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Lakshman Dias Abeygunawardene – Community Physician par excellence

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by Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

Lakshman (L.N.D) Abeygunawardene had his education at Ananda College Colombo.

I first met Lakshman in the “Block” when we were freshers at the Faculty of Medicine in Colombo in 1962. Then we both lived in Nugegoda. There were times he gave me a lift to the faculty on his Honda 50 motor-cycle. Our surnames being at the beginning of the alphabet we sat near to each other at lectures, walked the long corridors of the General Hospital together and worked in the same wards. Friendship blossomed as we did most of the demanding tasks together for the full five years.

The examinations in the faculty were many and each one of them challenging in the extreme. There was a need to commit vast amounts of facts to memory. Lakshman had a most remarkable memory and the ability to recall in such great detail. He spent less time studying than many of my mates in the batch but sailed through the years with ease. On many occasions he gave me the impression he merely wanted to pass the examinations with minimum effort while enjoying student life. I have no doubt that he could have been in the top tier in the order of merit if he just made the effort. Lakshman was intelligent and had the wonderful ability to think fast and think rationally while on his feet. This was a great gift which he used to good effect in later life and career.

Lakshman loved faculty life and enjoyed it to the full, more than most. He was a fine billiards player. Taking part in the faculty competitions he fared very well indeed becoming one of the top players. Carrom was his forte. Lakshman was one of the best players of the game and won the faculty tournament a couple of times. He was a great follower of the University cricket team and was ever present at the Sara Trophy games lending his support. Watching Rugby was another of his passions and never missed an important club game. He was always there for the Colours Night and Block Night dances at the University’s King George’s Hall, jiving the night away. Ever present at the evening booze-ups in the faculty common room, Lakshman was there to take me home after the event. Although he enjoyed a drink Lakshman never exceeded the sensible limits he set for himself. He never smoked. With him good sense always prevailed.

I remember he was always polite and had the great ability to be calm, discreet and diplomatic. He had the skill to hide his anger so very well. Beneath his gentle demeanour Lakshman has a steely core. He is intelligent and astute and played his cards close to his chest. Lakshman was never in a hurry to make important decisions which he did after careful thought. This stood him in good stead throughout his career and in his life.

I recall with nostalgia a trip we made with Sanath de Tissera, Bernard Randeniya and Lakshman Jayasinghe (who joined us on the spur of the moment, at the Fort Railway Station). We were off on a trip to Kandy. Sanath arranged for us to stay in a house on a hill in Watapuluwa, overlooking the Mahaweli river. We pounded the Streets of Kandy during the day and enjoyed a chat and a drink in the evenings by the river. This was a memorable holiday which brought us closer together.

After the final year examination came the great dispersal. We all went our separate ways.

Following his Internship at Colombo South General Hospital, he worked in a clinical field for two years. He then set his eyes on a career in public health. Lakshman began his journey into public health as a Medical Officer of Health at Matara in 1970. That was also a momentous year for Lakshman when he married Mangala. I made an official trip to Matara while working at the Central Blood Bank in Colombo. It brought me great joy to meet my old pal again. I was entertained most lavishly by Lakshman and Mangala in a grand and elegant house at Brown’s Hill in Matara.

Remaining in the Public Health Services, he joined the Health Education Bureau (HEB) of the Ministry of Health. In March 1974, Lakshman was awarded a World Health Organization (WHO) Fellowship and proceeded to the USA. Specialising in public health and health education, in 1975, he obtained the Master’s degree in Public Health (MPH) from the University of California, Berkeley, USA. On his return to Sri Lanka, Lakshman pursued his keen interest in serving the HEB as a Health Education Specialist. In 1986, he received his certification as a consultant in community medicine by the Post Graduate Institute of Medicine (PGIM). Lakshman was conferred the prestigious Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree in community medicine by the University of Colombo.

Having served the Government of Sri Lanka diligently for 23 years he took early retirement in 1990 and joined the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). He has also served the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Commonwealth Secretariat in London working on consultant assignments in Indonesia and Malaysia. In 1998, he took early retirement from UNICEF. Lakshman then emigrated to the United States and served the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control as a Health Education Specialist for a further period of ten years. He finally retired in December 2008 as a Consultant Community Physician in the USA. Although South Carolina left a strong impression on Lakshman he had a deep longing to return home to his roots.

For many years I lost contact with Lakshman. Marriage, careers and caring for our children took precedence. On a brief visit home in 1998, I met up with Lakshman and the irrepressible J.C Fernando at the Singhalese Sports Club which was a memorable event. We kept the spirit alive bringing back a bit of that old faculty magic of long ago.

Lakshman initiated a Weblog (now also called a Blog), specifically for the Colombo Medical Faculty entrants of 1962. The creation helped to shape the way we communicate as a year group and became a forum for conveying our skills, news, humour and friendship. This became an instant hit with the batch and has been a friendly platform, riding the ether since 2011. He had a pragmatic approach to its rules. Not wanting it to be an online battle ground, he discouraged and virtually excluded politics. As the manager of the Blog he maintained its dignity and remained fair and impartial. His willingness to listen to the feedback improved the Blog enormously. After many years in the hot seat he has now passed on the onerous task of managing the Blog to Mahendra Gonsalkorale.

On retirement Lakshman and Mangala returned to Sri Lanka and made their home in Battaramulla. They now maintain a splendid house with a delightful garden in a posh part of town. An utterly charming couple, they became well known for their friendship and lavish hospitality. By his relaxed style and affable manner, he made wonderful company. Their generosity was extended to the many expatriate medics who returned home on their winter getaway.

I recall Lakshman’s father was a regular contributor to the national newspapers. Lakshman continued this tradition by contributing articles of value to the daily papers mostly on topics in his field of expertise in healthcare. He has dipped deep into the archives of his memory to write a most readable, extensive and far-reaching memoir.

I never joined in the many Batch reunions in Sri Lanka and never had the opportunity to meet Lakshman. He made a brief trip to the UK. Although I hoped very much we could meet that was not to be. I was in Sri Lanka in 2012 and we were able to enjoy a meal together at the plush Indian restaurant at the Cinnamon Grand in Colombo. In the relaxed ambience of its dining hall we retraced our time together, reminisced and remembered mutual friends. We did make up much for those lost years.

Lakshman is a quiet man, yet gregarious, always charming. He is well known for his intense loyalty to his friends. His anecdotes, wonderful sense of humour and that ‘wicked’ grin are an integral part his charm. I remember from long ago his courtesy and kind ways which he has carried through all his life. I am greatly privileged to have met him in my life’s journey. Lakshman and Mangala have a son and daughter and enjoy the love and affection of three grandchildren.

I wish them a long and happy retirement.



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Solidarity and Aragalaya: A few thoughts from an educationist’s perspective

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by Harshana Rambukwella

Very little in Sri Lanka at the moment inspires hope. We are facing an existential crisis that was inconceivable just six months ago. Sri Lanka is also, ironically, just a year away from marking the 75th year of its independence. As we reflect on these seven decades of postcolonial nation building, and as we confront a future of extreme precarity, our scorecard as a country is not a proud one. Much blood has been spilt in the name of postcolonial nation building and the ethno-nationalist conflict that shaped almost three decades of that history and two youth rebellions against the state speak to a history of division and enmity. While our current predicament cannot be entirely attributed to this conflictual history alone, it surely played more than a small role in shaping our present misery. It is within this context that I want to offer this brief set of reflections on what I feel is an unprecedented form of solidarity that has emerged in Sri Lanka as the aragalaya took shape. While I do not want to romanticize this solidarity because it is a highly contingent phenomenon and is shaped by the extreme nature of the current political and economic conditions, it offers us as a society, but more specifically as educators, something to reflect on as we try to imagine our role in a society that faces a painful process of rebuilding and recovery (though my hope is that such rebuilding and recovery does not mean the repetition of the tired old neo-liberal script we have followed for decades).

Before I explore what I mean by solidarity within the aragalaya, let me briefly reflect on solidarity as a concept. Solidarity is a term sometimes deployed in geopolitics. Particularly in this time of global turmoil where not just Sri Lanka, but many other countries are experiencing serious economic challenges, we see nations expressing solidarity with or towards other nations. However, such solidarity is almost always shaped by instrumental motives. This is what we might call a form of ‘vertical’ solidarity where more powerful and wealthy nations extend a ‘helping hand’ to their more unfortunate counterparts. Therefore, when India says ‘neighbourhood first’ and expresses solidarity with Sri Lanka in this time of trouble one can easily discern this as a hierarchical gesture shaped by instrumental motives. It is in reality, India’s strategic geopolitical interests that largely dominate this narrative of solidarity though one cannot disregard the critical importance of the assistance extended by India and other such ‘powerful’ nations in this time of national distress.

Another form in which solidarity manifests is through what some scholars have termed ‘enchanted’ solidarities. This is literally and metaphorically a distant form of solidarity where intellectuals, activists and others extend solidarity towards a struggle they perceive as deserving their support but without truly understanding the context in which they are intervening. This has often happened with ‘first world’ academics and intellectuals expressing solidarity towards ‘third world’ struggles which they felt were ideologically aligned with their beliefs. One example is how many liberal and leftist intellectuals supported the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, believing it to be an anti-imperial liberation movement, only to become disillusioned with the movement as they began to see the full horror of the repression and violence unleashed by the Khmer regime. I think if we reflect on Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history, we can also find many such moments where enchanted solidarities were expressed towards various movements from people in the ‘metropolitan’ center with little understanding of the nuances of the politics on the ground.

Premised against both vertical and enchanted solidarities, scholars have also proposed what is called ‘disenchanted solidarity’. By this they mean a situation where diverse groups, sometimes with very different political and ideological agendas, come together to fight for a common cause. They are often critically conscious of their differences but face a common precarity that pushes them together to struggle and align in ways that were not possible before. Often such moments are also underwritten by anger, though the sources of anger or the objects towards which the anger is directed could be different. I would like to read the aragalaya through this lens of disenchanted solidarity. Particularly at the height of the Galle Face ‘Gota go gama’ protests – before the brutish May 9th attack symbolically ‘killed’ something of the ‘innocence’ of the struggle – there was a sense in which the different groups represented in that space were expressing solidarity towards a singular goal – getting rid of the Rajapakasas and a political system they saw as deeply corrupt – there was anger and a gathering of disenchanted solidarities. For many middle-class people, the aragalaya was a way in which to express their frustration at the lack of the basic necessities of life – be it gas, electricity and fuel – and how a corrupt political class had robbed them of their future. For those with longer histories of political activism such as the IUSF (the Inter University Students Federation) or youth activists from the Frontline Socialist Party or the JVPs youth wing or the many trade unions that supported the aragalaya, this moment in some ways represented the culmination, and perhaps even a vindication, of their longstanding struggles against a political, social and economic order that they consider fundamentally unfair and exploitative. Of course, within this larger narrative, there were and continue to be pragmatic political calculations, particularly from groups affiliated with political parties. At the same time, we also witnessed ethnic and religious minorities, often historically marginalized in Sri Lanka’s social and political mainstream finding a rare space to express their anger at the ways in which they have been discriminated against. However, the argalaya gave them a rare space to do so by channeling their anger as a form of solidarity towards the common goal of getting rid of the Rajapaksa dynasty and the corrupt political system as a whole.

But at the same time, we also saw the tenuous nature of these disenchanted solidarities in the aftermath of the 9th May attack on ‘Gota go gama’. Initially we saw another spectacular display of organic and spontaneous solidarity when health workers and office workers abandoned their workstations and rushed to ‘Gota go gama’ when news of the attack broke. But by the evening of that day the story had turned more insidious with a wave of attacks against the properties of politicians and others thought to have been involved in the attack against the peaceful aragayala participants. While we may understand and even empathize with this backlash, its violent nature and what appeared to be other instrumental motives driving it, such as the looting and revenge attacks, made it difficult to associate it with the moral principles that had animated the aragalaya thus far.

Thereafter, at the current moment I am writing, the aragalaya also appears to have lost some of its vital energy as the political configuration has shifted and the tragi-comedy of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik with its underhand deals and political mechanizations seems to have regained the upper hand.

However, what does this mean? Does it mean post May 9th the aragalaya has lost its meaning and purpose or can we push our analysis a little deeper. At this point I would like to introduce one final way in which scholars have discussed solidarity which I feel is appropriate to understand the aragalaya and the spirit that underwrote it and continues to underwrite it. This is what some scholars have called ‘deep solidarity’ – a situation where in today’s neo-liberal context where the vast majority of the population come to a realization of their common social and economic predicament and realize their common enemy is the symbolic ‘one percent’ or an insidious nexus between crony capital and political power that disempowers them. This is of course an idealistic conception but one which I feel holds true at least partially to this moment in Sri Lanka. People from widely varying social and economic strata, from different religious persuasions and people with wildly different ideological and political beliefs have been suddenly pushed together. They are all standing in the never-ending petrol and diesel queues, they are desperately hunting for the next cylinder of gas and increasingly many of them are going hungry. The privileges and the divisions that once defined them, no longer seem to be so ‘real’ and the one stark reality confronting them is a form of existential annihilation. I believe within the aragalaya we can glimpse traces of this deep solidarity and as an educationist I think it is our vital task to think of creative ways in which we might sustain this solidarity, grow it and nurture it, so that we can at least ‘imagine’ a better future. These are idealistic sentiments, but at least for me, such hope, is a political and pedagogical necessity of the current moment.

Harshana Rambukwella is attached to the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University of Sri Lanka

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies

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No solutions to nation’s problems from draft constitutional amendment

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by jehan perera

The three-wheel taxi driver did not need much encouragement to talk about the hardships in his life, starting with spending two days in the petrol queue to get his quota. He said that he had a practice of giving his three children a small packet of biscuits and a small carton of milk every morning. But now with the cost tripling, he could only buy one packet of biscuits and his three children had to share it. This is because their beloved country is facing one debacle after another for no fault of those kids or the larger nation. The latest is the failure of the government to make headway in accessing either IMF funding or other funding on any significant scale. Several countries have made donations, but these are in the millions whereas Sri Lanka requires billions if it is to come out of its vicious cycle of a dollar shortage.

There was much anticipation that the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would bring in the billions that are desperately needed by the country if it is to obtain the fuel, food and medicines to keep the people healthy and the economy moving. But things have not worked out in this manner. The pickings have been slim and sparse. The IMF has given the reasons after the ten day visit by its staff to Sri Lanka. They have specifically referred to “reducing corruption vulnerabilities” in their concluding statement at the end of their visit. The international community in the form of multilateral donors and Western governments have prioritized political stability and a corruption-free administration prior to providing Sri Lanka with the financial assistance it requires.

The pressing need in the country is for the government to show there is political stability and zero tolerance for corruption in dealing with the prevailing crisis. It is not enough for government leaders to give verbal assurances on these matters. There needs to be political arrangements that convince the international community, and the people of Sri Lanka, that the government is committed to this cause. Several foreign governments have said that they will consider larger scale assistance to Sri Lanka, once the IMF agreement is operational. So far the government has not been successful in convincing the international community that its own accountability systems are reliable. This is the main reason why the country is only obtaining millions in aid and not billions.

INDEPENDENT COMMISSIONS

The draft 22nd Amendment that is now before the parliament (which will become the 21st Amendment should it be passed) would be a good place for the government to show its commitment. The cabinet has approved the draft which has three main sections, impacting upon the establishment of the constitutional council, the powers of the president and dual citizenship. However, the cabinet-approved draft is a far cry from what is proposed by the opposition political parties and civil society groups. It is watered down to the point of being ineffective. Indeed, it appears to be designed to fail as it is unlikely to gain the support of different political parties and factions within those parties whose support is necessary if the 2/3 majority is to be obtained.

In the first place, the draft constitutional amendment does not reduce the president’s power in any significant manner. The amendment is drafted in a way that the reduction of presidential powers will only occur with the next president. The president now in office, who has publicly admitted failure on his part, continues to be empowered to appoint and sack the prime minister and cabinet ministers at his arbitrary discretion. He is also empowered to appoint and dismiss the secretaries to ministries, who are the highest-ranking public service officials. In short, the executive arms of the government are obliged to do the president’s bidding or risk their jobs. This indicates the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose party has only a single seat in parliament, has no independent strength, but is there at the will and pleasure of the president.

In the second instance, the draft amendment was expected to set up a system of checks and balances for accountability and anti-corruption purposes. The pioneering effort in this regard was the 17th Amendment of 2001 that made provisions for a constitutional council and independent commissions. According to it, the members of all state bodies tasked with accountability and anti-corruption functions, such as the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission, the Public Service Commission and the appointees to the higher judiciary were to be appointed through the constitutional council. The 17th Amendment made provision for seven of the ten members of the constitutional council to be from civil society.

DEATH BLOW

Unfortunately, in a manner designed to deal a death blow to the concept of checks and balances, the draft amendment sets up a constitutional council with the proportions in reverse to that of the 17th Amendment. It reveals a mindset in the political leadership that fears de-politicisation of decision making. Seven of the ten members will be appointed by the political parties and the president in a way in which the majority of members will be government appointees. Only three will be from civil society. This ensures a majority representation in the Council for government politicians, and the ensures government dominance over the political members. The composition of the constitutional council proposed in the Bill undermines the independence of the institutions to which appointments are made through the Council who will be unable to stem the wildly growing tide of corruption in the country.

It is no wonder that the furious people in the endless queues for petrol and diesel should believe that there is corruption at play in the continuing shortage of basic commodities. The government promised that ships would come in laden with fuel a week ago. Then, inexplicably, the information was disseminated that no ships were on the horizon. In any other country, except in a country like no other, the concerned leaders would have resigned. Due to the lack of fuel, perishable farm produce rots in rural farmhouses and markets in urban centres are empty and prices are rocketing up. In the meantime, the media has exposed rackets where the privileged, politically powerful and super rich, are given special access to fuel. It is patently clear that the government has failed to deliver on the results that were expected. The situation is getting worse in terms of corrupt practices.

To the credit of the Sri Lankan people, they are being patient. The bonds of social solidarity still prevail. But the anger at the self-seeking and incompetent political leaders is reaching the boiling point, as it did on 09 May. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government. The president’s pledge, made in the aftermath of the cataclysmic and unexpected violence that took place that day, was to reduce his presidential powers, transfer those powers to parliament and to appoint an all-party and interim government of no more than 15 ministers. These pledges remain unfulfilled and need to be implemented to be followed by elections as soon as the situation stabilises.

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Kehelgamuwa’s football skills and President Premadasa’s political sagacity

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By Hema Arachi

T.B. Kehelgamuwa, the cricketer who needs no plaudits from anyone, is well known. He represented then Ceylon and, later, Sri Lanka as a fearsome fast bowler during the pre-Test era. His contemporaries still talk about Kehel with great respect. Once S Skanda Kumar, the well-known cricketer, cricket commentator and former High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to Australia, proudly told me about his playing cricket with Kehelgamuwa. Bandu Samarasinghe, a Sri Lanka film star, on a TV programme vividly demonstrated how he faced Kehelgamuwa in a Sara Trophy game. That was the top-level tournament in the country.

This note is to share my watching Kehelgamuwa playing soccer when he was not so young. Then, though his grey hair was visible, he ran fast and played hard like a teenager. This was during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. Returning from The Netherlands, after my postgraduate studies, I lived in Pelawatta, near the Sri Lanka Parliament and my workplace – International Irrigation Management Institute headquarters. I used to enjoy walking on Parliament grounds. That day was unique because the game between the President’s soccer team, comprising parliamentarians, and the Sri Lanka Police team, was played there.

President Premadasa was well known for his political sagacity, especially in manipulating any situation in his favour. For instance, the day Anura Bandaranayake became the Opposition Leader, Premadasa, praised Anura stating, “Anura is the best Opposition Leader we have.” He further requested that Anura join the ruling party and become a minister and also marry a girl from a prominent ruling party family. But within weeks, he was critical of Anura. One day an Opposition member asked him, “You said Anura was our best Opposition leader a few weeks ago but now criticise.” His reply was this: “Yes, I said so because Anura is the best Opposition leader for us, the ruling party, not for the Opposition. For the Opposition, the best leader is Sarath Muththetuwegama!”

A few weeks before the scheduled encounter between the Parliamentarians and the Police football team, there was a game between the Parliamentarians and the Colombo Municipality team. Premadasa captained the Parliamentarians and kicked the winning goal. I remember a cartoon in a newspaper where the Municipality team goalkeeper withdrew so that Premadasa could score the goal at his will.

During the game against the Police, Premadasa did not play but visibly played the role of the coach of the Parliamentarian team. Unlike the Municipality players, the Police played the game seriously. Kehelgamuwa represented the Police team that scored five goals by halftime, and the Parliamentarian team was nil. At halftime, Premadasa replaced the Parliamentarian goalkeeper with Jayawickerama Perera. Yet, the Police team recorded a sound victory.

I thought Premadasa was upset due to this defeat for his team. But no. Premadasa claimed victory: “I am happy that my team won the game by beating the Parliamentarians today! Being the Executive President, I do not belong to the Parliament. However, as the Commander-in-Chief, the Police come under my purview, so my team won today!”

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