Sri Lanka’s collective failure on the Geneva front
by Shamindra Ferdinando
Successive governments facilitated a high profile treacherous Geneva process by conveniently or incompetently refraining from exploiting former RAF pilot Michael Wolfgang Laurence Morris or Lord Naseby’s shocking disclosure in the House of Lords on Oct 12, 2017 to set the record straight as regards unsubstantiated war crimes.
The real issue is not defeat suffered by Sri Lanka at the UNHRC yesterday (23) but the failure on the part of successive governments to properly defend the armed forces.
Sri Lanka defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was widely considered to be invincible and the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world, following a nearly three-year long combined security forces campaign. The war was brought to a successful conclusion on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on May 19, 2009.
Sri Lanka’s collective failure to take advantage of Lord Naseby’s revelation as well as other related credible information in the public domain is nothing but betrayal of the war-winning armed forces. Lord Naseby provided the much needed ammunition to expose the Geneva lie two years after the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government betrayed the armed forces at the UNHRC in Oct 2015.
On behalf of Sri Lanka, the then Permanent Representative in Geneva Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinghe accepted the ‘Accountability Resolution 30/1’ on a specific directive from Premier Wickremesinghe-FM Mangala Samaraweera. Aryasinghe, who had earlier strongly opposed the US-led resolution at the informal discussions with the Core Group of Sri Lanka, is our Ambassador in Washington now.
A controversial US statement
The first indication that unsubstantiated war crimes accusations can be successfully countered was received at the first ever Colombo Defence Seminar conducted in late May-June 2011 during Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya’s tenure as the Commander of the Army (July 2009-July 2013). Jayasuriya succeeded war-winning Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka in the wake of an unprecedented dispute between the Rajapaksas and Fonseka. The Sinha Regiment veteran ended up as the common candidate at the 2010 presidential election challenging Mahinda Rajapaksa his Commander in Chief only a few months before.
Thanks to Wikileaks, the US role in making Fonseka the common candidate as well as ensuring the one-time LTTE proxy, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) extending support to him is in the public domain. The day the TNA declared its support to Fonseka, the unsubstantiated war crimes accusations should have been unceremoniously discarded. But, unfortunately, the war crimes accusations persisted even after the predominantly Tamil speaking northern and eastern electoral districts overwhelmingly voted for him.
At the first Defence Seminar, the then US Defence Advisor in Colombo Lt. Col. Lawrence questioned the very basis of allegations, including the execution of surrendered terrorists directed at the Army (58 Division/formerly Task Force I). The US official was responding to a query posed by retired Major General Ashok K. Mehta, formerly of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) deployed here, to Major General Shavendra Silva, the first General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division. Silva, the incumbent Army Chief was there in his capacity as Sri Lanka’s then No 02 at the UN. Smith’s voluntary and spontaneous revelation, made weeks after the UNSG’s Panel of Experts (PoE) aka the Darusman report accused Sri Lanka of killing as many as 40,000 (paragraph 137) embarrassed the US (Sri Lanka Defence Symposium: Now, US suspects credibility of LTTE surrender offer with strap line…dismisses KP, Nadesan as ‘mouthpieces’ with no real authority – The Island, June 3, 2011)
The US State Department had no option but to claim Lt. Colonel Smith hadn’t represented the US at the seminar. The political leadership and Army Headquarters never exploited the US official’s statement. In fact, Smith’s statement made six years before Lord Naseby’s disclosure based on the then British Defence Advisor Lt. Col. Anthony Gash’s wartime dispatches, should have been the basis for Sri L:anka’s defence. It would be pertinent to examine why the first Rajapaksa administration never bothered to examine the US official’s statement. In fact, the Army never really pursued the matter during the tenure of Army Commanders – Daya Ratnayaka (Aug 2013-Feb 2015), Chrishantha de Silva (Feb-2015-June 2017) and Mahesh Senanayake (June 2017-August 2019) as Commander of the Army. Lord Naseby made his disclosure during Mahesh Senanayake’s tenure as the Commander. But, the Army never examined/exploited Lt. Col. Smith’s statement and that of Lord Naseby as part of Sri Lanka’s overall defence in Geneva.
The politically motivated US decision to slap a travel ban on incumbent Army Commander in Feb 2020 should be examined against the backdrop of the criminal negligence on Sri Lanka’s part to counter lies propagated in spite of having powerful ammunition. Actually a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) is necessary to ascertain the shocking lapses on the part of political and military leaderships that led to ‘Accountability Resolution 30/1’ in 2015 and the expansion of relentless and continuing Western campaign.
Yahapalanaya rejects Naseby disclosure
Treacherous politicians, some sections of the media and diplomatic community and the civil the society worked overtime to suppress Lord Naseby’s disclosure that threatened to undermine the devious Geneva project. The Geneva operation was meant to introduce a new Constitution that did away with Sri Lanka’s unitary status in the guise of addressing accountability issues. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration spearheaded the despicable project. The then Joint Opposition (now SLPP) co-operated in that endeavor by being part of a parliamentary process to draft a new Constitution, spearheaded by Premier Wickremesinghe. President Sirisena remained an onlooker whereas his parliamentary group participated in the process. Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF) subsequently quit the process though his efforts to convince the JO to do so failed.
Lord Naseby’s disclosure threatened to weaken the yahapalana project. The Foreign Ministry under Ravi Karunanayake (RK received the appointment in the wake of Samaraweera’s removal as FM in May 2017) ridiculed Lord Naseby’s statement.
Did the Sri Lanka High Commission in London bring Lord Naseby’s statement to the Foreign Ministry’s attention? For want of a Foreign Ministry response to Lord Naseby’s very important statement, even a week after it was made, the writer, on Oct 20, 2017, sought an explanation from the Foreign Ministry. The Foreign Ministry response really disappointed a vast majority of people, who expected the government to use the House of Lords disclosure to counter lies that had been propagated by various interested parties. Instead of taking advantage of Lord Naseby’s statement, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mahishini Colonne declared: “The Government of Sri Lanka remains committed to the national processes, aimed at realizing the vision of a reconciled, stable, peaceful and prosperous nation. Engaging in arguments and debates in the international domain over the number of civilians who may have died at a particular time in the country will not help resolve any issues, in a meaningful manner, locally, except a feel good factor for a few individuals who may think that they have won a debate or scored points over someone or the other.”
The writer also raised Lord Naseby’s disclosure with the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), one-time mouthpiece of the LTTE and the main Opposition in Parliament. The TNA refrained from responding to The Island queries submitted to TNA leader R. Sampanthan. In spite of over a dozen calls/sms to Raghu Balachandran of Sampanthan’s Office, The Island never received the TNA’s response. You may want to know when the set of questions regarding TNA’s response to Lord Naseby’s disclosure was submitted to that party. The Island submitted the following questions to TNA and Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan on Nov. 27, 2017 and repeatedly reminded the Opposition Leader’s Office of the delay on its part to respond: Have you (TNA) studied Lord Naseby’s statement made in the House of Lords on Oct. 12, 2017? What is TNA’s position on Naseby’s claims? Did TNA leaders discuss Naseby’s claim among themselves? Did TNA respond to MP Dinesh Gunawardena’s statements in Parliament on Naseby’s disclosure? And did TNA take up this issue with the UK High Commissioner James Dauris?
UK plays politics with Gash reports
The British HC too side-stepped the issue. When the writer raised the issue with Lord Naseby soon after his explosive Oct 12, 2017 disclosure, the Conservative Party member said that he received an assurance from the Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mark Field, that the issue at hand would be examined (FCO to study Naseby’s proposals – The Island, Oct 26, 2017). However, when the writer sought an explanation from the British HC in Colombo on the same matter, the mission dismissed Lord Naseby’s statement on the basis he was not speaking for the British government (Naseby’s call doesn’t reflect UK’s stand – HC, The Island Dec 6, 2017).
The UK never hesitated to praise Channel 4 News that propagated accusations that the Sri Lankan military massacred over 40,000 civilians. The then UK Prime Minister David Cameron went out of his way to praise the Channel 4 team accompanying him to Colombo for CHOGM 2013 when he addressed the media at the BMICH. Questions at this peculiar press conference were only fielded from a handpicked lot, especially from his retinue of embedded reporters from the UK brought with him. Is that another display of “British sense of justice and fair play”? But one plucky Lankan journalist Rajpal Abeynayake clearly shouted out “bloody hypocrites” as Cameron got up and left without taking any questions from independent journalists.
The UK should really examine its role here, how it had intentionally contributed to terrorism much to the disappointment of the majority of Sri Lankans. Let me remind you of a statement made by one-time UK High Commissioner in Colombo David Tattham in 1996 soon after the armed forces brought the Jaffna peninsula under the government control. Tattham, during a visit to Jaffna, urged the Diaspora not to fund the LTTE. But the UK didn’t take any notice of Tattham’s appeal. The LTTE was allowed to operate there with impunity.
Relevance of Offord’s speech
Despite being up to all types of villainy around the world (for example what did the ICC say recently about the behviour of her troops in Afghanistan and how London shamelessly passed hasty legislation to save their skins), the British are now championing human rights here in its new capacity as leader of the Sri Lanka Core Group without even examining the post-war situation. Perhaps a statement delivered by Matthew Offord, the current Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka (Lord Naseby is the Honorary President and Founder) on March 18, 2021 in the House of Commons debate on UK’s commitment to reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka underscored the need for a fresh examination of the war, post-war and related matters.
The following is the text of elected member Offord’s speech: “I start by highlighting my chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s relationship with the rest of the world has been strongly shaped since the end of the conflict by allegations that the Army committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the civil war.
“A UN panel of experts reported in April 2011 that there were credible allegations of those crimes by both Government and Tamil Tiger forces. It remains my opinion that both sides were at fault. However, I regret the Government of Sri Lanka’s decision to withdraw support for UNHRC resolution 30/1 and note that previous domestic initiatives have failed to deliver meaningful accountability. I therefore urge the Sri Lankan Government to engage in a process that has the confidence of all on the island.
“But it would be remiss to state that the current Sri Lankan Government has failed to act. The Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations are to be retained and strengthened, so that communities may build trust. It will be good to see reform of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and progress on the release of political prisoners. We must act as a critical friend to the country. We need to help strengthen democratic institutions, and we must trust Sri Lanka to develop its own judicial and non-judicial mechanisms.
“Since the end of the conflict, reconciliation has occurred among Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities. People are able to live wherever they wish. They benefit from state resources, such as free education and health services. Private land that was occupied by the military has been returned, former conflict areas have been de-mined with assistance from the United Kingdom, and more than 12,000 ex-LTTE— Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—cadres have been rehabilitated. There is greater connectivity throughout the island and globally, and all of this has transformed the business sector and the lives of everyone in the country.
“But we should remember that a fresh resolution and accountability are not a panacea for addressing underlying tensions. Questions about how to address the legacy of the Sri Lankan conflict must be answered: what kind of justice is attainable? How should the victims of violations be treated in the process? What might punishment look like, and how can justice play a constructive role in forging a lasting peace?
“Draft legislation for a truth and reconciliation commission had been prepared under the previous Sri Lankan Government, and that could be revisited. If it gains universal support in Sri Lanka, truth seeking among all stakeholders, including the diaspora in many of our communities and constituencies could make a lasting difference. When these issues have been resolved, a sustainable and acceptable peace will endure. Given the goodwill between our two countries, I ask the Minister: how can the UK help to facilitate a TRC mechanism that is unique to the needs of Sri Lanka?”
Offord took a sensible and impartial stand on the Sri Lanka issue at the poorly attended debate.
Unfortunately, Offord has either deliberately or inadvertently been silent on the need to examine Gash reports pertaining to the Vanni war. The elected House of Commons member owed the public an explanation. Why shouldn’t the Conservative party member ask his government to release the entire set of Gash reports to help ascertain the truth?
Recently, former Sri Lanka Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva told the writer that examination of wartime dispatches from Colombo-based defence advisors and defence attaches would help Geneva to establish the truth. Those who had been pushing Sri Lanka on the human rights front are silent on their own records and tend to depend on faceless accusers. The CJ, 41 was referring to PoE declaration that war crimes accuser wouldn’t be examined till 2031. If Offord is really keen on post-war Sri Lanka reconciliation he should push for a thorough inquiry. By depriving access to wartime British HC dispatches from Colombo, one cannot help with the reconciliation.
The writer is sure Offord understands the British lost credibility by offering sanctuary to LTTE activist Adele Balasingham, wife of Anton Balasingham, British citizen of Sri Lankan origin. Did the British ever inquire into the possibility of Adele’s direct involvement with women suicide cadres? The possibility of Adele knowing the woman suicide bomber who targeted former Indian PM and Congress I leader Rajiv Gandhi can never be ruled out. If New Delhi is really interested in finding the truth it should be the first party to pick up this line of thinking.
How Sri Lanka helped enemy strategy
Sri Lanka facilitated Western strategy against the country by allowing anti-Sri Lanka propagandists a free hand. One-time Deputy Minister and retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera addressing a media briefing organized by civil society organization ‘Eliya’ backing Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature at the 2019 presidential poll said that Lord Naseby’s disclosure could be the basis for Sri Lanka’s defence at the Geneva body. The Navy veteran was flanked by the then The Island political columnist C.A. Chandraprema (our present Permanent Representative in Geneva) and Ven. Medagoda Abhayatissa. Weerasekera, now the Public Security Minister, faulted the yahapalana government for not exploiting Lord Naseby’s revelation to Sri Lanka’s advantage (Lord Naseby’s call to revise Vanni death toll: Parliament faulted for not taking up vital issue – The Island Nov 8, 2017).
The SLPP government certainly owed the public an explanation how it used/failed to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure along with other credible information such as Lt. Col. Smith’s stand at the 2011 Colombo Defence seminar, Wikileaks revelations and still confidential UN report that dealt with the Vanni conflict and placed the total number of dead at 7,721 to build up a strong case.
The writer during separate media briefings during the Yahapalana administration raised the accountability issue and was told by Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Dayasiri Jayasekera the cabinet had never discussed Sri Lanka’s response to alleged war crimes allegations. Fonseka’s colleagues in Nov 2017 (Dayasiri Jayasekera in his capacity as the Cabinet spokesperson) and Aug 2018 (Mahinda Samarasinghe in his capacity as the SLFP spokesperson) revealed a pathetic situation. They acknowledged that the Cabinet of ministers had not discussed Sri Lanka’s defence nor examined the Geneva Resolution. Jayasekera reacted angrily when the writer queried about the lapse on the part of the government. Jayasekera declared that a statement made by Lord Naseby in the House of Lords would be used by the government appropriately at the right time, though the Cabinet was yet to discuss it.
Jayasekera said that they wouldn’t take up issues pursued by The Island the way the newspaper wanted. It had not been taken up by the Cabinet on the basis it wasn’t considered a grave matter, the Minister said. The Minister initially asserted that Lord Naseby’s statement wasn’t directly relevant to the Geneva issue (Cabinet spokesman provoked by query on govt response to Naseby move – The Island Nov 16, 2017).
When the writer asked the then Deputy Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs Dr. Harsha de Silva whether Lord Naseby’s disclosure could be used at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country’s human rights record at Geneva, the then UNPer said that the matter was not directly relevant to the UPR. He was responding to a query by The Island in his capacity as the leader of the country’s delegation to the UPR (The issue never discussed at cabinet: House of Lords statement not directly relevant to UPR-Dr. De Silva – The Island, Nov 14, 2017)
In spite of the change of government in Nov 2019, the country is yet to take tangible measures to expose the Geneva lie. The handling of the 46th Geneva session proved again Sri Lanka’s failure. Those responsible should keep in mind Geneva lie cannot be exposed by propaganda alone.
Blind security sector reforms:
Assurance to US on the size of military
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Defence Ministry recently quoted State Defence Minister, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, as having assured US State Department official, Afreen Akhter, that the military would be ‘right-sized’ to perform their classic role.
The assurance was given on 15 May at his office, in Colombo, just ahead of the14th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when our security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of 19 May with the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) troops wiping out a small group of hardcore LTTE cadres, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Among the dead was LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Why did the State Defence Minister make such a pledge? Did Akhter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asia Bureau of the State Department, seek a clarification as regards security sector reforms? If the military had continued to perform their classic role of being a ceremonial Army, the LTTE could have achieved Eelam. But the nearly three-year long sustained offensive brought the LTTE to its knees, 14 years ago.
Afreen Akhter oversees Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives, as well as the Office of Security and Transnational Affairs.
Her visit was the first by a State Department official, since National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, last month alleged, in a published book ‘Nine: The Hidden Story;, that the US had a direct role in the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year. The former industries minister is on record as having disclosed that US Ambassador here, Julie Chung, personally offered Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena an opportunity to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, regardless of constitutional impediment, to bypassing Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an unannounced visit to his official residence.
Ambassador Chung swiftly rejected the allegation made no sooner ‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ was launched at the Sri Lanka Foundation on 25 April. However, Speaker Abeywardena gave credence to lawmaker Weerawansa’s shocking claim by remaining dead silent.
Since the conclusion of the war, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government quietly began downsizing the SLA, which was little above 200,000 at the height of the war. However, the present government officially acknowledged the downsizing of the war-winning, Army on 13 January, 2023. State Minister Tennakoon was quoted as having said that the SLA strength would be further reduced to 135,000 by the end of next year and 100,000 by 2030.
Of course there cannot be an issue over the need to gradually decrease military strength in peace time, taking into consideration post-war national security requirements and the pathetic economic situation, confronting the country.
Regardless of the developing political-economic-social crisis, it would be the responsibility of the military top brass to brief the political leadership of the ground situation. Post-war national security requirements shouldn’t be looked at only on the basis of economic indicators. That would be suicidal. In other words, the country is in such a precarious situation, political leadership may tend to conveniently ignore basics, especially to please Uncle Sam, the obvious king-maker here now, thereby jeopardizing the country’s national security.
Declaration that the SLA would be reduced to 100,000 by 2030 means the total strength would be cut by half, from its peak.
The Defence Ministry statement didn’t refer to any other issue. But that doesn’t mean contentious issues hadn’t been taken up with Akhter during her visit. The US continuing to needle Sri Lanka, 14 years after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability, despite Washington’s own hands dripping with so much innocent blood from so many of its worldwide military misadventures, to retain its international hegemony, is mired in continuing controversy.
The designation of Sri Lanka’s most successful Navy commander (2005-2009) Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, in late April, this year, over a spate of abductions carried out in 2008-2009, at the height of the war with the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, as was even acknowledged by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, highlighted how the Washington establishment continues to pursue an agenda severely inimical to Sri Lanka.
Sanctioning of Karannagoda is the latest in a series of US measures directed at the war-winning military here. Among the sanctioned are Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and General Shavendra Silva, the controversial travel ban on the celebrated wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 58 Division formerly Task Force 1, the Numero Uno among the SLA fighting formations that literally took the fight to the LTTE, was imposed in Feb. 2020.
Expansion of SLA
The LTTE couldn’t have been defeated if not for the rapid expansion undertaken during the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as Commander of the Army (2005-2009). The SLA lacked the wherewithal to sustain a large scale ground offensive while deploying sufficient troops on a holding role. For want of adequate infantry battalions, the SLA couldn’t undertake large scale offensives, simultaneously. But the rapid expansion, since the launching of operations on multiple fronts, in Vanni, from 1997, paid dividends soon enough.
Sri Lanka should review post-war developments, taking into consideration the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July last year. The overall failure of the security apparatus to meet the public protest campaign that had been backe, clandestinely by the US, as alleged repeatedly by lawmaker Weerawansa, quickly overwhelmed law enforcement authorities and the military. Law enforcement authorities and the military should have been prepared to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately, a public protest campaign that was launched on 31 March, last year, targeting the private residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, exposed the serious weakness in overall government response to hitherto unknown threat.
Military strength should be the prerogative of the government. The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, now headed by retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera MP, should closely examine the developments and take up matters of importance, both in and outside Parliament. It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to consider/implement defence sector reforms at the behest of literally bankrupt external powers, with sinister motives. Defence sector reforms should be in line with overall security-political doctrine, instead of piecemeal restructuring. There cannot be a better example than the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s readiness to enhance the SLA’s strength by nearly 100,000. That decision, taken in the aftermath of Velupillai Prabhakaran declaration of Eelam War IV, in August 2006, was perhaps the single most decisive factor in Sri Lanka’s final victory over terrorism against so many odds placed against it.
In spite of the increasing military strength, as the LTTE gradually stepped up the offensive, and, finally, its threat became conventional in 1990, Sri Lanka never gave a real boost to military personnel numbers as explained in the chart published on this page. The period from 1981 to 1987 can be categorized as the Eelam War l. The Eelam War ll and lll were fought from 1990 to 1994, and 1995 to 2001, respectively.
Sri Lanka launched Division-sized ground offensives during Eelam War lll that began with the sinking of two gunboats, berthed at the Trincomalee harbour, and the downing of two Avros, with 100 officers, and men all, in April 1995, during an informal ceasefire with the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. But the military top brass, or the political leadership, at that time, never felt comfortable in executing a real expansion of the SLA.
In hindsight, they never wanted to go the whole hog. Operation ‘Riviresa.’ launched in Oct. 1995. was meant to bring Jaffna town under military control and consolidate government positions in the Jaffna peninsula. The operation that involved three Divisions was the largest combined security forces campaign until the Vanni campaign in 2007-2009.
However, the SLA never received the boost it desired during Eelam War lll. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga authorized Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ (victory assured) to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna peninsula. Having launched the offensive in May 1997, the government called it off, in 1999, following unbearable debacles. It was a miracle that the Army did not crumble at the time down to Anuradhapura or even beyond with a Commander in Chief like that, who was nothing but a cunning chatterbox with no sense of time. The government quite conveniently refrained from making a real difference on the ground by enhancing the number of infantry battalions available for ground commanders. According to the chart on this page, the SLA strength had been 117,705 officers and men (volunteers included) in 1996, the year before the launch of Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ and by 1999 when it was called off the paid strength in that particular year was 121,473.
The chart reveals a drop in the paid strength in 2000 to 116,739 in the wake of a series of humiliating battlefield defeats, culminating with the worst single debacle in the entire war when SLA abandoned the strategically located Elephant Pass base. A Division plus troops couldn’t repulse the LTTE offensive and the base collapsed in April 2000. Regardless of the Elephant Pass fall, the following year paid strength recorded a marginal increase. According to the chart, the paid strength in 2001 had been 118,331 while the strength dropped again in 2002 and 2003 during the operation of Oslo-arranged infamous Ceasefire Agreement.
The situation started gradually improving in 2004 and by 2007 paid strength stood at 151, 538. Having neutralized the LTTE in the Eastern theatre, the SLA was on the move on the Vanni west in 2007. That year marked the turning point in the war against the LTTE as the latter was overwhelmed on the Vanni front. The opening of multiple fronts on the Vanni theatre wouldn’t have been possible without the continuous flow of fresh recruits for newly raised Divisions as well as Jaffna-based formations.
It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka acquired Mi-24 helicopter gunships in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, MiG27s in 2000 and a range of naval platforms since 1980s, though successive governments that ignored the need to expand the fighting strength. During the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987- March 1990) the military ignored the basic requirement to provide sufficient troops to protect the MSR northwards from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The situation was so bad, Vavuniya-Elephant Pass stretch was held by isolated and poorly manned detachments at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990 following 14-month-long ‘honeymoon’ between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Velupillai Prabhakaran.
At the time Eelam War ll erupted in 1990, the paid SLA strength had been 60,596 whereas it consisted of 37,759 officers and men. Sri Lanka, in 2015, cancelled the war Victory Day parade following Western pressure. The last Victory Day parade was held in Matara in 2014. The rest is history.
Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka
The Popular Sinhala Cinema:
~ Part two ~
by Laleen Jayamanne
Ethnicity perhaps was not a political problem in the fledgling film industry, unlike in the wider political world, after the ‘Sinhala only’ Act of 1956, which made it the sole national language. In fact, without the entrepreneurial skills and vision of a group of indigenous and Indian Tamil businessmen, it’s very likely that the first steps towards the creation of a Lankan film industry of sorts would have been delayed at least by about a decade or so after political independence in 1947. The connection with India was essential. The first Sinhala film Kadawuna Poronduwa (Broken Promise, dir. B.A.W. Jayamanne, 1947), was in fact filmed in a studio in South India, belonging to the Indian producer S.M. Nayagam, who, subsequently, came to Ceylon and established the Sundera Sound Studio and obtained citizenship. The lack of capital, technical know-how, infrastructure and technology meant that the fledgling industry was dependent on India, in several ways, including the robust Indian melodramatic genre films in Tamil and Hindi which provided a durable prototype for many years to come.
However, despite the fundamental contribution of Tamil and Muslim, businessmen, technicians and artists in developing the Sinhala film industry, since the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the history of Sri Lankan cinema is blood stained. The pioneer entrepreneurs who established the national film industry were a group of astute Lankan and Indian Tamil businessmen not unlike the pioneering American Jewish entrepreneurs (immigrants from Eastern Europe), who established the major Hollywood studios in the 1920s in a foreign tongue. Despite this contribution to the national culture, the director K. Venkat was burnt alive in his car in July 1983 anti Tamil pogrom, by a Sinhala nationalist mob. Also, the most high-profiled pioneer film producer and industrialist, K. Gunaratnam’s house was attacked in July ’83 but he managed to escape the mobs and found refuge in the Holiday Inn. But his Vijaya Studio was burned down along with a large number of Sinhala films stored there. A large number of imported modern looms he had stored there, to be installed in a new factory for weaving a specialist textile, were also destroyed. In 1989 a JVP gunman shot him dead in his car, at point blank range, during a period of extreme Sinhala terrorist and state violence, between 1988-89. He donated the Tower Hall cinema, which he owned, to the state at President Premadasa’s request, but I read that there was no visible sign of acknowledgment of this magnanimous, rare, public-spirited gesture of Gunaratnam’s. Gunaratnam has been referred to as a movie Moghul because he established and controlled significant assets in all three tiers of the Ceylon film industry, namely production, importation and distribution and exhibition, from the early 1950’s on, producing Sinhala films that were highly successful at the box office. He also astutely diversified his business portfolios into the manufacture of plastics, and other industries, such as tourism, as it grew in importance after the open economic policies of 1977. Sir Chittampalan Gardiner’s Ceylon Theatres funded Lester James Peries’ Rekava, considered the foundational film for a new realist cinema after the nationalist revival of Sinhala culture in 1956, which also introduced Irangani Serasinghe to film. When this pioneering film flopped at the box office, Gunaratnam took a big risk and funded Lester’s historical epic, Sandeshaya which was a box office hit. This is a turning point in Lester’s career and therefore in the fledgling Lankan film history, too. Jabir Cader owned several theatres, including the New Olympia, where Hollywood films were screened.
Two approaches to Lankan Film History
One might approach Lankan film history from two different perspectives or with two different emphases. The first approach is the perspective formulated by the Royal Commission on the Film Industry established in 1962-1965, chaired by Regi Siriwardena, the eminent film critic and independent scholar. The second approach is one that would ask how the Lankan popular Sinhala cinema was produced from 1947, its economic foundations and examine the specific aesthetic reasons for its durable mass appeal in the country for about three decades, focusing especially on the songs, which is where Rukmani Devi and Master Baig come into the picture.
The huge popular appeal of the genre cinema and its songs and lyrics (printed on attractive song sheets sold at cinemas), rather than the rather poor dances, often as many as 10 songs per film, has been acknowledged and discussed in the circles of older cinephiles, who collected song sheets and Rukmani Devi’s records for instance from their youth. I am not sure what the younger contemporary critical intelligentsia thinks of this past film culture though. Here, Aruna Gunarathna’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lankan film history, as a long term, but now retired, editor of Sarasawiya and his extensive YouTube programmes on the early popular cinema are in a class of their own. He calls himself a ‘pictur-pissa’, someone crazy about cinema as such, a medium like no other. One would also have to agree with the Royal Commission’s approach outlining the reforms needed to create a local product that was economically, aesthetically and culturally viable. This entailed the rejection of the Indian prototypes. Though the exclusive emphasis on vernacular Sinhala subjects and language, effectively implied an erasure through silence, of the ethnic minorities from the new desired model of a national (appema ‘our very own’ Sinhala) cinema. This idea of ‘our very own’, meaning ‘Sinhala only’, is one that had considerable currency then. This desire for ‘original purity’ resulted in considering the popular Tamil and Muslim artists as ‘honorary Sinhala folk’! That these confident artists from the minority communities (with access to other traditons), were all creating together, durable, hybrid films and songs, which also might have resonated with the minority communities in the country. Such a possibility was rarely actively explored, the exception being Garmini Fonseka.
So, it’s a matter of emphasis now, from this historical distance, when we can assess that past in a non-polemical sophisticated way, after a 30 year civil war waged on the competing, exclusionary claims of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. That is, to not simply reject the ‘song and dance’ films, as they were referred to, in a dismissive manner by critics, who called for a true national cinema, which was ‘Sinhala’ in themes and use of language. The emphasis on songs and dance were abandoned in favour of more ‘serious’ concerns. But it’s worth noting that some ‘serious’ directors still loved using songs and those from say Bambaruawaith and Hansavilak scored by Khemadasa master, have by now become classics with their poetic lyrics. However, once a popular cinema is lost it’s not possible to recreate the conditions that gave rise to it, especially its devoted mass fan base in the first instance. This was so with Classical Hollywood cinema during the studio era with its mass audience and it was so with the Sinhala films made during the first 30 years or so. But India remains the striking exception to this mass cultural historical decline, especially after the advent of Television. India with its diverse folk songs, including Thumri and several classical musical traditions (Drupad, Khayal and Karnataka), and vibrant hybrid pop cultures should teach us that musical and cinematic creativity flourishes only when artists are open to outside influences and exchange of ideas. Indian films inherit all of this diverse cultural patrimony with unshaken confidence, while Lankans in power turn inward by sustaining an obsolete idea of cultural purity.
(To be Continued)
By Lynn Ockersz
In cozy Board rooms,
Of the imperiled Isle,
It’s the ‘bigger picture’,
That’s made to count,
And that goes down well,
With those holding the reins,
But the pain is in the details,
And these easily unfaze,
Those of sound conscience,
For, we have unemployed men,
Furiously tramping the streets,
Their tools lying limp on shoulders,
Hunger gnawing at their innards,
Some taking leave of their senses,
To the amusement and laughter,
Of entertainment-starved fellow men.
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