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img_5858The third country I visited in June 2014, in that period of quietude when nothing was moving in Sri Lanka except for an increasing sense of decline, was Jordan. I did not count it as a new country, for I had stayed overnight there in a hotel, when I was traveling to Turkey early in 1989 to join the SS Universe, for the University of Pittsburgh Semester at Sea programme. It was for a long interport stint, to cover the whole of Asia as it were, even though the ship was not coming to Sri Lanka. So I was able in that year to visit the pyramids of Egypt for the first time, and in India Tanjore and also Kerala. I also swam off Cape Comorin, and lost my spectacles in the waves, which meant I had to make do with contact lenses for Trivandrum and Cochin and the long train ride back to Chennai, where I had a spare set on board the ship.

It had proved very difficult to get a flight to Turkey. I had set off for Thailand, from where I was to fly back after finally disembarking in Penang, and in Bangkok I had got the Turkish visa without difficulty. But the airlines going to Istanbul were very wary of a Sri Lankan passport. Even the Romanians, and that in the days of Ceausescu too, would not allow me even to transit in their capital. The embassy staff in Bangkok obviously thought their regulations silly, and agreed that it was hardly likely I wanted to stay in Bucharest (this was the year in which Ceaucescu was finally overthrown), but they would not budge. Finally the Jordanians did give me a ticket, and provided me with a hotel for the overnight layover, but they took away my passport at the airport and ensured that I did not stray.

In Turkey I was able to explore to my heart’s content, taking advantage of their fantastic network of buses that enabled me to get to Ankara and even to Trabzon, a place I have always thought of as magical, ever since reading Rose Macaulay’s wonderful novel, The Towers of Trebizond (which begins with perhaps the maddest opening line in English literature, “Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’) The city lived up to expectations, with its fantastic monastery up in the snow covered mountains, and so did the rock houses of Cappadocia and its extraordinary underground city. I went too to the remote East, the Kurdish area which proved more peaceful than I had thought, and Antakya in the south, the old Antioch, tropical weather even in January and wonderful mosaics. Read the rest of this entry »

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Oddly enough, as my father was fading, the world of my other great rock in these last years, Ena, also shrank. In 2012 we had celebrated her 90th birthday in Yala, quite a large crowd though initially she had told me that she wanted only me and Shanthi Wilson. Of course she could not have dreamed of rejecting the rest of the Hard Corps of our younger days when they made arrangements for a larger party, but that may have been one reason for her losing her hearing aid before getting there. By then she had grown adept at switching off when she did not wish to be too involved.

She did not come out with us on all the rounds we did in the Park, but it was a happy enough occasion, and she seemed to relish the cake in the form of an elephant that one of our number produced, and also the book entitled ‘The Moonemalle Inheritance’ that I had brought out in her honour. The sister of her Moonemalle grandfather had been my great-grandmother, and we had often speculated on our common inheritance. We had reached the conclusion that what others might term meanness but which we thought thrift was the most important quality of Moonemalle blood. This was part of a characteristic we had identified in each other, which led us frequently to quote, approvingly, Edward Lear’s splendid characterization of Pelicans – ‘No such birds as fine as we…’

Ena lost her hearing aid twice that year, and was not at all inclined to come to Colombo to get another. I sensed, and she did not challenge me when I once mentioned the possibility, that this was a way to withdraw from the world. Read the rest of this entry »

In retrospect it is clear that there was no hope of stopping Mahinda Rajapaksa rushing headlong into disaster, given that so many of those around him, while pursuing their own agendas, had lulled him into a false sense of security. But it still seemed necessary to try, and I did have at least one significant success. This was heartening, since it suggested he was not totally unaware of the problems being created for him.

The problem had once again been caused by Basil Rajapaksa. While in the East for Reconciliation meetings, late in 2013, I was told about proposals that had been prepared at District and Divisional level for a large UN project which was funded by the European Union. This had been agreed with the government, after Basil had suggested various modifications including that it be extended to areas outside the North and East too. But then suddenly he had clamped down on it and said it could not proceed.

My informants in the Administrative Service thought it was because his favourites, Bathiudeen and Hisbullah who had been basically given a free hand in the North and the East respectively, had not been consulted in the planning. It was believed they wanted the money for political advantage and were resentful that they had not been able to put forward projects that catered to their own agendas. An alternative view was that Basil wanted to control all the funds himself and did not like the decentralized manner in which the project had been conceived. Yet another explanation was that Basil was deeply upset that the Northern Province had so conclusively rejected the government at the recent Provincial Council election, and this was his revenge. Sadly, this was perfectly in character, and led to Sarath Amunugama describing him behaving strangely because of what he characteristically described as ‘unrequited love’.

After I heard about the stoppage I inquired about it from Subinay Nandy, the UN Head whom I would meet regularly though there was increasingly less I could offer him with regard to progress about Reconciliation. He was obviously deeply upset about what was happening, and could not understand how the government could reject such a large tranche of assistance. I wrote then to the President in November about the matter –

During Reconciliation meetings in the Eastern Province, I was told about a European Union project to spend 60 million Euros on District Development which has been abruptly stopped by the Ministry of Economic Development.  The Development Officers of the Ministry of Economic Development had been aware of the project and prepared proposals but had no idea why the Ministry had stopped work.

This stoppage was after approval had been granted, following an adjustment of the project, at the request of the Minister of Economic Development, so as to include Districts outside the North and East too. Efforts on the part of the UN, which initiated the Project, to meet with the Minister and the Secretary, to clarify matters have proved fruitless….

If this policy of inaction is in accordance with a government decision, I have nothing to say except that it will seriously damage efforts at Reconciliation. But knowing Your Excellency’s commitment to the reconciliation process, I believe this is yet another example of governmental efforts being subverted by individual compulsions, a sure recipe for disaster.

I would be grateful if this matter could be looked into and steps taken to adopt a more positive approach to dealing with the United Nations. We can ill afford to alienate the positive elements in the international community at this stage, and I believe the arbitrary decisions that are made, without explanation, will not help us to safeguard our sovereignty and the ideals for which you stand.           

Typically there was no response. But at the dinner after the budget I brought up the matter. It was evident that he had not seen my letter, which reminded me of what he had once said when I told him, about some step that he belatedly agreed should be taken, that I had written to him about it previously. ‘But you write in English’, he had said, ‘how can you expect anyone to understand?’

At the budget dinner however I was able to explain the matter very simply, and he seemed to have taken action promptly. Before the end of the year, Subinay told me, the Secretary to the Treasury had instructed that the project was to proceed.

I felt I was not wrong then in feeling that the President still had a positive mindset about how the country should move forward. But it was also clear that he was less and less in control. Read the rest of this entry »

In the month after my extended 60th birthday celebrations, I travelled extensively. This was not however to any new countries, so I remained stuck on 89 for a few months more. But I was able to get to fascinating places in countries I had been to previously.

img_3859In India this was to the North East, which had until a few years previously been forbidden territory except with a special permit. But by now things had settled down in a few of states that had been created out of the original Assam Province.

I was invited there by the Centre for Regional and Industrial Development, which was based in Chandigarh, but had been working for some time in this relatively neglected region. Given the special circumstances of our own North East region, it was quite interesting to work on a paper on ‘Sri Lanka’s North East, and the need to promote integration whilst preserving local identities’ for the Conference to which I was asked. Before delivering the paper I was able to register some  similarities in our situations and work these into what I said.

The conference was held in Shillong, which had been the capital of Assam but was now part of Meghalaya, which had been created in 1972. It did not have a proper airport however, so we flew to Gauhati, the capital of Assam, and then drove for several hours to get to the University in Meghalaya, where the conference was held. The roads were not very good, which renewed my appreciation of what the Rajapksa government had done in building up connectivity so swiftly after the conflict. Had it only applied similar energy and commitment to human resource development, we would not have suffered continuing tension, but I suppose that lacuna is a function of our general neglect of an area which it is not profitable to work in.

An unexpected bonus of Shillong having been the original capital of the area in British times was the grandeur of the residence of the Governor, where we were hosted to dinner. This had been the home of the British resident, and the splendor of the reception rooms, with lovely wooden paneling, was still preserved.

The university staff were extremely helpful about arranging a car for me to hire to travel, after the conference had ended, to Cherrapunjee, which has claims to being the wettest place in India. The drive there was wonderful, with detours to spectacular waterfalls and also shrines in caves, including a beautifully formed stalagmite, which had naturally to do duty too as a Shiva lingam.

Cherrapunjee lived up to its reputation while I was there, with torrential rains all night. But before that I had enjoyed a fantastic sunset over the hills, at the isolated resort for which the university had arranged a special price. And the next day I had a memorable excursion deep into the forest, to see what are termed root bridges, tangles of massive thick roots joined together by the tribes who inhabit the area, to form bridges which are immensely strong and can take dozens across them at a time. Read the rest of this entry »

After those idyllic few days with my father at my cottage, I went to Algeria, determined to see more of the Roman remains of Africa, and if possible get to the deep desert. Years earlier I had bought guidebooks for Tunisia and Libya, which had better sites, and I had managed to get to Tunisia in 2013. But Libya had now been in essence destroyed by the West’s wickedness in getting rid of Gaddafi and unleashing extremist forces. The Tunisians had told me sadly how, pleased though they were with their own change of government, what had happened in Libya now threatened them too. And a couple of years back there was indeed an attack on the El Bardo Museum in Tunis, with its wonderful collection of Roman mosaics.

Algeria had less to offer in that respect, but I much enjoyed the site at Tipaza which we visited on the first full day there. It had two splendid amphitheatres and an impressive gate, but I also relished its setting, on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean.

img_9195That had been an unexpected joy with regard to Algiers itself. We had found a hotel overlooking the sea, which allowed for the most exquisite sunrises. And though there was nothing spectacular, the religious buildings in the city were well worth viewing, especially the Cathedral high on a hill overlooking the city.

Places were miles apart in Algeria, so we could not use buses, but flights were cheap. We went first to Tamanrasset in the south, where there were spectacular formations in the desert. But as I was arranging with the hotel to go out to one for an overnight stay, we hit an unexpected snag. I had been provided with an escort from the airport when I went to the hotel because I had a diplomatic passport, but then it turned out that this meant they were excessively careful about my safety. There had, I think some time back, and just once or twice, been an attack on foreigners venturing into the desert, and they would not give me a permit. Indeed they would not let me out of the hotel without a guard, so it was a good thing that on the evening we arrived we had had a long walk through the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2016
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