New Horizons – 3 Belihuloya and Buttala

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I also much relished in my new job the opportunities I had to travel outside Colombo, to explore again and again what I had once described as the widest range of beauty to be found in the smallest compass in the whole world.

I had got used to frequent travel in my last years at the British Council, first for the office on the Furniture Project which had been started for the North and East soon after the Indo-Lankan Accord. When that unraveled, we had persuaded the Overseas Development Administration to transfer the funds to two other Districts, in addition to Amparai, which remained comparatively safe for travel.

The two selected, because of their proximity to the East, were Matale and Matara. I was able therefore to drop in frequently on my Aunt Ena in Aluwihare and on my father’s brother and his wife in Getamanna. But I also stayed often in Resthouses, and grew to love what I saw as their unity in diversity. The country had a range at different levels of comfort and cleanliness, ranging from the dingy old one at Mahiyangana to the lovely new one in the same city, on the bank of the Mahaweli. I loved too the little ones, at Batulu Oya, and Weerawila overlooking the reservoir, and Anamaduwa looking over paddy fields when Chandrika first changed the clocks and the evening stretched out for ages, as I remembered from Summer Time at Oxford. Continue reading

New Horizons – 2 Innovations in University English

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The English course at USJP was not the main reason I had joined the place, though ultimately what I achieved there also had a long-lasting impact. I started an External Degree which had three components, all in English medium, and this has now become the most popular External Degree course in the whole university system. Whereas what might be termed the senior universities had prided themselves on their esoteric English courses, focused mainly on English Literature, with a dash of even more esoteric Linguistics, my course also had a language component. This encouraged English teachers, and aspiring ones around the country, who knew that what they and school students needed most was language improvement, to follow this degree course in droves.

Initially the third component of the degree had been Western Classics, in part because I thought a knowledge of classical literature as well as history would assist students to a better understanding of English literature too. The argument was based on custom too, in that Western Classics was also on offer in the Kelaniya internal and external degrees. It was seen as a comfortable option both by Colombo students who had studied the subject at Advanced Level, and by teachers who were able to do the subject in English, given that this was not possible with many other subjects.

In time however I realized that this was not really useful, and led to a lot of rote learning. So when I was at the Ministry of Education in 2001, to restart English medium in schools, I asked USJP to introduce English Language Teaching as a subject for the external degree. The Head of what was by then an English Department was Paru Nagasunderam, whom I had brought in from the National Institute of Education back in 1993. She obliged at once, which has made that degree, comprised of English Language, English Literature and English Language Teaching, even more useful for English teachers, and certainly more accessible. The only drawback is that there are so many papers to mark that results are often delayed. Needless to say, none of the other universities responded then to my request to introduced ELT into their courses, though the situation is better now in this regard. Continue reading

New Horizons – 1 Moving to Sri Jayewardenepura

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When I put together, last year, my book on ‘English and Education: In Pursuit of Equity and Excellence’ I thought of it as my last word on the subject. I little knew then that I would be called back into harness again, though in a very different field to those described in that book. But in introducing a range of new perspectives now into the field of Tertiary and Vocational Education, I thought back to the days when I had pioneered changes in University Education in English.

I had begun to write about this when I was putting together a book to celebrate the 75th birthday of the house in which I live. That was back in 2012, and the book, called ‘Lakmahal: 75 years of Social Change and Political Flux’, was launched in January that year at the British Council. I had worked there from 1984 to 1992, a period described in the last section of the book.

But the book had covered only 45 years, for I had not been able to write up the next 30 years, after I left the Council and went back to working for government.I thought however that, since I am now working in a different field but one in which some of the changes necessary are similar to those I introduced two and more decades back, that I should look at those too. I have long realized that one of our problems is that we do not maintain records and register what happened when we try to move forward. I feel that reflecting on those days will also prove useful in developing policies to ensure that the education system – and not only those areas for which I am now responsible – gives a better deal to students.

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After I left the British Council in April 1992, I had a few months of travel, including to Jamaica for the triennial conference of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. The Head of Literature of the Council in London had agreed to sponsor me, and they stood by the offer even though I had resigned by the time the Conference took place.

I took advantage of the trip to get to Cuba, and also to Guatemala. It was not possible to get a visa for that country in Miami, but I was told to go to Belize (one of the few Commonwealth countries that did not require a visa from Sri Lankans) and try my luck. But in Belize City they said the same, and then, seeing my disappointment, suggested I try at the Guatemalan Consulate on the border.

The Consul there said that he could not possibly give me a visa, but he took me to the border post and told the guards there to let me through. So I managed to see the Mayan pyramids at Tikal, and I then went on to Guatemala City and Antigua Guatemala, falling further and further in love with Latin America. I should note thought that I had been less successful in Cuba, though I enjoyed the decaying grandeur of Havana. I could not travel into the country since the queues in the bus stations were impossible.

With all that I only joined the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in October 1992, as a senior lecturer in the Department of Languages. English was taught at USJP only as one component of a General Degree, ie students did only one third of their papers in the subject, two a year in those days, out of six altogether.

All students in all Faculties were also supposed to do General English, which was looked after by the English Language Teaching Unit. Nominally under the Department of Languages, it functioned under its own head, who was generally one of the senior members of the Unit. These were almost all women, who were constantly bitching against each other though they tended to unite against any outsider. Continue reading

War Heroes – Killed in Action

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Foreword to forthcoming book by Gen. Gerry de Silva

I am honoured to have been asked by General Gerry 123de Silva to write a Foreword to this book. I am also very pleased that he undertook the task of setting down the brave exploits of our soldiers.

One of the biggest problems this country faces is its failure to remember. Successive governments keep reinventing the wheel, and often in the process make it less rounded than previously. A principal reason for this is the failure to maintain records, or to refer to them.

A decade and a half ago, when I became Academic Coordinator of the degree programme that had been started at the Sri Lanka Military Academy, I suggested that the cadets should pay greater attention to recent military history. I was told by the officers in charge then that this would not be possible, since much of it was about failure. Since those responsible were still in positions of command, they would not want what went wrong to be analyzed.

I found this immensely sad, and drew attention to the fact that Indian army personnel, following what can only be described as the debacle of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, had produced a number of books which highlighted the lessons to be learnt from that operation. But that is why the Indian army was seen as comparatively professional, whereas ours in those days was still floundering.

All that changed in the decade that followed, and I believe the determination of some officers such as General Gamini Hettiarachchi to upgrade training, which also involved setting up the degree course, helped considerably. General Sarath Fonseka, who along with the Secretary of Defence contributed immensely to the victory, had initially been opposed to a degree course. He had this in common with many officers who thought we would create eggheads, whereas conversely my colleagues at the University thought we were lowering the value of the degree. But at my first meeting with him after I took over the Sri Lanka Peace Secretariat, in 2007, he assured me that he found the degree course officers well motivated. In fact they were in the thick of battle in the last few years of the conflict, and I am sadly aware of how many of them died. I was moved then to read, in this book, of how a couple of them laid down their lives, knowing the likely outcome of their brave effort to inspire or save their men. These were Captain Samaranayake of Intake 54, and Captain Punsiri of Intake 56, whose faces I still recall, not the most distinguished cadets academically, but always determined to learn.

And there was yet another, even younger officer, whom I do not recall since he was in Intake 62, about the last I was able to teach properly, since 63 was not a degree course, an anomaly that was soon corrected. This young man died just over a year after he was commissioned at Puthukudiyiruppu during the fierce fighting of March 2009.

But of course the bulk of those who won the Padma Weera Vibushana, the medal of gallantry and conspicuous bravery which is the subject of the second part of this book, were mainly ordinary soldiers. The commitment to their country and their fellows which motivated them is what Gerry de Silva celebrates, and I hope we do not allow their heroism to be traduced by those, in other countries but sadly in this too, who understand nothing about war, or pretend they do not, and attack the heroism of these men. Continue reading

Sri Lanka : les années Rajapaksa, entre triomphe et désastre

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bookLe dernier ouvrage de Rajiva Wijesinha, « Triomphe et désastre : les années Rajapaksa » est un remarquable document sur les premières années au pouvoir de Rajapaksa qui constituèrent un tournant de l’histoire récente du Sri Lanka.

L’ouvrage célèbre la victoire sur la terreur du LTTE des tigres tamouls, qui avait imprégné tous les aspects de la vie des Sri Lankais au cours du dernier quart de siècle. Il donne un aperçu exceptionnel du travail d’une institution de l’état qui a joué un rôle central, même lorsqu’il a dû s’adapter aux circonstances lorsque le LTTE des tigres tamouls a imposé un changement radical de tactiques, en déplaçant le terrain de confrontation de la table des négociations à un champ de bataille féroce où les civils furent transformés en chair à canon.

C’est un récit personnel de grande qualité des événements tels qu’ils se déroulèrent de juin 2007, quand Rajiva Wijesinha fut nommé secrétaire général au secrétariat chargé de la coordination des pourparlers de paix et la fin de la guerre en mai 2009. En juin 2008, il fut aussi chargé du secrétariat au ministère des droits humains et de la gestion des catastrophes et son récit se trouve ainsi enrichi des expériences vécues au fil de cette période.

En dehors du caractère fascinant du texte et de sa description colorée et vivante des caractères et des situations, des intrigues et des duplicités étayées par une abondante documentation, j’ai trouvé dans cet ouvrage les pièces du puzzle qui manquaient à l’image que je m’étais faite de ce morceau d’histoire à partir du confortable point de vue dont je bénéficiais à Genève.

Quand je dis Genève, je n’évoque pas seulement l’année passée en tant que représentant permanent du Sri Lanka auprès des Nations-Unies, mais bien la part la plus importante de ma vie passée à Genève à étudier et travailler autour et alentour du système des Nation-Unies. Plus de dix années furent ainsi consacrées au service du Haut-Commissariat aux Droits de l’Homme. J’ai vu et vécu ce fonctionnement sous de nombreux angles : en tant qu’étudiant à l’Institut des Etudes Internationales à Genève qui formait les agents à ces fonctions, plus tard comme employée internationale et, plus récemment, comme représentante d’un état membre. Continue reading

Triumph and Disaster: The Rajapaksa Years – Part I

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‘Success in War: My time at the Peace Secretariat, 2007-2009’

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Tamara Kunanayakam

 

At first, they sought to wield influence through their support to the LTTE. The presence of pro-Western UNP governments under the Presidency of CBK was also reassuring. Rajiva’s book is replete with facts and figures demonstrating the mutually-reinforcing relationship that existed in particular between the CBK-Ranil Wickremesinghe regime, the LTTE, Western powers, sections of the UN, and interventionist NGOs – both national and international. During this period, millions of rupees in foreign funding had gone to finance the LTTE – authorised by the UNF government, even after the LTTE had made clear it would not attend the negotiations. Funding to the”conglomerate of like-minded interventionists,” as Rajiva described the NGOs, was on a massive scale, coming in good stead during the Rajapaksa years when this “funding for peace” was “diverted to critics of government,” which is the title of the book’s Chapter 6.


Presentation by Tamara Kunanayakam

 

On the occasion of the Launch of Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha’s latest book, 18 February 2015

 

Rajiva’s latest book, Triumph and Disaster: the Rajapaksa Years, is a remarkable documentary of the first Rajapaksa years that constituted a turning point in Sri Lanka’s recent history. The book celebrates the victory over LTTE terror, which had determined almost every aspect of our lives for a quarter of a century.

 

It provides an exceptional insight into the work of a state institution that played a central role, even as it had to adapt to changing circumstances when the LTTE forced a radical shift from talks across the negotiating table to a brutal war in which it transformed civilians into cannon fodder. It is a profound personal account of the events as they unfolded between June 2007, when Rajiva was appointed Secretary-General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process, and the end of the war in May 2009. In June 2008, he was also appointed Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and his account, therefore, also includes insights gained while he was there. Apart from providing fascinating reading, painting as it does a vivid image of the characters and events,the duplicityand the intrigues, substantiated by a wealth of documentation, I found in his book pieces of the puzzle that were missing in my own analysis, from my Geneva vantage point.

 

When I say Geneva, I don’t mean only the year I spent as Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations. I mean most of my adult life, which I spent in Geneva, studying and working in and around the UN System, of which more than 10 years were in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I had seen and experienced the functioning of the UN System from various angles: – as a student at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, which trained international civil servants; then, as an international civil servant; and, more recently, as Permanent Representative of a Member State.

 

Unlike the LTTE yesterday, the separatist lobby today, and their Western backers, the major failure of successive Sri Lankan governments was an underestimation of the international dimension of the conflict. In my view, it is this understanding that permitted the LTTE then, and the separatist lobby today, to occupy the international space fully, made easier by the absence of the Government in this domain. My presentation will, therefore, essentially focus on the chapters that address this dimension.

 

International intervention

 

Rajiva’s book is not so much about the military operations, but about an aspect of the war that is less spectacular, but perhaps more important and more dangerous, because insidious. It is about what Rajiva calls the “battle that had to be fought to prevent the government being stalled in its tracks by international intervention.” That battle is not over and that is also why this book is a must read for anyone interested in lasting peace. Continue reading

‘Triumph and Disaster: The Rajapaksa years’

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Book Review
By Enid Wirekoon

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha had a ringside seat at recent events that shaped and defined the political environment of Sri Lanka today.

In June 2007, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Wijesinha to head his Secretariat for coordinating the Peace Process and he was in that position in May 2009 when the final military defeat of the LTTE took place.

Throughout the pages of his book, Triumph and Disaster: The Rajapaksa years, Wijesinha deals with events and people whose involvement in those events are commented on with an experienced and a critical eye that he brings to bear on the issues that confronted the army, politicians and the people. He begins his introduction by being critical of the failure of successive Governments to introduce simple reforms that may have assuaged resentments that festered and led to violence. He has no hesitation in concluding that politicians have failed the people with their own interest being put before all else in order to cling on to power. His stinging criticisms of the LTTE and its leadership are also set out in vivid detail.

The book highlights issues that are of contemporary concern by posing such questions as to how President Sirisena can keep in office such persons as the present Foreign Minister who on the 20th of September 2015 launched a savage attack on the armed forces of Sri Lanka who, he alleged in committing war crimes, were “following orders”. The author adds, “I did not expect the government under President Sirisena to thus attack our own armed forces”, and goes on to assert that he cannot believe that the President accepts, that large scale violation in terms of policy were carried out from above. The author’s observations in this regard are in fact coincide with the findings of the recent Paranagama Second Mandate Report which holds that there was no such overarching plan by the then Government to wantonly kill civilians. Continue reading

Acts of Faith – Chapter 9; Pt 2 – Transitional

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acts-of-faithPhyllis decided at once that she would leave for Colombo the very next morning. Harry was due the following week, and the march to start soon after. At the same time she tried repeatedly to get hold of Matthew to find out more, but was told that he was not at home. She did get hold of Diana, who told her that very strange things were happening and that no one was to be trusted, and then refused to say anything more since Phyllis would be down in person on the following day. So Phyllis too had a disturbed night; though she did have at least the satisfaction on the way down next morning of seeing, since she had made her intentions clear to Diana, that whereas the government papers declared in bold headlines that the march was to be postponed at the government’s suggestion, Indra’s proclaimed in even larger headlines that the march would most certainly go ahead.

Having got to Colombo, Phyllis found things even more upsetting than she had thought possible. Everyone at the house seemed in a distracted state, and though Diana did tell her that there was reason to believe Matthew had behaved very badly in the current crisis, no one would elaborate. Tom, who had been very upset by the conflicting reports in the newspapers, tried to refuse to see her and, when she insisted and forced her way in, refused to discuss the matter with her on the grounds that an even more urgent crisis had arisen. In its own way this was not entirely inaccurate, because John’s resignation, and the widespread publicity given to it and the fast, were driving him into an almost morbid frame of mind.

Continue reading

Rajiva Wijesinha’s The Past Is Another Country – Down memory lane with Lionel Pieris

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The Past is Another Country is a series of interviews with individuals distinguished for their contributions to culture and to society. In addition to discussing their individual contributions, the programmes explore the context in which each of them functioned. The interviews, by Rajiva Wijesinha, cover a range of developments in post-independence Sri Lanka, and present a panoramic view of social change in the latter half of the 20th century.

Lionel Pieris is the son of Harold Pieris, who lived at the famous Alfred House and turned it into a centre for drama and other cultural activities. He was the brother in law of George Keyt and the confidante of the photographer Lionel Wendt, in whose memory he built the Lionel Wendt Theatre. His son Lionel describes the commitment of Lionel Wendt, as well as his father, to cultural activities that promoted a Sri Lankan identity.

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