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Chanaka Amaratunga died 20 years ago on August 1st, 1996. He died a very disappointed man, for he had not been put into Parliament at the previous election. Those of us who have been in Parliament can vouch that that is no panacea for disappointment, given how sadly our Parliamentary traditions have been traduced. But Chanaka was a passionate believer in the Westminster system, the last perhaps to care deeply about its forms, with the possible exception of his great friend, Anura Bandaranaike.

I have written previously about the reasons Chanaka was not put in Parliament, but it is appropriate here, today, to note categorically that his hopes were destroyed by two people. In their careers they have often seemed polar opposites, but at the time they were united in their determination to keep Chanaka out. But I should note that it was not primarily dislike of him that motivated them, but rather fear – a much under-estimated factor in Sri Lankan politics. The fear was not of him but of another of his great friends, Gamini Dissanayake.

The two conspirators I refer to are Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga. It is the more essential now to expound what happened because, in their subtle and not so subtle ways, they will now destroy Maithripala Sirisena, as they have destroyed so much else, unless their essential negativity is recognized. For once again what has brought them together is not anything positive, but rather a visceral hatred of Mahinda Rajapaksa. And underlying this hatred again is fear, and envy for they realize that he is much loved still in the country. This is despite all his faults and the faults of his government, because he achieved much for the country, not least destroying the terror that had burgeoned under their watch. They on the contrary did very little when they were in power, one for over a decade, the other in short spells, during which the power of the Tigers grew exponentially. Read the rest of this entry »

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Chanaka Amaratunga died 19 years ago, on the 1st of August 1996. He died a disappointed man, for he had not entered Parliament, which had been his dream. Only Chanaka, imbued in the Westminster style of Liberal Democratic politics, could have written an article entitled ‘In Praise of Parliament’ at a time when the Executive Presidency was well entrenched in Sri Lanka, and the tradition of the independent Parliamentarian long lost.

qrcode.30571558He had hoped to enter Parliament in 1988, when he was on the SLFP National List, but the defeat of the SLFP then had led to the sidelining of Anura Bandaranaike, who had been his great friend. He told me that, when he went to Rosmead Place on the day after the election, Sunethra had met him with the claim that the only hope for the party now was to bring Chandrika back. He had said this was nonsense, and that perhaps put paid to his chances. After her defeat, Mrs Bandaranaike too felt that the policies Anura had promoted had been a mistake, and moved back to the left.

Anura still had residual support, but he was soft-hearted to a fault, and gave up the Secretaryship of the party when he was appointed to the post on a split decision. The newspapers at the time reported that his mother had stormed out of the room, and he had followed her, and agreed to a compromise whereby Dharmasiri Senanayake became Secretary. The latter worked for Chandrika, and as we know she came back and took over. By then, though, it should be noted that Sunethra was supportive of her brother and when, forgetting the change that had taken place, I asked her what her sister was up to, she told me that she was trying to throw ‘my darling brother’ out of the party.

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Richard De ZoysaI was deeply saddened earlier this month to hear of the death of the marvelous Engish actress Geraldine McEwan. I had got to know her 30 years earlier, shortly after I joined the British Council, when she toured Sri Lanka with her one-woman Jane Austen show.

I had been determined to take the tour all over the country, but by then we were advised not to go to Jaffna. So we went instead to Batticaloa, where we found a most appreciative audience. Geraldine also had what was for her a first time experience, in that bats swooped in and out of the hall during the performance.

But she, and her Stage Manager Catherine Bailey, were infinitely adaptable, and said they had enjoyed the tour thoroughly. After the Batticaloa performance, we had a cyclone scare, and had to leave Passekudah, where we were staying, before dawn broke.

That should have been the high point of the tour, but what Geraldine and Catherine remembered most vividly, during our long friendship over the next three decades, was the previous night. After a performance at Peradeniya in collaboration with the university, Richard de Zoysa turned up at the Citadel, and we had a lively dinner which went on into the early hours.

Richard was a fantastic companion in any context, and he struck exactly the right note for Geraldine and Catherine who had a deep sense of social commitment. They would ask after him often in the years that followed, and were profoundly upset when he was murdered, 25 years ago. The fact that it was because of his passion for social justice added to the poignancy of his death, for them, as it should for all of us. Read the rest of this entry »

downloadIn July 2008, when I was head of the Peace Secretariat, I published a volume entitled ‘Lest We Forget’, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the ethnic violence of July 1983. I had wanted the President to preside over a meeting to express regrets, but he did not think this appropriate at the time. However I had no doubt that, as a member in 1983 of the opposition that also suffered from the authoritarianism of the Jayewardene government, he understood the enormity of what had happened in 1983.

Now I am not so sure. Though he has reacted much better to the events at Aluthgama than Jayewardene did, he has not been firm enough in ensuring zero tolerance for racism. And though he recognizes that the activities of the BBS and its leader are destructive, he seems to think that they have emerged through an international conspiracy. The pronouncements of close associates in government who have encouraged the attitudes propounded by the BBS (or, on a charitable view, fallen headlong into the trap laid by the supposed international conspirators) is ignored.

Worse the President also seems to believe in the danger presented by Muslim extremists. It is unfortunate that he does not see that a more irrational version of such fears is the purported raison d’etre of the conspirators he criticizes. What is then an essential ambiguity suggests that, unless he assesses the situation more carefully, we are in danger of descending into the mess caused by the Jayewardene government in 1983.

When, with a view to reproducing it, I got out this introduction to the book that was published, I tried changing the references to 1983 to relate the article to recent history. Though obviously the President behaved much better than President Jayewardene, who justified the attacks of 1983 and used it to introduce legislation that drove the TULF from Parliament, the changes by and large worked, and indicated that current tensions and hardening attitudes could lead us to further excesses.

My fear is that, unless the President takes action soon, things will spiral out of control. The fact that J R Jayewardene knew what Mathew was up to made it easier for him to control the man when it became clear that his approach was destroying the country and alienating all except those who subscribed to his views and his ambitions. President Rajapaksa’s relative innocence may render him less effective if and when the crunch comes. The fact that he was kept in ignorance of the warning conveyed by one of this own Ministers to the Inspector General of Police before the emotive rally that led to mayhem is symptomatic of the isolation to which he is subject. Perhaps his most loyal supporter in the inner circle said recently that he was being kept in ignorance of what is going on in the country. That must change if he and the country are not to suffer what we all went through after 1983. Read the rest of this entry »

bishopLakshman Wickremesinghe, Bishop of Kurunagala from 1962 to 1983, died 30 years ago, on October 23rd. He was undoubtedly the most impressive Anglican Bishop Sri Lanka has produced, and with every year that passes his stature seems to grow.

Much has been written about him recently, most notably in Rajan Hoole’s detailed assessment of what happened in July 1983. Hoole shows how those events contributed to his premature death for, though he had a heart condition and had been advised to take things slow, he threw himself into trying to assuage the hurt felt by Tamils who had suffered in the state sponsored attacked on them.

He had been in England in July, taking the much needed break his doctors had advised, and trying to set down his thoughts on an oriental view of Christianity. In the last conversation we had, on the phone for I got to England on the day he was due to leave, he assured me that he would take things slow, in trying first to understand what had happened, and how the social dispensation into which he had been born had turned rabid. But seeing the suffering and the bewilderment, he did not rest, being the first Sinhalese dignitary to go up to Jaffna to apologize for what had happened.

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Chanaka Amaratunga died tragically on the 1st of August 1996. Almost exactly 9 years previously he had penned the Liberal Party statement on the Indo-Lankan Accord, which still stands as the most intelligent assessment of that seminal episode in modern Sri Lankan history. It was a ringing assertion of principle and moderation at a time when dogmatic opponents of the Accord were suggesting that disaster had struck us, as though a remedy was not urgently needed for the disasters the country had been going through for years.

The relentless erosion of democracy – with the referendum that postponed elections, the political arrests and torture and murder that were widespread (Ananda Sunil for example, and the state sponsored murders in Welikada in 1983), the intimidation of Judges of the Supreme Court who delivered unwelcome judgments or statements (which the West delighted in during those Reagan days, when ‘our bastards’ were protected whatever they did) – and the ruthless suppression of moderate Tamil opinion had led to violence that was corrosive. Though it is now argued that the Indians prevented what would have been certain victory over the Tigers in 1987, that was certainly not assured, nor could it have led to lasting peace and reconciliation, given the deep resentments in the country at the time, in the South as well as the North.

But while diehard opposition to the Accord was myopic, much worse was the acceptance of all its provisions without demur. Indeed the only change made because of opposition by those who were in favour was the removal of English from equal status with the other two languages – the Left Parties made this their only serious objection to what the President had agreed. There was no mention of the need to allow debate and discussion (media freedom was not something people were concerned about in those dark days), of the urgency of having elections nationwide, of the preposterous provisions regarding enforced merger of two Provinces. Even the usually idealistic Vijaya Kumaranatunga forgot some of the principles for which he had fought bravely in the previous period, and seemed to have no reservations about what had been agreed.

In such a context, the statement the Liberal Party issued, with its cautions that subsequent events showed were fully justified, deserves to be read again. Seventeen years after Chanaka died, his analyses of what Sri Lanka was going through, remain the most illuminating of our political writings. Read the rest of this entry »

Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Emeritus Professor of Languages
Prepared for the session on ‘Language and Literature’
Of the Sabaragamuwa University Symposium on
Harnessing Knowledge through Research to address emerging Global Issues
January 11th 2012

I am grateful to Sabaragamuwa University for having invited me back to chair this session and speak to you. I am delighted that amongst the speakers today are two former students of this university, one of whom is now a Senior Lecturer. He deserves special congratulations for this, since he succeeded finally in overcoming all the difficulties that confront academics in this country who need to obtain further degrees in the field of English so as to continue in service. Fortunately the situation is somewhat better now, and the Rapporteur today, yet another former student of mine, though from Sri Jayewardenepura, has a doctorate under the scheme implemented by the National Centre for Advanced Study of the Humanities, which we finally managed to set up when I was Acting Dean here.

That institution is a egregious example of what I wish to address in this presentation. I should note however that your invitation came at a bad time, when I was in even greater despair than usual about education in this country, and about English Education in particular. I had been with yet another couple of students of this University, who were telling me all about how several Ordinary Level question papers were for sale through tutories before the examination. I was told in graphic detail about the subject for still life drawing that appeared in the Art Paper, with the details – including the number of leaves in the croton in the vase – all known beforehand.

I am perhaps simplistic in blaming primarily the tuition industry for this, since it takes two to tango, but I had just before that been confronted with forceful complaints at Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings in the East, about how tuition was ruining the young. Obviously I could not accede to the request that I suggest to the President that tuition be banned, since government must bear at least some of the responsibility for permitting the privileging of the tuition culture. Teachers and parents cannot be blamed for believing that tuition is an essential part of education, given the nexus that exists between the formal education system and tutories –  of which the most obvious evidence now is the relentless leaking of public examination papers by tuition masters.

But this urge to have recourse to outside elements is an essential part of our approach to education, as I realized in thinking about the other horror story that was brought to my notice. This related to a training programme for lecturers in English at Technical Colleges, which had been conducted by the British Council at a substantial cost. I was told over 6 million rupees had been expended, though the participants were expected to pay for their board and lodging, in comparatively squalid conditions.

I have regularly been told by decision makers who agree that standards of English have to be improved that they will ask the British Council for assistance. Unfortunately they believe that the British Council is an aid organization, as was the case until the eighties, when it provided seminal assistance with regard to English and other training needs.

Unfortunately no one in authority now seems to understand that the Council is no longer run on the old lines, being also required to function on commercial principles. In the old days the idea was to develop Sri Lankan counterparts so that we could be self sustaining in time, now the aim is to continue to be needed, so that it can go on from contract to contract. Aid is thus a tool of business, with grants – and even more often loans – being instruments of winning business deals, which later have to be renewed without such support.

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A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Antony Powell is one of the most impressive fictional works of the last century. The narrator comes across different characters in different settings over the years, and I was reminded of this as I saw so many old friends coming in here today to celebrate Parvathi Nagasunderam and her work.

I was delighted to see Prof Wilson, who was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura when Paru and I

began our work there, and was a tower of strength. Dinali Fernando was one of those we recruited along with Paru, and I also see here Madhubhashini Ratnayake, who is now at USJP, though I am sorry to say we did not succeed when we tried to recruit her then, way back in 1992.

I see Lakshmi Cumaranatunga, who headed the Higher Institute of English Education when Paru taught there, before we persuaded her to come to USJP. Then there is Prof Narada Warnasuriya, who was on the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education, when I chaired it in 2004. And I see students such as Lalith Ananda and Sarath Ananda and Palitha Dissanayake, whom Paru taught at the Pasdunrata College of Education, whom she introduced to the Asset Course I ran while at the British Council, and who subsequently joined either USJP or its Affiliated University Colleges when we began English courses there in revolutionizing English at universities.

And then there are Paru’s sisters, including the one I know best, Dr Fernando. When I say I know her, I should say that this is not directly, it is through her husband, Dr Joe Fernando, who was Secretary of the Ministry of Health, who was a constant visitor at my home because he lived nearby and would often drop in on my father during his relentless healthy walking round the block.

I discovered, in the dance of different characters to time’s music that we come across, that Joe was Paru’s brother-in-law. This happened because there was a news item, about 20 years ago, to the effect that the Secretary to the Ministry of Health had developed aids – which as we know from Joe’s continuing healthy walking, was not the case – and I mentioned this to Paru during one of the long journeys we would take together to the AUC at Belihuloya which later became Sabaragamuwa University. Paru laconically said that she would ask her sister, who was married to the Secretary.

I am delighted then to see Dr Mrs Fernando and another sister here, because I feel I know them well. They belong to a very distinguished family of educationists from Jaffna. I am sorry I never met Paru’s  eldest sister, who was Principal of the Kopay Training College, though I did regularly meet the second, whom Paru looked after when she had to leave Jaffna after her elder sister’s death, since the family was then scattered far and wide.

I have not come here with a prepared text, because I wanted to see the type of audience there was before I spoke. The vast numbers of young people here, I am told, are Paru’s students from USJP and from Pasdunrata, and their presence here is a tribute to the deep devotion they feel towards her for her commitment to them. I thought therefore that I would talk about the challenges that Paru has faced, and how she has overcome them to move from strength to strength, in the hope that the range of her work will inspire these youngsters too to become teachers like her.

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By L.N.D. Anuruddha KUMARA

Rajiva Wijesinha is recognized as one of the best post- colonial Sri Lankan writers in English, distinguished for his political analysis as well as creative and critical work.

He has been an academic by profession for much of his working career; he was a Senior Professor of Languages at the University of Sabaragamuwa of Sri Lanka when I started university there to read my undergraduate in English literature in 1997 and it is there that I met him for the first time. Since then he has stood out as one of the major influential writers today with an elegant style of writing, producing a unique selection of literary genres within a short period of time.

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha in Syria

Given his success, I felt it worthwhile to research how his education has influenced him to achieve such literary milestones during his life. First, I will study his educational ladder and see how he ended up at University College Oxford, one of the most prestigious universities in England.

I will then discuss his work as well as his experiences as a writer and finally we will see how his content of education has contributed to distinguishing him as a talented writer both locally and internationally.

ACHIEVING MILESTONES IN EDUCATION

Rajiva was born to a Sri Lankan aristocratic family on May 16, 1954 and schooled at S.t Thomas’ College, Mt.Lavinia,Colombo. It is necessary to understand two important questions here, firstly; how did he gained admission to the best private English Christian school at the time? Even though school started during the British period, admission was highly restricted to the Christian upper English speaking elite class even in 1960s.

So Rajiva got into this school because his family members of the upper English speaking social class, where not only his father but also most of his other relations were old boys of this college and had brought fame to the school in different ways. His father was a senior administrative officer, while his mother was also an educated Christian, therefore he easily got into this school and his affluent parents were able to look after him. The second important question is how did this school help him to get into Oxford? For this, his systematic education at school, his habit of reading, as he says, ‘I read extensively from my childhood on’ and his family background have immensely contributed to his academic intelligence and winning an Open Exhibition in Classics to University College, Oxford when he was just 16.

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Chanaka Amaratunga 1958 - 1996

This article written in 2008 is being republished in the light of the Trilingual Initiative launched yesterday in the presence of former Indian President A.P.J.Abdul Kalam.

Chanaka Amaratunga and the 13th Amendment – a 50th birthday reflection – A lost opportunity

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha  President of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka, 1987-2007

19 April 2008

Had he lived, Chanaka Amaratunga would have been 50 on April 19.  He died a few months after his 38th birthday, in a state of some disappointment, having been denied in 2004 the nomination to Parliament that the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress had promised.

The failure to stick to his promise was one of the shadows that hung over Ashraff and, though he achieved significant status for his Muslim Congress in his lifetime, there is little doubt that his betrayal of Chanaka contributed to his failure to become a national leader. He tried to make amends through establishment of the National Unity Alliance in 2000, but he died before he could fulfil the promise of that new beginning.

It will never be known in the end precisely who was finally responsible for leaving Chanaka out. Ashraff said that President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had been opposed to him, she is supposed to have suggested that she had no great problem and that the final decision was Mr Ashraff’s.  There was some fear clearly that he would vote with the opposition (there was talk that Anura Bandaranaike, then in the UNP, would be put forward for the Speaker post, and Mrs Kumaratunga was worried, unlike six years later, that he might be selected).  More relevantly, his great friend Asitha Perera ruthlessly used his relationship to the Bandaranaikes, his willingness to become a Muslim, and – I am sorry to admit – my own belief in his loyalty to Chanaka, a loyalty Chanaka more sensibly had realized was subject to personal ambition, to insinuate himself into Parliament and then stick on like a limpet.

It was all a tragedy, but it was a tragedy more for Mrs Kumaratunga and Mr Ashraff, than initially it seemed to Chanaka. Listening recently to her Constitutional Adviser, Jayampathy Wickremeratne, proposing initiatives that she had obviously ignored, one was struck again by the sheer waste of her years in power. One must admire her courage in adversity, particularly the manner in which she blasted LTTE ambitions by dealing firmly with the Wickremesinghe government when it usurped her powers, and stopped the dreaded totalitarian Interim Self Governing Administration it had offered; her reintroduction of English medium will also remain a lasting legacy; but her failure to reform the Constitution and the structure of the State will ultimately determine her place in history. Chanaka in Parliament would have changed all that, by sheer force of conviction, by the trust the Tamils had in him, by his international reputation at that point.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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