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Midweek Review

Playing politics with national security



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Security of a country did not depend on its Defence Secretary. There were various structures and it was a matter of collective action, one-time Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando, told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) on Saturday (26).

The P CoI, appointed by former President Maithripala Sirisena, is inquiring into the Easter Sunday attacks. Sirisena named the Commission several weeks before the end of his five-year term.

Fernando further said: “It is not mandatory for the Defence Secretary to have an intimate knowledge of the role played by the Ministry. If that is the case, a fisherman should be the Secretary to the Ministry of Fisheries, and the Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture should be a farmer.”

Let me examine Austin Fernando’s statement, taking into consideration the direct talks between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the LTTE, during the period 1989-1990 (the late General D.S. Attygalle served as the Defence Secretary from 15.08.1983 to 16.02.1990), outbreak of Eelam War II (General S.C Ranatunga served as the Secretary Defence from 16.02.1990 to 01.05.1993) and the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE entered into by Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe (Austin Fernando functioned as the Secretary Defence from 21.12.2001 to 03.11.2003).

Hemasiri Fernando, who served as Secretary Defence in the run-up to the April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday attacks, is under investigation for criminal negligence. In all four above-mentioned instances, the government apparatus collectively failed, though the circumstances were different.

The only difference is in the case of the disastrous 2002 CFA. The then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga cannot be faulted as Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe blindly signed the catastrophic Oslo-drafted 2002 peace initiative, keeping even his cabinet in the dark.

Austin Fernando is absolutely right. Security of a country does not depend on its Defence Secretary. In fact, a single person cannot guarantee national security, regardless of political clout he or she wielded. However, one person can cause irreparable damage, through irrational and unilateral actions/decisions, as in the case of the CFA. The appointment of retired military officers certainly cannot guarantee national security. The late Gen. Attygalle and Gen. Ranatunga facilitated President Premadasa’s ill-fated strategies that weakened the military. Taking Fernando’s assertion into consideration, it would be pertinent to examine how President Premadasa (1989-1990), Premier Wickremesinghe (2002-2003) and President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe (2015-2019) jeopardized the national security. Those who served under them, too, equally contributed to the rapid deterioration of security by simply giving into political dictates, thereby providing tacit support to despicable political agendas.

Sri Lanka paid a huge price for political and military miscalculations. The political environment, created by Sirisena-Wickremesinghe, cannot be scrutinized without taking into consideration previous situations. In the absence of detailed study, the public tend to consider the Easter Sunday security failure as an isolated case. But, the extraordinary Easter Sunday terror project, perhaps, is part of an insidious political strategy to keep Sri Lanka in perpetual anarchy. Those who had perpetrated nearly simultaneous suicide attacks, in three administrative districts, certainly deliberated the political environment before going ahead with the operation. Who exploited the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) to deliver such a devastating message? Did NTJ succumb to external elements? When did India actually infiltrate the NTJ and what is the status of the Indian intelligence gathering operation in Sri Lanka? Why didn’t Indian intelligence share information on NTJ (Zahran Hashim’s gang) much earlier? And, most importantly, why were both Sinhala and Tamil communities targeted?


Defence Chiefs play ball with Ranasinghe Premadasa

Having secured the presidency, in January 1989, President Premadasa sought an agreement with the JVP. The UNP leader also made an attempt to reach a consensus with Tamil groups, including the LTTE. The President succeeded in reaching an understanding with all armed Tamil groups, except the LTTE. The presence of one-time militant Douglas Devananda, leader of the EPDP (Eelam People’s Democratic Party), in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cabinet of ministers, is evidence of Premadasa’s successful political strategy. In addition to the EPDP, Premadasa brought the EPRLF (Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front), TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization) and PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam) into the political mainstream. However, Premadasa’s bid to reach an understanding with the LTTE ended disastrously, in the second week of June 1990.

At the time, Premadasa initiated direct negotiations with the LTTE, the late Gen. Attygalle had been the Secretary, Ministry of Defence while Lt. Gen. Hamilton Wanasinghe served as the Commander of the Army (16.09.1988- 15.11.91). Did the President consult the Defence Secretary and the Commander of the Army before initiating negotiations with the JVP and the LTTE? Did they approve of releasing from custody of over thousands of JVP suspects in early 1989? Their release resulted in an immediate stepping up of violence though the police, the military and the government-sponsored civilian death squads crushed the JVP, by the end of 1989.

Having captured JVP leader, Rohana Wijeweera, at Ulapane, in the second week of Nov. 1989, he was brought to Colombo, interrogated and executed. Premadasa knew what befell Wijeweera, who led two insurrections, in 1971 and 1987-89.

However, Premadasa’s apparent unilateral decisions, in respect of the LTTE, caused immense harm. Believing in the possibility of successful conclusion of negotiations with the LTTE, Premadasa, hastily announced the hotly disputed decision to request New Delhi to terminate its military mission in the North-East Sri Lanka. Did Premadasa genuinely consult the Defence Secretary, Commander of the Army or at least his Prime Minister, the late D.B. Wijetunga, before demanding the pull-out of the Indian Peace Keeping Force? Premadasa, obviously didn’t believe in consultations. In his capacity as the leader of the UNP and the President, Premadasa largely believed in unilateral decisions. The catastrophic handling of direct negotiations with the LTTE paved the way for terrorists to launch devastating attacks on the Army after obtaining from the then naïve government military supplies, money, as well as building materials. Clearly, the Secretary Defence and the Commander of the Army played ball with Premadasa. In fact, all cooperated with Premadasa. Officials bent backwards to appease the all-powerful President. The then Election Commissioner, the late Chandrananda de Silva, overnight recognized the PFLT (People’s Front of Liberation Tigers) as a registered political party. The writer was among several local and foreign journalists, invited by the late LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, to the Colombo Hilton where he made the announcement. Chain-smoking British passport holder Balasingham declared proudly that their emblem would be a Tiger in a red flag of rectangular shape. Premadasa, or late Chandrananda de Silva, had no qualms in the PFLT receiving political recognition in spite of it being armed. The LTTE received political recognition a couple of months before Velupillai Prabhakaran resumed Eelam War II.


Prez playing with fire

Did Premadasa consult the Defence Secretary and Commander of the Army before lifting restrictions imposed on the Northern Province, abandoned Point Pedro and Valvettiturai army detachments, pardoned convicted Maradana bomber Manouri Daniels, along with over a dozen other LTTE cadres, held under the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), and provided weapons and funds to the LTTE. Premadasa did what he wanted to do. The UNP leader was not bothered about security implications. Obviously, his security chiefs remained mum. President felt confident in his political strategy. He was so confident, he ordered law enforcement personnel to surrender after the LTTE surrounded police stations in the East. Premadasa’s decision resulted in the deaths of over 400 officers and men. Did the President consult Gen. Attygalle’s successor Gen. Cyril Ranatunga and the Commander of the Army before the government reached an agreement with the LTTE?

The Army in the East averted a calamity by refusing to surrender, in spite of the senior leadership directing them to do so. General Gerry H. de Silva, who served as the Commander of the Army (1994-1996) in his memoirs titled ‘A most noble profession’ commented on Premadasa’s strategy/the government’s failure to recognize the threat posed by the LTTE. First published in 2011, two years after the successful conclusion of the war against the LTTE, De Silva acknowledged: “We failed to see through the emerging trends and LTTE machinations. Despite constant threats and humiliation meted out to security forces and the police by the militants, the politico-military hierarchy preferred to put up with the ignominy in order not to ‘rock the boat.’

The LTTE capitalized on the situation. A rejuvenated LTTE ‘called the shots,’ and quickly moved into a position of strength, politically and militarily. They were riding the crest of a wave and must have felt that the time was opportune to achieve their goal of Eelam.”


The Gemunu Watch officer is the only Commander of the Army to author a book on his career.

Within a week after the resumption of hostilities, in the second week of June 1990, the ill-prepared Army lost the Overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to the Jaffna peninsula. Premadasa’s ‘honeymoon’ with Prabhakaran lasted 14 months. The Tiger Supremo resumed the war, at lightning speed, just two months after India terminated its military mission here. Sri Lanka was left high and dry after the series of follies by Premadasa, at peace making, and the military couldn’t regain the MSR, till January 2009. Premadasa’s Generals turned a blind eye to what was happening on the ground. When fighting erupted, the Army had just one battalion, plus troops in the Jaffna peninsula. In spite of continuing to build up, the top brass ignored the growing threat until it was too late. So, the mere appointing of a retired General as Secretary Defence cannot guarantee rationale thinking. Premadasa’s strategy was nothing but a massive and unprecedented collective failure that almost resulted in capitulation of the Northern forces. Premadasa turned a Nelsonian eye to the LTTE evicting the entire Muslim population from the Northern Province, in Oct 1990. At the behest of Premadasa, the then Army Commander facilitated coordinated LTTE attacks on rival Tamil groups. The LTTE massacred hundreds of people. The response of Premadasa and his chief negotiator, the late A.C.S. Hameed, to the LTTE threat, caused quite an embarrassment to the government, undermined the State and, basically, allowed the LTTE to transform itself to a conventional fighting force. The then Higher Education Minister Hameed never realized ground realities.

Retired General de Silva’s assessment can be applied to all Presidents. except war-winning Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had faith in his younger brother Gotabaya’s capacity to coordinate the war effort against the LTTE.

Generals Attygalle and Ranatunga certainly owed an explanation as regards their failure to prevent the catastrophe in the North. Obviously, no one dared to challenge Premadasa’s dangerous strategies. Having served as the Commander of the Army, for a decade, and Defence Secretary, General Attygalle received appointment as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in London where he facilitated Kittu’s (Sathasivam Krishnakumar) arrival there. On the orders of Premadasa, the SLAF brought Kittu to Colombo where the British High Commission made arrangements to send the former LTTE Jaffna Commander to receive treatment for his amputated leg. The Generals had no say and Premadasa had his way.

Can you imagine a government facilitating a terrorist’s travel to London where he took over the LTTE’s International Secretariat responsible for running a massive extortion racket? The funds ultimately ended up with arms suppliers who provided the LTTE a range of weapons, T 56 assault rifles to shoulder fired missiles. General Ranatunga, too, received appointment as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Canberra and then London. Presidential nominees to top diplomatic posts always received parliamentary approval.


Security fiasco in 2002

Not having learnt from Premadasa’s stupidities, Ranil Wickremesinghe too plunged headlong into a similar folly with Austin Fernando et al in tow.

Ranil Wickremesinghe picked experienced administrative service officer Austin Fernando as Secretary Defence within days after winning the Dec 2001 parliamentary election. Wickremesinghe also brought in one-time Attorney General Tilak Marapana on the National List as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. Wickremesinghe adopted a simple strategy. The UNP leader advocated a policy of appeasement, thereby jeopardizing the entire security apparatus. The LTTE brazenly exploited the situation to its advantage. Prabhakaran stepped up training, recruitment of fresh cadres, as well as forcible conscription of children. The government did nothing. The LTTE intensified protests opposite security forces bases, restricted/interfered with police and military movements whereas the government repeatedly reiterated its commitment to the Oslo-led peace process like a mantra. Wickremesinghe dismissed intelligence assessment as regards the rapid LTTE built up. Wickremesinghe told a hastily arranged Temple Trees meeting, attended by senior officers responsible for intelligence services et al their assessment of the LTTE training 6,000 cadres at the onset of the CFA was wrong. The Premier contradicted his own intelligence apparatus on the basis of what the Indians told him. The then Defence Advisor Senior DIG Merril Gunaratne, who had been among those invited by the Premier, had the strength to stand by his report, based on information/analysis provided by all services. Obviously, Wickremesinghe hadn’t been in a mood to listen to anyone who questioned Prabhakaran’s motives though the continuing LTTE build up was evident.

Wickremesinghe followed his policy of appeasement. In his capacity as Secretary Defence Austin Fernando had no option but to go along with the Premier who authorized the finalization of CFA without proper consultations with the military top brass or the intelligence services.

The then Defence Secretary also provided some hilarious side shows like carrying a basket of fruits to a terrorist receiving treatment at a Colombo hospital.

Fernando himself claimed at the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in August 2010 that he hadn’t been involved in the process leading to the finalization of the document. However, top SCOPP (Secretariat for Coordinating Peace Process) Dr. John Gooneratne subsequently revealed before the LLRC how Norway rejected four proposals made by Sri Lanka. Had those proposals been accommodated in the CFA perhaps Eelam War IV could have been avoided, Gooneratne told the late C.R. de Silva’s Commission. The writer covered the entire LLRC proceedings. Gooneratne revealed the hitherto unknown proposals namely (a) CFA to pave the way for a negotiated settlement (b) prohibition of smuggling of arms, ammunition and equipment (c) freedom of movement for other political parties in areas under the LTTE control and finally (d) halt to forcible recruitment. Sri Lanka never received the backing of Peace Co-Chairs, the US, Norway, EU and Japan to get those just proposals included in the CFA.

The UNP never revealed rejection of its proposals until Gooneratne took advantage of the LLRC to set the record straight. Austin Fernando and SCOPP Chief Bernard Goonetilleke, who appeared before the LLRC could have revealed the truth. The UNP remained mum. Throughout the CFA period, Premier Wickremesinghe tried to suppress information that may have caused embarrassment to his government, the Norwegians and the LTTE. Obviously there hadn’t been any proper consultations among members of the cabinet, parliamentary group or the military top brass regarding the Oslo-led process.

Austin Fernando cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the UNP government’s actions during the CFA. The person who served as Secretary Defence cannot claim lack of knowledge of a particular situation. The same applies to the Defence Minister. During Marapana’s tenure as the Defence Minister Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI)-run operation was exposed to the whole world with media scenes. In spite of strong protests by the Army, the UNP went ahead with its political project. The exposure of the operation led to the deaths of several operatives. The LTTE also hunted police officers engaged in anti-terrorist operations. When Defence Advisor Merril Gunaratne blamed the LTTE for the killing of Inspector Thabrew at the Dehiwela police station, Premier Wickremesinghe himself questioned the veteran law enforcement officer’s assessment.

The UNP allowed the LTTE to bring in undeclared cargo via the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). LTTE delegations returning from negotiations with Wickremesinghe’s delegations from various foreign venues and others brought large packages. The foolish government provided air transport. The LTTE brazenly used the opportunity to its advantage. The CFA provided the organization required protection. The LTTE exploited the Oslo arranged CFA, the same way it used direct talks with Premadasa to achieve its targets. High profile assassination of TULF leader Appapillai Amirthalingham is a case in point. Prabhakaran moved a hit team in an SLAF chopper that brought LTTE delegates from the Vanni to Colombo in 1989.

Both political and military leaderships should accept responsibilities for lapses. During Austin Fernando’s tenure as the Defence Secretary, the military was ordered to stop issuing situation reports, suspended ‘Wanni Sevaya’ (special radio that catered to the military and the police), subjected military reports to civilian approval and basically succumbed to LTTE tactics. While closing down ‘Wanni Sevaya’, the government permitted the LTTE to import state-of-the-art radio equipment to upgrade its own propaganda and communication facilities.

If not for the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s intervention in late 2003, the UNP could have allowed the LTTE build up to continue until it was too late to take counter action. The UNP permitted the deterioration of the situation to such an extent, the LTTE by early 2003 felt confident enough to brazenly quit the negotiating table. The LTTE quit talks in late April 2003 to set the stage for an all-out war. By late 2005, the LTTE was confident it could overwhelm the Army in a large-scale conventional confrontation. The assassination of much-loved Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, in early August 2005, indicated their readiness to take on the government. Had the LTTE succeeded in assassinating Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in late April and early Oct, 2006, the LTTE, perhaps could have achieved Eelam. There cannot be any dispute as regards the role played by the Army Commander and the Defence Secretary to bring the war to a successful conclusion. There had never been previous attempts on the lives of the Army Commander and Secretary Defence. The LTTE knew the government strategy could be aborted by assassinating the two most important men. Their failure brought the war to an end three years later with the LTTE militarily annihilated. If the LTTE succeeded, Sri Lanka’s unitary status could have been jeopardized by now. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition proved the danger in pulling in different directions, lack of vision and strategy as well as pursuing of political agendas inimical Sri Lanka State.

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Midweek Review

Japanese literature and Prof. Ariya Rajakaruna’s translations



by Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Department of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya

During these COVID-19 days, stories pop up everywhere describing how each country and its people are coping with the pandemic. It is said that the Japanese people are behaving in the most responsible manner; they have changed their behaviour in conformity with the health regulations related to the pandemic. The Japanese are known to turn laws into culture. In others words, they absorb laws into culture; and thereafter, laws do not look laws. When laws are made with the participation of the people, they easily blend with the public culture. This is in stark contrast to Singapore, where laws remain laws, strict, punitive and statist: obey the law or pay the penalty! In Japan even state power takes beautiful cultural shapes.

Such idealisation of Japan is part of our middle-class culture. For many of us, Japan is the ideal land: elegantly cultured; adequately Buddhist; appropriately non-Western; seemingly anti-Western; not too religious; obviously modern yet visibly Asian; moderate yet powerful; culturally traditional yet developed and so on. For us, Japan is perhaps the easiest country to love – love openly. We love the West secretly and Japan openly.

Our love of Japan may have many origins. One key source of that love is Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s two novels: Malagiya Attho and Malavunge Avurudu Da. After those two novels we have been a bit too romantic about anything Japanese. In the making of our first modern indigenous play, Saracchandra, ‘the father of modern’ Sinhala drama, was significantly influenced by Japan, and loved to overemphasise that Japanese connection. In my latest novel, Rathu Iri Andina Atha, I created a character who shrewdly manipulates our love of Japan. In order to enter the conscious of educated Sinhala middleclass, he acts as a professor returning from a long stay in Japan. To make the story believable, he carves out a story of his Japanese wife – a fiction within a fiction! Sri Lankan middle class is ready to be deceived even by an underworld imposter as long as he presents himself as a person refined in Japan. Irony, to be sure, allows us to see the extent to which Japan has become one of our national fantasies.

This essay, however, is about a real scholar who has enriched modern Sinhala literature almost singlehandedly by translating Japanese literature into Sinhala. He is Professor Ariya Rajakaruna. Several translators such as Jayantha Wimalasena, Tadashi Noguchi, and Wimaladasa Samarasinghe introduced Japanese literature to the Sinhala readers. But they translated them from English. Professor Rajakaruna translated directly from Japanese. Now in his eighties, the professor continues to translate Japanese literature into Sinhala.

Translated Literature and Sinhala Fiction

The story of modern Sinhala literature is one of the many influences. Modern Sinhala fiction in particular was primarily influenced by Russian and French fiction. From the 1940s onwards the key classics of those languages were translated into Sinhala. Edirivira Saracchandra, A. P. Gunarathne, David Karunarathne, Cyril C. Perera, K.G. Karunathilaka, Boby G. Botheju and numerous others translated those books. Among the present-day literary translators, Gamini Viyangoda, Chulananda Samaranayake, Ananda Amarasiri and many others have continued to translate contemporary world classics into Sinhala. And the Pragathi Publishers, a literary wing of the Soviet Union, made Russian classics, along with some Soviet ones, available in Sinhala at affordable prices. It must be stressed that they did not translate just Stalinist propaganda. So, we could read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and Tolstoy, who were not Bolsheviks. Those books were nicely printed as well. Some of those books came out in adorable pocket editions that we could carry around showing off our ‘refined taste’ to Sri Lankan Sonyas, Annas, Laras or Altynais – those unforgettable heroines of Russian classics. Dedigama V. Rodrigo, Padma Harsha Kuranage and Piyasena Manilgama are still in our minds as the translators of those classics. Some works of fiction from other national literature such as American, British, German, and Indian were translated here and there, but not in any systematic way. The United States did everything it could to rival the USSR during the cold war but never spent any money on translating its literature into other languages. In other words, it did not have an organ equivalent to The Progressive Publishers of the USSR. Thus, we are still to have any translation of the masterpieces of Henry James, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Scott Fitzgerald, or Saul Bellow. At the moment, our regional superpower, China, is also not interested in cultural stuff. They are into giving us colossal loans, cutting deals, and behind-the scene political games, getting ministers in the loop, and so on – very much like the US in that sense.

Japanese Influence on Sinhala literature

In addition to Russian and French literature, Japanese literature is perhaps the single most influential literary tradition to shape contemporary Sinhala literature. To account for literary influences is a difficult task. Yet, the influence of Japanese Haiku is quite visible and ubiquitous in Sinhala literature. After Ariyawansa Ranavira, one of the most senior poets, translated a collection Haiku by Japanese masters in 1980s, many Sinhala poets began writing Haiku like poems. Today, younger poets such as Lakshantha Athukorla, Palitha Senarathne, Piyankarage Bandula Jayaweera, Ven. Aparekke Sirisudhamma and others regularly write shorter poems that reflect a heavy influence of Haiku. Professor Rajakaruna himself translated a collection of Haiku directly from Japanese. His book figures prominently in the ‘Haiku dialogue’ taking place in Sinhala.

Avant Garde Films and Drama

Professor Rajakaruna translated Japanese classics into English as well. Two film scripts included in A Crazy Page and Crossroads were translated into English for the first time. Our Professor has helped some Japanese authors to reach international readership! On reading these two film scripts, I was amazed at the kind of modernism and experimentalism in those texts written in 1920s. A Crazy Page is about a man who returns to his abandoned wife and daughter some thirty years to find wife insane and hospitalized. He tries to make up for all those lost years by finding a job as an attendant at the hospital where the wife awaits her death. The film script has been written breaking the linearity in time and space. Avant Garde nature of the film is so much that I couldn’t believe that it was written nearly a century ago.

Some of the plays Professor Rajakaruna translated from Japanese to Sinhala also belong to what we conventionally call “absurd theatre.” Unfortunately, his translations were never produced as plays. But one can safely assume that at least of the younger playwrights in Sinhala have read these translated plays.


And some universities regularly use them as their required texts.

As a literary critic, Professor Rajakaruna is not known to defend experimentalism in Sinhala literature. His recent critical essays on Sinhala fiction fail to appreciate post realist fiction written by new writers, who have made some significant achievements by writing short stories and novels that transcend naturalist realism. But as a translator, the professor has been particularly keen on translating Japanese texts that are experimental in nature.

Although he looks rather conventional as a critic in his recent writing, Prof. Rajakaruna, I must say, was one of the fearless defenders of the literary modernism of Peradeniya School (1950s to 60s). As a young lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, Rajakaruna was one of the most vocal supporters of ‘free verses’ of Siri Gunasinghe, the greatest modernist of the so-called ‘Peradeniya School.’ Interestingly, Professor Rajakaruna continued to side himself with modernist experimentalism in his translations from Japanese to Sinhala.

Professor Rajakaurna translated so many short stories by celebrated Japanese writers. He also supervised two projects of translations that introduced nearly all key writers of Japanese literature into Sinhala. Two volumes of short stories, Ishtartha Siddiya and Asaliya Mal, have gone into several prints already and they include Japanese short stories representing a wide variety of styles and themes. And those stories have been translated from English by leading scholars in the field. It must be mentioned with a sense of gratitude that Japanese agencies such as Toyota Foundation have provided him with financial support to carry out those projects. But in recent times, even those funding agencies have not paid any attention to helping us make such cultural products with lasting effects. And there has not been another Ariya Rajakaruna, passionate about Japanese arts and enthusiastic about what we can learn from Japan. Now, China is all over the place. From kitchen to the cabinet – yes, I mean the Cabinet of ministers. We are likely to be indebted to China for several generations to come. But China has no Toyota Foundations that will help you translate literature. Perhaps, China knows that its best writers are not with the Chinese oligarchy, and to translate them will make no contribution to China’s geopolitical project.

Heir to his Work

Professor Rajakaruna, like many others of his generation, failed to produce inspired students who can continue his work on Japanese literature. After him, no one learned Japanese and entered into ever vibrant Japanese literary scene. Therefore, we do not have anyone translating renowned writers such as Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogava, Hiromi Kawakami, Junji Ito, Hiroko Oyamada and so on directly from Japanese. Murakami comes to us through English. His work has been translated from English into Sinhala. Professor Rajakaruna learned his Japanese in three years (1962-5) at the Tokyo School of Japanese Language. I wonder why no one after him followed his path. Many after him went to Japan for higher studies but nearly all of them ended up being wealthy car importers instead of translators. Perhaps, new Japan itself needs someone selling its cars rather than someone translating literature!

During the last 40 some years, anyone educated in Japan failed to make a lasting impact on the field of the humanities in Sri Lanka. Perhaps, there is something fundamentally wrong with those who go there or in those who teach them there. Or perhaps, after all, this is a different age. Well, the age of Rajakaruna, too, only produced just a single Rajakaruna. Literary and scholarly achievements have a lot to do with individual passion and commitment. The art of making scholarly passions contagious is still to be discovered.

Technical Japan and Literary Japan

While Japan was being reduced to electronic gadgets and auto mobiles in the economic atmosphere of post 1977 neo-liberal era, people like Ariya Rajakaruna helped us see that Japan was more than those cute technical and mechanical devices. They showed us the richness of Japanese literature. A fairly well-read person in my generation, by reading even only in Sinhala, can recite a long list of Japanese authors. And the stories of those authors might have already entered the deep crevices of our collective consciousness, and the memories of such literary work might one day influence our literature in ways that we cannot really predict or explain. Literary influences are such that one cannot really see where they come from. But our literary achievements will have the fragrance of the wonderful things their creators were exposed to during their formative years. Any serious writer writing in Sinhala today must have been introduced to some Japanese classics through the work of translators such as Professor Ariya Rajakaruna. As the most prolific translator from Japanese to Sinhala, he has been a wonderful cultural ambassador for us. It is said that his ‘embassy’ will be closed forever after him unless we, Sri Lankan literati, and our counterparts in Japan give some serious thoughts to continuing this enriching intercultural engagement. To continue that cross-fertilisation would be the best tribute to the pioneers such as Professor Rajakaruna.

(This essay is a part of longer research paper the writer is working on. He can be contacted at

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Midweek Review

Experts-Only Club



By Lynn Ockersz

There’s to be a gathering,

Of the most curious kind,

In the Nodding Isle,

Renowned for its sleights-of-hand,

Made-up of high-brow types,

Whose brief it’ll be,

To spell out the prime law of the land,

But the question being asked,

By those scrambling for scraps,

Especially in the Covid’s vicious clutch,

Is whether this heads’ only club,

Knows ‘the agony of the stomach’…

So essential an ingredient,

For creating a state most fair,

Where an ample morsel,

Would at all times be on offer for all.



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Midweek Review

Women in Power



The Revolutionary Lives and Careers of Siva, Doreen, Vivi and Sirima

By Kusum Wijetilleke ( and
Rienzie Wijetilleke

(Continued from yesterday)

The events leading up to her removal began in 1933 when she published an article titled “The Battle of the Flowers” in the Ceylon Daily News that questioned the sale of the Poppy on Armistice Day in the British Colonies. At the time, funds from the sale of poppies went towards British ex-servicemen and not to help the Ceylonese officers. The resulting Suriya Mal Movement sold local sunflowers (suriya) instead of poppies with proceeds going to local benefactors. This movement was an early rallying cry for independence and Ms. Doreen would go on to become a symbol of Ceylonese anti-imperialism; winning the parliamentary seat for Akuressa in 1952 under the Communist Party. However in the period leading up to Independence, leftism in Ceylon was very much under threat.

Dr. Wickramasinghe would be arrested in 1939 for sedition, and many others, including Dr. N.M. Perera would follow. The response to the arrests would be one of the largest protest marches ever seen in Ceylon, organized by the LSSP and quelled by the British with a baton charge.

Leading the march was the wife of Dr. N.M. Perera; Ms. Selina Perera who was also one of Ceylon’s leading Trotskyites and a founding member of the LSSP. Ms Perera would also shelter the Anglo-Australian Marxist Mark Bracegirdle when the Governor of Ceylon ordered his arrest and deportation, for the crime of organizing plantation labourers to agitate for better living conditions. Ms. Perera herself had to flee Ceylon to India following a brief arrest in 1940 and even joined the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma along with her husband. When India took the decision to deport them, she escaped to Calcutta, where she adopted a new identity and taught English, disillusioned with the independence politics of India and Ceylon.


At the outbreak of World War II, Colvin R De Silva, N.M. Perera and many others of the LSSP were declared ‘persona non grata’ due to their anti-Stalinism and the insistence that the war was an imperialist venture. One of the co-founders of the LSSP, Mr. Leslie Goonewardene, was able to evade arrest and escape to India along with Selina Perera and others. Hailing from a prominent political family, Mr. Goonewardene had intended to become a Methodist Priest but was influenced by Marxist teachings while in the UK, ending up at the London School of Economics under the tutelage of the famous Marxist Professor, Harold Laski.

Mr. Goonewardene’s political affiliations would lead to a meeting with his future wife, Vivienne, at a socialist rally. Vivienne Goonatilleka also hailed from aristocracy but was blessed with a rebellious streak which would mark her as one of the most important and accomplished women in Sri Lanka’s political history. Despite being the Head Girl at Musaeus College Colombo, ‘Vivi’ was noted for her defiance of authority which became evident with her involvement in the aforementioned Suriya Mal Movement. On Remembrance Day 1934, when as per tradition there would be a ceremonial gun salute at 11 am, Vivienne organized a protest whereby students would leave their boxes of instruments on the blackboards. The blackboards were then toppled at exactly 11 am to make a sound loud enough to drown out the gun salute. Despite her work with the poor and needy, Vivienne’s father was not best pleased with her political pursuits and did not want his young daughter engaged in further education, preferring that she marry and start a family of her own. Without her father’s knowledge and with the assistance of her maternal uncles, the famous socialists Philip and Robert Gunawardena, she gained entry into University College Colombo.

Vivienne’s father was completely against her marriage to Leslie Goonewardene on the basis of caste and religion but also due to the latter’s revolutionary politics which clashed with his pro-monarchy views. ‘Vivi’ was virtually imprisoned at their residence and Mr. Goonewardene was forced to file legal action against his future father-in-law by claiming unlawful detention (habeas corpus). The lawyer that successfully argued the case was a young attorney by the name of J.R. Jayawardene. Having married Leslie, Ms. Goonewardene had to escape to India under a false name along with her husband when the LSSP was proscribed for its anti-war stance. While in India Mr. and Mrs. Goonewardene immersed themselves in the Quit India Movement. After the end of World War II the LSSP began activities once again in Ceylon but ideological differences between leading members of the party led to a split based on their socialist ideologies. Vivienne joined the Bolshevik Sama Samaja Party (BSP), successfully campaigning for the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) in 1950. As a member of the CMC, she focused on the poor residing in the ‘shanty towns’ by widening the roads, providing lighting and sanitation as well as organising sewing classes for single mothers. During this time she befriended a young politician from the Ceylon Labour Movement and regularly gave him a lift from near the shanty towns to the CMC; his name was Ranasinghe Premadasa. Her work as part of Dr. N.M. Perera’s All Ceylon Local Government Workers Union led to the granting of ‘Permanent’ Status to workers and the right to pensions as well as extending pensions to widows and orphans.

Through the decades between the 1940s and the 1970s, the LSSP, its various factions and other leftist aligned parties enjoyed great success in bringing about a political awakening amongst the youth and the working class of the country. The 1953 ‘Ceylon Hartal’ was the brainchild of the radicals that witnessed the success of similar organised protests during the Quit India Movement. Ceylon had never before witnessed such well-organised mass scale demonstrations and campaigns of civil disobedience, which brought much of Ceylon to a standstill. The Government of Dudley Senanayake had become unpopular for increasing the price of rice, reneging on a key election promise by the UNP. The hartal was so fierce that the entire cabinet of the government boarded a Royal Navy warship to secure itself against potential violence.


On the wave of leftist movements across the country, Ms. Goonewardene was elected to Parliament in 1956 and again in 1964, she only lost the 1960 election by some 150 votes to Mr. M.H. Mohamed; who was appointed Cabinet Minister of Labour, Housing and Employment. She joined a leftist newspaper and began reporting on parliamentary proceedings. M.H. Mohamed was unhappy at some of the articles written by Vivienne on the labour and housing policies of the UNP and during a session of parliament he made a remark directed at Vivienne referring to her election defeat; whilst she was seated in the press gallery. An enraged Vivienne reportedly waved a slipper in a threatening manner at Mohamed and despite the Speaker banning her from the press gallery for two weeks, she proceeded to the entrance of the chamber after the session with a crowd of supporters to confront the MP. The Minister of State at that time, J.R. Jayawardene, had to escort Mohamed through a separate exit and it was left to party leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike to pacify Vivienne. She was posthumously designated a ‘National Hero of Sri Lanka’, the highest civilian honour alongside the ‘Sri Lankabhimanya’.

It is true that most of the high watermarks of female representation in Sri Lankan politics featured women that ‘inherited’ political positions through ‘pedigree’, but this may be an oversimplification of sorts. Yes, many were from well-established political families but the use of the word pedigree is interesting. One of the definitions of the noun pedigree is the provenance of a person especially as conferring ‘distinction’; which in itself is a noun that defines excellence that sets someone apart from others. The closer we study the careers of some of Ceylon’s most prominent female politicians, the more simplistic the argument about inheriting power and position appears.

Perhaps our curriculum should be adjusted to shine more light on the many women that not only attained positions of power, but also possessed the knowledge and skills to thrive in these positions. The next time we rename a street or build a statue, perhaps we should honour some of the country’s famous foremothers. Far from being entitled heirs to political dynasties, these women were prodigious powerhouses in their own right and should be respected as such. A more intense spotlight on the achievements of the many women in our history may help inspire the next generation of women to make some history of their own.

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