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Sir Oliver Goonetilleke: Life in exile

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His 129th birth anniversary fell on Oct. 20

By T. Thurai –

Nine years of researching the background to my novel The Devil Dancers introduced me to some fascinating historical characters. One of the most remarkable was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (1892 –1978), one of the key architects of Ceylon’s Independence and the first Ceylonese to hold the post of Governor-General. This is the last of three articles on one of the most brilliant statesman of his generation.

Following his loss of office, Sir Oliver’s sudden departure from Ceylon and his final destination were matters of conjecture. A short paragraph in The Times noted his arrival in Paris along with a statement from Mr A. P. Jayasuriya, leader of the Senate, that Sir Oliver was “neither removed from office nor did he resign.” A remark that seems somewhat disingenuous in hindsight.

However, the mystery was soon resolved. England was Sir Oliver’s choice for his self-imposed exile. His friend Sir John Kotelawala had already taken up residence in the Kentish village of Biddenden following his failure to win the 1956 General Election.

Almost immediately, Sir Oliver was received into the highest levels of society. For instance, the Court and Social pages of The Times record a dinner party given “in honour of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke in honour of his relinquishing the office of Governor-General of Ceylon” by Sir Graham and Lady Rowlandson at 18 Grosvenor Square. Among the guests were the High Commissioner for Ceylon and Sir John Kotelawala.

Unlike his friend who enjoyed the tranquillity of a rural setting, Sir Oliver preferred the frenetic pace of the city, choosing to live near Hyde Park, at the heart of London. It is one of the city’s most select addresses, just over a mile from Buckingham Palace and with Apsley House, the home of the Dukes of Wellington, as a close neighbour.

Within days of Sir Oliver’s departure from Ceylon, The Times recorded a Troskyite MP questioning the House of Representatives with regard to the amount of money that the former Governor-General had been allowed to take out of the country. The sum in question was £7,000 when the normal travel allowance was only £150.

The delicate question of money resurfaced several months later when the House of Representatives raised 56,250 rupees (£4,000) to be paid to Sir Oliver in lieu of 10 months leave not taken by him when in office. A Government spokesman explained that this was to be sent to him in monthly instalments of £150, Sir Oliver having “told the British press recently that he was penniless because all his money was tied up in Ceylon.”

Doubtless, Sir Oliver had had to leave much of his wealth behind. However, just how penniless he was is open to question. Just two months after settling in England, he is recorded as having paid 1,500 guineas for a horse called Hippo at the Doncaster bloodstock sales.

Horse-racing was to be one of the many activities with which he diverted himself while abroad. He had already established himself as a leading member of the racing fraternity, being described by the Sporting Chronicle as one of the most popular and respected owners. He had raced his horses in England and France for many years, his two-year old Henrico having won the prestigious Prix de la Cascade at Longchamp in 1949. However, perhaps one of his proudest moments was being able to give the famous jockey Lester Piggott his first ride.

Despite his sadness at leaving Ceylon, Sir Oliver did not succumb to grief. Instead, he created a new life. He accepted various posts with companies related to Ceylon’s tea and rubber companies and achieved another ‘first’ when he became the first Asian underwriter at Lloyds.

He travelled extensively – especially during the English winter – paying annual visits to India. He also discovered domestic happiness after having spent many years as a widower since the death of his first wife Esther in 1931.

He first met his second wife Phyllis Miller when she visited Ceylon as secretary to the Soulbury Commission. After that, they stayed in close contact and, following his removal to London, she helped him with his business affairs. They married quietly in 1968, only announcing their marriage several months later.

However, his self-imposed exile did not guarantee immunity from deteriorating political conditions at home. Two years after Sir Oliver’s departure, Philip Gunawardena, head of the United Left Front, declared his belief that sinister forces were at play. His evidence? Recent visits to Ceylon by Lord Mountbatten, Lord Soulbury and Sir John Kotelawala, a trip to Madras by Sir Oliver and alleged telephone conversations between Sir Oliver and Dudley Senanayake.

They were flimsy threads from which to weave a plot but Mrs Bandaranaike took these claims seriously and invited Philip Gunawardena to her home for secret talks. The result was uproar with everyone accusing everyone else of betrayal and Dudley Senanayake complaining to the police that attempts were being made to establish a dictatorship. According to The Times, “no one knew what was happening.”

By now, Parliament had been prorogued for a record four months and Mrs Bandaranaike was contemplating a coalition with the far Left. With an election looming the next year, the political atmosphere was rapidly becoming toxic, conspiracy was perceived everywhere and even elderly statesmen living thousands of miles away were caught up in the maelstrom.

Trial and Retribution

By the early 1970s, Ceylon had changed its name to Sri Lanka; Mrs Bandaranaike, having been temporarily been ousted by her rival Dudley Senanayake, was back in power and a new threat to stability had arisen: the JVP movement.

As part of the measures to deal with the JVP, the Government introduced the Criminal Justice Commissions Act. Under this, some 130 insurgents were jailed, including one of the JVP’s prime-movers Rohanna Wijeweera.

However, the Act had implications for several people unconnected with the JVP. It was extended to a handful of individuals accused of Exchange Control Offences – among them Sir Oliver Goonetilleke.

Aged 82, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to four years rigorous imprisonment and a fine of 950,000 rupees (£61,000).

While he could not be extradited, the sentence nevertheless had a discernible impact on his life. Having met and entertained the Queen on many State occasions, he was now banned from her presence. In a sense, he was doubly exiled. It must have been a stinging blow.

In 1977, Mrs Bandaranaike was defeated at the polls by Junius Jayewardene. He repealed the Act accusing the previous Government of having used it to destroy its opponents. Those who had been jailed under the provisions of the Act were released and an amnesty declared.

This sparked a flurry of communications between the British High Commission in Colombo and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Due to their sensitive nature, these remained embargoed for 30 years.

Now available for public viewing, these documents reveal frantic activity by diplomats and civil servants in trying to establish the exact nature of Sir Oliver’s status under the amnesty.

The question is succinctly stated in a memo to Bob Dewar at the British High Commission, Colombo from R. E. Holloway, South Asian Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

“We are of course particularly interested in Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and need a full account of where he now stands under Sri Lankan law. As you probably know Sir Oliver has been under a cloud in London since he was convicted and sentenced for the Exchange Control Offences. He is no longer invited to Royal functions or to other occasions at which the Queen is present. We must now advise the Lord Chamberlain on whether, according to Sri Lankan law and in the eyes of the Sri Lankan Government, he is entirely redeemed.”

Other memos show that these concerns were due not only to the niceties of royal protocol but also to an anxiety “that the Sri Lanka Government might take it amiss if we were seen still to be treating him [Sir Oliver] as a distinguished elder statesman.”

Sir Oliver was eventually re-instated and his name cleared, allowing him to return home to Sri Lanka where he died a few months later at the age of 84. Sadly, this last chapter of his life does not reflect well on any of the individuals or authorities who had benefited from his years of devoted service. Some actively sought his final ignominy while others passively complied with it.

However, his contribution to Sri Lanka’s Independence is a lasting monument to his unique skills. In the words of his biographer, Sir Charles Jeffries: “If Ceylon makes it, this will largely be due to Oliver Goonetilleke. If she fails, it will not have been his fault.”

Sources:

O.E.G. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke – a biography by Sir Charles Jeffries

E.G.C. Ludowyk The Story of Ceylon, p 262 [cited in OEG p. 44]

Emergency ’58: Tarzie Vittachi

The Times digital archive



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Impressive Indian scene…

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Some of the live streaming events, on social media, have brought into the limelight quite a few impressive performers, hailing from India.

Just recently, I checked out the live performance of Stephanie Sutari, and her sister Desiree, and found the duo very entertaining, and so the spotlight this week is focused on the singing sisters.

Stephanie says it’s her very supportive parents who encouraged her to go for piano/music classes, at a young age of eight, as a hobby. Later, she joined the church choir and participated at various singing competitions.

Before long, Stephanie was lending her voice for voiceovers and jingles for advertisements.

Ssys Stephanie: “I only considered it as a career option, in my late teens. So I completed my post-graduation, in Media, but decided to follow my heart and take up singing, full time.”

However, coming from a non-musical background, it was a challenge for Stephanie to make her way into the industry, but, she says, she was determined and extremely driven.

“They say, the universe falls in love with a stubborn heart, so, initially, I stayed in my comfort zone and started singing, professionally, in English only…but living in Mumbai – the heart of Bollywood, I decided to utilise my resources and get out of my comfort zone; you may call it fate (I believe it’s my grandparents blessings), I was offered a break with one of the best entertainment bands in India – Rodney and the Band, at the age of 22. Yes, I became a full time Bollywood singer and started touring with them, all over the world.”

Talented Stephanie branched out, from singing only English songs, to enhance her repertoire by including songs in over 10 languages – Telugu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani, Marathi, Hindi (Indian languages), Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and a few African languages, like Zulu, Duala.

She has performed for over 1000 shows, all over the world, including Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Dubai, Bahrain, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Lagos, and Indonesia.

“I love to travel and if I’m not travelling on work (which is extremely rare), I travel on vacation….My most favourite travel destination is Europe, with Switzerland and Paris being right on top.”

Stephanie goes on to say that the best part of her family gatherings was the sing-along sessions and she then realised how music had the power to uplift people’s mood.

“So, when the pandemic hit, I started an official Stephanie S page, on Facebook, to help people go through the tough times, with a little hope, and went I live, once a week, to bring people, and their love for music, together. The response was overwhelming ‘cos I reached out to so many people, from all over the world, from the comfort of my home. The interesting fact is, I got my best friend Mathew Varghese, on board, who controls the entire audio and video technicalities, sitting in another country, Kuwait, online.

“My little sister, Desiree, who has a magical voice, and moves that drove my viewers crazy, soon became an integral part of my live performances, as well, and today she’s more in demand for her charisma and melodious singing. She has just started her musical journey but has a promising future in music ahead of her.”

Referring to her future plans, Stephanie said it’s to make a mark in the global music industry, by showcasing her talent.

And, her message to the next generation: “It’s important to follow your dreams, but it’s also important to complete your education first. Knowledge is Power,”

Winding up our chit-chat, Stephanie said she has never been to Sri Lanka but is eagerly looking forward to spending a vacation in the ‘Wonder of Asia’ as soon as time permits.

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Dissemination of ‘real time’ meteorological information to domestic aviation community

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On July 3, 1971, during the first JVP insurgency, while I was working with the then Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF), based at China Bay, in Trincomalee, I reported to the squadron early morning and was told by our Officer Commanding the No. 3 Maritime Squadron, Flt Lt Denzil Fernando, that I was assigned to fly as ‘Second Dickie’ to Sergeant-Pilot Tony (Tuan Mohamed Zachariah) Dole in a de Havilland Dove with serial (registration) CS 406. We were to go to Vavuniya to pick up the then Government Agent (GA), Neville Jayaweera, and take him to Ratmalana (RMA).

Our trip to Vavuniya was uneventful, except that the runway, unused for many years, had been cleared and secured by the Army, with soldiers standing at regular intervals along the full length of the runway. After the GA boarded the plane we got airborne and set course for Ratmalana. It was a bit cloudy when we started. Soon the clouds got heavier, and we had to fly through the clouds to maintain our course. Not long afterwards, the weather became worse, and turbulence in the clouds caused our eight-seater D.H. 104 Dove to shake like a leaf in the wind.

The twin-engine transport plane didn’t have Airborne Weather Radar (AWR) to avoid rain clouds. AWR works on the principle that the more turbulent a cloud, the greater the mass of water it will support. This will ‘bounce’ off radar signals emitted by the aircraft, and will be proportional to the cloud thickness, thereby providing an image of the turbulence, within the cloud mass, as indicated on a screen in the cockpit of the aircraft.

Without AWR, our only option was to reduce speed to make the ride as comfortable as possible for the GA (and us), not unlike when driving on a bumpy road, and then ‘eyeballing’ the weather and hoping for the best by avoiding the more intense rain clouds. The only weather forecast reports available to us were for China Bay and Ratmalana airports, but no information whatsoever on observed weather en route.

By now, flying in cloud, we had lost sight of the ground and were unsure of our position. We were avoiding clouds to the best of our ability. The vertical development of some of the clouds were in excess of 10,000 ft at some places. So we decided to go below the cloud base, which was fortunately higher than existing terrain, so we could maintain sight of ground or water to pinpoint our position. In aviation parlance, this is known as a ‘visual fix’ of position.

We also flew further west towards the coast to reduce the chances of rising terrain (hills). Soon we spotted, through the rain, the unmistakable coastline, of Kalpitiya and Puttalam, enabling us to positively establish our position. We then continued to follow the coastline at low leve,l to RMA, flying under the jet aircraft approach path at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake, and towards Colombo.

The air traffic control towers at Katunayake and Ratmalana were also reporting heavy rain showers. We found a patch clear of cloud, south of the Ratmalana airport, over Bolgoda Lake, and began circling there. But Sgt. Dole had an ace up his sleeve. He told me that showers present under cloud cells usually come in waves that transit the airport, and the best bet was to wait and land between the showers that we could see well from our vantage point in the south.

Sure enough, as soon as one rain shower passed the airport, we were well positioned to turn in and land in relatively clear weather with only a slight drizzle, before the next downpour hit.

This was exactly 50 years ago. We didn’t have radio navigational aid, except the Non-Directional Beacons (NDBs) at China Bay, BIA and Ratmalana that operated on low to medium frequency and were affected by bad weather (thunderstorms) and thus rendered useless in our circumstances described here. In fact, the signals emitted by Radio Ceylon were sometimes stronger! In addition, there were two Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni Radio Range stations (VORs) at BIA and RMA, but our aircraft was not equipped with a receiver that could be used in conjunction with the VORs. They were meant for the ‘big aircraft’. Other countries had Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) associated with the VOR, but not Ceylon.

Therefore, pilots had to navigate by a process called ‘Dead Reckoning’, which involved estimated ground speed and time over known ground features (cities, rivers, roads, railway lines and buildings for example). ‘If you reckoned wrong you were dead!’ To add insult to injury, we didn’t have ‘real-time’ observed meteorological information available to us in terms of cloud base and intensity of rain to help us make informed decisions as to what route to follow.

Today, technology has improved worldwide in leaps and bounds. We have ‘smart’ cellular phones and tablets with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We have capabilities of providing better facilities to domestic air traffic, consisting of landplanes, seaplanes and helicopters. For many years we have had a radar station positioned on Pidurutalagala, the highest point in the island. In fact, we can even monitor certain areas of South India.

Unfortunately, real-time meteorological information is still not available as Sri Lanka has not invested in a communications system capable of providing such information. More than 15 years ago, Singapore installed a radar system at Changi Airport that was capable of giving information to pilots on the intensity of rainfall relative to their airports. We are told that Sri Lanka’s Meteorological Department invested Rs.200 million, in 2013, on a Doppler radar system which, in their so-called ‘wisdom’, they wanted to site at Deniyaya. But it was never installed, and the equipment is now in storage in damaged condition after it went ‘down the pallang’ while being transported there!

Today, there are many free websites which provide highly accurate satellite-based weather forecast information at a click of a button. It is also available on ground to flight dispatchers. It is therefore sad to note that the weather forecasts, produced by our Meteorological Department (who should be playing a key role) are not used by the aviation community, almost certainly due to a lack of confidence on the part of pilots and aviation operations officers. It should also be noted that in Sri Lankan domestic aviation, along with the satellite weather forecasts, the actual observed weather, must go hand in hand. Even this is still not provided by the Met’ Department. I believe that this is a major lapse.

The following incident illustrates the stark reality of what the current situation is for domestic operators. A few days ago, a commercially important passenger (CIP) was flown to Anuradhapura by a domestic air charter company to attend celebrations commemorating the two-year anniversary in office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The outbound flight to Anuradhapura was uneventful. For the return flight to RMA, the flight dispatcher based at Ratmalana had to plan the flight. While the general weather forecast was rain, standard practice relied on the observed actual en route weather by police stations on the way: at Galgamuwa, Nikaweratiya, Kuliyapitiya, Divulapitiya, Palavi, Chilaw, Wenappuwa and Negombo.

All these observers are local police personnel, not qualified aviation or meteorological professionals. Consequently, their very subjective ‘met reports’ are along the lines of “the sky is dark”, “it is about to rain”, “it is now drizzling” or “heavy showers”, from which the flight dispatcher has to form a mental picture of what the en route weather is. One wonders what the insurance implications would be if an accident occurs.

To continue, the hapless pilot at Anuradhapura, who was in touch with his dispatcher on his cellular phone before departure, had to evaluate the risks and make an informed decision. Like Sgt. Dole and I did 50 years ago, he had to get airborne and ‘play it by ear’, so to speak. So, having reached the western coastline, he followed it all the way to Ratmalana. As a matter of interest, I was able to follow the progress of this single-engine light aircraft through one of the free apps on my smartphone, via satellite. That is what prompted this article.

I regard it as an absolute shame that in the last 50 years the Colombo Met’ Department has been unable to provide useful ‘real-time’ meteorological observations to domestic air operations. Yet to satisfy the international aviation community in the gathering of weather data, they have observation stations at all of Sri Lanka’s international airports. But it is a case of thus far and no further. Scrutinising the Meteorological Department’s website will reveal that they have weather observation stations in Kankesanturai (KKS), Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Mahailluppallama, Puttalam, Batticaloa, Kurunegala, Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya, Badulla, Diyatalawa, Pottuvil, Ratnapura, Katunayake, Ratmalana, Galle and Hambantota. These stations are connected to the World Weather Watch (WWW) through a Global Telecommunication Network (GTS). I do not know whether they are automatic as in other parts of the world, or require a qualified human observer.

The sad part is that this real-time information is not available to domestic aviation operators (of both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters) who have to rely on amateurish police station observations and information. If the observed real-time weather is brought online with a good communications network comprising more observation stations established at all the other domestic airports, weather updates will enhance and synergize air safety in real-time.

I do not know who is responsible for this unacceptable state of affairs, but certainly the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), Airports and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL), the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), and the ‘keepers’ of some of the domestic airports should coordinate with the Met’ Office and have real-time weather reports available for all domestic flights.

More recently it has been reported, in the local media that the Colombo Met’ Office and Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have signed an agreement for two more weather radar stations, to be sited at Puttalam and Pottuvil, to replace the one that never ‘got off the ground’ at Deniyaya. Will JICA be able to help in establishing automatic observation stations accessible to domestic aviators, to determine and report on such vital meteorological data as cloud base, intensity of rain, wind direction and speed, and temperature, as a fundamental component of good communication?

It is sad that the ‘end users’ are never consulted in important matters such as these.

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The ‘Summit for Democracy’ and its welcome stress on governance quality

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A ‘Summit for Democracy’ conceptualized and organized by the US is expected to be conducted on December 9th and 10th in virtual mode and some major world powers, such as China and Russia, have not been invited to it. Such developments ought not to prompt any sections that matter in this connection to look askance at the US over its choice of invitees in consideration of the fact that politics are very much at the heart of such decision-making. It could not be otherwise, since politics are the ‘stuff and substance’ of international relations.

It should not come as a surprise too if the aim of the US in calling this forum is to project its power and influence globally. This should be expected of a super power. The forum could have the effect of accentuating international political cleavages and this too must be expected. Realpolitik is what we are up against in this summit to a considerable degree and it could not be otherwise.

However, the hope of progressives the world over is likely to be that the essentials of democracy would come to be discussed and stressed, despite these serious constraints posed by politics. It is also hoped that the quality of democracy would receive adequate scrutiny and ways worked out as to how accountable governance could be advanced. In the absence of these inputs the summit would come to nought.

Democratic opinion the world over considers democracy to be chief among the US’ soft power assets. If the US political leadership thinks so too, the opportunity has come its way through the summit in question to prove to the world that this is really so. For example, the US cannot shy away from the need to make its territory safe and welcoming for all its ethnic communities, particularly minority groups.

The US should ideally be guided by the principle that every form of life within its boundaries ‘matters’. Such questions are at the heart of democratic advancement. The resolution of issues of this kind by any purported democracy has a close bearing on the quality of democracy manifested in it.

Reverence for life is at the centre of democracy. In this connection it is discouraging to note that students and teachers are continuing to be gunned-down in some US High Schools. In one such recent incident, two students and a teacher had been reportedly killed in a High School in Michigan, while scores of others had been injured. As a self-professed advanced democracy, the US is obliged to re-examine its Gun Laws and explore the possibility of doing away with them, so as to protecting life and nurturing a pro-peace culture within its borders. However, the US’ obligations by way of advancing the quality of its democracy do not end here. Much more needs to be done in a range of issue areas, but Gun Laws ought to be prime among its concerns.

India and Pakistan are two key states in South Asia that have been invited to the summit and this ought to be a high moment for them. Since South Asia’s advancement in a number of areas depends crucially on these regional heavyweights the hope of progressives is likely to be that the people of South Asia would gain eventually through the engagement of India and Pakistan in these deliberations on democracy.

The fact that Sri Lanka has been left out of the summit ought to be worrying for it. Fire-breathing nationalist opinion in Sri Lanka is likely to be of the view that this counts for nothing and that the US is in no position to sit in judgement over other countries on issues relating to democratic development. These nationalists are also likely to vociferate that Sri Lanka could depend on its ‘all-weather friends’ in Asia for support in a number of areas and that Western support is not of much consequence for its sustenance.

But such positions fly in the face of hard political and economic realities. To begin with, no major power in Asia would come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at the cost of its own political and economic links with the West. These powers’ economic wellbeing is integral to their having cordial ties with the US, for instance. China cannot afford to neglect its trade and investment ties with the US and vice versa. China would not risk too much for Sri Lanka’s sake.

Besides, there is the case of Uganda to consider. It has scarred itself badly by mortgaging some of its real estate to outside powers. Today, the latter are reportedly staking a claim to what they seem to have lost by forcibly occupying the territories concerned in Uganda. Small countries, such as Sri Lanka, have no choice but to relate cordially with all the major powers.

Of the subjects that are expected to come up for discussion at the summit, ‘Advancing respect for human rights’, ought to be of prime importance. This is at the heart of democratic development and it ought to be clear that countries that do not respect fundamental human rights could not be part of any discussion on democracy. Accordingly, authoritarian states cannot sit at conference tables of this kind. It ought to be equally plain that ‘one man rule’ or one-party rule could not figure in these talks since such dispensations are antithetical to basic human rights.

Currently, even in the West, the suitability of the US to head the summit in focus is being vigorously questioned and there are acceptable grounds for this. While it could be argued that the US is a flawed democracy, it needs to be remembered that the foremost democracies are growing, evolving and dynamic systems and are not static and stagnant in nature in those cultural environments that favour their adoption. Accordingly, democracy cannot be rigorously defined. Essentially, it could be defined only in terms of what it is not. For example, political systems that do not nurture individual rights cannot pass muster as democracies.

Thus, the summit offers opportunities for a fruitful discussion on what must be done to keep democracy ticking. Ideally, major democracies in Asia too need to conduct such parleys on ways of benchmarking democratic advancement. India, for one, could take on this responsibility, being one of the most advanced democracies in our region.

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