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From fighting ferocious Tigers to sharing a cell with a curious cat



Prison Diary – I

Extract from book
‘Read between the Lines’

By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne
(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy)
Former Chief of Defence Staff

Day One in Prison
Prisoner Number 9550
28th November 2018 1630 hrs

I was faulted, at the Fort Magistrate’s Court, Colombo, for protecting and not producing a naval Intelligence Officer, summoned to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), when I was the Commander of the Navy, in 2016. True, I have always had asoft corner for our ‘INT persons’, because I was fully aware of their selfless contribution to the country’s successful war against LTTE, which was known as the most ruthless terrorist group in the world with naval and air wings. Those highly motivated, brave men were instrumental in destroying the LTTE shipping network in 2006/2007, under trying conditions, when I was the Director Naval Operations, Director Naval Special Forces and Director Maritime Surveillance. The allegation against me, however, was not true.

The Magistrate ordered, at 1630 hrs, that I be remanded until 05 December 2018 at the insistence of CID officers, who repeatedly said that if I was allowed to be free, I would hamper their investigations. The sky opened up. It looked as if the weather gods were furious. The lashing rain lasted one hour.

The sound of thunder prevented most people inside the Court House from hearing the order. It was the first time in our country’s history that a Chief of Defence Staff had been in the dock!

My Counsel, an eminent President’s Counsel, insisted the CID had gone by hearsay and its information had come from a junior Naval officer, who had been punished by me for indiscipline when I was the Commander of the Navy. Further, my Counsel told the court that I had an unblemished military career of more than 38 years! But the CID still opposed bail for me.

My 38 years of unblemished military career had won me four gallantry medals, including the Weerodhara Vibhushanaya (WV), the highest awarded to a living member of the armed forces (equivalent to George Cross of the UK or Ashok Chakra of India). Only 10 such medals have been awarded in Sri Lanka’s military history; sacrifices I made to raise the elite Naval Special Force, the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) 25 years back meant nothing to those who wanted me thrown behind bars. A military officer’s track record matters only in military courts, where it is taken into consideration before a final decision is made.

I am sure the CID officials did not know what the SBS was and value of a gallantry medal Weerodhara Vibhushanaya (WV) or the rank structure of the Navy.

I was taken in a Black Maria to the Magazine Prison. My brother, friends, subordinate officers and my personal staff were sad. I was asked to hand over all my valuables to my personal security officer before boarding the prison bus. I gave my wallet mostly with plastic money and was reluctant to part with two other precious items—my ring embedded with Navarathna gems, and my Fitbit wrist watch. Both these items are very close to my heart.

The ring was a gift from my wife, Yamuna, shortly after our marriage in 1989. She had saved money from her salary–she was working then—to buy the ring, which was believed to protect one against evil forces. The “Fit Bit Wristwatch” measured my exercise regime daily. My target of walking 10,000 steps per day (approx. 8 km) in one and a half hours was also gone!


Prison gates open

Officers at the Magazine Prison were waiting for my arrival. The prison and prisoners were not strangers to me. My late father worked as the Private Secretary to Minister of Justice in 1965-1970, and several times later. He served under three ministers, Senator Fairlie Wijemanna, Nissanka Wijeratne and Shelton Ranaraja. As a child I would accompany my father during his visits to prisons to look into prisoners’ welfare. Our official bungalow at that time was at Hulftsdorp, where the new Supreme Courts Complex now stands, and later we lived at Kollupitiya where Mahanama College is now located. Prisoners would come to our residence to attend to gardening. They came in their white uniform; they were kind people and we used to play cricket with them.

When I arrived at the Magazine Prison, I was told that they had a problem there as they had several LTTE Prisoners and did not want to keep me with them. Ironically, it was two days after the birthday of LTTE leader Prabhakarn and on the 200th Anniversary of execution of the great freedom fighter, Veera Keppetipola Maha Disawe that I was thrown behind bars. I was not upset, but angry.

I was given a number (9550). No name. I became Prisoner Number 9550!

So, the prison officers decided to send me to the Welikada Prison, which was more secure, or so they thought. I was given a cell at the ‘High Security Prison’. My cell had a great record. A stable during the British time, it is a solid structure with ‘Sinhala tile’ roof and a cement floor. There was no ceiling. A chair, a mat, a pillow, two white bed sheets plus a granite bench were available. The place was complete with a toilet (squatting pan) and a water tank and a bucket.

There are numbers and names engraved on the floor by ‘Condemned Prisoners’ (as those sentenced to death by hanging were called). Engraving their names and numbers, and even their villages, in some cases, with the help of a tiny iron nail and a stone must have been extremely tedious. They must have had enough time on their hands before the trap door of the gallows creaked under their feet when the death penalty was implemented.

“Determination and Commitment” are what one needs to survive one’s stay in prison.

The senior jailers were extremely courteous and respectful towards me. I was still in the dress in which I had appeared in Courts. I had not been able to tell my wife, Yamuna, that I was going to courts that day. She was sick when I left home. My son was at home when I was leaving, I told him to have lunch if I got late and not to wait for me.

Yamuna used to be alone with my son when I was away onboard ships and on Special Forces operations for very long periods, but we had been together after the war, and I knew how devastated Yamuna would be to hear that I had been remanded. Such situations, however, arise in life and you have to face them. The only consolation was that my son (my friend and ‘mentor’) would calm her down and look after her. Tears never help solve problems.

Young prison guards were very kind to me. They tried their best to make my stay as comfortable as possible with the limited resources they had.

I slept on the cement floor; it was not something new to me because even at the “Chief of Defence Staff” residence, I would sleep on the floor, a habit that made my wife see red. Further, I am a devotee of Lord Skandha (Kataragama Deviyo), and perform my “Pada Yathra” every year, walking 56 km in two days. I slept on the ground under a tree during those pilgrimages. When I sleep under the stars, I try to count them until I fall asleep. Anyway, from my cell, I could not see the sky. All I could see was the roof. I started counting the tiles and felt sleepy soon. No mobiles ringing, no important meeting or receptions, no late night briefings by my staff for the next day. I slept blissfully like a baby.

It was raining heavily. Time must have been just past midnight, someone walked through my cell. I looked carefully.

It was a cat. “Sorry kitty! I have occupied your home. Let’s be friends”. It was not interested. It sat at the far end of the cell, watching all my movements carefully.

I felt asleep again. (I can sleep anywhere, anytime, thanks to my naval training. My family and my friends in the Navy know that.) I was woken up by the sound of themorning Jumma Mosque “Calling of God”. It must have been 0430; I did not have a watch or a clock in my cell. The Islamic prayers were followed by Seth Pirith, even louder, from a nearby Buddhist temple.

I received a hot cup of tea around 0600 on November 29; it was brought by ‘Ellawella Nihal’, a ‘condemned’ prisoner. Nihal had been sentenced to death for killing a person in his remote village over a land dispute. Owing to a moratorium on the the death penalty, he was still alive. After 13 years of good conduct, he was now an “SD” – Special Duty Prisoner who had the privilege of working outside his cell. Nihal was well read and knowledgeable of local politics. We became friends soon. He had the highest respect for the military—something most people sadly lack.

Prisoners have great stories. Sir Jeffry Archer, probably the best story teller in the world, wrote his first best seller book, “Kane and Abel”, while in prison. He had the habit of listening to stories of other prisoners during the morning exercise time. Of all the books I have read, the most interesting, in my book, is Sir Jeffry’s short story collection, ‘Cat – O’ Nine Tales’ ; they are the stories other prisoners told Sir Jeffry about why they had ended up in jail.

Michael Ondaatje’s book, ‘The English Patient’, had been lying on my office desk may be three months from the day it was adjudged the best Book of Booker (best book fiction) selected out of books which had won the Booker prize during the last 50 years. I did not have time to read it when I was in office due to my busy schedule. I finished reading it in the morning! A sense of accomplishment! New day, and new challenges …


(To be continued)


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development



There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.


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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka



By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.


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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?



Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!


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