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From fighting ferocious Tigers to sharing a cell with a curious cat

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Prison Diary – I

Extract from book
‘Read between the Lines’
 

By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne
(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy)
Former Chief of Defence Staff

Day One in Prison
Prisoner Number 9550
28th November 2018 1630 hrs

I was faulted, at the Fort Magistrate’s Court, Colombo, for protecting and not producing a naval Intelligence Officer, summoned to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), when I was the Commander of the Navy, in 2016. True, I have always had asoft corner for our ‘INT persons’, because I was fully aware of their selfless contribution to the country’s successful war against LTTE, which was known as the most ruthless terrorist group in the world with naval and air wings. Those highly motivated, brave men were instrumental in destroying the LTTE shipping network in 2006/2007, under trying conditions, when I was the Director Naval Operations, Director Naval Special Forces and Director Maritime Surveillance. The allegation against me, however, was not true.

The Magistrate ordered, at 1630 hrs, that I be remanded until 05 December 2018 at the insistence of CID officers, who repeatedly said that if I was allowed to be free, I would hamper their investigations. The sky opened up. It looked as if the weather gods were furious. The lashing rain lasted one hour.

The sound of thunder prevented most people inside the Court House from hearing the order. It was the first time in our country’s history that a Chief of Defence Staff had been in the dock!

My Counsel, an eminent President’s Counsel, insisted the CID had gone by hearsay and its information had come from a junior Naval officer, who had been punished by me for indiscipline when I was the Commander of the Navy. Further, my Counsel told the court that I had an unblemished military career of more than 38 years! But the CID still opposed bail for me.

My 38 years of unblemished military career had won me four gallantry medals, including the Weerodhara Vibhushanaya (WV), the highest awarded to a living member of the armed forces (equivalent to George Cross of the UK or Ashok Chakra of India). Only 10 such medals have been awarded in Sri Lanka’s military history; sacrifices I made to raise the elite Naval Special Force, the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) 25 years back meant nothing to those who wanted me thrown behind bars. A military officer’s track record matters only in military courts, where it is taken into consideration before a final decision is made.

I am sure the CID officials did not know what the SBS was and value of a gallantry medal Weerodhara Vibhushanaya (WV) or the rank structure of the Navy.

I was taken in a Black Maria to the Magazine Prison. My brother, friends, subordinate officers and my personal staff were sad. I was asked to hand over all my valuables to my personal security officer before boarding the prison bus. I gave my wallet mostly with plastic money and was reluctant to part with two other precious items—my ring embedded with Navarathna gems, and my Fitbit wrist watch. Both these items are very close to my heart.

The ring was a gift from my wife, Yamuna, shortly after our marriage in 1989. She had saved money from her salary–she was working then—to buy the ring, which was believed to protect one against evil forces. The “Fit Bit Wristwatch” measured my exercise regime daily. My target of walking 10,000 steps per day (approx. 8 km) in one and a half hours was also gone!

 

Prison gates open

Officers at the Magazine Prison were waiting for my arrival. The prison and prisoners were not strangers to me. My late father worked as the Private Secretary to Minister of Justice in 1965-1970, and several times later. He served under three ministers, Senator Fairlie Wijemanna, Nissanka Wijeratne and Shelton Ranaraja. As a child I would accompany my father during his visits to prisons to look into prisoners’ welfare. Our official bungalow at that time was at Hulftsdorp, where the new Supreme Courts Complex now stands, and later we lived at Kollupitiya where Mahanama College is now located. Prisoners would come to our residence to attend to gardening. They came in their white uniform; they were kind people and we used to play cricket with them.

When I arrived at the Magazine Prison, I was told that they had a problem there as they had several LTTE Prisoners and did not want to keep me with them. Ironically, it was two days after the birthday of LTTE leader Prabhakarn and on the 200th Anniversary of execution of the great freedom fighter, Veera Keppetipola Maha Disawe that I was thrown behind bars. I was not upset, but angry.

I was given a number (9550). No name. I became Prisoner Number 9550!

So, the prison officers decided to send me to the Welikada Prison, which was more secure, or so they thought. I was given a cell at the ‘High Security Prison’. My cell had a great record. A stable during the British time, it is a solid structure with ‘Sinhala tile’ roof and a cement floor. There was no ceiling. A chair, a mat, a pillow, two white bed sheets plus a granite bench were available. The place was complete with a toilet (squatting pan) and a water tank and a bucket.

There are numbers and names engraved on the floor by ‘Condemned Prisoners’ (as those sentenced to death by hanging were called). Engraving their names and numbers, and even their villages, in some cases, with the help of a tiny iron nail and a stone must have been extremely tedious. They must have had enough time on their hands before the trap door of the gallows creaked under their feet when the death penalty was implemented.

“Determination and Commitment” are what one needs to survive one’s stay in prison.

The senior jailers were extremely courteous and respectful towards me. I was still in the dress in which I had appeared in Courts. I had not been able to tell my wife, Yamuna, that I was going to courts that day. She was sick when I left home. My son was at home when I was leaving, I told him to have lunch if I got late and not to wait for me.

Yamuna used to be alone with my son when I was away onboard ships and on Special Forces operations for very long periods, but we had been together after the war, and I knew how devastated Yamuna would be to hear that I had been remanded. Such situations, however, arise in life and you have to face them. The only consolation was that my son (my friend and ‘mentor’) would calm her down and look after her. Tears never help solve problems.

Young prison guards were very kind to me. They tried their best to make my stay as comfortable as possible with the limited resources they had.

I slept on the cement floor; it was not something new to me because even at the “Chief of Defence Staff” residence, I would sleep on the floor, a habit that made my wife see red. Further, I am a devotee of Lord Skandha (Kataragama Deviyo), and perform my “Pada Yathra” every year, walking 56 km in two days. I slept on the ground under a tree during those pilgrimages. When I sleep under the stars, I try to count them until I fall asleep. Anyway, from my cell, I could not see the sky. All I could see was the roof. I started counting the tiles and felt sleepy soon. No mobiles ringing, no important meeting or receptions, no late night briefings by my staff for the next day. I slept blissfully like a baby.

It was raining heavily. Time must have been just past midnight, someone walked through my cell. I looked carefully.

It was a cat. “Sorry kitty! I have occupied your home. Let’s be friends”. It was not interested. It sat at the far end of the cell, watching all my movements carefully.

I felt asleep again. (I can sleep anywhere, anytime, thanks to my naval training. My family and my friends in the Navy know that.) I was woken up by the sound of themorning Jumma Mosque “Calling of God”. It must have been 0430; I did not have a watch or a clock in my cell. The Islamic prayers were followed by Seth Pirith, even louder, from a nearby Buddhist temple.

I received a hot cup of tea around 0600 on November 29; it was brought by ‘Ellawella Nihal’, a ‘condemned’ prisoner. Nihal had been sentenced to death for killing a person in his remote village over a land dispute. Owing to a moratorium on the the death penalty, he was still alive. After 13 years of good conduct, he was now an “SD” – Special Duty Prisoner who had the privilege of working outside his cell. Nihal was well read and knowledgeable of local politics. We became friends soon. He had the highest respect for the military—something most people sadly lack.

Prisoners have great stories. Sir Jeffry Archer, probably the best story teller in the world, wrote his first best seller book, “Kane and Abel”, while in prison. He had the habit of listening to stories of other prisoners during the morning exercise time. Of all the books I have read, the most interesting, in my book, is Sir Jeffry’s short story collection, ‘Cat – O’ Nine Tales’ ; they are the stories other prisoners told Sir Jeffry about why they had ended up in jail.

Michael Ondaatje’s book, ‘The English Patient’, had been lying on my office desk may be three months from the day it was adjudged the best Book of Booker (best book fiction) selected out of books which had won the Booker prize during the last 50 years. I did not have time to read it when I was in office due to my busy schedule. I finished reading it in the morning! A sense of accomplishment! New day, and new challenges …

 

(To be continued)



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Suppressing the struggle: Education and the Discourse of Class

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A file photo of the military presence at Galle Face during Aragalaya

By Anushka Kahandagamage

Protesters defeated the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime, making the Rajapaksas resign from their positions, premiership and presidency, of the government. After the collapse of the dynasty, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a Rajapaksa puppet, came to power with the support of a distorted majority in Parliament. Having got himself appointed as President, without a people’s mandate, Wickremesinghe began to suppress the struggle—the very struggle that led to his ascendency. Hours after Wickremesinghe took oath as President, at midnight, when the protesters were preparing to disband the major GotaGoGama (GGG) protest site, the military stormed in, violently assaulting some protesters, including women and people with disabilities. The military attacked media reporters, including BBC journalists, and destroyed the structures built on the location, prompting many to go to the GGG site in support of the protesters. A witch hunt would soon unfold, and, today, just weeks after Wickremesinghe came to power, arbitrary arrests are commonplace in Lanka, most recent and prominent, that of the trade union activist Joseph Stalin.

The Classed nature of the Discourse:

The Double Standard

National as well as international activists, academics, journalists, students, condemned the arbitrary violent attack on the GGG site. Social media was swamped with video footage of the attack, and posts, condemning the government’s moves. Many social media posts pointed fingers at the military, which was to be expected. But a notable and recurring theme was the link made between the military’s behaviour and its low education level – “Eighth grade passed Army”. Meanwhile, politicians from the ruling party (and others) publicly condemned the protesters’ actions, even calling them drug addicts (kuddo). The social media discourse targeting the military (low education) and the protesters (drug addicts), although coming from very different places, was steeped in a classed and classist language, and reduced their actions—whether of the protesters’ or of those suppressing the protest —to their level of education or social class.

Yet, there were surprisingly few discussions regarding the education level of the President, who commanded the attack on the protesters. There is no doubt that Wickremesinghe, whose past is linked with horrendous acts of violence, commanded the military to attack GGG. He is also behind the arbitrary arrests of protesters, the very people who placed him in power. While people are aware of Wickremesinghe’s violent tendencies, these inclinations are not discussed in relation to his education level. During the protest, when his house was set on fire, along with his personal library, many condemned the burning of the library, emphasizing the importance of ‘reading’ and ‘knowledge’. Ranil Wickremesinghe is seen as an ‘educated’ politician, well-read and knowledgeable about foreign policy and politics. A double standard manifests itself where the violent acts of the military (by no means am I trying to glorify the military) are criticized on the grounds of their ‘low’ education level, while the violence of Wickremesinghe garners little comment.

Violence and Education

There is no essential link between violence and education, rather capitalist structures have conditioned us to associate violence with under privileged groups and lower levels of education. Formal educational structures sustain hierarchies, power and, in our context, neo-liberal market economies. Education socialises the individual in such a way s/he/they come to embody dominant society’s values, beliefs, and attitudes. Educational institutions are particularly efficient in legitimising the current social order since they play a role not only in training workers in the strict sense of providing them with skills to be productive but also in the naturalization of social relations of production. Education thus entrenches the status quo, and, in that sense, is not an innocent space, rather a space where inequality and hierarchies are sustained and reproduced.

We associate ‘low’ educational levels, and underprivilege, with violence, as we are trained to do so by the political-economic structures which glorify the ‘learned’ and ‘wealthy’. While the military should not be glorified, under any circumstances, it should be understood that the soldiers, who attacked the protesters, on the ground, represent the disadvantaged classes, carrying out their ‘duty’ as commanded by a supposedly ‘educated’ President. It is an irony that society sees people who are directly involved in violence as the generators of violence, rather than the decision-makers who perpetrate violence.

Formal educational institutions, driven by capitalist values, serve to produce, reproduce and sustain such hegemonic narratives. Indeed, there is a link between our pathological social condition and our education system. While our mostly market driven education is trapped in narratives of employability, efficiency or productivity—needed to understand a phenomenon beyond what is given—human values and critical thinking remain neglected on the back burner. Under these circumstances, there is a great need for alternative education forms.

Counter narratives and alternative

forms of Education

Education has been crucial to the struggle to depose the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime. In this context, I am referring to the ‘education’ initiatives that have been a key element of the Aragalaya: education on democracy, the constitution, history of struggles, economy and so on. In the GGG site, groups connected to the protest as well as other initiatives organized debates and discussions to raise awareness about economic, political and social issues, to learn about how to utter the correct slogans and how to steer the struggle in the ‘right’ path. In doing so, hundreds of webinars were organized, numerous articles and posts written and videos uploaded. In the GGG main protest site, a library, university, college, and an IT centre were established to support ‘educating’ the people.

‘Education’ was a thread that wove the struggle together. There were (and are) different debates on education at various levels of the struggle where alternative forms of education were discussed, challenging hierarchy and institutionalized education. The protest has opened up a space for people to pursue alternative educational structures and build counter narratives. Unfortunately, most of these efforts ultimately fall, directly or indirectly, in to hegemonic educational structures, where hierarchy and Sinhala Buddhist hegemony are sustained in different forms. Similarly, the activists and academics, among the protesters, who tried to introduce alternative education forms and counter narratives often fell into capitalist hierarchical structures. The majority of the webinars and awareness raising forums were top-down in nature and were held in one language, discriminating against other language groups.

Furthermore, these forums were frequently clogged with ‘experts’ or the kind of academics who preach their opinions to the ‘uneducated.’

In conclusion, existing capitalist educational frameworks train one to discriminate, based on class and educational levels, normalizing certain ways of life and being. For example, it’s fascinating to see how Wickremesinghe was removed from the violence and education discourse while the military was at the centre of it. Alternative forms of education are needed to question and challenge these hierarchies.

(The author is a Doctoral Candidate in School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Prioritising protection of Government over the people

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by Jehan Perera

According to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the natural condition of mankind was a state of war in which life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because individuals are in a “war of all against all.”  Therefore, it was necessary for them to come to an agreement. The philosopher John Locke called this the social contract. Social contract arguments are that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. Constitutions set out the rules by which societies are governed.

 The evolution of constitutional thinking  since the 17th century that Hobbes and Locke lived in has been to find ways to regulate the powers of the rulers and protect the people from the rulers. Those who have power need to have checks placed on them. They need to be held accountable. If those who are rulers are not checked or held accountable, they invariably abuse their powers. That power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely has been a truism. Over the past 74 years we have seen that the rulers have used their power indiscriminately some more than others. PTA is an example of a law which was instituted to deal with the Tamil separatist insurgency over 40 years ago, but it still remains-to protect power of the rulers. In the past three years when the rulers of Sri Lanka held virtually absolute power by virtue of the 20th Amendment to the constitution, the situation in the country deteriorated. The country became bankrupt for the first time ever.

 The current debate over the 22nd Amendment is to ensure and enlarge the role of civil society to mitigate the powers of the politicians who are rulers. A key question now is with regard to the three civil society representatives who will be in the Constitutional Council. The present formulation of the amendment is that the civil society representatives will have to be acceptable to the majority in parliament (thereby giving the government final say). Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s experience with constitutional reform has been  in the direction of further strengthening of the powers of the rulers against the people. The so-called reforms have invariably strengthened the hands of the rulers against the people and justified that it is being done for the sake of the people.

 ERODING CONTROLS

 The 1972 Constitution replaced the constitution that the country had inherited from the British colonial rulers. It ensured the independence of the judiciary and of the civil service and also had special protections for human rights and non-discrimination between ethnic communities. However, these protections were removed from the 1972 constitution that sought to empower the ruling politicians on the justification that they embodied the will of the sovereign people. It was argued that the elected politicians were closer to the people than unelected judges and civil servants. But being away from the people makes them non partisan, a value less understood. Judges were sacked when the new constitution came into operation and treated shamefully. The 1978 constitution repeated the activities of the 1972 constitutions. Judges were once again sacked and treated shamefully. At a later point they were even stoned.

 It is these cultures we developed that have led to the present crisis of lack of values beyond the economy itself and formed the base for Aragalaya. The 1978 constitution took the centralisation of power in the 1972 constitution even further and centralized it in the  office of one person, the executive president. He could now be even above the law, like the kings of old before parliaments that represented the people came into being. The first executive president of Sri Lanka, J R Jayewardene, said that the only power he did not possess was the power to turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man. It is not surprising that with this power going into  the hands of the elected rulers, that the abuse  of power and corruption should grow without  limit. From being  a country  near the top of Asia at the time of independence, Sri Lanka  is today nearer the bottom. The life savings of its people have been halved in half a year and not a single politician has faced a legal accountability process.

 The 22nd Amendment belongs to the family of constitutional amendments  that began with the 17th Amendment of 2001. This  amendment was  agreed to by the then president due to the weakening of the government at that time. The  JVP  then,  as now, the party of the disadvantaged in society, gave the lead. The amendment resulted in the reduction of the power of the president and sharing those powers with parliament, state institutions and with civil society. The idea behind the 17th Amendment was to strengthen the system of checks and balances and thereby promote good governance in the national interest. The 19th Amendment that resembles it was the work of a coalition of parties that had opposed the abuse of power of the rulers they had just deposed through an electoral mandate.

 HIGH CORRUPTION

 However, the limitation on the powers of the rulers has never been acquiesced by those who would be rulers or belong to their party. The 17th Amendment was overturned in 2010 by the 18th Amendment that gave back to the presidency the powers it had lost plus some more. When this led to an increase in the abuse of powers by the rulers, the  successor government brought in the 19th amendment to once again reduce the powers of the presidency. This was in pursuance of the mandate sought at the presidential election of 2015. But once again in 2019, those who formed the next government overruled the 19th Amendment and with the 20th Amendment and gave back to the presidency its lost powers plus some more.

 It is under the 20th Amendment which is about to be repealed that the corruption and abuse of power in the country reached its zenith and plunged the people into unprecedented economic hardship and poverty. It is these hardships that gave rise to the Aragalaya, or protest movement, that culminated with the physical storming of government buildings and the forced resignations of the president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers. The shrinking of the middle class who have toiled a lifetime are now falling between the cracks and joining the poor and vulnerable created by the government in less than three years. Yet highlighting the priorities of the rulers, no  one of the seem to be thinking of compensating those who have lost their savings, only of compensation of what happened to a few of the rulers and their henchmen during the 2015-2019 period  or the Aragalaya period in which the houses of the rulers, much beyond their known sources of wealth and income were burned down.

 An Indian political analyst Dr Maya John, has written, “Although the Aragalaya targeted not only individual politicians like the Rajapaksas but also the wider ambit of corrupt political forces – as evident in the parallel slogans of “GotaGoHome” and “225GoHome” – the bulk of people’s energy was overtly focused on dislodging certain individuals from political power; indicating the tendency for the ruling establishment to still hold sway with the ouster of particular politicians. As the well-known Sinhalese proverb goes: inguru deela miris gaththa wage (exchanging ginger for chilli), we have simply got rid of something bad and got something worse in return. So, the Rajapksas have been replaced but the same ruling clique and political system remain intact; in fact, in a more offensive reincarnation.”

UNEQUAL TREATMENT

 The protest movement was a reaction to the social  tolerance limits, economic hardships, shortages, queues and steep price rises that in effect halved the general income of the people, with some suffering more than others. But the crackdown on them by the rulers has been both subtle and harsh in the present period. Those who gave it leadership are being picked off one by one, put into jail or being put on bail so that they dare not protest again. The unequal and discriminatory treatment of the protest movement is given the veneer of law which the government would he hoping would get it through the monitoring of the UN Human Rights Council next month and preserve the economic rewards of the EU’s GSP Plus, which is given to country’s that are making a genuine effort to improve the lot of their people, poor people not only the rich.

 In 2018, parliamentarians who attempted to stage a constitutional coup (which failed because the judiciary stood firm) sat on the chair of the Speaker of parliament whom they had forcibly chased off. They flung chairs and wrenched microphones out of their sockets. But none of them were punished even when the coup failed. However, those who joined the protest movement and sat in the chair of the president are being houndeds one by one and arrested. A protester who took the beer mug of the deposed president has been arrested. But ministers who are accused of corruption, accused reportedly even by diplomats accredited to the country, and ministers who have been convicted by the courts, sit on, in government. Such unequal and discriminatory treatment is likely to cause the sense of grievance to grow especially when the people are faced with price rises and shortages. They form the basis  to cause another Aragalaya.

 The current version of the 22nd Amendment which gives the rulers the power to pick the civil society members who will be in the constitutional council is not a sign that the government will heed the voice of the people. In this reluctance to be held accountable and to use power in a just manner, is a recipe for confrontation between the rulers and people in the future in which repression will be the response of the rulers who disregard the people. It may explain  why the military budget continues to take first place despite the economic collapse. Unless the people’s voices are represented truly in the parliament and the political processes, which can only come through a fresh set of elections, it is difficult to expect accountability in the system which is a formula for disaster sooner or later.

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Doing it…dad’s way

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Yes, of course, the older folks would all remember Edward Joseph; the young ones may find the name unfamiliar as Edward now lives in Germany and does his thing in that part of the world.

Better known as Eddy, he was with the leader of the group Steelers and they were big in the local showbiz scene…many, many years ago.

While Eddy is now busy, operating as a singer/guitarist/songwriter, in Germany, his daughter, Samantha, has decided to follow in her dad’s footsteps…as a singer/guitarist.

According to Eddy, Samantha decided to get actively involved, this year, and started performing with him, at various gigs,

A few weeks ago, she had the opportunity to perform with dad, to a huge crowd, on big stage, and after her impressive performance, she was asked to come for a casting by the State Jazz band of Frankfurt, whose conductor was in the audience.

She was also discovered by another promoter of a big TV Channel, in Germany, called RTL.

Says Eddy: “So, hopefully, things will work out for her. I never pushed her to do music because I know how hard and competitive, and dangerous, the industry has become.”

The proud dad went on to say that he only gave her the tools of advice, and tips, in singing and playing instruments.

“From that point, onwards, it was all her effort,” he added.

Samantha, originally, was keen to become a Music Teacher, says Eddy, rather than a performer, but now she is gradually getting the taste of the crowds.

“I am grooming her and supporting her in every way I can and hope that she will get better opportunities, in this business, than I had.”

Eddy says that if he was born and bred, in Germany, he, probably, would have come a long way, by now.

“But I am very happy with my life, the way it is.

“I still have my loving mom and dad, a fantastic daughter, a caring partner, my friends and family, and God, on my side, and I am now totally at peace with myself.

“I can proudly say that God has given me the path to be one of the most booked musicians, in my region.”

Most musicians, over there (born and bred in that region), according to Eddy, do find the going pretty tough, where work is concerned, due to the pandemic, and the Ukraine-Russia war, resulting in a food and fuel crisis.

Hopefully, if the scene brightens up, we may see father and daughter, in action, here!

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