Connect with us

Features

Govt. on multiple tracks with priority to fuelling ethno-religious nationalism

Published

on

by Jehan Perera

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a presidential task force to take forward the concept one country, one law that proved to be an effective slogan at the election campaign that won him the presidency in 2019. Of course, those were different times. At that time the country was still trying to recover from the shock and demoralisation of the Easter bombing that had taken place six months before. The Muslim community came under special scrutiny as the suicide bombers had been Muslim. The concept of one country, one law came across as a powerful unifying theme to the majority of the population who felt that ethnic and religious minorities had created enclaves, both in territory and in law, which undermined the unity of the country.

In a context in which the previous government leadership had failed to act cohesively, the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa was projected as being that of a strong leader who would unify the country in all aspects. However, the situation that exists at the present time no longer supports such expectations. The country is beset by many problems of varying intensity and the expectations that people had with regard to the positive and developmental aspects of strong government are no longer being met. The appointment of the presidential task force has come at a time when the attention of the general population is focused upon the difficulties they are experiencing in growing food, feeding their families and educating their children in the midst of fertiliser bans, teachers strikes and economic hardship.

The basic concept of one country, one law continues to be welcomed by the ethnic and religious majority population who see in it no specific threat to their identity or to their interests. The principle of one law, one country is upheld by the constitution of the country, which however makes an exception for Buddhism which is given the foremost place and for personal laws that apply to Kandyan Sinhalese, Jaffna Tamils and Muslims. This has given rise to the perception that the recently appointed Presidential Task Force and its mandate for one country one law is in pursuit of reform of personal laws and is actually a targeting of the minorities. However, the concept of one country one law is more profound and ought to mean that the country’s laws are applicable to each and every individual with equal force regardless of rank or position, ethnicity or religion.

BLIGHTED HOPES

The main allure of President Rajapaksa’s desire for more centralised governance has been the hope that he would institute a strong government of the sort practiced in Singapore in which decision-making would take place on the basis of rationality and cost effectiveness with corruption outlawed. The early statements of the president that he would select only suitably qualified persons to positions of state and end practices of nepotism were widely welcomed. However, two years into his presidency, the president has yet to deliver on the promise of Singapore-style governance by those with suitable qualifications and with zero tolerance for abuse of power in high places. Unfortunately, the contrary has been the case with a minister who went inside a prison and threatened prisoners with his gun not taken before the law and the resignation of several suitably qualified persons who were appointed to high places and were not permitted to perform their duties.

In this context, the appointment of the presidential task force on “one country one law” needs to be challenged due both to the composition and mandate. Even today no one is above the law if the law is implemented, which calls for strengthening of institutions as was attempted by the 17th and 19th Amendments and effectively dismantled by the 18th and 20th Amendments which centralised power and reduced the independence of state institutions from political control. The task force being headed by the Ven Galagodaaththe Gnanasara has caused consternation even among partisan supporters of the government as he has a checkered reputation having been associated with anti-Muslim violence and hate speech and being convicted by the courts for contempt, imprisoned and given a presidential pardon. Significantly, the 13 member task force also does not include a single woman, Tamil or Christian and therefore does not represent the plurality of Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious and plural society.

The government will need to take these shortcomings into consideration or else it can erode confidence in the government and further marginalise minority communities, and women who are a majority in Sri Lanka when decisions are made regarding laws that affect them without their participation. In addition, in implementing the concept of one country, one law there needs to be provision for plural laws under the 13th Amendment by provincial councils which have been provided with devolved powers which they might use differently owing to the different circumstances that prevail in each of the provinces. However, a government leadership that seeks centralisation of power and control over other institutions of governance, as manifested in the 20th Amendment, is likely to have a different agenda in which the devolution of power cannot be a priority.

RESCIND GAZETTE

The establishment of the presidential task force coincides with two important government announcements. The first is that the long postponed provincial elections will be held in the early part of next year. The previous government maneuvered to have those elections postponed for fear of being defeated at mid-term. The same concern may exist within the present government as its performance is still far from what was expected. The government may be seeking to reinvigorate their falling voter base through ethno-religious campaigning. The second important governmental announcement has been with regard to the proposed new constitution of which little is still known. In the absence of an articulated vision, and the direction set by the 20th Amendment, the supposition is that the constitution will embody the desire of the government to centralise governance for which the one country, one law slogan is highly relevant.

Despite the appointment of the presidential task force the government appears to be continuing with its effort to take forward, even in a subordinate manner, a reconciliation process through the state mechanisms that have been established. This past weekend the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) held an international conference on the theme of “Reconciling Differences through Understanding: Sustainable Peace, Security and Reconciliation in Modern Society”. This event was conducted with the backing of the Ministry of Justice under which all reconciliation mechanisms, including the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reconciliation have been placed. Justice Minister Ali Sabry was part of the conference where he delivered speeches both at the opening and closing ceremonies which demonstrated a continuing government commitment to the work of those institutions.

It needs to be noted that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the UN General Assembly in New York and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva pledged to energise the national reconciliation process by following principles of accountability and restorative justice, among others, and to work in cooperation with the UN and international community to these ends. On the other hand, the composition of the presidential task force on one country, one law and the mandate given to it are seriously contradictory to those pledges. It appears that the government is following a multi-pronged strategy in which it will engage in reconciliation activities intended to impress the international community, civil society and sectors of the population who are able to secure benefits from these initiatives. At the same time it will seek to re-invoke the ethno-nationalist mandate it received at the presidential and general elections. Civil society needs to take the position, as proposed by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, and call on the government to immediately rescind the gazette notification on the establishment of the presidential task force on one country, one law and adopt a more democratic and consultative approach to governance.



Features

Ontario’s Bill 104: ‘Tamil Genocide Education or Miseducation Week?’

Published

on

By Dharshan Weerasekera

In May 2021, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario adopted Bill 104. The stated purpose of the Bill is to, a) designate the week following May 18 each year as ‘Tamil Genocide Education Week’ and b) educate Ontarians about ‘Tamil Genocide and other genocides that have occurred in world history.’ The crucial question is, whether the charge of ‘Tamil genocide’ is true.

To the best of my knowledge, there has been very little substantive discussion of the above question in Sri Lankan or Canadian newspapers or academic journals in recent years and it is in public interest to begin such a discussion. Otherwise, there is a danger that the proposed ‘Tamil Genocide Education Week’ would turn out to be an exercise in mis-education of Canadians, most of whom are relatively unfamiliar with Sri Lanka.

In my view, there is absolutely no factual basis for anyone to claim that Tamils have been subjected to genocide in Sri Lanka. In this article, I shall briefly summarise the arguments made in a case filed in the Court of Appeal in September 2014, Polwatta Gallage Niroshan v. Inspector General of Police, Members of the Northern Provincial Council and others, CA/writ/332/2014. It is a public document. I was the Counsel in the case. The petitioner sought a writ of mandamus to compel the Attorney General to take action against members of the then Northern Provincial Council who had signed a letter (forwarded to the UN Human Rights High Commissioner) alleging genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, the Court declined to take up the case on technical grounds, namely, that the petitioner had failed to file a police complaint. The petitioner, a humble three-wheeler driver, did not have the financial wherewithal to pursue the matter further, but the case is very important in the present context because of two reasons: First, it shows that Sri Lankan citizens have rejected the allegation of Tamil genocide and even gone to the courts with regard to this matter.

Right of reply

Second, and more importantly, since the provincial legislature of a foreign country has asserted that Tamil genocide has happened, it is incumbent on the said legislature to provide a right of reply to all concerned Sri Lankans who reject the charge. Otherwise, one cannot expect the stated purpose of the Bill, education, to genuinely take place. In this regard, it is well to recall that natural justice, which includes the injunction “hear the other side” is an overriding principle (jus cogens) of international law.

Furthermore, one could argue that any funds allocated by the Ontario legislature, to advance the goals of the Bill, should be made available to members of Sri Lankan origin living in Ontario as well, who wish to tell their side of the story during the week in question. For all these reasons, the Sri Lankan case is important as a starting point for a substantive discussion of the charge of Tamil genocide. I give below the relevant portion:

“The 3rd – 35th Respondents, 28 of whom are members of the Northern Provincial Council and five are members of the Eastern Provincial Council, are signatories to a letter sent to the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navinetham Pillay, titled, “Joint letter by members of the Northern Provincial Council and Eastern Provincial Council, 17 August 2014.” In the said letter the 3rd – 35th Respondents request the former UN Human Rights High Commissioner to acquaint her successor, as well as the investigating panel presently investigating Sri Lanka, with the matters contained in the letter.

Petitiner’s contention

The Petitioner contends that the said letter contains explicit statements capable of causing disharmony, ill-feeling and discord among the different ethnic groups of Sri Lanka, particularly the Sinhalese and the Tamils, that the 1st and 2nd Respondents have not taken any steps to investigate or prosecute the 3rd – 35th Respondents for the said statements under Section 120 of the Penal Code (raising discontent or disaffection or feelings of ill-will and hostility among the people) and therefore the Petitioner has a right to request the court for a writ of mandamus to compel action.

The letter makes three requests of the High Commissioner, the second of which is: “The Tamil people strongly believe that they have been, and continue to be, subjected to genocide in Sri Lanka. The Tamils were massacred in groups, their temples and churches were bombed, and their iconic Jaffna Public Library was burnt down in 1981 with its collection of largest and oldest priceless irreplaceable Tamil manuscripts. Systematic Sinhalese settlements and demographic changes with the intent to destroy the Tamil Nation, are taking place. We request that the OHCHR investigative them to look into the pattern of all the atrocities against the Tamil people, and to determine if Genocide has taken place.”

The Petitioner respectfully draws the attention of the court to two matters in the above passage:

i)

The assertion that Genocide has been practised against the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

ii)

That “Sinhalese settlements and demographic changes” are being carried out with the “intent to destroy the Tamil Nation.”

The Petitioner is of the view that, the above two assertions are demonstrably false, and, as a citizen of Sri Lanka, is personally offended and angered by them, and considers that thousands of other citizens of this country feel this way also.

The Petitioner further considers that, false accusations regarding highly sensitive issues made directly to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urging her to investigate the purported offenses constitute an attempt to “raise discontent or disaffection amongst the People of Sri Lanka, or to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of such people” for the following reasons. The crime of genocide has a technical meaning in international law, and one can assess objectively whether or not that crime has been committed. The definition of genocide is set out in the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide (1948) and is as follows:

“[Article 2] In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a)

Killing members of the group;

b)

Causing serious bodily harm or mental harm to members of the group;

c)

Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

d)

Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e)

Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

From the above, it is clear that the crime of “Genocide” has two components: the intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, and also the committing of one or more of the acts enumerated under points a – e. It is possible to objectively assess whether, in a given set of circumstances, each of those components is present. Similarly, the accusation regarding settlements and the claim that the intent behind these settlements is to destroy the “Tamil Nation” can be objectively assessed.

The Petitioner asserts that, the Sinhalese people have not committed genocide against the Tamil people, or imposed settlements to destroy the Tamil People, or any “Tamil Nation” within this country, and that facts exist to prove these matters. In particular, the Petitioner wishes to draw the attention of the court to the following points: With respect to the accusation of genocide, the following facts are relevant:

Statistsics

Firstly, if the charge of ‘Genocide’ is with respect to the period from Independence to the start of the war, roughly 1948 – 1981, then statistics are available regarding key economic factors such as income, production assets in agriculture and manufacturing, employment, access to education, and access to health services. ((The most recent island-wide census was in 2012 which is after the war. But there is a census for 1981.) If discernible discrepancies exist between the statistics for the Sinhalese and the Tamils with regard to the above factors, a reasonable inference can be drawn that the Tamils have been systematically discriminated against, which would support the contention that the Tamils have been subjected to a genocidal campaign.

The Petitioner is of the considered view that a comparison of the aforementioned factors will show no discernible differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and draws support for this contention from the assessment of Professor G.H. Peiris, one of Sri Lanka’s most respected scholars, who analyses the said factors in a chapter titled “Economic causes for ethnic conflict” in his book, Sri Lanka: Challenges for the new Millennium (2006). The said assessment is as follows:

“To generalize, the overall impression conveyed by these conclusions is that, except when the “Indian Tamils” of the plantation sector (who still suffer from various deprivations compared to other groups) are taken into account, up to about the third decade after independence, socio-economic stratifications—variations in wealth, income, power and privilege, or dichotomies such as those of “haves versus have-nots” or “exploiter versus exploited”—did not exhibit significant correspondences to the main ethnic differences in the country. And, there was certainly no economically “dominant” ethnic group.” (p. 436.)

Secondly, if the charge of “Genocide” is with respect to the period of the war, census data exists which indicate that between 1981 and 2001 (the period of the war) there was a substantial increase in the Tamil population in the Sinhalese-majority areas due to the migration of Tamils from the North-East to that area. Such a movement of Tamils could not have occurred if the Tamils were being subject to genocide.

Also, one can consider the fact that throughout the 30-year civil war, the salaries of government workers in the North and East, large parts of which were under the de facto control of the LTTE, were paid by the Government. Medicine, food, and other essentials were also sent to those areas throughout the conflict. All this does not bespeak an attempt at genocide, rather, the exact opposite.

Finally, if the charge of “Genocide” is with respect to the last phases of the war, i.e. January 2009 – May 2009, the undisputed fact that the security forces were able to rescue approximately 350,000 Tamils who were held hostage by the LTTE indicates the absence of “Genocide.” The Petitioner therefore draws the natural inference suggested by all of the facts set out above, namely, that the Tamils have not been subjected to genocide in this country.

Settlements

With respect to the accusation about settlements, the following facts are relevant. Firstly, if by “Tamil Nation” what the signatories mean is a territorial unit, what are the boundaries of this unit, and by what law is it recognized? If answers cannot be provided to these questions, then no “Tamil Nation” exists. If the existence of such a territorial unit cannot be established, the assertion that the intent behind the settlements is to destroy the “Tamil Nation” cannot be sustained, since that which does not exist cannot be destroyed.

Secondly, if by “Tamil Nation” the 3rd – 35th Respondents mean the areas of the island where Tamils comprise the majority ethnic group relative to the Sinhalese and the Muslims—i.e. the Northern and the Eastern Provinces—it is true that a certain number of Sinhalese settlements were established in the course of various development projects. Nevertheless, statistics exist in the public domain that show Tamil settlements were established along with the Sinhalese settlements, and that, taken as a whole, the distribution of the settlements, when considered in terms of area, as well as development project, was done in an equitable and fair fashion. (See for example, Professor K.M De Silva Separatist Ideology in Sri Lanka: A Historical Appraisal, 2nd ed. International Center for Ethnic Studies, 1995).

Thirdly, if the 3rd – 35th Respondents are claiming that settlements are being systematically established at present, it is incumbent on the 3rd – 35th Respondents to name what those settlements are, and to address the following matter: the Sri Lanka Constitution guarantees to every citizen, “Freedom of movement and of choosing one’s residence within Sri Lanka” (Art. 14(h)) which means that anyone who claims that Sinhalese settlements are illegal or wrong must show that those settlements are being established in excess of, or in ways that contravene, the aforesaid right.

The Petitioner repeats that, facts related to the points enumerated above are in the public domain. Therefore, the claim by the 3rd – 35th Respondents, that the Sinhalese are committing genocide against Tamils, and also imposing settlements to destroy the “Tamil Nation” are deliberate falsehoods, unless they can present some evidence to justify and explain their claims.

The Petitioner is of the view that, deliberate falsehoods such as the ones mentioned above can have only one result: the promotion of feelings of ill-will and hostility between different groups in this country, in this case the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and that if the signatories cannot produce evidence to justify and explain their claims, those claims show an ex facie intention to promote the said feelings of ill-will and hostility between Sinhalese and Tamil people.”

Conclusion

The stated purpose of Bill 104 is to ‘educate’ Ontarians about Tamil genocide. However, there is a grave danger that this will result in ‘mis-education’ of Ontarians along with Canadians in general, about the issue in question leading to a possible break-down in good relations between Canadians and Sri Lankans which should be a matter of concern for the Canadian Federal Government. Therefore, a substantive public discussion about whether or not Tamil genocide has occurred is urgently needed and this must necessarily involve giving Canadians a chance to ‘hear the other side’ of the story. Polwatta Gallage Niroshan’s case offers a good starting point from which to offer Canadians and other foreigners a glimpse into that ‘other side’.

(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and consultant for the Strategic Communications Unit at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute.)

Continue Reading

Features

India-Russia ‘special relationship’ surviving global political tensions

Published

on

That this is so, is plain to see. India’s alliance with the US continues to be robust and multi-faceted. A case in point is the QUAD grouping which has India’s support and is focused on blunting China’s influence and power in the Asia-Pacific. However, India remains a principal pillar of the BRICS grouping as well, in which China and Russia figure prominently, besides other formations where India and Russia collaborate. Pragmatism is clearly the high note in India’s foreign policy.

If there ever has been an ‘all-weather friendship’ in international politics thus far, it is this ‘special relationship’ between India and Russia. So great have been the political storms this tie has survived over the decades that it could be considered almost a model bilateral relationship.

The relationship began to acquire particularly modern political nuances during the Nehru years. Those were times when the Cold War was at its height. Former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru began to give visionary and dynamic leadership to the Non-aligned Movement, the core principles of which formed the cornerstone of the foreign policies of many a Third World country. The NAM’s anti-colonial and anti-Western bent rendered its fundamental principles and values amenable to Russia and China. In this way was cemented India-Russia solidarity.

Considering that the bi-polar international political system of the Cold War decades has given way over the past 30 years to a multi-polar one, non-alignment in its traditional sense has no validity currently. This is on account of the USSR-dominated Warsaw Pact disintegrating since the nineties, when the USSR began to lose its super power status. However, Russia continues as a major world power in an international political system, which unlike the Cold War decades, is characterized by VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

The latter backdrop renders Russia’s moves on the world stage particularly engrossing. For example, what special meaning is Russia reading into its ties with India in present times? In what ways will India’s current tensions with China affect Russia’s special ties with India, considering that Russia and China generally tend to have identical positions on important questions in world politics?

These and many more issues are thrown-up by the India-Russia ‘special relationship’ which continues seemingly unruffled by current uncertainties and tensions in global politics. Right away it could be stated, though, that the enduring tie is in good hands on the Indian side.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, being a consummate pragmatist, is bound to look at the relationship through a range of angles with India’s national interest taking foremost position. With Modi at the helm, India is likely to have largely trouble-free ties with all those powers that are proving important from the viewpoint of India’s prime interests. For instance, India would be conducting cordial ties with the US while pursuing mutually-advantageous relations with Russia.

That this is so, is plain to see. India’s alliance with the US continues to be robust and multi-faceted. A case in point is the QUAD grouping which has India’s support and is focused on blunting China’s influence and power in the Asia-Pacific. However, India remains a principal pillar of the BRICS grouping as well, in which China and Russia figure prominently, besides other formations where India and Russia collaborate. Pragmatism is clearly the high note in India’s foreign policy.

Recent developments in India-Russia ties bear the latter point out quite emphatically. Russian President Vladimir Putin has just been to India to participate in the 21st India-Russia Annual Summit. Several new dimensions have been added to this summit through the introduction at the end of the talks of what is called the ‘2+2 dialogue mechanism’ at the countries’ foreign and defense minister levels.

Of particular interest is the defense minister level parley. A number of agreements were arrived at between the countries that have a close bearing on their defense capabilities, besides enhancing their ties in the field of armaments manufacture. For example, the sides reportedly signed contracts for the manufacture of some 610,000 AK-203 assault rifles through a joint venture in Uttar Pradesh. The deal is said to be

worth $ 6.66 million. Agreements in the logistics field and a navy-to-navy cooperation MoU are also reportedly taking shape.

While the foreign policy orientation of India could be said to be relatively free of ambiguities, the same could not be said of Russia which could be expected to have many more challenges to cope with. Some tight rope walking awaits it in South and South West Asia, for example.

In these regions Russia has to relate cordially with India while ensuring that its ties with China are not undermined. The arduous nature of the latter task is underscored by the fact that China is losing no time to fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan, which was created by the US troop withdrawal in August. China could be said to be Russia’s natural ally in South and South West Asia, but its need to keep its relationship with India going would oblige Russia to maintain a neutral position in the India-China power struggle. Thus, Russia would be compelled to finely balance its relations between China and India.

Russia and other major powers would also need to come to terms with the fact that unlike in the heyday of NAM, India is almost on equal terms with the US and China. This is particularly so in the area of armaments manufacture, not to mention its increasing stature as a number one economic power. Its long-range missile technology, for instance, is not second to that of China. In fact, it enjoys a slight edge over China in this area.

Besides, India has grown into a major arms exporter. Of late it has exported armaments worth $5.06 billion to 84 countries. Thus, it is reaping the fruits of having developed an indigenous arms manufacturing base over the years. It has quite adequately risen to the challenges posed by its major competitors in Asia and outside. All these capabilities and more of India need to be factored in by those powers that are seeking to compete with it for power and influence globally.

Accordingly, the India of today, Russia would realize, has come a very long way from its NAM years in the fifties and sixties. India has by no means overcome some of its negative legacies of the past, such as widespread poverty, but in some crucial respects, it is on par with quite a few major powers of the West. If the agreements Russia has just arrived at with India are any pointer, it too has come to realize that it is in the economic field that relations with India would bear most fruit today. Like India, Russia too has come to prize economic pragmatism in inter-state ties.

Continue Reading

Features

Sri Lankans, for better or for worse

Published

on

There were no words to explain to a Singaporean why a stranger bought us cakes and coffee simply because he and I were born in the same country. No, that’s something my Chinese friend would never understand.

Capt Elmo Jayawardena


elmojay1@gmail.com

I wrote some articles to the newspapers mainly about Sri Lankan matters and the political climate after the war ended. It was just to share my humble thoughts on where we should be heading in search of peace. Many acknowledged my line of thinking, and some asked me why I did not write something about aviation? Not a bad idea, considering I have been around aeroplanes for more than 50 years. But I did wonder who would want to know how I landed through a snow-laden sky in Alaska, or how I flew over the Golden Gate Bridge on my way from San Francisco to Hong Kong? At best, it could all be a bit on the boring side. Yes, I do have some unbelievable fairy tales to relate of times I flew VVIPs for Air Lanka, but such involve names, and names are a dangerous game. I like to keep my home intact and not see the roof going up in flames. Let me change track and tell you some stories I have in connection with aviation and meeting fellow Sri Lankans. All this is true––in black and white and not drawn with colourful crayons.

Singapore to Auckland is a long night trip, 10-plus hours and I was walking to the aeroplane, passing the checking counters. They were all empty, passengers labelled and weighed and sent to wait in the lounge for the doors to open. That’s when I noticed something familiar. There were two men standing by the counter, one look, and I knew where they were from. The Halmilla and Burutha suits were unmistakable and we Sri Lankans stand out like shop window dummies in dark browns and navy blues that Hameedia stitches for us. The two waiting by the checking-in counter appeared to be having a problem––solemn faces, like those of funeral directors.

“We could not get on the flight; it is full, and we have to be in Auckland tomorrow for a cargo meeting.” Well, they were Sri Lankan and that was all the qualification I needed.

“Put them on the flight deck and I will take them.” This was pre 9/11 when the world was a little less violent; the instruction was to the checking desk clerk and the Captain’s words carried weight in SIA. Matter sorted out, Halmilla and Burutha got an instant promotion to cockpit status, not to be folded in the cheese class like sardines, but in pole position, Lewis Hamilton style, right in front. Off we went in the big jumbo jet, 400-plus passengers with two Chinese and three Sri Lankans in the cockpit.

It was a long night and the autopilot was doing the work and we chatted away; no “machang-bachang” talk, but palatable conversation to pass the time cruising in a beautiful star-sprinkled sky on a black velvet night. Indonesian islands went underneath while we ate cock-pit dinner, and time crawled and the night got long as the aeroplane crossed the vastness of the Australian continent. The talk was Sri Lankan and of home; who they were; who I was and many more mundane conversations. We discussed how the fabulous Moonstones had come to the limelight of music and how Clarence rode his bicycle, carrying his guitar to the Malawana house, where they created the immortal lyrics of Mango Nanda and Dilhani and coined “numbata ridainam, hemihita vatiyan, Dunhinda manamali.

Great stories to swap, especially because Halmilla was a Moonstone musician.

The night dragged on and the two Chinese pilots took care of the cruise work and we talked and talked till the distant sky turned tangerine and heron blue promising the dawn, and it was time for me to get to work and bring the big bird down.

I wonder whether an Englishman standing at a ticketing counter in Heathrow could tell a British Airways Captain that he is from Liverpool and get to go in the cockpit because he is English? My two cargo friends are big businessmen now. One I saw some time ago sipping champagne, seated in the business class. He’s obviously done well, has traded his Halmilla to travel in a T-shirt; that is progress. The other I met at a book launch and I was so happy when he came up to me and said, ‘Hello.’ He is in the top rung of corporate businessmen, but the same simple man who took the flight-deck ride to Auckland. Maybe, they will read what I have written and remember how they flew on an SIA 747 with a fellow Sri Lankan. This is not about Airline Captains; nor am I soliciting brownie points for assisting stranded passengers. It is all about being Sri Lankan!

I was walking once in New York with my Singaporean co-pilot, and here comes a familiar face; he looks Sri Lankan. With a broad smile, he asks, “From Sri Lanka?”

“Yes.”

“From where?”

“Moratuwa.”

Aiyo! I am from Panadura, no, so what are you doing here?”

He sounded like he owned New York. “You have a Green Card?” That was a pricey question. “No, just a short time,” I replied. “You are from Moratuwa, I had a friend there you know, Fernando.” I scratch my head; there are ten-thousand four-hundred and seventy-eight Fernandos in Moratuwa.

“You are Ok? Prashnayak naane

hat part sans English must have been to keep my companion out of the private conversation.

“If you have a problem, tell me.” That was straight Sri Lankan.

“Moratuwa no! We are neighbours, no! Come! We will have some coffee.”

That is exactly how it happened. He, the Singaporean and I sat in a wayside Big Apple Turkish joint and had cakes and coffee. He told me of people he knew in Moratuwa (Fernando included) and I asked him about people I knew in Panadura, and we did discover some common friends. The bill came and Panadura jumped and paid. We exchanged telephone numbers (pre-email era) said good-bye and walked our separate ways.

“Captain your friend, nice man,” says my co-pilot.

“No, he is not my friend; I have never seen him in my life.”

“But he paid for us, too,” says my companion. “How come?”

There were no words to explain to a Singaporean why a stranger bought us cakes and coffee simply because he and I were born in the same country. No, that’s something my Chinese friend would never understand.

I have met so many in my years of vagabonding, like the cake and coffee man who owned New York or Halmilla and Burutha who rode on my flight deck. Off and on there have been a thief or two who spoke pure nonsense in capitals. That is acceptable as the instant excellent camaraderie of Sri Lankans I have met and enjoyed far outweighs the few that went sour.

Then there was an Old Ben with a gospelic name, Kotahena-bred, now living in Connecticut. We met in Pretoria whilst watching Sri Lanka play Shaun Pollock’s men in a one-day battle. The Ben and I sat together and cheered, two against South Africa, friends after that. We lost the match, but the whole stadium heard our cheers that resounded in typical Sri Lankan fashion. Thank God by then the country was Mandelised and dark skins like us had permission to shout.

In life, anything is not completely won, nor is it lost. It is the count that matters, especially in people we come to know. As for me, I won most and lost a few, and with pride I say it was wonderful to fly aeroplanes and walk the world as a Sri Lankan. The friends I have made are many, all over the world, and they have come to my life for no other reason than us being simply Sri Lankan and left me richer for having known them.

This is our motherland and its people, kind in heart and endowed with laudable human qualities. Irrespective of what ethnic roots they sprung from or which God they worshipped; the core was Sri Lankan. Of course, there are those spitting venom and blowing fire from their nostrils labelling people and separating their own countrymen. If the truth be trumpeted, it is mostly fanned by political ambitions.

Where is the end to all this? Is it near or far or nowhere?

Continue Reading

Trending