30th December 2001

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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 stadium.

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 January 24.

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 vision.


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 in Afghanistan.

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 the Government. 

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 the prorogation.

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 opposition.

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 in.

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 polls.

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 Kandy.

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 Lankan legislature. 

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 House.

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 Norwegian facilitation.

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. 

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