Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Importance of Iraqi Victory at Ramadi

Iraq officially declared Ramadi ‘liberated’ from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists yesterday. So, what is the importance of this development?

First and foremost, it is about phycology and morale. The Iraqi forces were utterly discredited in 2014 when the ISIS swept across large areas of Iraq including its second largest city Mosul. In May 2015, the Iraqi forces were once again humiliated by the fall of Ramadi, a city in the Sunni heartland and dangerously close to the capital of Iraq, Baghdad.

The recapture of Ramadi by the Iraqi forces was the result of a long campaign. The government forces cut off supply lines to the city, forcing most of the ISIS forces to leave. By the end, only around 400 fighters remained in the city. Nevertheless, this victory gives added confidence to the Iraqi forces in the battle against the ISIS.

Ramadi is also a city with strategic value. It occupies a highly strategic location on the Euphrates and the road west into Syria and Jordan. This has made it a hub for trade and traffic. Furthermore, it is the capital of the largest province in Iraq, Anbar. More importantly, it is a Sunni city, from where groups such as ISIS garnered significant support.

In this aspect, the liberation of Ramadi is also an indication of the changing political situation in the country. The former government of Nouri al-Maliki proved divisive and sectarian, making it easy for Sunni radical groups to attract support. The presence of Shia militant groups in Sunni areas irked the Sunnis and drew them away from the government. However, the current Iraqi government has been able to attract Sunni militant groups which helped it in the battle for Ramadi.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to defeat the ISIS in the country, following the success of the battle for Ramadi. While the final defeat of the ISIS could take years to achieve, Ramadi has given a fresh hope and an added credibility to the Iraqi forces in this long battle of attrition.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Hugo Chavez: “Por Ahora”

Venezuelans who went to sleep on February 3, 1992, woke up with the news of an extraordinary military coup on the next day. Only the conspirators knew the exact details. The government of Carlos Andres Perez knew something was up due to a ‘leak’. But that was all.

In reality, a group of military officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez had organized a military takeover of the Venezuelan regime. Chavez’s hero was “the liberator” Simon Bolivar and he hoped to realize Bolivar’s dream for South America.
Hugo Chavez (Agencia Brasil)

In the very late hours of February 3, the coup was launched and soon the conspirators had control of important places in the country, except Caracas. Partly due to the leak and party due to their own shortcomings, the coup failed in the capital. Carlos Andres Perez, who had fled from the presidential palace to avoid capture, appeared on television early morning on February 4, to declare that there had been a coup but things were now under control. As far as Caracas was concerned, he was correct.

Hugo Chavez knew that the coup would fail without the capture of the capital. He decided to surrender to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. If his followers did not surrender in the peripheries, it would have resulted in a bloodbath in which many loyal followers would die for nothing. The negotiations were conducted through the mediation of General Ramon Santeliz Ruiz, a friend of Chavez. After 7 a.m. Chavez surrendered in the face of threats of aerial bombardment of his positions.

By 10 a.m. he was at the ministry of defense with Santeliz and heard that some of his followers were surrendering after hearing the news of the failure. But Jesus Hernandez Urdaneta, who was leading the rebels in Maracay, was still not willing to give up. The military was contemplating an aerial bombardment on Maracay.

It was at this juncture that Hugo Chavez suggested that he would directly talk to his men in Maracay. Yet, the telephone lines were cut. Then he suggested the radio. By an extraordinary piece of luck, the military officers suggested television. Defense minister Ochoa Antich agreed and he checked with the president. Perez wanted Chavez to be handcuffed as a prisoner and also to write down what he would tell in advance. Chavez, a shrewd politician as well as a military man, would have none of it. He did not want to appear a defeated man, although he was utterly destroyed within his mind. With no time to lose, the military men agreed to his terms.

Chavez washed his face, put on the red paratrooper beret and straightened his uniform. He will appear with dignity in front of the television cameras and therefore, in front of his nation. He walked into a room full of reporters and for the next seventy two seconds, he spoke with dignity and clarity, in real military fashion.

“First of all, I want to say good morning to all the people of Venezuela. This Bolivarian message is directed to all the courageous soldiers who are in the paratrooper regiment in Aragua and the tank regiment in Valencia. Comrades: unfortunately, for now [por ahora] the objectives we set ourselves were not achieved in the capital city. That is, those of us here in Caracas did not seize power. Where you are, you performed very well, but now is the time to reflect. New opportunities will arise and the country has to head definitely towards a better future.

So, listen to what I have to say. Listen to the Comandante Chavez, who is sending you this message. Please, reflect and put down your arms, because in truth, the objectives that we set for ourselves at a national level are not within our grasp. Comrades, listen to this message of solidarity: I am grateful for your loyalty, for your courage, for your selfless generosity. Before the country and before you, I accept responsibility for this Bolivarian military movement. Thank you very much.”

The country was stunned. Here was the leader of the coup which had surprised them, appearing live on national television and accepting responsibility for the failure of the coup. Venezuelans had never seen a politician accept responsibility for something that went wrong in their country where many things were going wrong. Then, here appears a young military officer, accepting full responsibility for a failure.

Hugo Chavez was depressed as he has had to lead a fiasco and then had to ask for others to surrender. It was then as he says that Santeliz came to him, shook his hand and said, “That was great man, what you said!” Chavez replied, “What do you mean good, if I called for surrendering?” Santeliz replied, “You said, for now.” Chavez had uttered the two defining words of the speech without realizing it. These two words “Por Ahora!” would become an important slogan of Chavez in his later campaign for presidency. In December 1998, he was swept in at the presidential polls with 56.2% of the popular vote and he was sworn in on February 2, 1999, just two days before the seventh anniversary of the coup in which he had exploded into national politics. He set out in attempting to realize his dream of a new Venezuela based on the dreams of the old hero, Simon Bolivar. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mengistu Haile Mariam: No Famine Accepted in Acceptance Speech

Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the Derg (Committee) which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, and head of state during 1977-1991, is remembered for 'red terror' and even genocide. His speech in September 1984, at the Inauguration of the Workers Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was an instance of political hypocrisy at the highest level.

The revolution of 1974 which deposed the long serving Emperor Haile Sellassie I, was the result of public dissatisfaction intensified by a famine in the 1970s. The new military regime struggled to establish itself in the initial years. Mengistu rose to the prominence after eliminating his opponents within and without the Derg.

The Derg embraced Marxism-Leninism as the guiding principle and increasing aid was received from the Soviet bloc. To transform the feudal economy, among other things, land reforms were carried out. Land distribution was quite fairly done and was generally popular. But it created small plots of land which affected the productivity.

Peasants were organized into Peasant Associations and Peasant Collectives. However, collectivization never received wide support in the country. The National Farms established also were unproductive.

The peasants' incentive to produce suffered a heavy blow due to the policies of the powerful Agricultural Marketing Corporation (AMC). This was established to feed the country's cities and towns. The AMC determined a quota for associations, collectives and national farms and bought foodstuff below market prices. To prevent smuggling, AMC built road blocks at strategic points along the roads. The peasants were unwilling to sell the full quota to the AMC at low prices.

Meanwhile, mid-year rains failed in 1983, and a famine was projected for the following year. The regime was at the time preparing for the tenth anniversary of the 1974 revolution and the establishment of a new party, the WPE. Mengistu himself may have been unaware at this stage about the projections. But, he should have been well aware of the situation by late 1983 as the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) leaked the information to foreign press against the will of the regime. However, the regime never accepted the reality and foreign aid was not forthcoming as a result.

Rains again failed in February 1984 and June-July 1984. By that time, the famine was becoming a hard reality. The government was unwilling to divert funds from the tenth anniversary celebrations to counter the famine. More than half of the country’s population was severely affected.

Despite this, the foreign dignitaries who arrived for the celebrations in September, saw a clean city and nothing of the horror engulfing the country. In the newly built Congress Hall, the WPE was called into being and a Politburo was elected. This in turn, elected Mengistu as the General Secretary of the Party, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and President of the Council of ministers.

His acceptance speech lasted for five and a half hours. Mengistu spoke on the achievements and the future of the revolution. Not even once, in this long speech, did he mention the famine. Even during his speech, thousands of Ethiopians died from starvation.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Jawaharlal Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny

It was the evening of August 14, 1947.

A nation of nearly 400 million people awaited its emergence from the clutches of colonial rule. Throughout the land, in cities and villages alike, these would be citizens anticipated the birth of their nation. In the capital Delhi, the Constitutional Assembly had gathered to witness the last act in the transfer of power.

As the clock moved slowly towards midnight, a slim elderly man dressed in a cream coloured achkhan (a long coat buttoned up to the neck) and a clean white khadi cap stood up. Flashbulbs illuminated the chamber, revealing the tense, fatigued face. It was to be temporary. As he spoke, he was to transform profoundly. His voice, low at the beginning, grew in volume as he continued his speech.

“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny….” Thus, Jawaharlal Nehru began what was to be perhaps his most memorable speech. “……..and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially,” he continued. This was a reference to the agony of partition. As Nehru spoke, Pakistan was already an independent state, and he may have seen the agonies awaiting the peoples of both countries.

Nevertheless, there was reason to rejoice. “At the stroke of the midnight hour,” he went on, “when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take a pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.”

Then he paused, may be to give a moment for the audience to grasp the essence of his words. Nehru knew that his challenges were immense. He had to transform a very backward society to the modern world. He went on elaborating, describing the immense challenges that lay ahead.

“The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?”

“……. That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we might fulfill the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and decease and inequality of opportunity”

These were the evils of India. It was home for more than 350 million people, and the numbers were growing rapidly. India was not self sufficient in food and feeding this expanding population was a mammoth task. A large section of the population, the adivasis and harijans in particular and rural and urban poor in general, were marginalized from the society. More than 80% of the people were illiterate. The privileged few enjoyed luxurious lives while the vast majority of the populace languished in utter poverty and ignorance.

Then, Nehru referred to his mentor, the leader of the freedom movement in India, the Mahatma. “The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.”

Nehru once more stressed the importance of striving for the betterment of India and the world humanity. “And so we have to labour and to work and work hard to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too
closely knit together today for anyone of them to imagine that it can live apart.

His concluding remarks Nehru asked the people of India to join in the adventure of India’s emergence out of poverty and ignorance. “Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments. To the people of India, whose representatives we are, we appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.”

Monday, November 30, 2015

Uncertain Future, in Politics and Life

First published in January this year, weeks after the Presidential Election 2015, to mark the birthday of Rukshan Abeywansha. Re-posting this here, on his first death anniversary.

I am reminded of a Buddhist story about Arhat Sariputta who was once asked about the outcome of a war that had broken out between two states. He, who had developed his mind to such an extent that he was named the most intelligent of all disciples of Buddha, gave a prediction on what he could see. The prediction turned out to be wrong.

Predicting the future is a risky endeavor. According to Buddhist scriptures, only the Buddha could see the past, present and future with accuracy. Even if we do not accept the story, no one will dispute the fact that future is uncertain to every mortal. Several famous astrologers found out this the hard way by the morning of January 9, 2015, as Sri Lanka learned of the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Presidential Election. Fearing for their trade, these people later claimed that they actually saw the future but were afraid of the consequences and decided to lie.

While the future in politics is always uncertain, political decisions can change the course of politics and create the future. The outcome of the election was never a certainty until January 9. However, the decisions of both the government and the opposition leaders paved the way for such an outcome where a seemingly invincible government fell.

Rathana Thera

During the presidential campaign, I remembered a certain day in late May 2014, when there was no discussion whatsoever about a Presidential Election. The News Editor of ‘The Nation’ Deepal Warnakulasuriya, and I went to the Sadaham Sevana at Rajagiriya to interview Athuraliye Rathana Thera on a new endeavor he had started. It was the publication of a national policy statement “Rata Gatha Yuthu Maga” (The Path the country should take) by the “Pivithuru Hetak” organization led by Rathana Thera.

He envisaged a national policy on crucial matters, irrespective of the party that was in power. “When we take the national issues, we must have national policies which don’t change with the regime changes or any other pressures from local or international forces. Not only India, even some western countries do not change their policies on crucial matters when the regime changes,” Rathana Thera told us. He envisaged a national policy council which could take decisions in critical matters irrespective of a change of a regime.

Rathana Thera also spoke about the issues of corruption, environment, agriculture and energy crisis. He was not ready to take executive presidency head-on, adding that one must first tackle issues that all sides can reach a consensus. However, he added that if the government does not agree to the critical changes that need to be done, he would have to think of the next step.

This interview came haunting back to my mind when the presidential election campaign was at a full-swing. “Was this the next step he meant?”


“Pivithuru Hetak” released its policy statement on June 3, 2014. Our colleague, Rukshan Chandika Abeywansha went to the event at BMICH. He was thrilled before the event simply because he saw the potential of a unique event.

Okkoma pakshavala kattiya enava machan, niyama pinthura tikak thiyeyi” he told me. (People from all parties will be there. There will be some unique photos). He did justice to the event, as always. One of his pictures has the then Minister Rajitha Senaratne, then Minister and Jathika Hela Urumaya General Secretary Patali Champika Ranawaka, then United National Party Leadership Council Chairman Karu Jayasuriya and UNP Parliamentarian Harsha de Silva, all smiling. On June 8, ‘The Nation’ carried the picture, with a caption, on page 3. However, this was to be the last news picture of Rukshan we carried. On that same June 8, he met with an accident.

If anyone of us could foretell the future, we would have told him not to go on that journey on that route on that morning. But alas, we are not gifted. We can only remind ourselves of the past, and speculate of the future.

Rukshan may not have then understood the significance of the event he covered. Neither did we. But today, we realize the importance of that event, which may have been a key moment in the ultimate regime change that took place on January 8. But Rukshan is not here with us to see the significance of the event he saw as a wonderful photo opportunity.

Rukshan Chandika Abeywansha, Best Photo Journalist of the Year 2013, would have been 37 this January 30.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Response to BBC: Was Putin Deflecting Criticism in His Speech on the Downing of a Su-24?

The shooting down of a Russian Su-24 fighter jet by Turkey sent shock waves across the world. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, was quick to respond in the harshest of words possible.

“This incident stands out against the usual fight against terrorism. Our troops are fighting heroically against terrorists, risking their lives. But the loss we suffered today came from a stab in the back delivered by accomplices of the terrorists” he said, blaming Turkey.

BBC’s Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford had an interesting explanation to Putin’s statement. “After all, Vladimir Putin launched airstrikes in Syria arguing that it would make Russia safer; instead, 224 people were blown out of the sky last month in a bomb attack. And now this. By rounding on Turkey he is in part deflecting any suggestion that his own policy has backfired”, Rainsford said.

So, was Putin deflecting criticism? Was he wrong in saying that Russia would be safer if the Islamic State of Ira and Syria (ISIS) is defeated is Syria?

Putin went into Syria to bolster his ally Assad there. One can never deny this reality. Nevertheless, his argument of defeating ISIS is Syria to make Russia safer is fundamentally not wrong.

One reason for the success of the ISIS is that it has a firm base in Iraq and Syria. Western indifference helped its rise in Syria. The ISIS entrenched itself firmly in parts of Syria at least a year before it became a world-wide phenomenon by sweeping across large swathes of Iraq. ISIS can now boast about its accomplishments in controlling a large area across two countries, giving it much needed credibility as a potent force. The ISIS has created a de facto state, which has started advertising itself as an Islamic Utopia state to recruit cadres across the world.

Russia is one of its target areas for recruitment and potential attack. The ISIS fighters are not targeting Russia because it started pounding them in Syria. Although most people do not realize, Russia has a large Muslim population. One seventh of its people profess Islam, and this could be turned in to a potential recruiting ground.

It was in December 2014 that Al Jazeera described this situation in an article written by Olga Khrustaleva titled “Russia’s Burgeoning ISIL Problem”. Months after sweeping across parts of Iraq, ISIS turned its focus on Russia’s Caucasus, starting to release videos targeted at Russia. “We will … liberate Chechnya and the Caucasus, Allah willing. The Islamic State is here to stay,” said an ISIL [ISIS] fighter in the first such video, released on August 31, Al Jazeera pointed out.

Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch's Russia programme director, told Al Jazeera in late 2014 that there is "definitely [ISIL] recruitment happening" in Russia (ISIL is an alternative name to ISIS). Furthermore, “[ISIL] is becoming, I would say, increasingly popular in the northern Caucasus, in a situation where people are disillusioned with the secular government,” she further said.

Recruitment attempts were also being made through Russia’s popular social media site VK.com. There were, and still are, various groups within VK carrying out ISIS propaganda. Recruitment attempts were also taking place. A favorite tactic was using a good looking male recruit to lure females in to the ISIS trap.

Suggesting that 224 people died after Russia attacked the ISIS is an indirect request to keep out if one needs to be in peace. However, as Putin understood the problem, such devastating attacks could have taken place sooner or later. If Russia was to be silent now, it would face an even stronger ISIS outfit later. The stronger the ISIS seems to be, the higher the likelihood of recruiting more people from foreign lands.

Therefore, Putin was correct in saying that Russia would be safer if the ISIS is defeated in Syria. Whether the ISIS can be defeated in Syria is another matter.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Rajapaksa vs Lee Kuan Yew

Certain individuals have made significant roles in shaping the histories of the nations they led. Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was one of the best examples for such a leader. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the potential to become one. Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa became another such leader in 2009, only to mar his reputation in later years.

There are similarities in the way Lee Kuan Yew and Mahinda Rajapaksa went about dealing with their main challenges. For Lee, his main challenge was to make a nation out of a place which, in his own words, lacked the main characteristics of one. Rajapaksa, on the other hand, had to push off development as a second goal. During his first term as president, his main goal was finding a solution to the civil war raging in the country.

Both Lee and Rajapaksa took the bulls by their horns. Ably supported by some competent men and women, Lee made a fascinating transformation in his small land. Rajapaksa, who was also supported by a number of immensely capable men and women, led the war effort to a successful conclusion.

There was no doubt on Lee's commitment to his job. He once famously said, "this is about our lives. I spent my whole life building it. And until I am around, no one is going to knock it down."

Both Lee and Rajapaksa were patriots, and believed in nationalism. One major difference is Lee's apparent multi-culturalism and Rajapaksa's apparent Sinhala Nationalist appeal. This was one major difference which differentiated the two leaders. While Rajapaksa never won a respectable minority vote, Lee's People's Action Party attracted voters of all communities, and still does. Despite its extensive efforts at flooding the north and east with development projects, the Rajapaksa government could never instill a sense of 'belongingness' in the Tamil community in those regions.

However, perhaps the most significant difference between the two leaders was their stance on corruption. The fight against corruption was an integral part of Lee's government. Mahinda Rajapaksa also vowed to fight corruption at the start of his second term. However, while Lee strictly practiced what he preached, there is serious doubt on Rajapaksa's intent in doing so. While Lee is universally accepted as clean by even his opponents, Rajapaksa's second term was marred by the constant allegations of corruption and "mega deals".

The allegations on nepotism are simultaneously leveled against Rajapaksa and to a certain extent against Lee. However, nepotism in Sri Lanka, under many governments, can never be compared with what took place in Singapore. For an outside observer, it might look strange to see the first Prime Minister's son becoming the third Prime Minister of a country, and to see it maintain its record of success. However, once one understands the system in place in Singapore, it becomes quite clear.

Perhaps it is Lee Kuan Yew who provided the best answer to this question. Once when he was asked about his son succeeding as Prime Minister he said that Lee Hsien Loong will not be succeeding not as his son but as a Deputy Prime Minister who served the country for several years. People will decide if he was successful or not, he said, and added that the people will have the right to replace him if he proves unsuccessful.

The meritocracy in Singapore is such that an individual cannot become a Cabinet Minister for the simple fact that he is a 'crony' or loyalist of the top echelons. One has to go through a particular institutionalized system. Any person has to first become a Junior Minister for a certain period of time before becoming a Senior Minister. One has to prove himself, and if he does, he can move to the top echelons of the city state's government.

One striking difference in Rajapaksa and Lee was the appearance of their names in public places. Rajapaksa had various public constructions named for him, unlike Lee, who rarely had his name appear on such places. Furthermore, monumental images of Rajapaksa appeared around the island, becoming a far too common sight.

To the latter part of the Rajapaksa government, high rises were built in Colombo, at several places where there used to be slums. These new buildings reminded this writer of the Housing and Development Board flats in Singapore. Perhaps it was the model the Rajapaksa government was attempting to adapt in Colombo. However, there was one conspicuous difference in the buildings in Sri Lanka. They had larger than life sized portraits of Rajapaksa.

While the negative image of Rajapaksa was constructed partly by the pro-LTTE diaspora, his extravagance failed to counter this propaganda and added credence to it.

Sadly, Rajapaksa missed a unique opportunity to rival Lee Kuan Yew in guiding his country towards development.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Pre-colonial Sri Lanka – Singapore Relations

Although most people know Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles as the founder of Singapore, he would not have preferred to see the accolade being bestowed upon him. In contrast, he would have preferred to be known as the one who revived an ancient and vibrant city.

In the early 19th century, the British considered more than one option as a possible site of an outpost at the southern end of the Strait of Malacca. The decision to select Singapore was taken on several grounds, and the romantic image of the revival of an ancient city could have played a role.

Temasik, ancient Singapore, occupies an important place in the history of the Malay people, according to the Malay Annals written somewhere in the 15th century and afterwards. The oldest surviving Malay Annal, now known as Raffles MS 18, was written in 1612. The intention of the Malay Annals was to bolster the popularity of the ruling family. Raffles, who came across the manuscript, must have found its story interesting.

According to the Raffles MS 18, the city of Temasik was found by none other than the legendary Sri Tri Buana, the first great Malay king. The Annals tell of several succeeding rulers after Sri Tri Buana. Accordingly, Singapore was a thriving city throughout the 14th century.

Interestingly, Singapore is one of the prominent cities to have been subjected to considerable archeological excavations. A large quantity of 14th century artifacts, including pottery, beads, ‘mercury jars’ and coins speak of a thriving city, based on trade.

According to Malay Annals, the city is thought to have been attacked by Majapahit in Java or Ayuttaya in Thailand at the end of the 14th century. Thereafter, the city declined, culminating by the early 1600s.
A coin from Leelavati (1197-1200) era

Among a number of artifacts found in Singapore are two Sri Lankan coins, both belonging to the reign of king Buwanekabahu I (1272-84). One coin was found during excavations at Parliamentary House Complex before the new Parliamentary House was constructed in the 1990s. The other was unearthed at the grounds of the St. Andrew’s Cathedral. These copper-alloy coins showed a standing figure on one side and a seated figure on the other. Meanwhile, similar coins belonging to the reigns of queen Leelavati (1197-1200) and king Sahassamalla (1200-02) have been discovered in Sumatra.

While archeologists have discovered more than a hundred Chinese coins from Singapore, the two Sri Lankan coins indicate some interesting facts. It could mean that 14th century Singapore was a sophisticated market where more than one type of money was accepted. Furthermore, along with the findings in Sumatra, it is a clear indication that Sri Lankan coins were accepted as legal tender in South East Asia, including Singapore.

The acceptance of the Sri Lankan coins may have been due to its design. The coins with a standing and seated figures were issued in Sri Lanka from the late Anuradhapura era to the late 13th century and follows the similar design of the coins of Rajaraja Chola. The Chola Empire dominated South Asia and even had a direct role in decimating the once powerful Srivijaya Empire in South East Asia. Therefore, its currency was an internationally accepted currency in this part of the world. The Sri Lankan coins had a similar design and used Sanskrit characters. Therefore, they must have also been internationally accepted.

Discovery of Sri Lankan coins in Singapore does not mean that Sri Lanka had diplomatic relations with the Singapore rulers in the 14th century. The political history of Sri Lanka during most of the 14th century is unclear and the indication is that the central government was weak after the Kurunegala period in the 1320s. However, the coins indicate that the trade links connected the island of Sri Lanka and Singapore during this period.

Singapore declined from the beginning of the 15th century. Other ports including Melaka overtook it in the Malacca Straits. During the early colonial era, the Portuguese had plans of constructing a fort in the island. However, this plan did not materialize and the island remained inconspicuous until Sir Raffles chose to establish a trading post.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Former British Governor's Bungalow Cries For Attention

The ruins of the Doric House at Arippu, built by the British colonial government in the early 1800s, and described by Cordiner in 1807 as the most beautiful building in the island, is facing a serious threat due to the erosion of the coast.

Arippu is a small settlement which lies south of Mannar in the north-western coast line of Sri Lanka. On the plains south of Arippu, rise the ruins of a once majestic British era bungalow. Nearby, there is a cement tower. These are the Doric House and the Doric Tower of Arippu.

The threat posed by erosion was nothing new. This threat was reported for the first time several decades ago. The sea has reached the very walls of the Doric House, causing one side of its walls to collapse. However, nothing was done for years, partly due to the prevailing security situation in the area. Recently, a stone barrier was constructed to protect the building. It covers only a section of the beach and seems to be inadequate.

Protecting the Doric House is important since it was once a landmark in the colonial history of Ceylon. Furthermore, it was a living testament of a bygone era, when pearl fishing was a lucrative business in the area. The Doric House was built as a bungalow for the Governor to reside during his trips to inspect pearl fishing.

It is widely believed that the first Governor of British Ceylon, Frederick North, drew the plan of the building. The foundation was laid on March 18, 1802 and it took two years to complete. It was supposed to be finished by the end of 1802, but several difficulties prolonged the completion of the building. It was reported that transport difficulties and awkwardness of the coolies employed (due to the harsh conditions) slowed down work. Financial difficulties arose in 1803 further delaying the work.

North is thought to have resided in the Doric House during one trip after its completion in 1804. He left the island in 1805. However, the Doric House remained a prominent landmark in the area.

Writing in 1807, Cordiner said that this was ‘the most beautiful building in the island’. He provided a detailed account of this building with a drawing made by him. This drawing shows the Doric columns rising on the front and rear porticos. These cannot be seen today. Cordiner also provided the layout plan of the building. Accordingly, there were four small bed rooms on the ground floor. The building had a terraced roof over the upper floor, which could have been an excellent place to watch the fishery activities on the sea.

“The Doric is distinctly marked on few maps of Ceylon prepared during the 19'h century. It was marked as 'House' on Captain G. Schneider's map in 1813 and as 'Dorick' on the map popularly known as John Davy's map in 1821,” Dhanesh Wisumperuma said in his paper ‘The Doric at Arippu’ published in the Journal of the Royal Association of Sri Lanka, Volume LI, in 2005. The building is marked as ,Doric, on both Major General John Fraser's map of 1962 and Arrowsmith's map of 1957, Wisumperuma also pointed out, concluding that the Doric House was a principle landmark in the 19th century.

The end of pearl fishing and several other changes brought an end to the Doric House’s prominence. The road to Jaffna through Arippu became unimportant following the construction of the road through Kurunegala. The building started the long process of decay.

Despite this, it still evoked a considerable deal of imagination. In 1973, RL Brohier mentions it as a “striking landmark on the plain.” There were other references towards early 1980s as well. The outbreak of the war in 1983 brought the building to oblivion.

However, the relative scarcity of records may have led many into falsely believing that the Doric is actually the Dutch Fort of Arippu. However, this theory is totally unfounded as the fort was located at Arippu further north.

Archeological exploration was restarted in the north following the end of the war in 2009. As an initial step, some archaeological sites were Gazetted by the Archaeological Department, thereby claiming the legal rights over the sites. However, extensive research is yet to be done.

The importance of the Doric House is that it connects to a relatively lesser known industry in ancient Ceylon, that of pearl fishing. At any rate, the Mannar coastline has not been subjected to thorough archaeological research. Therefore, it is important to preserve the known archaeological sites as a first step in exploring the unknown depths of Sri Lanka’s past.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Wilpattu Encroached (2014 article)

Introduction: Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, then Minister of Industry and Commerce, was accused of encroaching Wilpattu National Park in April 2014. He took a 'fact finding' team of journalists to the region, and some of them, including this writer, found some funny facts. Has anything changed after the change of government? One can only wonder.

The ‘battle’ which has erupted between Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen and Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) over the alleged clearance of land belonging to Wilpattu National Park for settling displaced Muslim people has grown in intensity within the last few weeks.

It began earlier this month with BBS General Secretary Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera accusing the government including President Mahinda Rajapaksa for ‘keeping silent’ on the large scale housing complex constructed in the Wilpattu National Park. His accusation was directed at several ministries in particular, including the Environment and Renewable Energy Ministry and the Wildlife Resources Conservation Ministry. Gnanasara Thera also said that there were some elements within the government who were backing the alleged activity. Accusations were being leveled at Bathiudeen for this activity.
Photo: Amila Prasanna Sumanapala

Several days later, a tense situation occurred when the BBS made a trip to the area where the alleged resettlement is being carried out. In return, Bathiudeen also took a group of media personnel on a ‘fact finding trip’ of the area on April 22. However, BBS described this as merely a ‘media circus’ stating that the Minister showed only what he wanted the media to see.

Wilpattu National Park

Declared in 1938, the Wilpattu National Park (WNP) lies along the north western coast. The main topographical feature of the park is the concentration of “villus.” Although they appear as lakes, villus are in flat basin like fault depressions on the surface of the earth and contain only rain water. The villu feature is unique to this part of the island. There are many sandy paths in the WNP which connect some villus. The area of the park is 131,693 hectares, making it the largest national park in the island.

The northern border of the WNP lies along the Modaragam Aru (River). The Wilpattu Sanctuary lies inland from the coast and is entirely within the Northern Province. It is contiguous with the WNP and Modaragam Aru serves as the boundary of the two areas.

Fact finding

About 60 journalists representing local and foreign institutions took part in the ‘fact finding’ trip organized by Minister Bathiudeen. The group took the Puttalam-Mannar road, which travel through the WNP from Kala Oya to Modaragam Aru. Just across Modaragam Aru on the Puttalam-Mannar road, on the land side, were the squatters’ settlements.

These settlements were built around a common building built by the government some time ago. The people there gave various figures as to the number of families residing there. These numbers varied from 60 to 73. They said that they have returned to their lands which they abandoned in 1990.

The settlers told the journalists that they were originally from the Marichchukatti area. They had been evicted in 1990 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and had been unable to return for two decades. In 1990, there had been 150 families in the village and they claim that the village had a land of 300 acres. Today, there are 500 families of the original inhabitants and their descendents.

However, there were several discrepancies in the story of the people. When asked how they found a livelihood, some people said that they cultivated paddy lands. However, they failed to show any. Furthermore, they said that there was a burial ground in the area, which was on the sea side from the road. Although they produced what they called ‘deeds’ to their lands, there was no way of asserting that the documents were authentic. Furthermore, they accepted that only a few families had deeds.

Furthermore, there was a huge gender gap seen among the villagers. There were many men and a few women and most strikingly, there were no children to be seen. Not even toddlers. This was rather strange at a place which the people claim that they live in. Furthermore, there was evidence of cooking in only a few of the huts. It was obvious that some people did not know that the land was frequented by elephants. They claimed that elephants did not come to the area but there were elephant dung at places nearby.

Furthermore, on April 17, Minister Bathiudeen mentioned in a press release that “there are about 73 families whose original Marichchikatti area lands have been taken over by the Navy for security purposes and the families are unable to resettle in them as a result of this.” However, this is in contrary to the claims by some of the families who state that the lands they now occupy were their traditional lands.

National Park and Sanctuary

Speaking to The Nation, Environment Conservation Trust Director Sajeewa Chamikara stated that before the war, settlements were only on the sea side. He also clarified the confusion on WNP, Wilpattu North Sanctuary and the Buffer Zone.

With the passing of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in 1937, four categories of natural reserves were created. They are strict nature reserves, national parks, nature reserves and sanctuaries. A national park does not have private lands within it. A sanctuary can have private lands. However, new development work cannot be done even inside a sanctuary. A national park has a buffer zone of 1 mile, and a sanctuary has a buffer zone of 100m. Within this area, no development work can be done without an environment impact assessment.

In the above mentioned statement on April 17, Bathiudeen mentions that the families have put up “temporary huts on the borders of the Wilpattu National Park out of great necessity.” However, no one can make houses without proper permission within 1 mile of the border of a national park. The Central Environment Trust, in a recent press release once again criticized the violation of Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance No 2 of 1937 and the National Environmental Act No 47 of 1980.

This is a blatant encroachment of an environmentally valuable land which affects the eco-system balance. Furthermore, despite the claims by the so called ‘settlers’ the Elephant-Human Conflict will find a new front in Wilpattu North Sanctuary and the surrounding area. Therefore, if the settlement issue is not managed properly, it is in danger of creating both environmental and human catastrophes in the coming years.

First published in 'The Nation', April 27, 2014.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bandung Asian-Africa Conference

The Asian-African conference held in April 1955 was an important milestone on the road to the formation of the non-aligned movement six years later. Asian-African leaders met in Indonesia this week to mark the 60th anniversary of this landmark event.

Pre-Bandung Era

The new spirit of anti-colonialism and co-operation between newly emerging states received a boost at the Asian Relations Conference of 1947 held in India. The future prime minister of Ceylon, Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike spoke of the conference being the “beginning of something much greater-a federation of free and equal Asiatic countries, working not merely for our own advantage but for the progress and peace of all mankind”. This was the common aspiration of the main participants of this conference.

Ceylon played a vital role in organizing the conference of the Colombo Powers in 1954, where the holding of an Asian-African conference of emergent countries were discussed for the first time. Indonesian Prime Minister Dr. Sastromidjojo was the chief exponent of this idea. “Where do we stand now? We, the people of Asia, in this world of ours today?” was the question he posed at the gathering. At this time, the principals of mutual co-operation and non alignment with the two power blocs were popular policies in many newly emerged nations. But a more cohesive agreement between these states was envisioned by the exponents of these ideas.

On December 28-29, 1954, another conference was held at Bogor, Indonesia, as a prelude to the larger conference to be held the following year. This was to decide upon whom to invite for the Bandung conference and to agree on an agenda. The conference was to be held on April 18-24, 1955.


Most of the then independent nations in Asia-numbering 23-took part in the conference, including Indonesia, India, Ceylon, Burma, Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and Pakistan. Both the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and State of Vietnam were represented but Republic of China (Taiwan) was not. The two Koreas were not represented either. Meanwhile, there were 6 African nations including Egypt, Sudan, Ghana and Ethiopia. These nations were not a cohesive group with similar agendas. They included allies of both power blocs and also nations advocating non alignment.
Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai at Bandung (Photo: CCTV)

The participation of the PRC was vital because of several factors. PRC was hostile towards the West and clearly was an ally of the Soviet Union. But she was the most populous country in the world and had traditional ties with many Asian nations. Premier Zhou En-lai had survived an assassination attempt on his way to the conference by the sheer chance of changing his plans and visiting Burma at the last moment to meet Burmese, Indian and Egyptian leaders, thus missing the plane he intended to travel. Despite the fact that there were several pro-Western nations at Bandung, the Chinese were quite conciliatory in their attitude, may be intending to bolster their international image by being so. To a large extent they succeeded and it contributed to lessen the diplomatic isolation of the PRC over the next few years.

Main Points of Discussion

There were three committees appointed to discuss the political, economic and cultural affairs. The discussions focused on important matters such as economic and cultural cooperation, human rights and right to self-determination, promotion of world peace and international cooperation. The promotion of a foreign policy based on the Panchaseela Principles agreed upon by China and India was an important development in the conference.

At the end of the conference, despite the differences, all countries agreed upon a 10 point declaration <http://pd.cpim.org/2005/0605/06052005_bandung%20conf.htm> on promotion of world peace and cooperation. Incorporating the principals of the United Nations Charter, it focused on respect to fundamental human rights, territorial integrity and equality of all nations, the right of the nations to defend themselves, non involvement in power blocs, settlement of international disputes through peaceful means and mutual cooperation among nations.

After Bandung

Even though some participants remained allied to the power blocs, the non-aligned policy in foreign affairs enjoyed widespread support among the newly emerging nations. This ultimately led to the birth of the non-aligned movement (NAM) in 1961.

In 2005, a second Bandung conference was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first conference.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Trincomalee: April 19, 1995

The United States, and much of the rest of the world, will remember April 19, 1995, for the Oklahoma bombing, the single most devastating act of terrorism in the US soil before 9/11. But, Sri Lankans will remember that day for an even more heinous act. On that day, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorists betrayed the trust and goodwill of the Sri Lankan government by violently breaking a ceasefire, restarting their separatist war.

It was five days after the traditional New Year. Sri Lankans had celebrated the first New Year in peace in many years. Peace between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been established after the People’s Alliance (PA) won the general election in August 1994, ushering fresh hopes of reconciliation and lasting peace. The peace was fragile, yet it still held, until that quiet night on April 19, 1995.
Trincomalee and the environs (survey.gov.lk)

Trincomalee is a large natural harbor valued by many nations, especially during the colonial times and the Cold War period. It was a strategic naval base during the Eelam Wars and was a principle target of the LTTE.

April 19, 1995, was another usual day. The night was quiet and peaceful. Sailors of two Sri Lanka Navy gunboats, SLNS Sooraya and SLNS Ranasuru, anchored in the Koddiyar Bay in Trincomalee may not have realized that this will be the last few moments of tranquility for years to come. At the middle of the night, death was stalking them. Some of them would not see the sun rising over the horizon again. Twelve sailors died in the attack.

The LTTE attack on the two gunships which claimed the valued lives of nearly 20 young men was the launch of the war after several months of peace. It shattered one of the main objectives of the PA government, which had come to power with promises of establishing a lasting peace. The LTTE did not formally pull out from the peace talks. Their way of leaving the peace process was through a treacherous attack on two navy ships at the dead of the night.

Sri Lankan people had been war weary for more than a decade. The war had brought unspeakable calamities to the island. Even in Colombo, one could not be certain of returning home safely. The war had claimed thousands of lives, including, as many suspected, the life of one President of the country. There was a need for a respite in all corners of the country, except in the minds of a few leaders of the LTTE.

By 1993, winds of change were blowing throughout the length and breadth of the political scope in Sri Lanka. The new political party, the PA, which was an alliance between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and four other left-wing parties, was offering a credible challenge to the United National Party government. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the daughter of two former Prime Ministers and the widow of a famous actor turned politician, was leading the alliance. She promised peace, a promise people in the north and the south embraced gladly.

The PA won the general election in August 1994 and formed a government, with Kumaratunga as Prime Minister. It initiated a peace process as well. Soon, it was the time for a presidential election. During the election campaign, the UNP candidate Gamini Dissanayake was assassinated on October 24, 1994. All fingers pointed towards the LTTE, despite the fact that a ceasefire was in force. This put Kumaratunga in a delicate position. On one hand, she could not act complacent as such an act would appear strange when an opposition politician had been assassinated. On the other hand, she did not want to alienate the LTTE. Therefore, she expressed the view that the LTTE cannot be put the blame on when its complicity was not yet proven. People refused to trust her explanation, but refused to abandon her peace process either.

The 1994 November Presidential Election saw a mandate for peace, when Prime Minister Kumaratunga swept the election with more than 62 percent of the votes. She attracted the support of a wide range of people. The election could not be held properly in much of the Northern Province where the LTTE controlled a large area. But where it was possible, the small numbers of people who casted their votes overwhelmingly chose Kumaratunga. She polled 96.35 percent of votes casted in Jaffna District (Turnout was just three percent). In Batticaloa District where the turnout was 65 percent, Kumaratunga received 87.3 percent of the votes polled.

It was with this mandate that the peace process was continued. Several rounds of peace talks were held, the Sri Lankan government usually being open to the conditions put forward by the LTTE. Warning calls were too weak and far between and the people were not ready to heed them either. Although the LTTE was known to have broken agreements before, the government decided to trust its intent. The fact that the LTTE was just repeating its tactic of buying time became apparent only when it launched the attack on Trincomalee.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Exploring Singapura 03: Fort Siloso

The Palau Ujong (Island at the End) was a forgotten piece of land before Sir Stamford Raffles established a trading post in 1819. This island, along with three scores of much smaller islands around it later became Singapore. The British valued Singapore for its strategic location in both economic and security terms. It was to be a gateway to the exotic Far East and the “Gibraltar of the Orient.”

By the 1870s, the British decided that modern fortifications were needed to protect this gem on their colonial empire. Many old forts were not located in optimum locations to defend Singapore. Therefore a series of new coastal fortifications were built. Although they were named ‘forts’ they were little more than fortified artillery positions. Only Fort Tanjong Katong could be named a fort in the real sense.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, “Fortress Singapore” had 12 coastal artillery forts. Only one of them has been renovated. This is Fort Siloso at Siloso Point on the Western tip of Sentosa Island, known earlier as Blakan Mati (Island behind the Dead). Fort Siloso guarded the Keppel Harbor in Singapore, which lay between the main island and Blakan Mati. It is said that the name Siloso has been derived from a Filipino word for ‘jealous man.’

It was in 1876 that the then Governor of the Straits Settlements, (of which Singapore was a part of) Sir William Jervois, suggested the establishment of a fortification at Mount Siloso on Blakan Mati. In a report he wrote in July that year, Jervois stated his plan.

In order to provide effectively for the protection of the Harbour... I would propose to place two works on the island of Blakan Mati, and a Battery on Mount Palmer. These works should be armed with guns sufficiently powerful to penetrate the strongest ironclad which is likely to make an attack on Singapore…
One work on Blakan Mati would be on Mount Siloso, at an elevation of 170 feet, and the other on Mount Serapong at an elevation of 303 feet above the sea.
” (Courtesy: www.fortsiloso.com).

The construction of Fort Siloso started in 1878 and by early 1880s the earliest armaments were installed. They included two 64 Pounder RML (Rifled Muzzle Load) Guns and three 7-inch RML Guns. Fort Siloso was first manned by an 18 member contingent of Singapore Volunteer Artillery. The fortification was improvised by increasing the arsenal of and eventually became an integral part of the “Fortress Singapore.”

Singapore was not threatened during the First World War. The only occasion when the services of Fort Siloso were called upon was during the Second World War. Ironically, it was not to defend Singapore from an attack from the sea, for which the fort had been built. The guns of fort Siloso were turned toward the main island, to target the Japanese forces who had invaded Singapore from Malaya. The Japanese invasion of Malaya had been a shocking surprise to the British. The British forces in the Peninsular had no option but to retreat towards Singapore.

The British had a false sense of security concerning Singapore. Named the ‘Gibraltar of the Orient’ Singapore was thought to be impregnable. But, the infantry forces in the island lacked man power and training. The Royal Air Force in the island was not well equipped. Although the coastal batteries created a formidable defense, there were no defenses to prevent an attack from the north.

By early February 1942, the Japanese were at the Gates of Singapore. The island did not lack in man power, as thousands of British troops had retreated from Malaya. But morale was lacking and so were weapons. Many of the guns at Fort Siloso were turned the other side to be fired at the Japanese. In response, the Japanese bombed the fort, inflicting some damage. The Japanese onslaught was far too powerful for the forces trapped in Singapore. The British surrendered on February 15.

Wax model of the British surrender of Singapore
During the war years, Fort Siloso was a Prisoners of War camp and returned to British control at the end of the war in 1945. In 1956, the coastal batteries were disbanded as they were deemed obsolete. Some guns were sold for scrap metal and many forts were abandoned or demolished. In 1972, Blakan Mati was renamed Sentosa when the Government of Singapore decided to develop the island as a tourist attraction. While the other batteries in Blakan Mati and elsewhere in Singapore were abandoned, Fort Siloso was renovated and developed as a tourist attraction.

Today Fort Siloso serves as a museum of the Second World War. There is an extensive collection of artillery pieces, some of them brought to Fort Siloso from other sites. Wax images have recreated the life of a British military barrack a century ago in Singapore. Underground tunnels give a sense of history and mystery. One main attraction is the “Surrender Chambers” where wax images have recreated the surrender of the British in Singapore on February 15, 1942 and the surrender of the Japanese in Singapore on September 12, 1945.
One 8 inch BL Gun (in the middle) and two 9.2 inch BL Guns

Fort Siloso attracts considerably less visitors than many other tourist attractions in Sentosa. The owners of the fort have now installed laser games in the fort, covering a part of it. This has been done perhaps to increase the number of visitors. But those who visit for a purely historical purpose may be disappointed. Nevertheless, if you are visiting Singapore, and if you are a history lover, a visit to Fort Siloso is a must.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Martin Wickramasinghe's Museum for Ordinary Folk

Sri Lanka has a written history of more than 2500 years. Chronicles written throughout the history speak on the rulers and the religious history of the land. Archeological excavations have also unearthed many historical sites, mainly of religious value. However, these findings and chronicles do not tell the history of the ordinary folk. Understandably, archeological museums also tell the story of the rulers and the buildings they commissioned. Little detail of ordinary folk is found in such museums. Therefore, historians, let alone the general public, know next to nothing about the people and details of their lives.

Martin Wickramasinghe, a native of Koggala in Galle District, Sri Lanka, was a man of the village and a writer of the people. In his younger days, he had seen many facets of the village life in Southern Sri Lanka. His literary works are full of the details of the lives of ordinary folk. A believer of evolution, he understood that society will change dramatically even in a short period of time. He knew that many of the things he saw in the early part of the 20th century will not be similar after the passage of several decades. Therefore, he had the dream of establishing a folk museum, to preserve the history of the ordinary folk. With this concept in his mind, he even collected some material which could eventually be used in a museum.

Five years after his death, in December 1981, the Martin Wickramasinghe Trust established the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Museum near his ancestral home in Malalgama, Koggala. By this time, the village life of Sri Lanka had undergone significant change from the days of Wickramasinghe’s younger age, giving credence to his idea of the necessity of a folk museum. Village life all over the country has changed dramatically due to the influence of new cultures, especially after the arrival of open market economy and the television. However, the lives of the people of Koggala changed dramatically well before those changes, in 1942.

During the Second World War, in the year of 1942, the British ordered 1000 families of Malalgoda and the adjacent villages to leave their homes within 24 hours. Then the British leveled almost all the houses in the area and built the Koggala air strip. However, as the story goes, a female air force officer was fascinated by the simple architecture of the Wickramasinghe ancestral home and chose it as her place of residence. Therefore, it escaped the fate of the other houses in the area. Years after the war, in 1962, the now independent Ceylon government handed the land back to Martin Wickramasinghe. Although he did not make the house his permanent residence, he made regular visits to his ancestral home. Today, it has been preserved and exhibits objects he used in his life. Since the house is small, a new section has been built behind it as an extension. To one side of the house, Martin Wickramasinghe lies in his final resting place.

From its humble beginnings, the museum has developed into a living monument of many facets of the lives of the Sri Lankan folk. It is located in the middle of a nicely kept garden, which is full of greenery. A visitor who is entering the main building will be greeted by a replica of an ancient irrigation system, which has been the basis of the livelihood of Sri Lankan people for centuries. This first chamber also contains Buddhist artifacts, agricultural implements, fishing equipments, relics of folk beliefs and details of the evolution of the Sinhalese language. This is a wide description of the main aspects of the Sri Lankan culture within the boundaries of a single chamber.

The Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Museum has a number of sections, covering religion, art of writing, agriculture, fisheries, folk entertainment, household items, jewelry and ornaments of the people, small and cottage industries, costumes, traditional vehicles and even a section on boats and canoes. The costume gallery, the exhibition of traditional vehicles and the section on boats and canoes are relatively new additions.

The bulk of the artifacts in the museum are not custom built artifacts but objects that have been used by ordinary people. In that aspect, the museum is a living history of the local folk of Sri Lanka, particularly the people of the down south. They all have a story to tell, of the customs, beliefs, livelihoods and many other facets of life of the people. Hence, it is a treasure trove of stories. Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Museum is not only a monument to the great writer, but also a monument to the people he loved so much.

Photos by Sakuna Gamage

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew – Pragmatist of the 20th Century

Photo taken on Nov. 23, 2004. Tara Sosrowardoyo (National Museum of Singapore Collection)
On September 20, 2014, at the Singapore Summit, the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made an interesting observation. When he was asked whether the Singapore Model is replicable in a larger scale, he categorically said no.

“I think it is not replicable not only because of scale but also because of history and circumstance,” the Prime Minister said. He went on to say that “we had certain formative experiences in the anti-colonial period, fighting for independence, fighting against the communists, going into Malaysia, running into new problems in Malaysia, coming out from Malaysia suddenly and the shock of that sudden independence, galvanizing a generation of Singaporeans and their children to do something exceptional together. Those are unique circumstances in a unique environment where it may not have resulted in success but fortunately for us, it did.”

In these few sentences, Lee Hsien Loong captured the post World War II history of a people. The man who is credited with the success the Prime Minister described was none other than his father, Lee Kuan Yew. Universally known as the father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew led the small nation to what it is today.

“To understand Singapore and why it is what it is, you’ve got to start off with the fact that it’s not supposed to exist and cannot exist,” he said in a 2007 interview with New York Times. “To begin with, we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.”
"Moment of anguish"

Perhaps this is why he described the separation from Malaysia as a “moment of anguish.” His voice choked with emotion and he virtually broke down at the press conference which announced this separation on August 9, 1965. It was unthinkable that a tough man like Lee would break down in public in that manner.


Perhaps his biggest failure in politics was being unable to stay in Malaysia. However, after this, he came out stronger and with a will to succeed. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in Washington Post that Lee Kuan Yew “asserted that a city located on a sandbar with nary an economic resource to draw upon, and whose major industry as a colonial naval base had disappeared, could nevertheless thrive and achieve international stature by building on its principal asset: the intelligence, industry and dedication of its people.”

He attempted to encourage the ‘never fear’ attitude in Singaporeans. The Straits Time editor Warren Fernandez recalls a speech delivered by Lee Kuan Yew in September 1965. “This country belongs to all of us,” he had said. “We made this country from nothing, from mud-flats... Over 100 years ago, this was a mud-flat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!”

After the shock of separation from Malaysia, Lee started consolidating Singapore as a state from what he had. His “Singapore model” included centralized power, clean government and economic liberalism. However it also incorporated suppressing political opposition, imposing strict limits on free speech and public assembly, and creating a climate of caution and self-censorship.

The motto says it all (Straits Times)
Security was one of his major concerns, both for local and regional reasons. The threat of communism was not too unreal. After the fall of Singapore to Japan in 1942 and the three and a half years of Japanese occupation, he had seen what foreign forces could do to a country. Perhaps with all these in mind, he set up the Ministry of Interior and Defence in 1965.

At independence, Singapore had only two infantry battalions of 50 officers and about 1,000 men and two ships. There was no air force. Today, Singapore’s military expenditure as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is higher than that of China, Japan and the U.K., according to World Bank data. Meanwhile, conscription of male youths has enabled the country to build up a defense force with fewer burdens to the national economy than it could have been. Singapore is termed “Israel of the East” for obvious reasons.

Lee started building up the financial capital of the country. The Development Bank of Singapore was incorporated in 1968. Today, DBS Group Holdings Ltd. is Southeast Asia’s biggest bank.

Singapore Airlines was established in 1972, when Malaysia-Singapore Airlines separated. Meanwhile, Singapore's Changi Airport got its first terminal in 1981. It now has three and two more are on the way. Meanwhile, it was just named the world's best airport again.

In 1974 Temasek Holdings was incorporated under the Singapore Companies Act to hold the assets and manage the investments previously held by the Singapore government. These were investments made in the first decade of nation building since independence in 1965. The government had already bought stakes in private companies and owned a number of companies as well.
Changi Airport Control Tower (Wikimedia Commons)


Lee focused on building a meritocracy in multi-racial Singapore and strove for equality to harness talent that was the city-state’s only resource. Lee said Malaysians saw Malaysia as a “Malay country” and was critical of how the Bumiputeras dominated Malaysia.

He disagreed with the way Malaysia managed its multi-cultural, Malay-majority society through affirmative action policies. “So the Sultans, the Chief Justice and judges, generals, police commissioner, the whole hierarchy is Malay. All the big contracts for Malays. Malay is the language of the schools although it does not get them into modern knowledge. So the Chinese build and find their own independent schools to teach Chinese, the Tamils create their own Tamil schools, which do not get them jobs. It’s a most unhappy situation,” he told New York Times in 2010.

“Our Malays are English-educated, they’re no longer like the Malays in Malaysia and you can see there are some still wearing headscarves but very modern looking,” he went on to say in the interview in 2010 with NYT.

Lee was accused of clamping down on opposition, with detention without trial and using libel suits to drive opponents bankrupt. Seth Mydans, writing in New York Times, calls it “a distinctive Singaporean mechanism of political control.” Opposition parties did not contest elections until 1981 when JB Jeyaretnam won a parliamentary seat. In 2011, opposition parties won an unprecedented six seats in parliament.

Journalist and science writer Nalaka Gunawardene stated that one major reason for his success was that the country was small. On one side, he could enforce a tight grip on the country because of this. Singapore is a small city, comparative to the size of a medium sized metropolis in the Indian subcontinent. One can never tell if Lee would have succeeded in a much bigger country, Gunewardene said.

However, he pointed out that even Malaysia was extremely successful with Dr. Mahathir Mohamad at the helm. But, in contrast to Lee, Dr. Mohamad could not contain corruption. Leaders who succeeded him were less competent in controlling corruption, especially in the peripheries. A leader like Sukarno in Indonesia fell due to a similar reason, Gunewardene recalled.


Gunewardene also pointed out an important fact in Lee, not having an ideology. Lee was never dogmatic. “We are ideology-free,” Lee said in an interview with The New York Times in 2007, stating what had become, in effect, Singapore’s ideology. “Does it work? If it works, let’s try it. If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.”

As Gunewardene recalled, “Not having an ideology was his ideology.” He stated that Lee is perhaps the most pragmatic leader ever. He was pragmatic in his politics and economics. He could deal with the capitalist world as well as Chinese communists, while having a tight grip over the matters in Singapore.

Singapore Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat, who was former Principle Private Secretary of Lee Kuan Yew, wrote an obituary in The Straits Times and stated, “if you update him on something, he will invariably reply with "So?".” Furthermore, Heng said that this would inevitably follow with another sentence. “what does this mean for Singapore?”

He gave attention to even minute details. Heng wrote that he had a mental map of the world in which he knew the contours well. The center of his mental map was always Singapore, Heng recalled.

In 1990, Lee decided to step down as Prime Minister, but stayed on as Senior Minister. He supported the new Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong the best he could, Heng Swee Keat stated in his obituary.

After 2004, when his son became Prime Minister, Lee became a Minister Mentor. He resigned from all these positions in 2011.

“What really sets this complex man apart from Asia's other nation-builders is what he didn't do: he did not become corrupt, and he did not stay in power too long. Mao, Suharto, Marcos and Ne Win left their countries on the verge of ruin with no obvious successor. Lee left Singapore with a per capita GDP of $14,000, his reputation gilt-edged and an entire tier of second-generation leaders to take over when he stepped down in 1990” Time magazine said in 1991.

Where does it begin... or end? An aerial view from the 18th storey of Swissotel The Stamford at 9pm shows snaking queues as people try to make it into Parliament House to pay their last respects to Mr Lee Kuan Yew. - Straits Times PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Nevertheless, he was in the midst of action. He would never let anything go beyond control. He once said that “even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.”

However, Nalaka Gunewardene said that he might not have to get up from his grave for the next two three decades at least. “His shadow is very long,” Gunewardene insisted. “He has institutionalized everything. Those who were trained while he was there will be around for a few decades to come. Therefore, the system will go on,” he said.

Another important aspect of Lee’s life is his ability to change. The world changed around him but he adapted accordingly. Other leaders who could not, eventually faded away, but Lee did not. This made him an exceptional leader in the region, and in the world.

However, one characteristic he never lost was his outspokenness. “No one can accuse me of not speaking my mind,” he once said.

No one will ever dare accuse him on that.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Dynamics of National Struggles (1815-1848)

Interview with Prof. Anura Manatunga
Prof Anura Manatunga (Pic. University of Kelaniya)

Anura Manatunga is a Professor of Archeology in the University of Kelaniya. He is also the Director of Center for Asian Studies in the university. A widely respected scholar, Manatunga has written widely on archeology and history.

Q: Before entering the phase after the Kandyan Convention, can you briefly describe what made the British conquest of Kandy possible? Was it caused by real issues or was it created by the British?

A: It is both. There were real issues. There is no doubt that the last king was a tyrannical ruler. Of course, this tyranny is partly created. However, it was partly real. Every ruler, then and now, fears their subjects. The last king, Sri Wikrema Rajasinghe, did not allow people of certain regions to marry people of other regions. He feared some regions were against him. His paranoia was so much that he went to the extent of separating such families. Furthermore, the king’s relatives behaved badly, which did not go well with the subjects. The king became alcoholic and it was the British who gifted him alcohol. The British also created dissent and encouraged divisions. But, the responsibility lies with the local rulers as well.

Q: What about the role of John D’oyly?

A: D’oyly was a good man. He was educated in Cambridge. He learned local language and customs. He respected the people and the nobles. For example, it was he who rescued the king from the mob of Eknaligoda on February 18, 1815. But he did his job. He was assigned to keep contacts with Kandy and as time went on, he used the contacts to topple the kingdom. He communicated with both Ehelepola and his rival Molligoda. He was doing politics, nothing else.

John D'oyly in conversation with Ehalepola, Molligoda and Kapuwatte
Q: There is speculation that he may have forged the signatures in the Kandyan Convention. Could that be true?

A: One cannot really say. The Kandyan Convention was presented on March 2 and most of the nobles signed it on March 10. However, Ehelepola did not sign until March 18. He did not come, giving various excuses. It is said that D’oyly sent the document to his mansion to get it signed. However, it is unclear whether he did it himself.

The speculation has arisen due to the slight differences in the signatures in the copies. There are five copies of the Convention. There are differences in the signatures in these. It is clear that all nobles, perhaps with the exception of Ehelepola, signed at least one copy. Perhaps someone might have copied their signatures in the other four copies. However, Ehelepola might not have signed any of the copies.

Signatures on the Kandyan Convention
Ehelepola actually wanted to be the king. He expected that the British would hand over the kingdom after chasing the tyrannical rule of Sri Wickrema. However, the British had other plans and decided to pay Ehelepola in money. Ehelepola threw away this monetary gift when it was sent to him.

Q: There are various claims on the fact that many nobles signed in Tamil?

A: That was the language of the king at the time. Also it was the language of the traders and the wealthy who had come from South India. Basically it was the language of the government. If you compare, how many leaders sign in Sinhalese these days? Even some of those who claim to be staunch nationalists sign in English. So, it is no surprise that it happened then. Of course, there were exceptions, including Keppetipola, who signed in Sinhalese.

Q: What happened after the Convention? Were there any attempts to chase the British from Kandy even before the Great Freedom Struggle of Uva?

A: Of course. Within two weeks, the Kandyans had decided to chase the British out at the earliest moment possible. It is obvious by the fact that the Sinhalese did not handover the Ceremonial Golden Sword of the king and the Tooth Relic. Obviously they were hidden with the motive of using them at the right moment to start a battle against the British.

Q: Who were the leaders or masterminds of these plans?

A: One cannot really say. It cannot only be Ehelepola. It cannot be said to a certainty as many nobles wanted the British out. One of the earliest attempts was in 1816 and was led by Ihagama Rathanapala Thera and Madugalle Udagabadamudali. However, this conspiracy was revealed, by none other than Eknaligoda. Ihagama Unnanse was arrested but he escaped. Madugalle Udagabadamudali was sent to prison for six months. This was the only known substantial attempt before the Uva-Wellassa freedom struggle started.

However, the intention was there. There is knowledge that Thaldena Mohottala in Badulla collected arms in his home. So did Kivulegedara Mohottala in Wellassa. He has once said that his warehouses are full of gunpowder. Why would someone stock gunpowder if not to fight? They must have prepared from the days of the collapse of Kandy.

One issue we had was that we never really had a local person to be named a king. It is not because on the differences between nobles. The simple reason was that all nobles were radala, but not of royal stock. Our society, whether rightly or wrongly, was caste based. Kingship should go to king’s caste. There was no one locally who belonged to that caste. Therefore, there was an attempt to bring a prince from Burma in these early days.

Even during the Uva-Wellassa struggle, people joined it because a king appeared. It was said that Wilbawe was a prince named Doresami. When it was revealed that this was not the case, the support to the struggle broke down. Perhaps Keppetipola may have known that Wilbawe was a pretender. But many people did not know. When the truth was revealed, some nobles including Pilimathalawe and Madugalle actually blamed Keppetipola for hiding the truth and planned to bring in a foreign prince once again. The struggle just collapsed thereafter.

Q: How was the secret revealed?

A: It could have been several ways. D’oyly had his spies who collected information. Meanwhile, there is a story of one monk who had recognized the person as a monk who had been with them at the temple by his voice. Besides, Wilbawe appeared in a group of eight. How can one keep a secret with eight people? It is simply impossible. Obviously the news spread slowly but it did.

Q: What made the struggle of Uva-Wellassa possible in the first place?

A: The immediate reason was the appointment of Hajji Muhandiram, replacing Kohukumbure Rate Rala and Butawe Rate Rala in Wellassa. The two nobles were in charge of the transport sector at that time. This was an important role. However, the British decided to replace them with a Muslim. Until then Muslims had been traders. But this new situation enraged the Sinhalese. At the same time, a king appeared. This was vital in the struggle.

Another interesting aspect was the role of the Veddahs. They were more numerous than now, and were friends of the Sinhalese people. Initially when Wilbawe emerged it was the Veddahs who joined the new king. This role of the Veddahs has been researched by a few scholars such as Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere.

Even Keppetipola was persuaded to join the struggle by the fact that there was a king. In October 1817, when fighting broke out, Wellasse Dissawe was Millewa. He was old and therefore he could not defeat an uprising. Therefore, Keppetipola of Uva was sent in by the British. On November 1, 1817, the defining moment in the struggle occurred at Alupotha.

A group of Wellassa fighters led by Kotamberala leaped on to the path, blocking Keppetipola’s way. “We have a great king now. You can join us. Or else, we know how to take you to the king,” Kotamberala told Keppetipola. This was an obvious threat that if he was not going to join the fighters, he was going to be killed and his head will be presented to the king. We cannot really say if it is a pre-planned event. Perhaps Keppatipola knew that Kotamberala was going to intercept him. But Keppetipola decided to join the fighters. What is great is that Keppetipola sent the army and the weapons back. Whether preplanned or not, this was a great moment in war history.

Q: The Uva-Wellassa struggle was crushed severely. Can we describe it as Genocide?

A: I’m not exactly sure. Some people do that these days. There was an order to kill anyone over 14 years of age in some of the areas. They burned the Wellassa area. In a way it was Genocide. But, people did not always succumb to that. Many managed to escape.

Q: What happened thereafter?

A: Many leaders died during the fighting. More than 40 were executed after being captured. Twenty four others including Ehelepola and Pilimatalawe were exiled to Mauritius. Furthermore, many important families were exiled to other parts of the country. Meanwhile, some young people in those families were given Western education and a group of loyal supporters.

Another thing the British did was to introduce alcohol to the upcountry. Many people of the families of even the high classes got used to heavy drinking. Also, there was no education except for a few Christian schools in the upcountry. So, there could hardly be a national leadership.

Nevertheless, until 1848, there were several attempts to overthrow the British. At that time, the opposition came from the upcountry. The low country people had reconciled with the colonial rule as they had been under it for nearly 400 years. However, the Sinhalese never reconciled with losing Kandy, which was actually called ‘Sinhale’ at the time. There were several attempts in 1820, 1823, 1824 and so on. Even in 1842-43, there were disturbances. After 1818, there were one anti-British attempt every five years or so.

However, little by little the leadership was removed from the region. Even in 1848, it was two people from low country who led the Matale Struggle.

Q: How could people of low country lead an uprising in up country?

A: Sometimes leaders emerge overnight. Even today, it is the same. Who would have heard of Arvind Kejriwal two three years ago? Today he is a Chief Minister in India. This is how it is. In 1848, it was a protest against taxation which developed into a rebellion. Puran Appu and Gongalegodabanda gave leadership. They were obviously brave. That is why they emerged as leaders. People did not mind who gave them leadership.

Q: Why were there no struggles in up country after 1848?

A: One reason was, there were no suitable people to lead them. They had either been exiled or had become allies of the British or were wasting their times with alcohol. There could be no national leadership. Meanwhile the society changed after estates were introduced. The demographics changed in the central highlands. Furthermore, the Buddhist Temporalities Act became a huge fiasco. This made monks engage in land disputes among themselves as land was awarded to temples in a haphazard manner. Perhaps this was done intentionally. At any rate, monks started wasting their time on legal affairs. They could not think of a national struggle. On top of it, education was practically nil in the upcountry, except for the few Christian schools. It was only after the Buddhist renewal in the lower country that education reached there.

Q: After 1848, the anti-colonial struggle shifted to the low country. But you said that the low country people had reconciled with being under colonial rule. How did the changes happen?
A: There were many reasons. The role of the Buddhist priests was essential. A new, more radical group of Buddhist monks came up from the coastal belt from Colombo to the South. They did not belong to the Asgiri or Malwatta chapters. Their leadership was extremely important. They saw how Buddhists were treated in countries like Burma and compared with what was happening in Ceylon. It was obvious that they needed change.

Meanwhile, education expanded. English language knowledge improved. Then people could read of happenings abroad. Meanwhile the effect the Irish community had was also important. The Irish had a grudge with the English and their version of the British imperialism seeped through to local educated class. Meanwhile the press became an important asset in dissemination of knowledge. Sinhalese newspapers were being printed by 1860s. These developments changed the whole outlook of the leaders of the low country. This transformed the epicenter of the anti-colonial struggle from the highlands to the coastal belt in the southwest.

Originally published in 'The Nation' on March 01, 2015