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Economic crisis, political turmoil present a fresh opportunity for US-backed TNA

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March 2015: President Maithripala Sirisena shaking hands with GTF spokesperson Suren Surendiran in London. The late Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera looks on. The meeting took place during Sirisena’s first overseas visit after the presidential election in Jan. 2015. Last year, a joint TNA-GTF delegation made representations to the US administration regarding the latest developments, with the focus on the post-2019 presidential election situation(pic courtesy GTF)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Sri Lanka is under pressure to back the US-EU stand on the war in Ukraine. The cash-strapped government, struggling to cope up with the deepening political crisis within the ruling coalition, stepped-up opposition protests, and the growing economic turmoil, is also under pressure to reach a consensus with one-time Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) loyal ally/mouthpiece, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) as part of the overall response to the current difficulties.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa received the top TNA delegation, at the Presidential Secretariat, last Friday (25). The US swiftly welcomed the twice-postponed talks. The US response indicated that negotiations between the two parties had the Biden administration’s blessings and is in line with their overall strategy. Interestingly, those countries calling the incumbent dispensation to condemn Russia, over the continuing war in Ukraine, while they continued to persecute Sri Lanka, without shame, on apparent trumped up war crimes charges, emanating from the Vanni offensive, in 2009, when the country was fighting the LTTE, “the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit”(FBI assessment). Except Japan, all other countries, including South Korea, voted for resolutions at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against Sri Lanka on those Western-led charges. Japan abstained.

Instead of working together, to address the issues at hand, the government and the Opposition are pulling in different directions. The All-Party Conference (APC), initiated by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the request of SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena, MP, is unlikely to facilitate a consensus among the warring political parties.

The failure on the part of political parties, represented in Parliament, to reach a consensus on how to face the daunting economic challenge, is obvious. Although the APC is very much unlikely to achieve consensus on ways and means to overcome the economic crisis and is nothing but a political sham, the talks between President Rajapaksa and the TNA are of crucial importance, if they can hammer out a real deal, unlike the usual failed APC circuses of the past. The TNA that once recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people (2001) and backed the then General Sarath Fonseka at presidential election (2010) after having accused him and his Army of committing war crimes, is obviously taking advantage of the current developments to pursue its agenda. The TNA had no qualms in backing Maithripala Sirisena, who served as the Acting Defence Minister the day the Army killed Velupillai Prabhakaran, at the 2015 presidential election. Therefore, negotiating with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had been the wartime Defence Secretary, shouldn’t overwhelm anyone.

The UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF), the widely influential Tamil Diaspora outfit, backs the TNA’s efforts to reach a consensus with the government. In fact, the TNA and the GTF have been working together for over a decade and gradually enhanced collaboration. The TNA-GTF dealt with President Sirisena’s administration (2015-2019) after having backed the presidential polls campaign. The late Minister Mangala Samaraweera played quite an important role in building that relationship. Perhaps the highpoint in that relationship was President Sirisena meeting the GTF representatives, Rev Father Emmanuel and Suren Surendiran, in London, in March 2015.

Following the first meeting between President Rajapaksa and the TNA, since the last presidential election, in Nov 2019, top TNA spokesperson President’s Counsel M.A. Sumanthiran announced consensus on four issues, namely (i) setting up of a ‘North-East Development Fund’ to attract investments (ii) releasing of long term LTTE detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (iii) stopping the takeover of land in the Northern and Eastern regions by successive governments (iv) probing disappearances.

Exclusive talks

The Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchchi (ITAK), led TNA solidly stood with the LTTE until the very end. At the behest of the LTTE, the TNA relentlessly tried to convince Colombo-based Western embassies to throw a lifeline to the embattled LTTE leadership. At that time, the GTF hadn’t been at least formed and the TNA job was to speak on behalf of the LTTE, both in and outside Parliament. The TNA did its job like an ardent follower.

The TNA reiterated its commitment to Prabhakaran when the group’s Batticaloa fighting cadre switched their allegiance to the renegade battlefield commander Karuna Amman, in early 2004. At the parliamentary polls, in early April 2004, the LTTE-backed TNA (by stuffing ballot boxes as noted by EU monitors) and helped it to secure 22 seats in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, thereby emerging as the dominant political power therein. That had been the highpoint in the TNA’s parliamentary representation, since its formation in 2001.

Today, the TNA has been reduced to 10 lawmakers, whereas Gajendrakumar Ponnanmabalam (leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress [ACTC]) and Thamil Makkal Thesiya Kuttani [TMTK]), led by retired Supreme Court justice C.V. Wigneswaran, have emerged as formidable rivals though their combined parliamentary representation is much smaller than that of the TNA. Both Ponnambalam and Wigneswaran, who entered politics on the TNA ticket to become the Chief Minister of the Northern Province in 2013, represent the Jaffna electoral district.

In case, President Rajapaksa succeeded in finalizing an exclusive agreement with the TNA, the coalition that comprises three political parties, including two former Indian trained terrorist groups would have a clear advantage over other Tamil political parties. In addition to the TNA, ACTC, TMTK, EPDP and the SLFP are represented by Tamil lawmakers, born in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

The TNA appeared to have cleverly exploited the current situation to its advantage. The TNA would receive the backing of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, though the former deprived the latter of certain victory at the 2005 presidential election. On behalf of the LTTE, the TNA ordered the Tamil electorate to boycott the 2005 presidential election. That move allowed Mahinda Rajapaksa to win the closely contested race with a thin majority of about 190,000 votes. Annihilation of the LTTE’s conventional fighting capability, four years, later during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term, should be examined against the backdrop of the LTTE ensuring Rajapaksa’s triumph at the crucial election. With the demise of the LTTE, in May 2009, the TNA has gradually deteriorated. Having realized the TNA’s true status, the TULF deserted the outfit as it didn’t want to be Prabhakaran’s cat’s paw. Years later, the EPRLF abandoned the outfit. Today, the TNA comprised the dominant partner ITAK, PLOTE and a faction of the TELO. But, the grouping wielded immense power due to the continued US backing, as well as Indian support.

TNA’s real intention

What does TNA really want? In spite of repeating concerns over disappearances, those detained under the PTA, and alleged taking over of land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the TNA’s real interest is nothing but the formation of North-East Development Fund. Such a mechanism would enable Sri Lanka to attract unlimited foreign investment. During the 30-year war, on a number of occasions, the LTTE, some members of the international community, and the then governments, discussed the formation of special mechanisms to receive funds.

One such mechanism has been included in a tsunami aid-sharing deal between President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government and the LTTE, finalised in the middle of 2005. However, the Supreme Court blocked some sections of the clauses in the post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS). Among the four clauses that had been termed illegal by the Supreme Court were the ones on locating the regional fund headquarters in Kilinochchi, the northern headquarters of the LTTE, and the operations of the regional fund. It would be pertinent to mention that the Supreme Court was moved by the JVP, the then main ally of Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance. The 39-member JVP parliamentary group quit the government group in late Jun 2005, thereby reducing the administration to a minority.

Two years before the P-TOMS, the LTTE, through the Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) offer, proposed to have the authority to borrow internally and externally, provide guarantees and indemnities, receive aid directly, and engage in or regulate internal and external trade. The LTTE issued the proposal on Oct. 31, 2003, after having quit direct negotiations with Wickremesinghe’s government. The LTTE insisted on having ISGA arrangement in place in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces, consisting of eight administrative districts, until a permanent can be implemented. Both the US and the EU welcomed the ISGA proposal. The ISGA proposal created an explosive situation, both in and outside Parliament. President Kumaratunga acted swiftly and decisively. On Nov 04, 2003, President Kumaratunga suspended Parliament, took over defence, interior and media ministries and ordered troops to be deployed in readiness for any eventuality before declaring a state of emergency. On Feb 07, 2004, she dissolved Parliament and called the general election on April 02, 2004. The JVP contested on the PA ticket. The JVP won 39 seats, including three National List slots. In June, the following year, the JVP walked out of the government parliamentary group over P-TOMS agreement.

The formation of North East Development Fund can quickly consolidate the government’s relationship with the TNA and the powerful Tamil Diaspora grouping. In a way, the eradication of the LTTE completely appeared to have created an environment conducive for closer cooperation between the government and the other Tamil parties.

The disagreement between the government and the TNA over the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) (Amendment) Bill on March 22, 2022, didn’t hinder the March 25 talks at the Presidential Secretariat. The Bill was passed in Parliament with a majority of 51 votes. The TNA is unlikely to allow any other issue undermine its ongoing effort to work out an agreement on the proposed North-East Development Fund.

Internal conflict intensifies

SLPP lawmaker Gevindu Kumaratunga, in the run-up to the presidential election, in Nov. 2019, repeatedly called for a new Constitution that reflected Sri Lanka’s triumph over separatist terrorism. Kumaratunga, who spearheaded the Yuthukama civil society group, didn’t mince his words when he addressed gatherings even before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Today, the embattled SLPP leadership has quite conveniently forgotten their main assurance at the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2019 and 2020, respectively, to unveil the draft constitution in Nov 2021.

Can the proposed setting up of the North-East Development Fund be compatible with the current Constitution or the one in the making? Can the proposal overcome possible legal challenges if interested parties moved the Supreme Court like in the controversial case of P-TOMS?

The dissident SLPP group is concerned about the possibility of the TNA taking advantage of the current crisis to pursue its strategy, inimical to Sri Lanka. Being part of the dissident group, Yuthukama cannot certainly keep quiet about the proposed North-East Development Fund. Can there be an exclusive mechanism for the benefit of two provinces? For MP Kumaratunga, the proposed North-East Development Fund is a daunting challenge. Having campaigned for a Constitution that reflected post-war ground realities, lawmaker Kumaratunga will now have to be contend with a high profile setup that may pose a threat to the integrated financial network.

Lawmaker Sumanthiran seems confident that there’ll be no legal challenge to their latest move. The Jaffna District lawmaker appears to have examined all possible hindrance to the proposed North-East Development Fund that may pave the way for a dialogue between the government and the LTTE.

However, the Presidential Media Division (PMD) made no reference to the proposed fund gathering mechanism in its statement issued in English. The TNA’s controversial stand, in respect of hybrid war crimes court, is evidence that regardless of the LTTE’s demise, the group remained committed to its political objectives.

In June 2016, the TNA declared it has reached a tripartite consensus in respect of foreign judges, defence attorneys, investigators, etc., in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism to probe war crimes. The TNA quoted MP Sumanthiran as having told a ‘Congressional Caucus for Ethnic and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka’ in Washington that the agreement had been reached following negotiations involving the government of Sri Lanka, the TNA and the US.

The declaration was made in the presence of Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington, Prasad Kariyawasam. Attorney-at-law Sumanthiran stressed that a resolution was moved in Geneva, in Oct 2015, following an understanding that the participation of foreigners wouldn’t be contrary to Sri Lanka’s Constitution. Declaring that he had been personally involved in the negotiations, with the US also participating in that particular process, Sumanthiran said: “There were some doubts created, as to whether the Constitution of Sri Lanka would allow for foreign nationals to function as judges and we went into that question, clarified it, and said yes they can”.

Sumanthiran told the Congressional Caucus that the resolution, accepted at Geneva, had been negotiated and they settled for a hybrid model though they originally asked for an international inquiry. The GTF spokesperson Suren Surendiran told The Island at that time that agreement on the text of the Geneva resolution had been reached following negotiations among what he called the Core Group of members at the UNHRC, the government of Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamils. The agreement on a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators was certainly not negotiable, Surendiran declared, in response to The Island query.

The US-backed TNA project seems to be on track. Current political turmoil amidst the worst economic crisis in the post-independence era will certainly help the former LTTE ally, adapt at pursuing its objectives.



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Midweek Review

Death of a Patriot

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The late Gomin Dayasri declared he didn’t want to be a President’s Counsel. Appearing on Sirasa Pathikada, the outspoken lawyer said that there was no point in requesting such a title. Dayasri said so during a conversation with the late Bandula Jayasekera, who invited him on several occasions. Dayasri pointed out the absurdity in the process of appointing President’s Counsel.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The much respected senior Attorney-at-Law Gomin Dayasri, 77, is no more, but his voice carried such weight that he had the opportunity to advise the Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2005-2015) at the highest level, in his heyday, despite not fearing to admonish them whenever it was deserved. The final rites were conducted on July 02 at the Borella Cemetery.

A true patriot, Gomin had been among those who stood for Sri Lanka’s unitary status whatever the consequences. During the war, and after, Gomin, always mindful of the interests of the armed forces and the police, which was not a popular thing to do among those who had the ear and patronage of the self-appointed international community of the West and was among those few civil society activists who valiantly threw their weight behind the campaign against separatist terrorists as it was treated like heresy by those same elements who worshipped the West.

Sirasa and MTV/TV 1, although being constantly accused of undermining the war effort, earned the respect of the nationalists for the coverage given to the late lawyer. The writer received opportunities to participate in Sirasa and MTV/TV 1 programmes, sometimes, with the late Dayasiri who strongly opposed federalism, separatism and foreign interference.

Top lawyer, Gomin Dayasiri, and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, Dew Gunasekera, declared that Sangakkara couldn’t have made that statement in the UK at a better time.

The late Dayasri never hesitated to take on the Rajapaksa government if he felt it was on the wrong path.

A case in point is Kumar Sangakkara’s controversial hour-long Sir Colin Cowdrey lecture delivered in July 2011, at Lords. A section of the then government depicted the lecture as a frontal attack on them. Those who resented Sangakkara for exposing their wrongs, cleverly deceived then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. They propagated the lie that the cricketer was challenging the government and was working with the Opposition. Sangakkara earned the wrath of the then government though he paid a glowing tribute to the war winning armed forces at such a prestigious forum at a time a section of the international community, including the UK, was and is literally hounding Sri Lanka’s valiant fighting units for bringing on an implausible victory against all odds, wherever possible.

He was neither a blind worshipper of patriots, the late Dayasri was among the few who dared to stand by Sangakkara. When the writer sought his response to the threats on Sangakkara, Dayasri was prompt and strongly supported Sangakkara’s demand to tackle waste, corruption and irregularities in the game, Dayasri declared that a cohesive strategy was required to stamp out corruption in both public and private sectors. Sangakkara’s speech couldn’t have come at a better time, Dayasri said, adding: “The dashing batsman’s eloquent presentation was very pro-Sri Lanka as against the LTTE terrorism and cricket terrorism. If any politician, or the government, decides to take action against the player, there’ll be a public outcry because the sports personality has courageously exposed the insider dealings in Sri Lanka Cricket. More of Sangakkara’s kind should come to the forefront.” (“The day Kumar Sangakkara felt humbled’, with strapline ‘Unpardonable failure to capitalize on ‘Spirit of Cricket’” lecture, on January 25, 2017 issue of The Island). Michael Roberts posted in The Island Midweek column article under the headline ‘Sangakkara’s MCC lecture and the Rajapaksa/ Wickemesinghe governments’ failures,’ in his Thuppahi blog.

Sangakkara became the first speaker to receive a standing ovation at Lords since Bishop Desmond Tutu in 2008. Both the UK-based, and Sri Lankan media focused on Sangakkara’s assault on the politically influential cricket administration and the criminal waste of funds, as well as resources belonging to Sri Lanka Cricket. The Sinhala print and electronic media completely ignored Sangakkara’s speech.

Dayasri asserted that the only shortcoming in Sangakkara’s superb speech was the absence of a reference to the Indian factor in Sri Lanka terrorism. Dayasri suggested that the writer left that out as Sangakkara must have had reason to be silent on the Indian factor.

The following post by Janaka Perera “Gomin did not confuse patriotism with loyalty to any political party or consider it the monopoly of any group” in the US-based Gamini Edirisinghe’s e-mail thread, explained the late lawyer’s response to the situation.

Daya Gamage posted: “I have been following Gomin Dayasiri’s trajectory for the past 30 to 40 years, his struggle to keep Sri Lanka undivided”.

Nimal Fernando posted: “A true son of the soil, whose fierce patriotism was a source of solace for Mother Lanka.”

Dr. Anula Wijesundere declared in her post that Gomin was a true patriot and a great lawyer who spoke fearlessly and eloquently against LTTE terrorism. Like the other great patriotic lawyer, the late S.L. Gunasekera, Gomin, too, appeared free of charge and defended the armed forces and the police.

Lt. Col. Anil Amarasekera recalled the services rendered by Gomin Dayasri and the late S.L. Gunasekara.

The retired officer posted the following: “… during their lifetime, they worked tirelessly to protect and preserve the unity and territorial integrity of our motherland for posterity”.

Gomin even appeared for me free of charge when I filed a case against the then Commander of the Army for violating my fundamental rights by not allowing me to enter the Sinhalese villages in the Weli Oya region to work against the devolution proposals of the then Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government. The Commander of the Army withdrew the order preventing me from entering Weli Oya after a fundamental rights petition was filed in the Supreme Court. Therefore we withdrew our fundamental rights case.

Asoka Bandarage: “Sri Lanka has lost a beloved patriot. Gomin Dayasiri was a brilliant, courageous and interesting individual. I communicated with him a number of times on matters pertaining to peace and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. Gomin gave advice freely when H.L.D. Mahindapala and I were faced with legal charges over our writings on Sri Lanka. I also had the opportunity to visit and enjoy lunch at Gomin’s home in the tranquil village setting off Thalawathugoda.”

Sudharshan Seneviratne: “I do remember Gomin very well at Ananda. We admired him for his oratory skills and his sharp rebukes levelled at the opposing debating team!

In a limed way though, he did give his valued opinion on the College English Union magazine, the Spark, edited by Deva Rodrigo.

After he left college Gomin took time off while he was doing his Law exams to tutor me on the AL Government paper.

Later we met, not frequently though, at Anuradhapura when I was excavating at the citadel and Jetavanaramaya where he did have pointed questions on culture, identity and training of the next generation.”

Gamini Edirisinghe posted the News First video clip of Dayasri’s funeral.

Oct 2006 triumph

The judgment on the high profile case, filed by the JVP seeking de-merger of the Eastern Province, comprising Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee Districts from the Northern Province, was delivered on Oct 16, 2006, the day an LTTE suicide attack on a Navy land convoy claimed the lives of nearly 100 of its personnel at Digampathaha (not Digampathana) between Habarana and Dambulla. Digampathaha attack was the single worst directed at a military convoy during the entire war whereas the judgment could be considered the most important as regards Sri Lanka’s unitary status.

The Supreme Court on Oct 16, 2006 declared the merger of the northern and eastern provinces, implemented in terms of the controversial 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, ‘null and void and illegal’. The Court declared that material provided by the petitioners resulted in “volumes of material to establish the divisions that existed in historic times and that the eastern province was part of the Kandyan Kingdom at the time of the British conquest”.

The ruling was given in spite of heavy international pressure against de-merging the East from the North. It would be pertinent to mention that at the time of the SC judgment and Digampathaha suicide attack, the LTTE’s conventional military capacity was considered inviolable, especially by the West. In fact, the armed forces hadn’t been able to seriously challenge the LTTE, at least in the Eastern Province, at the time of the historic judgment.

In Sept. 2006, Co-Chairs backing the peace process – the United States, European Union, Japan and Norway – cautioned Sri Lanka against the move. Co-Chairs warned: “There should be no change to the specific arrangements for the North and East which could endanger the achievement of peace. The legitimate interests and aspirations of all communities, including the Tamil, Muslims and Sinhala communities, must be accommodated as part of a political settlement.”

Prominent lawyers H.L. de Silva, S.L. Gunasekera and Gomin Dayasri appeared for the petitioners. Prof. Nalin de Silva, who served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Myanmar (Sept 2020-Sept 2021), recalled in a piece on Gomin Dayasri, written in Sinhala, the role played by the three lawyers in the triumphant case.

Son of fearless N.Q. Dias, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence, during Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s first term (1960-65) as Prime Minister, has been given a new name. Showing his disdain for the colonial past his father, ditching the Portuguese derived last name Dias, still carried by many Sri Lankans, proudly and simply named him Gomin Dayasri and sent him to Ananda College though his mother very much preferred Anglican S. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia. But, N.Q. Dias, who had studied at an equally elitist Trinity College, Kandy, desired his son to receive an education at Ananda College for obvious reasons.

Prof. de Silva played a glowing tribute to Gomin’s father, legendary civil servant N.Q. Dias, for facilitating the recruitment of Sinhala Buddhists to the armed forces’ officer corps, which, along with top echelons of the police, was till then an almost exclusive club of Christians. Had that not happened, the armed forces couldn’t have brought the war to an end on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in May 2009, Prof. de Silva asserted.

Declaring that the case against the merger of the Eastern Province from the Northern had been the most important one the late Dayasri appeared, Prof. de Silva declared that if not for lawyers H.L. de Silva, S.L. Gunasekera and Gomin Dayasri, Sri Lanka’s history could have been different. Pointing out that except Dayasri, other lawyers weren’t Sinhala Buddhists, Prof. de Silva emphasized the need to de-link the East from the North through the passage of a Parliament act. That should be done in honour of those lawyers who rendered great service to the motherland. We would however like to differ with Prof. Nalin de Silva on late S.L. de Silva, though born into a Christian family, he was a life-long agnostic.

Accountability issues

The late Dayasri had been seriously disappointed with the way Sri Lanka handled accountability issues both during the conflict and after. The Island reportage on the conflict and related matters certainly received a big boost, thanks to advice and suggestions the writer received from the late lawyer. Dayasri was always accessible and never declined to comment on contentious issues. Twice he visited The Island editorial after the conclusion of the sittings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI) at the BMICH, into the killing of 17 persons employed by the Action Contra La Faim (ACF) to provide the writer a briefing of what was going on. The CoI also inquired into the killing of five youth in Trincomlee in January 2006.

On one occasion, Dayasri provided the writer several photographs of civil society representatives with foreigners involved in the process. With a mischievous grin, Dayasri said the role played by most foreign-funded NGOs here was quite treacherous. The lawyer asserted that successive governments pathetically failed to meet the challenge posed by those who represented the interests of separatists.

The ACF case took an unprecedented turn in late March 2008, when the late Dayasri challenged the right of one-time Government Agent Dr. Devanesan Nesiah to be Commissioner due to his close relationship with the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). S.L. Gunasekera, who also appeared for the military, demanded Dr. Nesiah’s removal.

Appearing for the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s Army, free of charge, Dayasri opposed Dr. Nesiah’s role against the backdrop of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) being made party to the high profile case. Dayasri targeted Dr. Nesiah after the Presidential Commission accepted CPA and several other civil society groups, party to the inquiry on the basis of an application submitted by President’s Counsel and one-time President of Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) the late Desmond Fernando. Justice N.K. Udalagama headed the Commission. The proceedings were held under the scrutiny of International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP).

Dayasri didn’t mince his words when he questioned the failure on the part of Dr Nesiah to disclose his close relationship with the CPA at an earlier stage. Alleging that it had been a serious lapse on the part of the Commissioner, Dayasri bluntly told the former Jaffna Government Agent Nesiah: “You cannot be a judge in your own case because not only justice must be done, but it must be seen to be so done, otherwise there’ll be the likelihood of bias.”

Dayasri and Desmond Fernando clashed at the inquiry over the latter’s claim that a minister confided in him that he (minister) knew the perpetrators of the Muttur massacre. Dayasri demanded that Fernando should get into the witness box. Fernando skipped the proceedings the following day (Probe into Muttur massacre takes a dramatic turn: Commissioner’s right to hear case challenged due to NGO link, The Island, March 27, 2008 edition).

As a result of the stand taken by Dayasri and Gunasekera, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had no option but to intervene. In a letter dated June 06, 2008, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga asked Dr. Nesiah to explain his relationship with the CPA and the payments received from the CPA. In spite of the presidential directive for him to step down, Dr. Nesiah joined the proceedings on June 10, 2008. Dayasri’s protests compelled the CoI to ask Dr. Nesiah to leave (Commission probing human rights violations: Nesiah dropped after President’s intervention, The Island, June 11, 2008)

Dayasri also argued against the 19th Amendment in a Fundamental Rights petition before the Supreme Court in 2015. Many an eyebrow was raised when Dayasri petitioned against President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament in Oct 2018. Dayasiri told the Supreme Court though he opposed the 19A, since its passage in Parliament, yet the President was duty-bound to act in accordance with it, and the dissolution in less than four and a half years without a Parliament resolution was unconstitutional.

Dayasri simply ignored the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa had received the premiership as a result of Maithripala Sirisena’s constitutional coup.

In conversation with the writer, Dayasri, lecturer in law and respected commentator on matters of national importance, expressed serious concerns over the failure on the part of the government to address the Geneva challenge. The absence of a clear action plan to use disclosures made by Lord Naseby offended Dayasri, who felt those who exercised political authority quite conveniently failed to exploit the advantage given by Lord Naseby. The cancellation of the Victory Day parade by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in 2015 angered the lawyer. Calling the decision a disgrace, Dayasri explained that the President and the Premier should be ashamed of themselves.

Dayasri earned the respect of the armed forces and the vast majority of people. His contribution and influence would remain as the country struggles to cope up with an extremely difficult situation caused by waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement and, most of all, simple political incompetence at the highest level, being the prime cause of it.

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Midweek Review

EPIC-MEMORY and BRECHT

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Grusha walking on the bridge made of human bodies. Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle in Thamil, Co-direction by P. Niriella and K. Rathidaran. Tr. by Dr K.M. Shanmugalingam, 2016.

by Laleen Jayamanne

Memory of the World’

UNESCO established the Memory of the World Programme in 1992 to preserve for posterity the audio-visual heritage of humankind, stating that war, social upheaval and lack of resources have accelerated its destruction.

“Significant collections worldwide have suffered a variety of fates. Looting and dispersal, illegal trading, destruction, inadequate housing and funding have all played a part. Much has vanished forever; much is endangered. Happily, missing documentary heritage is sometimes

rediscovered.” UNESCO

UNESCO has also promoted the preservation (through revival), of the vital endangered category of human culture it calls, ‘The Intangible Heritage of Mankind’; the ancient arts of music, dance, theatre and ritual. As temporal arts, they are ephemeral by nature, passed through guru-shishya parampara transmission encoded in bodies through practice, in what used to be called the Third World.

Thanks to the availability of digital technological tools of preservation, exhibition and connectivity, the work of these visionary programmes has been considerably enhanced. Now, the fragile celluloid film, which was once the medium of preservation of artefacts, has itself been saved, restored and preserved digitally. Apart from this kind of essential programme of preservation, the very idea of attributing memory to the ‘world’, in the UNESCO formulation, is fascinating to speculate on because we usually think of memory as an inalienable human organic faculty of the mind without which we would live in a perpetual state of amnesia, in a timeless and depleted present. It seems to me that ‘memory of the world’ as an idea can also be imagined as something more than historical memory, which by definition is the written record, usually organised chronologically. ‘The world’ can now also suggest not only the human but also the earth itself and all that it sustains, plants and animals and even microbes and fossils and minerals and the cosmos, too. This is the zone that some artists have begun to explore within a ‘deep-ecological’ consciousness of what is known as the Anthropocene – the epoch of man-made ecological devastation.

‘Epic-Memory’

Walter Benjamin, the German theorist of culture, in his essay, The Story Teller, described another kind of memory, created by humans over millennia, which he called ‘epic memory.’ He invites us to imagine how to think about an idea of memory that’s more ample than our personal memory, by offering a dazzling image of ‘epic memory.’

“One must imagine the transformation of epic forms occurring in rhythms comparable to those of the change that has come over the earth’s surface in the course of thousands of centuries. Hardly any other forms of human communications have taken shape more slowly, been lost more slowly.

Memory is the epic faculty par excellence.

Memory creates the chain of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to generation.”

What Benjamin calls the ‘chain of tradition’ has been severed or partially lost in societies subject to colonisation and the forces of modernity have also destroyed many traditions. So we are looking for ways in which an expansive mode of remembering might be generated by artists through creative work, especially in the post-war situation of Sri Lanka where experiences of loss and trauma are widespread and some of their causes left unaddressed, forgotten, repressed, for many reasons. And now especially, with Sri Lanka in a state of profound crisis open to new possibilities of collective life free of ethnic nationalism and violence, an idea of epic memory might be of some use. It is the case that we don’t have ancient epics like India’s, Silappatikaram, Mahabharata and the Ramayana or the Greek ones, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Yet a modern idea of epic memory can perhaps still be formulated with what we do have.

The epic form was originally an oral form, which required from the bards a prodigious memory, trained through repeated recitation, which is why the muse of the epic form was called Mnemosyne, meaning epic memory in Greek. The written form of the epic came into being much later in history, based on the much older collective oral poetry of legends and myths of ‘the people’ handed down orally. Both in the UNESCO idea of ‘memory of the world’ and Benjamin’s definition of ‘epic memory,’ what is clear is that memory is a collective creation, taking shape over vast epochs. According to Greek myth, Mnemosyne, is the mother of the nine muses, and the word mouseion in Greek (from which the word museum is derived) means the dwelling place of the muses, who are the inspiration for the different art forms. This is a rich vital aesthetic image of the museum which is worth thinking about.

Then, one might be tempted to think that this is the same as the idea of ‘civilization’, which is the sum total of a culture’s pre-history and history as expressed in artefacts and written record. Usually this is indeed how nation states constitute themselves and give themselves an identity formulated on ethnicity, language, religion, custom, myths, etc. This is dangerous territory because states have deployed their myths to justify authoritarian and racist policies to divide and rule multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic societies such as Lanka. The Rajapaksa regime mobilised the Mahavansa narrative of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony of Lanka to secure its own rule and some artists joined in with the mythic-epic genre films and shows.  But I think the UNESCO idea is counter-hegemonic because it’s not created by a centralising state. Its memories may not fit easily into a master narrative of mythic inevitability. There is an element of chance and the possibility of ‘minor narratives’ emerging, which can’t be totalised into primordial myths.

Brecht’s Theory of Epic Theatre

To create a clearer picture of how to craft an idea of memory with great amplitude and rich potential, we can start with a modern example, the work of Bertolt Brecht, which Lankans have been quite familiar with (since the mid 1960’s), in all three languages. He famously created an ‘epic theatre’ and a theory of modern epic practice, as opposed to the traditional ‘dramatic theatre’. He called traditional dramatic theatre Aristotelian because it followed the basic structures analysed by the Greek philosopher in his Poetics. Walter Benjamin wrote several essays defending Brecht’s idea of epic theatre because what Brecht did was something quite unusual within the history of European theatre at the time. Instead of following the 1920s avant-garde German Expressionist theatre or French Surrealist theatre or constructivist Soviet practice, he looked to classical Asiatic theatrical forms such as Peking opera and its conventions of staging and highly formalised abstract forms of acting, to create a modern epic practice. For some artists of the left, Brecht’s theory appeared to be a strange move, looking to traditional Asian practice of the deep feudal past – not at all modern. Benjamin showed how Brecht’s modern epic form was suited to their time of the rise of fascism in Germany and its appeal to irrational emotions and ideas of racial purity and superiority. According to Aristotle the epic form contains three genres in one. That is, the lyric or ‘first person’ expression of subjective feeling as in love poetry, the dramatic as in actions and reactions organised in dialogue, in ‘second person’ and narration, which is the power to tell a story or narrate in ‘third person’. Therefore the ample epic mode can combine all three genres with ease, which means that it has the power to shift focus from one to the other, in complex combinations.

The traditional idea of ‘epic memory’ itself has an act of performance built into it through what is sung and is not something private and personal but consists of mythic stories, legends common to a people. But there is a crucial distinction Brecht and Benjamin made here between myth, on the one hand, and the epic form, on the other. The epic as a genre is a much later historical development from myth and though it does deploy myth, it does so on its own terms. Because, historically speaking, the epic is a later human achievement than myth, it also has had the rational power to comment on the myths it uses. That is to say, the epic form, with its many flexible techniques, has the power to create a sense of distance from the mythic universe of the ancients, which appears irrational and fated.

This idea of a historical ‘distance’ of the epic form (from the original myths), was taken up by Brecht and made into a method of constructing his epic drama. He called it, using a long German compound word, ‘verfremdungseffect’, variously translated as ‘distanciation’ or ‘Alienation-effect’ or ‘de-familiarisation’ or ‘making-strange’. Fine scholarship is available on this idea, my favourite was developed by Eugenio Barba and his Odin Theatret in Denmark. To create a dramatic situation which can immediately be ‘frozen’ and turned into a scene which is narrated and commented on, is one of the well-known ways in which Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle was performed in Colombo, in the 1965 by Ernest Macintyre’s ‘Stage and Set’ production. The tender scene of a lyrical song sung by Grusha to her adopted infant son, can swiftly change to a bawdy commentary by the chorus. Sudden changes of point of view, mood and tone, are calibrated to give the spectator a chance to perceive a situation from more than one angle. It’s a way to introduce the exercise of reason into the spectacle of theatre, according to Brecht, to break its spell even as it is deployed. Brecht was here influenced by Eisenstein’s theory of montage, which he introduced into theatre. Eisenstein’s theory of montage created a clash between one shot and another, so as to produce a new idea in the mind of the spectator. So the continuously flowing conventional dramatic action could be interrupted, fragmented and anything-what-ever from ‘the memory of the world’ could be inserted to break the flow. So it’s the introduction of a radical film technique, montage, into theatre to make the mind constantly alert and instantly beguiled and then relaxed by the commentary of the chorus. These disjunctions can be very subtle or very direct depending on the skill of both actor and director.

Professor Saumya Liyanage’s recent article, on the play ‘Sanga Veda Guru Govi Kamkaru’, clearly indicated that the brilliant young playwright-director Chamila Priyanka had created an epic mode of theatre, which the judges of the drama competition failed to understand, (The Island, 11/5). Liyanage said that there is a to and fro movement between empathy and distance in the way the play was constructed and directed. The current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe referred to Brecht in parliament, comparing his current task (to save Lanka), to that of the selfless Grusha’s action of saving the baby, treading on the rickety bridge. Whether he wanted empathy or analytical distance by offering this parable from the Caucasian Chalk Circle we don’t know, but he could assume that Lankans at large would know the reference. But we also know the play well enough to see what a thoughtless comparison it was.

The Artists’ Protest March

I saw a Brechtian epic mode in full flight in the artists’ protest march (#GotaGoGama), the other day on the streets of Colombo, which converged on Gall Face. Actors wearing handmade cardboard masks of the various yakas and the sunniyas were doing wild dancing moves using these marvellous creatures of the folk imagination of Lanka to exorcise the political demons sucking the people’s life-blood. These performers were such a refreshing counter to the expensive kitsch fascist-mythic-nationalist spectacles and films made under the Rajapaksa regime. And to see and hear a group of women walking rhythmically and playing the heavy drums slung across their bodies strung from their necks or tied at the waist, was a powerful moment for me, as I never imagined that Lankan women would be allowed to play these ritual drums belonging to a male tradition of such vitality. Traditionally, women only played raban pada! While the documentary camera excitedly cut between many performances very fast, I got the sense of an epic vision being performed as street theatre. Gamini Hattotuwegama’s pioneering street theatre work of the 70’s and 80’s seems to have taken on an unimaginable mass form, matured, diversified, loosening up and airing so many different stratified and compacted layers of the blood-soaked earth, of this famed ‘island of Dhamma’, Sri Lanka.

Perhaps artists can generate some ideas from these two modes of imagining memory (‘memory of the world’ and Brecht’s epic mode), which are quite distinct from personal memory. Artists working on traumatic experiences of the civil war and the formidable state ideologies that led to and orchestrated it, may find it useful to try to mobilise an ample epic mode of perception. I think so because it has this flexible montage structure, not tied to a strict linear chronology. ‘Montage’ is a term taken from engineering, of fitting different pieces of machinery together, so it contains the idea of assembling something with different components, stuff, to make something happen. While one might work on oneself and one’s sense of loss and a host of other urgent feelings that resist linguistic expression, one can also create certain disjunctions, breaks, (distanciation, make-strange the familiar), through an epic mode of composition. The need to repeatedly go back to the traumatic moment is often limitless, with no end in sight. Each repetition yields less as it becomes routine with no exit. Whereas, epic vision-memory, understood in a Brechtian way, is centrifugal not centripetal, it ripples out. It is not centred on man and nor is its vision cut to the measure of MAN. It is non-anthropocentric and non-anthropomorphic. Epic vision-memory helps us to see and feel and understand that we are part of something vaster and also much finer and subtle than ourselves. Epic vision gives us antennae like insects have. Tantric Buddhist idea of a ‘subtle body’ (Sukshama Dehaya) might be a line of investigation for those attracted to the rich visual traditions of Mahayana Buddhism which include vast scroll paintings which visually activate ‘nadi’ or a nervous system that connects many life forms too.

Brecht’s epic vision, in not giving ‘happy endings’ or resolving all the dramatic conflicts, leave us with an ability to discuss alternatives, as in say The Good Woman of Szechwan (Hita Honda Ammandi). I think the famous Chennai bonze statues of poets, (including a female one), and scholars (including an English scholar-missionary), and the epic heroine of Silappatikāram, Kannagi, lining the ocean front of the Marina really is a marvellous epic configuration that could also be understood in the Brechtian modern sense of the epic as well. They are positioned against the background of the ocean and address the people of Tamil Nadu evoking epic memory. The idea of debate so dear to Brecht also was staged when the Kannagi statue built by the Karunanidi’s DMK government was removed from her pedestal by Jaylalitha as Chief Minister, inaugurating a statue ‘battle’ and then returned from a museum, back again to her pedestal, with a change of government. There appears to be a sense of humour too in these serious political moves and counter moves, a marvellous sense of epic performance. This kind of jostling, argumentative, magnificent vision evoked by these bronze statues of Tamil Nadu is surely a modern mode of epic memory conjoined with the ocean, the sand and the sky – a memory of the world for sure.

Epic form is not the same as mythic form. The epic is Janus-faced (has two faces) facing two opposed directions. One face is turned toward myth and the other faces history. And situated in between the two, it has ample space-time to play and shuttle between the two modes of knowledge by making sure that history itself is not allowed to turn into myth.

And Laughter?

I saw on YouTube a well-known Sinhala actor perform a strange oration of excessive praise, a Rajapaksha varnanawa, invoking the glory days of Dutugamunu. What struck me was how much the brothers Mahinda and Gotabhaya laughed when they were praised in more and more exaggerated ways (drawing on the heroic parallels), by the actor who appeared to be carried away by his own brilliance at flattery and histrionic performance. I couldn’t help but think that the two brothers were looking at each other in a certain way and laughing, as much as to say, ‘does he really believe this stuff he’s spouting, what an idiot!’ They appeared to know that these were stupid but useful myths that they had themselves mobilised as history for their gain, but the true believers and the fools were the people themselves. This is just my reading of laughter of the two authoritarian brothers. Laughter is a tricky involuntary human impulse hard to control and pin down rationally. But one hopes that the last laugh will not be theirs’ to enjoy.

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Midweek Review

Of Revolts and Ahimsa Ascetics

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By Lynn Ockersz

In this all too familiar pattern,

Of besieged ruling class reaction,

The Jackboot’s coming crashing down,

On citizens forced into starvation,

And on Scribes mindlessly manacled,

Besides being seen as ‘Inessential’,

Hoping to muzzle into silence,

Consciences of blazing defiance,

But history’s lesson is undisputed,

That revolt is the result of repression,

And we have at hand to clinch the point,

The torching of Libya’s parliament,

And the youth-led bush war of Myanmar….

Just two warning signs for Fat Cat Sires,

That people deprived of Bread and basics,

Are unlikely to take after Ahimsa ascetics.

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