After Ethiopia, I felt I should see the Sudan, not only in search of other aspects of the Nile, but also because I realized that it was the repository of many splendours from the Egyptian Empires. The pyramidic culture had extended far to the South, and then so had Hellenistic civilization, following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander and the establishment of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the longest lasting of the successor kingdoms set up by his generals after his death.

Ethiopia I had visited in January 2014, and the next month I went to the Sudan. We landed late at night but, after the first hotel I sought turned out to be a dump, we ended up in the Acropole, by far the most attractive of Khartoum hotels except for those who want five star comfort on the lines of what they have experienced in other countries.

The Acropole was owned and run by three Greek brothers, who were born in Khartoum after their father emigrated there before the war. They knew the country well, and were enormously helpful about how to get to places, while also efficiently covering the required formalities, such as registration with the authorities on arrival. The breakfasts they served up were fabulous, and on Fridays they provided a free city tour, which I came back for.

On the first morning we explored the city, and saw the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White. I find this fascinating, and still have fond memories of seeing the place where the two branches of the Amazon, the Solimoes and the Negro rivers, come together, in Manaos in Brazil. Way back in 1987, I was taken to the confluence by a delightful boatman who did not make too much of a fuss when it transpired that I had thought the price he quoted a tenth of what he wanted (there was much confusion in Brazil in those days because of currency reform, cruzeiros having become cruzados at the rate of 1000 t0 1, a process repeated three years later when cruzados gave way to new cruzados).

Chanaka Amaratunga used to later claim that I was the only person to have been made President of a political party while in the Amazon. The Liberal Party was set up in January that year, against my advice, but the other office bearers of the Council for Liberal Democracy were determined. I had consented to be Vice-President, as I was of the CLD, if they did go ahead, but its President Hugh Fernando decided to rejoin the SLFP instead. Chanaka I suppose then thought me the most reliable of his associates in the movement, a trust I believe I justified, while all his school friends fell away over the years that followed. Read the rest of this entry »

Much of this series has been about my personal travels, and the slow but steady dissolution of the world I had known. To dwell only on these would however give a misleading impression of what occupied me most during the years from 2012, when I began to realize that my efforts to promote reform were getting nowhere. But that realization took time to crystallize and, in the period when I continued in Parliament on the government side, I tried hard to effect some changes.

It was something I felt that the National Human Rights Action Plan, which we had begun drafting when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, was finally adopted by Cabinet. There was no Ministry of Human Rights following the 2010 election, and it became clear that the Ministry of External Affairs, to which in theory the subject had been entrusted, was neither competent nor concerned. Minari Fernando, the Consultant we had taken on to draft the plan, found it impossible to work from there, but fortunately Mohan Pieris, as Attorney General, took on responsibility, though he was too busy to attend meetings and I had to do most of the work. But he allowed the more able members of the Department such as Yasantha Kodagoda to contribute, and with yeoman service from Dhara Wijayathilaka and Hiranthi Wijemanne, who had been deeply involved in improving the lot of women and children for many years now, we got a good draft together.

After it was adopted, Mahinda Samarasinghe, who had been made the President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights when the failure of the Foreign Ministry became obvious, was appointed to chair an Inter-Ministerial Committee on implementing the Plan. That did not I think ever meet, but he appointed a Task Force to expedite implementation, and asked me to help. By then I had realized how insincere Mohan Pieris was, so I told Mahinda I would do this only if I chaired the Task Force. Mohan was clearly upset, and said at the meeting at which Mahinda asked me to take over that I could be a bloody nuisance, but he made no further objection, and for a few months we were able to work towards consensus on many issues.

But before long it became clear that, to expedite action, we needed a dedicated Ministry as we had had before. Though Secretaries to Ministries seemed most cooperative, in particular the Secretaries to the Ministries of Land and of Women and Children’s Affairs, the representatives they sent to meetings could not ensure follow up. In some cases there was vast confusion about who was responsible, given the proliferation of Ministries, and the plethora of Departments within Ministries. We also had to cope with a very conservative Ministry of Justice, which seemed determined for instance not to repeal the horrendous Vagrants’ Ordinance, on the grounds that that was the only way to control prostitution. The fact that it was used to remand women at will, with no provision for checking on their fate, while prostitution flourished in various forms, was ignored. Read the rest of this entry »

img_1669With Lakmahal slowly folding up as it were, and the country in decline, my principal solace in 2014 was travel. Asia and Europe I knew well, and I had been to enough of South America to feel I had seen enough of it for the moment. The Middle East too I had seen a fair amount of, Iran in 2008 and Syria and 2009, and then the Lebanon in 2012, Sidon and Tyre and Baalbek in the depths of winter.

Africa seemed to me the great hole in my travels, and I thought this was the year I should see more of that continent. I had been to Morocco and Egypt in my travels round the world on the Semester at Sea programme, and I had been back to Morocco for a Liberal International event, going on that occasion down towards the desert. And I had had a blissful few days in Luxor, redolent with the sensuality described in ostensibly staid accounts of the adventures of English ladies there in the nineteenth century. I had been also to Aswan on that trip (though there was a sandstorm that prevented me getting to Abu Simbel), and marveled at the reach of Hellenic civilization, at the exquisite temples on the banks of the Nile. It was also exciting to see the Aswan Dam, which had been an iconic construction in my youth, along with the records of British scientific observation on Aswan Island.

But Black Africa I had not seen at all, except for a few days in Senegal in 2003, again for a meeting of Liberal International. I had been struck then by the beauty of its people and the splendor of its coast, neither of which had I associated previously with Africa. But I had not stayed long enough to see much, and so a determined effort seemed in order in 2014 with little else to do. Fortunately there were excellent officers at our High Commission in Delhi and the High Commissioners in turn, Prasad Kariyawasam and the erudite Sudharshan Seneviratne and more recently Esala Weerakoon, allowed their remarkably efficient consular officer to get me the necessary visas.

On these journeys I took Kithsiri, because I was slightly worried about the difficulties of internal travel, and indeed the hotels, since I neither wanted to, nor could afford to, stay in expensive ones. He had been a great travelling companion before, in places about which I had not felt entirely at ease, Iran and Syria and Lebanon, and then Tunisia the year before. Though much younger, he was not quite as energetic as I was, and sometimes sat in the shade when I explored the more interesting backwaters. But in all fairness I was sometimes too concerned to see everything the guidebooks mentioned, and I could see his point in feeling that one set of foundations of houses in an archaeological complex was much like another. Read the rest of this entry »

My sister, who has a healthy regard for Ranil Wickremesinghe, was deeply upset when I resigned from my Ministerial position and made it clear that I thought Ranil was largely responsible for the betrayal of the ideals and promises contained in the manifesto on which the President had been elected. The conclusion she came to was that I was impossible to get on with, and had lost all my friends.

She said this to my driver, claiming that the only people I was close to were Nirmali Hettiarachchi and himself. He said she had a catch in her voice, and seemed very worried for me. But the names she gave me when I asked her whom I had alienated were so ridiculous, that I realized she had a very strange idea of my social life. I was reminded then of Trollope’s Lady Laura, whose love for Phineas Finn was absolute, but who never, Trollope remarked, thought of what Phineas might want when making plans on his behalf.

For I am very much a solitary person, and the members of Colombo’s social elite whom she mentioned had never figured large on my list of people I want to spend time with. They were all nice enough, and I liked the interactions I have had with them. I was sad since, from what my sister said, I assumed the two who were close friends of hers had expressed some animosity towards me. But this was obviously the result of a strong stand I took with regard to the devious behavior against Sri Lanka’s interests of someone they were both devoted to, so I did not think I needed to bother too much.

The third person she mentioned was someone I had long lost touch with, and in any case I had only had interacted with him previously, and not to any appreciable extent, because of a close connection to a couple I still love dearly. Ironically, when I inquired about him I was told that there had been a great falling out there, which I realized my sister too knew nothing about. Her judgments seemed then based on preconceptions rather than attention to the facts. Read the rest of this entry »

24102013240The cultural programmes I worked on in 2013, with Daniel Ridicki and the Indian High Commission and various universities, went hand in hand with the Divisional Reconciliation Committee meetings that were my main official responsibility during this period. Having been to all the 35 Divisional Secretariats in the North, which I did three times in fact in the less than three years in which I was Adviser on Reconciliation, I had started on the East. Over that year I covered all 45 Secretariats, bemused though by the way new ones had been set up at the drop of a hat, simply to satisfy the sectarian compulsions of particular politicians. And it was clear that there were many problems in the East too, and that government simply had no system in place to listen to the people.

But in September I found that the DIG in charge of the Eastern Province, Pujith Jayasundara, had tried to institutionalize community relationships through what were termed Civil Defence Committees, which were supposed to function in all Grama Niladhari Divisions. This did not always happen, but Pujith, whom I had known for a long time, was 30102013323analytical in his approach, and had set up formal mechanisms to ensure action. I knew nothing about all this, but I was by chance in the vicinity when a meeting of their community advisers took place, and was asked to address them.

This obviously went down well, for I was asked to address a larger gathering later in the week. Though my book launch at the Indian High Commission was scheduled for the day before that meeting in the East, I thought I should not refuse. So having come back and got through the launch, I left well before dawn to get to Batticaloa in time for the meeting which was held at the Municipal Hall. This was followed by another meeting next day at Kattankudy.

IMG-20131031-16830I took advantage of all this to rationalize the system, which we were able to do when the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs, P B Abeykoon, sent a letter I drafted asking the Divisional Secretaries to revise the manner in which what were termed Civil Defence Committees were constituted. Earlier the Chairman was  supposed to be a leading member of the community, but such people, however worthy, had no official position. They could therefore be ignored by those with formal authority. Though in some cases they commanded respect, this was not always the case. Though the Grama Niladhari was supposed to act as Secretary of the Committee, this did not always happen, and there were no mechanisms for follow up.

The Secretary’s letter instructed that the Grama Niladhari chair the meeting, with the police acting as secretaries to the committees. This was not done everywhere but, where instructions were followed, there were better results in terms of people actually feeling they had an opportunity to be heard by those in decision making positions. Unfortunately our administrative system had not enjoined clear follow up mechanisms, as I found when I happened to visit the Nittambuwa Police Station when my car broke down near there on a journey the following year. I found a very intelligent and committed OIC, who was happy to talk to me at length about what he was doing. He had ensured that there were well maintained files for each GN Division, but he had not been able to break through the system and take advantage of the other government officials who were allocated to specific GN Divisions. These were the Economic Development Officers and the Samurdhi or Divineguma Officers, both working for Basil Rajapasa’s Ministry, but without clear instructions as to how they were to coordinate with other government departments. Read the rest of this entry »

The renewal of my involvement with Trinity happened at a very busy time. I was purportedly removed from the Board in September 2013, which was perhaps the last straw as far as those Trinitians concerned with honesty were concerned. We decided then to go to Court, and that month saw a spate of consultations. We worked through Sriyantha Senaratne, an old Trinitian who had a wonderfully laid back law firm housed in Galle Face Courts, a beautifully old fashioned office, like himself. When you went to see him, opera resounded in the background.

We saw several lawyers, but the one who handled my case, and the other more important ones, was Harsha Amerasekera, who in addition to clear analysis reveled in a mischievous sense of humour. The others with us were old Trinitians and had to put up gracefully with references to the primitive nature of their upbringing.

In addition to the legal tangles, I was at this time launching all over the country my collection of English and Sinhala and Tamil poetry, albeit all in English translation, which the National Book Trust of India had published. They had earlier produced a collection of short stories, entitled Bridging Connections, which did a lot for Sri Lankan writing since it was also translated into all India’s national languages. This was necessarily a slow process, but by 2013 the Oriya and Marathi versions had come out, and it was heartening to see the different scripts on the elegantly designed cover.

For the poetry book, which was of course more complicated given the difficulties of identifying quality in translation, I had been helped by Lakshmi de Silva and Prof Chelva Kanaganayakam. Though he was in Toronto, he had kept up with Sri Lankan writing and was a mine of information. Both he and Lakshmi introduced me to other scholars too. I met the wonderfully lively and broadminded Prof Amarakeerthi Liyanage for the first time, and renewed acquaintance with Prof Sandagomi Coperahewa, who had been a little boy when I had been Sub-Warden at S. Thomas’. His father had been my art teacher, a delightful man along with his two fast friends, Arisen Ahubudhu and Mr Jinadasa, the one always in immaculate national dress, Coperahewa though as ardent a nationalist in a pressed suit, and Jinadasa in a bush shirt. The last died young, though Ahubudhu survived until recently and Mr Coperahewa was still going strong when his son helped me with the poetry volume.

For Tamil poetry Chelva introduced me to a delightfully erudite man called Padmanabha Iyer, who lived in London and kept close track of all Tamil writing. With seminal assistance from all these willing experts, I produced what I thought was a pretty comprehensive volume. There were long delays then on the part of the NBT but, to my astonishment, when I was in Delhi in April, my contact there, the imaginative Benny Kurian, gave me a copy of the book. I then presented this to the Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid in Delhi, when he gave me an audience after I had met him in Chandigarh, at a Conference arranged by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development.

I met Khurshid to talk about the rapidly deteriorating relationship between India and Sri Lanka but, given the tendency of our Foreign Minister to panic if he thought his turf was being stepped on, I thought the book a good pretext on which to hang the visit. This had unexpected consequences, for the extremists in the Tamil diaspora decided the book was part of an Indian plot to destroy Tamil autonomy. Our High Commissioner in Canada arranged a launch there, but the extremists urged that this be boycotted, and used the picture of my presenting Kureishi with the book as evidence that it was an instrument of evil. Fortunately Chelva had no qualms about speaking, and delivered a thoughtful address on translations. I was delighted that the widow of my father’s old friend, the Chavakachcheri MP V Navaratnam, also attended. Read the rest of this entry »

In one respect I believe things are better now than they were in the darkening days of 2013. I refer to Trinity College, which I had got involved with at the end of 2004, when the then Bishop of Kurunagala, Kumara Illangasinghe, asked me to serve on the Board of Governors as one of his nominees. He had to select a Christian from the university sector and, though I was the only non-Trinitian on the Board for many years, I found the little work we had to do interesting. I believe I was also found useful, for I was asked to serve for three terms altogether, and invited to serve on several sub-committees and to chair the committee on school development.

The blight that hit Trinity between 2012 and 2014 seemed to parallel that in the country, for it involved massive fraud and connivance in this at the top. But unlike what has happened in the country, with continuing waste and corruption as exemplified in the Central Bank Bond Scam, Trinity now seems to be doing well again, under a new Principal, an Englishman called Andrew Fowler-Watt. A measure of his quality was the fact that he promptly offered to admit the boy who had been rejected by his local school on the grounds that his father had died of Aids, a cruel decision that seemed to have the backing of the Minister of Education, who then sprang into the fray with astonishing ignorance of both facts and principles in this regard.

Fowler-Watt had been my choice for Principal when we advertised the position back in 2008, but I was by then at the Peace Secretariat and had not been involved in the initial selection process. I gave in readily then when a section of the Board, led by Jayantha Dhanapala, advised against getting another foreigner.  This was understandable, for the previous Principal, also an Englishman, Rod Gilbert, had summarily had his visa cancelled. Sadly I believe this was yet another example of Mahinda Rajapaksa giving in to pressure. Or possibly he was part of the plot, since the strongest opposition to Gilbert came from a group in Kandy who were keen to cut Trinity off from its Anglican roots. Read the rest of this entry »

The escapade on boats and bikes in the Moluccas was the final episode in the hectic travel that I had engaged in during 2013. With much less that I could productively do in Sri Lanka, I had gone as noted previously to Karnataka and Bhutan and Brunei and Tunisia. In between I had gone to England, as I tried now to do once a year.

This time the main reason was the 70th birthday of my former Dean, who had been infinitely kind and helpful to me during my 8 years in Oxford. He had remained a fast friend, arranging for the College to give me membership of the Senior Common Room and Dining Rights when I went back for any length of time, booking me guest rooms for short stays, and when that became expensive allowing me to stay in his rooms. He had long moved out of College himself by then, but he had continued till he retired to entertain generation after generation of undergraduates with the ebullience of his twenties, when we had first met.

But early in the new millennium he decided to take early retirement, for he said the College was changing beyond recognition. He was stunned when one of the new history tutors asked what it was to do with him, when Leslie suggested he visit one of his students who was in hospital. The old pastoral system seemed to have died away, with the Chaplain abdicating responsibility so that dealing with students with problems fell on the shoulders of the former College Secretary, who had been eased out of that position when the new Senior Tutor banned morning coffee in the College Office. That was the time at which dons met informally to compare notes, under the eagle eye of the College Secretary who had run the administration practically single handed for years, with the support of very glamourous assistants. But the practice, which lasted for a decade after she went, was resented by the supposedly professional administrators the new Master had brought in, and a dull bureaucracy took over.

Ironically, the Senior Tutor who had thought Morning Office Coffee and all that frivolous, presided over the worst years the College experienced with regard to examination results. She finally had to leave when it was clear the place would not recover on her watch. She was Belgian, which perhaps explains my Dean’s determination to vote for Britain to leave the Common Market, though just before the note he did note that it was clear, from a trip he made to the North, that the country at large was completely at odds with the elite on this issue. The fact that every single region of England except for London voted to leave seemed ample proof of this. Read the rest of this entry »

Chanaka Amaratunga died 20 years ago on August 1st, 1996. He died a very disappointed man, for he had not been put into Parliament at the previous election. Those of us who have been in Parliament can vouch that that is no panacea for disappointment, given how sadly our Parliamentary traditions have been traduced. But Chanaka was a passionate believer in the Westminster system, the last perhaps to care deeply about its forms, with the possible exception of his great friend, Anura Bandaranaike.

I have written previously about the reasons Chanaka was not put in Parliament, but it is appropriate here, today, to note categorically that his hopes were destroyed by two people. In their careers they have often seemed polar opposites, but at the time they were united in their determination to keep Chanaka out. But I should note that it was not primarily dislike of him that motivated them, but rather fear – a much under-estimated factor in Sri Lankan politics. The fear was not of him but of another of his great friends, Gamini Dissanayake.

The two conspirators I refer to are Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga. It is the more essential now to expound what happened because, in their subtle and not so subtle ways, they will now destroy Maithripala Sirisena, as they have destroyed so much else, unless their essential negativity is recognized. For once again what has brought them together is not anything positive, but rather a visceral hatred of Mahinda Rajapaksa. And underlying this hatred again is fear, and envy for they realize that he is much loved still in the country. This is despite all his faults and the faults of his government, because he achieved much for the country, not least destroying the terror that had burgeoned under their watch. They on the contrary did very little when they were in power, one for over a decade, the other in short spells, during which the power of the Tigers grew exponentially. Read the rest of this entry »

IMG-20130104-01416It was when my working life seemed to be virtually over that I finally came to terms with my own body. I had been diffident about it from my young days, seeing myself as ungainly, but convincing myself that that was of no account since it was primarily intellect that counted, and that I felt I had in abundance. At Oxford indeed one made a fetish of such matters, affecting to look down on the hearties, the footballers and rowers and rugby players.

In fact I was rather fond of them, the captain of rowing who would spend ages in my room worrying about the fact that we were not going to do well on the river that year, the football hero who was candidate for Treasurer on my ticket when I ran for President of the Junior Common Room. It was largely because of him I think that I won with a thumping majority, against the captain of rugby who had been the favoured candidate. And I remember being impressed at how elegant even rugby could be when well played, when the Senior Tutor took me to Twickenham for the Varsity Match. He ensured beforehand that I got myself a heavy coat at the Army Surplus Shop, since the light jacket that I had made do with in my first year was clearly insufficient for two hours in the stands as the game swept from side to side.

IMG-20130104-01624But none of this persuaded me to take up any sport, except for a brief stab at fives when I failed completely to hit the ball except I think just once. I did enjoy the joke matches where I led a JCR team, against the Dean’s team at football and the Senior Tutor’s at cricket, but it was only at bridge that I represented the College (playing with the Dean, so we had to ensure that we were knocked out before things became serious and it was discovered that he was in fact a don).  But it never occurred to me that exercise was something either desirable or necessary.

All that changed in 2013 when, at the annual check up I engaged in, ever since sugar and cholesterol and pressure went up, the stress ECG was stopped early, and I was told that my heart was not quite what it had been the previous year. The doctors who comment on the tests at Sri Jayewardenepura have all been marvellous, sympathetic but firm. This time I was told that, while the decision was mine, it would be sensible to start taking exercise regularly, since otherwise I would find my heart not coping very well when under any strain. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2016
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