By Lalith Fernando
January 31, 1996 will never be erased from the minds of the people who were there at the financial hub of Sri Lanka, the Colombo Fort. Some died, some were injured, some escaped, some were spared of any injuries, some witnessed the harrowing calamities, some became ‘Good Samaritans’, and the majority of the countrymen were devastated as a whole. On the positive perspective there were plenty of unsung heroes.
The 25th anniversary of that tragedy fell on 31 Jan. Many articles have been written about the bomb attack on the Central Bank. In a previous article of mine, ‘The day it all happened at the Central Bank bomb blast’, that appeared in this newspaper on May 16 last year, I narrated what all my bank colleagues and I experienced on that day at the HNB, City office in Colombo Fort. On the following day of my article R. T Wijetilleke, the former Managing Director and Chairman of the HNB wrote about his long trek towards City Office from the Head Office at R. A. De Mel Mawatha (during that time) out of utmost concern for his staff members.
When delving out unpublished stories the following are some excerpts that I gathered from a few Treasury colleagues and my closest buddies of a few banks who faced various other calamities during the dreadful moments.
This is from, Brian Fernando a former senior officer who worked at HNB Emirates branch which was located at the Galadarai Hotel building. “Except for the shattering of glasses, we did not have any other problems. However, the crushed axle of explosives laden lorry flew and landed in the car park there.”
At that time there were three foreign banks operating just opposite the Central Bank, namely American Express Bank, Banque Indosuez and ABN Amro Bank. Other banks in the vicinity were and are HNB, Standard Chartered Bank and Bank of Ceylon.
Following are the accounts of my good friends Sunil Leeniyagoda, (SL) then Head of Treasury, ABN Amro Bank) and his deputy Sunil Karunaratne (SK) fondly known as Loku Sunil and Podi Sunia respectively among the Forex Association fraternity. The former said that they all went to the lobby downstairs just to see what the unusual sounds were, louder than firecrackers, probably shooting. “No sooner had the bomb gone off than the whole place became unrecognisable, covered with debris from the shattered buildings including ours.”
Inside the bank a big portion of the fragmented granite reception table was on the body of the fallen and struggling receptionist. Out of injured lot in the bank who were rushed to hospitals, there was a Sri Lankan Burgher employee by the name Rickie Harrigde who looked like an European. In the hospital he was given a bed reserved for foreigners. When his family members could not find him anywhere in the hospital somebody had told them that there is a foreigner shouting in pain in Sinhala in the ward reserved for foreigners. That was how his family members found him alive but in utter pain.”
This is SK’s version. “I will never forget that unpleasant day. It was a regular working day as usual. The sound of gunfire and explosion took place around 10 am as the entire ceiling and glass came crashing down on us. By instinct, I took cover under the table, as my mother (Japanese) used to relate how she and her friends practiced how to respond to earthquakes during warning drills at school in Japan.
“I was one of the lucky ones to escape without an injury but most of my friends and colleagues were not that lucky; they suffered injuries. Many innocent lives were destroyed. The staff from the Navy contingent across the road helped us evacuate the wounded. As we remember the innocent people who perished on that fateful day, they will remain in our hearts and memories until we also join them.”
This is what his boss said about the unsung hero: “Repatriation (export) of foreign currency notes to other countries especially to Singapore and Switzerland was a lucrative and a profitable business of some banks at that time. The banks that are involved in that business purchase same from other smaller banks and also from the Central Bank apart from their own collections. That day two officials from our bank were at the CBSL to collect some foreign currency notes from it as prearranged. While one officer left for our bank the other waited to conclude the transaction. He then presented our bank’s settlement cheque and received the FC notes. The bomb went off when he was about to leave CBSL.
Within seconds, the CBSL building and its vicinity became something like a ‘tsunami’ affected’ area. We were worried about him and had no way of checking as the phones went dead soon after the blast. This officer amidst plenty of obstacles managed to leave the CBSL through a back door, jumped over a wall and landed at the Intercontinental Hotel premises. After a long walk (no transport was available) he finally reached our bank and handed over the bag containing the foreign currency notes to me. The name of that ‘epitome of honesty’ was R. Samman.” This unheard story was narrated by Ruwan Cooray, the former AGM Treasury of Sampath Bank, my childhood friend from Panadura.
This is an excerpt from Wasantha Aluthwela, former Deputy Head of Treasury, Standard Chartered Bank Colombo, just opposite the President’s House. “We all went out to the balcony to see the unusual sounds coming from the direction of the CBSL. The bomb blast occurred within seconds. Thanks to the solid ‘colonial’ structure that the bank was housed in, there were no major damages despite shaking for a while. Only the ceilings and the glass windows were shattered.
All of us went inside as instructed by the Navy personnel who rushed to the scene immediately after the blast.”
At the Bank of Ceylon, former DGM Treasury, Late Freddie Jayarajah, AGM A.G. Weerasinghe and their Chief Dealer, S. Palihawadana (SP) were having a discussion in the DGM’s room on the seventh floor facing the Ceylinco building at the time of the blast. SP’s version is as follows.
“We were watching the unusual drama just opposite CBSL. In seconds the worst thing that I have observed in my life happened. Out of the threesome the worst hit was my good boss Freddie, as a cut to his neck required three months of treatment while we two escaped unscathed. Further, Freddie sustained injuries especially to his face, which required 21 sutures and a period of physiotherapy treatment so he could regain sensitivity in his lips and cheek,” SP gave his version. His son-in-law Tony Candappa (of American Express Bank) recalled with plenty of gratitude the gracious assistance offered by BOC staff members in rushing their much-loved boss, Freddie to the hospital thus saving his life.
A close friend who was a senior manager (he did not want to disclose his name) at Banque Indosuez, located in the Ceylinco building, narrated his story as follows. “Just before the blast, gun shots were heard and the staff approached the windows of the first floor to see what was happening outside the bank. At that moment our French Manager of the bank shouted to the staff to get down on the ground immediately. Within moments the blast occurred. The large glass door of the bank just swung open and an elderly gentleman who was close to the door was thrown backwards and fell on a young man. Both fell and the young man broke his leg. When I saw the injured fellow banker, I carried him to the ground floor and dispatched him to the hospital in a vehicle. After a few days we were informed of his demise. He had succumbed to his injuries and we lost a good friend.”
Another former, Forex Association colleague Tony Candappa (mentioned above), who was the Deputy Head of Treasury of American Express Bank narrated his story as follows. “Our bank was located in the George Stuart’s building, just opposite the Central Bank. When the initial gun shots were heard, like crackers, everyone rushed to the windows to see what was happening, unaware that a massive explosion was about to occur, like the many commuters and office staff members in the Colombo Fort area.
There was mayhem all around. One female staff member lost her precious life within the bank premises. Everyone else had severe injuries, with one person completely losing his eyesight and another losing one eye. Both were at the travel-related customer service counter.”
The Representative Office of the fourth largest bank in New York at that time, Bankers Trust Company NY (BTC) was located in the fifth floor of the Cargo Boat Development Company building directly opposite CBSL. Veteran Bankers late Earnest Gunasekara and O. Ravi Perera (OR), (both my former bosses) were the Director and Vice President of that office respectively. Luckily for them the Swiss Air office, which suffered the majority of the impact, shielded their own office. “All of us left via the fire escape as two floors were on fire,” my former boss OR said.
Our country has yet to learn a lot about the safety of its people even after many deadly bomb blasts all over the country, before May 2009. The Easter Sunday bomb blasts in 2019 could have been easily avoided if the right security measures had been adopted by the respective authorities as per warnings. The following statement by the former Head of CIA, William Colby is a classic lesson for all responsible authorities and the rulers of this resplendent and peaceful country of a bygone era.
“A good intelligence service is a cheap substitute for a large-scale war.”
Above is the truth and the whole truth. In addition, such an efficient and well-informed intelligence service will save precious lives of countrymen and national wealth alike. Further, such incidents due to lack of vigilance and lethargic attitudes of authorities, create conducive environments for enemies and rogues, both educated and uneducated, to satisfy their perverse desires.
I trust that the following quote of the greatest scientist Albert Einstein is relevant: “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”
Rise of Dual Power amidst Covid
We had so many kings in our Sinhala Balaya of many centuries. There were many questionable deals on succession by members of this royalty, and others who came to those realms. But we have yet to hear of any brother of a ruling monarch rushing abroad in the midst of what may have been a national crisis, moving to a disaster.This is the stuff of Sinhala Power in the 21st Century. It is a show of the Raja Keliya – the power game, where dual citizenship is the dominant factor. The Sri Lanka, Mawbima home, is of lesser importance than the Videsha mawbima, especially if one’s health has to be handled by foreign medical sources; even if the Videsha Mawbima is the biggest affected by the Covid pandemic.
The appointment of Task Forces to deal with important issues facing the country and the people is the substance of the current Saubhagyaye Dekma – Vision of Prosperity and Splendour. Appointing a brother to head task forces of key importance is the show of dominant family power that prevails in this country today. But brotherly feelings are certainly not important when a dual citizen thinks of the greater importance of the Videsha Mawbima. The tasks of Economic Growth, Eradicating Poverty and Assuring Food Supply, as well as the more recent Green Socio-Economy must all be pushed aside, when the call of the Videsha Mawbima for healthcare is the stuff that matters.
This is the brotherly Vision of Prosperity and Splendour, or the Sahodara Saubhabyaye Dekma.
The Covid pandemic has certainly brought much contradictory thinking, especially in the government, on how the health of the people in this country, non-dual citizens, could be assured. Minister Udaya Gammanpila, a Cabinet spokesman too, is certain that mixed vaccinations of different brands and qualities, is the means to protect the people.
Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle, State Minister on the subject, thinks differently, on the lines of the WHO specialists, who have stressed there is no evidence so far to authorize mixed vaccinations. The other minister of health and vaccination issues is somewhat silent on this confusion in official thinking. Is a new pandemic syrup to be promoted by the power handlers?
Thank heavens that the Cabinet Minister of Health, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, is so far silent on this matter. She could come up with a new Sri Lankan Deshamanya scientific solution, such as throwing some of the Sinopharm and Sputnik (Chinese and Russian) into the nearby river, and using the mixed and river blended vaccine for people of the related province. She is sure to obtain the support of Ministers Udaya Gammanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga for such a crafty thinking of science, just as they shared her belief in the Charmed Pot Game or Mantara Kala Keliya to fight the Covid-19.
We are now in the midst of what is known as a Lockdown. It is not a “Vasaa thabeema” in Sinhala, but a limit on travel – a ‘Sancharana Seemava’. The Police are very clear that anyone who breaks the lockdown rules will be arrested and brought to justice. We have seen the great joy that policemen showed in carrying non-mask wearers and other violaters of Covid safety guidelines, to be shoved into buses. How much more of such delights would follow when Covid increases its hold on Sri Lanka? What was the related Task Force, and its ceremonial uniformed head doing, when Indians were brought to Sri Lankan hotels for quarantine before travel to some Middle Easter countries? What foreigner from the Covid battered India was carried or courteously conducted to a place where lawbreakers are detained?
As we keep wearing our masks and distancing ourselves from others, there is much cause for concern, even beyond the Covid pandemic, on how persons arrested and detained by the police are killed by or in the presence of the police. Two suspected and arrested persons have been killed while in police custody this week. They are Melon Mabula or ‘Uru Juva’ and Tharaka Perera Wijesekera or ‘Kosgoda Tharaka’ These are persons with records of major crimes, possibly with much strong evidence, but not presented in court and any punishment order through the judicial process.
The police spokesperson, a person with a legal background, too, tells the people the details of all the terrible crimes these persons are supposed to be guilty of. It is a contemptible move to get public support for the killings. The Bar Association has raised concerns about these departures from justice. There must be much more protests, even with the Covid dangers.
One gets the impression that the prevailing dangerous situation due to Covid, is being used to carry out increasing violations of the law and the judicial process. This is certainly a major step back to the earlier years of Rajapaksa Power, when many such suspects were killed in Colombo and elsewhere, showing off police escape power. It also brings back memories of the killing and attacks on journalists by similar police and official forces of crooked power.
Are we moving to a new sense of Dual Power — where the judiciary is ignored and official power is the Rule of the Day? Is the power of Dual Citizenry to be the dominant force once Covid puts down the people’s power?
Should ASEAN Free Trade Area be considered model for SAFTA?
By Dr. Srimal Fernando
Economic integration is more important today than it has ever been for South Asia’s development. When comparing the impact of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)s South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) Free Trade Area (AFTA) in promoting trade amongst its member states, AFTA has been more effective in integrating the economies of its member states. SAFTA , on the other hand, has yet to make significant contributions to the integration of the economies of SAARC member states. The Success of ASEAN’s economic integration can be attributed to the willingness of Southeast Asian countries to embrace the tenets of regional integration. In contrast, SAARC’s model has failed to create a secure regional environment that is conducive for economic growth since its formation.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) member states signed the AFTA agreement on 28 January 1992. After the establishment of AFTA, the member states of ASEAN succeeded in signing trading protocols within the organization. The ASEAN model succeeded in creating one of the most successful free trade areas in Asia as well as globally. The establishment of AFTA has been an important milestone in Southeast Asia as a factor that facilitated the economic integration of ASEAN member states.
In the case of the SAARC, the signing of free trade protocols under the SAFTA agreement has been faced with several tariff and non-tariff barriers. Although both SASRC and ASEAN member states face unique challenges that affect trading within these organizations, it can be said that, unlike the SAARC, the ASEAN economic integration model has been far successful in promoting trade amongst its member states. For the SAARC, the liberalization of the economies of SAFTA signatories has been a crucial challenge. On the other hand, ASEAN has made notable progress with regards to trade liberalization, policy alignments, and intra-regional trade among Southeast Asian nations.
The specific trade liberalization challenges faced by the SAARC member states include concerns over SAFTA revenue allocation from member states, restrictive rules of origin, and negative sensitive lists. The sensitive lists adopted by SAARC member states have proven to be a significant hurdle to exportation amongst SAARC member states. This has particularly made it difficult for exports from small member states of the SAARC to enter into large markets such as India and Pakistan. Having failed to grant the application of most favored nation (MFN) status that would have seen a significant reduction in the sensitive lists maintained by both countries, trade between these two regional powers has been problematic over the years. Notably, the trading commodities that are in the sensitive lists of a majority of the SAFTA member states have high export potential. Despite the various commitments made by SAFTA member states, countries continue to maintain long sensitive lists hence the dismal performance of SAFTA.
In the case of ASEAN, the establishment of the AFTA agreement has provided ASEAN member states with a platform to exploit their export potential. The AFTA agreement has boosted the economies of ASEAN countries through its trade liberalization policies. AFTA has also entered into several free trade agreements with regional powers such as Australia, China, South Korea, India, and Japan. The ASEAN countries are now focused on creating an Economic Community for their member states. Notably, several countries have shown interest in being a part of the proposed ASEAN Economic Community.
It should however be noted that the massive success achieved by ASEAN’S AFTA as opposed to SAARC’s SAFTA is not flawless. For example, although ASEAN has made significant steps in eliminating tariff barriers amongst AFTA member states, Non-tariff barriers are still a key challenge to the AFTA agreement. However, when analyzing the progress made by ASEAN’s AFTA since its formation, the achievements and evolution are undeniable. ASEAN was formed in an era when interstate relations amongst Southeast Asian countries were characterized by political mistrust and strained interstate relations. Years later, the organization has succeeded in unifying its member states for a common course, an aspect that the SAARC still struggles with.
If SAFTA is to become more effective and emulate AFTA’s success, the myriad of issues mentioned above needs to be addressed. First, downsizing the sensitive lists of countries in a time-bound manner will be necessary. Secondly, the issue of para tariffs needs to be squarely addressed. A starting point could be to reduce and accelerate the elimination of para tariffs on items not on sensitive lists and include para tariffs in SAFTA negotiations. Also, the non-tariff barriers to trade facing SAFTA member states need to be equally addressed like the tariff barriers. Finally, strengthening economic relations can be used to reinforce improving political relations in the region, particularly between India and Pakistan. To an extent, the success of ASEAN in achieving effective economic integration and its experience can be used as an external driver of SAARC and its SAFTA agreement.
About the author:
Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Advisor/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union’
Ramazan spirit endures amid pandemic
This will be a sombre Ramazan, indeed, with the country under a lockdown. But the spirit of Ramazan lives on in all Muslims. Ramadan, also referred to as Ramazan, Ramzan, or Ramadhan, in some countries, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and Muslims the world over dedicate this holy month for fasting, prayer, reflection and community.
Although most non-Muslims associate Ramazan, solely with fasting, it is believed to bring Muslims closer to God and inculcate in them qualities such as patience, spirituality, and humility. Those of the Islamic faith believe that fasting redirects one away from worldly activities, cleanses the inner soul and free it from harm. It also teaches self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate and encourage actions of generosity and charity. It is a time of self-examination and increased religious devotion.
Ramazan is a commemoration of Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation, and the annual observance of Ramazan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars are basic acts, considered mandatory by Muslims, namely Muslim life, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage. Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation is believed to have taken place in 610 AD, in a cave called Hira, located near Mecca, where Muhammad was visited by the angel Jibrīl, who revealed to him the beginnings of what would later become the Qur’an. The visitation occurred on Ramazan.
Ramazan lasts from one sighting of the crescent moon to the next and the local religious authority is tasked with announcing the date. The Colombo Grand Mosque announced on Wednesday (12) that Sri Lankan Muslims will celebrate Ramazan on Friday (14). Because the Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the start of Ramazan moves backwards by about 11 days, each year, in the Gregorian calendar. Fasting from dawn to sunset is considered fard (obligatory) for all adult Muslims who are not acutely, or chronically, ill, travelling, elderly, breastfeeding, diabetic, or menstruating.
During this month, Muslims refrain not only from partaking of meals, but also tobacco products, sexual relations, and sinful behaviour, devoting themselves to prayer or salat and recitation of the Quran. The pre-dawn meal is referred to as suhur, and the nightly feast that breaks fast is referred to as iftar. During Ramazan, Muslims wake up well before dawn to eat the pre-dawn meal. This is considered the most important meal, during Ramazan, since it has to sustain one until sunset. This means eating lots of high-protein food and drinking as much water as possible, right up until dawn, after which one cannot eat or drink anything. The day of fasting ends at sunset, the exact minute of which is signalled by the fourth call to prayer, at dusk.
It is believed that spiritual rewards, or thawab, of fasting multiply during Ramazan. Muslims do not Fast on Eid, but Sri Lankan Muslims believe that observing the six days of optional fasting, that follows Eid, multiplies spiritual rewards.
Eid-Ul-Fitr is the Festival of Breaking the Fast, also simply referred to as Eid, and marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan, as well as the return to a more natural disposition of eating, drinking, and marital intimacy. In Sri Lanka, this Festival of Breaking the Fast is also referred to, colloquially, as Ramazan. Eid begins at sunset, on the night of the first sighting of the crescent moon. Muslims hand out money, to the poor and needy, as an obligatory act of charity, before performing the Eid prayer.
Globally, the Eid prayer is generally performed in open areas, like fields, community centres, or mosques in congregation. In Sri Lanka, the prayer is performed annually in Galle Face Green and mosques. The Eid prayer is followed by the sermon and then a supplication asking for Allah’s forgiveness, mercy, peace and blessings for all living beings across the world. The sermon encourages Muslims to engage in the rituals of Eid, such as zakat, almsgiving to other fellow Muslims. After the prayers, Muslims visit relatives, friends, and acquaintances, or hold large communal celebrations.
After prayer, Muslims celebrate Eid, with food being the central theme. Sri Lankans celebrate Ramazan with watalappam, falooda, samosa, gulab jamun and other national and regional dishes. The festivals were said to have initiated in Medina, after the migration of Muhammad from Mecca.
This year, as well as last year, Sri Lankan Muslims will have to forgo the custom of communal prayers, and celebrations, due to the ongoing pandemic, and will have to settle for private prayers and celebrations of Ramazan during this period of curfew. While these preventive measures are in place, during this year’s Ramazan, the principles of this holy month remain the same. Devout Muslims all over the world, will still be honouring this pillar of Islam, albeit from the security of their homes.
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