Give him a breather
By Rohana R. Wasala
Sri Lankan Catholics, led by His Eminence Malcom Cardinal Ranjith, Bishop of Colombo, marked Black Sunday on March 7, with the participation of representatives from Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim religious communities, demanding justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks carried out by local Islamist Jihadists two years ago. The Archbishop threatened further activism including asking for international help unless there emerge sure signs before April 21 that the real masterminds behind the horrendous crime are clearly identified and duly punished so that no repetition of the like will occur in the future. The event was immediately provoked by what was perceived by them and members of the Opposition as well as some law-makers of the ruling alliance, and sections of the civil society, as foot-dragging by the government over punishing the guilty.
That questionable perception was prompted by the President’s appointment on February 19 of a six-member ministerial committee to study the Final Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Easter Sunday attacks which had been presented to him nearly three weeks before, and also the report submitted to Parliament by the Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security. (I, for one, do not question the appropriateness of the president’s move; it must be part of the proper procedure he has chosen to deal with the matter. Considering the dismal history of commissions of inquiry in our country, which a past left politician in Parliament likened to a ‘loo visit’ – sitting, deliberating, reporting and dropping the matter, what is at present happening under President Gotabaya is quite efficient quick.) The ministerial committee was required to hand over its report before March 15. Committee member Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said yesterday (March 8) that the report will be submitted on March 15, as scheduled. The PCoI was appointed by (previous) President Sirisena in September, 2019, and its term was extended several times by incumbent president Gotabaya without introducing any change to the composition of its membership. It is not likely that the unacceptable practice of interfering with the judiciary or in legal processes for which the previous yahapalanaya was severely criticised and was made to pay a heavy price in the form of a humiliating electoral defeat would be repeated by the present government, especially by Gotabaya, given his unsullied professional record and his immaculate personal probity. (Incidentally, something I observed in Gotabaya’s campaign speeches in Sinhala was his studied avoidance of noncommittal promissory statements containing (First Person Singular) verbs ending in the suffix -nnam, e. g., karannam (I shall/will do); he always used the present affirmative forms like ‘mama karanawa’ ‘I do’ instead of the future optative ‘karannam’ (I’ll do) form; ‘karanawa’ expresses a solemn pledge, not a casual promise. Gotabaya has already amply proved that he is a man of his word, just as much as he is a man of action.) Meanwhile, it is unlikely that the Cardinal has lost his trust in the President, who had repeatedly reassured him that the culprits won’t be allowed to go free, though the former has found it fit to observe a Black Sunday. That must be to provide a shot in the arm for the President and the government to reaffirm their commitment and renew their resolve for expediting the commencement of due processes for ultimately meting out justice to all affected persons; but that kind of coaxing is redundant, in my opinion.
A day before the Black Sunday was marked (i.e., Saturday 6), the President held the 13th session of his ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandara’ ‘Conversation with the Country’ programme with the people of the village of Giribawe, Weragala, in Kurunegala. He had a copy of the final report, and spoke turning its pages, which showed that he had a good idea of its contents. He explained to the people that he had got the report on February 1, and that the commission had been appointed by the previous President. President Gotabaya pointed out that the report clearly blamed the (Yahapalana) government; it identified governmental inefficiency as the principal contributory factor that led to the Easter Sunday attacks. He stressed the fact that the report apportioned blame not only to former President Sirisena and the ex-Premier (Ranil), but also to the government (that they headed).
‘But today’, he added, ‘those who were in that government speak as if they weren’t in it. During president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time, we gave priority to state security…. This report makes it clear that a situation like this resulted from the discontinuance of that security framework. We completely reject the absurd, baseless allegation that our government must be held responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks … The Report has recorded who is accountable for them. It is our responsibility to see them punished, because we are the government now. We will properly execute that (duty). We have not only this report, but also (reports from) the CID, the TID, and intelligence sectors. Since we came to power, we have apprehended many other new suspects. We are continuing (with this process). Punishments will be meted out to these people and those.’
My feeling, for what it is worth, is that the President and the government must be allowed time and freedom to deal with the burning issues in the current unprecedented critical circumstances. A local, Sri Lanka-bashing, propagandist tabloid has started calling the President ‘Nandasena’ (from his full name ‘Gotabaya Nandasena Rajapaksa’). This is clearly meant to be derogatory, for it acoustically links him with his failed predecessor Sirisena, who in actuality, through his ungrateful 2014-November betrayal of his elder brother the then President Mahinda, has brought endless disaster to the country. Such inimical portrayal of President Gotabaya as a failure is wrong. (It is tragic that some prominent monks who helped bring Gotabaya to power, have now been duped into looking away from him in apparent disillusion and defend Sirisena instead who is being justly threatened with possible prosecution in connection with the Easter Sunday attacks). With a little hindsight Gotabaya supporters may draw fresh inspiration.
The newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa handled with aplomb the sham kidnap episode which had been staged, courtesy the Swiss Embassy in Colombo on November 25, 2019, and which had certainly been meant to embarrass and undermine him internationally. The alleged abduction and rape of a local female employee of the Embassy was soon revealed by the police to have been a hoax, driven by anti-Sri Lanka politics. Having been elected President without a burdensome backpack of a professional political background, he was able to adopt a confident, unperturbed, and matter-of-fact approach to get at the truth, and suitably dispose of the filthy stuff. The naive Embassy officials who had been taken for a ride by the plotters of the hoax had egg on their faces; but the President treated them with the respect that their posts deserved, without any rancour. He even offered them a piece of friendly advice about the importance of guarding against being misled by fabrications of liars against the country (or something to that effect).
Currently, a worse, more damaging, drama is being acted out by the powers that be centering on the release of the Final Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday Attacks. This must be intended to bamboozle the SLPP government under Gotabaya’s presidency to veer off its course into floundering in the stormy seas of geopolitics. This time however, the issue that is to be tackled is not so straightforward as the silly embassy skit. It will need Gotabaya’s hard-nosed practical approach as well as a seasoned politician’s pragmatism. Unfortunately, according to my lights, at present, Gotabaya is not getting the undivided support of those who are closest to him, but who are apparently pulling in different directions, though their loyalty may be unquestioned; this is an unacknowledged dichotomy in the government’s inner circle, which is good for his and the country’s enemies.
This unnecessary division of opinion or lack of unanimity has significantly stymied the resolution of a range of issues including the trivial burial problem fraudulently blown into international proportions by Jihadist apologists. How the government ignominiously embarrassed itself through unnecessarily bungling the issue is now common knowledge. Mandatory cremation of Covid-19 dead was a sound scientific decision. It was just yesterday (March 8) that 9NEWS, the national news service of the Nine Network in Australia, reported Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Chris Lease revealing at a press conference held the day before (March 7) that a ‘very strong positive’ COVID-19 sample had been detected in Adelaide’s wastewater and that in response to this South Australia had been put on coronavirus alert. Doesn’t this suggest that Sri Lankan experts’ caution regarding possible contamination of groundwater was correct? Mandatory cremation (condemned as ‘forced cremation’ by vested interests) was not politically motivated to hurt the feelings of a particular religious community.
The ad hoc use of plots of land on the edge of environmentally sensitive forest reserves for rural poverty alleviation in these hard times is a process that must be strictly supervised by state officials and utilized by a properly informed, responsible civilian population with the least environmental impact. This need not be a basis for attacks on the government. Of course, it is absolutely necessary to protect the forest reserves from endless encroachments in the future by unscrupulous elements. It is the authorities’ responsibility to turn the local beneficiaries of the concession into committed environment protectors. This can be done by injecting into them a dose of patriotism. Issues relating to the development of important sea ports with or without foreign collaboration, and the findings and recommendations of various commissions of inquiry appointed to look into bank scams, political victimizations, and the Easter Sunday attacks of April 21, 2019 should be dealt with as national issues that should not be mishandled inviting detrimental foreign intervention in our domestic affairs.
Blind security sector reforms:
Assurance to US on the size of military
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Defence Ministry recently quoted State Defence Minister, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, as having assured US State Department official, Afreen Akhter, that the military would be ‘right-sized’ to perform their classic role.
The assurance was given on 15 May at his office, in Colombo, just ahead of the14th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when our security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of 19 May with the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) troops wiping out a small group of hardcore LTTE cadres, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Among the dead was LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Why did the State Defence Minister make such a pledge? Did Akhter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asia Bureau of the State Department, seek a clarification as regards security sector reforms? If the military had continued to perform their classic role of being a ceremonial Army, the LTTE could have achieved Eelam. But the nearly three-year long sustained offensive brought the LTTE to its knees, 14 years ago.
Afreen Akhter oversees Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives, as well as the Office of Security and Transnational Affairs.
Her visit was the first by a State Department official, since National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, last month alleged, in a published book ‘Nine: The Hidden Story;, that the US had a direct role in the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year. The former industries minister is on record as having disclosed that US Ambassador here, Julie Chung, personally offered Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena an opportunity to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, regardless of constitutional impediment, to bypassing Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an unannounced visit to his official residence.
Ambassador Chung swiftly rejected the allegation made no sooner ‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ was launched at the Sri Lanka Foundation on 25 April. However, Speaker Abeywardena gave credence to lawmaker Weerawansa’s shocking claim by remaining dead silent.
Since the conclusion of the war, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government quietly began downsizing the SLA, which was little above 200,000 at the height of the war. However, the present government officially acknowledged the downsizing of the war-winning, Army on 13 January, 2023. State Minister Tennakoon was quoted as having said that the SLA strength would be further reduced to 135,000 by the end of next year and 100,000 by 2030.
Of course there cannot be an issue over the need to gradually decrease military strength in peace time, taking into consideration post-war national security requirements and the pathetic economic situation, confronting the country.
Regardless of the developing political-economic-social crisis, it would be the responsibility of the military top brass to brief the political leadership of the ground situation. Post-war national security requirements shouldn’t be looked at only on the basis of economic indicators. That would be suicidal. In other words, the country is in such a precarious situation, political leadership may tend to conveniently ignore basics, especially to please Uncle Sam, the obvious king-maker here now, thereby jeopardizing the country’s national security.
Declaration that the SLA would be reduced to 100,000 by 2030 means the total strength would be cut by half, from its peak.
The Defence Ministry statement didn’t refer to any other issue. But that doesn’t mean contentious issues hadn’t been taken up with Akhter during her visit. The US continuing to needle Sri Lanka, 14 years after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability, despite Washington’s own hands dripping with so much innocent blood from so many of its worldwide military misadventures, to retain its international hegemony, is mired in continuing controversy.
The designation of Sri Lanka’s most successful Navy commander (2005-2009) Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, in late April, this year, over a spate of abductions carried out in 2008-2009, at the height of the war with the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, as was even acknowledged by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, highlighted how the Washington establishment continues to pursue an agenda severely inimical to Sri Lanka.
Sanctioning of Karannagoda is the latest in a series of US measures directed at the war-winning military here. Among the sanctioned are Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and General Shavendra Silva, the controversial travel ban on the celebrated wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 58 Division formerly Task Force 1, the Numero Uno among the SLA fighting formations that literally took the fight to the LTTE, was imposed in Feb. 2020.
Expansion of SLA
The LTTE couldn’t have been defeated if not for the rapid expansion undertaken during the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as Commander of the Army (2005-2009). The SLA lacked the wherewithal to sustain a large scale ground offensive while deploying sufficient troops on a holding role. For want of adequate infantry battalions, the SLA couldn’t undertake large scale offensives, simultaneously. But the rapid expansion, since the launching of operations on multiple fronts, in Vanni, from 1997, paid dividends soon enough.
Sri Lanka should review post-war developments, taking into consideration the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July last year. The overall failure of the security apparatus to meet the public protest campaign that had been backe, clandestinely by the US, as alleged repeatedly by lawmaker Weerawansa, quickly overwhelmed law enforcement authorities and the military. Law enforcement authorities and the military should have been prepared to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately, a public protest campaign that was launched on 31 March, last year, targeting the private residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, exposed the serious weakness in overall government response to hitherto unknown threat.
Military strength should be the prerogative of the government. The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, now headed by retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera MP, should closely examine the developments and take up matters of importance, both in and outside Parliament. It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to consider/implement defence sector reforms at the behest of literally bankrupt external powers, with sinister motives. Defence sector reforms should be in line with overall security-political doctrine, instead of piecemeal restructuring. There cannot be a better example than the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s readiness to enhance the SLA’s strength by nearly 100,000. That decision, taken in the aftermath of Velupillai Prabhakaran declaration of Eelam War IV, in August 2006, was perhaps the single most decisive factor in Sri Lanka’s final victory over terrorism against so many odds placed against it.
In spite of the increasing military strength, as the LTTE gradually stepped up the offensive, and, finally, its threat became conventional in 1990, Sri Lanka never gave a real boost to military personnel numbers as explained in the chart published on this page. The period from 1981 to 1987 can be categorized as the Eelam War l. The Eelam War ll and lll were fought from 1990 to 1994, and 1995 to 2001, respectively.
Sri Lanka launched Division-sized ground offensives during Eelam War lll that began with the sinking of two gunboats, berthed at the Trincomalee harbour, and the downing of two Avros, with 100 officers, and men all, in April 1995, during an informal ceasefire with the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. But the military top brass, or the political leadership, at that time, never felt comfortable in executing a real expansion of the SLA.
In hindsight, they never wanted to go the whole hog. Operation ‘Riviresa.’ launched in Oct. 1995. was meant to bring Jaffna town under military control and consolidate government positions in the Jaffna peninsula. The operation that involved three Divisions was the largest combined security forces campaign until the Vanni campaign in 2007-2009.
However, the SLA never received the boost it desired during Eelam War lll. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga authorized Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ (victory assured) to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna peninsula. Having launched the offensive in May 1997, the government called it off, in 1999, following unbearable debacles. It was a miracle that the Army did not crumble at the time down to Anuradhapura or even beyond with a Commander in Chief like that, who was nothing but a cunning chatterbox with no sense of time. The government quite conveniently refrained from making a real difference on the ground by enhancing the number of infantry battalions available for ground commanders. According to the chart on this page, the SLA strength had been 117,705 officers and men (volunteers included) in 1996, the year before the launch of Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ and by 1999 when it was called off the paid strength in that particular year was 121,473.
The chart reveals a drop in the paid strength in 2000 to 116,739 in the wake of a series of humiliating battlefield defeats, culminating with the worst single debacle in the entire war when SLA abandoned the strategically located Elephant Pass base. A Division plus troops couldn’t repulse the LTTE offensive and the base collapsed in April 2000. Regardless of the Elephant Pass fall, the following year paid strength recorded a marginal increase. According to the chart, the paid strength in 2001 had been 118,331 while the strength dropped again in 2002 and 2003 during the operation of Oslo-arranged infamous Ceasefire Agreement.
The situation started gradually improving in 2004 and by 2007 paid strength stood at 151, 538. Having neutralized the LTTE in the Eastern theatre, the SLA was on the move on the Vanni west in 2007. That year marked the turning point in the war against the LTTE as the latter was overwhelmed on the Vanni front. The opening of multiple fronts on the Vanni theatre wouldn’t have been possible without the continuous flow of fresh recruits for newly raised Divisions as well as Jaffna-based formations.
It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka acquired Mi-24 helicopter gunships in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, MiG27s in 2000 and a range of naval platforms since 1980s, though successive governments that ignored the need to expand the fighting strength. During the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987- March 1990) the military ignored the basic requirement to provide sufficient troops to protect the MSR northwards from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The situation was so bad, Vavuniya-Elephant Pass stretch was held by isolated and poorly manned detachments at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990 following 14-month-long ‘honeymoon’ between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Velupillai Prabhakaran.
At the time Eelam War ll erupted in 1990, the paid SLA strength had been 60,596 whereas it consisted of 37,759 officers and men. Sri Lanka, in 2015, cancelled the war Victory Day parade following Western pressure. The last Victory Day parade was held in Matara in 2014. The rest is history.
Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka
The Popular Sinhala Cinema:
~ Part two ~
by Laleen Jayamanne
Ethnicity perhaps was not a political problem in the fledgling film industry, unlike in the wider political world, after the ‘Sinhala only’ Act of 1956, which made it the sole national language. In fact, without the entrepreneurial skills and vision of a group of indigenous and Indian Tamil businessmen, it’s very likely that the first steps towards the creation of a Lankan film industry of sorts would have been delayed at least by about a decade or so after political independence in 1947. The connection with India was essential. The first Sinhala film Kadawuna Poronduwa (Broken Promise, dir. B.A.W. Jayamanne, 1947), was in fact filmed in a studio in South India, belonging to the Indian producer S.M. Nayagam, who, subsequently, came to Ceylon and established the Sundera Sound Studio and obtained citizenship. The lack of capital, technical know-how, infrastructure and technology meant that the fledgling industry was dependent on India, in several ways, including the robust Indian melodramatic genre films in Tamil and Hindi which provided a durable prototype for many years to come.
However, despite the fundamental contribution of Tamil and Muslim, businessmen, technicians and artists in developing the Sinhala film industry, since the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the history of Sri Lankan cinema is blood stained. The pioneer entrepreneurs who established the national film industry were a group of astute Lankan and Indian Tamil businessmen not unlike the pioneering American Jewish entrepreneurs (immigrants from Eastern Europe), who established the major Hollywood studios in the 1920s in a foreign tongue. Despite this contribution to the national culture, the director K. Venkat was burnt alive in his car in July 1983 anti Tamil pogrom, by a Sinhala nationalist mob. Also, the most high-profiled pioneer film producer and industrialist, K. Gunaratnam’s house was attacked in July ’83 but he managed to escape the mobs and found refuge in the Holiday Inn. But his Vijaya Studio was burned down along with a large number of Sinhala films stored there. A large number of imported modern looms he had stored there, to be installed in a new factory for weaving a specialist textile, were also destroyed. In 1989 a JVP gunman shot him dead in his car, at point blank range, during a period of extreme Sinhala terrorist and state violence, between 1988-89. He donated the Tower Hall cinema, which he owned, to the state at President Premadasa’s request, but I read that there was no visible sign of acknowledgment of this magnanimous, rare, public-spirited gesture of Gunaratnam’s. Gunaratnam has been referred to as a movie Moghul because he established and controlled significant assets in all three tiers of the Ceylon film industry, namely production, importation and distribution and exhibition, from the early 1950’s on, producing Sinhala films that were highly successful at the box office. He also astutely diversified his business portfolios into the manufacture of plastics, and other industries, such as tourism, as it grew in importance after the open economic policies of 1977. Sir Chittampalan Gardiner’s Ceylon Theatres funded Lester James Peries’ Rekava, considered the foundational film for a new realist cinema after the nationalist revival of Sinhala culture in 1956, which also introduced Irangani Serasinghe to film. When this pioneering film flopped at the box office, Gunaratnam took a big risk and funded Lester’s historical epic, Sandeshaya which was a box office hit. This is a turning point in Lester’s career and therefore in the fledgling Lankan film history, too. Jabir Cader owned several theatres, including the New Olympia, where Hollywood films were screened.
Two approaches to Lankan Film History
One might approach Lankan film history from two different perspectives or with two different emphases. The first approach is the perspective formulated by the Royal Commission on the Film Industry established in 1962-1965, chaired by Regi Siriwardena, the eminent film critic and independent scholar. The second approach is one that would ask how the Lankan popular Sinhala cinema was produced from 1947, its economic foundations and examine the specific aesthetic reasons for its durable mass appeal in the country for about three decades, focusing especially on the songs, which is where Rukmani Devi and Master Baig come into the picture.
The huge popular appeal of the genre cinema and its songs and lyrics (printed on attractive song sheets sold at cinemas), rather than the rather poor dances, often as many as 10 songs per film, has been acknowledged and discussed in the circles of older cinephiles, who collected song sheets and Rukmani Devi’s records for instance from their youth. I am not sure what the younger contemporary critical intelligentsia thinks of this past film culture though. Here, Aruna Gunarathna’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lankan film history, as a long term, but now retired, editor of Sarasawiya and his extensive YouTube programmes on the early popular cinema are in a class of their own. He calls himself a ‘pictur-pissa’, someone crazy about cinema as such, a medium like no other. One would also have to agree with the Royal Commission’s approach outlining the reforms needed to create a local product that was economically, aesthetically and culturally viable. This entailed the rejection of the Indian prototypes. Though the exclusive emphasis on vernacular Sinhala subjects and language, effectively implied an erasure through silence, of the ethnic minorities from the new desired model of a national (appema ‘our very own’ Sinhala) cinema. This idea of ‘our very own’, meaning ‘Sinhala only’, is one that had considerable currency then. This desire for ‘original purity’ resulted in considering the popular Tamil and Muslim artists as ‘honorary Sinhala folk’! That these confident artists from the minority communities (with access to other traditons), were all creating together, durable, hybrid films and songs, which also might have resonated with the minority communities in the country. Such a possibility was rarely actively explored, the exception being Garmini Fonseka.
So, it’s a matter of emphasis now, from this historical distance, when we can assess that past in a non-polemical sophisticated way, after a 30 year civil war waged on the competing, exclusionary claims of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. That is, to not simply reject the ‘song and dance’ films, as they were referred to, in a dismissive manner by critics, who called for a true national cinema, which was ‘Sinhala’ in themes and use of language. The emphasis on songs and dance were abandoned in favour of more ‘serious’ concerns. But it’s worth noting that some ‘serious’ directors still loved using songs and those from say Bambaruawaith and Hansavilak scored by Khemadasa master, have by now become classics with their poetic lyrics. However, once a popular cinema is lost it’s not possible to recreate the conditions that gave rise to it, especially its devoted mass fan base in the first instance. This was so with Classical Hollywood cinema during the studio era with its mass audience and it was so with the Sinhala films made during the first 30 years or so. But India remains the striking exception to this mass cultural historical decline, especially after the advent of Television. India with its diverse folk songs, including Thumri and several classical musical traditions (Drupad, Khayal and Karnataka), and vibrant hybrid pop cultures should teach us that musical and cinematic creativity flourishes only when artists are open to outside influences and exchange of ideas. Indian films inherit all of this diverse cultural patrimony with unshaken confidence, while Lankans in power turn inward by sustaining an obsolete idea of cultural purity.
(To be Continued)
By Lynn Ockersz
In cozy Board rooms,
Of the imperiled Isle,
It’s the ‘bigger picture’,
That’s made to count,
And that goes down well,
With those holding the reins,
But the pain is in the details,
And these easily unfaze,
Those of sound conscience,
For, we have unemployed men,
Furiously tramping the streets,
Their tools lying limp on shoulders,
Hunger gnawing at their innards,
Some taking leave of their senses,
To the amusement and laughter,
Of entertainment-starved fellow men.
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Establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
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