Two uniforms that shaped our independence

31 January 2019 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake ( with document in hand) seen with a Buddhist monk

Sri Lanka’s history shows that two uniforms have helped shape the independence and identity of this nation. One is the saffron coloured robe worn by Buddhist priests while the other is the dark green attire worn by the ‘soldiers’ of the Sri Lanka Army. Individuals wearing these uniforms were much talked about during the war against terrorism. 

From Lieutenant General Denzil Kobbekaduwa to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Matara Kithalagama Sri Saranankara Thera to Ven. Maduluwawe Sobith, forces personnel and the clergy have been in the forefront during the most challenging times this country experienced. 


  • This is probably why his wife Lalani called for an International Commission
  • Anyone opposing Rajapaksa would be labelled an enemy of this nation
  • Those wearing the Army uniform and walking on the streets had acquired demi god status

Kobbekaduwa

Now the country is getting ready to celebrate its 71st Independence Day in Colombo. A quick peep into the past, not so distant, highlights the fact that what is left of the country after a civil war was made possible by the valiant efforts of the soldiers. 

When the civil war concluded on May 18, 2009 as many as 28,000 Army soldiers had laid down their lives to ensure that peace prevails in this country. Though that ‘peace’ that we achieved is debated at present there are no doubts about the efforts of the country’s Army generals and soldiers. 

The efforts taken by Lieutenant General Kobbekaduwa to lead his troops in the battle front must be commended. There is talk however that his rise in the ranks of the Army and the popularity he gained couldn’t be stomached by the then president Ranasinghe Premadasa and some in the Army itself. This is probably why his wife Lalani called for an International Commission into the incident in which her husband was critically wounded; the general later died despite valiant attempts made to save his life. 

Over 100,000 people attended Kobbekaduwa’s funeral in Colombo where angry crowds chanted anti-government slogans. Kobbekaduwa wasn’t given a state funeral. There are reports of violence taking place at the cemetery and riot squads being employed to quell angry crowds. 

Monks like Ven. Gnansara have no foresight and should never be encouraged to lead campaigns which are aimed at creating a positive change in society

He was one Army official whose military successes made him a larger than life figure. Another war hero who the government establishment looked upon as a threat to them was former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka. Ruthless in his approach to performing a task, Fonseka marshalled the Army with a clenched fist. But rather than allowing him to bask in the glory of defeating the murderous LTTE rebels, his mind set him him up on a new track; politics. From Army Commander he became Presidential candidate. He took this decision at a time when people of this country would have willingly fed the security forces out of their own pockets; largely for setting them free from the clutches of the tiger rebels. 

Seelankara Thera

Those wearing the Army uniform and walking on the streets had acquired demi god status. But Fonseka went from hero to zero and saw himself land in a position where he was convicted for corrupt military supply deals. Many opine that Fonseka would have remained a celebrated hero if he didn’t make the mistake of taking on former President Rajapaksa. Little did he know that at that time anyone opposing Rajapaksa would be labelled an enemy of this nation by the people representing or backing extremist forces. 

As much as the men in military uniform acquiring celebrity status those draped in saffron robes too became quite powerful during the war and just after battle against terrorism. In this context the name of Seelankara Thera comes to mind. The priest was a powerful figure during the Premadasa regime and received government patronage to carry out his work. The government benefited largely by the priest’s self-motivated nature and willingness to settle Sinhalese in border villages close to LTTE controlled areas. The priest became a target of the rebels after he began providing moral support to less affluent villagers to fight against LTTE intrusions. He was shot dead on May 26, 1995. Many opine that the priest did yeoman service to the Sinhalese majority and promoted their cause by resettling people in the north and east provinces. There is also a school of thought that the priest was used by the government to be a part of its mechanism that thwarted the activities of tiger rebels and other minority extremists in these areas.  A stamp issued in memory of the monk on July 21, 2005 helped establish his status as an unforgettable character in this nation. 

Taking Sri Lanka’s violent history into consideration we saw a ruthless and powerful regime being defeated without a bullet being fired or a drop of blood being shed

Much later, after this monk’s demise, another monk from the bustling city of Kotte by the name of Ven. Maduluware Sobitha Thera made everyone sit up and take note of him. The priest rose to the fore with a campaign that he initiated to end the tyrannic rule of President Rajapaksa. The campaign was fuelled by the forming of the National Movement for a Just Society. The monk, who already had the charisma to rally large crowds around him, attracted members of the elite society and build a force which toppled the Rajapaksa regime.  

Taking Sri Lanka’s violent history into consideration we saw a ruthless and powerful regime being defeated without a bullet being fired or a drop of blood being shed. This peaceful rebellion was possible because of a monk who was at peace with himself. His character, during the latter stages of his life, was quite contrary to that which was possessed by revolutionary and firebrand monks like Ven Kudapola, Ven. Variyapola Sumangala and Ven. Migattuwatte Gunananda. 

During all these rebellions the monks initiated the moves for change and they received the support of the rulers of the land. 

But very recently we saw during the Rajapaksa regime how Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara was allegedly used for agitation campaigns by the government. Unlike the rebel monks of the past whose battle was for a larger cause, this monk’s focus was to create racial tension and cause disruption in areas where the minority’s presence is large. The monk was arrested for obstructing a police officer and was later nailed by the law when he was found guilty of contempt of court during a court hearing regarding the case of missing journo Ekenligoda. Monks like Ven. Gnansara have no foresight and should never be encouraged to lead campaigns which are aimed at creating a positive change in society, 

When we celebrate Independence Day we must remember a statement made to the press by Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake who affirmed that ‘war heroes must not be manipulated to serve narrow objectives and personal agendas’. Firebrand priests like Gnanasara can really spoil the ‘party’ for Sri Lanka on an occasion like Independence Day. This could be why President Sirisena has said that the monk’s pardoning could be postponed. The the Army uniform and the saffron robe are really powerful, only when they are worn or drapped around right-minded individuals. 

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