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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done

When, just over a year ago, I was not put into Parliament, I thought it was time to call it a day. I had a house to live in, and a beautiful country cottage, I enjoyed reading and writing, and there seemed no point in knocking my head against brick walls. Though I continue to believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa did more for this country as its leader than his two predecessors, I had registered the appalling nature of those who dominated the last years of his government, and had indeed dissected them throughout 2014 in numerous articles, in particular the series called ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs’. So I did not regret having worked for Maithripala Sirisena’s election as President in January 2015. But I realized that my old friend Dayan Jayatilleka had been right in predicting that, decent though the President was, he would be dominated by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga.

I had hoped he would realize soon how awful both of them were, and how out of touch with the country at large, but this seemed to be taking a long time. He had allowed himself to be dragooned by them and their allies into calling an early General Election, contrary to his commitment to ensure that Electoral Reform was enacted before Parliament was dissolved. However I thought he then made the right decision in putting President Rajapaksa on the UPFA list for the General Election, since without him the UNP would have romped home.

But sadly polarizing forces made it impossible for the two of them to work together. I later told President Rajapaksa that he had to appreciate how nervous the President had been made by the pronouncements of some of the candidates on the UPFA slate, that they would destroy the President if they won a majority. Mahinda told me that the President should not have taken such pronouncements seriously, since they were uttered by youngsters, but it was a pity he did not rein such people in.

Indeed even experienced politicians such as Vasudeva Nanayakkara behaved foolishly in claiming that, with the election going well, the main task at hand was to make sure that those within the UPFA who had supported the President would not be elected. I told him this was utterly foolish, since campaigning in such a manner would confuse the voters. But once Vasu gets an idea into his head, he cannot think straight. Indeed he told me later that they had all been wrong in insisting that, were a vote of No Confidence in the Prime Minister to succeed before Parliament had been dissolved, a Prime Minister acceptable to the UPFA group should be appointed.

He claimed that this was because they were a majority in Parliament, but he had obviously forgotten, as Ranil did way back in 2003, that the President had the power to dissolve Parliament whenever he wished. I had told him and Dinesh that they should make it clear to the President that, if the vote of No Confidence were passed, he could appoint anyone else he wished to the post of Prime Minister, even someone from the UNP, provided he was not viscerally revengeful upon the Rajapaksas as Ranil (and Chandrika too) were. But Vasu could not appreciate the fact that Sri Lanka had a Presidential system – indeed, as I had long realized, there are no politicians as idealistic about the Westminster system as the old Trotskyite and Laski inspired left.

So Vasu and even less subtle characters ensured that those who feared the Rajapaksas could convince the President that he should derail the campaign. This was a pity, for there was no way the UPFA could have won an absolute majority, and in any case enough people would be elected who would, while wanting a UPFA led government, have ensured that a Prime Minister acceptable to the President took office. Indeed, it was a pity that Mahinda Rajapaksa, while claiming the Prime Ministerial post publicly, – which was desirable given his overwhelming appeal as compared to anyone else in the UPFA lists – should not have assured the President that he did not want the position, but would be content if someone acceptable to both of them were appointed.

But emotions trump rationality in this country and, with both sides as it were insisting on raising the stakes, polarization led to the President confusing voters by his sacking of party secretaries on the Friday before the election. The consequence was a larger UNP plurality than the President could have wished, and again a situation in which, instead of being able to govern on traditional SLFP principles, he has to compromise with the extreme rightist position represented by Ranil and his acolytes (chief of whom seems to Mangala Samaraweera, for reasons the shrewd Esmond Wickremesinghe registered 50 years ago when he gave the man’s father a position at Lake House in the machinations that led to the collapse of Mrs Bandaranaike’s first government).

So after August 2015 I took to writing, and can claim to have produced 6 books in the 3 months that followed. I must admit though that 4 of them were collections of essays I had contributed previously to various newspapers or seminars, on Education and Foreign Policy and Poetry and Rights / Governance. The last three were recent essays but for the first book I used material I had produced many years previously, when I reintroduced English medium into government schools. Reading through those I rediscovered how appallingly Ranil Wickremesinghe had behaved in trying to stop English medium, and also how his acolytes had squandered funds which Tara de Mel had negotiated with the World Bank for improving the quality of University Education.

The other two books were a history of the Rajapaksa years, the first volume dealing with Success in War, the second with Failure in Reconciliation. All these books were taken on by Sirisumana Godage, a publisher who actually loves books, which is unusual in Sri Lanka. I was encouraged to approach him by Ariyawansa Ranaweera, one of the poets who had featured in Mirrored Images, the collection of English and Sinhala and Tamil poetry which the National Book Trust of India had published a couple of years earlier.

Ceylon Today serialized the Rajapaksa books which ensured that I wrote the material up quickly. Publication has taken longer, and the last volume will only appear later this year, but by October last year I was largely done, and only final editing was needed. So I was free enough when I was approached by Mahinda Samarasinghe to help him at the Ministry to which he had been appointed, that of Skills Development and Vocational Training.

I had done some work in the field over 20 years previously, when the World University Service of Canada asked me to develop an English course for the training centres they supported. I had inspected a number of centres then, way back in the early nineties, and been touched by the innocence and the eagerness of the youngsters being trained. But soon after I finished producing the material, the lady who had approached me, Anberiya Haniffa, moved on to join the family business, and those who took over decided to ask the established universities to take on the task.

The result was the death of English as far as vocational training was concerned. I have no idea what was produced at that time, but recently, in going through curricula, I found for instance irrigation workers having the Future Perfect Passive on their syllabus, confirming my view that our universities are totally out of touch with reality. Indeed, a couple of years previously, I had been told by the then head of WUSC, Ingrid Levy (wife of the then Canadian High Commissioner) that she had found a copy of the book I had produced, and decided to use that on the courses WUSC supported. I had almost forgotten the book by then, 20 years after I had put it together, but she kindly gave me a copy, which I still treasure.

I had also got more actively involved with the subject, for in the preceding three years I had used my decentralized budget to set up Vocational Training Centres in the North as well as in Sabaragamuwa. This had begun because, even before I became a Member of Parliament, I had been concerned about the former LTTE cadres sent for rehabilitation. Though the Commissioner General did a wonderful job, he had no mandate for reintegration, and therefore the training the youngsters needed to ensure productive employment afterwards was not a priority. There was some training done, but there should have been more, with systems for follow up and start up funding for entrepreneurs.

I tried to contribute to better futures for these youngsters by using part of my funds for entrepreneurship workshops, which were conducted for me by an agency called Business Consultancy Services, headed by a lively and kindly man called Sarath Buddhadasa. The outcomes seemed remarkable, when I visited at the conclusion of each course, but sadly the next step was stymied when Mohan Pieris refused to help set up a rolling fund to support business enterprises. A couple of banks had agreed to provide matching funds, and Mohan kept promising to draft the deed, but towards the end of the year he declared that the Secretary of Defence did not approve of the plan. Knowing Mohan better now, I suspect he had not even asked the Secretary, or else he had misrepresented the initiative, but I could not pursue the matter then, and had to look elsewhere.

What I did do then was to start Vocational Training Centres in the more deprived Divisions of the Mullaitivu District, and later one in Kilinochchi too. The superbly efficient Mullaitivu District Secretary, Mr Vedanayagam, told me later that I had spent more money in his District than any other Member of Parliament. I found this astonishing, but I checked the records and this was indeed the case. The reason was our preposterous electoral system, for most MPs see the decentralized budget as a way of winning votes, and the votes in what is termed, in our appalling electoral system, the Wanni are not to be found in the relatively sparsely populated Divisions of Mullaitivu.

I arranged for the centres to be run by an NGO called Aide et Action, whose work in the south I had much admired, for they also provided soft skills to trainees to develop initiative as well as confidence. Their staff amply justified my faith in the organization, and they still continue to bring me certificates to sign from Oddusuddan and Maritimepattu and Tunukkai and Manthai East, and also from the centre at Dharmapuram in the Kandavalai Division of Kilinochchi.

While setting these up, I discovered how fitful otherwise was Vocational Training in the North – and also in the East, which was my other beat as Adviser to the President on Reconciliation. Soon after the government took office, in 2010, I had spoken to the Minister in charge of the subject, Dullas Alahapperuma, with several ideas about human resources development, and he had seemed very positive. But he did nothing about this and, though I kept reminding him, it was only after he was finally given a competent Secretary, called Wijeratne, that a meeting was actually set up to discuss progress.

I found then that the Colombo officials of the various agencies in charge of vocational training had no idea what went on in the regions. They claimed to be running several courses, and were astonished when I told them that there were hardly any students in the centres. The new flagship centre in Mullaitivu town had about the same number of students as my own tiny centre that only conducted a couple of courses, but courses decided on after Aide et Action had done a needs analysis. So they taught boat engine repair, an urgent need in the fishing communities thereabouts, but the government institution only did what came easiest, and which students were not interested in.

Nothing more came of that meeting, so I felt, when Mahinda Samarasinghe approached me, that I could not refuse. I did tell him however that I was not willing to take on any full time work, but he assured me that the Chairmanship of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission, the apex body in the field, was a part time position. So I took on the job, though later he told me laughingly that he knew I would end up working even more than what passed for full time work on the part of others.

Ceylon Today – 22 Oct 2016 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=7749