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Midweek Review

Sanga Veda Guru Govi Kamkaru

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Kaushalya Fernando, Yashoda Rasanduni and Sanjaya Hettiarachchi in Sanga Weda Guru Govi Kamkaru, written and directed by Chamila Priyanka. Photo credit: Dharmasiri Adhikari, State Theatre Festival, Elphinstone Theatre, Colombo, March 2022.

A Breakthrough in Contemporary Sri Lankan Theatre:

by Saumya Liyanage

Introduction

Sarachchandra marked the turning point in Sinhala-speaking modern theatre by borrowing and integrating a myriad of elements from traditional Asian and European theatres. It is known that Sarachchandra’s theatrical legacy has introduced a new form of theatre that elevates the traditional elements of nadagam and Tamil theatre of kooththu. His theatrical intervention was a result of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that ignited a Sinhala nationalistic sentiment and the Sinhala literary movement which were connected to Anagarika Dharmapala’s Buddhist renaissance and later to S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s nationalist politics. Hence, Sarachchandra’s intervention is an apt representation of the cultural renaissance that has been steered by the Sinhala Buddhist ideology.

In the following decades, Sinhala speaking theatre portrayed and mirrored many political upheavals, downfalls, and social unrests, experienced by the Sri Lankan society since independence. Stylised theatre in the pre-independence era and later been reinvented and refined by Sarachchandra was further developed and used for political theatre by two eminent theatre-makers – Hemasiri Liyanage and Chandrasena Dasanayake. Their political theatre, in the 1960s, portrayed the critique of parliamentarianism and colonial oppression through a semi-stylized form. Subsequently, Sugathapala De Silva and his followers were influenced by the American and European theatres and executed an anti-stylised form of theatre which responded to their contemporary social transformations. The rejection of stylised theatre of Sarachchandra and his school of literature were replaced and established with the new realism in Sinhala-speaking theatre. This mode of realism brought lifelikeness to the proscenium theatre by bringing daily social realities.

Protest Theatre

In the 1970s, Sugathapala De Silva and his style of naturalism were again challenged with a new theatre intervention particularly steered by a group of theatre -makers, whose ideas were moulded through the new modern theatre of Europe and elsewhere. Known as Protest Theatre, theatre writers and directors of the 70s began to explore politically and socially conscious theatre, within the framework of the proscenium arch. Yet, this theatre was criticized by Sarachchandra’s school of thought and was coined as papadam theatre (Pop up Theatre) by one of the proponents of the Peradeniya school, Gunadasa Amarasekare. Yet, Protest Theatre in the 70s have effectively brought the crises of presidency, democracy and the exploitation of the market economy steered through the economic changes proposed by the UNP Government. Now, after three decades of theatre making in Sri Lanka, Chamila Priyanka has brought a novel theatrical experience which could be a development and an aesthetic improvement of the 70s Protest Theatre.

The above description of the short history of Sinhala-speaking theatre paves the way for us to set up a discussion of the current theatre practice in Sri Lanka and how those trends and turns have influenced to continue Sinhala-speaking theatre in the current social milieu. Sanga Weda Guru Govi kamkaru (2021) written and directed by a young theatre writer and director Chamila Priyanka was staged at the recently held State Theatre Festival, at Elphinstone theatre, and has been mercilessly rejected by the panel of judges without considering its value and aesthetic intervention in the contemporary Sinhala speaking theatre. After watching this play, I realised why this panel of judges had not considered Chamila Priyanka’s theatre experimentation seriously. One of the reasons seems to be that none of these panel members have the competence, knowledge, or skills to understand the novel approach of this theatre work. Chamila Priyanka’s theatrical intervention is clearly way beyond the aesthetic framework of the judge board. As I have mentioned elsewhere, discussion and criticism related to theatre today does not exceed beyond the limit of modernism and liberal humanism which was propagated through Sarachchandra and others’ literary authority. These judges and their aesthetic sentiment are moulded and framed through these decade-old literary and theatre criticism. Hence, Liberal Humanistic understanding of theatre has rejected Chamila Priyanka’s play which is situated on the verge of the modernist transformation of Sinhala-speaking theatre.

As I see, after many decades of Protest Theatre and its politically conscious intervention in the Sinhala-speaking theatre, Chamila Priyanka’s theatre has attempted to continue and explore a new way of bringing political awareness and protest to the contemporary Sinhala speaking theatre. It is clearly visible that the 1990s Sinhala-speaking theatre was a theatre of hibernation after the resurrection of the 88-89 youth insurgency and the massacre of thousands of JVP supporters. This hibernated theatre has been altered with a new theatrical experimentation by Chamila Priyanka and his theatre ensemble after decades of this hibernated ‘sitting room theatre’. Chamila’s conscious theatre intervention has further elevated a novel approach to proscenium theatre which has been longing for years in the Sinhala-speaking theatre. As Gamini Haththotuwegama has clearly critiqued on the 70s protest as lack of ideological consciousness (Haththotuwegama 1998), Chamila Priyanka’s new play is not a political idiom which demonstrates mere political slogans; His actors do not speak the playwright’s political ideologies to the audience. His attempt is to bring the current social and political realities through a compelling and powerful theatrical visuality to the audience

Chamila Priyanka’s theatre work, Sanga Veda Guru Govi kamkaru explores the atrocities of the lower middle-class men and women and how the lives of other social strata have been carnal to the current crisis of social unrest. The play centrally portrays a widowed woman who has been working as a garment worker. Her brother, later reveals as her own son, has been a university medical student and is being killed by the police during a protest. The play begins with a scene of the widowed woman conversing with the dead brother. While her son’s body is being kept in the house, the play evolves through a series of situations revealing the widower’s obscure relationship with other protagonists.

The sewing machine, which is the central metaphoric prop, plays a significant role throughout the play. The main protagonist Kaushalya’s performance is choreographed around this stage prop which depicts the historical and political transformation of the people’s affinity to the emerging capitalistic economy which was introduced during post-independent Sri Lanka. During the colonial period, several goods, such as powder for women, canned fish, porcelain plates and sewing machines, were introduced. As Nira Wickramasighe argues, the gramophone and the sewing machine symbolise the mark of the Sri Lankan society being transformed from the colonial era to the modern age (Wickramasighe 2014, P. 4). Thus, Chamila Priyanka has used this vital symbol as a key metaphor in his theatre work to visualize the agony of the woman and her plight in the economic transformation of the country. The play evolves around this sewing machine and the woman who has lost her son during a protest. The play ends when the main protagonist carries the sewing machine from its pedestal and runs from home.

Style of theatre

Chamila’s theatre is significant among the theatre-makers of contemporary Sinhala theatre not because he touches some of the untouched thematic areas of the human lives but his ability to use theatre as a powerful medium of meaning-making. Particularly his ability to portray characters on stage with multi-dimensional ways enhances the diverse perspectives of human desires and agonies. He demonstrates his broader understanding of the power of theatre and its theatricality through using actors’ bodies and exciting theatrical props and sets. However, Chamila’s play is minimalistic and centers the actors’ bodies and their gestus behaviours through multiple situations. Chamila portrays characters representing communities and their current plight and social conditions symbolically. Yet these characters are portrayed in a way that their behavioural patterns are being purposely moulded into a caricature-like manner.

Reminding Bertolt Brecht’s estrangement theory, Chamila manages to develop a style of acting which depicts the in-betweenness of empathy and detachment. Kaushalya Fernando portrays a witty and satirical character of a woman who demonstrates the duality of human nature. Her portrayal of this woman captures the history of the Sri Lankan lower middle-class womanhood which is being exploited and marginalized within democratic governance. Kaushalya’s matured theatre performance is further enhanced through her fast dialogue delivery and a lower middle class woman’s mannerism. Her son, her secret lover, the labourer, the monk, the local politician and his bodyguard are intelligibly portrayed by a group of young actors. The key to their performance lies within the parameters of detachment and performing the social and political gestus which signify their class bases.

Craft of Acting

Modern theatre directors, such as Brecht, Grotowski, Artaud, and Meyerhold, have conceptualized the human body as a bearer of social class significations. Yet among these theatre practitioners, Brecht is unique in his understanding of the body as a symbol of social signification and the way it can be utilized to portray a character’s dialogic and ambiguous relationship between human beings and the society. When Chamila’s actors portray a character on stage, it depicts her/his historical and social affinities through the bodily motility and mannerism. The most significant aspect of Chamila’s theatre is how he has consciously portrayed these characters’ mannerism and acting style to signify a novel approach to Sinhala speaking theatre. As Liyanage has argued these habitual bodies that actors have portrayed on stage demonstrate how these people have been physically and ideologically transformed through the torrents of economic and social changes in the country (Liyanage, 2016).

As a theatre piece, Chamila’s work is a highly refined and choreographed theatre experience which has consciously been directed and designed to heighten the theatrical experience. All the scenic structures are blended and supported to create theatrical visuality. The lighting and sound scape also supported to enhance the experience of theatergoers to capture the minute details of the actors and the scenic situation. The clever music scope which semiotises the parodic usage of the ‘mission impossible’ theme music, conveys the intertextuality of theatre and the popular movie. Thus, Chamila Priyanka has clearly demonstrated his ability as a playwright and a director who has a clear political and social consciousness of how this society has been evolved and transformed. He has demonstrated how these social and political nuances can be transformed into highly theatrical semiotics.

Conclusion

Yet, this refined form of contemporary Sri Lankan theatre has been rejected and disregarded by a panel of judges at the State Theatre Festival held recently at the Nelum Pokuna Theatre. However, as theatre artists, the arts council, drama panel, and this year’s judge board need to be held accountable for theatergoers. This rejection has proven that young theatre makers such as Chamila and others should be more and more aware of the ideological traps set up by the state and how these structures regiment young thinkers’ creative impulses. Theatre artists should be held more accountable for the people and should avoid state sponsored theatre festivals which could be ideological and political traps for them. Chamila Priyanka has proved that he is a fine writer and director amongst the young generation of theatre artists. He has demonstrated his potential and brilliance of theatre making to the contemporary Sri Lankan theatre. I thoroughly believe that he is one of our hopes in the years to come and that he will definitely nourish Sinhala-speaking theatre with his bold talent.

References

Haththotuwegama, G 1998, ‘Unresolved Contradictions Paradoxical Discourse and Alternative Strategies in the post-Colonial Sinhala Theatre’, in R Abeypala, A Vickramasighe & V Pathiraja (eds), Abhinaya, Sinhala Drama Panel, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Sethsiripaya, Baththaramulla, pp. 130–169.

Liyanage, S 2016, Meditations on acting: essays on theory, practice and performance, Dev Publishing, Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka.

Wickramasighe, N 2014, Sri Lanka in the modern age: a history of contested identities, Hurst & Company, London.

Prof. Saumya Liyanage

Dept. of Drama Oriental Ballet and Contemporary Dance

University of the Visual and Performing Arts

Colombo.

5 April 2022



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Midweek Review

How Lanka ended up receiving humanitarian assistance from an Indian state

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UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena and PM’s Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayake join CWC leader Senthil Thondaman and FM Prof. G.L. Peiris at a brief ceremony at the Colombo harbour where Indian HC Baglay handed over humanitarian assistance from Tamil Nadu (pic courtesy Indian HC)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The May 09 ‘operation’, whose father is yet unknown, meant to save Mahinda Rajapaksa’s premiership, has tarnished the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the police as well as the armed forces.

The controversial Temple Trees project not only caused irreparable damage to the ruling coalition, it paved the way for UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to regain the premiership for the sixth time, incredibly with just one seat in the 225-member Parliament.

With Wickremesinghe at the helm of the government parliamentary group, the UNP has begun playing an active role in the administration, though the party didn’t have any members in Parliament, other than its leader. However, Wickremesinghe has brought a selected group of UNPers into the administration while causing a division in the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) by winning over two of its vociferous members, namely Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara.

Having repeatedly accused President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of direct complicity in the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre, both received ministerial portfolios from the President. Wickremsinghe is in the process of consolidating his position.

There cannot be a better example to highlight Wickremesinghe’s strategy meant to resurrect his party than involving two former ministers Vajira Abeywardena, incumbent Chairman of the party, and Sagala Ratnayake, in the delegation that received urgently needed food assistance from India.

Sri Lanka delegation received the assistance, standing next to Tan Binh 99, the Panama registered general cargo ship, at the Colombo harbour.

The following is the text of the statement issued by Eldos Mathew Punnoose, Head – Press, Information and Development Cooperation, as regards the handing over of humanitarian assistance at the Colombo harbour: “High Commissioner Gopal Baglay handed over a large consignment of humanitarian assistance worth more than SLR 2 billion from the people of India to Foreign Minister Prof. G.L Peiris, in Colombo, on 22 May 2022. The handing over function was attended by Minister for Ports and Shipping, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Former Minister Vajira Abeywardena, Sagala Ratnayaka, Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister, Senthil Thondaman, Leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, Food Commissioner Mrs. J. Krishnamurthy, among senior officials, and others.

The consignment consists of 9,000 MT of rice, 50 MT of milk powder and more than 25 MT of drugs and other medical supplies. It was flagged off from Chennai port by Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Thiru M.K Stalin on 18 May 2022. This is also the first consignment under a larger USD 16 million commitment of 40,000 MT of rice, 500 MT of milk powder and medicines by the state Government of Tamil Nadu.

Handed over materials shall be distributed among vulnerable and needy sections in various parts of Sri Lanka including Northern, Eastern, Central and Western Provinces by Government of Sri Lanka in the coming days.

More humanitarian consignments and other forms of assistance from India shall follow. Multi-pronged endeavour by both the Government and the people of India underlines the importance attached to Sri Lanka and reflects their concerns for the well-being of its people. Support extended to Sri Lanka ranges from economic assistance worth around USD 3.5 billion, supply of vaccines, testing kits, close to 1000 MT of liquid oxygen to combat COVID-19, immediate response by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard to mitigate marine disasters, etc.”

Sri Lanka’s utterly irresponsible political leadership has achieved the unthinkable. The country has been reduced to such a pathetic state, it has ended up receiving food assistance from the state government of Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka should be ashamed of having to receive food assistance from an Indian state, 13 years after having proudly defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) considered impossible by many a pundit and against the wishes of the haughty West. Can that be the root of the unprecedented problems? Perhaps one day the truth will unravel through the work of an outfit, like WikiLeaks, on how Hawala or Undial underground cash transfer systems so successfully dried up foreign exchange flows into the country, leaving it unable to find even a few million dollars to clear an urgently needed shipment of cooking gas or lifesaving drugs. However much the deep state is entrenched in Western democracies with the open help of their ‘independent’ media controlled by the military-industrial complex, there are still plenty of people with clear consciences who want to do justice to the world.

R.K. Radhakrishnan, writing to India’s national magazine Frontline described the Tamil Nadu gesture as ‘a province in a developing country extending its assistance to another country.’ That line is sufficient to comprehend Sri Lanka’s plight. In spite of initial disagreement between Tamil Nadu and the Central Government of India regarding the humanitarian assistance offered by TN Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, they reached consensus on the matter. Four days before the despicable Temple Trees project, borne out of frustration caused by the government’s inability to end the sieges at Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat by so- called peaceful protesters, triggered mayhem in Sri Lanka. They were anything but peaceful by the way they tried to storm President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pengiriwatte, Mirihana, in late March.

Then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, struggling to save his premiership, wrote to CM Stalin: “I wish to thank you and the Tamil Nadu government on behalf of the people of Sri Lanka, for viewing the country’s crisis from a humanitarian standpoint, rather than a problem concerning another country.”

Six days later Mahinda Rajapaksa was compelled to quit the premiership. The war-winning President and his family were compelled to take refuge at the strategic Eastern Naval Command after having abandoned Temple Trees, Kollupitiya, the nerve centre of the disastrous May 09 project, fearing a fate similar to that which met Libya’s Gadhafi, where, too, the truth was turned on its head.

An elder brother’s lament

Chamal Rajapaksa, 80, possibly serving his last term as a lawmaker, recently faulted younger brother and twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa for continuing in politics even after completing two presidential terms. The elder Rajapaksa attributed the current crisis to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s continuation in active politics. Chamal Rajapaksa said that politicians should be prepared to give up power. Otherwise, they have to be prepared to face situations like this if they were greedy for power. The one time Speaker was commenting on his brother’s dilemma in the wake of him losing the premiership. Chamal Rajapaksa said: “Ranil Wickremesinghe is very lucky. In 2015, Wickremesinghe was able to secure premiership in spite of not enjoying a parliamentary majority. Now, the UNP leader secured the premiership without another MP in Parliament. Wickremesinghe is lucky and the country too is fortunate that we have him to take up the mantle of leadership despite all his shortcomings of the past, when all other politicians are playing their petty tricks to grab power while the country was literally going up in flames.

But, can Chamal Rajapaksa absolve himself of his share of responsibility for the crisis that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to leave his brothers, Chamal and Basil as well as nephews, Namal and Shashendra, out of the Cabinet of Ministers. President Rajapaksa, himself is under pressure to do away with the 20th Amendment to the Constitution that gave him dictatorial powers. The abolition of the 20th Amendment enacted in Oct 2020 is part of the overall agreement sought by some of those who accepted ministerial portfolios in the current dispensation. Both PM Wickremesinghe and Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, will push hard for the abolition of the 20th Amendment.

Before commenting further on ongoing moves to introduce the 21st Amendment at the expense of the 20A, it would be pertinent to examine Chamal Rajapaksa’s role as the Speaker (April 22, 2010-June 26, 2015) especially against the backdrop of his criticism of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s conduct. Chamal Rajapaksa, who has represented the Hambantota electoral district since 1989, continuously has declared that his brother Mahinda should have called it a day after completing two presidential terms (2005-2010 and 2010-2015).

Having said so, lawmaker Chamal Rajapaksa owed an explanation as regards his role in the enactment of the 18 A to the Constitution at the expense of the 19 A. During Chamal Rajapaksa’s tenure as the Speaker, the Parliament passed the controversial 18th Amendment Bill on Sept. 8, 2010, with 161 MPs voting for and 17 against the Bill. The following are some of its key points:

(a) The President can seek re-election any number of times (earlier it was limited to two;

(b) The ten-member Constitutional Council replaced with a five-member Parliamentary Council;

(c) Independent commissions are brought under the authority of the President; and,

(d) The 18th Amendment enabled the President to attend Parliament once in three months and entitles him to all the privileges, immunities and powers of an MP other than the entitlement to vote. In short, it is all about arming the President with absolute power.

The 18th Amendment was meant to empower Mahinda Rajapaksa. Chamal Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Speaker, oversaw the operation. The impeachment of Shirani Bandaranayake, the 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, and her removal by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2013 should be examined against the backdrop of enactment of the 18th Amendment. Chamal Rajapaksa served as the Speaker at the time Justice Bandaranaike was removed. She was accused of several charges, including financial impropriety and interfering in legal cases, all of which she categorically denied. But her husband was found guilty by courts over his shady dealings.

Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa ensured the implementation of the then UPFA government’s strategy. Having served as a minister till April this year and played a critical role in the manipulation of Parliament, it wouldn’t be fair to find fault with Mahinda Rajapaksa solely for being power hungry.

Chamal Rajapaksa also made reference to Wickremesinghe receiving the premiership in 2015 following the presidential election, in spite of not having at least a simple majority in Parliament. Chamal Rajapaksa appeared to have conveniently forgotten that he continued as the Speaker even after Wickremesinghe was appointed PM after having unceremoniously discarded the late D.M. Jayaratne. The UPFA leadership didn’t even bother to ask Jayaratne before reaching consensus with President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP leader Wickremesinghe over the premiership following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s shock defeat at the January 2015 Presidential election held ahead of schedule on the advice of an astrologer. Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran perpetrated Treasury bond scams in Feb 2015 and March 2016 in connivance with then Premier Wickremesinghe-led government.

The UNP-led government also betrayed the war-winning Sri Lanka military at the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Chamal Rajapaksa absolutely had no issue in continuing as the Speaker until June 26, 2015 when President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved Parliament to save the UNP. The dissolution of the House was meant to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) from submitting its report on the first Treasury bond scam to the House. Now again Chamal Rajapaksa has accepted Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Premier. Maithripala Sirisena, who sacked Wickremesinghe in late Oct 2018 and then offered him the premiership back within two months following judicial intervention and the primary beneficiary of Oct 2018 constitutional coup Mahinda Rajapaksa, are also in the same parliamentary group now headed by Wickremesinghe.

Proposed transfer of executive powers

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) is pushing for the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The BASL wants Premier Wickremesinghe to demonstrate as early as possible his ability to establish a consensus among the political parties in Parliament and endeavour to build a representative Government of National Unity to implement a Common Minimum Programme (CMP) in the public interest.

The BASL insists on a clear timeline to introduce critical constitutional amendments proposed by the outfit, including the introduction of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution and the abolition of the Executive Presidency.

The National Joint Committee (NJC) is concerned about the BASL’s strategy. The nationalist outfit believes the SJB and the BASL are working on a similar agenda to do away with the Executive Presidency without changing the current electoral system or repealing the 13th Amendment.

If the ongoing joint high profile project to introduce 21 A to the Constitution succeeds, the UNP leader will receive powers at the expense of the Executive Presidency. Having received an overwhelming mandate at the last presidential election in Nov 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands to lose executive powers to Wickremesinghe who accepted the challenging task of rebuilding the devastated national economy.

Those who launched the ‘Gogotahome’ campaign remained skeptical about the SLPP’s commitment to introduce the 21 A. They believe the architects of the 20 A would do whatever possible to sabotage efforts to do away with the executive presidency. They believe the SLPP founder Basil Rajapkasa, who still wields power over the party apparatus reeling under accusations pertaining to unprovoked attacks on the public demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

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Midweek Review

Flowers in Bloom

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By Lynn Ockersz

Though made somewhat anxious,

By the numberless crises in the Isle,

That have brought their elders down,

The youngsters clad in speckless white,

And heading for a make-or-break exam,

Are the only resplendent flowers,

In an otherwise benighted land,

But their Social Science Paper,

Is bound to give them some laughs,

For, though patriots, they are told,

Fought the good fight decades ago,

And rid the land of enslaving shackles,

All whom they have as current leaders,

Are fickle creatures of malleable material,

For whom pelf and power are all that matter.

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Midweek Review

Ranil takes premiership amidst BASL bid for all party-consensus

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A smiling Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe reacts to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after receiving the premiership. Gamini Senarath, Secretary to the President looks on. Mrs Maithri Wickremesinghe was present at the brief ceremony at the President’s House, Fort last Thursday evening (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Retired Supreme Court Justice Rohini Marasinghe, in her current capacity as the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), directed the police to provide adequate protection for the President and the Prime Minister while protecting the freedom of speech and assembly through necessary and proportionate measures.

Justice Marasinghe, who received the appointment in Dec, last year, would never have believed she would be compelled to issue such a statement.

The HRCSL statement, issued on April 26, 2022, over a month after the eruption of violent protests at the private residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at Pengiriwatta, Mirihana, that lasted for several hours, didn’t name the President and the Prime Minister.

Mahinda Rajapaksa quit Temple Trees on May 10, less than 24 hours after he announced his resignation, in the wake of unprovoked violence directed at those demanding the resignation of both the President and the Prime Minister and the so-called peaceful protesters who lay siege to his official residence Temple Trees virtually making, him a prisoner therein.

The first protest, targeting President Rajapaksa, was held at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on March 31, 2022. What began as a peaceful protest in the vicinity, quickly turned violent after the crowds made attempts to advance towards the President’s private home. The deployment of the Army, in support of the beleaguered police, failed to bring the situation under control.

Protesters set ablaze several vehicles, including two buses that brought Police and Army reinforcements to the scene of the unprecedented confrontation. Therefore, it would be pertinent to discuss the circumstances, Justice Marasinghe called for sufficient protection for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, over two weeks after the launch of the protest campaign, in front of the Presidential Secretariat, on April 09, 2022.

Perhaps, the HRCSL should have also advised the Army, as well as the Special Task Force (STF), regarding adequate protection for the President and the Prime Minister. The Army and the STF play an integral role in the protection of key leaders. The HRCSL cannot be unaware of the involvement of the Army and the STF in the protection of the President and the Prime Minister.

Justice Marasinghe called for ‘necessary and proportionate measures’ to meet the threat on the two leaders as those who had been demanding their resignation stepped up the campaign.

The HRCSL consists of five Commissioners, namely Justice Rohini Marasinghe (Chairperson), Venerable Kalupahana Piyarathana Thera, Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara and Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan. The President constituted the HRCSL in terms of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in Dec. 2020. Justice Marasinghe and Ven. Kalupahana Piyarathana Thera were brought in Dec. 2021 in the wake of the resignation of HRCSL Chairman Jagath Balasuriya and NGO, guru Harsha Kumara Navaratne taking up the post of Sri Lanka High Commissioner to Canada.

Did HRCSL make an assessment before Justice Marasinghe issued instructions to the police? The HRCSL intervened in the wake of the erection of a new protest site, opposite Temple Trees, as the government struggled to cope up with an unprecedented political-economic-social crisis that brought the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to its knees.

The writer, over the last weekend, sought a clarification from Justice Marasinghe. The HRCSL Chief said that instructions were issued as access to the residences of the President and the Prime Minister had been blocked. The HRCSL was also informed of possible threats to their lives, Justice Marasinghe said, adding that the issue at hand should be examined on the basis of equal protection of the law.

In spite of HRCSL’s instructions, the police, and at least an influential section of the SLPP government, appeared to have been caught napping. Was it due to the fear of the wrath of the HRCSL or they being under the so-called international community spotlight? In fact, the law enforcement authorities had contributed to the rapid deterioration of the situation to such an extent that mobs took control of roads. Had the police top brass realized the gravity of the situation, in the first week of May, they would have definitely advised the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa not to summon several hundreds of his supporters to Temple Trees. The failure on the part of the police to advise the ousted Premier was nothing but a monumental blunder.

In fact, the police appeared to have been part of a political project meant to dismantle those who had been protesting against the government, while laying siege to both Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat. The operation was meant to regain control. Therefore, a primary objective was to silence those who had been asking Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, too, has been of that view, in the wake of about one-third of the SLPP parliamentary group demanding Premier Rajapaksa’s resignation to pave the way for an all-party interim administration.

PM, family take refuge in SLN base

Just two weeks after HRCSL asked the police to ensure protection of the President and the Prime Minister through ‘necessary and proportionate measures’ the latter had to move out of Temple Trees, under heavy security escort. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to authorize the deployment of SLAF assets to evacuate the ex-Prime Minister and some members of the family. They took refuge at the strategic Eastern Naval Command premises, Trincomalee.

By then, Yoshitha Rajapaksa, the ousted PM’s second son and Chief of Staff and his wife, Nitheesha Jayasekera, had left the country. Interestingly, Yoshitha left for Singapore at 12.50 am on May 09 on Singapore Airlines flight SQ 469 several hours before SLPP activists started arriving at Temple Trees.

Yoshitha Rajapaksa couldn’t have been unaware of the meticulous plans underway to bring in hundreds of supporters from all parts of the country to Temple Trees where the Prime Minister was to address them. Those who believed Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa was to announce his resignation were proved wrong. Instead, lawmaker Johnston Fernando and the then Premier Rajapaksa created an environment conducive for an ‘operation’ to evict those who had been protesting against the Prime Minister and the President. The operation boomeranged. The end result was the Prime Minister having to take refuge in the Trincomalee Navy base.

Two days later, the Fort Magistrate’s Court issued a travel ban on Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP Namal Rajapaksa and 16 others. They are Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Johnston Fernando, Sanjeewa Edirimanne, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, C.B. Ratnayake, Sanath Nishantha, Kanchana Jayaratne (Pavitra Wanniarachchi’s husband), Sampath Athukorala, Mahinda Kahandagama, Renuka Perera, Nishantha Abeysinghe, Amitha Abeywickrama, Pushpalal Kumarasinghe, Dilip Fernando and Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon. The Senior DIG had been present at the time, SLPP goons broke through the police line, near the Galle Face hotel, to demolish the Galle Face protest camp.

The Magistrate also imposed a travel ban on seven others who had been wounded during the violence on the fateful Monday or were eye-witnesses to the attacks.

President of the Colombo High Court Lawyers’ Association Lakshman Perera told the writer that the Attorney General‘s Department moved the Fort Magistrate’s court amidst preparations made by his outfit to move the court. Speaking on behalf of the Association, Perera underscored the pivotal importance of ensuring the safety and security of all, regardless of whatever the accusations directed at them.

For how long would the ex-Premier have to live under the protection of the Navy? In response to media queries, Defence Secretary retired General Kamal Gunaratne told a hastily arranged press conference, at the Battaramulla Defence Complex, that as a former head of State Mahinda Rajapaksa was entitled to required security. When would the ex-PM be able to move freely as protests demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation continue amidst traffic disruptions on main roads, especially over shortage of cooking gas? The situation remains extremely dicey.

Politically-motivated mobs destroyed many properties belonging to the Rajapaksa family. Mobs set ablaze the Rajapaksas’ ancestral home at Medamulana, Hambantota, and did not even spare the memorial built for their parents also at Medamulana, while the former Premier’s home in Kurunegala, too, was destroyed.

Properties belonging to elder brother, Chamal Rajapaksa and his son, Shashendra were also destroyed.

Gangs set fire to Green Ecolodge, situated very close to the Sinharaja rain forest. The hotel, situated close to the UNESCO heritage site, is widely believed to be owned by Yoshitha Rajapaksa, who recently warned JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake of legal action against the accusations made in respect of Green Ecolodge. But the JVP instead of backing their accusations regarding that prized eco-property (torched by the politically-motivated mobs early last week) with facts, issued a veiled threat to expose Yoshitha on some other issues if he dared to go to courts. Comrade Nalinda Jayatissa told the media that they would raise his fake qualifications, how he managed to enter the famed British naval college Dartmouth, etc., if he ventured to challenge them in court.

Well organized mobs also looted and set fire to properties of over 50 MPs, mainly of the government, across the country. They and their families were left with only the clothes on their backs.

Politicos under threat

The government should do everything possible to prosecute those responsible for incidents of violence, regardless of their status. Destruction of lawmakers’ properties should be denounced and punitive action taken against all those responsible. Who would take the responsibility for killing SLPP Polonnaruwa District MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale and his police bodyguard at Nittambuwa? The slain MP was on his way home, after attending the Temple Trees meet earlier in the day. Did Atukorale open fire on those who blocked his path? Did his police bodyguard, too, open fire? The post-mortem revealed the MP had been lynched and contrary to initial reports there were no gunshot injuries. The post mortem also set the record straight that the MP didn’t commit suicide with his own weapon as initially claimed by interested parties over the social and mainstream media. Having allowed SLPP goons to go on the rampage, the police pathetically failed to intervene when the public retaliated. Politically-motivated groups obviously took advantage of the situation. At an early stage of the ongoing protest campaign, German Ambassador in Colombo Holger Seubert tweeted: “I’m impressed with how peaceful the proud people of Sri Lanka are exercising their right to freedom of expression. It reminds me of German unification back in 1989 when we experienced how powerful peaceful protests can be. Wishing all parties involved the strength to remain peaceful.”

During the second JVP inspired-insurgency, the then JRJ government issued firearms to members of Parliament. Some lawmakers formed their own death squads. The government accepted extra-judicial killings as part of the overall defence against the JVP/DJV violence perpetrated against the UNP and those connected with that party.

Members of the SLPP raised security issues at a meeting they had with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the President’s House last Saturday (14). The government shouldn’t expect normalisation of the situation until tangible measures are taken to stabilize the national economy. Lawmakers wouldn’t be safe as long queues for diesel, petrol and cooking gas exist with the vast majority of the electorate struggling to make ends meet. The government should be mindful of interventions made by foreign powers and other external and internal players hell-bent on exploiting the situation to their advantage.

Recent demonstrations near the Parliament compelled the police to close several roads for traffic on May 05 and 06. The police closed the section from Diyatha Uyana junction (Polduwa junction) to Jayanthipura junction and from Jayanthipura junction to the Denzil Kobbekaduwa road to deter mass invasions by well organised demonstrators. The police asserted that closure of the roads were necessary, in spite of the inconvenience caused to the public, to prevent hindrance to lawmakers entering and leaving the parliamentary complex.

The police closed down the same sections of the roads yesterday (17) to facilitate parliamentary proceedings. Trade unions combine and the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) have vowed to lay siege to the Parliament. The warning that had been made several days before the May 09 mayhem should be reviewed. The trade union grouping and the IUSF affiliated to the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), the breakaway JVP faction, should be mindful of the crises the country is experiencing.

A tragedy

War-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa having to take refuge in the Trincomalee SLN base is a tragedy. Mahinda Rajapaksa gave resolute political leadership to Sri Lanka’s war effort at a time the vast majority of lawmakers felt the LTTE couldn’t be defeated. Therefore, many accepted peace at any cost. They were prepared even to give up Sri Lanka’s unitary status in a bid to reach a consensus with separatist Tamil terrorists mollycoddled by Western powers. Mahinda Rajapaksa had the strength and political acumen to take on the LTTE. The country should never forget how President Rajapaksa, in spite of strong objections from the military, flew into Kebitigollewa on June 15, 2006, in the immediate aftermath of a claymore mine attack on a passenger bus. The blast killed over 60 men, women and children. Having visited the survivors, President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave an assurance that the terrorism would be eradicated. The promise was made two months before the LTTE resumed large-scale offensive action in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful end in May 2009. But, the President, who restored peace, has ended up virtually running for his life and had to seek refuge in a military installation for the time being as post-war policies and strategies take their toll with interested parties taking advantage of the tragedy facing the country.

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