegations pertaining to the procurement of antigen test kits directed at him by lawmaker Rajapaksa. Dismissing Namal Rajapaksa’s allegations as irrelevant, Jayaweera stressed that MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake should be given an opportunity to rectify his mistakes.

Jayaweera recalled his close association with Dissanayake at the time the latter served as the Agriculture Minister of then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga led UPFA-JVP ‘Parivasa’ government. A smiling Jayaweera said though the JVP wanted to build 1,000 new tanks, it couldn’t complete at least one properly. Declaring he accompanied Dissanayake to various parts of the country,

Jayaweera acknowledged that he managed that media campaign, too.

At the conclusion of perhaps the most important interview that dealt with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unceremonious exit from politics, Jayaweera commented on an often asked query whether Aragalaya was a conspiracy?

External intervention

Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to give up political power not because of him, Jayaweera recalled how he warned in 2008 of the impending economic crisis and Dr. Jayasundera’s role in it. That warning was issued at the launch of Sinhala translation of John Perkins’s ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman,’ Jayaweera said, declaring that the former first family initiated the conspiracy that was subsequently exploited to the hilt by various interested parties, including Western powers.

There cannot be any dispute over how Gotabaya Rajapaksa was derailed and who contributed to that despicable strategy. Perhaps, social media influencer, who interviewed him should have asked Jayaweera about a few other issues that ruined the once much respected Defence Secretary.

The crisis created cannot be discussed leaving out the ill-fated fertilizer ban (2021), catastrophic cancellation of the Light Train Transit (LRT) project funded by Japan(2020), allegations directed at Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera and Prime Minister’s Secretary Gamini Senarath (both denied these accusations) pertaining to procurement of fertiliser from India and China, respectively and the failure on the government’s part to implement recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into 2019 Easter Sunday carnage.

The writer remembers how he ran into Jayaweera and Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Bishop’s House in the run up to 2019 presidential election when the latter visited Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith to assure that justice would be done.

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Midweek Review

Notes towards a politics and aesthetics of film:

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‘Face Cover’ by Ashfaque Mohamed

“Black cat, at the tip of my fingers pulsates poetry,

Desiring hands, yours, nudgingly pluck those roses of mine

In the soft light of the moon

The dreams we picked from the foaming edges of waves of the sea.”

Jusla/Salani (in Face Cover)

by Laleen Jayamanne

Asifa, a young girl, and her elderly mother, living in Kattankudy, Baticaloa, are two fictional characters at the centre of Ashfaque Mohamed’s quietly powerful first feature film, titled Face Cover, which just premiered at the 2023 Jaffna International Film Festival (JIFF). As the President of the international jury judging the films in this year’s debut film competition at the JIFF (but on zoom from Australia), I have seen some highly sophisticated films from Bangladesh and India (the winners), immensely enjoyable and informative, but have chosen, for the purposes of this article, to write on Ashfaque’s thought provoking film that didn’t make it into the debut film competition. My decision to do so is part of my own politics as a film scholar who has, over the decades, often highlighted and laboured over films that may not necessarily be popular, or current, or even easily understood, for that matter. Eye-catching films often are popular, and many critics spend a lot of energy writing about them as is their prerogative. I, too, do that when moved, as I have been by Baz Luhrmann’s hugely popular ELVIS. But, it’s important to me, as a Lankan-Australian film critic/scholar, to focus also on work that at first may appear opaque, may not fit into my own limited viewing habits and preferences, first and foremost. This way, I learn to learn from film even as I grow old. Face Cover has uncovered for me micro-histories of ethnic relations in Lanka in astonishing and moving ways. It’s certainly a film for our times, and in my opinion, Ashfaque is a young Lankan filmmaker of great promise. It is also heartening to note that he is cine-literate and (as he says), is self-taught as a filmmaker.

While the opening and closing screenings of the festival were at the Cinemas Movie Theatre, the rest of the festival films were shown at the University of Jaffna, largely due to the ongoing grave financial crisis affecting the country as a whole. I gather it’s the only film festival held in Sri Lanka, continuously, since the civil war ended, after 30 years, and is an admirable institution, powered by its Director, and curator of film, Anoma Rajakaruna’s unceasing energy and vision, which builds bridges among the various ethnic groups and cinephiles from across the entire country and crucially South Asia and further afield, in that once war-ravaged city. The following is the film’s blurb.

“Taking the cataclysmic Easter Sunday Bombings of Churches and Hotels in April 2019, by ISIS inspired Islamists in Sri Lanka as the point of departure, the film follows the life of Asifa in Kattankdy, in Eastern Sri Lanka, as she navigates the complex social forces shaping her and other women’s stories. The film tells the story of the town, as a woman’s tale. The film is experimental in form and mixes genres and conventions.”

*****

The main fictional story line of the mother and daughter is interwoven with (what appears at first to be), documentary interviews and testimonies given by ‘real’ people, not fictional characters. However, towards the end of the film one realises that the demarcating lines between documentary and fiction have indeed been blurred. There are hints of this earlier, in the four scenes forming the large sequence ‘performed’ on a proscenium stage, as well. This blurring appears to be the result of an unusual aesthetic and political decision, which I wish to explore here. Perhaps the politics of the film are linked to this bleeding of the actual into the fictional and the reverse also. How does this device enable Face Cover to uncover subtle operations of power in a predominantly Muslim area of Lanka, in the post-war era, soon after the Easter Sunday bombings as well? The feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political,’ certainly gets elaborated quietly but quite decisively in exploring the agency of the young Muslim girl, Asifa, on the cusp of womanhood, as well. I am assuming here (as I think the film itself does), that a politics of cinema has to work on two fronts simultaneously, not only on the choice of subject/story, but also on HOW it is told, elaborated. For what’s at stake are, our powers of perception and understanding, through images and sounds, that touch us in unexpected ways. Film, I believe, can be our mentor, we can learn from film in the most enjoyable and unexpected of ways, to undo our prejudiced ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking. Face Cover continues to be a revelation to me in this regard, even after multiple viewings, especially so.

Face Cover

Ashfaque Mohamed

, the title of Ashafque’s film, is in itself fascinating. Why didn’t he use the globalised Arabic word Niqab for instance? The words ‘Face Cover’ (I learn), are the same in Tamil, the English words simply transliterated and incorporated into the vernacular. It is commonly used by Muslims to refer to the practice of partially covering a woman’s face, as required by some Muslim norms. A Tamil friend suggested that it connotes both the intimacy of a piece of cloth and a sense of distance of appropriated foreign words. Perhaps this sense of ambivalence is a unique Lankan invention not perceptible in the pure Arabic official word for the practice, which is Niqab. What’s fascinating to me is that, before I saw the film and learnt about the connotations of the title Face Cover, I thought it would be a ‘hot’, topical film on a subject that has caused a great deal of debate in the West (France for example), and protests, most recently in Iran which turned violent and then garnered supporters in some Western countries especially among some feminists. It’s a topic that the Western white media finds especially irresistible. But I was mistaken to take the title Face Cover at face value, as a sign of a polemical film. And what was most surprising to me about the film was that I wrote a long email to a friend, soon after I saw the film for the first time and realised the next day that I had said absolutely nothing about the ‘problem’ of the face cover, despite having discussed the film at some length.

When I realised what I had done, I resaw the film which brought up a lot of questions but no answers, so I saw the film yet again for the third time. This time round the film began to slowly open up to my attention. It is a film, I realised, that requires a quiet focus, an attentiveness, as when one enters an unfamiliar social milieu, like when one takes one’s shoes off to go into certain places of worship in Lanka, or as it happens to some houses in Australia. Similarly, while music is used, it does so very sparingly, so that when we do hear it, it speaks in a way that wall to wall music does not, cannot. In these ways our quality of attention is tuned like a musical instrument. In fact, the only time the face cover became a ‘hot topic’ in the film was when a Sinhala trader, in a shop, makes it so by shouting at a young woman wearing a face cover. He aggressively asks her why she has her face covered and the young girl responds forcefully, asking why he wants to see her face, etc. Apart from this verbal stoush, (the only time Sinhala is heard in the film), and one re-enactment on a stage, of an Army check-point scene, from the civil-war era, the face cover itself is not conceived as a ‘problem’ to be addressed by the film. In the staged check-point scene, a soldier, carrying a gun, orders a young woman, in Tamil, to unmask at the point of his gun and she simply obeys the command. The soldier is meant to be Sinhala speaking an accented Tamil. So apart from these two ‘dramatic’ incidents, instigated by hostile people with authority and power, the face cover is not a focus of the film, it’s simply a given. Though there is a strong criticism of the Muslim male undergraduate practice of erasing the faces of female office bearers on student council photographs, at several Universities. A young Muslim woman astutely refers to this gender discrimination as a ‘digital veiling,’ images of which are displayed. This kind of internal criticism is very forceful and one hopes that Muslim male undergraduates will reflect on it and mend their ways. The check-point scene does function as a parable. More on the use of dramatic parables later, in a film where there is very little ‘drama’ in this sense of confrontations. Instead, momentous events transpire on Television News of the Easter Sunday bombings which frames the film and dates it to be set in 2019. But previous violent histories are folded into every-day-life and narrated as recollections, and an inventive mix of techniques of staged interviews and testimonies and ‘real’ interviews, replace drama, understood as actions and reactions reaching a crescendo.

Sumathy Sivamohan as Asifa’s mother

Often the interviews are played as voice-over while the person concerned goes about her every-day business, mute. This technique makes the film’s narration flexible, allowing room to play with our attention, an eye here and the ear there. I think that Ashfaque’s ethico-aesthetic sensibility evident here is a part of his film politics. I find myself listening attentively to the voice-over which rhetorically oscillates between answers to questions (which are themselves unheard), and an interior monologue. I found the texture, timbre, inflections and rhythms of the voices, especially those of the mother and daughter, very engaging, moving. Lankan cinema has not developed the autonomous potentialities of the sound track as much as it could, I think.

Face Cover

as a Lure

I was a bit slow to realise that the title, Face Cover, is a lure. It lures us into the film as a certain idea of the veil might. The veil is an alluring metaphysical idea in Kumar Shahani’s film Khyal Gatha for instance, which explores both Hindu Bhakti and Sufi Islamic traditions of spirituality as expressed in music, song and art in India which bypass both the priest and the religious institutions they control. ‘Khayal’ is an Urdu word derived from Persian which means ‘imagination,’ and is the name of a classical musical form. The idea of the ‘veil’ in Persian Sufi traditions is a complex idea, put very simply, it suggests that, reality itself is veiled (filtered, subtilised), and its perception depends on certain spiritual aesthetic practices, which reveal the imperceptible and the intangible, within the hum-drum of every-day existence. The veil as a spiritual idea, on the one hand, and the mask or ‘face cover’ socially mandated by certain Islamic patriarchal assumptions, on the other, are of course worlds apart in their conception and function and the feelings they evoke. As devout Roman Catholic girls, taught religion by Irish Catholic nuns at school, we always had to cover our heads modestly with veils when going to church.

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Midweek Review

Burnt Morsels and Barbed Wire

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By Lynn Ockersz

The war tanks are battle-ready,

Menacingly lurking, raring to roll in,

At the first call to arms,

By a strong arm gentry,

Eyeing its spoils of power and office,

Secured sans a Freedom Struggle,

But those whom it sees as subjects,

Are now hitting their mats at night,

On a diet of tepid water and burnt rice,

Left very much on their own to die,

Proving that ‘Freedom’ is a stillborn babe.

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