Connect with us

Midweek Review

Norwegian MP of Sri Lankan origin takes a courageous stand



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Newly elected Norwegian lawmaker of Sri Lankan origin Khamshajiny (Kamzy) Gunaratnam, in one sentence, denied any knowledge of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) intervention in Sri Lanka. Having declared her strong faith in ‘outside actors’ inquiring into war crimes accusations, Gunaratnam declared: “I haven’t followed that, so I cannot answer that. I’m sorry. Gunaratnam said so, in response to my former colleague Paneetha Ameresekere’s quite simple query as to what her position vis-a-vis UNHCR Resolution 46/1 was?

On behalf of Ameresekere, now with The Ceylon Today, that question was posed by Balasingam Yogarajah, who handled Gunaratnam’s Zoom media briefing on Sept 26. Yogarajah repeated the question twice so there cannot be any confusion.

Of several questions that had been emailed by Amarasekera to the MP as advised by the Norwegian embassy, Yogarajah asked two. In addition to the query on 46/1, Yogarajah repeated Ameresekere’s second question what lessons in respect of multiculturalism that Sri Lanka can learn from Norway? Gunaratnam briefly explained how people from about 10 different backgrounds, including her, had been elected to Parliament at the recently concluded general election. She made reference to a Somali being among the newly elected to the 169 member Norwegian Parliament. Kamzy Gunaratnam’s shocking declaration that she hadn’t been aware of the much touted Geneva process should be an eye opener to all those interested in genuine post-war reconciliation process.

The MP’s claim should be examined against the backdrop of 46/1 being the culmination of a process initiated on Oct 1, 2015. Norway backed that US-led initiative meant to haul up Sri Lanka before the hybrid judicial court.

Now, the UK is spearheading that project which received a further boost with 22 countries of the 47-member UNHRC voting for the resolution and 11 against in March this year. Fourteen countries, including India and Japan (both Quad members) skipped the vote on Sri Lanka. How can Gunaratnam be unaware of such a long high profile process if she is pushing for war crimes probe here with foreign intervention? Therefore, Gunaratnam’s claim is questionable to say the least.

The Zoom meet called by Gunaratnam drew altogether 36 journalists and other interested persons from various parts of the world. Harim Peiris, one-time spokesperson of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had been among those participants though he didn’t pose any questions.

The media should be grateful to the Norwegian embassy for informing Colombo based journalists of the interview, especially giving an opportunity to those genuinely interested in the issues at hand to submit their questions to the Norwegian Member of Parliament several days before the zoom event. Whatever the circumstances, Gunaratnam, by denying knowledge of 46/1 resolution clearly indicated that it hadn’t been discussed therein, at least in her Labour Party.

Amarasekera must have been quite surprised by Gunaratnam’s reaction to his first question. The writer was simply flabbergasted by Gunaratnam’s genuine or feigned ignorance.

How can she be unaware of 46/1, it so strongly underscored the accountability process.

Having declared at the onset of her statement that she followed the war in Sri Lanka and the subsequent escalation finally leading to the conclusion of the armed conflict in 2009, Gunaratnam emphasised that there wouldn’t be any room for reconciliation unless Sri Lanka let someone independent from the international community to investigate war crimes.

“War must be investigated before you talk about reconciliation. It is about closure. Everyone wants closure. And it is about openness. And yes, it is about openness and transparency and those two key words are most important …So, when it comes to reconciliation, I think that the Sri Lankan government have to let in independent actors to investigate war crimes.

Gunaratnam’s comment on the critical importance of external intervention is quite contrary to her claimed ignorance of the 46/1 adopted by the UNHRC at its March 2021 session. Gunaratnam’s unawareness of the Geneva process certainly reflected very badly on her political party, the Labour as well as the entire Norwegian political setup. Having invested so much on disastrous Sri Lanka peace mission, her not knowing accountability resolutions pertaining to the country of her birth cannot be believed under any circumstances.

In the midst of a massacre

Gunaratnam had been a 23-year-old member of the Labour party’s youth wing when she joined a summer camp on Utoya Island in late July 2011. Having arrived in Norway at the age of three with her parents, Gunaratnam had been quite an active member of the youth branch. However, she may not have received the opportunity to move up the political ladder quickly if she hadn’t joined the summer camp. That is the undeniable truth. Right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, who infiltrated the Labour party youth camp on Utoya Island, opened fire, killing 69. It was the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in modern history. Breivik killed eight others in a car bomb that targeted a government building complex in central Oslo close to the Norwegian Parliament.

As Breivik attacked what the Norwegian media called workers’ youth league camp, Gunaratnam had swum across 500 metres of the Tyrifjorden Lake to escape the carnage.

The Norwegian media quoted Gunaratnam as having said: Eventually, I decided I would rather drown than be shot. The Oslo massacre obviously gave a mega boost to Gunaratnam’s political career. She received the prestigious post of Deputy Mayor, Oslo, in the third week of Oct, 2105, at the age of 27. That is certainly a significant achievement. Having secured a second term in late Oct 2019, Gunaratnam quickly advanced to the next phase of her continuing high profile rise, a parliamentary role. As expected Gunaratnam entered parliament as a member of the ruling coalition at the Sept 13, 2021 general election. Jonas Gahr Støre’s Labour Party brought an end to the centre-right government’s eight-year rule under Prime Minister Erna Solberg to an end.

Breivik made references to the LTTE’s eviction of Muslims from the North in the 1990 in his so-called ‘manifesto.’ There had been two references (i) Pro-Sri Lanka (supports the deportation of all Muslims from Sri Lanka) on page 1235 (ii) Fourth Generation War is normally characterised by a “stateless” entity fighting a state or regime. Fighting can be physically such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to use a modern example (Page 1479)

Several Labour Youth League members, who survived the July 2011 Oslo massacre entered Parliament at subsequent elections. The writer submitted several questions to Gunaratnam though facilitator Balasingam Yogarajah raised only one.

The writer submitted the following questions to Gunaratnam as advised by the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo:

(A) Before your entry into Norwegian Parliament this year, how many of those who had escaped Anders Breivik’s rampage in June 2011 entered Parliament in 2013 and four years later? (1) In addition to you, did any other survivors enter Parliament this year?

Gunaratnam responded that one entered Parliament in 2013, two in 2017 and six this year. (However, a section of the international media, including Reuters reported that four young Norwegian Labour Party members who survived Breivik’s rampage were elected to Parliament at the 2013 election. They were among 33 Labour Party candidates in the parliamentary election who had escaped Breivik’s bullets. The Reuters story was based on information provided by Anne Odden, spokeswoman for the party’s Parliamentary group. Perhaps, Gunaratnam should re-check numbers elected from her party.

(B) When did you reach Norway, what was your age? Please name family members who accompanied you? When did Norway grant your family political asylum and Norwegian citizenship? What was your hometown in the Jaffna peninsula?

According to reports your parents as soon as they arrived in Norway had worked as fishers in a northern town, but later settled down in Oslo. So how did they get so much help and how did they manage without knowing much English?

You have graduated from Norwegian local politics to the country’s national stage. What made you choose politics as a vocation?

(C) Why did the family leave Sri Lanka? Did Sri Lanka Army (SLA) kill family members? Did SLA harass the family? Did any family member die fighting for the LTTE or any other group trained by India? Did any members of your family or relatives perish during IPKF operations?)

(D) Did your family leave Sri Lanka by boat to India and then fly to Norway? Or left the country on fraudulent travel documents or did the Norwegian Embassy issue necessary travel documents required by your family to reach the final destination?

(E) During your political career did you study the role played by Norway in Sri Lanka? Do you still believe Norway can assist Sri Lanka in addressing post-war reconciliation issues?

(F) Will you be interested in visiting Sri Lanka to see the ground situation? And finally

(G) How many Norwegian passport holders of Sri Lankan origin are there as at 2021?

During the 90-minute meet, the writer, through Balasingam Yogarajah asked Gunaratnam when did she reach Norway. She said 1991. The MP didn’t respond to emails requesting her to reveal the month of their arrival in Norway. She had been born on March 27, 1988 during the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces. The Gunaratnams fled the country after the Indian withdrawal in March 1990.

A Norwegian suicide bomber of Somali origin

MP Gunaratnam, during Sunday, September, 26 zoom meet, made reference to the election of a Norwegian of Somali origin along with nine others. It would be pertinent to examine the danger in granting citizenship to unknown foreigners without proper vetting.

Let me remind the readers of the case of a Norwegian of Somali origin carrying out a suicide mission in early 2014. Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab in March 2014 identified the suicide car bomber, Abdullahi Ahmed Abdulle, who carried out an attack on a hotel at Buulo Burde, in Southern Somalia, as a Norwegian of Somali origin.

The AFP, in a Mogadishu datelined story, quoted Al Shabaab military spokesman, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Abu Musab, as having said: The attacker of Buulo Burde was a 60-year-old man who came from Norway to fight the enemies of Allah. He paid the sacrifice in order to be close to Allah by killing his enemies. The violent incident is showing us that there is no age limit for Jihadists.

Al Shabaab mounted a car bomb attack in response to a large scale military operation launched by the African Union forces.

The Norwegian of Somali origin was perhaps the oldest person to carry out a suicide mission. Did Norway examine how the Shabaab terrorist entered Norway, secured citizenship and subsequently returned to Somalia to launch a suicide mission on March 18, 2014? Did the Norwegian Foreign Service help the Al Shabaab terrorist leave Somalia clandestinely? Sri Lanka should study such cases. Did Norway provide Al Shabaab killer political asylum? Had he been involved in terrorism or engaged in such related activities in Somalia at the time he entered Norway?

Commonwealth member Kenya, too, had been threatened by foreign terrorists of Kenyan origin. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government never realised the need to examine such threats faced by other countries.

Clandestine projects

Sri Lanka should be concerned about the Western world accommodating its citizens. New Zealand recently admitted that Ahamed Adil Mohamed Samsudeen, who was shot dead by police after stabbing seven people in an Auckland shopping mall, had been on a terror watch list and was under surveillance. Having entered New Zealand on a student visa in 2011, Samsudeen had received refugee status two years later. Subsequently, the youth from Kattankudy, the hometown of the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage mastermind Zahran Hashim, attracted the attention of New Zealand security authorities. However, the New Zealand judicial system prevented Samsudeen from being deported on the basis he faced threats in Sri Lanka.

The then Sri Lankan Ambassador in Myanmar Prof. Nalin de Silva questioned the rationale in New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern naming the ISIS inspired terrorist as a Sri Lankan instead of as a person accepted as a refugee in her country nearly a decade ago. Samsudeen migrated to New Zealand after having been a student in a Colombo school.

A subsequent incident revealed the New Zealand mindset. New Zealand had no qualms in providing political asylum to another Sri Lankan (a Sinhalese) wanted in connection with the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage. On the basis of reportage of the issue at hand, New Zealand accepted the suspect, who had claimed he hadn’t been aware of the Easter Sunday perpetrators though he facilitated the transfer of funds to them from abroad. United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet who commented on the Easter Sunday carnage at her latest oral update on Sri Lanka last month should look into New Zealand’s response to terrorism.

Sri Lanka lacked the political will to take up these issues with powerful Western governments. How many Sri Lankans received foreign passports and new identities over the years? How many members of the proscribed LTTE received foreign citizenship? A significant number of Sri Lankans categorised as ‘missing’ or ‘disappeared’ sought by the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) can be among those carrying new foreign passports.

Take the case of Khamshajiny Gunaratnam aka Kamzy, now a Norwegian lawmaker. What is the status of Gunaratnam family in Sri Lanka? Had they been accommodated on some missing persons list? Categorised among the so called disappeared? However, Gunaratnam should earn the respect of all for her fearless and courageous stand on Sri Lanka. Having paid a glowing tribute to the Tamil community in Norway, Gunaratnam didn’t mince her words when she underscored her position. She declared: “….do not represent the Tamil Diaspora but Norwegian Parliament.” Gunaratnam’s stand should be appreciated.

Gunaratnam’s response to Deputy Editor of the Daily Mirror Kelum Bandara, too, underscored her readiness to take a principled stand on contentious issues. Asked whether she believed in a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka, Gunaratnam responded: “I do not understand why people asked us. I’m a Norwegian citizen. I have to run to another country with my father to start a new life. We should not have an opinion about how Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims live. It is their decision. They should make the decision.”

Gunaratnam however reiterated her commitment for a greater partnership and also investigations into alleged war crimes.

A substantial number of Sri Lankans, including members of the LTTE had received Norwegian citizenship, hence the freedom to travel in Europe, as well as the Scandinavian region, without any hassle. Had some of them given new identities or in special cases changed ethnicity? Although Sri Lanka summoned the then Norwegian ambassador, Hilde Haraldstad, over a secret project to help Sri Lankans leave the country, Sri Lanka never really pursued the case. The then Foreign Secretary, the late Karunathilake Amunugama, raised the issue on behalf of External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris (Helping 12 persons out of Sri Lanka: Government summons Norwegian envoy-The Island March 20, 2011).

Denying any wrongdoing on Norway’s part, Haraldstad insisted she was not at liberty to discuss individual cases. The External Affairs Ministry never pursued the clandestine Norwegian project thereafter, though Norway brazenly played politics with Sri Lanka.

A section of the Norwegian media exposed the clandestine Norwegian project. The revelation was made by the Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, regarding the Norwegian diplomatic mission in Colombo buying air tickets for 12 would-be Sri Lankan asylum seekers deemed to be at risk in Sri Lanka. Aftenposten quoted one-time Norwegian peace envoy in Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim, as having endorsed the project undertaken by the Norwegian diplomatic staff in Colombo. Solheim also accused Sri Lanka of ex-judicial measures, including killings during the last phase of the conflict. Ambassador Haraldsrad said that she couldn’t confirm the figure given by Aftenposten with regard to the number of Sri Lankans given political asylum in Norway. Although the number of Norwegians of Sri Lankan origin is relatively smaller when compared with communities in Canada or the UK, the Norwegian grouping is one of the most influential among pro-separatist expatriate groups.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Midweek Review

Blind security sector reforms:



State Defence Minister Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon greets US State Department official Afreen Akhter (pic courtesy MoD)

Assurance to US on the size of military

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Defence Ministry recently quoted State Defence Minister, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, as having assured US State Department official, Afreen Akhter, that the military would be ‘right-sized’ to perform their classic role.

The assurance was given on 15 May at his office, in Colombo, just ahead of the14th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when our security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of 19 May with the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) troops wiping out a small group of hardcore LTTE cadres, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Among the dead was LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Why did the State Defence Minister make such a pledge? Did Akhter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asia Bureau of the State Department, seek a clarification as regards security sector reforms? If the military had continued to perform their classic role of being a ceremonial Army, the LTTE could have achieved Eelam. But the nearly three-year long sustained offensive brought the LTTE to its knees, 14 years ago.

Afreen Akhter oversees Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives, as well as the Office of Security and Transnational Affairs.

Her visit was the first by a State Department official, since National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, last month alleged, in a published book ‘Nine: The Hidden Story;, that the US had a direct role in the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year. The former industries minister is on record as having disclosed that US Ambassador here, Julie Chung, personally offered Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena an opportunity to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, regardless of constitutional impediment, to bypassing Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an unannounced visit to his official residence.

Ambassador Chung swiftly rejected the allegation made no sooner ‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ was launched at the Sri Lanka Foundation on 25 April. However, Speaker Abeywardena gave credence to lawmaker Weerawansa’s shocking claim by remaining dead silent.

Since the conclusion of the war, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government quietly began downsizing the SLA, which was little above 200,000 at the height of the war. However, the present government officially acknowledged the downsizing of the war-winning, Army on 13 January, 2023. State Minister Tennakoon was quoted as having said that the SLA strength would be further reduced to 135,000 by the end of next year and 100,000 by 2030.

Of course there cannot be an issue over the need to gradually decrease military strength in peace time, taking into consideration post-war national security requirements and the pathetic economic situation, confronting the country.

Regardless of the developing political-economic-social crisis, it would be the responsibility of the military top brass to brief the political leadership of the ground situation. Post-war national security requirements shouldn’t be looked at only on the basis of economic indicators. That would be suicidal. In other words, the country is in such a precarious situation, political leadership may tend to conveniently ignore basics, especially to please Uncle Sam, the obvious king-maker here now, thereby jeopardizing the country’s national security.

Declaration that the SLA would be reduced to 100,000 by 2030 means the total strength would be cut by half, from its peak.

The Defence Ministry statement didn’t refer to any other issue. But that doesn’t mean contentious issues hadn’t been taken up with Akhter during her visit. The US continuing to needle Sri Lanka, 14 years after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability, despite Washington’s own hands dripping with so much innocent blood from so many of its worldwide military misadventures, to retain its international hegemony, is mired in continuing controversy.

The designation of Sri Lanka’s most successful Navy commander (2005-2009) Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, in late April, this year, over a spate of abductions carried out in 2008-2009, at the height of the war with the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, as was even acknowledged by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, highlighted how the Washington establishment continues to pursue an agenda severely inimical to Sri Lanka.

Sanctioning of Karannagoda is the latest in a series of US measures directed at the war-winning military here. Among the sanctioned are Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and General Shavendra Silva, the controversial travel ban on the celebrated wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 58 Division formerly Task Force 1, the Numero Uno among the SLA fighting formations that literally took the fight to the LTTE, was imposed in Feb. 2020.

Expansion of SLA

The LTTE couldn’t have been defeated if not for the rapid expansion undertaken during the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as Commander of the Army (2005-2009). The SLA lacked the wherewithal to sustain a large scale ground offensive while deploying sufficient troops on a holding role. For want of adequate infantry battalions, the SLA couldn’t undertake large scale offensives, simultaneously. But the rapid expansion, since the launching of operations on multiple fronts, in Vanni, from 1997, paid dividends soon enough.

Sri Lanka should review post-war developments, taking into consideration the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July last year. The overall failure of the security apparatus to meet the public protest campaign that had been backe, clandestinely by the US, as alleged repeatedly by lawmaker Weerawansa, quickly overwhelmed law enforcement authorities and the military. Law enforcement authorities and the military should have been prepared to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately, a public protest campaign that was launched on 31 March, last year, targeting the private residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, exposed the serious weakness in overall government response to hitherto unknown threat.

Military strength should be the prerogative of the government. The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, now headed by retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera MP, should closely examine the developments and take up matters of importance, both in and outside Parliament. It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to consider/implement defence sector reforms at the behest of literally bankrupt external powers, with sinister motives. Defence sector reforms should be in line with overall security-political doctrine, instead of piecemeal restructuring. There cannot be a better example than the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s readiness to enhance the SLA’s strength by nearly 100,000. That decision, taken in the aftermath of Velupillai Prabhakaran declaration of Eelam War IV, in August 2006, was perhaps the single most decisive factor in Sri Lanka’s final victory over terrorism against so many odds placed against it.

Conclusive factor

In spite of the increasing military strength, as the LTTE gradually stepped up the offensive, and, finally, its threat became conventional in 1990, Sri Lanka never gave a real boost to military personnel numbers as explained in the chart published on this page. The period from 1981 to 1987 can be categorized as the Eelam War l. The Eelam War ll and lll were fought from 1990 to 1994, and 1995 to 2001, respectively.

Sri Lanka launched Division-sized ground offensives during Eelam War lll that began with the sinking of two gunboats, berthed at the Trincomalee harbour, and the downing of two Avros, with 100 officers, and men all, in April 1995, during an informal ceasefire with the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. But the military top brass, or the political leadership, at that time, never felt comfortable in executing a real expansion of the SLA.

In hindsight, they never wanted to go the whole hog. Operation ‘Riviresa.’ launched in Oct. 1995. was meant to bring Jaffna town under military control and consolidate government positions in the Jaffna peninsula. The operation that involved three Divisions was the largest combined security forces campaign until the Vanni campaign in 2007-2009.

However, the SLA never received the boost it desired during Eelam War lll. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga authorized Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ (victory assured) to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna peninsula. Having launched the offensive in May 1997, the government called it off, in 1999, following unbearable debacles. It was a miracle that the Army did not crumble at the time down to Anuradhapura or even beyond with a Commander in Chief like that, who was nothing but a cunning chatterbox with no sense of time. The government quite conveniently refrained from making a real difference on the ground by enhancing the number of infantry battalions available for ground commanders. According to the chart on this page, the SLA strength had been 117,705 officers and men (volunteers included) in 1996, the year before the launch of Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ and by 1999 when it was called off the paid strength in that particular year was 121,473.

The chart reveals a drop in the paid strength in 2000 to 116,739 in the wake of a series of humiliating battlefield defeats, culminating with the worst single debacle in the entire war when SLA abandoned the strategically located Elephant Pass base. A Division plus troops couldn’t repulse the LTTE offensive and the base collapsed in April 2000. Regardless of the Elephant Pass fall, the following year paid strength recorded a marginal increase. According to the chart, the paid strength in 2001 had been 118,331 while the strength dropped again in 2002 and 2003 during the operation of Oslo-arranged infamous Ceasefire Agreement.

The situation started gradually improving in 2004 and by 2007 paid strength stood at 151, 538. Having neutralized the LTTE in the Eastern theatre, the SLA was on the move on the Vanni west in 2007. That year marked the turning point in the war against the LTTE as the latter was overwhelmed on the Vanni front. The opening of multiple fronts on the Vanni theatre wouldn’t have been possible without the continuous flow of fresh recruits for newly raised Divisions as well as Jaffna-based formations.

It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka acquired Mi-24 helicopter gunships in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, MiG27s in 2000 and a range of naval platforms since 1980s, though successive governments that ignored the need to expand the fighting strength. During the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987- March 1990) the military ignored the basic requirement to provide sufficient troops to protect the MSR northwards from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The situation was so bad, Vavuniya-Elephant Pass stretch was held by isolated and poorly manned detachments at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990 following 14-month-long ‘honeymoon’ between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Velupillai Prabhakaran.

At the time Eelam War ll erupted in 1990, the paid SLA strength had been 60,596 whereas it consisted of 37,759 officers and men. Sri Lanka, in 2015, cancelled the war Victory Day parade following Western pressure. The last Victory Day parade was held in Matara in 2014. The rest is history.

Continue Reading

Midweek Review

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)

Continue Reading

Midweek Review

Nation’s State



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.

Continue Reading