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Midweek Review

Closure of Norwegian Embassy in Colombo and other matters (Part II)

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Sept 22, 2022, Trincomalee: Norwegian Ambassador Trine Jøranli Eskedal at the closing ceremony of a Norwegian funded training programme conducted by the elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS). The UN-backed training programme meant to tackle a wide range of crimes taking place via sea routes got underway in early May 2016. Among the participants were 07 male and 01 female officers of the Maldivian Coast Guard as well as 01 male and 01 female officers of the Maldivian Ministry of Fisheries (pic courtesy SLN)

Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is one of those who strongly believed that the LTTE could be defeated. The Gajaba Regiment veteran didn’t mince his words when he met Norwegian officials on April 06, 2006 in the run-up to the closure of the Mavil-aru sluice gates in the third week of July 2006. According to a NorwegianForeign Ministry document in the public domain: “On April 06, 2006, Hanssen-Bauer and Brattskar had a tense meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In response to a question about whether the ethnic and political problems in Sri Lanka could be solved by military means, Gotabaya answers, ‘yes’. The LTTE launched Eelam War IV in August 2006. Within two years and 10 months the Sri Lankan military brought the war to a successful end.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Colombo-based Norwegian diplomats burnt their fingers by seeking information from the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo as regards an Indian fishing craft (Sri Krishna) that had been commandeered by Sea Tigers and was intercepted and sunk by the Maldivian Coast Guard in May 2007.

The Norwegian Embassy reached the Maldivian HC soon after the Maldivians intercepted ‘Sri Krishna’ that was reported missing several days before while fishing in Indian waters.

The Island last week dealt with the Norwegian decision to close down its diplomatic mission in Colombo next year, two decades after Oslo arranged a highly controversial secret Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) (Not even the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga was aware of it till it had been signed) between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The US, EU, Japan and Norway functioned as Co-Chairs to the peace process.

The Norwegian effort received the backing of New Delhi though the Indians were skeptical. Nevertheless, they fully cooperated.

The LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003, one year and three months after the signing of the CFA. But, the Norwegians went out of their way to appease the LTTE regardless of the consequences. The diplomatic intervention made on behalf of the Tigers involved in the incident in the Maldivian waters is a case in point. In a way, the LTTE and its sidekick the Tamil National Alliance failed to utilize the Norwegian effort to advance the peace process, whether sincere or not. Instead, the LTTE exploited the Norwegian initiative so much that the negotiating process finally collapsed. Their strategy undermined the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, who meekly towed the Norwegian line. On the other hand, their actions bolstered the nationalist groups and those opposed to the Norwegian questionable initiatives.

Dissolution of Parliament and calling for fresh parliamentary elections in April 2004 should be examined against the backdrop of utterly irresponsible LTTE strategy and its appeasers. However, the elections allowed the TNA, with the LTTE openly stuffing ballot boxes in areas it controlled, to secure the lion’s share of seats in the then amalgamated Northern and Eastern Provinces. Peace Co-Chair EU in its Election Observation report declared that the TNA colluded with the LTTE. Unfortunately, Co-Chairs, including the EU didn’t take the report into consideration.

The incident in the Maldivian waters should be examined basically against the backdrop of the overall deterioration of the situation for want of clear guidelines to handle the peace process.

The Norwegians wouldn’t have intervened without being asked by the LTTE with a nod from a powerful Western interest. We must also note that Norwegian peacemaking efforts in Palestine with obvious American backing that brought about the Oslo Accord with much promise fared even worse with the Palestinians continuing to be humiliated and pasted by the Israelis almost on a daily basis. Where the hell is UNHRC? No war crimes there on your watch Michelle Bachelet? At least the UN should have given her a Nelsonian eye patch.

The Norwegian mission here definitely cleared its move with Oslo. However, by the time they got in touch with the Maldivian HC, Male had cleared Sri Lankan Navy intelligence to interrogate the apprehended LTTE cadres in the custody of the Maldivian. The Island reported the Norwegian intervention in its May 26, 2007 edition. The LTTE had used the ill-fated vessel to transfer weapons from its floating armories to Wanni and was on such a mission when the Maldivians intervened.

At the time the Maldivians sank Sri Krishna, Tamil Nadu had accused the Sri Lanka Navy of destroying that particular vessel. What Tamil Nadu as well as India never expected was another country intervening in the clandestine LTTE arms smuggling operation.

The Maldivian Coast Guard made the intervention on May 16, 2007. The Maldivian Coast Guard engaged a vessel carrying the Sri Lankan flag after the latter fired at a Maldivian fishing craft.

Following a 12-hour standoff, the Maldivians sank the craft flying the Sri Lankan flag.

Interestingly, there had been some Indian naval personnel onboard the Maldivian craft engaged in the operation against the Tiger commandeered vessel.

The LTTE would have never expected its cadres who commandeered the vessel to surrender as they are noted for biting their cyanide vials to prevent capture. The Maldivians however rescued five Tigers who jumped overboard from the sinking vessel, subsequently identified as Sri Krishna. The rescued men told the Maldivians and their Indian instructors (The Indians were helping the Maldivian Coast Guard personnel to familiarize with CG vessel Huravee, gifted by New Delhi to Male) the circumstances under which they were found in Maldivian waters, while engaged in transferring armaments from a floating warehouse.

Sri Krishna’s skipper, Simon Soza had been among the five rescued by the Maldivians. The Sea Tigers admitted that the remaining Indians were being held in a camp in the Vanni (Maldives sinks Indian craft hijacked by Sea Tigers – The Island May 18, 2007).

The sinking of the Sri Krishna was the second high profile incident involving an Indian trained terrorist group in the Maldivian territory. The raid on Male during the first week of November, 1988 by sea borne PLOTE (People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorists at the behest of a Colombo-based Maldivian businessman, Abdulla Luthufee was the first. Interestingly, the Indian Navy sank MV Progress Light commandeered by Luthufee’s mercenaries while trying to reach Sri Lankan waters.

Former Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who led the then UNP government’s negotiating team for talks with the LTTE in 2002-2003 period, appreciated the role played by the Scandinavian country.

GL, Palihakkara, Salter,Jehan comment

Mark Salter

Prof. Peiris, now a leading member in one of the SLPP rebel groups said: “The Norwegian government was significantly involved in the economic development of Sri Lanka, long before its association with the peace process. In particular, there had been substantial Norwegian support for infrastructure development, especially rural roads in the South of Sri Lanka, in addition to assistance in the fisheries sector, human resources development and community work of various kinds.

In the aftermath of its facilitation role in the peace process in the late 1990s and early in the present century, the government of Norway commissioned an independent evaluation of their role here with a view to ascertaining its strengths and weaknesses. I believe this study led to more useful insights.

We regret the decision to close down the embassy in Colombo for the time being, but understand that it is part of a worldwide evaluation process.

The government of Norway has announced its commitment to and support for the people of Sri Lanka will continue. We appreciate this assurance.”

In response to The Island query regarding the Norwegian pull out, Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC), Dr. Jehan Perera has sent us the following statement: “The departure of the Norwegian Embassy from Sri Lanka is a big loss to us. This is a time when we need all the assistance and friendship we can from the international community, especially those who have helped us in the past. The Ambassador has stated that Norway will continue to provide Sri Lanka with assistance and will engage in development activities. However, Sri Lanka will lose out because remote support is not the same as in-country support where Norwegian diplomats and embassy staff are in constant interaction with Sri Lankan people. We also need to acknowledge the huge investment Norway made to help us resolve our ethnic war through negotiations and a political solution. They supported organisations such as the National Peace Council to build bridges between the communities, which we continue to do. Norwegian support for peace-building work got reduced after the failure of the ceasefire agreement and peace process. NPC did not receive Norwegian financial support over the past decade. But the capacity for peace-building work that Norway supported us to achieve, and which continues to remain with us, is a cause for gratitude and we regret very much the closure of their embassy.”

The author of ‘To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka’ Mark Salter said: “The closure of the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo ends an important chapter in relations between the two countries. At the joint invitation of the government and the LTTE leadership, in 1999-2000 Oslo accepted the role of peace facilitator between the two parties. To their great credit, over the following decade the Norwegians stuck at their appointed ‘peace diplomacy’ task through thick and thin – possibly the most sustained instance of external engagement with a peace process to date. And this including when, in the aftermath of the return to war in autumn 2006 and the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) the Norwegians brokered in 2002 looked increasingly dead in the water, they became the subject of increasing domestic attacks, notably by both the government itself and Sinhala nationalists who tarred them with the brush of ‘White Tigers’.

As we know, theirs (and other) peace efforts ultimately failed. A messenger, however, is only as good as the message they carry – a fact that often seems completely lost on the legions of Lankan critics of the Norwegian’s ‘messenger’ role. As Erik Solheim and others have long since acknowledged, Oslo undoubtedly made mistakes along the way – notably the failure to foster an initial bipartisan Sinhala political consensus in support of the peace process. Ultimately, however, the failure of the peace process comes down to the failure in their different ways of both parties to continue to engage seriously with the process itself.”

For those who are genuinely interested in knowing the Norwegian-led process, perusal of Salter’s work is a must. Former BBC journalist and analyst, Mark Salter who launched ‘To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka’ in Colombo several years after Norway released ‘Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009)’ meticulously addressed the issues. Salter’s work help the readers to understand what really went wrong if the official Norwegian examination didn’t achieve what was expected. Chr. Michelsen Institute and School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, jointly put out that report. The team responsible for the official version comprised Gunnar Sørbø, Jonathan Goodhand, Bart Klem, Ada Elisabeth Nissen and Hilde Selbervik. The Wikileaks revelations should be of pivotal importance for those keen to know the developments here.

One-time Foreign Secretary H.M.G.S. Palihakkara who served as the Governor of the Northern Province during the Yahapalana administration, has sent us the following statement in response to a query posed to him: “It does not look like a singular decision by one country, at least optics-wise, since both countries announced the intended closures within a space of a few months this year, Sri Lanka being the first in April and Norway following in September. Embassy closing of course is news one can hardly celebrate esp. in bilateral diplomacy. The notion that reciprocity is the first lesson in diplomacy still has some currency. And that factor may have weighed in at some stage of this decision-making process. However, speculating on that won’t help either side.

What is of promise is that both countries have been quick to emphasize that the decisions are derived from ‘structural’, rather than bilateral considerations and will not impinge on relations.

Sri Lanka has further qualified closure as ‘temporary’ while Norway has recommitted itself to ‘further the constructive and friendly relations’. It would be reasonable to say these relations have endured many decades and vicissitudes including a complicated and even controversial ‘peace process’ with the LTTE through a vain facilitation effort by Norway.

The Norwegian envoy in Colombo, Ambassador Trine Jøranli Eskedal in her media comments has quite professionally put these positives at a higher notch saying ‘ We will continue to maintain our warm bilateral relations with Sri Lanka and development assistance will also continue.’ So the ‘distancing’ signified by these closures at first glance, may be more apparent than real. The fact remains that SL has benefitted from several billions of NKR bilateral ODA for projects ranging from the well-known Cey-Nor in the North to extensive rural development in the South. Since modern diplomacy is often about building on what you have rather than imagining the ideal, it is up to both sides to do just that-build on the positives.”

Whatever the views expressed by interested parties regarding the planned Norwegian closure of its embassy here the fact remains the move is detrimental to Sri Lanka, especially at a time the country is experiencing its worst post-independence economic crisis. Norway spent lavishly on its Sri Lanka project. Civil society groups benefited immensely. A simmering dispute between the Norwegians and the late Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe, one of the largest beneficiaries of the Norwegian funding highlighted the controversial relationship between the embassy and the civil society. The Norwegians ended up squandering their taxpayers’ money even on the LTTE and its front organizations. That is the undeniable truth.

But, perhaps their biggest mistake that had been influenced by interested parties here was the assertion as acknowledged in ‘Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009)’ that the LTTE cannot be defeated.

The Norwegians as well as other Co- Chairs operated on the premise the Sri Lankan military couldn’t match the LTTE’s strategy or the fighting will. Those who benefited from the Norwegian largesse propagated that myth wherever possible like their Western pay masters. That assessment was proved wrong in May 2009 when a soldier shot Velupillai Prabhakaran on his head on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.­



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Midweek Review

Post-war national reconciliation: Diaspora sets prerequisites

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Justice Minister Rajapakshe and Panchalingam Kandiah, of the Canadian Tamil Congress, address the media at the Justice Ministry

Indian Premier Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the construction of the Jaffna Cultural Centre, in March 2015, two months after the change of government in Sri Lanka, in the wake of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s shock defeat at the presidential election. Retired Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran served as the Chief Minister of the Northern Province at the time. Since then he deserted the Tamil Alliance (TNA) and formed his own party Tamil Makkal Thesya Kootani. Narendra Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister and only the second foreign leader, after British Prime Minister David Cameron, to visit Jaffna since the conclusion of the war. It was the first official visit by an Indian Premier, since July 1987, when Rajiv Gandhi flew in to sign the disastrous Indo-Lanka peace accord foisted on hapless Sri Lanka.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) wants the Sri Lanka government to hand over the Jaffna Cultural Centre, built by the Indian government, to the Jaffna Municipality.

Danton Thurairajah, Executive Director, CTC, in a letter dated Nov. 01, 2022, requested that the Jaffna Cultural Centre, the tallest building in the Jaffna town, situated next to the Jaffna Public Library, be brought under the Jaffna Municipal Council (JMC). It was the sixth out of the 10 requests made by Thurairajah.

Panchalingam Kandiah, on behalf of the CTC, handed over the letter to Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, at his Ministry, on Nov. 16.

The following is the text of the letter released by the Justice Ministry:

Dear Minister,

We thank you for de-listing some of the Tamil Diaspora organisations, including the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC). We feel this is a first step towards achieving improved ethnic relations and economic outcomes in Sri Lanka. While this is a step in the right direction, by the Government of Sri Lanka, we think that additional and meaningful actions are critical in continuing to build bridges with the Diaspora and help the island nation prosper.

Immediately after the de-listing by the Sri Lankan government, and given the current urgent need, CTC, as a responsible organisation, announced that it would provide critical life-saving medications to six hospitals in the Northern, Eastern, Central and Western Provinces of Sri Lanka.

However, we strongly feel that the Sri Lankan government has not taken any meaningful actions which are long overdue.

These include, but are not limited to: Immediate steps in the short term:

1) Release all political prisoners

2) Repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)

3) Release all private lands, occupied by the Sri Lankan military, and cease all illegal land grabs in the Northern and Eastern provinces

4) Allow Tamils to mourn and remember the dead, free of intimidation by Sri Lankan state authorities.

5) Support economic growth in the north, and foreign investment, by reopening the Palaly International Airport

6) Hand over the Jaffna Cultural Centre, funded by the Indian government, to the Jaffna Municipality

7) Comply with the UNHRC resolution 46/1 of 2021

8) Fully implement the 13th Amendment and immediately hold the provincial council elections

9) Reform the security sector, especially in Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, to the same levels as the rest of the country and stop all business initiatives in the Northern and Eastern provinces operated by the Sri Lanka military which makes it difficult for local farmers and businesses to compete (Farms, Hotels, and Bakeries, etc.)

10) Open the KKS and Mannar ferry services to India.

The CTC urges the Sri Lankan government to take some firm steps to help build trust and create a conducive environment for reconciliation. The work on a permanent long-term solution, acceptable to all Sri Lankan communities, is vital for the collective growth of the island.

The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government delisted six Tamil diaspora organisations, including the CTC, and 316 individuals. The following organisations were delisted:

1) Australian Tamil Congress (ATC)

2) Global Tamil Forum (GTF)

3) World Tamil Coordinating Committee (WTCC)

4) Tamil Eelam People’s Assembly (TEPA)

5) Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC)

6) British Tamil Forum (BTF)

The delisting was announced through an amendment to the List of Designated Persons under Regulation 4(7) of the United Nations Regulations No. 1 of 2012. The ban was imposed in 2014 by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who also held the defence portfolio. The ban covered 15 Diaspora groups. Rajapaksa now serves the incumbent government.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s successor, Maithripala Sirisena, lifted the ban in 2015 to pave the way for talks with them. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa re-imposed the ban in 2021.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) issued a statement appreciating the decision. The TNA pointed out: “However, it must be noted that even others who remain on the list have been so named without any evidence, connecting them to terrorism, and by not following the prescribed procedure. We urge the government to at least continue this process of re-evaluating and de-proscribing all.”

Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, and the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, virtually inaugurated the Jaffna Cultural Centre, on March 28, this year, three days before public anger exploded at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, most probably a well-planned instigation rather than a spontaneous eruption that triggered a series of violent incidents, leading to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster. It was like the well-orchestrated attacks and torching of residences of then government politicians, across the country, on May 09, followed by more mindless violence on July 09.

The Jaffna Cultural Centre, built at a cost of USD 11 mn, on an Indian grant, with 11 floors and facilities, including an auditorium that can accommodate 600 persons, a conference hall, an amphitheater and a digital library, was completed in January 2020. Having signed the agreement for the facility, in 2014, construction took place during the Yahapalana administration, and the work completed close on the heels of the Nov. 2019 presidential election.

In terms of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by India and Sri Lanka in 2014, New Delhi was expected to hand over the facility to the government, which in turn would have handed it over to the Jaffna Municipal Council. Amidst concerns that JMC lacked the wherewithal to maintain the facility, New Delhi has offered to provide the required funds for a period of five years.

There are growing concerns that the building has been used only once,after the virtual opening in March.

The Jaffna-based Indian Consulate celebrated India’s 75th Independence Day, on August 15. Several hundred invitees were treated to Nadaswaram performance by Maestro Banu and group, a Bharatanatyam performance by the Natya KalaKendra institute Barathanatiyam group, and folk dance performance by the Kumara Narththanaalayam group. Earlier in the day, Consul General Raakesh Natraj and Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General W.M.G.C.S.B. Wijayasundara paid respects at the IPKF Memorial in Palaly by laying a wreath, an annual event and a grim reminder of Indian intervention here and the heavy price it paid for the folly of heavy-handed interference in the affairs of a neighbouring country, in which powerful Western countries, too, were very much involved, but through covert subtle means, in instigating the turmoil here, from the early ’80s, most probably with the wish to break up India for being close to the former Soviet Union. The West then obviously wanted to fan separatist flames right across India by not only giving succor to Eelamists, but to others like separatists in Punjab, Assam, etc. New Delhi should be doubly wary of possible new plots for not blindly towing the Western line in Ukraine.

Post-war reconciliation

The CTC’s prerequisites for post-war national reconciliation underscored their refusal at least to repent the war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) until terrorism was finally eradicated. If not for Sri Lanka’s successful campaign against terrorism, that brought the war to an end in May 2009, 15 years after the capture of Jaffna town, the Jaffna Cultural Centre would never have been a reality.

It would be pertinent to ask Justice Minister Rajapakshe, who received the CTC’s letter on behalf of the government, whether the government could accept those prerequisites. The CTC played a significant role in the overall campaign that led to the Canadian declaration of May 18 as Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day.

The CTC’s message this year stressed that (1) Not a single case on wartime atrocity allegations has been resolved in a court of law (2) Not a single Tamil victim of enforced disappearance has been found alive or the circumstances of their disappearance revealed to date and (3) Not even a single person was held accountable.

As usual, the CTC, like other Diaspora groups, and the TNA, conveniently forgot why Sri Lanka had no other option than to eradicate Tamil terrorism at any cost. The Tamil Diaspora should at least now prepare a list of dead and the disappeared, since 1983. (1) the number of people killed as a result of fighting among Tamil terrorist groups, trained by India (2) the number of people killed due to fighting within a particular terrorist group (3) members of rival groups killed by the LTTE (4) LTTE cadres killed by rival groups (5) killings within the LTTE (6) Tamil terrorists who fled their respective organisations and sought asylum in the West and those who went underground in India (7) Tamil civilians killed during the Indian Army operations (8) LTTE cadres killed in clashes with the Indian Army (9) PLOTE cadres killed in abortive bid to assassinate Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in Nov. 1988 (10) LTTE operatives killed by Indian security agencies after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 (11) Tamil civilians killed during military operations, particularly the last phase of the assault on LTTE human shields in 2009 and finally (12) how many Tamils received foreign passports during the war and since the conclusion of the war.

Where was the CTC when the LTTE forced the entire Vanni population to withdraw across the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road towards the Mullaithivu district where the group brazenly used them as human shields to deter the advancing Army? The CTC, like its counterparts in other countries, remained confident of the LTTE’s superior fighting skills to defeat the Army on the Vanni east front. They started protests in the Western capitals, in 2009, after the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s Army inflicted devastating battlefield losses on the LTTE and forced conventional fighting units to retreat towards the Mullaithivu coast.

Perhaps, the Diaspora should be reminded that the Tamil community voted overwhelmingly for Fonseka at the January 2010 presidential election, at the behest of the TNA after accusing him and his army of committing war crimes. Fonseka comfortably won all predominantly Tamil speaking northern and eastern districts, though Mahinda Rajapaksa routed the war-winning Army Commander in the South.

The Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) never acknowledged Sri Lanka bringing an end to forcible conscription of children for the war. The LTTE deployed children as fighting depleted its units over the years and UN efforts to discourage conscription of teenagers in the late ’90s failed. Hope those who shed crocodile tears for war victims at least appreciate lives saved by the eradication of the LTTE.

The Army paid a huge price for trying to minimize loss of civilian lives. If not for U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, who was sentenced in August 2013 to 35 years in a military prison for turning over more than 700,000 classified files to Wikileaks in the biggest breach of secret data in the US history, Sri Lanka wouldn’t have known what was happening behind the scenes. There was a spate of cables that dealt with the situation here. But one of the most valuable cables from our point of view originated from Geneva.

The cable, dated July 15, 2009, signed by the then Geneva-based US Ambassador Clint Williamson cleared the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) of crimes against humanity during the Vanni offensive. The cable, addressed to the US State Department, was based on a confidential conversation Ambassador Williamson had with the then ICRC head of operations for South Asia, Jacque de Maio, on July 9, 2009, and several weeks after the war was brought to a successful end, that hardly anyone expected, with the annihilation of the LTTE in the battlefield.

Ambassador Williamson wrote: “The army was determined not to let the LTTE escape from its shrinking territory, even though this meant the civilians being kept hostage by the LTTE were at an increasing risk.

So, de Maio said, while one could safely say that there were ‘serious, widespread violations of international humanitarian law,’ by the Sri Lankan forces, it didn’t amount to genocide. He could cite examples of where the Army had stopped shelling when the ICRC informed them it was killing civilians.

In fact, the Army actually could have won the war faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths. He concluded however, by asserting that the GoSL failed to recognize its obligation to protect civilians, despite the approach leading to higher military casualties.”

The government should respond to CTC’s demands, as issues raised by other Diaspora groups are essentially the same though the writer hasn’t previously come across any group demanding that the Jaffna Cultural Centre be brought under the Jaffna Municipal Council. Their first demand for the release of political prisoners is silly. Minister Rajapakse has repeatedly denied that there were political prisoners and explained both here and abroad the circumstances in which they were held.

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Midweek Review

War as a way-of-Life

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Helene Weigel Vera Tenschert

Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children:

by Laleen Jayamanne

“Like the war to nourish you?
Have to feed it something too.”
Mother Courage

Chaplin on Seeing Brecht’s Galileo

Charlie Chaplin had dinner with Brecht’s long-term musical collaborator Hans Eisler, after the premier of The Life of Galileo in 1947 in LA. The play was very well attended by leading artistes and intellectuals, some of whom worked for Hollywood at the time. It included German Jewish and gentile refugees from fascist Europe. Over dinner, Chaplin told Eisler that he would have liked a bit more ‘drama’ and that Brecht could have ‘mounted’ it differently. Eisler (who was familiar with Brecht’s radical work in Weimar Germany in the 20s), explained to him that Brecht never wanted to ‘mount’ things. American theatre critics from Variety and New York Times also complained that the production was ‘too flat and colourless.’ They thought the play was not theatrical enough, not ‘dramatic.’ In this piece, I will discuss the formal features of Brecht’s epic theatre (use of narration, scene construction, dialogue and acting), which Brecht thought was a form more suited to a scientific age of reason than the more emotional form of traditional dramatic theatre.

Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children; A Chronicle of the Thirty Year War, is a parable relevant to our moment of world history as well. It’s based on a character called ‘Courage, an Adventuress,’ in the 17th Century picaresque novel, Simplicissimus by Hans von Grimmelhausen. In Lanka it was first produced in English, in the 60s by Ernest MacIntyre, and, soon after in Sinhala as, Diriya Athi Mawa. Written in exile in 1939, the year Hitler invaded Poland, triggering the second World War, it was about another devastating war in Europe, the Thirty-Year Religious Wars (1618-1648), between the Catholics and the Protestants. Now we have yet another European war, between Ukraine and Russia, with no end in sight, which has already begun to affect global trade in essentials and much else. The flow of refugees and the scale of non-stop destruction of Ukraine by Russia is now broadcast daily on our TV screens creating a new ‘cold-war.’ The polarising American slogan for this war is ‘Democracy versus Autocracy.’ There is even talk of limited nuclear strikes but hardly any diplomatic solutions. Lanka also has had her own experience of a 30-year civil war whose wounds have not all healed because they remain unacknowledged.

Brecht’s 1949 production of the play in East Belin (with the nucleus which became the Berliner Ensemble in East Germany), within the Soviet Union, is celebrated in theatre history not only for the written play itself but also for the singular Epic staging and Epic acting of Helene Weigel as Mother Courage. She was an Austrian-Jewish actress and Brecht’s wife and also, according to him, a rare ‘epic actor.’ More of that later. The 1957 Berliner Ensemble production of it (after Brecht died in ‘56), again with Helene Weigel as Mother Courage, is on YouTube, now with English subtitles, an extraordinary chance for Lankan theatre folk to study her celebrated performance. It’s nearly four hours long and worth watching for people serious about studying, Epic Theatre, acting and staging.

The main set in the play is Mother Courage’s large wagon on wheels, ‘a cross between a military vehicle and a General Store’ servicing the different armies fighting in the Thirty-Year War, which decimated the population of Germany, destroying villages, towns and livestock. She follows the armies as they are her main source of income, she feeds on the war, so she needs it. It makes good business sense to her. Brecht hammers this point repeatedly. In the opening scene, the cart rolls on to the stage, drawn by her two sons, Eilif and Swiss-Cheese, because their horse has died. A revolving stage floor adds to the sense of dynamic curving movement of the large heavy wagon as it creeks and groans on to the stage with Mother Courage lounging on it, singing with her mute daughter seated beside her playing a Jewish harp. The rhythm of the song, the marching gait of the sons pulling the wagon, is robust, light-hearted even, despite the war. War for them is certainly a way of life, quite normalised.

Theatre for a New Scientific Age

In this piece, I want to build on the ideas developed in my three previous pieces on Brecht for The Island in two ways. First, by exploring Brecht’s idea of an ‘epic’ rather than a ‘dramatic’ structure, in his episodic scene construction and narration. Second, Brecht’s famously difficult idea of ‘epic acting’ will be explored by focusing on Helena Weigel’s celebrated performance as Mother Courage; she did not seek a response of empathy (identification and sympathy), from the audience. Instead, she performed in a manner that made her appear astonishing, strange though she was always believable as an efficient, robust petit-bourgeoise trader. Brecht’s carefully thought-out reasons for developing this mode of theatre will also be discussed.

Given that the European war lasted 30 years, Brecht presents its long duration by focusing on specific years without following a chronological progression. He calls the play a ‘chronicle of the thirty year war,’ so it jumps from 1626 to ‘29 for example, and ends the play in the middle of the war more than 10 years before it actually ceased. In this way, he is able to create a large number of episodic scenes whose duration varies wildly. Some even where the curtain opens and closes within minutes! So, he frees himself from chronological, causal, historical narration, and is able to build a freer sense of the relationship between one scene and another. This way, he can abstract events and produce his own views of that war without being tied to chronological history. This juxtaposition of scenes is what Brecht calls montage, using a film editing terminology. This freedom derived from its episodic structure is vital for the spectator who is invited to make the connections by learning to think in the theatre and not only just to feel with the characters. Mother Courage herself does not invite identification. she is neither heroic nor pathetic. She is dogged, living at all cost, unwittingly even at the expense of her three children. She is called ‘courage’ not because she is heroic, but because once she followed the army into dangerous territory because she had to sell a large stock of bread before it turned mouldy. Her business is with the army, regardless of which side it is, as long as she can sell her goods. Profit is the motif.

Brecht’s theatrical theory is superbly edited in Brecht on Theatre by John Willet and is highly readable, enjoyable and useful for understanding 20th Century radical European political epic theatre. Brecht provided the following model, laying out the ‘changes of emphasis as between dramatic and epic theatre.’ They are not opposites but it’s a matter of what needs to be emphasised to create a rational spectator who can evaluate what’s being presented without being emotionally swayed. This does not mean there is no feeling in the play. But rather, that reason and understanding are emphasised, paramount. (See table)

Brecht thought very highly of Charles Laughton’s performance of Galileo Galilei. He has written admiringly of Laughton’s work ethic and the way he understood the aesthetic of the play and performed the role in an ‘epic’, rather than in a purely ‘dramatic,’ that is to say, emotional, empathetic manner. This new element is probably what Chaplin and the American theatre critics didn’t appreciate. Joseph Losey, who directed the play with close input from Brecht, had plans to make a film of it, but because of the communist scare Laughton had backed out. Losey did make the film much later, but with the dramatic actor Topol, who played the lead role in the musical Fidler on the Roof. For students of theatre, it would be very instructive to study his highly emotional film version of presenting Galileo (which is on YouTube), and then read Brecht’s ideas on a cooler, more ‘distanced’ mode of performance which he says Laughton provided, which he named ‘epic acting’.

Helena Weigel as Epic Actress

Similarly, here’s Brecht describing Weigel as a rare, exemplary epic actress in her role as Jocasta’s maid in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

“… she announced the death of her mistress by calling out her ‘dead, dead, Jocasta has died,’ without any sorrow but so firmly and definitely that the bare facts of her mistress’s death carried more weight at that precise moment than could have been generated by any grief of her own. She did not abandon her voice to horror, but perhaps her face, for she used white make-up to show the impact which a death makes on all who are present at it.”

He says that Weigel as Jocasta’s maid didn’t mix up her own emotions and try to make the spectator ‘punch drunk with feeling.’ But rather, her cold delivery left room for the spectator to understand the magnitude of the action of suicide, as a moral decision. The suicide of the queen Mother (who had unwittingly committed incest with her own son, Oedipus, after she had unknowingly married him), was not made into an occasion for new sensations.

Brecht again on what epic acting should be:

“Witty. Ceremonious. Ritual. Spectator and actor ought not to approach one another but to move apart. Each ought to move away from himself. Otherwise, the element of terror necessary to all recognition is lacking.”

Mother Courage’s Silent Scream

In theatre studies, Helena Weigel’s ‘silent scream’ is legendary, a part of her epic performance. As she lives off of the war, she considers peace bad for her business. And in the play when someone exclaims, ‘peace has broken out!’ Mother Courage is upset because she had just stocked up on new supplies and says it will now go to waste. This is epic dialogue, it makes one pause.

When Mother Courage realises that her son’s death (off-stage), is imminent she stands up saying:” I think I bargained for too long,’ and slowly sits down on a stool. Her body is tense. And as she hears the volley of bullets executing her son, her body shudders, arching back as though she was shot, her mouth opening wide into a snarl, letting out a silent scream. The gesture is so fleeting that we can miss it. But this silent cry carries huge weight. We still hear its reverberations. But it doesn’t make us empathise with Mother Courage, rather, we see her in all her animal drive to survive at all cost. But at that very moment when like an animal she instinctively bares her teeth to scream, she stifles the cry as only a human animal could. The silent-scream is a complex epic gesture. It encodes her contradictory life of sustaining her family by living off of war.

Because of her wheeling and dealing and haggling after a good bargain, each of her children dies. Brecht shows clearly the link between her decision to carry out a business deal and the loss of each of her children. When she is shown Swiss Cheese’s corpse, she is not able to even acknowledge that it is her son, as doing so would compromise her and Katrina. So, his body is thrown into a mass grave and Mother Courage turns her face away from us as the curtain falls in silence.

It is not that we don’t feel any emotion but rather we also feel the moment in all its inarticulate horror; we observe the phenomenon of this woman, her instinctual drive to survive at all cost. Once all her children are dead, she straps herself on to the wagon and slowly hunching down like a very old woman, drags it along alone, doggedly following the army as she has always done. She doesn’t learn anything, but it’s we who do. It’s not that we don’t feel, we do feel an immense sense of desolation for this myopic and hugely energetic woman who still lives off of the war, the end of which is a generation away. Meanwhile, Germany is laid waste. In 1939, Brecht looked back at history to understand the emerging catastrophe in Europe. He directed the play in East Berlin in ’49, where the rubble of WW2 was not all cleared. This play feels so current now for Europe deeply enmeshed in an unwinnable, seemingly endless war which has global repercussions.

Brecht was against tragedy which he called Aristotelian drama with its famous tragic heroes and their profound ethical epiphanies when facing cruel Destiny. Instead, he formulated his theory of modern epic theatre for a scientific age of reason, so that an audience would learn to observe characters as epic constructs and historical events in microcosm, and learn from them. He wanted the audience to understand the world through the way in which epic characters interacted in episodic scenes. He used either a chorus or projected intertitles to create an epic narration to narrate complex historical forces which simply couldn’t be dramatized by individual characters alone. Within such a rich epic structure the spectator learns in a relaxed way, how to balance emotions with understanding. The emotion that Brecht was especially suspicious of in theatre was empathy, which is an Aristotelian value. Brecht believed that by emotionally identifying with characters in an empathetic manner we lose our capacity to evaluate their behaviour. What he wanted was a process he called ‘distanciation,’ so that we don’t simply cry and say, ‘Aiyo, ane- Amme!’ and go home wiping a tear or two. He wanted a theatre fit for the modern scientific age, providing spectators with a greater understanding of political forces at play in normalising war within capitalism. Religion is the ritualised camouflage for gaining territorial political power, in the play.

So, soon after Mother Courage lets out her silent scream the stage is blacked-out for about eight seconds. When it opens for the next episode in full bright light, Mother Courage is still seated on the stool but there is no carry-over from the previous episode. As a cunning business woman, she is facing another moment of survival with quick-wittedness mixed with acute pain. Weigel’s Mother Courage is not played as a sentimental maternal figure or the ‘eternal sorrowful mother.’ She is not part of ‘the little people’ helplessly caught in the cross-fire, say like the poor peasants who appear in the play. But rather, she actively feeds off of the war as a petite bourgeois trader. This class-analysis is important for Brecht, who read Marx as a young student and continued his research into the history of capitalism and socialist politics as a playwright.

Joe Abyewickrama; A Lankan Epic Actor?

Prasanna Withanage in his Purhanda Kaluwara (Darkness at Fullmoon), brilliantly created the character of Wannihamy, as the blind father of a dead soldier. Joe Abyewickrama played this role in an epic mode. He didn’t cry out when his son’s sealed-coffin was brought home to his hut unlike his daughter. He was stoic like Mother Courage when her son’s body was brought in for her to identify. Wannihami, in his unique situation simply listened carefully to all the sounds and through his quality of attention, we too were given a glimpse of the terrible cost of the civil war on an impoverished Sinhala family and much more. Joe didn’t play for empathy, his restraint, enhanced by his blindness (a form of Brechtian distanciation), showed us and taught us in an unusual way about the terror of the civil war and of state terror, which Sinhala folk are belatedly experiencing now, not for the first time of course, in the South also. The sealed coffin, solemnly draped in the Lion flag, did not hold the corpse of the ‘Rana-viru’ or ‘tragic-hero’ son, but a banana trunk. The hero’s coffin, too big for the little hut, provides food for thought.

Similarly, Brecht’s play continues to nourish our thinking as we experience unending wars and State terror. Brecht and Weigel and Joe offer Lankan playwrights and filmmakers very rich resources to learn from, to make theatre and film that speaks to Lanka’s complex history and contemporary ongoing struggles, so that we might learn and understand in an enjoyable way. Brecht (always full of surprises) says theatre must be entertaining and should be performed in a relaxed manner. Go figure! Look at the many photographs and the ’57 production itself by the Berliner Ensemble now online.

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Midweek Review

The Legacy of the Missing

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By Lynn Ockersz

Whether they were spirited away,

In the arid stillness of the night,

In the city’s fear-frozen by-ways,

By ghoulish figures in vans,

Or brought down in battle,

By nerve-grating, lethal weapons,

That erased villages from maps,

And swelled ‘Missing in Action’ lists,

Promising lives, from wherever they hail,

Have, thus, been made to disappear,

Leaving behind a string of questions,

Begging in vain for answers,

Along with a grieving community….

Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters,

Whose sobs may be heard but dismissed,

In the besieged fortresses of power,

But there’s none other imprisoning weight,

Than the accusing conscience of a criminal.

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