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Midweek Review

Govt. caught with fingers in the sugar jar



By Shamindra Ferdinando

The parliamentary Opposition, having plunged into disarray, due to its unpardonable sins of the recent past, shadowed by a string of humiliating electoral debacles, starting with the local government poll of 2018, followed by the 2019 presidential and 2020 general elections, has received a massive adrenaline boost by way of the huge sugar duty scam. It has brought down to earth, once again the high-riding Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government, at the worst possible time, with the country reeling economically, due to the continuing Covid-19 pandemic.

The alleged fraud has dealt a severe blow to the SLPP that enjoys a near two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The accusations, as regards the sugar scam, received credence in the wake of the all-party Committee on Public Finance (COPF) declaring, in no uncertain terms, that the government suffered a colossal loss of revenue. The COPF made the declaration on Feb 25, 2021. This was consequent to the COPF calling for a comprehensive report on January 5, 2021, on the alleged sugar duty scam, from the Finance Ministry. The Finance Ministry report was received in the second week of March 2021 (‘Massive revenue loss: Eyebrows raised over inordinate delay in responding to House query,’ with strap line ‘SLPP members say sugar deal black mark on govt’-The Island, March 4, 2021)

Chairman of the COPF, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, didn’t mince his words when he publicly acknowledged the staggering loss of revenue. State Minister Vidura Wickremanayake and Nalin Fernando, MP, both members of the SLPP, and members of the COPF, had no qualms in declaring, at the Committee meeting, on Feb 25, 2021, the alleged sugar duty scam was nothing but a black mark on the government.

The JVP, that exposed the scam, in Dec 2020, spearheaded a withering attack on the government. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, on Dec 12, 2020, named all those who had been allegedly involved in the corrupt deal. Obviously, the SLPP never expected the sugar controversy to take such a nasty turn. Both the JVP and the main Opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), exploited the situation to the hilt. The COPF, chaired by Kurunegala District lawmaker Yapa, threw its weight behind the accusations.

Defending the indefensible!

Last Friday, former JVP National List MP Sunil Handunnetti, on behalf of the Marxist party, filed a fundamental rights application against the sugar duty scam. The exposure of the unprecedented sugar duty scam turned the tables on the government. Under pressure, the government, a few hours after the JVP moved the Supreme Court, hastily called a media briefing, at the Finance Ministry, to explain the controversial sugar duty reduction. The responsibility of countering the accusations fell on Finance Secretary S.R. Attygalle. Defending the indefensible is quite a difficult task.

The previous yahapalana government perpetrated the Treasury bond scams, during the tenure of Attygalle’s predecessor, Dr. R.H.S. Samaratunga.

Attygalle received the appointment as the Secretary to the Treasury and Ministry of Finance, effective 19th November, 2019. Attygalle’s was one of the first appointments made in the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the presidential election. Before the latest appointment, Attygalle served as the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL). Attygalle also held the position of Assistant Governor of the CBSL and had been released to the Ministry of Finance to serve as the Deputy Secretary to the Treasury. It is pertinent to mention that Attygalle received the appointment, as the Secretary to the Treasury and the Ministry of Finance, of the 52-day government (31st October, 2018 to 18th December, 2018) declared illegal by the Supreme Court. That appointment was made in the wake of a constitutional coup. The then President Maithripala Sirisena’s political project failed. Subsequently, Dr. Samaratunga was re-appointed.

In spite of the fact the COPF, being headed by an SLPPer, and it being packed with ruling party members, the government obviously didn’t receive the anticipated protection. The SLPP parliamentary group appeared to have failed to recognize the threat. It proved that it is no longer a case of ‘right or wrong my party’ line of thinking. Having turned a blind eye to the rapidly developing scenario, the SLPP ignored the Finance Commission, calling for a report on the alleged sugar tax scam, from the Finance Ministry. The SLPP parliamentary group disregarded government lawmaker Yapa’s declaration, on Feb 25, 2021, that the report was yet to be submitted. The writer, on March 3, 2021, sought an explanation from lawmaker Yapa as regards the inordinate delay in the Finance Ministry’s response. The former minister explained the report was expected in the following week. The MP was of the view that in spite of the delay, the Finance Ministry would definitely respond.

Although the COPF received the report and was taken up for discussion the following week, Parliament conveniently refrained from issuing a media release on the latest Finance Commission meeting, chaired by lawmaker Yapa. By then, the SLPP realized the alleged sugar tax scam had caused irreparable damage and sought to take some remedial measures. However, Finance Secretary Attygalle’s lackluster response to the alleged scam clearly boomeranged. The JVP and the SJB compared the alleged sugar duty scam with the Treasury bond scams, perpetrated by the UNP, in Feb 2015 and March 2016. They alleged that the losses suffered by the government, as a result of the alleged sugar tax scam, far exceeded the Treasury bond scams. The government struggled to cope up with the allegations. Remedial measures seemed to be futile against the backdrop of the Finance Commission, headed by a senior government member squarely blaming the incumbent administration for the situation.

JVP leader Anura Dissanayake, in his Dec 12, 2020 speech, delivered in Parliament, explained how the alleged fraud took place. Those who watched the explosive speech, online, certainly expected the government to set the record straight. The government so far failed, both in and out of Parliament, to successfully dismiss the JVP allegations. The Treasury Secretary’s response to these accusations obviously worsened the situation.

The COPF, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA), chaired by SLPP lawmakers, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Prof. Charitha Herath and Prof. Tissa Vitharana, have responded magnificently to the daunting task of tackling corruption. There hadn’t been a previous instance of the Finance Commission acting swiftly on allegations as regards such a major fraud. The Opposition, therefore, should recognize the pivotal importance of the role played by anti-corruption watchdogs.


How long will the SLPP let COPF
do its job?

The Island sought an explanation from COPF member, Dr. Harsha de Silva, MP (SJB), regarding the work undertaken by parliamentary watchdog bodies.

The Island: The SJB wanted you to head COPA, COPF and COPE. Many feared the government would place all three under its members to hide corrupt practices. Against that background, how do you see the work carried out by the three outfits? COPF acted courageously in respect of the sugar deal. COPE revealed many corrupt deals that had taken place since 2013. Do you think they are responding to the situation well?

MP Harsha de Silva:

I was nominated to head the COPF. That’s all. The Standing Orders specifically mention that the COPF must be headed by a member of the Opposition. But the government overruled it, using their majority. They appointed MP Anura Priyadarshana Yapa to head the COPF. As a person, he has earned my respect. In fact, he has been quite forthright thus far. It is he who requested the Ministry of Finance to prepare a report on the recent issue with respect to the reduction of the sugar duty. His objective was to determine if the duty reduction was actually passed on to consumers or not. Now the whole country is aware how, while the Treasury had to forego much needed revenue to the tune of Rs 15.9b, a bulk of that benefit ended up with one importer, in particular, and not with consumers, who should have been its beneficiaries. That is why I want the COPF to order a forensic audit to be conducted by the Auditor General. That way we will be able to determine exactly what happened. And then take it forward from there. But it is not about him as a person. It is how long the SLPP will let the COPF do its job. Its actual mandate is to keep an eye on public finance as a whole; revenue, expenditure and loans and debt, etc., of the government. A classic case is when I questioned the Ministry of Finance on their budget figures for 2020 at the COPF. Specifically the COPF is mandated to assess the suitability of assumptions made. There was a huge uproar and they said their estimates on growth and thus the resulting estimates of the budget deficit and debt were accurate. And they stuck to their figures. But we will soon see the real figures as they will have to be released soon. And we will see how they mislead the COPF and the country. So, there it is. The objective of the COPF is to create checks and balances in the nation’s economic management. That’s what a strong legislature is supposed to do. But what we have is a weak legislature where the government controls the COPF, in addition to the COPE and the COPA.”


A post-war pledge

Three days after the eradication of the LTTE, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa assured that their priority would be to tackle waste and corruption. The promise was made at the parliamentary grounds, on May 22, 2009. President Mahinda Rajapaksa warned members of the government that the war against the LTTE would no longer serve as a shield, in face of public criticism. President Mahinda Rajapaksa acknowledged that the war wouldn’t be an excuse even for him. The Commander-in-Chief vowed that law enforcement agencies would now hunt for robber barons. Amidst the applause of the gathering, the President vowed that he would neutralize waste and corruption the way he crushed LTTE terrorism (President declares war on waste and corruption – The Sunday Island, May 24, 2009). Unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent; the CBSL was robbed twice in 2015 and 2016. The frauds were perpetrated by no less a person than the Governor of the CBSL Arjuna Mahendran, a Singaporean, and a personal friend of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In spite of repeated assurances, the SLPP hadn’t been able to apprehend Mahendran, widely believed to be living in Singapore, perhaps not.

Those who had remained silent, at the time of the Treasury bond scams, now allege the sugar duty scam caused a much bigger revenue loss. Successive governments engaged in corruption with impunity. Mahendran’s successor, Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy, lucidly explained the status of Sri Lanka’s economy before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCol) that probed irregularities at SriLankan Airlines, SriLankan Catering and Mihin Lanka. The statement couldn’t have been made at a better time for those who expected a genuine change in the political environment. Unfortunately, the media, pathetically, failed to provide sufficient coverage to, undoubtedly, the most important statement made by a respected public official, in the recent past, on any issue.

Dr. Coomaraswamy told the PCol that the country was facing a non-virtuous cycle of debt and it was a very fragile situation which could even lead to a debt crisis. “Of course, my colleagues, in the debt department, have plans and the capability to manage it. But it’s the duty of every citizen to act responsibly as regards the government policy,” he told the PCol. Dr. Coomaraswamy emphasized that people should elect MPs who were prudent enough to handle fiscal and monetary matters of the country. “I am not referring to any government, but it’s been the case ever since independence.”


Who abused Finance Ministry?

The CBSL made quite a startling revelation on Friday, July 26, 2019, before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the Easter Sunday attacks.

The CBSL team comprised the Governor of the Central Bank Indrajit Coomaraswamy, Director of Financial Intelligence Unit D.M. Rupasinghe, and Director of the Department of Supervision of Non-Bank Financial Institutions R.R. Jayaratne. Rupasinghe testified in-camera on a request made by Dr. Coomaraswamy.

Jayaratne and Dr. Coomaraswamy set the record straight as regards the Finance Act of 2017, after the then Power, Energy and Business Development Minister, Ravi Karunanayake, challenged CBSL condemnation of the Finance Act. Having stated that the Batticaloa Campus Limited and the Heera Foundation had received funds from Saudi Arabia on seven and 15 occasions, respectively, Jayaratne didn’t mince his words when he declared the new Act weakened the CBSL regulatory role, vis-a-vis illegal transactions.

The PSC probed M.L.A.M. Hizbullah over clandestine money transactions, amidst accusations that both Batticaloa Campus Limited and the Heera Foundation were involved with the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ), responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks. At the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, Hizbullah functioned as the Governor of the Eastern Province and he now serves the current Parliament as a UPFA National List member. Hizbullah moved to the East, in early January, 2019.

M.A. Sumanthiran, Chairman of the COPF, was present on the panel of lawmakers at the time the CBSL made the shocking revelation.

When Jayaratne explained as to how the Exchange Control Act, introduced by the UNP-led government, had impeded the CBSL and was weaker than the one previously in operation, Ravi Karunanayake, the one-time Finance Minister, had the audacity to challenge the CBSL.


Where does it say such transactions cannot be inquired into in terms of the new Act?

Jayaratne: In accordance with the 2017 Exchange Control Act, Section 30, action cannot be taken.


You prepared that Act. Why are you pretending as if you don’t know anything, about it? The CBSL amended it several times and sent it back.

Perhaps Jayaratne could have faced a ministerial onslaught if not for Dr. Coomaraswamy’s swift intervention. Had Dr. Coomaraswamy opted to remain silent, Jayaratne, probably would have had to suffer in silence, unable to talk back to a powerful Minister

Dr. Coomaraswamy:

No Sir. The Act actually was not drafted by us.


Why not?

Dr. Coomaraswamy:

No Sir. It was done outside. We were actually very upset about it. We were not included. That was drafted without the CBSL being involved. We were asked to comment on it

JVP MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa: If the Batticaloa Campus last received money in 2017, Hizbullah was aware of the new Act being drafted.



Nalinda Jayatissa:

It could have had happened.


Present Act does not at least interpret what it meant by wrong.


Unauthorized money transactions were taking place all over the country. Foreign currencies are kept illegally. Transactions do not come into the official banking system, not even one USD.

The exchange between Karunanayake and the CBSL erupted when lawmaker Ashu Marasinghe, sought a clarification as regards the difference in the current and the previous Exchange Control Acts.

Chief of the COPF Sumanthiran remained silent during the exchange between Karunanayake and the CBSL.

The circumstances in which the Finance Act had been introduced have been disputed by no less a person than the CBSL Governor. It would be pertinent to recall the advice given by Dr. Coomaraswamy to the electorate, in late 2018. Dr. Coomaraswamy issued the advice before President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved Parliament, at midnight, on Nov 09, 2018, following the sacking of Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe.


Financial chaos

Examination of statements in Sinhala, Tamil and English, issued by the Communications Department of Parliament, pertaining to the COPE, the COPA and the COPF, since the last general election, would reveal a pathetic state of affairs as far as the national economy is concerned. The statements have revealed an extremely dangerous trend with ministries and various institutions responsible for ensuring checks and balances, undermining the national economy. Revelations pertaining to Customs are quite disturbing and the failure on the part of the COPE, the COPA and the COPF to inquire into serious allegations within a reasonable period. The failure, perhaps, deliberately facilitated fraud, corruption and irregularities over the years. Last week, Parliament revealed a shocking case of corruption involving Customs and Access International (Pvt) Ltd that had taken place in 2013.

An investigation, conducted by the COPA, has revealed that the government suffered a loss of Rs 60 mn due to irregularities involving the Customs and Access International (Pvt) Ltd in the Eastern Province Water Development Project. The COPA revealed at the Committee on Public Accounts held in Parliament recently that the government had to pay an additional amount of Rs. 62,499,656 due to irregularities in the importation of DI pipes and fittings for the Eastern Province Water Development Project, implemented in 2013, with the assistance of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JAICA). Revelations during the COPA, the COPE and the COPF proceedings are only tip of an iceberg.

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Midweek Review

Blind security sector reforms:



State Defence Minister Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon greets US State Department official Afreen Akhter (pic courtesy MoD)

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.

Conclusive factor

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.

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Midweek Review

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)

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Midweek Review

Nation’s State



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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