‘Human Rights’ And Ecological Crisis In Sri Lanka
‘The origin of the contemporary ecological and social crisis can be traced to the colonial period and the incorporation of the country into the global capitalist economy.’
By Prof. Asoka Bandarage
The recent UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution A/HRC/46/L.1/Rev.1 of March 16 has brought extensive charges against Sri Lanka over alleged human rights violations, but is arguably seriously flawed. Opportunistic and strategic use of human rights by the western powers to maintain hegemony continually ignore violations of the rights of nature and humanity rooted in the destructive model of economic development the same powers introduced to the world.
Ancient Sri Lanka was known for its Buddhist eco-centric approach to life. The origin of the contemporary ecological and social crisis can be traced to the colonial period and the incorporation of the country into the global capitalist economy.
Vast tracts of forest were cut to establish mono-cultural coffee, tea and rubber plantations and local people lost rights to ancestral lands and resources. Deforestation destroyed water resources that irrigated the rivers leaving village tanks dry. Multi-crop subsistence agriculture was undermined, leaving people to become dependent on imported food supplies.
Sri Lanka’s forest cover declined from 84% in 1881 to 70% in 1900 and to around 50% in 1948, when the British left. Deforestation and plantation development laid the basis for land erosion and loss of animal habitats and biodiversity.
The origin of the current human- elephant conflict is attributed to deforestation starting in the British era, along with the widespread colonial practice of killing animals for sport and trade. The revered elephant was declared a pest and a reward of a few shillings was given for the head of an elephant.
With the introduction of the Open Economy in 1977, Sri Lanka became subjected to neo-liberal policies such as privatization and structural adjustment, largely as conditions to loans from the World Bank and the IMF. The massive Mahawaeli River Development Program of this period provided access to land for the poor and a significant increase in the country’s food production and power resources. However, the construction of dams and irrigation networks, roads, and similar infrastructure also radically altered soil and water systems including degradation of watershed conditions and loss of wildlife habitat and populations.
A related agricultural reform began in the 1960s (the “Green Revolution”), with a campaign to promote the use of agrochemicals and transgenic crop varieties, resulting in the loss of original indigenous seed varieties. The Mahaweli program and irrigation have supplied the water for most of the rice cultivation in the North Central Province. This area is also – likely not coincidentally – the site of the nation’s highest incidence of chronic kidney disease among poor farming communities.
The rich industrialized countries in the Global North are responsible for nearly 80% of historical global carbon emissions. Yet poor countries in the global South, such as Sri Lanka – whose carbon footprint is negligible – are the greatest victims of climate disasters. The current and looming impact of climate change on Sri Lanka is massive:
Annual mean air temperature has significantly increased by between 1961- 1990 increasing 0.016 °C per year;
Annual average rainfall over Sri Lanka has decreased by about seven percent between the 1931-1960 period and the 1961 to 1990 period;
Forecasting the rise in sea level, Sri Lanka is faced with a predicted devastating coastal erosion rate of 0.30-0.35 meter a year, with adverse impact on nearly 55 percent of the shoreline.
The 2004 tsunami drastically highlighted the vulnerability of the low-lying plains in the coastal zone to any future rise in sea level. Northern and eastern coastal areas claimed as traditional ‘Tamil homelands’, are vulnerable to submersion as they are flatter than other coastal areas. This has serious implications for both population displacement and renewed political conflict, concerns totally absent in UNHCR Resolutions that focus on identity politics and calls for political devolution.
In 2015, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), an international aid NGO, identified Sri Lanka ‘as the country with the highest relative risk of being displaced by disaster in South Asia. For every million inhabitants, 15,000 are at risk of being displaced every year in Sri Lanka’.
In 2017 alone, the country experienced seven disaster events, mainly floods and landslides, and ‘135,000 new displacements due to disaster. Sri Lanka is also at risk from slow-onset impacts like soil degradation, saltwater intrusion, water scarcity, and crop failure’.
Sri Lanka was ranked second among countries most affected by extreme weather events in the Global Climate Risk Index 2019 and sixth in 2020.
Deforestation is considered the greatest environmental threat facing Sri Lanka today. Sri Lanka ranked fourth among countries with worst deforestation of primary forests in the world in the 2000-2005 period. Forest cover, which had declined to about 50% at the end of British rule, has further declined to 44% in 1956 and 16.5 % in 2019.
A highly controversial current case is the housing development supposedly constructed for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on Willpattu National Wildlife Park. The housing will remain despite a recent court judgement that declared it illegal. The ‘polluter pays’ principle was upheld, but this only requires that the offender reforests other lands ‘in any area equivalent to the reserve forest area used for re-settlement of IDPs’. Even this court decision is under appeal by the 7th respondent, former Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishard Badiuddin. Moreover, as ecologists point out, mere tree planting elsewhere will not lead to recovery of the intricate forest eco-systems that were destroyed.
Another major controversy involves the Sinharaja Rainforest covering an area of 18,900 acres. It is home to over 50% of the country’s endemic species and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Deforestation is now taking place in the Sinharaja area for the construction of a road for an isolated village bordering the Forest Reserve and for the suspected building of hotels, shops and other encroachments.
A National Plan based on surveys and clear demarcation of boundaries of Forest Reserves, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Conservation Areas and enforcement is urgently needed to avoid conflict and encroachment over remaining forests.
A recent announcement was made by the Government Minister of Irrigation, Chamal Rajapaksa, regarding proposals to construct two irrigation tanks inside the Sinharaja, each spanning an area of five acres, with Chinese involvement. A 30-kilometer water tunnel to transport fresh water to areas in the South (including possibly Chinese controlled Hambantota port) is also reported. This announcement has raised alarm over environmental impact and likely loss of the UNESCO World Heritage status.
Mining, Dumping and Export-led Growth
There are, unfortunately, many other environmental controversies, the most destructive of which involve export-led growth and foreign companies.
In 2017, 263 waste containers carrying biomedical, plastic and other waste from the UK was brought for illegal dumping in Sri Lanka. Such toxic dumping by rich Northern countries in the poor countries of the South is sadly a common practice. After a legal victory by environmentalists, the containers are being sent back to the UK.
A proposed new project in the Eastern Province is the Eastern Minerals Project of Capital Metal, a company from the UK which plans to mine the ‘highest-grade’ mineral sands containing ilmenite, rutile, zircon and garnet. While it promises to be a highly profitable venture, environmentalists fear massive and irreversible damage to the vulnerable eastern coastline.
Yet another controversial mining project is proposed by Titanium Sands, an Australian company,that wants to mine titanium on the island of Mannar off the northern coast of Sri Lanka. Mannar is a bird paradise and local environmentalists blame the Australian company of ‘illegal conduct’ and plans to dramatically transform the ecosystem and limit land use by the local community.
Just as the world is at the cusp of a new era of technological and corporate authoritarianism, Sri Lanka, with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, is also at a decisive historical juncture. The island is facing new forms of external intervention and competition primarily involving the expansionist and national security efforts of China, USA and India. These three countries are also the biggest carbon polluters, pursuing unbridled economic growth despite the impending global climate catastrophe.
Sri Lanka is centrally placed in the maritime route of China’s Belt Road Initiative. China is now in control of the Hambantota port, the Colombo Port City, a terminal of the Colombo port and a hybrid renewable energy project on three islands off the Jaffna peninsula, just 50 km from the Tamil Nadu coast.
The Quadrilateral Alliance of the USA, India, Australia and Japan is challenging this Chinese expansion, and is, in turn, in control of key strategic positions and natural resources.
India, for example, is in control of the British colonial era Oil Tank Farm in the seaport town of Trincomalee. It is reported that the development of the west terminal of the Colombo port will also be given to the company of Indian billionaire Adani.
The US Millennium Challenge Corporation’s proposed Compact with Sri Lanka was turned down by Sri Lanka due to local protests over resource exploitation, land grab and an effort to splinter Sri Lanka into two separate entities under the control of the United States. However, there is suspicion that some of the main objectives of the MCC to digitalize land registers and privatize land to make them available for development by transnational corporations maybe be continuing in other ways.
The US signed an Acquisitions and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) with Sri Lanka in 2017 making the island a ‘logistics hub’ allowing US military vessels open-ended access to Sri Lanka’s seaports and airports. The ACSA is part of the ‘grand strategy of a united military front between the US and India in the Indo-Pacific’.
A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the USA and Sri Lanka, which could turn Sri Lanka into a US military base, has been proposed but not yet signed due to local protest.
Neo-Colonialism and Eco-Social Implications
While the implications of Neo-Colonialism for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity have been much discussed in recent media, the ecological and social implications remain relatively unexplored. Some of these include:
Conflicts between Chinese interests and farming families around the Hambantota port over Chinese offers to buy ancestral properties of locals.
Protests and legal action by environmentalists over Chinese Port City, especially coastal sand excavation and dumping of chemical waste.
Control of the west terminal of the Colombo harbor by India’s controversial Adani Group, which has a history of environmental and financial violations in Australia and India.
Effects of militarization of the island under the ACSA and possible SOFA agreements and military confrontation between the Quadrilateral Alliance and China in the Indian Ocean.
Future Survival with the Wisdom of the Past
Sustainable agriculture has a long history on the island, as in any long-lasting indigenous culture, and it needs to be brought back to the fore. Local self-sufficiency and agro-ecology are the only solutions to future food scarcity and surviving the vicissitudes of the global economy.
Both Sri Lanka and the world have enough natural resources to support people if resources are shared equitably and sustainably used. It is the apocalyptic destruction of the unregulated greed of neoliberalism that must end.
For this to happen, policies of corporate regulation must be put in place at both the national and global levels. These policies also need to incorporate a broader definition of human rights that includes the rights of nature and people’s rights to natural resources and livelihoods. 250 major civil society organizations from around the world have signed a declaration calling for an end to ‘corporate control and cooptation’ of the United Nations including the U.N. Convention on Climate Change. Indeed, the moral authority of the United Nations and its partisan approach to human rights need serious questioning.
There is an urgent concurrent need for environmental education that transcends political party and ethno-religious divisions and unites people both with each other and with a survivable environment. Environmentalism is also humanism that looks to the future, and the rights and survival of future generations.
Broadcasting Regulatory Commission Act jolts Opposition
New laws contemplated by the government appears to have caused much concern among Opposition political parties for obvious reasons. The constitutionality of the proposed Broadcasting Authority Bill is expected to be challenged in the Supreme Court. The whole process of law making raised quite a stir in the wake of the recent shocking Supreme Court determination that one-third of the Bill titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka’ is contrary to the Constitution and several dozens of amendments are required to pave the way for its passage with a simple majority. It also shows that our judges have a backbone and are not easily swayed by the incumbent all-powerful Executive President, who is only there on a ‘contract’ to complete the remainder of the previous President Gatabaya Rajapaksa’s term after he was ousted by violent protests instigated from outside.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, continuing to struggle on the economic front, is keen to consolidate its position, both in and outside Parliament.
The media has emerged as the major challenge to the government due to the failure on the part of the Opposition to adopt a cohesive political strategy.
Both the government and the Opposition seem to be in disarray and unable to come to terms with the continuing political-economic and social crisis, fuelled by external forces.
The move to introduce a controversial Broadcasting Regulatory Commission Act should be examined, taking into consideration current political and economic challenges faced by the incumbent administration.
Did the Justice Ministry or the Media Ministry, at least, informally consult President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Minister of Defence, in addition to being the Finance Minister and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, on the proposed Broadcasting Regulatory Commission Act, at least after being so thoroughly educated by the highest court in the land on the ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka’ Bill? A section of the Opposition believes the President hadn’t been aware of this move.
However, former External Affairs Minister and SLPP rebel Prof. G. L. Peiris and Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) spokesman Pubudu Jayagoda didn’t mince their words when they alleged the whole exercise was for the benefit of President Wickremesinghe. Prof. Peiris has alleged that the President intended to rein in media in line with his overall political strategy to consolidate his power whereas Jayagoda explained how the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government launched the project soon after the UNP leader’s election as the President in late July last year. Jayagoda insists that the Cabinet has cleared the Bill.
The Broadcasting Regulatory Commission and the committee tasked to investigate complaints against television and radio stations would be dominated by the President’s men to such an extent, it couldn’t be expected to discharge its responsibilities in an impartial manner. Jayagoda pointed out how two persons of the Regulatory Commission could take far reaching decisions regardless of the consequences. In case any member failed to carry out directives received from the President, he or she faced the axe.
Jaygoda questioned the absurdity in appointing the commission for a period of five years in line with the five-year presidential term. Both Prof. Peiris and Jayagoda emphasized the grave danger posed by the President exercising power over the media regardless of some sections of the media pursuing politically motivated agendas.
Against the backdrop of fierce criticism of the proposed law, Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, on 02 June came up with the face saving reply that no final decision has been taken in this regard.
The former President of the Bar Association said that the issue at hand was still under discussion and a set of proposals, pertaining to the proposed Broadcast Authority Act, were in the public domain. The Minister insisted that the relevant bill is yet to be prepared.
The Colombo District lawmaker said so in his capacity as the Chairman of a Cabinet sub-committee tasked with preparing a regulatory mechanism in this regard. The Cabinet-sub-committee consists of Media Minister Bandula Gunawardena, Labour Minister Manusha Nanayakkara, Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella and Ports and Shipping Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva.
The media raised the proposed Bill with Minister Rajapakse at a briefing in the Justice Ministry especially called to address issues pertaining to the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) established in 2016 during the Yahapalana administration.
Dr. Rajapakse has assured that media organizations would be given an opportunity to make representations in this regard.
The latest controversy over the proposed Bill with a set of proposals outlining its possible content already in the public domain, should be examined against the backdrop of strong opposition to the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill and Bill titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka.’ In addition to those disputed and much discussed Bills, a major debate is likely over the proposed Budget Office. The text of the Bill meant to specify the powers, duties and functions of the Budget Office is now in the public domain. The government certainly owed an explanation as to why it cannot seek a consensus with the Opposition at the relevant consultative committee/sectoral oversight committee in this regard. The country is in such a desperate situation, it cannot under any circumstances afford further political turmoil.
Unfortunately, the government appears to be hell-bent on bulldozing its way through the legislature, regardless of whatever consequences.
The recent sacking of Janaka Ratnayake, the outspoken and highly ambitious Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission underscored the government strategy.
Ratnayake is on record as having said before a parliamentary watchdog committee that he received the influential position for serving the Rajapaksas. But, he was removed by the Rajapaksas’ SLPP at the behest of President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Altogether 123 lawmakers voted for the motion to remove Ratnayake whereas 77 opposed. Government member Ali Sabri Raheem voted against the motion to protest against the failure on the part of President Wickremesinghe and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena to intervene on his behalf after he was caught with undeclared gold and smartphones worth Rs 74 mn and Rs 4.2 mn, respectively, while coming through the VIP/VVIP channel at the BIA, where such people are normally whisked through without any checks.
Rebel SLPP lawmaker Prof. Charitha Herath mounted a no holds barred attack on the proposed Broadcasting Authority Act. At his regular briefing at Nidahasa Jathika Sabhawa (NJS) office at Nawala. The one-time Media Ministry Secretary explained how the proposed law could be utilized against television and radio stations which refused to toe the government line.
The NJS comprises 13 MPs elected and appointed on the SLPP ticket/accommodated on its National List.
Acknowledging the need and the responsibility on the part of the government to introduce the Broadcasting Authority Act, National List lawmaker Herath questioned the intention of those behind what he called a despicable move.
The country’s radio and television stations are allowed to operate in terms of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation Act (No 37 of 1966) and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation Act (No 06 of 1982), respectively. Herath also explained how the Telecommunications Act applied to broadcasting operations.
The MP said that no one could dispute the need to introduce a new law to regulate radio and television stations. But the proposed Bill now in the public domain revealed the government’s intention to suppress those who would dare to challenge it on whatever issue, lawmaker Herath said, warning the government of dire consequences if it pursued such a strategy.
Asked to explain, MP Herath alleged that the proposed Act dealt with radio and television stations in a manner that they were yet to be established in Sri Lanka. The architects of the new law conveniently ignored the fact that radio and television stations were in operation here for several decades and couldn’t be subjected to a new law the way it dealt with a new entrant.
“The bottom line is that the proposed Broadcasting Authority Act completely ignored Article 14 of the Constitution that guaranteed the freedom of speech and expression, including publication. If the enactment of the proposed Broadcasting Authority Act takes place as it is, that will deliver a deadly blow to democracy. We do not want a North Korea type situation here.”
Referring to the composition of the commission, MP Herath questioned the rationale in restricting the total number of members to five and the quorum three. Pointing out that of the five members of the proposed commission, two – a Secretary to a Ministry (most probably Media Ministry) and the Director General of Telecommunication Regulatory Commission were ex-officio, the lawmaker said the President would name three remaining members subject to the approval of the Constitutional Council.
Alleging that this commission would be nothing but a highly dangerous tool in the hands of those at the helm of political power, lawmaker Herath said that it could be used selectively against any media organization that took a stand contrary to that of the government in respect of any issue – ranging from national security to what the architects of this destructive piece of legislation called the national economy. The operations of the offending media could be either suspended or permanently closed down, the academic said, urging the print and electronic media to vigorously take up this issue.
MP Herath lambasted the government for seeking to prohibit the media taking up economic issues. Alleging that such provisions were political, the lawmaker said that the issue is who would interpret the term ‘national economy’ in an economically ruined country. Would it be President Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, State Finance Minister Shehan Semasinghe or the International Monetary Fund, he asked
Prof. Herath expressed serious concern over the proposed committee consisting of three persons headed by the Director General, TRC, to investigate complaints directed at radio and television stations. Pointing out that there is ambiguity pertaining to the appointment of such a committee, the MP questioned how two out of the three-member committee could decide either to suspend or permanently close down operations of an ‘offending’ broadcaster.
Impact on Parliament
However, MP Herath didn’t discuss how the proposed new law could even hinder the coverage of parliamentary proceedings as well as the reportage of shocking disclosures at parliamentary watchdog committees. Depending on the stand taken by the government on a particular issue, in terms of the Broadcasting Authority Act, action can be initiated against a television station for its reportage on a matter even discussed in Parliament.
The UNP may use the new law to suppress reportage and discussion on Treasury bond scams perpetrated in 2015 and 2016 under its watch. The SLPP may find the new law useful to pressure the media over the reportage of circumstances leading to the economic ruin due to a spate of ill- advised decisions taken by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The committee tasked with investigating complaints against media organizations may find even the exposure of serious lapses on the part of the bureaucracy offensive. A case in point is the shocking disclosures made in the relevant parliamentary watchdog committees how the officialdom addressed critical issues at hand. The recent revelation that taxes, interest and penalties amounting to Rs 904 bn hasn’t been collected by the Inland Revenue underscored the need to address this issue urgently.
During the media briefing lawmaker Herath explained how the media could be targeted on the basis of alleged abuses in the coverage of issues. In the absence of interpretation of the term abuse of power, the committee headed by the Director General, TRC would be able to find fault with any broadcaster to appease his/her political master. It would be pertinent to mention that just two out of a three-member committee is authorized to decide on the fate of a media organization. Even the criticism of the controversial postponement of the much delayed Local Government polls indefinitely may attract the attention of the Broadcasting Authority as the government propagated the myth that economic recovery should be given priority, therefore election process can wait.
Prof. Herath explained how members of the commission can be removed in case they didn’t toe the government line. Instead of the very purpose a Broadcasting Authority is required to primarily have a level playing field, the one proposed can be a threat to media freedom. In the hands of politicians who pursue destructive self-aggrandizing strategies regardless of consequences, therefore the proposed Broadcasting Authority can be a tool to harm the free media. Prof. Herath regretted that the previous attempts to establish a Broadcasting Authority hadn’t been successful.
Harsha takes a strong stand
Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) front liner Dr. Harsha de Silva is another MP who came out strongly against the proposed law. The former UNP non-Cabinet minister flayed the government over the move at a media briefing held at the Opposition Leader’s Office on Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha.
The top SJB spokesman warned that this legislation, touted as an effort to advance the mass media, actually would serve as a tool for the government to crack down on and manipulate the media to suit its own agenda.
According to Dr. de Silva, the proposed Broadcasting Authority Bill contained provisions that enabled the government to exert pressure on and control media outlets that do not align with its ideology. Such measures, the economist argued were fundamentally incompatible with the principles of a democratic society.
“One of the cornerstones of a democracy is the freedom to hold differing opinions. The media cannot be subject to the whims of a particular authority that operated at the behest of the government. The media should enjoy the independence to express their views”, Dr. de Silva asserted. “This right to free expression is a fundamental tenet of any democratic society. The proposed Broadcasting Authority Act aims to stifle the media, and we will not stand for it”.
Dr. de Silva further cautioned that the government’s motives behind this legislation mirror its previous attempts to suppress the media through the failed Anti-Terrorism Act. The MP asserted that, having faced resistance to their oppressive measures, the government is now seeking alternative avenues to fulfill its objective of muzzling critical voices, and the Broadcasting Authority Act is their latest attempt to do so.
The concerns raised by Dr. Harsha de Silva who was once widely tipped to be the Finance Minister of the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, underscored the need for a robust and independent media, one that could act as a vital check on governmental power and foster a thriving democratic society. The MP stressed the pivotal importance policymakers and citizens alike closely examine the proposed legislation and its potential implications on press freedom, ensuring that any changes made to media regulations did not infringe upon the democratic principles that underpin our society.
SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has alleged that the government’s latest bid was meant to create an environment in which only those who propagated the government line could operate.
Lawmaker Premadasa has said that the move to throttle the media seemed to be a critical part of the government’s overall strategy and should be considered as an extremely dangerous move against the backdrop of indefinite postponement of Local Government polls. MP Premadasa, like his opposition colleagues Prof. Herath and Dr. de Silva, alleged the licenses were to be issued on the basis of the media organizations’ loyalty to the government.
Several decades ago, Sri Lanka exercised censorship to control the media, at a time television posed no real challenge.
Having joined The Island in June 1987, the writer remembered how print media had to submit all ‘copies’ that dealt with security and political issues to the government censor for approval. Successive governments imposed censorship to cover up military reversals in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and part of the overall strategy to deal with the second JVP-led insurgency 1987-89.
Successive governments harassed the print media and attacks directed at journalists and private media institutions over the years were part of that despicable strategy. Whatever the provocations, the assassinations of journalists cannot be condoned. Perpetrators of such heinous crimes had never been arrested. The assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickremetunga on January 08, 2009 is perhaps the case that attracted the most media coverage though there were many other attacks.
Keith Noyahr, Defence correspondent at the now defunct The Nation newspaper earned the wrath for his critical weekly column titled ‘Military Matters.’ His abduction and subsequent release in May 2008 exposed the then government though the investigation was never brought to a successful conclusion even after the defeat of that government in January 2015!
The proposed Broadcasting Authority Bill has taken the government’s battle (whichever party in power) to a new level. Now political strategy is aimed at closing down whole television or radio stations.
Jayantha Dhanapala (1938 – 2023)
By Tissa Jayatilaka
The splendid career as well as the many glittering prizes won by Jayantha Dhanapala is common knowledge and does not require reiteration here. Rather I wish to focus on the man himself in this tribute to an exceptional person whom I had the privilege of getting to know personally at the tail end of the 1980s. I had of course heard of Jayantha and his many accomplishments long before our first meeting. Having read a newspaper review of North-South Perspectives, an international affairs journal that I edited, which focused on the promotion of greater understanding between the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing’ world, Jayantha telephoned me to ask if we could meet. I readily agreed and thus began a friendship that lasted until his death a few days ago.
Although I had not known at the time of that first meeting of ours, I soon learnt that encouraging those of the younger generation to contribute their mite to the betterment of Sri Lanka and the world outside of her shores was a priority for Jayantha. In the process, he enabled those of us who came into contact with him to better ourselves in order to continue to give of our best. In his appreciation of Jayantha ‘s life and career, former diplomat A.L.A. Azeez (who joined the Sri Lanka foreign service in 1992) talks at length of the marvellous role of guide and mentor of younger colleagues, including himself, that Jayantha played throughout his days in the foreign service. In the same spirit, after his retirement from the UN and upon his return to Sri Lanka, he served as a Trustee and member of the Board of Advisers of Sri Lanka Unites, mentoring a local youth movement dedicated to the transformation of Sri Lanka to a land free of religious and ethnic strife. He was involved from the inception in the establishment of the Friday Forum, an informal and self- financed group of older citizens dedicated to democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law.
Our friendship grew over the years, I happen to think, because we shared much in common. We both schooled and spent our formative years in Kandy– he at Trinity in the 1950s and I at Kingswood in the 1960s. Later he and I both entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya at different times, given that he was a decade older, where we both read for the Special Degree in English. His extra-curricular activities at Peradeniya, like mine, included sports– rugger in his case and cricket in mine– and theatre. We both took part in plays, held office and were participants in the diverse activities of the University Drama Society (DramSoc).
Jayantha and I also shared a fondness for the spoken and written word and, not infrequently, combined our resources in this area. We jointly edited A Garland for Ashley: Glimpses of a life celebrating the life of Ashley Halpe and His 50 Years of University Teaching (2008). He was instrumental in making me the editor of SIRIMAVO – Honouring the world’s first woman prime minister (2010) for which publication he wrote an excellent essay on The Foreign Policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. He contributed a chapter titled, A City Upon a Hill for Excursions and Explorations Cultural Encounters Between Sri Lanka and the United States that I put together in 2002. He reviewed Peradeniya: Memories of a University (1997) that I jointly edited with K.M. de Silva. Jayantha served as keynote speaker while I introduced the publication at the launch of the late Tissa Abeysekera’s collection of essays on culture and the arts titled, Roots, Reflections and Reminiscences (2007). A couple of years ago, Jayantha and I teamed up one more time to write an essay titled, A Study in ‘Creative Compassion’ for The Fourth Lion – Essays for Gopalkrishna GANDHI (2021) edited by Venu Madhav Govindu and Srinath Raghavan.
In the 1990s, when our friendship had matured to an extent that I could ask the Dhanapalas for a personal favour, I would on certain of my regular visits to the United States, stay with Maureen and Jayantha whenever they were free of pressing official commitments. I stayed with them in Washington while he was our ambassador (1995-1997) and later in New York when he was serving as Under-Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs (1998-2003). In New York, they would book tickets in advance for plays on Broadway to make my visits even more enjoyable. Their friendship and warm hospitality knew no bounds. I also recall a visit to the UN with my wife Lilani and our daughter Lara when Jayantha hosted us to lunch at a restaurant in the premises of the UN headquarters.
No account of Jayantha would be complete without a reference to the solid and sensitive supporting role played by Maureen in his life and career. She was a superb fellow-traveller who had known Jayantha from a very young age and were fellow undergraduates at Peradeniya as well. If marriages, as we are told, are indeed made in heaven, then theirs undoubtedly would be one of them. They were an extremely compatible and congenial pair to the very end. After their return to Sri Lanka, we had the opportunity to meet Jayantha and Maureen in more relaxed settings over food and drink, either at our home or theirs or in the homes of common friends.
Lilani and I went up to Kandy to spend a long- promised weekend with our senior colleagues and intimate friends Gananath and Ranjini Obeyesekere at April’s end. Knowing of our strong desire to meet Jayantha and Maureen during our visit and, as all of us were close mutual friends, our kind and thoughtful hosts invited the Dhanapalas to lunch at their lovely home. It was when we sat to lunch that it struck me that all six of us around the table, belonging to different eras, had been through the Department of English and read for the Special Degree in English at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya which later became the University of Peradeniya. Little did we know that one of us would be gone in less than a month and not be around for another meeting over lunch! Impermanence is all.
My one-time teacher (he taught Lilani too, in later years), senior colleague in Peradeniya’s Department of English and close friend, Professor Thiru Kandiah, and his wife Indranee, have shared a friendship of much longer standing with the Dhanapalas. Thiru was a year senior to Jayantha at Peradeniya while Indranee and Maureen, who had been schoolmates and close friends at Girl’s High School, Kandy, resumed their friendship at a later date at Peradeniya. Their fathers had been members of the Trinity College staff, very close friends and neighbours. Trinity’s Lemuel House was founded when Jayantha was a student at the school with Indranee’s father, the illustrious teacher and Head Master Mr. R.L Kannangara in charge. Jayantha was one of the most outstanding students of Lemuel and Indranee’s father soon came to respect and, also like him very much.
The Kandiahs now live in Perth, Australia and realising that they may be unaware of Jayantha’s passing, I wrote to inform them of the sad event. Soon there was a flurry of emails exchanged amongst the three of us and I found myself in total agreement with their assessment of the Dhanapalas.
Here is Thiru on Jayantha:
Jayantha was held in especially high esteem and regard by absolutely everybody. This was not least for the obvious brilliance of his mind. But closely allied with that, there was in addition this very distinctive way in which he tended to come across to people in his interactions with them- as of his very nature a signally intellectual sort of person: always impeccably reasoned, and very definitely and firmly so, if in an unostentatious and quietly unassertive, also exemplarily courteous, manner that lent him great dignity; with the unmistakable integrity of the positions he adopted on matters and what he stood for adding considerable power to the strikingly impressive impact he had on people.
Indranee’s pertinent observation is that Maureen is as good natured as she is beautiful and gentle and that the school, “could not have found a better head prefect than her”. She goes on to say that Maureen’s father was a very caring and helpful person and her mother, a gentle and gracious lady. These are sentiments that deserve to be widely shared and hence my doing so.
All in all, Jayantha Dhanapala was a formidable personality, though, never aggressive or unapproachable. He was friendly and unfailingly courteous at all times. I wish to end this tribute with another most appropriate quote from Thiru Kandiah:
Much will, I am sure, be said and written of Jayantha at this time of his leaving us. But the man we were fortunate to know and whom we had such affection and respect for will remain in our hearts and minds as long as we are around.
By Lynn Ockersz
It’s been over four decades,
Since the torching and gutting,
Of the Jaffna Public Library,
That venerable Beacon of Light,
For Asia and the world at large,
And the shame continues to well,
In the hearts of the righteous,
Over the fascist-inspired tragedy,
But it’s not too late, it’s plain,
To put things right fully,
By offering a hand of humanity,
To the people thus savaged,
And telling them that never again,
Will bigotry be allowed to reign,
In this isle of a plural identity….
And this is no formidable task,
For nation-builders genuine,
Who must stand up and be counted.
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