Province-based Devolution in Sri Lanka: a Critique
by G H Peiris
This article is prompted by the recent announcement that the Cabinet will soon consider a proposal to conduct Provincial Council (PC) elections without delay. The article is intended to urge that the PC system should be abolished and replaced by constitutional devices to ensure: (a) genuine sharing of political power among all primordial, áscriptive and associational groups that constitute the nation of Sri Lanka; and (b) the statutory protection of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity which the PC system, as long as it is permitted to last, will remain in dire peril. The article is also intended to stimulate the memory of those who appear to have forgotten the circumstances that culminated in the enactment of legislation in 1987 to establish PCs. There appears to prevail a measure of complacency among some of our present political stalwarts based on the notion that, with their two-thirds majority in Parliament, and with the 20th Amendment in place, they ought to let the status quo remain intact. This, I think, is quite silly. Apart from the fact that landslide electoral victories tend often to be brittle, those who were in the forefront of empowering the present regime are already reacting with dismay to the decision to re-establish the PCs.
2. Indo-Lanka Accord – the Indian Intervention
It is often forgotten that the government of India employed the most diabolical forms of diplomatic, military and economic coercion a powerful country could conceivably brought to bear upon a supposedly friendly nation with which it shares many cultural traits.
Omitting (for the sake of brevity) the vicissitudinous political career of Smt. Indira Gandhi during the 1970s, my elaboration of the foregoing observation begins with the commencement of her second spell of office as Prime Minister of India (January 1980 to October 1984) in the course of which she made no secret about her intense antipathy towards the JRJ-led government of Sri Lanka. This prompted certain emissaries of the ‘Tamil United Liberation Front’ (TULF) to suggest to her the desirability of launching an armed intervention in Sri Lanka of the type she had so successfully achieved at the “Liberation” of Bangladesh in 1971. That did not happen, probably because the JRJ regime had the backing of the West and the tragic end of her life in 1984. Regarding her malignant imprint on the constitutional affairs of Sri Lanka, however, it is worth citing the testimony of J. N. Dixit, Delhi’s High Commissioner in Colombo when (in his own words) he was “… involved in the most important and critical phase of Indo-Lanka relations; a period during which India’s mediatory efforts reached its peak culminating in the signing of the Indo-Lanka Agreement of 29 July 1987”. (Dixit, 1998: xvi):
“Once Mrs. Gandhi decided to be supportive of the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils on the basis of Indian interests and strategic considerations, the rest of the process which culminated in the Indo-Lanka Agreement and the induction of the IPKF was more or less inevitable”. (emphasis added)
Several reasons, partly conjectural, have been adduced for Smt. Gandhi’s hostility towards the government of Sri Lanka. For instance, She might have been resentful of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy leanings towards the ‘West’, and the reciprocal support which JRJ was attracting in abundance from some of the leading global powers for the mammoth development projects being implemented within the framework of ‘economic liberalisation’. Another explanation is that, with the worsening of relations between the Federal government and State governments of Punjab, Kashmir, Assam and West Bengal, Smt. Gandhi placed priority on consolidating her electoral support in Tamilnadu, which meant, among other things, greater concern on the demands of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. My own hunch is that it was a Shakespearian display of “Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned” towards JRJ, allegedly for an absurd insult he had hurled at her in the course of an ‘After Dinner’ speech as the Janatha government’s PM, Moraji Desai’s, guest of honour.
Be that as it may, Smt. Gandhi began to provide clandestine aid (financial, material and training in guerrilla offensives) to groups of Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents, even after it was made public knowledge through prestigious Indian journals. This is relevant background to an understanding of the disastrous anti-Tamil riot that occurred in Sri Lanka in July 1983.
The riot caused extensive damage to life and property, and a massive displacement of the Sri Lankan Tamil population in the Sinhalese-majority areas ̶ one which included a large outflow of refugees from the country. It disrupted the economy aand brought the ‘liberalisation’ boom to an abrupt end. It tarnished the image of Sri Lanka abroad, generated a global tide of sympathy towards the Tamils, and attracted international attention and concern towards Tamil grievances. It paved the way for the direct intervention of India (untrammelled by pressures from the ‘West’) in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, culminating in the introduction in 1987 of a massive Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF). It also represented a major turning point in the history of Tamil politics in Sri Lanka, with the militant groups and their strategy of armed confrontation and terrorism gaining ascendancy over the older Tamil political parties and their proclaimed commitments to peaceful agitation and protest. The militants became a power in their own right, abandoning their earlier role as the ‘boys’ of the Tamil leadership in the political mainstreams.
Indian Intervention after the Convulsions of ‘Black July’
Smt. Indira Gandhi’s offer to “mediate” in the Sri Lankan imbroglio (pre-empting other global powers from claiming that role) could not have been turned down by the beleaguered President Jayewardene.
The process of mediation commenced with the arrival of the Indian diplomat, Parthasarathi Rao. It took the form of coercing the Sri Lanka government to change its policy of decentralisation of ‘development administration’ to devolution of political power, and to change the spatial framework for such devolution from the District to the Province, along with an amalgamation of the Northern Province and the Eastern Province. His “mission” ended with the production of document referred to in subsequent negotiations as ‘Annexure C’ which he took back to Delhi. To what this document was annexed, and whether there were other “Annexures” are not known.
‘Annexure C’, and Sri Lanka government’s own proposals were presented to an ‘All Party Conference (APC) summoned by JRJ at which there was vehement opposition to certain sections of that Annexure. But the government extracted from the APC proceedings a draft Ordinance providing for (a) “a revitalised District Councils” system and (b) the establishment of a Second Chamber, and tabled the drafts for further dialogue with the TULF (the SLFP delegates having withdrawn from the APC). Up to about the end of the year, the TULF leadership maintained that the draft ordinance did form the basis of an acceptable settlement. But, thereafter, in a sudden volte-face, they rejected it outright.
Smt. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh militants on 31 October 1984. Her son, Rajiv was sworn in as PM later on the same day. Critics have maintained that this caused a change in Indo-Lanka relations in the sense that Rajiv tended to be less “imperial” than his late mother in his approach to conflict resolution both within and outside India.
Despite Rajiv’s affable demeanour, the policy transformation brought about by his succession was less tangible than what most observers would have us believe.
(a) the Delhi government made available through the State government of Tamilnadu a grant of US$ 3.2 million to the LTTE leadership; (b) as Lalith Athulathmudali (Sri Lanka’s Minister of Security and Defence) had observed, a leaked RAW document indicated the continuing existence of training camps and bases for Sri Lankan Tamil separatist activists and; (c) despite repeated requests by JRJ, Delhi did not adopt coastal surveillance measures to curtail clandestine movement of people and commodities across Palk Strait.
Meanwhile the Tamil militants escalated their terrorist onslaught, the most horrendous event of which was the slaughter by LTTE operatives of 148 devotees (most of them elderly women) at the premises of the Sri Maha Bōdhi shrine in the sacred city of Anuradhapura, and another 16 civilians in the course of their retreat into the wilds of Wilpattu on May 14, 1985. There was media speculation that firearms used by the Tigers in this massacre were purchased by the LTTE with the aforesaid Indian grant.
Romesh Bhandari, Rajiv’s Foreign Secretary, initiated peace negotiations between the government and delegates of the secessionist groups at a forum staged in July/August 1985 in the capital of Bhutan, and thus labelled as the ‘Thimpu Talks’. It provided a forum to Tamil militants for worldwide propaganda for their ‘liberation’ demands that were set out as follows (lawyer N. Balendran acting as their spokesman):
“It is our considered view that any meaningful solution to the national question of the island must be based on the following four cardinal principles:
(1) Recognition of the Tamils of Sri Lanka as a distinct nationality,
(2) Recognition of an identified Tamil homeland and the guarantee of its territorial integrity,
(3) Based on the above, recognition of the inalienable right of self-determination of the Tamil nation,
(4) Recognition of the right to full citizenship and other fundamental democratic rights of all Tamils, who look upon the island as their home.”
The Sri Lanka delegation response, as presented by H. L. de Silva (recorded in Balendran’s monograph on the ‘Thimpu Talks’) was as follows:
“First, we observe that there is a wide range of meanings that can attach to the concepts and ideas embodied in the four principles, and our response to them would accordingly depend on the meaning and significance that is sought to be applied to them. Secondly, we must state quite emphatically that if the first three principles are to be taken at their face value and given their accepted legal meaning they are wholly unacceptable to the government. They must be rejected for the reason that they constitute a negation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka; they are detrimental to a united Sri Lanka and are inimical to the interests of the several communities, ethnic and religious in our country”.
The collapse of ‘Thimpu Talks’ prompted Bhandari, in barely concealed personal disgust at the arrogance and recalcitrance of Mr. Balendran and his entourage of secessionist militants, to summon a follow-up negotiations in Delhi at which he restricted Sri Lanka participation to delegates of the government and of the TULF. At the conclusion of that effort in August 1985 a document named the ‘Delhi Accord’, “initialled” by representatives of the two governments, was released to the media by India’s Foreign Office. It claimed that a measure of consensus was reached on ‘Province’ as the unit of devolution’ and on the powers to be devolved. The Delhi Accord was rejected by the LTTE. By the end of the year the TULF leadership had also rejected the ‘Delhi Accord’.
Thereafter there was a series of discussions between representatives of the two governments. A. P. Venkateswaran, appointed Foreign Secretary in January 1987, attempted unilaterally to make the ‘Delhi Accord’ more acceptable to the TULF by bringing the Accord offers close to a federal form of government.
Perhaps the greatest betrayal of the trust which the government of Sri Lanka had placed in the Rajiv regime was represented by Delhi’s reaction to the military campaign termed ‘Operation Liberation’ launched by the government on 26 May 1987 in the face of which the Tiger cadres, abandoned their Thalaivar’s bravado, and fled in disarray. An SOS appeal conveyed by the LTTE leadership to Tamilnadu resulted in a flotilla of fishing vessels sailing out in the guise of a “spontaneous” civilian response but, in fact, with the backing of the central and state governments. That maritime invasion was foiled by the Sri Lanka Nsavy. Thereupon, in a blatant violation of international law and Sri Lanka’s air space, a convoy of Mirage-2000 combat planes dropped 20 tons of food and medical supplies on Jaffna, ostensibly as a ‘mercy mission’, but in reality, a demonstration of what Delhi could do unless Sri Lanka obeys. At the commencement of ‘Operation Liberation’, Dixit informed Lalith Athulathmudali that India would not stand idly by if the Sri Lanka Army attempts to capture Jaffna (K. M. de Silva, 1994: 631).
The JRJ-Rajiv dialogue at the ‘SAARC Summit’ conducted at Bangalore in early 1987; discussions between Indian VIPs like Dinesh Singh and P. Chidambaran and Sri Lanka ministers like Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and A C S Hameed; and, more geerally, the enforcement of his will on senior bureaucrats in Colombo by J N Dixit (who, by this stage, had earned for himself the epithet ‘India’s Viceroy’) were among the Indo-Lanka interactions that brought about the signing of the agreement.
What I have sketched above is only the bare outline of how and why the aging President JRJ, nudging 80, succumbed to the ruthless Indian onslaught, disillusioned as he was, by the disintegration of his inner circle of loyalists, the aggressive extra-parliamentary campaign led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and the ethos of anarchy and violence created by the JVP whose oft repeated theme, disseminated through the calligraphically unique poster campaign, was ‘jay ăr maramu’ (‘let’s kill JR’). Soon after the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord, the JVP almost succeeded in doing that in a grenade attack on UNP parliamentary group meeting.
Indo-Lanka Accord’: Its Political Backdrop in Sri Lanka
Politics of insurrection gathered momentum in Jaffna at least from about a decade earlier than the signing of the said ‘Accord’ when the mainstream Tamil parties began to pursue a strategy of nurturing insurgent groups, and inculcating the notion of Sinhalese oppression (rather than inequities inherent to the mismanaged economy being experienced by all ethnic groups, and the blatant Caste-based oppression endemic to the Sri Lankan Tamil social milieu) being the root cause for their deprivations. It should also be recalled that the benefits of economic buoyancy that ushered in by the policy transformation of ‘liberalization of the economy’ from the earlier pseudo-socialist shackles, initiated by the government elected to office in 1977, were scarcely felt in the predominantly Tamil areas of the north.
It was in the context of intensifying turbulence that the leaders of Ilangai Tamil Arasi Kachchi (ITAK), All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) and Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) formed a coalition named the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). At its inaugural session conducted in May 1976, the TULF adopted the so-called ‘Vaddukodai Resolution’, the opening statement of which reads as follows:
“The convention resolves that the restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular state of TAMIL EELAM based on the right of self-determination inherent to every nation has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil Nation in this Country”.
The concluding paragraphs of that ‘Resolution’ (copied below) should, in retrospect, be understood as epitomising a formal decision to launch of an ‘Eelam War’.
“This convention calls upon its ‘LIBERATION FRONT’ to formulate a plan of action and launch without undue delay the struggle for winning the sovereignty and freedom of the Tamil Nation.”, followed by more specific belligerence,
“And this Convention calls upon the Tamil Nation in general and the Tamil youth in particular to come forward to throw themselves fully in the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not until the goal of a sovereign state of TAMIL EELAM is reached”.
The campaign rhetoric of the TULF was somewhat more vicious than its belligerence at Vaddukoddai.. At a public rally conducted shortly after the formation in 1976 of the ACTC-ITAK alliance with qualified support from Arumuga Thondaman’s ‘Ceylon Workers Congress’, the person who could have been called the ‘First Lady’ of that alliance said in the course of her speech: “I will not rest until I wear slippers turned out of Sinhalese skins”. Unbelievable? If it is, look up the ‘Report of the Commission of Inquiry’ into the communal disturbances of 1977 conducted by a former Supreme Court Judge (a person belonging to the Burgher community), published as Sessional Paper XII of 1980.
The data tabulated below show that the TULF appeal did not get the expected response even from the people living in the ‘North-East’. It is, of course, true that all contestants fielded by the TULF did win their seats in the Northern Province, securing comfortable majorities in the districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya; but elsewhere in the province, the margins of victory were wafer-thin. The polling outcome of the Eastern Province probably shocked the TULF leadership and certainly caused widespread surprise, especially since less than one-third of the voters of Batticaloa District (where Tamils accounted for 72%, and the ‘Sri Lankan Tamils 71% the district population) only 32% had endorsed the ‘Eelam’ appeal.
By the early 1980s, several groups had taken control over acts of terrorism and sabotage in Jaffna peninsula. The violence perpetrated by the insurgents and the retaliatory acts of the security forces reached fever-pitch on the eve of elections to the newly instituted District Development Councils. It resonated in other parts of the country in the form of two relatively brief waves of mob attacks on Tamil civilians, one in 1980 and the other in 1981. The victims included ‘Indian Tamils’.
The economic upsurge in the first 6 years of the JRJ-led government was short lived, and the political hopes proved to be illusory. The Jaffna peninsula turbulence was perceived by the government as a ‘law and order problem’ ̶ which a police contingent led by a Deputy Inspector General of Police Rudhra Rajasingham, a Tamil officer of impeccable repute, was ordered by the President to “eradicate within three months”. It failed in the face of massive protest campaigns, intensifying guerrilla attacks on government institutions and the security forces, and harsh retaliatory action by the security forces.
The ‘Eelam War’ for which the groundwork had been laid by the TULF was triggered off by the anti-Tamil riot of unprecedented brutality that took place in July 1983. Its damning repercussions were referred to earlier in this memorandum. JRJ reacted by proscribing several parties and incarcerating a few among his more articulate detractors, some, on the basis of barely credible evidence. Yet another blunder by him at this state was the holding of a national referendum in order to extend the life of the parliament (with the 4/5th majority under his command) by another 6 years. Apart from the rampant malpractices that features this poll, it did look like the fulfilment of his euphoric pledge in the aftermath of his victory to “roll back the electoral map”.
The youth unrest in the Northeast which was mobilised for electoral gain by the TULF began to be replicated in earnest elsewhere in the island in the form of the second wave of insurrection launched by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP/Peoples Liberation Front). In the economic recession that prevailed, and with the incessant Television displays of unattainable luxury restricted to the life styles of a small minority, increasing numbers of youth suffering from “frustration aggression” were attracted to the JVP fold. By 1985, they engaged in raids for the collection of money and arms, crippling the economy with frequently enforced curfews, and a range of terrorist violence such as intimidation, torture and the murder of persons identified as collaborators of the government.
The Province as a Unit of Devolution
The Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of 1833 that introduced a network of 5 Provinces was intended to consolidate British rule over the island which remained tenuous even after the suppression of the rebellion of 1818. The spatial pattern of provinces was changes from time to time until it was finalised in 1889 against the backdrop of the mid-Victorian imperial glory and the absence of any challenge to British supremacy in ‘Ceylon’. The population of the island at that time was only 3 million; and, despite the ongoing deforestation of the Central Highlands, at least about 70% of the island territory was uncharted wilderness.
To be Continued
Post-war military matters and concerns
This year’s annual Indian Navy–Sri Lanka Navy bilateral maritime Exercise SLINEX was conducted amidst political turmoil here. The six-day SLINEX, the 10th edition of the series commenced three days after the launch of a public protest campaign near President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana. The two-phased exercise involved several Indian vessels INS Kiltan (Advanced Anti-Submarine Warfare Corvette) and INS Savitri (Offshore Patrol Vessel), SLNS Gajabahu (Advance Offshore Patrol Vessel/The one in which President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took refuge on July 09) and SLNS Sagara (OPV). In addition, Indian Navy Chetak helicopter and Dornier Maritime Patrol Aircraft and SLAF Dornier and BELL 412 helicopters participated in the exercise. The Exercise featured the Special Forces of the two Navies. The previous edition of SLINEX was conducted in Visakhapatnam from 7-12 March 2022.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Indian Defence Research Wing (government website) recently declared that Australia would provide a former Royal Australian Air Force Beechcraft KA 350 King Air (registration A32-673) to Sri Lanka on a request made by India. The KA350 King Air is a modern twin-engine turboprop aircraft.
The story, posted on 16 May, four days after Australian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Paul Stephens, officially informed President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the move, was headlined ‘Australia to donate Beechcraft KA 350 to Sri Lanka upon India’s request.’
HC Stephens was accompanied by Deputy High Commissioner Ms. Lalita Kapur, First Secretary Brett Zehnder and Defence Advisor Captain Ian Cain. The meeting took place at the Presidential Secretariat, the scene of violent confrontation between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration and the protest movement, a year ago.
The Indian website asserted that the Australian move mirrored New Delhi’s bid to strengthen security ties with Sri Lanka as part of its Indian Ocean outreach. According to the website, the deployment is meant to boost Sri Lanka’s sovereign aerial maritime surveillance capability. In terms of the agreement between the two governments, the donor would support the operation of the aircraft for a period of 12 months.
The President’s Media Division (PMD) announced: “The gift of the aircraft is part of the Australian Government’s commitment to strengthening and enhancing the cooperation and collaboration that is the foundation of the strong bilateral relationship between Australia and Sri Lanka. A key focus of this relationship remains the continued cooperation on countering all forms of transnational crime, including drug smuggling, as well as strengthening border management through intelligence sharing and the deterrence, disruption, interception and return of maritime people smuggling ventures under the border security operation, known as Operation Sovereign Borders.”
Operation Sovereign Borders is a high profile military led mission, launched in 2013, to thwart illegal entry of would-be asylum seekers. The change of governments, over the past decade, hasn’t undermined the high profile operation as major political parties are committed to block illegal migration whatever the consequences.
The donation of the aircraft is in line with the understanding the two countries reached following a visit undertaken by Australian Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, from June 19-21 last year, amidst deepening political turmoil here. She met the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, as well as Foreign Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris. A year later, Wickremesinghe is at the helm and Gotabaya Rajapaksa ousted by a US-backed protest campaign, as alleged by former Minister Wimal Weerawansa, a claim denied by the US mission here, but not denied by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, a key protagonist referred to by the accuser.
In April and June 2014, Sri Lanka took delivery of two 38.2 m long Australian patrol boats and they were commissioned as SLNS Mihikatha and SLNS Ratnadeepa. Both vessels are in service today. It would be pertinent to mention that the talks, on the transferring of vessels, were finalized in Colombo when the then Australian Premier Tony Abbott visited Colombo for the Commonwealth Heads of Government of Meeting (CHOGM). The Australian move was made in the wake of the UK going all out against Sri Lanka over the accountability issues.
In the following year, the then Sri Lanka’s shameless government co-sponsored the US–led accountability resolution at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against one’s own country.
India, Australia strategy
In late August last year, Australia announced an unprecedented move to pay for a part of Sri Lankan military’s fuel requirement. Australian High Commissioner in Colombo Paul Stephens tweeted:
“Australia is pleased to be working with India to provide fuel to Sri Lanka’s Navy and Air Force. It will help our long-standing cooperation, against transnational crime, to continue. As Indian Ocean neighbours, all three countries share a commitment to preserving regional security.”
India and Australian joint approach here should be examined against the backdrop of ‘Quad’ strategy in relation to Sri Lanka. However, India pursues its own policy in terms of India’s policy of ‘Neighbourhood First’, ‘Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR),’ as well as ‘Priority One’ partner. ‘Quad’ security alliance meant to counter growing Chinese influence consists of the US, Japan, Australia and India. Sri Lanka has been caught up in the China vs ‘Quad’ battle and Sri Lanka’s dependence on Chinese investments made the situation worse.
The US has included Sri Lanka in its military exercises programme while the other ‘Quad’ member Japan entered into the ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ Agreement in October 2015.
Sri Lanka took delivery of a Dornier 228 maritime patrol aircraft, from India, in mid-August last year. The SLAF declared that India made available the aircraft in response to a request made during the Yahapalana administration (2015-2019). India assured that another Dornier would be supplied within two years after the deployment of the first naval Dornier – a short takeoff and landing multirole light transport aircraft with a turboprop twin-engine, in production since 1981.
An Indian statement said: “The aircraft would act as a force multiplier, enabling Sri Lanka to tackle multiple challenges, such as human and drug trafficking, smuggling and other organized forms of crime, in its coastal waters, more effectively. Induction of the aircraft is timely in view of the current challenges to Sri Lanka’s maritime security.”
Bankrupt Sri Lanka should be grateful for Australian and Indian stepped up assistance at a time the country is experiencing a deepening economic-political-social crisis. Obviously, the crisis here can be a push factor for more Sri Lankans to risk their lives to reach foreign lands. However, the military’s growing dependence on foreign assistance must be a matter for concern for all as there is always the danger of being smothered by the giant neighbour or being unnecessarily dragged into a wider conflict between between the Quad on one side and Russia and China on the other.
Recently, India announced further help to the SLAF. The announcement was made during the four-day official visit of Chief of Air Staff Indian Air Force Air Chief Marshal V. R. Chaudhari earlier this month. The Indian air chief was here on the invitation of SLAF Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana.
During the visit, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari laid the foundation stone for the construction of the India-Sri Lanka Friendship Auditorium at the Air Force Academy, Trincomalee. In line with New Delhi’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy,’ the project would be carried out under a 250 mn LKR grant assistance from India. The Indian air chief also donated AN-32 propellers to the SLAF, at the China Bay Air Force Academy, and at the National Defence College training aids were donated to students.
In addition to massive economic assistance provided in the recent past to Sri Lanka struggling on the financial front, the Indian investment, in the defence sector, is rapidly growing.
Deputy High Commissioner Vinod K. Jacob, in late February this year, underscored the Indian investment when he addressed the Indian Navy-trained Sri Lankan military personnel on board Offshore Patrol vessel Sukanya in Colombo. The Indian High Commission quoted Jacob as having stressed that training is the strongest and most enduring pillar of bilateral defence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka. The Deputy High Commissioner declared that India offered approximately 1500 training slots every year, to Sri Lanka, financed through a special programme with an annual allocation of USD 7 million.
Security sector reforms
Last week’s midweek piece, titled ‘Blind security reforms: Assurance to US on the size of military’, attracted the attention of quite a number of military officers, including the retired. They queried whether a proper and cohesive assessment has been made before the declaration that the 200,000 plus wartime strength (2009) would be reduced to 135,000 by 2024 and 100,000 by 2030.
One retired General, who had served the infantry and considered one of the foremost battlefield strategists, pointed out that the projected downsizing/right sizing of the Army, should be studied, taking into consideration the current strength. “Do not forget we are already down to 160,000 officers and men,” the retired General said, while another pointed out AWOL (‘absence without leave’ seems to be quite a problem). A retired General Officer Commanding (GoC) of a fighting division on the Vanni front emphasized the need to examine how the proposed reduction would affect post-war deployment and what is the land mass of ‘Eelam State’ (north east districts) and in relation to the drop in ground strength.
In the absence of a cohesive strategy, in relation to vital sectors, including defence, Sri Lanka seems to have neglected matters of utmost importance. Against the backdrop of a worsening situation, regardless of the USD 2.9 bn IMF package, spread over a period of 48 months, Sri Lanka cannot ignore the need to be cautious and be ready to meet any eventuality. In line with the Army, the Navy and Air Force are also to be slimmer and the fact that the downsizing of overall military strength takes place at a time of great political uncertainty and economic upheaval.
In March, Deputy Indian High Commissioner Jacob underscored the importance of Indo-Lanka relations on the basis of five areas of particular significance in the immediate short and medium term objectives.
Addressing Indian and Sri Lankan military personnel, onboard Sukanya, Jacob declared: “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 Indian HC quoted Jacob as having emphasized that 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.”
The Indian High Commission media statements present a clear picture of Indo-Lanka developments. A recent Indian High Commission statement that dealt with a visit undertaken by Indian Navy Ship ‘Batti Malv’ to Trincomalee disclosed hitherto unknown information.
Let me reproduce the relevant section from the media statement dated 17 May. The statement issued soon after the vessel departed Trincomalee made an important reference to further Indian support. “The visit of the Indian ship Batti Malv, a fast patrol craft, is also significant in view of the potential for cooperation between India and Sri Lanka for augmenting capabilities of Sri Lanka Navy in similar fast patrol craft for efficiently addressing shared challenges for maritime security in the region,” the High Commission stated.
However, the statement issued by SLN, on that particular ship visit, didn’t make any reference to the possibility of a similar type vessel being made available to Sri Lanka. The locally built 46 m long vessel, crewed by five officers and 54 men, was inducted into the Indian Navy in July 2006, the year Sri Lanka launched a combined forces campaign to eradicate the LTTE.
Since the successful conclusion of the war against the LTTE, in May 2009, India gradually advanced its relationship with a series of military visits at different levels, though the progress was slow. But, over the past several years, there has been a steady enhancement of the relationship which sort of coincided with the deterioration of the national economy.
The Indian Western Fleet visited Colombo and the China-managed Hambantota port, in the second week of March, last year, as Sri Lanka was heading for an unprecedented crisis over the collapse of supply chains.
Four ships of the Western Fleet under the charge of Flag Officer Commanding Western Fleet (FOCWF),
Rear Admiral Sameer Saxena visited Sri Lanka. The indigenous guided missile frigate BRAHMAPUTRA along with frigate TALWAR entered Hambantota port while advanced indigenous destroyer INS CHENNAI and frigate TEG entered Colombo harbour. In spite of being invited to join a reception, onboard INS Chennai, on 10 March, the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa skipped the event. Instead, Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris represented the President. The other notable invitee was Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeyawardena.
A few weeks later, the Indian High Commission had to deny reports of Indian military deployment here in the wake of the eruption of public anger, near President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana. In brief statements, issued in English, Sinhala and Tamil, the High Commission of India strongly denied, what it called, blatantly false and completely baseless reports in a section of media that India is dispatching its soldiers to Sri Lanka.
The High Commission statement, dated 02 April, 2022, also condemned what it described as irresponsible reporting while expressing the belief those responsible for spreading rumours would desist from doing so.
Delhi’s assistance seemed vast with the Indian Navy actively engaged with Sri Lanka Navy in facilitating engagements, like Deck Landing Practice and Co-pilot experience on indigenous ALHand Sail Training Experience onboard INS Tarangini for SLAF/ SLN personnel in March 2022.
In line with India’s Neighbourhood First Policy, spares for SLNS Sagara, SLCG Suraksha and AN 32 are being provided, on grant basis, by New Delhi, to ensure, what the Indian High Commission called, optimal operational availability of the platform and thereby improve security in the region.
Sri Lanka should take stock of overall foreign military assistance to the post-war military as Sri Lanka faced growing international criticism over accountability issues. Canada has taken the anti-Sri Lanka project to a new extreme by declaring Tamils were subjected to genocide. In a bid to appease powerful Diaspora groups, Canadian parliament has targeted Sri Lanka with the declaration that two former Presidents, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, are war criminals, is a clear move to inspire countries, with large communities of Sri Lankan origin, to act in a similar fashion. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has pathetically failed to counter the Canadian project, built on the preposterous accusation that over 40,000 Tamils perished during the final phase of the combined security forces offensive on the Vanni east front. This is despite even UN internal documents placing casualties in the north, during the final phases of fighting, to be in the region of 7000.
Ceylon tree healing a cut: perfuming the striking axe
By Prof. Kirthi Tennakone
The genius British chemist Sir Humphry Davy scribbled a stanza in his notebook, saying he is like the fair Ceylon tree, which heals a cut and perfumes the axe by secreting an oil – a strange comparison.
That illustrious tree is on the verge of extinction. We cut down trees, feeding and protecting us. Yet trees are not after vengeance, they perspire (transpire) to save us from extinction.
Humphry Davy, one of the greatest exponents of the scientific method with a poetic inclination, was born in December 1778 in the remote coastal town of Penance, in Cornwall, England. While studying at the grammar school, he wrote poetry and wandered in the beaches and woods, but could not finish schooling. At sixteen, his father died. To support the family, Davy worked as an apprentice to an apothecary and acquainted a liking for chemistry. He pilfered chemicals from the shelves and did experiments at home, learning chemistry by himself. Noting his exceptional talent, an informed friend of his mother, introduced him to Thomas Beddoes, a physician philanthropist and prolific writer, noteworthy for controversial views. Deeply concerned about the poor suffering tuberculosis, he ran a hospital treating patients free and hoped to find a cure for the disease.
Dr. Beddoes employed Davy in his institute, devoted to studying the medicinal properties of gases. After day and night experimentation, Davy exclaimed breathing nitrous oxide (subsequently known as laughing gas) induces a pleasant calmness, suggesting a way to relieve the pain of operations.
The close associates of Dr. Beddoes were equally radical poets; Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. They not only risked the repressive actions of the British Government by openly supporting the ideals of the French Revolution but volunteered as guinea pigs to test Davy’s hypothesis. Robert Southey after inhaling nitrous oxide, said “The atmospheres of the highest of all possible heavens must be composed of this gas”. Samuel Coleridge was more realistic. He described the experience of inhaling laughing gas as the sudden transfer from a chilly winter to a warm spring. William Wordsworth, another friend of Beddoes, visited Humphrey Davy and consented that poetry and chemistry are similar because both subjects deal with material things.
The invention of the first anesthetic agent and acclaim by eminent literary men qualified Humphry Davy, who had no college degree, for a professorship at the prestigious Royal Institution in London. There he performed extraordinarily. Today, we insist on a first-class degree for the same job!
At the Royal Institution, Davy made groundbreaking discoveries one after another. Isolated eight chemical elements for the first time, opened the field of electrochemistry and showed the world how to liquefy gases. He invented the safety lamp to light coal mines while preventing flammable gases existing there from catching fire explosively.
As a tradition, the Royal Institution presented lectures to the general public highlighting the achievements of science. Humphry Davy’s lectures were one of the most popular events in London, at that time. The theater was packed with people from all walks of life. Appreciating his intellect and stunning good looks, aristocratic women admired him. Men raising their hands volunteered lifting things to the podium.
In one of his lectures, Davy showed a piece of potassium metal, first extracted and named by him and dropped it into water. Astounding the audience, the material caught fire with a purplish flame and exploded. People saw something dropped into water catch fire, for the first time. Seventy-odd years ago, I witnessed the same experiment as a seventh grader in a rural school and displayed by a teacher from South India. Today, the phenomenon is rarely demonstrated in chemistry classes in our schools. Students have no time or interest in experiencing inspirational fascinations. They hurry to tutors to cram the workings of the ‘covalent bond’ fitting atoms in organic molecules, merely to pass an exam and become specialists! No new discoveries of anesthetics or cures, but escalating fees for consultations. The problem seems to be that we do chemistry without poetry and specialization without empathy.
In 1820, Humphry Davy was elected president of the Royal Society unopposed. Despite its supremacy, the body functioned as a club of literary elites proud of a degree from Oxford after schooling in Eaton. Davy proposed changes to orient society’s affairs more towards scientific inquiry and promote greater public participation. Unfortunately, he met with opposition and criticism. Although his achievements were incomparable, he didn’t belong to the elite group.
Davy was a victim of jealousy. No man or woman succeeds in all endeavors. Yet just one failure suffices for adversaries to discredit him or her. In 1823, the British Admiralty requested Davy to find a solution to the problem of the corrosion of the copper- clad bottoms of naval vessels. He provided an ingenious method, but did not work in this particular case. Davy’s opponents diverted the incident to blemish his reputation in the eyes of the British Establishment.
Davy, in a depressed mood and not experienced enough to face criticism, drafted a verse. Telling us he is like the fair Ceylon plant, the Cingalese tree, which heals a cut by secreting a balmy oil to prevent its decay, while perfuming the axe, a poetic way of expressing his feelings. Possibly, this means, he was not defamed by the attacks of his enemies but instead blessed them.
Humphry Davy didn’t name the tree. Undoubtedly, he heard a story from his younger brother, John Davy, who visited Sri Lanka and looked at many things in our country, curiously and rationally.
John Davy, a surgeon and chemist was posted to Sri Lanka in 1816 as a physician for the British Armed Forces. However, his primary mission has been carrying out scientific investigations in the colony, conquered a year ago. During his nearly four years of occupation, he traveled all over the island, examining the natural environment, indigenous technologies and cultural practices in the country. While in Sri Lanka, he wrote to his brother frequently, presenting his experience in the alien land. On September 18, 1817, Humphry Davy, read a letter from his brother at the Proceedings of the Royal Society describing his journey to Adams Peak, accompanied by Alexander Moon, the Superintendent of Botanical Gardens, Kalutara. Both of them curious about flora in the Island, came to know the trees used by the inhabitants to extract resin.
When a Doona tree is incised, a pleasant smelling, clear resinous liquid secretes, wetting the axe. Our indigenous people (Veddas) were the first to use the resin as medicine and incense. They saw how the resin oozing after strike of an axe, closed and healed the cut. If the axe bruises the hand accidentally, they ran to a Doona tree and applied the resin and it worked. Later, to extract the resin, trees were wounded multiple times, but plants still survived because the exudate prevented the rot.
The local population exploited aboriginal technology for profit. To get more oil, they axed tree and burnt the wound, eventually killing the tree.
A craft and a paying export business in those days (the1800s), was tapping resin (gas dummala) from Doona (Shorea zeylanica) and related species of trees belonging to the family dipterocarpaceae (dipterocarps). Arabian traders purchased the product, used for making incense, perfumes and varnish and shipped it to Europe and China The thicker resinous oil secreted by the Dorana tree was used mainly for making paints.
Undoubtedly, John Davy, told his brother, what he learned in Sri Lanka. The “fair Cingalese tree of Davy” is certainly a Doona species, not cinnamon, as speculated by a European historian. Cinnamon doesn’t fit into the story.
Dipterocarps were the dominant species of trees in our forests and thickets everywhere centuries ago. Think for a moment about why there are so many villages and place names with prefixes; Hora, Dorana and Doona. For example, “Horana”, derived from “Hora Arana” means a forest of Hora trees. Today, a Hora tree is hard to spot in a village. As a child, I played with the spinning fruits of the Hora tree, not remotely maneuvered helicopter drones but later understood the mathematics of aerodynamics.
No more Hora, Doona and Dorana trees in Horanpella, Doonagaha and Doranagoda. A few of these in Sinharaja and other reserves need to be saved preciously.
Again, guess why there are more than one hundred villages and localities in Sri Lanka with the prefix “Dummala”. The fossilised resin of dipterocarp vegetation is dummala (bimdummala). The occurrence of dummala in the locality is the origin of these names. Tens of thousands of years ago, dipterocarp plants existed in abundance. Their resins, resistant to decomposition, accumulated in the soil as dummala.
The plant family dipterocarpacae is a fascinating evolutionary marvel. Originating in Africa more than 100 million years ago, they drifted to India, Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia. While retaining primitive characters, the family diversified to suit the environment. In a dipterocarp – dominated rain forest, there are tall as well as short species of trees, trapping sunlight optimally and thereby capturing large quantities of carbon. They are the ‘thermostats’ of the planet.
The dominance of dipterocarps owes much to the wind dispersal of seeds. When the winged fruit falls after ripening, they spin like helicopter propellers and carried away by the wind. The average distance the fruit deposits on the ground is not too far from the base of the parent tree, but greater than the width of its canopy, so that the seedling is not shadowed by the parent. The roots of the parent tree extend a distance greater than the canopy width. Seeds deposited in the vicinity of the roots of the parent tree and beyond the extent of the canopy have a special advantage because roots harbor symbiotic fungi. Thus, the seeding gain ready access to sunlight and fungi in soil the promoting growth.
Dipterocarps, so common everywhere in our land until recent times, are now endangered. When John Davy visited Sri Lanka, there were no tea or rubber plantations. Clearing land for cultivation eliminated a good portion of trees. Unfortunately, despite inviting danger, the species yields quality wood. Therefore overexploited for timber, legally and illegally. Many truckloads of timber, would have been used to build one mansion out of unjustly earned money. Imagine the number of trees felled!
They are fast losing hold in other parts of the region because of extensive logging and the expansion of land use.
Dipterocarps survived natural catastrophes such as mega volcanic eruptions, glaciation and asteroid impacts. They have peacefully coexisted with dinosaurs for 65 million years; providing them; food, shade and oxygen. Contrastingly to humans, these mighty animals did not threaten their proliferation. Occasionally, a tree may have been injured by goring creatops (horned dinosaurs), but the oily resin secreted cured the injury.
After an asteroid impact on Earth in the month of June 65 million years ago, dinosaurs and many kinds of plants died out, but dipterocarps survived. Yet they struggle to escape the threat of humans.
Given, sufficient time, evolution is capable of achieving almost ‘anything’ not forbidden by the laws of nature. Through prolonged existence, dipterocarps have acquired and inherited unique characters to suit the environment. Their extinction would irreparably damage the rainforest ecosystem.
I was inspired to be fascinated by the wonders of dipterocarpaceae by my elder brother, the late Jayasumana Tennakone, who played with me, throwing Hora fruits into the air and watching how they spin. We were questioning, how it decides to rotate either clockwise or anticlockwise. Two decades later, the idea helped me fathom a concept in the theory of elementary particle physics.
A part of my ancestral village, Matikotumulla, in the Gampha District, goes by the name “Dummaladeniya”, a beautiful marshy area with paddy fields and a stream. My father walked us to this part of the village frequently. We picked up sizeable pieces of dummala from the stream. He said these are fossils of plants and cannot be minerals. Later, I was enthralled to learn dummala is derived from dipterocarpaceae.
Once, I walked miles in the wilderness to see a Dorana tree. What I saw was a giant tree on its deathbed, tortured by severely burned wounds!
(The author can be reached via email:firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Snoozing Sires
By Lynn Ockersz
In a decades-long blissful slumber,
Have these our flabby Sires been,
Charged with eyeing the public coffers,
But fixated more on survival tactics,
As dusty tax files rose in a spiral,
And Sharks made good their escape,
While Sprats were left behind,
To fend off brow-beating taxmen,
In a hurry to recoup un-fazing losses,
But better late than never,
And with the wise we hasten to add;
‘Good Morning Sires, glad you’ve woken,
On seeing the works of glorified salesmen,
Who struck it rich while you slumbered;
Get the Department to get its act together,
Seize those runaway Sharks in a drag-net,
And give back to the people their billions.’
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