By Shamindra Ferdinando
The new Swiss Ambassador, Dominik Furgler, presented his credentials to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Sept 30. Furgler, who succeedes Hanspeter Mock, steps in close on the heels of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), on political victimization, raising the issue of Inspector Nishantha Silva taking refuge in Switzerland. The PCoI directed the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to inquire into the whereabouts of the policeman. The PCoI wants him brought back to Sri Lanka.
Having comfortably won the 2019 Nov 16 presidential poll, Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed the PCoI to investigate allegations of political victimization, as well as interference and undue influence on the judiciary, and police, during the previous government. The PCoI consists of retired Supreme Court Justice Upali Abeyratne (Chairman), retired Appeal Court Justice Daya Chandrasiri Jayathilaka and retired IGP Chandra Fernando.
Furgler’s appointment took place amidst the on-going 45th session (Sept.14 to Oct 7) of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council where the UN, as well as UK-led Core Group raised accountability issues. They focused on the war and post-conflict issues, including a suspect arrested in connection with the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks.
At the onset of the Geneva sessions, the Core Group rather surprisingly accused the government of stepping up harassment, intimidation and surveillance, targeting civil society, since the change of regime, in Nov. 2019. It could well be part of the old Western tactic to go on the attack, no sooner the Rajapaksas were re-elected by the masses, with an overwhelming majority.
The Rajapaksas are, no doubt, the bête noir of the self-appointed international community, led by the West, due to them not being servile as in the case of our ‘right to defend ourselves’ when threatened by terrorists.
We are not for a moment saying that everything is hunky dory here, far from it. We do have a long way to go. But we are definitely not the cannibals that the West would like to paint us.
A spokesperson for the BHC reiterated the allegation in response to several questions raised by The Island as regards the recent statement by the UK’s International Ambassador for Human Rights, Rita French.
The BHC spokesperson has sent The Island the following response, on Sept 26: “The statement from the Core Group, in Geneva, agreed among Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Montenegro and the UK, reflects recent reporting, discussions and analysis by a range of sources on the operating environment for civil society in Sri Lanka. Concerns have been publically raised and documented about increased harassment, intimidation and surveillance by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and several international NGOs. The UK has regular and wide-ranging conversations on these issues with civil society, as well as the Government of Sri Lanka”.
Rita French alleged that civil society and human rights groups, in Sri Lanka, experienced an increasingly hostile operating environment. French alleged “Instances of intimidation, harassment and surveillance continue, including threats to families of disappeared persons. Individuals are detained indefinitely without appearance before court, such as lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah.”
Rita French conveniently refrained from mentioning why Attorney-at-law Hejaaz Hizbullah is in custody. The Attorney General compared Hejaaz Hizbullah’s conduct to that of the late British passport holder Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s theoretician. Balasingham was buried in the UK, in Dec 2006. Nor did she mention the fact that Hejaaz’s case is before the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, the highest court in the land.
Though the West talks so much about human rights, their own record, even now, is appalling to say the least.
If the high profile project spearheaded by the Swiss mission in Colombo meant to humiliate the new Sri Lanka administration, in Nov. 2019, succeeded, the obviously staged abduction of Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Banister Francis, too, would have been put on Sri Lanka’s account with much glee in Rita French’s statement. The trumped up victim was formerly known as Sriyalatha Perera. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa thwarted the operation by rejecting the controversial Swiss proposal to evacuate Francis, along with members of her family.
Had the President succumbed to intense pressure, the Francis issue, too, would have ended up in the Geneva agenda. That is the undeniable truth. There hadn’t been a previous instance of a Western embassy employee being abducted and sexually abused by government agents. They cooked up unprecedented allegations to tarnish President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, both locally and internationally. Even before the Swiss Embassy brought the alleged incident to the notice of the government, New York Times reported, what later a section of the media called the Francis affair. However, a hasty NYT report dated on Nov 27, 2019, and the update, two days later, revealed the status of the operation, targeting Sri Lanka.
Switzerland Ambassador Hanspeter Mock presents his credentials to President Maihripala Sirisena on Sept.6, 2018, at the President’s House. Mock succeeded Heinz Walker-Nederkoorn.
Fugitive inspector Nishantha-Francis link
The report headlined ‘Sri Lankan Critics Fear a Crackdown Is Underway, and Some Flee’ with strapline ‘A Swiss Embassy employee was abducted and asked about asylum applications and investigators were banned from leaving just days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected’ by Maria Abi-Habib and Sameer Yasir dealt with how government agents sought information from Francis on Nov. 25, 2019, regarding Nishantha Silva, who left the country for Switzerland on the previous day. NYT quoted a spokesman for the Swiss Foreign Ministry, Pierre-Alain Eltschinger, as having said: “We can confirm that a local employee of the Embassy was detained against her will on the street and threatened at length by unidentified men in order to force her to disclose Embassy-related information.”
“Switzerland regards this incident as a very serious and unacceptable attack,” he said, adding that the Swiss government was “demanding an immediate and complete investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident.”
The NYT asserted those who had carried out the abduction tried to find information regarding Inspector Silva investigating Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The detective fled to Switzerland, with his family, on Sunday, Nov. 24.
Hanspeter Mock wouldn’t have undertaken such a high profile operation without consulting political authorities in Bern. The accusations, as regards Francis‘ abduction were meant to justify Nishantha Silva fleeing the country. NYT claimed Nishantha Silva fled because Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election. The Swiss operation went awry primarily because the President thwarted a bold bid to hastily evacuate Francis in a special flight brought exclusively for that. Had that happened, the Swiss could have denied Sri Lanka an opportunity to examine Francis, who claimed she was sexually abused. Luckily the Swiss bid failed. Subsequently, one-time Swiss Ambassador in Colombo, Jörg Frieden, was sent to inquire into the incident. Sending Frieden was nothing but a face-saving measure taken by the Swiss in the wake of the exposure of the clandestine operation.
Sustained media coverage humiliated the Swiss, though they received initial propaganda advantage thanks, to a NYT report. The Swiss debacle coincided with the exposure of a propaganda operation undertaken by the then Minister Rajitha Senaratne in the run-up to the Nov 2019 presidential election. Dr. Senaratne’s project was meant to propagate the lie that Gotabaya Rajapaksa operated death squads. Obviously, Dr. Senaratne’s project and the Swiss operation contributed to Western efforts to demean Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Swiss eat humble pie
The Swiss made a desperate effort to pressure Sri Lanka to admit wrongdoing on her part. The Swiss backed by their Western allies, like a pack of hounds, sought to bring the case to an end by evacuating the woman, along with her family, in a special air ambulance, kept waiting at the BIA. In sheer desperation, Hanspeter Mock met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Dec 16, 2019 to bring negotiations, regarding the alleged abduction to a conclusion, in a manner favourable to them.
Alleging that the whole thing was nothing but total fabrication, the President told Mock that there was irrefutable evidence such as Uber reports, telephone conversations and CCTV footage that point to that fact. “The Embassy official must have been compelled by some interested parties to bring myself and my government into disrepute. It is not clear why the alleged victims acted in such a manner”, the President told the Swiss Ambassador.
By then, they had been fully exposed with Francis surrendering to the CID, on Dec 16, 2019. In spite of that, the Swiss accused Sri Lanka of violating the rule of law, in respect of Francis.
Investigations revealed Francis blatantly lied. Did the Embassy employee take such a course of action in consultation with some other interested parties? Did she receive the backing of the Embassy? And, most importantly, why did the Swiss consider Nishantha Silva’s life at risk and, therefore, felt the need to provide him political asylum, while cooking up this extravagant drama?
While the Swiss had been fighting a desperate battle to save face, the mother of Francis, and her three children, left for Singapore. This was revealed before Colombo Chief Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne on Dec 30, 2019, during the proceedings that led to Francis receiving bail. The UNP, too, had a hand in Garnier’s defence with Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dr Rajitha making statements, whereas an aide to Wickremesinghe, and a friend of the writer, Attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena, too, played a role. Gunawardena’s right, however, to assist the defence, as an attorney, cannot be disputed in any way.
When Senior State Counsel Janaka Bandara alleged that Francis could receive political asylum in Switzerland as her mother and her three children had already left for Switzerland, Defence Attorney Upul Kumarapperuma said they were in Singapore.
In a piece titled ‘The alleged abduction of Garnier Banister Francis’ posted on Dec 13, 2019, a writer declared the victim had been hunted. Examination of hand phone data revealed the Swiss Embassy employee was in touch with the then Director CID, Shani Abeysekera, Inspector Nishantha Silva, Observer Editor Darisha Bastian et al. Bastian had been a regular contributor to NYT. The sim card used by Francis had been issued to journalist Lakna Paranamana, the recipient of the Denzil Pieris Young Reporter of the Year award at the 2011 Editors’ Guild awards and a junior to Bastian at the now defunct The Nation newspaper. Investigations revealed that Inspector Nishantha Silva had been in touch with SSP Abeysekera, before the former left for Singapore.
Dharisha Bastian, too, left the country, in November 2019, amidst the investigation. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a statement datelined New York condemned the Lankan police probe, especially the seizure of Bastian’s laptop. The statement quoted Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher as having said: “CPJ strongly objects to the seizure of journalist Dharisha Bastian’s laptop and is concerned it could further endanger her sources. Sri Lankan authorities should immediately end this intimidation campaign against Bastian, which is clearly a retaliation for her critical reporting.”
The Swiss project ended up in disaster for those who planned the Blitzkrieg against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Hanspeter Mock’s successor, Dominik Furgler, presents his credentials to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Sept. 30, 2020 at the President’s House.
A Swiss statement dated Nov 29, 2019
At the onset of the operation, the Swiss remained confident of bringing it to a successful conclusion. In spite of a section of the local media taking a hostile view, Mock, as part of his overall strategy, issued the following statement: “On 25 November 2019, a serious security incident, involving a local employee of the Embassy of Switzerland, in Colombo, occurred. The employee was detained against her will in the street, forced to get into a car, seriously threatened at length by unidentified men and forced in order to disclose Embassy-related information.
Several false pieces of information are circulating in the reporting of this incident. The Swiss Embassy in Colombo is issuing the following clarifications:
The Swiss Embassy immediately lodged a formal complaint and is fully cooperating with the Sri Lanka authorities in order to support police investigation and initiate an inquiry over the case, while duly considering the health condition of the victim and their relatives.
Due to a deteriorating health condition, the victim is currently not in a state to testify.
It has been alleged that the Swiss government rejected a request for the extradition of an employee of the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and his family. No such request has been submitted.
The Swiss denied receiving a formal request from Sri Lanka for the extradition of Nishantha Silva. There is absolutely no dispute over that. The Swiss statement, issued in less than a week after Nishantha Silva reached Switzerland, stated the obvious. But, strangely, Sri Lanka hadn’t made a formal request for the fugitive policeman’s extradition, 11 months after he left the country. The PCoI taking up the disappearance should prompt police headquarters to take tangible measures in this regard. Wouldn’t it be the responsibility of Foreign and Defence Ministries to take up this matter at the highest level? Ideally, the issue should have been taken up at cabinet level, as well, as the National Security Council (NSC). Foreign and Defence Ministries owed an explanation as regards the failure on their part to address Nishantha Silva’s issue till PCoI raised it recently.
Having played politics with Sri Lanka, Switzerland demanded Sri Lankan judicial authorities ensured that the personal rights of Embassy employees were better protected and that national law and international standards complied with in the further proceedings.
The government never made an attempt to establish why the Swiss accommodated Nishantha Silva on its political asylum programme. The government lacked the will to inquire into the circumstances leading to Nishantha Silva ending up in Switzerland. Francis, too, would have ended up there if not for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intervention. Now that the PCoI issued directions to secure Nishantha Silva’s repatriation, it would be interesting to see how those responsible proceed with the task.
The government unnecessarily getting embroiled in ‘20 A’ fiasco may neglect the missing CID officer’s case or Francis inquiry. The cases should be considered together and also examined against the backdrop of overall accountability accusations arising out of the 2015 Geneva Resolution. British Human Rights Ambassador French’s statement as well as other statements delivered/reports submitted at the on-going Geneva session underscored Sri Lanka’s responsibility to defend her armed forces.
Western powers continue to repeat the same accusations regardless of constant denials by Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s Acting Permanent Representative in Geneva Dayani Mendis during ongoing sessions pointed out the UN strategy.
Over a decade after the conclusion of the war successfully against the LTTE, despite numerous odds, Sri Lanka is still struggling to answer war crimes allegations. Sri Lanka’s failure to properly exploit Lord Naseby’s Oct 2017 bombshell disclosure is a mystery. Can it be deliberate? Or sheer negligence on the part of successful political leaderships? How can one justify such ignorance from those elected representatives? Handling of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations as well as the contentious Swiss matter is certainly not satisfactory. In spite of Sri Lanka withdrawing from the Geneva Resolution, the process continues as underscored by UN/Core Group statements made during the ongoing sessions and Sri Lanka’s response. Sri Lanka cannot ignore the threat posed by the Geneva process et al. Handling of the Swiss Embassy matter would indicate the incumbent government’s readiness to address overall threat on the human rights front.
Japanese literature and Prof. Ariya Rajakaruna’s translations
by Liyanage Amarakeerthi
Department of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya
During these COVID-19 days, stories pop up everywhere describing how each country and its people are coping with the pandemic. It is said that the Japanese people are behaving in the most responsible manner; they have changed their behaviour in conformity with the health regulations related to the pandemic. The Japanese are known to turn laws into culture. In others words, they absorb laws into culture; and thereafter, laws do not look laws. When laws are made with the participation of the people, they easily blend with the public culture. This is in stark contrast to Singapore, where laws remain laws, strict, punitive and statist: obey the law or pay the penalty! In Japan even state power takes beautiful cultural shapes.
Such idealisation of Japan is part of our middle-class culture. For many of us, Japan is the ideal land: elegantly cultured; adequately Buddhist; appropriately non-Western; seemingly anti-Western; not too religious; obviously modern yet visibly Asian; moderate yet powerful; culturally traditional yet developed and so on. For us, Japan is perhaps the easiest country to love – love openly. We love the West secretly and Japan openly.
Our love of Japan may have many origins. One key source of that love is Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s two novels: Malagiya Attho and Malavunge Avurudu Da. After those two novels we have been a bit too romantic about anything Japanese. In the making of our first modern indigenous play, Saracchandra, ‘the father of modern’ Sinhala drama, was significantly influenced by Japan, and loved to overemphasise that Japanese connection. In my latest novel, Rathu Iri Andina Atha, I created a character who shrewdly manipulates our love of Japan. In order to enter the conscious of educated Sinhala middleclass, he acts as a professor returning from a long stay in Japan. To make the story believable, he carves out a story of his Japanese wife – a fiction within a fiction! Sri Lankan middle class is ready to be deceived even by an underworld imposter as long as he presents himself as a person refined in Japan. Irony, to be sure, allows us to see the extent to which Japan has become one of our national fantasies.
This essay, however, is about a real scholar who has enriched modern Sinhala literature almost singlehandedly by translating Japanese literature into Sinhala. He is Professor Ariya Rajakaruna. Several translators such as Jayantha Wimalasena, Tadashi Noguchi, and Wimaladasa Samarasinghe introduced Japanese literature to the Sinhala readers. But they translated them from English. Professor Rajakaruna translated directly from Japanese. Now in his eighties, the professor continues to translate Japanese literature into Sinhala.
Translated Literature and Sinhala Fiction
The story of modern Sinhala literature is one of the many influences. Modern Sinhala fiction in particular was primarily influenced by Russian and French fiction. From the 1940s onwards the key classics of those languages were translated into Sinhala. Edirivira Saracchandra, A. P. Gunarathne, David Karunarathne, Cyril C. Perera, K.G. Karunathilaka, Boby G. Botheju and numerous others translated those books. Among the present-day literary translators, Gamini Viyangoda, Chulananda Samaranayake, Ananda Amarasiri and many others have continued to translate contemporary world classics into Sinhala. And the Pragathi Publishers, a literary wing of the Soviet Union, made Russian classics, along with some Soviet ones, available in Sinhala at affordable prices. It must be stressed that they did not translate just Stalinist propaganda. So, we could read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and Tolstoy, who were not Bolsheviks. Those books were nicely printed as well. Some of those books came out in adorable pocket editions that we could carry around showing off our ‘refined taste’ to Sri Lankan Sonyas, Annas, Laras or Altynais – those unforgettable heroines of Russian classics. Dedigama V. Rodrigo, Padma Harsha Kuranage and Piyasena Manilgama are still in our minds as the translators of those classics. Some works of fiction from other national literature such as American, British, German, and Indian were translated here and there, but not in any systematic way. The United States did everything it could to rival the USSR during the cold war but never spent any money on translating its literature into other languages. In other words, it did not have an organ equivalent to The Progressive Publishers of the USSR. Thus, we are still to have any translation of the masterpieces of Henry James, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Scott Fitzgerald, or Saul Bellow. At the moment, our regional superpower, China, is also not interested in cultural stuff. They are into giving us colossal loans, cutting deals, and behind-the scene political games, getting ministers in the loop, and so on – very much like the US in that sense.
Japanese Influence on Sinhala literature
In addition to Russian and French literature, Japanese literature is perhaps the single most influential literary tradition to shape contemporary Sinhala literature. To account for literary influences is a difficult task. Yet, the influence of Japanese Haiku is quite visible and ubiquitous in Sinhala literature. After Ariyawansa Ranavira, one of the most senior poets, translated a collection Haiku by Japanese masters in 1980s, many Sinhala poets began writing Haiku like poems. Today, younger poets such as Lakshantha Athukorla, Palitha Senarathne, Piyankarage Bandula Jayaweera, Ven. Aparekke Sirisudhamma and others regularly write shorter poems that reflect a heavy influence of Haiku. Professor Rajakaruna himself translated a collection of Haiku directly from Japanese. His book figures prominently in the ‘Haiku dialogue’ taking place in Sinhala.
Avant Garde Films and Drama
Professor Rajakaruna translated Japanese classics into English as well. Two film scripts included in A Crazy Page and Crossroads were translated into English for the first time. Our Professor has helped some Japanese authors to reach international readership! On reading these two film scripts, I was amazed at the kind of modernism and experimentalism in those texts written in 1920s. A Crazy Page is about a man who returns to his abandoned wife and daughter some thirty years to find wife insane and hospitalized. He tries to make up for all those lost years by finding a job as an attendant at the hospital where the wife awaits her death. The film script has been written breaking the linearity in time and space. Avant Garde nature of the film is so much that I couldn’t believe that it was written nearly a century ago.
Some of the plays Professor Rajakaruna translated from Japanese to Sinhala also belong to what we conventionally call “absurd theatre.” Unfortunately, his translations were never produced as plays. But one can safely assume that at least of the younger playwrights in Sinhala have read these translated plays.
And some universities regularly use them as their required texts.
As a literary critic, Professor Rajakaruna is not known to defend experimentalism in Sinhala literature. His recent critical essays on Sinhala fiction fail to appreciate post realist fiction written by new writers, who have made some significant achievements by writing short stories and novels that transcend naturalist realism. But as a translator, the professor has been particularly keen on translating Japanese texts that are experimental in nature.
Although he looks rather conventional as a critic in his recent writing, Prof. Rajakaruna, I must say, was one of the fearless defenders of the literary modernism of Peradeniya School (1950s to 60s). As a young lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, Rajakaruna was one of the most vocal supporters of ‘free verses’ of Siri Gunasinghe, the greatest modernist of the so-called ‘Peradeniya School.’ Interestingly, Professor Rajakaruna continued to side himself with modernist experimentalism in his translations from Japanese to Sinhala.
Professor Rajakaurna translated so many short stories by celebrated Japanese writers. He also supervised two projects of translations that introduced nearly all key writers of Japanese literature into Sinhala. Two volumes of short stories, Ishtartha Siddiya and Asaliya Mal, have gone into several prints already and they include Japanese short stories representing a wide variety of styles and themes. And those stories have been translated from English by leading scholars in the field. It must be mentioned with a sense of gratitude that Japanese agencies such as Toyota Foundation have provided him with financial support to carry out those projects. But in recent times, even those funding agencies have not paid any attention to helping us make such cultural products with lasting effects. And there has not been another Ariya Rajakaruna, passionate about Japanese arts and enthusiastic about what we can learn from Japan. Now, China is all over the place. From kitchen to the cabinet – yes, I mean the Cabinet of ministers. We are likely to be indebted to China for several generations to come. But China has no Toyota Foundations that will help you translate literature. Perhaps, China knows that its best writers are not with the Chinese oligarchy, and to translate them will make no contribution to China’s geopolitical project.
Heir to his Work
Professor Rajakaruna, like many others of his generation, failed to produce inspired students who can continue his work on Japanese literature. After him, no one learned Japanese and entered into ever vibrant Japanese literary scene. Therefore, we do not have anyone translating renowned writers such as Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogava, Hiromi Kawakami, Junji Ito, Hiroko Oyamada and so on directly from Japanese. Murakami comes to us through English. His work has been translated from English into Sinhala. Professor Rajakaruna learned his Japanese in three years (1962-5) at the Tokyo School of Japanese Language. I wonder why no one after him followed his path. Many after him went to Japan for higher studies but nearly all of them ended up being wealthy car importers instead of translators. Perhaps, new Japan itself needs someone selling its cars rather than someone translating literature!
During the last 40 some years, anyone educated in Japan failed to make a lasting impact on the field of the humanities in Sri Lanka. Perhaps, there is something fundamentally wrong with those who go there or in those who teach them there. Or perhaps, after all, this is a different age. Well, the age of Rajakaruna, too, only produced just a single Rajakaruna. Literary and scholarly achievements have a lot to do with individual passion and commitment. The art of making scholarly passions contagious is still to be discovered.
Technical Japan and Literary Japan
While Japan was being reduced to electronic gadgets and auto mobiles in the economic atmosphere of post 1977 neo-liberal era, people like Ariya Rajakaruna helped us see that Japan was more than those cute technical and mechanical devices. They showed us the richness of Japanese literature. A fairly well-read person in my generation, by reading even only in Sinhala, can recite a long list of Japanese authors. And the stories of those authors might have already entered the deep crevices of our collective consciousness, and the memories of such literary work might one day influence our literature in ways that we cannot really predict or explain. Literary influences are such that one cannot really see where they come from. But our literary achievements will have the fragrance of the wonderful things their creators were exposed to during their formative years. Any serious writer writing in Sinhala today must have been introduced to some Japanese classics through the work of translators such as Professor Ariya Rajakaruna. As the most prolific translator from Japanese to Sinhala, he has been a wonderful cultural ambassador for us. It is said that his ‘embassy’ will be closed forever after him unless we, Sri Lankan literati, and our counterparts in Japan give some serious thoughts to continuing this enriching intercultural engagement. To continue that cross-fertilisation would be the best tribute to the pioneers such as Professor Rajakaruna.
(This essay is a part of longer research paper the writer is working on. He can be contacted at Liyanage19@gmail.com)
By Lynn Ockersz
There’s to be a gathering,
Of the most curious kind,
In the Nodding Isle,
Renowned for its sleights-of-hand,
Made-up of high-brow types,
Whose brief it’ll be,
To spell out the prime law of the land,
But the question being asked,
By those scrambling for scraps,
Especially in the Covid’s vicious clutch,
Is whether this heads’ only club,
Knows ‘the agony of the stomach’…
So essential an ingredient,
For creating a state most fair,
Where an ample morsel,
Would at all times be on offer for all.
Women in Power
The Revolutionary Lives and Careers of Siva, Doreen, Vivi and Sirima
By Kusum Wijetilleke (firstname.lastname@example.org) and
(Continued from yesterday)
The events leading up to her removal began in 1933 when she published an article titled “The Battle of the Flowers” in the Ceylon Daily News that questioned the sale of the Poppy on Armistice Day in the British Colonies. At the time, funds from the sale of poppies went towards British ex-servicemen and not to help the Ceylonese officers. The resulting Suriya Mal Movement sold local sunflowers (suriya) instead of poppies with proceeds going to local benefactors. This movement was an early rallying cry for independence and Ms. Doreen would go on to become a symbol of Ceylonese anti-imperialism; winning the parliamentary seat for Akuressa in 1952 under the Communist Party. However in the period leading up to Independence, leftism in Ceylon was very much under threat.
Dr. Wickramasinghe would be arrested in 1939 for sedition, and many others, including Dr. N.M. Perera would follow. The response to the arrests would be one of the largest protest marches ever seen in Ceylon, organized by the LSSP and quelled by the British with a baton charge.
Leading the march was the wife of Dr. N.M. Perera; Ms. Selina Perera who was also one of Ceylon’s leading Trotskyites and a founding member of the LSSP. Ms Perera would also shelter the Anglo-Australian Marxist Mark Bracegirdle when the Governor of Ceylon ordered his arrest and deportation, for the crime of organizing plantation labourers to agitate for better living conditions. Ms. Perera herself had to flee Ceylon to India following a brief arrest in 1940 and even joined the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma along with her husband. When India took the decision to deport them, she escaped to Calcutta, where she adopted a new identity and taught English, disillusioned with the independence politics of India and Ceylon.
At the outbreak of World War II, Colvin R De Silva, N.M. Perera and many others of the LSSP were declared ‘persona non grata’ due to their anti-Stalinism and the insistence that the war was an imperialist venture. One of the co-founders of the LSSP, Mr. Leslie Goonewardene, was able to evade arrest and escape to India along with Selina Perera and others. Hailing from a prominent political family, Mr. Goonewardene had intended to become a Methodist Priest but was influenced by Marxist teachings while in the UK, ending up at the London School of Economics under the tutelage of the famous Marxist Professor, Harold Laski.
Mr. Goonewardene’s political affiliations would lead to a meeting with his future wife, Vivienne, at a socialist rally. Vivienne Goonatilleka also hailed from aristocracy but was blessed with a rebellious streak which would mark her as one of the most important and accomplished women in Sri Lanka’s political history. Despite being the Head Girl at Musaeus College Colombo, ‘Vivi’ was noted for her defiance of authority which became evident with her involvement in the aforementioned Suriya Mal Movement. On Remembrance Day 1934, when as per tradition there would be a ceremonial gun salute at 11 am, Vivienne organized a protest whereby students would leave their boxes of instruments on the blackboards. The blackboards were then toppled at exactly 11 am to make a sound loud enough to drown out the gun salute. Despite her work with the poor and needy, Vivienne’s father was not best pleased with her political pursuits and did not want his young daughter engaged in further education, preferring that she marry and start a family of her own. Without her father’s knowledge and with the assistance of her maternal uncles, the famous socialists Philip and Robert Gunawardena, she gained entry into University College Colombo.
Vivienne’s father was completely against her marriage to Leslie Goonewardene on the basis of caste and religion but also due to the latter’s revolutionary politics which clashed with his pro-monarchy views. ‘Vivi’ was virtually imprisoned at their residence and Mr. Goonewardene was forced to file legal action against his future father-in-law by claiming unlawful detention (habeas corpus). The lawyer that successfully argued the case was a young attorney by the name of J.R. Jayawardene. Having married Leslie, Ms. Goonewardene had to escape to India under a false name along with her husband when the LSSP was proscribed for its anti-war stance. While in India Mr. and Mrs. Goonewardene immersed themselves in the Quit India Movement. After the end of World War II the LSSP began activities once again in Ceylon but ideological differences between leading members of the party led to a split based on their socialist ideologies. Vivienne joined the Bolshevik Sama Samaja Party (BSP), successfully campaigning for the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) in 1950. As a member of the CMC, she focused on the poor residing in the ‘shanty towns’ by widening the roads, providing lighting and sanitation as well as organising sewing classes for single mothers. During this time she befriended a young politician from the Ceylon Labour Movement and regularly gave him a lift from near the shanty towns to the CMC; his name was Ranasinghe Premadasa. Her work as part of Dr. N.M. Perera’s All Ceylon Local Government Workers Union led to the granting of ‘Permanent’ Status to workers and the right to pensions as well as extending pensions to widows and orphans.
Through the decades between the 1940s and the 1970s, the LSSP, its various factions and other leftist aligned parties enjoyed great success in bringing about a political awakening amongst the youth and the working class of the country. The 1953 ‘Ceylon Hartal’ was the brainchild of the radicals that witnessed the success of similar organised protests during the Quit India Movement. Ceylon had never before witnessed such well-organised mass scale demonstrations and campaigns of civil disobedience, which brought much of Ceylon to a standstill. The Government of Dudley Senanayake had become unpopular for increasing the price of rice, reneging on a key election promise by the UNP. The hartal was so fierce that the entire cabinet of the government boarded a Royal Navy warship to secure itself against potential violence.
On the wave of leftist movements across the country, Ms. Goonewardene was elected to Parliament in 1956 and again in 1964, she only lost the 1960 election by some 150 votes to Mr. M.H. Mohamed; who was appointed Cabinet Minister of Labour, Housing and Employment. She joined a leftist newspaper and began reporting on parliamentary proceedings. M.H. Mohamed was unhappy at some of the articles written by Vivienne on the labour and housing policies of the UNP and during a session of parliament he made a remark directed at Vivienne referring to her election defeat; whilst she was seated in the press gallery. An enraged Vivienne reportedly waved a slipper in a threatening manner at Mohamed and despite the Speaker banning her from the press gallery for two weeks, she proceeded to the entrance of the chamber after the session with a crowd of supporters to confront the MP. The Minister of State at that time, J.R. Jayawardene, had to escort Mohamed through a separate exit and it was left to party leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike to pacify Vivienne. She was posthumously designated a ‘National Hero of Sri Lanka’, the highest civilian honour alongside the ‘Sri Lankabhimanya’.
It is true that most of the high watermarks of female representation in Sri Lankan politics featured women that ‘inherited’ political positions through ‘pedigree’, but this may be an oversimplification of sorts. Yes, many were from well-established political families but the use of the word pedigree is interesting. One of the definitions of the noun pedigree is the provenance of a person especially as conferring ‘distinction’; which in itself is a noun that defines excellence that sets someone apart from others. The closer we study the careers of some of Ceylon’s most prominent female politicians, the more simplistic the argument about inheriting power and position appears.
Perhaps our curriculum should be adjusted to shine more light on the many women that not only attained positions of power, but also possessed the knowledge and skills to thrive in these positions. The next time we rename a street or build a statue, perhaps we should honour some of the country’s famous foremothers. Far from being entitled heirs to political dynasties, these women were prodigious powerhouses in their own right and should be respected as such. A more intense spotlight on the achievements of the many women in our history may help inspire the next generation of women to make some history of their own.
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