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Esmond Wickremesinghe and a trip to China as Beijing sought ties with JRJ regime

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Excerpted from Volume two of Sarath Amunugama’s autobiography

Another key figure in the JRJ regime was Esmond Wickremesinghe who has been portrayed in the media as the shadowy figure behind the UNP. From 1977 to the day in 1985 when his life was cut short in a hospital in Houston USA, he became a very close professional and personal friend of mine. In fact he spent the last few days on route to Houston in my home in Paris. Nobody imagined when a few of us said goodbye to him at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris that we would never see him again. He was a ‘bon vivant’ and a dear friend.

Esmond played a crucial role in the politics of his time because he managed Lake House, the main newspaper group in the country. Lake House was the chief opinion maker of the time and therefore one of the most powerful institutions that was wooed by all sections of the community, in particular the politicians. Esmond was the son in law of the founder Chairman of Lake House, D.R. Wijewardene. He was married to Nalini, the eldest daughter of DR. It is also relevant to note here that JRJ’s mother was the elder sister of DR. Though there were occasional misunderstandings in the big Wijewardene family, Esmond and JRJ had become close friends, particularly after .the exit from politics of Sir. John Kotelawala.

Sir. John looked on Esmond as his foreign policy advisor and since both were great globe trotters and men of the world, they were considered as inseparable in the time of the Kotelawala premiership. For instance, it was Esmond who was sent as Kotelawala’s special envoy to Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand to promote the Bandung Conference.In a brief life sketch written by Esmond, a copy of which he gave me, there is an interesting reference to these high level meetings. Says Esmond, “The first visit to these countries were on a letter signed by Sir John himself, much to Sir Oliver’s subsequent horror who said that only the Queen could appoint personal envoys of a Prime Minister and Ambassadors.

“Anyway King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, President Diem of South Vietnam and Marshall Pibul Songgram of Thailand had discussions with me on behalf of Sir John about the forthcoming Bandung Conference.” He was by Sir John’s side when our Premier nearly wrecked the Bandung meeting. This is Esmond’s eye witness account of what happened on that day:

“Immediately after Sir John’s speech on colonialism, Nehru came up to Sir John to upbraid him. Sir John gave a sharp retort and a crushing insult to Krishna Menon who poked his mouth in and Krishna Menon ran away. Nehru thereafter in a polite tone asked him, “Sir John why did you speak of the forms of colonialism except western colonialism?” Sir John replied, “How do you and I know of the future? There may arise a new colonialism among us. For instance what if India invades Ceylon?”

Nehru immediately interrupted Sir John to say, “You know Sir John I will never let it happen”. Sir John replied, “Yes, Nehru. Under you I am confident India will never invade. But after you and I are dead and gone?”

Sir. John’s speech was crafted by Esmond who was a lawyer as well as a student of contemporary law and politics under the famous Professor Raymond Aron at the Sorbonne. According to Esmond, “Prime Minister DS Senanayake forced me from the law onto the job of becoming the Head of Lake House as my father in law DR Wijewardene was slowly dying”.

Like Raymond Aron who was a Communist who later renounced his creed, Esmond who started out as a Samasamajist later became an ideologue of the rightist UNP. There is a story from his LSSP days that when Esmond told Philip Gunawardena that he wanted to write for the party, the irascible Philip had replied, “Certainly. You can write a cheque”.

But even in the later days of political antagonism he maintained good relations with left leaders, particularly Bernard Soysa. Esmond contributed regularly to Bernard’s campaign funds. He always knew that he was only a stand-in for Ranjit Wijewardene who would eventually take over the reins of his father’s enterprise. But he modernized the management of Lake House and made It the home of outstanding journalists many of whom left after 1956.

By 1977 he had relinquished his control of Lake House but had invested in a hotel in Mount Lavinia where he spent most of the day. He also set up a small news agency which helped him to keep in touch with his newspaper friends abroad. As the winner of the ‘Golden Pen’ award he was invited to many international functions. He loved traveling abroad and would meticulously plan his visits.

After 1977 he became an unofficial advisor to our ministry and was welcomed by successive media ministers who were over awed by his reputation and proximity to the President. Later in this book I will describe how we worked closely with him and Sri Lanka became a country to be reckoned with in the global debate on the new Information and Communication order which was coming to the fore as a priority consideration of the developing countries.

This debate took Esmond and me to many global meetings organized by UNESCO and ultimately took me to Paris for a duration of close on five years, to head the now organization of the UN called The International Program for the Development of Communication [IPDC]. He was a veritable storehouse of inside information about the politics and personal affairs of the elite of the country.

Thanks to Mrs. Robert Senanayake’s hold over Dudley, Esmond was identified as JRJ’s ’eminence grise’ and advocate of JRJs interests so much so that Dudley had not been even on talking terms with him. On our many travels he would recount such stories which held me spellbound. Thus with my close relations with two of the country’s classic ‘Insiders’ -Esmond and Anandatissa de Alwis, and with plenty of time for chats with both of them here and abroad, I became privy to the ‘really real’ manner in which, the modern Sri Lankan state was managed since Independence by our leaders of different persuasions.

Esmond’s importance in the fields of diplomacy and media were recognized by the Chinese Government that was now scrambling to establish new links with the JRJ regime. It had had excellent relations with Mrs. B and her Government. All the leaders of China, especially Chou en Lai, had supported Sri Lanka to the hilt after the JVP uprising of 1971. JRJs sympathies lay elsewhere and now it became necessary for China to establish new linkages with the incoming Sri Lankan government. On the other hand China too was just emerging from its disastrous `Cultural Revolution’ that had decimated the party and dragged down economic growth. Their solution in respect of the new JRJ regime was to invite a high powered delegation of media moguls from Sri Lanka to visit China.

The visitors could see that China had recovered from the madness of the cultural revolution and were now ready to do business with the JRJ regime. The proposed leader of the delegation was Esmond Wickremesinghe, testifying to China’s estimation of him as a power behind the scenes. Besides Esmond, the delegation included W.J. Fernando [Davasa group], Wenceslaus [Virakesari], Manikkaaratchi [Lake House], Eamon Kariyakarawana [SLBC] and me.

In two weeks we were to tour many parts of China including Beijing, the Great Wall, Shanghai, Hangzou, Guangdong and Hong Kong [which at that time was a British Protectorate]. As if to emphasize the importance of the delegation the Chinese Ambassador invited us to a dinner at his residence. Recalling his earlier days of diplomacy Esmond and his wife Nalini hosted a return dinner for the Chinese Ambassador and our delegation at their home in Fifth Lane, Kollupitiya. Hameed and Ranil Wickremesinghe were also present.

In an article I wrote sometime later I recalled our first visit to China via Karachi and over the Himalayas to Beijing. Even as late as 1978 there were no direct flights to China from Singapore or Hongkong. So we had to go via Karachi taking the ‘Himalayan route’ which only a few years previously Henry Kissinger had used in his shuttle diplomacy.

At our first stop in Karachi, while our fellow delegates rested, Esmond and I were invited to lunch at the Karachi Boat Club by the owners of ‘Dawn’ – the major newspaper in Pakistan. ‘They were old friends of Esmond from the IPI days and soon they were regaling us with inside stories of the then powerful Zulfiqar Bhutto regime.

It was clear that Bhutto was unpopular with the Pakistani ‘upper crust’ who congregated at the once elegant Boat Club which was now slowly going to seed. The most spiteful were the heavily made up old Pakistani ‘Grand Dames’ who, pulling on their cigarettes in long ivory holders, were full of invective at Bhutto’s attempts ‘to take over our lands’. After a briefing by Dawn staffers on the latest developments in Beijing, we drove to the airport to catch a Chinese government plane to the Chinese capital.

The flight took us over the Himalayas and as the not very comfortable plane droned over the snow-capped peaks we could look down on parts of the autonomous region of Tibet. We were flying over the ‘roof of the world’. Esmond surrounded by his numerous travel bags, notebooks and sweaters offered us generous tots of whisky. We landed in Beijing around midday and were greeted by a bevy of schoolgirls who presented us with bouquets of paper flowers. From there we were driven to the famous Peking Duck restaurant for lunch [Sunday Island 16 June 1991].

(To be continued next week)



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R. Sampanthan: ‘We cannot go on like this’

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By R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

Member of Parliament Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, who has kept together a diverse coalition of Tamil political parties under the umbrella of the Tamil National Alliance since 2001, has witnessed many phases of the struggle since Sri Lanka became an independent country in 1948. Now 89 and largely confined to his official residence in one of Colombo’s well-guarded areas, Sampanthan still pins his hope on India and the international community to encourage Sri Lanka to arrive at an amicable solution to the issue of the Tamils’ hopes and aspirations.

In a rare interview, Sampanthan, who had the distinction of being the Leader of the Opposition in the Sri Lankan Parliament from 2015 to 2018, outlines what the priorities of the government should be. Excerpts:

Q: What is your assessment of the aragalaya (struggle in Sinhalese)? I see that all those who were in power are back in Sri Lanka and thriving.

A:The aragalaya was successful in the sense that they were able to make the main wrongdoer realise that he could not continue in office [President Gotabaya Rajapaksa]. Unfortunately, Ranil [Wickremesinghe], for his own personal reasons, supported the government. And by virtue of this support he was able to become Prime Minister. Now, he is the President. He became President with the support of those whom he opposed [earlier].

The aragalaya was partly successful, and the main offender, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was compelled to resign. Now the question is do we have a government? Which is the government? Who is supporting whom? What is their stand on the economy? No one knows. It is all very confusing. I don’t know what policies they are pursuing. [Wickremesinghe is the lone member of his United National Party in Parliament. He survives with the support of MPs of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Rajapaksa’s party].

As of now, what is inevitable and what should happen is there should be general elections. The people should be asked to decide who should be given the mandate to rule.

Q: I think President Ranil Wickremesinghe is following the same policies as the SLPP.

A:The credibility of Mahinda Rajapaksa [former Prime Minister], Gotabaya Rajapaksa [former President], and Basil Rajapaksa [former Finance Minister] were seriously questioned. They were the ones ruling the country. Mahinda Rajapaksa had to go into hiding in Trincomallee [at a naval base] at the peak of the aragalaya. The time has come for the people to be given the opportunity to decide who should govern this country because this [the current state of SLPP controlling despite people wanting the party out of power] should not continue. It will only get worse.

I don’t think the economic debacle is being tackled in any sensible way. They [the government] had gone to the IMF for a bailout. So far, the IMF has said nothing. This is of great concern.

Q: So you think that the only solution is going back to the people?

A: I really don’t know how they continued because the whole country was against them. It was the peak of opposition to any government. I don’t know why it [ aragalaya] did not continue [after Wickremesinghe took charge as President]…. The people wanted this government to go. Hence, they should go back to the people for a mandate.

Q: A negotiated settlement to Tamil political aspirations is the dream that is fast turning into a mirage. We do not see any gains for the Tamils. In fact, they are losing out because of demographic and cultural changes in the north and the east. Tamil political parties have not been able to make much headway.

A: The resolution of the Tamil national question has been a big issue since [Sri Lanka’s] independence. The Tamil people supported independence. They were compelled to change their stand after the citizenship law and the resettling of Sinhalese in large numbers in the east and the north. This changed the demographic composition in those areas.

The Tamil people demanded autonomy and devolution of power in those areas. This was the basis of the [1957] Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact and the [1987] Indo-Sri Lankan accord. Both contained provisions on identity of the Tamil people, the territory, and arrangements with regard to self-determination, or the right to determine their own destiny. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government breached the agreements.

As far as Sinhala politicians are concerned, whichever political party they belong to, they are primarily concerned about gaining the support of the Sinhala people on the basis of an anti-Tamil stand. As long as this continues, nothing can be done. Sri Lanka is party to the international covenant on civil and political rights, and to the covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. Both covenants give the people the right to self-determination.

We don’t want the country to be broken in any way; we stand for an undivided Sri Lanka. At the same time, we cannot go on like this. We have no alternative but to approach the international community, which is well aware of the issue. There should be some arrangement regarding the north and the east. It is the duty of the international community, including India, the US, and the UK, to take the lead and push for an arrangement in the north and the east.

The Sri Lankan government is not delivering on the political question. On one side, the Sinhala population in the north and the east is being increased by resettlement, and on the other side, the Tamils are fleeing because of the violence and the unstable political situation. If this goes on, the people will be unable to maintain their identity, self-respect, and even their dignity. The international community should not permit that. It will set a bad example to the world. If they want peace in the region, and peace in this country, this problem must be resolved. (The Frontline)

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Path to disaster

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Either we as a world have failed our human expectations to lead a normal life of peace and progress, or our leaders are nowhere close to offering that satisfactorily. Interestingly, war and destruction are not new phenomena to our civilization or to the world. We have been fighting wars in one way or the other. It seems we have been unable to evolve the right way to live with lasting peace.

The longer the Russia-Ukraine war goes on, the further hope of peace and recovery is pushed away. After all, months have passed, and everyday destruction and destitution have increased, not only in the war zones but beyond.

BY PRAVESH JAIN

It is a new-age world, intensely interconnected and interdependent like never before. What happens locally may soon spread globally. The longer the Russia-Ukraine war goes on, the further hope of peace and recovery is pushed away. After all, months have passed, and everyday destruction and destitution have increased, not only in the war zones but beyond.

The possibility of ending the war is not high. Today, the situation is such that everyone in the world is anxious about the morrow. The war is not just making the two warring nations bleed every day in many ways, it has impacted many other nations.

Europe is anxious to save itself from a hard winter, many others are concerned about how to revive their economies that the war has ravaged without visiting their borders. Thousands are dying, millions have become homeless, many innocents have gone to the grave for no fault of theirs, and many more cannot come out of closed doors in the war-impacted zones.

Inflation is growing exponentially, businesses are shaky, and the high hopes of a post-Covid boom have given way to terrible gloom. With rising unemployment, the youth are feeling hopeless. The scale of poverty is set to rise phenomenally; nations and governments around the globe are clamoring for solutions that are simply not there.

But amidst all this, the rising voices of war and revenge are filling the air and more plans are being hatched to intensify the war. For whatever reasons, one thing is conclusive.

Either we as a world have failed our human expectations to lead a normal life of peace and progress, or our leaders are nowhere close to offering that satisfactorily. Interestingly, war and destruction are not new phenomena to our civilization or to the world. We have been fighting wars in one way or the other. It seems we have been unable to evolve the right way to live with lasting peace.

Wars haven’t left us, and we have not stopped warring. It has been and is still around as a monstrous reality, teaching us to justify it as a necessary evil. But the evil is growing bigger by the day, and we remain unmindful of its perils. Time and again, we promise ourselves that we will not embark on wars again, but soon we seem to forget and get embroiled in them. What could the reasons behind this madness, or if I can say self-deceit, be?

After every war, we think and talk of peace. Then the very essence of our pledges evaporates into thin air. Are we thick-skinned, hypocritical, liars, unmindful, or simply incapable of keeping the promises that we make to ourselves?

This demands deep introspection. With the advent of pacifism in the late 19th and early 20th century, it felt like the world would embrace peace and harmony over violence. Then the First World War happened. The optimism at the start of the century was gone. There was widespread destruction, millions lost their lives, and several empires were reduced to rubble.

When the war ended, political leaders of powerful nations agreed on several treaties to ensure lasting peace and the world breathed a sigh of relief. That relief, however, was short-lived. Twenty years later a bigger war broke out. The Second World War was uglier and more destructive in all respects. It was the deadliest conflict in the history of human civilization, leading to a loss of around 80 million lives with several more being brutally affected.

Nobody wanted a third world war. So, nations sat down and decided to form a global body that would work towards ensuring world peace, and the United Nations was formed. Cut to a little less than a century later, and you will agree that the UN has become nothing but a symbolic organization that serves no practical purpose.

Several nations are in armed conflict with each other, and tensions are building across an increasing number of borders. It is as if war has been our way of life. This is not to say that devastating tactics are only used by the United States. Russia too uses these often, although only half as often as the US.

That may be not because of a lack of a will for supremacy, but because of the inability to afford the risks and resources so effortlessly. China, seeking to become the dominant power in the East and later the world, has also employed this methodology occasionally. And the intent is unfolding more vigorously along with matching actions. The question arises: why does the global leadership in general and the US in particular use mean to escalate conflict rather than defuse it?

Hasn’t anyone learned a lesson from the major world wars and their aftermaths? Nuclear conflict is a looming possibility, and everyone knows there will most probably be no human civilization left to tell the tales of that war.

On global forums, all nations repeatedly warn others to avoid nuclear war, but ground reality proves otherwise, as these same nations openly or secretly acquire nuclear weapons. That is the game plan, isn’t it While big nations churn profits from war, war-ravaged nations suffer brutal damage.

Aside from the destruction of their economies, the humanitarian losses are huge. Millions lose livelihoods if not their lives, families are displaced and the after-effects last for several generations. And this is when two nations clash across borders.

With the number of provocative tactics being applied by the USA around the world and Russia, China, and North Korea, adopting an eye-for-an-eye attitude in response, a third world war seems an increasingly likely possibility. To a neutral observer, this might seem childish, or even laughable. But there is nothing laughable about war, especially in modern times when almost every powerful nation is equipped with nuclear armaments.

What is frustrating is that world leaders do not recognize this. Or if they do, they don’t do enough to emphasize the point. Do our leaders ever realize that they are chosen by the people to lead them to progress and peace, not death and destruction? Are our leaders not accountable for their karma?

The karmic theory has its own bona-fide, unfailing principles. As you sow, so shall you reap. Often, I wonder what will happen to our leaders who flaunt their strength and arrogance and unleash acts of hegemony, rather than ensuring harmony for humanity to live in peace. Do they have no fear? Do they think that their power is eternal? Or are they simply not concerned about all this, blindly driven by their own misplaced missions?

Many questions arise in both mind and soul when one thinks of these destructive leaders. In many countries, the financial systems are fast collapsing and soon many banks may shut down. The world with its aspirations for better standards of living has been pushed a decade back. Every thinking human must have apprehensions about a dark future. (The Statesman/ANN)

(The writer is Chairman and Managing Trustee, Paras Foundation and can be reached at praveshjain@parasdyes.com)

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Twin personas; reaction long after the action

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I am pleasantly surprised and marvel too most times I read the editorial in The Island. Why? Because they are so very apt on the most current issue in the land. The editor has the clever knack of hitting the nail right on the head and is fearless even when the nail represents a VVIP.

Friday 25 November had the sharp, truth writing editor commenting on President Ranil W and his stunning metamorphosis from a peace promoting, democracy advocating politician to a persona that he himself says is Hitler like. And as the editor has written, one wondered if he and his immediate predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had swapped bodies, for the former sounded just like the latter. Gota was expected to be a dictator; a monk called out to him to be Sri Lanka’s Hitler while his brother Basil bracketed him with the ‘Terminator’.

Ranil seems to hear cries for protection of human rights as a cover for violent protests. Gota, though an army man and later as a civilian, cosseted the army at great cost to the exchequer, did not threaten to bring the army out to quell protests. It was done once or twice: e. g at Rathupaswela and at an FTZ. These orders were not proven to be directly emanating from him nor directly connected to him. However, peace proclaiming Wickremesinghe with his new surname added on is outdoing the former army officer. He maintains the PTA and now says (probably in all truth and belief – scarce characteristics of politicians) that he will call out the army to quell protests, which have been and will be, mostly peaceful.

What this woman, a former teacher and counselor, opines with common sense and intuition is that he is going about it all wrong. He is inciting protest and lawlessness, even violence, since the youth of the country, with others, are utterly frustrated, angered, troubled and volcanic – waiting to erupt and so are the sideline catalysts: the terrorism promoting core politicized protesters of the IUSF, FSP and certain JVPers. Ranil should have been wiser and less outreaching, and negotiated with leaders of the groups mentioned, including trouble rousers like Stalin, and convinced them of the dire state the country is in. Negotiating with die-hard protesters may not be his cuppa; he shies away from direct contact with the hoi polloi. But talk to them he must. He should include persons like Guv CB to the negotiating table since Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe is one of the very few, if not the only high-up, that all respect. The rabble-rousers should be convinced, even threatened privately, that at this juncture what the country needs and the IMF promotes is encouraging money making projects, the surest and largest-inflow-of dollars earning tourism to resume and continue with peace prevailing in the country. With so many countries with so much to offer, why should tourists visit a near warring Sri Lanka? The reality of course is that this dot of an island has most to offer the tourist as pronounced by even Lonely Planet guides.

However, as is always the case, the country pleases but men in it are vile and utterly stupid. The protestors do not realize their protests will not change things immediately. But they most certainly cost the country much. These fire breathing, loud mouthed protestors and so-called protectors of peace and human rights are at present the principal harmers of the land.If after sincere one-to-one negotiation, some remain recalcitrant, then the police should be called in to deal with them.

Bang shut empty stable door

Mentioned many times before by Cass and other writers, Sri Lankans in general suffer short memories: will vilify a person today and praise him tomorrow not only because they are turncoats but because the people have forgotten and of course forgiven yesterday’s sins of leaders. Another characteristic is shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted. The preliminaries of the flight of the horse are seen but no alarm is raised. Once the horse has bolted; then come forth loud hues and cries of damage done.This last character trait of the Sinhala race mostly, was exhibited and exposed in the news telecast on MTV 1 Channel on Sunday November 27.

Villagers of a certain forest area, with voices raised women to the forefront, confronted a man who was in a new built, multi roomed hut-like construction. He seemed settled down. The crowd that walked across a vast area of bare land accused that the forest that covered this area had been illegally decimated. They demanded evidence of his right to settle down there. He said the police and other officials had cleared him. Trespassing was not even mentioned. Cass’ wonder at this loud fracas was why the fuss now with land bare and a house built when the villagers surely heard if not saw trees being felled en masse. Why had they not informed authorities then? Why wait for the deforestation and illegal building to be completed before protesting? Had they been waiting all these past months for the TV cameras to arrive to act angry and national minded?

It was suspected, if not known for sure, that vociferous Diana Gamage was a dual citizenship holder or maybe even a citizen of another country visiting her home turf. She was up front for long and since being made a State Minister by Prez Wickremasinghe, his hand guided by a crow pulling strings from even thousands of miles to the west, became prominently vociferous with forex earning projects foundationed on fun and good times. She proposed the growing of ganja plants; creating a Disney theme park; making Mannar an international gambling den and what else Cass fails to recall. Now firmly in Parliament as an elected member she faces the public rising up and declaring she is not eligible to hold a Parliamentary seat since the passage of A21 or 22. The mare had bolted to the green pastures by the Diyawanne and now people are a-rising to close the door she galloped through. Confine her at home with no powers and privileges or deport her to turf in her adopted country?

Bandula Gunawardena, holding the portfolio of Minister of Trade, held forth on the subject he thinks he is omniscient in. He claims economics as his forte of intellectual knowledge; certification of this fact being he was a tuition master in the subject. He refers to himself as Doctor Bandula G; the doctorate coming to him from where we know not. In a pontification in Parliament on the Sunday, he waxed eloquent on mismanagement of the Central Bank and trotted out figures in billions and decimals thereof of printed money. He blamed past CB persons. Why was this economist considering himself on par with Amartya Sen, Paul Krugman and Maynard Keynes, silent then when Nivaard Cabral kept the printing machines in the CB turning day and night churning out 5000 rupee notes? (PS. Cass wonders very much whether he has heard of Krugman and knows Keynes was one of the Bloomsbury Group. Cass can wager her life that he does not know who this group was).

Speaking of this Mr Cabral, he was recently seen on TV at a press interview passing the buck adroitly and proclaiming he was obeying orders to print money. Was he a robot and of whom?

Short take

A very good move was mooted recently in Parliament and will soon be law. Cass refers to the stricture that university students will be allowed one extra year after their graduating date whether they fail the final exam and wish to repeat or when they dodge sitting the final exam. Here again the closing of the loophole after damage is done. Firebrand Wasantha is said to have been in the University of Sri Jayawardenapura for eight solid years. Wasn’t this truancy of sitting the finals seen earlier? Authorities too scared to report the fact; saving their scalps by ignoring anomalies. just as they turn blind eyes to filthy and dangerous ragging in universities?

This land of ours which is truly incomparable, is derogatively a land like no other when speaking of it with tongue in cheek.

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