SRI LANKA SHOULD CLOSE DOWN MOST OF OUR OVERSEAS MISSIONS AS A STEP TOWARDS REDUCING PUBLIC EXPENDITURE
By Sanjeewa Jayaweera
A couple of recent news items that got my attention were:
(1)”The Government has decided to strictly restrict state expenses owing to the grave financial crisis the government was facing. Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa has informed the Cabinet that state revenue has decreased drastically as the economy faces a severe crisis due to the Covid pandemic. It was not sufficient even for recurrent expenditure. The government has also decided to suspend all recruitment for state service.”
(2)”High Commissioner-designate of Sri Lanka to India Milinda Moragoda assumes duties in New Delhi, at a simple ceremony held at the High Commission of Sri Lanka in New Delhi on 30 August 2021.”
Given the perilous state of the economy, the need to restrict and reduce state expenditure is mandatory. That it should have been done several decades ago by successive governments is to state the obvious. The salary cost of government employees and pensions is estimated to account for 80 per cent of government revenue. This expenditure at present is a fixed cost unless the government takes a bold step to enforce a pay cut on government servants. Although it might sound outrageous, many establishments struggling to survive have done it in the private sector. No doubt such a measure will be unpopular, particularly when the cost of living is increasing. But, let alone a pay cut, the Principals and Teachers, have stuck work demanding salary increments. For the GOSL, it is undoubtedly “The Hobson’s choice.”
The need to manage costs prudently has always been a priority in the private sector. As a former Chief Financial Officer of a chain of hotels between 1995 and 2005, I experienced this challenge firsthand as tourism bore the brunt of the consequences of the war waged by terrorists. Every time a bomb explosion took place, there was a sharp decline in hotel occupancy and revenue. Mere survival was difficult. We, of course, did not have the luxury of printing money as the GOSL has done to manage the deficit. Even obtaining a bank overdraft was difficult as Banks’ were wary of lending money to the hotel sector. The hotel industry was deemed not creditworthy, just as presently the GOSL is considered by overseas lenders.
In such circumstances, we had to examine every expense item and determine whether it belonged to the category of “Absolutely Necessary.” Any expenditure outside that definition was eliminated. It was not a pleasant task, but it had to be done. It is in that context that I wish to propose that the GOSL carry out a serious and dispassionate review as to how many of our embassies and high commissions in overseas countries are “Absolutely necessary.”
The cost of maintaining our overseas resident missions according to the Sri Lanka Budget Estimates for 2021 is Rs. 11 billion, which at an exchange rate of Rs 190 for 1 US Dollar is US Dollars 58 million. What needs to be understood is that all expenditure of our foreign missions needs to be remitted in US Dollars. Staff salaries, rent, and other establishment costs are incurred in foreign currency. I understand many local companies are presently struggling to obtain even US $ 20,000 from banks to import urgently needed spare parts for their factory machinery.
It is possible that the shortage of foreign exchange may be temporary. However, Sri Lanka has for many decades run a significant budget deficit where recurrent expenditure is well over revenue. In such circumstances, a pertinent question is whether the bulk of the US $ 58 million spent in maintaining overseas resident missions should be eliminated and what would be the ramifications for the country.
In determining how many of our overseas resident missions are superfluous and should be closed down, we need to understand the role and function of an Embassy / High Commission in a foreign country.
The Vienna Convention of 1963 has outlined the role and functions as follows (summarized) :
“The functions of a diplomatic mission consist, inter alia, in representing the sending State in the receiving State; protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and its nationals, within limits permitted by international law; promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations; negotiating with the Government of the receiving State; ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending State.”
Although I am no expert on international relations, I feel the section stating “promoting friendly relations and developing economic, cultural and scientific relations” should be the critical criteria in determining the need for a resident mission in an overseas country. I am well aware that consular services extended to Sri Lankans living in overseas countries are also essential. However, I contend that we do not need an ambassador and a plethora of diplomatic officers to carry out this necessary but mundane function.
In terms of promoting friendly relations between Sri Lanka and the nation to where they have been posted, I contend that our ambassadors and diplomats currently have a minimal role to play. At present international relations are based on policy set out by the GOSL. The best of personal efforts by our ambassadors and diplomats will bear no result if the GOSL pursues policies deemed by the other country to be unacceptable to them. For example, I can only assume that our ambassadors and diplomats based in the Middle East and other Muslim countries were pulling their hair and struggled to maintain “friendly relations” when GOSL followed a policy of not allowing Muslims to bury those who passed away to COVID. Similarly, our close relations with China have impacted our relations with many others. To a large extent, the concept of “Non-Aligned” as practiced in the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced with “You are either with us or against us.” In the last three decades, China has been the “bogeyman” for the USA and their allies, whilst before that, it was the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
A couple of two separate but distinct incidents that my father, a career diplomat, encountered when serving abroad more or less explains the fallacy that having an overseas resident mission facilitates friendly relations.
In either 1973 or 1974, when serving in Pakistan, the embassy received an urgent telex from Colombo requesting that a message from Mrs Sirima Banadaranaike be handed to Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister (PM) of Pakistan. The request was for Pakistan to send an urgent shipload of rice to Colombo due to an impending shortage. My father, acting for the Ambassador, met Mr Bhutto within 12 hours of requesting the Pakistani foreign ministry to meet with the PM. Mr Bhutto met him around midnight at his official residence dressed in his pyjamas and dressing gown and greeted my father. “Mr Jayaweera, what is that I can do for our good friend Madam Bandaranaike?” The PM immediately took action upon the request for help.
In June 1987, when India violated Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by entering our airspace and dropped “parripu”, my father, who was then the Ambassador to West Germany, was instructed to seek an urgent meeting with the West German Foreign Minister and request that a statement be issued expressing concern over the violation of our airspace. However, despite his best efforts, he was not given an appointment for nearly three weeks. He was then politely told that it was a bilateral issue between Sri Lanka and India, and as such, there was no desire on West Germany’s part to get involved!
The immediate response in Pakistan was solely due to the far-sighted foreign policy pursued under Mrs Bandranaike whilst in West Germany, the realities of realpolitik and trade superseded all other concerns. In neither instance was my father able to influence the decision.
In terms of developing economic relations, I believe our foreign missions do not play any meaningful role. For example, in the hotel industry that I worked for over a decade, tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka were solely due to the efforts of the private companies and their partners in overseas countries. The only time our ambassadors got involved was when invited to light the traditional oil lamp at the Sri Lankan pavilion at an international travel fair! Many would argue that even the Tourist Board and the Ministry of Tourism have hardly contributed.
In a similar vein, I am sure those engaged in exporting garments, tea, spices, and various other products and services would say the same. Their efforts and business contacts have enabled such exports, and that our resident missions have hardly played any role.
In the schedule included in this article, I have listed the countries where we have established resident missions. The number is 54 (information taken from the foreign ministry website). I have also indicated in the same schedule which of those countries have reciprocated by establishing resident missions in Colombo.
REC – RECIPROCAL WHERE THE OTHER COUNTRY HAS AN EMBASSY IN COLOMBO
NUMBER OF SRI LANKA RESIDENT MISSIONS OVERSEAS INCLUDING THE UNITED NATIONS = 54
NUMBER OF COUNTRIES HAVING RESIDENT MISSIONS IN SRI LANKA = 41
LIBYA, NEW ZEALAND, ROMANIA, AND SWITZERLAND HAVE RESIDENT MISSIONS IN COLOMBO DESPITE SRI LANKA NOT HAVING A RESIDENT MISSION IN THOSE COUNTRIES. IN ADDITION, THE EEC AND THE HOLY SEE POPE HAVE RESIDENT MISSIONS IN COLOMBO.
Another critical aspect of this debate is that successive governments have appointed people outside the foreign service as ambassadors and high commissioners since independence. These appointments are invariably granted as “santhosams” to their political supporters and since the 1980’s to a few retired service commanders. Thus, they are correctly referred to as “political appointments.” But, unfortunately, many of them are totally unsuitable and poorly trained in the art of diplomacy. Unfortunately, all governments have conveniently overlooked this lacuna. As a result, the poor taxpayers and career diplomats trained in the art of diplomacy have suffered.
In this regard, even Mrs Bandaranaike, who my father and other foreign service officials at the time considered to be the best Foreign Minister, erred. This is despite her government in 1970 appointing the first batch of career diplomats as Ambassadors.
I remember the background of those appointed as ambassadors to Russia and Pakistan, where my father was posted. One gentleman was a person who had appeared for Mrs Bandaranaike in a court case involving, I believe, a land dispute, whilst the other was a very young businessman who no doubt had supported the party financially. Both the gentlemen, as I remember, were “nice” people and sensible enough to let the career diplomats manage the challenges of running the embassy. However, I would contend that they and many other political appointees have had a pleasurable “holiday” at the expense of the taxpayers of Sri Lanka. There have been, of course, exceptions like Shirley Amerasinghe, Neville Kanakaratne and may be of recent vintage Dayan Jayatillake and S. Skandakumar.
The reason why I highlighted the news item of Milinda Moragoda (MM) assuming duties in New Delhi is only because, since January 2020, our High Commission in India has functioned without a High Commissioner. This is despite the parliamentary committee of high posts in August 2020 approving MM’s appointment. The reasons for the lengthy delay in traveling to New Delhi is not in the public domain.
When carrying out the review, it is necessary to determine how the Sri Lanka High Commission in India functioned without a High Commissioner for well over 18 months. It is acknowledged that India is the single most important overseas mission for Sri Lanka. Therefore, the question to be answered is whether relations between Sri Lanka and India were negatively impacted in the absence of a High Commissioner for 18 months?
I was astonished that Singapore does not have an embassy in Colombo despite the two countries’ close relations. A review of the Singapore foreign ministry website indicates that the Ambassador appointed to Sri Lanka is based in the Foreign Ministry in Singapore. The schedule given in the article shows the number of Embassies and High Commissions that Singapore has worldwide against what Sri Lanka has. It is evident that the visionary leaders of Singapore have once again made a dispassionate decision about establishing overseas missions based on commonsense, prudence and need.
*includes consulates in Oman and Bangladesh
There is precedence for countries closing down overseas resident missions due to financial constraints. For example, the Sri Lanka foreign ministry progress report for 2018 states that Nigeria closed down its embassy in Colombo in 2017 due to financial hardship. Need we say more?
Taking all I have highlighted and applying the expenditure criteria of “Absolutely Necessary”, I believe that GOSL can quickly close down many (over 50 per cent) of our overseas missions without any negative impact on our relations with those countries.
‘A Jaffna-man, an eminent surgeon with an European reputation’
180th Birth Anniversary of Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood
March 13, 2023 marks the 180th Birth Anniversary of the late Hon. Dr. William Gabriel Rockwood, MLC, MD, MRCP, MRCS. Born on March 13, 1843 in Alaveddy, a small agricultural town in Jaffna; was the second of four children born to Elisha and Ms. Jane Backup, based on Alaveddy Church Records in the custody of Rt. Rev. Dr. Velupillai Pathmathayalan, Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI), formerly the American Ceylon Mission. Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood died on March 27, 1909 at the ‘Emms’, Horton Place, Colombo 7.
His father, Elisha born Sinnatambi on April 06, 1820, was one of six children born to a Saivite Hindu, Perumalpillai who migrated from Karaikal, South India to Sri Lanka and married a land-owner’s daughter Ms. Vairavi of Alaveddy. He was baptised ‘Elisha Rockwood’ in 1831 in Tellipallai and was given US $ 200 to complete his education at the Batticotta Seminary, known today as the Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, by the American Congregational Movement, which later became known as the American Ceylon Mission. Elisha completed his education and taught mathematics at the same school. He later joined the Customs Department as a Sub-Collector.
Dr. W. G. Rockwood married Ms. Salome Muthamma Muttucumaru, daughter of Mr. Adam Cathiravel Muttucumaru on November 1, 1871. Mrs. W. G. Rockwood was born in Kalpitiya in the Puttalam District on March 15, 1857 and died at “Pembroke,” Horton Place, Colombo 7 on Saturday, August 29, 1925.
Thus born to humble beginnings, ‘Dr. W. G. Rockwood was a most skilful and distinguished physician and had by rare ability proved himself ‘the greatest surgeon in the East. His reputation was not confined to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) or the adjacent continent, but had extended far beyond the seas to Great Britain, where he won the esteem of such eminent members of the medical profession as Dr. Marcus Beck, Dr. Charles Stoiiham, Dr. J. Bland Sutton. Sir Thomas Barlow, Lord Lister, and Sir Frederick Treves’. Dr. Rockwood was also president of the Ceylon Branch of the British Medical Association (BMA).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood, in 1851 aged 08 years, had his early education at the Vembadi Boys’ School and later at Central College, Jaffna, which was founded by the Methodist Missionaries. In 1855, aged 12 years, he went with his father to Batticaloa and joined Central College, Batticaloa which was also run by the Wesleyan Mission.
Dr. W. G. Rockwood in 1862 was in the last year of his teens, when a maternal uncle, Mr. E. R. Chelliah Pillai told him to come to Madras University for a “good education.” Mr. E. R. Chelliah Pillai died on March 19, 1900 at the “Emm’s,” Regent Street, Colombo 7.
In January 1866, aged 23 years, Dr. W. G. Rockwood passed the Calcutta University Matriculation Examination in Madras and applied for the arts course. His father prevailed on young Rockwood to follow medicine which he did with many misgiving and much reluctance. His disinclination soon disappeared for Rockwood took to anatomy with such interest. In July 1866, he joined the Madras Medical College and received the scholarship of Rs.20 allowed for those who pass the London matriculation Examination.
‘On his obtaining the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Madras, a member of the Board of examiners paid him the following rare compliment, “I have lately had, on behalf of the Madras University to examine a man of the name of Rockwood from Ceylon, for the Degree of Doctor of Medicine, and certainly was quite unprepared to meet a candidate for medical honours of this country so remarkably proficient. I fully believe that in any English or Scotch University he would have carried the highest honours” ’. (Source: Jaffna Catholic Guardian April 03, 1909).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood while he was serving in Puttalam skilfully handled an outbreak of cholera and because of his experience in handling it, he was sent to Jaffna in1868 to control the outbreak of cholera. He returned to Puttalam and then was transferred to Hambantota (June 1875) and later to Gampola (1878). It was while he was in Gampola that the vacancy for the post of Surgeon in the Medical Department of the General Hospital in Colombo arose.
Dr. W. G. Rockwood in 1878 aged 35 years held the post of Principal Surgeon at the General Hospital Colombo now known as the National Hospital, Colombo for a period of 20 years. He was the sole surgeon of the hospital and at the same time he was Lecturer in Clinical Systematic and Operative Surgery in the Ceylon Medical College. Besides this what leisure he could snatch from his official duties was given up to the demands of a large and growing practice.
He travelled to London in 1884 when he was admitted as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) and Member of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood retired from active service from the Medical Department after 31 years on March 13, 1898 at the age of 55 years. Upon his retirement and in recognition of his long-standing service he was immediately appointed Consultant Surgeon to the General Hospital in Colombo.
It is said of his authority on handling tropical diseases that there was an instance when a colour conscious Englishman who had an ailment was asked to consult Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood of Ceylon while on his way to Australia from England. The Englishman thinking from the name – Rockwood – was an Englishman made an appointment to see him at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo when the ship docked at the Colombo harbour.
On that day Dr. Rockwood was at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo waiting to see his patient. The patient was informed that Dr. Rockwood had arrived, came to the lobby and was pacing up and down the lobby impatiently when the management of the Hotel who were well acquainted with Dr. Rockwood had to draw his attention to the coloured man in the room. Seeing that Dr. Rockwood was coloured he had returned to his room. A year later the patient was back with his pride in his pocket to consult Dr. Rockwood.
Another story is related where a passenger ship had docked in the Port of Colombo and an SOS was sent out for a surgeon to attend to a German National. It turned out that the German National was the German Consul Freudenberg who was treated and cured of his ailment and later became a very close friend of the family. Dr. Rockwood was also physician to the Governor of Ceylon Sir West Ridgeway.
A combination of medicine and politics
The Governor of Ceylon Sir West Ridgeway appointed Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood to the Legislative Council representing the Tamil community for a period of five years from March 14, 1898 to March 12, 1903. Dr. Rockwood succeeded Mudaliyar Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy who was the eldest brother of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who served as the first Tamil representative in the Legislative Council for a single term. Governor Sir West Ridgeway in a private letter to Dr. Rockwood inviting him to join the Legislative Council as the Tamil representative said: ‘The Tamil community could think of no one who has earned the esteem and the admiration not of one community or of two, but of every community, of all men, of all races, as Dr. Rockwood’.
Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood was presented to His Majesty the King of England, Edward VII at St. James’ Palace on June 01, 1902 while he was serving as a Member of the Legislative Council. He was appointed to the Legislative Council for a second term on July 09, 1903. Due to continuing failing health, Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood in1906 laid off from all public activity.
The Legislative Council was the first Assembly set up under the Colebrook Reforms with 15 members in 1833 by the British under Governor Sir Fredrick North. There were two categories of members. Officials numbered nine and unofficial members numbered six. The official members were appointed directly by the Governor and their communities nominated the unofficial members. The six unofficial members comprised one each Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher and three Europeans.
The Legislative Council was altered in 1931 under the Donoughmore Commission and lasted until 1947. Ceylon gained Independence from the British on February 04, 1948. Ceylon changed her name to Sri Lanka on May 22, 1972 when she became a Republic. The second Constitution was enacted in 1972 when Hon. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister. Today we have the third Constitution enacted in 1978 when Hon. Junius Richard Jayewardene became the first Executive President under that Constitution.
‘Dr. Daniel Anthonisz, of Galle had demonstrated the advantage of breaking the monopoly of the legal profession over the unofficial seats in the Legislative Council. Dr. Rockwood’s tenure of the seat emphasised that advantage. Dr. Rockwood illustrated his preferences for his principles at the sacrifice of popularity when he proposed a motion in the Legislative Council on October 18, 1899, asking the salary of the judges of the Supreme Court to be raised high enough to make it possible to secure English barristers for the bench’.
On that occasion Dr. Rockwood said: ‘To have the certainty of even-handed justice is the greatest blessing a community can enjoy and the purity of that administration must be above suspicion. In a small place like Ceylon, where every man is known to every other man, it is necessary in the interests of the public that the Supreme Court Judges, who administer justice between man and man, must be men who have no local or permanent interests or connections. By, these remarks I do not mean to shut out local talent. Those who have established a reputation for efficiency and who have claims for meritorious service are possibly eligible for a higher post and these may be sent to other parts of the Empire where they have no personal interests to serve and no connections’. (Source: The Ceylon Morning Leader: Sunday, March 28, 1909).
Dr. W. G. Rockwood is described as one of Asia’s greatest surgeons who could operate with the use of both his hands (ambidextrous). He also promoted the choice of opium in the treatment of certain ailments. He was a member of the commission appointed by the then Governor of Ceylon to oversee the planning and construction of the Colombo-Chilaw railway line from Negombo. It was later extended to Puttalam. While serving on the commission he also suggested the construction of a railway line to Jaffna.
Six years after his death in 1915, Mrs. W. G. Rockwood donated Rs.20,000 to be utilised towards the construction of a 38 X 26 feet ‘Waiting Hall’ called ‘Rockwood Memorial Hall’ for patients who come to the General Hospital, Colombo now known as the National Hospital, Colombo for treatment. The foundation stone was laid in 1909 and the construction began in the same year. On April 16, 1912, ‘The Rockwood Hall’ was opened by His Excellency the Governor Sir Henry Edward McCallum (1907-1913). The plaque was unveiled in three languages – Sinhalese, Tamil and English to mark the donation: ‘The Rockwood Memorial Hall erected to the memory of Dr. William Gabriel Rockwood MD, MRCS, MRCP, Chief Surgeon of this hospital 1878 to 1898, Consulting Surgeon from 1898 until his death. Tamil Representative to Legislative Council from 1898 – 1905’. It is unfortunate that during the structural alterations made to the original building the three plaques and his photograph have been lost.
His character can be judged by his teaching. Once it is said that he rebuked a somewhat light-minded student and the latter, now an elderly man himself occupying a responsible position, remembers the rebuke. ‘Never make differences in your patients’, said Dr. Rockwood. ‘Every time a surgeon has a life depending upon his knife, it takes a fortnight off his own life, and the sense of responsibility is perhaps the greater when the man is a pauper than when he is a great and wealthy patient. The surgeon dare not take risks with the great man, for the world is watching him; but he fears still more to do so with the pauper, for then it is God who watches’.
He emphasised to his students that the surgeon must regard his treatise on anatomy as second only to the Bible. The words are characteristic of the man whose religion was always a predominant factor in his every thought and deed.
The ‘Rockwood Surgery Medal is awarded to the student who shows the greatest aptitude for surgery by the Medical Faculty of the University of Colombo, Peradeniya and Jaffna in memory of Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood.
‘A dutiful son, a faithful husband, an affectionate father, a loyal friend, a skilful surgeon, a good man, not slothful in business, fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.’ – Romans Ch 12; Vs 11-13
(Source: The Ceylon Morning Leader – Extraordinary Edition of Sunday, March 28, 1909).
(Excerpts from the book ‘From Williamstown to Vaddukoddai: The history of the Rockwood family’, published by the author William Sukumar Rockwood, MCPS, PgD. IHL, BA, JP, great grandson on August 21, 2011) -/end – 2280 words
LTTE writ on coral exploitation more effective than govt. orders
Tragedy and drama in the dry zone jungle
Excerpted from the authorized biography of Thilo Hoffmann by Douglas B. Ranasinghe
(Continued from last week)
North of Thenaddi Bay and a little inland is the village of Kathiraveli. In 1975 Thilo discovered there a folk art not found elsewhere. He described this in an article published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Lanka. For many years he was a Committee Member of that body. As recently as 2004 he wrote a sequel, which was not accepted for publication. Parts of it are reproduced here:
“In 1980 I contributed an illustrated article to the JRAS (New Series, Vol.XXV: 91) in which I described certain remarkable decorations in Kathiraveli, Eastern Province, on the outer walls of thatched mud-and-wattle houses, painted by women on the occasion of the Tamil New Year. The pigments used are lime and natural clays of different colours found in the village environment. The painting lasts about a year and is renewed before the next New Year.
“During the following decade I visited the village once or twice a year. Calamity soon befell the remote area in the form of the ethnic conflict. The village was occupied first by the army, the IPKF and finally the Tigers under whose control it still is. (at the time this note was written) It was, much of the time, in a war zone. My last visit had been in January 1992. By then the spirit of the villagers had been broken by untold tragedy.
“Only one house had still some basic decoration. Compounds were neglected and houses dilapidated, the people apathetic and subdued. Farming had become impossible. An aged couple whose neat and tidy homestead was a model for my paper had lost their only son who was taken to the army camp and never returned. Sadness and grief prevailed.
“In April 2003 I was able to pay a visit to Kathiraveli, although it is in an ‘uncleared’ area. After answering a few suspicious questions and establishing my bona fides, I was allowed to pass the LTTE checkpoint situated a little north of Mankerni. Up to that point the landscape had been devastated by the extensive and far-reaching destruction of all vegetation for security reasons.
“Thereafter I was passing through the familiar countryside which had hardly changed during so many decades, even centuries, in parts. The majestic trees are still standing along the road and on the coast. There are forests and a serene tranquility and seemingly timeless peace. Only here and there a jarring note: the memorial to fallen Tiger heroes, a large ‘military’ cemetery. new LTTE offices and installations with loafing youngsters around them. With considerable curiosity and apprehension I approached Kathiraveli.
“Nothing seemed changed. Soon we spotted the first painted house, rather simple but unmistakably in the traditional style. In all we found about a dozen such houses, each freshly painted, along the main roads, though generally there are fewer inhabited homesteads.
“Unfortunately ‘progress’ has reached Kathiraveli in the form of corrugated metal roofing sheets; two of the painted houses were covered with this material giving them a totally different and far less pleasing appearance than those with the cool and pleasant cadjan thatch.
“But the younger women had remembered the New Year tradition and had revived it in its pure, simple and natural form, some rather tentatively as if still trying to recall the old designs and motifs. The colours and basic patterns give these dwellings a clean, even festive and happy appearance.
“In December 2003 I was again in Kathiraveli, when I distributed nearly 100 colour photographs of decorated houses I had taken in 1977 and 78. They were intended to help strengthen the old tradition.
Otherwise the visit was a disappointment because in the short interval of eight months ‘development’ appears to have overtaken the village. There are glistening roofing sheets on old houses many of which have been replaced by stereotyped cement block constructions.
“For living comfort in this environment nothing can beat a well-constructed and maintained mud-and-wattle house generously covered with a thick and overhanging thatch of cadjan: cool during the hot season, dry and warm and cosy when the north-east monsoon is on.
“In this connection I might be permitted to touch upon another facet of personal contemporary history in this area. Not far away at Kayankerni on the coast I had for 30 years, a house, now a sad ruin. It was wrecked and the material looted in 1992. Even the well rings were dug up and carted away. For decades I had been fighting a mostly losing battle against the mudalalis who openly flouted the laws of the country by breaking and burning corals for lime. As a result erosion set in, the coast was altered and the protective reefs were destroyed, together with the trees and forests which provided the firewood.
“The process was aided and abetted by a lethargic and dishonest bureaucracy and a corrupt police force. Only once for a short few years was my campaign crowned with success when an energetic and honest GA at Batticaloa stopped the rapacious exploitation by ordering the police to destroy all the kilns in Passikudah, Kayankerni, Panichchankerni, and elsewhere in the district.
“When in 1990 the Tigers took over the area after the IPKF, they prohibited all coral breaking. The order was instantly obeyed by all, as non-compliance would have resulted in most dire consequences. Only ‘war widows’ were allowed to collect coral debris washed up on the shore and turn them into `sippi’, a traditional and acceptable ‘soft’ use of the resource.
“When the government regained the area the old abuse was resumed and as late as April 2003 did I note with dismay that more lime kilns than ever were in operation at Kayankerni, under the very noses of the security forces. (Note: The burnt lime is transported mainly to upcountry vegetable growing areas where it is used as a soil conditioner. Other uses are in mortar for construction and for whitewashing. Alternate sources of raw material are Miocene limestone and dolomite). All the more was I surprised when in December of the same year all the kilns had once again disappeared, again on the orders of the Tigers.
“Thus we have the absurd situation that in an area controlled by the Government an order from the LTTE is instantly and scrupulously obeyed, and the ordinary laws are brazenly flouted. Weak and disinterested authorities at all levels have long lost the will to enforce good laws, especially in the field of conservation. `Non- enforcement’ has been elevated to a fine art and policy under the influence of foreign gurus; doing nothing is so much easier than doing the right thing.”
The Vakarai area including Kathiraveli was retaken by government forces in early 2007.
Facets of the jungle
In the wilderness, too, there were aspects other than nature which engaged Thilo’s attention.Among the many parts of the dry zone he visited Wilpattu was a favourite. Several sections in this book describe his involvement with the area.
He explored extensively on foot the former Wilpattu West Sanctuary – now part of the National Park –especially the northern half of its 30 mile (50 km) coastline, between Kollankanatta and Kudremalai Point.
Much of this coast towards the north is formed by a cliff which is being eroded by the sea. To the north of Kollankanatta towards Pallugaturai this erosion exposes and destroys layers of the remnants of an ancient settlement. Thousands of clay and porcelain and worked seashell fragments litter the shore. There was even a clay-ring well. Thilo informed the Department of Archaeology, which then undertook a sample dig, but no further action.
It would have been a trading harbour during the Anuradhapura era, because in the vicinity on the track to Sinna Uppu Villu, not far away, he had discovered several baobab trees, as in Mannar, introduced from Africa. There must also have been, he thinks, a factory to make conch-shell bangles.
On the highest point, 225 feet above sea level, of the coastal ridge stands a chimney-like tower about 50 feet high. This and similar towers near Mullikulam and south of Arippu would have served as beacons during the time of the pearl fisheries.
In Kudremalai, at 123 feet, on the very edge of the cliff is the ruin of an ancient Hindu temple which, too, is fast disappearing with the erosion. Here is found the deep red soil, nearly purple or almost violet, to which is linked the ancient name ‘Tambapanni’ for Sri Lanka. It is said that Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhala race, landed here. A motorable track provided by the Park authorities now leads to this point.
The beacon at Arippu is near the massive brick ruin of the `Doric’, built by Frederick North, the first British Governor of Ceylon from 1798 to 1805, for use as a residence when visiting the pearl fisheries. Again due to the erosion the ruins are now rapidly being lost. In the book The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka, 2004 update, these are wrongly identified and depicted as being of the small Arippu Fort, the ruins of which are aboutfour km further north in the village.
Thilo also explored the North-eastern sector of Wilpattu which lies between the old Arippu road (now long abandoned) and Tantirimale. The ruins at this site, on the extensive rock outcrop (highest point 298 feet), were originally inside the National Park, the boundary of which in that sector was the Malwatu Oya. The place was entirely engulfed by the dense jungle. He first visited it on Vesak Day of 1966. Later the Park boundary was adjusted, the forest was cleared and people began to settle there.
To enable his explorations, from time to time he exercised walking through thick track and featureless monsoon forest with the help of a compass. The danger of missing the target several miles away was great because of the very restricted visibility, especially, where the nillu (Strobilanthes sp.) had grown high. Nevertheless, he always reached the goal with reasonable accuracy.
Observations at historical sites across the country were recorded in his notebooks, described later.Thilo also took an interest in the villagers who live in or by the jungle. Amidst his memories are tragedy and drama:
In a village called Manawa, some distance from Anuradhapura, Tikiri Bandara and 15-year-old Bandara Menike had fallen in love. Her family opposed the marriage. In desperation he shot to death three members of her clan. Then he took her by the hand and disappeared with her into the jungle, as witnessed by some women bathing in the village tank. He carried only his gun.
Tikiri Bandara was charged with three murders before the Anuradhapura Magistrate, in November 1957. The police mounted a search with dogs but failed to find the couple. Some months after this a poacher waiting for game in the fork of a tree at an abandoned tank observed a young man and woman coming out of the jungle in tattered clothes, she highly pregnant. They had a bath and vanished into the forest. Four years later, two skulls, some bones, two ear-studs and plastic bangles, a knife and the rusted barrel of a gun were found by hunters and produced before the magistrate.
Jathiaka Namal Uyana Marks 32nd Anniversary
Mother nature welcomes all. She doesn’t judge, she doesn’t discriminate, she just opens her arms to one and all. There is a space and place in nature for all. Nature is filled with breathtaking landscapes and has gifted us some of the most beautiful creatures on earth. All of us love to experience natural beauty and be one with nature. We should give her thanks everyday for being so gracious and kind to us by providing us with the means of survival.
Humans and other fauna and plants have a complex relationship extending far back into our joint evolutionary history. Natural vegetation refers to a plant community, which has grown naturally without human aid and has been left undisturbed by human for a long time. Sri Lanka’s natural vegetation covers about one-third of our total land area.
‘Jathika Namal Uyana’ is the largest ironwood forest and pink quartz mountain in Asia. It is a world heritage site that has gained the attention. Namal Uyana is rich in biodiversity. It provides a healthy and healing environment that has attracted local and foreign tourists. This ecosystem is a national resource of great religious, ecological and geographical value. The Na Uyana forest covers a total more than 2,000 acres.
The pink quartz mountain range in Namal Uyana is the largest of its sort in Asia. It consists of seven hills covering an extent of about to 600-700 acres. According to history, during the construction of Taj Mahal in India, pink quartz from here was taken to carve its windows. An amazing creation of nature, the pink quartz mountain belongs to prehistoric era.
Namal Uyana is an extremely rare phenomenon replanted with Iron Wood trees in the Eeghth century AD beginning during the reign of King Dewanampiyatissa and ended during the reign of King Dappula IV. It has been a sanctuary for Buddhist monks during King Devanampiyatissa’s reign in the eighth century. King Dappula declared it as a human sanctuary and It was decided to establish ‘’Mahamevna Uyana’’ here.
Our country is a blessed with a variety of natural vegetation . Trees are important part of every community. In the 21st century, instead of planting trees, the majority felled existing trees for construction and other uses. Deforestation has many effects on the environment and most importantly it affects biodiversity directly. If we cut one tree , ten trees should be planted in its place.
We are fortunate to have people who know the true value of natural vegetation and are committed to protect it. Wanvasi Rahula Thero who came forward with great sincerity to protect The Jathika Namal Uyana is an exemplary Buddha putra. He bravely undertook that great task in the midst of grave privation in the early days.
He said in an interview that he started this historic mission in March 1991. “At that time, this place was devoid of human habitation. When I set foot here, the Namal Uyana had been destroyed by treasure hunters and timber thieves. I built a small wooden house on a ‘Mora’ tree and started this mission for my country. There are no words to describe this journey and the challenges overcome. I am glad to tell you tha the Jathika Namal Uyana celebrates its 32nd anniversary in March.
Ven Rahula said that In order to gain more international attention, we need to improve and protect a world heritage sites like Namal Uyana to attract more tourists. As a developing country, Sri Lanka does not always need to seek loans from elsewhere but develop our own resources to fund economic development.
“From former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to current President Ranil Wickremesinghe all governments have supported this endeavour. I am not a monk who supports any political party. I did all the administrative work here from 1991 to 2018 when Jathika Namal Uyana was brought under the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) which now handles all operations. As a Buddhist monk I understand the true meaning of the word ‘renunciation’. it means ‘doing what must be done with no expectation of any reward. I am not the owner here just a keeper.
“I stared this national mission for the welfare of all beings. This is not something belonging to the Sinhalese but to all the people living on this island. Students of school from all provinces visit jathika Namal Uyana. It gives children of all races and religions the opportunity to marvel at this wonder. The responsible authorities should be directed to provide the necessary facilities to maximize the opportunities available here. It is a place where research on geology , ecology and archaeology is possible.
“All the electronic and print media of the country have supported me to complete this mission successfully. I give my special thanks to the Divaina newspaper for the good work done on its initiative. My heartfelt thanks to everyone who supported me.
Rahula thero said he has plans to undertake many meritorious projects like providing houses for the homeless, equipping schools, providing clean drinking water and succor to the sick through the Jathika Namal Uyana project. He said in this 32nd anniversary year of the project we must all strive to achieve national unity spurning racial and religious differences.
Fathima Nusra Uvais
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