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Conversation with Prince Phillip on BIA runway and President Premadasa’s genius for getting things done

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Excerpted from the memoirs of Chandra Wickremasinghe, Rtd. Addl. Secy to the President

When Emperor Hirohito of Japan passed away at an advanced age, and the Duke of Edinburgh was scheduled to touch down at Katunayaka Airport on his return flight, after attending the funeral. Wije (KHJ Wijeyadasa) wanted me ‘to do the honours’ as he put it, by receiving him after touch down and entertaining him to high tea at the VIP lounge. Accordingly, arrangements were made for myself and British High Commissioner David Gladstone to welcome the Duke and conduct him to the VIP lounge. This was the time when SL had to face the menace of terrorism on two fronts from the JVP and the LTTE and as a precautionary measure there was a tight security wrap provided for the Duke’s safety by crack Air Force troops under the Air Force Commander.

When the plane, which was a small jet, landed, I went up the ramp with HC Gladstone and greeted the Duke who was in the cockpit. After exchanging the usual pleasantries , the Duke said that he had piloted ‘this small thing’ and what he wanted most was to stretch his legs a bit. I told him that we had arranged tea for him in the lounge to which he replied that he would prefer to do a walk up and down the runway to stretch his tired limbs.

I observed that he was dressed in workaday denims. Whilst walking with the Duke in the company of the British HC and the Air Force Commander, along with the security escorts, I engaged him in a conversation enquiring how the funeral was and how the older Japanese people, reacted to their Emperor, who had seen the country through the cataclysmic WW11, passing away. The Duke responded with his characteristic acerbic humour saying ‘ Oh he was dying for a long time and the Japanese had got used to the idea’!

Then about the funeral itself, he said with his typically wry wit, ‘it was a rather long drawn ceremony with a lot of sticks and incense being burnt.’ As the day happened to be cloudy and without any sun I commented that it was not the best of weather we were having that day, to which he replied smiling ‘Oh, ours is infinitely worse.” I also took the opportunity to ask him about the motor vehicle he was supposed to have owned while in Trincomalee where he had served during WW11 as a Sub- Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, adding that there were many here who claimed that they owned the vehicle.

He laughed and said that he too had heard the story of his motor car being owned by a person here adding that as he did not have much money at the time he remembers buying a small Standard or an Austin which was even at that time in a somewhat ‘clapped out condition.’ Soon after his brisk stroll up and down the runway, he opted to board the plane and take off despite our pleas to have tea in the VIP lounge. I must say it was quite an experience meeting the Duke in person and listening to his witticisms which have now become legendary as they are some times mixed with the occasional faux pas, he is notorious for making.

President RP’s way of getting things done on the double

Just one month before he was assassinated by an LTTE suicide cadre, I remember Dayaratna, the President’s Co-ordinating Secretary meeting me and saying that the President wanted to see me. I enquired from Daya, who was a very amiable officer, whether there was a problem; he replied “I do not know, Sir, HE is there alone in the office waiting for you”. When I walked in somewhat apprehensively into his large office room, Daya approached him and said “Sir, Mr. Wickramasinghe is here.”

I remember the President looking at me quickly and saying in Sinhala “Chandra, I have a big problem”. I was taken by surprise when he addressed me by my first name which he had never done before. My immediate reaction was to try to figure out what this big problem was that he as President could not solve. While studying the relevant file, he spoke to me switching onto English this time and said “There are two MPs who are fighting to get an unused paddy store. One of the MP’s wishes to use the store to rehabilitate 32 ex-JVP cadres while the other is keen on converting the store into a vocational training centre to train the youth in the area in vocational skills. This has become a big headache to me”. He then looked at me and said “Here is the file, you examine the problem and summon the MPs and tell them how it should be settled and let me have your report in two days”. I was totally flabbergasted, wondering how I could possibly summon MPs to appear before me and further, to tell them how the matter should be resolved. I had very little sleep that night and remember telling my wife that I regretted ever having joined the Presidential Secretariat.

It was in this despondent mood that I read through the file carefully that night and mapped out a strategy in my mind. I wanted to start working on it the very next morning as the report had to be submitted to HE in two days. I had decided by then in my own mind that the more viable option was the establishment of a vocational training centre which could cater to the needs of the youth in the area. With this in mind, I phoned the Secretary/Ministry of Mahaweli Development (it was either AA Wijetunge or DG Premachandra) and enquired whether land with a perennial water course was available in one of the border areas (Mahaweli H Division). His first reaction was to reply in the negative.

I then told him that HE was keen on settling 32 JVP cadres in a suitable border area. Thinking it was the President who was behind the request, he asked for half an hour to check and get back to me. He rang me within 15 minutes to say that there was a suitable land available with a perennial stream running through it. I then revealed the plan I had in mind for the settlement of the 32 ex-insurgents on this land. I asked him how much of land could be given to each settler to which his reply was that the normal allotment of two and a half acres would be given. I told him ,the extent will have to be five acres, to which proposal he reluctantly agreed, again thinking that this was being suggested at the instance of the President.

On further enquiry by me as to how much money would be given to each allottee to put up a house, he replied that the normal Rs. 5,000/= would be made available. I told him that the amount will have Rs. 20,000/= as we had to take into account the special circumstances. Thinking once again that these were President Premadasa’s instructions, he agreed to give the enhanced amount. I then requested him to send me a blocking plan of the land showing the stream and a report on the extent to be allocated and the amount of money that would be given to build a house, via fax. In the meantime, I made arrangements with Army Headquarters to issue these 32 JVP cadres the necessary firearms (pump guns, they called them) and ammunition and to train them in the use of these weapons. I also remember quipping that as they were JVP cadres such training may be somewhat redundant.

That evening, I telephoned the two MPs to convey to them ‘the decisions made by the President’. The first MP I contacted was the one who wanted to utilize the store for the rehabilitation of the 32 insurgents. I started the conversation asking him whether there was a problem regarding a warehouse in that area. The MP immediately launched on a tirade against the other MP saying that the JVP cadres were after all ‘our own people’ who had to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. At this point I told the MP that the President had gone into the issue very carefully and had decided to make the warehouse available for a vocational training centre, as such a training centre would be beneficial to youth in the entire area.

He was naturally taken aback and smelling something fishy, asked me what would happen to the JVP youth to which query I replied that the President had a plan of settling them in System H of the Mahaweli project. The MP immediately countered saying that they would be killed off in no time by the LTTE. I assured him that arrangements will be made to provide suitable firearms to them to defend themselves. He then wanted to know the extent of the allotment that would be given and when I said that each would be given five acres expressed disbelief saying that the normal extent was two and a half acres per settler under the Mahaweli project. I had to reassure him that it would be five acres. When asked about the financial assistance that would be given to build a house and being informed by me that Rs. 20,000 would be given per settler, the MP could not contain his surprise as the usual assistance given for the purpose was Rs. 5,000.

I also assured him that there was a perennial stream running through the land that would provide water for irrigation. At this stage he asked me somewhat testily whose decisions these were and I answered him without demur that they were the President’s. He was silent for a moment before telling me rather forlornly “What’s to be done.” I knew the President wanted me to settle the issue in a reasonable manner and that he would not object to this kind of settlement which ensured that the ex-insurgents who were to be settled in ‘System H’ would be treated exceptionally, providing them much better facilities than what the normal Mahaweli settlers were entitled to, without summarily throwing them to the wolves, so to speak.

I do not think the MP himself was too unhappy when I detailed to him the special concessions and facilities that would be extended to the JVP settlers, deviating from what was laid down. Further, the manner in which the MP somewhat timorously ended the conversation, indicated that he was prepared to accept the arrangement which he thought was based on the President’s instructions. I think what troubled him more was that the other MP was getting what he wanted and that this meant a loss of face for him.

The other MP whom I telephoned thereafter, was jubilant that the President had decided to give the warehouse to him to start a vocational training centre and gave expression to his joy by praising the sagacity of the President in making the correct decision. The next morning I took the file back to the President and explained to him at length what I had done informing him at the same time that I had deviated a little from the normal entitlements of a Mahaweli settler in view of the special circumstances of the case. He only asked me what Secy/Mahaweli had said about the deviations and on my replying that he concurred in them given the special circumstances, seemed satisfied that the additional concessions given were quite in order.

The President however examined my report very carefully, going into all the relevant details including the availability of water etc. Finally, he asked me what the MPs had to say about the decision and on my telling him that they seemed to agree with the new proposals, turned to me and thanked me which was again something he rarely or never did. I cited this particular case to show President Premadasa’s way of managing contending parties posing seemingly intractable problems which virtually defied solution. Being a hard-nosed realist with a decidedly practical orientation in working out solutions to problems, what was uppermost in his scheme of things was to forge a quick practical solution.

This is why officials who worked for him were all the time on tenterhooks trying desperately to work out practical solutions to problems which prima facie, seemed impossible to be solved. What facilitated matters in seeking solutions to such virtually intractable problems was the fact that all concerned officials in Ministries, Departments, State Corporations and Public Authorities at the time, were only too eager to chip in and help. This is what made our work, though trying and oftentimes exasperating , still, most satisfying, when the particular problems were eventually, successfully settled.



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Features

Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.

EARLY WARNING

An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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JAYASRI twins…in action in Europe

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The world over, the music scene has been pretty quiet, and we all know why. This pandemic has created untold hardships for, practically, everyone, and, the disturbing news is that, this kind of scene has been predicted for a good part of 2022, as well,

 

The band JAYASRI, however, based in Europe, and fronted by the brothers Rohitha and Rohan, say they are fortunate to find work coming their way.

Over the past few months, they have been performing at some of the festivals, held in Europe, during the summer season.

Says Rohitha: “As usual, we did one of the biggest African festivals in Europe, AfrikaTage, and some other summer events, from July up to now. Some were not that big, as they used to be, due to the pandemic, health precautions, etc.”

For the month of October, JAYASRI did some concerts in Italy, with shows in the city of Verona, Napoli, Rome, Padova and Milano.

The twins with the
late Sunil Perera

On November, 12th, the JAYASRI twins, Rohitha and Rohan, will be at EXPO Dubai 2020 and will be performing live in Dubai.

Rohitha also indicated that they have released their new single ‘SARANGANA,’ describing it as a Roots Reggae song, in audio form, to all download platforms, and as a music video to their YouTube channel – www.youtube.com/user/jayasri

According to Rohitha, this song will be featured in an action drama.

The lyrics for ‘SARANGANA,’ were created by Thushani Bulumulle, music by JAYASRI, and video direction by Chamara Janaraj Pieris.

There will be two audio versions, says Rohitha – a Radio Mix and a DUB Mix by Parvez.

The JAYASRI twins Rohitha and Rohan

After their Italian tour, Rohitha and Rohan are planning to come to Sri Lanka, to oblige their many fans, and they are hoping that the showbiz scene would keep on improving so that music lovers could experience a whole lot of entertainment, during the forthcoming festive season.

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