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Forty-year saga that can never be forgotten

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By Rohan Abeywardena

For the 35th anniversary of The Island five years ago, when our editor Prabath Sahabandu asked me to pen a piece for that issue, I took the opportunity to write about all the hilarious things we did to keep ourselves entertained, while we worked through all types of storms as during much of that period the country was in turmoil with LTTE terror attacks taking place regularly, mainly in the form of suicide bombings that snuffed out innocent lives by the dozens, the JVP’s bloody second uprising and the then government’s counter terror campaign to crush it. We ourselves came very close to peril on more than one occasion after our founder literally vanished into thin air; his newspapers were marked by some of those in power as threats to them. We managed to withstand all that not because we were some heroes, but it was simply a case of us just doing what we had to do in the line of duty.

Last week, when the editor asked me to contribute a column to the 40th anniversary issue, I literally underwent a shock reawakening as to how long it has been since I was among the first few journalists to join this newspaper just about two weeks before it started and a few weeks after the Sunday Island began. In fact, if my now 65-year-old memory serves me right, my first English editorial identity card here bore the legend EE12, indicating that I was the 12th employee to join it. By the time Mr. Upali Wijewardene disappeared with few others who were accompanying him while returning to Colombo on his Learjet from Malaysia in early 1983, our editorial had a formidable team with more than 60 permanent employees, including many veterans and many provincial correspondents, freelancers and even foreign contributors. Of that original lot, I believe only myself, Zanita Careem and Norman Palihawadana still remain here, while many have been claimed by father time and others migrated or are working elsewhere. Both Zanita and Norman have been working throughout at The Island, but I left the newspaper thrice and came back each time, but yet I have put in a total of more than 24 years with the newspaper.

At the time when I first joined The Island in the first week of November 1981, I had been working at the now defunct, staid Sun newspaper of the then powerful Independent Newspaper Group as a sub-editor with Zanita and she followed me to The Island a month or two after me as did many others thereafter.  When I joined that former newspaper, I had very high hopes of contributing to combatting wrongs in the society in general, because the newspaper literally shouted from its roof top how independent it was with regular ‘exposures’ with banner headlines. But I soon realised that it was nothing but a charade and started questioning my inner-self as to whose independence that they practised.

Some of those at the helm there could have even made Joseph Goebbels blush, for most of their exposures were nothing more than recycled formula type stories as in the celluloid world. Those regularly repeated topics were ‘child labour’, ‘pornography’, illicit abortions, boy prostitution, etc.  While the so-called national newspapers kept the country’s intelligentsia generally hoodwinked, the Sinhala language organ of the Communist Party Aththa edited by legendary B.A. Siriwardena (fondly known as Sira) literally went to town, daily exposing corruption and intrigues that were widespread especially among those wielding power and Sira easily wrote the best biting editorial each day among all Sinhala language newspapers. That paper often only had one broad sheet comprising four pages. Even some of those haughty Colombo 07 types who would not want to be seen dead with a Sinhala Commie newspaper, was known to at least read Sira’s blunt down-to-earth editorials, like pinstriped British Bankers reading or ogling at the racy tabloid London SUN hidden inside the broadsheet Financial Times or the Guardian. Of course, unlike the London SUN there was nothing obscene in Sira’s Aththa. It also had formidable cartoonist Jiffrey Yoonoos, who was once slashed with a knife because someone could not stomach his drawings.

The Sun that I worked in and its weekly Weekend were not all about bumming the government in power.  There were naturally exceptions like when they took on the then national carrier Air Lanka and its powerful Chairman and Managing Director, the late Capt. Rakhitha Wickramanayake. It was also a treat to read the weekly political column under the pen name Migara written by present Editor of The Sunday Times Sinha Ratnatunga, at a time when the country was starved of inside authentic news.

It was a very good training school for beginners. And I am eternally grateful that I received a good foundation there, especially under the tutelage of Louis Benedict. And many top journalists of today cut their teeth at the old Sun/Weekend.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was how The Sun covered the way the UNP storm troopers of the JSS wielding cycle chains and what not broke up the July ’80 general strike. I clearly remember staff photographers coming with photos of battered blood-soaked strikers, who were attacked near Lake House, but the newspaper was more worried about publishing those and antagonising JRJ than reporting the dastardly act. The strikers were simply asking for a Rs 300 salary increase from that regime which came to power with a five-sixths landslide victory in 1977 after making all sorts of promises, including eight pounds of cereals per person per week on top of the existing free rice ration. But after assuming power everything was forgotten and even the existing free rice ration was scrapped. Atop that the self-proclaimed Dharmishta (righteous) regime rolled out the red carpet to capitalist Robber Barons by devaluing the rupee by as much as 43 per cent, eliminated all food subsidies, reduced workers’ rights etc. etc.

I must however state that why I left The Sun and joined a yet to start private newspaper was not because I then had any special illusions about its founder Mr. Upali Wijewardene, except maybe I was attracted to the challenge of working for a man, who was drawing venomous fire from some among the ruling clique, who, I knew, were no angels. However, once the newspaper was started, we all realised that he was a hands-off boss, who gave a free hand to his editor with no interference whatsoever, not even from some of his close relatives. And the editor too was game for a free media culture. In that way, Wijewardene literally opened the floodgates for a truly liberal media culture in this country among national media, which clearly later paved the way for the independent and competitive TV and radio which we enjoy today along with the newspapers and an abusive social media.

When I was called for the sole interview with newpaper’s Editor Vijitha Yapa and Englishman Peter Harland, both had been handpicked by Wijewardene to launch his English newspapers; what really hooked me was the salary that was offered. The interview was not about my competency, but how quickly I could come. One question thatYapa asked me was how much I was drawing at The Sun, when I said I was getting little over Rs 1,200 per month, which was a good salary for a journalist at the time he quickly said: “We’ll give you 1800 a month”. I said I would take it, though I’m sure had I asked for 2000 they would have agreed to it.

What hurt me the most when I left The Sun was the type of departure given to me. Since I felt I was considered just a mediocre, I thought they would be glad to see the back of me, but when I went to give my letter of resignation to editor Rex de Silva, he asked me to give it to the Chairman. But when I went up to the Chairman’s office, I was asked to take a seat and wait and I waited and waited for I believe was well over an hour. Finally, in disgust when I got up to dump my resignation letter with the reception and vanish from there for good, the receptionist said “You can now see the Chairman”. And when I walked into his room and gave the letter all he said was you can go. And that was the treatment meted out to an employee who had taken hardly a day’s leave in the nearly two years he had worked there. But that must be because I must have been the first to join a new rival.

So much happened in those early years of this newspaper that someone should write a book on its history. But I will leave the reader with some interesting personal experiences that must be told.  After the sudden disappearance of Wijewardene, it dawned on everyone that we could no longer go on the way it was and we had to sue for peace especially with Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel and our main nemesis, Ranasinghe Premadasa, the then Prime Minister and Minister of Local Government, Housing and Construction and designated successor of JRJ. But Premadasa was paranoid about being usurped by not only Wijewardene, but even by others like Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, and he even clashed with Ronnie de Mel. While de Mel was willing to kiss and forget as long as he got good coverage in return from us,Premadasa was not the forgiving or forgetting type.

However, once we got into a fresh scrape with de Mel. It all started with him bashing us in parliament in the worst possible way, most probably after someone provoked him. At the time the late Ajith Samaranayake, probably one of the most talented journalists this country has hitherto produced, acted as editor as Gamini (Gamma to most of us) Weerakoon was abroad. So not to be outdone, Ajith wrote one of the most devastating editorials in reply headlined ‘Barbarians at the gate’ and carried it prominently on page one from top to bottom on left side, not on the usual editorial page. The immediate result was fireworks and I will not go into details except to say banks could have throttled us at the time at the behest of the powerful FM.

Around this time, I had started doing a series of interviews with important political personalities of the day called FIRING LINE. But in order to make peace with Mr. de Mel once again I was ordered to do a weekly interview with him.

Similarly, I learned the hard way why Junius Richard Jayewardene was called the 20th Century Fox. He was a person who never gave any official interviews to any local journalist as long as he was in power. So, when in retirement I thought I could cajole him into speaking out as there was so much blood letting since the signing of the controversial Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987, for political expediency and there seemed to be no let up with his own party divided and in tatters. Well, I finally did manage to get an appointment for an interview through his Secretary Mr. Mapitigama. At the appointed day and time, I went to his private residence at Ward Place, ‘Braemar’. After a short chat with the head of his security detail SSP Sumith de Silva and Mr. Mapitigama I was ushered into old JRJ’s office and after the initial handshake and my taking a seat opposite him, he at once asked me something like so young man what do you want to talk about? I quickly pulled out my cassette tape recorder and the list of questions.

Now, I must say the secret of my success with the Firing Line series was that I literally ambushed my subjects usually with a below the belt question at the opening bell itself as that almost always resulted in my ‘victim’ virtually eating humble pie after being stunned. With the 20th Century Fox I did not however plan any such stunts but the intention was to soften him up first by pandering to his tastes before trying hard stuff. But lo and behold what I finally got from him was the shock of my career.

The minute I moved to switch on the tape he said stop and to put it away. Then he said, “We’ll first discuss what you want to ask me”. I skipped all formalities and started asking about most of the problems facing the country caused by the UNP often changing the goal post because it wanted to control everything through the imperial presidency of his. But each time I tried to raise an issue from the past he simply shut me up by asking whether I was there and he would say, “You can’t say that because you were not there”.

Most interestingly and ironically the old man was not worried about what was happening to the country, but was repeatedly griping about how much they had suffered by being deprived of their estates by the Land Reforms of the previous United Front government of Bandaranaike. In a way, it explained why he wanted to take revenge from her soon after coming to power.

One thing on which he did make his opinion known to me during that one-sided exchange was that it was wrong of Lalith and Gamini to break away from the party to fight Premadasa. His line of thinking was that they should have worked for change from within.

And finally he said something to the effect “now you got what you came for”, but when I protested that I came there after informing the editor that I am going to interview President Jayewardene and I couldn’t go back and tell him I had no interview. Then he thought for a few seconds and asked me to leave the questions with his secretary.

A few days later, Mapitigama called me and said the President’s answers were ready. I quickly drove to ‘Braemar’, collected it without even bothering to look at what was inside the closed envelope and rushed back to the office thinking I was on top of the world with an exclusive interview with the ex-President.

But when I went through it, I found that what he had answered were not the questions I had given; they were either reworded or totally new questions to fit JRJ’s agenda. When I suggested to then editor Gamini Weerakoon we throw it away and forget about it, the boss however laughed and asked me to carry it.

Another interesting experience I had was when I went to do a Firing Line interview with the late Anura Bandaranaike at his Rosmead Place residence when he was the Leader of the Opposition during President Premadasa’s tenure. Bandaranaike being a formidable debater with the gift of the gab I had no intention of giving him any kid glove treatment even though I then literally worked for his uncle Dr. Seevali Ratwatte, who was our Chairman at the time.

Now, I had been battling Premadasa for a long time in my own way, so at the opening bell I asked Bandaranaike how he hoped to defeat Premadasa when the latter got up as early as 3:00 am and began attending to his work at 4:00 am, whereas the Leader of the Opposition usually got up long past noon after enjoying the good life into the early hours of the morning. The question blew a fuse inside him and the burly giant got up, shoving the coffee table that was there between us, at me. Luckily, I was able to jump back. But soon he realised his blunder and recovered his composure and said he didn’t have to work so hard or something to that effect. But I am sure I had the better of him in the ensuing interview.

Over the particular interview I had no problem back at UNL. In fact, the late Dr. Ratwatte was a gem of a boss when dealing with journalists like me. There was a real incident later on when I wrote a story about some local consultants hired by the World Bank to prepare feasibility studies to help start various business ventures, and took it for a ride. Having spent a couple of million dollars or more on the project, the WB found most of those feasibility studies were either frivolous or redundant. For they were about how to start a successful bakery business, a laundry, beauty salon, etc.

When the newspaper hit the market with that story one of the consultants concerned immediately phoned and demanded a correction, but point blank I refused. The result was that this highly qualified guy, being a Bandaranaike, came to teach me a lesson after telling me so by rushing to our Chairman. The minute he arrived in Dr Ratwatte’s office I got a call from the head office saying the Chairman wanted to see me. In fact, I saw this guy driving into the UNL compound in an Alfa Romeo. I immediately armed myself with something that I was able to surprise him with. So, when Dr Ratwatte asked me ‘Rohan what is all this’? I showed everyone a copy of the internal World Bank critical assessment. But before I could even open it the Chairman just said, ‘Okay, okay you can go back’.

Then there was also a Firing Line Interview that didn’t go beyond a few questions with Bulathsinhalage Sirisena Cooray, one-time strongman under Premadasa. So, some time after the latter’s assassination and after he was distanced by both the UNP and the Premadasa family I asked Cooray for an interview to tell his side of the story as he was being maligned by many. When he agreed for an interview, I got myself dropped at his then residence at Lake Drive close to McDonald’s, Rajagiriya, and asked the driver to pick me up later on his way back after dropping several others.

One of my planned line of attacks was to nail him about his dealings with the underworld characters, like Soththi Upali. So, when I came to the subject of how he came to know Soththi Upali, and no sooner had Cooray told me ‘oya lamaya’ [Soththi Upali] used to drop into see him in connection with Gam Udawa work, than he realised the trap was being laid to corner him; he immediately told me to leave. By that time, I believe Soththi Upali had already been killed by his enemies. But since there was no sign of my vehicle and though the distance from his residence to MacDonald’s Junction wouldn’t have been more than 150 metres, but it felt as if it was the longest walk I had ever undertaken and unlike today Lake Drive was then generally deserted.

My luck with ‘Firing Line’ however, was soon running out with my potential subjects/victims soon getting wise to my shock therapy and some of them even pitched into me on flimsy excuses even before I could open my mouth at an interview.

I believe one of the first to try that counter shock strategy on me was the late TULF Leader M. Sivasithamparam, who succeeded as the TULF Leader after the Tiger hit team assassinated A. Amirthalingam. So, when I went to interview him for ‘Firing Line’, I knew he was no spring chicken as he was a veteran politician and a formidable lawyer. When I got to his place, close to Thimbirigasyaya Junction, I got a shelling from the man accusing me of keeping him waiting for about two hours. That lecture of his about being punctual and not wasting other people’s time would have taken a good 15 minutes. But I was quite sure the appointment I made was for around 10:30, but he insisted it was two hours earlier, or something to that effect.



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Features

Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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