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‘A critique of the present with one foot in the past’

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The Kandy Man, an autobiography by Sarath Amunugama

Usvatte-aratchi

The candy man in The Kandy Man, Volume One, is the first of three designed to constitute the autobiography of Sarath Amunugama, scholar, distinguished public servant, aesthete, politician and minister of government. As expected, he brings us not only double boiled sweets that his ‘beloved nanny Roslin’ bought him on way home from Kandy Girls’ High School but also whole truckloads of current history, enormously helpful insights into the working of institutions with which he was associated and the roles he played often on the main stage and sometimes in the sidelines, both literally and metaphorically.

In this review I shall highlight the nature of institutions with which he was associated. Those who wish to trace his meteoric rise from Cadet in the Ceylon Civil Service to Permanent Secretary at age 38 can do so with enjoyment in the volume under review. I strongly recommend that they do so, because there is much to learn and instruction to follow. Not only did Amunugama make history himself, but he also was a witness to history in the making for most of the life of this young republic and his long eventful life.

Many in similar vantage points have tried to write to the same effect but few have succeeded in abstracting their experience into the context of the society they lived in so that in writing their biography they were also writing contemporary history, which purists might argue is a contradiction in terms. To annul their contention, one only has to read good history which has sumptuously fed on autobiographies and study the art of writing biography that Lytton Strachey introduced when he wrote Queen Victoria.

Roy Jenkins is an admirable successor, but I am running ahead of myself. Let us hurry slowly- festina lente. The first institution that Amunugama introduced us was his family. The Amunugama clan had had an illustrious history and some males were executed for their participation in the rebellion in Matale in 1818. Family properties were confiscated and families were thrown into poverty. ‘Poverty may have been one of the reasons why the Amunugama family had been strongly represented in monkhood of the Malwatte faction of the Siyam Nikaya,’ says the author.

Young men of the clan were much sought after for binna marriages and the families gradually re- built themselves. Sarath’s father was brought up by a relative in Panadure (as to why read the volume) and he attended St. John’s College there, which brought a new tinge to the life of his children. His father was unusually keen that his children should gain from education and Trinity College in Kandy was his choice for young Sarath.

Sarath’s father took a great interest and he derived much pleasure from the growth and development of his son. The account of the family is full of insights into the organization of Kandyan radala society and would be most helpful to scholars studying that aspect of life in Kandy in late 19th and first half of the 20th century . The second institution we are introduced to is Trinity College, Kandy. Trinity together with S.Thomas’, Mount Lavinia, and Richmond, Galle had been, established on the model of English Public Schools. In England they come from a long time back and have strong traditions.

The system of ‘courts’ in Public Schools were carried onto colleges in Oxford and Cambridge and Whewell Court in Trinity, the second court in St John’s and the Front Court in St. Catharine’s are much admired. Trinity, Kandy had only two of these ‘Houses’: one for the Upper School and the other for the Middle School. A marked feature of Public Schools was the effort of the Headmaster to lead his charges in religious life. Each College had a chapel where students prayed and were addressed usually by the Headmaster. Dr. Thomas Arnold, the most celebrated headmaster of Rugby spent n hours preparing addresses to the boys in chapel. The tradition of regular chapel was carried into Colleges in universities and the magnificent King’s chapel is one of them. We hear little about it from Sarath, a Buddhist. But he took part in every other activity in school: Cadeting, games and the lot. He was also a Prefect of the school. Again, the role of Prefects in Public Schools in England is very special. They almost ran the school, except for teaching. The Headmaster had great trust in them. This was a major part of training these young men had for leadership and it paid off well.

Sarath was really preparing to go to university. We meet him in Peradeniya in 1957. Together with the university park so lovingly cared for by Shirley d’Alwis and his workers, and ‘the small good university’ nurtured by Jennings, the Kandy Man blossomed brightly and fragrantly. The young man was all on his own and soon was elected President of the Students Union, a position that foretold leadership in adult life. He plunged himself into all activities at the university. He even wasted time in those classes in Marxism, taught outside the university by dons who took to Trotskyism. There were two passions to which he yielded himself without reserve: the new discipline of sociology and the newly vibrant creative activities of mostly young teachers in the Sinhala and related activities.

In his autobiography, his admiration of Siri Gunasinghe, a Samskrtic who later turned art historian, is almost sky high. Gunasinghe was that idol of smart young undergraduates: highly intelligent, friendly, creative and at points iconoclastic. He was more adventurous than Sarachchandra in innovation: costumes for plays, free verse and novels on subjects hitherto untouched by the literati. A number of younger scholars followed him with enthusiasm, among them Gunadasa Amarasekera (an undergraduate in the Dental School), Wimal Dissanayake (who from a poet grew to a film critic of international fame) and Amunugama himself who breathed the fine air that Gunasinghe caused to blow over the undergraduate population.

Gunasinghe cultivated the best traditions of university teachers for which Jennings had designed Perademiya and students were in and out of his home. At university one learnt not only in lecture theatres and libraries but also from incessant jabber with fellow students and informal and casual conversations with teachers. The other major figure, the one who loomed large in the public eye was Sarachchandra. He was short, simple and casual in appearance but deadly serious in his intention to invent a tradition of the theatre that would appeal to both the literati and the woman in the marketplace. He was successful even beyond his expectations when he presented a series of plays that began with Maname. (My own reactions to the first staging of the play I wrote up in the novel Alut Matanga.)

Sarachchandra exploited the fondness for Jataka Stories that rested in the minds of the average Sinhala and used them as plot for his plays. One favourite story was that of the bodhisatva who was named Kachchaputa, an honest trader of fancy bangles and Sarachchandra staged it as Kada Valalu and Amunugama was cast as Kachchaputa. Many of the actors and singers in Sarachchandra plays had been from schools other than from Colombo but Amunugama played the part to perfection. He breached the large gap even without a leap.

Sarath’s other passion was sociology. A department for the study of sociology was set up with the hard work of Ralph Peiris who had studied the discipline in London University. He had two brilliant, young and enthusiastic teachers in S.J.Tambiah and Gananath Obeysekera, both of whom rose to world leadership for their work in anthropology. There were others including D.L. Jaysuriya. Peiris sought the help of the Departments of Economics, History and Sinhala to fill in gaps in teaching. The students who chose to study Sociology had a commitment to the discipline and they had young and ambitious teachers committed to teaching. The results were inevitable. Several outstanding students emerged, Amunugama first among them. Scholarship never left him and there has been a constant output of high quality work.

Tissa Balasuriya wrote a brilliant study of the life and work of Sarananakara. H.L. Seneviratne was Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia teaching and researching with substantial publications to his credit. Namel Weeramuni became a creative artist and directed a new play, that was popular. Both Tambiyah and Obeyesekere took to the new techniques of field studies to formulate hypotheses and test them. I together with some others took part in the Pata Dumbra Survey, the results of which were partly published in The Disintegrating Village. The full report of the Survey could not be published. But the Disintegrating Village had its effect on the discipline as Amunugama records in this volume.

Sarath collaborated closely with Obeysekere in the latter’s field work that went into the Pattini Cult, which brought much credit to Obeysekere. In an assessment of scholarship in social anthropology in South Asia, P.T. Madan observed ‘the work of two distinguished Sri Lankan anthropologist Gananath Obeysekere and Stanley Tambiah….’. Sarath Amunugama was part of all this. He had an enormously successful university life and walked into the Ceylon Civil Service . So began the introduction to the fourth institution which comes in Volume One.

He liked provincial administration very much, that was mostly land administration. He traveled to villages, talked to villagers, solved problems that could be solved on the spot and took down notes in continuation of studies in the university. The outcome was a collection of essays that was published a few years back. After serving in Ratnapura and Galle, Sarath moved as AGA to Kandy, partly to be near his father who had fallen ill and had received excellent medical attention, on the intervention of the son.

Ever the keen student, Sarath cultivated his interest in local artist including dancers and drummers. Back in Colombo in the Ministry of Finance together with another brilliant Civil Servant he produced the Establishments Code, that to date guides public servants. Later he became a head of a department as Director of Information and brought him in touch with artists including singers. This was an opportunity to exercise his creative talents and he did so to the fullest. The Government Film Unit found a new and better home. He traveled widely.

I am running short of words and must stop, as Wittgenstein might have said. As you can see there is much to talk about, to think about and argue about in this volume and what would you do except read it. There are numerous niggles that must be removed in a future print, Besides, there is one annoying confusion about Polgasduva, in the shadow of which I grew up. It is not an island on Madu Ganga that flows to the sea at Ahungalle but on the small Ratgama Lagoon, connected to the sea at Morakola. The lagoon fills up a sudden depression in the land as it slopes down East West to the Indian Ocean, into which drain the runoff from villages Ratgama, Karudampe, Pinkande, Sudumetiya, Beratuduva, Hennatota and Patuvata.

Polgasduva was the hard rock with a thin topsoil that did not drop down with the rest of the basin. Consequently, there are only a few stunted coconut trees and brush land in which grow occasionally, a himbutu, bovitiya or dan plant. The isolation of the small island made it ideal for bhikkhus who wanted to live quietly to develop their minds, as most samana had done several centuries back. It is far removed from the romance of Madu Ganga.

But why am I agitated about it? Because I lived my first 12 years of life in Katudampe, which then I left more than physically. This book, although about kings, princes and aristocrats, the author himself one, wears unusually simple though elegant garb. It is written in language that you and I use every day, so that the book is an easy read. The easy read deceives the reader into a feeling that he glides over easy problems. Maynard Keynes’ General Theory is a pleasant read, in fact, a great polemic. Almost a hundred years after it was first read, we still ague about its import.

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Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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