Colombo Telegraph

Cricket & Reconciliation In Sri Lanka

By Michael Roberts

Dr. Michael Roberts

A recent Skype chat with Uvindu Kurukulasuriya about Kumar Sangakkara inevitably led me to reflect upon the many reconciliatory measures Kumar has participated in – steps attempting to build bridges across the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic divide in Sri Lanka. Among these efforts, the most striking act was the powerful ecumenical statement he asserted at the end of his momentous Cowdrey Lecture at the MCC in London in 2011. “Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.”[1]

Whatever heart you may draw from reading this message, do not go overboard. Ask yourselves whether the Cowdrey Lecture ever entered the abodes housing the numerous Sinhala, Tamil and Wahabi Muslim extremists in Sri Lanka. Sangakkara’s type of message stirs the converted. But how does one reach into the hearts of those entrenched in other ideological domains?

With this note of caution, my task here is (a) to record some of the other ventures directed towards bringing Tamils and Sinhalese together that Kumar has participated in during the recent past; (b) to indicate that several of these measures were as an associate in meaningful bridge-building activities undertaken by Kushil Gunasekera’s Foundation of Goodness and/or the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation.

These steps came to my attention in 2011 when I was in Sri Lanka for a spell watching the World Cup in cricket. I attended a joint function at the Taj Samudra organised by FOG and Laureus to advertise a project envisaging the building of a cricket facility in the heart of Mullaitivu/Kilinochchi Districts. Kushil Gunasekera, Ian Botham, Michael Vaughan, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Kumar Sangakkara were on the podium on the occasion.[2]

Kumar Sangakkara

The day after this public launch Botham, Vaughan and Martin-Jenkins (“CMJ” to his friends) were taken by SLAF helicopter to Mankulam[3] with some FOG personnel as the first step in their combined project to build a cricket centre that would replicate that existing in Seenigama (Kushil’s home village) on the south. This initiative towards reconciliatory cricketing amity eventually spawned the construction of a cricket ground and pavilion at Oddusuddan with the help of the Sri Lankan Army. However, the promise made by the government of that day and those that followed to donate land for a cricket centre has not been forthcoming.[4]

However, the Foundation of Goodness launched a project in 2012 that brought school teams from across the breadth of the island into competition with each other at playing fields in the north vying for the Murali Harmony Cup. This competition ran alongside a competition between women’s teams. This was not a one-off enterprise. The Unity concept of cricketing amity has been consolidated with annual fixtures as well as special tours to Singapore and UK – the latter with the support of Ian and Sarah Botham and the MCC (see bibliography).

The FOG ventures in what can be described as “cricketing amity” have been so many and so varied that a separate essay will be devoted to the clarification of these lines of reconciliatory effort.

Dondra to Point Pedro: Charity Walks … Botham first and then TRAILS & Mahela

Taking up a challenging question from the floor (see fn. 2) at the public launch in 2011 of the Laureus-FOG project in the north, Ian Botham opted to replicate his punishing charity walks in Britain and Europe by performing the same feat in the more humid, and thus more exacting, climatological conditions of Sri Lanka. This charity walk in early November 2013 drew participatory support from several international cricketers as well as Mahela Jayawardena and others from the Sri Lankan squad.[5]

Quite independently, Sarinda Unamboowe and Nathan Sivagananathan took up an idea developed in the course of a drunken reverie in December 2011 and launched the TRAILS project of a charity walk from Dondra head in the south to Point Pedro in the north intended to collect monies for a paediatric cancer ward at the Jaffna General Hospital in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. This was signalled then by Rajah Kuruppu in the Daily News and by Thuppahi. Once the project got moving (literally) it involved 82,812 walkers of all ethnic identities and raised enough funds to expand its goal. A Trails Cancer Hospital was opened at Tellippallai further north on 14th January 2014 and its latest web-version records that the organisers have received 78.71% of their monetary target of 5 million US dollars from donors numbering 511.647.[6]

This great result is truly a case of feet and hands small generating far-reaching results.

Mahela Jayawardene’s North-South Walk in 2016

Mahela Jayawardena’s experience in seeing a brother felled by cancer had seen him commit himself to collecting monies for the Maharagama Cancer hospital from way back. However, Botham’s venture stimulated Mahela and wife Christine to commit themselves to a walk from Point Pedro in the north to Dondra in the south for a purpose-built cancer ward at Karapitiya Hospital in Galle. While serving to assist those suffering from cancer, they also saw this effort to be “a symbol of unity” (Mahela’s words in Champika Fernando)

The walk began in October 2016 and took 28 days. It was much “tougher’ than either of them anticipated: “every day was a grind. There were pain barriers … Some [participants] did get injured and could not complete the walk]. There were blisters, sore legs and swollen ankles. Mentally you get fatigued to go through the same routine everyday but it was a great experience and I would not exchange anything else in the world” – a summing up from Mahela[7] that cannot, I think, wholly convey the difficulties encountered. “Hard yakka” all the way as one would say in Aussie slang.

Sri Lanka Cricket

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the hands across the ethnic divide in the realm of cricket have been recent initiatives. The Sri Lankan cricketing establishment has always sustained its links with the north. The first of these ventures in cricketing diplomacy was a match in Jaffna on the 1st September 2002 between a team from Janashakthi Insurance that included three SL cricketers and a Jaffna ‘çollective’. The man behind this initiative was the head of Janashakthi, Chandra Schaffter, a Thomian of Indian Tamil background who had represented Ceylon in both hockey and cricket.

The ceasefire had enabled Janashakthi to open a branch in Jaffna town so people may conceivably interpret this cricketing venture as one directed by commercial advantage. Not so. That was a secondary dimension of this venture. Schaffter had in fact approached the BCCSL and wished the Sri Lankan Team to play an exhibition match. His chief objective was the deployment of cricket to resuscitate amity. Receiving no support from Hemaka Amarasuriya and the Board, he used the Janashakthi cricketers augmented by Muralitharan and two other players with SL colours, namely, Ruchira Perera and Romesh Kaluwitharana.

Murali was the key symbol here – a drawcard that could promote ethnic reconciliation in some measure. This event is of sufficient importance to warrant a separate article with greater detail.[8]

These efforts were renewed immediately after Eelam War IV ended with the defeat of the LTTE. Sri Lanka Cricket seem to have launched a vigorous programme that distributed cricketing gear to schools and other organisations in the north and east   In mid-2010 I accidentally stumbled on some facets of cricketing outreach while I was in the Jaffna Peninsula engaged in my political researches. Visiting St. John’s College with the intention of meeting its principal,[9] I stumbled on a schoolboy cricket match in progress. Lo and behold: a surprise! I was hailed by Malcolm Perera (a cricketer from Kandy in my playing time in the 1960s) who was an SLC coach overseeing an Under 19 cricket-match directed towards locating promising Jaffna cricketers with the aid of Ravindra Pushpakumara (SLC Coach for the Northern Province).[10] In short, one had institutionalised outreach from the centre in place in the north.

Again, when I was in Sri Lanka in 2010 and 2011 on research work,[11] I became aware of the many steps taken by the SLC administration under DS de Silva to foster cricket in the north and east – with considerable support from the Rajapaksa administration and Namal Rajapaksa in particular, Anura Ratnayake at SLC provided me with a cluster of images displaying tamashas at Habarana and Trincomalee where de Silva and board officials were involved in the distribution of cricket material (with some fanfare).[12]

More recently, Thilanga Sumathipala has committed the central government to building cricketing venues at Jaffna as well as Polonnaruwa — with around Rs 200 million being allocated for this purpose. He visited Jaffna in order to select a suitable site. SLC secretary Mohan de Silva was recently quoted in ESPNcricinfo saying: “There is tremendous enthusiasm generated by the Tamil diaspora for a cricket stadium in the north. The Jaffna District Cricket Association is taking all steps to make it a reality. We will initially construct the two stadiums as first-class cricket venues and later develop them into hosting international cricket matches. We want to develop cricket in the north and east and enhance the quality of the game in those areas.”[13]

To What End? With What Success?

While many will applaud these reconciliatory ventures, we must not let our own sentiments promote a rose-tinted appraisal of their impact. Many Sri Lankan Tamils, both those residing in the island now and those who have moved to other lands, had to endure difficult circumstances over the last 40-odd years. It seems reasonable to conjecture that substantial segments of the Sri Lankan Tamil population remain deeply embittered because of their experiences during the years of war. The developments in the Sri Lankan political order since 2009, the character of the political system in the island in the circumstances provided by its demographic configuration in space and the appearance of such forces as the Bodu Bala Sena are likely to have deepened the reservations among the Tamil peoples. In brief, the threads of political extremism that have been embedded in SL Tami society will continue feed off the extremisms among the Sinhalese and Muslims in ways that nullify the intent of the well-meaning efforts of the organisations and personnel delineated in this essay.

BIBLIOGRAPHY in TEMPORAL ORDER

GS Vivek: “On battlefields of Jaffna, a new roar: cricket,” 28 June 2010, https://cricketique.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/on-battlefields-of-jaffna-a-new-roar-cricket/

Michael Roberts 2010 “Sri Lanka Cricket reaches out to the North,” 28 June 2010, https://cricketique.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/sri-lanka-cricket-reaches-out-to-the-north/

Michael Roberts 2011 “Reading ‘devastation’: Botham, CMJ and Ban Ki-Moon,” 10 June 2011, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/reading-%E2%80%9Cdevastation%E2%80%9D-botham-cmj-ban-ki-moon/

“Murali Harmony Cup in the North launched by Mahela and Sanga,” 8 September 2012, https://cricketique.wordpress.com/2012/09/08/murali-harmony-cup-in-the-north-launched-by-mahela-and-sanga/

“Murali Cup forges a Unity Team with aid from Emirates,” 16 October 2012, https://cricketique.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/murali-cup-forges-an-unity-team-with-aid-from-emirates/

“Murali Harmony Cup returns to the Northern Sri Lanka,” 25 October 2013, https://cricketique.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/murali-harmony-cup-returns-to-the-northern-sri-lanka/

Nathan Sivagananathan: “Trail—improving cancer care in Sri Lanka,” 2 April 2014, http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2014/04/02/nathan-sivagananathan-and-tehani-renganathan-trail-improving-cancer-care-in-sri-lanka

Papare.com 2014 “Murali Harmony Cup Unity Tour to UK,“ 7 June 2014, http://www.thepapare.com/murali-harmony-cup-unity-tour-to-uk/

“Reconciliation through cricket sponsored by FOG and the Bothams,” 8 June 2014, https://cricketique.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/reconciliation-through-cricket-sponsored-by-fog-and-the-bothams/

“A Seed Germinates: Ian Botham to walk for FOG Charity at Mankulam,” 16 June 2013, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/a-seed-germinates-ian-botham-to-walk-for-fog-charity-at-mankulam/

Murali Harmony Cup 2014 sprouts more buds, 26 October 2014, https://cricketique.wordpress.com/2014/10/26/murali-harmony-cup-2014-sprouts-more-buds/

Michael Roberts: 2014 “Encompassing Empowerment in Ritual, War & Assassination: Tantric Principles in Tamil Tiger Instrumentalities,” in Social Analysis, sp. issue on “War Magic and Warrior Religion,” ed. by D. S. Farrer, pp. 88-106.

Ordinary Perera, Nadarajah and Bandara: Hands, Feet and Donations across the Length and Breadth of Sri Lanka,” 5 October 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/ordinary-perera-nadarajah-and-bandara-hands-feet-and-donations-across-the-length-and-breadth-of-sri-lanka/

“Feet Across the Nation: Mahela on North-South Walk for Cancer Hospital,” Champika Fernando in Q and A with Mahela Daily Mirror, 13 December 2016, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/feet-across-the-nation-mahela-on-north-south-walk-for-cancer-hospital/

SLC: “President Sri Lanka Cricket selects Jaffna for a new Intl’ Cricket Stadium,” n. d. [2016] http://www.srilankacricket.lk/news/president-sri-lanka-cricket-selects-jaffna-for-a-new-intl-cricket-stadium

Cricwhizz: “Sri Lanka to build international stadiums at Jaffna and Polonnaruwa,” 6 September 2016, http://cricwizz.com/blog/2016/09/06/sri-lanka-cricket-to-set-up-international-stadium-at-jaffna/

PLUS

Asian Tribune: “Canada remembers slain Jaffna St. John’s principal, Anandarajah, after a lapse of 20 years,” June 2005.

Revd Dev Anandarajah: “Remembering Former Principal St. John’s College Jaffna: Reflections Of A Son,” 22 June 2005, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/remembering-former-principal-st-johns-college-jaffna-reflections-of-a-son/ http://archives.dailynews.lk/2005/07/13/fea05.htm


[1] See Michael Roberts, “Kumar Sangakkara’s Ecumenical Lankan Nationalism,” 9 July 2011, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/kumar-sangakkara%e2%80%99s-ecumenical-lankan-nationalism/

[2] A bloke named Roberts shocked Botham by asking him if he would replicate his charity walk from northern end to southern end of Britain by walking from one end of the island to the other. Botham being Botham eventually took up this challenge.

[3] Botham’s reading of the landscape that he flew over in the Vanni as a scene of devastation was immediately highlighted by British newspapers [in line with the exaggerations swallowed by so many Westerners in the year 2009 and in step with Ban ki-Moon’s impressions in May 2-009 (also from a helicopter). Fortunately, CMJ was on the same flight and presented a reasoned oversight strengthened also by conversations with SL Army officers on the ground who related their work of bulldozing to create a play area for the FOG venture (see Roberts, 2011, ”Reading devastation…………,” at https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/reading-%e2%80%9cdevastation%e2%80%9d-botham-cmj-ban-ki-moon/ and the pictures of the three Englishmen at the space in Mankulam cleared by the SL Army for the projected venture [eventually shifted to Oddusuddan] in Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Essays, 2014, fac. Page 260).

[4] Email note from Kushil Gunasekera to author, September 2013.

[5] See Adam Shergold, “Going the extra mile with Beefy! …,” 6 November 2013,

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/cricket/article-2487770/Sir-Ian-Botham-charity-walk-How-cricketer-raises-money-Sri-Lanka.html … And other items in the Bibliography.

[6] See Nathan Sivagananathan, 2014 and https://trailsl.com/tellippalai-trail-hospital/.

[7] See Champika Fernando in Q and A with Mahela Daily Mirror, 13 December 2016.

[8] This is in process.

[9] I cannot recall WHY, but suspect it was with the intention of ascertain details relating to the assassination of Mr CE Anandarajah, the principal of St. Johns, by the LTTE 0n 25th June 1985 because he had facilitated a cricket match between hi school team and The SL Army – see http://archives.dailynews.lk/2005/07/13/fea05.htm and

[10] Pushpakumara is from the Kalutara area and one of his parents is from Plantation Tamil, that is, Indian Tamil, background. He is a pace bowler who represented Sri Lanka in the 1990s.

[11] In mid-2010 I focused on the IDP camp relief efforts and the work or organisations providing artificial limbs. I visited both Vavuniya and the Jaffna for this purpose. In 2011 my main interest was in the World Cup cricket matches in the island in 2011, but I dabbed in research as well.

[12] For elaboration, see Vivek 2010 and Roberts 2010.

[13] See SLC: “President Sri Lanka Cricket selects Jaffna for a new Intl’ Cricket Stadium,” n. d. [2016] and Cricwhizz, September 2016

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