By Charitha Ratwatte –
Gunshots from the ‘Land of a Hundred Thousand Paddy Fields’
Many moons ago, ‘Wel Lakshe Wedi Handa’ was a very popular Sinhala drama, about a revolution brooding in the Uva Wellassa region, of South East Sri Lanka.
At one time in our history, the area which is now described as Lower Uva, parts of the Badulla, Moneragala, and Hambantota Districts, were depicted as a fertile rice bowl to parallel the Raja Rata. Thousands of cascades of small irrigation tanks in the plains and in the mountainous regions, small and medium anicuts were used to divert, store and husband rain fall from the South West and North East monsoons, from seasonal oyas and perennial gangas, nurturing a civilisation which was the granary of the Uva Wel Lakshe and Ruhuna and the Kandyan Kingdom at various times of our history.
During the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandyan Kingdoms, Uva Wellassa was physically located geographically many miles away from the Capital City where the King reigned. A Yuva Raja or regional satrap was generally appointed for Uva Wellassa. Or in other times a Disawe from among the courtiers was appointed to go and administer the Dissawaniya.
The Uva Wellassa Yuva Raja was the Crown Prince or another junior Royal and the Disawe was a senior courtier who was trusted by the King. But following the famous dictum ‘Trust, but verify’, the Disawe had to leave his wife and family at the ancestral Walauwa in or around the capital city of Kandy.
They were virtual hostages for the good behaviour of the Disawe, in far-off Uva Wellassa, where, far away from the day-to-day micro management of the Palace and its intrigues, the Disawe – as long as he maintained law and order, collected taxes and remitted them to Kandy, raised a peasant militia when the King needed it for battle, kept anti-Royal elements which would naturally gather in this remote corner of the kingdom under control and report to the Palace any usurper who could be fomenting a revolution – could govern the Dissawaniya virtually as he pleased, as long he had contacts and allies in the Palace at Senkadagala Kande Maha Nuwara who would keep him briefed of any attempt to subvert him in the confidence of the King and the other senior courtiers.
The sad episode of Adigar Ehelepola, whose wife Ehelepola Kumarihami and children were brutally murdered, while living in Kandy, for the alleged traitorous activities of the Adigar, is an example of the risks involved in running afoul of the King and other jealous courtiers.
Independence and free spirit
Due to its remoteness, Uva Wellassa always nurtured an independence and free spirit which was deeply resented and suspect by the King and the courtiers in Kandy, to whom the people of Uva Wellassa showed no servility. Close links with spice and salt traders, both Muslim and Sinhala from the maritime provinces, controlled by successive European powers, were always the basis of jealous courtiers trying to poison the mind of the King against a Disawe who was in their jealous estimation getting ‘too independent and uppity’!
In ancient times the borders of Uva Wellassa were said to be from the east Muttettuwegama, the West the Hakgala Kadawatha Mountains, the South Kirindi Oya and the North the Bibile Fort Rubeiro the Portuguese chronicler has written that ‘the kingdom of Uva stretched from the Sri Pada Mountain to Batticaloa to the limits of the Kingdom of Kandy’. At various times the divisions of Udukinda, Madikinda, Yatikinda, Buttala, Wellawaya and even Tissa and Walapane, were taken to mean the Uva Wellassa region.
Fate of Uva Wellassa
The fate of Uva Wellassa, blessed with the presence of the jungle shrine of Kataragam Deviyo on the banks of the Menik Ganga, waxed and waned with the history of the Raja Rata, Ruhunu Rata and Kande Uda Rata kingdoms. During times of peace and tranquillity, when just rulers in terms of that golden rule of good governance – ‘Devo Wassatu Kalena, Raja Bhavatu Dhammiko’ (may the rains fall on time and may the Ruler be just) – the one hundred thousand paddy fields produced surpluses of rice which were distributed to all parts of the kingdom and even exported from this veritable ‘Granary of the East’ to enable all citizens to enjoy a good quality of life.
Where there was inequity and an and unjust ruler, exploiting the people, ferment and rebellion and resistance was naturally kindled in the Uva Wellassa region, far away from the capital city and inhabited by a tough breed of independent-minded men and women.
Indeed ‘Wel Lakshe Wedi Handa’ throughout our history heralded the revolt of the downtrodden and deprived citizenry against unjust rulers. In some cases the revolts were successful and a new ruler was installed on the throne promising to rule in a just and fair manner. Unfortunately, it was not in all cases that the humble people of Uva Wellassa were able to overcome the might of state power, and once the rebellion was suppressed retribution in the most brutal manner was taken by the ruler and his acolytes, which will make the Saddam Husseins and Qadaffis of today seem like saints by comparison.
Such actions only resulted, predictably, in the collective memory of the Uva Wellassa people being strengthened by these inequities and the seeds of the next rebellion being sown. Such are the lessons of history.
In 1817, once again, the people of Uva Wellassa revolted. They rose against the British for not honouring the clauses in the Kandyan Convention, by which the Chiefs ceded the Kandyan Kingdom to the British conditionally. Madugalle, the Uda Gabada Nilame, conspired with senior monks to spirit away the symbol of State power, the Sacred Tooth Relic, from the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy.
The British suspected the loyalty of the Chief Adigar Molligoda, he was tried summarily and dismissed from office, and exiled to Colombo under arrest, without being allowed to bid farewell to his family. The Governor ordered his Walauwe to be burnt and his possessions were confiscated and sold.
The Kandyans were incensed by this brutality. William Tolfry the British Chief Translator in Kandy, warned the Commissioner in Charge of Kandyan Affairs, Sutherland, that there was an impending revolt. Vilbawe, a Malabar relative of the last King, moved to Uva Wellassa from Sat Korale and fomented the revolt.
At this time, the British administration did an utterly foolish thing. The Government Agent of the Eastern Province appointed a Malay Muhandiram as Chief of the Madigey Department. This was post held previously by Sinhala officials. A Vedda marksman assassinated the Muhandiram. Major Wilson with 15 Malay sepoys of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment and a British officer set off to capture the assassins. He had seriously underestimated the hostility to the British. The troops were ambushed, Wilson was killed and decapitated.
The British sent in reinforcements. Major Macdonald of the 19th Regiment, Captain Richie of the 73rd Regiment. They advanced into Uva Wellassa and found Major Wilson’s head impaled on a pole, with an ola leaf wrapped in a white cloth, which was a proclamation by Vilbawe declaring himself King and calling on the people to drive out the British.
Sir John D’Oyly, the administrator of the Kandyan provinces, dispatched Monarawila Keppetipola Disawe with arms and ammunition to take on the rebels. A leader of the rebellion, Kohukumbure Raterala, met Keppetipola and convinced him to join the rebels to drive out the British. Monarawila Keppetipola took 500 men and joined the rebels, but returned the arms and ammunition D’Oyly had given him.
The British in a panic summoned reinforcements from Madras – one battalion of European Infantry and another battalion of Sepoys from the Madras Native Infantry. The British put on the pressure. They desolated the Uva Wellassa region – all males between 15 and 60 years were driven out, exiled or killed, houses were burnt, paddy burnt. It is said paddy looted from the traditional storage in bissas and atuwas in village dwellings was burnt for two consecutive weeks on the Badulla esplanade. Livestock were killed, irrigation works destroyed, wewas breached and anicuts cut. A brutal policy of scorched earth, in every sense of the word.
The British had a stroke of luck – an officer of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment took his men and pretended to cross over to the rebels. They met with Kohukumbure Raterala and captured him. The people of Uva Wellassa were feeling the pressure of the total violence bordering on terrorism they were being subjected to and the scorched earth policy. The British Governor offered lenience to rebels who surrendered. Starvation and deprivation took its toll. The people had no choice but to surrender in the face of this State terror. The Chieftains, Monarawila Keppetipola andMadugalle were captured, they were court martialled and executed.
The level of destruction brought about by the British in Uva Wellassa in suppressing the rebellion of 1817-1818 could be judged by the words of Herbert White, a Government Agent in Badulla, in his Journal of Uva: “It is a pity that there is no evidence left behind to show the exact situation in Uva in terms of population or agricultural development after the rebellion. The new rulers are unable to come to any conclusion on the exact situation of Uva before the rebellion as there is no trace of evidence left behind to come to such conclusions if thousands died in battle they were all fearless and clever fighters. If one considers the remaining population of 4/5 after battle to be children, women and the aged, the havoc caused is unlimited. In short, people have lost their lives and all other valuable belongings. It is doubtful whether Uva at least now has recovered from the catastrophe.”
Dreadful and disgraceful
Writing in 1884, historian Charles Macfarlane says “The war was now entirely ended, but dreadful and disgraceful had it been during its process Execrable cruelties had been practiced, as well as the native troops in our service as by the Singhalese; and we blush to admit that our British-born, and our Irish soldiers, had, in many cases, turned the contest into a war of retaliation and extermination.
“The chief fault lay in very high quarters. By general orders our troops were commanded to burn and destroy, and to quench the flame of insurrection in blood. The troops were employed in following the insurgents into their fastness. The dwellings of the inhabitants were burned, and their fruit-bearing trees, their coconut trees, were often cut down and their rice grounds often laid waste by breaking down the immense mounds or embankments constructed to retain water, so essential to the cultivation of this grain. The whole country was scoured in every direction by military parties, who burned and destroyed whatever provisions and other property that they could not carry away.”
In 1821, John Day, a British army physician, speaking on the British role in the Kandyan Provinces after the rebellion said: “And we shall have much to answer for, both politically and morally, if we do not exert ourselves, and, availing ourselves of the capacity, ameliorate the condition of the people, and improve the state of the country… If these sanguine sentiments be not realised, the natives may well rue the day we crossed their mountains, and deplore the time when their old system of government was overturned.” Hambantota’s one-time Government Agent, Leonard Woolf captured the penury in his classic novel ‘Village in the Jungle’ of 1913.
In 1970, after the change of government, many senior government servants were abruptly sent on transfers to remote outstation postings, including Bradman Weerakoon to Ampara, Neville Jayaweera to Vavuniya and W.J. Fernando to Moneragala as Government Agents.
W.J. Fernando was appalled at the condition of the average resident of Moneragala and rapidly put together the Lower Uva Development Plan to ameliorate their condition. His basic argument was that the people of Uva Wellassa in general, and Moneragala in particular, Lower Uva in his definition, were in 1970 still suffering the deprivations imposed by the marauding British troops’ scorched earth policy during the suppression of the 1817 rebellion, so well-chronicled years before by White and Macfarlane. Clearly, Dr. John Day’s prophecy had come to pass.
2014: History repeats itself
Uva Wellassa was, true to their history and reputation for revolt, a trouble spot in the 1971 and 1989 insurgencies. In 2014, history repeated itself; the first rounds of gunfire of an impending revolt were again heard from Uva Wellassa. A young politician, Harin Fernando, energised the people of Uva Wellassa, and has given the governing party a fright from which they are still to recover!
The headline in a Government newspaper ‘58% landslide’ says it all! Some landslide! Disastrous debacle more likely! The Opposition had to take on not only the party in Government but the might of the Government of Sri Lanka – State power. Everything was thrown into Uva Wellassa – State machinery, men and materials; even the military, it is reported, did a tattoo!
Election laws were observed more in the breach. Bribery and treating were rampant. The Election Commissioner commendably stopped the distribution of spurious ‘drought relief’ solely in Moneragala, out of all the drought-affected districts; the Judiciary allowed it! (The proverbial ‘bread and circus,’ which has been used to try to win over the public since the time of the Roman Emperors at the Coliseum in ancient Rome!)The Uva provincial election was scheduled as the clincher – the cakewalk, before the presidential election, the walkover which will show the might of the regime. But the result was so scary to the incumbents that some are seriously talking of a referendum to extend the life of Parliament before a presidential election – a suicidal option if there was ever one.
Lessons of 2014
‘Wel Lakshe Wedi Handa’
What are the lessons of the 2014 ‘Wel Lakshe Wedi Handa’? Analysts have drawn many. The first would be that the United National party is not the ‘write-off’ its detractors would make it out to be. There is a residual vote base which can be effectively mobilised. Second, the anti incumbency to the present dynastic regime is finally kicking in. Third, any electoral alliance will be meaningless without the leadership of the UNP; other parties were virtual nonstarters in Uva Wellassa.
Fourth, economic resources for an election campaign will appear, if the donors have confidence in the team who is contesting. Fifth, elections are won by: first, an effective political organisation; second, volunteers who are organised; and third, who are effectively led! No salaried government servant can match the enthusiasm of a volunteer-driven political campaign. Political parties must have strong grass root political organisations – salaried State employees, however ‘Samurdhi-math,’ ‘Divi Neguma-ised’ or ‘Chinthana-ist’ they may be is not a substitute.
Sixth, party unity at the leadership level is fundamental; pulling in various directions by so-called leaders has a negative effect on voters. Seventh, to give preferential votes at elections, the voters choose new faces; the same old candidates who have been in the scene continuously for umpteen years cannot attract votes. At least take a sabbatical or otherwise reinvent yourself!
Eighth, whatever presidential election offices are declared open at auspicious times, there is a doubt whether it will be a presidential election or a referendum to extend the life of Parliament which will take place next. Ninth, political parties can gain popularity by introducing a new younger generation of leaders to voters at the hustings – witness the impact by Harin Fernando (173,993 preference votes) in Uva Wellassa. Tenth, political parties’ leadership cadres must be seen to be pulling together in a unified manner during elections. The right hand promoting and the left hand demoting, cutthroat-ism causes confusion among supporters and voters. Already there is a blame game among senior Government ministers!
A potent recipe for future reaction
It looks like it’s back to that old Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times’! There is talk of an early Appropriation Bill and an early Budget. The much-trumpeted visit of His Holiness the Pope is also up in the air, due to the election calendar changes. Presidential election or extending Parliament? That is the million rupee question. Whatever the option is, it will be a gamble. Voters will resent extending this same old Parliament. If it’s a presidential, the anti-dynastic, anti-incumbency will kick in with a vengeance.
Uva Wellassa lives up to its historical reputation of a harbinger of revolt and change! The suffering that has been visited upon the people of Uva Wellassa, historically and today even, post-polls violence and lack of the rule of law, will only accentuate the anger and frustration. This will be certainly a potent recipe for future reaction.