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Midweek Review

How former CID Chief Shani ended up in Geneva agenda and clampdown on Ranjan’s tapes

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Many eyebrows were raised when the Geneva-based UK Mission to the WTO, UN and other International Organizations recently referred to one-time Director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Gnendra Shani Abeysekara.

In a brief statement, dated June 22, 2021, that dealt with Sri Lanka, the UK, on behalf of the literally self-appointed Sri Lanka Core Group (whether we like it or not), comprising Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Malawi, Montenegro and the UK, demanded the safety of Abeysekara. The grouping told the world: “We call for former CID director Shani Abeysekara’s safety to be ensured.”

The Geneva statement was made ahead of Abeysekara’s retirement. At the time Abeysekara retired on June 30, 2021, he was on bail having been arrested, in July 2020, in connection with the alleged fabrication of evidence against former DIG Vass Gunawardena and several others. The latter group had been arrested over the alleged abduction and killing of Mohammed Shyam, on May 22, 2013. Along with Abeysekara, the Appeal Court bench consisting of Justices Nissanka Bandula Karunaratne and R. Gurusinghe on June 16, 2021 also granted bail to former Sub Inspector of CID Sugath Mendis. Both were subjected to strict bail conditions.

Attorney-at-Law K.W. Janaranjana, the editor of Annidda, has meticulously dealt with the killing of Mohammed Shyam, investigations conducted by Abeysekara, the 2019 change of government, the probe taking a new turn, Abeysekara’s arrest and, finally, the Court of Appeal granting the former CID Director and SI Sugath Mendis bail. The full page article authored by the civil society activist, formerly with Ravaya, carried on its June 27, 2021 edition, is a must read.

The UK-led Core Group addressed the Abeysekara’s arrest, pertaining to the alleged fabrication of evidence. Yahapalana Justice Minister Thalatha Atukorale, too, called for an end to what she called persecution of Abeysekara. The Sri Lanka Core Group wouldn’t have taken up Abeysekara’s case in Geneva without being pushed by the Colombo-based civil society group. There had never been such a Western intervention on behalf of a law enforcement officer here, though there were intrusions by individual countries. Switzerland accommodating Abeysekara acolyte Chief Inspector Nishantha Silva and his family in its asylum programme is a case in point. CI Silva, accompanied by his family, left the country just over a week after the 2019 presidential election. Their departure to Switzerland paved the way for those who had been involved in the conspiracy to accuse newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government of abducting local Swiss Embassy employee, Francis Garnier, formerly Sriyalatha Perera.

The London headquartered Amnesty International, in late Nov 2020, expressed concerns over Abeysekara’s safety, in prison, after he was tested Covid-19 positive. According to the AI, the police officer who had been interdicted over alleged fabrication of evidence, in respect of Mohammed Shyam’s case, earned the wrath of the second Rajapaksa government for exposing human rights abuses implicating top politicians.

 

SC endorses HC ruling

One of the high profile cases, handled by Abeysekara, was the killing of four persons, including former lawmaker Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, who had been assigned to handle the UPFA trade union activity. The then Attorney General filed 17 indictments against 13 defendants for the murders of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, Damitha Darshana Jayathilake, Jalaldeen Mohamed Azeem and Manuel Kumaraswamy, on October 8, 2011, the day of the Local Government Elections, at Himbutana, Angoda. Following an extensive trial, High Court judges Padmini M. Ranawaka and M.T.B.S. Moraes (believed to be in Fiji as a judge) sentenced the defendants to death on Dec 8, 2016. However, the President of the trial-at-bar, Judge Shiran Gooneratne (now in the Supreme Court) disagreed. He acquitted 13 defendants from all charges filed against them whereas Judge Padmini Ranawaka, with Judge M.T.B.S. Moraes, agreeing, acquitted 08 of the 13 defendants from all charges.

At the time of the Himbutana incident, Duminda Silva had been Colombo District lawmaker and Monitoring MP for the Defence Ministry. The other Monitoring MP in that Rajapaksa administration was Sajin Vass Gunawardena, assigned to the Foreign Ministry.

The Supreme Court, on Oct 11, 2018, dismissed an appeal filed by Duminda Silva and the three others. The SC bench comprised five judges. Duminda Silva and the three other accuseds, filed an appeal against the death penalty imposed by the High Court on Dec 8, 2016. At the SC proceedings, the 01st accused, Police Constable Anura Thushara de Mel was acquitted of all charges by the bench consisting of the then Chief Justice Priyasath Dep, Justices Buwaneka Aluvihare, Nalin Perera, Priyantha Jayawardena and Vijith Malalgoda. Thereby the SC reaffirmed the death penalty imposed on Duminda Silva, Srinayake Pathiranage, Chaminda Ravi Jayanath alias Dematagoda Chaminda and Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Sarath Bandara.

However, the releasing of audio tapes of conversations among Abeysekara (he hadn’t been appointed Director CID then), Deputy Minister of Social Empowerment Ranjan Ramanayake, the then High Court judge Mrs. Padmini Ranawaka and President Maithripala Sirisena, in the wake of the 2019 Presidential Election, sent shock waves through political parties, the judiciary, the police and the civil society. Controversy still surrounds the circumstances under which the police received the recordings, secretly made by Ramanayake. Selected tapes were released to both the print and electronic media. Social media prevented efforts to hush up the shocking revelations, pertaining to the Himbutana killings, and the subsequent judgment.

Those in authority conveniently refrained from conducting a proper investigation into the scandalous interventions made by Ramanayake, as well as the conduct of HC judge Mrs. Ranawaka, and Abeysekara, though the police recorded some statements, including that of Mrs. Ranawaka. Parliament, through a statement issued by its Director Department of Communication, Shan Wijetunga, explained its position. That statement dated Feb 7, 2021, based on the decisions taken by the Committee on Parliamentary Business, as regards Ramanayake’s tapes, is reproduced here: “The CDs containing the recorded telephone conversations which were handed over to the Hansard Department of Parliament by MP Ranjan Ramanayake was taken into a lengthy discussion during the Committee on Parliamentary Business held today (Feb. 07, 2021).

 Accordingly, the Committee Members directed Parliament officials to submit the alleged CDs to the Speaker of Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, to examine matters concerning national prejudice, insults directed at elite persons and words which are inconsistent with Parliament.

The Committee then decided that the Speaker should examine it further and take appropriate action. The decision to table the CDs and give access to the MPs was deferred for later consideration.”

Parliament never released the CDs. Karu Jayasuriya’s recent call to grant presidential pardon to Ramanayake should be examined against the backdrop of how Parliament responded to the disturbing revelations and the suppression of CDs.

 

Meeting press outside Temple Trees

Ramanayake got into trouble for a statement he made outside Temple Trees, on August 21, 2017, following a parliamentary group meeting of the then ruling party. A simmering controversy erupted over the leaked tapes in the wake of the Supreme Court sentencing Ramanayake on January 12, 2021. A three-judge bench, comprising Justices Sisira de Abrew, Vijith Malalgoda and Preethi Padman Surasena, sentenced Ramanayake to four years rigorous imprisonment after convicting him of contempt of court. The Attorney General filed the case following a complaint filed in the Supreme Court by Ranawaka Sunil Perera of 43/11, Walawwatta Road, Gangodawila, Nugegoda. The case has been in terms of Article 105(3) of the Constitution.

Ranawaka Sunil Perera moved the Supreme Court on the day after Ramanayake accused lawyers and judges of being corrupt.

Rasika Dissanayake, with Sandun Senadhipathi, appeared for the petitioner, on the instructions of Sanath Wijewardena, whereas Tamil National Alliance lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran, PC, with Viran Corea and J.C. Thambiah, appeared for the respondent on the instructions of D. Vithanapathirana. Sarath Jayamanne PC ASG, with Suharshi Herath SSC, represented the Attorney-General.

But, interventions made by Ramanayake, throughout 2016, in respect of judgment in the Himbutana killings, had never been properly investigated, though Parliament, and the police, received the tapes well over a year ago. The bottom line is that the appalling disclosures in audio tapes had never been subjected to judicial proceedings.

Now Karu Jayasuriya, in his new capacity as the Chairperson of the NMSJ (National Movement for Social Justice), pioneered by the late Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha wants President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to pardon Ranjan Ramanayake, the way he freed Duminda Silva. Following the last parliamentary election, in August 2020, Prof Sarath Wijesuriya gave up the NMSJ leadership for Jayasuriya’s entry. Those who are genuinely interested in good governance and accountability should listen to those tapes and take tangible measures to conduct a thorough investigation into the whole affair. The conversations involving Abeysekara and Ramanayake, President Sirisena, Ramanayake and Judge Mrs. Ranawaka depict a pathetic situation.

Before the writer dealt with the leaked conversations, it would be pertinent to mention that Abeysekara received promotion to the rank of SSP on August 8, 2016, and appointed as Director, CID, in the first week of Sept 2017. Abeysekara served as CID Director till he received a transfer, on Nov 21, 2019, as Personal Assistant to DIG, Galle.

Did Ramanayake speak to High Court Judge Mrs. Ranawaka to influence the murder conviction against Duminda Silva, sans permission from the party leadership? Did the then top UNP leadership ask him to approach judges in respect of various cases? Ramanayaka is also on record phoning High Court judge Gihan Pilapitiya and Magistrate Dhammika Hemapala. Following the disclosure of a fraction of the tapes secretly recorded by Ramanayake, the police compiled statements from Mrs. Ranawaka (retired), Pilapitiya and Hemapala. Let me focus on the conversations involving Mrs. Ranawaka, Ramanayake, Abeysekara and President Sirisena (now SLPP Polonnaruwa district MP. Sirisena remains the SLFP leader).

 

How Prez’s intervention
sought for promotion

Mrs. Ranawaka had no qualms in declaring that she had no confidence in President Sirisena though she subsequently directly pleaded with him to promote her to the Court of Appeal. Mrs. Ranawaka expressed doubts about President Sirisena when Ramanayake phoned her on July 14, 2016, in the wake of Abeysekara expressing serious concerns over the way the Duminda Silva matter, and related issues, were being handled. Nearly two dozen conversations, involving Ramanayaka and Abeysekara, should be examined without taking them in isolation. According to conversations now in public domain, Mrs Ranawaka asked Ramanayaka to intervene on her behalf when the latter pressed her on the pending judgment on the Himbutana killings. The judge also made reference to the then lawmaker and Attorney-at-Law Ajith P. Perera during her conversation, initiated by Ramanayake. The way the conversation continued, clearly indicated that the call taken by Ramanayake, on July 14, 2016, couldn’t have been the first and they knew each other very well.  Mrs. Ranawaka, obviously exploited Ramanayake’s intervention to explore the possibility of moving up the ladder with unbridled political patronage.

Let me stress that Ramanayake didn’t mince his words when he repeatedly sought assurances from Mrs Ranawaka and Abeysekara, in separate conversations, whether they were sure of a guilty verdict in respect of the Himbutana killings. Abeysekara repeatedly assured Ramanayake he was convinced of a guilty verdict. At one point, Abeysekara declared all three judges would take a common stand. Abeysekara had been so confident of the impending ruling, at one point he assured Ramanayake that he was 10,000 percent sure of the verdict. Abeysekara warned Ramanayake of dire consequences if he made any further direct interventions, particularly with Mrs. Ranawaka.

 Abeysekara, however, pointed out to Ramanayake that calling Mrs Ranawaka was nothing but a mistake but he cut a sorry figure by pleading with the UNP Deputy Minister not to discuss the issue at hand with anyone, including President Sirisena. Ramanayake ignored Abeysekara’s advice.

After the three-member bench delivered judgment on the Himbutana killings, Ramanayake, on Sept 12, 2017, arranged for President Sirisena to talk with Mrs. Ranawaka. She unashamedly sought President Sirisena’s intervention to secure a promotion to the Court of Appeal. Having repeatedly assured good governance and accountability, the yahapalana grandees caused unprecedented turmoil. In the absence of a proper inquiry at any level, Ramanayake’s interventions in judicial matters were never dealt with.

In spite of Ramanayake’s deplorable conduct, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the breakaway faction of the UNP, had no misgivings in accommodating him on its Gampaha District list at the August 2020 General Election. The SJB cannot absolve itself of the UNP’s culpabilities, ranging from Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016, to failure to prevent the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, despite being forewarned with precise intelligence.

Former Speaker Karunaratne Jayasuriya, despite always being clad in immaculate lily white national attire, like most shrewd politicians, however failed to inquire into Ramanayake’s sordid vigilante type justice. What we should understand is that he is foremost a politician. Jayasuriya, one-time UNP Deputy Leader and a member of the 2015 UNP parliamentary group, was named the Speaker, therefore his actions/failures can be explained. However, the pathetic failure on the part of the SLPP to initiate an inquiry into the Ramanayake affair, nearly a year after the last general election, is an indication of the utterly irresponsible Parliament, where many a backroom deal is made.

All parties represented in Parliament, particularly the SLPP, and the SJB, with nearly 200 lawmakers in Parliament should take a clear stand on political interventions in judgments. Whatever the shortcomings, those drafting a new Constitution, at a great cost to the taxpayer, should do away with constitutional provisions in respect of presidential pardons and formulate a mechanism for judicial review of previous rulings in case of the emergence of fresh evidence. Presidential pardon shouldn’t be a ‘tool’ available for the executive, under any circumstances. Political parties should reach a consensus on the need to abolish the presidential pardon, as such powers make a mockery of democracy.  

But, in the so-called greatest democracy, the USA, even if we leave aside the erratic and unscrupulous behaviour of President Trump and take for example the actions of President Obama, one of the darlings of the liberal media there, he pardoned nearly 2000 felons before he left office At least in the local instance of Duminda Silva, the presidential pardon managed to undo a grave injustice to a man, who was shot first in the head. So the President overturning his murder conviction for the other killings that took place after he was incapacitated, amidst shenanigans involving Ranjan Ramanayake, Shani Abeysekara and Judge Padmini Ranawaka, was the right thing to do.

 The government should go for a thorough inquiry into Ramanayake’s tapes. Let us hope Parliament, without further delay, makes all tapes available to its members and takes tangible measures to facilitate no holds barred investigations. The way Abeysekara used Ramanayake to target Brigadier Suresh Salley of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) is evidence how all stakeholders exploited various situations to their advantage. Abeysekara wanted Ramanayake to set the stage for Salley’s removal. Whatever the circumstances, the then Premier Wickremesinghe unceremoniously removed Salley.

Perhaps, the Foreign Ministry should make available certified translations of all available telephone conversations among former High Court judge Padmini Ranawaka, retired SSP Shani Abeysekara, former lawmaker Ranjan Ramanayake and former President Maithripala Sirisena to members of Sri Lanka Core Group. The Foreign Ministry should seriously consider briefing the Core Group members, particularly the UK, Canada and Germany, to prevent them from further exploiting Abeysekara’s case.



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Midweek Review

Blind security sector reforms:

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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

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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

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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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