first major political crisis since 2019 prez poll
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa in conversation in Parliament on Feb 11, 2021. It was President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s fourth visit to Parliament since the inauguration of the new session (pic courtesy PMD)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, MP, recently caused quite a political storm by calling for the inclusion of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) decision-making hierarchy. In spite of efforts to settle the issue, amicably, strong statements made by SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris and its General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam at the regular weekly media briefing at Waters’ Edge underscored the simmering problem (report on media briefing on page 1)
Weerawansa’s call triggered an extremely angry response from the ruling SLPP with its General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam lambasting the former JVPer. Flanked by Kalutara District SLPP MP Sanjiva Edirimanne and SLPP Administrative Secretary Renuka Perera, Attorney-at-Law Kariyawasam dismissed Weerawansa’s call.
The briefing at the SLPP Nelum Mawatha Office, Battarmulla, revealed unprecedented deep resentment towards Weerawansa whose unexpected appeal took the SLPP by total surprise. Newcomers Kariyawasam, a National List MP and Edirimanne, who polled 105,973 preference votes in the Kalutara district at the last parliamentary election in August 2020, teamed up with Perera. The SLPP ‘blitz’ shook the political scene.
The SLPP primarily targeted Weerawansa on two issues, namely the NFF leader had no right whatsoever to call for removal of SLPP leader Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the NFF maintained clandestine links with two foreign intelligence agencies.
A section of the media thrived on the unexpected political controversy caused by Weerawansa. The former JVP Propaganda Secretary couldn’t have made that call without realizing the far reaching consequences. Those seeking to exploit the SLPP-NFF dispute tried to capitalise on the situation. The SLPP, too, contributed to that strategy. In its haste to attack Weerawansa over his interview with the Lankadeepa in its Feb 7, 2021 edition, the SLPP forgot the NFF leader wanted a specific political role for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Does President Gotabaya Rajapaksa require a political role? Does he deserve such a role? Can President Rajapaksa be denied a leadership role in the SLFP, undoubtedly the most powerful political party today? Can Gotabaya Rajapaksa ‘operate’ outside the SLPP, thereby depriving him an opportunity to intervene in political matters?
The SLPP’s drastic response to Weerawansa’s timely suggestion underscored President Gotabaya Rajapaksa lacking much needed political clout. Over a year after the last presidential election in Nov 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa remained a man without SLPP membership. In fact, the SLPP on its own should have considered how to accommodate President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Had the SLPP acted wisely, Weerawansa wouldn’t have had to risk a preventable political crisis. The SLPP actually owed an explanation why it failed to consider a suitable position within the hierarchy. It would be pertinent to mention that Weerawansa secured two other interviews on Feb 7, the day the Lankadeepa published the controversial discussion. Mawbima, published by the Ceylon Newspapers Pvt Limited owned by SLPP National List MP Tiran Alles and Communist Party mouthpiece, ‘Aththa’ (Truth), a name borrowed from the former official Soviet CP newspaper Pravda.
The writer found the Aththa interview conducted by its Editor (name not given) quite critical of the incumbent Rajapaksa administration. In fact, Weerawansa therein asserted that there had been much better internal discussion within the SLFP-led coalition during the previous Rajapaksa presidency (Nov 2005-January 2015). There had been no reference to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa being given a political role whatsoever. The NFF leader who spearheaded a campaign within the SLPP against the hotly disputed government decision to hand over to India 49 per cent stake in the East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo port, in Feb 3, 2021 sought to explain the common stand taken by some parties within the SLPP. Instead, Weerawansa created an enormous political issue that overwhelmed the ruling coalition.
Perhaps, someone should remind Weerawansa how he fired the first salvo against the previous Rajapaksa administration by seeking a consensus with the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha. The meeting in the second week of July 2014 set in motion a spate of events leading to SLFP General Secretary Maihripala Sirisena switching allegiance to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Attack on influential clique
Responding to an Aththa query, Weerawansa explained the weaknesses in the SLPP. Alleging the absence of a regular discussion among constituents of the SLPP, Weerawansa said that though all contributed to the overwhelming victories at the 2019 and 2020 national elections, today a small clique sustained the power. When the actions of that clique caused trouble, the administration sought the help of all others to face the crisis. Declaring he had made his position clear on the extremely unhappy situation, Weerawansa alleged that the government suffered due to lack of internal discussions. Compared to the situation today, the previous Rajapaksa administration handled internal issues better. The views expressed at that time received some recognition. The absence of internal discussions had resulted in challenges to the incumbent administration.
Asked to comment on some SLPP constituents taking a common stand on the ECT issue leading to the SLPP targeting the NFF leader, Weerawansa said that representatives, including lawmakers met at his official residence on January 30, 2021, to take a common stand on the issue at hand. Altogether 10 political parties had participated in the discussion and, at the conclusion, they decided to continue with the grouping. “We decided to meet once a month to discuss developments. Discuss required changes. Discuss the government strategies,” Weerawansa said, revealing they reached a common understanding meant to bring both the government and the country under pressure. The Minister declared that at that time they met to discuss ECT exclusively, subsequently a decision was made to continue with the project. Weerawansa said that they would try to obstruct those trying to take President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on a wrong path.
Weerawansa, in his interview with Aththa, emphasised how the Western powers went even to the extent of exploring the imposition of economic sanctions on Sri Lanka against the backdrop of the 46th session of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at a time the country was mired in a deepening crisis due to rising foreign debt. Weerawansa didn’t mince his words when he acknowledged daunting economic challenges and the failure on the part of the government to achieve the much-touted economic objectives. Weerawansa blamed the Covid-19 pandemic mainly for the economic downturn. The former JVP heavyweight warned of dire consequences if the country couldn’t raise over USD 4 bn annually to settle loans obtained by successive governments, particularly the previous yahapalana administration taking commercial loans at high interest rates. Weerawansa alleged the UNP-SLFP administration went for excessively costly loans in the wake of their humiliating defeat at the last Local Government elections on Feb 10, 2018.
In other words, Weerawansa acknowledged that there couldn’t be any justification in ‘boru shows’ at a time of the rapidly developing crisis that could overwhelm the national economy. It would be the responsibility of the SLPP to ensure political stability both in and outside Parliament. An internal crisis within the SLPP now can cause irreparable damage.
Time for politics
Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa entered active politics in the wake of the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 2015. The 19th Amendment deprived President Mahinda Rajapaksa of an opportunity to seek a third presidential term. One-time SLFP strongman and war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa failed in his hotly challenged bid to secure a third term in 2015. Having launched civil society groups Viyathmaga and Eliya at the onset of the yahapalana administration, Gotabaya Rajapaksa slowly but steadily pursued a political strategy that ultimately paved the way for him to secure the SLPP’s presidential nomination in August 2019. Yet, Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t publicly receive SLPP membership. Gotabaya Rajapaksa launched Viyathmaga in early 2016 to take his message to the masses. Viyathmaga was followed by Eliya that focused on countering moves to introduce a new Constitution at the expense of the country’s unitary status.
Viyathmaga emerged as an influential group within the SLPP parliamentary group with eight out of nine contestants gaining entry into Parliament at the August 2020 general election. The SLPP won 145 seats, including 17 National List slots. The Parliament comprises 196 elected and 29 appointed members.
Of the SLPP winners, retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera (328,092) and Dr. Nalaka Godahewa (325,479) polled the highest preferential votes in Colombo and Gampaha electoral districts, respectively. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fielded the group on the SLPP ticket whereas former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal and Dr. Seetha Arambepola were accommodated on the National List.
Of the successful Viyathmaga members, only Weerasekera has represented Parliament before having served the Navy for over three decades and retired as its Chief of Staff. Weerasekera represented Digamadulla electorate during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second tenure (2010-2015) as the President.
Viyathmaga nominees Prof. Channa Jayasumana (Anuradhapura/133,980), Gunapala Ratnasekera (Kurunegala/141,991), Nalaka Kottegoda (Matale/71,404), Tilak Rajapaksha (Digamadulla/54,203), Dr. Upul Galappatti (Hambantota/63,369), and Udayana Kirindigoda (Mahanuwara/39,904) entered Parliament at the expense of those who represented the last Parliament on the UPFA ticket.
Viyathmaga nominated Businessman Anura Fernando who nursed Colombo (north) electorate failed to get elected, whereas Ali Sabri, PC, who also served Viyathmaga, was accommodated in Parliament through the SLPP National List and not as a member of Viyathmaga.
Can the SLPP continue to ignore the need to bring in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, formally into the decision- making apparatus of the SLPP?
Mahinda Rajapaksa switched his allegiance from the SLFP to the SLPP less than two weeks after the constitutional coup staged by the then President Maithripala Sirisena in late Oct 2018. Mahinda Rajapaksa received membership on Nov 11, 2018 from SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris in the presence of its General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam. The well attended event took place at Premier Rajapaksa’s official residence at Wijerama Mawatha. Thirty other UPFA lawmakers received SLPP membership on that day.
MR takes SLPP membership
Mahinda Rajapaksa made the surprising move, close on the heels of the Supreme Court suspending President Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament on the night of Nov 9, 2018, and called the general election on January 5, 2019. Sirisena had no other option after the then Joint Opposition and SLFP failed pathetically to prove a simple majority in Parliament. Violence caused by the Joint Opposition in Parliament didn’t serve any purpose other than to bring the entire parliamentary system to disrepute.
The Supreme Court issued its ruling on Nov 14, 2018. Among those who moved the Supreme Court were the UNP, TNA and the JVP. A jubilant UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, while hailing the Court ruling, tweeted that the people have won their first victory. “Let’s go forward and re-establish the sovereignty of the people in our beloved country.”
If the SC ruling went against those who moved the Court, perhaps the political situation would have been much different today. The political situation would have been fashioned on the outcome of the January 5, 2019 general election. Perhaps, the UNP on its own could have secured the largest block of seats in Parliament and form a government with the support of a section of SLFP lawmakers with or without Sirisena. In the last Parliament the UNP had 106 elected under the ‘Elephant’ symbol. The January 5, 2019 general election would have thwarted a disastrous split in the UNP a year later that ultimately led to annihilation of the UNP at the August 2020 general election. The UNP managed to secure just one National List slot. It would be pertinent to examine whether the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) resorted to the Easter Sunday carnage on April 21, 2019 if the general election was held on January 5, 2019 as envisaged by President Sirisena.
Top academic Rajan Hoole speculated in his immensely interesting and controversial ‘Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy: When the Deep State Gets Out Of Its Depth’ launched in the run-up to the 2019 Nov presidential election how the failure on the part of the NTJ to secure parliamentary representation at the 2015 general election may have led to the Easter Sunday attacks. If general election was held as President Sirisena wanted the NTJ would have had an opportunity to secure some of its people elected to Parliament via Muslim political parties. Had that happened, perhaps it wouldn’t have resorted to the Easter Sunday attacks, he reasoned.
Who knows spice merchant Mohamed Yusuf Ibrahim whose sons detonated explosives at the Shangri-La and the Cinnamon Grand hotels on April 21 would have found a place in the Parliament. The JVP never explained why Ibrahim was accommodated on its National List at the 2015 general election.
Ibrahim’s sons — identified as Ilham Ahmed Ibrahim and Imsath Ahmed Ibrahim —detonated their explosives at the Shangri-La and the Cinnamon Grand hotels, respectively.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s emergence as the SLPP presidential candidate should be examined against the backdrop of an extremely sensitive political environment following the Easter Sunday carnage. The UNP, the SLFP, JVP, TNA and all political parties represented in Parliament played politics with the issue. A naïve government allowed extremists to go on the rampage weeks after the Easter attacks. The failure to protect the Muslims is definitely as bad as allowing the NTJ to strike in spite of specific warnings received from India. The government never explained how extremists stormed Minuwangoda in the second week of May, 2019. The then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake, having failed to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks and anti-Muslim violence, exploited the situation to seek a political career. The Army Commander, too, should have been held responsible for both failures as he also had at his disposal one of the country’s biggest intelligence operations run by the DMI. Senanayake who couldn’t even secure 50,000 votes at the last presidential election, contrary to much publicized promises, refrained from contesting the last parliamentary election. Perhaps he reslised that he had already been badly exposed.
19 A paves the way for GR
If not for the 19th Amendment, Gotabaya Rajapaksa wouldn’t have received SLPP nomination even though a significant section of the electorate appreciated the wartime Defence Secretary’s entry into politics at the highest level. Lawmakers Kumara Welgama, an SLFP heavyweight and Democratic Left Front (DLF) leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara opposed Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s entry. Welgama had the strength not only to take a public stand against Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s emergence as the SLPP candidate but switched his allegiance to the newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) at the parliamentary election. Welgama entered Parliament from Kalutara.
In utterly appalling Sri Lankan politics, the country shouldn’t be surprised to see the bankrupt SJB and the JVP trying to exploit Weerawansa’s declaration. State Minister Ajith Nivard Cabrral recently reminded the real status of the SJB. Responding to SJB leader Sajith Premadasa’s query on the Katuwana branch of the Bank of Ceylon granting D.S. Gunasekera Company Rs 3.1 bn loan, a smiling former Central Bank Governor asked Premadasa where was he when the BOC subsequent to the then government’s intervention granted the Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) a staggering Rs 10 bn in 10 minutes.
Premadasa formed the SJB after losing to Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the last presidential poll. A section of the civil society in a shameless bid, obviously on behalf of the UNP, moved the judiciary against Gotabaya Rajapaksa claiming he was not eligible to contest. A highly jittery SLPP fielded the then UPFA MP Chamal Rajapaksa as an independent candidate in case Gotabaya Rajapaksa suffered an unthinkable setback. The judiciary ruled in favour of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the rest is history.
The government tackled the crisis caused by Weerawansa’s intervention. Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga visited the ‘Made in Sri Lanka exhibition’ on Feb 12 on Minister Weerawansa’s invitation where he declared the issue has been settled while issuing a warning to smaller parties. On the following day, Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the exhibition on Weerawansa’s invitation as the top leadership sought to settle the dispute. The SLPP initially hit back hard by calling a media briefing at Ape Gama on Feb 11 where Sanjiva Edirimanna, MP and several others strongly opposed the NFF’s intervention in what they called an internal matter. The government needs to examine contentious matters seriously. In addition to Weerawansa’s stand on the ECT and comment on the SLPP leadership, the former JVP firebrand clashed with the SLPP over the original 20th Amendment as well as an alleged attempt to influence NFF lawmakers. The clash between Weerawansa and SLPP National List MP Jayantha Ketagoda in Premier Rajapaksa’s presence in Parliament highlighted the torrid relationship between the two parties. Obviously all is not well within the ruling coalition. Those who exercised their franchise for the SLPP in 2019 and 2020 expect the ruling coalition to address internal issues, swiftly and decisively or be ready to face the consequences.
Blind security sector reforms:
Assurance to US on the size of military
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Defence Ministry recently quoted State Defence Minister, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, as having assured US State Department official, Afreen Akhter, that the military would be ‘right-sized’ to perform their classic role.
The assurance was given on 15 May at his office, in Colombo, just ahead of the14th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when our security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of 19 May with the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) troops wiping out a small group of hardcore LTTE cadres, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Among the dead was LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Why did the State Defence Minister make such a pledge? Did Akhter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asia Bureau of the State Department, seek a clarification as regards security sector reforms? If the military had continued to perform their classic role of being a ceremonial Army, the LTTE could have achieved Eelam. But the nearly three-year long sustained offensive brought the LTTE to its knees, 14 years ago.
Afreen Akhter oversees Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives, as well as the Office of Security and Transnational Affairs.
Her visit was the first by a State Department official, since National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, last month alleged, in a published book ‘Nine: The Hidden Story;, that the US had a direct role in the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year. The former industries minister is on record as having disclosed that US Ambassador here, Julie Chung, personally offered Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena an opportunity to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, regardless of constitutional impediment, to bypassing Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an unannounced visit to his official residence.
Ambassador Chung swiftly rejected the allegation made no sooner ‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ was launched at the Sri Lanka Foundation on 25 April. However, Speaker Abeywardena gave credence to lawmaker Weerawansa’s shocking claim by remaining dead silent.
Since the conclusion of the war, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government quietly began downsizing the SLA, which was little above 200,000 at the height of the war. However, the present government officially acknowledged the downsizing of the war-winning, Army on 13 January, 2023. State Minister Tennakoon was quoted as having said that the SLA strength would be further reduced to 135,000 by the end of next year and 100,000 by 2030.
Of course there cannot be an issue over the need to gradually decrease military strength in peace time, taking into consideration post-war national security requirements and the pathetic economic situation, confronting the country.
Regardless of the developing political-economic-social crisis, it would be the responsibility of the military top brass to brief the political leadership of the ground situation. Post-war national security requirements shouldn’t be looked at only on the basis of economic indicators. That would be suicidal. In other words, the country is in such a precarious situation, political leadership may tend to conveniently ignore basics, especially to please Uncle Sam, the obvious king-maker here now, thereby jeopardizing the country’s national security.
Declaration that the SLA would be reduced to 100,000 by 2030 means the total strength would be cut by half, from its peak.
The Defence Ministry statement didn’t refer to any other issue. But that doesn’t mean contentious issues hadn’t been taken up with Akhter during her visit. The US continuing to needle Sri Lanka, 14 years after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability, despite Washington’s own hands dripping with so much innocent blood from so many of its worldwide military misadventures, to retain its international hegemony, is mired in continuing controversy.
The designation of Sri Lanka’s most successful Navy commander (2005-2009) Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, in late April, this year, over a spate of abductions carried out in 2008-2009, at the height of the war with the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, as was even acknowledged by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, highlighted how the Washington establishment continues to pursue an agenda severely inimical to Sri Lanka.
Sanctioning of Karannagoda is the latest in a series of US measures directed at the war-winning military here. Among the sanctioned are Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and General Shavendra Silva, the controversial travel ban on the celebrated wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 58 Division formerly Task Force 1, the Numero Uno among the SLA fighting formations that literally took the fight to the LTTE, was imposed in Feb. 2020.
Expansion of SLA
The LTTE couldn’t have been defeated if not for the rapid expansion undertaken during the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as Commander of the Army (2005-2009). The SLA lacked the wherewithal to sustain a large scale ground offensive while deploying sufficient troops on a holding role. For want of adequate infantry battalions, the SLA couldn’t undertake large scale offensives, simultaneously. But the rapid expansion, since the launching of operations on multiple fronts, in Vanni, from 1997, paid dividends soon enough.
Sri Lanka should review post-war developments, taking into consideration the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July last year. The overall failure of the security apparatus to meet the public protest campaign that had been backe, clandestinely by the US, as alleged repeatedly by lawmaker Weerawansa, quickly overwhelmed law enforcement authorities and the military. Law enforcement authorities and the military should have been prepared to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately, a public protest campaign that was launched on 31 March, last year, targeting the private residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, exposed the serious weakness in overall government response to hitherto unknown threat.
Military strength should be the prerogative of the government. The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, now headed by retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera MP, should closely examine the developments and take up matters of importance, both in and outside Parliament. It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to consider/implement defence sector reforms at the behest of literally bankrupt external powers, with sinister motives. Defence sector reforms should be in line with overall security-political doctrine, instead of piecemeal restructuring. There cannot be a better example than the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s readiness to enhance the SLA’s strength by nearly 100,000. That decision, taken in the aftermath of Velupillai Prabhakaran declaration of Eelam War IV, in August 2006, was perhaps the single most decisive factor in Sri Lanka’s final victory over terrorism against so many odds placed against it.
In spite of the increasing military strength, as the LTTE gradually stepped up the offensive, and, finally, its threat became conventional in 1990, Sri Lanka never gave a real boost to military personnel numbers as explained in the chart published on this page. The period from 1981 to 1987 can be categorized as the Eelam War l. The Eelam War ll and lll were fought from 1990 to 1994, and 1995 to 2001, respectively.
Sri Lanka launched Division-sized ground offensives during Eelam War lll that began with the sinking of two gunboats, berthed at the Trincomalee harbour, and the downing of two Avros, with 100 officers, and men all, in April 1995, during an informal ceasefire with the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. But the military top brass, or the political leadership, at that time, never felt comfortable in executing a real expansion of the SLA.
In hindsight, they never wanted to go the whole hog. Operation ‘Riviresa.’ launched in Oct. 1995. was meant to bring Jaffna town under military control and consolidate government positions in the Jaffna peninsula. The operation that involved three Divisions was the largest combined security forces campaign until the Vanni campaign in 2007-2009.
However, the SLA never received the boost it desired during Eelam War lll. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga authorized Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ (victory assured) to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna peninsula. Having launched the offensive in May 1997, the government called it off, in 1999, following unbearable debacles. It was a miracle that the Army did not crumble at the time down to Anuradhapura or even beyond with a Commander in Chief like that, who was nothing but a cunning chatterbox with no sense of time. The government quite conveniently refrained from making a real difference on the ground by enhancing the number of infantry battalions available for ground commanders. According to the chart on this page, the SLA strength had been 117,705 officers and men (volunteers included) in 1996, the year before the launch of Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ and by 1999 when it was called off the paid strength in that particular year was 121,473.
The chart reveals a drop in the paid strength in 2000 to 116,739 in the wake of a series of humiliating battlefield defeats, culminating with the worst single debacle in the entire war when SLA abandoned the strategically located Elephant Pass base. A Division plus troops couldn’t repulse the LTTE offensive and the base collapsed in April 2000. Regardless of the Elephant Pass fall, the following year paid strength recorded a marginal increase. According to the chart, the paid strength in 2001 had been 118,331 while the strength dropped again in 2002 and 2003 during the operation of Oslo-arranged infamous Ceasefire Agreement.
The situation started gradually improving in 2004 and by 2007 paid strength stood at 151, 538. Having neutralized the LTTE in the Eastern theatre, the SLA was on the move on the Vanni west in 2007. That year marked the turning point in the war against the LTTE as the latter was overwhelmed on the Vanni front. The opening of multiple fronts on the Vanni theatre wouldn’t have been possible without the continuous flow of fresh recruits for newly raised Divisions as well as Jaffna-based formations.
It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka acquired Mi-24 helicopter gunships in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, MiG27s in 2000 and a range of naval platforms since 1980s, though successive governments that ignored the need to expand the fighting strength. During the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987- March 1990) the military ignored the basic requirement to provide sufficient troops to protect the MSR northwards from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The situation was so bad, Vavuniya-Elephant Pass stretch was held by isolated and poorly manned detachments at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990 following 14-month-long ‘honeymoon’ between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Velupillai Prabhakaran.
At the time Eelam War ll erupted in 1990, the paid SLA strength had been 60,596 whereas it consisted of 37,759 officers and men. Sri Lanka, in 2015, cancelled the war Victory Day parade following Western pressure. The last Victory Day parade was held in Matara in 2014. The rest is history.
Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka
The Popular Sinhala Cinema:
~ Part two ~
by Laleen Jayamanne
Ethnicity perhaps was not a political problem in the fledgling film industry, unlike in the wider political world, after the ‘Sinhala only’ Act of 1956, which made it the sole national language. In fact, without the entrepreneurial skills and vision of a group of indigenous and Indian Tamil businessmen, it’s very likely that the first steps towards the creation of a Lankan film industry of sorts would have been delayed at least by about a decade or so after political independence in 1947. The connection with India was essential. The first Sinhala film Kadawuna Poronduwa (Broken Promise, dir. B.A.W. Jayamanne, 1947), was in fact filmed in a studio in South India, belonging to the Indian producer S.M. Nayagam, who, subsequently, came to Ceylon and established the Sundera Sound Studio and obtained citizenship. The lack of capital, technical know-how, infrastructure and technology meant that the fledgling industry was dependent on India, in several ways, including the robust Indian melodramatic genre films in Tamil and Hindi which provided a durable prototype for many years to come.
However, despite the fundamental contribution of Tamil and Muslim, businessmen, technicians and artists in developing the Sinhala film industry, since the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the history of Sri Lankan cinema is blood stained. The pioneer entrepreneurs who established the national film industry were a group of astute Lankan and Indian Tamil businessmen not unlike the pioneering American Jewish entrepreneurs (immigrants from Eastern Europe), who established the major Hollywood studios in the 1920s in a foreign tongue. Despite this contribution to the national culture, the director K. Venkat was burnt alive in his car in July 1983 anti Tamil pogrom, by a Sinhala nationalist mob. Also, the most high-profiled pioneer film producer and industrialist, K. Gunaratnam’s house was attacked in July ’83 but he managed to escape the mobs and found refuge in the Holiday Inn. But his Vijaya Studio was burned down along with a large number of Sinhala films stored there. A large number of imported modern looms he had stored there, to be installed in a new factory for weaving a specialist textile, were also destroyed. In 1989 a JVP gunman shot him dead in his car, at point blank range, during a period of extreme Sinhala terrorist and state violence, between 1988-89. He donated the Tower Hall cinema, which he owned, to the state at President Premadasa’s request, but I read that there was no visible sign of acknowledgment of this magnanimous, rare, public-spirited gesture of Gunaratnam’s. Gunaratnam has been referred to as a movie Moghul because he established and controlled significant assets in all three tiers of the Ceylon film industry, namely production, importation and distribution and exhibition, from the early 1950’s on, producing Sinhala films that were highly successful at the box office. He also astutely diversified his business portfolios into the manufacture of plastics, and other industries, such as tourism, as it grew in importance after the open economic policies of 1977. Sir Chittampalan Gardiner’s Ceylon Theatres funded Lester James Peries’ Rekava, considered the foundational film for a new realist cinema after the nationalist revival of Sinhala culture in 1956, which also introduced Irangani Serasinghe to film. When this pioneering film flopped at the box office, Gunaratnam took a big risk and funded Lester’s historical epic, Sandeshaya which was a box office hit. This is a turning point in Lester’s career and therefore in the fledgling Lankan film history, too. Jabir Cader owned several theatres, including the New Olympia, where Hollywood films were screened.
Two approaches to Lankan Film History
One might approach Lankan film history from two different perspectives or with two different emphases. The first approach is the perspective formulated by the Royal Commission on the Film Industry established in 1962-1965, chaired by Regi Siriwardena, the eminent film critic and independent scholar. The second approach is one that would ask how the Lankan popular Sinhala cinema was produced from 1947, its economic foundations and examine the specific aesthetic reasons for its durable mass appeal in the country for about three decades, focusing especially on the songs, which is where Rukmani Devi and Master Baig come into the picture.
The huge popular appeal of the genre cinema and its songs and lyrics (printed on attractive song sheets sold at cinemas), rather than the rather poor dances, often as many as 10 songs per film, has been acknowledged and discussed in the circles of older cinephiles, who collected song sheets and Rukmani Devi’s records for instance from their youth. I am not sure what the younger contemporary critical intelligentsia thinks of this past film culture though. Here, Aruna Gunarathna’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lankan film history, as a long term, but now retired, editor of Sarasawiya and his extensive YouTube programmes on the early popular cinema are in a class of their own. He calls himself a ‘pictur-pissa’, someone crazy about cinema as such, a medium like no other. One would also have to agree with the Royal Commission’s approach outlining the reforms needed to create a local product that was economically, aesthetically and culturally viable. This entailed the rejection of the Indian prototypes. Though the exclusive emphasis on vernacular Sinhala subjects and language, effectively implied an erasure through silence, of the ethnic minorities from the new desired model of a national (appema ‘our very own’ Sinhala) cinema. This idea of ‘our very own’, meaning ‘Sinhala only’, is one that had considerable currency then. This desire for ‘original purity’ resulted in considering the popular Tamil and Muslim artists as ‘honorary Sinhala folk’! That these confident artists from the minority communities (with access to other traditons), were all creating together, durable, hybrid films and songs, which also might have resonated with the minority communities in the country. Such a possibility was rarely actively explored, the exception being Garmini Fonseka.
So, it’s a matter of emphasis now, from this historical distance, when we can assess that past in a non-polemical sophisticated way, after a 30 year civil war waged on the competing, exclusionary claims of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. That is, to not simply reject the ‘song and dance’ films, as they were referred to, in a dismissive manner by critics, who called for a true national cinema, which was ‘Sinhala’ in themes and use of language. The emphasis on songs and dance were abandoned in favour of more ‘serious’ concerns. But it’s worth noting that some ‘serious’ directors still loved using songs and those from say Bambaruawaith and Hansavilak scored by Khemadasa master, have by now become classics with their poetic lyrics. However, once a popular cinema is lost it’s not possible to recreate the conditions that gave rise to it, especially its devoted mass fan base in the first instance. This was so with Classical Hollywood cinema during the studio era with its mass audience and it was so with the Sinhala films made during the first 30 years or so. But India remains the striking exception to this mass cultural historical decline, especially after the advent of Television. India with its diverse folk songs, including Thumri and several classical musical traditions (Drupad, Khayal and Karnataka), and vibrant hybrid pop cultures should teach us that musical and cinematic creativity flourishes only when artists are open to outside influences and exchange of ideas. Indian films inherit all of this diverse cultural patrimony with unshaken confidence, while Lankans in power turn inward by sustaining an obsolete idea of cultural purity.
(To be Continued)
By Lynn Ockersz
In cozy Board rooms,
Of the imperiled Isle,
It’s the ‘bigger picture’,
That’s made to count,
And that goes down well,
With those holding the reins,
But the pain is in the details,
And these easily unfaze,
Those of sound conscience,
For, we have unemployed men,
Furiously tramping the streets,
Their tools lying limp on shoulders,
Hunger gnawing at their innards,
Some taking leave of their senses,
To the amusement and laughter,
Of entertainment-starved fellow men.
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