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Minority Rights Group International has just issued a report which repeats a lot of the unsubstantiated critiques of the Sri Lankan state which we have heard in recent months. The BBC asked me to respond to three specific points, which I did, though ultimately the story was not used. I think this shows maturity on the part of the BBC, to realize that this sort of extravagant generalization is not of great importance to the world at large.

However, since another source brought the report to my attention, I thought it would be useful to publicize this initial response. The attack follows a similar pattern to what we faced in the past, with a tendentious press release that makes horrendous generalizations – “Human rights violations in Sri Lanka continue unabated against ethnic Tamils and Muslims who fear an increasingly nationalist government” – which are not borne out at all by the report. I was reminded of the first such effusion I saw, when Human Rights Watch issued a release that talked about indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the East, whereas the report itself recorded only one such incident, when civilians had died, but as a result of mortar locating radar. The report recorded that the LTTE had been present with weapons in the refugee camp that was attacked, though it claimed, knowing better than the radar, that there were no heavy weapons around.
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This article is taken from the Reconciliation Website, which subsumes the old site used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP).

In asking me to comment on the reported boycott of the Galle Literary Festival by two writers, Sirasa TV also wanted some background information on the Festival, in particular as to whether it was of service to Sri Lanka. I had been told before about the call by Reporters beyond Borders that the Festival be boycotted, on the grounds that media freedom in Sri Lanka is under threat. I had also been sent the robust critique of that call on Groundviews, a media outlet that exemplifies the freedom the media in Sri Lanka enjoys. It was suggested too that I write something on the issue, but I had wanted, on a Saturday, to work on Sri Lankan Poetry. However, having done an interview for Sirasa, I felt there was no good excuse for not putting pen to paper.

With regard to the Festival itself, I believe it is of great benefit to Sri Lanka. When the Festival was started, way back in 2007 I think, there was much criticism in various quarters, including that it was basically a money making exercise for its founder, Geoffrey Dobbs. But there should be no objection to people making money, so long as they provide services to others that give value for money. It seemed to me that Dobbs was doing that.

A second objection was that the Festival had nothing really to do with Sri Lanka. This seemed to me a more valid objection, since in that first year there were I believe no Sri Lankan writers involved, excepting expatriates. It was also difficult, given the cost of events, for most Sri Lankans not out of the top financial bracket to attend.
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This article is taken from the Reconciliation Website, which subsumes the old site used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP).


V. N. Navaratnam

On January 29th, it will be twenty years since the death of V Navaratnam, Member of Parliament for Chavakachcheri for many years. Though he was of course much older than me, I think I can claim to have known him well, for he was a particular friend of my father, and associated with him with affection whilst he was Secretary General of Parliament. Their friendship was an epitome of an aspect of this country that has long been overshadowed by less pleasant ones, for they had met at the Brodie Hostel of the University of Ceylon. Mr Navaratnam alluded fondly to those days when he spoke on the vote of condolence on the Hon George Rajapakse, who had also lived in that hostel nearly 70 years ago.


Mr Navaratnam was a member of the Tamil Congress when I first got to know him properly, at a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Paris in September 1971. I was on my way to university in England, having left Ceylon as it then was in June, to take my Advanced Levels in Madras, since they could not be taken in Colombo at that period. I had then travelled straight on, to take advantage of the stopovers permitted on ordinary tickets in those days. After exploring Greece and Italy and a couple of other countries, I was exhausted by the time I reached Paris, and Tissa Wijeyeratne, our ambassador at the time, who was supposed to put me up, did not help.

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Salman Rushdie

Probably the most influential British writer of the latter part of the 20th century was Salman Rushdie.  Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker Prize in 1981, was later twice awarded the Booker of Bookers as being the best work in the 25 and then 40 year history of the prize. There was really no questioning of this decision.

The work also firmly established in the mainstream of English writing the technique known as magic realism, which in essence turned the notion of fiction on its head. Whereas normally writers make up stories that follow the normal rules of life, so as to represent reality, magic realism breaks those rules, and in effect uses magic to increase our understanding of life. For this purpose it ignores the rules of real life, while sometimes introducing actual people and happenings into the text.

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This article is taken from the Reconciliation Website, which subsumes the old site used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP).


The concert by former female combatants at Independence Day celebrations in Vavuniya - 2010

Mr Speaker, I am pleased to move this adjournment motion on the establishment of a National Theatre which in fact I suggested some months ago. To cite the full text of the proposed motion –

In view of the importance of the performing arts for education as well as national integration, this House do stand adjourned to urge the establishment of a National Theatre that would

a)    Establish a theatre group able to perform in all three national languages

b)    Introduce high level training in performance and production, including the capacity to develop productions for touring islandwide

c)    Encourage productions that use other art forms, in particular music and dance, to promote wider understanding of pluralistic cultural traditions

d)    Develop links with the broadcasting media to ensure wider dissemination of productions

e)    Act as a flagship for provincial and other troupes while providing opportunities to showcase local talent


The motion is based on a very simple principle that has stood several countries concerned with nation building in good stead. It is that the arts are a binding force in a nation, and that providing opportunities for young people to work together creatively will do much to promote social cohesion.


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This article is taken from the Reconciliation Website, which subsumes the old site used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP).

Former LTTE cadres participating in a leadership and entrepreneurship training programme in Vavuniya, January 2011.

I spent a couple of days in Vavuniya recently, to check on the progress of former Tiger cadres who were undergoing rehabilitation. I had allocated part of my decentralized budget for this purpose, initially for training some of the girls to teach English at primary level. However, by the time the allocations had been sent to the Government Agent for use, most of the girls had been released.

The Commissioner General of Rehabilitation suggested however that we do training for counseling instead. The need for this was obvious, but he went further, in proposing that we train some of the former cadres themselves in basic skills. He obtained the services of an expatriate from England, who had a deep interest in the youngsters as well as the skills. We got the necessary permission, with the full cooperation of the experienced Vavuniya Government Agent, Mrs Charles, and the programme started in December. When I visited the Centre on January 14th, they were rehearsing for a concert for Thai Pongal. Interestingly, the CGR had also got a few of his staff trained, and the way in which the young people interacted for the concert was particularly heartening.

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Chanaka Amaratunga

Text of a Lecture delivered on 18th January 2011 to mark the 24th anniversary of the founding of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka and the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Council for Liberal Democracy

Thirty years ago, Chanaka Amaratunga proposed the establishment of a Council for Liberal Democracy. I was not enthused by the idea, because it struck me as yet another stratagem of President J R Jayewardene, in his cynical destruction of liberalism as well as democracy.

Chanaka was in those days a devoted member of the United National Party, and he told me that the President had encouraged the setting up of the CLD. His view was that Jayewardene was a liberal democrat at heart, but this was not true of all members of his government; the CLD would be an instrument to encourage liberal thinking which would assist Jayewardene to overcome contrary views.

I thought this piffle, since Jayewardene seemed to me a consummate hypocrite. I had the previous year seen the enormity of his viciousness, when he stripped Mrs Bandaranaike of her Civic Rights. I had also noted his ruthless tinkering with his own Constitution, as when most recently he had tried to have a second member for the Kalawana seat.

That story will bear retelling, for I realized recently, listening to the Opposition in Parliament, old warhorses from the 1977 Parliament such as Ranil Wickremesinghe and John Amaratunga inveighing against the appointment of Senior Ministers, how much even of recent history has been forgotten. And it is also possible that I misjudged J R Jayewardene, in that it was precisely 30 years ago, about the time that Chanaka mooted the idea of a Council for Liberal Democracy, that Jayewardene retreated from a nasty initiative, for the only time in his period of power.

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Reading through the revelations about Sri Lanka in Wikileaks, I am struck most of all by how they confirm the assumptions on which I have been working over the last few years. I cannot pretend I knew all the ramifications of government policy over this period, but obviously, in fulfilling my responsibilities, as Head of the Peace Secretariat, and also Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I had to relate to interlocutors in terms of their essential attitudes to the Sri Lankan government.

This was particularly important since a fair amount of my work was with the international community, both in helping to coordinate international humanitarian assistance, which was a responsibility allocated to my Ministry, and also in assisting my Minister and our Ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, with the various attacks on us that were being launched at the Human Rights Council.

Dayan had realized, soon after he went to Geneva in 2007, that the British were our main enemies. He was practically told as much by Nick Thorne, the then British Ambassador, and also by various others who, though they had to follow the British line, were not so happy with it. Thorne was a bit of a bully, and one did not mind responding to him forcefully. More upsetting was the approach of his successor, who was clearly a very nice man, but permitted his young ladies, who had been trained as it were by Thorne, to be crudely, and often inaccurately, critical.

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Simon Raven

Perhaps the least well known writer I am including in this series is Simon Raven. My view that he should be here is governed by my predilection for sagas, as begun most notably by Anthony Trollope in the 19th century, with the Pallisers, which was turned into a successful television serial in the seventies. The screenplay was by Simon Raven, who was in the midst then of his Alms for Oblivion series of novels, that covered a selective section of British society after the War. Before that there had been Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, which dealt with the period around the First World War, and then Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, which looked at the generation which grew up before the Second World War, and had to cope with a radically changed world afterwards.

Raven’s series achieved nothing like the same stature, perhaps because it dealt with what seemed a very small world. However, the worlds of the other writers of sagas had also been small, it is simply that, with each generation, the influence of that small world had lessened, as society became more diffuse. And, though Raven’s characters are more resolutely dissolute than those of his predecessors, I would suggest that he also draws attention to a characteristic phenomenon of the period after the Second World War, not exactly a decline in morals but rather the developing acceptance of the doctrine that anything goes. Within that framework, I should note, Raven does show several individuals striving to live up to their own idiosyncratic, if not necessarily high, standards.

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Some questions from the ‘Daily Mirror’ regarding Wikileaks brought back memories of my first attempt to talk to journalists. This was in 1980, and some elements in government had realized that the rigid controls the Jayewardene government exercised were not working. I was asked then to address youngsters at the SLBC, and I began by challenging the current interpretation, trumpeted about at the time by the government press, of the old adage that facts were sacred and comment was free.

I started by saying that facts referred to events explored by the journalists, not what a government spokesman said was a fact. Before I could go further I was interrupted by a stentorian voice rising from a wheelchair in the corner. This was Nimal Karunatilleke’s. The once radical hope of the SLFP, who had heralded the 1956 victory by defeating Bernard Aluwihare in Matale, was now a dogmatic supporter of Jayewardene’s UNP. He declared that ideas from Oxford were not appropriate in Sri Lanka, where the media belonged to the government.

I tried to continue, to point out that comment being free did not mean one could say whatever one wanted. Opinions had to be argued with evidence and rationally. But by then all authority had fallen away, and I don’t suppose the youngsters were listening.

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Rajiva Wijesinha


January 2011
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