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The Year of Darkness

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BY SUMI MOONESINGHE

narrated to Savitri Rodrigo

July 1983 was one of the darkest months this country has ever experienced. It was then that I saw my countrymen turn on each other and where barbarism outweighed every Buddhist precept upon which the country had built its foundations. Black July is what it came to be known as – or Kalu Juliya –the anti-Tamil pogrom that was triggered by a deadly ambush in Jaffna by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which resulted in the deaths of 13 army soldiers. Believed to have been orchestrated by some members of the UNP, by July 24, anti-Tamil rioting had spread across the city of Colombo and quickly to other parts of the country.

The day the riots began, Susil and I had been on holiday in Nuwara Eliya and were driving back. Going past the junction of Kanatte, the main cemetery in Colombo, we noticed a large crowd gathered but didn’t take too much notice of it. When we got home, we heard that the bodies of the 13 soldiers killed by the LTTE had been brought to Colombo for interment. The Government made a colossal mistake with that decision.

The LTTE had been founded way back in 1976 with the aim of securing an independent Tamil Eelam, or separate in north-eastern Sri Lanka as a response to what was was widely considered successive governments being discriminatory towards the minority Tamils. There had been anti-Tamil pogroms in 1956 and 1958, carried out by the majority Sinhalese, and oppressive action which caused the eventual genesis of the LTTE leading to yet another anti-Tamil pogrom in 1977. The subsequent burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981 added to the woes and was widely believed to be sanctioned by the incumbent government.

But it was with the deaths of these 13 soldiers and the anti-Tamil pogrom carried out by Sinhalese mobs in July 1983 that fuelled a full-scale escalation of violence that would ruin the country for nearly three decades.

When Susil heard about the mass funeral being held in Kanatte, he predicted problems for the country. There were rumbles of impending riots and on hearing these, we phoned some of our friends and told them to be vigilant as trouble may be brewing. In fact, I remember Susil asking them not to stay in their homes but to move to safe places.

We were too worried to go to sleep and for good reason. Because by 4 am, the whole of Colombo seemed to be burning. My bosses, Maha and Killi were Tamil, and I knew they were at risk. By 12 noon, the mobs had already attacked and burned most of the Maharaja properties starting with Berec, our battery factory, our Group Head Office, Maha’s home at Coniston Place and every factory the Maharajas owned.

Before the attackers had made it to Maha’s home however, we quickly transported Maha and Ruki as well as our friends Thanchi and Vasanta Coomaraswamy into our home.

Transporting Tamils to safe places also became hazardous. The mobs were uncontrollable and were fanned out across all the main roads. They had lists bearing the addresses of the Tamils and were strategically searching for those homes, to loot, bum and kill. I remember the beautiful house belonging to K. Gunaratnam down Bullers Road where mobs pulled down massive crystal chandeliers from their sockets, brought these onto the road and dashed them into smithereens. Vasanta’s mother’s house was also burned. I remember walking into the smouldering house looking for his niece who was pregnant.

She was nowhere to be found and I prayed nothing had happened to her. I was near to tears by this time because I was imagining the worst and was quite relieved to hear that she had jumped over the wall and managed to save herself. My astrologer Mr. Arulpragasam’s house was set on fire and Susil and I brought him to our home and kept him with us.

Until his immigration papers to Australia were approved, we rented out an annexe for him to stay. We also brought the Food Commissioner Mr Pullendian and his wife to stay with us. Their home in Wellawatte had also been razed to the ground.

Then there was Potato Shanmugam, named thus because he was the biggest potato importer in Pettah, in addition to being the biggest sugar buyer from Jones Overseas. Over the years, I had forged a strong bond of friendship with him and his Finance Director Mr. Sangarasivam. This bond was so strong that each morning, Mr. Sangarasivam would come to our home after going to the kovil and place a vibhuti on three-year-old Aushi’s forehead before he made his way to work in the Pettah. Such was their closeness to us.

When the riots began I remembered Potato Shanmugam having taken out a number of bank loans to finance a huge stock of sugar in his go-downs. Susil anticipated problems for the man, and pulled some strings to place a quick board at Shanmugam’s stores stating ‘Property of the Food Department’. This was to ensure the mobs won’t attack the property assuming it was government property.

In the week of the riots with anti-Tamil sentiments fully fueled into unimaginable proportions, Mr. Sangarasivam had bravely visited the banks to assure them that their collateral was safe_ He called me from there saying, “Madam, don’t worry. We are fine. The stock will not fall into the hands of the mobs nor will we get burnt because you put up that board. Nobody touched the place.”

I spoke to the Bank Manager as well, assuring them that the stock and as a result their money was safe.

That was the last time I spoke with Mr. Sangarasivam. He was driving back from the bank that morning when he was stopped by the mobs at the Pettah Clock Tower, pulled out of his car, shoved into the boot, the car doused with petrol and set on fire.

The insane killing of Mr. Sangarasivam was the turning point for me. I completely collapsed. This was the man who came to our house every morning and would bless my child before he left for work. How are human beings capable of such brutality? I was truly shattered.

When I heard of Mr. Sangarasivan’s death, I just bent over and cried. It seemed a never-ending nightmare and I was hoping against hope that I would wake up from this bad dream. I had come to that point when I wanted to pack up everything and leave. But how could 1, when our friends were feeling the deadly brunt of a racial riot that our country had never experienced before? I couldn’t possibly abandon them now!

Susil and I spent an inordinate amount of time on the road trying our best to get whomever we knew to safety. The country was seething and tempers were rife. I even took a policeman in the car with me to 4th Cross Street to bring the cash in the safe belonging to Potato Shanmugam. I couldn’t bear to open my eyes when I got to the Pettah. The whole area was burning.

The moment the news hit the international news wires, our foreign partners began calling me to find out how we were doing. I really didn’t know what to say. I was so ashamed of my countrymen, the majority Sinhalese who were now known all over the world as murderers. The images spread around the world showed the Sinhalese as brutal, cruel people carrying out barbaric actions that had never been seen in the civilised world in modern history.

By this time, our home was filled with Tamil friends taking refuge. There were so many cars parked outside that even the neighbours figured it was not a good sign and refused to let us park. Hema Premadasa, the wife of the Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, dropped in to see Maha; and I think word got around that we were sheltering Tamil people in our house, which also spelled danger for us.

My Tamil staff including my Finance Director had been taken to an Internally Displaced Camp came because they had lost everything they owned. I wanted to do whatever I could to make their pain go away. We visited the camps, took food and other necessities for them, but this -just didn’t seem sufficient for the pain and indignity they suffered.

The riots began. on a Monday early morning and went on unabated until Friday. As Susil and I watched helplessly, one aspect became very clear. Our good friend J R had all the power in the world to stop the riots and reinstate sanity in the country, but he never did. In that week, Susil and I made multiple trips see J R, pleading with him to stop the massacre that was now totally out of hand.

I still remember Satyendra, Maha’s brother-in-law, calling J R during one of those visits, asking him to do something. Not once did J R come out publicly and ask the mobs to stop the attacks or express sympathy for those killed and displaced.

The riots however did simmer to an uneasy halt on the Friday of that week which was named ‘Kotiya Day’ – the day of the Tigers. And it was not the Government’s apathy that did it. The rumour mills had begun churning out unsubstantiated statements which fortunately, for once, worked as an advantage. The rumour that the Tigers were in Colombo and murdering people indiscriminately began spreading like wildfire and the rioting petered out.

But in those five days of the Government’s procrastination and indecisiveness, over 4,000 Tamils and some Muslims who were mistaken for Tamils had been killed, with even those injured and those in hospitals killed. Over 300,000 were displaced, homes, vehicles and over 2,500 businesses destroyed. Such was the blanket of hate that had descended on this country.

An uneasy calm descended over the city and gradually, those who yet had places to go to, moved out of our home. Maha moved to Guildford Crescent as did the other families at home. But we were still on tenterhooks. We were so attuned to unusual noises due to the fear that had enveloped us that one night when Susil heard what he thought was a strange noise, he said, “We can’t bring up our family this way. The children are living in fear and are traumatized. We have to leave.”

Susil called the Manager of Swiss Air whom we had met in Singapore and taken out to dinner on one of our trips, and requested four tickets to London. Apologizing profusely, the manager said there were only three seats left on the next flight and if we could keep Aushi on our laps, which was against IATA rules but since these were unusual circumstances, we could go. We left for London that night.

Even though I agreed to leave Sri Lanka on Susil’s incisive reasoning, I regret leaving Sri Lanka that day. It was the worst decision I made. I had so much confidence in Susil and would never question anything he did or said. But I left Killi and Maha, when they needed me the most. I was a Director of Jones Overseas, one of the biggest companies in The Maharaja Group, and it was my responsibility to stay and weather the storm with them. The factories had been burned to the ground and our people were in camps. While I mulled over this conundrum in my head and had many a misgiving, I knew in my heart that neither Killi nor Maha ever held my decision to leave against me.

We returned to Colombo after a month. There still remained that uneasy calm but on the surface, it seemed like it was ‘back to business’ in Colombo.’ While we adults have the ability to delete unsavoury details from our minds and carry on, the horrific scenes we had left behind had been ingrained in little Aushi’s mind. On the way back from the airport, Aushi, in all her innocence asked me, “Are those things still burning?” That was her last memory of Sri Lanka because when we left that fateful night, all she saw was fire everywhere. Anarkali however, was old enough to understand and didn’t quite express herself with that kind of innocence.

(Excerpted from Sumi Moonesinghe’s recently published Memoirs)



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Features

Glimmers of hope?

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The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis

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By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.

FERTILISER ISSUE

1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.

Recommendations

1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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