By Shamindra Ferdinando
Sri Lankan cricketer, Kumar Sangakkara earned the wrath of the war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government for his hour long “Spirit of Cricket” lecture at the July, 2011, Sir Colin Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s.
Some politicians and officials depicted the lecture as a frontal attack on the then government. Those who had resented Sangakkara, for being critical of their conduct, cleverly deceived President Rajapaksa. They propagated the lie that the cricketer was challenging the government and was working with the Opposition.
Sangakkara received an invitation from the MCC to deliver the CC lecture, shortly after Sri Lanka lost to India, at the World Cup final, in early April, 2011. The stylish batsman had been the first Sri Lankan to receive an invitation from MCC at a time the Tamil Diaspora was working hard to isolate Sri Lanka. Had they knew of Sangakkara’s intention, they would have surely opposed. They had the strength to bring a couple of thousands of supporters, to any London venue, at short notice.
Having led his country to a runners-up finish, Sangakkara relinquished captaincy in the ODIs and T20 Internationals. However, Sangakkara represented the Test team, till August, 2015.
A section of the government reacted angrily to the devastating attack on Sri Lanka Cricket administration and the cricketer’s severe criticism of political interference.
The Sri Lankan became the first speaker to receive a standing ovation at Lords since Bishop Desmond Tutu in 2008. Both the UK-based, and Sri Lankan media focused on Sangakkara’s assault on the politically influential cricket administration and the criminal waste of funds, as well as resources belonging to Sri Lanka Cricket.
Sangakkara was accused of conspiring with Colombo-based Western diplomatic community and those opposed to the Rajapaksa administration. Some speculated about Sangakkara throwing his weight behind the UNP-led Opposition in the wake of war-winning Army Chief, the then Gen. Sarath Fonseka suffering huge defeat at the January 2010 presidential polls. Interested parties speculated that Sangakkara had been in secret talks with Colombo-based US diplomats.
Sanga earns govt. wrath
Although, Sangakkara refrained from naming anyone, many believed the criticism had been directed at the then Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, and controversial SLC administrator Nishantha Ranatunga. The government relentlessly pursued the national player, who could have easily led the country for two more years. Rex Clementine, the Sports Editor of The Island, and a senior colleague of the writer, asserted that due to factors beyond Sangakkara’s control, the great player was able to lead the country for only two years, “It’s a pity that the best cricketing brain we ever had captained the country for only two years.”
It would be pertinent to examine Sangakkara’s speech against the backdrop of Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s address at the Chatham House, London. Minister Samaraweera discussed the on going post-war national reconciliation process.
Minister Samaraweera was speaking on behalf of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government wanting to bring in a brand new Constitution, in accordance with Geneva Resolution 30/1, co-sponsored by the ruling coalition, in Oct, 2015.
Yahapalana leaders consider the proposed constitution as panacea for Sri Lanka’s ills, a view not acceptable to a large section of the population.
Had the Sri Lankan military failed to bring the war to a successful conclusion, with the elimination of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, in May 2009, national reconciliation wouldn’t have been a reality. That is the undeniable truth.
Those who had lashed out at Sangakkara, over the Lords lecture conveniently ignored some significant references made by the outspoken Trinitian. Sangakkara dealt with a range of issues, including some aspects of the ethnic conflict. Most importantly Sangakkara discussed, a terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, on the morning of March 3, 2009, near the Gaddafi stadium, Lahore. Six Sri Lankan national players received injuries. Two Pakistani policemen died, defending the Sri Lankans.
Having recollected the terrorist attack in Lahore, Sangakkara recounted an unforgettable experience he had with a Sri Lanka soldier back at home. Sangakkara told the audience: A week after our arrival in Colombo, from Pakistan, I was driving about town and was stopped at a checkpoint. A soldier politely inquired as to my health after the attack. I said I was fine and added that what they as soldiers experience every day we only experienced for a few minutes, but managed to grab all the news headlines. That soldier looked me in the eye and replied: “It is OK if I die because it is my job and I am ready for it. But you are a hero and if you were to die it would be a great loss for our country. I was taken aback. How can this man value his life less than mine? His sincerity was overwhelming. I felt humbled.”
For them, avoiding bullets, shells, mines and grenades, was imperative for survival. This was an experience that I could not relate to. I had great sympathy and compassion for them, but had no real experience with which I could draw parallels. That was until we toured Pakistan in 2009.”
“We all realized what some of our fellow Sri Lankans experienced every day for nearly 30 years. There was a new respect and awe for their courage and selflessness.”
Sri Lanka received Pakistan support to fight terrorism since the 80s. Islamabad backed Sri Lanka’s military efforts, in numerous ways, and threw its weight behind Sri Lanka at various international forums, including Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council.
The Sinhala print and electronic media completely ignored Sangakkara’s comments on the Army. There had never been any other instance of internationally recognized sports personality commending the Army at any international event. There couldn’t have been a better opportunity than the gathering at Lord’s to present Sri Lanka’s case. Sangakkara spoke on behalf of Sri Lanka beautifully. Had Lakshman Kadirgamar being alive, the senior Trinitian would have certainly congratulated Sangakkara. The LTTE assassinated Kadirgamar, in Aug., 2005.
The military brought the war to a successful conclusion two months later. The nearly three-year combined security forces campaign resulted in the eradication of LTTE’s conventional military capability as well as its ability to resume hit and run attacks. Although some experts predicted that the LTTE would return to the jungles, their debilitating defeat made them fearful of a fresh attempt. Those who had escaped, and believed in the LTTE’s invincibility, feared to challenge the Army.
Sacrifices made by rural youth underscored
Sangakkara unreservedly acknowledged the sacrifices made by the military during the nearly three decades long war. The fourth phase of the conflict (Aug., 2006-May 2009) claimed the lives of nearly 6,000 officers and men.
Sangakkara also mentioned the Army and the LTTE working together in the wake of the Dec 2004 tsunami. Sangakkara said: “We visited shelter camps, run by the Army, and the LTTE, and even administered a partnership between them. Two bitter warring factions brought together to help people in a time of need.”
Sangakkara dealt with the conflict. Sangakkara hadn’t been reluctant to call the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam a terrorist group and to assert the war dragged the development by decades. Sangakkara recognized the sacrifices made by rural Sinhala youth in the fight against terrorism. “This war affected the whole of our land in different ways. Families, usually from the lower economic classes, sacrificed their young men and women by the thousands in the service of Sri Lanka’s military.
“Even Colombo, a capital city that seemed far removed from the war’s front-line, was under siege by the terrorists using powerful vehicle and suicide bombs. Bombs in public places, targeting both civilians and political targets became an accepted risk of daily life in Sri Lanka. Parents, travelling to work by bus, would split up and travel separately so that if one of them died the other will return to tend to the family. Each and every Sri Lankan was touched by the brutality of that conflict.”
The national cricketer also underscored how Sinhalese intervened to save Tamils, targeted by gangs, during the July 1983, riots, in some instances, backed by the then ruling party politicians. Sangakkara recollected how his father had accommodated 35 Tamils at their home as politically-motivated goon squads roamed the streets. The only omissions in his superb speech, which I believe had been made on behalf of Sri Lanka, was his failure to mention Indian intervention. Sangakkara must have had some valid reason. Still, the lecture could have made all Sri Lankans proud, immensely.
Instead of appreciating Sangakkara’s effort to paint a positive picture of Sri Lanka, particularly the military, the government pounced on the national player. Minister Aluthgamage called for a disciplinary inquiry and punitive action against the former skipper.
Had the UK, based Tamil Diaspora knew of Sangakkara remarks, they would have reacted violently. The Diaspora hated anyone calling the LTTE a terrorist organization. They couldn’t stomach the LTTE’s humiliating defeat hence their anger at anyone commending the Sri Lankan military. In fact, had they realized Sangakkara was to pay a glowing tribute to the military, they would have certainly objected to the MCC extending an invitation to the great Sri Lankan. The UK-based media, supportive of the Diaspora project ignored references which they felt would be advantageous to Sri Lanka. They probably felt embarrassed and were surprised by Sangakkara’s decision.
Sangakkara made his appearance at Lords, in the wake of the massive international propaganda campaign, directed at the Sri Lankan military. The then UN Secretary, General Ban ki moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) in March, 2011, released its damning report. The PoE accused Sri Lanka of deliberately killing over 40,000 Tamil civilians during the final phase of the offensive. On the basis of unsubstantiated findings, the PoE recommended a controversial course of action ultimately leading to the incumbent government co-sponsoring Geneva Resolution 30/1 to pave the way for hybrid court address accountability issues. In June, 2011, a month before Sangakkara’s appearance at Lords, British media outfit, Channel 4, aired Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields dubbed as an investigative documentary on the final weeks of the war. Sangakkara threw his weight behind the military amidst mounting criticism in respect of alleged battlefield violations. A vast majority of local NGO community, especially those funded by foreign governments and INGOs, pushed for an external probe.
Dew and Gomin on Sanga
The majority of those who had backed the military throughout the campaign, as well as the post-war period, never uttered a word in defense of Sangakkara. They feared to antagonize the government. The writer brought the situation to the attention of the then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who appreciated positive references to the military, especially in the background of stepped up international campaign inimical to Sri Lanka. Top lawyer, Gomin Dayasiri, and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka Dew Gunasekera, declared that Sangakkara couldn’t have made that statement in the UK at a better time.
Strongly supporting Sangakkara’s demand to tackle waste, corruption and irregularities in the game, Dayasri said that a cohesive strategy was required to stamp out corruption in both public and private sectors. Sangakkara’s speech couldn’t have come at a better time, Dayasri said, adding: “The dashing batsman’s eloquent presentation was very pro-Sri Lanka as against the LTTE terrorism and cricket terrorism. If any politician, or the government, decides to take action against the player, there’ll be a public outcry because the sports personality has courageously exposed the insider dealings in Sri Lanka Cricket. More of Sangakkara’s kind should come to the forefront.”
Sangakkara didn’t mince his words when he declared, before the commencement of the World Cup final, in April, 2011, in India, that Sri Lanka couldn’t have held a couple of qualifying matches in Sri Lanka if not for the Army’s triumph over the LTTE.
The previous government, for some strange reason, ignored Sangakkara’s comments, made in July, 2011, as well as declaration made by US Defence Advisor in Colombo Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith a month earlier. Smith dismissed unsubstantiated allegations, directed at the Army on the Vanni east front. The US Defence attache’s declaration couldn’t have been made at a better place as political and military leaderships struggled to come to terms with accusations. The Colombo-based official’s statement prompted the US State Department to issue a strong rebuttal. There had never been a similar instance during the war or after.
The previous government squandered millions of USD on US public relations firms, especially after the end of the conflict, to counter accusations directed at the country. An influential section of the previous government, with the blessings of President Rajapaksa, engaged in an utterly corrupt US project, though they knew such practices couldn’t influence the world’s solitary super power. They stepped up spending on futile projects in the wake of the US moving resolutions against Sri Lanka. But, they never bothered to prepare a proper strategy to counter international criticism and domestic propaganda. Sangakkara’s comments could have made a big impact both here and overseas. His opinion couldn’t have been ignored.
While Sangakkara appreciated those troops who had been deployed in the city and its suburbs, some resented their presence. Some of those who had been hurling abuse at the military are now promoting post-war national reconciliation. None of them had supported the previous government’s efforts to stamp out terrorism. In fact, some of them worked overtime to undermine the previous government.
Sangakkara emphasized the importance of children knowing the sacrifices made by the armed forces and the people to achieve peace. “The war is now over. Sri Lanka looks towards a new future of peace and prosperity. I am eternally grateful for this. It means that my children will grow up without war and violence being a daily part of our lives. They will learn of its horrors not first-hand but perhaps in history class or through conversations for it is important that they understand and appreciate the great and terrible price our country and our people paid for the freedom and security they now enjoy.”
Unfortunately, the previous government pathetically failed to meet the aspirations of the people in spite of bringing the war to an end. And those who who had taken power at the January, 2015, presidential polls, caused chaos and the country is in turmoil today. The national economy is in severe crisis though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe act as if the proposed constitution is panacea for all our problems.
UK Tamils disrupt Mahinda’ s plans
UK Tamils strongly opposed Sri Lankan politicians and security officials involved in the war against terrorism visiting London. In Dec., 2010, over 7,000 UK Tamils protested against the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to London. The UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF) made an abortive bid to move court against Maj. Gen. Chagi Gallage, who had been in President Rajapaksa’s entourage.
In June, 2012, Mahinda Rajapaksa was let down badly by the London-based Commonwealth Business Council that had invited the Sri Lankan leader to deliver the keynote address in a symposium organized by it for the Diamond jubilee of accession to the throne by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain.
Intense political pressure, mounted by Tiger and pro-Tiger elements, in Britain and Europe, compelled the C’wealth Business Council to abruptly cancel the event in which Mahinda Rajapaksa was to participate, on June 6th, 2012.
(To be continued on Feb 1)