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Midweek Review

Vignettes of the Open-Air Theatre



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)



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.



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

Rajavarothiam Sampanthan’s legacy



Air Force personnel carry TNA leader R. Sampanthan’s coffin from a Y 12 transport aircraft to a waiting hearse at the Palaly air base. On the government directive, the SLAF deployed the Y 12 on July 4 morning to move the coffin from the Ratmalana air base to Palaly. On the following day, the Y 12 took the coffin from Palaly to China Bay, for the conduct of the last rites in Trincomalee on Sunday (07), after public veneration in his home electorate.

The TNA (Parliament recognizes TNA as ITAK [Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi]) won 22 seats in the Northern and Eastern Provinces under Rajavarothiam Sampanthan’s leadership at the April 2004 General Election. It was their best performance. That achievement was made at the height of the LTTE’s conventional military power. By the time the TNA contested the next general election, the LTTE didn’t exist, hence the drop in their performance. The TNA only managed to secure 14 seats at the April 2010 General Election as the Tigers were no longer there to stuff ballot boxes on its behalf. At the August 2015 General Election, the TNA obtained 16 seats but suffered quite a setback at the last parliamentary poll when it was reduced to 10 seats. What would be their fate at the next general election scheduled for 2025? Against the backdrop of Sampanthan’s demise, would TNA think afresh and formulate new strategy or continue on the same path.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Just a few weeks before the 2015 presidential election, the late Rajavarothiam Sampanthan admitted that the annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) freed his political party – the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – from the clutches of the ruthless Tigers.

The lawyer-turned-politician wouldn’t have said so willingly under any circumstances. Never. Sampanthan, who led the alliance during a turbulent 23 years, had no option but to acknowledge the truth as the writer raised the issue at a special press conference called by the TNA at Hotel Janaki, Fife Road, Colombo 05 to announce its decision to back Maithripala Sirisena’s candidature at the 2015 presidential election (Declaring backing for MS, Sampanthan admits: War freed TNA from clutches of ruthless Tigers, The Island, Dec 31, 2014).

Sampanthan was flanked by the then Northern Provincial Councillor Dharmalingham Siddarthan (PLOTE leader), Vanni District MP Nadeshu Sivashakthi Annamalai (EPRLF), Vanni District MP Selvam Adaikkalanathan (TELO leader), Jaffna District MP Mavai Senathirajah (Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi leader) and its National List MP, M.A. Sumanthiran.

Sampanthan earlier declined to answer that question when the writer contacted him over the phone several weeks after the combined armed forces brought the war to an end on May 19, 2009. The Island raised the same issue again in January 2010 after Sampanthan declared the TNA’s support for the then General Sarath Fonseka’s candidature at the 2010 presidential poll. The veteran politician side-stepped the issue but he couldn’t have declined to answer pointed questions at a major media briefing.

Canada-based D.B.S. Jeyaraj, perhaps the foremost Tamil political commentator, despite some grave blunders like openly claiming that the Tigers would turn the tide of war against the Army almost till the eleventh hour, posted The Island report on on Dec 30, 2014, even before the print edition was available. He headlined the story ‘Sampanthan Admits that TNA has been Freed from the Clutches of the Ruthless Military Organization LTTE.’

Why did Sampanthan take so long to appreciate the armed forces’ victory over the LTTE? Interestingly, no other local print or electronic media reported Sampanthan’s much belated declaration on the LTTE.

At the time the TNA declared its support for Maithripala Sirisena, its parliamentary group consisted of 14 MPs. The TNA was the third largest group in Parliament. The first, second and fourth places were held by the UPFA (SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance), UNF (UNP-led United National Front) and DNA (JVP-led Democratic National Alliance), respectively.

The Island sought explanation from Sampanthan as regards the following issues: (1) Did the TNA probe its own conduct as a political party, particularly its 2001 controversial decision to recognise the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people (2) Why did the TNA ask the Tamil electorate to boycott the Nov 2005 presidential election (3) Circumstances leading to the TNA backing retired General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential election.

Sampanthan sort of hesitated before he compared the situation before and after May 2009, when the war was brought to a successful conclusion.

The Trincomalee District lawmaker declared that both the government and the Opposition had the freedom because the LTTE no longer existed. Sampanthan stressed that the LTTE had been a ruthless militant organization. The MP grudgingly admitted that the TNA, too, had been freed from the clutches of the LTTE.

The TNA leader justified the recognition of the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people on the basis that both the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government and the UNP wanting to have talks with the group. That was a blatant lie. The LTTE had been on the offensive after taking the upper hand in fighting in the northern theatre.

Commenting on the Nov 2005 polls boycott, Sampanthan claimed that the Tamil electorate had no option but to abide by the LTTE directive. Sampanthan didn’t comment on the TNA having to issue that directive on behalf of the LTTE.

Without elaborating, Sampanthan referred to allegations regarding the UPFA engineering the LTTE’s decision.

The TNA Chief said that the Tamil community had to move on. People living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as well as other areas had faith in the TNA. Therefore, the party received the right to decide on their behalf.

Prez Polls boycott

In the wake of a joint declaration made by the LTTE-TNA combine to ensure Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the 2005 presidential polls, the writer contacted Sampanthan on the night of Nov 15, 2005. Sampanthan’s reaction was sought immediately after Batticaloa-based TNA lawmaker Joseph Pararajasingham confirmed the decision taken in consultation with the LTTE in Kilinochchi to call on Tamil voters to boycott the poll.

Sampanthan declared that there hadn’t been any developments after the Kilinochchi announcement. “Nothing worthwhile would be achieved by supporting either of the two leading candidates, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe.” Both Pararajasingham and Sampanthan declared that the Tamil speaking people were not interested in the election (CBK calls off last Cabinet meeting: TNA refuses to change poll boycott stance, The Island, Nov 16, 2005).

The LTTE-TNA decision was meant to engineer Wickremesinghe’s defeat. There cannot be any doubt about that. Those who had accused the Rajapaksas of bribing the LTTE to influence the polls boycott in mid-Nov 2005 should explain why the group resumed landmine attacks less than three weeks later. When the writer interviewed Kumaran Pathmanathan, or ‘KP’ as he was widely known, in late 2009, one-time the LTTE’s international weapons procurer declared the LTTE was sure of taking the upper hand in the north within two years. Pathmanathan, who had been in the custody of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) at that time he shed light on the LTTE’s thinking in the run-up to all-out war in August 2006.

The late Sampanthan knew what he was doing. He fully realized that the LTTE was dragging the Tamil community to a destructive war but went along with the despicable strategy. Lawmaker Sumanthiran, who had been seated with Sampanthan at the Janaki Hotel media briefing on Dec 30, 2014, recently commented on the 2005 polls boycott. The comment was made in the presence of President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Jaffna. The Presidential Media Division (PMD) quoted Sumanthiran as having told the gathering: “It is possible that the challenges in the North may have impeded your journey in 2005, a fact that I believe is now regretfully acknowledged by the people of the region.”

Sumanthiran may not have at least considered entering politics at the time the LTTE-TNA ordered the polls boycott. Sumanthiran, in a statement issued to coincide with the Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day this year, shamelessly contradicted Sampanthan’s stand on the LTTE announced on Dec 30, 2014.

The truth is the annihilation of the LTTE paved the way for the TNA to resume political activity. The late Sampanthan, in spite of being under tremendous pressure by the LTTE at that time, must be held accountable for utterly irresponsible decisions.

Unfortunately, the other political parties represented in Parliament never bothered to take up the TNA’s despicable anti-democratic actions. They conveniently turned a blind eye even after the European Election Observation Mission declared the partnership between the LTTE and the TNA resulted in the former openly stuffing ballot boxes on behalf of the latter. The EU made the disclosure in its report on the 2004 general election. The bombshell EU report on the general election conducted on April 02, 2004, released in Colombo on June 17, 2004, declared in no uncertain terms that the group secured 22 seats with the direct involvement of the LTTE. Leader of now defunct TULF V. Anandasangaree was the only politician to comment on the EU report (TULF leader applauds EU for unmasking LTTE proxy, The Island, June 23, 2004). All others remained silent. Actually, the Parliament should have taken up this issue. The media, too, ignored the EU comments on the despicable LTTE-TNA partnership. The late Sampanthan led the TNA at that time. Later, Sangaree told the writer that the LTTE engaged in large scale and systematic vote rigging to such an extent, the TNA’s 22 MPs had absolutely no moral right to serve as parliamentarians (Monitors should have called for fresh poll in North and East – TULF, The Island, June 26). Actually, the TNA should have been summoned by the Committee on Ethics and Privileges.

TNA’s role in ISGA initiative

Indian Premier Narendra Modi has condoled the demise of. Sampanthan. In an X post, the Prime Minister said: “My deepest condolences to the family and friends of veteran TNA leader R. Sampanthan. Will always cherish fond memories of meetings with him. He relentlessly pursued a life of peace, security, equality, justice and dignity for the Tamil nationals of Sri Lanka. He will be deeply missed by his friends and followers in Sri Lanka and India.”

In the post-LTTE era, the TNA should have examined its own conduct to identify its role in the destructive Eelam War IV (August 2006 to May 2009) that only led to unnecessary further suffering by innocent people. India, where terrorism originated, should have studied the TNA role in the LTTE’s overall strategy.

The TNA at the behest of the LTTE, undermined the India-backed Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) arranged by Norway in February 2002. The TNA relentlessly supported the LTTE’s call for the institutionalization of the Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) to facilitate the resumption of talks. The TNA took up ISGA with the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on LTTE’s behalf. The LTTE proxy went to the extent of threatening the government that the LTTE wouldn’t return to the negotiating table unless President Kumaratunga accepted the ISGA with powers to raise taxes, maintain law and order, control internal and external trade, negotiate foreign loans and the absolute control over marine and offshore resources of the adjacent seas and the undisputed power to regulate access.

The LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003 following six rounds of talks with the government. That move, perhaps taken in consultation with the TNA, set the stage for the final war. The TNA can never disassociate itself from the LTTE’s murderous actions that corralled ordinary people as a human shield as part of its overall war strategy when it was being pursued by the security forces.

The TNA, until the very end, remained committed to the LTTE’s despicable strategy. Having granted the LTTE unprecedented status of sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, that party remained mum as the people were forced to retreat towards Mullivaikkal with the depleted LTTE fighting cadre. The TNA never publicly asked the LTTE to let the people go. The Tiger proxy TNA did not utter a word to the LTTE on behalf of horror struck people held as its human shield.

When the relentless Sri Lankan military drive forced the LTTE to retreat from all fronts, Velupillai Prabhakaran dragged the civilian population to the Vanni east where they were deployed as a human shield. Let me reproduce a letter written by the wartime Norwegian Ambassador here. It explains the mindset of the LTTE.

Ambassador Hattrem’s note, dated Feb 16, 2009, to Basil Rajapaksa, revealed Norway’s serious concern over the LTTE’s steadfast refusal to release the civilians. The Norwegian note, headlined ‘Offer/Proposal to the LTTE’, personally signed by Ambassador Hattrem, underscored the developing crisis on the Vanni east front. The following is the text of Ambassador Hattrem’s letter, addressed to Basil Rajapaksa: “I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE on how to release the civilian population, now trapped in the LTTE controlled area, has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far, there has been, regrettably, no response from the LTTE and it does not seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree with this in the near future.”

There wasn’t any positive LTTE response and the military went ahead with the final phase of the operation which was completed 15 years ago this month. Perhaps, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), inquiring into wartime and post-conflict accountability issues, should try to identify several channels through which Ambassador Hattrem tried to convince the LTTE. Did Ambassador Hattrem seek the late Sampanthan’s help to convince Prabhakaran? Did the Norwegian seek the intervention of any other TNA MP? If not, the Norwegians believed that there was no point in even getting in touch with the TNA regarding this particular matter.

The diabolical LTTE-TNA partnership, finalized in late 2001, cannot be examined without taking into consideration the elimination of top Tamil political leadership by the LTTE. At least two ex-parliamentarians were killed in Sept 1985 by TELO at the behest of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

The LTTE assassinated Appapillai Amirthalingam in July 1989. Along with the foremost Sri Lankan Tamil political leader and former Opposition leader, the LTTE killer squad shot dead ex-Jaffna MP Vettivelu Yogeswaran. Ex-Nallur MP Murugesu Sivasithamparam was shot and wounded at 342/2, Bauddhaloka Mawatha/Bullers Road in Colombo 7.

In spite of initial reluctance, those who represented the TNA had no qualms in working with the top LTTE leadership responsible for the assassination of Amirthalingham. The killing took place during the LTTE-Premadasa honeymoon, 11 months before the eruption of Eelam War IV. The truth is the LTTE wanted Amirthalingham eliminated as Prabhakaran knew his monstrous group would never receive recognition as sole representative of Tamil speaking people as long as the political veteran lived.

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Midweek Review

The Common Pet



By Lynn Ockersz

There he sits obediently,

The cynosure of all eyes,

Contemplative and sad,

Yet upright, ready to spring,

At the prey that strays,

And within him burn urges,

That ‘Culture’ cannot tame,

Which define his essence,

And these contending pulls,

Bring silent, lingering agony,

That petting can’t lay at rest.

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Midweek Review

Field Marshal in penetrating post-Aragalaya move



President Wickremesinghe receiving a copy of FM Fonseka’s memoir at Nelum Pokuna (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has switched sides again. Fonseka, MP, threw his weight behind UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Presidential Polls campaign as the latter strengthened his position, politically, with the finalisation of debt restructuring pacts with the Official Creditor Committee (OCC) and the Exim Bank of China for USD 5.8 bn and USD 4.2 bn, respectively.

Japan-led OCC includes France, India, the United States, Canada and several European nations. However, Sri Lanka is yet to reach an agreement with private creditors. That remains a challenge.

But, on the political front, President Wickremesinghe continued to make substantial progress with the gradual disintegration of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Would Gampaha District lawmaker Fonseka’s betrayal of the main Opposition party the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) at a crucial stage of the Presidential Polls campaign undermine Sajith Premadasa drive, with more than a dozen others from the SJB also having behind the scene negotiations with the UNP Leader to back him at the crucial poll, foremost being Rajitha Senaratne?

To be fair by Rajitha he has gone on record telling interviewer Chamuditha Samarawickrema, without naming the co-conspirators, that his plan is to, at the same time, have Sajith Premadasa as the PM candidate in a definite future tie up with Ranil. It is a clear cut challenge to the JVP. According to the one-time Health Minister Dr. Senaratne the SJB rebels had their first meeting at the residence of Eran Wickramaratne, MP, and, according to him, other rebels are cozying up to Ranil more than him.

The launch of FM Fonseka’s memoir “The Army Commander’s Promise to the Nation – I will not leave this war to the next Army Commander,” at Nelum Pokuna, with the participation of President Wickremesinghe last Friday (28) marked the end of Fonseka’s relationship with the SJB, officially.

Fonseka’s move is unlikely to undermine the SJB’s campaign at any level, unless the current internal rebellion, urging Wickremesinghe and Premadasa getting together for the greater good of everyone, gain greater support. In fact, in spite of MP Fonseka being Chairman of the party, he never played a role in Sajith Premadasa’s campaign. But Sajith has to be cognizant of the fact that his MPs do not want to be at the mercy of the JVP knowing its bloody past during two unsuccessful uprisings against elected governments in 1971 and the 1987 to ’89 period. His own late father President Ranasinghe Premadasa and his supporters faced the brunt of the JVP violence in the second uprising. By Sajith Premadasa’s own admission he was the target of an attack when he went to visit the Aragalaya camp site at Galle Face in 2022. He escaped any bodily harm, or even death, thanks to his alert driver who managed to whisk him away to safety in the nick of time. A similar visit to the site by JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake went off without any incident!

Field Marshal Fonseka, the war-winning Army Commander (2005-2009), had been among those UNPers who joined the SJB at its inception. in 2020. close on the heels of the Grand Old Party’s heavy defeat at the 2019 presidential election. The formation of the SJB, at the expense of the UNP, led to the total annihilation of the latter at the 2020 Parliamentary Polls, if not for a single National List (NL) slot.

The SJB secured 54 seats, including seven National List slots, whereas the UNP was reduced to just one NL slot. Now, MP Fonseka has returned to the UNP. Of the 54-member parliamentary group, fiery Fonseka is actually the third SJBer to go back to the UNP since Wickremesinghe joined the Rajapaksas in April 2022. SJBers Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando switched their allegiance to Wickremesinghe immediately after the latter accepted the premiership from Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (Former SJB NL member and State Minister Diana Gamage’s ouster from Parliament should be dealt with separately).

The SJB also lost Patali Champika Ranawaka, who registered Eksath Janaraja Peramuna (EJP) and declared his intention to contest the 2024 Presidential Poll. Unfortunately, the former JHU stalwart lacked the required backing to join the fray. Would Ranawaka, too, join Wickremesinghe? If that happened, what would be MP Ranawaka’s terms as he recently declared that he wouldn’t accept ministerial portfolios.

What really prompted MP Fonseka to join Wickremesinghe? The former Sinha Regiment veteran desperately wanted to contest the 2024 presidential election though he lacked political platform. In fact, Fonseka felt he should have had the opportunity to take on Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 presidential election. Fonseka obviously had no option but to join Wickremesinghe as the SJB publicly rejected him.

The FM’s relationship with Wickremesinghe cannot be examined without taking into consideration the latter’s dependence on the ruling SLPP in Parliament. However, the SLPP has been fragmented, sharply, with a significant number of MPs declaring their support for Wickremesinghe’s candidature.

In late February this year, Fonseka, in an exclusive interview with the writer, declared that he wouldn’t leave the party, hence the decision to title that article ‘Field Marshal won’t quit SJB’. ( But, he has done so. In fact, The Island, during that interview at his Thalahena, Malabe office, raised the possibility of him joining Wickremesinghe against the backdrop of meeting the President in Parliament. The FM claimed that he met Wickremesinghe not as the President but the Minister in charge of the Finance portfolio regarding some of his funds held by the government. According to Fonseka, his February meeting, on the day the President delivered his latest policy speech, was the third. “There were two other previous meetings regarding the same matter,” Fonseka said, adding that the other officials who dealt with the issue at hand were the Governor, CBSL, Treasury Secretary and the Attorney General.

Disclosing the February meeting lasted just 10 minutes, Fonseka appreciated the fact that the President didn’t discuss politics at all on all occasions. “Perhaps, regarding the same matter, I may have to meet the President again.”

The funds held by the government are widely believed to be received by Fonseka in the run-up to the 2010 Presidential Polls. Perhaps, the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government must have released the funds that had been held for over a decade. The June 28 book launch proved switching allegiance is all part of the game.

But if Wickremesinghe opts out of the race, as some believe, in favour of Fonseka, as happened in 2010, 2015 and 2019, then most of the JVP bravado about the election being a cake walk as there is no real challenger may turn out to be plain bravado. The writer, however doesn’t think so.

A place in Yahapalana Cabinet

In February 2016, Yahapalana Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe threw a political lifeline to Fonseka who had been in a desperate situation in the wake of the massive 2015 General Election defeat. Having contested the 2015 General Election under the symbol of the Democratic Party (DP), Sri Lanka’s most successful Army Chief failed to secure a single seat. That defeat demoralised and disappointed him. Obviously, Fonseka had absolutely no opportunity to strike a deal with President Sirisena or Premier Wickremesinghe as DP’s showing at the parliamentary poll was so poor and he faced political oblivion.

But, the sudden death of UNP NL MP M.K.D. S. Gunawardena, a SLFPer who switched allegiance to Wickremesinghe, in February 2016, created a vacancy that gave an opportunity to Wickremesinghe. Fonseka was swiftly named Minister of Regional Development and, thereafter, as Minister of Wildlife and Sustainable Development until the Oct 2018 constitutional crisis.

If not for Wickremesinghe, Fonseka wouldn’t have received an opportunity to serve in the Cabinet of Ministers. In the wake of the constitutional crisis triggered by President Sirisena and the Easter Sunday attacks several months later, interested parties called for Fonseka’s appointment as the Minister in charge of police. President Sirisena, who had been at loggerheads with the then Minister Fonseka, declined to do so.

At the time of the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) mounted Easter Sunday attacks Sirisena served as both Defence and Public Security minister.

Regardless of the opportunity granted by Wickremesinghe, in Feb 2016, Fonseka deserted him in 2020 when Sajith Premadasa formed the SJB. About five months after the General Election, MP Fonseka received the appointment as Chairman of the party. Now, after four years in political wilderness, lawmaker Fonseka had again received media attention by way of a book launch but could he sustain public interest?

When Fonseka’s relations deteriorated with the SJB at an early stage, as a member of Sajith Premadasa’s team, he got involved with a group of senior citizens who genuinely promoted him as an independent presidential candidate. They organized a mega event at a five-star hotel in Colombo several months ago to promote Fonseka’s candidature. But, when Fonseka made his latest move, that group simply abandoned him. One of them admitted quite candidly that they were duped.

Now FM is ready to follow SLPP dissidents who switched allegiance to Wickremesinghe at the expense of the party they were elected.

Having given up post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in July 2009 to enter politics, Fonseka contested the 2010 presidential election but suffered heavy defeat at the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The UNP-led coalition that included the JVP and the TNA, lost interest in Fonseka ahead of the parliamentary polls. The celebrated ex-Army Chief ended up with the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) and the grouping, led by the JVP, secured seven seats at the General Elections. Fonseka was among the group that included Arjuna Ranatunga, Titan Alles and Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

The arrest of Fonseka in early February 2010 in a despicable manner and subsequent legal action/ court martial and his release in May 2012 with a presidential pardon demonstrated a pathetic state of affairs.

Fonseka-TNA relations

Fonseka comfortably won all electorates in the Northern and Eastern Provinces at the 2010 presidential election. After having accused his Army of butchering Tamil civilians on the Vanni east front, the TNA (one-time-LTTE ally), backed his candidature, thanks to Washington’s machinations here to defeat Rajapaksas at any cost for defying the West and wiping out the Tigers militarily. The TNA backing for Fonseka had been in line with the overall US-led strategy to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 Presidential Poll. The US strategy, however, failed that time till Sirisena’s betrayal five years later, again with the US backing. Fonseka ended-up losing by a staggering 1.8 mn votes though he handsomely won all the North and East electoral districts with mainly Tamil votes.

MP Fonseka, in May 2021, explained why the Tamil electorate voted for him at the January 26, 2010, presidential election. The explanation given in Parliament coincided with the low-key 12th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE. Fonseka declared: THE PEOPLE OF THE NORTH AND EAST VOTED FOR HIM WITHOUT HATRED BECAUSE OF THE RESTORATION OF PEACE IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.

Why did MP Fonseka make such an assertion 12 years after the war? What prompted him to say so? Most importantly, was he telling the truth? Did the Tamil electorate really vote for him because of his role in the eradication of the LTTE? No one has responded to Fonseka so far. The civil society, too, has remained mum.

Actually, why did the UNP pick Fonseka as the common candidate? In the aftermath of the eradication of the LTTE, in 2009, the UNP had no option but to accept Fonseka as the common candidate, particularly against the backdrop of the war-winning General making covert moves in their direction. The UNP-led Opposition strategy was primarily meant to deprive President Mahinda Rajapaksa the advantage of the unbelievable (in the eyes of the powerful West that insisted on the invincibility of the Tigers in battle) war triumph. There couldn’t have been a better choice than Fonseka though the Opposition leadership quite correctly realised how the inclusion of the LTTE’s sidekick Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the grouping distanced the Southern electorate.

Fonseka didn’t mince his words when the media, on July 15th 2009, raised the possibility of his entry into active politics. The writer was among those who had been present at the media briefing called by General Fonseka, in his new capacity as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) at the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) within the Army Headquarters premises.

Fonseka declared he would never seek a political career. The war veteran said that he wouldn’t want to lose his popularity within 24 hours by taking to politics. The former Army Chief recalled the fate of his senior colleagues, Major General Lakshman Algama and Major General Janaka Perera, both of whom perished in LTTE suicide attacks on election platforms.

The LTTE assassinated Gemunu Watch veteran Algama on Dec 18, 1999, at an election rally in Ja-Ela held in support of UNP Presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, whereas Commando veteran Perera perished on Oct 06, 2008 in Anuradhapura at an event related with PC polls in which he contested as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the North Central Province.

Nothing could be further from the truth than Fonseka’s declaration in Parliament that those living in the northern and eastern regions voted for him because of the restoration of peace therein? The Tamil electorate never accepted Fonseka’s role as the Commander of the Army and repeatedly accused him and his Army of genocide, especially after the crushing defeat of the LTTE.

Having recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people, way back in 2001, the TNA wouldn’t have accepted Fonseka if the outfit hadn’t been convinced that only the former Army Commander could have challenged the immensely popular Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 Presidential Poll.

The plan received the wholehearted backing of the West and especially the US, though the then US Ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis, in a confidential dispatch from Colombo, subsequently exposed by Wikileaks, categorized Fonseka as a war criminal along with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and lawmaker Basil Rajapaksa.

The diplomatic missive, dated January 15, 2009, held the above-mentioned leaders responsible for war crimes. In spite of that, the US threw its weight behind Fonseka, perhaps initiating the move itself as the only viable political strategy to defeat the hugely popular war-winning Mahinda Rajapaksa securing a second term.

Now Fonseka is back again with Wickremesinghe as the latter builds-up large alliance in preparation for the 2024 Presidential Poll.

Why Fonseka accepted the TNA’s backing against the backdrop of its close relationship with the LTTE is still a mystery. Having recalled the killing of Majors General Algama and Perera when he assumed duties as the CDS in July 2009, Fonseka quite conveniently forgot the TNA’s endorsement of the LTTE bid to assassinate Fonseka. If the LTTE succeeded in eliminating Fonseka in April 2006 and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Oct 2006, the war would have definitely taken a different turn as we have often been reminded.

Post-Aragalaya politics

Field Marshal Fonseka was one of the few lawmakers to publicly endorse Aragalaya that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office. Aragalaya accepted him. The war veteran was the only lawmaker to address the crowds near the Janadhipathi Mandiraya a couple of hours before they stormed the place. After the SLPP elected Wickremesinghe, in late July 2022, as the President, MP Fonseka called for fresh Aragalaya to oust the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration. Addressing Parliament, Fonseka urged people to gather in Colombo on Nov 09, 2022. The war veteran wanted to launch a continuous protest campaign until the government was forced out. The SJB quickly distanced itself from Fonseka’s plans. The August 09 project collapsed. Fonseka suffered an irreparable setback.

Perhaps, Fonseka’s latest move should be discussed in the context of the retired military being largely divided among the SJB and JJB/JVP. Fonseka is the only top level retired officer to throw his weight behind Wickremesinghe.

Among those who had been present at the book launch was retired General Mahesh Senanayake, who recently joined the SJB. But that hadn’t discouraged Fonseka from inviting Senanayake, who was recalled from retirement to serve as Yahapalana Army commander. That was due to Fonseka’s intervention. But, the SJB’s decision to accommodate retired General Daya Ratnayake angered Fonseka, who lashed out at Sajith Premadasa for doing so.

The leader and Chairman hadn’t agreed on many things. Actually, there hadn’t been consensus on key issues. They disagreed on the move to back Dullas Alahapperuma as the Opposition candidate against Ranil Wickremesinghe when Parliament voted to elect an MP to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term. Finally, having tried to utilise Aragalaya against Wickremesinghe, Fonseka ended up in the President’s camp.

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