IAF aerobatics display over Port City of Colombo
A grave being dug in Batticaloa for the burial of a Muslim Covid-19 victim
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Two F 7 GS multi-role jet fighters brought the SLAF’s flypast at the Galle Face Green on Wednesday (3) to an end. The flypast conducted to mark the 70th anniversary of the SLAF was definitely the largest ever such show held either during the conflict or in the post-war period. Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion on the morning of May 19, 2009, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.
The conclusion of the flypast, featuring Bell 212, Bell 412 helicopters, Mi-17 helicopters, Cessna 150 aircraft, B200 Beech King aircraft, MA-60 aircraft, followed by a pair of F 7 GS jets, paved the way for a superlative IAF aerobatics display
The Tejas (fighter aircraft), the Sarang (advanced light helicopter) and Surya Kiran (Hawks) teams displayed their flying prowess to a large gathering at the Galle Face, in spite of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. Wednesday’s show was brought to an end with one F 7 fighter jet aircraft making a daring low pass. The Indian deployment included Dornier Maritime Patrol Aircraft of its Navy and totalled 23 aircraft of their Air Force and the Navy. All Indian aircraft operated from Katunayake.
The Indian High Commission stressed on the deployment of indigenously built aircraft for the Colombo ‘mission.’
Among the spectators were President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, first lady Ioma, and 18th Commander of the SLAF Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana and he is the sixth Commander of the SLAF since the conclusion of the war. Since the end of the war in May 2009 others who commanded the SLAF have been H.D. Abeywickrama (Feb 27, 2011-Feb 27, 2014, K.A. Gunatilleke (Feb 27, 2014-June 15, 2015), Gagan Bulathsinghala (June 15, 2015-Sept 12, 2016), Kapila Jayampathy (Sept 13, 2016-May 29, 2019 and Sumangala Dias (May 30, 2019-Nov 2-2020). All of them received the rank of Air Chief Marshal following their retirement. The then Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke (June 11, 2006-Feb 27, 2011) had been at the helm during the Eelam War IV and was present at the fly past and acrobatics display in his capacity as the Governor of the Western Province. Goonetileke holds the rank of Marshal of the Air Force.
The F7s on display were among the four Chinese jets acquired in the wake of the first LTTE attack on the SLAF base, Katunayake, in March 2007. The raid stunned the first Rajapaksa administration, at that time fighting the LTTE in the Eastern Province. The LTTE remained strong in both the northern and eastern theatres. The Army, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, remained trapped, unable to break through the Muhamalai frontline, extending from Kilali to Nargarkovil, in the Vadamarachchi east coast.
The SLAF badly felt the need for an aircraft with dedicated capabilities of a jet interceptor. The top SLAF leadership was in a quandary with the country being offered the opportunity to buy F7s or much more advanced MiG 29s from Ukraine. It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka grappled with the two offers and finally decided to go for the Chinese jets.
The three day-day fly past and acrobatic display came to an end on Friday (5) with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa awarding Presidential Colours to No 05 jet squadron and No 06 transport helicopter squadron. With this, altogether 13 SLAF units have received Presidential Colours. The ceremony was held at SLAF Katunayake. The March 5 visit to Katunayake was President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first since the last presidential election. He previously visited Katunayake in his capacity as the Defence Secretary on June 11, 2009 to participate in an event to mark the conclusion of air operations against the LTTE. The writer had an opportunity to cover the Defence Secretary’s visit to Katunayake where he declared that it was the man at the controls of whatever the armaments at the SLAF’s disposal who made a difference in the battlefield. To mark the conclusion of air operations, nine aircraft from No 10, No 12 and No 05 flew in formation over the airbase (Gota: what matters is the man at the controls of armaments – The Island, June 12, 2009)
Sri Lanka should be eternally grateful for the crucial support provided by Pakistan to bring the scourge of terrorism to an end. Pakistan provided crucial support, especially providing jet flying training to SLAF pilots at a time even China was somewhat reluctant to do so.
Acquisition of F7 GS
H.D. Abeywickrama told the writer how a three-member team selected the F 7 GS over MiG 29s. The then Group Captain Sudarshana Pathirana had been a member of that team and subsequently flew the freshly acquired Chinese jets. The SLAF deployed F 7 GS in January 2008. The three member expert team asserted that the SLAF should acquire Chinese jets immediately and explore the possibility of acquiring MiG 29s for a long term solution. The F 7 GS were the jets acquired by the SLAF last.
At the height of the war, the SLAF had three fighter squadrons, namely No 10 (Israeli Kfirs), No 12 (Ukrainian MiG 27s) and No 05 (Chinese F 7s). All squadrons were based at the SLAF base, Katunayake, adjoining the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) under constant LTTE threat. In July 2001, the LTTE infiltrated the BIA. The commando-style raid caused massive losses.
During Eelam War IV, the SLAF deployed nearly two dozen jets. Incumbent SLAF Chief had the rare opportunity to command No 12 and No 05 squadrons on an acting capacity while being Commanding Officer of the No 10 squadron. Pathirana flew both Kfirs and F 7s and was one of the most experienced pilots in jet operations.
Wouldn’t it have been better if Kfirs and MiG 27s, too, were in the fly past as the SLAF celebrated its 70th anniversary? Today both squadrons are not operational. The No 09 squadron comprising Mi 24s helicopter gunships now flies Mi-17s as Mi 24s are no longer operational. Sri Lanka acquired Mi 24 s in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, MiG 27s in 2000. The SLAF’s decision to acquire Mi 24s in the wake of the enemy employing shoulder-fired heat seeking missiles in late April 1995 was influenced by the IPKF having Mi 24s during its deployment here. It wouldn’t be economically viable to maintain peace-time three jet squadrons as well as an attack helicopter squadron. However, the SLAF should be also mindful of the danger in losing much valued experience acquired in jet and Mi 24 operations. Political leadership, too, should be attentive to the armed forces’ needs. Now that the MiG 27s have been retired, and Mi 24 unlikely to fly again, the SLAF is considering the feasibility of overhauling the Kfirs.
As the SLAF celebrated its 70th anniversary with the IAF’s participation being the highlight, the country should seriously examine post-war realities against the backdrop of the growing rivalry between China and the US. Last week’s fly past and aerobatics display took place over an area encompassing the flagship China-funded ‘Port City Colombo.’ Situated next to the Galle Face Green, the project, developed by CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd., with an initial investment of USD 1.4 bn, covers 269 ha of land reclaimed from the sea. The reclamation was completed in January 2019 before the second humiliating polls trouncing of the yahapalana government 10 months later.
The SLAF suffered in the wake of the January 2015 change of government. The UNP-SLFP government found fault with the acquisition of Ukrainian MiG 27 by the first Rajapaksa administration. The Yahapalana administration flayed the Rajapaksa administration over what it called a corrupt MiG deal. Retired SLAF Commander, the then Air Marshal Goonetilike, was among those summoned by the FCID (Financial Crimes Investigation Division) probing acquisition of MiGs.
SLAF re-acquires jet capability
In the immediate aftermath of the 1971 insurgency, the SLAF took delivery of MiG 15s and MiG 17s from the then Soviet Union. The Soviet aircraft were phased out in 1981. The SLAF felt the urgent need for jet capability in the wake of the LTTE resuming war in June 1990 following a 14-month long ‘honeymoon’ with the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa. China was the only country willing to supply jets to the SLAF as India continued to oppose weapons sales to Colombo. By then, India had terminated its so called peace keeping mission (July 1987-March 1990) as a result of President Premadasa entering into direct negotiations with the LTTE. Chinese built F 7s were deployed in 1991 after acquiring FT 5 and FT 7 (twin-seater supersonic jet trainer) in the previous year. The Kfirs were added to the SLAF arsenal in 1996 and the MiGs in 2000.
Both Kfirs and MiG 27s were acquired during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumararatunga’s presidency. But, the SLAF gradually developed the jet capability that finally involved a range of other air assets, including UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and Beechcraft in mounting coordinated attacks. The targeted killing of Thamilselvam, the international face of the LTTE terrorism as its head of the political wing on Nov 2, 2007, just 12 days after the devastating LTTE raid on Anuradhapura airbase, is something the entire armed forces can be quite rightly proud of. The writer still remembers, Air Marshal Goonetileke sharing the successful attack carried out by a pair of aircraft, a Kfir and MiG 27 on Thamilselvam’s hideout south of Kilinochchi with this writer.
At the time the SLAF celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2001, the country boasted of 12 Kfirs – a formidable weapons platform. Altogether SLAF acquired as many as 15 Kfirs. But, the SLAF experienced delays in obtaining engine spares as each and every delivery required US State Department approval as the engine happened to be of US origin. It would be pertinent to mention the SLAF examined the possibility of acquiring MiG 29 or MiG 27 before deciding on the latter. The deployment of MiG 27s in 2000 gave the SLAF capability to carry a heavy payload in low flying attacks. The acquisition of Kfirs and MiG 27 should be examined against the backdrop of the LTTE securing shoulder fired missiles. F 7 BS found it difficult to cope up with the situation hence the decision to acquire Kfirs. Four years later, the SLAF added MiGs to its arsenal. The SLAF acquired seven MiG 27s in 2000. However, in spite of having immense airpower, it was never used as part of the overall military strategy meant to annihilate the LTTE. That situation changed in 2006.
By the time Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidency in Nov 2005, of the seven MiGs, four had been destroyed. One was caused by Ukrainian Captain L Valeric on August 18, 2001 when he flew a jet on the Ukrainian Aviation Day. The low flying aircraft hit a telephone wire and smashed into a house by the Negombo lagoon, situated about a km away from the writer’s home. The remaining three MiG 27s and the MiG trainer were grounded. Faced with an unprecedented LTTE threat, the SLAF pushed for immediate overhauling of the grounded aircraft, in addition to four extra aircraft. Initially an attempt was made to procure MiGs 27s from India as the IAF at that time was believed to have approximately 200 MiGs. India turned down the request. Sri Lanka sought Ukrainian help and was able to secure the required aircraft. The transaction was made on a government to government basis though the yahapalana administration found fault with the transaction. The whole thing was called a corrupt transaction. During Eelam War IV (August 2006-May 2009), No 12 squadron comprising MiG 27s, carried out hundreds of sorties /missions.
Those who furiously attacked the MiG 27 transaction during the Rajapaksa administration and the most obnoxious way they addressed the issue may have convinced the reader perhaps MiGs weren’t acquired after all in spite of payments made. For the disgraceful yahapalana strategists, the No 12 squadron didn’t exist.
Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, Chief of the Air Staff of the Pakistan Air Force receiving a memento from Tejas fighter pilot Wing Commander Karthikeya Singh at the Galle Face Green. Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana looks on
Let me discuss the largest airstrike carried out by the SLAF during the entire conflict. The operation, code-named ‘Rolling Thunder’, carried out on June 10, 2008, involved 10 aircraft, four MiG 27 and F 7GS and a pair of Kfirs. There hadn’t been any other instance of the SLAF deploying almost half of all available jets for the assault on the Muhamalai frontline. The Army couldn’t breach the Muhamalai LTTE defence though many costly attempts were made over the years. In fact, the Jaffna-based Divisions couldn’t breach the Muhamalai line until the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva’s celebrated Task Force 1/58 Division moved against the LTTE from the direction of Paranthan in early January 2009.
Throughout the war, the Katunayake-based jet squadrons played a pivotal role in carrying out specific operations in support of the advancing Army and independent operations meant to dismantle the LTTE’s conventional fighting capability. The SLAF (fighter squadrons) developed the capacity to launch night time operations. The No 12 squadron engaged in low level bombing operations.
The SLAF experienced severe difficulties caused by no fault of theirs. The SLAF’s attempts to establish an anti-aircraft defence was delayed due to New Delhi’s strong objections to installation of Chinese 3D radar. India felt threatened by the installation of Chinese radar here whereas Sri Lanka remained exposed to the LTTE air threat. Finally, the SLAF acquired both Indian (2 D Indra MK ii) and Chinese radar (JY 11), the latter being 3 D, in the wake of the first LTTE air attack carried out on March 27, 2007. The LTTE used Zlin 143 light aircraft for night time attacks.
Big powers jostle for power
Today, India is a key member of the US-led Quad opposed to China rapidly expanding its influence globally. Its other members are Australia and Japan. Sri Lanka has been compelled to walk a diplomatic tightrope having handed over the strategic Hambantota port to China in 2017 on a 99-year-lease under controversial circumstances. Interestingly, the UNP-led yahapalana government, having come to power vowing to do away with China-funded projects, ended up handing over the Hambantota port to China much to the dismay of its overseas benefactors.
Sri Lanka’s decision to seek Indian and Japanese investment for the proposed West Container Terminal (WCT) instead of going ahead with the the 2019 Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) on the much sought after East Container Terminal (ECT) should be examined, taking into account both China and the US seeking to consolidate their position in Colombo. In addition to the Hambantota port, secured on a 99-year lease in 2017, China operates a terminal at the Colombo harbour. Colombo International Container Terminals Ltd., (CICT) is a joint venture involving China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (85 per cent) and Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA/15 per cent) under a 35 year Build Operate and Transfer deal. Many an eyebrow was raised when India set the record straight regarding Sri Lanka’s recent statement on the proposed agreement with India’s Adani Group on the ECT. India declared that Sri Lanka had sought consensus with Adani on the WCT instead of going through the Indian High Commission.
Recent US declaration that Sri Lanka wouldn’t be considered for Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact shouldn’t be considered under any circumstances as a case of the US losing interest. The US, as well as its allies, India, Japan and Australia, as part of their individual/joint overall strategy meant to counter China, are engaged with Sri Lanka. At that time India threw its weight behind terrorism here, it had been firmly in the then Soviet Camp. India’s dependence on Soviet Union for its defence needs was so much, New Delhi had no option but to keep quiet when Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979. But today, the Indian foreign policy has turned a full circle. India is now firmly in the US camp with their relationship encompassing an entire gamut of factors, including nuclear cooperation. The US simply cannot do without India in Asia. That is the reality and the undeniable truth.
But India should keep in mind the Churchilian adage that there are no permanent friends and permanent enemies, but only permanent interests. I
The recent Indian High Commission response to Energy Minister and Attorney-at-Law Udaya Gammanpila’s declaration in respect of the Trincomalee oil tank farm underscored New Delhi’s determination to hold onto the foothold in the strategic Trincomalee region. One cannot find fault with the Indian High Commission for immediately setting the record straight. The Indian response to Minister Gammanpila can be compared with a furious Chinese Embassy reaction to the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake over the latter’s criticism of Chinese loans. A spate of Chinese Embassy statements issued here in response to US criticism of China at the time of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit last December emphasized the state of play. IAF’s dazzling performance over the Colombo skies is certainly a significant factor as important as New Delhi’s stand on the latest accountability resolution at the UNHRC on Sri Lanka.
Let me end this piece by recalling what retired Army Commander Gen. Gerry de Silva told the writer several years ago. Responding to a query, Silva said that for him the IAF violating Sri Lanka’s airspace in 1987 was the most humiliating moment. The IAF violation compelled Sri Lanka to call off Operation Liberation, the first ever Brigade-size ground operation to bring back the Jaffna peninsula under its control. Had Sri Lanka enjoyed the freedom to deal with terrorism, Operation Liberation probably would have changed the course of history.
The fly past and aerobatic display coincided with an air observer training exercise conducted by the Indian Navy. Sri Lanka Navy partnered with the Indian Navy and the SLAF took part in an air observer training exercise on a Dornier aircraft of the Indian Navy conducted in the southern coast from 02nd to 05th March 2021. Taking the wings from the Air Force base, Katunayake, a total of four training sorties were carried out covering the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the southern coast during the training deployment.
Finally, let me pay tribute to those who made SLAF overseas deployment along with six Mi 17s possible under UN command in the Central African Republic and South Sudan successful. Perhaps deployment under UN command is the pinnacle of the SLAF’s development over the past 70 years. The political and SLAF leaderships should keep in mind those seeking to humiliate Sri Lanka at the UNHRC want the UN to terminate overseas Sri Lankan military deployment.
Blind security sector reforms:
Assurance to US on the size of military
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Defence Ministry recently quoted State Defence Minister, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, as having assured US State Department official, Afreen Akhter, that the military would be ‘right-sized’ to perform their classic role.
The assurance was given on 15 May at his office, in Colombo, just ahead of the14th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when our security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of 19 May with the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) troops wiping out a small group of hardcore LTTE cadres, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Among the dead was LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Why did the State Defence Minister make such a pledge? Did Akhter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asia Bureau of the State Department, seek a clarification as regards security sector reforms? If the military had continued to perform their classic role of being a ceremonial Army, the LTTE could have achieved Eelam. But the nearly three-year long sustained offensive brought the LTTE to its knees, 14 years ago.
Afreen Akhter oversees Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives, as well as the Office of Security and Transnational Affairs.
Her visit was the first by a State Department official, since National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, last month alleged, in a published book ‘Nine: The Hidden Story;, that the US had a direct role in the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year. The former industries minister is on record as having disclosed that US Ambassador here, Julie Chung, personally offered Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena an opportunity to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, regardless of constitutional impediment, to bypassing Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an unannounced visit to his official residence.
Ambassador Chung swiftly rejected the allegation made no sooner ‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ was launched at the Sri Lanka Foundation on 25 April. However, Speaker Abeywardena gave credence to lawmaker Weerawansa’s shocking claim by remaining dead silent.
Since the conclusion of the war, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government quietly began downsizing the SLA, which was little above 200,000 at the height of the war. However, the present government officially acknowledged the downsizing of the war-winning, Army on 13 January, 2023. State Minister Tennakoon was quoted as having said that the SLA strength would be further reduced to 135,000 by the end of next year and 100,000 by 2030.
Of course there cannot be an issue over the need to gradually decrease military strength in peace time, taking into consideration post-war national security requirements and the pathetic economic situation, confronting the country.
Regardless of the developing political-economic-social crisis, it would be the responsibility of the military top brass to brief the political leadership of the ground situation. Post-war national security requirements shouldn’t be looked at only on the basis of economic indicators. That would be suicidal. In other words, the country is in such a precarious situation, political leadership may tend to conveniently ignore basics, especially to please Uncle Sam, the obvious king-maker here now, thereby jeopardizing the country’s national security.
Declaration that the SLA would be reduced to 100,000 by 2030 means the total strength would be cut by half, from its peak.
The Defence Ministry statement didn’t refer to any other issue. But that doesn’t mean contentious issues hadn’t been taken up with Akhter during her visit. The US continuing to needle Sri Lanka, 14 years after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability, despite Washington’s own hands dripping with so much innocent blood from so many of its worldwide military misadventures, to retain its international hegemony, is mired in continuing controversy.
The designation of Sri Lanka’s most successful Navy commander (2005-2009) Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, in late April, this year, over a spate of abductions carried out in 2008-2009, at the height of the war with the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, as was even acknowledged by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, highlighted how the Washington establishment continues to pursue an agenda severely inimical to Sri Lanka.
Sanctioning of Karannagoda is the latest in a series of US measures directed at the war-winning military here. Among the sanctioned are Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and General Shavendra Silva, the controversial travel ban on the celebrated wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 58 Division formerly Task Force 1, the Numero Uno among the SLA fighting formations that literally took the fight to the LTTE, was imposed in Feb. 2020.
Expansion of SLA
The LTTE couldn’t have been defeated if not for the rapid expansion undertaken during the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as Commander of the Army (2005-2009). The SLA lacked the wherewithal to sustain a large scale ground offensive while deploying sufficient troops on a holding role. For want of adequate infantry battalions, the SLA couldn’t undertake large scale offensives, simultaneously. But the rapid expansion, since the launching of operations on multiple fronts, in Vanni, from 1997, paid dividends soon enough.
Sri Lanka should review post-war developments, taking into consideration the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July last year. The overall failure of the security apparatus to meet the public protest campaign that had been backe, clandestinely by the US, as alleged repeatedly by lawmaker Weerawansa, quickly overwhelmed law enforcement authorities and the military. Law enforcement authorities and the military should have been prepared to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately, a public protest campaign that was launched on 31 March, last year, targeting the private residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, exposed the serious weakness in overall government response to hitherto unknown threat.
Military strength should be the prerogative of the government. The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, now headed by retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera MP, should closely examine the developments and take up matters of importance, both in and outside Parliament. It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to consider/implement defence sector reforms at the behest of literally bankrupt external powers, with sinister motives. Defence sector reforms should be in line with overall security-political doctrine, instead of piecemeal restructuring. There cannot be a better example than the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s readiness to enhance the SLA’s strength by nearly 100,000. That decision, taken in the aftermath of Velupillai Prabhakaran declaration of Eelam War IV, in August 2006, was perhaps the single most decisive factor in Sri Lanka’s final victory over terrorism against so many odds placed against it.
In spite of the increasing military strength, as the LTTE gradually stepped up the offensive, and, finally, its threat became conventional in 1990, Sri Lanka never gave a real boost to military personnel numbers as explained in the chart published on this page. The period from 1981 to 1987 can be categorized as the Eelam War l. The Eelam War ll and lll were fought from 1990 to 1994, and 1995 to 2001, respectively.
Sri Lanka launched Division-sized ground offensives during Eelam War lll that began with the sinking of two gunboats, berthed at the Trincomalee harbour, and the downing of two Avros, with 100 officers, and men all, in April 1995, during an informal ceasefire with the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. But the military top brass, or the political leadership, at that time, never felt comfortable in executing a real expansion of the SLA.
In hindsight, they never wanted to go the whole hog. Operation ‘Riviresa.’ launched in Oct. 1995. was meant to bring Jaffna town under military control and consolidate government positions in the Jaffna peninsula. The operation that involved three Divisions was the largest combined security forces campaign until the Vanni campaign in 2007-2009.
However, the SLA never received the boost it desired during Eelam War lll. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga authorized Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ (victory assured) to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna peninsula. Having launched the offensive in May 1997, the government called it off, in 1999, following unbearable debacles. It was a miracle that the Army did not crumble at the time down to Anuradhapura or even beyond with a Commander in Chief like that, who was nothing but a cunning chatterbox with no sense of time. The government quite conveniently refrained from making a real difference on the ground by enhancing the number of infantry battalions available for ground commanders. According to the chart on this page, the SLA strength had been 117,705 officers and men (volunteers included) in 1996, the year before the launch of Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ and by 1999 when it was called off the paid strength in that particular year was 121,473.
The chart reveals a drop in the paid strength in 2000 to 116,739 in the wake of a series of humiliating battlefield defeats, culminating with the worst single debacle in the entire war when SLA abandoned the strategically located Elephant Pass base. A Division plus troops couldn’t repulse the LTTE offensive and the base collapsed in April 2000. Regardless of the Elephant Pass fall, the following year paid strength recorded a marginal increase. According to the chart, the paid strength in 2001 had been 118,331 while the strength dropped again in 2002 and 2003 during the operation of Oslo-arranged infamous Ceasefire Agreement.
The situation started gradually improving in 2004 and by 2007 paid strength stood at 151, 538. Having neutralized the LTTE in the Eastern theatre, the SLA was on the move on the Vanni west in 2007. That year marked the turning point in the war against the LTTE as the latter was overwhelmed on the Vanni front. The opening of multiple fronts on the Vanni theatre wouldn’t have been possible without the continuous flow of fresh recruits for newly raised Divisions as well as Jaffna-based formations.
It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka acquired Mi-24 helicopter gunships in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, MiG27s in 2000 and a range of naval platforms since 1980s, though successive governments that ignored the need to expand the fighting strength. During the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987- March 1990) the military ignored the basic requirement to provide sufficient troops to protect the MSR northwards from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The situation was so bad, Vavuniya-Elephant Pass stretch was held by isolated and poorly manned detachments at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990 following 14-month-long ‘honeymoon’ between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Velupillai Prabhakaran.
At the time Eelam War ll erupted in 1990, the paid SLA strength had been 60,596 whereas it consisted of 37,759 officers and men. Sri Lanka, in 2015, cancelled the war Victory Day parade following Western pressure. The last Victory Day parade was held in Matara in 2014. The rest is history.
Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka
The Popular Sinhala Cinema:
~ Part two ~
by Laleen Jayamanne
Ethnicity perhaps was not a political problem in the fledgling film industry, unlike in the wider political world, after the ‘Sinhala only’ Act of 1956, which made it the sole national language. In fact, without the entrepreneurial skills and vision of a group of indigenous and Indian Tamil businessmen, it’s very likely that the first steps towards the creation of a Lankan film industry of sorts would have been delayed at least by about a decade or so after political independence in 1947. The connection with India was essential. The first Sinhala film Kadawuna Poronduwa (Broken Promise, dir. B.A.W. Jayamanne, 1947), was in fact filmed in a studio in South India, belonging to the Indian producer S.M. Nayagam, who, subsequently, came to Ceylon and established the Sundera Sound Studio and obtained citizenship. The lack of capital, technical know-how, infrastructure and technology meant that the fledgling industry was dependent on India, in several ways, including the robust Indian melodramatic genre films in Tamil and Hindi which provided a durable prototype for many years to come.
However, despite the fundamental contribution of Tamil and Muslim, businessmen, technicians and artists in developing the Sinhala film industry, since the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the history of Sri Lankan cinema is blood stained. The pioneer entrepreneurs who established the national film industry were a group of astute Lankan and Indian Tamil businessmen not unlike the pioneering American Jewish entrepreneurs (immigrants from Eastern Europe), who established the major Hollywood studios in the 1920s in a foreign tongue. Despite this contribution to the national culture, the director K. Venkat was burnt alive in his car in July 1983 anti Tamil pogrom, by a Sinhala nationalist mob. Also, the most high-profiled pioneer film producer and industrialist, K. Gunaratnam’s house was attacked in July ’83 but he managed to escape the mobs and found refuge in the Holiday Inn. But his Vijaya Studio was burned down along with a large number of Sinhala films stored there. A large number of imported modern looms he had stored there, to be installed in a new factory for weaving a specialist textile, were also destroyed. In 1989 a JVP gunman shot him dead in his car, at point blank range, during a period of extreme Sinhala terrorist and state violence, between 1988-89. He donated the Tower Hall cinema, which he owned, to the state at President Premadasa’s request, but I read that there was no visible sign of acknowledgment of this magnanimous, rare, public-spirited gesture of Gunaratnam’s. Gunaratnam has been referred to as a movie Moghul because he established and controlled significant assets in all three tiers of the Ceylon film industry, namely production, importation and distribution and exhibition, from the early 1950’s on, producing Sinhala films that were highly successful at the box office. He also astutely diversified his business portfolios into the manufacture of plastics, and other industries, such as tourism, as it grew in importance after the open economic policies of 1977. Sir Chittampalan Gardiner’s Ceylon Theatres funded Lester James Peries’ Rekava, considered the foundational film for a new realist cinema after the nationalist revival of Sinhala culture in 1956, which also introduced Irangani Serasinghe to film. When this pioneering film flopped at the box office, Gunaratnam took a big risk and funded Lester’s historical epic, Sandeshaya which was a box office hit. This is a turning point in Lester’s career and therefore in the fledgling Lankan film history, too. Jabir Cader owned several theatres, including the New Olympia, where Hollywood films were screened.
Two approaches to Lankan Film History
One might approach Lankan film history from two different perspectives or with two different emphases. The first approach is the perspective formulated by the Royal Commission on the Film Industry established in 1962-1965, chaired by Regi Siriwardena, the eminent film critic and independent scholar. The second approach is one that would ask how the Lankan popular Sinhala cinema was produced from 1947, its economic foundations and examine the specific aesthetic reasons for its durable mass appeal in the country for about three decades, focusing especially on the songs, which is where Rukmani Devi and Master Baig come into the picture.
The huge popular appeal of the genre cinema and its songs and lyrics (printed on attractive song sheets sold at cinemas), rather than the rather poor dances, often as many as 10 songs per film, has been acknowledged and discussed in the circles of older cinephiles, who collected song sheets and Rukmani Devi’s records for instance from their youth. I am not sure what the younger contemporary critical intelligentsia thinks of this past film culture though. Here, Aruna Gunarathna’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lankan film history, as a long term, but now retired, editor of Sarasawiya and his extensive YouTube programmes on the early popular cinema are in a class of their own. He calls himself a ‘pictur-pissa’, someone crazy about cinema as such, a medium like no other. One would also have to agree with the Royal Commission’s approach outlining the reforms needed to create a local product that was economically, aesthetically and culturally viable. This entailed the rejection of the Indian prototypes. Though the exclusive emphasis on vernacular Sinhala subjects and language, effectively implied an erasure through silence, of the ethnic minorities from the new desired model of a national (appema ‘our very own’ Sinhala) cinema. This idea of ‘our very own’, meaning ‘Sinhala only’, is one that had considerable currency then. This desire for ‘original purity’ resulted in considering the popular Tamil and Muslim artists as ‘honorary Sinhala folk’! That these confident artists from the minority communities (with access to other traditons), were all creating together, durable, hybrid films and songs, which also might have resonated with the minority communities in the country. Such a possibility was rarely actively explored, the exception being Garmini Fonseka.
So, it’s a matter of emphasis now, from this historical distance, when we can assess that past in a non-polemical sophisticated way, after a 30 year civil war waged on the competing, exclusionary claims of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. That is, to not simply reject the ‘song and dance’ films, as they were referred to, in a dismissive manner by critics, who called for a true national cinema, which was ‘Sinhala’ in themes and use of language. The emphasis on songs and dance were abandoned in favour of more ‘serious’ concerns. But it’s worth noting that some ‘serious’ directors still loved using songs and those from say Bambaruawaith and Hansavilak scored by Khemadasa master, have by now become classics with their poetic lyrics. However, once a popular cinema is lost it’s not possible to recreate the conditions that gave rise to it, especially its devoted mass fan base in the first instance. This was so with Classical Hollywood cinema during the studio era with its mass audience and it was so with the Sinhala films made during the first 30 years or so. But India remains the striking exception to this mass cultural historical decline, especially after the advent of Television. India with its diverse folk songs, including Thumri and several classical musical traditions (Drupad, Khayal and Karnataka), and vibrant hybrid pop cultures should teach us that musical and cinematic creativity flourishes only when artists are open to outside influences and exchange of ideas. Indian films inherit all of this diverse cultural patrimony with unshaken confidence, while Lankans in power turn inward by sustaining an obsolete idea of cultural purity.
(To be Continued)
By Lynn Ockersz
In cozy Board rooms,
Of the imperiled Isle,
It’s the ‘bigger picture’,
That’s made to count,
And that goes down well,
With those holding the reins,
But the pain is in the details,
And these easily unfaze,
Those of sound conscience,
For, we have unemployed men,
Furiously tramping the streets,
Their tools lying limp on shoulders,
Hunger gnawing at their innards,
Some taking leave of their senses,
To the amusement and laughter,
Of entertainment-starved fellow men.
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