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The renewal of my involvement with Trinity happened at a very busy time. I was purportedly removed from the Board in September 2013, which was perhaps the last straw as far as those Trinitians concerned with honesty were concerned. We decided then to go to Court, and that month saw a spate of consultations. We worked through Sriyantha Senaratne, an old Trinitian who had a wonderfully laid back law firm housed in Galle Face Courts, a beautifully old fashioned office, like himself. When you went to see him, opera resounded in the background.

We saw several lawyers, but the one who handled my case, and the other more important ones, was Harsha Amerasekera, who in addition to clear analysis reveled in a mischievous sense of humour. The others with us were old Trinitians and had to put up gracefully with references to the primitive nature of their upbringing.

In addition to the legal tangles, I was at this time launching all over the country my collection of English and Sinhala and Tamil poetry, albeit all in English translation, which the National Book Trust of India had published. They had earlier produced a collection of short stories, entitled Bridging Connections, which did a lot for Sri Lankan writing since it was also translated into all India’s national languages. This was necessarily a slow process, but by 2013 the Oriya and Marathi versions had come out, and it was heartening to see the different scripts on the elegantly designed cover.

For the poetry book, which was of course more complicated given the difficulties of identifying quality in translation, I had been helped by Lakshmi de Silva and Prof Chelva Kanaganayakam. Though he was in Toronto, he had kept up with Sri Lankan writing and was a mine of information. Both he and Lakshmi introduced me to other scholars too. I met the wonderfully lively and broadminded Prof Amarakeerthi Liyanage for the first time, and renewed acquaintance with Prof Sandagomi Coperahewa, who had been a little boy when I had been Sub-Warden at S. Thomas’. His father had been my art teacher, a delightful man along with his two fast friends, Arisen Ahubudhu and Mr Jinadasa, the one always in immaculate national dress, Coperahewa though as ardent a nationalist in a pressed suit, and Jinadasa in a bush shirt. The last died young, though Ahubudhu survived until recently and Mr Coperahewa was still going strong when his son helped me with the poetry volume.

For Tamil poetry Chelva introduced me to a delightfully erudite man called Padmanabha Iyer, who lived in London and kept close track of all Tamil writing. With seminal assistance from all these willing experts, I produced what I thought was a pretty comprehensive volume. There were long delays then on the part of the NBT but, to my astonishment, when I was in Delhi in April, my contact there, the imaginative Benny Kurian, gave me a copy of the book. I then presented this to the Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid in Delhi, when he gave me an audience after I had met him in Chandigarh, at a Conference arranged by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development.

I met Khurshid to talk about the rapidly deteriorating relationship between India and Sri Lanka but, given the tendency of our Foreign Minister to panic if he thought his turf was being stepped on, I thought the book a good pretext on which to hang the visit. This had unexpected consequences, for the extremists in the Tamil diaspora decided the book was part of an Indian plot to destroy Tamil autonomy. Our High Commissioner in Canada arranged a launch there, but the extremists urged that this be boycotted, and used the picture of my presenting Kureishi with the book as evidence that it was an instrument of evil. Fortunately Chelva had no qualms about speaking, and delivered a thoughtful address on translations. I was delighted that the widow of my father’s old friend, the Chavakachcheri MP V Navaratnam, also attended. Read the rest of this entry »


qrcode.30341177In this 8th Chapter of my book on this subject I look at how the majoritarian system of democracy we had in this country contributed to increasing resentment by those who felt shut out of the decision making process. This played out principally with regard to racial differences, where what seemed majoritarianism on the part of successive elected governments contributed to the movement for autonomy and then for secession. But we should also remember that there were deep resentments based on class differences that led to two violent youth insurrections in the seventies and the eighties.

The Official Languages Act

In 1956 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister, in a coalition of nationalist forces dominated by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He had established the party after leaving the United National party (UNP). During the election campaign he had presented himself as a champion of the common man against the elite who had dominated Sri Lankan politics. But due to the pressures of political competition his victory was seen as the triumph of Sinhala nationalism.

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The way in which government can be careless when there are no clear systems in place became clear to me last week, at a Reconciliation meeting at the Weli Oya Divisional Secretariat. This Division was allocated a year or two back to the Mullaitivu District. I gathered that some parts of it had been in that District previously, but had been transferred to the Anuradhapura District when Tiger attacks had left the Sinhala population there feeling defenceless.

I am glad therefore that the transfer was made, because the idea of provinces belonging to different communities is preposterous. It should be confined to racists such as the Tigers, as when they drove Muslim populations from the North. But in making the transfer government should also have thought of the services that should go along with such units.

Education for instance still seems to be run from the Kebetigollewa Zone. At a meeting next day with Northern Province Education Ministry officials, I was told that Weli Oya had in fact been transferred to a Zone in Mullaitivu, but the people of Weli Oya were not aware of this. They had sought question papers for term tests from Kebetigollewa, and been promised these, and then the offer had been withdrawn.

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After some depression about not achieving very much with regard to either Reconciliation, or the Human Rights Action Plan, I was heartened by several factors last week. In the four Divisional Secretariat meetings I attended in the Wanni, it was clear that things were improving all the time. Several problems were brought to my attention, but these were largely practical problems, similar to those prevalent in other parts of the country. The impact of inclement weather on agriculture, the need for better roads for rural connectivity, and for better electricity connections, shortages of teachers for essential subjects, are national problems, not consequences of the conflict.

Of course much more needs to be done for the people of the Wanni, given what they suffered, and for the first time I felt sad that I cannot contribute more to education, since the Ministry as it now stands is incapable of increasing teacher supply or ensuring better distribution. But, with regard to the other matters, there is much appreciation of progress with regard to roads and electricity, and also understanding that government paved the way through its support for agriculture for abundant harvests in the last few years, even though this year floods have caused problems.

I should note here the appreciation amongst officials and community organizations of the Japanese Peace Project, which has done much for small scale irrigation works in the last few years. A meeting at the Japanese Embassy later in the week confirmed my view of the intelligence and sympathy of their approach. Equally the Indian Housing Project has generated much confidence that things are getting better, though government must do more to publicize both that and the other large scale housing support provided by the military and other agencies, in particular the Swiss, who also work relatively quietly.

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A wave of problems with regard to Human Rights has swept the country recently, most tragically the events at Welikada. The resolution to impeach the Chief Justice has made it clear our constitution has deficiencies with regard to ensuring the independence of the judiciary while also promoting accountability and transparency with regard to judicial decisions. Then we have had the internal UN report on the conduct of the UN in Sri Lanka during the war, and a spate of recommendations in Geneva that we thought had to be rejected.

Those who have read this column will realize that I have discussed these problems, and the dangers they present, and have also suggested remedies. I pointed this out to the President, but was duly crushed by his rejoinder, that since I functioned in English, necessarily I had little impact.

One of the pleasures of talking with him is that he listens, even when there is disagreement (though occasionally, when one argues too much, there is the firm injunction not to try to persuade him), and his rejoinders make a lot of sense. This is a characteristic he shares with the Secretary of Defence, who is even more definite about what cannot be done, but extraordinarily positive about most matters – as I found in my first formal dealings with him when I headed the Peace Secretariat, and he straight away allowed the A 9 northward from Omanthai to be open almost every day of the week, when the LTTE had previously not allowed the ICRC to facilitate this.

The President’s advice about the need for me to function more actively in Sinhala, and especially in Parliament, clearly makes sense. Given that my analyses are written in English, I cannot really expect them to have much impact on most decision makers. I am grateful therefore to those who do respond, to the letters I write in English after meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings. Health and Defence are always prompt, I should note, which confirms my view that institutions that observe the proprieties are also the most efficient. But recently I have been delighted to receive positive replies from the Ministry of Agriculture (though sadly not Irrigation, despite the many problems in that field drawn to my attention), and even the Ministry of Education has been helpful. 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 »

Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2018
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