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After concluding the account of my travels for Reconciliation, over six years ago now, I return to the more personal narratives of travel last year. As it turned out travel was minimal, but last August the world seemed to be opening up again after the first intensive restrictions and the Ukraine and Brandix and then all the other examples of government dropping the ball had not yet kicked in.

So I wandered as I was wont to do on the way back from Aluwihare, where I had spent a night after the launch of Kamala Wijeratne’s book at Giriulla. That was August 30th and I had arranged to go to Derrick Nugawela for the 31st, but I went via Galagedara where Nigel Hatch had bought a block of land and was building a little house.

I took a road across country from Matale, having yet another perspective on the splendid hills on the north west of Kandy. Nigel had got the land from Sarath Amunugama, and we drove up to his house, which he was in the process of redoing. It had a broad terrace with a pool at the end and a fantastic view across the deep valley below to the hills beyond. For some reason I seem to have failed to have taken pictures of either house, save for a glimpse of the room of I think Sarath’s, but I cannot be sure of that.

This last post in the Reconciliation series records how Reconciliation ended, in a welter of bitter personal agendas. But I thought that, in addition to pictures of the inauguration, which indicate how the UNP had taken over, I should add one illustrating my brief tenure of the Ministry, the last hope I now realize for education in this country. And I end with what I still have, the pleasures of my cottage and its support staff and neighbours, who greeted me so hopefully when I got back there.

I had hoped that, if elected, Maithripala Sirisena would pursue the reconciliation agenda which Mahinda Rajapaksa had forgotten. But things simply got worse. The new government was concerned only with power, so there were constitutional changes that empowered politicians not the people. The structural changes promised to empower people, with regard to education, administration, the electoral system, entrepreneurship, were all forgotten.

And the new government was dominated by crooks from the UNP while those who crossed over after Maithripala had won, like Dayasiri Jayasekara, having not had the guts to support him before the election, had to strengthen his position with Maithripala by attacking others. Bathiudeen, who had joined before the election, and Hisbullah in the East, who had alienated vast numbers in the areas they dominated from the Rajapaksa government, while being privileged by Mahinda’s political advisers, continued to pursue their personal agendas, and were indulged even more.

Chandrika Kumaratunga in her hatred of Mahinda Rajapaksa basically excused Prabhakaran, and then destroyed the SLFP in her determination to strengthen the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Karu Paranavitana was another of those who was so uptight about the Rajapaksas that he too abandoned the SLFP and contributed to the enthrallment of the President. And Maithripala sailed through all this, complaining all the time about the mess but unwilling to do anything to rock the boat he presided over in theory.  

A total absence of any sense of Reconciiation

I thought the request Karu paranavitana made of me on January 1st bizarre, because if Sirisena won Dayasiri would be able to have anything he wanted, and if he lost there was no point in my resigning since my replacement would be nominated by Mahinda Rajapaksa. But I had no hesitation in agreeing, if that would help Sirisena, unconditionally, though I did add that if Sirisena won I would appreciate a position in education. Karu of course agreed, and then forgot all about it. Though a nice man, he was not inclined to make an effort about anything if it was not easy.

In the end Dayasiri refused to support Sirisena, as was the case with all senior members of the SLFP, which is one reason the poor man was totally at Ranil’s mercy when he won. Chandrika who he thought would help build up the SLFP after Mahinda decided that party was useless and unbeknownst to Sirisena was encouraging people to join the UNP. This was a pity because Mahinda Rajapaksa graciously gave up the party leadership and Sirisena had a free hand. But not able to trust anyone, except the incompetent sycophants who rapidly flocked to him, he laid the seeds of his own destruction.

And after January 8th, when he won, he and his allies completely ignored the work I had done in Reconciliation, and proceeded on the assumption that the key to Reconciliation was crucifying Mahinda Rajapaksa. So the cycle of bitterness continued, exacerbated on all sides, fuelled by rent-seekers worse than those who had bedevilled Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term.

This penultimate post about travel I had engaged in while working for governments notes another visit to the North, when I met my old friend and sparring partner the Bishop of Mannar, and also lots of my students and university acquaintance in Jaffna. But I also had to cope with Rishard Bathiudeen who had joined Maithripala Sirisena, but turned out one of the worst elements in the new regime as he had been amongst the worst of the previous one. Sadly, I have not been in Jaffna since.

I describe also a strange request I had from Maithripala Sirisena on January 1st, after a night at Aluwihare, the last New Year’s Eve of several I spent with my aunt Ena. Needless to say there was never any gratitude from either Maithri or his emissary Karu Paranavithana for my ready acquiescence in what seemed a silly request.

The pictures are of my students, and then Mrs Navaratnam at her family home.

Signs of things to come

On the 29th evening I was back at the Thampa and next morning went to Mannar where Maithripala Sirisena was due to arrive, to meet with Bishop Rayappu Joseph. He was late but I saw the priests several of whom I knew from my Reconciliation meetings, and also the Bishop who greeted me as an old friend and said that he would be pleased to welcome Sirisena but did not want Rishard Bathiudeen there. But Rishard did turn up, to be greeted politely enough though obviously the Bishop was not keen to talk to him.

As Sirisena was late, and meetings had been organized which needed to be addressed, I set off and had then to speak at the Mannar and Vavuniya meetings since there were few others from Colombo to do the honours. I then went after lunch at the Thampa to Jaffna, in the Thampa owner’s car for the one I was using had broken down. In Jaffna I attended the very well attended meeting which Chandrika addressed as well as Sirisena, and then retired to a small hotel for the Green Grass was full. Kithsiri was able to join me there having managed to get the car repaired.

Next morning several of my former students joined me after breakfast, and then university staff including Rajan Hoole who was the principal writer for the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights, which had been throughout deeply critical of the Tigers though also sharp about shortcomings of government. From our discussions it seemed clear that Sirisena would have a landslide victory in Jaffna, and so it proved.

I went then to have lunch with Mrs Navaratnam at Chavakachcheri, and then went on to Aluwihare to spend New Year’s Eve with my aunt Ena. I had been with her often on this day, and seen the New Year in with her, though as the years passed we did not stay up till midnight but slept early, wishing each other in the morning. But on this, the last such occasion, the greetings were brief for I had to leave very early since Karu Paranavitana, who was one of Maithripala Sirisena’s confidantes, said he needed to see me urgently.

When I got to Maithripala’s house, it was to find that Karu had been negotiating with Dayasiri Jaysekera to get his support and he had said he would come out in favour if he could thereafter have a seat in Parliament on the National List. The question was whether I would be willing to resign to accommodate him, and that Sirisena had felt bad about asking me to make such a sacrifice but delegated Karu to do so.

We had no current yesterday, and when it came back in the late afternoon there were internet problems, so I could post nothing except a Vesak celebration of my personal Facebook page. And then the current collapsed again last night and was restored just a few minutes back, hence delay today as well.

So to the fag end of my reconciliation work, indeed a visit to Jaffna after I had been sacked from my Adviser positions, the vehicle I had been given to use having been demanded back when I appeared at Maithripala Sirisena’s press conference announcing his candidature. Foolishly I hoped that if he won Reconciliation would be taken forward, whereas what resulted was window dressing through subservience to interests that did not care for Sri Lanka as a whole.

Anyway, this visit, to the areas I had frequented for Reconciliation work over the previous three years, was for a very different reason, to do with the 2015 presidential election. In checking on postal voting, I was astonished at the sheer incompetence of the UNP, which had said they would arrange for monitors but done nothing of the sort. And their members in the North had no idea where the polling centres were.

But I did the job, and was delighted to find former students of mine at the SLMA in charge of some. And it seemed to me there was no animosity at all amongst the forces for my support for the opposition candidate, and indeed in some places there seemed glee about this.

The pictures are of the book donation to the Jaffna Public Library and then the monitoring plus a couple of the religious sites we passed.

Election monitoring

I was back in the North twice more in 2014, both visits December in connection with the election. The first time was in connection with postal voting. The UNP was supposed to arrange for monitoring this, but on the 22nd I found at a meeting at the office of the Leader of the Opposition that nothing had been put in place in Jaffna. So I volunteered to go up myself, and asked Vasantha to join me.

My official vehicle had been taken away and, though Vasantha had kindly lent me a car, it was decided that the UNP would hire a vehicle for us to go up that night, to monitor the centres in Jaffna the next day. We were supposed to leave immediately after a press conference at the OPA in the evening but it was late at night that the UNP members who made the arrangements turned up at home, and well past midnight when we got to the Thampa.

Vasantha turned up early next morning and we went on to Jaffna where we had breakfast at the Green Grass Hotel and met the lawyers who were supposed to help us. It turned out that they were clueless about where the polling stations were, so we went to the kachcheri to get directions and then Vasantha and I split up since it was clear the rest were not very competent, though a few went along with each of us.

I visited fourteen centres, covering places where army and navy and police personnel polled as well as education and transport department officials. There seemed no anomalies, and I was pleased that at a couple of centres the chief polling officers were my former students at the Military Academy. There was no animosity at all about us being on the side of the opposition, and indeed I had the impression that some of the navy personnel were delighted about this.

In the evening I went to the Jaffna Public Library to donate some of my father’s books, which they had selected from the list I sent them, and then retired to the Green Grass Hotel where Vasantha and I had a beer on the balcony. Next morning I worked my way down from Jaffna, visiting twelve centres before lunch at the Thampa to which Vasantha too had made his way. I had also been able en route to drop in at my training centre at Dharmapuram. And then Vasantha and I went back to Colombo together in his vehicle. 

I have enjoyed reflecting on my travels during the Coronavirus and will continue with these. But I should also bring to a conclusion the other two series that have been presented on this blog, about my work in Reconciliation and my letters from Oxford.

Both were near conclusion when I diverted to recent experiences. As I get back to the reconciliation responsibility I realize how apt it is, at a time when once again the country is feeling upset about a Rajapaksa regime. But though it is clear we are in a great mess, and that Gotabhaya too seems lost, I should register that I can only feel sympathy for him, not anger, for we have been sliding into greater and greater disaster ever since Mahinda Rajapaksa decided, after his great war victory, to indulge his friends rather than build up the country.

And way back in 2014, though I felt as I still feel that a change was necessary – not comprehending then how essentially destructive Ranil was, thinking more of Sirisena than he was capable of – I note too the sympathy I felt for Mahinda because of the use made of him by those who cared nothing for him or for the country.

And I register the reason why I felt even more affection for Gotabhaya than for the rest of the family, not a relevant reason as regards the country, but gratitude for what my father had done for the country was strong in him and I was touched by his emotion.

Regrets for as well as about the President

That last letter cited was written on the 24th of September, as was another in which I noted the lethargy that had overcome most of those in authority –

I enclose copies of letters I have sent to the Secretary of the Ministry of Shipping and Aviation and to the Secretary to the Ministry of the Environment regarding the failure to take action with regard to land encroachments. This is a pity for the reasons given, and it is not acceptable that issues of this nature when raised by a Divisional Secretary are ignored.

I am sorry to worry you about this, but it seems increasingly clear that very few things will move in this country without your intervention. The counter example of the Ministry of Defence – which has generally worked efficiently, if the matters regarding the BBS that we have discussed are not taken into account – should reinforce the arguments for having a technocratic executive as is common practice where there is an Executive Presidency.

I hope therefore that you will take the need for efficiency and the separation of powers into account in developing the reform agenda the country so desperately needs.

But irritated though I was, I did feel enormous sympathy for Mahinda Rajapaksa who was suffering much because he could not be firm with those who milked him to their advantage. I had in fact written to Lalith Weeratunge on September 7th after I met the President at the almsgiving my cousin held for my father – ‘I met His Excellency yesterday and feel that he is under pressures he does not deserve, and would find some relief if a few simple reforms were set in place. This is a task that only you could accomplish.’

My sister had upbraided him then for not having come for my father’s funeral. I knew he had tried, but a helicopter could not fly from Uva where he was the day my father died, and the next day, he was busy with election meetings and could not come to the funeral. My sister basically told him that, after all my father had done for him, he should have got his priorities right. But I knew by then that the government was doing badly and he was seen as its only positive feature and was needed by those standing for the Provincial Council who would have been annoyed with him had he failed to appear at their meetings.

But even his presence could not prevent the government going down to defeat, which is why it was so foolish of him to have a premature presidential election. So I could only feel sorry for him, and I appreciated his ringing to apologize in person and say his wife would be present. So she was, as was Chamal, whom my father had also helped to get his position in the police. Basil did not come nor Namal, who was also electioneering. But I was deeply touched that Gotabhaya not only came home, but was also at the funeral, standing quietly by himself to pay his respects to someone who had done so much for the family, ungrudgingly for he had been a very good friend of their kindly and lovable father.

My journey to Aluwihare in August last year was also a trip down memory lane. For once again I was looking for pictures for Exploring with Ena which I was finalizing then. And I simply could not trace some pictures I knew I had had that showed the joys of our times together.

I found many of them in fact in the book I had produced on Ena’s 80th birthday. The first two are an early one of the Hard Core at Aluwihare and then a dinner at Nirmali Hettiarachchi’s. Then there is a picture of one of the glories of the Exhibition at the British Council that I arranged for her in 1990, followed by pictures of her with her girls at Aluwihare, the latter showing her inclusive relaxed system of work.

Then there are two weddings, hers and in contrast the picture of her daughter Anula Kusum as a bride, with her brother and Ena, a picture I have shown recently too in another context. And to conclude there are two beautiful portraits, one of her in full glamour, and then the picture Nihal Fernando contributed to the book, telling me it was better than any article.

So just a month after I had left Aluwihare I was back, on August 30th, though again just for the one night. This time I had got there when there was still light, so I could go up to the rock on which Ena and I had sat during so many evenings, watching the birds fly back over the valley below, after their foraging. Piyadasa brought Kithsiri and me tea up there as he had done in the past, as once again I exulted in the view.

And next morning as I always did I had coffee on the terrace in front of the house, watching the light mantling beyond the tamarind tree I had watched flourish over the years.

My next trip during the coronavirus restrictions was also in August last year, the period of greatest relief when we thought foolishly that we were well on top of the virus.

This journey had a social purpose, to attend the launch of a new book by Kamala Wijeratne which one of her students had arranged near Giriulla. I took with me Shashi Assella, whose mother kindly gave us breakfast, and then went to the event which was also attended by old friends of Kamala and me from Jaffna. So Pathmanathan had toured with us to showcase ‘Mirrored Images’, and Sri Ganeshan had taught for me at the Affiliated University College in Vavuniya.

But Shashi having secured a lift back, I drove on then to Aluwihare, on the Dodangaslanda route which has lovely views over the hills.

The scenery at Getamanna is wonderful, as at Aluwihare. And so too is the company, even more so that at Aluwihare where there are only Suja and Piyadasa now at the Walauwe, whereas previously Ena was the great attraction of the place.

At Getamanna Upali and Jothini and their son Themiya continue hospitable and delightful, full of insights about their work as English teachers at tertiary and secondary level respectively. They are both excellent in their work and much loved by students.

They look after the place wonderfully well, and she is a fabulous cook. And they have delightful dogs who are great companions, including Toby’s mother Sheba and his brother Ricky. He gambols along when we walk, dashing up and down the slopes on either side of the path.

And I was delighted to find the lime trees I had got planted on the slope below the verandah beginning finally to take root and grow, while the vegetable plot Upali had developed was flourishing. And then we sat down on the upper balcony of the house for a drink before lunch, looking over the trees below us.

Three weeks after that trip to Aluwihare at the end of July last year, I travelled again, this time down south on the 22nd of August. I had been to the little bit of the estate I have left in Getamanna early in the year, but then could not get down there for several months. Upali and Jothini who live in the little house there had coped admirably, and produced lots of vegetables which I have showed off previously on Facebook.

Underneath the house is a small cottage with one room and a verandah on which I set early morning with my coffee. The first two pictures here are of sunset and then a cloudy morning, still beautiful. Then there is the view across the garden from my father’s childhood home, where I would stay at first with my uncle and aunt, and then have breakfast and long chats with my aunt when I had my own place. She died sadly a couple of years back, but her children keep the place going and are happy for me to drop in for breakfast whenever I get down south, Jinadasa producing kiribath and the most fantastic onion fry up that my aunt knew I loved.

And then back at my place I walked up the path Upali made for me up the hill, for yet another wonderful view.

Rajiva Wijesinha

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