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Robert Graves (1895 - 1985)

I had thought of moving on after Virginia Woolf to the writers of the period after the Second World War, since I would not describe as classic any other writers of the Inter-War period, apart from those I have written about. But it occurred to me that this would leave out many memorable works, since of course several writers produced individual pieces of great distinction.

Amongst my absolute favourites amongst all books published during this period is ‘I, Claudius’ by Robert Graves, which I still think the most memorable historical novel ever written in English. It had enormous influence on me in that it governed my determination to study classics, and to concentrate heavily on Roman history. I was never particularly good at this, but I have always cherished the comment of the scholar who took my first term of Roman history tutorials, that we got on very well because he was not so much a historian as a dramatist. Read the rest of this entry »

Israeli forces approach one of six ships bound for Gaza.

I was deeply saddened at the events that led to the Adjournment Debate on the recent actions of the Israeli government. My regret was not only about the assault on the ships bearing assistance to the people of Gaza, and the resultant loss of life. It was also for the death of an ideal that had its roots in the suffering the Jewish people underwent during the Second World War.

 That suffering was perhaps the strongest image imprinted on the world after that War, and it led to the creation of the State of Israel.  Even for us in the Third World then, for a quarter of a century after Israel was created, the dominant discourse was that of compensation for what the Jews had endured, and the imperative that a safe haven be created for them. We saw here a repeat of the story of David and Goliath, the brave stripling standing up against a much stronger and more brutal enemy, and triumphing through skill and courage.   Read the rest of this entry »

(This simplified version of the fourth chapter of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, deals with principles of Representation and Devolution that may be of interest in developing structures that will fulfil democratic expectations in a new Constitution)

The Origins of Democracy

Democracy comes from two Greek words, ‘demos’ and ‘kratos’, which mean ‘people’ and ‘power’. Thus democracy means a political system in which power belongs to the people. Few people will disagree that this is the best system of government, since people who make up a State, and therefore the government of a State should be in the hands of its people. However numerous disagreements arise when we try to work out the best mechanisms through which the people can exercise their power of government.

Clearly people cannot all rule together. Therefore, in a democracy, some people have to rule on behalf of the rest. But choosing representatives of all can be a problem. Athens for instance, where democracy first established itself as a distinct system, found that when there were elections, the rich were chosen. They therefore instituted a system where those who exercised legislative or executive power each year were chosen by lot. This, they felt, led to a more truly representative government than choosing by election which benefited those with financial and other advantages.

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(This simplified version of the third chapter of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, deals with the Law and the structures that may be needed to ensure the independence of the third important component of government)

Types of law

The most important function of a government is ensuring the security of its people. This includes defence, the work of the security forces in dealing with external threats. But usually more important in daily life is internal security, the maintenance of  law and order within a country.

Religions of the World

Basic concerns in this respect can be seen in the rules of religions, even before codes of law were developed. All religions prohibit murder and robbery. Such actions are termed criminal acts, and dealing with them is the direct responsibility of the government. Though such actions are perpetrated by some individuals against others, they affect society as a whole.

Such activities are termed Criminal Acts, and government is expected to bring their perpetrators before the courts. When a case is brought under Criminal Law, the government prepares the case and prosecutes the accused. Since these are serious issues, and punishment is severe, the guilt of the accused should be clearly established. To avoid punishment of the innocent therefore, it is necessary for the prosecution to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. Otherwise the accused is acquitted.

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Responses to questions from IRIN, the news agency funded by the UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance.


1)     What are the main challenges to reconciliation at the moment?

I think the biggest challenge is the idea that reconciliation is all about the past, about war crimes and possible punishment for these. Sadly, some of those who have been harping about these with no regard for truth now claim that reconciliation is impossible without reckonings. Thus a word that ordinarily refers to a process of bringing people together has been traduced, which I think takes attention away from all the positive actions that are happening, but should happen more intensively.

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Sri Lanka

(This simplified version of the second chapter of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, published by Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, in 2005, may be interesting in view of current concerns about the size of the Cabinet)

In countries like Sri Lanka which were under British rule, there is a sense that the powers of government are unlimited. This also applies to the functions of government, that is the things that a government should do. Under the colonial system, absolute power belonged to a foreign country, and the representatives of that country who governed were not accountable to the people of the country that was governed. The idea that the people are superior to the government, and that the functions of government should be limited to those people want, was not part of the colonial system.

Such a view of government, that it is superior to the people, has been reinforced in modern times by the manner in which communist governments developed. These emerged in the twentieth century as the main opponents of capitalist systems. These words really refer to economic ideas rather than political ones. However, since communism emerged first in countries where there had been absolute monarchies previously, it also developed as a political system that gave absolute power to the government. Karl Marx, who had initially developed communism as a social and economic theory, had believed that the state would wither away. But communist governments, having emerged first in almost feudal agricultural societies, reinforced the old model, also dominant in colonized countries, that the powers and functions of government were total. Read the rest of this entry »

Nicholas Horne – former political affairs officer at UNAMA in Afghanistan

The most telling attempt by the UN to send a clearly inappropriate person to Sri Lanka occurred at the beginning of the year, shortly before the Presidential election. This was a Nicholas Horne, another British citizen, though he seems to have spent much of his working life in America. His last posting, after a fascinating career, was in Afghanistan, where he worked with Peter Galbraith, the former American Deputy Head of the UN in that country.

 This roused my interest, because it was Peter Galbraith who had been sacked by the UN after open differences with the UN Head over the Afghanistan election. Galbraith had believed the election was fraudulent, and that Karzai, the incumbent who was declared the winner, had cheated. He had said so openly, and also done much more. Recently there was a report to the effect that he had threatened Afghan officials if they released results favourable to Karzai.

Horne had resigned in high dudgeon in support of Galbraith’s stand.   He proclaimed this proudly in the cv that was sent to us. I was astonished at this, since even the UN must have realized that we were in the throes of an election, and that someone as volatile as Mr Horne could prove embarrassing if he got it into his head that the Sri Lankan election was fraudulent. Since there was already reason to believe that those who wanted General Fonseka to win were getting ready to cry foul, it seemed at the very least odd that the UN wanted to send to Sri Lanka at precisely this time someone who could well think himself a hero if he lent grist to the opposition mill.

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Virginia Woolf (1882 - 1941)

Older than Evelyn Waugh by a couple of decades, Virginia Woolf’s treatment of a similar social milieu to that of Waugh is markedly different. He wrote of a world in a state of constant transition, whereas her work is an elegy as it seems to lifestyles that seemed to slip away almost by accident.

Her principle theme is time, its relentless passing, and the changes it brings in people and in relationships, while attitudes and emotions continue to endure. I have a memory of a book in which she writes how ‘Tuesday follows Monday; Wednesday, Tuesday’, a memory that stuck in my mind for more than forty years until I thought to check it before writing this, and found that in fact she had written ‘After Monday comes Tuesday, and Wednesday follows’. The cycle is relentless, our position in it akin to the not quite still but nevertheless constant centre of a moving world.

Those lines came from ‘The Waves’, to my mind a far more effective use of personal narration that Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in ‘Ulysses’. Virginia Woolf deals with six friends, moving from childhood to age, some dropping away, speaking initially in sentences that capture the wonder of new experience – ‘When the smoke rises, sleep curls off the roof like a mist.,’ said Louis, supposedly based on T S Eliot. The book ends in a long meditation by the survivor, Bernard, about life constantly renewing itself, despite the constant presence of death – ‘A redness gathers on the roses, even on the pale rose that hangs by the bedroom window. A bird chirps. Cottagers light their early candles. Yes, this is the eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again.’

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(This is a simplified version of the first chapter of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, published by Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, in 2005)

Generally by government we mean those who take decisions on behalf of a country. However the country itself is different from the government. Not everybody supports the government of his country. We must distinguish then between the State, to which we all owe loyalty, and the actions of government. The Head of State is the symbol of that State. Since he officially represents its citizens, his role as Head of State demands the allegiance of all citizens.


There are basically two forms of State, Republics and Monarchies. In a monarchy, the Head of State is a King or Queen. Earlier States in effect belonged to monarchs. In theory, that is the case even now, though in fact Kings usually have no real authority. This generally belongs to a separate head of government chosen by the people, though in theory acting for the monarch.

England and Japan are examples of monarchies where executive power belongs to a Prime Minister elected by the people. But there are also monarchies, such as Brunei, where the monarch has executive power and is Head of Government as well as Head of State.


A Republic, as the word indicates, is a public body. It belongs to its people and its Head of State, generally called the President, represents the people. In some countries, the Presidency is a formal position, with little power like the British Queen. India and Germany are example of this.

In such cases the President is not elected directly by the people. In some Republics, such as the United States of America, the President is elected by the people and has the dominant Executive power. In others, such as Sri Lanka or France, the President is elected by the people and has Executive power, but also works with a Prime Minister.  Read the rest of this entry »

In the bad old days when Western diplomatic missions thought that peace could only be obtained in Sri Lanka through the efforts of their chosen Non-Governmental Organizations, the Germans set up an agency called FLICT, for Facilitating Local Initiatives for Conflict Transformation. It was managed by GTZ, the German Agency for International Cooperation, but also became one of the biggest beneficiaries of British funding.

What actually was done with all the funds poured into FLICT was decided by a Steering Committee which was largely composed of individuals who shared the view of their international paymasters, that the elected Sri Lankan government could not be trusted with the important task of bringing peace to the country. In theory there was consultation with government, but in fact it was because the Secretary to the concerned Ministry, that of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration, realized that the Ministry did not have the capacity to monitor everything that was going on, and asked me to help, that I began to realize the enormity of the waste and worse of the entire exercise.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2010
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