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Nihal Seneviratne’s memories of 33 years in Parliament



Nihal Seneviratne presenting a copy of his book to former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Also in the picture are Prof. Savithri Gunasekera, DEW Gunasekera and Eran Wickremarathne

by Prasanna Cooray

‘Memories of 33 years in Parliament”, a memoire by the former Secretary General of Parliament, Nihal Seneviratne, hale and hearty at the age of 88, was launched on 30 April (Saturday) evening at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute auditorium with the participation of a large gathering of distinguished guests. Former speaker Karu Jayasuriya presided over the event, where the former speaker DEW Gunasekera, MP Eran Wickremarathne, Prof. Savithri Gunasekera and Dr. Rohan Petiyagoda spoke.

The book is a fascinating and informative read, reminiscing of the major events that unfolded during Seneviratne’s one and only vocation, as a parliamentary administrator for over 33 long years.

Seneviratne’s illustrious career began in 1961 as a second clerk assistant in the Parliament (then housed at the present day Presidential Secretariat at the Galle Face). Then as a youth of 27 years of age, soon out of the university, he was groomed by the likes of L.P. Deraniyagala, Sam Wijesinhe (both his predecessors in the highest position) and Bertie Coswatte, till he assumed office as Secretary General in 1981, the post he held till May 1994.

The role played by the parliamentary staff, risking their life and limb to safeguard democracy in the country at times, could be selfless. This is exactly what the Parliament experienced when a JVP activist hurled a hand grenade during a Parliament group meeting; an MP and a staff member died while scores of others sustained injuries in August 1987. The incident is described lucidly by the author in one of the early chapters, under the title “Hand Grenade Attack in Parliament”. That goes down the history as the most ghastly act ever experienced by the Sri Lankan Parliament.

“Learning Parliamentary Practice & Procedure”

speaks about the nitty-gritty in the making of a steadfast parliamentary administrator. It is also interesting to note that the very first task assigned to young Seneviratne, on assuming duties was to take an MP into custody. This was in relation to the parliamentarian KMP Rajarathne fasting in the Parliament. Seneviratne promptly attended to his task by studying the practice related to ‘imprisoning’ an MP, as stipulated in the British law, and came out with the plan the same day. I wonder whether the present day administrators would ever dare take such a bold step even when the floor of the Parliament is in absolute mayhem, with the throwing of chairs and chilli powder.

About the impeachment motion against President R. Premadasa (in August 1991), Seneviratne says that was the most secretive activity that ever took place in the parliament. He had not been aware of it till very late; he also could not lay his hands on a copy of the impeachment document. Interestingly, even the Parliament does not possess a copy of that document.

The book also gives an account of a similar incident when Sirimavo Bandaranaike government was toppled by just one vote following the crossover of 17 MPs from the government side to the opposition in July 1960. Then Leader of Opposition JR Jayewardene was the mastermind of this move.

Seneviratne was also the officer to oversee the relocation of the Parliament from the Galle Face to Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, a fact that he reminisces with great pride. He recaps the memories of this transfer and the prowesses of the renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa who designed the building complex.

Among the other important events of yesteryear, involving the Parliament recalled by Seneviratne, include abolishing of civic rights of Mrs. Bandaranaike (in October 1980), takeover of the Lake House Group of Newspapers following the publicity it gave to the funeral of the late Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake (in April 1973) and the trial of two journalists (namely, Harold Peiris and Philip Cooray) for publishing a wrong picture and a caption for a news item involving then Foreign Minister ACS Hameed (in 1978). All these incidents, products of abuse of majority power have been against the true spirit of democracy the Parliament ought to protect.

Seneviratne also recollects a most unusual event ever to have happened in the chamber. A stranger, clad in spotless national dress, almost sworn in as a Member of Parliament, at an opening session of a new Parliament after a general election in the sixties. Seneviratne, diligently had observed an unfamiliar new face among the many new faces, approached him and asked which constituency he represents. He had answered “Mulkirigala”, of which George Rajapaksa was the representative whom Seneviratne knew well. That cleared his doubt and led to the arrest of the intruder. Later, it was revealed that he was an escapee from the mental hospital Angoda.

Seneviratne has not even spared some of the witty verbal jabs that were shared by the parliamentarians of his time. Dudley Senanayake, making mockery of his Opposition counterpart Maithripala Senanayake’s nationalistic sentiments while being a husband to a Tamil wife quipped “He believes Sinhala only by day and the reasonable use of Tamil at night”, recollects Seneviratne. He recapitulates few more such witty comments in the chapter “Some witty sayings of Parliamentarians”, to the much amusement of the reader.

The parliamentarians of yesteryear Seneviratne handpicked for special mention in his book include Dr. NM Perera, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Dr. SA Wickremasinghe, Sarath Muttetuwegama, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and Anura Bandaranaike.

Seneviratne’s wonderful book is a must read for the readers interested in political history of this country. Had the events been ordered chronologically that would have helped the reader to traverse the past with less effort I thought while reading.

“Memories of 33 years in Parliament” is a Sarasavi publication.

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The lasting curse of Janasathu



Kataboola tea estate

Let me begin with two anecdotes.

In the 1960s, my father would pull into the local Shell petrol shed and a smiling pump attendant, smartly attired in a uniform (khaki shirt and shorts) would come up to the driver’s side and inquire what was needed. While petrol was being pumped, the attendant would wipe the windscreen and check the engine oil. The toilet was clean. The air pump worked. To my delight, large, colourful road maps were given out, for free. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? All this for about Rs. 1 (one) for a gallon of petrol!

The next anecdote. In 1978, I visited Brian Howie, a former classmate, at Kataboola Estate in Nawalapitiya. Brian was an SD – assistant superintendent – and his bungalow was in a remote corner of the estate, so remote that it had its own mini hydroelectric plant. Mrs. B’s government, which had nationalised the estate, had recently fallen and the estate was now under new management.

The bungalow was sparsely furnished, and I noticed that a corner of the living room was blackened. Brian told me that the previous occupant, a former bus conductor turned “SD”, had not known how to use the kitchen stove, so he put some bricks together and had created a lipa in the living room to do his cooking. Meanwhile, every appliance and item of furniture in the bungalow had been stolen by the same man.

Janasathu has a false ring, meaning “owned by the people”. But, as everyone knows, the term instead means a nest of thieves, running up millions in losses at the cost of the people. A place where friends and political supporters are given employment, showered with generous perks, and given a free run to plunder. Government owned corporations, companies, and “other institutions” run into the hundreds, and perhaps a handful make a profit. The rest are leeches, sucking the blood of the nation.

Do we need a corporation/board for salt, ceramics, timber, cashew, lotteries, fisheries, films, ayurvedic drugs, handicrafts? For a publisher of newspapers? They are so swollen with employees that their raison d’être appears to be employment, perks and plunder that I mentioned above.

I recently read that Sri Lankan Airlines, the CTB, the Petroleum Corporation, and the Ceylon Electricity Board are the biggest loss makers. The Godzillas among them appear to be Sri Lankan Airlines, which reportedly lost Rs. 248 billion in the first four months of this year, and the Petroleum Corporation, which lost Rs. 628 billion in the same period. (The Petroleum Corporations is owed billions of rupees by both Sri Lankan Airlines and the Ceylon Electricity Board.) The Ceylon Electricity Board appears to be a mafia, subverting efforts to promote renewable energy, while promoting commission-earning fossil fuels. While the poorest among our population are starving, the crooks that run these organisations continue to deal and steal.

In Hong Kong, where I lived for 20 years, no airline, bank, petroleum company, telephone service, LPG or electricity supplier is owned by the government. The buses belong to the private sector. In Japan, where I live now, in addition to the list from Hong Kong, even the railways and the post offices are privatised and provide a courteous, efficient service. In Japan, the service at petrol stations is reminiscent of Ceylon’s in the 1960s that I described above.

At least in one instance, Mrs. B attempted to correct her folly in nationalising plantations. The de Mel family owned thriving coconut estates in Melsiripura. After nationalisation, the estates declined to such a sorry state that Mrs. B personally invited the de Mels to take them back. Today, the estates are thriving under efficient management.

As a nation, we need to admit that janasathu has failed, and take steps to remedy the situation ASAP.


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Road to Nandikadal: Twists of Kamal and Ranil actions



I am re-reading retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book “Road to Nandikadal ” these days. This is his first hand experience of the battle against LTTE, and his journey in the Sri Lankan army from Thirunelveli in 1983 to Nandikadal in 2009, where the final battle took place. Thirteen years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 under the political leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapakse and the then secretary of defence Gotabaya Rajapakse. As we all know, Gotabaya became the president of Sri Lanka in 2019, and resigned last July, due to public pressure, and is currently travelling from country to country without a set destination.

In his book, Kamal has written an interesting chapter titled “A final chance for peace” and detailed the peace process followed by the then government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the prime minister. This is Kamal’s narrative about the memorandum of understanding (MOU), brokered by the Norwegian government and signed by the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2002. “According to the MoU, members of the LTTE political wing were allowed to enter government controlled areas to commence their political activities. The first group of such LTTE political wing members entered the government controlled area from Muhamalai, singing and cheering, as if they had won the war. They insulted and jeered at the soldiers manning the checkpoint with impunity whilst the poor soldiers, under strict instructions not to react, helplessly looked on. The Navy, which arrested a group of terrorists, was immediately instructed to release them. Upon release, the terrorists threatened the sailors and lifted their sarongs, baring their genitalia at the stunned sailors, who could do nothing but simply look down in shame. Such developments intensified the apprehension we held of things yet to come and prepared ourselves to face untold humiliation in the name of the Motherland”.

Kamal further writes, “At the time of drafting the MoU, experienced officers like myself, knew it was premature to enter into peace negotiations. On the one hand, LTTE could not be trusted to keep their word, as past experience had taught us bitterly, and on the other hand, negotiations should be ideally undertaken from a position of strength”. He continues, “The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was very confident of the peace process and strongly believed there would never be a war again. They did not have any confidence in the Army, which spurred this belief and therefore pursued peace at any cost”.

Kamal’s criticism of the Wickremesinghe administration continues: “The step motherly treatment the Army received during this period was terrible. Strict instructions were given to cut costs and the ever obedient army reduced many of our facilities and benefits. The army even stopped the annual issue of face towels to soldiers, given as a benefit for decades. It felt like they wanted us to live like ‘Veddhas’ without a bit of comfort”

Now the same Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Kamal Gunaratne, who was highly critical of the Wickremesinghe administration, is the trusted Defence Secretary of the president. Is it a twist of fate or twist of faith!


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Need for best relations with China



(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)

I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.

Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.

I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.

Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.

It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.

It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.

A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.

These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future


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