President Gotabaya Rajapaksa however decided that he could still meet the challenges with the powers vested in him. True to his word, the infected clusters were quickly contained. Sri Lanka is yet to face the dreaded second wave that had engulfed most other countries. Though imports were severely controlled, his Administration ensured that there were no shortages of any essentials
by Shivanthi Ranasinghe
Sri Lanka is the first country to defeat “Regime Change”. The fact that this whole operation was reversed by the ballot makes this accomplishment irrefutable. It is after all in the guise of strengthening democracy that this “Regime Change” Operation was launched. Critics have tried to downplay this turn of events by claiming that the voter turnout was the lowest in the decade. With a voter turnout of over 71 percent however, the recently concluded general elections can hardly be considered to have been apathetic.
This election was held at a time that is trying for the whole world. There was an attempt within the country to postpone elections indefinitely and instead for the dissolved Parliament to be recalled. This would have allowed those politicians whose popularity that had nosedived to remain as decision-makers without a people’s mandate.
It is interesting that advocates of democracy found fault with President Gotabaya. They accused him of running the country without a Parliament. However, instead of taking the ground situation into account or exploring ways of safely conducting elections, their expectations were also for the dissolved parliament to be recalled and elections to be postponed. Surprisingly, it did not bother them that such an act would violate the people’s franchise.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa however decided that he could still meet the challenges with the powers vested in him. True to his word, the infected clusters were quickly contained. Sri Lanka is yet to face the dreaded second wave that had engulfed most other countries. Though imports were severely controlled, his Administration ensured that there were no shortages of any essentials.
The Supreme Courts agreed with the President that he had taken the right steps in dissolving Parliament and calling for general elections. Therefore, the onus of holding elections were with the Elections Commission.
The EC that had already postponed elections twice had no other choice but to proceed. By this time, since the Kandakadu cluster, not a single new patient had been identified from within the Island.
It is also noteworthy that independent observers have declared this election to have been both fair and peaceful. Therefore, no one can interpret the two third majority that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Administration received as anything but a clear mandate from the people.
A healthy voter turnout, elections conducted in a peaceful environment despite the trying circumstances and a clear message from the people attests to the strength of the democracy in Sri Lanka. Yet, the silence from the so-called proponents of democracy is deafening.
Mandate Received in
2015n & in 2020
After the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections, many international players as well as independent bodies applauded Sri Lanka for reestablishing democracy. Some even took credit for it. The then US State Secretary John Kerry revealed that nearly USD 800 million of American taxpayers’ money was invested to change the governments of four countries. Sri Lanka was one of them.
Yet, none of the countries that propelled the Yahapalana Government into power enthusiastically extended its support for the 2019 presidential elections. India’s lackluster approach is understandable. As far as India is concerned, the betrayal of leasing of the Hambantota Port to China for 99 years, which can be extended for another 99 years is equivalent to LTTE assassinating Rajiv Gandhi.
During the Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration, the ambitious Chinese-funded projects made India uneasy. The occasional visits from Chinese nuclear subs hardly compares though to the permanent residency Yahapalana Government granted to China with th leasing of the Port.
Absurd amounts of money were spent on the elections by all parties, especially on social media. However, it is not clear if the Yahapalana candidate, Sajith Premadasa received the same or similar support that Maithripala Sirisena did from external bodies.
In 2015, the Yahapalana Government came to power after receiving much support and assistance, especially in social media, from external sources. This was somewhat reminiscent to the LTTE days when the Government troops struggled without weapons comparable to those of the enemy. Likewise, the Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration too could not counter the social media onslaught.
Yet, the mandate the Yahapalana Government received in 2015 was not as clear as that received by the Gotabaya Administration in 2019-2020. By this time, the playing field in social media had leveled out. This allowed the Rajapaksa camp to effectively counter disinformation as well as carry out their own campaigns. Therefore, it is possible to surmise that the voters’ decision was less manipulated in 2019.
Manipulations for a
After Maithripala Sirisena won the 2015 Presidential Elections, he took control of the SLFP. This was a bizarre situation as the SLFP was the main party of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). As such, backed by the UNP, Maithripala Sirisena contested against the UPFA. Thus, when he took over the SLFP, he effectively became the Head of the Government as well as that of the legitimate Opposition.
Sirisena came to power on the UNP vote base on an “apolitical” platform. Hence, the UNP voter was rather taken aback when he become the leader of their arch rival. They however calmed as Sirisena was then able to exert influence over the UPFA, enabling Ranil Wickremesinghe’s minority government to plough ahead unhindered. This allowed the minority government to even tinker with the Constitution.
Except for Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara, the new Opposition was in a confused daze and somewhat cowered by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat. Therefore, they offered zero resistance. Their failure resulted in the 19th Amendment which they too supported. In the course of the next four years, the country was to suffer immensely because of an amendment without due democratic process.
To overcome the failure of obtaining a majority at the 2015 General Elections, Ranil Wickremesinghe formed a National Government. Maithripala Sirisena too helped in this manipulation by convincing about 40 UPFA MPs to join this union. He even replaced the names of those on the list placed before the electorate as National List nominees with defeated candidates who were loyal to him.
This violated the people’s mandate. Candidates rejected by the people do not have the moral right to represent them. Moreover, the National List is a means to bolster the intellectual capacity of the Parliament by inviting highly respected personalities and subject experts with a proven track record. It is most definitely not for candidates scorned by voters. The voters were in effect cuckolded twice because the promised National List was not the one that eventually materialized.
Maithrpala Sirisena’s actual motive was self preservation. Had he not got his own team, he would have been a mere puppet of the UNP. Yahapalana Government supporters argued that this as a progressive move that would end the era of divisive politics with both main parties on the same side.
In reality however, Maithripala Sirisena fortified with a team of his own began to assert his own independence. As a result, the two factions – one led by Sirisena and the other by Wickremesinghe – could not agree on many issues. This indecisiveness led to nine different economic policies within three years. By the fourth year, a Cold War of sorts had set in between the two camps, which led to the catastrophic Easter Sunday massacres.
Before this fission became apparent, the extraordinary lengths the Yahapalana Government went to ensure its dominance in Parliament were heralded as democratic. The various western agents who “dropped in” heaved a sigh of relief “that the era of Mahinda Rajapaksa authoritarianism is over”. It was only after Donald Trump became the US President that ended these visits, which in reality were a trespassing of our sovereignty.
These agents who “oohed” and “ahhed” over the “democratic reforms” ushered in with the Regime Change Operation, refused to see just how much the democratic norms were been violated. Maithripala Sirisena was able to lure only about half of the UPFA MPs. The corruption charges against these MPs miraculously disappeared. Despite the lure of power and perks, 55 MPs refused to be part of the Yahapalana Government. They continued to be persecuted by a special criminal investigation division directed by the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
This group presented themselves as the Joint Opposition (JO) as they contested against the Yahapalana Government. As such, the mandate JO received from their voters was to oppose the Yahapalana Government. Therefore, none of the UPFA MPs had a right to sit with the Yahapalana Government.
JO was the largest group in Parliament as an opposition. Together, this group represented eight of the nine provinces. Yet, Maithripala Sirisena as the President and Karu Jayasuriya as the Speaker refused to acknowledge the JO as the Opposition. Instead, the TNA with its meager presence in the Parliament, representing only two of the provinces was appointed as the Opposition Leader.
While Karu Jayasuriya agreed to treat the ostracized group as a separate entity, he refused to acknowledge the large number in the group. As such, he refused to allocate a reasonable time for the JO to speak in Parliament.
An Opposition Protective of Its Government
The TNA, while accepting the prestige of the position of the Leader of the Opposition, never spoke on any of the National issues. In fact, they barely disguised their complicit partnership with the Government. They never raised an issue over the Central Bank bond scams, even as the interests rates began to rise as a direct rippled effect of these scams. The economic repercussions were enormous as businesses collapsed and cost of living soared. As imports increased while the export markets struggled, the rupee came under intense pressure. The sudden devaluation of the rupee by 31 percent was unprecedented. This in turn increased our debt burden, causing our interest rates to rise even more.
During the tenure of the Yahapalana Government, Sri Lanka experienced a number of tragedies. Droughts and floods are common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Apart from these, the Salawa explosion, the Meetotamulla garbage disaster and the massive Aranayaka landslide took place while the TNA sat as the Opposition. Not a single TNA MP visited any of these disaster sites, nor raised in Parliament the delay in compensating the victims. They did not even raise the issue faced by the Northern fishermen due to poaching by the South Indian fishing trawlers.
The TNA’s focus was holding the Sri Lankan Military accountable for alleged war crimes and gaining more autonomy. These were also the very objectives of the Yahapalana Government. As such, both the Yahapalana Government and the TNA were working in partnership.
While the Yahapalana Government co-sponsored the UNHRC Resolution 30/1, the TNA was formulating a new constitution with irreversible conditions to strengthen the provinces at the cost of the central government. They were thus working on the same project.
Even as the TNA were pushing for more autonomy, they failed to protect the powers they already have at hand. One by one the Provincial Councils became defunct as the PC elections were postponed indefinitely. The very reasons Provincial Councils were created was as a step to redress the grievances of the Tamils in the North and East. Yet, to date they have not expressed any distress over the fact that these councils are no longer functioning. It is ironic indeed that since the expiration of these councils, the provinces are being run by the Government.
It was indeed eyebrow raising when the TNA tried to protect the Yahapalana Government. As the popularity of the Yahapalana Government plummeted, a petrified TNA beseeched India to protect the government. By doing so, TNA must have become the first Opposition to want to protect the sitting government.
Democracy Advocators Break their Silence
Not a single West mentored entity was bothered by these vulgarities that shammed democracy. They continued to be relieved that the Rajapaksas were not at the helm. However, the people have voted with an overwhelming majority the Rajapaksa brothers back to power.
This is very alarming to the West-led foreign media as well as civil groups. They refuse to acknowledge any positive stride taken by the new Rajapaksa headed Administration. Even Sri Lanka’s superb management of the COVID-19 pandemic is met with countless criticism and without a single word of praise or acknowledgment of its remarkable successes. They worry that the “democratic reforms” introduced by the previous government will be rolled back.
Sri Lanka can be assured that the next four years will be a never ending complaint from these entities as they nitpick over isolated incidents and make mountains out of molehills. They may moan and groan, but it is the people in Sri Lanka who has to live with the situation. Therefore, it is the Sri Lankan citizen who must decide what is right and not for Sri Lanka.
Afghanistan: Down the Memory Hole
By Gwynne Dyer
I t’s only one year since the fall of Kabul last August and everybody in the countries that sent troops to Afghanistan has already forgotten about it (apart from journalists in need of a topic in a slow news month). This was predictable, but it is also unfortunate.
The 20-year Afghan war was never more than discordant noises, off-stage, for most people in the rich Western countries that sent troops there, so you can’t expect them to remember the ‘lessons’ of that war. The Afghans never had any real choices in the matter, so they have no lessons to remember. But Western military and political elites should do better.
The first lesson is: if you must invade somebody, do try to pick the right country. Americans definitely wanted to invade somewhere and punish it after the terrorist outrage of the 9/11 attacks, but it’s unlikely that Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers were aware of Osama bin Laden’s plans. The ‘need-to-know’ principle suggests that they were not. The second lesson is: whatever the provocation, never invade Afghanistan. It’s very easy to conquer it, but almost impossible for foreigners to sustain a long-term military occupation. Puppet governments don’t survive either. Afghans have expelled the British empire at its height, the Soviet Union at its most powerful, and the United States.
Terrorism is a technique, not an ideology or a country. Sinn Fein, in early 20th-century Ireland, had the same goal as Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of the 1960s – to expel the British empire – whereas the Western ‘anarchists’ of the early 1900s had no territorial base and (deeply unrealistic) global ambitions. So do the Islamists of al-Qaeda today. There are as many different flavours of terrorism as there are varieties of French cheese, and each has to be addressed by strategies that match its specific style and goals.
Moreover, the armies of the great powers must always remember the paramount principle that nationalism (also known as ‘tribalism’) is the greatest force-multiplier. Western armies got chased out of Afghanistan, a year ago, because they forgot all the lessons they had learned from a dozen lost counter-insurgency wars in former colonies, between 1954 and 1975: France in Algeria and Indochina, Britain in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, Portugal in Angola and Mozambique, and the United States in Vietnam.
The driving force, in all those late-imperial wars, was nationalism, and Western armies really did learn the lesson of their defeats. By the 1970s, Western military staff colleges were teaching their future commanders that Western armies always lose guerilla wars in the ‘Third World’ (as it was still known at the time). The Western armies lose, no matter how big and well-equipped they are, because the insurgents are fighting on home ground. They can’t quit and go home because they already are home.
Your side can always quit and go home, and sooner or later your own public will demand that they do. So you are bound to lose, eventually, even if you win all the battles. But losing doesn’t really matter, because the insurgents are always first and foremost nationalists. They may have picked up bits of some grand ideology that let them feel that ‘history’ is on their side – Marxism or Islamism or whatever – but all they really want is for you to go home so they can run their own show. So go. They won’t actually follow you home. This is not just a lesson on how to exit futile post-colonial wars; it is a formula for avoiding unwinnable and, therefore, pointless wars in the ‘Third World’. If you have a terrorist problem, find some other way of dealing with it. Don’t invade. Even the Russians learned that lesson, after their defeat in Afghanistan, in the 1980s. But military generations are short: a typical military career is only 25 years, so by 2001, few people in the Western military remembered the lesson.
Their successors had to start learning it again, the hard way, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe by now they have, but they’ll be gone, too, before long. This cycle of learning and forgetting again doesn’t only apply to pseudo-imperial wars in the post-colonial parts of the world. The wars between the great powers themselves were having such frightful consequences by the time of the First and Second World Wars that similar disasters have been deterred for more than 75 years, but that time may be ending. Like many other people, I oscillate between hope and despair in my view on the course that history is taking now: optimistic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, pessimistic on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and I refuse to think about it at all on Sundays. Today is a [fill in the blank], and so I’m feeling [hopeful/despairing].
Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s loss should result in breaking down societal imbalances
The river we step in is not the river we stand on
By B Nimal Veerasingham
Years ago, when visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, I found myself wandering through the sprawling campuses of Loyola University. It is not far from the mighty Mississippi river flowing almost 6,000 km and economically powering significant parts of US Upper Midwest. In an unassuming quite corner under a well branched shady tree I noticed a memorial structure commemorating the killing of eight people in El Salvador, including six Jesuit priests in 1989. The six priests were also professors at the university of Central America in El Salvador at that time.
This May, as per Loyola’s ‘Maroon’, at the memorial event held at the Peace Quad at Loyola university New Orleans, now dedicated as a memorial to this tragedy, Prof Alvaro Alcazar addressed the gathering. ‘The colonial power that is still very much in place in Latin America has created a ‘faith’ that is blind to or silent about injustice. It was this faith that inspired the Jesuit’s activism, but it cost them their lives’.The involvement of US in this tragedy was also addressed by Prof. Susan Weisher something the United States has never taken accountability for.
US Foreign Policy
The many contradictions and positivity of US foreign policy and its vast turns and switches in reaching many parts of the world is like the mighty Mississippi that prowls almost through or parts of 32 US States. The depth and power of this vast river cannot be estimated by mere width and length. Hurricane Catarina breaching the dikes nearly destroyed the entire city of New Orleans.
Fr Eugene Herbert memorial
Early this year a memorial statue of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert SJ was declared opened by Rt Reverend Ponniah Joseph, Bishop of Batticaloa in the outskirts of Batticaloa town right by the shores of Batticaloa lagoon. The statue was placed midway between the Batticaloa town, where he lived and taught, and the town of Eravur, where he ‘disappeared’ along with one of his students at the Eastern Technical Institute, where he was a Director. He was on his way on the scooter to arrange a safe way for the nuns trapped in a convent in the nearby town of Valaichchenai engulfed by ethnic riots.
Rev Fr Eugene Herbert was born in Jennings Louisiana. He joined the Jesuits on 14 Aug. 1941, while still in his late teens. He volunteered to join the ‘Ceylon Mission’ and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1948. As in the traditions of Jesuits as providers of high-quality education from their founding of their first school in 1548, Rev Fr Herbert served particularly in two schools in the East, St. Josephs College Trincomalee and St. Michael’s College Batticaloa. It is well known that Education in the Jesuit tradition is a call to human excellence. It develops the whole person from intellect and imagination to emotions and conscience. It approaches academic subjects holistically, exploring the connections among facts, questions. Insights, conclusions, problems and solutions. It has succeeded in a variety of cultures because it adapts to the context of the learner.
Rev Fr. Herbert was a multi-talented genius excelling in music, science, technical studies, vocational studies and to be outdone of it all, in the basketball courts. In all disciplines, he brought a stricter structure that is besides excelling in the fundamentals, incorporating situational strategies encompassing critical thinking and adaptation. This was greatly visible none other than in the basketball courts where he injected exuberance and counter strategies to conventional wisdom. Saint Michael’s College Batticaloa up until his arrival in 1974 just was crawling in all Island Championships more so maintaining the status-quo. But Rev Fr Herbert revolutionised the outcome when Saint Michael’s started winning All Island Championships almost in all age groups against much more resourced Colombo schools.
Excellence in Basketball
Human excellence as we all know is not rocket science but striving to be the best with practice, discipline and endurance. But Rev Fr. Herbert’s presence provided the boys from the East who often lacked a concentrated leadership with clear and precise roadmap. The structural imbalance whether it be not so well built or barefooted at matches, didn’t determine the outcome. Rev Fr, Herbert provided energy and leadership both morally and corporally to the boys of the East who faced systemic roadblocks by not getting the direction and leadership. This was further evidenced by Rev Fr. Herbert’s active and emotional coaching that led the College teams to ignore opponent’s big city environments and large support base, but to keep concentrated on the final execution, the championship.
The referees in matches, where Saint Michael’s played paid greater attention to their decisions something that became standard when dealing with someone who knew the rulebook top to bottom. Rev Fr. Herbert quite often, if not in all matches, where St. Michaels College played could be seen challenging the referees for their inaccurate or missed calls. He always carried a basketball rulebook and could be seen feverishly waving the exact page of the rule and exclaims at top pitch when the referees failed to observe especially when the game was heated, and the difference between was swinging by one or two points.
Reaching the stars
I can remember that Rev Fr. Herbert once refused to participate in a Consolation Finals of a tournament. The team wanted at least to bring home a Consolation Finals Trophy, having failed to reach the finals. Rev Fr, Herbert looked at it differently. ‘We came here for nothing else but for the Championship trophy. Now that we couldn’t, we are catching the 8.00 PM night train tonight back to Batticaloa – and by the way, the practice for the next tournament will begin tomorrow evening, be on time’.
Rev Fr. Herbert’s humanity was visible in practically everything he exemplified, calculating the speed of the travelling train to explaining the mechanism of automobiles and the melodies from his clarinet. Between the matches and practices in Colombo he said mass at the Jesuit residence at Bambalapitiya. As teenagers with expectations we got confused sometimes with his message from the pulpit. ‘We strive to become the best and win. But at times that is not possible, and we have to accept defeat gracefully. But we have to rise again learning from our mistakes’.On another occasion, the security person refused to allow us to sleep on the floor of an enclosed classroom.
The train was late, and it was late in the evening; there was no one to instruct the security to open the classroom. He was ready to allow only the priest to the reserved quarter upstairs. ‘I will stay with the team and do not need any special arrangement,’ said Rev Fr without blinking, sleeping the entire night with us on the ground of an open but roofed half basketball-court, using his cassock as the bedsheet.
Rev Fr. Herbert exemplified through his life the true meaning of his calling and forging a future full of hope to a population that was at the receiving end of things for a longest while.
In one of his last letters to his fellow Jesuit in New Orleans he wrote,’ Enough for our trials. The Lord continues to take care of us. I had really planned to write to USAID for another grant. We are running rehabilitation courses for ex-militants and other youth. Every four months we train 20 boys in welding, 20 in refrigeration repairs and 25 in house wiring. Every six months we train 15 in radio and TV repair. This is in addition to our regular three -year course in general mechanical trades’.
‘Pray for us. God willing the current instability and disturbances will be changed by the time I write again. We are used to vast fluctuations in fortune’.
Rev Fr. Herbert’s letter foretells several aspects of humanity that he was called upon to uphold.
The US continues to provide resources to ensure economic wellbeing, stability and peaceful existence across the Globe. The rule of law cannot be simply behavioral codes or identifying the cause or the culprit but ensuring resources and direction for the citizenry in general to break the cycle and rise above injustice. The rule of law cannot be applied differently to different set of people or on a best effort basis.
Breaking down societal imbalances
El Salvador and Sri Lanka were victims of a vicious violent cycle, where Jesuits lost their lives in obeying to their calls from above in their attempt to remake what it ideally should be. Many lost their lives in these cycles of hatred and violence both ordinary and clergy, including my well-liked and ever smiling classmate Rev Fr Savarimuthu Selvarajah. Fr Herbert’s disappearance galvanizes the distrust in our own destiny; many thousands were killed by fellow citizens than in the nearly 500 years of combined occupation by the foreign colonial powers.
The mighty Mississippi River, which travels almost 6,000 km is hardly comparable to a mere 56 km-long Batticaloa lagoon. Yet the son who was born on the shores of Mississippi became the true son by the shores of the Batticaloa lagoon.
This August 15th marks the 32nd anniversary of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s ‘disappearance’. Ironically, at the time of his disappearance he was a year less a day from celebrating his Golden Jubilee in joining the Jesuits (14th August 1941). No one has been brought to date to justice or rather under the clauses of the ‘rule of law’. The one who held the rulebook up above his head is still denied justice.Batticaloa and the entire Sri Lanka lost one of its true sons, and he just happened to be born in the United States of America.
Vijaya Nandasiri : Losing it in laughs
By Uditha Devapriya
Vijaya Nandasiri left us six years ago. The epitome of mass market comedy in Sri Lanka, Nandasiri belonged to a group of humourists, which included Rodney Warnapura and Giriraj Kaushalya, who redefined satire in the country. Nandasiri’s aesthetic was not profound, nor was it subtle. It was not aimed at a particular segment. Indeed, there was nothing elitist or pretentious about it; if you could take to it, you took to it. It was hard not to laugh at him, it was hard not to like him. Indeed, it was hard not to sympathise with him.
In the movies, Sri Lanka’s first great humourist was Eddie Jayamanne. Typically cast as the servant or bumpkin, Jayamanne could never let go of his theatrical roots. More often than not his laughs targeted a particular segment, so much so that when Lester Peries cast him as the father of the hero’s lover in Sandesaya, he still seemed stuck in those movies he had made and starred in with Rukmani Devi. Many years later he was cast as a close friend of the protagonist in Kolamba Sanniya, in many ways Sri Lanka’s equivalent of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even there, he could not quite escape his origins.
In Kolamba Sanniya, Jayamanne played opposite Joe Abeywickrema. Hailing from a different background, more rural than suburban, Abeywickrema had by then become our greatest character actor. Dabbling in comedy for so long, he found a different niche after Mahagama Sekara cast him in Thunman Handiya and D. B. Nihalsinghe featured him as Goring Mudalali in Welikathara. Yet he could never let go of his comic garb. Cast for the most as an outsider in the cities and the suburbs – of whom the epitome has to be the protagonist of Kolamba Sanniya – Abeywickrema discovered his élan in the role of the man who falls into a series of absurd situations, but remains unflappably calm no matter what.
There is nothing profoundly or intellectually funny in Kolamba Sanniya. Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the humour emerges from the characters’ imperfections and foibles: their way of looking at the world, their accents, their lack of polish and elegance. The dialogues are not convincing, and some of the situations – like the hero’s family discovering a bidet for the very first time – are downright silly, if not condescending. What strengthens the story is Joe Abeywickrema’s performance; specifically, his ability to convince us that, despite the situations he is being put through, he can stand on his own. Like the protagonist of Punchi Baba, left to take care of an abandoned baby, he is helpless but not lacking control. He often makes us think he’s losing it, but then gets back on track.
Vijaya Nandasiri was cut from a different cloth. In many respects he was Abeywickrema’s descendant, yet in many others he differed from him. Whereas Abeywickrema discovered his niche playing characters who could conceal the absurdity of the situations they were in, Nandasiri’s characters could only fail miserably. Abeywickrema convinced us that he was in control; Nandasiri could not. As Rajamanthri, the politician who for most of us epitomised the silliness and stupidity of our brand of lawmakers, he frequently parrots out that he’s an honest man. Abeywickrema could say the same thing and get away with it. Nandasiri could not: when he says he’s honest, you knew at once that he was anything but.
Nandasiri revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune the ubiquitous Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile), though we don’t get why the latter never returns his affections. As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man flirting with his wife, the issue being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married. The whole plot pivots on two things: the fact that his boss doesn’t like him, and the fact that he has to disguise himself as an older husband of his own wife to conceal their marriage from his boss.
In his own special way, Nandasiri went on to represent our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians, by turning them into easily recognisable and easily mockable stereotypes. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold – though his wife only pretends to give in to their employer’s advances – and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure here during the past 20 years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even when playing characters who only vaguely reminded us of him, such as the antihero of Sikuru Hathe.
Many years ago, I watched a mini series on Rupavahini revolving around a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri played the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri’s driver. Early on I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s voice with the other, a trick that survived the first 10 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident that (inexplicably) leaves onlookers and relatives confused as to whose body belongs to whom.
Both are near dying. A quick surgery is hence followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices now revert to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but also a useful trick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the believer in authority and the politician the believer in Marxist politics. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Nandasiri’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him when he was there. For the mini series to work, hence, he had to be himself.
If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he raises in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle in Colombo he gets used to in Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s not a coincidence that, in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, very often in professions that called for security, stability, and status: as a Junior Visualiser in an ad agency in Yes Boss, as the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and as a police sergeant in Magodi Godayi. These symbolised a lifestyle that Nandasiri’s antiheroes sought to subvert and to defy.
Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and serials – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it: in Sikuru Hathe, for instance, he commits one deception after another for his family’s sake, especially his daughter’s.
Where he was paired with another actor, I think, Nandasiri failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are mistaken for two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in a village, he could not really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, he was less than he usually was whenever he was opposite Gamini Susiriwardana. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among a plethora of other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. There are moments in Yes Boss when Lucky Dias nearly outshines him. But Nandasiri gets back on track; he exerts his dominance again.
In other words, Nandasiri could give his best only if his co-star was alive to his range, or if his character was of a lesser pedigree than his co-star. That is what happens in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a fairly good comic actor himself, and because Nandasiri’s character, Hunther, hails from such a different world that the present (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) appears outlandish to him. Hunther to get used to this world, and that means getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.
Vijaya Nandasiri’s ultimate triumph was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Abeywickrema often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his career has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of upping the antagonist, but he does just that, providing us with the final twist in the story.
He couldn’t behave this way as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (the latter played by W. Jayasiri), the film preaches to us a homily on the corrupting influence of power, a warning for all politicians. But then, just as you come to terms with this conclusion, he wakes up; the whole scene, it turns out, was a nightmare.
Ordinarily, you’d think he would learn from such a nightmare. But he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he is soon back to being the pompous figure he always was. Yet in that brief sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about how the corrupt remain corrupt, and how irredeemable they are. Was it a cruel coincidence, then, that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya Nandasiri played Rajamanthri? We may never know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
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