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Midweek Review

Focus on Tamil politics



First general election under Gotabaya presidency:

Before the split: Sampanthan and Wigneswaran at an event in the Jaffna peninsula

by Shamindra Ferdinando

Rajavarothiam Sampanthan (87) is the oldest contestant at the August 5, 2020, parliamentary poll – the third since the conclusion of the nearly 30-year separatist war, in May 2009. The leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is in the fray, from the Trincomalee district. Having first entered parliament, at the 1977 general election, on the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) ticket, the Attorney-at-Law was among those lawmakers who boycotted parliament, beginning mid-1983, after the then President JR Jayewardene extended the life of parliament by six more years, through fraudulent means. The so called 1982 Dec referendum, which was more or less rigged by his regime, deprived the voters an opportunity to exercise their franchise, till 1989. The UNP move facilitated the India-sponsored terrorist project here.

The TULF boycotted parliament for several reasons. This Indian-sponsored terrorist groups ordered them not to continue in parliament beyond the normal six-year term et al. The TULF members lost their seats, following three month absence from parliament. It would be pertinent to mention that the TULF, with 23 seats – the second highest number of seats in parliament – served as the main Opposition.

Having participated in turbulent politics, Sampanthan received the post of Opposition Leader, following the last parliamentary poll, held in August, 2015, though his TNA received only 16 seats. In spite of the Joint Opposition (breakaway UPFA faction) having a much bigger representation in Parliament, (almost 50 MPs), and despite repeatedly challenging Sampanthan’s appointment, he served as the Opposition Leader, until Dec 2019. The JO was denied the Opposition Leader’s Office, through machinations of then President Maithripala Sirisena, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and the majority hold the ruling UNF-led alliance had in the House.

Sampanthan, who also served as the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) leader, handed over the post to Mavai Senathirajah (77) in early Sept 2014. The ITAK is the main constituent of the TNA, notorious for recognizing the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil community, by fiat. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran held the de facto title until the Sri Lankan military shot him, on the morning of May 19, 2009, in the final skirmishes.

TNA faces unprecedented


The TNA, with its strong man Senathirajah contesting from the Jaffna electoral district, faces a huge challenge in retaining the 16 seats it won at the last general election. For the Tamil electorate, the main battle is between the TNA and the newly formed Thamizh Makkal Thesiya Kootani (TMTK), led by former Chief Minister and retired Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran (80).

The TMTK-led grouping includes Eelath Thamilar Suyaatchchi Kalagam (Leader 48-year-old Ananthy Sasitharan), Thamizh Thesiya Katchchi (Leader M.K. Sivajilingam) and Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (Leader Suresh Premachandran 62). Among others in the fray are Minister Douglas Devananda 62, (EPDP) and the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam (46).

Sasitharan is the wife of LTTE Trincomalee ‘political’ head Velayutham Sasitharan, alias Elilan.

She has repeatedly alleged, both here and abroad, that her husband disappeared after surrendering in 2009 to the Army, on the Vanni east front.

Former Northern Province Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s move undermined the TNA’s supremacy, particularly in the Northern region. Having obtained five seats at its first election, in 2000, during Kumaratunga’s presidency, the TNA secured 15 seats at the 2001 general election (the UNP engineered a dozen defections that compelled Kumaratunga to call fresh parliamentary poll), 22 seats in 2005, 14 seats in 2010, and 16 in 2015. The TNA secured its best results, in 2004, thanks to the LTTE stuffing ballot boxes to help its then totally pliant proxy. The European Union condemned the TNA for its murderous alliance with the LTTE, though parliament conveniently turned a blind eye to the blatant way it won such a large number of seats. Local election monitors, too, didn’t utter a word, exposing those self-appointed guardians’ much flaunted impartiality.

The TNA will definitely find it extremely difficult to retain 16 seats, even though the top leadership publicly remains confident that the Northern electorate won’t disappoint the party. However, it certainly wouldn’t be an easy task, especially against the backdrop of TNA heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran (56), publicly denouncing the LTTE’s failed terrorism project, recently. The TNA opponents are already capitalising on it by whipping up hysteria, among northern emotional voters.

The provocative declaration was made by ex-lawmaker Sumanthiran, in an interview with Chamuditha Samarawickrema’s recent widely-watched and shared interview on social media. No less a person than Sampanthan defended Sumanthiran, amidst heavy attacks on the ex-lawmaker.

UK-based Suren Surendiran, of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), too, defended Sumanthiran.

Surendiran efficiently discussed the Sumanthiran issue, in an article headlined ‘Is unqualified and uncritical support for the armed struggle of the past, a must, to play a leading role in Tamil politics today?’ published in The Island, on May 28, 2020. Surendiran questioned the interviewer’s motives, as well as those of a Tamil media organization, belonging to a close relative of a former UPFA National List member, representing the Jaffna District. The reference was to Angajan Ramanathan, who is on the SLFP ticket, in the fray from the Jaffna District.

The TNA heavyweight’s condemnation of the LTTE is all the more surprising as he justified the Thowheed Jamaat 2019 terror attacks on Churches and hotels soon after those despicable assaults on total innocents. Sumanthiran maintained that such attacks should be expected, if the government did not address the grievances of the minorities.

The shocking and utterly callous pronouncement was given at an event, at the BMICH, to mark the first anniversary of the political weekly ‘Anidda,’ held a few days after the Easter Sunday carnage.

The TNA’s fate depends particularly on the performance of Wigneswaran’s grouping. The possibility of the TNA retaining 16 seats, however, seems very unlikely. The TNA is certainly troubled by the UNP split. ITAK Colombo leader K.T. Thawarasa, PC, recently declared that TNA’s Jaffna District candidate Sivagnanam Shritharan’s call for Colombo District Tamils to vote for Mano Ganesan (60) of the Tamil Progressive Front, contesting under the breakaway UNP faction, now registered as the Samagi Jana Balvegaya (SJB), was not the party’s position. Shritharan, in a statement published in a Tamil website emphasized that it was the duty of Colombo Tamils to re-elect Ganesan.

The UNP faces a heavy defeat in the Colombo district, with eight out of 11, elected on its slate at the last parliamentary poll, contesting on the SJB ticket/National List at the August 5 poll. Only Ravi Karunanayake, still under investigation over 2015 and 2016 Treasury bond scams, remained along with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on their Colombo list, whereas the other former Colombo district lawmaker Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, is on the SLPP ticket.

Having fully cooperated with the UNP, since the LTTE’s defeat, the TNA appears to be uncertain of its strategy. Recent meetings with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa indicated readiness on its part to explore the possibility of ‘working’ with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

Moreover, the TNA is struggling to come to terms with new political realities. The UNP set up is in tatters, with beleaguered Wickremesinghe facing his worst defeat at the forthcoming poll.

The TNA backed the UNP nominated presidential candidates at 2010 (General Sarath Fonseka), 2015 (Maithripala Sirisena) and Sajith Premadasa (2019). The two parties worked extremely close during 2015-2020 and, during that marriage, the UNPled administration betrayed the war-winning armed forces at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, and proposed the drawing up of a new Constitution, at the expense of the country’s unitary status. The TNA stood solidly with the UNP, in the wake of the Oct 2018 constitutional coup perpetrated by the then President Maithripala Sirisena. The JVP, too, was part of the UNP-led defence, fully backed by a section of the Western powers, and the civil society grouping, backed and financed by those powerful outside interests. Having backed General Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena, fielded by the UNP-led coalition, the JVP contested the 2019 presidential poll. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake (51) ended up a distant third, at the poll, handsomely won by wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa with a majority of nearly 1.4 mn votes. JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who contested on Jathika Jana Balavegaya ticket, polled 418,553 votes (just 3.16 per cent). The JVPer did much better than retired Army Chief General Mahesh Senanayake who obtained a paltry 49,655 votes (0.37 votes). Having vowed to contest the parliamentary poll, a humiliated Senanayake vanished from the political scene.

The JVP is struggling to retain the number of seats, it won at the 2015 parliamentary election. It managed to secure six seats, including two National List slots. The JVP filled its National slots with defeated candidates (Sunil Handunetti 48) and Bimal Ratnayake (47).

Slain MP’s wife enters fray

The TNA fields slain TNA MP Nadarajah Raviraj’s wife, Sasikala, on its Jaffna District nomination list. Raviraj, who served as the Mayor of Jaffna after the military brought the peninsula under its control, in 1996, was shot dead, in Colombo, on Nov 10, 2006. Having first entered parliament, in 2001, Raviraj retained his Jaffna seat, at the 2004 general election and was one of the most outspoken lawmakers at the time he was silenced. Raviraj was 44 years old at the time he was assassinated, along with his Sinhala police bodyguard. A court, in Dec 2016, acquitted five men accused of Raviraj’s murder.

Former LTTE Trincomalee District political leader Elilan’s wife, Ananthy Sasitharan, is contesting Jaffna on TMTK’s ticket. She served the TNA-run Northern Provincial Council, both as a member and later as a minister. Having entered political life, thanks to the TNA, and engaged in a high profile campaign, overseas, against the government of Sri Lanka, Sasitharan switched allegiance to Wigneswaran.

Interestingly, former member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Ambika Satkunanathan is not on the TNA Jaffna List. Satkunanathan’s resignation from the HRCSL in March this year, fuelled intense speculation the lawyer and human rights advocate would enter politics.

Satkunanathan served in many roles at the United Nations offices, in Sri Lanka, including as the national legal advisor to the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Office of the Senior Human Rights Advisor and national consultant on gender integration/evaluation at the Office of the Resident Coordinator.

She is the chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust in Colombo. The LTTE assassinated TULF lawmaker, Tiruchelvam, on July 29, 1999, in Colombo. The emergence of the TNA should be examined, taking into consideration the decimation of the TULF leadership, by the LTTE.

Tiruchelvam was on his way to his office at Kynsey Terrace, Colombo, when a man threw himself onto Tiruchelvam’s car, near the Kynsey Road-Rosemead Place Junction. The academic was 55 at the time of his assassination.

In addition to Sasikala Nadarajah and Ananthy Sasitharan, Vijayakala Maheswaran, wife of slain UNP lawmaker, T. Maheswaran, is contesting Jaffna on the UNP ticket. An LTTE assassin killed Maheswaran inside a Hindu temple, in Colombo, on January 1, 2008. The police apprehended the assassin alive. While Sasikala is a newcomer to national politics and Ananthy seeks a parliamentary career, having represented the Northern Provincial Council, Vijayakala eyes a third term as Jaffna MP. Vijayakala served two terms (2010-2015 and 2015-2020) during which she publicly appreciated the LTTE. In spite of the government initiating legal action, Vijayakala continues to praise the LTTE, regardless of the organization ordering her husband’s assassination.

Post-LTTE Tamil politics

All Tamil parties are in the process of gradually re-asserting their roles over a decade after the LTTE’s demise. The LTTE controlled and influenced the political setup in the Northern and Eastern Provinces before setting up its own – a grouping loyal to Prabhakaran. It chose Sampanthan to lead the TNA. The Attorney-at-Law obviously had no choice, but to accept the LTTE dictate or face the consequences. Having helped the TNA to register its best performance, at the 2004 general election, with heavy handed support from the Tigers, the LTTE used the grouping to engineer Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the 2005 Nov presidential poll. The LTTE wanted an environment conducive for declaration of a full scale war, hence the decision to order Tamils to boycott the presidential election. The denial of the Northern electorate cost Wickremesinghe the November 2005 election and Prabhakaran, his life, in May 2009. The TNA enjoyed special status, thanks to the LTTE. The status quo remained until the very end. It would be pertinent to mention that the TULF, in spite of being in the original TNA formation, quit the organization, before the 2005 presidential poll.

Over a decade after the successful conclusion of the war, Tamil polity is sharply divided over the course it should take. The unexpected emergence of war veteran Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as the President, clearly delivered a debilitating blow to the TNA project. No nonsense President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has ruled out following the strategies of his predecessors, in dealing with Tamil political parties. The President refrained from inviting the TNA leadership for formal talks or making overtures though some felt a consensus could be reached. However, the TNA will have to await the Aug 5 poll result to formulate its strategy. The most important question is whether it can retain a parliamentary group similar to the size of the one in the last parliament. One thing is clear, in the absence of the LTTE, and the top leadership pursuing an exit strategy, meant to distance the coalition from the LTTE, the TNA may end up much weaker in parliament. But, in politics nothing is certain and unexpected factors can influence the electorate.

Recently, former TNA lawmaker Sivagnanam Shritharan (who urged Tamils to vote for Mano Ganesan) declared, in Kilinochchi, that they needed at least 20 seats, in the next parliament, to represent the Tamil community in a meaningful way.

The TNA really toiled hard for a new Constitution, during the yahapalana administration. Sumanthiran played a significant role in the process, led by Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, who, on behalf of the 21-member Steering Committee, tasked with formulating proposals in September 2019, just weeks before the constitutional coup presented an interim report. The Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly, established by parliamentary resolution, on March 9, 2019, consisted of Ranil Wickremesinghe (Chairman), Nimal Siripala de Silva, Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, Rauff Hakeem, Dinesh Gunawardena, Lakshman Kiriella, Douglas Devananda, Susil Premajayantha, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Rishad Bathiudeen, (Dr.)Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Bimal Rathnayake, D.M. Swaminathan, M.A. Sumanthiran, Mano Ganesan, Prasanna Ranatunga, Malik Samarawickrama, (Dr.) Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Dilan Perera and Dr. Mrs. Thusitha Wijemanna.

SLPP National List nominee Gevindu Cumaratunga recently challenged the UNP and its breakaway faction the SJB, the TNA and the JVP to seek public endorsement of yahapalana constitutional proposals, at the forthcoming election. Strangely, none of those who pushed hard for a brand new Constitution had the stomach to go before the public with their proposals in the on-going campaign. The UNP factions are silent on the once high profile constitutional making process. Instead, both major camps (SLPP and SJB) engaged in uninspiring campaigns primarily based on accusations of waste, corruption and irregularities. Basically, the SLPP is campaigning for a steamroller two-thirds majority to do away with the 19th Amendment whereas the SJB, UNP, TNA and JVP sought to thwart President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s project.

Indications are a two-thirds majority is simply not possible, under any circumstances, regardless of, continuing SLPP rhetoric, a week short of Election Day.

Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan alias Karuna Amman, contesting the Digamadulla electorate, on the Ahila Ilankai Tamil Mahasabha (All Ceylon Greater Tamil Council), caused a stir when he recently claimed killing 2,000-3,000 soldiers in a day during the battle for the Elephant Pass base.

The reference was to the 2000 battle, leading to the Army quitting the strategic base, in April 2000. As far as the writer understood, Karuna meant the LTTE killing 2000-3000 soldiers in one night.

Former UPFA Minister (National List) is struggling on the political front and his unsubstantiated claim regarding the Elephant Pass battle proved the one-time LTTE commander faced an uphill task. Ahila Ilankai Tamil Mahasabha is unlikely to make an impression at the general election.

The UPFA accommodated Karuna on its National List twice – first in 2008 and then in 2010.

Instead of contesting the 2015 general election, he fielded his sister, from the UPFA Batticaloa list. Kruna’s sister failed in her bid. With Maithripala Sirisena’s emergence as the President and the SLFP leader, Karuna, who held the post of Vice President of that party quit. However, he backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign and seemed certain of returning to parliament. However, his bid went awry due to former TNA lawmaker S. Viyalendran receiving the top position in the SLPP Batticaloa list. An irate Karuna is fielding his wife Vithiyavathi through an independent group in Batticaloa, while himself moving to neighbouring Digamadulla in spite of the district not being dominated by Tamils. Karuna is on record as having said that he declined an offer to accommodate him on the SLPP National List. However, Karuna didn’t claim a personal role in Elephant Pass battle though he was involved in their counter offensive against Jayasukurui and some phases of operations, leading to the humiliating the Elephant Pass fall to the Tigers. However, Karuna hadn’t been involved in the Elephant Pass battle at all nor did the Army lose 2,000 to 3,000 officers and men in one night. Karuna was playing politics with the war that is now fast fading from our collective memory.

Karuna’s boast in response to TNA Chairman of the Karaitheevu Pradeshiya Sabha said in Tamil ‘Karuna was more ‘kodiya’ (deadly, dangerous, cruel, and nefarious) than corona.’ Let us not hound Karuna over political rhetoric.

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Midweek Review

Brecht’s Chalk Circle Again and Again



Azdak’s Judgments:

by Laleen Jayamanne

Soldier: Your Honour, we meant no harm. Your Honour, what do you wish?

Azdak: Nothing, fellow dogs. Or just an occasional boot to lick!


Fetch me wine, red wine, sweet red wine.

‘In a faraway and long-ago, dark and bloody epoch, in a sunburnt and cursed city, there lived a Duke…’ sang the storyteller. In the mid-’60s when Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle was first performed there, Colombo had ceased being dark and bloody. April ‘71 was yet a few years away. But the effects of the Sinhala Only Act of ‘56 were taking root in educational institutions, like the National School of Art and Crafts, creating a myopic, monolingual culture. In this context, Henry Jayasena and others in the Sinhala theatre who were interested in developing contemporary drama, began to translate modern European plays, originally written in German, Russian and Italian. Crucially, these Sinhala versions were drawn from English translations of the original languages of the plays. So English worked as the essential ‘link’ language without which we would not have had any access to world theatre and much else. Henry had a good command of English, learnt in high school and at Teachers’ College. Like his similarly brilliant contemporary Sugathapala de Silva, he was not a University educated artist. But Jayasena’s superb theatrical imagination allowed him to translate from English the Chalk Circle into a most wonderful colloquial poetic Sinhala idiom. So much so that it feels like the play was written originally in Sinhala! Reading the Sinhala script was a pleasure in itself and sections have remained in my old brain, as good poetry does. The epic techniques of supple shifts from the songs of the narrator, to the every-day racy, bawdy dialogue of the soldiers, to the lyrical love passages between Grusha and Simon Shashava, to the absurdist folk utterances of Azdak, are all memorably crafted and differentiated.

Bertolt Brecht’s Epic play written in 1944 while he was in exile in the US, fleeing Hitler’s fascist Germany, continues to be a vibrant part of Lanka’s living ‘theatrical epic-memory’. Also, as a text for the O’Level, a large number of Lankans must have become familiar with it. The play has a ‘play-within-a-play’ double structure but in scene 4, Azdak’s story, there is a further third level. That is, a ‘play-within-a play-within-a play’. The first play is set in the present postwar Soviet Republic of Georgia in 1945, where workers of two Collective Farms meet with a State official to decide, through discussion, as to who should have the stewardship of a particular valley. The Farmers who have been in the valley since birth claim it as their own for their goats to graze in, while the other group say that through irrigation they can make the valley more productive of fruit and wine. Its key question is, ‘who is good for the land?’

The play-within the play, set in the Imperial past of a fictional Georgia or Grusinia, at war with Persia. The folk parable of the Chalk Circle is performed as entertainment after the debate about the valley has been reasonably decided. The key question there becomes, ‘who is the good mother for the child?’ – (hadu mavada, vadu mavada? The third level of a play-within a play-within a play is a mock trial between a prince who wants to be the Judge and Azdak pretending to be the deposed Grand Duke, as the defendant. In all there are six or seven judgments that involve Azdak in one way or another. The intricacies of each of these legal cases and their differences from each other, make scene 4 a most fascinating aspect of the episodic structure of the play itself. In contrast, scenes 1-3 involving Grusha the kitchen-hand and her dilemma are expressed memorably and clearly by the narrator: “Terrible is the temptation to be good.” This is Grusha’s decision to save and nurture the Governor’s abandoned infant, without counting the terrible cost to herself. Her scenes, engaging as they are, do not have the kind of intricacy and complexity of the six or so episodes where Azdak plays with several ideas of Law and of Justice.

Animals’ Rights and the Folk Imagination

An Epic Contest is staged in the play, between the idea of The Law as a written code by absolutist rulers, and ideas of Social Justice, which include a sense of fairness towards the poor and powerless. This ample human feeling of fairness is encoded in folk tales of peoples across Eurasia where animals also have a claim on Justice from humans. For example, the Mahavamsa tells us of the remarkable sense of justice embodied by the Tamil King Elara when he ruled Anuradhapura. He had a bell hung at his palace gate, which anyone could ring to make a claim when an injustice had been committed. So, when a cow complained to Elara that his son in his chariot had run over and killed her calf, he did not hesitate to put his son to death. We are told that taking pity on them, both lives were restored by a god. According to my friend Amrit MacIntyre who is a lawyer and legal scholar that story is found in various forms in the Middle East to Europe. Each version of the story is about a king from the distant past who is known for his justice. Critically, in each version the person seeking justice was an animal, a serpent in Italy seeking justice from Charlemagne, and an ass in the Middle East seeking justice from an Iranian Emperor (Khusro I). What is intriguing in all of this is a common conception of justice equally applying to all, including animals, that forms part of the mental landscape across Eurasia from very early on. Interestingly, a 2017 decision of the Supreme Court of India referred to the story of Elara as part of its reasoning! The folk tale of the Chalk Circle is found in an ancient Chinese play, as well as in the Judgment of Solomon in the Old Testament, and both were points of reference for Brecht in radically rewriting the tale as a modern epic parable influenced by Marxist ideas.

Azdak, the town scribe and rogue judge, was played memorably by Winston Serasinghe in Ernest MacIntyre’s English production. Henry Jayasena played the same in his own production, also in the mid-60s. And MacIntyre also acted as the priest in Henry’s production – one of the earliest exchanges between English and Sinhala Theatre in the ‘60s. That is to say, between the Lionel Wendt and Lumbini theatres, respectively. Azdak was the village scribe who, when the State collapsed and the official judge hanged by the rebellious carpet weavers, was forcibly roped in to act as a judge by the illiterate soldiers. But it turned out that he had his own eccentric ideas of Justice and fair play and was a bit drunk, sexist and openly took money from plaintiffs. Though Azdak appears only in the last 2 scenes, he leaves a powerful impression in one’s memory as a character like Shakespeare’s Falstaff. But he is unlike Falstaff whose fall from grace, after rejection by his former buddy Prince Hal, is full of tragic pathos. Azdak is a creature of the folk imagination.

Epic-Character Azdak

Sumathy Sivamohan concludes her recent article on the links between the two Republican Constitutions of Sri Lanka (‘72 & ‘78), by invoking Azdak as a figure relevant to this moment of the People’s Aragalaya, (The Island 8/8). Azdak is a Brechtian Epic-Character through whom the very ideas of Law and Justice are examined, played with, debated and put into crisis, theatrically. He is also a great comic figure introducing laughter into the court where it is thought to be unseemly. In this way Brecht’s Epic Theatrical practice offers us several unusual angles on the process of making Judgements, the reasoning behind them. Through these scenes, the idea of Justice appears paradoxical, not altogether just in one case, but also both reasonable and yet ‘unlawful’, if judged according to the letter of the Law, in another. And some downright absurd. This complexity, of plot lines and intricacy of comic procedural ‘legal’ detail, is significant in demonstrating the class basis of judgements and how they are reached. The hilarious comic absurdity of some of Azdak’s arguments and rulings parody seemingly rational, legalistic linguistic power-play in regular courts. ‘Demonstrability’ is a strong concept in Brechtian theatrical theory and is linked to the idea of the pedagogical function of Epic Theatre.

A Brechtian Parable for the Aragalaya?

The comedic demonstration of the interplay between the Law and Justice, appears to be relevant to Lankans now, poised in their struggle to make politicians accountable for their actions which have plunged the country into economic, political and existential chaos. Azdak is an epic construct and as such we don’t quite empathise with him or like or dislike him. Rather, we observe this comic figure with enjoyment, as he plays with a variety of judgments, with no rule book as guide. He excites our curiosity about the mechanics of the Law, its different avatars, (Totalitarian Law, People’s Law, a judgment without a precedent), which, in an Imperial regime, as in the world of the play within the play, seems invincible and arbitrary. The two lawyers of the Governor’s wife Natella Abashvili are, however, immediately recognisable social types aligned with social power, contrasting with Azdak’s Epic singularity. They argue for the right of the blood-line to obtain the child from Grusha, to return to his biological but callous and predatory mother, only so that she can claim the property bequeathed to the child.

A Palace Revolution

The Chalk Circle opens on a seemingly normal Easter Sunday, with the wealthy Governor and family attending church to great fanfare that soon turns violent – palace revolution creates chaos and soldiers go to war against distant Persia. The Governor is beheaded, his head impaled on a lance and displayed, nailed to a wall, while his wife flees forgetting to take their baby. The Grand Duke has also gone into hiding. The Carpet Weavers, taking advantage of the revolt, hang the Judge. So it comes to pass that the village scribe Azdak becomes the accidental Judge, under a state of emergency. Not knowing the Law is no impediment to Azdak. Some of these events and scenes of the play have an uncanny resemblance to the farcical misrule seen in the Lankan Parliament not too long ago. Before we look at Azdak’s celebrated Judgments it’s worth looking at Brecht’s original theatrical structure, which is Epic rather than Dramatic.

Epic Theatre vs Tragic Drama

Brecht’s play is not a tragedy, a genre he rejected as an Aristotelian Greek notion driven by an idea of Destiny and causality and heroic action. The presence of a singer-narrator who introduces us to the play is an epic device in that, as the story-teller, he conducts the action. He stops characters in their tracks and sings of what they feel, but cannot say. He explains the action when necessary and advances the story. The famous singer who knows twenty-one thousand lines of verse becomes the story-teller. He announces that the play consists of ‘two stories and will take two hours to perform’. The Soviet expert from the city is impatient and asks him, (after the disagreement between the two collective farmers is resolved), “can’t you make it shorter?” The singer responds with a firm ‘No’. Brecht offers a play, which is profoundly episodic in its construction. Each episode is autonomous, has a relative freedom from a tight causally driven dramatic structure. What Brecht wanted was a theatrical structure which didn’t have any inevitable causal links propelling events as in the case of, say, Oedipus Rex. In this way he demonstrates how History and its presentation in the Epic, hold alternative possibilities. The Epic form can reveal in its episodic structure ‘the many roads not taken’. Some academics in the Aragalaya have begun to examine Lanka’s post independent history and the many roads not taken in structuring the economy, in race relations and education and development policy, for instance.

Azdak’s Judgements

Why do I think that a ‘close reading’ of Azdak’s judgements matter, especially now? Because he has a window of opportunity during a palace revolution, to play with and interrogate ideas of Law and Justice. It is quite by chance that he is made a judge because the official judge has been hanged, the Governor executed and the Duke has fled during the civil war. Now is a time when a large number of people in Lanka are feeling that the Laws that govern them and their sense of Justice are at variance. And Azdak’s idiosyncratic process of judging and his rulings offer several unusual angles on both. He is unprincipled and we can’t tell which way his Judgment will fall, regardless of his own precedent. He is inconsistent but not amoral, he shows feelings on the bench, he is not ‘Blind Justice’. He has a strong conscience. Guilt-ridden, he has himself arrested and shackled by Sauwa the cop, for having unwittingly given the fugitive Grand Duke refuge in his hut and helped him escape, during the palace revolution.

In the mock trial Azdak impersonates the Grand Duke. The soldiers who call the shots say they want to test if the Nephew is fit and proper to be a judge as recommended by his uncle Prince Kazbeki. So they create a legal play within the play by making Azdak play the role of the Grand Duke as the defendant and the Nephew the acting judge. Azdak as the Grand Duke is accused of losing the war and in his comic defense he demonstrates how the Princes actually won by war-profiteering and enabling the Persians victory. All this is done in a brilliant quick-witted, punchy question and answer session where Azdak twists words and wins the argument with relish. Proven guilty of embezzlement, the soldiers arrest the acting judge and Prince Kazbeki and plonk Azdak on the throne, unceremoniously throwing the cloak of the dead judge across his shoulders. It’s high farce with linguistic fireworks in court.

A judgement Azdak makes from the bench deals with a farmer’s complaint against his farmhand who is accused of raping his daughter-in-law, Ludovica. By contemporary feminist standards Azdak’s judgment that Ludovica by virtue of her seductive walk, seduced and thereby ‘raped’ the man, is idiotic and sexist. But the scene is more ambiguous. It might be the case that what was called rape by the father-in-law may have been consensual sex, which he happened to stumble in on. We are told by the narrator that the Ludovica’s speech was well rehearsed. The scene remains ambiguous, open to several readings especially because Azdak orders Ludovica to accompany him to examine the scene of the crime after the verdict has found her guilty! The narrator has called him, ‘Good judge, bad judge, Azdak.’

Another judgment shows that Azdak is indeed a ‘people’s judge,’ ruling in favour of a grandmotherly old woman, against the three farmers who accuse her of theft. The old woman wins the case by virtue of being poor, despite the fact that the items were stolen on her behalf by a relative who is a Bandit. The plea she offers in her defense is her belief in miracles. So, taking up her cue Azdak reprimands the Farmers for not believing in miracles! To save time, Azdak decides to hear two similar cases of professional negligence and blackmail, together!

The judgment of the Chalk Circle is what Azdak is most famous for. But the previous ones, with their pileup of parodic absurdity, are crucial for Brecht’s politics in Demonstrating how social class, wealth and power determine legal ritual. Once the normality of the Grand Duke’s authoritarian rule is restored, Prince Kazbeki is beheaded as a traitor. The chaos of the revolutionary moment (‘a Golden age’?) that saw Azdak become a judge, with his own unique sense of justice, is reversed with the return of the Grand Duke. He is now attacked by the illiterate soldiers, bloodied and humiliated, soon to be hanged. But at the last moment a messenger from the Grand Duke arrives with a document ordering Azdak to be exonerated and made judge for having saved the Duke’s life. It is jarring to register that the Grand Duke does have a sense of aristocratic honour (unlike Lanka’s rulers) despite his reputation as a swindler and butcher.

Azdak wipes the blood from his eyes as he finds himself plonked on the judges’ chair yet again, and makes the celebrated progressive modern judgment of the Chalk Circle. It is reached through an ingenious process based on an ancient wordless contest. Grusha repeatedly refuses to pull the child out of the circle lest he be injured and so she is deemed the ‘true’ mother and given custody of the child, against the predatory biological mother who pulls him out. The singer then concludes the epic parable with a poetic summary of how Azdak aligned a feeling of Justice with eminently reasonable new rules. In that legal thinking, human emotion becomes the sister of rational thought.


“The people of Georgia

Remembered him, and remembered

For a long time,

The times when he was judge

As a short, golden age

When there was justice – nearly.

Take to heart,

All you who’ve heard

The Tale of the Chalk Circle

And what that ancient song means.

What there is should belong

To those who are good at it.

Children to true mothers,

That they may thrive.

Carts to the good drivers,

That they may be driven well,

And the valley to the waterers,

So that it bears fruit.”

Sri Lanka is a country in which Chalk Circle has been seen and enjoyed for generations. Doing a close reading of the play, while following the non-violent political uprising and struggle of the people from afar, gives one hope that changes good for Lanka are imaginable so that the land may bear fruit.

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Midweek Review

Deferred China ship visit takes place amidst diplomatic row



President Ranil Wickremesinghe salutes Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana at the Katunayake air base on Monday (15). Wickremesinghe visited the base where he received a Dornier Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft, gifted by India s (pics courtesy PMD)

Sri Lanka cannot do without IMF’s support. Having declared its inability to service its foreign debt, Sri Lanka is struggling to reach a consensus with lenders and the IMF. Two of Sri Lanka’s major creditors, India and China, locked horns over a port visit by a Chinese ship. Sri Lanka should be wary of these developments as they tend to influence other lenders as well.”

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Navy deployed SLNS Gajabahu (formerly USCG Sherman) to safely move then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from Colombo to Trincomalee, in the wake of the massive public protests, apparently financed and instigated by hidden hands that brought the curtain down on his presidency. The President abandoned Janadhipathi Mandiraya, before 12 noon, on July 09.

The first couple disembarked at the Trincomalee harbour, on the morning of July 10, having left the Colombo port, on the evening of the previous day. First lady Iyoma like late first lady, JRJ’s spouse Elena, is a fine woman, the whole country can be rightfully proud of, under whatever adversity.

Sri Lanka took delivery of SLNS Gajabahu, formerly of the United States Coast Guard, in June 2019, during the tail end of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency, a time of political turmoil and uncertainty. The Vietnam War era vessel is one of the largest vessels, acquired by the Navy since Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in May 2009. Sri Lanka paid for the upgrading of USCG Sherman, about 50 years old (the Vietnam war ended in 1975 with the last Americans fleeing Saigon, in helicopters, with their local dependents), along with the required spares and training for the Lankan crew.

Against the backdrop of controversy over the Chinese research and survey vessel Yuan Wang 5 docking at the Hambantota port, leased to China, it would be pertinent to discuss the transferring of vessels, and other equipment, as well as supply of fuel by the Quad grouping, comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan. In spite of China, and international shipping sites, recognizing the Yuan Wang 5 as a research and survey vessel, the Indian media referred to it as a dual-use spy ship.

The Chinese vessel, which was originally scheduled to reach Hambantota port, on August 11, and leave on August 17, finally docked therein on Tuesday (16). The Chinese Embassy invited former Public Security Minister and retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera to visit the vessel. The invitation was extended in the wake of lawmaker Weerasekera single handedly defending the right of the Chinese vessel to visit Sri Lanka, like vessels of other countries’ navies, at the government parliamentary group meeting, on August 08, to ensure the scheduled visit, while the other government MPs had kept mum.

Ambassador Julie Chung’s predecessor Alaina Teplitz, in a special message issued in 2019, to mark the 243rd Independence Day of the US, addressed several contentious issues, including the alleged setting up of an American base here, as well as transferring of the US vessel to Sri Lanka. Ambassador Teplitz is on record as having said: The sea lanes that pass beside Sri Lanka are important for many nations, which is why the United States is helping Sri Lanka’s capacity to protect its coast and waters. In June, I joined President Sirisena at the commissioning of SLNS Gajabahu, the Sri Lankan Navy’s largest vessel. A gift from the American people, the former US Coast Guard Cutter represents the United States’ commitment to strengthening Sri Lanka’s ability to protect its security and prosperity….Just like the gift of the USCG Cutter, our military cooperation is open and mutually beneficial. Every joint exercise, training in disaster response, is done at the invitation of our Sri Lankan hosts. The United States has no intention of building a base here. Instead, we are building relationships that help keep both our countries safe”.

In addition to the US vessel, Sri Lanka took delivery of two new advanced OPVs, namely SLNS Sayurala and SLNS Sindurala, built in India. Advanced OPVs were built at the Goa shipyard in terms of an agreement signed in Feb 2014. India built them at a cost of USD 66 mn and were commissioned in Aug 2017 and April 2018, respectively. Sri Lanka paid for them.

In late Oct 2021, Sri Lanka took delivery of another US Coast Guard Cutter Douglas Munro, the third such American vessel.

The first was USCG Courageous (SLNS Samudura P 621) acquired during President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s presidency, in early 2005. SLNS Samudura took part in the hunt for LTTE arms smuggling vessels (floating arsenals) in the high seas.

In July 2019, Sri Lanka also took delivery of the ‘Jangwei’ class missile frigate, previously called the ‘Tongling’ in the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) and served until 2015.

Controversial H’tota port visit

The controversial decision to suddenly rescind permission, granted on July 12 for the Chinese ship visit, due to lobbying by India and the US, caused turmoil in China-Sri Lanka relations. China questioned the very basis of Sri Lanka’s decision, at the behest of New Delhi. China rightfully asserted that the development was quite unacceptable and a hindrance to bilateral relations. The government group meeting, held at the Presidential Secretariat on August 08 evening ,revealed the failure on the part of the new administration to address the issue at hand, properly. One-time Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera didn’t mince his words when he strongly urged the government to go ahead with the already approved visit. The meeting, chaired by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, was attended by Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP.

The former Navy Chief of Staff challenged the very basis of cancelling the ship visit as a result of pressure exerted by India. Weerasekera didn’t receive any support from his colleagues. The Colombo district lawmaker was quite clear that Sri Lanka’s relations with the West and India shouldn’t be at the expense of all-weather friend China. Weerasekera reminded the gathering that Sri Lanka, over the years, conducted military exercises with the US, and India as well. However, the most pertinent question that had been raised by the naval veteran was the cancellation of approval given by the previous administration.

Sri Lankan ports, including Hambantota, receive warships from major powers. In spite of Hambantota port being leased to China, the port received warships, even from the US. Destroyer USS Spruance and large transport vessel USNS Millinocket had been at the Hambantota port at the time of the April 2019 Easter Sunday massacre. The 7th Fleet vessels were here for Cooperation Afloat and Readiness Training (CARAT) exercise. The attacks compelled the US to cancel the planned exercise. According to US Navy statement, issued ahead of the suicide blasts, during CARAT’s Sri Lanka phase, the Navy and Marine Corps planned to work with Sri Lankan armed forces at sea, to test communication, coordinate and respond to scenarios, at sea, to include maritime patrol operations, maneuvering exercises, surface gunnery drills, visit, board, search and seizure drills, vertical replenishments operations, flight operations and search and rescue swimmer exercises.

There had never been opposition to US and Indian warships’ visit to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka even received Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, at the Colombo port, during the yahapalana administration. The visit, undertaken in late January 2019, marked a higher status in Indo-Lanka relations. INS Vikramaditya, one of the two aircraft carriers operated by the Indian Navy, was accompanied by missile destroyer INS Mysore.

In August 2017, President Maithripala Sirisena renewed the ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) with the US that paved the way for unhindered access here to US forces. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration first signed the ACSA, in March 2007, that facilitated specific US intelligence on LTTE arms smuggling ships on the high seas. The US-Sri Lanka relationship cannot be examined without taking into consideration the solid US-India partnership meant to counter China. Obviously, vis- a-vis Sri Lanka, Indian and the US stands appear to be the same. Both countries are deeply resentful of China securing the Hambantota port for commercial purposes, on a 99-year-lease, in 2017.

Contrary to concerns expressed by various interested parties, even commercial vessels cannot be berthed at the Hambantota port, without the approval of the Harbour Master of SLPA and the Sri Lanka Navy. In addition, a naval vessel cannot be berthed at the Hambantota port, without the approval of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).

In fact, two Indian navy vessels visited the Hambantota port for replenishments, in March this year. Naval vessels from Japan, Indonesia, Russia and the USA have called at the port of Hambantota. But, the recent Chinese ship visit has caused such an uproar by the unfair intervention of India, egged on by the US to block it, that the public may tend to think that navies of other countries are not allowed to visit Hambantota.

Indo-Lanka relations

Speaking on the occasion, High Commissioner Gopal Baglay emphasized
that induction of the aircraft would help in creating a peaceful environment for progress and prosperity of the people of India and Sri
Lanka. Gifting of Dornier aircraft underscored the cooperation
between the two maritime neighbours in the defence and security
spheres, Baglay declared, adding such cooperation is envisaged to add further capability and capacity to Sri Lanka and is in line with the
vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)

In keeping with India’s much-touted ‘Neighbourhood First Policy,’ New Delhi has provided critical financial and material support in the wake of the economic fallout. Although the Covid-19, and the war in Ukraine, contributed to the crisis, Sri Lanka must accept responsibility for her plight caused by years of financial mismanagement, waste, corruption and irregularities coupled with the failure of our intelligence to prevent outsiders from exacerbating matters here, like how the Galle Face protests were well financed from outside our shores and how it was allowed to be projected as a non-partisan and non-violent indigenous movement. All we can say is that all the masterminds there were very good paid actors.

Amidst controversy over the Chinese ship visit, President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday (15) accepted a maritime surveillance Dornier aircraft from India. Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral S. N. Ghormade, handed over the aircraft. Interestingly, Sri Lanka received the Dornier from the inventory of the Indian Navy while the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is in the process of building two Dornier aircraft for Sri Lanka. Once India delivered them, the aircraft Sri Lanka took delivery on Monday would be returned.

There had never been a previous instance of China and India publicly commenting on a situation involving their assets visiting Sri Lanka. India has rejected Chinese accusations that New Delhi pressured Colombo against the visit by Yuan Wang 5 to the Hambantota port. India declared that it would take decisions based on its security concerns.

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi (former Indian Deputy High Commissioner) is on record as having said that Sri Lanka, as a sovereign country, made its own independent decisions and noted that India would make its judgment on its security concerns, based on the prevailing situation in the 1region.

Sri Lanka must be mindful of India’s security concerns but that shouldn’t be at the expense of her relations with China. Former General Secretary of the Communist Party D.E.W. Gunasekera told the writer that there had never been a similar interference by a third party in Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations with any country.

Wikileaks, in the past, disclosed a range of classified diplomatic cables pertaining to Sri Lanka. One quite interesting cable, that originated from the US mission, in New Delhi, dealt with India’s concerns over the planned Chinese building of an international port at Hambantota. The project got underway in January 2008 as the military was clearly gaining the upper hand as it battled the LTTE on the Vanni front.

Let me reproduce the relevant section of the US diplomatic cable that dealt with the April 26, 2007, meeting a New Delhi-based US diplomat had with the then Joint Secretary, at the External Affairs Ministry Mohan Kumar. Having functioned as the Desk Officer in charge of the Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (1990-1992), Kumar received the appointment as Deputy High Commissioner, in Colombo, in late 2001. At the time Kumar had taken up the Hambantota port issue, with the US, as revealed in the Wikileaks cable, he had been head of the division that handled relations with Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Kumar has discussed the Indian Navy stepping up patrols in the waters, between India and Sri Lanka, while expressing concern over the Chinese role in the Hambantota port project. Kumar has also bitterly complained about Chinese taking advantage of the situation in Burma, at the expense of India, and warned that the US pressure on New Delhi to take up democracy and human rights issues with the Burmese military leadership facilitated the Chinese project there. The US diplomat quoted Kumar as having told him “We’re getting screwed on gas”.

“The situation in Sri Lanka is bad, really bad – beyond bleak” in Kumar’s judgment. Characterizing the government and the LTTE as two sets of people with scant regard for the international community,

Kumar was skeptical that political progress could be achieved anytime soon. He confirmed reports that the Indian Navy has stepped up patrols in the Palk Strait, and said that India and Sri Lanka are doing coordinated patrolling to prevent the smuggling of weapons from the Tamil Nadu coast. Kumar said it would be helpful to get the American assessment of the port being built in Hambantota, which he estimated China was willing to spend $500 million to help develop. He noted that China has increased its influence with President Rajapaksa, opinioning that Rajapaksa had a ‘soft spot’ for China, following his visit to Beijing on March 9″.

India worked overtime to thwart Chinese projects here. Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa once alleged that Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval asked him to cancel the USD 1.4 bn Chinese flagship project, the Colombo Port City. Declaring that demand shouldn’t have been made, Gotabaya Rajapaksa also quoted Doval as having called for the taking over of the highly successful Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT), a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (CMPH) and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). CMPH holds 85% of the partnership whilst the balance 15% is held by SLPA.

Rajapaksa further quoted Doval as having told him that India wanted all Chinese-funded infrastructure projects stopped and for Sri Lanka to have full control of the Hambantota port. Rajapaksa quoted Doval as having said: Sri Lanka is a small country; you don’t need such development projects.

The Quad has dealt with Sri Lanka in a systematic way. Australia donated two large patrol vessels years ago and recently has been providing fuel for both the Navy and the Air Force as part of the overall support to ensure ongoing operations meant to thwart would-be asylum seekers. In spite of a change of governments, Australia has maintained strong links with Sri Lanka to derail would-be asylum seekers’ plans to smuggle themselves there in multi-day fishing craft, despite so many such odysseys being thwarted.

The other Quad member Japan entered into a comprehensive partnership with Sri Lanka in Oct 2015. The then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe signed the agreement on behalf of Sri Lanka whereas the late Shinzo Abe endorsed it for Japan. Japanese warships frequently visit Sri Lanka. Consequent to the signing of the comprehensive partnership agreement, the Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera even visited the Hambantota port.

Sri Lanka will have to deal carefully with Quad as well as China. The unprecedented economic crisis has weakened the country and exposed it to external interventions, in different forms. The failure on the part of those political parties, represented in Parliament, to reach a consensus on a far reaching political arrangement to restore public confidence as well as secure international backing for recovery efforts, might be all part of the overall plot by the West to destabilize us for being friendly with China.

As for New Delhi she must remind herself that going by history China never had any evil intentions against her unlike the West that plundered and enslaved much of the world, including India.

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Midweek Review

Blasphemy and Judgment



By Lynn Ockersz

The revenge-seekers bided their time,

Nursing self-righteous anger all the while,

Upholding, they claim, the good name of God,

But there’s this nugget in moral thought,

That needs to be held close to their hearts,

By those claiming the moral high ground,

And daring to take a judgmental stance,

In this bloody attempt on Salman Rushdie’s life;

‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’, says the Lord.

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