By MANO RATWATTE
I have been reading your articles on the 1971 JVP insurrection, quite avidly. A lot has been narrated about the fateful night of April 5th and the events that followed.
It was fascinating to read the accounts by the retired DIG. Thank you for all the articles. It brought back some vivid memories from my childhood.
My personal story from
that fateful period
I was a young boy, just past my 11th birthday and attending Royal College at the time. I was oblivious to the fact that, my father was the Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, and my maternal grandfather was the Governor General (Ceylon had not become a republic yet – that would happen later), our family would be under attack. I remember the very tense period, and how my parent’s home had been marked for attack. The markings were faint, a crude “X” made with red brick. This was repeated at the homes of some other relatives of the Prime Minister, as well. We were oblivious, never noticing the ominous markings.
I have no doubt if the JVP had succeeded they would have executed Mrs. Bandaranaike and probably my father, who was her brother, as well. The PM’s Private Secretary is a position equivalent to a White House Chief of Staff. My grandfather, as the GG and nominally Head of State, would probably have been a victim, too. It is more than likely that the JVP would have massacred my entire family, emulating what their heroes, the Bolsheviks did to the Czar’s family in Yekaterinburg, after the Russian Revolution.
When the severity of the threat became apparent, we were whisked away on the night of April 4th to the GG’s residence, Queen’s House, because the Army Commander felt it wasn’t safe for us to remain in our home. My grandfather had been the Governor General, since 1962, so luckily, we had a safe haven that was familiar to us. As a kid I thought it was “cool” to be escorted by armed soldiers. But, looking back, I realise I may not be alive today, if the JVP revolt had succeeded.
The timing of the JVP’s 1971 rebellion was very poor. The United Front government, which had won a massive landslide electoral victory, in 1970, hadn’t been in power for even an year and had not been able to implement many changes. The economic hardships, food queues and rationing, which were to come in the aftermath of the global energy crisis of 1973, weren’t on the horizon yet. Ceylon was a pleasant place with a vibrant democracy; the exception being the notorious coup attempt of 1962. A violent overthrow of the recently elected government wasn’t something likely to gain much support with the populace.
However, it is likely that, not for the serendipitous incidents in March, reported in this newspaper previously, with the JVP’s bombs exploding prematurely, the security forces would have been far less prepared and the rebellion may well have succeeded.
The situation in the early days of the revolt was very tense. My father was very active in the discussions, and was part of the National Security Council at Temple Trees. It seemed ‘touch and go’ for a while, but my father said that the Prime Minister never panicked. I know my father definitely didn’t, remaining calm despite the initial flood of bad news.
My father never panicked, no matter what the threat was. He had previously faced down the Air Force guard that threatened to open fire on my aunt, in January 1966, along with the late Dr. Baduiddin Muhammed, at a political rally. Before that, in September 1959, he had helped prevent the domestic staff at Tintagel, the PM’s private residence, hack, murderer Somarama to death, after SWRD’s assassination on the front lawn of the property. If the assassin had been killed that day, the right wing conspiracy behind it would have never been uncovered.
Reminiscing o 1971, he told us much later, with a chuckle about the ashen-faced (his words) Army Commander who was at the NSC meetings held at the Temple Trees annexe. The General wanted the PM to ask Yugoslavian leader Marshal Tito for military help. I’m not sure if the request was ever made or whether Mrs. B refused as she had faith in country’s military.
Lanka’s innocence was lost forever that day. Suddenly security and protection of VIPs became a thing in Ceylon. Prior to April 1971, the Prime Minister would have just a token escort, with a pilot-car containing a couple of armed guards and one personal bodyguard, typically a Police officer. The Governor General hardly had any security. A sleepy police Sergeant would be posted at Queen’s House. No bulletproof cars or decoy convoys like today. All that began during the war against the LTTE terrorists and suicide bombers.
I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation, until I saw guard points manned by armed sailors from the Navy, between Temple Trees and Queen’s House, during the curfew.
I remember riding in the GG’s vehicle to Temple Trees, and seeing Navy sailors in their blue uniforms and helmets with rifles and lights pointed towards the car, shouting “Halt” at the vehicle. They were mostly armed with obsolete WW1 vintage Lee Enfield Rifles, or the small Sterling ‘Sten’ submachine guns. I still remember their smart blue uniforms and the white garters (boot covers) around their boots. I also remember seeing a fleet of Indian Navy ships in Colombo, anchored facing Galle Face Green.
I remember my father, and the late Anuruddha Ratwatte (his cousin, then a Colonel), flying on Indian Air Force helicopters from the Royal Ceylon Air Force ground, that the retired DIG referenced. I tagged along in the vehicle that was used to drop them off there. They were overseeing the airdropping of surrender leaflets; an idea my father is believed to have thought of and proposed to the NSC. It offered amnesty and rehabilitation to JVP cadres who surrendered. The leaflets were dropped over the thick jungles where the remnants of the JVP were hiding. It may have been later in April or much later in May. I hope the DIG throws some light. The idea was a success with many fugitive JVP-ers surrendering to the security forces as a result of the campaign.
I have a lot more memories of those scary and sad days. The JVP has never apologized for the disruption of Ceylon’s society. Their actions were far worse in their second incarnation, but by then we were inured to violence. In 1971 we were still a peaceful and innocent country.
What if the 1971 rebellion had succeeded?
What if the JVP had seized power that April, 50 years ago? What would a Ceylon look like? A beautiful socialist utopia with complete state control of the economy? Thousands of grey Mao-suited robots with a little red book goose-stepping to herald a strongman similar to North Korea, who were supporters of the JVP? Would Wijeweera have been a Dear Leader and great benefactor? Or an Oliver Cromwell, a Gandhi, or a Pol Pot?
Act 2: Policy mistakes
Harping back to the 1971 insurgency; it shocked the leftist coalition government, headed by my aunt. As a result, some of the radical policy reforms, such as the Land Reform Act, were rushed through to assuage the anger demonstrated by the insurgents.
Land Reform, as my father later used to say, was one of the “most iniquitous” acts of policy. Think about it. Landholdings were restricted to 50 acres per adult. So if a family had adult children they could have 50 acres each, but even if a family had four young children, they lost most of their lands and six people would all have 50 acres in total ! It defied common sense and economic logic.
Did they assume the kids wouldn’t grow up to become adults? Or perhaps it was deliberately written to favour some, with thousands of acres of land and adult children, over others with young families or no children. Either way it was an absurd policy, which destroyed many viable plantations, reducing them to economically unviable smallholder status.
Housing ownership policies also were also rushed as a result of the 1971 rebellion. The implementation of this, too was botched and much wealth was destroyed. If the JVP had been more patient, they could have had a much better chance of wreaking even greater mayhem, when people were angry and tired of the stagnant economy post-1974.
But, indeed, it was serendipitous that those two premature bomb explosions happened in March. The second one happened the day my family was spending time with our uncle to celebrate his birthday.
Act 3 – The next JVP
Their reign of terror and counter terror by the Government, in 1987- 89 was far worse for the entire nation. I was by then out of the country and did not experience any of it. My father wrote to me and asked me to stay in the USA as long as possible. An uncle of mine (a first cousin of my father’s) was burnt alive in Matale, during the hell the JVP unleashed in the aftermath of the Indian “invasion by invitation” after J.R. Jayewardene erred in handling relationships with India. Another good friend’s relative was chased down and killed at his estate, because he had raised the national flag on Independence Day as the government had requested. A respected scholar was assassinated on the University of Colombo campus – Professor Stanley Wijesundere. His son and I were good friends and classmates.
And no one should forget nor forgive the brutal murder of a great humanist and charismatic leader Vijaya Kumaranatunge, the leader of the SLMP and most popular celebrity actor. Why did the cruel assassins shoot him in the face after he was already dead and fallen? Was it because of sheer envy and evil thoughts of their leader who could not stand a good-looking popular rival?
My issue with all these lame excuses and talk about a ‘people’s struggle’, is that the JVP never sincerely apologized for the violence they unleashed, and keep celebrating their leader as if he’s a local Lenin; when he and his then generation of combatants had more in common with the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, than Marx.
Harping back to the successful victory over the JVP, in 1971, it must be mentioned how quickly almost every major nation in the world came to help Sri Lanka. Because of the excellent relationship between Ceylon and India, they were the first to rush in help. I remember they even supplied the Army with SLR 7.62 automatic weapons, much more capable weapons than the ancient rifles and inaccurate Sten guns which was all they had. The Ceylon military, which up to that point was a well-disciplined force but mainly a ‘parade-ground army’, was called upon to quell a domestic armed insurrection while armed with vintage bolt action rifles.
The tiny Armoured Corps, equipped with a few Daimler armoured cars, (the largest of which had a 2-pounder gun) was used to secure Kegalle and Mawanella, which had been seized by the JVP. A few vintage Ferret Scout cars armed with WW2 era Bren guns, were deployed at Temple Trees. Later one of the Saladin six-wheeled armoured cars, with a bigger 76mm gun was also deployed facing Galle Road.
Ceylon’s tiny military, led by professional leaders, acquitted themselves really well. While there were sad incidents like the Premawathi Manamperi incident, they deserve gratitude and thanks of the entire nation. Especially a then 11-year old boy’s sincere thanks for protecting him and his family.
All is not hopeless. The new younger and more educated leaders of the JVP have embraced democratic politics and their performances in Parliament exposing corruption of governments (whichever government is in power), and their well informed and educated analysis and criticisms, are a fresh positive contrast to the adi-pudi abuse laden politics of everyone else. But they will remain a less than 5% party if they keep celebrating a man who twice took our nation down a path that was disliked or hated by most. Clearly, the UNP could also apologize for the counter terror they unleashed.
Geo political friends
India was the most important ally in 1971. Indian-Lanka relations deteriorated because of President J. R. Jayewardene’s hostile views and his foolish attempts to align himself with the US and ASEAN, totally oblivious to who the regional power was. This is something to be cognizant of today, in post cold-war realignment of alliances. The USA, which was once hostile to India, is now totally aligned in the QUAD coalition against China. India has justifiable fears and concerns about China. It stems from having been humiliated by China in the1962 border war which led to a loss of territory.
Sri Lanka really needs to nurture its friendship with India so that they will be like the 1971 ‘Dhosthi India’ and not the ‘Dushman/badamaash India’ following the gory Black July of 1983. Same country – two different postures.
The paradigm shift about security, in 1971, was significant and permanent.
Today’s call for ‘Health Promotion’
As a nation, we have reached a really critical stage with the corona pandemic. This is what The Hindustan Times reported on the 2nd of May, 2021: “Sri Lanka’s health authorities have issued new tough guidelines, including banning wedding receptions and gatherings at religious sites, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as the Island nation continued to record a spike in daily infections”. The time has come for all citizens of the country to understand the gravity of the disaster. Anyway, we have witnessed a section of Sri Lankans enjoying, despite many restrictions. It can be seen that people travel here and there without face masks, and organising events and parties amidst this situation. There is a problem with discipline. Also, I have observed that there is a segment of people who violate health guidelines and post messages on social media criticising the authorities. This “duplicity” must be interesting social research for investigators to read people in a different microscope.
Ownership and Empowerment:
At the moment we could not see any “ownership” of this disaster among Sri Lankans. Still, we can see only “health education” in the country, and we need to change this to “health promotion”. The country needs to consider this as top urgent, under these circumstances. The government should carefully use some stakeholders in this mission of “Health Promotion”. Refer to the following diagram for some selected sectors to take the initiative.
The role of the Health Promotion Bureau should be redefined. And the role of the Ministry of Education should not be underestimated in this context, to communicate messages to relevant parties — including schoolchildren and parents. In this task force, there can be community leaders, experts in the industry, representatives of the media, and some researchers as well. All members should have a Clear Plan (short-term strategy and long-term objectives) to address this pandemic situation. We have seen many times the media reporting how people violate health guidelines. But rather than concentrating on the ‘negative’ side, there can be ‘positive’, reporting as well. (As an example, a worker in the Colombo Municipal Council adhering to all guidelines by showcasing an example for the community). This is the time we need to have positive news. ((http://www.ft.lk/columns/Negative-and-positive-news-Rare-corpse-flower-set-to-bloom-at-Royal-Botanical-Gardens-Peradeniya/4-658936) for better immunity of people!
Also, there are many success stories that need to be followed by a task force of “health promotion”. In this context, we can discuss the success story of Vietnam. As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports, on 10th March 2021, “Swift introduction of containment measures, combined with aggressive contact tracing, targeted testing, and isolation of suspected COVID-19 cases helped keep recorded infections and death rates notably low on a per capita basis (IMF,2021). “Also, as per fitchratings.com “Vietnam’s economy has been more resilient than most other markets in the Asia-Pacific, as the local authorities have had greater success in containing Covid-19. It was one of the few economies in the region to report GDP growth in 2020 (fitchratings.com, Thu 22 Apr, 2021). More importantly, like in Vietnam, we also should have a successful communication strategy. Refer below:
“Vietnam’s successful communication strategy catalyzes the active participation of both governmental and private sectors as well as communities. The government centers its people in an active role with the slogan translated as “every citizen is a soldier”. In addition, non government-led initiatives, including the donation of funds and personal protection equipment by entrepreneurs and individuals, have contributed positively to social stability. For example, “the rice ATM” – a free rice dispenser reserved for the most vulnerable people, including those who lost income due to the pandemic, the elderly, students and disabled people. Students have been mobilized to assist in epidemic control by engaging them in various roles, such as data entry, sample collection or provision of phone counselling for COVID-19 suspected people. However, the number of students who joined the COVID-19 taskforce was very small (124 volunteer medical students) compared to its capacity. At the central level, a relief bill of approximately 80,600 VND billion was signed by the government to address the financial burden resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 62,000 VND billion of these funds were allocated to individuals who were poor, near poor, with meritorious services or under social protection schemes. The remaining funds were allocated to support small to medium production and business establishments.” The COVID-19 global pandemic: a review of the Vietnamese Government response – https://www.joghr.org/article/21951-the-covid-19-global-pandemic-a-review-of-the-vietnamese-government-response)
The time has come for Sri Lanka to think differently, learn, and work with responsibility. This is a disaster in which we need to stop the “blame game” and understand the situation with more responsibility. If we can use “health promotion” in an effective way, it would be one of the success stories for the world, always helping for long term sustainable development of the nation.
Prof. NALIN ABEYSEKERA
(Professor of Management Studies, Faculty of Management, Management Studies, The Open University of Sri Lanka
– email@example.com )
Political interference aggravating Deadly Pandemic
Humankind is in the middle of the deadly COVID pandemic, the worst ever seen in our lifetime. The virus, with all its ongoing mutations, is causing havoc all over the world, leading to untold misery and death. In the absence of any effective curative medication, and inadequate vaccine cover, prevention, with strict public health measures, based on sound scientific evidence, remains the fundamental way out of this impending catastrophe.
Larger countries, where politicians ignored professional advice, based on science, and took politically popular decisions, saw the inexorable spread of the disease causing much preventable deaths. Brazil, the USA (during the Trump presidency), and India, at present, are classic examples of this unfortunate situation. Countries like New Zealand, Australia, Israel and South Korea, taking decisions based purely on scientific advice, despite causing temporary hardship and restrictions on the people, have managed to return to near normal pre-COVID status.
Sri Lanka has a literate population.It also has a well-established public health service responsible for prevention and even eradication of many diseases, which are still ravaging many South Asian countries. The country is held out as an example of a success story in this regard by even the World Health Organization (WHO). As such, we should have succeeded in controlling the epidemic by now.
What went wrong in Sri Lanka, still causing the epidemic to escalate on a daily basis with ever increasing morbidity and mortality? The associations of doctors, other healthcare professionals, and even the laboratory technologists have been giving well considered advice and issuing guidelines to curtail the epidemic. But mostly, such advice appears to have been ignored by the political authorities, taking their own decisions instead. The COVID Control Task Force, being headed by the Army Commander, and the Vaccine Task Force, being under an elderly non-medical administrator, are classic examples of this ignorance. It is obvious that both these positions, as well as a majority of the membership of the task forces, should be held by medical professionals. The initial apparent success was hailed by politicians taking full credit, leading to them doing well at the elections. Most such decisions were directed at increasing the popularity of those in power or financial gain for people close to them. This has led to much bungling in decision-making, summarily listed below.
1. Health regulations were not strictly enforced . There was an escalation of the number of cases soon afterwards.
Health regulations were not strictly enforced during the general election last year.
2. The controversy on disposal of dead bodies; the scientifically correct decision to allow burial was taken by the politicians only after much heartburn of the community and even humiliation in the international scene.
3. Allowing and openly promoting unproven native medication, making the people ignore public health guidelines.
4. Conducting the Lanka Premier League (LPL) cricket tournament in Hambantota, bringing in players from countries with a roaring epidemic. One of the players found to be PCR positive then is alleged, though without proof, to have brought in the UK variant of the virus.
5. Entertaining tourists from Ukraine, where authorities had no control over the fast spreading disease. It is an open question whether the quarantine procedures were properly implemented. Same mistake is being made now, with Indians being allowed to come in for so called quarantining purposes. It is well known that the financial interests of acolytes took precedence over the health of the people.
6. Messing up the vaccination process. Notwithstanding the somewhat unforeseen situation in India, timely action should have been taken to obtain adequate supplies of approved vaccines. The authorities appeared to depend on the donation of an unapproved vaccine from a friendly country. The priority list for vaccination was disrupted, thus exhausting the supplies of the vaccine. As a result, only an insignificant proportion of the people have received the first dose, with no guarantee of the second.
7. Allowing free movement of people during the festivals, largely ignoring recommended preventive guidelines. These were openly patronised by the kith and kin of the political leaders.
8. In many meetings and other gatherings organised and attended by the politicians at the highest level, scant regard is given for public health precautions.
9. Claiming success until a few weeks ago, and reducing the PCR testing and other measures until caught unawares with a rapidly rising case load.
10. Restriction of movement and isolation of areas is hampered by political interference. This was well illustrated by what happened recently in Piliyandala, where the isolation of the area, on medical advice, was reversed within a few hours at the behest of a political bigwig.
11. All social gatherings were banned a few days ago. However, it was comical how largely attended weddings were allowed for a few days more, obviously to accommodate someone close to the centers of power. Though rumours abound, the beneficiary of this anomaly is still not known for certain.
To what extent the hierarchy in the medical administrators of the Health Ministry contributed to this dismal situation is open to question. The general impression is that they are succumbing to political pressure, without standing their ground. It is widely suspected that even the correct statistics are not divulged to avoid embarrassing the politicians. However, knowing how overpowering the politicians could be, it may be unreasonable to blame the hapless officials doing a thankless job under trying circumstances.
SENIOR MEDICAL CONSULTANT
Making O/L English literature more accessible
In his feature article, titled “Reduce O/Level STRESS”, appearing in The Island of 03 May, Anton Peiris makes a timely intervention to introduce an alternative mathematics course for O/L students, which will be tailored to suit the capacity of a considerable number of students who find the customary mathematics paper too challenging. This is surely a more pragmatic and student-friendly approach, because for the past few years we have been trapped in the split between two extremes: either in support of a pass in math to be made compulsory for all A/L students or the exemption of Arts students from this requirement. “Maths Studies” would be a happy compromise between the two extremes, which would stand in good stead for many O/L students. with a gift for Arts subjects to pursue their goals without math being an undue hindrance or, conversely, its total exemption turning out to be a free license for laxity.
O/L English literature seems to be another subject not available to many students due to at least two reasons: first, the want of qualified teachers and, second, the standards being set too high for the average student, as in the case of math. This deters many students who are not competent enough to meet the high-end demand for “appreciating literary texts” from gaining many other benefits literature would otherwise offer them, if provided as a more watered down package, as in “Maths Studies.” In short, the introduction of a less daunting variant such as “Literature Studies” for the average student, for whom the regular “English Literature” is virtually a taboo, can ensure the same gains “Maths Studies” intends to bring to those less proficient in math.
Such leniency would not be wholly out of tune with the learning outcomes of O/L English Literature, enunciated in the relevant syllabus issued by the NIE, which states:
The national goal of making an informed reader means a critical thinker as well. The learner must be able to appreciate any “well written” book and recognize a “good book” when he sees one. It is a training for life. But the whole enterprise of studying literature has been coloured by non-educational, even non-humanistic objectives. For most students and more for their parents, English literature has become a symbol of prestige, culminating in a fantasy of a distinction pass at the GC.E. (O/L) examination. (http://www.nie.lk/pdffiles/tg/e10tim130.pdf)
This goes to provide at least two good reasons for introducing a less demanding option like “Literature Studies” for the average student. As the latter part of the above paragraph admits, for many students, as well as their parents, studying English literature has become a “symbol of prestige.” This is sad because promoting such snobbery flies in the face of all the lofty ideals contained in the first three sentences, such as making the student well informed, critical and sensitized enough to appreciate good literature, etc. As such, it would not be undesirable, in the least, to aim at moulding a reasonably broadminded and sensitive person, by adjusting the syllabus to focus more on increasing their general awareness of the richness of world literature, without making the study of O/L literature a strenuous exercise of gaining a set of “skills,” which may be more suitable for the purpose of grooming critics rather than making students read for pleasure. Arguably, the emphasis on critical appreciation of the texts might be one reason why the students end up becoming stuck-up, as described in the above passage.
There is no doubt that the regular O/L literature course prepares the student to study literature at the A/Ls – hence the need for its continuation. However, a more student-friendly variant intended for encouraging the average student to read literature, without the unnerving prospect of having to write a critical essay on each of the prescribed texts she has to read, is sure to cultivate the reading habit among students. The performance evaluation defined in the NIE syllabus cited below proves the rigid test-oriented and technical nature of the process:
Appreciation of English literary texts is tested as a component of the G.C.E. (O/L) examination formatively as well as summatively at the end of a two-year course of study. At school level, it is assessed formally at term tests. It is also assessed informally in the classroom using a variety of techniques, both oral and written. Conventionally literature is tested by written examinations. The test items most frequently used are the context question and the critical essay. The context question is more effective since it directly tests the candidate’s familiarity with the texts.
Undoubtedly, a more student-friendly and less formulaic syllabus intended for coaxing the average student to read for pleasure, may ideally minimize the focus on critical writing aspect and the emphasis on a knowledge of the textual mechanics. Instead, such a syllabus may include a prudent selection of interesting biographical details of writers and their famous works, their dominant themes and the relevant social contexts, short samples of texts not intended for critical evaluation but for familiarizing them with various writing forms, etc. – anything that will stimulate the reading habit of the student who may even be encouraged to read the translations in their mother tongue, if time permits.
The most important outcome would be to make them keen readers. The essential fine-tuning with regard to the selection of teaching materials and testing can be done by the syllabus designers and teachers who know the terrain well. Thus, as in the case of math, the modified syllabus of literature would help students who are not adequately proficient to follow the standard literature course, to find a more manageable way of developing a liking for literature.
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