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 <> 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 (

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:

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