Bradman Weerakoon, British Council, Chanaka Amaratunga, Cold War, David Gladstone, Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Derek Samarasinha, Ed Marks, elections, India, Indo-Lanka Accord 1987, IPKF, J R Jayewardene, John Keleher, Liberal Party, Provincial Council, Rex Baker, Schools Furniture Project, Soviet sympathies, Vadamaarachchi offensive
By the late eighties I was quite heavily involved in politics, and had even stood in the Provincial Council elections that took place in 1988. Rex Baker was quite startled by this, and it seems the British High Commission had asked him, devoted as they were in those years to Jayewardene and his solid adherence to the West, whether this was proper. Rex had dutifully checked the relevant manuals and told me, having called me in to discuss the matter, that in Britain employees of the Council had political rights in common with other Civil Servants, and could contest local elections. He had deemed the Provincial Councils elections to be of this sort, so he saw no reason to stop me from standing.
The question of contesting a general election, he said, was otherwise. I told him then that, if such a situation arose, I would not embarrass him, which pleased him until I said I would of course promptly resign. He had I think assumed that I would refrain from standing, but he took my unexpected reassurance in a positive spirit, and I think it helped him to understand the depth of my feeling about what Jayewardene had done to the country.
It was in that same year that I first stood in an election in Sri Lanka that the work I did changed entirely in character. This arose from the same cause that had prompted my candidature, namely the Indo-Lankan Accord of 1987. In addition to establishing Provincial Councils, the Accord had seemed to restore peace to the country, and the British decided that they should support this. As far as the Council was concerned, the salient part of this decision was a large grant for reconstruction, which was to be devoted to restoring educational facilities.
This was the Schools Furniture Project which John Keleher asked me to manage, in terms of the new found responsibilities I had acquired for education too, following the dismissal of the Education Officer after Management Services had pronounced that she was unnecessary and I could cover her responsibilities in addition to my own. To begin the Project, and confirm British support for the Accord (for there were suspicions that the West was not entirely happy, since India was in those days an object of suspicion because of what were seen as its Soviet sympathies in the Cold War), the new British High Commissioner would travel to Trincomalee to set things in motion.
This was David Gladstone, who was to make a greater mark on Sri Lanka than any of his predecessors or successors. John Keleher told me I should accompany him, and the Defence Attache, which I thought inappropriate since this was a high powered delegation accorded VIP treatment, but John insisted. As it turned out, the trip was both instructive and very pleasant, the forces who had arranged it taking us whale watching (though we saw none) as well as for an early morning swim on an idyllic beach we had entirely to ourselves. It was my first visit to Trinco after I had fallen in love with the place in 1980, and I determined then that I would get back frequently in the future.
Though we stayed overnight with the navy, in a sumptuous guesthouse in the shape of a ship, and we were transported by the airforce, we were basically looked after by the army, and I was privileged to see Denzil Kobbekaduwa in action. While the Brits went off to inspect the war cemetery, he detailed a group to take me round to the schools we were supposed to assist. It was impressive to see soldiers digging latrines for Tamil schools, part of his understanding of the way to win hearts and minds. I was also impressed by the explanation for his efficiency of the principal of the Sinhala Vidyalaya, who seemed to be running an astonishingly neat and disciplined establishment. When I complimented him on this, he said it was due to Denzil. He granted that the place had been messy before, but Denzil, having seen it, had not complained but had asked him where his own children were schooling. He had answered that they were in Wellawatte, whereupon Denzil had suggested that, had his children been in Trincomalee in his school, he would have made sure that it was better run. The lesson, he said, had struck home, and he was determined to ensure that he presided over a school fit for his own children. I recalled then my anger about Bradman Weerakoon and Derek Samarasinha removing their sons from the school to ensure academic success, even while they sat on the Board of S. Thomas’. Denzil clearly was made of sterner stuff.
That visit made me more aware too of the situation of the IPKF, which was then engaged in battling the Tigers. Denzil threw a grand dinner for us one evening, at the main Security Force Headquarters which I got to know very well over the years. Some of the officers got on very well with their Indian counterparts, but there were a few who evinced a distinct hostility, which the Indians endured with good humour, until the alcohol had flowed too freely. At that stage there might have been overt hostilities and, though these were averted by swift action by the more sensible of both sides, it was apparent that some of our officers felt deep anger about the Indian intervention that had prevented us from finishing off the Tigers, which had seemed to them an imminent possibility during the Vadamaarachchi offensive the previous year. What was sad to me was the failure to register that, whatever the rights and wrongs of what had happened, we should now be totally supportive of the Indians as they sought to deal with the Tigers themselves.
I was reminded of the pervasive ambiguity in dealing with terrorists when they embarrass those one does not like, that I had registered earlier when Chanaka and I lunched with the Deputy American Head of Mission, Ed Marks (whom I met again twenty years later, when he was back in Sri Lanka for a seminar, suggesting I was right to have thought he was involved in intelligence work as well as diplomacy – which is to assume, perhaps wrongly, that the two can be distinguished). I suspect he was sounding us out to see if we approved of the Indian intervention, and was disappointed in that, though the Liberal Party had made clear its regrets about some aspects of the Accord, by and large we felt that Jayewardene had needed pointing in the direction of pluralism and greater responsiveness through democratic practices to the needs of all Sri Lankans.
Though Marks was a polished, and very entertaining, diplomat, something of his sympathies came through when he commented on the irony of the Indians having Gandhian tactics used against them. He was referring to the hunger strike conducted by a man called Thileepan, which had helped to precipitate the armed conflict between the Indians and the Tigers when Thileepan had died. It was then that I realized that, though the United States would not engage in direct conflict with India, they were not displeased when the Indians were threatened, even if it was by terrorists.