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Midweek Review

Vignettes of the Open-Air Theatre

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by Prof. K. N. O. Dharmadasa

 

It is indisputably The Open-Air Theatre – the first of its kind in the country and the most well-known. There indeed are some other similar constructions, like the one at Vihara Maha Devi Park, Colombo. But when theatre lovers talk of ‘the Open-Air Theatre’, the reference is unmistakably to the Open-Air Theatre in the ‘University Park’, Peradeniya. Incidentally, the appellation ‘University Park’ was a creation of Sir Ivor Jennings, the Founder Vice Chancellor of the University. The area where the university buildings were located was known by this name. Sir Ivor was so enamoured of the site that he called it ‘one of the most beautiful environments in the world” (his autobiography The Road to Peradeniya,198). His Annual Reports usually had a sub-section titled ‘University Park’; he reported on the building programme and the landscaping, etc. Coming back to the Open-Air Theatre, which was constructed three years after he left in January 1955, undoubtedly adds to the beauty of the whole landscape – a good example of how a tastefully constructed structure which blends with the surroundings can enhance the natural beauty of a place.

 

The conception

The Open-Air Theatre was ceremonially declared open in early 1958. The first drama staged there was Sarchchandra’s epoch making Maname. As all theatre lovers know, the initial staging of Maname was on Nov. 3, 1956 at the Lionel Wendt Theatre in Colombo and nearly 100 performances would have taken place during the 15 or so months before it was staged at the newly constructed Open-Air Theatre in Peradeniya. Prof. Sarachchandra in his Memoirs, Pin Ethi Sarasavi Waramak Denne, (published in 1985) gives a detailed account of the founding of the Open-Air Theatre, which aptly bears his name today.

Maname had already been staged and the first accolade had come from an unusual quarter. Regi Siriwardene, a highly respected critic and journalist attached to the Lake House Group of Newspapers called it “the finest thing I have seen on the Sinhalese stage” (Ceylon Daily News, Nov. 5) Many shows followed in Colombo, Kandy and other cities and several other writers to the English newspapers showered praise on this remarkable achievement as exemplifying what the national theatrical form could be. But the Sinhalese newspapers remained silent for quite some time and Sarachchandra kept wondering why it was so. “Was it due to the habitual antipathy towards the University by most of the journalists or was it because they failed to understand what Maname signified?” But the breakthrough came eventually. Sri Chandraratne Manavasinghe, the highly respected writer and journalist attached to the editorial staff of the daily Lankadeepa, wrote a highly complimentary review of the play in his daily column Waga –Tuga and called it an Abhiranga (super-drama).

Sarachchandra with his vast experience in Oriental and Occidental theatre traditions, believed that “a super-performance of Maname could be done, not on a proscenium stage which was meant for staging naturalistic plays, but on a circular stage, (ranga madala)”. And he was on the lookout for such a place … amidst the hilly terrain of Peradeniya. He adds:

“Those days I was residing in one of the three bungalows on Sanghamitta Hill. While descending the hill and walking towards the Arts Block, I noticed a piece of land concave in shape, like a part of a broken clay pot. This was a terraced paddy field which had been abandoned and was overgrown with weeds. At the bottom of the land was a flat space. Although I had been passing that place daily it was only after I started thinking of an open-air theatre that it struck me as a suitable location for what is known as an Amphitheatre – an auditorium with a stage. The space at the bottom could be used as a stage and the audience could sit in the terraces” (p. 209)

 

Acoustics

Sarachchandra was not prepared to rush into conclusions. Although the land appeared suitable in appearance, there was a crucial consideration when it came to an open-air theatre. “It was essential,” he adds. “To find out what the acoustics of this place was like for theatre performance. One evening I went there with a group of students. I think Gunasena Galappaththi was one of them. I placed several of them in various places in the pit and made them talk and sing. Then I realized that it was a place with natural amplification of sound. The Epidorus Amphitheatre in Greece came to my mind. If you stand anywhere and strike a match you will be able to hear it. (p.210).

Now the problem was that of the logistics. At this time (1956-7) Sarachchandra was only a lecturer. He had no ‘clout’ to order officials in the administration. Of course, his fame and prestige were growing rapidly and by 1960 a special Chair of Sinhala was created for him, which was the first such occasion in the history of the University. But that is anticipating events. We resume the story of the construction of the OAT as narrated by Sarachchandra himself. Sarachchandra says:

“I had no power to give orders to the Works Department or to the Administrative Section. That could be done only by the Vice Chancellor or the Registrar. The expenses involved in constructing even an amphitheatre at the site I mentioned would be minimal. What had to be done was cutting and removing the weeds on the terraces, constructing in cement a circular stage at the bottom and putting up a cadjan shed behind it.” (pp. 210-11)

Now, the dilemma Sarachchandra was faced with was whether or not the Vice Chancellor would accept his proposal to construct an open-air theatre. Sarachchandra’s estimation of the Vice Chancellor Sir Nicholas Attygalle was not at all complimentary. “Like most people of the English-speaking upper class,” says Sarachchandra,

“He was completely devoid of any taste for the arts (kalaa vihiina). Although he was a Professor in the Faculty of Medicine before becoming Vice Chancellor, his range of knowledge was small (alpasruta). He did not have even a modicum of interest on theatre, literature, music, etc. I do not know whether he had read any other book outside the field of medicine.” (p.211).

For the present-day reader, I have to give an explanation. Without digressing too far it needs be noted that during the Attygalle phase of the University administration, there was a sharp division in the academic staff as pro-Attydalle and anti-Attygalle, and that was due largely to the dictatorial administrative style of the Vice Chancellor. It is clear where Sarachchandra stood in this division. In any case Prof. Attygalle had not displayed any interest in the arts. And the problem then was how to get the approval of a man like that for the construction of an open-air theatre. Then the miracle happened once again.

The Vice Chancellor came to know about Maname under fortuitous if not trivial circumstances. Continues Sarachchandra, “He came to know for the first time that a play named Maname had been created by a person named Sarachchandra, who was on his staff and that it was winning accolades in the country, from a group of lecturers who used to sit before his table daily, rumour-mongering and engaging in empty prattle. It was difficult for Mr. Attygalle, who had never seen a play, to understand what Maname was. He did not want to understand either. But because of the persuasions, he summoned me and asked me what this wondrous thing I had done was about which he had heard so much.” (p.211)

Sarachchandra now had to be humble. “I told him it was not a big miracle, but the production of a play. ‘Then why are they praising it so much’ he asked ‘and telling me I should see it somehow?” Next came the crucial question “Can it be shown in the University?” This created the opening Sarachchandra was looking for.

“I told him that there is no suitable theatre in the University where it could be shown. ‘But would it be possible,’ Then I asked, ‘whether such and such a place could be prepared for the purpose?’ He summoned the officers immediately and ordered them to construct without delay an open-air theatre on the site I had mentioned.” (p.211)

Sarachchandra then describes in humorous Sinhala how the officials set about their job and finished it in no time:

“The officers bent themselves double and treble, ran there, cut down the bush, pounded the ground, got a pretty circular stage made in cement, got a cadjan shed put up and created an amphitheatre in two or three days.” (p.211)

Sarachchandra’s narration about the opening of the Open-Air Theatre is quite informative, albeit with a touch of humour:

“On that day was presented the first ‘performance on orders’ (agnapita rangaya) of Maname before an audience which consisted of the Vice Chancellor, some members of the staff, Mr. Kilpatrick of the Rockefeller Foundation, the students and village folk coming from the neighbourhood. That was the day the Open-Air Theatre in Peradeniya was born. Maname came into being on 3rd November, 1956. It was performed in an ideal atmosphere, without damaging the traditional Nadagam style, at the Open-Air Theatre on a night of either February or March 1958 ((p. 212).

Mr. Kilpatrick referred to here is the Rockefeller Foundation representative who, after reading Sarachchandra’s well researched The Sinhalese Folk Play (1952) had granted him a travelling scholarship some years ago, to study theatre in any country he wished, which eventually enabled him to see the Japanese Kabuki giving him the clue to bring a traditional folk theatre on modern stage. Let us get back again to our discussion about the Peradeniya Open Air Theatre.

 

Improvements

During the early days the ‘seating’ terraces were levelled earth with trimmed grass. As the location, an abandoned paddy field with a running stream in the vicinity was damp the whole year round, it was a good breeding ground for leeches. During the days when plays were being performed, the leeches had a gala time. I myself remember my first experience of watching a play there, back in my first year 1959, Dayanada Gunawardena’s Parassa. There was a blood patch on my trousers and it was no easy task stopping the blood flow because it is said leeches inject their saliva, which prevents blood-clotting! Eventually, however, the terraces came to be constructed in granite and the leach population dwindled although one finds a stray leech climbing up one’s legs if one were to stand on the grass. Another casualty of the granite and cement intrusion was the lushly grown Tabubia Rosea tree which used to spread a carpet of light pink flowers on the terraces during the blooming season. Most probably its roots were suffocated by the cement construction.

The original Green Room, which was a cadjan shed as described by Sarachchandra, later came to be a Takaran shed with walls and roof made of galvanized sheets. It was painted in Green! Anyway, in the 1990s when I was the Chairman of the Arts Council, we managed to get a permanent Green Room constructed during the period 1991-92. I gratefully acknowledge the support we got from the Vice Chancellors Prof. Lakshman Jayatilaka and Prof. J. M. Gunadasa for these improvements. It was on March 24, 1993 that we named the theatre as Sarachchandra Elimahan Ranga Pitaya in honour of the man who had done so much for the Sri Lankan drama. I remember him attending the naming ceremony (again with a performance of Maname) and rising from his seat in the front row, facing the audience acknowledging the cheering of the massive crowd with hands clasped in Namaskara. He left us three years later on 16 August 1996.

An event highly significant in the annals of Sinhala theatre is the first staging of Sinhabahu on 31 August, 1961 at the Open-Air Theatre. There was a slight drizzle at the start of the performance which stopped after some time. I remember sitting on the damp grass watching the play on that memorable night. Fifty years later, on 28 November 2011, we were able to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of this play at the same venue, although we badly missed our beloved Guru. Special mention should be made of the patronage we received from the Vice Chancellor, Prof. S.B. Abeykoon, who made arrangements to show the play free of charge. Incidentally, he hails from Uda Peradeniya and has told us how as a child he had watched shows at the OAT seated on his father’s lap!

 

Drama Festivals

The most important annual event in the Open-Air Theatre was the Annual Drama Festival. In the good old days before the university calendar got disrupted, the Drama Festival was held in mid or the last week of January. This was the beginning of the third Term which consisted of 10 weeks of teaching and the examinations were scheduled for the last two weeks of March. January was selected because it was normally a dry period with no rains to disrupt the shows.

here would be a slight drizzle as the festival begins. Normally, the festival lasts seven or eight days and two invariable items would be Maname and later, Sinhabahu. when that university ‘term system’ got severely disrupted, the drama festivals came to be held in different periods, even during rainy seasons. One of the indelible memories I have of the OAT is of a show in the 1990s, when the packed audience sat there with rapt attention in the pouring rain.

When the festival is on, there is a festive atmosphere in the area. When the evening falls, people start gathering and various itinerant traders come, vendors of gram, peanuts, sara vita and even balloon vendors because sometimes parents come there with their children. I forgot to mention that this is not a mere university drama festival but a drama festival for the whole vicinity. People from Uda Peradeniya, Hidagala as well as other adjoining villages throng to the Open-Air Theatre during the festival.

 

Acid Test

There is a belief among theatre lovers in Sri Lanka that if a play could be staged at the Open-Air Theatre and come off unscathed that would be the best touchstone for ascertaining its success. It is difficult to explain the origins of this belief. With my experience from 1959 onwards, I can say that in those early days there was no unsuccessful play as such. It could be that all the plays staged there were good plays, carefully selected by the Arts Council, which managed the Annual Drama Festival. But in the 1970s, there were three unfortunate incidents, all of them involving plays by leading dramatists in the country, where the jeering by the crowd became unmanageable and the performances had to be abandoned. The first instance, if my memory is correct, was the play Sarana Siyot Se Putuni Hamba Yana by Henry Jayasena. The second, I think was Bak Maha Akunu by Dayananda Gunawardena. And the third was Cherry Watta by Somalatha Subasinghe. If my memory is correct, the failure of the first and the last mentioned, Sarana Siyot Se…and Cherry Watta were due to their lack of dramatic concentration and long spells of dialogue which tired the audience. In the case of Bak MahaAkunu what provoked the jeering was the over enthusiasm of the actor who played the role of the servant Jason. He got carried away in his diatribe against his master, the Mudalituma, who was making advances to his beloved Pabulina . He came on stage with sarong half tucked up, and uttered something that just fell short of a four-letter word and the audience protested immediately. The furore was uncontrollable and the show had to be abandoned. Possibly, these early experiences led to the belief that a show at the OAT is an acid test for the success for a play. At the same time, it needs be added that the two “failed” plays, Sarana Siyot Se and Cherry Watta were plays not quite suitable for an open-air theatre. But this leads to a theoretical problem which needs be addressed separately. The three incidents mentioned were sad occasions as all three dramatists involved were people dedicated to their vocation. Furthermore, Dayananda and Somalatha were respected alumni of the Peradeniya University.

It needs mention that that not all dramatists were prepared to take these judgments of the OAT audience lying down. I remember two incidents, both in the 1980s when the dramatists came on stage and challenged the jeering audience. One instance was when Namel Weeramuni, who was giving a performance of his Nettukkari, where he himself was playing a leading role. Incidentally, he himself is an alumnus of Peradeniya of the period when the OAT was constructed and he would have been thoroughly annoyed at this behaviour of the campus denizens of a later period. He came on stage in his costume and addressed the audience telling them that it was with great difficulty that anybody produces a drama and it should not be treated with such disrespect. Whoever did not like the play, could leave the audience allowing those who wished to stay back, watch the play. The shouting died down after some time and the play was resumed. The other incident involved Solomon Fonseka, who had won accolades all round for his star performance in Dayananda Gumawardena’s Nari Bena, some years back. Since then he had studied the art of theatre in a European university and obtained a Doctorate. This time he had produced his own play and was staging it in the OAT. For some reason which I forget, the audience became restive and started hooting. Solomon stopped the show, sent the other actors to the Green Room and addressed the audience in a defiant tone: “You fellows (umbala) call yourself educated. But what kind of education do you have if you are not civilized enough to behave yourself in a theatre? If someone does not like a play he can walk out and allow those who want to watch it, do so.” That worked. And the audience became quiet allowing the show to continue.

PS The reader would have noticed that I have refrained from using the trivial term “wala” which has come into much use in referring to this theatre. That is because it demeans the stature of this special theatre in our country.

 

 

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Midweek Review

A deeper scrutiny of ‘intelligence related matters’ needed

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Public Security Minister retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera Monday, 18 at his ministry met Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, to discuss ways and means of strengthening law enforcement operations. Public Security Ministry Secretary retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis and IGP Chandana Wickremaratne participated in the discussion.

Former Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) of Police H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, having read our last week’s column, further elaborated on the revelation by retired SDIG Merril Gunaratne pertaining to what he called the unprecedented expansion of the DIG cadre during Dingiri Banda Wijetunga’s tenure as the President (May 1993 to Nov 1994).

Kotakadeniya, one of the most outspoken senior cop, while in service (if one had cared to canvas his opinion) and now in retirement, said Wijetunga’s intervention had been far worse than mentioned and caused the further deterioration of the service. The retired Senior DIG sent us the following statement in the wake of the writer’s comment on Gunaratne’s latest work ‘Perils of a Profession’, titled ‘Perils of a Profession jolts scandal- ridden police’ published in the January 13, 2021 edition of The Island:

“In the chapter, titled ‘Violation of the line of seniority – a major cause for decline,’ it is stated President Wijetunge ordered the DIG cadre to be increased from 19 to 30 and that there was speculation about this increase benefitting an officer who was a favourite of the President. I would like to add two relevant facts regarding this issue.

“Shortly after Wijetunga assumed office as the President, in 1993, he summoned me to the Presidential Secretariat. At that time I was based at Police Headquarters as DIG Headquarters and DIG Administration. My parents and I had the privilege of being acquainted with Wijetunga from my childhood as we were from the same village.

“When I met the President, he told me that the welfare of Police officers hadn’t been given the due importance and, therefore, to redress the situation he had an idea to appoint a DIG to handle welfare work in each DIG Range. He inquired from me whether I would endorse the proposal.

“I reflected for a few seconds and replied that the subject of welfare in each range was being looked after by an Inspector, and therefore the appointment of an officer of a rank of DIG was not quite necessary. The President did not appear to be pleased with my response.

“If few days, after this meeting, with the President, I was transferred as the DIG Logistics on 1.10.1994 and thereafter to Chilaw on 4.10.1994. I felt that the move by the President, to appoint several DIGs’ in charge of ‘welfare’, was meant to fulfill his desire to expand the DIG cadre to allow his favourite officer who was very junior, to also become a DIG.

“The other matter was that the DIG cadre increase was not from 19 to 30, but much above 40 since the officer concerned was at that time 44th in the list of Senior Superintendents. “

Kotakadeniya refrained from mentioning names. The Island inquiries revealed that ironically highly respected Frank Silva had been the IGP at that time and Mahinda Balasuriya the beneficiary.

Kotakadeniya, who had served as Defence Ministry advisor during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President following the 2005 November Presidential election, was the only retired officer to respond to The Island piece.

Deterioration of the public sector

The deterioration of the police should be addressed at the highest level. Unfortunately, successive governments, in spite of their grandiose plans to restore the dignity of the once proud service caused further deterioration. Political parties cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the current predicament.

But at least it is no longer a runaway rogue force, hand in glove with the underworld, due to the current government’s no nonsense line on law enforcers. Yet the current dispensation, too, is still struggling to cope with the situation against continuing revelations on the depth of its rot. The revelation of the clandestine dealings involving the elite Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) and heroin Mafia sent shock waves through the entire security establishment. Gunaratne, however, hadn’t at least made a reference to the PNB fiasco or the controversial release of Easter Sunday massacre suspect Riyaj Bathiudeen who had been held in CID custody in terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Mahinda Balasuriya received the appointment as the IGP in early November 2009 during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first tenure as the President. Balasuriya resigned in early June 2011 following the killing of a 21-year-old worker, during a protest, by police fire at the Katunayake Export Processing (EPZ).

The government rewarded him with a diplomatic appointment. Balasuriya, perhaps is the only retired IGP to receive an appointment as head of a diplomatic mission in spite of stepping down under controversial circumstances. Balasuriya served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Brazil. With the Parliamentary High Posts Committee, chaired by the Speaker, nothing but a rubber stamp for successive governments to accommodate their favourites, at the taxpayers’ expense, without any difficulty.

Balasuriya received significant media coverage when he was investigated by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that Inquired into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIFAC). The yahapalana outfit probed why Balasuriya provided armed police security for members of Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF), who hadn’t been at least members of Parliament.

The Commission sought clarification on what grounds Balasuriya provided security in the period 2010-2015.

The Commission estimated the exercise could have cost the taxpayer approximately Rs 30 mn.

Gunaratne dealt with officers with political patronage at different levels exploiting the much abused system to secure promotions. In the chapter referred to by Kotakadeniya, Gunaratne depicted an extremely negative picture of the service.

Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section that referred to the pathetic situation of some influential persons securing key posts and promotions for stooges at the expense of the deserving: “The pattern, so monotonous since 1977, had seriously demoralized the service. Some have been adept not only in the ‘long jump,’ but also in ‘hop, step and jump,’ by obtaining more than one promotion outside the eligible criteria.

Backdoor entry into Parliament

But should we be surprised by irregular police promotions? In a country where defeated candidates can be accommodated in Parliament through the backdoor or ruling party perpetrated Treasury bond scams twice in 2015 and 2016, ‘rape of the seniority line’ as underscored by Gunaratne seemed not so serious an issue. In fact, the rot in the police is just one symptom of the overall deterioration of both public and private sectors.

In spite of the creation of the National Police Commission (NPC) in terms of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution followed by the 19th and the recently introduced 20th, the crisis-ridden department is in bad shape. The PNB’s alleged involvement in drug dealing, Riyaj Bathiudeen’s sudden shock release, alleged attempts to undermine police investigation into Easter Sunday attacks, handling of the probe into negligence on the part of Brandix and government officials in respect of the second Covid-19 eruption highlighted fundamental flaws in law enforcement.

Police continue to play politics and politicians continue to play with the police. Both parties engage in ‘politics’ at the expense of truth and credibility. The Parliament remains indifferent. Yahapalana IGP Pujith Jayasundera, in the wake of the Oct 26, 2018 constitutional crisis caused by the sacking of Wickremesinghe government, immediately switched his allegiance to the Rajapaksas. Jayasundera returned to the fold as President Sirisena’s ambitious project collapsed.

Over the years, politicians have set up systems that took care of problems. Actually, Gunaratne in ‘Dilemma of an Island’ (2001), ‘Cop in the Crossfire’ in 2011 and the latest ‘Perils of a Profession’ launched this January dealt with perhaps some broader issues though a fully-fledged Presidential Commission as suggested by the author is required to reach consensus on genuine remedial measures.

Former Sub Inspector and defeated candidate at the August 2020 general election Palitha Range Bandara recently received the appointment as the General Secretary of the demoralized UNP. Bandara succeeded Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, who was rewarded with the post of Assistant Leader.

Beleaguered UNP leader Wickremesinghe picked Bandara in spite of him being accused often of divided loyalties. But in relation to ‘Perils of a Profession,’ it would be pertinent to mention that Bandara received backdated promotion to the rank of ASP in Dec 2017, courtesy the NPC.

The NPC recommended promotion for cop-turned-politician Bandara to the rank of ASP on the grounds the previous Rajapaksa administration victimized him, politically, though he had left the police long before Rajapaksa came to power in 2005. The NPC made the recommendation to the Law and Order and Southern Development Ministry. The NPC responded to Bandara’s appeal and recommended that MP Bandara be reinstated in the Police Service from 24 August 2000 and promoted to the ASP rank on the 27th of the same month and sent him on retirement. Promoting an SI to the rank of ASP cannot be an issue for those yahapalana grandees who brought back Maj. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake from retirement to name him the Commander of the Army. The National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) carried out the Easter Sunday attacks during Senanayake’s tenure as the Army Commander. Instead of accepting responsibility for the failure on the part of the Directorate of Military (DMI) to thwart the NTJ project, Senanayake exploited the police lapses to contest the last presidential election. Senanayake couldn’t poll even 50,000 votes. The results of the Nov 2019 presidential poll placed Senanayake fourth behind JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

The yahapalana administration also brought back Rear Admiral Travis Sinniah from retirement to place the Navy under him. However, it is pertinent to mention that Sinniah led some of the most successful operations on the high seas against the LTTE arms smuggling vessels.

Need for clear cut procedures

The government will have to set up specific mechanisms to deal with both law enforcement and military officers claiming political victimization, rightly or wrongly, instead of looking at them through a political lense as has been happening under various governments. Gunaratne mentioned several instances of how retired senior officers brazenly exploited the political setup for their advantage. In the absence of procedures, any wrongdoer can secure benefits at the expense of the truth.

The author dealt with an attempt made by a Colombo-based diplomatic mission to recruit a police intelligence officer in the early 70s. Having named the officer concerned as Ananda Jayasekera, who passed away in 2019, Gunaratne discussed the case that ended up with the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike being alerted to the foreign mission’s bid to run an agent within the State Intelligence setup.

During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second presidential term, the US Embassy made an abortive bid to recruit Maj. Gen. Prasad Samarasinghe. The offer was made at a party hosted by the then US Defence attaché Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith on January 20, 2011, in honour of a senior officer from the US Pacific Command.

Samarasinghe not only turned down the offer to secure permanent residency in the US for him and his family by betraying the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he promptly brought the US bid to the latter’s notice.

Against the backdrop of foreign powers stepping up their clandestine activities over the years, the circumstances under which Inspector Nishantha Silva of the CID secured political asylum for himself and his entire family a week after the last presidential poll underscored the pivotal importance of the intelligence services keeping a track of developments. Did the State Intelligence Service (SIS) headed by SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena know of the connection between Nishantha Silva and the Swiss Embassy?

Subsequent inquiries revealed a much wider conspiracy involving Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Francis, (former Siriyalatha Perera), the Swiss Embassy and the police officer who prominently figured in the leaked audio tapes of the then UNP State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake. Did SIS at least know the controversial CID investigator’s plan to flee the country in the event of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the presidential poll? Did the then Director, CID SSP Shani Abeysekera know of his subordinate’s plan?

If the Swiss government succeeded in evacuating Garnier Francis in an air ambulance amidst accusations that government personnel molested her and threatened her with death, immediately after Inspector Silva fled the country, the issue would have been raised in Geneva at the forthcoming 46th UNHRC sessions as if it was the gospel truth. However, the possibility of the matter still being raised during the Feb-March 2021 sessions cannot be ruled out as the West is quite capable of making an untruth a truth, especially through their ‘independent’ media as happened with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or the maligning of Gaddafi just before his ouster and gruesome killing in public.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa placed the SIS under intelligence veteran Maj. Gen. Suresh Sally. The SIS had never been under a military officer before. The crisis-ridden police are now placed under retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera as the Minister of Public Security with retired Maj. Gen. Jagath Alwis as the Secretary to that Ministry. The Office of Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), too, has been placed under retired Maj. Gen. Ruwan Kulathunga. In spite of the much tighter hold on the intelligence setup, the government was caught flat-footed when the demolition of the LTTE war memorial on January 8, 2021 in the Jaffna University triggered chaos. The incident placed both Sri Lanka and India in an embarrassing position as the demolition of the memorial took place close on the heels of Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s high profile visit to Colombo.

Although the author made reference to the failure on the part of the police to thwart the Easter Sunday attacks, an issue as important as how the Indian intelligence managed its operations aimed at the NTJ hadn’t received due attention.

Did India alert SIS regarding their NTJ hunt or just provided the finished intelligence product on April 4, 2019, regarding the planned operation? Sri Lanka should be really worried about foreign intelligence services engaged in clandestine activities here, especially against the backdrop of growing US-China rivalry, with the former receiving the backing of India, Japan and Australia.

PLOTE leader Uma Maheswaran killing outside the Maldivian HC in Colombo in July 1989 revealed the possible involvement of the Indian intelligence. The killing took place in the wake of the PLOTE bid to overthrow the then Maldivian President Gayoom at the behest of a Maldivian businessman. The sea borne PLOTE raid went awry even before Indian troops landed there to bring the situation quickly under control.

A deeper scrutiny of ‘developments’ is required as China-US hostilities take a turn for the worse with both seeking to enhance their spheres of influence. The need for the intelligence services to be prepared to face multifarious threats on different levels is of paramount importance. The Easter Sunday carnage is certainly not the first intelligence failure and it wouldn’t be the last.

The assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa on May Day 1993 exposed the entire intelligence setup. The infiltration of President Premadasa’s inner circle by the LTTE is perhaps the worst single intelligence failure that proved the importance of the intelligence services being on top of the ‘political game,’ too. For intelligence services, there cannot be a worse period than President Premadasa’s tenure (1989-1993). An ignorant President played pandu with national security leading to the Eelam War II in June 1990 with disastrous consequences. Retired SSP Tassy Seneviratne didn’t mince his words when he appeared before the LLRC. Seneviratne explained how President Premadasa’s interventions caused debilitating losses at the onset of the Eelam War II. The rest is history.

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Midweek Review

The Royalty and its ‘Yes’ Men

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By Lynn Ockersz

The air is thick once again,

With the familiar refrain,

That you, the ‘Sovereign People’,

Are at centre stage,

In this wearying racking of brains,

On how the notoriously Nodding Land’s,

Primal law must take shape,

But here’s the truth none can escape:

You have descended from wage labourer,

To an alms-seeker of the street,

And your hearth’s flames,

Are sputtering to an ominous end,

But the timeless moral remains:

You are hapless pawns,

In a decades-long power game,

Featuring dynastic heavyweights,

And their 225 ‘Yes’ men.

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Midweek Review

From Jaffna library to University – politics of identity

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By Harim Peiris

A centre of Tamil learning in Jaffna was attacked and destroyed. No, not last week, but 40 years ago, in 1981, the iconic Jaffna Library, a seat of Tamil language, literature and learning was burnt to cinders by a mob of what then cabinet ministers Cyril Mathew et al were watching, perhaps not entirely as innocent bystanders, from the veranda of the old Jaffna Rest House termed as “an unfortunate rampage by a few drunk and off duty police officers”. Coming a full circle, four decades later, once again a seat of Tamil learning, this time namely the University of Jaffna, witnessed the destruction of its memorial to the dead. The police officers were again there, now on duty and very sober, as under cover of darkness, they guarded the backhoes which did the demolition. The contexts were different, the events eerily similar, while the rhetoric is strikingly the same.

Back then there wasn’t even the pretence of trying to justify the actions and two years later in 1983, we had a pogrom and were in the midst of a civil war. Now, a decade after the civil war in Sri Lanka is over, we must learn from the lessons of the past. It is former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who paraphrased Spanish philosopher Santayana to state in the House of Commons that “those who did not learn from the lessons of history were destined to relive it”.

Post the civil war, the urge to curb Tamil nationalism from taking on any form of militancy or armed expression is an entirely legitimate and desirable objective. No one in his or her right mind would wish or desire Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations to once again lead to a civil war. However, towards this end, what is required is an intentional and purposeful, domestic process of post war reconciliation, which includes reparations and guarantees of non-reoccurrence. Unfortunately, more than a decade after the end of the civil war, dealing with either the effects or the causes of the war has not occurred in a meaningful manner. After the war, in the former conflict areas, the roads have been repaired and the public buildings reconstructed, but the shattered lives of especially the most vulnerable sections of Northern society, the widows, the orphans and the rural poor, remain largely as they were a decade ago.

Playing demolition derby in the University of Jaffna is not the means of advancing reconciliation. In fact, the University of Jaffna provides a useful safety valve and escape outlet for the frustrations of Tamil youth and curbing non-violent expressions of ethnic nationalism only drives it to less non-violent spaces. Neither does destroying the memorial to the dead, do anything to moderate Tamil opinion. Engagement and dialogue would have been better. It is a point that was reiterated most recently by visiting Indian Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar and likely to be reiterated by a majority of the International community at the upcoming sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva.

 

Memorialising and remembering the dead

Sri Lanka’s ethnic polarisations and social tensions extend beyond life and into the realm of death. It is a key aspect of our humanity that we mourn our dead. The religious faith or belief systems by which we make sense of life and death and especially find the strength to move on after the death of loved ones, especially under tragic and violent circumstances are crucial aspects of our personal and community life. Accordingly, the need and right to mourn the dead, is fundamental to us as humans and crucial to providing healing and closure, especially in the aftermath of a brutal and long drawn civil war, which resulted in the destruction of considerable life and property of both combatants and non-combatants on all sides.

Sri Lanka’s current controversy over the remembrance of the dead is not just confined to the Tamil populace seeking to mourn the loss of loved ones during or at the tail end of the war. On our new battle front of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka has become the only country in the world, to prohibit the burial of the dead with the religious rites and rituals of the deceased and in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin. The decision of the government, through its Ministry of Health, which bears the responsibility, is on the flimsiest of pretences based on the views of its own handpicked “experts” who are contradicted officially by public communique not only by the independent and distinguished College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka but also by the WHO and the practice of the global community of nations. Even with the far more contagious Ebola virus, the dead are buried with no adverse effects and the view of the government’s “experts”, truly make us a land like no other.

It is my friend and colleague, University of Amsterdam academic Dr. Ram Manikkalingam who coined the phrase, “Sinhala Eelam” to denote a Sri Lanka, which was the Sinhala equivalent of what Prabhakaran and the LTTE sought to create, a mono ethnic nation governed on ethnic lines.

Sri Lanka’s strength and moral superiority over the separatism which was defeated at Nandikadal, derives from the fact that we are multi-ethnic and multi religious and we should cherish that strength and, in its defence, desist from governing exclusively by the prism of ethnic Sinhala nationalism. Bulldozing monuments does nothing towards that end.

 

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-17)

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