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LTTE terror attack on Central Bank 25 years ago

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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When delving out unpublished stories the following are some excerpts that I gathered from a few Treasury colleagues and my closest buddies of a few banks who faced various other calamities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.”



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Features

Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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