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Early 60s in the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs and being appointed Director of Information

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by Eric. J. de Silva

Sri Lanka’s constitution until the introduction of the Presidential system required that the Prime Minister should also hold the portfolio of Defence and External Affairs. I had the opportunity of serving two spells in that Ministry, and both happened to be under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

My first posting to this Ministry was as Secretary to a one-man Committee of Inquiry (which was later raised to the status of a Commission) which came under its purview, appointed to investigate and report on some shootings that took place in an estate in Talawakelle (allegedly by the Police acting in collusion with the management), which resulted in the death of a number of estate workers.

Mr. M.F.de Jayaratne, CCS, was Permanent Secretary of the Ministry at the time and when he retired from service shortly thereafter, Mr. N.Q. Dias (also of the Ceylon Civil Service) succeeded him.

At the conclusion of the work of this Commission one year later, I was appointed as Assistant Secretary in charge of the Administration Division of the Ministry. This was in April 1962 just a few months after the failed coup d’etat of January that year which sought to overthrow the lawfully elected government of the day, and it goes without saying that not everyone would have been welcome in that Ministry.

It needs to be remembered that there were quite a few serving and retired senior officers of the armed services and police among the key suspects.

Consequently, the government resorted to very heavy recruitment during this period to the volunteer force under a newly appointed Commandant, Colonel Stanley Ratwatte, who happened to be a close relative of the Prime Minister. While he was a member of the preliminary interview board for selection of officers to the volunteer force if I remember right, I was made its chairman in view of the position I held in the Ministry.

We had to interview large numbers and put up only a limited number of those whom we considered suitable for the final interview held under the chairmanship of the Permanent Secretary. Similar arrangements were made in respect the other two services too. These arrangements obviously would have been with the personal approval of the Prime Minister herself.

While I was holding the position of Assistant Secretary (Administration) in the Ministry, I was called upon a couple of years later to take over as Assistant Secretary (Defence), succeeding Mr. D.B.I.P.S. Siriwardhana, many years my senior in the Civil Service, when he was appointed as D.I.G. (Administration), a very sensitive and vital position in the Police Department considering the number of serving or former Police officers who were among the suspects in the failed coup.

As Assistant Secretary (Defence), I was required to report directly to the Permanent Secretary – an arrangement which surprised many, casting a heavy burden of responsibility on my shoulders. And those who knew Mr.N.Q.Dias also knew what a hard task-master he was.

I must say that I did not have much direct contact with the Prime Minister during this period as she hardly turned up at the Ministry office, and the Permanent Secretary met her with the relevant files at Temple Trees, her official residence. This is not to say that she would have had no knowledge of the officers holding key positions in her Ministry, particularly in the Defence Division in the aftermath of the illegal attempt to overthrow the government (referred to above).

And that obviously explains why Mr. W.T. Jayasinghe found it so easy to obtain her approval to take me back to this Ministry a few years later (in September 1973) as Senior Assistant Secretary (Defence) – a position that had apparently been kept vacant since its previous incumbent left, until a suitable replacement was found.

While I was quite happy working at the Defence Ministry, I was no doubt a little concerned about missing the provincial experience that a Civil Servant was expected to have sufficiently early in his career. On a couple of occasions when the Secretary to the Treasury (as head of the public service) had asked for my release to be posted to a Kachcheri, the Defence Secretary had told him that it would be difficult to release me. This meant I had no choice.

Short spell in provincial administration, then Director of Information

At the time Parliament was dissolved and a General Election fixed for March 22, 1965, the post of Additional Government Agent, Colombo happened to be vacant, and, the Government Agent (B.H. de Zoysa), had taken up with the authorities the need to fill the vacancy urgently in view of the considerable amount of work that had to be done in respect of the Elections.

The Commissioner of Elections had been equally keen to get this position filled early, and had recommended me as a suitable person for the job, if available, having worked in his Department as an Assistant Elections Officer for a few months and being in the thick of it in Kandy during the March 1960 General Elections.

When informal inquiries were made from me by his officials as to whether I would like to take up the appointment, I gave a positive signal although Colombo was hardly the district I had looked forward to serving in when I thought it was time to move out into provincial administration. Mr. B.H. (better known as Buddhi) de Zoysa whom I had met a couple of times in the course of work had been more than happy to accept me in the vacant position.

When Mr. Dias, the Defence Secretary, inquired from me as to whether I am interested in taking up the above appointment (remembering well the previous occasions that he had refused to release me!), I answered in the affirmative. The end result was that I found myself at the Colombo Kachcheri holding the position of Additional Government Agent in mid-January 1965.

Taking my background and experience into account the GA entrusted a large part of the elections work that had to be overseen at the highest level which I was able to carry out to his satisfaction, working closely with the Assistant Elections Officer (D.S. Ratnadurai), whom I had come to know well during the period I worked in the Elections Department, before entering the Ceylon Civil Service.

Once the elections were over and a new government was sworn in under Mr. Dudley Senanayake, I eagerly looked forward to settling down in my job and making the maximum possible contribution in the areas of work entrusted to me although I never had Colombo in mind when I got interested in spending a few years in provincial administration.

It therefore came as a rude shock when I came to know that, without any prior intimation to me, a decision had been made to appoint me as Director of Information in the new Ministry of State under Mr. J.R.Jayewardene. This job did not appeal to me as it was not the type of experience or work I was looking for – at least not at that stage in my career, though it looked outwardly attractive.

When I made inquiries from the relevant officials I found that the appointment was a fait accompli and that it had already been approved by the Minister, and that nothing could be done about it at that stage. I found that I had been recommended for the job by Vincent Panditha, the new Director-General of Broadcasting and Information. Panditha was my school-mate at Mahinda College in Galle and a few years my senior both at school and in the Ceylon Civil Service.

When I got in touch with him and showed my displeasure for not having asked me before putting up my name, he was both surprised and apologetic. However, I found that there was no choice but accept the inevitable. The Information Department and Radio Ceylon had been brought together under the new dispensation and the Information Department had been physically shifted to the Radio Ceylon premises at Torrington Square (presently Independence Square), and I quickly got going with the work in hand.

One of the first things JR did after taking up duties as Minister of State was to appoint a Commission under the chairmanship of Mr. H.A.J. Hulugalle, one-time Ambassador to Italy and Greece, and well-known journalist of days gone by, to review the entire field of broadcasting and information and make suitable recommendations. One of its terms of reference was on the subject of television which had not yet come to Sri Lanka. As providence had decreed, I found myself appointed as Secretary of this Commission, in addition to my duties as Director of Information.

Once public sittings had concluded, the Chairman told me that the Minister was very keen to introduce television and had expressed a desire to have the Commission report in his hands as early as possible. This task naturally fell fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the two of us, and the demands of my substantive job stood in the way of my giving as much time as the task required.

This compelled the Chairman (with my blessings, of course) to make a request to the Minister that I be released from the Information Department to devote my full-time for work of the Commission. The Minister readily agreed to the request and Mr. Hulugalle and I worked round the clock and submitted the report in double quick time.

I then found myself as one of the two Deputy Commissioners in the Department of Agrarian Services to which I had been attached to for a short period during my cadetship in the Civil Service.



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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