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Midweek Review

Sordid politics of environment and big money

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Container carrier X-Press Pearl on fire off the Colombo Port in late May 2021

Those genuinely keen on protecting the environment should without further delay launch a project to protect rain forests. The ongoing power cuts have underscored Sri Lanka’s dependence on hydropower. The continuing destruction of forest cover can cause irreparable damage to the country’s hydro power generation capacity, thereby causing a catastrophic situation. Perhaps the CEJ and the likeminded groups should exploit the current situation to pressure political parties, whoever in power, to take environment protection seriously or face the consequences. The bottom line is that the country cannot replace hydropower generation capacity with thermal, including coal, in the foreseeable future. Therefore, every endeavour should be made to protect the existing hydropower capacity.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Some of those activists at the round-the-clock ‘Go Gota Home’ protest, outside the Presidential Secretariat, at Galle Face, carried placards querying the delay on the part of the government to compensate the communities affected by the sinking of the Singapore registered cargo vessel MV X-Press Pearl, off the Western coast, last year.

The Express Feeders’ owned fire stricken cargo ship, sank on June 02, 2021, during an attempt to tow it away to deep seas. Sri Lanka lacked the wherewithal to bring the fire on deck, that had been reported on May 21, under control. In spite of firefighting support provided by India and other foreign vessels, the vessel went down, causing the worst ever ecological disaster in busy local waters, outside the Colombo harbour.

MV X-Press Pearl sank 9.5 nautical miles, NorthWest of the Colombo port, the day after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa directed that it be towed to deeper seas. The vessel went down where it had been since May 19 after entering Sri Lankan waters.

Controversy surrounds the way the relevant authorities probed the circumstances that led to MV X-Press Pearl stealthily carrying a leaking container, loaded with nitric acid, being allowed to enter Sri Lankan waters. The public have a right to know how the government dealt with the vessel’s local Agent, Presidential Award winner Sea Consortium Lanka of Setmil Group, accused of suppressing information about the acid leak.

The highly politically motivated ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign appeared to have attracted many groups, including those handling contentious environmental issues, which may have contributed to the overall deterioration of public confidence in the government. The handling of the X-Press disaster is a glaring example of an utterly corrupt system that protected the affluent at the expense of the hapless public.

The massive eruption of public anger against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the approach to his private residence, at Pangiriwatte Road, Mirihana, on the night of March 31, marked a new phase in politics. Having caused chaos at Pangiriwatte, the ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign, overnight, targeted selected government members. Violent protests in several districts, particularly in the Anuradhapura district, underscored the growing public anger at those wielding political power.

At the same time while we do not wish to be paranoid conspiracy theorists, it must be noted that some of the present protests appear to be well coordinated and funded and quite possibly maneuvered by a hidden hand, as happened in the run up to the change of government in 2015, engineered by the US, about which it later crowed about publicly through its then Secretary of State, John Kerry. Though President Gotabaya is responsible for some controversial decisions taken hastily, like the abrupt decision to ban agrochemical imports or doing away with some key taxes no sooner he was elected, it must be stated that none of it was done for his personal benefit, but there has been far too many built up coincidences in the run up to the present conflagration, like the MT New Diamond sinking, X-Press Pearl disaster of epic proportion, the wrong composition of butane and propane in LPG shipped to Sri Lanka that caused needless explosions and even loss of life, etc. In the light of what has happened recently in Pakistan, and elsewhere, we believe the country needs to be extra alert to such foreign engineered plots.

The high profile campaign discarded all political parties, represented in Parliament, thereby denying the Opposition an opportunity to exploit unexpected political developments. The protest campaign that had been launched, opposite the Presidential Secretariat, on April 09, received the backing of many groups with diverse objectives. Among the interested parties were civil society organisations, including the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) spearheading an intense legal campaign against the current dispensation.

The CEJ moved court over the X-Press Pearl disaster, in the absence of a genuine effort by relevant government machinery to obtain proper compensation. If those responsible for taking action had addressed the issue purposefully, the sinking of X-Press Pearl wouldn’t have been an issue at the ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign.

It would be pertinent to examine the issues at hand against the backdrop of those seeking compensation for MV X-Press Pearl disaster being part of the ‘Go Gota Home’ campaign. The current crisis has erupted at an opportune time as cash-strapped Sri Lanka struggles to meet the basic requirements of the public.

The ship disaster, off the Western coast, cannot be discussed without taking into consideration the massive fire onboard MT New Diamond, off the Sangamankanda coast in the East, in early Sept 2020.

The Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) proceedings and an exclusive interview Sirasa anchor Asoka Dias, formerly of Upali Newspapers did with the first Dean of the Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Sciences and Technology, Ruhuna University, Prof. Ruchira Cumaranatunga exposed the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA).

MEPA and legal system exposed

COPE Chief and MP Prof. Charitha Herath recently lambasted the MEPA, at a recent committee hearing, over the handling of the fire onboard crude carrier MT New Diamond in early Sept. 2020 and the sinking of X-Press Pearl carrying chemicals off the Port of Colombo last year.

Prof. Herath questioned MEPA Chairperson Attorney-at-Law Dharshani Lahandapura, a Viyathmaga activist, as regards their response to the disastrous accidents.

The SLPP National List MP demanded to know why compensation hadn’t been so far secured from the owners of the MT New Diamond. His query was based on the Auditor General’s observations. Jagath Gunasekera, the Acting General Manager of MEPA, said that the court had decided on the fines to be imposed.

Prof. Herath asked why only Rs 51 mn out of estimated Rs 3,480 million, due from MT New Diamond as compensation, had been received. Attorney-at-Law Lahandapura said that though there had been an oil patch, the fire had not caused any environmental damage.

Prof. Herath asked why such a huge estimate in respect of damages had been made if no disaster had occurred. Gunasekera said Rs 51 million had been paid for firefighting operations and related matters.

According to Gunasekera an expert panel had recommended Rs 3,480 mn compensation and the relevant file had been submitted to the Attorney General’s Department.

Prof. Herath pointed out that the AG hadn’t responded to the MEPA so far, and asked what the MEPA would say if the COPE alleged that it had collaborated with the ship owners to help them reduce compensation payments for environmental damages caused.

When the COPE Chief questioned the role of MEPA’s Legal Officer in respect of the overall response, the MEPA representative at the hearing disclosed that she had been sidelined. The official revealed she hadn’t been allowed to participate in any of the discussions with the Attorney General’s Department on civil or criminal proceedings. Prof. Herath demanded to know why she had been sidelined. Lahandapura claimed that MEPA had assigned responsibilities to another official as the Legal Officer was not responsive to the MEPA’s requirements. Prof. Herath dismissed that claim, insisting that there couldn’t be a justifiable excuse for sidelining the legal officer.

Prof. Herath emphasised that the revelation that the MT New Diamond matter issue had been handled outside the purview of the MEPA Legal Section was a serious matter.

Prof. Herath pointed out that though the compensation in respect of X-Press Pearl had been estimated at USD 37 mn, the ship owners had agreed to pay only USD 2.9 mn. Lahandapura admitted that an organisation that had represented the ship owners/insurers had provided advice to MEPA, too. The COPE Chairman pointed out that the organisation concerned would have been able to manipulate the whole process to the advantage of the ship owners/insurers. The MP said that someone could easily level the charge that the MEPA collaborated with them to reduce the amount of compensation received by the country.

Sirasa interview

Prof. Cumaranatunga didn’t mince her words when she questioned the conduct of MEPA Chairperson as regards the two incidents – the one off the Sangamankanda coast and the other off the Colombo harbour. Responding to interviewer Dias, the academic, who investigated both high profile cases, accused Lahandapura of suppressing some sections of the report on MT New Diamond submitted by her team. She pointed out how the MEPA Chief claimed before the COPE that damages hadn’t been caused to marine life, contrary to the report submitted by the experts. An irate Prof. Cumaranatunga declared that MEPA Chief had insulted members of her team by propagating blatant lies. Asoka Dias couldn’t have conducted that interview at a better time. With the growing public protests, demanding a system change, the operation at the MEPA explains how interested parties pursued projects beneficial to them, regardless of the consequences. Prof. Herath should ask Prof. Cumaranatunga to make her position clear before his Committee and take whatever necessary action. The government cannot remain silent against the backdrop of the head of the expert team that probed the ship disasters, exposing MEPA.

Prof. Cumaranatunga revealed how she raised the issues at hand with Lahandapura soon after the COPE rapped MEPA over the controversial handling of the ship disasters. Declaring that Lahandapura’s response to her queries hadn’t been satisfactory, the academic exposed how MEPA manipulated the online process adopted in preparing the final report to secure the signatures of the members of the probe team without providing them the final draft.

The COPE and Sirasa revelations haven’t received sufficient public attention. The ruling coalition and the Opposition haven’t acted on sensational revelations made by the COPE as well as two other watchdog committees, namely the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) and the Committee on Public Finance (COPF). MEPA should be held accountable for mishandling of two key investigations. Had they been deliberately handling the issues in a way to deprive the country adequate compensation?

Prof. Herath is in no mood to give up his strong stand in respect of the two

muddled investigations. The COPE should pursue this matter. The X-Press Pearl matter is now before the judiciary. It would be the responsibility of all concerned to ensure transparent proceedings. Punitive measures are a prerequisite for justifiable settlement of the X-Press Pearl case.

CEJ moves court

The CEJ and three others, including its Senior Advisor Hemantha Withanage, in a fundamental rights application filed in terms of Articles 17 and 126 of the Constitution, in respect of the X-Press Pearl affair, has named its owner Express Feeders and its local agent Sea Consortium Lanka as 11th and 12th respondents, respectively. They are among 13 respondents, including the Attorney General.

At the time the CEJ moved SC against what the petition called the worst marine ecological disaster caused by the sinking of X-Press Pearl, the outfit hadn’t been aware of the local agent deleting e-mails received from the Captain of the ship.

According to the petition, in addition to 325 metric tonnes of bunker oil, the vessel carried altogether 1,486 containers – 25 tonnes of hazardous nitric acid, caustic soda, sodium methylate, plastic, lead ingots, lubricant oil, quick lime and highly reactive and inflammable chemicals such as Sodium Methoxide, High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) “Lotrene”, Vinyl Acetate, Methanol, bright yellow sulphur, urea, cosmetics, etc.

Petitioners stated that the Captain and the crew members of the MV X-Press Pearl knew of the nitric acid leak from about 11th May 2021, nine days before the blaze started and had deliberately failed to inform the Sri Lankan authorities of the impending grave risk. But, the CEJ had been in the dark regarding the treacherous actions of the local agent and the whole issue would take an unexpected turn against the backdrop of Prof. Cumaranatunga’s revelations.

The CEJ receives funding from both local and foreign sources, including the UN. Responding to The Island queries, Withanage explained the gradual growth of CEJ’s operations since its launch in 2004 following the breakup of the Environmental Foundation Ltd. Assuring transparency in the CEJ’s operations, Withanage alleged that the state agencies that had been tasked to protect the environment either connived brazenly with some of the corrupt elements who wielded political power regardless of the consequences or betrayed the country’s interest for personal gain. The sordid disclosures made during COPE proceedings and the Sirasa interview as regards the sordid behaviour of MEPA, responsible for the protection of marine environment should prompt the government to take tangible measures.

Unfortunately, MEPA as well as other agencies answerable for matters concerning the environment, are pursuing strategies acceptable to their political masters.

The much discussed court cases pertaining to clearing of Wilpattu jungles, releasing of elephants and the threat to Sinharaja forest exposed the corrupt political party system.

Withanage asserted that political parties exploited corrupt systems in place to raise funds. If those who exercised political authority addressed matters of serious concern there wouldn’t have been a need for CEJ to move the Supreme Court over the X-Press Pearl disaster. Withanage questioned the conduct of the premier government agency, the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) now headed by ex-JVPer Siripala Amarasinghe. Withanage asserted that politicians and officials were equally responsible for the pathetic state of affairs.

There cannot be a better example than the importing of toxic garbage containers from the UK and simply dumping them here during the yahapalana administration. While Amarasinghe and then President and former Environment Minister Sirisena claimed at the time they were tackling the issue expeditiously, if not for the CEJ successfully moving the court, the British garbage would have been here still. Having blamed the Mahinda Rajapaksa tenure for large-scale environmental destruction, Withanage alleged that the current dispensation was the worst. The civil society activist cited the removal of restrictions on the mining and the transport of sand as one of the evil decisions taken by the current government. The move was obviously meant to allow those connected with the party to make money. The relevant authorities fully cooperated with politicians, Withanage alleged.

The court was told between 2017 and 2019, the UK shipped 263 containers of waste to Sri Lanka. The containers were labelled ‘used mattresses, carpets and rugs.’ But, amongst other things, authorities found bio waste from hospitals. It included radioactive clinical waste, rags, bandages and body parts from mortuaries. Thanks to CEJ’s action, the entire lot – altogether 263 containers – were shipped back by February 2021. It would be pertinent to examine the conduct of the environment ministry and the CEA with regard to the import of British waste. Contrary to expectations, the current dispensation didn’t take punitive measures against those responsible for the importing of dangerous cargo and kept them in specified areas pending disposal.

The government should be ashamed of its failure. The Parliament, too, should inquire into such glaring failures. Can those in authority now and then vouch that foreign waste didn’t end up at Aruwakkalu sanitary garbage dump in Puttalam as once alleged by top environmental scientist Dr. Ajantha Perera in an interview with this newspaper?

One-time top trade official Gomi Senadhira recently discussed how in spite of Sri Lanka’s success in sending back over 3,000 tons of British toxic waste, authorities allowed foreign garbage. Senadhira asked whether the Customs, Trade Ministry, the BOI, and the CEA deceived the public on garbage imports.

Senadhira raised two basic issues (verbatim) (a) How did the Customs detect the 3000 tonnes of “illegally imported foreign garbage”? Wasn’t it only when the containers that remained in the port for months without being cleared by the importer started to stink and leak? When were the tonnes of customs-cleared garbage in a clandestine garbage dump created inside the BOI discovered by the BOI and the CEA?

Wasn’t it only after a media exposure? Didn’t all this happen after the implosion of the Meethotamulla garbage dump? Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. Methotamulla collapsed at the start of the yahapalana regime.

(b).During the four-year period 2017-2020, while struggling to ship back 3,000 tons of illegally imported stinking waste, the customs and the CEA had facilitated “legal” imports of a much larger quantity of garbage into the country. For example; Sri Lanka imported nearly 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste (HS391590) In addition, nearly 1000 MTs of plastic waste under HS 391530 was also imported every year.

Most of it, according to customs data, was imported from China. As far as I am aware, China does not export plastic waste”

Perhaps, the CEJ should speak with Senadhira to map out proper strategy to counter clandestine projects. Interested parties must have profited immensely at Sri Lanka’s expense.



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Midweek Review

Death of a Patriot

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The late Gomin Dayasri declared he didn’t want to be a President’s Counsel. Appearing on Sirasa Pathikada, the outspoken lawyer said that there was no point in requesting such a title. Dayasri said so during a conversation with the late Bandula Jayasekera, who invited him on several occasions. Dayasri pointed out the absurdity in the process of appointing President’s Counsel.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The much respected senior Attorney-at-Law Gomin Dayasri, 77, is no more, but his voice carried such weight that he had the opportunity to advise the Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2005-2015) at the highest level, in his heyday, despite not fearing to admonish them whenever it was deserved. The final rites were conducted on July 02 at the Borella Cemetery.

A true patriot, Gomin had been among those who stood for Sri Lanka’s unitary status whatever the consequences. During the war, and after, Gomin, always mindful of the interests of the armed forces and the police, which was not a popular thing to do among those who had the ear and patronage of the self-appointed international community of the West and was among those few civil society activists who valiantly threw their weight behind the campaign against separatist terrorists as it was treated like heresy by those same elements who worshipped the West.

Sirasa and MTV/TV 1, although being constantly accused of undermining the war effort, earned the respect of the nationalists for the coverage given to the late lawyer. The writer received opportunities to participate in Sirasa and MTV/TV 1 programmes, sometimes, with the late Dayasiri who strongly opposed federalism, separatism and foreign interference.

Top lawyer, Gomin Dayasiri, and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, Dew Gunasekera, declared that Sangakkara couldn’t have made that statement in the UK at a better time.

The late Dayasri never hesitated to take on the Rajapaksa government if he felt it was on the wrong path.

A case in point is Kumar Sangakkara’s controversial hour-long Sir Colin Cowdrey lecture delivered in July 2011, at Lords. A section of the then government depicted the lecture as a frontal attack on them. Those who resented Sangakkara for exposing their wrongs, cleverly deceived then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. They propagated the lie that the cricketer was challenging the government and was working with the Opposition. Sangakkara earned the wrath of the then government though he paid a glowing tribute to the war winning armed forces at such a prestigious forum at a time a section of the international community, including the UK, was and is literally hounding Sri Lanka’s valiant fighting units for bringing on an implausible victory against all odds, wherever possible.

He was neither a blind worshipper of patriots, the late Dayasri was among the few who dared to stand by Sangakkara. When the writer sought his response to the threats on Sangakkara, Dayasri was prompt and strongly supported Sangakkara’s demand to tackle waste, corruption and irregularities in the game, Dayasri declared that a cohesive strategy was required to stamp out corruption in both public and private sectors. Sangakkara’s speech couldn’t have come at a better time, Dayasri said, adding: “The dashing batsman’s eloquent presentation was very pro-Sri Lanka as against the LTTE terrorism and cricket terrorism. If any politician, or the government, decides to take action against the player, there’ll be a public outcry because the sports personality has courageously exposed the insider dealings in Sri Lanka Cricket. More of Sangakkara’s kind should come to the forefront.” (“The day Kumar Sangakkara felt humbled’, with strapline ‘Unpardonable failure to capitalize on ‘Spirit of Cricket’” lecture, on January 25, 2017 issue of The Island). Michael Roberts posted in The Island Midweek column article under the headline ‘Sangakkara’s MCC lecture and the Rajapaksa/ Wickemesinghe governments’ failures,’ in his Thuppahi blog.

Sangakkara became the first speaker to receive a standing ovation at Lords since Bishop Desmond Tutu in 2008. Both the UK-based, and Sri Lankan media focused on Sangakkara’s assault on the politically influential cricket administration and the criminal waste of funds, as well as resources belonging to Sri Lanka Cricket. The Sinhala print and electronic media completely ignored Sangakkara’s speech.

Dayasri asserted that the only shortcoming in Sangakkara’s superb speech was the absence of a reference to the Indian factor in Sri Lanka terrorism. Dayasri suggested that the writer left that out as Sangakkara must have had reason to be silent on the Indian factor.

The following post by Janaka Perera “Gomin did not confuse patriotism with loyalty to any political party or consider it the monopoly of any group” in the US-based Gamini Edirisinghe’s e-mail thread, explained the late lawyer’s response to the situation.

Daya Gamage posted: “I have been following Gomin Dayasiri’s trajectory for the past 30 to 40 years, his struggle to keep Sri Lanka undivided”.

Nimal Fernando posted: “A true son of the soil, whose fierce patriotism was a source of solace for Mother Lanka.”

Dr. Anula Wijesundere declared in her post that Gomin was a true patriot and a great lawyer who spoke fearlessly and eloquently against LTTE terrorism. Like the other great patriotic lawyer, the late S.L. Gunasekera, Gomin, too, appeared free of charge and defended the armed forces and the police.

Lt. Col. Anil Amarasekera recalled the services rendered by Gomin Dayasri and the late S.L. Gunasekara.

The retired officer posted the following: “… during their lifetime, they worked tirelessly to protect and preserve the unity and territorial integrity of our motherland for posterity”.

Gomin even appeared for me free of charge when I filed a case against the then Commander of the Army for violating my fundamental rights by not allowing me to enter the Sinhalese villages in the Weli Oya region to work against the devolution proposals of the then Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government. The Commander of the Army withdrew the order preventing me from entering Weli Oya after a fundamental rights petition was filed in the Supreme Court. Therefore we withdrew our fundamental rights case.

Asoka Bandarage: “Sri Lanka has lost a beloved patriot. Gomin Dayasiri was a brilliant, courageous and interesting individual. I communicated with him a number of times on matters pertaining to peace and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. Gomin gave advice freely when H.L.D. Mahindapala and I were faced with legal charges over our writings on Sri Lanka. I also had the opportunity to visit and enjoy lunch at Gomin’s home in the tranquil village setting off Thalawathugoda.”

Sudharshan Seneviratne: “I do remember Gomin very well at Ananda. We admired him for his oratory skills and his sharp rebukes levelled at the opposing debating team!

In a limed way though, he did give his valued opinion on the College English Union magazine, the Spark, edited by Deva Rodrigo.

After he left college Gomin took time off while he was doing his Law exams to tutor me on the AL Government paper.

Later we met, not frequently though, at Anuradhapura when I was excavating at the citadel and Jetavanaramaya where he did have pointed questions on culture, identity and training of the next generation.”

Gamini Edirisinghe posted the News First video clip of Dayasri’s funeral.

Oct 2006 triumph

The judgment on the high profile case, filed by the JVP seeking de-merger of the Eastern Province, comprising Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee Districts from the Northern Province, was delivered on Oct 16, 2006, the day an LTTE suicide attack on a Navy land convoy claimed the lives of nearly 100 of its personnel at Digampathaha (not Digampathana) between Habarana and Dambulla. Digampathaha attack was the single worst directed at a military convoy during the entire war whereas the judgment could be considered the most important as regards Sri Lanka’s unitary status.

The Supreme Court on Oct 16, 2006 declared the merger of the northern and eastern provinces, implemented in terms of the controversial 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, ‘null and void and illegal’. The Court declared that material provided by the petitioners resulted in “volumes of material to establish the divisions that existed in historic times and that the eastern province was part of the Kandyan Kingdom at the time of the British conquest”.

The ruling was given in spite of heavy international pressure against de-merging the East from the North. It would be pertinent to mention that at the time of the SC judgment and Digampathaha suicide attack, the LTTE’s conventional military capacity was considered inviolable, especially by the West. In fact, the armed forces hadn’t been able to seriously challenge the LTTE, at least in the Eastern Province, at the time of the historic judgment.

In Sept. 2006, Co-Chairs backing the peace process – the United States, European Union, Japan and Norway – cautioned Sri Lanka against the move. Co-Chairs warned: “There should be no change to the specific arrangements for the North and East which could endanger the achievement of peace. The legitimate interests and aspirations of all communities, including the Tamil, Muslims and Sinhala communities, must be accommodated as part of a political settlement.”

Prominent lawyers H.L. de Silva, S.L. Gunasekera and Gomin Dayasri appeared for the petitioners. Prof. Nalin de Silva, who served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Myanmar (Sept 2020-Sept 2021), recalled in a piece on Gomin Dayasri, written in Sinhala, the role played by the three lawyers in the triumphant case.

Son of fearless N.Q. Dias, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence, during Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s first term (1960-65) as Prime Minister, has been given a new name. Showing his disdain for the colonial past his father, ditching the Portuguese derived last name Dias, still carried by many Sri Lankans, proudly and simply named him Gomin Dayasri and sent him to Ananda College though his mother very much preferred Anglican S. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia. But, N.Q. Dias, who had studied at an equally elitist Trinity College, Kandy, desired his son to receive an education at Ananda College for obvious reasons.

Prof. de Silva played a glowing tribute to Gomin’s father, legendary civil servant N.Q. Dias, for facilitating the recruitment of Sinhala Buddhists to the armed forces’ officer corps, which, along with top echelons of the police, was till then an almost exclusive club of Christians. Had that not happened, the armed forces couldn’t have brought the war to an end on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in May 2009, Prof. de Silva asserted.

Declaring that the case against the merger of the Eastern Province from the Northern had been the most important one the late Dayasri appeared, Prof. de Silva declared that if not for lawyers H.L. de Silva, S.L. Gunasekera and Gomin Dayasri, Sri Lanka’s history could have been different. Pointing out that except Dayasri, other lawyers weren’t Sinhala Buddhists, Prof. de Silva emphasized the need to de-link the East from the North through the passage of a Parliament act. That should be done in honour of those lawyers who rendered great service to the motherland. We would however like to differ with Prof. Nalin de Silva on late S.L. de Silva, though born into a Christian family, he was a life-long agnostic.

Accountability issues

The late Dayasri had been seriously disappointed with the way Sri Lanka handled accountability issues both during the conflict and after. The Island reportage on the conflict and related matters certainly received a big boost, thanks to advice and suggestions the writer received from the late lawyer. Dayasri was always accessible and never declined to comment on contentious issues. Twice he visited The Island editorial after the conclusion of the sittings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI) at the BMICH, into the killing of 17 persons employed by the Action Contra La Faim (ACF) to provide the writer a briefing of what was going on. The CoI also inquired into the killing of five youth in Trincomlee in January 2006.

On one occasion, Dayasri provided the writer several photographs of civil society representatives with foreigners involved in the process. With a mischievous grin, Dayasri said the role played by most foreign-funded NGOs here was quite treacherous. The lawyer asserted that successive governments pathetically failed to meet the challenge posed by those who represented the interests of separatists.

The ACF case took an unprecedented turn in late March 2008, when the late Dayasri challenged the right of one-time Government Agent Dr. Devanesan Nesiah to be Commissioner due to his close relationship with the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). S.L. Gunasekera, who also appeared for the military, demanded Dr. Nesiah’s removal.

Appearing for the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s Army, free of charge, Dayasri opposed Dr. Nesiah’s role against the backdrop of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) being made party to the high profile case. Dayasri targeted Dr. Nesiah after the Presidential Commission accepted CPA and several other civil society groups, party to the inquiry on the basis of an application submitted by President’s Counsel and one-time President of Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) the late Desmond Fernando. Justice N.K. Udalagama headed the Commission. The proceedings were held under the scrutiny of International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP).

Dayasri didn’t mince his words when he questioned the failure on the part of Dr Nesiah to disclose his close relationship with the CPA at an earlier stage. Alleging that it had been a serious lapse on the part of the Commissioner, Dayasri bluntly told the former Jaffna Government Agent Nesiah: “You cannot be a judge in your own case because not only justice must be done, but it must be seen to be so done, otherwise there’ll be the likelihood of bias.”

Dayasri and Desmond Fernando clashed at the inquiry over the latter’s claim that a minister confided in him that he (minister) knew the perpetrators of the Muttur massacre. Dayasri demanded that Fernando should get into the witness box. Fernando skipped the proceedings the following day (Probe into Muttur massacre takes a dramatic turn: Commissioner’s right to hear case challenged due to NGO link, The Island, March 27, 2008 edition).

As a result of the stand taken by Dayasri and Gunasekera, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had no option but to intervene. In a letter dated June 06, 2008, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga asked Dr. Nesiah to explain his relationship with the CPA and the payments received from the CPA. In spite of the presidential directive for him to step down, Dr. Nesiah joined the proceedings on June 10, 2008. Dayasri’s protests compelled the CoI to ask Dr. Nesiah to leave (Commission probing human rights violations: Nesiah dropped after President’s intervention, The Island, June 11, 2008)

Dayasri also argued against the 19th Amendment in a Fundamental Rights petition before the Supreme Court in 2015. Many an eyebrow was raised when Dayasri petitioned against President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament in Oct 2018. Dayasiri told the Supreme Court though he opposed the 19A, since its passage in Parliament, yet the President was duty-bound to act in accordance with it, and the dissolution in less than four and a half years without a Parliament resolution was unconstitutional.

Dayasri simply ignored the fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa had received the premiership as a result of Maithripala Sirisena’s constitutional coup.

In conversation with the writer, Dayasri, lecturer in law and respected commentator on matters of national importance, expressed serious concerns over the failure on the part of the government to address the Geneva challenge. The absence of a clear action plan to use disclosures made by Lord Naseby offended Dayasri, who felt those who exercised political authority quite conveniently failed to exploit the advantage given by Lord Naseby. The cancellation of the Victory Day parade by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in 2015 angered the lawyer. Calling the decision a disgrace, Dayasri explained that the President and the Premier should be ashamed of themselves.

Dayasri earned the respect of the armed forces and the vast majority of people. His contribution and influence would remain as the country struggles to cope up with an extremely difficult situation caused by waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement and, most of all, simple political incompetence at the highest level, being the prime cause of it.

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Midweek Review

EPIC-MEMORY and BRECHT

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Grusha walking on the bridge made of human bodies. Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle in Thamil, Co-direction by P. Niriella and K. Rathidaran. Tr. by Dr K.M. Shanmugalingam, 2016.

by Laleen Jayamanne

Memory of the World’

UNESCO established the Memory of the World Programme in 1992 to preserve for posterity the audio-visual heritage of humankind, stating that war, social upheaval and lack of resources have accelerated its destruction.

“Significant collections worldwide have suffered a variety of fates. Looting and dispersal, illegal trading, destruction, inadequate housing and funding have all played a part. Much has vanished forever; much is endangered. Happily, missing documentary heritage is sometimes

rediscovered.” UNESCO

UNESCO has also promoted the preservation (through revival), of the vital endangered category of human culture it calls, ‘The Intangible Heritage of Mankind’; the ancient arts of music, dance, theatre and ritual. As temporal arts, they are ephemeral by nature, passed through guru-shishya parampara transmission encoded in bodies through practice, in what used to be called the Third World.

Thanks to the availability of digital technological tools of preservation, exhibition and connectivity, the work of these visionary programmes has been considerably enhanced. Now, the fragile celluloid film, which was once the medium of preservation of artefacts, has itself been saved, restored and preserved digitally. Apart from this kind of essential programme of preservation, the very idea of attributing memory to the ‘world’, in the UNESCO formulation, is fascinating to speculate on because we usually think of memory as an inalienable human organic faculty of the mind without which we would live in a perpetual state of amnesia, in a timeless and depleted present. It seems to me that ‘memory of the world’ as an idea can also be imagined as something more than historical memory, which by definition is the written record, usually organised chronologically. ‘The world’ can now also suggest not only the human but also the earth itself and all that it sustains, plants and animals and even microbes and fossils and minerals and the cosmos, too. This is the zone that some artists have begun to explore within a ‘deep-ecological’ consciousness of what is known as the Anthropocene – the epoch of man-made ecological devastation.

‘Epic-Memory’

Walter Benjamin, the German theorist of culture, in his essay, The Story Teller, described another kind of memory, created by humans over millennia, which he called ‘epic memory.’ He invites us to imagine how to think about an idea of memory that’s more ample than our personal memory, by offering a dazzling image of ‘epic memory.’

“One must imagine the transformation of epic forms occurring in rhythms comparable to those of the change that has come over the earth’s surface in the course of thousands of centuries. Hardly any other forms of human communications have taken shape more slowly, been lost more slowly.

Memory is the epic faculty par excellence.

Memory creates the chain of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to generation.”

What Benjamin calls the ‘chain of tradition’ has been severed or partially lost in societies subject to colonisation and the forces of modernity have also destroyed many traditions. So we are looking for ways in which an expansive mode of remembering might be generated by artists through creative work, especially in the post-war situation of Sri Lanka where experiences of loss and trauma are widespread and some of their causes left unaddressed, forgotten, repressed, for many reasons. And now especially, with Sri Lanka in a state of profound crisis open to new possibilities of collective life free of ethnic nationalism and violence, an idea of epic memory might be of some use. It is the case that we don’t have ancient epics like India’s, Silappatikaram, Mahabharata and the Ramayana or the Greek ones, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Yet a modern idea of epic memory can perhaps still be formulated with what we do have.

The epic form was originally an oral form, which required from the bards a prodigious memory, trained through repeated recitation, which is why the muse of the epic form was called Mnemosyne, meaning epic memory in Greek. The written form of the epic came into being much later in history, based on the much older collective oral poetry of legends and myths of ‘the people’ handed down orally. Both in the UNESCO idea of ‘memory of the world’ and Benjamin’s definition of ‘epic memory,’ what is clear is that memory is a collective creation, taking shape over vast epochs. According to Greek myth, Mnemosyne, is the mother of the nine muses, and the word mouseion in Greek (from which the word museum is derived) means the dwelling place of the muses, who are the inspiration for the different art forms. This is a rich vital aesthetic image of the museum which is worth thinking about.

Then, one might be tempted to think that this is the same as the idea of ‘civilization’, which is the sum total of a culture’s pre-history and history as expressed in artefacts and written record. Usually this is indeed how nation states constitute themselves and give themselves an identity formulated on ethnicity, language, religion, custom, myths, etc. This is dangerous territory because states have deployed their myths to justify authoritarian and racist policies to divide and rule multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic societies such as Lanka. The Rajapaksa regime mobilised the Mahavansa narrative of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony of Lanka to secure its own rule and some artists joined in with the mythic-epic genre films and shows.  But I think the UNESCO idea is counter-hegemonic because it’s not created by a centralising state. Its memories may not fit easily into a master narrative of mythic inevitability. There is an element of chance and the possibility of ‘minor narratives’ emerging, which can’t be totalised into primordial myths.

Brecht’s Theory of Epic Theatre

To create a clearer picture of how to craft an idea of memory with great amplitude and rich potential, we can start with a modern example, the work of Bertolt Brecht, which Lankans have been quite familiar with (since the mid 1960’s), in all three languages. He famously created an ‘epic theatre’ and a theory of modern epic practice, as opposed to the traditional ‘dramatic theatre’. He called traditional dramatic theatre Aristotelian because it followed the basic structures analysed by the Greek philosopher in his Poetics. Walter Benjamin wrote several essays defending Brecht’s idea of epic theatre because what Brecht did was something quite unusual within the history of European theatre at the time. Instead of following the 1920s avant-garde German Expressionist theatre or French Surrealist theatre or constructivist Soviet practice, he looked to classical Asiatic theatrical forms such as Peking opera and its conventions of staging and highly formalised abstract forms of acting, to create a modern epic practice. For some artists of the left, Brecht’s theory appeared to be a strange move, looking to traditional Asian practice of the deep feudal past – not at all modern. Benjamin showed how Brecht’s modern epic form was suited to their time of the rise of fascism in Germany and its appeal to irrational emotions and ideas of racial purity and superiority. According to Aristotle the epic form contains three genres in one. That is, the lyric or ‘first person’ expression of subjective feeling as in love poetry, the dramatic as in actions and reactions organised in dialogue, in ‘second person’ and narration, which is the power to tell a story or narrate in ‘third person’. Therefore the ample epic mode can combine all three genres with ease, which means that it has the power to shift focus from one to the other, in complex combinations.

The traditional idea of ‘epic memory’ itself has an act of performance built into it through what is sung and is not something private and personal but consists of mythic stories, legends common to a people. But there is a crucial distinction Brecht and Benjamin made here between myth, on the one hand, and the epic form, on the other. The epic as a genre is a much later historical development from myth and though it does deploy myth, it does so on its own terms. Because, historically speaking, the epic is a later human achievement than myth, it also has had the rational power to comment on the myths it uses. That is to say, the epic form, with its many flexible techniques, has the power to create a sense of distance from the mythic universe of the ancients, which appears irrational and fated.

This idea of a historical ‘distance’ of the epic form (from the original myths), was taken up by Brecht and made into a method of constructing his epic drama. He called it, using a long German compound word, ‘verfremdungseffect’, variously translated as ‘distanciation’ or ‘Alienation-effect’ or ‘de-familiarisation’ or ‘making-strange’. Fine scholarship is available on this idea, my favourite was developed by Eugenio Barba and his Odin Theatret in Denmark. To create a dramatic situation which can immediately be ‘frozen’ and turned into a scene which is narrated and commented on, is one of the well-known ways in which Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle was performed in Colombo, in the 1965 by Ernest Macintyre’s ‘Stage and Set’ production. The tender scene of a lyrical song sung by Grusha to her adopted infant son, can swiftly change to a bawdy commentary by the chorus. Sudden changes of point of view, mood and tone, are calibrated to give the spectator a chance to perceive a situation from more than one angle. It’s a way to introduce the exercise of reason into the spectacle of theatre, according to Brecht, to break its spell even as it is deployed. Brecht was here influenced by Eisenstein’s theory of montage, which he introduced into theatre. Eisenstein’s theory of montage created a clash between one shot and another, so as to produce a new idea in the mind of the spectator. So the continuously flowing conventional dramatic action could be interrupted, fragmented and anything-what-ever from ‘the memory of the world’ could be inserted to break the flow. So it’s the introduction of a radical film technique, montage, into theatre to make the mind constantly alert and instantly beguiled and then relaxed by the commentary of the chorus. These disjunctions can be very subtle or very direct depending on the skill of both actor and director.

Professor Saumya Liyanage’s recent article, on the play ‘Sanga Veda Guru Govi Kamkaru’, clearly indicated that the brilliant young playwright-director Chamila Priyanka had created an epic mode of theatre, which the judges of the drama competition failed to understand, (The Island, 11/5). Liyanage said that there is a to and fro movement between empathy and distance in the way the play was constructed and directed. The current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe referred to Brecht in parliament, comparing his current task (to save Lanka), to that of the selfless Grusha’s action of saving the baby, treading on the rickety bridge. Whether he wanted empathy or analytical distance by offering this parable from the Caucasian Chalk Circle we don’t know, but he could assume that Lankans at large would know the reference. But we also know the play well enough to see what a thoughtless comparison it was.

The Artists’ Protest March

I saw a Brechtian epic mode in full flight in the artists’ protest march (#GotaGoGama), the other day on the streets of Colombo, which converged on Gall Face. Actors wearing handmade cardboard masks of the various yakas and the sunniyas were doing wild dancing moves using these marvellous creatures of the folk imagination of Lanka to exorcise the political demons sucking the people’s life-blood. These performers were such a refreshing counter to the expensive kitsch fascist-mythic-nationalist spectacles and films made under the Rajapaksa regime. And to see and hear a group of women walking rhythmically and playing the heavy drums slung across their bodies strung from their necks or tied at the waist, was a powerful moment for me, as I never imagined that Lankan women would be allowed to play these ritual drums belonging to a male tradition of such vitality. Traditionally, women only played raban pada! While the documentary camera excitedly cut between many performances very fast, I got the sense of an epic vision being performed as street theatre. Gamini Hattotuwegama’s pioneering street theatre work of the 70’s and 80’s seems to have taken on an unimaginable mass form, matured, diversified, loosening up and airing so many different stratified and compacted layers of the blood-soaked earth, of this famed ‘island of Dhamma’, Sri Lanka.

Perhaps artists can generate some ideas from these two modes of imagining memory (‘memory of the world’ and Brecht’s epic mode), which are quite distinct from personal memory. Artists working on traumatic experiences of the civil war and the formidable state ideologies that led to and orchestrated it, may find it useful to try to mobilise an ample epic mode of perception. I think so because it has this flexible montage structure, not tied to a strict linear chronology. ‘Montage’ is a term taken from engineering, of fitting different pieces of machinery together, so it contains the idea of assembling something with different components, stuff, to make something happen. While one might work on oneself and one’s sense of loss and a host of other urgent feelings that resist linguistic expression, one can also create certain disjunctions, breaks, (distanciation, make-strange the familiar), through an epic mode of composition. The need to repeatedly go back to the traumatic moment is often limitless, with no end in sight. Each repetition yields less as it becomes routine with no exit. Whereas, epic vision-memory, understood in a Brechtian way, is centrifugal not centripetal, it ripples out. It is not centred on man and nor is its vision cut to the measure of MAN. It is non-anthropocentric and non-anthropomorphic. Epic vision-memory helps us to see and feel and understand that we are part of something vaster and also much finer and subtle than ourselves. Epic vision gives us antennae like insects have. Tantric Buddhist idea of a ‘subtle body’ (Sukshama Dehaya) might be a line of investigation for those attracted to the rich visual traditions of Mahayana Buddhism which include vast scroll paintings which visually activate ‘nadi’ or a nervous system that connects many life forms too.

Brecht’s epic vision, in not giving ‘happy endings’ or resolving all the dramatic conflicts, leave us with an ability to discuss alternatives, as in say The Good Woman of Szechwan (Hita Honda Ammandi). I think the famous Chennai bonze statues of poets, (including a female one), and scholars (including an English scholar-missionary), and the epic heroine of Silappatikāram, Kannagi, lining the ocean front of the Marina really is a marvellous epic configuration that could also be understood in the Brechtian modern sense of the epic as well. They are positioned against the background of the ocean and address the people of Tamil Nadu evoking epic memory. The idea of debate so dear to Brecht also was staged when the Kannagi statue built by the Karunanidi’s DMK government was removed from her pedestal by Jaylalitha as Chief Minister, inaugurating a statue ‘battle’ and then returned from a museum, back again to her pedestal, with a change of government. There appears to be a sense of humour too in these serious political moves and counter moves, a marvellous sense of epic performance. This kind of jostling, argumentative, magnificent vision evoked by these bronze statues of Tamil Nadu is surely a modern mode of epic memory conjoined with the ocean, the sand and the sky – a memory of the world for sure.

Epic form is not the same as mythic form. The epic is Janus-faced (has two faces) facing two opposed directions. One face is turned toward myth and the other faces history. And situated in between the two, it has ample space-time to play and shuttle between the two modes of knowledge by making sure that history itself is not allowed to turn into myth.

And Laughter?

I saw on YouTube a well-known Sinhala actor perform a strange oration of excessive praise, a Rajapaksha varnanawa, invoking the glory days of Dutugamunu. What struck me was how much the brothers Mahinda and Gotabhaya laughed when they were praised in more and more exaggerated ways (drawing on the heroic parallels), by the actor who appeared to be carried away by his own brilliance at flattery and histrionic performance. I couldn’t help but think that the two brothers were looking at each other in a certain way and laughing, as much as to say, ‘does he really believe this stuff he’s spouting, what an idiot!’ They appeared to know that these were stupid but useful myths that they had themselves mobilised as history for their gain, but the true believers and the fools were the people themselves. This is just my reading of laughter of the two authoritarian brothers. Laughter is a tricky involuntary human impulse hard to control and pin down rationally. But one hopes that the last laugh will not be theirs’ to enjoy.

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Midweek Review

Of Revolts and Ahimsa Ascetics

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By Lynn Ockersz

In this all too familiar pattern,

Of besieged ruling class reaction,

The Jackboot’s coming crashing down,

On citizens forced into starvation,

And on Scribes mindlessly manacled,

Besides being seen as ‘Inessential’,

Hoping to muzzle into silence,

Consciences of blazing defiance,

But history’s lesson is undisputed,

That revolt is the result of repression,

And we have at hand to clinch the point,

The torching of Libya’s parliament,

And the youth-led bush war of Myanmar….

Just two warning signs for Fat Cat Sires,

That people deprived of Bread and basics,

Are unlikely to take after Ahimsa ascetics.

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