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I had not expected to speak today, so you must forgive me, Mr Chair, if I am not as polished or eloquent as the member from Matara who spoke first today. However, having heard his misleading statements, I felt they needed refutation.

Mr Chair, listening to the whole Opposition during this budget debate, one felt that they were like the Bourbon dynasty in France, in that they have remembered nothing, and forgotten nothing. Indeed Mr Mangala Samaraweera, in claiming that he had been dismissed from the Cabinet, in his strange and childish excursion into numerology, seemed to have forgotten that, far from having been dismissed, he had himself resigned, in a grand gesture of solidarity with Mr Anura Bandaranaike – who promptly went back into the cabinet, leaving his colleague out in the cold. And in criticizing those who changed parties in Parliament, he has forgotten his own history.

It was also sad that he has forgotten all about the fickleness of fashion. When I first knew him, he was a very distinguished fashion designer, who rejoiced in the name of Mangala Innocence, whether appropriately or not I cannot say. He should know that fashions change, and sometimes several different styles are in fashion at the same time. Thus he spent much time in quoting from Bloomberg, as though it were the final word, without reflecting on all the different approaches that we see in other media outlets today.

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Anthony Burgess in 1986

Anthony Burgess was the other writer nominated for the Booker Prize in 1981, the year it was won by Willian Golding for Rites of Passage. The quality of both that and Burgess’s Earthly Powers may be deduced from the fact that that is the only year in which just two novels were nominated. Burgess then was phenomenally unlucky, for many worse novels than his have won the prize, both before and after.

Earthly Powers was a tour de force, which brought together much contemporary history in dazzling combination. The narrator was an aging homosexual writer, who began his story with ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.’ The catamite was also his secretary, which contributed to the belief that the narrator, Kenneth Toomey, was based on Somerset Maugham. The archbishop has come to ask Toomey to help with the canonization of Pope Gregory  XVII who seems to be based on several Popes, beginning with Pope John the XXIII (in whose times this Papacy is set) and including the 1981 incumbent, John Paul  II, in terms of Gregory’s charisma and presence on the world stage.

The mainspring of the story is a miracle the future Pope had performed in curing a little boy who was on the verge of certain death. The child grows up however into an evangelist who exercises control over those he converts, to the extent of persuading them to join him in a mass suicide. This is based on the Jim Jones incident in Guyana, where an American charismatic preacher persuaded his flock to imbibe FlavorAid laced I think with cyanide. The question then is whether the miracle wrought by the future Pope was aided by God or by the devil.

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William Golding (1911-1993)

Few British writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in the period since the Second World War. These include Winston Churchill, probably from sentiment about other achievements rather than actual literary excellence. His various histories, though well written, are not especially ground breaking, certainly not like those of Theodore Mommsen, the other historian to win the Prize. If I recollect right, the only other non-creative writer to win was Bertrand Russel, in his more anarchic phase, so he refused to accept it.

Perhaps the least controversial English winner was Willam Golding, who received it towards the end of a career of half a century. He came to prominence with what is still his best known work, Lord of the Flies, which turns traditional schoolboy adventure stories on their head. The plot involves a group of schoolboys cast ashore on an island after a plane crash, a situation that leads the reader to expect a tale of resourcefulness as they use their intelligence and their skills to survive – as happened in Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson and most notably, without adults, in Coral Island. However what happens here is much more realistic, as the boys degenerate into savagery.

A few boys manage to cling to civilized values, two of them being punished for this by death at the hands of the herd. The sole surviving proponent of decency, the original leader Ralph, who had been deposed, was being ruthlessly hunted when rescue finally arrives, to restore civilization in a fairy tale ending that is nevertheless appropriate since it helps to set things in perspective – the naval officer who finds the group sees a host of little boys with their faces painted, and assumes they have been having a game with the fugitive.

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Talk at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India – 29 October 2010

All this will contribute to reconciliation and the full inmcorporation of all our citizens in the body politic. So too we need to ensure structures that promote political influence for the minorities, not only with regard to decisions that affect them closely in areas in which they are predominant, but also with regard to national policies, since as we saw those affected them adversely in the past.

One way of achieving this last is through a Second Chamber weighted towards the regions, as with the American and Australian Senates and the Indian Rajya Sabha. Sadly, though the President has expressed his desire to establish such a body, the main Tamil opposition party does not seem interested. While it is all very well for them to say that they want other matters settled, the impression created is that they see no role for themselves or those they represent at the Centre. This is a dangerous attitude. It also suggests that they are still stuck in the mould of the politics of confrontation, since they showed themselves perfectly willing to get involved in national politics through support for the main opposition candidate in the Presidential election. Given his previous pronouncements about minorities, and indeed about Tamil politicians in India, the decision seemed perverse, explicable only in terms of a wholesale cynicism based on hostility to the incumbent President.

This is the sadder, in that they should also be working towards ensuring involvement in the national cabinet for representatives of the people whose interests they claim to uphold. Sadly, whilst the Muslims played their part in all cabinets after independence, Tamil politicians from the North withdrew after the divisive games played by their Sinhala brethren in 1956, and we did not have them, until the advent of Douglas Devananda, contribute to cabinet decisions. This we hope will change, with Tamil politicians from the North exercising influence on the lines of our two Foreign Ministers from the minorities, Mr Hameed from an area far from Colombo, and the brilliant Lakshman Kadirgamar who was from the capital’s multi-racial elite.

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Angus Wilson (1913 – 1991)

To my mind the most perceptive observer of British society in the period after the Second World War was Angus Wilson, a writer of enormous skill who has not received the critical recognition he deserves. In addition to writing fiction of great distinction, he was also a perceptive critic and biographer, and his The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling is one of the most illuminating accounts of that complex character. He wrote too about Dickens and the 19th century naturalist French writer Emil Zola, which indicates the wide range of his sympathy as well as his knowledge.

He was born in the same year as Orwell, but took a long time to publish, beginning only just after the war with a couple of short story collections. These, The Wrong Set and Such Darling Dodos, carried sharper versions of the critiques of literary and genteel society that Anthony Powell had already engaged in, in his earlier work.

Wilson’s skill in exposing pretensions as well as commanding sympathy for weakness was evident here, but he really came into his own only in 1952 with Hemlock and After, a vivid account of a married homosexual writer dealing with shortcomings in his own personality. The turning point in his understanding of himself comes when he sees a man being arrested for soliciting in Piccadilly, one of his own haunts, and finds himself baying for blood along with the rest of the crowd. The revelation of his own defensive instincts causes him more anguish than the possibilities of exposure through blackmail and outside enemies.

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Talk at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India – 29 October 2010

The Sri Lankan experience of the last few years should be of enormous interest internationally. In a context in which the war against terrorism is failing on several fronts, Sri Lankan success in this respect should be a model for the rest of the world. However the discourse in what is termed the international community is quite otherwise, and indeed Radhika Coomaraswamy, the most senior Sri Lankan official within the United Nations system, is reported to have warned us that several Non-Governmental Organizations were anxious to ensure that the model would not be followed.

Why is this? After all the facts in favour of Sri Lanka speak for themselves. We defeated a terrorist group often described as the most dangerous in the world. We rescued nearly 300,000 civilians which that group had held hostage, intending to use them as human shields, killing them when they tried to get away. We have resettled almost all those civilians more quickly than in any comparable operation in the world, and we have provided them with basic infrastructure including fully operational schools.

In the period before terrorism was eradicated from our soil, we continued to provide social services to all our citizens, including those in areas controlled by the terrorists. This included free books and uniforms for school children, while we continued to conduct public examinations, which just once the terrorists tried to disrupt, only to be overwhelmed by the determination of parents to continue to benefit from what the state provided. We were able to ensure supplies of food throughout this period, and healthcare that continued through to the end of hostilities. The International Committee of the Red Cross was present throughout this period, and was able with the assistance of the Sri Lankan government and navy personnel to take away about 14,000 people to government run hospitals in the course of the conflict.

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I have not thus far talked about what is described as a political settlement, a consummation that figures largely in the discourse of agencies in Sri Lanka, and indeed elsewhere, concerned with conflict resolution. The reason is that I feel that consensus in the past was prevented by excessive concern with forms and structures, without adequate attention to the other factors that politics necessarily involves. After all the claim for self determination was put forward in the seventies not as an end in itself, but rather as a means towards focusing attention on problems of the sort I have described above. It was only subsequently that it turned into an end in itself, a goal that grew in the imagination until it culminated in the intransigence of the LTTE, unwilling to settle for anything except a separate state.

I feel the more qualified to discuss this issue, because it was only the Liberal Party that in the eighties argued for devolution, but on the basis that that was the best way of empowering individuals in units that were otherwise neglected. In short our argument was based on the principle of subsidiarity, ie the idea that decisions should be made by the smallest possible unit of relevance, personal questions by individuals, community problems by the community and so on. What we did not want was the majoritarianism of one unit, the country, being replaced by another sort of majoritarianism. That is why indeed for a long time we were favourably inclined to the District as the unit of devolution, though the games the Jayewardene government played with the District Development Councils made us realize that the sense of disappointment felt by the Tamils could only be assuaged by Provincial Councils.

However we were totally opposed to the merger of the North and East, because that introduced a completely different dimension to the whole question. It was based on the concept of a homeland and, whilst initially we could sympathize with a unit for Tamil speaking people in a context in which the national language policy was discriminatory, later it became obvious that to treat Tamils and Muslims as a single entity on this basis was inappropriate. The establishment of Tamil as an official language in 1987 reduced the need for a different sort of unit based on language, and already tensions between Tamils and Muslims had begun, culminating in the expulsion of the Muslims by the LTTE in 1990, making clear the dangers of an exclusivist majoritarianism such as we had feared for any unit in which power is exercised. We must after all be wary of what Prof Pratap Mehta described recently as the ‘tyranny of compulsory identity’,

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In looking at the question of national integration, which should be our principal goal now that we have eliminated terrorism from at least Sri Lankan shores, we need to begin by considering the factors that so nearly caused disintegration.

Firstly there was the sustained neglect of areas in which minorities lived. This was not particularly targeted at the minorities, since Sri Lanka suffered for more than 50 years after independence from development without equity. This has resulted in the Western Province hogging the lion’s share of per capita income, which is why many areas in the country still suffer from high levels of poverty even though the country as a whole has now moved to middle income level.

Secondly, there were measures which in intention as well as in effect were clearly discriminatory. The most upsetting in this regard was language policy, not only the constitutional measure declaring Sinhala the only official language after an electoral campaign in which both major parties seemed to think being negative about Tamil was the key to electoral success, but also the educational system that straitjacketed many children in monolingualism. Another upsetting measure, still remembered with bitterness as I found last week in dialogue with Tamil members of the diaspora in London, was discrimination with regard to University admission. This is all the more significant in that Mr Prabhakaran’s was the first school cohort affected by the new system, even though in its overtly racist form it was only formulated in 1978.

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Anthony Powell

I have thus far considered writers who dealt obliquely with the social changes that the Second World War brought. There were many of course who explored the subject more directly. To my mind the one who stands out amongst these was Anthony Powell, and the title of his greatest work, A Dance to the Music of Time, testifies to his purpose in this regard.

The work consists of twelve volumes, which together present a panoramic view of social change over the second and third quarters of the century. At one stage, when I thought my energies limitless, I contemplated of a comparative study of this and the similar sagas for earlier generations of Galsworthy and Anthony Trollope. I finally settled down to the much more limited study of Trollope’s treatment of women and marriage as compared to that of his own peers, but I have often thought the larger study would be fascinating, in terms of techniques as well as subject matter – including relations between sexes and classes.

Powell wrote four sets of three books, and I had made the mistake of starting in the middle when I was still a schoolboy. The book I first read was Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, one of the second set, which was the least interesting of the four. I then avoided Powell for some time, before starting on the very first book, A Question of Upbringing, which had me hooked.

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Were the humanitarian agencies guilty then of double dealing? Were they in fact hand in glove with the terrorists? Sadly there are some people in Sri Lanka who believe this was the case, their suspicions fuelled by one incident in which an NGO concealed from us for weeks that the terrorists were using their heavy equipment for building barriers. In that case I believe there was some connivance, but in general  I have long believed that one should never ascribe to wickedness what can arise from incompetence. In the Sri Lankan case I believe that much of the problem was due to sheer incompetence, combined with a situation which privileged such incompetence simply because it was foreign – and the refusal of foreigners, who naturally hang together, to admit culpability even in obvious cases such as the one noted above, which naturally leads to general suspicions.

Adding to this was the strategy of the terrorists, to confer exalted status upon their international interlocutors, and sadly many foreigners fell for it. I recall still the European Union trying to draw up Modes of Operation for humanitarian work, in which they claimed that external agencies should hold the balance between the concerned parties, ie the elected government and a bunch of terrorists. Fortunately I was appointed Secretary to the Ministry which was in charge of aid coordination shortly after I had first objected. At the next meeting I attended the EU officials grandly said that the clause could not be changed because it had been agreed previously, but I had to tell them that I was not there to negotiate, but to tell them what government policy was, as laid down by my Minister. Needless to say, they soon lost interest in this framework, which they had been anxiously pursuing previously, in order I now believe to enshrine their own importance.

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Rajiva Wijesinha


November 2010
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