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When grit prevails over disability

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Wheelchair tennis 

His life didn’t flash before his eyes when the mine exploded under his feet. The only thought that crossed his mind was a sense of regret at his tour of duty coming to an abrupt end while his work was left undone. It was the year 2008 and in another year the war would be over. However, Lasantha Ranaweera didn’t know that. He was in the thick of it, having turned down multiple training opportunities so he could witness the end of the war. But while returning to base in Periyamadu, in the wee hours of May 18, 2008, which happened to be Vesak Poya day, he stepped on the mine. His leg was amputated, but it didn’t snuff out his spirit. Ranaweera went on to become a wheelchair tennis pro. This is his story and that of his comrades.

By Sajitha Prematunge

Pics by Kamal Wanniarachchi

When Jagath Welikala went to the airport on the request of Sri Lanka Tennis Association, presumably to pick up a tennis player, a Brit lugging a wheelchair, instead of a tennis racket, was the last thing the veteran tennis coach expected. Englishman Mark Bullock arrived in Sri Lanka in 2002 to introduce a special kind of sport; wheelchair tennis.

The programme kicked off with 50 all military amputees. The number was later cut down to 20. Welikala was elected to coach the team and Australian coach Kathy Fahim conducted a two-week crash course in wheelchair tennis. “Then I simply followed it up,” said Welikala. By mid-September the same year, a four-member team won the D Division in the Thailand Open 2002. Bullock, then the International Tennis Federation, Wheelchair Tennis Development Officer, facilitated Welikala’s one-month training in the Netherlands with world’s number one coach at the time, Aad Zwan. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) donated three wheelchairs and funded Australian and New Zealand wheelchair tournaments.

Two received ‘wild card’ entries into the Para Olympics 2004 in Athens, Greece. The SLTA team also won the Indian Open 2007, Australian B Division 2004, New Zealand B Division 2004, Belgium Open 2016, Malaysian Open 2017, Thailand Open 2017, Taipei Open 2018 and World Cup qualifiers 2018, held in Malaysia, along the way. Over the years, the Sri Lankan team has beaten US, Spainish, German, Italian, Slovakian Moroccan, Israeli, Swiss, Argentinian, Croatian, Russian, Canadian, Malaysian, Thai and Japanese players during World Cup matches. Their winning streak culminated in Lasantha Ranaweera and Suresh Dharmasena winning the bronze at the 3rd Asian Games, Indonesia in 2018.

War injuries break people, consequently, Welikala often had to double as a counsellor to the soldier-tennis players training under him. “But, all, after they became a part of the programme, wound up married.” This, no doubt, stands testimony to the success of the programme. “There’s a definite improvement in psychology.” Welikala ventured that, in a way it is therapeutic. “It’s something to look forward to in life.” But more importantly, Welikala points out that they are not friendless. “They are rated international and have friends all over the world.”

Welikala’s own achievements include being elected a member of Coaches’ Commission for the term between 2010 and 2012 and placed second best coach of the year. He started coaching regular tennis in 1985. Now he is the only Sri Lankan coach who specializes in wheelchair tennis, having trained 40 players so far. What’s unique about the Sri Lankan wheelchair tennis programme is that the players are all amputees, wounded in action, competing with players, most of who have been disabled by birth or childhood and have been playing wheelchair tennis for many decades, in A-grade wheelchairs.

“Back when we started, we didn’t have proper equipment. All the wheelchairs were locally assembled, until ITF donated the first three wheelchairs,” said Welikala. The team recently received three Malaysian-made wheelchairs at the cost of Rs. 500,000 each, courtesy of SLTA. “A state-of-the-art wheelchair would cost somewhere around three million. With that kind of equipment players can play well into their 50s,” said Lasantha Ranaweera.

The 36 -year-old, originally from Makandura enlisted in August 2003 and was assigned to Gajaba Regiment. After stepping on a landmine, his leg was amputated on May 19, 2008. From Anuradhapura he was brought to Colombo, where he recuperated for three months. Ranaweera spent four more months in Ranaviru Sevana and returned to service at his regiment. He spent two years with the sports team, during which he tried every sport available for an amputee like him, from basketball, badminton, table tennis, archery to the 24 kilometre marathon. Considering the zeal with which he applied himself to sport, it is quite surprising that he has not played any sport prior to his amputation.

He joined the SLTA wheelchair tennis team in 2011 and by 2013 he was in such fine form that he was able to bring home a medal on his first tour, coming third in Thai Open doubles. He has played seven Thai and nine Malaysian tournaments. Ranaweera placed eighth in the World Cup 2016 held in Japan. He has beaten every other local player in the game, although he is the third highest ranking Sri Lankan in ITF ranking.

Ranaweera admits that he couldn’t have come this far if it weren’t for the support of his family. He was married in 2007. But due to complications resulting from the blast the Ranaweeras could not have kids for 12 years. “It was a huge sacrifice on my wife’s part to stick around. But with treatment, it finally paid off. She always knew I’d make a name for myself in sports, so she was always encouraging.” Today Ranaweera is happy that the others finished the war for him, so his now one-year-old kid could live in peace.

After the war we had to face a more formidable enemy, this time in the form of a pandemic. As in any other field, COVID-19 has been a huge setback for these wheelchair tennis players. The longer they remain idle and the less tournaments they play, the higher the risk that other playing opponents may overtake them in the ITF ranking. “Training is not the issue, we need more tournaments, we need to travel,” pointed out Welikala. “If we don’t do tours, our ranking goes down,” added Ranaweera. “Age is irrelevant when it comes to wheelchair tennis,” said amputee Suresh Dharmasena. Take Stéphane Houdet for example, not only do such players have the best of equipment to their advantage, they also play often as possible to keep their ranking up. “Houdet is 49, yet he’s ranked in the ITF top 10. If we can manage at least 17 or 18 tours a year we can stay in the world top 20. This year we’ve played only three so far.”

Thirty-one-year-old Dharmasena from Kahatagasdigiliya has been playing Wheelchair Tennis since 2011. Unlike Ranaweera, Dharmasena was wounded during the latter part of the war. Dharmasena enlisted in July 2007 and was assigned to the Artillery Regiment. At the height of war, he was stationed in Puthukkudiyiruppu. It was February 21, 2009. Civilians were fleeing the war zone in droves, for two days, by boat across the Chalai lagoon, when the LTTE infiltrated the area and opened fire. Most were killed or injured. Dharmasena and others were pulling the wounded out when they were hit by mortar. Dharmasena was able to jump out of the way, which saved his life, but he fell on an anti-personnel mine.

“When four of your friends are down with various wounds, ranging in degrees of seriousness, and another lying dead a few feet away, your own predicament tends to escape you. Violence becomes mundane in war.” Wise words for a still young soldier. He was patched up at a makeshift hospital, but he knew that his foot was badly damaged all the way to the boot line. It had to be amputated. Dark thoughts of never being able to marry, have kids and make a family did cross his mind but had to be kept at bay for the sake of his family. After recuperating for four months at the Ranaviru Senvana, Dharmasena was fitted with a prosthetic. A month of training later, he was stationed at Panagoda Camp.

“I’ve always liked sports,” said Dharmasena, on the merits of which he got into the army. “After the amputation I used to watch kids in the village play volleyball.” Before his injury volleyball was his forte. Watching them, Dharmasena remembers being dejected at the prospect of never being able to play again. It was Brigadier Shiran Abeysekara who suggested that Dharmasena try his hand at wheelchair tennis. He joined the SLTA wheelchair tennis team in October 2011. “It looks easier than it is, but it uses only the upper body and on the first day your hand starts to blister. Any civilian would have quit. But the Army had my back. The word ‘can’t’ is not in the Army dictionary.” Wheelchair tennis, backed by the discipline that was inculcated in him by the Army, presented him with something he couldn’t refuse – the idea that he was not an invalid, that he could play any sport. He trained well into the night, woke up early and trained some more, till his ITF ranking shot up to Sri Lanka’s highest.

With 30 tours behind him and between 40 to 50 trophies stacked away back at home, Dharmasena readily admits that he couldn’t have done it without his wife. It takes courage for a traditional Sri Lankan woman to accept a disabled person for husband. And Dharmasena’s wife, Samurdika, did it with grace, maintaining that she would marry no other, until the in-laws had to budge. “Now they can’t do without me,” snickers Dharmasena. Like the typical traditional Sri Lankan wife, she makes a vow every time he is to play a tournament. However, she also makes it a point to go over each match, why he lost, the opponent’s weak points and notes it all down with the expertise of a seasoned coach. Whenever he is to face the same opponent again, they pore over this ‘playbook’, just so to know how to defeat his opponent’. And after a win she never fails to welcome him back home with much fanfare.

Gamini Dissanayake, aged 42, is the only remaining player out of the original 50. He took part in the two-week training course conducted by Kathy Fahim at the inception of the programme. Originally from Ampara, Dissanayake commutes daily from home in Awissawella for training. As the other players, Dissanayake could not have devoted such time and energy without the unstinting support of his family. Dissanayake has three kids; a 16 -year-old daughter and two sons, 14 and 11 years old.

He joined the Army in 1996 and was wounded in action in 2000, when he stepped on a mine in Muhamalai.

 

Dissanayake has played wheelchair tennis for 15 years. He said tennis had helped him to overcome his injury, both physically and psychologically.

Dharmasena said that his titles were many including SSC Open 2010, AITA Open Wheelchair Tennis Tournament 2011, Westende Wheelchair Tournament 2016, Malaysia Open 2016, Labuan Open 2018, Sri Lanka Open in the years 2013, 2018 and 2020 in singles and BII Indonesia Open 2011, AITA Open Wheelchair Tennis Tournament 2011, Westende Wheelchair Tournament 2016, Labuan Open 2018, Sri Lankan Open in the years 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, SSC Open in the years 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2017 in doubles and bronze in World Cup 2012. He has some 130 trophies attesting to his formidability.

Ranaweera and Dharmasena look forward to the next Paralympics, slated for August 2021, and the Asian Games in 2022. Dissanayake hopeS to retire after the Paralympics and Asian Games. This is the last generation of wheelchair tennis players that the military might produce. Dharmasena is concerned about what will happen to the sport after they retire. He hopes that someone would come forward to provide food and lodging to children from remote corners of the country, interested in picking the game up. Because unlike them, who were provided for by the ASrmy, children from low income households may not be able to afford the equipment.

In fact, SLTA has already launched a low key programme to track down potential talent. “Until the end of the war, we had a steady influx of players, through the intervention of the Army,” said SLTA Director Administration, Gayanga Weerasekara. Since the war ended, there have been no disabled willing to take up the sport. Now the SLTA is venturing into remote areas and orphanages in search of talent. “If anyone’s interested call up SLTA,” said Weerasekara. “People with any kind of disability could take up the sport.” He explained that internationally the sport is categorized according to the disability and as such, there is a lot of scope for aspiring wheelchair tennis players. Weerasekara said that they were actively looking for funding and that they have been lucky so far, to have received funding from companies such as the Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT). He is also hopeful that the new Sports Minister, Namal Rajapaksa would support the sport.

Weerasekara pointed out that players like Ranaweera, Dharmasena and Dissanayake would have wasted years of youth in some Army camp office and later been dependent on a pension, had they not discovered the sport. “We were able to provide them with a whole new career. Grand slam players are paid in dollars.” Weerasekara explained that wheelchair tennis provides endless opportunities for disabled children. “There is a certain therapeutic aspect to wheelchair tennis, that disabled children can benefit from. For example, it is an outdoor game. It is a very social game, too when it comes to doubles.

Weerasekara said that the local players had not known anything about the sport before their injuries as opposed to most international players who are disabled by birth or at a young age. Moreover, due to funding issues they had not been able to do as many tours as they needed. “Under such circumstances, it is to their credit that they were able to qualify for world events such as the Paralympics. These players have sacrificed their limbs for this country, and the least anyone could do is sponsor them,” said Weerasekara, inviting any interested party to sponsor the players.



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

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by Harshana Rambukwella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No solutions to nation’s problems from draft constitutional amendment

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by jehan perera

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

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

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

INDEPENDENT COMMISSIONS

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

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

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

DEATH BLOW

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

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

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

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

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By Hema Arachi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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