New Horizons – 8 The pre-University GELT course and a new driver

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In 1993 I took on a new responsibility in addition to my work at USJP and the supervision of the AUC General English and English Diploma courses. This was the pre-University General English Language Training (GELT) Course.  My involvement arose from meeting Prof A J Gunawardena on the flight back from my visit to Bellagio, and him telling me that he had suggested to the UGC Chairman that I be asked to run the course.

A J had been in charge of English at USJP, but had gone away during a sabbatical to become Director of the Institute of Aesthetic Studies. He found the Institute ungovernable, as indeed many Directors did, until it became a University in its own right, and its first Vice-Chancellor, Sarath Amunugama, found a way of reconciling the various interests involved while introducing some sort of discipline. A J after his stint at the Institute then moved into what was virtually a sinecure in the NIE, but he had recently been asked to sit on the board to choose a new coordinator for the GELT.

That had been set up by Wilfred Jayasuriya, a former Commissioner of Motor Traffic, in the late eighties, but he had gone away suddenly and left it in the charge of his deputy, another senior figure in the ELT world called Clive Jayasuriya. I had had some involvement with the course early on, when the British Council was commissioned to produce low cost simple readers under a CIDA Project, and with Nirmali Hettiarachchi as team leader we had done some very good work.

I had lost touch with the course however over the years, so A J’s suggestion, following on a decision of the selection board that none of the candidates was suitable, came as a surprise. It struck me as an interesting challenge however, and also complementary to what I was doing at USJP and the AUCs. It certainly made sense to ensure a better English course before students entered University, given what I had seen of the difficulties of running one with all the distractions of University life, and in particular the ragging. Continue reading

New Horizons – 7 Upheavals

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In the political sphere, Wijetunge meanwhile was doing everything he could to destroy himself electorally. He engaged in machinations in the Southern Provincial Council, which led to another poll, whereby the slim majority against the government was turned into a virtual landslide. Then, when he realized that there was some criticism of his style – and lack of substance – within the party, he turned on Sirisena Cooray, who had been Premadasa’s chief henchman. The occasion for this was in fact an article Chanaka had written, which was published in the ‘Sunday Observer’, suggesting that the main problem with the government was its leader. Wijetunge however was quick to prevent this snowballing into a revolt, and he promptly dismissed the Chairman of the Lake House Group who was known to be close to Cooray.

He then asked for Cooray’s resignation. Cooray said he would consider the matter but, when Chanaka went to visit him, he found him relaxing, not calling up members of the party for support as Chanaka had expected him to do. His explanation was simple. He told Chanaka that he had indicated his worries in order to save the party, not himself, since he had only entered active politics in support of Premadasa. If Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister, and in Cooray’s view the best successor to Premadasa, was not prepared to stand up for him, he would gladly give up.

On cue, Ranil declared that the problem was one between the President and the General Secretary of the Party, and it was not up to him to intervene. Wijetunge also managed to get a statement of support from the Premadasa family, which was bizarre, since he it was who had sidelined them immediately he had taken over as President. But with such reactions Cooray resigned and went on holiday, and from then on the decline of the UNP was inexorable. Continue reading

New Horizons – 6 David Woolger

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The political situation then was sad enough when I got back from Bellagio in the June of 1993. But I also faced a sad personal loss, in the sudden death of David Woolger. Since the death of Richard de Zoysa in 1990, he had been I think my favourite companion and, in the last couple of years before he died, we had travelled frequently together outside Colombo, in addition to meeting regularly for work as well as food and drink at his house in Stratford Avenue.

I had first met him in 1984 soon after I had joined the British Council. One of my first big jobs was to take a film crew round the country, since Sri Lanka had been selected as one of the countries to feature in the anniversary programme the Council had commissioned for its I think 50th anniversary. I learnt a lot then about the development work of the Council, including the massive Construction Industry Training Project it administered up in Galkulama. The Jayewardene government had sensibly started this when it embarked on its massive construction programme round the country, both Premadsa’s Housing Programme and Gamini Dissanayake’s Accelerated Mahaweli Programme.

It was a great pity the Rajapaksa government did not do something similar when it started its construction programme in the North, for one constant complaint at my Reconciliation Committee meetings at Divisional Secretariats was that outsiders were brought in for all the jobs. I found indeed that the Vocational Training Centres in the North had very few students, so that now I have sought, as Chairman of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission, to get special aid for the poorer Districts there to recruit more young people into the sector. Continue reading

New Horizons – 5 The death of President Premadasa

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I had left for Bellagio at a tempestuous time, just after the death of President Premadasa, in that extraordinary assassination on May Day 1993.That had followed on the murder of Lalith Athulathmudali the week before. The latter incident I heard of while at Anuradhapura, upstairs in the vast dining hall of the Tourist Board Resthouse that catered to the impecunious. The older Resthouses were now relatively upmarket hotels under the management of Quickshaw’s. I had loved staying in them, in particular in the old Tissawewa Resthouse, in my youth and again when British Council work took me there. But working for the government, and indeed having to pay my own way much of the time, precluded such indulgence.

Premadasa’s death occurred a week later, while I was running a training workshop for both AUC and USJP English Teaching staff at the University. I had persuaded Scott Richards to run the programme, but I think he had not turned up at the time we were told that a curfew had been declared. I saw everyone off and it was only when I got home, after driving through ominously quiet streets, that I heard that the President had been killed – after which I heard crackers, which has always struck me as perhaps the worst example of the viciousness that characterizes Sri Lankan politics.

I was quite cut off from news in Bellagio, in those days before email became common, so I had no idea what was going on in Colombo while I was there. The occasional cursory letter from home told me that Premadasa’s preposterous Prime Minister, D B Wijetunge, who had taken over as Acting President, and then been confirmed in the post by Parliament, was doing well. Indeed I was told that he was Doing Bloody Well, in line with his initials. I was therefore quite optimistic when I got back to Sri Lanka, but Chanaka soon gave me a much more bleak picture.

The Liberal Party had finally decided to support President Premadasa in the Provincial Council elections that had taken place in May. I had not been sure this was the best decision possible, and had indeed stood out against it when the question first came up, and suggested we wait and review the situation. I was the President of the party, and though executive power lay with the Leader, Chanaka respected forms and accepted the suggestion I made from the chair. But I believe those in the UNP he was talking to were impatient, and he and his old friend Asitha Perera, the most fervent at that stage about the alliance, pushed the matter through at the next meeting. Continue reading

New Horizons – 4 The Rockefeller Centre at Bellagio

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Notwithstanding all this new and exciting work, I went away in the middle of 1993 for a month. Dorakumbura, by now Vice-Chancellor, was not pleased, but I had confidence in the new staff I had recruited and the systems now in place. It was good to give them a chance to work on their own, but of course the principal reason for going away was entirely selfish, namely that I had received an honour that I felt could not be turned down.

This was a residency at the Rockefeller Centre at Bellagio, on the Italian lakes. The Villa Serbelloni, as it is called, provides a month’s board and lodging, in a beautiful setting, to scholars and artists to get on with their work as they please. Initially it was mainly Americans who participated, but gradually other Westerners too were accepted, and in the nineties there was a conscious effort to expand the pool of beneficiaries to include the Third World too. This meant that one could apply to have one’s airfare paid, and also receive a small stipend. This helped with additional costs, such as travel before and after, and the occasional trip down to the village or excursion on the lake.

I was introduced to the programme by an enterprising American academic called Bruce King, to whose book on the Commonwealth Novel in English I had contributed the chapter on Sri Lanka. It turned out that I was in fact the first Sri Lankan to go to Bellagio, though Michael Ondaatje had been there a couple of years earlier and Yasmine Gooneratne was to follow. I was also happy to introduce Jean Arasanayagam to the programme, though I am not sure that anyone else resident in this country has participated since.

I took advantage of the trip also to attend the Conference of the European branch of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. I had been to the triennial international ACLALS Conferences previously, in Singapore and Canterbury and most recently in Jamaica, and by then I was seen as an old hand. So the ebullient Austrian who was organizing the European Branch Conference the next year was able to sponsor my attendance. Continue reading

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

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