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Politics and Administrators in the 20th Century

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The Kandy Man – An Autobiography, Volume one (1939-1977),
By Sarath Amunugam. Vijitha Yapa Publications (2020).548  pages

Reviewed by Leelananda De Silva

Introduction

In two years, Sri Lanka should celebrate 75 years since independence. During this period, there have been dramatic social, cultural and economic changes. The British inheritance is fading fast, whether it be in Government and administration, politics and constitution making, in education and in foreign relations. It is time for the university academics or some others to consider writing the history of Sri Lanka these last 75 years and capture the momentous changes that have occurred. Whether that history will be written in Sinhalese, Tamil or English is yet to be seen. Sarath Amunugama’s volume is an important building block in constructing that history.

Amunugama is one of the outstanding personalities of Sri Lanka in our generation. An academic, top administrator and leading politician, he has played an important role in Sri Lankan public life. He has lived in and served the country in an era of rapid change. Amunugama is one of the very few members of the Ceylon Civil Service to have moved into high level politics after 1948. The others were C. Suntheralingam, C. Sittampalam, Walwin. A. de Silva, Ronnie de Mel and Nissanka Wijeyaratne. The volume under review is only the first part of a three-volume autobiography. Broadly, the current volume addresses three broad areas – his education at Trinity College, Kandy in the 1940s and at the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya in the 1950s; as a high level district administrator in the 1960s; and at the centre of Government as Director of Information in the 1970s. He has straddled the demarcations between administration and politics with ease and he has worked with politicians of all hues comfortably.

 

Trinity College, Kandy

The first chapter of this volume deals with his school days at Trinity College, Kandy. He offers us a wide ranging picture of Trinity and also of Kandy of that time. He describes College academic life, sports and cadeting and student debates with other schools, especially the girls’ schools in Kandy. Regrettably, there is no reference to the subjects they debated about. Amunugama has great admiration for some of his teachers. Hillary Abeyaratne was one of his heroes, and others were R.R. Breckenridge, Willy Hensman and Gordon Burrows. He greatly admired his Principal, Norman Walter, probably one of the last school principals of British origin in Sri Lanka. Walter wrote to the Vice Chancellor of the University requesting that Amunugama be admitted to the University although he was underage, a request that could not be granted.

Our generation, whether it be from schools in Colombo or Galle, knew of Trinity largely because of a famous Principal, A.G. Fraser and a British teacher and preacher, Rev. W.S. Senior, who wrote some delightful, haunting poetry about Kandy. Amunugama’s story of Trinity could have been better if he dealt with the history of Trinity and the influence the College had on the Kandyan middle and upper classes. Trinity was a great inheritance from British days.

 

The University at Peradeniya

In the 1950s, the University at Peradeniya (part of the University of Ceylon) was unique in the history of universities in Sri Lanka. It had only about a thousand students, and the faculties were almost entirely of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. There was no Physical Science, Engineering or Medicine. This lasted for only a decade. The undergraduates lived in halls of residence not far from each other. All this tended to make the university a friendly and even homely place, with friendships across disciplines and residencies.

Amunugama seems to have enjoyed the university in his four years there and was fully engaged in its academic, political and cultural life. He was active in various groups, especially with E.R. Sarachchandra and Siri Gunasinghe. This was the time of Maname, a Sarachchandra play which revolutionized Sri Lankan drama and with which Amunugama was closely associated. He offers us an excellent picture of the cultural activities of the university at that time. This was also a time when undergraduates studied in the English medium and yet Sinhala culture was flourishing.

He offers us a fascinating picture of the Sociology department at the university in its early days. S.J. Thambiah and Gananath Obeysekara were students and lecturers. Later on, they were to become world class academics, teaching at Princeton and Harvard in the U.S.A. Laksiri Jayasuriya and Ralph Pieris were other leading academics. There are engaging pen portraits of these academics. Amunugama appears to be an admirer of Ralph Pieris, who was his teacher. He tells us the story of Jennings’s hesitation in setting up departments of Sinhala culture and sociology as these subjects were strange to the Oxbridge traditions from which Jennings had emerged. He also tells us of the differences that Martin Wickramasinghe had with Jennings’ approach to Sinhala cultural studies and also of the pioneering role played by Professor Ratnasuriya who died young. The volume also offers us some insight into university politics but there is no space to get into detail here. However it must be noted that Amunugama was President of the Union Society at Peradeniya during his time there. Overall, the volume offers an engaging picture of the University at Peradeniya of the 1950s.

 

District Administration

Since Amunugama entered the Ceylon Civil Service in 1963 (the CCS was abolished soon after), the next seven years of his career was in district administration. He served as AGA and Additional GA in Galle, Ratnapura and Kandy districts. Amunugama’s academic background was ideal to deal with the range of issues that he had to face in the districts. His 200-page story of his engagement in district administration reminds me of Leonard Woolf’s volume “Growing 1904 – 1911” (the second volume of his five volume autobiography, published in the 1960s), which is about his seven years in Ceylon and when he was engaged in district administration. Unlike in imperial days, the district administrator in the 1960s had to deal with politicians and a democratic government. They were no longer the rulers like Leonard Woolf.

The young Civil Servant’s interests were so expansive that he was in a position to fruitfully interact in the area of agriculture and lands and irrigation, culture, the arts and the temples and with the politics of these districts. In the Galle district, where he served for nearly three years, he established a good relationship with the legendary W. Dahanayake, MP for Galle and his Minister of Home Affairs in later years. Amunugama was immersed in the cultural life of the Galle district and he had a friendly relationship with the DROs of the area. When in Galle, he became very familiar with the backgrounds of two of the great cultural figures of our time – Martin Wickramasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekara, visiting many of the villages and the scenes depicted in their novels.

In the Kandy district, Amunugama was again very involved in the political and cultural life of the district. He initiated the concept of mobile kacheries which enabled the villagers, instead of coming to Kandy, to have their problems addressed near their own villages. He also initiated a more effective approach to increase the productive capacity of farmers. Local village level officials who should assist the farmers were not living in the villages they were officially attached to, but were commuting to their own homes. Amunugama started the practice of giving these field officers lands of their own, so that they will live with the farmers and work with them. He has many stories to relate about his relationships with the politicians of the day like Anuruddha Ratwatte in Kandy. In the Ratnapura district, he was deeply engaged in land development in the Udawalawe and Chandrika weva colonization schemes.

Overall, the chapters entitled “The Ceylon Civil Service” and “Government Agent”, are in effect addressing issues in district administration. It’s a matter of some curiosity why he titled these two chapters in this way instead of making them chapters on district administration. By the time he was AGA and Additional GA and serving in the districts, the CCS had been abolished. The CCS lasted only the first year of his public service career. Since that time, he and other ex-CCS officers were members of the Ceylon Administrative Service (CAS).

I understand the hesitations of some of the ex-CCS personnel to use the new CAS nomenclature. However, difficult it is for them, to call themselves CCS after its abolition in 1963, is like Grama Sevakas calling themselves village headmen and DROs calling themselves Mudliyars. These were denominations of an imperial era. Amunugama tells us that when their batch joined the CCS, on their first day, the then Secretary to the Treasury and Head of the CCS, Shirley Amarasinghe addressed them on how to behave. Interestingly, within one year of that day, Shirley Amarasinghe (who was only 50 years old at the time) himself left the CCS and joined the Ceylon Overseas Service to go as High Commissioner to India.

 

Director of Information

Amunugama moved into the centre of Government when he was appointed Director of Information in 1968 when Dudley Senanayake was Prime Minister. He continued his tenure under Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike when she became Prime Minister in 1970. This is an assignment which suited Amunugama’s academic, administrative and political skills. His story of these years is compulsive reading and there are entertaining stories of politics at the highest level. At a young age, he was able to interact with the top politicians of his day. During this period, he also engaged in what looks to be his pastime – international travel – which he has done extensively over the years. In fact, the volume has many paragraphs and stories of his foreign travels including a long spell in Canada reading for a postgraduate degree.

As Director of Information, he was privy to much of the politics of his time. There are fascinating stories of the tensions between the LSSP and the SLFP when they were in coalition in the 1970s. There are engaging portraits of R. Premadasa when he was Minister of Local Government. Who could have known that Premadasa, when he was Deputy Minister of Local Government, had a very high regard for his Minister M. Tiruchelvam at the time when the UNP had formed a coalition with the Federal Party.

The writer relates the story of how the State Film Corporation was shifted from his ministry to the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, where I had to handle its affairs. There are many other vignettes of his time as Director of Information of top politicians like Dudley Senanayake, Mrs. Bandaranaike, N.M. Perera and many others.

 

Conclusion

To conclude my review, let me refer to the long Preface of this book which addresses questions of writing biographies and autobiographies. Many biographies in Sri Lanka of leading politicians are largely hagiographies, praising them no end. This was the pattern of autobiographical writing too. In the early 1920s, there was a dramatic change in the art of biographical writing. Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury group (a close friend of Leonard and Virginia Woolf) wrote his “Eminent Victorians” which changed the art of biography. Of his chosen few biographical topics, which included Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale, he wrote about these leading icons of that generation, warts and all, bringing them down a peg or two.

This introduced a new form of biography, which was more investigative, critical and more true to the lives of their subjects. Autobiographies can never be swallowed whole. To paraphrase Robert Burns, the great Scottish poet, no power has given us the gift “to see ourselves as others see us.” That is the inherent weakness of autobiography. Amunugama’s first volume of a three volume autobiography is an outstanding work in its field, and is a great addition to our knowledge of our contemporary times. It was a pleasure to read.



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Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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