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Midweek Review

Field Marshal breaks a long silence on Tamil vote at 2010 prez poll

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By Shamindra
Ferdinando

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka last Wednesday (19) explained why the Tamil electorate voted for him at the January 26, 2010, presidential election. The explanation coincided with the low-key 12th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In other words, Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Chief emphasized how he won the hearts and minds of the Tamil community.

Fonseka said so in Parliament after Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa asked for time on behalf of Fonseka. Premadasa wanted the former minister given time to speak on Sri Lanka’s triumph.

Having thanked the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (now President), the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa (now Prime Minister) and other services and the Police as well as the Civil Defence Force (CDF), Gampaha District lawmaker Fonseka declared: THE PEOPLE OF THE NORTH AND EAST VOTED FOR HIM WITHOUT HATRED BECAUSE OF THE RESTORATION OF PEACE IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.

Why did MP Fonseka make such an assertion 12 years after the war? What prompted him to say so? Most importantly, was he telling the truth? Did the Tamil electorate really vote for him because of his role in the eradication of the LTTE? Lawmakers haven’t responded to Fonseka so far. The civil society, too, has remained mum.

Let me discuss the post-war national reconciliation  process, taking into consideration three statements made in Parliament on May 18th (Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa) and on May 19th and 20th (Sarath Fonseka). Having declared that those who spearheaded the war against the LTTE never followed genocidal strategies, Premier Rajapaksa thanked the war time service commanders. Twice President Rajapaksa mentioned Field Marshal Fonseka first. On the following day, MP Fonseka didn’t mince his words when he appreciated the services rendered by the Rajapaksas. Having thanked the President and the Prime Minister, lawmaker Fonseka claimed why the Tamil community backed him at the 2010 presidential election. MP Fonseka zeroed in on Rear Admiral (retd) Sarath Weerasekera on the next day. MP Fonseka sought to isolate Public Security Minister Weerasekera by declaring that even the Rajapaksas recognized the services by him (Fonseka).

Actually, why did the Tamil community vote for Fonseka whose Army literally eradicated the LTTE militarily in the battlefield in May 2009. The failure on the part of the LTTE rump to regroup since then in spite of unlimited funding sources and a section of the international community backing them is a huge credit to the armed forces as well as the political leadership. Obviously, those who survived the war (including the rehabilitated lot) lost their will to take up arms again having succumbed to the combined security forces onslaught.  Fonseka’s Army brought the war to an end following nearly a three-year long relentless campaign. However, that wouldn’t have been possible if not for the significant contributions made by the Navy and the Air Force, in support of the ground offensives, in addition to strategic actions directed at the LTTE. Wasantha Karannagoda and Roshan Goonetileke, received promotions as the Admiral of the Fleet and Marshal of the Air Force, respectively, in recognition of the services rendered during the war.

There hadn’t been a previous instance of Fonseka appreciating the role played by the Navy due to his personal animosity towards Karannagoda during the war and thereafter. Some, however, say that the rivalry between the two actually originated at their alma mater, Ananda College, Colombo, due to both of them being talented and ambitious in their own right. But, Karannagoda, in his memoirs, titled ‘Adhistanaya’, lucidly explains the circumstances leading to the crisis. 

Anyway, lawmaker Fonseka’s brief but timely speech delivered on the day his Army brought the war to an end, 12 years ago, should be appreciated.

 

A calculated risk

Actually, why did the UNP pick Fonseka as the common candidate? In the aftermath of the eradication of the LTTE, in 2009, the UNP had no option but to accept Fonseka as the common candidate, particularly against the backdrop of the war-winning General making covert moves in that direction. The UNP-led Opposition strategy was primarily meant to deprive President Mahinda Rajapaksa the advantage of the unbelievable (in the eyes of the powerful West that insisted on the invincibility of the Tigers in battle) war triumph. There couldn’t have been a better choice than Fonseka though the Opposition leadership quite correctly realized how the inclusion of the LTTE’s sidekick Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the grouping distanced the Southern electorate.  Fonseka, however, remained silent until the last moment.

Fonseka didn’t mince his words when the media, on July 15th 2009, raised the possibility of his entry into active politics. The writer was among those who had been present at the media briefing called by General Fonseka, in his new capacity as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) at the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) within the Army Headquarters premises.  Fonseka declared he would never seek a political career. The war veteran said that he wouldn’t want to lose his popularity within 24 hours by taking to politics. The former Army Chief recalled the fate of his senior colleagues, Major General Lakshman Algama and Major General Janaka Perera, both of whom perished in LTTE suicide attacks on election platforms (Gen Fonseka: Lanka ready for fresh UN commitments, with strap line, CDS rules out political career – The Island,  July 16, 2009). The LTTE assassinated Gemunu Watch veteran Algama on Dec 18, 1999 at an election rally in Ja-Ela held in support of UNP Presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, whereas Commando veteran Perera perished on Oct 06, 2008 in Anuradhapura at an event related with PC polls in which he contested as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the North Central Province.

 Nothing could be further from the truth than Fonseka’s recent declaration in Parliament that those living in the northern and eastern regions voted for him because of the restoration of peace therein? The Tamil electorate never accepted Fonseka’s  role as the Commander of the Army and repeatedly accused him and his Army of genocide, especially after the crushing defeat of the LTTE.

There cannot be any dispute over that. Having recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, way back in 2001, the TNA wouldn’t have accepted Fonseka if the outfit wasn’t convinced that only the former Army Commander could have challenged the immensely popular Mahinda Rajapaksa at that time.

 The plan received the wholehearted backing of the West and especially the US, though the then US Ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis, in a confidential dispatch from Colombo, subsequently exposed by Wikileaks, categorized Fonseka as a war criminal along with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and lawmaker Basil Rajapaksa. The diplomatic missive, dated January 15, 2009, held the above-mentioned leaders responsible for war crimes. In spite of that, the US threw its weight behind Fonseka, perhaps initiating the move itself as the only viable political strategy to defeat the hugely popular war, winning Mahinda Rajapaksa securing a second term.

 

Neelakandan’s dilemma

 It would be pertinent to mention what the then President of the All Ceylon Hindu Congress  (ACHC) late lawyer Kandiah Neelakandan told the writer during a visit to Cheddikulam, Vavuniya, on January 09, 2010, organized on the instructions of the then Justice and Law Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda.  Among those who had been present were one-time Bank of Ceylon Chairman Rajan Asirvatham, a member of the government negotiating team for talks with the LTTE in 1994-1995 and Gamini Godakanda on Minister Moragoda’s staff. The visit coincided with President Rajapaksa’s releasing a group of rehabilitated ex-LTTE cadres at Cheddikulam. Asked how he felt the TNA joining the UNP-led alliance backing Fonseka’s candidature at the presidential election, Neelakandan confided that the Tamil community had been asked to vote for the man who conducted the actual war in a bid to defeat the one who gave that directive. Neelakandan confessed that the Tamil community was in a deepening dilemma. Moragoda, now our High Commissioner to India, secured the assistance of the ACHC and other like-minded persons as part of the overall efforts to win the confidence of the Tamil community (Have faith in me – President tells ex-LTTE combatants, The Island, January 10, 2010). President Rajapaksa visited Vavuniya then just over two weeks before the presidential election with him contesting for a second term.

But, obviously, the Tamil community knew what the TNA expected of them. The TNA declared its support for Fonseka’s candidature and the northern and eastern provinces responded accordingly. Fonseka comfortably won all northern and eastern districts though the South delivered a massive blow to the war-winning Army Chief. The then incumbent President defeated Fonseka by over 1.8 mn votes. The US-approved political strategy failed. The failed project caused catastrophe. In fact, the disintegration of the once powerful party, the UNP, began with the disastrous 2010 project. Perhaps, in its haste to bring the Rajapaksa era to an end, the grand old party gambled and gambled badly. What really went wrong? The UNP paid a huge price for not sincerely backing the war effort (August 2006-May 2009) and then exploiting differences between the Rajapaksas and Gen. Fonseka. A political alliance involving the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi-led TNA, tainted by its murderous relationship with the LTTE, at the 2010 presidential election, boomeranged. The UNP and even General Fonseka ignored how the LTTE-TNA coalition at the 2005 presidential election ensured UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat. If not for the LTTE-TNA prevailing on Tamils not to vote for Wickremesinghe, the UNP Leader would have won the election hands down.

Wickremesinghe contested the 2005 presidential election on the UNP ticket. A UNP-led coalition fielded presidential candidates on the New Democratic Front (NDF/symbol swan) at the 2010 (General Sarath Fonseka) 2015 (Maithripala Sirisena) and 2019 (Sajith Premadasa). Having engineered Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the 2005 presidential poll, the TNA backed candidates fielded by the UNP at the following three elections. The UNP suffered avoidable defeats due to its involvement with the TNA. The UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF) affiliated with the TNA, too, played politics with the government. The GTF had access to President Maithripala Sirisena during his first visit to the UK following the 2015 presidential election.

A statement issued by the influential Global Tamil Forum (GTF) to mark the 12th anniversary of the conclusion of the war revealed their strategies remained the same though the LTTE was no longer around. In spite of the TNA gradually losing its clout and the emergence of other political parties, the GTF seems pursuing the same strategy. Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section of the GTF statement issued by Suren Surendiran: “Equally important is that the Tamil people and their leaders take stock of the challenges and opportunities in the present political climate and act strategically by forming partnerships with stakeholders across all communities in Sri Lanka and in the international community. The importance and urgency of securing pragmatic and tangible gains, with the objective of fulfilling the political and economic aspirations of the Tamil people, cannot be overstated.”

 

The UNP’s plight

 If General Fonseka is genuine in his assessment that the Tamil community voted for him at the 2010 presidential election in appreciation for restoration of peace, why on earth the TNA pushed for an international war crimes probe. Fonseka cannot be unaware 13 Tamil lawmakers, including those who backed him at the 2010 presidential poll, sought international intervention at the 46th session of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Feb-March this year. Perhaps Fonseka should seek an explanation from Tamil political parties in the Opposition why they pursued a war crimes probe against the backdrop of the Tamil electorate voting for him. That of course is only if Field Marshal is genuine in his May 19 assessment.

The UNP’s post-war strategy caused the deterioration of the party. The UNP/President Sirisena stratagem in accepting the TNA as the main Opposition party in Parliament with the connivance of then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya during the yahapalana administration at the expense of the Joint Opposition which commanded the support of much more MPs, elected on the UPFA ticket, at the 2015 general election, caused irreversible setback to the UNP in the eyes of the public. Unprecedented split in the UNP in the run-up to the last parliamentary election in August 2020 made matters worse for the party.  Fonseka was among those who switched allegiance to the SJB. The badly depleted UNP, for the first time in its history, failed to win a single seat. The party ended up with just one National seat. Over eight months after the election, that seat remains vacant primarily because of the vacillation of its Leader and his stubbornness in holding onto the party leadership despite numerous polls defeats under his watch. The leadership is like an heirloom that he has inherited.

 Why Fonseka accepted the TNA’s backing against the backdrop of its close relationship with the LTTE is a mystery. Having recalled the killing of Majors General Algama and Perera when he assumed duties as the CDS in July 2009, Fonseka quite conveniently forgot the TNA’s endorsement of the LTTE bid to assassinate Fonseka. If the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Fonseka in April 2006 and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Oct 2006, the war would have definitely taken a different turn as we have often reminded.  

The recent passage of a Bill 104 in the Ontario Provincial Legislature that recognized that the Tamil community in Sri Lanka was subjected to genocide is a reminder of the growing threat posed by a section of the international community even though many of those powerful Western nations which are instigating the Tamil Diaspora have much blood in their own hands-leaving aside their recent grave criminal acts as in the Middle East, countries like the USA, Canada, Australia were created after committing many acts of genocide against natives of those lands. We also cannot forget the unforgivable crimes that have been committed against Negroes in the last five hundred years or more. They demanded and got compensation for Jews, but have they at least given even a proper apology for the grievous crimes committed against gypsies and blacks that they continue to perpetrate. It is as if not a week goes by in the USA without the extrajudicial gunning down of a black in the streets of that country by its law enforcers. Prior to 2020 the so called independent free media simply ignored such killings of blacks and other minorities running to hundreds each year. But last year as they wanted to target Trump the media suddenly picked up the Black Livers Matter cry, especially to get at right wing perpetrators of such crimes and their sympathisers in the Trump camp.

 Field Marshal Fonseka represents the people in Parliament. Having commanded the successful Army, lawmaker Fonseka cannot under any circumstances play politics with the issue at hand. Parliament, too, as an institution should recognize high profile threatening Canadian project and how it could influence other countries and strengthen the ongoing Geneva inquiry.

 Field Marshal Fonseka’s declaration that the Tamil community voted for him for the restoration of peace cannot certainly be accurate. Re-assessment of the ground situation is of pivotal importance as interested parties brazenly exploit the utterly corrupt political party system.  The GTF’s advice to the Tamil speaking community and their leaders regarding political strategies is evidence of how the project is pursued. The bottom line is that those who once believed in the conventional fighting capability of the LTTE seem confident their political objectives could be achieved through constitutional means. They have the backing of the Western powers. Western backing for candidature like General Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena at the 2010 and 2015 presidential polls, respectively underscored their strategy. Both the UNP and the SLFP paid a huge price for giving into the Western initiatives. At the end both political parties suffered irreversible setbacks. Who would have thought the birth of SJB and SLPP at the expense of the UNP and the SLFP, respectively? Today, both parties are in a sorry state with no hope in sight of a comeback.

The UNP seeking to bring the Mahinda Rajapaksa era to an end fielded Fonseka. For the UNP, it didn’t matter whether their presidential candidate was able at least to exercise his franchise. The then General’s inability to vote for want of him being registered as a voter was known only on the election day. Obviously the electorate was deceived. Having suffered a humiliating defeat, the UNP-led coalition, foolishly propagated the lie that the former Army Commander was defeated through what the losers called a computer jilmaart (manipulation). The JVP literally ran with the computer jilmaart lie. Today, the JVP has been reduced to three lawmakers in Parliament. Their group includes one National List MP (Dr. Harini Amarasuriya). At the height of its parliamentary power, the JVP group comprised 39 members of Parliament elected in 2004, including three National List members. In fact, all political parties involved in the 2010 coalition established to back Fonseka are in turmoil. The UNP has been reduced to one National List MP, the TNA to 10 and JVP three with two other constituents, the SLMC and the ALCM reduced to five and four members respectively. Perhaps a fresh look at political landscape is necessary against the backdrop of the passage of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill.

 We apologise to the readers for not touching on the burning topic plaguing the country, the coronavirus pandemic. We felt the readers need a break from the subject as the media is replete with the subject, day and night.



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Midweek Review

GR’s exit and developing crisis: Different interpretations

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A different interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinal sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationship with JVP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jayaweera acknowledged that he managed that media campaign, too.

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

External intervention

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

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

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

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

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Midweek Review

Notes towards a politics and aesthetics of film:

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‘Face Cover’ by Ashfaque Mohamed

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

Desiring hands, yours, nudgingly pluck those roses of mine

In the soft light of the moon

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

Jusla/Salani (in Face Cover)

by Laleen Jayamanne

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

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

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

*****

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

Face Cover

Ashfaque Mohamed

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

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

Sumathy Sivamohan as Asifa’s mother

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

Face Cover

as a Lure

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

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Midweek Review

Burnt Morsels and Barbed Wire

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By Lynn Ockersz

The war tanks are battle-ready,

Menacingly lurking, raring to roll in,

At the first call to arms,

By a strong arm gentry,

Eyeing its spoils of power and office,

Secured sans a Freedom Struggle,

But those whom it sees as subjects,

Are now hitting their mats at night,

On a diet of tepid water and burnt rice,

Left very much on their own to die,

Proving that ‘Freedom’ is a stillborn babe.

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