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Duminda’s release from prison overshadows Ranil’s return to parliament

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by Rajan Philips

June 24 was Poson Poya Day. The Daily Mirror and the Daily News editorially reminded Sri Lankans of the significance of Poson, the most important Buddhist festival after Vesak. It was on this day, 2300 years ago, King Devanampiya Tissa encountered Emperor Asoka’s son Arahat Mahinda in the jungles of Mihintale. Their encounter led to Sri Lanka’s first formal religious conversion led by the King himself and ministered by the missionary prince from India.

The Daily Mirror editorial called on its readers “to contemplate on the teachings of the Buddha,” as Sri Lankans struggle through all the horrors of 2021, and tried to end on a calypso note that Sri Lankans today should do their part so that future generations can proudly sing (with Harry Belafonte) – “Oh, island in the sun; Willed to us by our fathers’ hands; All our days we will sing in praise; Of your forests, waters and your shining sand.” The Daily News was more solemn, drawing attention to the symbiosis between Buddhist ethos and the protection of the environment, and calling on Sri Lankans to not only protect their much blessed island but also save the accursed planet.

 

Poya Day Pardons

Presumably unbeknownst to either newspaper, Sri Lanka’s President was thinking of his own contribution to mark Poson in this year of horrors. The President chose to pardon and free Duminda Silva from the life sentence he was serving for murder. Albeit Mr. Silva was one of 93 prisoners who were pardoned that day including 16 LTTE detainees. But his pardon, although not unexpected, came as national shock given its daring and its timing. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) lost no time in requesting the President to confirm if due process had been followed in the granting of pardon, including a report by High Court Trial Judges, the Attorney General’s opinion, and the recommendation of the Minister of Justice.

It was left to Sumana Premachandra to strike a personal and religious note and reprove the “injustice” of granting presidential pardon “on the most auspicious day of ‘Poson Poya’.” Sumana Premachandra is the widow of former SLFP MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra who was killed by gunfire during the Local Government election on October 8, 2011. Duminda Silva and four others were convicted of that crime and given life sentences by the Colombo High Court in 2016, which was convincingly upheld by the Supreme Court two years later in a landmark ruling on election violence including murder.

This is the second pardon given by the current President in less than two years. The first, was in March 2020 at the onset of Covid-19, when he pardoned the former Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake who was convicted in 2015 for the murder of eight civilians, including three children, in Mirusuvil in April 2000. That conviction and death sentence were also affirmed on appeal by the Supreme Court in 2019. Unlike Sergeant Ratnayake, Duminda Silva is wealthy with influential family connections. He is also a Catholic, just like Jude Jayamaha whom President Sirisena pardoned in November 2019, in his last days in office.

Jayamaha was facing death sentence for brutally murdering a Swedish-Sri Lankan teenage girl, and his conviction and sentence were also affirmed by the Supreme Court. There was national outrage then, and Sirisena made it worse by clumsily lying that a Catholic Bishop had pleaded on Jayamaha’s behalf. This time, a Catholic excuse is unlikely, so the reason for pardon will likely be Poson compassion. But what about mercy and compassion for others, the four convicted and sentenced along with Duminda Silva, not to mention hundreds of others who have no one to pull any strings for them?

What is shocking is the impudence behind this pardon. Perhaps, it should not be shocking. Clearly, the President gives far greater weight to his personal IOUs than what he owes the country. It may be that to his mind, it is the country that owes him everything, not the other way around. After all, he gave up his US citizenship for the sake of hapless Sri Lankans. And issuing any and all pardons is a key part of presidential powers. That was the short-lived Trump Doctrine in America and it is finding application in Sri Lanka. Institutionally, it is possible that the government has been shaken by recent court rulings that went against the government, and wanted to get Duminda’s pardon out of the way before new insurmountable roadblocks came up.

The Supreme Court delivered politely wrapped strictures on the Port City legislation, after government lawyers made fools of themselves trying to defend the indefensible. And the government was forced to backtrack on the Bill. More damning was the ruling of the Court of Appeal in granting bail to former CID Chief Shani Abeysekera, after rejecting the Attorney General’s spurious excuses which had been shamefully marshalled to please political masters. A month earlier, on May 21, the Supreme Court had delivered another broadside against police brutality and custodial killing in its ruling on the fundamental rights case of 17 year old Sandun Malinga who was fatally beaten while in police custody in May 2014.

The government could not have missed the judicial writing on the wall. It must have realized that the recommendation by the wayward Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Political Victimisation directing the Attorney General to re-appeal to the Supreme Court for a review of Duminda Silva’s conviction, is not a serious proposition and will only backfire, given the current trend of court rulings. The surer way to fulfill the President’s personal IOU is to issue a presidential pardon on the Poson Poya Day. ‘Look before you leap’ has never been this government’s maxim. Leap first and see later is its modus operandi. Even Poya days are not spared from its leaps.

 

Ranil Overshadowed

If you remember the pre-poya/poya holidays of old, you would have noticed that it was on pre-Poson day, Wednesday, June 23, that Ranil Wickremesinghe returned to parliament as the UNP’s sole National List MP, nearly one year after his and his Party’s electoral rout. If Mr. Wickremesinghe and his followers were thinking that returning to parliament on the day before Poson was a sublimely auspicious political omen, they must surely feel let down by what the President did the very next day of Poson Poya.

Before being overshadowed by Duminda Silva’s presidential pardon, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s return to parliament has been generating quite a number of mixed reactions. There have been welcoming anticipations which have been followed by positive comments on his first day speech (inaptly called by some as ‘maiden speech’ – there is nothing maiden about him after 40 years as MP). Those who welcome him believe that RW has the experience and the wisdom to contribute positively to help the country steer the way out of the dystopic mess that the present government has created. The same charitable voices carry no small amount of caution that Mr. Wickremesinghe should stay away from his old games, short or long, and help parliament to collectively do its job of checking and balancing – not only executive power, but also executive incompetence and inaction.

On the other hand, there have been cynical commentaries and suspicions that RW is returning to parliament to become Leader of the Opposition again in connivance with his longtime and convenient political foil, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current Prime Minister without any 19A powers. And there have also been strong and justifiable political criticisms that his return to parliament will only disrupt the Opposition, that it is intended to divide the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) by poaching SJB MPs to rejoin the old UNP, and will ultimately make matters easier than they should be for the government.

In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Wickremesinghe, whose last job was as Prime Minister under the 19th Amendment, contended that “the (current) Prime Minister and the cabinet should take over the responsibility of controlling the pandemic.” There was no reference to the President or the 20th Amendment in the speech. Whether it is the typical RW snub of someone who used to call him “Sir” in the past and has since become President, or whether he was making a constitutional point, is irrelevant given the grave situation the country is in.

Yet, as table talk goes, there are two Sri Lankan Presidents, Maithripala Sirisena and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who used to address Ranil Wickremesinghe as “Sir”, before they became Presidents. That RW was unable to work with (let alone ‘manage’) the former is much of the sad story of yahapalanaya. What he is going to do with the latter, in his new role as a lone ranger for the grand old party, was getting to be table talk in the Colombo political circles. That was until the President sprang the Duminda pardon, under a full moon, on an unsuspecting country.

If the presidential pardon has been a shocking experience to whatever moral sensibilities there are still in the country, the return of Ranil Wickremesinghe is a fitting anticlimax to the degenerative state of the country’s politics. Politics today has no pleasing prospect and is full of swarming dullards. Sri Lanka’s post-independence history is replete with missed opportunities by some very capable political leaders. But never before has there been an instance when an entire government was without competence on any of its files.

It is a tall order to expect anyone, however old, wise and experienced, to change the current state of affairs merely by being a lone MP in parliament. At the least, Mr. Wickremesinghe should try to disprove the cynical predictions of his many critics – that he has come back to play the same game with the Rajapaksas for himself, and for them. On the other hand, RW’s presence in parliament should, hopefully, put pressure on Sajith Premadasa and the SJB to demonstrate not only that they are an effective opposition in parliament, but also that they are capable of getting serious political traction in the country. As for the TNA and the JVP, perhaps more so for the TNA, they have been bitten before by their uncritical association with Ranil Wickremesinghe. They should think twice, if not ten times, before starting any new games with Mr. Wickremesinghe in parliament.



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Amusement ride brought to life on big screen Jungle Cruise

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By Tharishi Hewavithanagamage

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra from screenplay written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, and Michael Green, ‘Jungle Cruise’ is loosely based on Walt Disney’s theme park attraction of the same name. After success of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise, it comes as no surprise that Disney wanted to create another ride-based movie, this time featuring one of its first rides. The riverboat amusement ride was the only attraction to exist in the Adventureland themed section on Disneyland’s opening day in 1955. The live-action riverboat adventure stars Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, and Paul Giamatti.

The film is set in 1916, and follows Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) in a fervent search for a mystical tree whose petals known as Tears of the Moon, are said to have healing properties. Her strong belief that she could bring about medical breakthroughs and save numerous lives, prompts her to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, deep into the Amazon rainforest.

With a map in hand, Lily along with her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) enlist the help of skipper and swindler Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) to help navigate the vast waters of the rainforest. Coveting the mystical petals for their own goals are Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) and a team of 400-year old cursed conquistadors led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez). In a race against time, the bad guys and the jungle, Lily must place her trust in Frank if she is to ever reach the tree, but it’s easier said than done.

The latest Disney movie is definitely fun to watch. It’s a classic, and far too predictable, adventure, where a small group of protagonists venture into the unknown. The movie obviously borrows heavily from big screen hits like ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘The Mummy’ franchise, ‘Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid’ and even the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise. This film is a patch-work of tropes.

The two-hour movie also packs a lot, which is precisely why the plot gets murkier as the audiences and protagonists cruise through. The big picture is brimming with smaller side stories which include characters that aren’t essential to the plot and in the end remain forgettable, like Paul Giamatti’s crusty harbormaster Nilo, who unfortunately falls into the margins of the movie. And scenes such as Prince Joachim talking to bees, makes the film utterly nonsensical. However, the strongest points of the movie are seen in the strengthening relationships and character development, which receive just about enough screen time to hold the story together. And while there is no overarching theme for this tale, it handles themes like women empowerment and exoticism.

‘Jungle Cruise’ offers audiences an imaginative look at deeper areas of the Amazon. The titular jungle, Frank’s beloved boat and adorable pet Jaguar Proxima are CGI highlights, whereas most other effects, notably the ragtag supernatural conquistadors, who look like they hung out with Davy Jones for too long, fall flat.

The film also delivers meticulously choreographed action sequences that showcase each individual character’s physical prowess. Everyone gets a chance to throw a punch with good form, not just The Rock. The film also draws in ideas and references from the actual ride. The humor, a courtesy of Frank’s pun-laden jokes is an actual reference to the theme-park attraction. The ride is known for its corny jokes, all delivered by skippers who narrate the adventure to visitors. Everything comes together to make the film a fun-filled experience. It falls short of a strong plot but is driven forward by the performance of the two leads.

An unlikely pair, both Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt showcase their stellar acting skills. Blunt brings a strong charisma as an intrepid scholar and adventurer, breaking barriers in ‘a man’s world’ through her role as Dr. Lily Houghton. Blunt expertly navigates the character’s inner nerd and heroine in doing amazing stunts and even takes on Johnson’s muscular self. Johnson pours his heart and soul into his character Frank. At first glance Frank comes across as a rogue character with no depth and mainly supplies humor to the tale, but as the story unfolds Johnson taps into deeper aspects of the character. The Blunt-Johnson pairing oddly makes their banter fun, but the sense of awkwardness can be overwhelmingly uncomfortable in some scenes.

Jack Whitehall’s role as Lily’s not-so-adventurous brother McGregor, is Disney’s latest attempt to introduce a gay character, but fails to leave a deep impression. It also seems like it’s never a good adventure without the nefarious Germans trying to kill everyone, but Jesse Plemons brings more comedic relief than menace to his role as Prince Joachim. The conquistador villain Aguirre played by Edgar Ramírez, remains sidelined and underused.

At the end of the day, ‘Jungle Cruise’ is a fun summer adventure that everyone can enjoy. Although the film doesn’t meet the standards set by their cooler counterpart ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, ‘Jungle Cruise’ brings its own unique quirkiness that saves it from drowning completely.

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Astrologers suggested he be ordained

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Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera

Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera was an eminent scholar monk in the nineteenth century. He was the founder of the Vidyodaya Pirivena.

He was born in the village of Hettigoda in Hikkaduwa on 20-01-1827.

As was the Sinhala custom, his horoscope was cast by an eminent astrologer who predicted that the child was under the evil influence of the planets and that he will have a life of misfortune, with a suggestion that he be ordained. The parents then consulted several other eminent astrologers who too, made similar predictions.

(As later events proved, the predictions happened to be from those who had not properly mastered the science of astrology, or due to the inaccurate time of birth recorded).

As per the predictions, his parents then decided to ordain him. With that in view, he was given only a temple-oriented education, with no formal schooling.

When he was about 14 years old, preparations were made to ordain him at an auspicious time. But, as the auspicious time was fast approaching, he was found missing.

After he was found, he told his father not to ordain him and bring the Buddha Sasana into disrepute, as his astrological predictions were adverse.

However, he was ordained later as Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, of his own volition.

Nobody ever thought, at the time, that he would one day be a scholar of great repute.

The following year, he sojourned at the Mapalagama Temple, in the Galle District during the Vas Season (rainy season) with his preceptor Mobotuwana Revatha Thera and several other monks.

This young Sumangala Samanera (novice) endeared himself to the devotees, with his disciplined demeanour and with his sermons, based on the Jathaka stories (stories of the former lives of the Buddha). One such devotee – John Cornelis Abeywardena, an English scholar (an ancestor of the present day Galle politician Vajira Abeywardena) volunteered to teach English to this young inspiring preacher.

It was a time when some bhikkhus were engaged in native medical treatment. And Sumangala Thera, then still a novice, was to answer this question as to whether the bhikkhus could engage in such a practice.

He construed that it was harmless to treat the hapless, destitute patients, friends or relations, provided it was not for any material gain and that it was not a serious violation of the Vinaya rules.

While travelling by train, one day, this Samanera met a group of pilgrims from Siam (now Thailand), coming down south, after a pilgrimage to Anuradhapura.

The pilgrims knew only their Siam language and the Pali language, resulting in they being cut off from the local populace.

One of them, half-heartedly spoke to this Samanera in the Pali lanugage. It was then that he realised that he was spaking to a Pali scholar. This resulted in exchange of views between the two of them.

Later he continued with his higher learning under several reputed venerable preceptors and also authored several valuable books.

During the Vas Season, in that year 1858, he sojourned at the Bogahawatta Temple, in Galle, and commenced publishing a newspaper for Buddhists named “Lanka Loka”.

He was a close friend of Col. Henry Steele Olcott, who arrived in Ceylon in the year 1880.

During those colonial days, the first class compartments in trains were more or less reserved for the white masters. Quite often, these compartments were seen going empty, except for one or two of them, while the second and third classes were crammed. Though some Sri Lankans had the means to travel first class, they didn’t have the courage to do so. There were others who did not care a damn for the white skins and unhestatingly travelled first class.

One day Sumangala Nayaka Thera was travelling to Kandy and entered a first class compartment, occupied by two high- spirited Englishmen.

With characteristic arrogance they subjected the Nayaka Thera to a barrage of vulger comments and rude insults.

“This old fellow has, by mistake, got into this compartment” one of them said.

“No, this is not a mistake. He is purposely, fraudulently, travelling first class with a third class ticket.”

“Shall we hand him over to the Railway Authorities?” asked the other.

The Thera gazed at them silently with a benign smile on his face.

At Polgahawela, the train was shunted into a siding, for the train carrying Sir Arthur Gordon, Governor of Ceylon, who was returning to Colombo, after a holiday, was due at any moment.

The train arrived and the Governor’s special compartment drew up right alongside the one occupied by the venerable monk. Glancing out of the window, the Governor saw Sumangala Thera and a smile of pure pleasure shone on the Governor’s face. For he and the learned monk were close friends. Scholars both, they visited each other quite often and spent many hours in erudite discussion.

“My dear High Priest! Fancy meeting you like this!” said Sir Gordon, opening the door of his compartment and walking into the one occupied by the Thera. They were engaged in a lively conversation, in English, and the train was 11 minutes late.

With the Governor’s departure, the two louts now crestfallen and repentant at their boorish behaviour, profusely apologised to the Thera.

With a smile on his face, the Thera, accepted their apologies with a brief exhortation. Thereafter they were engaged in a lovely conservation till the journey’s end.

Once there was a clash between some Buddhists who went in a procession and some Catholics at Maggona, resulting in the death of a Catholic.

As a sequel, a Buddhist named Seeman Fernando was sentenced to death. On representations made by the Nayaka Thera to the Governor, Seeman Fernando was released.

One day, a group of pilgrims that also included some members of the Cambodian Royal Family, went to Kandy with the Nayaka Thera for an exposition of the Tooth Relic.

It was a non-event as no prior intimation had been made to the Dalada Maligawa authorities in time.

The next morning, the Thera was walking leisurely along the Nuwara Wewa, when Governor Gordon, who was going in a horse drawn chariot saw the Nayaka Thera and after greeting him indulged in a lively conversation. When he told him about the non-event of the exposition of the tooth relic the previous day, the Governor took immediate steps for a special exposition, directing the Government Agent to make the necessary arrangements.

In the year 1873, he founded the Vidyodaya Pirivena – a seat of Buddhist higher learning. It was his greatest service to Buddhism.

When the permit to have a perahera was first introduced at the turn of this centry, the Nayaka Thera, as Head of Vidyodaya, sought permission to hold the annual perahera of the Pirivena. Permission was at first refused, but mysteriously granted a few days later.

Despite the refusal, the Nayaka Thera had gone ahead with the arrangements to hold the perahera, and when a senior police officer on horseback brought the permit personally to the High Priest, he contemptuously rejected it and sent the officer away.

This incident was reported to the I.G.P. who, in turn, reported it to the Governor of the colony of Ceylon.

The Governor, a close friend and admirer of Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, sent his Maha Mudliyar, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, as his personal emissary, to respectfully request the learned scholar monk to come to Queen’s House to discuss the matter, as His Excellency feared that the act of the Nayaka Thera would be an undersirable precedent.

“I refused to accept the police permit for this reason,” the Nayaka Thera, told the Governor. “When I first asked for permission to hold the perahera, permission was refused. A few days later, permission was granted. This indicates that permits are given, not according to any law, but at the whims and fancies of police personnel, which is all wrong. That is why I refused the permit that was given on second thoughts. The freedom to practise the Buddhist religion and its rites have been guaranteed in the Kandyan Convention, and I shall be grateful if you and your minions will kindly remember that.”

The chastened Governor was profuse in his apologies to the outspoken scholar monk.

The Nayaka Thera was taken ill on the 21st April 1911 and passed away on the 29th (about 110 years ago).

Perhaps he would never have envisaged, that his much cherished Vidyodaya Pirivena would be no more on a tidal wave, in the years to come.

 

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Talented and versatile

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Shareefa Thahir is not only popular, as a radio personality, but she also has a big following on social media. Each time she uploads a new photo, or an event where she is in the spotlight, the ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ keep soaring. Shareefa does the scene at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (Radio Sri Lanka – 97.4 and 97.6) as an English announcer, and news reader, and she is also a freelance TV presenter, and news anchor, on Rupavahini.

Had a chat with this talented, and versatile, young lady, and this is how it all went…

1. How would you describe yourself?

In just a few words, I would say a simple, easy-going person. And, my friends would certainly endorse that.

2. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I love myself, and I accept whatever laws I may have. So, obviously, there’s nothing that I would want to change in myself.

3. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

Absolutely nothing because they are amazing…just the way they are (and that hit by Bruno Mars ‘Just The way You Are’ came to mind when you asked me this question!)

4. School?

Melbourne International, and Gateway College. I was the captain of my house and participated in athletics – track events, etc.

5. Happiest moment?

Oh, I will never forget the day I won the Raigam Award for my work on television.

6. What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Accept yourself and enjoy the tiny things in life.

7. Are you religious?

I believe in God, but I don’t think you should go about announcing it. I stay true to my heart.

8. Are you superstitious?

A little …..stitious! Hahaha! Just kidding – not at all!

9. Your ideal guy?

Someone who accepts me for who I am, and who is supportive in my journey…like I would be in his.

10. Which living person do you most admire?

I would say Jennifer Lopez, for the simple reason that she is still very energetic, and active, for her age (52), keeps herself in good shape, and still has a huge fan base.

11. Which is your most treasured possession?

Yes, I would say my talent.

12. If you were marooned on a desert island, who would you like as your companion?

My best friend as I would certainly need someone to chat with! Hahaha!

13. Your most embarrassing moment?

Saying ‘good morning’ to viewers on an evening live show!

14. Done anything daring?

Not yet. I wonder when I would get that opportunity to do something…real daring, like, let’s say, climbing Mount Everest!

15. Your ideal vacation?

A life without social media, in Greece, enjoying the beauty of nature.

16. What kind of music are you into?

Oh, I can go on and on about this; it depends on my mood. I love alternate rock, mostly, but I enjoy reggae, and pop, too.

17. Favourite radio station?

SLBC’s Radio Sri Lanka.

18. Favourite TV station?

Channel Eye (for obvious reasons).

19 What would you like to be born as in your next life?

Myself…again.

20. Any major plans for the future?

I’m hoping to start a new venture. However, I’m keeping my fingers crossed, as right now the scene is pretty dicey, with this virus being so unpredictable.

 

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