You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Memory , Understanding and Education’ category.

Chanaka Amaratunga 1958 - 1996

Introduction by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP at the seminar to launch  ‘The Liberal Party of Sri Lanka: History, Philosophy, Presentation’  in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Liberal Party of  Sri Lanka

Thirty years ago, to paraphrase the article Chanaka Amaratunga wrote to celebrate Liberalism Ten Years After, a political movement committed to the promotion of liberal values and the defence of the liberal democratic process was launched in Sri Lanka. This was the Council for Liberal Democracy, an explicit Liberalism being thought necessary because of the evolving political authoritarianism in Sri Lanka since 1970. A decisive event was the deprivation of the

Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916 - 2000) world's first female head of government

civic rights of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Then the Referendum of December 1982 postponed elections for six years, which confirmed the necessity in Sri Lankan public affairs of Liberal values, a necessity made more urgent by the communal riots of July 1983.

All these events and the growing authoritarianism of President J R Jayewardene led CLD activists to conclude that an ideological party of principle, committed to the prom­otion of Liberalism, needed to be formed – though I should mention that I was the only one at the time to disagree, since I thought we were more suited to being a think-tank than a party. Anyway, on 19th January 1987 the Liberal Party was formed and was recognized the following year. In 1986 The Liberal Review was founded as the first political journal committed to Liberalism. The Liberal Party’s Sinhala newspaperLiberal Nidahasa took liberal politics, even if to a limited degree, to those outside the English speaking urbanized class. Seminars both in Sinhala and in English, publications in both languages and the public statements and positions of the Liberal Party, introduced a distinctly novel politics to this country.

Liberals was not then inactive but if the progress of Liberalism is to be judged by the degree to which it is part of the political establishment, it cannot make many claims. The Liberal party has had minimal representation in Parliament and its membership is limited. But it would be misleading to judge its contribution by the level of its involvement in the political mainstream.

The real contribution of Liberalism lies in the realm of ideas. I need only draw your attention to the news today that the Cabinet Spokesman has mentioned the commitment of the government to introducing a second chamber. This was advocated by us a quarter of a century ago, and was condemned by all other parties at the time. But because we have made the case consistently and thoughtfully, taking into account objections but showing how beneficial such an institution should be, the idea has now won general acceptance, and indeed was part of the manifesto of the President in 2010.

Read the rest of this entry »


Keynote Address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha  at the 3rd session of the 9th International Language and Development Conference, Colombo, 19th October 2011

Language policy in Sri Lanka has been a total mess for the last century. Unfortunately, most measures taken to remedy the situation created greater problems. The aim of this paper is to provoke debate on what should be done in trying to promote economic development and social cohesion. In that respect I am perhaps luckier than my peers speaking in other sessions, since the second element in my title suggests a clear goal, whereas in other cases we are simply given abstract terms. We need to argue then about what needs to be achieved with regard to identity, education and the arts, and about these there might be disagreement. But about the need for economic development there can be no dispute, just as there can be no dispute about the need for social cohesion, if we are not, all of us, of all communities in the country as a whole, to suffer again the anguish of the last few decades.

What are the problems we face now because of absurd language policies? With regard to social cohesion, first we have a situation where members of different communities cannot in general communicate with each other, because they are straitjacketed in monoligualism. Second, members of minority communities are at a disadvantage when it comes to employment, in particular in the state sector, because they do not know the principal language of administration. Third, springing from both these factors, members of minority communities cannot readily get responses when dealing with the state sector. Fourth, where there are requirements about documentation etc being available in all languages so that all citizens can gain awareness, there are immense difficulties and delays about translation.

All these contribute to slowing up economic development. But there is another factor that is even more destructive with regard to development, namely the difficulties most of our citizens have in dealing with the world at large. This slows business down considerably, not only with regard to discussions private individuals have but also with regard to authorizations necessary from the state sector. In addition, our officials are at a disadvantage in dealing with officials from other countries. We can be exploited, unjust criticisms pass without challenge, deadlines are not met.    Read the rest of this entry »

Lieutenant General Denzil Kobbekaduwa 1940-1992

General Gerry de Silva begins his fascinating recently published memoir with what he terms an ‘Opening Gambit’. It relates an episode that took place 19 years ago, pitting the then army commander General Cecil Waidyaratna against Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vijaya Wimalaratne. The latter two were getting ready to resign, in protest at what they saw as undue restrictions on their areas of responsibility, but after Gerry de Silva’s intervention, the matter was patched up, and both went on with their work as before.

Eighteen years ago then, on August 8th, both were up in the North together, and were killed in a landmine explosion. I believe Gerry de Silva’s narrative is worth reproducing in full, on this the 19th anniversary of their death, and I attach it as an appendix to this article.
That sad story is worth remembering though, not only for sentimental reasons, but because it sheds light on what seems to have been two different tendencies in the forces, as represented most obviously by General Waidyaratne and General Kobbekaduwa. The former was tough and took no account of the winning of hearts and minds, whereas General Kobbekaduwa, doughty fighter as he was, emphasized the need to ensure that ‘the root causes of the conflict must be given due emphasis and a satisfactory political solution found that would address the aspirations of the minorities to be able to live in peace, harmony, with justice and dignity’.My first and lasting memory of General Kobbekaduwa is of the work he was doing in Trincomalee in the late eighties to make life better for civilians. I was administering a British Council project on school furniture at the time, and in visiting a small Tamil school, I found soldiers digging latrines. The headmaster said that General Kobbekaduwa had visited, asked what was needed, and taken prompt action to fulfil it.

Similar sensitivity was apparent with regard to Sinhala and Muslim schools as well, and I remember the Principal of the small Sinhala school in town telling me how he had not really bothered about maintaining his school well until the General had dropped in, seen the shortcomings, and asked him where his children went to school. In Wellawatte, he had replied, whereupon General Kobbekaduwa had gently suggested that, had his children been in the school at Trincomalee, he would have made sure it was all in order. The lesson had gone home, and the school when I visited it was incredibly neat and tidy, with teachers at work in all classes.

Such an approach is I think well grounded in the army now, as I noticed with General Kamal Guneratne’s sympathetic approach to releasing civilians from Manik Farm when others were advocating more and more security checks, with the energy with which General Hathurusinghe’s men built houses for vulnerable groups of the displaced and cleaned kovils in Kilinochchi, with General Mark’s close liaison with civil society in Jaffna, when I visited the North quite often soon after the conclusion of hostilities in 2009.

Read the rest of this entry »

Chanaka Amaratunga 1958 - 1996

Extracts on the 15th Anniversary of his death
From Memoirs of the Eighties and Nineties

Chanaka in 1981 had set up a body called the Council for Liberal Democracy, which I was initially wary of, because he said he had established it with President J R Jayewardene’s blessings. Though he had been upset at the treatment of Mrs Bandaranaike, he thought my fears exaggerated, and expressed the belief that, though some elements in the UNP had authoritarian tendencies, J R himself was basically decent.

I found this ironic, because back in England, in 1978, which was his freshman year, he had been deeply critical of J R. I was impressed by the developments in Sri Lanka, and thought J R entirely responsible for the change, whereas Dudley Senanayake had seemed to me a leader without much initiative. Chanaka however was deeply critical. Though his loyalty to the UNP was absolute in those days, he saw Dudley as an utterly decent politician of deep convictions, while J R was essentially an ambitious intriguer.

By 1980 that had changed. He was less fond of Premadasa than he had been earlier, when he had told me that Premadasa had nearly joined the Dudley front. But his real bugbear was Lalith Athulathmudali, whom he saw as potentially a dictator. He claimed indeed that J R had encouraged the formation of the CLD so as to provide space for liberal thinkers such as Gamini Dissanayake, of whom he thought very highly.

Read the rest of this entry »

At the time of Richard de Zoysa’s death in February 1990, a month before his thirty second birthday, he had for long been established as the most promising of Sri Lanka’s young English language poets. Therein of course lies a seeming paradox: a long period of promise implies that it was not fulfilled.

This is sadly true. There are just over thirty poems included here, and these represent almost all that Richard produced. There was at least one other very late gem, about his work in Jaffna along with Waruna Karunatilleke which he gave me for possible publication and then took back; but that unfortunately I cannot now trace. Apart from a few like that, and some others that were published in his school magazine (which have not been included, because he would undoubtedly have wanted them revised into better final form), Richard wrote no other poems.

Read the rest of this entry »

This article is taken from the Reconciliation Website, which subsumes the old site used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP).


V. N. Navaratnam

On January 29th, it will be twenty years since the death of V Navaratnam, Member of Parliament for Chavakachcheri for many years. Though he was of course much older than me, I think I can claim to have known him well, for he was a particular friend of my father, and associated with him with affection whilst he was Secretary General of Parliament. Their friendship was an epitome of an aspect of this country that has long been overshadowed by less pleasant ones, for they had met at the Brodie Hostel of the University of Ceylon. Mr Navaratnam alluded fondly to those days when he spoke on the vote of condolence on the Hon George Rajapakse, who had also lived in that hostel nearly 70 years ago.


Mr Navaratnam was a member of the Tamil Congress when I first got to know him properly, at a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Paris in September 1971. I was on my way to university in England, having left Ceylon as it then was in June, to take my Advanced Levels in Madras, since they could not be taken in Colombo at that period. I had then travelled straight on, to take advantage of the stopovers permitted on ordinary tickets in those days. After exploring Greece and Italy and a couple of other countries, I was exhausted by the time I reached Paris, and Tissa Wijeyeratne, our ambassador at the time, who was supposed to put me up, did not help.

Read the rest of this entry »

Reproduced here is the Introduction to, and the table of Contents of, ‘Lest We Forget: the tragedy of July 1983’. The book was published on the 25th anniversary of the events and introduced at a commemorative event conducted by the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies. It may be obtained from International Book House at 151 A Dharmapala Mawata, Colombo 3. Further information may be obtained from the publisher at or 037-2225884 or 011-2330742.


The events of July 1983 were a watershed in Sri Lankan history. At its simplest, there was an attack on Tamils in Colombo and elsewhere in the country, an attack that seemed to have at least some official sanction. This was evident not only from what seemed official resources to which the attackers had access, but also the reaction of the President, J R Jayewardene. In his first address to the nation, several days after the attacks started, he declared that the attacks were the reaction of ‘the Sinhalese people’ to the violence of Tamil terrorists. His first official response then was to introduce legislation that had the effect of driving from Parliament the elected representatives of the Tamils.

This had two predictable consequences. The first was the wider perception that the attacks had official sanction, which led to an even greater outbreak of violence on the following day, July 29th. The second was the superseding of the Tamil United Liberation Front by terrorist movements, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. And the events of July seemed to justify this, for it suggested that the Sri Lankan state was a racist oppressive state against which violence was justified.

This perception has continued, fuelled by the enormous resentment felt by many Tamils who fled the country at this time and later. Though after July 29th the government called a halt to such violence, and though this has never been repeated in the quarter century that has passed, it is understandable that many Tamils, especially those who left in 1983 or soon afterwards, see Sri Lanka through the prism of 1983. They, and their descendants, feel understandably bitter, and have striven since to ensure that nothing of the sort can happen again. This has led to support for the concept of a separate state, as canvassed most effectively by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and hence continuing funding of what is now one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world. A collateral result of this perhaps has been total ruthlessness in dealing with other Tamil groups, for the Tiger determination to ensure a monopoly of support is fuelled by the enormous financial and political rewards of such a monopoly as far as it concerns the Tamil diaspora.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Daily Mirror published a not quite complete version of the following article, which first appeared some years back. It is published here in full.

(Text of an article published in June 2004)

Felix Dias Bandaranaike (1930 - 1985)

Felix Dias Bandaranaike died 19 years ago, on June 26th. He was not yet 55 at the time, which seems astonishing since he had loomed large on the political stage for as long as I could remember.

I first saw him in action in 1965, and it is difficult to think now that that enormously impressive figure was not yet 35 at the time. The occasion was my avid attendance at the debate on the first Throne Speech presented by the Dudley Senanayake Coalition government elected that year. My father had recently become Secretary General of Parliament, and I found the whole process of politics quite fascinating. Though my family claimed that I was more interested in the teas that were served to guests, my continuing interest in politics, and more importantly personalities in politics, assures me that greed alone was not the motivating factor.

The personal element was indeed glorious in those long ago days. I had been moved the previous year by the clarion calls for press freedom that had brought down Mrs Bandaranaike’s first government. It was only later that I realized that bribery had had much more to do with what had happened, as was the case nearly four decades later, in 2001. But in 1964, as in 2001, I had naively assumed that the end result was better for the country, not understanding that perverting democracy produces an inevitable reaction.

Read the rest of this entry »

Richard De Zoysa


Richard de Zoysa died twenty years ago, in the early hours of February 18th 1990. He had been abducted from his home earlier that night by a posse of armed men, part of the death squads which had dealt with what was seen in those days as the JVP menace. 

The methods used during that period to rid the country of what was seen as terror are now all forgotten. This is not only because they occurred two decades and more ago, and our memories are incredibly short. No, it was also because the perpetrators of terror in those days were also part of the establishment, and therefore any misdemeanours on their part are naturally skated over. 

In that respect Richard’s death proved a turning point. Being himself a member of the establishment, however rebellious, he could not be ignored, and it is in part because of his death that the reign of terror came to a halt. And perhaps even more fortunately, the criticism then led to crystallization of protest, the emergence of a proactive Civil Society that has made itself heard ever since, when abuses take place. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Address at the Colombo Conference of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats on ‘Promoting Choice and Excellence in Education’

I am grateful to the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats for agreeing to our suggestion that the first event for this year, with Sri Lanka taking over the Chairmanship of the Council, should be this Conference on Education. This is only the second event that CALD is holding in Asia over the seventeen years of its existence. The last one was in 2003, as part of the ten year anniversary celebrations, and I am glad that that event was followed by the recruitment of an associate member from Pakistan, the Pakistan Liberal Forum. I hope very much that this event will be followed by a further accession from Asia, with luck from India.

India, like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has had difficulties with the concept of Liberalism, since we all got our independence in the heyday of Socialism in Britain. That was the source then of the political philosophies of all our intellectuals, who dominated the discourse in the first few decades after independence, whether in acquiescence to the imperial enterprise or in rebellion. For this reason we claim to be a Democratic Socialist Republic, while India has gone one step further, and enjoined constitutionally that all political parties profess socialism. I believe Mr Bhutto too embarked on this path, and his concept of the all powerful state has continued in Pakistan to all intents and purposes, with often the added controls provided by a militaristic outlook.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2019
« Dec    
%d bloggers like this: