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How Indonesia’s geostrategic location can make it a leader for improving regional maritime security

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An engaging presence

By CAPT. ROHAN JOSEPH
/SRI LANKA NAVY (Carried in the latest issue of US military journal Indo-Pacific Defence FORUM)

During the past decade, world attention turned toward the Indo-Pacific region as never before. The safety of sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that span this region is of paramount importance to the U.S. to ensure a free and open maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific. Maritime complexities require a comprehensive approach to security concerns. U.S. presence in the region is critical for preserving strategic U.S. maritime interests globally.

The U.S. faces many challenges in ensuring free and open seas in the Indo-Pacific. Considering the vast area as well as competition in the region, the U.S. needs the cooperation of other nations to achieve its objective. A partnership with Indonesia provides a great connecting node for the U.S. to link with the rest of the region because of Indonesia’s strategic strengths. To realize the U.S. Indo- Pacific strategy’s objectives, active presence and engagement through forging partnerships remain vital. In this endeavor, strategic strengths displayed by Indonesia offer the much- needed access required by the U.S. to address maritime security concerns in the Indo-Pacific.

As the Indo-Pacific’s relevance evolves, maritime security issues need to be addressed to ensure the free flow of commerce and freedom of navigation. Today, the Indo-Pacific has become a place for power competition. Apart from nontraditional threats, competition and rivalry need to be carefully handled to ensure that the region does not succumb to security issues that could negatively impact maritime trade.

At the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, U.S. President Donald Trump drew a connection between the U.S. economy and national security when he announced, “The U.S. has been reminded time and time again in recent years that economic security is not merely related to national security. Economic security is national security. It is vital to our national strength.”

At the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis highlighted the requirement for Indo-Pacific countries to come together in shaping the future of the region and highlighted the maritime space, among other aspects. “The maritime commons are a global good, and the sea lanes of communication are the arteries of economic vitality for all. … Through our security cooperation, we are building closer relationships between our militaries and our economies,” Mattis said.

Based on these stated U.S. interests, maritime security in the Indo-Pacific becomes a strategic concern for the U.S. This analysis examines how the U.S. can increase presence and engagement in the Indo-Pacific by expanding the already established U.S.-Indonesian partnership that relies on the geographical centrality of Indonesia in connecting the Indo-Pacific. It also addresses the U.S.’s maritime focus on Indonesia and the acceptance of Indonesia by regional players as a strategic partner.

With this backdrop, it’s also important to highlight Indonesia’s challenges in countering maritime security issues and achieving its own maritime vision, as well as how Indonesia and regional partners respond to external influences with U.S. participation.

 

DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS

U.S.-Indonesia relations have progressed since their establishment of diplomatic ties in 1949. In the intervening seven decades, bilateral relations have fluctuated, but a series of reforms implemented since 1998made Indonesia politically stable and paved the way for increased U.S. interaction. During a visit to Indonesia in March 2006, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice highlighted the term “strategic partnership,” indicating the willingness of the U.S. to partner with Indonesia to promote Indo-Pacific stability. In November 2009, then-U.S. President Barack Obama and then- Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono inaugurated the comprehensive partnership between the two countries. This partnership focused on improving cooperation and the advancement of strategic discussions on bilateral, regional and global issues, including security.

Based on strengthening ties, the U.S. government expanded the 2010 comprehensive partnership to a broader strategic partnership in 2015. The U.S. declaration of Indonesia as a strategic partner speaks to the importance placed on Indonesia and on the region. “The U.S.-Indonesia strategic partnership is critical to the national interests of both nations and will grow more so in the years to come,” then-U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) Commander Adm. Harry B. Harris said at the U.S.-Indonesia Society and American Chamber of Commerce in August 2017.

His statement also highlighted USINDOPACOM’s broader expectations in engaging the region through expanded strategic cooperation. The U.S.-Indonesia military relations progressed despite certain setbacks at various stages. The 9/11 attacks added a new episode to the Washington-Jakarta relations. The global war on terrorism, led by the U.S., adjusted policy priorities toward Southeast Asian nations. As a direct result, Washington-Jakarta defense relations have grown since 9/11. Perhaps most importantly, the position Indonesia holds in the Muslim world and its experience in dealing with terrorism made Indonesia a significant partner in the war.

“We probably engage with the Indonesian military more than any other nation anywhere in terms of mil-to-mil engagements,” Mattis said during his visit to Indonesia in January 2018. Mattis also emphasized the need for maritime cooperation in the unique maritime environment that Indonesia holds by connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. The Indonesian military continues to engage in various training missions with other regional partners and the U.S., such as USINDOPACOM’s Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training. Close to 170 bilateral military-to-military exercises are held annually between the two countries.

GATEWAY TO THE INDO-PACIFIC

Indonesia is strategically located at the center of the global maritime domain and is a pivotal state in Southeast Asia. Its geographical centrality and proximity to one of the most important maritime trade highways connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans makes Indonesia the undisputed gateway to the Indo-Pacific. Growing maritime trade through the Malacca Strait has made this waterway one of the most strategically important chokepoints with access to the South China Sea. About U.S. $5.3 trillion worth of trade passes annually through the sea, which includes U.S. $1.2 trillion in trade with the U.S. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 ships transit the Malacca Strait annually. Because regional and global economies heavily depend on the Malacca Strait, its safety and security, as well as the continuity of SLOCs, have become an important strategic consideration. Therefore, the responsibility for ensuring access to the strait falls largely on Indonesia.

Piracy in the strait has decreased due to greater regional efforts. A minor attack in 2018 became the first recorded piracy attack since December 2015. Capitalizing on its location, Indonesia has been instrumental in leading cooperative anti-piracy efforts in the strait.

Indonesia’s geographical position offers many advantages in addressing maritime security concerns in the region. Indonesia’s active role in the formative stages and the successive progression of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since its founding in 1967, has been closely tied with the country’s foreign policy. In 2018, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry declared the Indo-Pacific Cooperative Mechanism of the Southeast Asian countries highlighting three key aspects: respect for international norms and finding solutions through dialogue; addressing key security challenges; and creating economic hubs in the Indian and South Pacific oceans.

 

STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP

Indonesian foreign policy is centered on ASEAN, where its de facto leadership status provides a strong position to cooperate with members and other regional players, including the U.S. The success of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy will depend on ASEAN’s centrality. Furthermore, partners in the region and beyond will be essential in achieving Indonesia’s global maritime objectives.

Indonesia’s foreign policy enables active engagement with partners and explains why Indonesia is one of the front members of the nonaligned movement. This foreign policy stance has been a strength in establishing strong ties with countries such as Australia, India and Japan while maintaining close cooperation with global partners. The Australian government’s Foreign Policy White Paper of 2017, for example, emphasized the importance of strengthening relations with Indonesia in areas such as economy and defense. Strategic developments in the Indo-Pacific, including the rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), make it imperative for Australia to strengthen bilateral relations with Indonesia.

The “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” released in 2019, demonstrates ASEAN’s strong commitment to preserve the international rules-based order. The Australian policy documents also indicate the importance of adhering to international norms, transparency and inclusiveness. In South Asia, Indonesia’s ties with India have progressed over the years, and Jakarta has identified that the regional dynamics require both countries to coordinate closely to become maritime powers and to address external influences. Economic dynamics and maritime potential are two main areas, among others, that India expects to improve by engaging with Indonesia. During a 2019 meeting, the countries’ foreign ministers pledged to triple bilateral trade by 2025 to U.S. $50 billion. Engineering, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, auto industry, information technology services, palm oil, coal and natural resources are some of the leading fields offering cooperation opportunities that could benefit both countries.

Policy experts consider strategic initiatives such as Act East; Asia-Africa Growth Corridor; Free, Open Inclusive Indo-Pacific; and Security and Growth for All in the Region to be pillars that support India’s wider Indo-Pacific strategic objectives. The shared vision of the India-Indonesia maritime cooperation that launched in 2018 highlights the importance of ensuring maritime security in the Indo- Pacific to achieve strategy and policy goals of both countries. India needs a neutral partner in the Indo-Pacific that could offer a sound base to launch such strategic initiatives. Partnering with Indonesia would be a major step in that direction and also offers India a strategic edge for its economic potential and ambitions to become a global maritime power.

 

LINKING TO NORTH ASIA

Indonesia-Japan ties have grown over the years since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1958. The 1977 Fukuda Doctrine brought several changes to economic relations. Japan has also recognized the importance of engaging with ASEAN, where Indonesia is a key player.

The two countries pledged to accelerate discussions over the General Review Indonesia-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (GRIJEPA) in 2019. As an emerging Southeast Asian economic entity, Indonesia shares strong economic relations with Japan.

 

Although India pulled out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), 14 countries, including Japan and China, agreed to it in 2019.

The RCEP has the potential to become the world’s largest trade agreement. Both the GRIJEPA and RCEP provide excellent opportunities for Japan to work closely with Indonesia. Japan, an ally of the U.S., needs to have a strategic maritime partner with the potential to provide a sound footing that is essential when solving complicated issues in the Indo-Pacific. Like Australia, Japan will find the Indonesian partnership important when addressing issues that require cooperation and coordination among neutral yet like-minded partners.

Even though Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy has a broader view spanning from the East African coast to the West Coast of the U.S., Japan needs a strategic node that could offer options to gain access to the Indian Ocean.

Elsewhere in North Asia, Indonesia has strengthened ties with South Korea through the Indonesia-Korea Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IKCEPA). Through IKCEPA — which was finalized in

November 2019 — the countries plan to boost two-way trade to more than U.S. $30 billion by 2022 with the removal of tariff barriers, according to Reuters.

“The global economy has been facing rising uncertainty from the rising tide of protectionism in the

last few years,” said Yoo Myung-Hee, South Korea’s trade minister, according to Reuters. “Korea, as one of the largest beneficiaries of free trade, and Indonesia, as leader of ASEAN, are signaling to the world our true support for free, open and rules-based trade in this very challenging time.”

SOUTHEAST ASIA’S IMPORTANCE

Even a small maritime nation like Sri Lanka could benefit from enhancing the already established relations with Indonesia. Sri Lanka-Indonesia relations date to the fifth century marked by the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1952, Sri Lanka and Indonesia have gradually expanded relations. During Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s visit to Sri Lanka in 2018, leaders of the two countries agreed to expand cooperation on trade, economy and capacity building.

South Asia lacks a strong regional organization that has the potential to drive the entire region toward reaping Indian Ocean benefits. Sri Lanka and Indonesia are members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, which could benefit Sri Lanka by working closely with Indonesia.

Enhancing maritime cooperation with Indonesia will bring unprecedented results for a small island nation like Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean and the interest shown by some of the leading players in establishing strategic partnerships centered on the maritime domain makes Sri Lanka an ideal partner for Indonesia and vice versa.

Likewise, partnering with Indonesia remains important for the U.S. Establishing a stronger strategic partnership with Indonesia will demonstrate the strength of the U.S. commitment to any doubters in the region. Indonesian neutrality is a key strength that could benefit the U.S. Indonesia’s access to the Indian and Pacific oceans offers the U.S. an Indian Ocean link through ASEAN. Ensuring freedom of navigation, adherence to a rules-based international order, and the security of the maritime trade and energy SLOCs should top the list of Washington policymakers. As the U.S. and China vie for influence in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. will work harder to find a strong launching pad that supports U.S. strategic initiatives in the region. The Indonesian neutrality offers a greater opportunity for the U.S. to do just that.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The U.S. should consider areas, such as extra regional pressure and Indonesia’s maritime challenges, as it continues to engage on maritime concerns in the Indo- Pacific. Many countries in the region believe that the U.S. is attempting to dominate the region through its strategy. Its unique geographical centrality in the Indo- Pacific, access to major SLOCs, economic potential, existing strong U.S. relations, prominent position in ASEAN, acceptance by regional partners and ties with the PRC make Indonesia a decisive strategic partner for the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific when addressing maritime security concerns and in implementing the U.S. Indo- Pacific strategy. In this regard, consider the following recommendations: Strategic Partnerships: Complex maritime affairs influence regional/global players to form strong partnerships. A strong position held by Indonesia in the ASEAN provides a unique platform to forge strategic partnerships with a number of countries. The establishment of multilateral strategic alliances centering on Indonesia will allow the U.S. to diplomatically counter the PRC.

Strategic Presence: To address maritime security concerns, strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific is a prerequisite. Failure to do so will grant an opportunity for others to fill the vacuum. Expansion of the

USINDOPACOM area of responsibility demarcation toward the East African coast could enhance the U.S. presence in the entire Indian Ocean.

Strategic Engagement: Strategic partnership and presence building centering on Indonesia will assist the U.S. to better engage with regional partners. Engagement should focus on diplomatic, informational, military and economic aspects. USINDOPACOM should play a leading role in all four elements using a collaborative approach through its partnership with Indonesia.



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Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s loss should result in breaking down societal imbalances

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The river we step in is not the river we stand on

By B Nimal Veerasingham

Years ago, when visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, I found myself wandering through the sprawling campuses of Loyola University. It is not far from the mighty Mississippi river flowing almost 6,000 km and economically powering significant parts of US Upper Midwest. In an unassuming quite corner under a well branched shady tree I noticed a memorial structure commemorating the killing of eight people in El Salvador, including six Jesuit priests in 1989. The six priests were also professors at the university of Central America in El Salvador at that time.

Peace memorial

This May, as per Loyola’s ‘Maroon’, at the memorial event held at the Peace Quad at Loyola university New Orleans, now dedicated as a memorial to this tragedy, Prof Alvaro Alcazar addressed the gathering. ‘The colonial power that is still very much in place in Latin America has created a ‘faith’ that is blind to or silent about injustice. It was this faith that inspired the Jesuit’s activism, but it cost them their lives’.The involvement of US in this tragedy was also addressed by Prof. Susan Weisher something the United States has never taken accountability for.

US Foreign Policy

The many contradictions and positivity of US foreign policy and its vast turns and switches in reaching many parts of the world is like the mighty Mississippi that prowls almost through or parts of 32 US States. The depth and power of this vast river cannot be estimated by mere width and length. Hurricane Catarina breaching the dikes nearly destroyed the entire city of New Orleans.

Fr Eugene Herbert memorial

Early this year a memorial statue of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert SJ was declared opened by Rt Reverend Ponniah Joseph, Bishop of Batticaloa in the outskirts of Batticaloa town right by the shores of Batticaloa lagoon. The statue was placed midway between the Batticaloa town, where he lived and taught, and the town of Eravur, where he ‘disappeared’ along with one of his students at the Eastern Technical Institute, where he was a Director. He was on his way on the scooter to arrange a safe way for the nuns trapped in a convent in the nearby town of Valaichchenai engulfed by ethnic riots.

Rev Fr Eugene Herbert was born in Jennings Louisiana. He joined the Jesuits on 14 Aug. 1941, while still in his late teens. He volunteered to join the ‘Ceylon Mission’ and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1948. As in the traditions of Jesuits as providers of high-quality education from their founding of their first school in 1548, Rev Fr Herbert served particularly in two schools in the East, St. Josephs College Trincomalee and St. Michael’s College Batticaloa. It is well known that Education in the Jesuit tradition is a call to human excellence. It develops the whole person from intellect and imagination to emotions and conscience. It approaches academic subjects holistically, exploring the connections among facts, questions. Insights, conclusions, problems and solutions. It has succeeded in a variety of cultures because it adapts to the context of the learner.

Multi-talented

Rev Fr. Herbert was a multi-talented genius excelling in music, science, technical studies, vocational studies and to be outdone of it all, in the basketball courts. In all disciplines, he brought a stricter structure that is besides excelling in the fundamentals, incorporating situational strategies encompassing critical thinking and adaptation. This was greatly visible none other than in the basketball courts where he injected exuberance and counter strategies to conventional wisdom. Saint Michael’s College Batticaloa up until his arrival in 1974 just was crawling in all Island Championships more so maintaining the status-quo. But Rev Fr Herbert revolutionised the outcome when Saint Michael’s started winning All Island Championships almost in all age groups against much more resourced Colombo schools.

Excellence in Basketball

Human excellence as we all know is not rocket science but striving to be the best with practice, discipline and endurance. But Rev Fr. Herbert’s presence provided the boys from the East who often lacked a concentrated leadership with clear and precise roadmap. The structural imbalance whether it be not so well built or barefooted at matches, didn’t determine the outcome. Rev Fr, Herbert provided energy and leadership both morally and corporally to the boys of the East who faced systemic roadblocks by not getting the direction and leadership. This was further evidenced by Rev Fr. Herbert’s active and emotional coaching that led the College teams to ignore opponent’s big city environments and large support base, but to keep concentrated on the final execution, the championship.

The referees in matches, where Saint Michael’s played paid greater attention to their decisions something that became standard when dealing with someone who knew the rulebook top to bottom. Rev Fr. Herbert quite often, if not in all matches, where St. Michaels College played could be seen challenging the referees for their inaccurate or missed calls. He always carried a basketball rulebook and could be seen feverishly waving the exact page of the rule and exclaims at top pitch when the referees failed to observe especially when the game was heated, and the difference between was swinging by one or two points.

Reaching the stars

I can remember that Rev Fr. Herbert once refused to participate in a Consolation Finals of a tournament. The team wanted at least to bring home a Consolation Finals Trophy, having failed to reach the finals. Rev Fr, Herbert looked at it differently. ‘We came here for nothing else but for the Championship trophy. Now that we couldn’t, we are catching the 8.00 PM night train tonight back to Batticaloa – and by the way, the practice for the next tournament will begin tomorrow evening, be on time’.

Rev Fr. Herbert’s humanity was visible in practically everything he exemplified, calculating the speed of the travelling train to explaining the mechanism of automobiles and the melodies from his clarinet. Between the matches and practices in Colombo he said mass at the Jesuit residence at Bambalapitiya. As teenagers with expectations we got confused sometimes with his message from the pulpit. ‘We strive to become the best and win. But at times that is not possible, and we have to accept defeat gracefully. But we have to rise again learning from our mistakes’.On another occasion, the security person refused to allow us to sleep on the floor of an enclosed classroom.

The train was late, and it was late in the evening; there was no one to instruct the security to open the classroom. He was ready to allow only the priest to the reserved quarter upstairs. ‘I will stay with the team and do not need any special arrangement,’ said Rev Fr without blinking, sleeping the entire night with us on the ground of an open but roofed half basketball-court, using his cassock as the bedsheet.

Rev Fr. Herbert exemplified through his life the true meaning of his calling and forging a future full of hope to a population that was at the receiving end of things for a longest while.

Last letter

In one of his last letters to his fellow Jesuit in New Orleans he wrote,’ Enough for our trials. The Lord continues to take care of us. I had really planned to write to USAID for another grant. We are running rehabilitation courses for ex-militants and other youth. Every four months we train 20 boys in welding, 20 in refrigeration repairs and 25 in house wiring. Every six months we train 15 in radio and TV repair. This is in addition to our regular three -year course in general mechanical trades’.

‘Pray for us. God willing the current instability and disturbances will be changed by the time I write again. We are used to vast fluctuations in fortune’.

Rev Fr. Herbert’s letter foretells several aspects of humanity that he was called upon to uphold.

The US continues to provide resources to ensure economic wellbeing, stability and peaceful existence across the Globe. The rule of law cannot be simply behavioral codes or identifying the cause or the culprit but ensuring resources and direction for the citizenry in general to break the cycle and rise above injustice. The rule of law cannot be applied differently to different set of people or on a best effort basis.

Breaking down societal imbalances

El Salvador and Sri Lanka were victims of a vicious violent cycle, where Jesuits lost their lives in obeying to their calls from above in their attempt to remake what it ideally should be. Many lost their lives in these cycles of hatred and violence both ordinary and clergy, including my well-liked and ever smiling classmate Rev Fr Savarimuthu Selvarajah. Fr Herbert’s disappearance galvanizes the distrust in our own destiny; many thousands were killed by fellow citizens than in the nearly 500 years of combined occupation by the foreign colonial powers.

The mighty Mississippi River, which travels almost 6,000 km is hardly comparable to a mere 56 km-long Batticaloa lagoon. Yet the son who was born on the shores of Mississippi became the true son by the shores of the Batticaloa lagoon.

This August 15th marks the 32nd anniversary of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s ‘disappearance’. Ironically, at the time of his disappearance he was a year less a day from celebrating his Golden Jubilee in joining the Jesuits (14th August 1941). No one has been brought to date to justice or rather under the clauses of the ‘rule of law’. The one who held the rulebook up above his head is still denied justice.Batticaloa and the entire Sri Lanka lost one of its true sons, and he just happened to be born in the United States of America.

 

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Vijaya Nandasiri : Losing it in laughs

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By Uditha Devapriya

Vijaya Nandasiri left us six years ago. The epitome of mass market comedy in Sri Lanka, Nandasiri belonged to a group of humourists, which included Rodney Warnapura and Giriraj Kaushalya, who redefined satire in the country. Nandasiri’s aesthetic was not profound, nor was it subtle. It was not aimed at a particular segment. Indeed, there was nothing elitist or pretentious about it; if you could take to it, you took to it. It was hard not to laugh at him, it was hard not to like him. Indeed, it was hard not to sympathise with him.

In the movies, Sri Lanka’s first great humourist was Eddie Jayamanne. Typically cast as the servant or bumpkin, Jayamanne could never let go of his theatrical roots. More often than not his laughs targeted a particular segment, so much so that when Lester Peries cast him as the father of the hero’s lover in Sandesaya, he still seemed stuck in those movies he had made and starred in with Rukmani Devi. Many years later he was cast as a close friend of the protagonist in Kolamba Sanniya, in many ways Sri Lanka’s equivalent of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even there, he could not quite escape his origins.

In Kolamba Sanniya, Jayamanne played opposite Joe Abeywickrema. Hailing from a different background, more rural than suburban, Abeywickrema had by then become our greatest character actor. Dabbling in comedy for so long, he found a different niche after Mahagama Sekara cast him in Thunman Handiya and D. B. Nihalsinghe featured him as Goring Mudalali in Welikathara. Yet he could never let go of his comic garb. Cast for the most as an outsider in the cities and the suburbs – of whom the epitome has to be the protagonist of Kolamba Sanniya – Abeywickrema discovered his élan in the role of the man who falls into a series of absurd situations, but remains unflappably calm no matter what.

There is nothing profoundly or intellectually funny in Kolamba Sanniya. Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the humour emerges from the characters’ imperfections and foibles: their way of looking at the world, their accents, their lack of polish and elegance. The dialogues are not convincing, and some of the situations – like the hero’s family discovering a bidet for the very first time – are downright silly, if not condescending. What strengthens the story is Joe Abeywickrema’s performance; specifically, his ability to convince us that, despite the situations he is being put through, he can stand on his own. Like the protagonist of Punchi Baba, left to take care of an abandoned baby, he is helpless but not lacking control. He often makes us think he’s losing it, but then gets back on track.

Vijaya Nandasiri was cut from a different cloth. In many respects he was Abeywickrema’s descendant, yet in many others he differed from him. Whereas Abeywickrema discovered his niche playing characters who could conceal the absurdity of the situations they were in, Nandasiri’s characters could only fail miserably. Abeywickrema convinced us that he was in control; Nandasiri could not. As Rajamanthri, the politician who for most of us epitomised the silliness and stupidity of our brand of lawmakers, he frequently parrots out that he’s an honest man. Abeywickrema could say the same thing and get away with it. Nandasiri could not: when he says he’s honest, you knew at once that he was anything but.

Nandasiri revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune the ubiquitous Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile), though we don’t get why the latter never returns his affections. As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man flirting with his wife, the issue being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married. The whole plot pivots on two things: the fact that his boss doesn’t like him, and the fact that he has to disguise himself as an older husband of his own wife to conceal their marriage from his boss.

In his own special way, Nandasiri went on to represent our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians, by turning them into easily recognisable and easily mockable stereotypes. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold – though his wife only pretends to give in to their employer’s advances – and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure here during the past 20 years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even when playing characters who only vaguely reminded us of him, such as the antihero of Sikuru Hathe.

Many years ago, I watched a mini series on Rupavahini revolving around a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri played the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri’s driver. Early on I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s voice with the other, a trick that survived the first 10 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident that (inexplicably) leaves onlookers and relatives confused as to whose body belongs to whom.

Both are near dying. A quick surgery is hence followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices now revert to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but also a useful trick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the believer in authority and the politician the believer in Marxist politics. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Nandasiri’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him when he was there. For the mini series to work, hence, he had to be himself.

If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he raises in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle in Colombo he gets used to in Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s not a coincidence that, in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, very often in professions that called for security, stability, and status: as a Junior Visualiser in an ad agency in Yes Boss, as the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and as a police sergeant in Magodi Godayi. These symbolised a lifestyle that Nandasiri’s antiheroes sought to subvert and to defy.

Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and serials – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it: in Sikuru Hathe, for instance, he commits one deception after another for his family’s sake, especially his daughter’s.

Where he was paired with another actor, I think, Nandasiri failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are mistaken for two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in a village, he could not really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, he was less than he usually was whenever he was opposite Gamini Susiriwardana. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among a plethora of other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. There are moments in Yes Boss when Lucky Dias nearly outshines him. But Nandasiri gets back on track; he exerts his dominance again.

In other words, Nandasiri could give his best only if his co-star was alive to his range, or if his character was of a lesser pedigree than his co-star. That is what happens in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a fairly good comic actor himself, and because Nandasiri’s character, Hunther, hails from such a different world that the present (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) appears outlandish to him. Hunther to get used to this world, and that means getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.

Vijaya Nandasiri’s ultimate triumph was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Abeywickrema often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his career has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of upping the antagonist, but he does just that, providing us with the final twist in the story.

He couldn’t behave this way as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (the latter played by W. Jayasiri), the film preaches to us a homily on the corrupting influence of power, a warning for all politicians. But then, just as you come to terms with this conclusion, he wakes up; the whole scene, it turns out, was a nightmare.

Ordinarily, you’d think he would learn from such a nightmare. But he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he is soon back to being the pompous figure he always was. Yet in that brief sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about how the corrupt remain corrupt, and how irredeemable they are. Was it a cruel coincidence, then, that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya Nandasiri played Rajamanthri? We may never know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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22A: Composition of CC problematic; ensures government domination

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By Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne
President’s Counsel

The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government’s new Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution Bill was presented to Parliament on 10 August 2022. The earlier Bill, which was published in the Gazette in June 2022, lapsed as it was not presented before the recent prorogation of Parliament.

The August Bill is an improvement on the June Bill from a Nineteenth Amendment perspective. Under 19A, Ministers and Deputy Ministers were appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. This was done away with by the Twentieth Amendment. The June Bill sought to bring back the requirement of the Prime Minister’s advice, but that provision would not apply during the present Parliament. The August Bill does not have such an exception.

According to the June Bill, where the President is of the opinion that the Prime Minister has lost the confidence of the present Parliament, the Prime Minister can be removed. Such a provision is not found in the August Bill.

Under 19A, the Speaker, Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition were ex officio members of the Constitutional Council (CC), while the President would nominate one MP. Five persons were nominated jointly by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, two of them being MPs. In making such nominations, they were required to consult the leaders of political parties and independent groups represented in Parliament to ensure that the CC reflects the pluralistic character of Sri Lankan society, including professional and social diversity. One MP was nominated by the MPs belonging to parties other than those to which the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition belonged. The three persons from outside Parliament shall be persons of eminence and integrity who have distinguished themselves in public or professional life and who are not members of any political party. Parliament shall approve their nomination. In practice, such approval was a mere formality as they were nominated jointly and after a consultative process.

The August Bill, like the June Bill, proposes the re-establishment of the CC but makes a crucial change. The five persons referred to are not appointed pursuant to the joint nomination of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. One MP is nominated by the Government Parliamentary Group, and the other MP is nominated by the party to which the Leader of the Opposition belongs. The three persons from outside are nominated not jointly by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition but by the Speaker in consultation with them. The smaller parties are not consulted.

This deviation from 19A gives rise to several issues. If the Speaker is partisan (and there have been several such Speakers), the Government could ensure that all three CC members from outside are their own nominees. The Government, by virtue of its majority, would have no difficulty getting Parliamentary approval. The smaller parties would have no say in the nomination of these three persons. Thus, in the current Parliament, parties such as the TNA, NPP, EPDP, TNPF etc., who together account for twenty-five MPs, would not be consulted.

The 22A Bill says that in nominating the two MPs and the three persons from outside Parliament, Members of Parliament shall ensure that the CC reflects the pluralist character of Sri Lankan society. This would be most difficult as they would be nominated by separate processes. Under 19A, on the other hand, that was ensured as the nomination was jointly by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition after consulting the leaders of all parties in Parliament.

The composition of the CC is of crucial importance for the achievement of a national consensus on high-level appointments. The approval of the CC is a pre-requisite for the appointment of judges of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal and appointments to high positions such as the Attorney-General and the Inspector-General of Police. Appointments to independent Commissions are made on the recommendation of the CC. As the other seven members of the CC are all Members of Parliament and may be swayed by political considerations, the three members who are appointed from outside have a vital role to play. They should be persons acceptable to all and who can have a moderating influence on the politicians.

An argument that has been adduced by the Government is that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition may not agree on the to be nominated jointly. No such issue arose both under the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Amendments. Members of Parliament nominated jointly acted with responsibility. Distinguished personalities appointed by joint nomination included Justice Dr A.R.B. Amarasinghe, Professor Colvin Gunaratne, Dr Jayantha Dhanapala, A.T. Ariyaratne, Shibley Aziz, and Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy, Javid Yusuf and Professor N. Selvakkumaran.

That the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition may not agree is no reason to give the power of appointment to the Speaker. The writer proposes that the 19A provisions be re-enacted with the addition that if the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition do not agree on the nominees within a stipulated period, the Speaker will make the nominations in consultation with the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leaders of the smaller parties.

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