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.And I was reminded then about her claim, when I was working with Tara de Mel, that I was carried away by her, just as she declared I had been carried away earlier by Nirmali. She had obviously never noticed that, while my friendship with Nirmali went beyond the work we did together, with Tara it was simply a professional relationship, with mutual admiration for the understanding and efficiency we brought to the educational reforms we had embarked upon. I still cherish the note Tara sent me when, in 2005, I thought there was nothing further I could do and wanted to resign. She asked me not to, on the grounds that there was no one else in the Ministry who was on the same wavelength.
This was true, which was one reason work during that second stint was so difficult. The wonderful Additional Secretaries Tara had had when we reintroduced English medium in 2001, Lalith Weeratunge and Messers Nanayakkara and Herath, had gone in the flood of mediocrity Ranil unleashed on the Ministry during his last stint as Prime Minister. Those we had to work with in 2004 were painfully slow, when they were not dishonest.
Thankfully, in the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission now, I find the staff able and I think relatively efficient, even though I have to do much of the conceptualization myself. This time I will not make the mistake Tara made in 2004, when initially she wanted to move slowly, thinking that she had two years more. When she realized Chandrika had lost a year of her Presidency through carelessness – and some sleight of hand by the Chief Justice, given that her lawyers failed to explain the ambiguous clause on which he pounced, to get rid of her – it was too late to entrench the reforms that were so essential.
This means that I have rather neglected social life in the last few months. Though I said I would only work part-time, the Minister having accepted my conditions told me that he knew I would be there all the time, and so it has proved. Though I will not compromise on travel, I get back exhausted from the office, and have to work most weekends too. And since, except when I have a workshop for the English programme we have to develop intensively since it was grossly neglected previously, I try to get out of Colombo at weekends, socializing is very limited now.
But I do keep up with the close friends I had before, and those whom I got close to in the last few years. There are four such people in the latter category, and I find them as good company as anyone I have spent time with in my life. One of them was a fellow Parliamentarian, Vasantha Senanayake, whose intelligence was far in advance of that of most of his fellows. What we thought most important though of what we had in common was the fact that we both played bridge, which no one else in Parliament did. That struck us as the most obvious evidence of decline, from the days of S W R D Bandaranaike and Sir John Kotelawala, whose card table is still proudly on display at the Kotelawala Defence University at Ratmalana.
But I suppose it was really values that held us together, and I think we can be proud of the fact that we were the only two people to express worry openly about what was going on in the last two years of government. We brought motions in Parliament, to the great irritation of Basil Rajapaksa, we wrote letters to the President, some of which we persuaded others too to sign, and we came out in support of Maithripala Sirisena with no conditions, and without financial incentives. I think too that we were the only two from the government side who supported him without the ambitions or reasons for animosity that moved the others who joined the movement before it gained momentum. It is typical I suppose that we were the worst treated of the lot, my having been left, the President told me when I complained about the violation of a manifesto commitment, to the tender mercies of Chandrika Kumaratunga. Vasantha, even worse, was ignored by her, on the grounds that he had joined the UNP, even though he did nothing of the sort till he was forced to, after she had ignored his clarification of his situation.
But I suppose we should not worry too much, since we do not live by or for politics, and there is much else to keep us going. Travel comes high on the list, and earlier this year we had a marvelous trip to Zambia, where we saw lions by night and were drenched at Victoria Falls. He had gone for an International Parliamentary Union Conference and stayed on, but I was simply wandering, so I also had a delightful week before in Lesotho, which was surprisingly beautiful, and easy to explore on one’s own.
This was the second trip we had done together, having gone at the end of 2012 to Cambodia, and then been driven by my old Oxford friend who was working there to Laos. We went to the little visited southern part, with fantastic waterfalls and rapids, and also some interesting Khmer remains. I also persuaded John, when we got back to Cambodia, to drive up to Preah Vihar, which I had failed to get to earlier. This belongs to Cambodia, but had been the subject of a border dispute with Thailand, and I had been told some years earlier that it was possible to get there from the Thai side. If I recollect aright, this was on the occasion when I had crossed into Thailand from Cambodia at the land border at Poipet, and spent a few days wandering in the poor east of Thailand before heading back to Bangkok. I managed then to get near to Preah Vihar with an enterprising motorbike rider, but we were turned back at the military checkpoint. So it was good to see what is the best example of Khmer architecture except for Angkor Wat, on that memorable holiday. Sadly I could not persuade Vasantha to join us the following year when we went on sea voyages in the Moluccas.
The other wonderful new Sri Lankan friend I made in the bleak last years of the Rajapaksa government was Tamara Kunanayagam. Dayan Jayatilleka had told me about her before, and I was delighted when the President told me, when I warned him after the Darusman Report came out that there would be disaster in Geneva if Kshnuka Seneviratne stayed on, that he had ordered that Tamara take her place. But, typically, he then gave Kshenuka the second slot at the Ministry in Colombo where, having established a close alliance with Sajin Vas Gunawardena, she dominated the place. Given the pusillanimity of the Minister, the two of them ran things, in particular with regard to Geneva, and perhaps not entirely unwittingly destroyed our defences.
I refused to go to Geneva in September 2011 when Tamara took over, but I met her in Colombo, and then later when I went to Geneva for a meeting of an NGO which I was involved with. I found her marvelous, and it was good in Colombo to see how well she got on with the Brazilian ambassador, who spoke of her tremendous rapport with the South Americans in general. She had managed at the September session to stop the resolution the Americans were trying to present through the Canadians, which they had discussed with Kshenuka, though she had not kept Colombo informed. When Tamara asked for instructions, the Ministry ignored her, but fortunately the President told her to come back at once.
Then the Minister tried to send her back immediately without allowing her to see the President, but Tamara managed to get to him and was told to fight back, which she did. The resolution was withdrawn, but that was when the American ambassador, infuriated, declared that she would get us next time. And so she did, with Kshenuka and Sajin taking along a massive delegation that served no purpose save to alienate possible allies. The Indian ambassador whom I met with Tamara when I went in 2011 was still very much on our side, but he had clearly been exasperated by Kshenuka – who, an Indian journalist told me, completely ignored the 3rd world, except to ask for their support whenever there was a threat, from the people whom she socialized with.
The seal was set on our defeat when Mahinda Samarasinghe announced that the Indians had pledged to support us, even though they had specifically told him to keep quiet about this. I cannot believe that he was so stupid as to do this unless he was advised to, which could well have happened, because the motive of those who ran the show was to score brownie points in Colombo, not to actually win the vote. Things then got from bad to worse, with the strategy being changed all the time as G L Peiris and Mahinda squabbled for supremacy. So we lost ignonimously, at which point Kshenuka’s acolytes declared that this proved that we should not have alienated the West, and it was time to fall in line with them – precisely the strategy Mangala Samaraweera has adopted, which perhaps explains his toeing the Kshenuka line, and declaring that Tamara was an LTTE agent.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has perhaps now realized how he blundered, and will also now understand why Sajin and Kshenuka are protected by those individuals in the UNP who resented his victory over terrorism. I can only hope that the President, who has shown himself determined to hold Sajin accountable, will also realize the need for a new foreign policy, in which those such as Dayan and Tamara who know how to hold Sri Lanka’s head high will play a prominent role.
Ceylon Today 23 August 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=4544