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The manifesto was launched at a ceremony at Vihara Maha Devi Park on December 19th. That was my grandmother’s birthday, and I thought, when I went to the cemetery afterwards, that she would have been pleased that I was working together with Ranil. At the same time, though I realized that was essential, and UNP support was of the essence if Maithripala Sirisena were to win, it was also clear that the UNP itself was in shambles, and had little capacity for effective coordination.

I had sensed this in the decline of Mangala Samaraweera, whom I had thought of as one of the more sophisticated members of the UNP. He had been instrumental in getting Vasantha Senanayake to be the first member of the government to announce publicly that he would not support Mahinda Rajapaksa, though sadly for Vasantha he ignored the request that the Press Conference be held at an independent venue. Mangala instead dragooned Vasanth into making his announcement at Siri Kotha, which led to him being identified with the UNP, which had never been Vasantha’s intention. That was taken ruthless advantage of later to cut him down, tragically for both President Sirisena and also for the UPFA, which he could have contributed to immeasurably.

Twice after the common candidature was announced, Vasantha took me to see Mangala. But instead of the bright strategist I had assumed I would find, I had to deal with an amiable drunk, who wanted nothing better than to gossip over a drink, and then another. After the second such evening, in his delightful house in Ratmalana, I realized that this was yet another broken reed, his period out of power having deprived him of the capacity to focus which he had displayed earlier as a Minister.

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Though I resigned from my Ministerial post, I had no intention initially of leaving the government. But even within a month of the new government taking office, there were reasons for grave worry.

No concern at all was evinced with regard to the solemn commitments in the manifestos. The 100 day manifesto, drafted after so much careful discussion, was almost completely ignored. Maithripala Sirisena was indeed sworn in on the 11th, but Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in at the same time, not on the next day with the Cabinet as pledged. The Cabinet, slightly larger than pledged and composed predominantly of UNP members, without representation of all parties in Parliament was sworn in on the 13th. The National Advisory Council, renamed the National Executive Council, was again constituted late and did not have representation of all members of Parliament. It soon ceased to function, with the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament which it had entrusted to the Leader of the JVP swiftly forgotten.

Nothing was done about the pledge to amend Standing Orders on January 20th, and it was only because I already had a motion to amend Standing Orders on the table that this was taken up on the 29th. I realized then that the UNP in general was clueless about the whole business, but its membership at large was not obstructive. Lakshman Kiriella, the Chief Whip, let me move my motion, and the Committee on Standing Orders met the following month. We accomplished much, but then Ranil stepped in and imposed a delay until his proposal to set up Consultative Committees was drafted. That this was a ploy became clear when his chosen instrument for this, Priyani Wijeyesekera, told me the draft was ready but he had told her to hold it back. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

There was much to do in the few days following my father’s death, but we had no complications, because both my mother and he had been very clear when they wrote their wills. My father had not wanted to write one, on the grounds that he had nothing in his name, but I had persuaded him that he had to because unexpected possessions could turn up. And in fact he certainly possessed a car.

He said he would leave that to me, but I thought that would not be correct given that I had persuaded him to write a will. He then wanted to leave it to Anila’s son, which seemed an eminently sensible idea, but she was adamant about not having a benefit for her family over and above what the children of my brother had. So in the end my father decided to give the car to Chamara who had looked after him devotedly over the last couple of years.

Anila, hyper-conscious of equity, suggested he leave it to both those who looked after him, but this was silly because Sunil, whom I had taken on when the Reconciliation Office closed, though a good worker, was not the old friend Chamara was regarded as by my father. I thought it best then not to consult Anila about the will in general, in particular the clause about a residual legatee, which was essential since one never knew what might pop up in my father’s name. Again he wanted to nominate me, but I insisted on Anila and he did not demur. This proved just as well, because there turned out to be a motorcycle he had bought for his last driver, Jayantha, and also some shares in my mother’s name.

The main house had been left by my mother to my sister and me jointly, on the grounds that we would not quarrel. This did not prove to be an accurate prediction, since we had very different tastes, but it was certainly true that no one could have doubted Anila’s financial integrity and sense of equity, and I hope she would say the same about me. Read the rest of this entry »

I had left for Jordan the day after my father’s 93rd birthday, on June 27th. He had had a party as usual, and all the reception rooms downstairs, the dining room and the rectangular verandah in front, and the large drawing room with its extensions, the round verandah giving on to the garden and the smaller room behind where the piano stands, were all full. But numbers were fewer than in previous years and, though as usual my father enjoyed himself, he had not been as determined as in previous years that no one should be left out, that all friends and relations should be invited.

He seemed to enjoy cutting the cake and I have a lovely picture of him just afterwards, with his three children around him and his oldest friend, C Mylvaganam, who was just a few hours older, seen dimly in the background. We also had the usual ritual of opening presents afterwards, which I remembered too from my grandmother’s birthdays, the last one in 1993 her 93rd.

I sensed that this birthday would also be my father’s last, though I continued to think, or perhaps to hope, that he would live longer than his mother-in-law had done. She had died on his birthday in 1994, a little over six months after her birthday, so I thought that my father would be with us until Christmas and beyond.

He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but the doctor had told us that there was no point in any intervention, it was a very slow moving disease, and old age was likely to do for my father before the cancer did. It had got worse earlier that year, but there still seemed no reason to worry overmuch. But after I got back from Jordan I had to take him for several tests, and it was clear that his condition was worsening. After the last test I showed a specialist, recommended when the enormously kind Dr Malalasekera, who had dealt initially with the prostate problem, thought this now necessary, it was clear that nothing more could be done. I was simply tasked then with trying to ensure that he did not worry. Fortunately we could at any stage call on the old family GP, Vimala Navaratnam, the most thoughtful and practical of doctors.

I was still out much of the time, travelling to the North and East for Reconciliation meetings at Divisional Secretariats, in Parliament for various committees, and at my cottage over weekends. This was not a problem for my father still continued interested in his principal pursuits in these last few years, cricket and Hindi films. He also still read, though not as much as he had done when he would sit upright at his desk in the lounge. Now he spent all day in his room, in his armchair, though he did still make the effort to come to the dining room for meals. But he had at last accepted the need for a wheelchair, and I had my coffee alone in the lounge until he was ready to emerge for breakfast. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2017
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