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After Ethiopia, I felt I should see the Sudan, not only in search of other aspects of the Nile, but also because I realized that it was the repository of many splendours from the Egyptian Empires. The pyramidic culture had extended far to the South, and then so had Hellenistic civilization, following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander and the establishment of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the longest lasting of the successor kingdoms set up by his generals after his death.
Ethiopia I had visited in January 2014, and the next month I went to the Sudan. We landed late at night but, after the first hotel I sought turned out to be a dump, we ended up in the Acropole, by far the most attractive of Khartoum hotels except for those who want five star comfort on the lines of what they have experienced in other countries.
The Acropole was owned and run by three Greek brothers, who were born in Khartoum after their father emigrated there before the war. They knew the country well, and were enormously helpful about how to get to places, while also efficiently covering the required formalities, such as registration with the authorities on arrival. The breakfasts they served up were fabulous, and on Fridays they provided a free city tour, which I came back for.
On the first morning we explored the city, and saw the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White. I find this fascinating, and still have fond memories of seeing the place where the two branches of the Amazon, the Solimoes and the Negro rivers, come together, in Manaos in Brazil. Way back in 1987, I was taken to the confluence by a delightful boatman who did not make too much of a fuss when it transpired that I had thought the price he quoted a tenth of what he wanted (there was much confusion in Brazil in those days because of currency reform, cruzeiros having become cruzados at the rate of 1000 t0 1, a process repeated three years later when cruzados gave way to new cruzados).
Chanaka Amaratunga used to later claim that I was the only person to have been made President of a political party while in the Amazon. The Liberal Party was set up in January that year, against my advice, but the other office bearers of the Council for Liberal Democracy were determined. I had consented to be Vice-President, as I was of the CLD, if they did go ahead, but its President Hugh Fernando decided to rejoin the SLFP instead. Chanaka I suppose then thought me the most reliable of his associates in the movement, a trust I believe I justified, while all his school friends fell away over the years that followed. Read the rest of this entry »
Much of this series has been about my personal travels, and the slow but steady dissolution of the world I had known. To dwell only on these would however give a misleading impression of what occupied me most during the years from 2012, when I began to realize that my efforts to promote reform were getting nowhere. But that realization took time to crystallize and, in the period when I continued in Parliament on the government side, I tried hard to effect some changes.
It was something I felt that the National Human Rights Action Plan, which we had begun drafting when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, was finally adopted by Cabinet. There was no Ministry of Human Rights following the 2010 election, and it became clear that the Ministry of External Affairs, to which in theory the subject had been entrusted, was neither competent nor concerned. Minari Fernando, the Consultant we had taken on to draft the plan, found it impossible to work from there, but fortunately Mohan Pieris, as Attorney General, took on responsibility, though he was too busy to attend meetings and I had to do most of the work. But he allowed the more able members of the Department such as Yasantha Kodagoda to contribute, and with yeoman service from Dhara Wijayathilaka and Hiranthi Wijemanne, who had been deeply involved in improving the lot of women and children for many years now, we got a good draft together.
After it was adopted, Mahinda Samarasinghe, who had been made the President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights when the failure of the Foreign Ministry became obvious, was appointed to chair an Inter-Ministerial Committee on implementing the Plan. That did not I think ever meet, but he appointed a Task Force to expedite implementation, and asked me to help. By then I had realized how insincere Mohan Pieris was, so I told Mahinda I would do this only if I chaired the Task Force. Mohan was clearly upset, and said at the meeting at which Mahinda asked me to take over that I could be a bloody nuisance, but he made no further objection, and for a few months we were able to work towards consensus on many issues.
But before long it became clear that, to expedite action, we needed a dedicated Ministry as we had had before. Though Secretaries to Ministries seemed most cooperative, in particular the Secretaries to the Ministries of Land and of Women and Children’s Affairs, the representatives they sent to meetings could not ensure follow up. In some cases there was vast confusion about who was responsible, given the proliferation of Ministries, and the plethora of Departments within Ministries. We also had to cope with a very conservative Ministry of Justice, which seemed determined for instance not to repeal the horrendous Vagrants’ Ordinance, on the grounds that that was the only way to control prostitution. The fact that it was used to remand women at will, with no provision for checking on their fate, while prostitution flourished in various forms, was ignored. Read the rest of this entry »
With Lakmahal slowly folding up as it were, and the country in decline, my principal solace in 2014 was travel. Asia and Europe I knew well, and I had been to enough of South America to feel I had seen enough of it for the moment. The Middle East too I had seen a fair amount of, Iran in 2008 and Syria and 2009, and then the Lebanon in 2012, Sidon and Tyre and Baalbek in the depths of winter.
Africa seemed to me the great hole in my travels, and I thought this was the year I should see more of that continent. I had been to Morocco and Egypt in my travels round the world on the Semester at Sea programme, and I had been back to Morocco for a Liberal International event, going on that occasion down towards the desert. And I had had a blissful few days in Luxor, redolent with the sensuality described in ostensibly staid accounts of the adventures of English ladies there in the nineteenth century. I had been also to Aswan on that trip (though there was a sandstorm that prevented me getting to Abu Simbel), and marveled at the reach of Hellenic civilization, at the exquisite temples on the banks of the Nile. It was also exciting to see the Aswan Dam, which had been an iconic construction in my youth, along with the records of British scientific observation on Aswan Island.
But Black Africa I had not seen at all, except for a few days in Senegal in 2003, again for a meeting of Liberal International. I had been struck then by the beauty of its people and the splendor of its coast, neither of which had I associated previously with Africa. But I had not stayed long enough to see much, and so a determined effort seemed in order in 2014 with little else to do. Fortunately there were excellent officers at our High Commission in Delhi and the High Commissioners in turn, Prasad Kariyawasam and the erudite Sudharshan Seneviratne and more recently Esala Weerakoon, allowed their remarkably efficient consular officer to get me the necessary visas.
On these journeys I took Kithsiri, because I was slightly worried about the difficulties of internal travel, and indeed the hotels, since I neither wanted to, nor could afford to, stay in expensive ones. He had been a great travelling companion before, in places about which I had not felt entirely at ease, Iran and Syria and Lebanon, and then Tunisia the year before. Though much younger, he was not quite as energetic as I was, and sometimes sat in the shade when I explored the more interesting backwaters. But in all fairness I was sometimes too concerned to see everything the guidebooks mentioned, and I could see his point in feeling that one set of foundations of houses in an archaeological complex was much like another. Read the rest of this entry »