Blood and blunders
Despite the millennium hype, 2001, many Sri Lankans would agree, was not
the best of years. As the country's economy reeled under the pressures
of mounting war costs and a power crisis caused by mismanagement and corruption
in the CEB, there came the devastating LTTE attack on the Katunayake airport
and Air Force base. More disaster followed with drought affecting several
parts of the country.
And as if the gloom locally was not enough, the world faced up to the
evils of terrorism with the horrifying September 11 attack on the World
Trade Center in New York.
Instability on the political front saw the government struggling to
cling to power, proroguing Parliament and calling a referendum. But ultimately
on December 5, as the country went to the polls, it was a victory for the
UNP, bringing some measure of hope to a beleaguered nation.
Here Hiranthi Fernando, Nilika de Silva, Tania Fernando and Dilrukshi
Handunnetti look back on the year that was.
The year 2001 began on a dour note for Colombo residents as Galle Face
Green, their favourite recreation spot was closed for redevelopment with
more than 150 vendors suddenly deprived of their livelihood.
Pop star Shaggy finally arrived in Sri Lanka (after several postponements)
to thrill music fans with a sellout performance at the Sugathadasa indoor
Mid- January saw over 5000 fisherfolk take to the streets, protesting
against the fuel price hike, which they said badly affected their livelihood.
On the war front, the LTTE warned that it would resort to all out war
unless the Government responded to its ceasefire offer, which ended on
Violence broke out between the JVP and PA student factions at Kelaniya
University, during the Student Union election campaign and Police moved
in to bring the situation under control.
The beleaguered CEB was plunged into further financial crisis, with
state banks refusing to honour the January salary checks due to insufficient
funds in the account. In the meantime, the Government signed a Rs. 500
million contract to obtain emergency power generation to the tune of Rs.
1.2 billion per month.
Renowned dancer Chitrasena turned 80 on January 26 and was honoured
by the Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, during
the India Day function.
On the political front, Ferial Ashraff, widow of the former Sri Lanka
Muslim Congress leader M.H.M Ashraff, came out of seclusion after four
months mourning, saying she was ready to carry forward the late leader's
A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Government and the LTTE
to pave the way for direct talks proposed by Eric Solheim, Norway's Special
Envoy raised a hornets'nest as to whether Solheim was exceeding his role
as facilitator. A week later, the LTTE threatened to pull out of the Norwegian
facilitated peace talks with the Government in the wake of reports that
Britain was to brand it as a terrorist organisation.
A penguin chick born at the National Zoological Gardens made news, being
the first such birth in South Asia.
It was a furore over a cricket ball at Asoka Vidyalaya in Maradana when
the school principal alleged that members of the prominent cricketing family
of former Sri Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga and their security personnel
had set on a group of students, injuring at least ten, four of them seriously.
Hundreds of students protested against the alleged attack.
In early March, Sri Lanka launched a massive worldwide diplomatic campaign
against the destruction of priceless Buddha statues by the Taliban regime
There was rejoicing when a news release from the British High Commission
said that 20 international organisations, including the LTTE, had been
recommended for proscription under Britain's new Terrorism Act 2000
A senior customs officer Sujith Prasanna involved in raids and probes
on powerful business establishments was shot dead near his residence giving
horrific mafia style dimensions to the rising crime wave in the country.
While the Auditor General's report disclosed shocking losses to the
CEB, the Water Board appealed to consumers to use water sparingly, warning
that a power cut might have to be imposed if the weather and public response
did not improve Blood & blunders
City redevelopment ran into a storm as thousands took to the streets
in protest against the demolition of the Punchi Borella temple walls by
the Urban Development Authority.People were warned to remain indoors while
bulldozers were used in the pre-dawn operation spearheaded by Urban Development
Minister Mangala Samaraweera.
A coup to depose Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe while he was
attending a conference abroad, failed on his return. The attempt was triggered
by the unrest in the UNP ranks over Wickremesinghe's inability to oust
Operation Agnie Khiela (Rod of Fire) to recapture the northern town
of Pallai commenced at 1.48 a.m. on April 24, but ended with a troop pull-back
four days later. The military misadventure cost the lives of 180 soldiers
including three officers.
Cricket as usual provided the silver lining to the country's gloom as
the Lankan team captained by Sanath Jayasuriya won the Sharjah Cup, stunning
Pakistan in the desert series final.
The London Times journalist, Marie Colvin was injured in crossfire in
the Wanni, while reporting in uncleared territory. She subsequently lost
an eye, though making international headlines with her reports of the conflict
behind the lines.
Mawanella went up in flames on May Day as two people were killed and
a hundred shops and residences were damaged in violence allegedly orchestrated
by a PA Minister of the area. As tensions flared between the Muslims and
the Sinhalese, a preventive curfew was clamped in Colombo on May 4, following
unrest after jumma prayers.
Susanthika Jayasinghe blazed a trail of glory at the IAAF Japan Grand
Prix in Osaka, bringing home two Golds. Inspite of being under the weather,
SL's star sprinter did the country proud by bagging both the 100m (clocking
11.37 seconds) and the 200m titles.
In Sri Lanka, this month was an emotionally charged one, when President
Kumaratunga fired her cabinet Minister and faithful coalition partner Rauff
Hakeem. Showing the full extent of "the wrath of a man scorned", Hakeem
crossed the floor taking with him six MPs, an act that would pave the way
for the fall of the PA Government.
President Kumaratunga and Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe came together
to discuss LTTE demands.
Norwegian facilitator Erik Solheim was sidelined, as SL retained Norway's
aid while rejecting Solheim.
It was another black July for Sri Lanka as the country suffered its
biggest ever terrorist attack. The LTTE attack on the Bandaranaike International
Airport as well as the adjoining Air Force base dealt the already ailing
economy a severe blow.Six of the twelve aircraft of the national carrier,
Sri Lankan Airlines, were destroyed as were five aircraft including fighter
jets belonging to the Air Force. Twenty one persons died in the attack,
14 of them terrorists, though mercifully there were no civilian casualties.
The attack was a staggering blow to the country's tourist industry.
Parliament was prorogued for two months. Speaker Anura Bandaranaike
disallowed the request made by the Opposition to resume Parliament after
Angered by the prorogation of Parliament, the Opposition excluding the
JVP took to the streets to hold a mass protest rally. The Government had
banned all rallies under the Prevention of Terrorism Act shortly before
this and Police fired tear- gas and rubber bullets to disperse the marchers.
Two people died in the firing.
Amidst the protests, President Kumaratunga announced a referendum to
change the constitution. Later the move was shelved in the face of public
Emergency Regulations which had been in force for the last 18 years
lapsed. The LTTE was proscribed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
Former national cricket captain Arjuna Ranatunga and vice captain Aravinda
de Silva were cleared of match fixing charges levelled against them by
Indian bookmakers. A one-man commission appointed by the Cricket Board
found no evidence against them.
A national census on July 17, held after twenty years revealed that
the country's population is 18.7 million and interestingly enough, that
women outnumbered men.
With the opposition UNP discussing the formation of a National Government,
the JVP pledged to support the ruling PA Government on certain conditions:
that Parliament be reconvened, independent commissions be appointed, the
Executive Presidency be abolished and talks with the LTTE be suspended.
The crumbling economy was dealt another blow when a war risk surcharge
was implemented on all aircraft and ships calling at Sri Lanka. This resulted
in most of the ships refusing to stop in Colombo and major airlines pulling
out of Colombo.
Passengers travelling to the country by air had to pay upto US$ 40 for
a return ticket irrespective of the destination.
Train disasters and plane disasters followed with a Sri Lankan Air Force
MiG 27 jet on a test run crashing at Kurana killing the Ukranian pilot
and injuring six residents. The Udarata Menike express train which runs
between Colombo and Badulla was derailed and 14 persons killed and 50 injured.
Music maestro Amaradeva received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award
in the Philippines.
Young singing stars, Bhatiya and Santush bagged a silver award at the
Azia Dauysy world musical festival held in Kazakhastan, Russia performing
their popular hits, Siri Sangabodhi, Life and Manusathkule.
After much haggling and discussions the JVP and the PA Government signed
a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). As per the agreement the PA's jumbo
cabinet of 44 had to be pruned to 20. Disagreements arose soon after with
the PA trying to appoint the deposed Ministers as Supervising Ministers
which would have entitled them to the same perks as the Cabinet Ministers.
However, the JVP opposed this move and the PA had no choice but to give
With cabinet being pruned down to 20, senior Ministers S. B. Dissanayake,
Prof. G. L. Pieris and Mahinda found themselves sidelined. This marked
the beginning of the rift in the PA.
The terrorist attack on the WTC in New York also propelled the fight
against terrorism to the international agenda resulting in the passing
of a resolution by the United Nations cracking down on global terrorism.
The Sri Lankan Government hailed this move, saying the country had long
fought for a similar resolution.
October dawned with the US State Department re-imposing its ban on the
LTTE and re-listing it amongst the 26 extremist groups.
The setting up of the Constitutional Council to appoint members to the
four independent commissions enshrined in the Seventeenth Amendment stalled
as political uncertainty grew. The PA Government, in keeping with the terms
and conditions of the Memorandum of Understanding signed with the JVP,
wrote off farmer loans.
It was gloom all around with the drought intensifying and power problems
causing lengthy black outs.
As the political crisis deepened, secret talks between the PA and the
UNP on national Government were held. The prorogued House was reconvened
on the 9th, marking the beginning of the end for the trouble-plagued PA
regime with MEP's Bandula Gunawardhane crossing over to the Opposition.
October 10 was significant for the PA for two reasons. It was the first
death anniversary of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and also marked the PA's
first year in office during its second term. The same day, eight senior
PA politicians including former Minister S.B. Dissanayake, Prof. G.L Pieris
and Mahinda Wijesekera crossed over to the Opposition intensifying the
PA's political misfortunes. President Kumaratunga decided to dissolve the
trouble plagued 11th Parliament, calling for fresh polls.
By this time, the disaffected PA politicians formed the United National
Front and decided to contest under the UNP symbol.
Tamil parties in the North formed a broad alliance while the CWC also
gravitated towards the UNF with a view to forming an alliance before the
With former PA Minister Lakskman Kiriella joining the UNP, former Speaker
Anura Bandaranaike decided to return home to the SLFP.
November witnessed a violent election campaign that relegated the country's
economic travails and development initiatives to the backseat. The month
began with the killing of a notorious underworld gangster, formerly attached
to the Presidential Security Division (PSD).
With election fever running high, JVP's self-exiled leader Somawansa
Amarasinghe arrived in Sri Lanka after a lapse of twelve years, supplying
vital oxygen to the PA's sagging election campaign.
Thirty-six-year-old Lionel Rodrigo, a UNP supporter from Minuwangoda
became the first victim of election violence. Deputy Minister Reggie Ranatunga
was taken into custody in connection with Rodrigo's murder.
The anthrax scare sweeping the US and other countries affected Sri Lanka
as well, but the Medical Research Institute was later able to certify that
seventy out of ninety samples were negative.
People in the country's deep South continued to face severe hardships
consequent to one of the worst droughts in Sri Lankan history. Political
tension also affected Hambantota with intense political clashes taking
place between the two main political parties.
Pre- election violence escalated to a staggering 1,500 incidents including
killings, assaults, causing of grievous injuries and destruction of property.
Perhaps the most politically significant month in the entire year, December
marked a transition of political power from the PA to the UNP with the
hope of peace being re-ignited with new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
undertaking an ambitious peace initiative.
In a backdrop of extreme political violence, the month began with the
detection of 100,000 forged ballot papers in Kitulgala.
JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe returned to London the day prior to
the general election.
December 5, a politically decisive day was soaked in blood when ten
SLMC supporters were brutally massacred in Uduthalawinna, in the Madawala
area, allegedly by a group of thugs led by a powerful PA politician from
December 6 marked a convincing electoral victory for the UNP which secured
109 seats, while the PA was reduced to a mere 77 seats. The JVP made electoral
gains by increasing its representatives from ten to sixteen.
UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe created a new record in the preference
game by polling over 415,696 votes while another first was marked by Ven.
Baddegama Samitha Thero who was the first Buddhist monk to enter the Sri
UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the new Prime Minister
on December 9 before President Kumaratunge, creating a strange situation
of political co-habitation. The new Premier called upon the PA to join
a government of national consensus before swearing in a cabinet of 25,
28 non-cabinet members and seven deputies.
Parliament was convened on the 9th of December, and UNP's Gampaha district
legislator Joseph Michael Perera was appointed the Speaker of the 12th
The highlight of the last days in December was the new Premier's goodwill
visit to India and the announcement of a fresh peace initiative aided by
Meanwhile Olympic bronze medallist Sunathika Jayasinghe charged a fellow
athlete of attempting to assault and strip her, creating a furore in the
local sports arena.
The Prime Minister announced a cessation of hostilities in response
to the LTTE's unilateral declaration of a ceasefire.
With the guns falling silent on Christmas Eve, the terror-stricken North
and East also enjoyed the luxury of attending midnight mass. The Government
formally announced Norway as the facilitator for peace talks while the
international community lauded the peace initiative.