18 July 2016

The unsung and un-honoured also make history

‘No man is a front,’ they say.  There are rare instances when the action of a single individual has changed the course of history, but typically there is a long ‘before’ and a considerable ‘after’ that allows for event and personality to be associated with singular historic moment.   Also typically that kind of marking is largely contingent on the chronicler’s preferences. 

We talk, for example, of the great King Dutugemunu and his efforts to liberate the island of South Indian invaders. We talk of his one-on-one engagement with the good and much loved Chola king Elara, and how this prevented much bloodshed.  Elara was an elderly man at the time and Dutugemunu in the prime of his youth and this point has been made by those who are loath to grudge any historical significance to the latter.  The relevant point however is that the challenge was valid regardless of the age of the challenged; Elara could have been 18 or 80.  It is to the credit of Elara that he accepted it.  And there is nothing to say that had he not, his forces would have prevailed. 

The pertinent point is that many know the above story but few acknowledge the role of Dutugemunu’s father, the patient, wise, far-seeing and humble King Kavantissa, who silently suffered the ignominy of being gifted women’s paraphernalia by his obnoxious elder son, Gamini. 

My friend UdayasiriWickramaratne who I have described in these pages as the foremost voice of Sinhala literature of my generation, explored this issue in a fascinating novella titled ‘Swarnamali Maharaja’ (The Great King Swarnamali or ‘The Great King of the Golden Jewellery).  It is essentially a reconstruction of Gamini’s remorse in the manner of an extensive soliloquy after leaving the Royal Palace upon humiliating his father.   

Udayasiri suggests that the Ruwanweliseya, also known as SwarnamaliMaha Seya was not named after the nymph/spirit by the name of Swarnamali who resided in a tree at the proposed site (legend has it that Dutugemunu requested this spirit to find another abode, promising that the dagoba would be named after her), but was an expression of remorse regarding his arrogant and hurtful act against his father, King Kavantissa.

Kavantissa makes up the long ‘before’ of that triumphant moment enshrined in history and legend when Dutugemunuvanquished the Chola invader.  It was he who set the stage by determining that the moment of engagement was yet to come, uniting the Sinhalese through strategic marriages that linked royal houses and encouraging economic activity, especially paddy cultivation, to create the foundation for a long battle.

I am thinking of the war against terrorism, those who made it happen and those who claim the glory.  Historical account privileges rulers.  We associate the Taj Mahal with Shah Jahan and not the architects, the landscape planners, engineers, bricklayers, artists and other craftsmen, for instance. The same applies to all the magnificent architecture that has arisen on our soil and in the course of our civilizational unfolding over several millennia.  When ‘history’ is recent, individuals other than rulers are mentioned. Claims are made. 

Our ‘recent’ is made of a lot of embarrassing braggadocio.  Names need not be mentioned.  There are names however that were hardly mentioned.   Among the less mentioned names is that of then Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, the Commander of the Navy during the most critical years of the war on terror and the massive humanitarian operation to liberate the hundreds of thousands of civilians held hostage by the LTTE.  Politics has a way of sweeping aside certain names and certain contributions from the public transcripts.  People reinvent themselves and in the branding exercise this tends to snowball into, other names are made to occupy the back benches of public memory. 

The Navy played a critical role.  The following is a quote from ‘Chapter Closed’, a Government Information Department publication written at the end of the war:

When Wasantha Karannagoda took over as Navy Commander the Sea Tigers were playing a pivotal role in the LTTE’s overall military operations.  Their fleet of suicide boats was crippling the Navy’s ability to protect the coast and provide security for ships carrying supplies to soldiers and civilians in the Jaffna Peninsula.  He knew the constraints that a small country with a weak economy had.  His was a home-grown solution.  He manufactured his own vessels. The small boat concept revolutionized the Sri Lanka Navy and effectively neutralized the threat posed by the Sea Tigers.  Most importantly, he developed what was essentially a brown water Navy into an outfit capable of carrying out blue water operations. The Sri Lankan Navy went into the deep sea south and east of the island to destroy the problem at its source.  Close to a dozen ‘floating warehouses’ which supplied arms to the LTTE were tracked down and destroyed in operations that earned the admiration of far more powerful navies in the world.   Thanks to these operations, the LTTE became isolated on the ground and was starved of arms and ammunition. The Navy played a role. An important role. It played it to perfection.

Shamindra Ferdinando, reports in ‘The Island’ about a glowing report made by a Japanese member of the the UN Law Commission, Shinya Murase to an unnamed diplomat for his work subsequent to taking over the diplomatic mission in spite of radiation fears caused by the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear facility, on March 11, 2011.  The diplomat, Murase says, arrived at a time when many embassy staff members were fleeing the city for fear of radioactive contamination. 

‘But this ambassador was different. Right after his arrival, he visited the evacuation centers in the affected area with his fellow countrymen, cooking and serving hot food that was much appreciated by the evacuees who had been living under freezing temperatures without heat. His government donated the victims a huge amount of money for this small country, as well as 3 million bags of tea produced in his country. Furthermore, he led some 15 military personnel from his country to clean-up the debris in the tsunami-stricken area. These actions went well beyond his basic diplomatic duties, but his efforts were immensely appreciated.’

All this was before Kumar Sangakkara made us all proud with his remarkably forthright speech.  Karannagoda is not a speech-maker.  Not taking away anything from Sangakkara’s effort of course, but this former Navy Commander has done as much or more. 

There are men and women behind certain outcomes.  Some seek glory, some get glory, deserved and underserve. Then there are those who neither brag nor are talked about.  That’s the kind of individual I would like my children to grow up to be. 

Wasantha Karannagoda was never a limelight seeker.  This note is hardly limelight-facilitating.  Still, there are times when gratitude needs to be expressed even if the deserved are self-effacing.  This is one such moment.  Thank you Sir.

This was published on July 15, 2011in the 'Daily News'

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene


Anonymous said...

"Wasantha Karannagoda was never a limelight seeker."

Yeah right!! He wrote a 418 page book called Adhishtanaya.


All praise for Maraa, Gota and of course himself. He has also talked ill of Sarath Fonseka in this book. He launched this in November 2014. Thought that his boot-licking Maraa & Gota will come to power again and then he will get a top post, maybe a shot at parliament though the national list. But everything crumbled on Jan 8. Now there is no news about Karannagoda. He seems to have just vanished.

This bugger started as a "good", honorable navy officer, then got corrupted after making 'pals' with Maraa, Gota and Co. This is the fate of anybody who associates with "bad", corrupt people.

Anonymous said...

Why are you so enamored by these people?? Karannagoda was a loyal slave to the Rajapakshas. Can't even compare these people with the ilk of Clancy Fernando or Kobbekaduwa.