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Narrow escape from JVP in 1971

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Excerpted from the Memoirs of Chandra Wickremasingha, Retd. Additional Secy. to the President

The work in the Settlement Dept. involved camping out in remote areas of the island where land still remained unsettled. Following colonial tradition and standards, the Dept. had comfortable carpeted tents which were pitched at the chosen site by an advance party comprising two labourers and a cook.At the start I enjoyed the novelty of camping out in picturesque rural areas and going into the claims made by villagers. Where I entertained doubts about certain claims, the particular lands were visited by me in the company of an officer of the Dept. still carrying the rather pompous title -‘Interpreter Mudaliyar’, and the Village Headman (Grama Niladhari) of the locality.

There were also extravagant, spurious claims made by interlopers to the area, which were summarily dismissed on visiting these properties. The Statute was so powerful that once an order settling a land on a person was made by the Settlement Officer, it could not be challenged or set aside, even by the Supreme Court. This Act was one of those residual colonial legacies which somehow continued to remain unexpunged from the Statute Book, well into my time.

I am told that the wide powers in settling land enjoyed by Settlement Officers of yesteryear, are now drastically circumscribed by new laws that short circuit the rather reliable yet cumbersome process of settlement inquiries and provide for land to be settled on the basis of title registration following a relatively cursory examination of claims.

The JVP insurrection of 1971

It was while camping out in Dambagalla, a village off Moneragala sometime in April 1971that I learnt about the initial JVP attack on a Police Station at Wellawaya. The Grama Sevaka who seemed aware that the surrounding area was infested by JVP types, advised me to leave immediately and get back to Colombo. I immediately asked the Settlement Dept. employees to break camp and arrange to get back to Colombo. I left Dambagalla around 5 pm. I knew my wife would be anxious about my safety, as Colombo would have received the news of the Wellawaya attack much earlier in the day, but telephone facilities being available only in Post Offices at the time, there was no way of contacting her. I therefore thought of heading straight to Colombo, which I thought was the best course of action available to me in the rather exasperating circumstances I found myself in.

I therefore packed up hurriedly and left immediately in my car driving alone, as the others expressed their preference to stay back and leave the next day. On the way, there were hardly any visible signs of any impending insurrection. I noticed however, that vehicular traffic on the road was much less, which made it easier for me drive at higher than normal speeds. It was only while approaching Ratnapura that I noticed a couple of trucks going ahead of me filled with what appeared to me albizzia leaves. As I was overtaking them, I was surprised to see that the trucks were filled with young chaps trying to camouflage themselves with leaves!

Again a little beyond Avissawella, with the time being around 10 pm, I noticed about four people on the middle of the road trying to wave me down and stop me. I noticed that there was one tree trunk placed across the road a little beyond where the four persons were and instinctively felt that I could just manage to take my Triumph Herald through the gap left on the road. I therefore revved the engine and drove straight at the four chaps who shouted and jumped onto a side to save themselves from being run over. The gap on the road was, as I expected, just wide enough to let my car through. Strangely, I was not unduly frightened due, perhaps to the exuberance of youth! I managed to reach Colombo around 11 pm much to the surprise and relief of my wife and others. They had been trying desperately to contact me to tell me to stay on in Moneragala without hazarding the journey back to Colombo in the night.

I thanked my stars that I had left for Colombo without thinking of the risks involved in traveling in the night, as the next day, all hell broke loose, with Police Stations island- wide coming under attack by the JVP! Readers will remember the horrors unleashed by the JVP in the weeks that followed and also the ruthless measures the Govt. had to recourse to thereafter , in its efforts to quell the insurgency and restore normalcy.

My Second spell in the Housing Dept. as Deputy Commissioner of Housing

I was forced to take up duties in my old Dept. as Deputy Commissioner, by my good friend Sarath Amunugama, who happened to be Director, Combined Services at the time. I did learn a lot working in the above Govt. Depts. I had initially worked in.

My second spell in the Housing Dept. as Deputy Commissioner, which commenced in 1973 and continued uptil 1978,was less stressful for me, despite the enactment of two new laws viz. The Rent Act and the Ceiling on Housing Property Law, which were looked upon by landlords as draconian legislative measures regulating rentals and house ownership. These laws gave much needed relief to tenants by regulating their monthly rentals and by providing security of tenancy. House owners who possessed houses in excess of the ceiling laid down, had to dispose of such excess houses to the tenants at relatively low prices.

These were laws enacted by a Govt. with a strong socialist bent and had far reaching effects by the relief they afforded tenants. The Ceiling on Housing Property Law however acted as a disincentive to investment in housing until amendments were later brought in, to encourage prospective developers to get into the construction industry by building middle and lower middle income houses for which certain tax concessions and financial incentives were extended.

As Deputy Commissioner. I was put in charge of the Administration Division of the Dept. and was also given the management of Flats and Housing schemes in the City. With Mr. Pieter Keuneman becoming the Minister of Housing, managing the minor employees who, without exception, claimed to be Communists, posed a big challenge. However, Mr. Keuneman, the thorough gentleman he was, did not intercede on behalf of employees who had disciplinary problems and for the most part left decisions on such matters, in my hands. I handled things even handedly, which is the best way to deal with difficult people and in difficult situations.

From the beginning of my public service career, the one principle I followed scrupulously in interacting with employees as well as members of the public, was being open and fair and being free of prejudice. Once people realized that I was only carrying out my duty with no personal stake or interest in what I did, they learnt to accept even the unfavourable decisions taken against them without bitterness or personal rancour.

When I acted as Commissioner of Housing, the Secretary to the Ministry at the time tried to badger me to transfer a house in a prime locality in Colombo to the tenant, under the Ceiling on Housing Property Law, at the behest of a powerful Minister. I stood my ground and refused to do so as such a transfer was irregular under the relevant legal provisions. He even fixed up a consultation in the chambers of a leading lawyer who is now deceased, who in turn tried to persuade me that it was in order to effect the transfer. I refused to budge from the position I had taken up, despite the consultation going on till late in the night. I refused to yield to all the cajoling and the entreaties as I was convinced in my own mind that any such action on my part would have been irregular and untenable. It does pay not to give in to pressure where you are convinced that you would not be able to justify your actions in such instances.

In May 1977 I was selected to attend a seminar on “Access to Housing” at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK. As I was handling the administration of flats and housing schemes in the city and it’s suburbs, there were innumerable problems which I had to inquire into, concerning disputes between neighbouring tenants which were often unimaginably petty. Curiously, I discovered that the higher one’s station in life, such disputes seemed to assume intensely acrimonious proportions. In extreme cases, the more stubborn tenants were threatened by me with a transfer to the ‘L’ Block (called the Hell Block) in the Bambalapitiya flats which often did the trick!

There was at this time a lot of agitation by tenants to have their flats and houses converted from monthly rental to rent purchase. The genial Communist Minister at the time, Mr.Pieter Keuneman, appointed a Committee comprising myself, Dr. Michael Joachim another Deputy Commissioner and the Chief Accountant Mr. Thurairajah, to recommend an appropriate basis to effect such a conversion. The Committee examined the problem in depth and recommended a fair and equitable basis for such a conversion which the Minister had no hesitation in recommending to Cabinet. This was a far reaching measure which laid the basis for tenants selected for Govt. flats and houses thereafter, to be given such premises on a rent purchase basis.

I remember distinctly the jubilation of the tenants in Bambalapitiya and other schemes when the new measures were announced. The Committee took into account the period of occupation by the tenants concerned in determining the down payment required to be made by them. This meant that rather than being tenants in perpetuity, they could come to own the flats/houses at the end of a given period. The guidelines laid down by the Committee were followed thereafter by the Housing Dept. in the allocation of Govt. flats and Houses to tenants on a rent –purchase basis. The Committee found the assignment most satisfying as it revolutionized the basis of allocation of Govt. houses to tenants by ensuring security of tenancy and the eventual ownership by tenants.

In 1978, I proceeded to Canberra, Australia on a scholarship to do my Post Graduate Diploma in Public Administration at the Canberra College of Advanced Education now renamed the University of Curtin. I found my course, over a period of one year, most rewarding as I had the fortune of studying under lecturers who were reputed internationally for the outstanding contributions made by them in their particular specialities.

On my return to the island my good friend Dunstan Jayawardena, was insisting that I work in the newly established National Housing Development Authority which had taken over most of the functions performed earlier by the Housing Dept. I enjoyed my short stint in the Housing Authority as Dunstan gave me a free hand in the work I handled .This was a time of frenzied activity under Mr. R. Premadasa who was the Minister of Housing and Construction under the new UNP dispensation. It was here that I first had a foretaste of the commitment and unremitting drive of Mr. Premadasa to help the countless lower middle class and the impoverished people, who were living in hovels and shanties, particularly in the cities and the suburbs, to move into newly built flats which were allocated to them on a rent purchase basis.

It was indeed the dawn of a new era for the thousands of shanty dwellers living in sub-standard houses to move into these new flats in the city and into decent permanent houses in the rural areas under the Gam Udawa and the rural housing programmes, he launched island wide.

I feel, I must say something about one of the most colourful and endearing personalities I have encountered in my career in the Public Service – Susil Siriwardhana. Susil was born with the proverbial ‘silver spoon and had done the traditional familial trek to Oxford University where he had majored in the English Language. On his return to SL, brimming with enthusiasm and fired with socialist ideals, he may have perhaps thought of working at grass-roots level to acquaint himself first hand with things at the village level, when he decided to teach in a school in Anuradhapura. I first met him in Kandy in the company of a mutual friend- Rama Somasundaram. Susil ran an elegant flat in Kandy where we used to meet and sit on cushions to discuss matters ranging from poetry to what was happening in the local political scene, over coffee served by a faithful retainer. I was then working as Asst. Commissioner /Housing attached to the Kandy Branch Office, while Rama functioned as Land Development Officer. This is where our friendship started.

Soon afterwards, Susil sat the Ceylon Administrative Service Examination acquitting himself brilliantly by scoring heavily in both the written test as well as the Viva Voce and coming first in the examination. After my transfer to the Dept. of Agrarian Services, I virtually lost track of Susil, except for a few accidental encounters on the corridors of the Treasury,where Susil used to tell me with a lot of passion, ‘Chandra, there is so much to be done’. I never realized for a moment, what Susil wanted to convey to me in that brief sentence, which presumably left so much unsaid.

The next thing I heard about Susil was that he had been taken into custody for his alleged involvement in the JVP insurrection of 1971. This shocked me and many others who knew Susil as a deeply committed young man, thoroughly involved with his official duties.

Susil was incarcerated and charged in Court for the support he had lent the JVP insurrection. Justice Alles who was one of the Presiding Judges hearing the cases against the accused insurgents, subsequently wrote a book on the Insurrection where he devoted one full chapter to Susil. Justice Alles may perhaps have been intrigued no end, how a cultured person like Susil, with his fine family background, could possibly have been in cahoots with characters like Wijeweera, Gamanayaka and their likes!

Minister of Housing Mr.Premadasa’s infatuation with Susil

Minister Premadasa perhaps saw in Susil a person who would bring commitment and creativity to whatever work was entrusted to him and further saw in him a veritable asset to him in the implementation of his pet housing programmes. Soon after his release from prison, Susil was appointed as a Deputy General Manager in the National Housing Authority by Mr. Premadasa . I remember Susil coming to work in national dress, on his Vespa scooter and going up to his office carrying his trademark ‘pang malla’, in his hand. We became close friends once again.

I remember once, while waiting at Ratmalana Airport to take a flight to a Gam Udawa Exhibition, I struck up a conversation with Susil in the course of which, I asked him pointedly what had really made him join the JVP. I remember clearly how he looked at me intently with his piercing eyes saying “The five lessons Chandra, the five lessons. It was like swallowing narcotic pills”! I must say Mr. Premadasa made the maximum use of Susil in getting him to join him in taking forward his pet housing programmes. Susil too did not let the Minister down and worked for him with a high sense of commitment.

I also recall a rather amusing episode where Susil sat with me on an Interview Board to recruit about ten engineers to the Authority. The candidates who came before us, numbering about 25, were young qualified engineers. I remember Susil’s enthusiasm when it came to some of the candidates – ‘Chandra, this chap is excellent material. We will take him’. Much later, I discovered that of the 10 engineers we had selected, the majority were ex JVP members! However, I must say that they turned out to be very good engineers who were very enthusiastic about their official assignments. They were naturally somewhat reticent in opening out and talking about their past ‘adventures’ as JVP cadres. There was one electrical engineer however, who was a bit more forthcoming than his colleagues and spoke to me about a near brush he had had with death when he and some detainees had been taken by the Police to be shot in Uduwattakele, Kandy. For his luck he had been recognized by a young ASP by the name of Shanmugam and through the latter’s intervention, had been spared the summary punishment meted out to the others.

All these engineers were an affable and competent lot and many of them obtained their post – graduate qualifications, some even becoming academics, securing senior University positions both here and abroad. As for Susil, he sobered down to the point where his colleagues and friends found it difficult to believe that he could have had anything to do with the 1971 insurgency. I suppose it was his idealism and youthful exuberance that led to his association with the revolutionary types. Susil, soon afterwards, entered wedlock and settled down to an exemplary family life.



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Features

Policy quandaries set to rise for South in the wake of AUKUS

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From the viewpoint of the global South, the recent coming into being of the tripartite security pact among the US, the UK and Australia or AUKUS, renders important the concept of VUCA; volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. VUCA has its origins in the disciplines of Marketing and Business Studies, but it could best describe the current state of international politics from particularly the perspective of the middle income, lower middle income and poor countries of the world or the South.

With the implementation of the pact, Australia will be qualifying to join the select band of nuclear submarine-powered states, comprising the US, China, Russia, the UK, France and India. Essentially, the pact envisages the lending of their expertise and material assistance by the US and the UK to Australia for the development by the latter of nuclear-powered submarines.

While, officially, the pact has as one of its main aims the promotion of a ‘rules- based Indo-Pacific region’, it is no secret that the main thrust of the accord is to blunt and defuse the military presence and strength of China in the region concerned. In other words, the pact would be paving the way for an intensification of military tensions in the Asia-Pacific between the West and China.

The world ought to have prepared for a stepping-up of US efforts to bolster its presence in the Asia-Pacific when a couple of weeks ago US Vice President Kamala Harris made a wide-ranging tour of US allies in the ASEAN region. Coming in the wake of the complete US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the tour was essentially aimed at assuring US allies in the region of the US’s continued support for them, militarily and otherwise. Such assurances were necessitated by the general perception that following the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, China would be stepping in to fill the power vacuum in the country with the support of Pakistan.

From the West’s viewpoint, making Australia nuclear-capable is the thing to do against the backdrop of China being seen by a considerable number of Asia-Pacific states as being increasingly militarily assertive in the South China Sea and adjacent regions in particular. As is known, China is contending with a number of ASEAN region states over some resource rich islands in the sea area in question. These disputed territories could prove to be military flash points in the future. It only stands to reason for the West that its military strength and influence in the Asia-Pacific should be bolstered by developing a strong nuclear capability in English-speaking Australia.

As is known, Australia’s decision to enter into a pact with the US and the UK in its nuclear submarine building project has offended France in view of the fact that it amounts to a violation of an agreement entered into by Australia with France in 2016 that provides for the latter selling diesel-powered submarines manufactured by it to Australia. This decision by Australia which is seen as a ‘stab in the back’ by France has not only brought the latter’s relations with Australia to breaking point but also triggered some tensions in the EU’s ties with the US and the UK.

It should not come as a surprise if the EU opts from now on to increasingly beef-up its military presence in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ with the accent on it following a completely independent security policy trajectory, with little or no reference to Western concerns in this connection.

However, it is the economically vulnerable countries of the South that could face the biggest foreign policy quandaries against the backdrop of these developments. These dilemmas are bound to be accentuated by the fact that very many countries of the South are dependent on China’s financial and material assistance. A Non-aligned policy is likely to be strongly favoured by the majority of Southern countries in this situation but to what extent this policy could be sustained in view of their considerable dependence on China emerges as a prime foreign policy issue.

On the other hand, the majority of Southern countries cannot afford to be seen by the West as being out of step with what is seen as their vital interests. This applies in particular to matters of a security nature. Sri Lanka is in the grips of a policy crunch of this kind at present. Sri Lanka’s dependence on China is high in a number of areas but it cannot afford to be seen by the West as gravitating excessively towards China.

Besides, Sri Lanka and other small states of the northern Indian Ocean need to align themselves cordially with India, considering the latter’s dominance in the South and South West Asian regions from the economic and military points of view in particular. Given this background, tilting disproportionately towards China could be most unwise. In the mentioned regions in particular small Southern states will be compelled to maintain, if they could, an equidistance between India and China.

The AUKUS pact could be expected to aggravate these foreign policy questions for the smaller states of the South. The cleavages in international politics brought about by the pact would compel smaller states to fall in line with the West or risk being seen by the latter as pro-China and this could by no means be a happy state to be in.

The economic crisis brought about by the current pandemic could only make matters worse for the South. For example, as pointed out by the UN, there could be an increase in the number of extremely poor people by around 120 million globally amid the pandemic. Besides, as pointed out by the World Bank, “South Asia in particular is more exposed to the risk of ‘hidden debt ‘from state-owned Commercial Banks (SOCBs), state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and public-private partnerships (PPPs) because of its greater reliance on them compared to other regions.” Needless to say, such economic ills could compel small, struggling states to veer away from foreign policy stances that are in line with Non-alignment.

Accordingly, it is a world characterized by VUCA that would be confronting most Southern states. It is a world beyond their control but a coming together of Southern states on the lines of increasing South-South cooperation could be of some help.

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Features

Hair care mask

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LOOK GOOD – with Disna

* Aloe Vera and Olive Oil:

Aloe vera can beautify your hair when used regularly. Aloe vera is a three-in-one plant and is the best medicine for health, skincare, and hair care, too. Using products, containing aloe vera as the hair strengthening agent, is quite expensive. So,treat your hair, naturally, by trying out these natural hair care masks.

Ingredients…

Aloe Vera Gel: 4-5 tablespoons

Olive Oil: 3-4 tablespoons

Egg Yolk: 2-3 tablespoons

Method…

In a bowl, mix well the olive oil (after heating the oil for eight to 10 seconds), the aloe vera gel and the egg yolk.

Apply the mixture on your brittle and dry hair with a hair brush and leave it for four to five hours. Apply it overnight for better results.

Wash off wish a mild shampoo later on.

When applied continuously, for eight to 10 days, your hair will definitely turn healthy and shiny, within no time

* Almond Milk and Coconut Oil:

Almonds are one of the amazing products when it comes to hair care. Try this mask to experience that salon affect you probably missed out.

Ingredients…

Almond Milk: 4-5 tablespoons

Egg White: 3-4 tablespoons

Coconut Oil:1-2 tablespoons

Method…

Mix all the ingredients well, in a bowl, and gently apply it on your hair with a brush.

If applied overnight, it is the best remedy for those with dry hair.

Wash off with cold water and a mild shampoo.

Use it thrice a week and if your hair is badly damaged a daily use for eight to 10 days improves your hair condition.

You can continue using it twice or thrice a week until you get the required results.

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Features

Amazing Thailand… opening up, but slowly

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I know of several holidaymakers who are desperately seeking a vacation in Amazing Thailand, and quite a few of them keep calling me up to find out when they could zoom their way to the ‘Land of Smiles!’

Last year, they were contemplating doing their festive shopping in that part of the world and were constantly checking with me about a possible shopping vacation, in early December, 2020.

Unfortunately, the pandemic proved a disaster to most tourist destinations, and Thailand, too, felt the heat.

However, the scene is opening up, gradually, and fully vaccinated travellers are now being given the green light to visit quite a few countries.

The Maldives is one such destination…and now Thailand is gradually coming into that scene, as well.

Several provinces, in Thailand, have reopened, through the Phuket Sandbox programme, and there are plans to reopen five more areas, including Bangkok, and Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, and Pattaya.

Now, hold on! Before you rush and make plans to head for Thailand, here’s what you need to know:

The plan is to reopen to fully vaccinated tourists, and, in all probability, they would be able to visit without having to quarantine. But, that has to be officially confirmed.

Currently, travellers to the provinces that have already reopened, such as Phuket, must quarantine before travelling elsewhere in Thailand. The new reopening plans are the most significant travel policy changes the country has enacted since the start of the pandemic.

Additionally, the Thai government relaxed some restrictions on gatherings in certain areas, including Bangkok, and that’s certainly good news for Sri Lankans who love to be a part of the Bangkok scene.

Bangkok is still in the ‘dark red zone,’ however — the strictest designation — that has restricted movement in the city for months.

The government has said that activities, such as shopping malls and dine-in services, in the dark-red zone, will be allowed to reopen – but no official dates have been mentioned, as yet.

Gatherings are now capped at no more than 25 people, an increase from just five people. A curfew still remains in place, however.

This October reopening (hopefully) will be launched alongside with the country’s newly adjusted ‘universal prevention’ guidelines against COVID-19 … including accelerating vaccination for the local population and formalising tourism campaigns.

Thailand will reopen in phases, I’m told: Phuket reopened in Phase One in July, while Bangkok is scheduled to reopen in Phase Two. Phase Three will reopen 21 destinations – hopefully at some point in time, in October – while Phase Four will begin in January 2022.

The measure comes not a minute too soon for local tourism operators as tourism is one of the nation’s largest gross domestic product drivers (GDP), and preventative measures against COVID-19 resulted in a massive blow to the industry.

Yes, we are all eager for the world to open up so that we can check out some of our favourite holiday destinations.

And, after staying indoors for such a long period, the urge to break free is in all of us.

I’ve been to Thailand 24 times (on most occasions, courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand) and I’m now eagerly looking forward to my 25th trip.

But…I wonder if Amazing Thailand will ever be the same – the awesome scene we all experienced, and enjoyed, before the pandemic!

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