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“The Flyer With a Big Heart”

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Remembering Thibba –

by Nilakshan Perera

My acquaintance with Thibba goes back to March 1979, when I was being inducted as a prefect. As prefects, we had to report to the college and be at the duty points by 6.55am. So I used to travel on the Moratuwa bus instead of my usual 100 Panadura school bus which usually arrived at college by 7.05am, where I met Thibba from opposite Airport Ratmalana, where he was residing down Airport Road. We used to occupy the long seat at the rear of the bus which was shared by the most “mischievous students” on the bus. This friendship blossomed with our shared interests in Cadetting, Cricket, Table tennis, and Swimming. Though Thibba was senior to me by one year we became good friends. After leaving college this great friendship strengthened even further. While Thibba joined the Airforce as an Officer Cadet I had the good fortune to be selected as an Officer Cadet at the Kotelawela Defence Academy (KDA). It so happened that Thibba, TTK Seneviratne, and Ruwan Punchihetti were stationed with us in our final year at the Cadet Wing of KDA in 1985, while doing their flying training attached to Ratmalana Airport which was adjoining KDA. As young cadets we shared many memorable adventures laced with strenuous training, partying, visiting friends, and sometimes playing truant.

 

28th Oct 1985 one of Thibba’s close friends and batchmate Harshan Jayasinghe ( retired as Squadron Leader in Dec 1996, presently residing in Perth Western Australia, Harshan is an experience banker cum lawyer) disclosed to Thibba from Batticolo where he was the OC of SLAF Batticaloa detachment, one of our schoolmates who played in the pivotal position of the full-back for many years in the Ananda Rugby team, SI Athula Perera (fondly known as Sudu Athula) died during a terrorist landmine explosion at Vellavali in Kalawanchikudy. Thibba suggested we pay our last respects and asked me to be ready by 2300hrs and came to pick me on a motorcycle. It was a blue color Honda CD 200 Roadmaster which he had borrowed from a friend of his down Borupone Road. On our way to the funeral house at Maharagama, Thibba asked me to ride as I love riding and especially this CD 200 as it gives a nice beat. When we were there at the funeral house I noticed that late Athula’s IP insignias were placed wrongly, so I rearranged it correctly. Then Thibba said, “You got a good eye for detail Machan, so please do the same at my funeral as well, and check that everything is in its correct place, if I die during the war”. I never realized nor believed it would happen nor the gravity of it. We spent a few hours there and came back via Bellanwila, not forgetting to have a good load of Koththu and Egg Hoppers from a Ra Kade at Bellaththara.

On our last day at KDA in Nov 1985, Thibba exchanged his photograph with me as this was a custom at KDA. TTK and Ruwan Punchihetti too did likewise and this was an emotional time for all of us( I still have those). During this period the War had escalated and we were all well aware we were facing uncertain times. Each of us embarked on our journeys chartering our destinies.

 

I well remember my last meeting with Thibba and that day is vividly etched in my memory. It was on 11th Sept 1995 at Maj Jagath Rambukpotha’s ( retired as Major General on 7th July 2016 as Chief of Staff of the Office of Chief of Defence Staff, General with an abundance of military knowledge. A professional Gunnery Officer, who initiated and put in place many new ventures in the SL Artillery and who wears a pleasant smile always) wedding at Grand Orient Hotel. At our table, either side of me was Thibba, and my Course Officer, Lt Col Jayavi Fernando (An architect of Motive and Fighting skills of Special Forces, led troops from the front in many Special Forces battles and shared the pain. Lethal but human great officer lives in the hearts of as highly respected by his subordinates. Retired as Colonel on 31st Oct 1998 as Brigade Commander of Elite Special Forces ) we were reminiscing of our good old days and all those stories were related by Thibba to my wife Rasadari with great humor and laughter, as Thibba was a great storyteller with a lot of humor and light-heartedness.

 

Thejananda Jayanthalal Chandrasiri Bandara Thibbotumunuwe was born on 8th Nov 1961 to Mr. Ukkubanda Thibbotumunuwe ( A Locomotive Engineer) & Mrs. Somawathi Manike Thiibbotumunuwe (Housewife). He was the 7th child of their family of 9 children. Growing up in a large family may have had a very positive influence on him, as while at school and later on as an Officer in the Sri Lanka Air Force he had proved himself to be an absolute “Team Man” and had always put others before self. This supreme quality of his was displayed to the very end of his life. Like his father and older brother he too had his entire education at Ananda. While in school he was affectionately known as Thibba and even after leaving college this name stuck to him so much so that even after joining the Air Force he would be referred to as Squadron Leader Thibba or even as “Thibba Sir” to some of his juniors.

Even while at school, Thibba’s only ambition was to become a Flyer in the Air Force. His elder brother was an officer attached to Regiment of Artillery ( Maj Gen HB Thibbotumunuwe, retired on 08th Dec 2004, as Quarter Master General) and this too may have inspired Thibba (Jr) to aspire to join the Air Force. While at school Thibba was a keen sportsman. He was a great swimmer having represented the college at the highest level, member of the Under 17 Cricket Team which became All Island Runners up in 1979 under Lasitha Cumarathunge’s Captaincy. Senior Cadet in 1981 which Udeni Jayathillake led the Platoon, and he was also a keen Table Tennis player at college.

 

 

One day Thibba took a News Paper advertisement to his swimming teammate Lasitha Devendra. ( Known as Deva to his batchmates, left the SLAF and presently serves as an IT Consultant, also as a senior IT lecturer in leading state Universities, former Dean of Faculty of Information Technology at Aquinas ) On the same day, they both applied for the Cadetships of SLAF. After successful preliminary interviews, they both with 20 others were finally enlisted to the 11th Intake of Sri Lanka Air Force as Officer Cadets on 18th April 1983. There were 4 from Ananda, Thibba, Razali Noordeen, Lasitha Devendra, and Ushan Wickramasinghe, 3 from Royal, Harshan Jayasinghe, Buwaneka Abeysuriya, Kumar Kiridena, 2 from Nalanda, Chandana Welkala, Mahesh Jayasuriya, 2 from St Thomes’s Mt Lavina, Arulampalam & Kolitha Sri Nissanka, Prashan de Mel from Prince of Wales, TTK Seneviratne from Trinity, Indika Fernando from Joseph Vas Wennappuwa, Harsha Fernando from St Peter’s, Senerath Dissanayake from Gampola Central, Firshan Hassim from DS Senanayake, Rohintha Fernando from St Joseph’s, Suresh Nicholus from Maris Stella Negombo, Asitha Kodithuwakku from St Anthony’s Kandy, Sanjaka Wijemanne from St Anne’s Kurunegala, and Rohan Corea from St Anthony’s Wattala.

 

They were directly sent to Diyatalawa for Basic Military Training. His batch mates got to know the real Thibba during this physically enduring training programs. His patience, comradeship, dedication to supporting others under extreme conditions was par excellence. One can identify their true self only under very hard times during training. Tibba was a great team player. After exhaustive training days, Tibba was used to sleeping the entire night in a seated position and refused to use his arranged bed prepared for the next day’s morning inspections. He always encouraged, supported all his batch mates, and was probably the friendliest colleague to all. After completing the basic course, they were sent to ChinaBay, Trincomalee for their branch specialization training. Thibba was selected to be a pilot with TTK Seneviratne, while 5 joined Technical Engineering Branch and 15 joined Admin / Regiment Branch.

 

After being Commissioned as a Flyer Thibba was fully engaged in the flight operations of the Transport Squadron. He was very well conversant as a Captain of Y-8, Y-12, AN 32, and AVRO aircrafts used for air transportation of Troops and Logistics of the Three Services. Under normal situations, SLAF Base Ratmalana was the main airfield used for operating transport flights to Palaly, China Bay. Batticoloa, Vavuniya, etc. However when the ongoing war intensified SLAF decided to use SLAF Base Anuradhapura as the Central Airfield so that it could increase the number of sorties done per day as a result of this reduced flight time, enabling better utilization of available resources. During this period Thibba as well as other flyers were starting flights early in the morning and continuing till late at night. Their selfless, dedicated, and unconditional services were unmatched and greatly admired and appreciated by everyone in our Tri Forces. Thibba was a very familiar figure to everyone who sought Air passage for their leave or getting back to service.

 

In mid-1990 the LTTE suddenly started attacking military camps in the East. At that time SLAF had only Italian made SIAI-Marchetti SF 260TP as ground-attack aircraft powered by a single Allison 250 Turboprop engine which could carry only 2 X 100Kg bombs as external loads. The entire fleet was fully deployed for air to ground attacks. These aircraft were stationed at Hingurakkoda, even though it was not a Base Camp then. At that time SLAF was short of qualified pilots for SIAI-Marchetti aircraft. As such few pilots including Thibba, Harsha Abeywickrama (a former Commander of the SLAF in 2012-14 and retired as Air Chief Marshel) RP Parkiyanathan ( Wing Commander died, on 13th Sept 1995 Aircraft crash), Bandu Kumbalathara ( retired as Wing Commander in 1999) who were flying transport flights volunteered to fly SIAI- Marchetti Aircraft. Once Thibba had been on a mission to destroy LTTE targets and after accomplishing it returned to base. Soon after he touched the runway the engine had stalled. The Engineering Officer in charge of the fleet, Flight Lieutenant Ruwan Upul Perera (retired in 2005 as Wing Commander) had got the ground crew to tow the aircraft to the Parking Apron. Subsequent checks revealed that the engine stopped due to fuel starvation as Thibba had used maximum fuel that was available to accomplish the mission to the best of his ability, Thibba was solucky that day that he could make a safe landing. If his mission got delayed by another few seconds he would have been in great danger.

 

Another incident was when Thibba was flying from Palali to Ratmalana with 120 soldiers on board coming on leave. When he was about to land he observed on the control panel that the wheels were not coming out for landing. Now his only option was to attempt a crash-landing without the wheels. To minimize the risk of a fire and even a possible explosion Thibba decided to empty the fuel tank by flying a few rounds above the sea and do a belly landing at Ratmalana. While he was flying around the Airport, a higher rank army officer who was on board had asked, “Aren’t we landing?” Thibba answered quietly and calmly that there was a problem with the landing gear and that he was trying to empty the fuel tank so that the risk of fire will be minimized while landing. After listening to this, everyone was most anxious and extremely worried. By now the airport control tower was informed and all firefighters and other emergency procedures were ready on either side of the runway. When he approached the runway to crash-land, Air Traffic Control had informed that the wheels had come out to do a normal safe landing. It turned out that it was only a faulty indicator on the control panel. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they heard that they can safely land. While everyone on board was anxious and even panicked, Thibba had been as cool as a cucumber even in the face of death. That speaks volumes for the great temperament of this gallant flyer. Thibba was a very skillful and adventurous pilot.

 

When Palali was under siege in the early 1990s and an Aircraft could not land, Thibba innovated new landing techniques, which surprised the SLAF top-brass, and continued to deliver rations and military hardware to troops stationed in the North. Once, at an airshow in China, Thibba piloted a Y-12 Chinese-made aircraft, and the maneuvering techniques he displayed astonished all the spectators, including the aircraft manufacturers. Thibba, with over 5000 flying hours, was not only one of the most experienced pilots, he was one of the most innovative pilots and was able to “make even the impossible possible.”

 

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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Solidarity and Aragalaya: A few thoughts from an educationist’s perspective

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by Harshana Rambukwella

Very little in Sri Lanka at the moment inspires hope. We are facing an existential crisis that was inconceivable just six months ago. Sri Lanka is also, ironically, just a year away from marking the 75th year of its independence. As we reflect on these seven decades of postcolonial nation building, and as we confront a future of extreme precarity, our scorecard as a country is not a proud one. Much blood has been spilt in the name of postcolonial nation building and the ethno-nationalist conflict that shaped almost three decades of that history and two youth rebellions against the state speak to a history of division and enmity. While our current predicament cannot be entirely attributed to this conflictual history alone, it surely played more than a small role in shaping our present misery. It is within this context that I want to offer this brief set of reflections on what I feel is an unprecedented form of solidarity that has emerged in Sri Lanka as the aragalaya took shape. While I do not want to romanticize this solidarity because it is a highly contingent phenomenon and is shaped by the extreme nature of the current political and economic conditions, it offers us as a society, but more specifically as educators, something to reflect on as we try to imagine our role in a society that faces a painful process of rebuilding and recovery (though my hope is that such rebuilding and recovery does not mean the repetition of the tired old neo-liberal script we have followed for decades).

Before I explore what I mean by solidarity within the aragalaya, let me briefly reflect on solidarity as a concept. Solidarity is a term sometimes deployed in geopolitics. Particularly in this time of global turmoil where not just Sri Lanka, but many other countries are experiencing serious economic challenges, we see nations expressing solidarity with or towards other nations. However, such solidarity is almost always shaped by instrumental motives. This is what we might call a form of ‘vertical’ solidarity where more powerful and wealthy nations extend a ‘helping hand’ to their more unfortunate counterparts. Therefore, when India says ‘neighbourhood first’ and expresses solidarity with Sri Lanka in this time of trouble one can easily discern this as a hierarchical gesture shaped by instrumental motives. It is in reality, India’s strategic geopolitical interests that largely dominate this narrative of solidarity though one cannot disregard the critical importance of the assistance extended by India and other such ‘powerful’ nations in this time of national distress.

Another form in which solidarity manifests is through what some scholars have termed ‘enchanted’ solidarities. This is literally and metaphorically a distant form of solidarity where intellectuals, activists and others extend solidarity towards a struggle they perceive as deserving their support but without truly understanding the context in which they are intervening. This has often happened with ‘first world’ academics and intellectuals expressing solidarity towards ‘third world’ struggles which they felt were ideologically aligned with their beliefs. One example is how many liberal and leftist intellectuals supported the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, believing it to be an anti-imperial liberation movement, only to become disillusioned with the movement as they began to see the full horror of the repression and violence unleashed by the Khmer regime. I think if we reflect on Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history, we can also find many such moments where enchanted solidarities were expressed towards various movements from people in the ‘metropolitan’ center with little understanding of the nuances of the politics on the ground.

Premised against both vertical and enchanted solidarities, scholars have also proposed what is called ‘disenchanted solidarity’. By this they mean a situation where diverse groups, sometimes with very different political and ideological agendas, come together to fight for a common cause. They are often critically conscious of their differences but face a common precarity that pushes them together to struggle and align in ways that were not possible before. Often such moments are also underwritten by anger, though the sources of anger or the objects towards which the anger is directed could be different. I would like to read the aragalaya through this lens of disenchanted solidarity. Particularly at the height of the Galle Face ‘Gota go gama’ protests – before the brutish May 9th attack symbolically ‘killed’ something of the ‘innocence’ of the struggle – there was a sense in which the different groups represented in that space were expressing solidarity towards a singular goal – getting rid of the Rajapakasas and a political system they saw as deeply corrupt – there was anger and a gathering of disenchanted solidarities. For many middle-class people, the aragalaya was a way in which to express their frustration at the lack of the basic necessities of life – be it gas, electricity and fuel – and how a corrupt political class had robbed them of their future. For those with longer histories of political activism such as the IUSF (the Inter University Students Federation) or youth activists from the Frontline Socialist Party or the JVPs youth wing or the many trade unions that supported the aragalaya, this moment in some ways represented the culmination, and perhaps even a vindication, of their longstanding struggles against a political, social and economic order that they consider fundamentally unfair and exploitative. Of course, within this larger narrative, there were and continue to be pragmatic political calculations, particularly from groups affiliated with political parties. At the same time, we also witnessed ethnic and religious minorities, often historically marginalized in Sri Lanka’s social and political mainstream finding a rare space to express their anger at the ways in which they have been discriminated against. However, the argalaya gave them a rare space to do so by channeling their anger as a form of solidarity towards the common goal of getting rid of the Rajapaksa dynasty and the corrupt political system as a whole.

But at the same time, we also saw the tenuous nature of these disenchanted solidarities in the aftermath of the 9th May attack on ‘Gota go gama’. Initially we saw another spectacular display of organic and spontaneous solidarity when health workers and office workers abandoned their workstations and rushed to ‘Gota go gama’ when news of the attack broke. But by the evening of that day the story had turned more insidious with a wave of attacks against the properties of politicians and others thought to have been involved in the attack against the peaceful aragayala participants. While we may understand and even empathize with this backlash, its violent nature and what appeared to be other instrumental motives driving it, such as the looting and revenge attacks, made it difficult to associate it with the moral principles that had animated the aragalaya thus far.

Thereafter, at the current moment I am writing, the aragalaya also appears to have lost some of its vital energy as the political configuration has shifted and the tragi-comedy of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik with its underhand deals and political mechanizations seems to have regained the upper hand.

However, what does this mean? Does it mean post May 9th the aragalaya has lost its meaning and purpose or can we push our analysis a little deeper. At this point I would like to introduce one final way in which scholars have discussed solidarity which I feel is appropriate to understand the aragalaya and the spirit that underwrote it and continues to underwrite it. This is what some scholars have called ‘deep solidarity’ – a situation where in today’s neo-liberal context where the vast majority of the population come to a realization of their common social and economic predicament and realize their common enemy is the symbolic ‘one percent’ or an insidious nexus between crony capital and political power that disempowers them. This is of course an idealistic conception but one which I feel holds true at least partially to this moment in Sri Lanka. People from widely varying social and economic strata, from different religious persuasions and people with wildly different ideological and political beliefs have been suddenly pushed together. They are all standing in the never-ending petrol and diesel queues, they are desperately hunting for the next cylinder of gas and increasingly many of them are going hungry. The privileges and the divisions that once defined them, no longer seem to be so ‘real’ and the one stark reality confronting them is a form of existential annihilation. I believe within the aragalaya we can glimpse traces of this deep solidarity and as an educationist I think it is our vital task to think of creative ways in which we might sustain this solidarity, grow it and nurture it, so that we can at least ‘imagine’ a better future. These are idealistic sentiments, but at least for me, such hope, is a political and pedagogical necessity of the current moment.

Harshana Rambukwella is attached to the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University of Sri Lanka

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies

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No solutions to nation’s problems from draft constitutional amendment

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by jehan perera

The three-wheel taxi driver did not need much encouragement to talk about the hardships in his life, starting with spending two days in the petrol queue to get his quota. He said that he had a practice of giving his three children a small packet of biscuits and a small carton of milk every morning. But now with the cost tripling, he could only buy one packet of biscuits and his three children had to share it. This is because their beloved country is facing one debacle after another for no fault of those kids or the larger nation. The latest is the failure of the government to make headway in accessing either IMF funding or other funding on any significant scale. Several countries have made donations, but these are in the millions whereas Sri Lanka requires billions if it is to come out of its vicious cycle of a dollar shortage.

There was much anticipation that the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would bring in the billions that are desperately needed by the country if it is to obtain the fuel, food and medicines to keep the people healthy and the economy moving. But things have not worked out in this manner. The pickings have been slim and sparse. The IMF has given the reasons after the ten day visit by its staff to Sri Lanka. They have specifically referred to “reducing corruption vulnerabilities” in their concluding statement at the end of their visit. The international community in the form of multilateral donors and Western governments have prioritized political stability and a corruption-free administration prior to providing Sri Lanka with the financial assistance it requires.

The pressing need in the country is for the government to show there is political stability and zero tolerance for corruption in dealing with the prevailing crisis. It is not enough for government leaders to give verbal assurances on these matters. There needs to be political arrangements that convince the international community, and the people of Sri Lanka, that the government is committed to this cause. Several foreign governments have said that they will consider larger scale assistance to Sri Lanka, once the IMF agreement is operational. So far the government has not been successful in convincing the international community that its own accountability systems are reliable. This is the main reason why the country is only obtaining millions in aid and not billions.

INDEPENDENT COMMISSIONS

The draft 22nd Amendment that is now before the parliament (which will become the 21st Amendment should it be passed) would be a good place for the government to show its commitment. The cabinet has approved the draft which has three main sections, impacting upon the establishment of the constitutional council, the powers of the president and dual citizenship. However, the cabinet-approved draft is a far cry from what is proposed by the opposition political parties and civil society groups. It is watered down to the point of being ineffective. Indeed, it appears to be designed to fail as it is unlikely to gain the support of different political parties and factions within those parties whose support is necessary if the 2/3 majority is to be obtained.

In the first place, the draft constitutional amendment does not reduce the president’s power in any significant manner. The amendment is drafted in a way that the reduction of presidential powers will only occur with the next president. The president now in office, who has publicly admitted failure on his part, continues to be empowered to appoint and sack the prime minister and cabinet ministers at his arbitrary discretion. He is also empowered to appoint and dismiss the secretaries to ministries, who are the highest-ranking public service officials. In short, the executive arms of the government are obliged to do the president’s bidding or risk their jobs. This indicates the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose party has only a single seat in parliament, has no independent strength, but is there at the will and pleasure of the president.

In the second instance, the draft amendment was expected to set up a system of checks and balances for accountability and anti-corruption purposes. The pioneering effort in this regard was the 17th Amendment of 2001 that made provisions for a constitutional council and independent commissions. According to it, the members of all state bodies tasked with accountability and anti-corruption functions, such as the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission, the Public Service Commission and the appointees to the higher judiciary were to be appointed through the constitutional council. The 17th Amendment made provision for seven of the ten members of the constitutional council to be from civil society.

DEATH BLOW

Unfortunately, in a manner designed to deal a death blow to the concept of checks and balances, the draft amendment sets up a constitutional council with the proportions in reverse to that of the 17th Amendment. It reveals a mindset in the political leadership that fears de-politicisation of decision making. Seven of the ten members will be appointed by the political parties and the president in a way in which the majority of members will be government appointees. Only three will be from civil society. This ensures a majority representation in the Council for government politicians, and the ensures government dominance over the political members. The composition of the constitutional council proposed in the Bill undermines the independence of the institutions to which appointments are made through the Council who will be unable to stem the wildly growing tide of corruption in the country.

It is no wonder that the furious people in the endless queues for petrol and diesel should believe that there is corruption at play in the continuing shortage of basic commodities. The government promised that ships would come in laden with fuel a week ago. Then, inexplicably, the information was disseminated that no ships were on the horizon. In any other country, except in a country like no other, the concerned leaders would have resigned. Due to the lack of fuel, perishable farm produce rots in rural farmhouses and markets in urban centres are empty and prices are rocketing up. In the meantime, the media has exposed rackets where the privileged, politically powerful and super rich, are given special access to fuel. It is patently clear that the government has failed to deliver on the results that were expected. The situation is getting worse in terms of corrupt practices.

To the credit of the Sri Lankan people, they are being patient. The bonds of social solidarity still prevail. But the anger at the self-seeking and incompetent political leaders is reaching the boiling point, as it did on 09 May. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government. The president’s pledge, made in the aftermath of the cataclysmic and unexpected violence that took place that day, was to reduce his presidential powers, transfer those powers to parliament and to appoint an all-party and interim government of no more than 15 ministers. These pledges remain unfulfilled and need to be implemented to be followed by elections as soon as the situation stabilises.

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Kehelgamuwa’s football skills and President Premadasa’s political sagacity

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By Hema Arachi

T.B. Kehelgamuwa, the cricketer who needs no plaudits from anyone, is well known. He represented then Ceylon and, later, Sri Lanka as a fearsome fast bowler during the pre-Test era. His contemporaries still talk about Kehel with great respect. Once S Skanda Kumar, the well-known cricketer, cricket commentator and former High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to Australia, proudly told me about his playing cricket with Kehelgamuwa. Bandu Samarasinghe, a Sri Lanka film star, on a TV programme vividly demonstrated how he faced Kehelgamuwa in a Sara Trophy game. That was the top-level tournament in the country.

This note is to share my watching Kehelgamuwa playing soccer when he was not so young. Then, though his grey hair was visible, he ran fast and played hard like a teenager. This was during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. Returning from The Netherlands, after my postgraduate studies, I lived in Pelawatta, near the Sri Lanka Parliament and my workplace – International Irrigation Management Institute headquarters. I used to enjoy walking on Parliament grounds. That day was unique because the game between the President’s soccer team, comprising parliamentarians, and the Sri Lanka Police team, was played there.

President Premadasa was well known for his political sagacity, especially in manipulating any situation in his favour. For instance, the day Anura Bandaranayake became the Opposition Leader, Premadasa, praised Anura stating, “Anura is the best Opposition Leader we have.” He further requested that Anura join the ruling party and become a minister and also marry a girl from a prominent ruling party family. But within weeks, he was critical of Anura. One day an Opposition member asked him, “You said Anura was our best Opposition leader a few weeks ago but now criticise.” His reply was this: “Yes, I said so because Anura is the best Opposition leader for us, the ruling party, not for the Opposition. For the Opposition, the best leader is Sarath Muththetuwegama!”

A few weeks before the scheduled encounter between the Parliamentarians and the Police football team, there was a game between the Parliamentarians and the Colombo Municipality team. Premadasa captained the Parliamentarians and kicked the winning goal. I remember a cartoon in a newspaper where the Municipality team goalkeeper withdrew so that Premadasa could score the goal at his will.

During the game against the Police, Premadasa did not play but visibly played the role of the coach of the Parliamentarian team. Unlike the Municipality players, the Police played the game seriously. Kehelgamuwa represented the Police team that scored five goals by halftime, and the Parliamentarian team was nil. At halftime, Premadasa replaced the Parliamentarian goalkeeper with Jayawickerama Perera. Yet, the Police team recorded a sound victory.

I thought Premadasa was upset due to this defeat for his team. But no. Premadasa claimed victory: “I am happy that my team won the game by beating the Parliamentarians today! Being the Executive President, I do not belong to the Parliament. However, as the Commander-in-Chief, the Police come under my purview, so my team won today!”

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