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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.

Sure enough, after Cooray’s departure, Wijetunge brought Gamini Dissanayake back into the party. This perhaps made sense then, since he also decided to have a Parliamentary election first, hoping to win and then stay on as President. Surprisingly enough he nearly succeeded, for the result was very close. However the decision of the Muslim Congress to support the opposition ensured that Chandrika became Prime Minister.

Chanaka was a victim of the infighting, in that he had decided, along with Ossie, whose opposition to Chandrika ran deep, to stay with the UNP. He was particularly close to Gamini Dissanayake, and felt that he would be a better leader than Chandrika, and he assumed that he would almost certainly be the UNP candidate for the Presidency. Unfortunately the UNP would not have him on the National List for the Parliamentary election, in spite of the commitment made to him, not only earlier by Cooray, but also by Gamini Wijeyesekera who had taken over as General Secretary.

Chanaka said later that he had been undone by Ranil Wickremesinghe, doubtless because the latter feared his closeness to Gamini. According to Anura Bandaranaike, when Ranil heard that Chanaka might be on the UNP National List, he had called J R Jayewardene, and asked him to raise the matter with Wijetunge and insist that he leave out Chanaka. The reason Ranil had given to J R, according to Anura, was that Chanaka had been critical of two sitting UNP Presidents, namely J R himself and Wijetunge. This was done and Chanaka was therefore removed from the list.

He then reached an agreement with Mr Ashraff, in fulfillment of their earlier plan to work together, but that fell to pieces after the election. Ashraff’s claim was that Chandrika had objected, on the grounds that with a single vote majority Chanaka could not be trusted not to work with the UNP, given that Gamini Dissanayake had been made its leader after the election. Conversely it was claimed by the SLFP that they had not been adamant, but that some people in the Muslim Congress objected to Chanaka, given his secular principles.

Be that as it may – and I am sorry to say that I was involved in agreeing to this – we reached a compromise whereby our Vice-President Asitha Perera would be nominated, on the understanding that he would resign once the government felt safe. He did not resign, and was rumoured to have become a Muslim, which made it difficult for Ashraff to remove him. I was sorry however that Ashraff was not firm, because I believe that was the turning point in what had previously been the development of the Muslim Congress into a national party. Had Chanaka been one of its representatives in Parliament, it could have made a much greater contribution to the country than it ended up doing. Contrary to what I believe was Ashraff’s more inclusive vision, it is now seen simply as representing parochial interests, that have narrowed as the party split, and split again.

***

The university system too suffered from Premadasa’s death, as much as the country in general, given how promisingly it had moved under the University Grants Commission Chairman Premadasa had appointed. This was Arjuna Aluwihare, who was able to conceptualize in a manner unrivalled by any other Chairman. Perhaps his breadth of vision arose from his heritage, for he was the son of Bernard Aluwihare, who had been Minister of Education in Dudley Senanayake’s short lived cabinet after the March 1960 election.

Indeed he might have been Prime Minister by then, for he had been the most senior member of the UNP to leave the party along with S W R D Bandaranaike when the latter set up the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in 1951. But Bernard had gone back to the UNP just before the 1956 election, whereas had he stayed he would undoubtedly have been Bandaranaike’s Deputy and the obvious choice to succeed him when he was assassinated in 1959. Instead Bandaranaike’s senior Minister was C P de Silva, who was blocked from the succession for caste reasons, and Dahanayake who filled the position was not able to command the allegiance of the rest of the government – hence indeed the advent of Mrs Bandaranaike into politics, when C P de Silva was unable to lead the party to victory in the March 1960 election.

Arjuna Aluwihare did much to modernize the system after he became UGC Chairman under Premadasa. He had been assisted in this by the Deputy Chairman, Prof Balasuriya, formerly of Kelaniya University, who was quiet and methodical, very different from Aluwihare, but a superb complement to the other’s strengths. Together they did a fantastic job.

Aluwihare was dismissed simply because, the story went, he had refused to adjust the intake to universities to accommodate a request from someone on Wijetunge’s staff. That was symptomatic of the man, allowing his kitchen cabinet to take decisions, ignoring the outstanding professionals Premadasa had used.

I went to see Balasuriya when I heard the news of Aluwihare’s dismissal, there being no certainty as yet as to whether Balasuriya too was being removed. He was not sure himself, and I wished him well, and said what a pleasure it had been to work with him. He was kind enough to reciprocate the sentiment, and noted that he hoped there would not be too many changes in the programmes that had been introduced. The new Chairman was Leslie Panditharatne, whom I had known as Vice-Chancellor at Peradeniya, an amiable man but without any ideas or strength of character. He was not however an obstructionist, and were Balasuriya in place it was possible that things would continue on an even keel.

Later that day I heard that Balasuriya had indeed been asked to continue as Deputy Chairman. It was with a lighter heart then that I set out for Belihuloya, where I had some work. The following morning however I was greeted by Samy with the news that Balasuriya had died. I assume the uncertainty had been too much for a man with a heart condition.

The new Deputy Chair was a lady, who was charming enough, but quite clueless about what she should have done. She kept telling me she was learning, but the best comment on this was provided by one of the AUC Directors, the one who ran the Kandy AUC at Polgolla that, if you were still learning your job after six months, you might as well give up and go.

I was by now involved with all but one of the AUCs, because the board that ran them, which had been chaired by Balasuriya, had decided that I should supervise the General English course for all students, even at AUCs which did not offer English. I thus had to visit the Northern one in Vavuniya, the Eastern one in Akkaraipattu, the Western one at Meepe, the Central one at Polgolla and two Southern ones at Kamburupitiya and Niyagama. I realized then how careful USJP had been in selecting its Directors, for they were head and shoulders better than most of the others. However I found most of them willing to learn, while the Central Province Director, a former Director of Education like Siron Rajaratnam, seemed extremely able.

He did not however last very long, for the university system had realized what prestigious and potentially lucrative positions these Directorships were. Soon the outsiders were removed. In that respect the Panditharatne UGC and the one that followed, under an SLFP government, were both equally conservative, and between them they killed the AUC concept stone dead.

That had in any case begun to suffer by the middle of 1993. Dorakumbura as mentioned had moved to USJP as Vice-Chancellor, and his successor as Director at the Anuradhapura AUC was someone from Colombo who seemed to think he had to change everything his predecessor had done. Even worse was what happened at Rahangala. USJP had sent as Deputy to the monk who had been appointed Director a lecturer who had had nothing else to do on sabbatical. When the monk suddenly died, he was appointed to act in his place and, with the usual lethargy of the system, he was soon made Director.

He had absolutely no vision and, in settling down to what he seemed to think was a sinecure, he allowed various underlings to engage in corrupt practices. Whether he himself benefited is uncertain, but this was symptomatic of a lack of supervision at many of the AUCs, with governing bodies that had little status and ended up simply rubber-stamping whatever the Director – or his administrative staff – put before them. When there were individuals who took a stand, as Prof Palihawadana and Prof Wilson tried to do at Belihuloya over the sacking of Panini Edirisinghe, they were outvoted, and in time they gave up and left control in the hands of the totally complaisant.

Still, the courses themselves continued with I think comparative success, given the paucity of good staff. I had done a round robin of recruitment with the students from the Pasdunrata College of Education whom David Woolger had enrolled on the British Council ASSET Course that I had started in 1989, and these proved remarkably capable. Though they were initially looked down on because they did not have degrees, several of them got the necessary higher qualifications, and they are now lecturers in what became Rajarata and Sabaragamuwa Universities. Unfortunately two of the best of them, one the daughter of the then Chief Editor of the Island Group of Newspapers, whom I had known as a pillar of Sinhala nationalism, had to leave the system, when they were badly let down by one of the subsequent Rahangala Directors, when the students objected to them as being too strict.

In Trincomalee Siron found a conscientious and well qualified lecturer called Thillainathan, who stayed there for over a decade, going through to when it became a Campus  of the Eastern University. And perhaps the most vibrant instructor of all was a lady called Mrs Siriwardena who became the mainstay of the Buttala AUC. She was the sister of Anoja Weerasinghe, and had something of her great artistic commitment. In time I developed a project for her to run, funded by the Australians, to bring together Sinhala and Tamil or Muslim children from nearby schools to have weekend English camps.

Mrs Siriwardena was marvelllously motherly, and soon made short shrift of any diffidence the students might have felt, ensuring that from the moment they arrived they mixed together with commitment. The games and performances she devised, the manner in which she promoted correct usage while always providing encouragement, her ability to ensure group work in which even the weakest participated, confirmed my view that we have enormously talented teachers in the system, it is just that we do not have mechanisms to promote and replicate excellence.

Ceylon Today  13 August 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=4162

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