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The Presidential election took place on January 8th, and by dawn of the 9th it was clear that Maithripala Sirisena had won. All sorts of rumours began to circulate in the early hours, when there was a hiatus in the issuing of results, but that passed soon enough.

We were called then to Green Path, to the office of the Leader of the Opposition, to discuss arrangements for the swearing in, the last time it turned out that all those who had come together to support Sirisena were treated with respect. But I am not sure whether I blotted my copybook irredeemably then when I raised an object to Ravi Karunanayake’s proposal that Ranil Wickremesinghe should be sworn in as Prime Minister immediately after the new President had taken his oaths.

Ranil, who was lounging at the head of the table, shot up sharply when I spoke and declared that there was nothing against him being made Prime Minister straight away. I realized then that Ravi had obviously been prompted to speak, but no one else objected, though they did accept my point that Ranil could not become Prime Minister until there was a vacancy. But Ravi said he would speak to Lalith Weeratunge, who had seemed helpful about the handover, and get him to persuade D M Jayaratne to resign.

That did not happen, so when Ranil was sworn in as Prime Minister at Independence Square there was no vacancy. That did not matter much in practice because obviously members of the previous government had accepted the decision. But it seemed to me a bad precedent, and indicated exactly how anxious Ranil was to affirm his position as virtually the equivalent of the President. Read the rest of this entry »

The seven weeks after the press conference at which Maithripala Sirisena announced his candidature were hectic and tense. During the conference itself, I had a telephone call to say that the Presidential Secretariat had called to demand that the vehicle I was using be returned. This struck me as petty, and foolish given that Chandrika Kumaratunga had just announced that those of us who had come out in favour of the common candidate would be persecuted.

I am aware that Mahinda Rajapaksa felt he had been betrayed by Maithripala Sirisena since, even when they had had dinner together the night before, the latter had given no hint that he was going to contest. But the manner in which I was deprived of my vehicle, even while I was still technically Adviser to the President on Reconciliation, indicated the manner in which anyone who was open in their actions would be treated.

In my case the President had no reason at all to feel betrayed, since I had written to him clearly in October to say we could not support him if he did not proceed with some of the reforms he had pledged earlier. And over the last few months I had made clear the need for reform, both Vasantha and I even proposing Private Members Bills with regard to burning issues such as reducing the size of the Cabinet. Interestingly enough, Vasantha told me that the President had called him and said that he was being unduly influenced by me, but he did not bother to speak to me himself. It was only just before the common candidate declared himself that one of his confidantes, Sarath Wijesinghe, called me and said that he assumed I would support the President. But even Sarath had no answer when I mentioned what worried me, such as the appalling treatment of Chris Nonis.

I have no hard feelings though about Mahinda Rajapaksa, because I believe he was grossly misled by a small coterie around him who cared neither for him nor for the country. What was surprising was that a man of such capacity, and sensitivity to the needs of the country, should have allowed himself to be dominated by a bunch of callous rascals. I should note that, though I have never had any high regard for Basil Rajapaksa, I do not include him in the category of those with undue influence, since he was undoubtedly a man of ability. And he achieved much in terms of development, even though he was not capable of twinning this with human development, which was essential if the fruits of development were to be equitably distributed. And of course he was largely responsible for alienating the President from the senior members of his party, since the impression they had, indicated to me vividly by one of the most decent members of the Cabinet, John Seneviratne, was that he was usurping the powers of all other ministries.

But there were reasons at least, if not good enough ones, for the President’s reliance on this brother. What was totally unacceptable was the role played by individuals such as Sajin vas Goonewardene and Kshenuka Seneviratne, at whose behest the President summarily dismissed those who did so much for their country such as Tamara Kunanayagam and Dayan Jayatilleke; the indulgence shown to individuals such as Duminda de Silva and the Chairman of the Tangalle local body who was responsible for the death of a British tourist; the failure to deal with racist elements such as the Bodhu Bala Sena, and equally to stop the fuel for their fires provided by the activities of Rishard Bathiudeen, who had so effectively alienated not just Sinhala extremists but also all Tamils. Read the rest of this entry »

I was able to finish everything I had to do in London in three days, and still had five days before I had to be in Oxford for the celebrations for my Tutor, which began on October 31st. So I went to Malta, largely I should note in pursuit of my quest to visit 100 countries. But the place turned out to be fascinating, both a cradle and a crossroads of civilization. There are remains of temples dating back nearly 6000 years, and the place has been ruled by Phoenicians and Romans and Arabs, until it was handed over in the 16th century to the Knights of the Order of St. John.

They flourished until Napoleon took the place over, only to be replaced by the British. British sovereignty was formally recognized in 1814, but the year before that they had sent Sir Thomas Maitland to govern the place, as they had done some years previously in Ceylon, another possession which passed to the British because of the changes brought about by the French Resolution. Incidentally, two years later, in Corfu, I realized that while Governor of Malta Maitland had also been Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands – yet another British acquisition in Napoleonic times, after that less durable emperor had got rid of the Venetians who had governed the area for centuries.

I stayed throughout my time in Malta in a delightful hotel in the capital Valletta. It overlooked the harbour, providing wonderful views at sunrise, and of glimmering lights at night, and I much enjoyed too breakfast each morning on the open terrace .

On the first day I walked for hours, to explore much of what there was to see in Valletta, including the magnificient Grand Master’s Palace with its fabuous gardens. The Fine Arts museum proved to have some unexpected delights, including two superb contrasting depictions of Cain and Abel. The archaeology museum had unexpectedly delicate primitive sculptures, while the splendid Cathedral of St. John included amongst its treasures the renowned Caravaggio depiction of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. Read the rest of this entry »

In October I went on a wild life safari, for the first time if one excludes the wonderful times I had had, generally with my aunt Ena, in Yala and elsewhere in Sri Lanka. I still had a slight puritanical streak about such indulgence, and felt that, if travelling vast distances, there should also be some cultural input. So it was that I decided to go to Tanzania, salving my conscience about pure pleasure because of the historical importance of Zanzibar.

The trip turned out to be more than satisfactory in all dimensions, the exotic wild life of Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, and the elegance of Zanzibar. We left a couple of days later than originally planned, since Kithsiri had fallen ill, but I thought it worth waiting since in countries where one might worry about security it seemed best to have a travelling companion. I had to admit that this was weakness, given how I had travelled extensively on my own when I was young, but I thought that at the age of 60 I should have no qualms about needing support.

Dar-es-Salaam was a charming city, from the National Museum with its vintage cars, used by various colonial plenipotentiaries, to the teeming fish market. And I was lucky to find in the cheap hotel we stayed in an enterprising travel agent who booked us what turned out to be a splendid tour to the wild life parks.

But first we went to Zanzibar, on a ferry, and found an exquisite hotel in the old Stone Town, cobbled alleys, a splendid mix of Arab and Indian architecture, ornate balconies and latticework. The former Sultan’s palace was a joy, with splendid photographs and a larger than life junk, and I found fascinating too the Anglican cathedral which had been built on the site of the slave market. You could visit there the awful cells in which the chained victims of that appalling trade had been interned. And given my interest in history from a romantic perspective, I was glad to have seen the place where Livingstone was supposed to have stayed in the course of his various exploratory journeys, and to which his body was brought by his ‘loyal companions’ (who had removed his heart where he actually died, in Zambia, and buried it beneath a baobab tree).

After just over a night and a day we flew via Dar-es-Salaam to Kilimanjoro and took a bus to Aruja where we were supposed to meet the tour company. I was a bit startled when there seemed to be no booking at the hotel that had been arranged, but we were told to go next door, and were met there by a delightful man called Richard Kilonzo Papa, who restored my confidence. He introduced us to a sweet Namibian girl called Nita who was our companion on the safari (a fourth person who was due never turned up), and to the driver/guide called Frank who seemed dour but turned out immensely helpful, and professional to his fingertips about ensuring maximum sightings. He also had an assistant who put up the tents and cooked the most delicious meals at the campsites where we stayed in Serengeti and Ngorongoro. Read the rest of this entry »

Early in September I was travelling again. This trip was to Kazakhstan, which had not originally been intended, since the place in Central Asia I was determined to visit was Uzbekistan, with the splendours of Samarkand and Bukhara. But that visa proved difficult to get, and I decided to try Kazakhstan initially instead, having read up on it in the guidebook to the region that I had borrowed from a friend. I then managed to buy an updated version, and found that the area had developed considerably, with much better access to places of tourist interest.

Kazakhstan certainly lived up to expectations, and more. We went through Delhi, where I realized how wise Mahinda Rajapaksa had been to appoint as our High Commissioner the archaeologist Sudharshan Seneviratne. He was a product of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and had excellent contacts, which he knew how to use. But the damage that had been done during the previous years when, not our High Commissioner, but the Ministry in Colombo had ignored Indian concerns, ran deep and I fear that the Indians were by now as keen as the West that Mahinda Rajapaksa should go.

After a night in Delhi we flew to Almaty, and found a hotel opposite a thriving market through which we could walk to the city centre. That first evening we were lucky to see, and hear, a service in Zenkov Cathedral, an imposing building dating from, albeit early 20th century, Tsarist times. Next morning, after a quick look at the much more recent Central Mosque, we went to the grand Independence Monument where a host of army cadets obviously found us more exotic than the sights they had been brought to see, and wanted lots of photographs. The same happened in the Ethnography section of the National Museum, where a party of small children, and their teachers, focused on us rather than the exhibits. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

January 2017
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