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‘The two sisters among the mourners, whose voices had till now lacked their usual intensity, rose and rent the air with their shrill cries, quite unconcerned about the fate of the Master of Ceremonies. The four mourners now worked in unison, their bodies swaying like reeds in the wind, and lamented in chorus:

‘The poor will miss you, oh, you charitable one!

Who is going to feed us on festival days?

Your grandson has come, wake up, my beloved!

Your grandson has come, wake up, my darling!’’

From Alagu Subramaniam, ‘Professional Mourners’


Sarala Fernando

Some years back, in compiling an Anthology of Sri Lankan short stories entitled ‘Bridging Connections’, I included a sharp satire by Alagu Subramaniam entitled ‘Professional Mourners’. Though the main subject of satire was the upper caste family which took ruthless advantage of the poor women who were paid to mourn at funerals, I was reminded of that chorus of women when I saw a recent piece by Sarala Fernando, described as ‘a retired diplomat…served as Ambassador in Geneva from 2004-2007’, which is supposed to be about what she describes as ‘the race that is being run between the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission in Sri Lanka and the Panel appointed by the UN Secretary General in New York.

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Minority Rights Group International has just issued a report which repeats a lot of the unsubstantiated critiques of the Sri Lankan state which we have heard in recent months. The BBC asked me to respond to three specific points, which I did, though ultimately the story was not used. I think this shows maturity on the part of the BBC, to realize that this sort of extravagant generalization is not of great importance to the world at large.

However, since another source brought the report to my attention, I thought it would be useful to publicize this initial response. The attack follows a similar pattern to what we faced in the past, with a tendentious press release that makes horrendous generalizations – “Human rights violations in Sri Lanka continue unabated against ethnic Tamils and Muslims who fear an increasingly nationalist government” – which are not borne out at all by the report. I was reminded of the first such effusion I saw, when Human Rights Watch issued a release that talked about indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the East, whereas the report itself recorded only one such incident, when civilians had died, but as a result of mortar locating radar. The report recorded that the LTTE had been present with weapons in the refugee camp that was attacked, though it claimed, knowing better than the radar, that there were no heavy weapons around.
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This article is taken from the Reconciliation Website, which subsumes the old site used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP).

In asking me to comment on the reported boycott of the Galle Literary Festival by two writers, Sirasa TV also wanted some background information on the Festival, in particular as to whether it was of service to Sri Lanka. I had been told before about the call by Reporters beyond Borders that the Festival be boycotted, on the grounds that media freedom in Sri Lanka is under threat. I had also been sent the robust critique of that call on Groundviews, a media outlet that exemplifies the freedom the media in Sri Lanka enjoys. It was suggested too that I write something on the issue, but I had wanted, on a Saturday, to work on Sri Lankan Poetry. However, having done an interview for Sirasa, I felt there was no good excuse for not putting pen to paper.

With regard to the Festival itself, I believe it is of great benefit to Sri Lanka. When the Festival was started, way back in 2007 I think, there was much criticism in various quarters, including that it was basically a money making exercise for its founder, Geoffrey Dobbs. But there should be no objection to people making money, so long as they provide services to others that give value for money. It seemed to me that Dobbs was doing that.

A second objection was that the Festival had nothing really to do with Sri Lanka. This seemed to me a more valid objection, since in that first year there were I believe no Sri Lankan writers involved, excepting expatriates. It was also difficult, given the cost of events, for most Sri Lankans not out of the top financial bracket to attend.
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Reading through the revelations about Sri Lanka in Wikileaks, I am struck most of all by how they confirm the assumptions on which I have been working over the last few years. I cannot pretend I knew all the ramifications of government policy over this period, but obviously, in fulfilling my responsibilities, as Head of the Peace Secretariat, and also Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I had to relate to interlocutors in terms of their essential attitudes to the Sri Lankan government.

This was particularly important since a fair amount of my work was with the international community, both in helping to coordinate international humanitarian assistance, which was a responsibility allocated to my Ministry, and also in assisting my Minister and our Ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, with the various attacks on us that were being launched at the Human Rights Council.

Dayan had realized, soon after he went to Geneva in 2007, that the British were our main enemies. He was practically told as much by Nick Thorne, the then British Ambassador, and also by various others who, though they had to follow the British line, were not so happy with it. Thorne was a bit of a bully, and one did not mind responding to him forcefully. More upsetting was the approach of his successor, who was clearly a very nice man, but permitted his young ladies, who had been trained as it were by Thorne, to be crudely, and often inaccurately, critical.

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Some questions from the ‘Daily Mirror’ regarding Wikileaks brought back memories of my first attempt to talk to journalists. This was in 1980, and some elements in government had realized that the rigid controls the Jayewardene government exercised were not working. I was asked then to address youngsters at the SLBC, and I began by challenging the current interpretation, trumpeted about at the time by the government press, of the old adage that facts were sacred and comment was free.

I started by saying that facts referred to events explored by the journalists, not what a government spokesman said was a fact. Before I could go further I was interrupted by a stentorian voice rising from a wheelchair in the corner. This was Nimal Karunatilleke’s. The once radical hope of the SLFP, who had heralded the 1956 victory by defeating Bernard Aluwihare in Matale, was now a dogmatic supporter of Jayewardene’s UNP. He declared that ideas from Oxford were not appropriate in Sri Lanka, where the media belonged to the government.

I tried to continue, to point out that comment being free did not mean one could say whatever one wanted. Opinions had to be argued with evidence and rationally. But by then all authority had fallen away, and I don’t suppose the youngsters were listening.

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With David Cameron PM - June 2010

It was depressing, on my first morning in England this time round, to attend a debate at the House of Commons on Sri Lanka in which the usual suspects revived their attacks on Sri Lanka and its government. However, since unlike them one should look at what is in a half full glass, rather than concentrate on what is missing, it seemed to me that there was also reason for optimism.

In the first place, there were fewer of the suspects than previously. Dismal Andrew Dismore had been defeated, as Joan Ryan had been. It was the latter who thought education in the Vanni was finished when Save the Children withdrew, only to be roundly rebuked by Save the Children itself. Andrew Pelling was gone, and so was Susan Kramer, who had been heavily involved with the hunger striker of MacDonalds fame last year. And even those who remained seemed more subdued, as though they no longer believed in their exaggerations.

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(Based on an intervention at the discussion on the Resolution on the recent developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, proposed by the British Liberal Democrats and passed overwhelmingly in a reconciled version by the  Executive Committee of Liberal International)

The Gaza Strip

I am always touched when I hear Europeans respond to criticism of Israel. Even when, as today, they know Israel has done something naughty, they bend over backwards to make it clear that their criticism of any action is not a criticism of Israel itself.

This is perfectly understandable, given the appalling treatment by many European countries of Jews, not only during the Second World War, but over hundreds of years previously. It is necessary to remember all that, and we should not discourage the sense of guilt European nations feel and their determination to keep alive their memory of the horrors they once perpetrated.

However, what is immensely sad is that, in remembering this, they seem determined to forget other horrors they perpetrated against other peoples. They appear to have wiped out of their collective memory the fact that much of the suffering the Middle East is going through now arose from the arbitrary divisions made after the First World by some European countries determined to uphold their own selfish interests.

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Lord Saville, who chaired the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

I am writing in response to the blog entry by Banyan entitled, in the weblink url, as ‘Sri Lanka and Reconciliation’. Sadly, but I suppose not unexpectedly when the British deal with Sri Lanka, the entry dealt with British concerns, not with what the title promised.

The entry was based on a conversation at a dinner party, but took no account of the healthy input there by both Tamil and Sinhala local Councillors in Britain who advanced ideas on how reconciliation could be taken forward. Instead it concentrated on a discussion about the Savile Report, based on mention of criticism in 2009 (by our Ambassador in Geneva) of the then British Government’s insistence on a swift international war crimes inquiry even while the second internal report on Bloody Sunday was still in preparation.

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Resettlement of the displaced from Welfare Centres

The recent rapid progress with regard to resettlement of the displaced from Welfare Centres is immensely welcome. It is also indicative of a coherent planning process that was carried out without concern for disruptive pressures that took no account of national needs.

Thus until May 2009 it was obvious that government had to be extremely careful about the possibility of an LTTE resurgence in the Vanni. With the destruction of the main LTTE leadership that danger seemed less intense, but there was continuing need for vigilance, particularly in the context of some countries trying to privilege the rump of the LTTE that remained abroad. Though that danger too seemed less with the arrest of Mr Pathmanathan, the determination of that rump to resurrect separatism, and therefore the further risk of terrorism, meant that care was still necessary. We had to keep checking as to whether there were enough hardcore experienced activists amongst the displaced to promote an LTTE resurgence.

Though the checking seemed slow, it was obviously absurd for anyone not involved in security matters to second guess those in authority in this regard. But whilst the checks were being conducted, planning for resettlement was proceeding apace, with even the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi District Secretariats working on selecting and readying sites from as early as June 2009. In any case the deadline the government had set itself remained steady, except only that the initial assumption that the bulk would be done by December shifted to January.

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Philip Alston - United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.


 On August 12th last year an appalling incident took place in Angulana, when two young men were arrested, and subsequently killed. Even if one refrained from drawing any conclusions about who was responsible, one could say definitely that this was a clear case of extra-judicial or summary or arbitrary execution.   

The case was not however of great interest to Prof Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial or Summary or Arbitary Executions. Perhaps he did not understand the gravity of the incident, though that would be surprising, given the intense interest he has evinced in Sri Lanka of late, and the flood of information concerning this country that he evidently receives. Most recently issued a press release about a video, while earlier in May he was party to a press release that was, not entirely coincidentally, issued at the time when some Western countries were desperately seeking signatures for a Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council before the LTTE fighting force in Sri Lanka was destroyed.   

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2020
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