By Rohana R. Wasala
A heated exchange took place in Parliament a couple of days ago (November 26 or 27) about the so-called Batticaloa Sharia University, between Opposition MP Kavinda Jayawardane of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and Minister of Education Prof. G.L. Peiris MP (SLPP), as reported on Hiru TV. Following is a rough and ready verbatim translation of the dialogue with essential clarifications in parentheses (It is subject to the usual limitations of a translation, though):
The Easter (Sunday) attacks killed more than 350 of our Catholic people and left more than
500 physically disabled to this day. Terrorist Saharan carried out those attacks.
Former (Eastern Provincial) Governor Hizbullah had direct relations with this terrorist. Even the Chairman of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (on the Easter attacks) said, in relation to this governor, that the legal process initiated concerning this university was unlawful. You, as the then Opposition, said before the presidential election, that this Sharia University will be taken over by the government.
There’s no final decision on that (subject). We will not let it exist as a private institution. I say this to the Hon. Member very emphatically.
This university’s curriculum includes Sharia Law as a course component. Unless it is brought under government control, this country’s innocent children will be taught the Sharia with extremist ideologies.
Before 2015, Hon. Member, there was a clear strategy to handle the problem. We did not allow the Sharia law to sow dissension, hatred on the pretext of teaching various courses. After 2015, they (the Yahapalana administration) even let foreign lecturers come into the country without checking on their past; they were given ‘visa on arrival’ (facility) at the airport. We didn’t do so in our time. The Yahapalana government gave carte blanche to anyone (any Tom, Dick or Harry) to come and teach any course, at any place, at any time. We are reaping what you sowed.
Please tell the House whether this government is going to allow the teaching of the Sharia Law in this country or not?
Sharia or anything else, we’ll see whether it is in conformity with the Constitution.
We will find out who created this. It is a problem that you passed on to us.
Don’t try to pass the buck. You are in power now. During the presidential election, you said
clearly that you will not allow extremism to raise its head; that you will not allow Sharia to
be taught; that those who caused abortions will be taken to court; that Dr Shihabdeen will
be hanged. But now you’ve forgotten about Shafi Shihabdeen; you’ve forgotten about
Sharia; you’ve forgotten about the Batticaloa Campus. In regard to the Easter Sunday
attacks, officials are being hunted; but the persons who taught the bombers the terrorist
ideology and induced the terrorist mindset (that drove them) are left alone.
All these things were done to obtain the support of certain extremist groups for achieving narrow ends. That is the truth. It is now that the evil consequences (of those actions) are becoming obvious.
(End of the translation)
First of all, I beg that Professor Peiris and Dr Jayawardane please bear with me for taking the liberty of subjecting your Parliamentary conversation to a kind of dispassionate critical analysis, that, I hope, will contribute what little it may to the emerging trend of constructive, though usually hostile, criticism in the social media directed at the speeches and actions of our MPs both inside and outside the House. Personally, I have great respect for both: the senior one is reaching the summit of an illustrious career as a celebrated legal studies academic and as an experienced parliamentarian; the junior one, professionally a medical practitioner like his late father the then UNP’s nationalist-leaning Dr Jayalath Jayawardane, is just starting what is invariably going to be a distinguished political career, given the potential he has already shown. No personal disrespect, humiliation, or offence towards either is intended by the following opinion, offered for what it is worth.
MP Jayawardane may be exaggerating things on the spur of the moment when he says that more than 350 Catholics were killed in the EasterSunday bombings (Of course, there’s no gainsaying the fact even one killed is too many) and when he talks about somebody’s alleged past threat to hang someone. Be that as it may, as a concerned Sri Lankan, I found the exchange between the two Honourable Members in the august Assembly very depressing in these critical times. My impression was that both speakers were ignorant of, or indifferent to, the crucial matter they were, somewhat implicitly, arguing about: how to deal with the emerging Islamist threat to Sri Lanka, which is behind the simmering controversies, including the Batticaloa Sharia University issue, Hizbulah’s connection with it, and complaints that Dr Shafi Shihabdeen had performed non-consensual tubal sterilisations on Sinhalese mothers during a flaunted record number of caesarean section operations.
To MP Jayawardane’s question whether the government was going to bring the Batticaloa Sharia University under government control, Minister Peiris assured him that though no decision had been arrived at regarding that, it will not be allowed to exist as a private institution. This could mean that the college will not be allowed to continue at all (which is unlikely) or it will be assigned to the state university system. However, this is part of the unimaginably thorny issue of what to do about the madrasas that have mushroomed around the country. Neither speaker seems to have the faintest idea about the bigger picture. Obviously, Peiris is bluffing and Jayawardane is trying to call his bluff, though both of them are equally ignorant of the real problem.
Jayawardane is asking whether the government is going to allow the teaching of the Sharia Law. Actually, it is a non-question. There is no question of allowing or not allowing the teaching of Sharia for it is an essential part of Islam. The Arabic word sharia means the ‘way’. Google says Sharia ‘is more accurately understood as referring to wide-ranging moral and broad ethical principles drawn from the Quran and the practices and sayings (hadith) of Prophet Muhammad’. In my opinion, it parallels the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism. Of course, the two things are like chalk and cheese or apples and oranges. The issue is whether certain aspects of Sharia law (such as death for blasphemy, apostacy, and amputation for stealing) can be implemented in a democratically governed non-Muslim majority country like Sri Lanka.
Minister Peiris maintains that, before 2015, extremist Islamic was kept under control, and that the present troubles are the result of the wrong attitude of the Yahapalanaya to the problem. I’m afraid this is not totally true. Rishard, Hakeem, Hizbullah, Salley, etc., pursued their careers in those halcyon days, as ‘powerful allies’ of president Mahinda Rajapaksa while underground Islamic extremist activities were going on, despite the vocal agitations of the monks, which fell on deaf ears. The above-named Muslim politicians cannot be described as terrorists or terrorist backers; but it is quite possible, going by what is being revealed during investigations, that they were abused as a protective phalanx by the Jihadists including suicide bomber Zahran Hashim unbeknown to those popular personages. Unfortunately, it looks like the same thing is happening today, despite the availability of young Muslim leaders, both in parliament and outside, who think out of the box as president Gotabaya Rajapaksa correctly insists on doing. MP Jayawardane, probably unknowingly, forced Minister Peiris to admit what is most likely to be the truth, which applies to politicians of both the main parties/their new manifestations: ‘All these things were done to obtain the support of certain extremist groups for achieving narrow ends. That is the truth. It is now that the evil consequences (of those actions) are becoming obvious.’
Trying to please veiled opportunists is no way to tackle the Islamist problem because they, like the few mentally unhinged terrorists, are actually in a really insignificant minority. Such a policy can easily demoralize the educated young Muslim leaders who are braving the few lawless terrorists who may be ruling the roost within the community evading detection under the radar of the security agencies. Jihadist extremists use fear as a weapon. Despite this, increasing numbers of young Muslim women are now publicly speaking up against unwarranted impositions on them regarding their dress, choice of marriage partners, socialization with members of the opposite sex, and so on in the name of religion as decided by a few conservative Muslim males. It is a fact that growing numbers of young Muslims and Tamils of both sexes are establishing close political links with their Sinhalese counterparts.
Incidentally, the spat between state minister of wildlife protection Wimalaweera Dissanayake, SLFP MP, and some officials of the wildlife department, no doubt, brought an unpleasant sense of deja vu to most of us who were familiar with the escapades of a now discredited and defeated former MP from Kelaniya. Whatever the truth at the centre of the episode, Dissanayake clearly failed to behave as he should have. There appears to be some nefarious activity indulged in by some crooks in that locality who may have won the misplaced confidence of the deputy minister. This impression was reinforced by some well-known young activist monks who symbolically pulled down an unauthorised shed built to shelter cows in the forest reserve; the monks complained that criminal elements were continuing their activities in that place rich with ancient archaeological remains in spite of the relevant authorities having been warned about the matter before. Adding insult to injury, MP Roshan Ranasinghe of the SLFP has also castigated the wildlife officers. This cannot be approved of either. There may be a few of them who are guilty of various offences, but indiscriminately condemning government functionaries is a bad thing. We know how dedicatedly our doctors, nurses, police and army officers execute their duties in trying to control the Covid-19 pandemic situation; they are doing that in the name of the country, most of them inspired by the example of the new president, expecting no public plaudits unlike most politicians. Had Gotabaya not been there, some of these politicians would not have been elected to parliament. They are obstructing the president’s action plan. It is clearly a crime for a politician to demoralize even a single dutiful public servant.
The Parliament or the House of Representatives is traditionally described as ‘august’ and the elected members who meet there to legislate as honourable. These are formal words that are ceremonially used, but they are not devoid of serious meaning. The augustness of the Parliament as the supreme legislature of the country and the honourableness of the Members of Parliament as the elected legislators are inviolable, though the persons who man the institution from time to time may or may not be really worthy of those epithet Honourable. ‘August’ in this context means dignified, distinguished, imposing, stately, solemn, etc; the opposite qualities include frivolous, silly, undignified, and so on. ‘Honourable’ has the sense of bringing or deserving respect, honest, moral, ethical, principled, righteous, etc. Antonyms of the word are dishonourable, despicable, crooked, deplorable, and similar negatives. Having said this, I would like to finally add that it is a reason for consolation for us that our MPs do preserve their personal dignity and the solemness of the institution that they man up, with a few exceptions, that too, under pressure of circumstances. Occasional unparliamentary behaviour among members is what prevails in most democracies around the world, and it is due to fallible human nature.
US vs China as aid givers
Aid is a necessary evil for Sri Lanka at this juncture, as it grapples with a declining economy, while in the grip of the Covid pandemic. Our economy was good in 2014, and we could have survived without much aid if not for the pandemic and the five years of ‘yahapalana’. The latter ruined the economy and brought down the GDP from a healthy 5-6%, in 2014, to 1-2%, in 2019. It robbed its own bank, opened the doors to the West to interfere in our internal affairs, antagonised China, and adopted a pro-West policy — without receiving anything in return from the West. The pandemic has further destroyed the economy and now it is tottering with a minus GDP. If a man is dying of respiratory failure, due to Covid, he has to be given oxygen, via a ventilator, nothing else would work. Similarly, Sri Lanka needs substantial financial aid if it is to survive. We are fortunate in that now there is a choice of aid givers, there was a time when we had no choice but get into the aid trap of the Western powers, via Bretton Woods twins.
The ‘yahapalana’ government, in order to come out of its economic woes, almost signed the MCC, SOFA and ACSA agreements with the US, and the then Prime Minister wanted to sign them before the elections in 2019. The present government refused to sign the MCC but is being helped by China in a big way. Do we have a choice? Only alternative is to align with the US and sign the MCC. If ‘yahapalana’ had signed the ACSA, SOFA, and MCC Sri Lanka would have been in a situation where it could be converted into a military base at the whim of the US. ACSA and SOFA are designed to give the US military visa-less entry into Sri Lanka, and do as they please without coming under the jurisdiction of the country. MCC would have given them access to land and opened the doors for economic exploitation.
There seems to be a well-orchestrated opposition to the Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka. It is being said that the proposed Colombo Port City Commission would make the tiny piece of land, that has been reclaimed from the sea, a colony of the Chinese. If one compares the ACSA, SOFA, MCC combination with the Colombo Port City project, it would be like comparing a multi-barrel rocket launcher with a hand pistol. That is if what the detractors say about it is true. What is envisaged in the Bill to establish the Colombo Port City Commission is mainly facilitation of foreign direct investment into the project. For this purpose, most of the red tape involved in the approval of investment has been done away with, in order to expedite the process and avoid delay. The Commission would exercise the powers and functions of relevant regulatory authorities, such as the UDA, Municipal Council, etc. The Commission would also be granted exemption from the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gambling Act, Foreign Exchange Act and Customs Ordinance.
Constitutional experts, who made a mess of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, have said the Colombo Port City Commission Bill is unconstitutional. Well that would be decided by the Supreme Court. However, from a layman’s point of view, the UDA and Municipality rules, for instance, are an impediment to rapid development and would discourage FDI. Similarly, tax concessions are a necessary evil to attract foreign investment. Whether a relaxation of these rules and regulations, within the confines of the Colombo Port City, would be a violation of the Constitution and the fundamental rights of the citizens, will have to be decided by the courts. Perhaps the courts may suggest necessary modifications to the Bill so that it conforms to the requirements of the Constitution. Of course, the people of Sri Lanka would want the CPC to come under the writ of the government and the law of the country. It is the responsibility of the Supreme Court to ensure that the Colombo Port City does not breach the sovereignty and independence of the people and the territorial integrity of the country.
If, on the other hand, investment does not flow into the CPC, all that effort and expense would be wasted, and what is worse Sri Lanka may not be able to recover from the economic abyss it has fallen into. The CPC is the only viable major project that we have at present, which has the potential to give a much-needed boost to the economy. We cannot do without foreign funds at this juncture, as our foreign debts are huge and we have to earn foreign exchange to service them. We cannot keep on taking loans to pay the existing loans, as successive governments have been doing. China has already given us a huge loan.
As Sri Lanka badly needs foreign aid, it has to make the correct choice in picking its aid givers. It must know that aid does not come without strings – there is nothing called a free lunch. It must look at the strings, how bad are they, how would it affect the people, the independence of the country and its resources. We must look at the aid giving profile of the major donors. Researchers, like Emma Mawdsley (2007), Mark Engler (2006), Susanne Soederberg (2004), have commented on the real intentions of the US in pushing countries to accept MCC on their terms. For instance Mawdsley says that the first five MCC compacts in Cape Verde, Honduras, Madagascar, and Georgia is using a new security development paradigm to legitimate more spending on “development” programmes, which are primarily intended to serve the interests of US consumers, manufacturers and investors, and that poverty reduction at best is a secondary objective. These researchers say that security improvement projects in recipient countries are really intended to serve US defence and military goals. Further, they reveal how the World Bank contrives to show bad business of these projects as good business.
Dreher A. et al (2017) in a study has found that Chinese aid was effective at producing economic growth in recipient countries. China’s aid during the period from 2000 to 2014 amounts to USD 350 billion (AidData 2017). One fifth of this had been outright grants. 45% of their aid goes to African countries which have benefited enormously from Chinese aid in recent times. For instance, Rwanda which was a country torn apart by a civil war, is now recording a GDP of 12 % and there is peace as well. Several African countries are recording similar growth rates with Chinese aid at present. Let me quote from the White Paper, China Foreign Aid (2014) “China adheres to the principle of not imposing any political conditions, not interfering in the internal affairs of the recipient countries and fully respecting their right to independently choosing their own paths and models of development. The basic principles China upholds in providing foreign assistance are mutual respect, equality, keeping promise, mutual benefits and win-win”
Could we say the same thing about the Western aid givers? They helped to bring ‘yahapalana’ into power but did not give a cent, though they grossly interfered in our internal affairs, going to the extent of meddling in constitution making. They wanted to punish the leaders and armed forces responsible for the victory in the war against the LTTE, based on unsubstantiated evidence. At present they are busy in the UNHRC gathering fabricated evidence in support of non-existent human right violations in Sri Lanka. Could we take the grave risk of accepting financial assistance from such donors? Do we have a choice in this matter, but turn to our good friend China in this hour of need?
N. A. de S. AMARATUNGA
Rise of Cheena Saubhagya
Before the Aluth Avurudda dawned, we were talking about the lost crown of Ranjan Ramanayake and the grabbing and fighting over the crown of Mrs. Sri Lanka.
The auspicious time for the dawning of the New Year would have brought joy to those who were able to get enough rice, coconut oil and honey to make kiri buth, kevun, kokis and other delights, and even enjoy some of the avurudu games, although without elevated pillow fights and tugs-o-war.
But the reality facing us all, with songs of the cuckoo and other birds, is a push into an inauspicious era in the country, with democracy getting its biggest blow from a government that pledged to strengthen the democratic rights of the people.
We now face the reality of the Bill for the Colombo Port City Economic Commission, which, if enacted, would take us far away from the goals of democracy that our people, and most political leaders and parties were committed to, from many years before independence. The proposed Colombo Port City has all the promise and assurance of being a new colony in South Asia, with the colonisers, as seen today, being the Chinese.
Is this the reality of the Rajapaksa dream and goal in politics and governance?
We do remember that when the work on the Colombo Port City was ceremonially launched in September, 2014, by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Chinese President Xi Jinping, the entire project – the artificial island to be constructed by the Chinese – was written off to China. A permanent Chinese holding.
It was left to the Yahapalana government, which followed in 2015, to have serious negotiations with China, and change the full ownership to a 99-year lease given to China.
What we now see is that the Saubhagye Dekma of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is, in fact, the rise of the Cheena Saubhagya in Sri Lanka.
A country that has had free elections since 1931, even before independence, and has had a functioning parliament, since 1948, is seeking to do away with the very concept of parliamentary democracy. The Colombo Port City Economic Commission is the display of nondemocratic governance, where the nominees of the President, will be answerable to him and not to the country and people on the functioning of the Port City, its income and expenditure, and all facilities in the new Dictatorial City, inside the Democratic Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan voters have much to do with the threat that democracy faces today with the Port City exercise. The 69 lakhs that voted Gotabaya Rajapaksa to office as President, the somewhat smaller vote that gave a parliamentary majority to the SLPP – Pohottuva – alliance in the general election, and the two-thirds majority the government gained in the passage of the 20 Amendment, are core values of the Rajapaksa-Port City strike at democracy.
Mahinda Rajapaksa may have been a strong supporter of democracy, in his early years in politics, and his first election as President but the dictatorial trend in Rajapaksa politics has been clearly seen in the post-war Sri Lanka. Today’s dictatorial policies coming with the Port City Commission, began with Mahinda Rajapaksa drawing MPs from the Opposition and passing the 18th Amendment, which curbed the democratic trends of the 17 A.
After that, the 19 A of the Yahapalana, restored democracy and expanded the provisions and facilities of democracy with Independent Commissions, and considerable independence in the appointment of members of the judiciary.
The Rajapaksas came again, after the Easter Sunday carnage, with their full strength, and popular support to remove the values of democracy that were brought into the Constitution from the 19A, to full and shameful strides into dictatorial governance, with the 20A.
The massive threat to democracy that comes from the Port City Commission is also backed by the draft legislation to remove the court cases on crime and corruption against members and supporters of this government. This dictatorial move is also supported by the removal of the many cases filed in the courts by the Bribery Commission, on technical errors – which can certainly be corrected — but not thought necessary by a corrupt regime.
The Port City Commission is the complete flowering of corruption and dictatorial trends in this country. This is the show of majority dominance, not to serve the people, but to serve a large and powerful family, and the catchers that serve and benefit from it, with claims of ViyathMaga or any such crooked players.
We now have a member of Parliament of the government, but not holding any portfolio or even a state ministry, come out in a loud criticism of the Varaya Nagara Keliya. Such critics were once very supportive of all the corrupt moves by the Avant Garde players, exposed by Yahapalanaya; but things do change. The Varaya Nagara Keliya is the display of the realities of Rajapaksa Balaya. It is in keeping with the Basil Rajapaksa call to learn more of the Chinese system of governance.
What we see with the Port City is the vast abandonment of democracy. Such political thinking will not be limited to the Port City, but will soon extend to the entire island. It is the realisation of Rajavasala Thinking, where memorials for deceased parents could/should be built at State/People’s expense.
What the people are told to accept today is the Cheena Saubhagya. It is just one display of Apey Pavul Saubhagya, which is the reality of Port City crooked governance.
Let us see how much the judiciary can help the people of Sri Lanka safeguard its longer commitment to democracy, beyond the crooked and deadly impact of the 20A.
Cheena Saubhagya, Bunga veva!
First reign of terror by the JVP
By MANO RATWATTE
I have been reading your articles on the 1971 JVP insurrection, quite avidly. A lot has been narrated about the fateful night of April 5th and the events that followed.
It was fascinating to read the accounts by the retired DIG. Thank you for all the articles. It brought back some vivid memories from my childhood.
My personal story from
that fateful period
I was a young boy, just past my 11th birthday and attending Royal College at the time. I was oblivious to the fact that, my father was the Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, and my maternal grandfather was the Governor General (Ceylon had not become a republic yet – that would happen later), our family would be under attack. I remember the very tense period, and how my parent’s home had been marked for attack. The markings were faint, a crude “X” made with red brick. This was repeated at the homes of some other relatives of the Prime Minister, as well. We were oblivious, never noticing the ominous markings.
I have no doubt if the JVP had succeeded they would have executed Mrs. Bandaranaike and probably my father, who was her brother, as well. The PM’s Private Secretary is a position equivalent to a White House Chief of Staff. My grandfather, as the GG and nominally Head of State, would probably have been a victim, too. It is more than likely that the JVP would have massacred my entire family, emulating what their heroes, the Bolsheviks did to the Czar’s family in Yekaterinburg, after the Russian Revolution.
When the severity of the threat became apparent, we were whisked away on the night of April 4th to the GG’s residence, Queen’s House, because the Army Commander felt it wasn’t safe for us to remain in our home. My grandfather had been the Governor General, since 1962, so luckily, we had a safe haven that was familiar to us. As a kid I thought it was “cool” to be escorted by armed soldiers. But, looking back, I realise I may not be alive today, if the JVP revolt had succeeded.
The timing of the JVP’s 1971 rebellion was very poor. The United Front government, which had won a massive landslide electoral victory, in 1970, hadn’t been in power for even an year and had not been able to implement many changes. The economic hardships, food queues and rationing, which were to come in the aftermath of the global energy crisis of 1973, weren’t on the horizon yet. Ceylon was a pleasant place with a vibrant democracy; the exception being the notorious coup attempt of 1962. A violent overthrow of the recently elected government wasn’t something likely to gain much support with the populace.
However, it is likely that, not for the serendipitous incidents in March, reported in this newspaper previously, with the JVP’s bombs exploding prematurely, the security forces would have been far less prepared and the rebellion may well have succeeded.
The situation in the early days of the revolt was very tense. My father was very active in the discussions, and was part of the National Security Council at Temple Trees. It seemed ‘touch and go’ for a while, but my father said that the Prime Minister never panicked. I know my father definitely didn’t, remaining calm despite the initial flood of bad news.
My father never panicked, no matter what the threat was. He had previously faced down the Air Force guard that threatened to open fire on my aunt, in January 1966, along with the late Dr. Baduiddin Muhammed, at a political rally. Before that, in September 1959, he had helped prevent the domestic staff at Tintagel, the PM’s private residence, hack, murderer Somarama to death, after SWRD’s assassination on the front lawn of the property. If the assassin had been killed that day, the right wing conspiracy behind it would have never been uncovered.
Reminiscing o 1971, he told us much later, with a chuckle about the ashen-faced (his words) Army Commander who was at the NSC meetings held at the Temple Trees annexe. The General wanted the PM to ask Yugoslavian leader Marshal Tito for military help. I’m not sure if the request was ever made or whether Mrs. B refused as she had faith in country’s military.
Lanka’s innocence was lost forever that day. Suddenly security and protection of VIPs became a thing in Ceylon. Prior to April 1971, the Prime Minister would have just a token escort, with a pilot-car containing a couple of armed guards and one personal bodyguard, typically a Police officer. The Governor General hardly had any security. A sleepy police Sergeant would be posted at Queen’s House. No bulletproof cars or decoy convoys like today. All that began during the war against the LTTE terrorists and suicide bombers.
I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation, until I saw guard points manned by armed sailors from the Navy, between Temple Trees and Queen’s House, during the curfew.
I remember riding in the GG’s vehicle to Temple Trees, and seeing Navy sailors in their blue uniforms and helmets with rifles and lights pointed towards the car, shouting “Halt” at the vehicle. They were mostly armed with obsolete WW1 vintage Lee Enfield Rifles, or the small Sterling ‘Sten’ submachine guns. I still remember their smart blue uniforms and the white garters (boot covers) around their boots. I also remember seeing a fleet of Indian Navy ships in Colombo, anchored facing Galle Face Green.
I remember my father, and the late Anuruddha Ratwatte (his cousin, then a Colonel), flying on Indian Air Force helicopters from the Royal Ceylon Air Force ground, that the retired DIG referenced. I tagged along in the vehicle that was used to drop them off there. They were overseeing the airdropping of surrender leaflets; an idea my father is believed to have thought of and proposed to the NSC. It offered amnesty and rehabilitation to JVP cadres who surrendered. The leaflets were dropped over the thick jungles where the remnants of the JVP were hiding. It may have been later in April or much later in May. I hope the DIG throws some light. The idea was a success with many fugitive JVP-ers surrendering to the security forces as a result of the campaign.
I have a lot more memories of those scary and sad days. The JVP has never apologized for the disruption of Ceylon’s society. Their actions were far worse in their second incarnation, but by then we were inured to violence. In 1971 we were still a peaceful and innocent country.
What if the 1971 rebellion had succeeded?
What if the JVP had seized power that April, 50 years ago? What would a Ceylon look like? A beautiful socialist utopia with complete state control of the economy? Thousands of grey Mao-suited robots with a little red book goose-stepping to herald a strongman similar to North Korea, who were supporters of the JVP? Would Wijeweera have been a Dear Leader and great benefactor? Or an Oliver Cromwell, a Gandhi, or a Pol Pot?
Act 2: Policy mistakes
Harping back to the 1971 insurgency; it shocked the leftist coalition government, headed by my aunt. As a result, some of the radical policy reforms, such as the Land Reform Act, were rushed through to assuage the anger demonstrated by the insurgents.
Land Reform, as my father later used to say, was one of the “most iniquitous” acts of policy. Think about it. Landholdings were restricted to 50 acres per adult. So if a family had adult children they could have 50 acres each, but even if a family had four young children, they lost most of their lands and six people would all have 50 acres in total ! It defied common sense and economic logic.
Did they assume the kids wouldn’t grow up to become adults? Or perhaps it was deliberately written to favour some, with thousands of acres of land and adult children, over others with young families or no children. Either way it was an absurd policy, which destroyed many viable plantations, reducing them to economically unviable smallholder status.
Housing ownership policies also were also rushed as a result of the 1971 rebellion. The implementation of this, too was botched and much wealth was destroyed. If the JVP had been more patient, they could have had a much better chance of wreaking even greater mayhem, when people were angry and tired of the stagnant economy post-1974.
But, indeed, it was serendipitous that those two premature bomb explosions happened in March. The second one happened the day my family was spending time with our uncle to celebrate his birthday.
Act 3 – The next JVP
Their reign of terror and counter terror by the Government, in 1987- 89 was far worse for the entire nation. I was by then out of the country and did not experience any of it. My father wrote to me and asked me to stay in the USA as long as possible. An uncle of mine (a first cousin of my father’s) was burnt alive in Matale, during the hell the JVP unleashed in the aftermath of the Indian “invasion by invitation” after J.R. Jayewardene erred in handling relationships with India. Another good friend’s relative was chased down and killed at his estate, because he had raised the national flag on Independence Day as the government had requested. A respected scholar was assassinated on the University of Colombo campus – Professor Stanley Wijesundere. His son and I were good friends and classmates.
And no one should forget nor forgive the brutal murder of a great humanist and charismatic leader Vijaya Kumaranatunge, the leader of the SLMP and most popular celebrity actor. Why did the cruel assassins shoot him in the face after he was already dead and fallen? Was it because of sheer envy and evil thoughts of their leader who could not stand a good-looking popular rival?
My issue with all these lame excuses and talk about a ‘people’s struggle’, is that the JVP never sincerely apologized for the violence they unleashed, and keep celebrating their leader as if he’s a local Lenin; when he and his then generation of combatants had more in common with the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, than Marx.
Harping back to the successful victory over the JVP, in 1971, it must be mentioned how quickly almost every major nation in the world came to help Sri Lanka. Because of the excellent relationship between Ceylon and India, they were the first to rush in help. I remember they even supplied the Army with SLR 7.62 automatic weapons, much more capable weapons than the ancient rifles and inaccurate Sten guns which was all they had. The Ceylon military, which up to that point was a well-disciplined force but mainly a ‘parade-ground army’, was called upon to quell a domestic armed insurrection while armed with vintage bolt action rifles.
The tiny Armoured Corps, equipped with a few Daimler armoured cars, (the largest of which had a 2-pounder gun) was used to secure Kegalle and Mawanella, which had been seized by the JVP. A few vintage Ferret Scout cars armed with WW2 era Bren guns, were deployed at Temple Trees. Later one of the Saladin six-wheeled armoured cars, with a bigger 76mm gun was also deployed facing Galle Road.
Ceylon’s tiny military, led by professional leaders, acquitted themselves really well. While there were sad incidents like the Premawathi Manamperi incident, they deserve gratitude and thanks of the entire nation. Especially a then 11-year old boy’s sincere thanks for protecting him and his family.
All is not hopeless. The new younger and more educated leaders of the JVP have embraced democratic politics and their performances in Parliament exposing corruption of governments (whichever government is in power), and their well informed and educated analysis and criticisms, are a fresh positive contrast to the adi-pudi abuse laden politics of everyone else. But they will remain a less than 5% party if they keep celebrating a man who twice took our nation down a path that was disliked or hated by most. Clearly, the UNP could also apologize for the counter terror they unleashed.
Geo political friends
India was the most important ally in 1971. Indian-Lanka relations deteriorated because of President J. R. Jayewardene’s hostile views and his foolish attempts to align himself with the US and ASEAN, totally oblivious to who the regional power was. This is something to be cognizant of today, in post cold-war realignment of alliances. The USA, which was once hostile to India, is now totally aligned in the QUAD coalition against China. India has justifiable fears and concerns about China. It stems from having been humiliated by China in the1962 border war which led to a loss of territory.
Sri Lanka really needs to nurture its friendship with India so that they will be like the 1971 ‘Dhosthi India’ and not the ‘Dushman/badamaash India’ following the gory Black July of 1983. Same country – two different postures.
The paradigm shift about security, in 1971, was significant and permanent.
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