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.
The strategy they used was to accuse Rod of being a Tiger sympathizer. This was on the grounds that he had supported children in the East after the tsunami, ignoring the fact that he had been asked to do so by the Ministry of Education. But not only was this turned into the allegation that he favoured the Tamils – though I believe it was a Muslim school that benefited most from Trinity largess – it was also claimed that he was bringing possible assassins of the President into Trinity.
One reason for this claim was that indeed a Trinity student had gone up North and joined the Tigers during the CeaseFire period. This was understandable, given the encouragement government gave at the time to renewing connections between North and South. But the boy had rapidly become disillusioned, and come back to Kandy and been taken onto the staff. This was reported to the Board by the Principal, who said he needed counselling rather than rejection. Nevertheless when the possibility of a risk was raised, he was discontinued, though Rod continued to provide pastoral care.
The risk lay in the fact that there was a window in a building that was being restored that looked onto the Presidential mansion in Kandy, and it was just about conceivable that someone could take a potshot at the President from there. It was promptly boarded up when attention was drawn to this, but for years afterwards the group that wanted to take over Trinity claimed that the Principal had been restoring the building so as to have the President shot.
When rumours first started circulating and the Principal had been questioned by the Terrorist Investigation Department, I called its head who said that they had cleared him completely. But soon afterwards his visa was cancelled. I spoke to the President who said that he had not been involved, but the officials at the Department of Immigration and Emigration told me that the order had come from his office.
Jayantha Dhanapala’s worries then were understandable, even though Fowler Watt made an excellent presentation, and had innovative ideas. But the person who came second in my book, and first in that of most of the others, also seemed capable. This was a former Army Officer, Brigadier Ariyaratne as he described himself, with an impressive academic record. He was duly appointed, though only as Acting Principal since he did not have the required school experience. His contract said that he could at the end of three years be appointed Principal if he proved satisfactory.
At first he seemed to be doing well. But by 2011, when his contract was up for renewal, a majority of the Board wanted him replaced immediately, since suspicions had arisen by then about his integrity. But it was a small majority, and nothing had been proved, and I was one of those who had thought that he should be continued for a couple of years more as Acting Principal. Foolishly perhaps I suggested a compromise, and the Board then agreed that he be extended for a year, when he could again apply for the post of Principal.
I should have known that he was a hard fighter, for one of the techniques he had used to get himself extended was to claim that he had discovered massive fraud under Gilbert. But that this was exaggerated I realized when I was appointed to look into the investments, of which he claimed there were no records, and I found what he said was missing in a file that he had brought to our meeting but not shared. I wrote to the Bishop to express my surprise at what seemed sleight of hand, but we accepted his explanation that he had not looked properly into that file.
I did think however that we needed to sort the matter out before there was a change, and in 2012 we had experienced auditors who made it clear that money was not missing but there had been carelessness in balancing the accounts. For instance the cost of a magnificient new building Gilbert had had constructed had not been set off against deposit income. Ariyaratne however continued to claim that money had vanished in Gilbert’s time, even though he could not substantiate this and indeed accepted the audit reports, along with the rest of the Board.
By the latter part of the year, when we had advertised for the post of Principal, it was clear to me too that the man was a fraud. We found that he did not have the academic qualifications he claimed, and he had been retired as a Colonel, since he had not been confirmed in the rank of Brigadier. The Army Commander confirmed this, and the Chief of Staff in fact told me that he was not a fit type of person to have been appointed. It seemed that he had left the army under a cloud.
But by then the new Bishop was completely on his side, and determined to keep him. Shantha Francis had been appointed Archdeacon by Bishop Kumara, and when the latter retired, and none of the candidates to succeed him received the required support, the Archdeacon was appointed Bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I later told the Archbishop’s Commissary for Sri Lanka, Brian Leathard, who had been appointed to the position when my uncle was Bishop, that it was all his fault for having recommended Shantha. But he told me he had strongly recommended he not be appointed, but the Archbishop had told him that the Bishop of Colombo had recommended him. Since the Bishop of Colombo, Duleep de Chickera, had also decided suddenly to retire, and had not waited until the other Sri Lankan Bishopric was filled, the Archbishop felt he could not leave Sri Lanka without a Bishop.
It was Duleep’s successor, Bishop Dhilo Canagasabey, who first suggested to me that Shantha was not all he seemed to be. But I was not convinced, and thought that Shantha was simply weak, and influenced by Ariyaratne. However when the selection process began, it became clear that Shantha was determined to reappoint Ariyaratne, by hook or by crook. And going hand in hand with this was what seemed clear evidence of tampering with admissions, the Principal and the Bishop between them admitting several students who had no claims at all.
But the selection committee, not being aware of all this, had recommended him if his claims as to his qualifications were correct. A sub-committee was appointed to go into them, and reported clear documentary evidence that the claims were false. The selection committee had recommended that the alternative candidate, Harshana Perera, former Sub-Warden of S. Thomas’, be appointed in such case, with the Vice-Principal of Trinity acting until he could take over. But the Bishop then declared that the Vice-Principal had said he could not take up the position, a claim the Vice-Principal denied. Shantha then, pending what he claimed would be evidence that Ariyaratne was not a fraud, extended Ariyaratne for a few months more. He was aided and abetted in this by a man called Prof Illangantilleke, who was able to make assertions that were completely false with no sense of shame, such as the assertion that all officers were promoted in rank when they retired.
The reason for these prevarications was that, when my term expired in December, the Bishop could ensure that there was no majority against Ariyaratne. With the Board split evenly in January, another compromise was reached, with Ariyaratne extended for two terms more, and with the title of Principal, though it was also specified that he could not apply then when the post of Principal was advertised.
But by August there had been other changes on the Board and, though a farewell had been arranged by Ariyaratne, he made it clear that he would not budge. And the Bishop did everything in his power to keep him on, including having me removed from the Board when the Bishop of Colombo, in desperation when one of his nominees resigned under what seemed nasty pressures from his fellow Trinitians, asked me to serve again.
It was clear then that Trinity could not be saved until the Bishop went. Fortunately by then it was clear that he was also crooked, and blatant about it, since evidence emerged that he had continued to collect the pension of his long deceased mother-in-law. Members of the Board had previously contacted the Archbishop of Canterbury who sent a delegation to whom Shantha lied when they tried to stop him appointing Ariyaratne at the end of 2012. But the delegation found it difficult to get the Archbishop to act, not least perhaps because he felt that getting rid of Shantha was an admission of his own carelessness in having appointed him.
So it was only at the end of 2014, after another visit from a representative of the new Archbishop, that Shantha had to resign. He did afterwards try to withdraw his resignation, but that was not permitted, and the Diocese was placed under the charge of Bishop Dhilo.
And with that the house of cards collapsed, Ariyaratne too went, and the Board was reconstituted. Fowler-Watt had gone to Brunei, but fortunately he had just given up his position there when the post of Principal was advertised again, and he was selected. In a few months he has shown what a good Principal can do, and I only hope the old boys who rallied round Ariyaratne and swallowed all the vicious tales about his predecessor and those who had run the College finances during that period understand how shamefully they were used.
Ceylon Today 2 August 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=3802