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Midweek Review

Prez takes Trinco Oil Tank Farm to next level



Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne stands next to President Ranil Wickremesinghe, at the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, on 03 March. National Security Advisor, Sagala Ratnayake, is behind Wickremesinghe, while Minister Kanchana Wijesekera is at extreme right (Pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A pair of Chinese built F-7 multi-role jet fighters flew over SLAF China Bay parade grounds, within minutes after President Ranil Wickremesinghe arrived there, on March 03, to take the salute, as the Chief Guest, at a Commissioning and Wings parade of the No 65 Officer Cadets’ Intake, comprising a total of 40 officers, belonging to No. 17 Lady Officer Cadets’ Intake, and the No. 35 and No. 37 Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) Intakes.

F7s flew from Katunayake air base, the home to the famed No. 05 Squadron that played a significant role, during the Eelam War IV (August 2006-May 2009).

The Commissioning and Wings parade coincided with the 72nd anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). The F-7 GS’ flew immediately after President Wickremesinghe, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, arrived at the saluting dais.

It would be pertinent to mention that SLAF Chief, Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana, veteran jet pilot, on whose invitation President Wickremesinghe attended the China Bay event, was among the three-member group that recommended the acquisition of Chinese interceptors, in 2007, as the war had entered its final phase, which was undoubtedly a fight to the finish against ‘the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit’, with a formidable fighting force, comprising naval, air, and land capabilities, all of whose signature modus operandi was the suicide attack.

The group consisted of the then Group Captain Priyantha Gunasinghe (retired in the rank of Group Captain), Group Captain Sudarshana Pathirana and Wing Commander Sajeewa Hendawitharane (retired in the rank of Group Captain) asserted that the Chinese interceptors should be acquired to counter immediate LTTE air threat, and the other available aircraft, at that time, MiG 29s, acquired from Ukraine, should be considered as a long-term solution. This decision was made soon after the LTTE carried out its first air attack on the Katunayake air base, in March 2007. F-7 GS were first flown here, in January 2008. The No. 05 Squadron achieved a 5-6 minute reaction time during a scramble and was the Squadron to be on 24-hour stand by, in an interceptor role, since its deployment in early 2008.

By the time the LTTE was brought to its knees, on the Vanni east front, in May 2009, the four Chinese jets had registered altogether 506 missions. During the last phase of the ground offensive, the then Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke, moved a pair of those jets to China Bay, in case the top LTTE leadership made an attempt to escape, by sea. At that height of the war, the SLAF jet Squadrons consisted of Kfirs, MiG 27s and F-7s.

On the day of the China Bay parade, the writer was invited to deliver a lecture at the Naval and Maritime Academy, Trincomalee (32nd JNSC course) on ‘media management’ in armed forces or ‘military and media management.’

Well over a decade after Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the country is in a bind with the government seeking USD 2.9 bn IMF bailout package. No less a person than theGovernor of the Central Bank, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, recently alleged that the government had been hiding Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status before he admitted the reality, a couple of moons ago. In an utterly destabilized environment, every sector seems to be in turmoil, no doubt exacerbated by a combination of events, including the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide attacks, crippling the vibrant tourist trade, the Covid-19 pandemic, something not scene in our living memory, hitting the whole world, the following year, thereby robbing the country’s financial sector of vital worker remittances, running to billions of dollars, by underground money transfer systems.

The armed forces are certainly not exempted. The ongoing controversy, over a three-member committee, comprising Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda (Governor, North Western Province), Air Chief Marshall Roshan Goonatilleke (Governor, Western Province) and ex-Army Commander Daya Ratnayake, finding fault with the then Army Commander, Gen. Shavendra Silva, for his alleged failure to bring the 09 May, 2022, violence swiftly under control. The reportage of the unexpected development is a serious challenge to those responsible for media management in armed forces. This contentious issue cannot be discussed without taking into consideration (i) Gen. Silva, the first General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the famed 58 Division (formerly Task Force 1) is the incumbent Chief of Defence Staff (ii) The role played by those at Temple Trees in instigating a hooligan attack on Galle Face protesters and (iii) the ferocity of counter meticulous attacks, mounted by well-organized groups across the country, against those in power.

The continuing economic-political-social crisis has destabilized the country to such an extent with political parties, represented in Parliament, hell-bent on advancing their own agendas, regardless of the consequences.

Like Gen. Shavendra Silva’s controversial conduct, during the events that led to the forced ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after having been one of the significant frontline ground commanders, who took the fight to the LTTE, resulting in its eventual defeat, similarly while everyone talks about a IMF bailout to no end, day in day out, critics are legitimately asking whether all this financial turmoil was deliberately created by interested parties and even those in the highest echelons of the government have not done anything tangible to get back USD billions from export proceeds that had been parked overseas, by unscrupulous exporters, as that amount alone is enough for us to climb out of the present rut.

New move on Trinco oil tank farm

Having participated at the China Bay parade, President Wickremesinghe, accompanied by National Security Advisor and Chief of Presidential Staff, Sagala Ratnayake, and several others, including Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera, toured the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, consisting originally of 100 tanks, situated in 827 acres of land. The tank No. 91, however, was destroyed in Japanese air attacks, launched by ship-borne bombers, and attack aircraft, during World War 11. President Wickremesinghe is the first head of state to visit the Oil Tank Farm since Sri Lanka handed it over to Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC) during his previous tenure as the Prime Minister. The Oil Tank Farm is situated in China Bay. Managing Director of LIOC, Manoj Gupta, was there to welcome President Wickremesinghe.

In terms of the agreement, finalized on 07 February, 2003, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President, the LIOC took over the 99 oil tanks, each capable of holding 12,300 tonnes (1 tonne =1,000 litres) of fuel. The upper and lower tank farms consist of 85 tanks and 14 tanks, respectively.

On behalf of Sri Lanka, the then Secretary to the Treasury, Jayampathy Charitha Ratwatte ,signed the agreement, operative for a period of 35 years. In fact, the Trincomalee facility is so far covered by three agreements, namely (i) the Indo-Lanka Accord of 29 July, 1987, signed by President JRJ and PM Rajiv Gandhi (ii) the agreement on taking over of possession and related matters of the China Bay installation of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), signed on 07 February, 2003, and (iii) comprehensive agreement on cooperation in economic projects, finalized on 26 April, 2017, by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema.

President Wickemesinghe declared, at China Bay, in no uncertain terms, the urgent need to go ahead with the Oil Tank Farm development project.

In line with the government’s overall strategy, President Wickremesinghe recently brought in one-time Navy Commander, Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne, as the Managing Director of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), and to its Director Board as President’s nominee, and also as Chairman, CPC Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm Development Company. The Director Board consists of eight-four each from Sri Lanka and India. The CPC /LIOC venture is meant to speed up the entire process. National Security Advisor Sagala Ratnayake is working on this project.

Of the 99 tanks, 61 tanks are empty. President Wickremesinghe is keen to restore the unused 61 tanks to working condition. Would it be possible to store here what can be safely called the strategic Indian oil reserves?

Indian response to the 80s threat

On 29 July, 1987, President JRJ and Premier Rajiv Gandhi exchanged letters which dealt with the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm as part of the controversial Indo-Lanka Accord. They essentially addressed security issues, against the backdrop of the then growing Indian concerns that foreign military, and intelligence personnel, posed a serious threat to India. India never acknowledged that Sri Lanka wouldn’t have had to seek foreign military assistance if not for its then Premier Indira Gandhi launching a destabilisation project here by covertly training Sri Lankan Tamil armed groups, as a direct counter to then Sri Lankan President JRJ’s overt pro-Western stand, by even offering Trincomalee as a base to Washington.

India included the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm in the agreement that was meant to bring the situation under control. But, at the end of its direct intervention, India had lost 1,300 officers and men, over double that number wounded, and Rajiv Gandhi himself was blown up, in Tamil Nadu, by a female Tiger suicide bomber. It was the price India paid for interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.

At the time New Delhi’s hand was also forced by covert Western actions to destabilize and, possibly, break up India, by backing various separatist groups there. So, in a way, the Tamil separatist movement here was hijacked by the West to sow discord in India, where there are more than 60 million Tamils. The West, led by the USA and the UK, was all out to finish off India, even using Pakistan as a proxy because it was seen as being too close to the then Soviet Union. But they were halted, in their tracks, because of the solid backing that New Delhi received from Moscow, the then countervailing military power. Later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the late 80s, the West found a new convenient mortal enemy in Islamic terrorists, who were in the first place incubated, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, by Washington, to chase out Russians from the latter, with the backing of wealthy Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia.

So those in Delhi should be aware that if there was no China, India would have been the West’s current number two target, after Russia. These pale faces are essentially and, undoubtedly, evil, especially if one looks at what they have done around the world by plundering and enslaving the weakest, while outwardly professing ‘all men are created equal’. At least the Russians, after their October revolution, helped to free many of the enslaved colonies. All those colonies were given independence, for fear of the spread of Communism, and certainly not because the colonial powers suddenly became enlightened.

Let me reproduce the letter, dated 29 July, 1987, signed by Rajiv Gandhi.

” (1) Conscious of the friendship between our two countries, stretching over two millennia, and more, and recognizing the importance of nurturing this traditional friendship, it is imperative that both Sri Lanka and India reaffirm the decision not to allow our respective territories to be used for activities, prejudicial to each other’s unity, territorial integrity and security.

(2) In this spirit, you had during the course of our discussions, agreed to meet some of India’s concerns as follows: (i) Your Excellency and myself will reach an early understanding about the relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel with a view to ensuring that such presence will not prejudice Indo-Sri Lankan relations; (ii) Trincomalee, or any other ports in Sri Lanka, will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests; (iii) The work of restoring and operating the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm will be undertaken as a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka; (iv) Sri Lanka’s agreement with broadcasting organizations will be reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up by them in Sri Lanka are solely used as public broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes.

(3) In the same spirit India will: (i) Deport all Sri Lankan citizens who are found to be engaging in terrorist activities or advocating separatism or secessionism (ii) provide training facilities and military supplies for Sri Lankan security forces

(4) India and Sri Lanka have agreed to set up a joint consultative mechanism to continuously review matters of common concern in the light of the objectives stated in para 1 and specifically to monitor the implementation of other matters contained in this letter.

(5) Kindly confirm Excellency that the above correctly sets out the agreement reached between us. Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.”

India raised concerns particularly over US and Israeli presence in the 80s. But, today, India is part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), widely known as the Quad, formed to meet what the US, Japan, Australia and India perceived as the growing Chinese challenge. Sri Lanka is caught up in the Quad politics due to heavy Chinese investments here, particularly the leasing of the Hambantota Port, for a period of 99-years, to China, in 2017, by the Yahapalana government. But what is really interesting is that the same government finalized a wide ranging memorandum of understanding for cooperation in economic projects, on 26 April, 2017, with India, that covered the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, eight months before China secured 85 percent of shares in the Hambantota Port for USD 1.12 bn.

Media management in armed forces

While the writer was working on the presentation for JNSC, the US embassy, in Colombo, in a joint press release with Sir John Kotelawela Defence University (KDU), dealt with the launch of a publication, titled ‘A Shared Vision for the Indo-Pacific: Implications for South Asia,” edited by Dr. Harendra Vidanage, at the Cinnamon Grand, one of the hotels targeted by the Easter Sunday bombers.

Vice Chancellor of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University, Major General Milinda Peiris, was among those present, along with US Ambassador here Julie J. Chung.

The joint statement quoted Rear Admiral (ret.) Peter A. Gumataotao, of the USN, as having told the gathering: “What is at stake is our ability to respond to activities that undermine the values and principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Competition is good, but when rules are changed, the process should be transparent and agreed on. The US embassy is busy promoting a shared vision for the Indo-Pacific. It would be pertinent to mention that the US embassy issued statements in Sinhala, Tamil and English. Obviously, the media management is part of their operation. A few days before the Cinnamon Grand event, Ambassador Chung visited Parliament. She was there to welcome the appointment of new office-bearers of the Sri Lanka-US Parliamentary Friendship Association. Rebel SLPP MP Chandima Weerakkody was elected the President of the Association.

Sri Lanka seems to be in a catch 22 situation. Contrary to repeated assurances that Sri Lanka wouldn’t take sides in China vs Quad, Sri Lanka appears to be already tilted towards the US-led grouping. The proposed operationalization of the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm should be examined against the Quad operations. Economic ruination has paved the way for external interventions as Sri Lanka struggled to cope up with growing challenges.

The armed forces and police find the situation tough as media manipulations continue. India is now part of the overall US political-security-economic policy. India actually encourages Sri Lanka to be part of the US-led club but there can be certain concerns. Unfortunately, the Opposition has conveniently missed key factors in the strategic Indo-Pacific project. The status of India-US relations is at its zenith, therefore our giant neighbour wouldn’t mind even if Sri Lanka signed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US. The Americans prefer to call the SOFA Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

Sri Lanka entered into the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in August 2017 during Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure as the President. Perhaps those responsible for national security should study the circumstances President Sirisena gave into pressure that was brought to bear on him by Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington at that time, Prasad Kariyawasam, to renew ACSA, in early August 2017. Sri Lanka first signed the ACSA in March 2007. It expired in 2017. The Yahapalana partner obviously had no objection. SOFA was first signed in 1995 during CBK’s presidency. Apparently, the United States asked Sri Lanka for a new pact and sent a draft to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in August 2018. SOFA, however, is on hold.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC) – a project worth USD 480 mn (Rs 89 bn) – was torpedoed by a committee, headed by Prof. Lalithsiri Gunaruwan, in February 2020. The economist didn’t mince his words when he declared ACSA, SOFA and MCC could be part of the US-Indo Lanka strategy.

Political leadership, regardless of the party in power, appears to have continuously failed to examine developments/situations/events properly. For the first time such a report was prepared in Sinhala.

The government media needs to closely study developing situations. With the emergence of social media, in the past decade, as an extremely powerful tool, media management has become a tough task. Situations cannot be tackled by simply issuing statements, or trying to suppress information.

A cohesive system is required to address issues at hand. Perhaps, those handling media will have to work outside official channels to overcome challenges.

Sri Lanka’s growing dependence on foreign powers to meet its needs, ranging from essential items, including medicines, school uniforms and defence requirements, in a way portends long term problems. Sri Lanka should be certainly grateful for international support but also mindful of other factors.

A recent statement, attributed to Deputy Indian High Commissioner, Vinod K. Jacob, underscored the status of Indian assistance. Jacob declared that India offered as many as 1,500 training slots, annually, to Sri Lanka, at an annual cost of USD 7mn. Jacob was addressing a group of Indian Navy trained Sri Lanka Defence Forces personnel, on board INS Sukanya, on February 28.

Referring to India’s much-touted ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, Jacob mentioned a five-point plan to take Indo-Lanka relations to the next level. The Indian HC quoted Jacob as having said: “First is the potential for economic and financial cooperation by building on the Indian support to the people of Sri Lanka, in 2022, to the tune of USD 4 billion. The focus could be laid on areas, such as trade in national currencies, ease of investments and strengthening financial cooperation. Second, the two sides are working towards increasing air, ferry, digital and energy connectivity. Third, a new type of development cooperation partnership building on the existing multi-billion portfolio, with special emphasis on vulnerable communities, is required. Fourth, both sides need to enhance people to people exchanges, particularly in tourist movements. Fifth, it is essential to strengthen the cultural, religious, music, movie and sporting links for mutual benefit.”

Sri Lanka needs to develop a strategy of its own, drawing support from the international community. The current economic-political-social crisis should be addressed, without further delay. The failure to reach a consensus, on Local Government polls, can cause a protracted political conflict that may undermine the overall efforts to restore economic stability.

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.

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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)

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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.

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