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“The Flyer With a Big Heart”

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Continued from Last Sunday

by Nilakshan Perera

Thibba met Asintha Jayawardane, former Vishaka Vidyalaya Western Band Leader, through his batch-mate and pilot buddy TTK Seneviratne ( who died in an SIAI-Marchetti crash at Beruwala on 26th March 1986 with pilot, Officer Cadet Ruwan Punchihette). Asintha is TTK’s cousin. After a few years of association, they got married on 8th March 1990. Asintha and Thibba had decided to stay at Ratmalana Married Officer’s quarters. They were blessed with two sons, Menuka and Diluka.

Thibba was a very trusted and very sincere friend to many. He was chubby, round-faced and always with a smile, blessed with a great sense of humor and was extremely kindhearted and sympathetic towards everyone. These qualities were displayed many times to security force personnel who were at Palali Airport waiting desperately to go back home. Especially if your name was not in the flight manifest, you earnestly prayed to be sent by Thibba in his AVRO, Y-8, or Y -12. If he comes, he will ensure that you will be onboard. There was a period where Thibba was flying AVRO aircrafts continuously without any rest. Nobody knows how many casualties he flew. He had spoken to most of them personally, and reassured them, wishing them a speedy recovery. How many lives Thibba has saved is anyone’s guess. On many occasions, he has gone to the extent of arranging his vehicle to transport colleagues to let them attend family events, like birthdays or weddings. He has also spoken to his Zonal Commander during the flight and has arranged transport for others on many occasions regardless of rank or file.

‘No’ and ‘can’t’ were nonexistent in his vocabulary. If anyone ever wanted anything of him, he would do his utmost to oblige. He would even go to the extent of bending the rules as his desire to be of help to others took precedence over everything else. In short, “he had a heart of gold”. To add to his heart of gold he was blessed with exceptional skills and nerves of steel. He was a pilot par excellence. Adverse and risky encounters he took on his stride. It was almost second nature to him. On two occasions he had landed SLAFs “trusted Old War Horse” Avro’s with jammed nose wheels, for example. His dedication and commitment to duty were way beyond what was expected and he had been commended personally by the Commander of the Air Force on several occasions.

Operation Rivirasa was a combined military operation launched by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in Jaffna in October 1995. The primary objective of the operation was the capture of the city of Jaffna and the rest of the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE It is believed that Operation Riviresa was the largest and most successful military operation at that point in time. SLAF flights were fully engaged with heavy flying commitments and SLAF had lost three Transport and Ground Attack Aircraft during 1995 due to terrorist missile fire and none of them survived. The ever-present possibility of a surface-to-air missile was a relatively new phenomenon in the war and even though the pilots were well aware of the imminent danger there were many brave pilots like Thibba who volunteered to fly to Palali to facilitate troop movements and keep the vital air supply line open.

On 18th Nov 1995, there was a very important flight to be made, with a consignment of urgently needed military cargo for advancing troops of Operation Rivirasa as they were just two kilometers from the City of Jaffna. Around 6.00 am on that fateful day Thibba on his Maruti Jeep went to pick Sqd Ldr Lalith Nanayakkara,and then to pick up Sqd Ldr Bandu Kumbalathara. The flight was a Y-8 that could carry 120 onboard or 20,000kgs of cargo. Onboard with Thibba as Captain, Copilot Sqd Ldr Bandu Kumalatara, Squadron Leader Lalith Nanayakkara as Engineering Officer with Flight Lieutenant Prasanna Balasuriya as communicator, Flying Officer Sanjeewa Gunawardena the navigator, and Corporal Jayasinghe as loadmaster. They took off from Ratmalana by 6.50 am. When they hit 13,000 feet and approached Mannar Island they were all alert and serious about the territory and maintained a safe distance from the coastline to avoid possible ground attacks by the terrorists. Using a pre-arranged coded message Thibba informed the Palali control tower of their estimated time of arrival and started descending. Thibba reduced the engine power and set the Y – 8 in the descending altitude. The most prudent and safes air-path to Pallali was over the sea as the runway was only one kilometer from the coastal belt. Flying Officer Sanjeewa Gunawardane was searching for any unidentified boat movements as the sea was very calm. The flight now descended to 500 feet and speed was almost 300 kmph. They were 7-8 Kms from the airfield but over the sea as they did a low-level approach to avoid possible enemy missile attacks from the uncleared Thondamannar area. SL Navy Dvoras were visible patrolling the area as well as an armored helicopter already placed on their approach path to protect the Y-8. They descended to 300 feet now, and the runway and Palali communication tower were visible. Just then the navigator Fly Off Sanjeewa Gunawardane shouted “two high-speed boats are approaching on our left.” At the same time, Palali Control Tower also informed the same but before they could complete the message they heard the loud explosion on the left-wing.

Simultaneously the Aircraft went into an uncontrollable nosedive. Thibba and his co-pilot Kumbalathara tried their best to control the plane but within a few seconds of the explosion, the Shaanxi Y- 8, one of the most popular Aircraft of SL Security forces crashed into the sea almost 3 kms from the coastline with 6 persons onboard and a payload of 35,490Kgs. Before the huge aircraft submerged Thibba, Co-pilot, and Flight Engineer managed to creep through a window and get out of the Aircraft. They removed their boots and were floating expecting the hovering Helicopters which were giving air cover or Naval boats which were giving sea cover to come and rescue. Both Thibba and his Copilot were great swimmers having participated in the Mt Lavinia 2 miles swimming event as schoolboys, but unfortunately, the Flight Engineer was not good at swimming. By this time they were caught in the crossfire between Navy and LTTE. Flight Engineer Sqd Ldr Lalith Nanayakkara was a big made officer and bigger than Thibba. Thibba tried his best to hold him and swim and Kumbalatara drifted away with the waves. The rest of the crew were sadly trapped in the aircraft not being able to come out and they went down with the Aircraft. The BELL 212 helicopter which was hovering above was unable to reach them as the fire from LTTE was so intense. The Helicopter crew spotted the copilot who was drifting towards the other side and they threw an inflated tube connected to a lifeline and rescued him into the chopper.

Later Thubba and Lalith Nanayakkara were spotted floating very close to each other and their heads were beneath the water. They both were unconscious and the helicopter crew could not take them on board and the pilot directed Naval crafts to that location and flew off to Palali. Naval crafts managed to reach Thibba and Nanayakkara and took them to Palali Military hospital, but sadly by that time both were pronounced dead.

Wing Commander TJCB Thibbatumunawe RWP had made the supreme sacrifice not just protecting his Motherland but also doing his utmost to save his friend and colleague. Later that afternoon a Sri Lanka Air Force Antonon AN 32 carried the bodies of Thibba and Nana to Ratmalana. The next day the body of Bala was found trapped inside the ill-fated aircraft by divers but the bodies of Fly Officer Sanjeewa Gunawardane and Sgt Jayasinghe were not found. Thibba being an experienced swimmer and lifeguard had done his utmost to help his Flight Engineer even at the last minutes of his life. Thibba being a strong swimmer there was every possibility that he could have saved himself by swimming towards one of the Naval vessels which were in the vicinity. But our Thibba, “The Lion Heart” ,was not going to let go of his mate to save himself.

Thibba’s body was taken to their residence at Wewalduwa Road Kelaniya and the funeral was held on the 20th evening with full Military Honors at Borella Kanatta amidst a large gathering of Military personnel, his college friends, and relatives. To bid my final farewell to my dear friend Thibba was a heart-wrenching moment for me. What he said to me at our former schoolmate IP Athula Perera’s funeral was ringing in my ears –”You got a good eye for detail Machan, so please do the same at my funeral aswell, and check that everything is in its correct place, if I die during the war”. Through tear-filled eyes, when I looked, there was nothing left for me to do, everything was in perfect order. Only survivor Wing Commander Bandu Kumbalathara retired from SLAF in 1999 and is now a Captain for Sri Lankan flying A320/A330.

At the time of Thibba’s sudden demise, his loving wife Asintha was six months pregnant with their third son. The eldest Menuka was just 5 years and Dliuka was 3 1/2 years. Asintha being a courageous lady singlehandedly brought up the 3 children with sheer dedication and commitment. She volunteered to offer her services at Ananda primary Library as Librarian until her three sons completed their primary schooling. She was a dedicated mother and was right behind her three sons when they were doing after school activities. She truly was Mother Courage personified. Like Thibba all three sons were highly involved in Swimming and Basketball and they won Island championships while representing Ananda. The eldest, Menuka, joined Sri Lanka Air Force as a Pilot like his beloved father and he is a Flight Lieutenant and Helicopter Pilot based in Anuradhapura Air Base MI Squadron.

Menuka married Sahani Jayathilake ( Familien, Executive in Commercial Bank) on 16th May 2019 and were blessed with a baby boy, Ayuk Kiveth Bandara Thibbotumunuwe ( 4th Generation of Anandians)

Second son Diluka, former National record holder for breaststroke with many national records for swimming and also a South Asian Games Bronze Medalist while still a schoolboy at Ananda joined Sri Lanka Navy and is presently holding the rank of Lt attached to an Auxiliary Vessel A521 as a Diving Officer. Diluka is a qualified Diver having completed specialized courses in China and India and winning the accolades of Best Clearance Diving Officer and Best Combat Diver. Diluka got married to Madusha Welihinda (Vishakian, Senior Software Engineer at IFS) on 8th January 2020.

The youngest son, Chamika, who had not seen his father, is reading his MBA at the University of Wolverhampton after graduating with first-class Honors.

It is now 25 years since Thibba left us forever. We all miss him dearly but still relive some of the wonderful memories he left us with. Where ever he may be his heart must be filled with pride at how his boys have turned out to be. Asinitha the love of his life took on the mantle of bringing up his sons for both of them. How proud and happy he would have been to be with his family and friends today. We miss you Thibba but we all are so proud and privileged to have known you and thankful for the time we shared with you. I wish to end this tribute to my gallant friend with the following dedication to Thibba.

 

With nerves of steel and a heart of gold

Thibba you Legend – our Flyer so bold

Three sons and a loving wife, you cherished to hold

You left behind with sorrow untold.

You served Sri Lanka with flamboyant flair.

Always considerate kind and fair

You flew many sorties with no rest or care

You were the best – a flyer so rare.

From where you left, your sons take on

Protecting Lanka – their lives go on

Brave Flyer, true friend, you soldier on

You may be gone but your legend lives on…….

 

May you Rest In Peace my gallant friend and may your journey through Sansara be short.



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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