23 June, 2021

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Election-Related Violence – Part II

By Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

When the 1970 election came along, I was sufficiently disenchanted with our sitting Member of Parliament and his conduct, not to want to participate. However, I was reminded by a friend of what would be the consequences of a Dudley Senanayake defeat in 1970 and decided to work for Ottupaal Banda again, if not with the same vigour as five years before.

Part way through the election, I had some of my village contacts complaining that thuggery had extended to boulders and logs being rolled on main roads, preventing sick people, irrespective of party affiliation, traversing the roads of our rural part of the world after dark in search of hospital treatment.

I decided to do the obvious – seek police intervention of some description – and went into Kandy to see a friend who was considered one of the major “movers and shakers” in the area and a respected medical practitioner to boot, Dr. C. D. L (Derrick) Fernando. He thought the best way to deal with the issue was to see the Superintendent of Police whose position was much farther up the Police hierarchical ladder than is now the case. I distinctly remember the meeting with Merrick Gunaratne who inquired whether it was my contention that the totally unacceptable blocking of public roads was the doing of SLFP supporters only. I answered in the negative and told him that I was seeking police intervention to prevent a totally unacceptable state of affairs continuing and that the miscreants needed to be caught, appropriately prosecuted and punished, irrespective of party affiliation, something that, in recent times would be treated as the ultimate in heresy! My recollection was that the situation improved significantly after my complaint because of beefed-up police patrols etc.

What I meant to be the last gesture of loyalty to the late W.M.G.T. Banda, brutally disemboweled by the JVP during their second insurrection, turned out to be an unknowing step in the direction of my virtual banishment from Sri Lanka.

In those days, after the polls closed on election day, the ballot boxes were collected from the polling stations and brought into the counting place – the Kandy Kachcheri in our case – escorted by the election officials and representatives of the candidates such as I.

On our way into Kandy there appeared to be efforts to waylay the UNP part of the procession on the main Kandy-Kurunegala road. No stones hit us or our vehicles but there were efforts to obstruct or at least slow us down so that the hooting and jeering we were subject to would be more effective!

We reached Kandy “in one piece” and went into the tedious, night-long process of watching the counting of the ballots.

Quite early in the night, it was apparent that we were headed for defeat and when we walked out of the Kachcheri at daybreak Tikiri Banda had lost the Galagedera seat and the UNP had lost government.

We now had facing us the, then relatively long, drive back to the electorate. The now ex- MP made the (sensible) suggestion that we take the back way into the electorate and our homes to avoid what would be awaiting us from the thugs who had already given evidence of their intentions when we had encountered them on our way in. However, those of us who insisted on going back through the “front door” from which we had emerged the evening before prevailed.

On a hunch, I asked a young man who was a “creeper” (an apprentice planter) with me to contact the Kandy police and secure some sort of “armed escort.” He was successful and we had, before our departure from the Kachcheri premises, a policeman astride a Speed-Twin Triumph motorcycle with a World War 1-vintage bolt-action Lee-Enfield .303 rifle across his lap to protect our returning little cavalcade!

And a good thing too because the knots of opposition supporters that had jeered us on our way into town had grown in number and aggressiveness and would certainly have done us some harm but for the presence of our “armed escort.” Today, politicians, certainly those of the previous regime, wouldn’t dream of going for so much as a daylight stroll without, at least, a battalion of assault-weapon-armed soldiers! At the time, however, we thought we had done well in obtaining the police protection we had!

Back we went and our little convoy parted company at the famous and still-standing Bambara gaha (Rock-bee nesting tree) junction above the Galagedera police station, yours truly in the direction of Kurunegala and the rest in that of Rambukkana.

If I thought this was the end of the story when I got home, I had another think coming and very soon!

First, I learned that those threatening violence both on our way into Kandy and back were, the SLFP’s storm troopers who were flexing their muscles in anticipation of what turned out to be the 1971 Che Guevara insurrection which itself was driven by their disenchantment with Mrs. Bandaranaike’s promise of egalitarianism which had turned into one that amounted to a change from the Senanayake gentry to that of the Bandaranaikes and Ratwattes, as one of their leaders told me just prior to the April 1971 Che Guevara insurrection! Incidentally, the story of that man, who hailed from the Kegalle-Mawanella area, and insisted he owed his life to me and my wife for facilitating his surrender to the army after that “revolution” fizzled out, is still alive. That, most fascinating tale that few fiction writers would have been able to concoct, will have to await another column, unfortunately!

From my eyrie, built by my grandparents, I saw and heard noisy little processions along the highway below for the rest of the day. Apart from the usual drunken louts that get loudest at times like this there was, I was told, a coterie of potentially very violent young people from ranks of the JVP who were treating all of this as a dress rehearsal for what was to follow in April 1971, as it transpired.

Rumours of widespread violence directed at villagers identified, no matter how flimsy the evidence, as UNP supporters was all over a constituency that never had a reputation for that kind of thing before. This was obviously more than just conjecture because, soon, a man who identified himself as the Headquarters Inspector of the Kandy police turned up at our front door in search of some place where he could shower and, perhaps, have a decent meal while he did his stint in Galagedera. We obliged and, in typical Sri Lankan fashion, we discovered that he was a neighbor of one of our closest Kandy friends and that his political leanings were towards the recently-defeated party!

Once he was satisfied that we would not spread the news, he told us, in so many words, that there was what in today’s terminology would be described as a “contract” out on prominent UNPers in the area and that I had been identified as one of them. He said he had been issued clear instructions not to intervene in any of the mayhem that was to be visited upon UNPers but that he would do whatever it took to protect me, my wife and young family from any intruders into our home as long as we stayed in our house which was about two kilometers from the afore-mentioned Kandy-Kurunegala road,.

If memory serves me right, we were holed up in our house for about two weeks and the young man who was “creeping” (apprenticing) as a planter would run into town to deliver the eggs that our chickens produced and other farm produce and to do the marketing for our household. We were, simply put, under siege for a fortnight!

Once this period was over, life returned to relative normalcy and even though we ensured that we kept our vulnerability to a minimum we tried to resume our lives from where we’d left off.

Keeping our heads down and “not making waves” did not, as it transpired, provide us with anything resembling normalcy in what was soon to prove a curtailed residence in the land of our birth.

*That chapter will have to wait for another instalment of this saga

Election-Related Violence – Part I

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Latest comments

  • 3
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    EvdP

    Your recollections bring back memories of those pestilential times. Law and order was (as ever) selective and the result was a simmering throbbing undercurrent of apprehension. Everybody suspected ‘something’ was happening. What? and When? We could only speculate. That day in March 1970 when Dudley called elections, a peon at the bank confidently predicted that the ‘revolution’ is near. How we laughed! When Sirimavo and her friends won, the same peon rabidly confirmed that ‘revolution was imminent’. Nobody laughed! We were all resigned to the inevitable.

    Even then nobody could exactly predict the catastrophic times that lay ahead. Was it our particular style of enforcing ‘law and order’? Our leadership dithered and delayed, as always. An April uprising; no lessons were learnt. More dithering, less haste; July 1983! Further dithering; the rise of resistance in the North. Years of misery. A great victory? More dithering, law and order still selective. Teflon-coated ethno-religious factions now move about the country with impunity. Friends in high places mean they cannot be touched. Who’d live in country with all this going on?

    EvdP, keep those stories coming.

    (By the way, you were not the only one sent into exile. I would need an extra pair of hands to count just those I know).

  • 2
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    Emil,
    From your description so far, what we encountered after the elections in 2015 is something out of the ordinary. We were able to walk around the towns with people just going about with their normal chores of the day. Credit must go to President Sirisena and Ranil for ensuring that.

    • 2
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      Ranjan:
      You are right.
      That said, it is ESSENTIAL that we hold MR2’s collective feet to the fire to ensure that they don’t backslide.
      Given the fact that they KEEP people like Wijedasa Rajapaksha in the Cabinet and permit them to DELIBERATELY create issues that will, inevitably,bring the communalistic rabble out of the woodwork DOES NOT HELP.

      • 0
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        Emil

        I wish to recall the words of my friend the late Reggie Siriwardena when I asked him to address a Service Club I was associated with in those years. The time was the late 1980s and the subject was the changing scenario during and after General elections. Reggie, in his inherent natural brilliance, said between 1947/1952 Elections the losing candidate had to endure a few hoots and some verbal barbs thrown at him when the supporters of the winning candidate passed the home of the losing candidate. He added, by 1956/1960/1965 the hoots turned to stone throwing and derogatory verbal attacks by the mobs usually in the presence of the winning candidate. By 1970 the scene shifted to, in addition to the shouting and stones, physical violence on the supporters of the losing side – sometimes involving deaths. The safety and the life of the losing candidate and his known leading supporters were always matters of great concern. 1977 was no better. By 1988/89 there was the arrival of hundreds of T52 and AK-40 rifles, grenades in the hands of politicised “army deserters” These were usually JVP’ers – on the side of the candidates. From 1993 onwards candidates and supporters have been blown up by suicide bombers, rogue sharp-shooters and what not. Since then candidates – wearing bullet-proof vests – generally travelled around meetings protected by dozens of heavily armed escorts in Land Rover jeeps and the like.

        What of the future? Will we have the misfortune, in our times, to see Indian Jawans and Chinese armed personnel also making their contribution to a country that has all the signs of becoming a battle-field of the Syrian variety???? If this indeed happens we must thank our eternally quarrelling political and religious leaders for this inevitable tragedy.

        Kettikaran

        • 0
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          Kettikaran, further to your comments, I feel it worth recalling the elections of 2015. When Gota, with a nod and a wink, persuaded big brother to ‘go gracefully and live to fight another day’ he not only confounded the boo boys who had predicted a protracted standoff, but also sent a subliminal message to supporters eschewing violence. The lesson is simple; leaders can and should set examples, and come down hard on those who do not get the message.

          As for your apocalyptic predictions, you are spot on pointing the finger at our political and religious leaders. Their messages and pronouncements are always mindful of their parochial power bases.

          Our religious leaders must impose influence and control over their respective flocks. Reacting with apologetic admonishment has never worked so far. There are far too many hotheads hell bent on advancing to another conflagration to achieve their own evil ends.

          Our political leaders are simply hooked on to winning the hearts and minds of the Bauddha-Sinhala voter. That Buddhism needs the calibre of mere politicians to defend it just beggars belief. Twisted politicians will mix the two, to strengthen their indispensability to the fickle electorate.
          Alas, this is unlikely to change overnight, but there is some evidence that our Buddhists are getting wise to being used by politicians.

          The question remains then, will we as a people mend our ways in time? How soon before the day comes when Sri Lankan overrides Sinhala/Tamil/Moors/Malays/Burghers/Eurasians.

          IF we ignore these signs and carry-on regardless, then your spectre of a Syria-like eruption will be valid. Let us just understand that the conflagration that ensues will not be enacted 200 miles to the north but right in the beating heart of the Western province Megapolis.

          • 0
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            Spring Koha sees the present and immediate future in perspective. It is fortunate we have citizens like him/her in these troubled and confused times where ethics, morality and lofty principles have all fallen by the wayside to majoritarianism and religious extremism. The wisdom with which the enlightened LKY created his plural nation from “3rd world to 1st” – sadly, will almost never be ours. Let us remind ourselves he came from the dominantly majority Chinese community which forms more than 75% of that City State. There may be less democracy in Singapore but he gave them all more than plenty for each and everyone in terms of material comforts. He gave them in an enviable Per Capita base. Religion, he felt like those in Western Europe during the centuries of reason and enlightenment, is a private matter and should not be mixed with politics. It is only the other day we heard of another decline – when a group of Buddhist priests from the SLFP formed into an Association – with Articles, Memorandum etc., a Trade Union of sort of sorts. What an insult to the Buddha. What despicable morons!

            Syria is destroyed by a power hungry familial dictator and, of course, religion viz:- the Shia (Alawite), Sunni divide with radical islam playing its predictable role. Here, from the early 1950s, political Buddhism is doing that for us. Can you ever imagine our politically ambitious and yet divided Buddhist hierarchy to withdraw into the philosophical landscape of deep meditation – and free themselves of all political connections.
            Reform must begin with changes in the method of intake instead of the current system of the young “joining” the clergy. Yes! Like many, I believe most of our ills lie in the manner in which Sinhala Buddhism is practised – and rules all that it surveys.

            Kettikaran

  • 0
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    I refer to Spring Koha’s comments below :-

    “… When Gota, with a nod and a wink, persuaded big brother to ‘go gracefully and live to fight another day’ he not only confounded the boo boys who had predicted a protracted standoff, but also sent a subliminal message to supporters eschewing violence…”

    I am afraid events that day were far different and fraught with great danger than what you believe. Both brothers were determined to stay put irrespective of the people’s mandate. Our country and our reasonably good system of democratically changing governments survived because of some gentlemen at the higher levels of the army and the Attorney General’s department stood their ground. These men need to be identified and celebrated at some point soon. There were also rumours then warnings came from high sources overseas that more serious internationally accepted steps will follow if the people’s declared democratic will is undermined. What more, well-informed sources in the media kept the country informed of these at that time – to the credit of the freedom of our press.

    Kettikaran

  • 0
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    “Syria is destroyed by a power hungry familial dictator and, of course, religion viz:- the Shia (Alawite), Sunni divide with radical islam playing its predictable role.”

    These are not the only players in the attempt to break up Syria, al-la Iraq and Libya. They are just the ones you see.

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