Building a future and forgetting the past
Continued from Sunday Island (20)
by Professor Savitri Goonesekere
The judiciary is an important organ of government in a system of Parliamentary democracy, often expressed in the concept that institutions engaged in the administration of justice must be “independent” or free of political interference. Certain measures are incorporated in Constitutions, in a Parliamentary democracy, to ensure that there is no political interference in the matter of appointment and dismissals of judges.
The long history of political interference and the experience with the impeachment of Chief Justices after 1978 led to pressures for a system of appointment that would prevent such interference. The 19th Amendment failed to incorporate changes in regard to dismissal of judges of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. However it went back to the norms of the 17th Amendment and created a Constitutional Council that was responsible for oversight on appointments to the Appeal Courts, and also in regard to the two judges (apart from the ex officio Chairman, the Chief Justice), who serve on the Judicial Services Commission. This is the body entrusted with the appointment dismissal and disciplinary control of other judicial officers.
The 20th Amendment has repealed the provisions on the Constitutional Council. The President is required to obtain the “observations” of the Parliamentary Council that has replaced the Constitutional Council, but he is not required to consider their views in making appointments to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. Appointments are at his complete discretion. He can also (as in the 1978 Constitution) dismiss the two judges who serve on the Judicial Services Commission at his discretion. Both the 19th and 20th Amendment have retained the procedures of impeachment in the 1978 Constitution for dismissals of judges of the highest Appeal Courts.
The Attorney General is the chief prosecutor and plays an important role in the administration of justice. The 20th Amendment provides for this appointment to be made at the complete discretion of the President. The oversight of the Constitutional Council that functioned under the 19th Amendment has been removed. The views obtained by the Parliamentary Council that replaced this body are only “observations” and can be ignored by the President. This Council has no oversight responsibility .
However the Attorney General’s removal from office will be, as under the 1978 Constitution and the 19th Amendment, according to a specific law that covers this matter- the Removal of Officers Act 2002. This Act provides for a Parliamentary system of investigation and decision making for removal of the Attorney General.
High Posts and Public Office
The 20th Amendment has repealed the provisions on appointments to designated high posts with the oversight of the Constitutional Council. Appointments to the posts of Commanders of the Armed Forces have been a Presidential prerogative under the 1978 Constitution and the 19th Amendment, and this position has been retained in the 20th Amendment. However the post of Inspector General of Police has been omitted from the high posts coming within the purview of the new Parliamentary Council that has replaced the Constitutional Council. It is not clear how the Inspector General of Police will be appointed, though the Removal of Office Act 2002 determines the procedure for removal and, as in the case of the Attorney General, involves a Parliamentary procedure.
The Auditor General’s post is retained as a high post in the Constitution by the 20th Amendment. But he is appointed by the President, and can be removed by him at his discretion, holding office during “good behaviour.” The oversight of the Constitutional Council on his appointment and removal, mandated by the 19th Amendment, has now been removed. This in a context where both the Audit Services Commission and the Procurements Commission established by the 19th Amendment have been abolished by the 20th Amendment. The serious negative implications of these changes for auditing key public institutions have been placed in the public domain by professional associations of auditors.
“Independent ” Public Commissions and the 20th Amendment
When the 19th Amendment was passed by consensus, it was agreed within and outside Parliament that important public Commissions recognised in the Constitution should be independent of Presidential control. This principle, clearly recognised in the 17th Amendment had been repealed by the 18th Amendment, but was incorporated once again in the 19th Amendment.
Consequently the system of appointment and removal was by the President, but subject to the oversight of the Constitutional Council. The 19th Amendment also had detailed provisions aimed at strengthening the work of the Commissions. It established an Auditing Services and Procurement Commission to facilitate oversight, in use of public funds, and financial and management accountability, of important public institutions and offices.
It is now stated by those who demonise the 19th Amendment that the Commissions were packed with “NGO Karayas”, because the Constitutional Council was dominated by the same people. This point of view has also been expressed by Prof GL Pieris in public fora and the media (see The Island 13. 9. 2020), and by the Minister of Justice. They should know that this assessment is based on fiction rather than facts.
The Constitutional Council had a very strong majority of Parliamentarians, and was chaired by the Speaker. There were only three persons representing “civil society.” At no time were all of them from NGOs. Several had an established national and international reputation, as required by the 19th Amendment, and none of these appointments were objected to in Parliament. The previous Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka was delisted from regional and international bodies of National Human Rights Commissions, for non-conformity with the Paris Principles that set standards on the method of appointment. Professor GL Pieris and the Minister of Justice must be aware that the Human Rights Commission appointed under the 19th Amendment has received national, regional and international recognition for its work.
The 20th Amendment has abolished the Auditing Services Commission and the Procurement Commission. It has also repealed the detailed provisions in the 19th Amendment relating to other Commissions. There are new provisions relating to the Public Service Commission and the National Police Commission. The provisions on the Elections Commission limit their powers to monitor and set guidelines for the conduct of elections. A new provision provides for public complaints against the Police and for redress “according to law”. It is not clear how this procedure will be implemented.
The 19th Amendment provided for Presidential appointments and removal of members of the Commissions, but subject to oversight by the Constitutional Council. This procedure has been abolished. The President has full powers in regard to appointments and removal of members of the Commissions referred to in the 20th Amendment.
The transitional provisions on the continuity of Commissions and High Post appointments under the 19th Amendment, give the power of removal to the President. This would include removal of members of the current Human Rights Commission referred to above, at the discretion of the President. The drafters of the 20th Amendment have disregarded the standards set by the Paris Principles on National Human Rights Commissions, once again.
A Post 20th Amendment Future on Governance
The 19th Amendment was to be a temporary initiative for reducing the powers of the Executive Presidency and re-establishing governance with an elected Prime Minister, Cabinet and Parliament, pending the adoption of a new Constitution. The 19th Amendment therefore changed what can be described as “the grund norm” or the foundational principles of the 1978 Constitution. This significant modification to the system of governance was not challenged from within or outside Parliament, or by litigation in the Supreme Court, because there was consensus that the change was good for the governance of the country.
The 20th Amendment is a dramatic turn around and has changed the “grund norm” again. The 20th Amendment that was in the public domain in 2019 as a strategy to eliminate the Presidential system of governance, has now emerged as a Constitutional change that will create an even stronger executive Presidency. This time there is no consensus within or outside Parliament. We do not know whether in this context, a 2/3 majority in Parliament and a referendum will be required for the 20th Amendment to become the Constitutional bench mark for the governance of the country in the years to come.
We speak of the possibility of drafting a new Constitution to replace the 1978 Constitution, and it is said that the 20th Amendment is an interim measure. But what has been our experience on Constitution making? When the Constitution of South Africa was adopted after a fully participatory drafting process, Nelson Mandela said that “a Constitution is a law that embodies a nation’s aspirations.” Our nation’s aspirations for a new Constitution have never been realised because of adversarial politics, and a failure by politicians to recognise that a Constitution is for the People and not for them.
The 19th Amendment could have contributed to good and accountable governance, pending a new Constitution to achieve the agreed objective of dismantling the Presidential system of governance. The two centres “of power” in the executive, created as an interim measure, could have functioned effectively in the nation’s interest, if the President and the Prime Minister had not torn each other apart by their narrow and partisan political agenda. Excellent position papers on key areas of governance were prepared in 2015- 2017, in a consultative manner, and another report was prepared on the basis of public consultations. The Parliamentary drafting process collapsed because our political leadership became enmeshed in adversarial politics.
Political interests have once again dominated the drafting of the 20th Amendment. The lack of consensus even within the government is manifested in the fact that no one is taking ownership for drafting the document. The drafting of the 20th Amendment reminds us of the words of a great justice who suggested that it is in the public interest that “laws are not conceived in secrecy and brought forth in obscurity”.
Why is there such lack of transparency in regard to the drafting of the 20th Amendment? The public was informed that a Cabinet Sub Committee chaired by Prof GL Pieris, and consisting of the Minister of Justice and others were authorised by the President to draft the 20th Amendment. We are now informed through media that the Justice Minister does not know who prepared the 20 Amendment Bill that has been gazetted to go before Parliament. Another Committee appointed by the Prime Minister also chaired by Professor GL Pieris with the participation of the Minister of Justice and others, will now “report ” on the 20 A. This hardly inspires public confidence in Professor Pieris public statement that Constitutions are not authored by any one, but represents the thinking of the whole government.
The adversarial approach by politicians to Constitution drafting is because of the failure to appreciate that democratic governance which is accountable to the People demands accommodation of both majority and minority points of view in the country, on governance. Giving priority to “sweeping election mandates” and confusing that kind of populism with democracy, denies the responsibility to respect the views of all citizens, on their aspirations for peace and progress. Election majorities are at best temporary phenomenon. The long term interests of the People in accountable governance go beyond electoral politics.
We are at a point in history where a large majority of citizens are tired of democracy and want governance to be the sole responsibility of a single popular leader, who commands confidence. They sincerely believe that handing over the country on a “bulath hurulla” to a strong and popular leader will lead Sri Lanka into a glorious future of “kiri and pani”. They are not aware of or have forgotten the lessons of history, and the manner in which a government elected by the people through the Franchise, (the “heart and soul of democracy” as eloquently described by Professor GL Pieris) transforms itself into a totalitarian dictatorship.
This is a point of view that is understandable, even if one may disagree with it. What is more difficult to understand is how professionals and academics who should lead the nation towards good governance can describe authoritarian dictatorial exercise of executive power by a single individual, without any checks and balances by other institutions as the quintessential form of “democratic ” governance.
This country has experienced and witnessed abuse of political power, in the last few decades. They have seen how governance and the administration of justice has been impacted by abuse of power. Need they be reminded that we have an international record of installing three different Chief Justices in three days- one was “disappeared” from office because of politics, another impeached because of politics, and brought back to office by the successor government for one day, and a third appointed to hold the vacant post. The People have witnessed serious violence and intimidation at elections because of confrontational politics, prosecution or non prosecution of offenders in emblematic cases because of political imperatives , and a person in remand for murder nominated as a candidate for Parliament. Can they be convinced again by Constitutional lawyers speaking eloquently on electronic media, that we have a perfect system of governance and administration of justice, which will be strengthened by going back to a more powerful executive Presidency.?
At this critical time it is wise to reflect on what his Lordship HNJ Perera, the last Chief Justice of this country said in the unanimous decision of all the judges of Supreme Court (a Full Bench) in the Dissolution of Parliament case 2018. Citing earlier precedents, and the changes in governance in the 19th Amendment, His Lordship said that ” since 1972 ( when we broke the link to a British sovereign)this country has known no monarch, and the President has not inherited that mantle”. The 20th Amendment is seeking to clothe the President with that mantle. The President and the People must reflect on our national experience on governance, and ask whether a ” monarchy” created by a 20th Amendment to our Constitution, is in the long term interest of the People and the President.
Perhaps the then Mahinda Rajapaksea and Professor GL Pieris can reflect on the wise words of their former leader, in 1948 and bring back into governance the values of the 2000 draft Constitution’s system of governance based on parliamentary democracy. They should, with their long experience in governance, give leadership, and save this nation from the crisis and risks inherent in a “single powerful leader” form of governance.
Dialectics for a fast evolving scenario
by Kumar David
“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory; it is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the ‘this-sidedness’ of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a scholastic question”. Second Thesis on Feuerbach
Don’t turn away, this is not going to be a boring treatise in abstract Marxism. I will quickly get to my topic, which is that the political circumstances we are living through are evolving rapidly and we should be alert and adjust to changing situations. First however allow me a few paragraphs about Lenin’s most dynamic years, from February 1917 till he fell seriously ill in late 1921. He died in January 1924 due to complications from bullets lodged in him in Fanny Kaplan’s August 1918 assassination attempt. The February Revolution, (old Julian-style last week of February to early March, new Gregorian-style second week of March) took Lenin and the Bolshevik Party by surprise. When first the women and then the workers of Petrograd fired up leaderless demonstrations which overthrew the monarchy, the Bolsheviks who had prepared the proletariat for revolution for 30 years were stunned! Except Trotsky the general expectation among socialists was a Two Stage Revolution; first Tsarism would be replaced by the rule of the bourgeoisie, then it would be the turn of the subaltern classes – a common at the time static misreading of Marx’s dialectical thinking.
I see developments in Sri Lanka moving fast with unforeseen changes and a regime that most of us last year considered strong and stable, now tottering. Of course it’s going to fall tomorrow but it’s wobbling and the domestic environment is changing unpredictably. Catholics are visibly angry about an alleged “cover up of Easter bombing organisers” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EA2Zl1mVrOo); the in the Buddhist clergy have counter-attacked the Cardinal (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC0WcSiJiJs0). Farmers in several areas are on the warpath according to News First. Furthermore nobody foresaw in 2019 the havoc covid would wreak, and the ferocity of UNHRC denunciations was unexpected. It is true that red lights were flashing about debt servicing and that the economy was in hopeless straights, but the convergence of bad news has been more rapid than foreseen and the regime has quickly gone belly up. All who join a mission with a single simple objective, to protect democracy, perforce, have to adjust to a fast changing scenario. The ability to think and act on one’s feet is what makes Lenin of 1917-1921 interesting. He remains the star disciple of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, a fifth century BC classic on strategy. While shifting and manoeuvring Lenin never lost sight of his final objectives. This is why I call him the dialectic on two feet.
Often in this column I have referred to the dialectic as the scientific method; true but how boring! Yes true enough Darwin, the best example in science was an assiduous and utterly trustworthy accumulator of data but with a mind that was alive to how phenomena change and evolve. Gautama Buddha pointed out that nothing is permanent and that all things are evolving but it took Darwin to work out the precise mechanisms by which this was happening in biology. Still, the dialectics of science and nature are slow moving. It is not exciting, it won’t keep you awake at night. Conversely, jumping from Two-Stage theory to instant proletarian revolution on April 1, 1917, capturing state power in October in defiance of scholastic Marxism, pushing back against attempts to militarise the trade unions and the refusal to give the Germans whole swathes of land so as to commit to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (on both Trotsky erred), and in 1921 forcing through the New Economic Policy, a key market oriented concession to capitalist farming, these were momentous strategic transitions, quite breathtaking.
Bearded boring Bolshies 100 years ago, what’s it got to do with us you ask? I’ll tell you. The commonality is that quite unexpectedly we find ourselves in a very fast changing scenario. Lenin in 1917-1922, was an embodiment of the dialectic because he was able to think on his feet and keep his side united using his singular ability to deal with a swift change while the other side (sides to be more accurate) were confused and splintered. This is a useful example for those who seek a democratic, plural and united Sri Lanka because to date this side (I call it ‘we’) have managed to keep our message consistent and united while the ‘other’ side is splintering. President Gota bemoans his unpopularity and his inability to address challenges because “there is no unity” or some such words. I don’t have a clue what skulduggery is going on within the Royal Rajapaksa dynasty, though now is just the right time to make visible adjustments. The public is persuaded that Gota failed because he is inexperienced and his inner circle is dumb; Mahinda and Basil deftly keep out of the limelight. Less and less do you hear from those you marvelled 18 months ago that Gota as the incarnation of a strong leader who would lead Lanka to harmony and splendour? Lee Kuan Yew was a frequently quoted prototype. Where have all those people gone? On the other hand the opposition to an authoritarian new constitution, to excessive deployment of retired military brass and those worried that democracy is under threat (harassment of rights workers, fear in the mind of critics, damaging the judiciary) have succeeded in retaining a degree of commonality.
The shot in the arm for ‘our’ side was the UNHRC Commissioner’s Report and the Geneva Resolution which has de facto created a united front of Sri Lankan domestic forces and international opinion. The uprising in Burma and the opposition to authoritarianism in Sri Lanka must not allow themselves to be intimidated by reactionary nationalists who shriek about foreign support and anti-national traitors. International assistance should be accepted on our terms and in any case democracy is a universal clause. Remember that when the Germans offered to transport Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd in a sealed train (“Like a bacillus” in Churchill’s words) he did not hesitate for a moment to accept the offer. The rest is history. In Burma as in Sri Lanka the defeat of the Junta or the containment of an assault on democracy are transnational tasks. “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” when it is used to conceal the machinations of dictators.
You may recall Marx’s quip about standing Hegel on his head which in today’s language we would say has gone viral. It is about the relationship between real life on one hand and theories and philosophies on the other. Tamil agitation and at an extreme the LTTE was not an ideology of a separate state and Tamil cultural-civilisation finding expression in an uprising. Quite the converse, it was the practical conditions of a community creating such angst that it gave rise to extreme nationalism among a large number. That Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist extremism which is holding this country hostage is about ancient civilisation, about hela jathika abimane is humbug. There were class, economic, employment in the late colonial capitalist and state economies, and education sectors which turned Sinhala blood blue with national pride. The nationalists who pontificate the opposite need to be stood on their heads. This critique of what is called the idealism (Ideas and philosophy is what determines the principal features of the real, material world) is very well known now and I think modern bourgeois sociology goes a long way towards recognising it.
What is perhaps not quite so well appreciated is that Marx was more a pupil than a critique of Hegel (not the post-Hegel epigenomes of course) in respect of the dialectic. He speaks of Hegel as a “mighty thinker” in the 1873 post-face to capital I. Certainly spurned the “the ill-humoured, arrogant, and mediocre epigones” who treated Hegel like “dead dog”. What Marx took away from Hegel was how to understand change, the dynamics of how change progresses. The conflicts and compromises in real social and human relations which at times mediate and at times determine how the history of societies evolves. The sociological companion to Darwinian evolution.
We are now live in a fruit salad world of international relations where three powers will decide our fate – over which we have little control – India, China and the US. They are each no doubt pondering what to do about our fruitcake regime. Competition among them to one side, it is in the interests of all three to unscramble this tabbouleh and avert this country’s descent into a failed-state abyss, which thankfully we have still not reached. It is not possible that they each do not have calculations up their sleeves about how to sort out this mess but an initiative from the regime itself proposing a via media to the UNHRC and to the aforementioned powers as proof that Lanka will accept its reconciliation-accountability responsibilities and will maintain a foreign policy balance which will not discomfit any great power will ease a compromise.
The Double-Paksa (two Rajapaksa) regime must forget about enacting a divisive new constitution to claw power into the grasp of the Executive; if firing military sorts already hired for top slots is infeasible at least it must give an undertaking that there will be no more sounding brass speaking in garbled tongues; it must put scientists in charge of pandemic control and win, as Biden seems to be doing; dump this squalid and reckless foreign policy team; it must stop manipulating the judiciary and halt asinine Presidential Commission circuses; it must stop pandering to extremists since this impedes a deal with the minorities. All this is doable if the executive is restructured and a plural orientation is adopted. If the government wishes to pull itself up by its bootstraps it must undertake the policy changes outlined in this para, restructure its personnel, pray much harder and offer trays of mangoes to the deities superintending Sri Lanka. The $64K question is whether Gota has the appetite for this healthy and fruitful menu. Those with no confidence that Gota’s Executive, Mahinda’s government or Basil-in-waiting can extricate themselves from their predicaments, must plan and act on their own outside this purview. The sole self-imposed condition is that change must be constitutional; what’s the point of a fight for democracy if one begins by abrogating it?
S. A. Welgama – A man amongst men
On the one hundred and tenth birth anniversary of my father-in -law S.A.Welgama I pen this tribute with much affection and pride.Affection as he was a second father to me and pride as he was a man amongst men;a man who stood tall and erect,a man unbowed ,unconquered and unsullied.Of him I could truthfully echo Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome,”let men see,let them know a real man,a man who lives as he was meant to live”.
He was born in the hamlet of Ovitigala,in the verdant county of Pasdun Korale,the county of five yojana (sixty kms in Vedic measure),created by Parakramabahu the Great,by draining the basin of Kalu Ganga.
His mother was fair and comely and taught in the village school ,and the father a farmer tilled his own land.SAW never forgot his roots and even at the height of his fame and wealth would often say,I’m the son of a poor farmer.This alone would have tagged him for greatness, for according to John Ruskin “the first test of a truly great man is his humility.”
The origins of the Welgama clan are shrouded in the mists of time.One school of thought says that they were the caretakers of the Welgama vehera in Kinniya ,Trincomalee.Grateful kings had donated land to them in distant South.The stupa was built by King Devanampiyatissa in the third century B.C.and remained unscathed till the end of the Polonnaruwa era.Even the Chola marauders,who razed all they saw ,left it alone as it was a place of worship for Hindu devotees as well,the Navatar Kovil.
Another school is of the view that they were soldiers in the service of the Sinhala kings as evidenced by their ge name Welgama Hewage.This is likely too as the Welgamas were tall and had a martial bearing.
They migrated to the villages of Ihala (upper) and Pahala (lower) Welgama villages separated by a fast flowing river.This could only be forded by a ferry ,until SAW persuaded a friendly minister of state to build a bridge.
SAW had his early schooling in the Ovitigala village.His heart was ,however not in books but in machines and motor vehicles.Many a day he played truant with his classmates,one of whom was to later become an eminent Buddhist monk and a mentor to me and my brother.When I was being screened as a prospective son -in-law ,he made enquiries, from his friend the Rev Kevitiyagala Dhammasidhi.The priest had categorically stated ,’Sir do not look any further,he is the best of the best’.My fate was sealed.
While still a teenager he apprenticed himself to a local workshop and then came over to Colombo to gain further experience and skills.He had fifty cents in his pocket.The friend who accompanied him returned to the village after two days.But SAW soldiered on and joined the workshop of an English engineer.He worked long and hard and became a master of his trade and also earned the respect and goodwill of his employer,whose pet name for him was Pattison.
Being thrifty he regularly added his wages to a till which was well hidden.With his savings and some help he bought a car for the then princely sum of two thousand rupees ,and plied it for hire between Gampaha and Kaluthara.
As the war clouds gathered in the horizon in the late 1930s he sensed an opportunity in road haulage and this became his trademark.At one stage he owned and controlled over one hundred and fifty trucks and became a trusted agent of the colonial government;transporting goods to and from the Colombo harbour to the massive godowns built in anticipation of wartime food shortages.SAW and Sons became synonymous with road freight.With foresight he bought land at Panchikawatte,an emerging commercial hub for his headquarters.Later with the help of his son Nimal he extended this to a much larger holding.
A prized possession of his was the luxury tourist bus,which he imported when Mr J.R.Jayawardene inaugurated the push for tourism.This was used for family outings too and Kanthi and I remember vividly the visit to his estate with business associates.We also accompanied a group of visiting American cardiologists and spouses to Kandy.On the way ,the ladies started a singsong
to which we had to respond.My contribution was “My Bonnie lies over the ocean” which I had learnt at school.Our guide was a personable young man who later married a young French traveller and settled down in France.Although his fluency in English was not optimal Father saw in him the makings of a good escort.
Having reached the top of the greasy pole ,he knew the value of skills and hard work.He instilled these into the many young men he trained.They were accepted anywhere.The truck drivers employed by him needed two licences;one from the department of motor transport and one from him.He would personally conduct the driving test.In later years his son Mahinda assumed this role.
He had a fondness for new cars especially Mercedes.An exception to the run of Mercedes was the Holden Statesman which he purchased after the Non-Aligned Leaders conference in Colombo.When it was due for repainting,the original colour Salamanca red was not available in SriLanka.Kanthi and I shipped it from Brisbane where we were then living.
The first occasion we met was when he arrived at our house in his magnificent Mercedes.He was accompanied by his beautiful wife Beatrice and his eldest son Melvin.An imposing man dressed in an immaculate white sarong and shirt he was keen to meet the young lad who had been highly recommended as a prospective son in law.After the usual pleasantries ,I joined Melvin who became a close friend.SAW had been much moved that I too was dressed in sarong and shirt.
An interesting quirk of his was the insistence ,that all his vehicle registration numbers should end with the figure five.It’s likely that his birthday being on the fifth of April,this to him was an auspicious number.The denizens of Panchikawatte named him the ‘‘Agata Pahe Mudalali i.e the tycoon with number five at the end.”
Being a man of the soil ,land was at the core of his soul,and he invested in a rubber estate in Kahawatte and then a two hundred and fifty acre rubber plantation” the Deniston” in Mathugama.For the children he bought land in the most fashionable suburb in Colombo and also in Nuwara Eliya a block adjacent to the venerable Grand Hotel.Kanthi and I once spent a night at Deniston in the hilltop estate bungalow.He had arranged for us to be blessed with a ” thovil”, a devil dance ceremony to dispel any unseen hands harassing us; this went on all night.We were exhausted before the performers ,although their colourful costumes,masks,gyrations and the drumming held us spellbound.
About the same time as his rise, there was a group of Sinhala businessmen who too made their mark.They were all southerners who began their careers at the bottom of the pile.SAW and Nawaloka mudalali (H.D.Dharmadasa) were the unofficial leaders of this closely knit cluster.They too never forgot their roots and were all noted for their conviviality,philanthropy and vivacity.Two of their major projects were the Ranweta the gold fence around the Sri Maha Bodhiya and the first coronary care unit in Ceylon.The Sri Maha Bodhiya is the only living relic of the Buddha who attained enlightenment in the shade of the parent tree in BodhGaya.It is the oldest ,historically documented tree in the world.The coronary care unit was built at the instigation of Dr Ivor Obeysekare ,the first cardiologist of Ceylon and a former chief of mine.
SAW was a mover and shaker and associated with the highest in the land.J.R.Jayawardane the first executive president of SriLanka was a good friend and was an attesting witness at all the weddings of his children.He did have friends across the political spectrum including ,Maithripala Senanayake the benign deputy to Mrs Bandaranaike and Peter Kueneman,the sophisticated Cambridge educated leader of the Communist party.Though he “walked with Kings ,he did not lose the common touch” and was equally at home with the masses in villages and the busy bazaars of Colombo.
At the age of sixty five he handed over the control of the trucking company to his sons,but still supervised the estate.The weekly sojourn in the plantation became his greatest pleasure and relaxation.Meandering around ,he may have got to know every tree and shrub,hillock ,valley and stream and mingling with the Indian Tamil workers and villagers gave him a lot of satisfaction.The elder brother whom he adored,lived in a homestead and sharing the customary village fare with him at lunch gave him much gratification.The Sunday visit to the estate was a ritual he maintained till the last week of his life.The bracing air ,the soft breezes ,the solitude and the rural populace seemed to revitalize him.The work was challenging but less so because of his passion and enthusiasm for the land and the labour.
He epitomised Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s words that “The heights by great men achieved and kept were not attained by sudden flight,but they while their companions slept,were toiling upward in the night.”
Unexpectedly,at the age of thirty three,he met a beautiful Kandyan teenager Beatrice Hidellarachchi.It was akin to Adam meeting Eve and was love at first sight.
Like John Milton,in “Paradise Lost”
“He saw grace in all her steps,
Heaven in her eyes,
In every gesture,dignity and love”
Beatrice being the cynosure of all eyes and adoration,delighted him ,and he encouraged her to dress herself in haut-monde finery.
It was a marriage made in heaven.and their happy partnership lasted till his passing away in 1990.
There were ten children in the family,five boys and five girls.He was a strict but adoring father.They were all brought up according to conventional Sinhala Buddhist values.Having missed out on a formal education,he made certain that they went to the highest ranking schools regardless of the denomination.For boys ,he chose S.Thomas’s College the famed school by the sea.Girls were admitted to the Holy Family Convent as he had the highest respect and admiration for the Catholic nuns and their discipline.But he also ensured that they got a Buddhist grounding through the Sunday school at the Vajiraramaya temple which was well known for its pious and erudite monks.
He would have loved for one or more of them to become doctors;instead he got two sons in law who achieved eminence in their specialties of medicine.However two sons became leading business men and chartered accountants.Another a prominent politician and one more a German trained gemologist.The youngest son Nalin was sent across to London ,while we were there, for further studies.
He did have reservations about girls attending universities ,but sent them to finishing schools where they became versed in social graces and upper class cultural rites.Later on he relented and permitted the youngest daughter Pradeepika to study at the Colombo Law school.
As he grew older he mellowed and relished having a drink with Mahinda and me.The faithful domestic Gamini brought his bottle of whiskey and he poured the pegs to all of of us himself.In our younger days we never imbibed with our elders.When he desired company ,he went to the Automobile Association or the Angler’s club.One night he spied us,the two eldest sons in law enjoying a drink in the confines of a car ,with our wives and sent us a round of drinks and a tray of devilled prawns which was a specialty of the AA.
He was a believer in rebirth and would say with conviction that Kanthi his second daughter was the reincarnation of his beloved mother,perhaps because she looked after him like a mother;and Nalin the youngest son,the reincarnation of his father.While on a trip to India ,he insisted on selecting Kanthi’s wedding saree himself ,while mother selected sarees for the other daughters.Kanthi’s saree was more expensive than all the others.
A special relationship too was with his second granddaughter Sadia.I reproduce what she wrote.
“He loved to put his dark arm against mine and tell me we were the same colour.We were.
He called me Podi Sriyani.( Loku Sriyani was his daughter).
He was a wonderfully patient and loving grandfather.He had a warm hug which made you feel loved and how I loved sitting on his lap.It felt like a very safe place to be.
He had a twinkle in his eye and always wore his hat.He had good taste and style.I had a feeling that he had some great stories to share ,but that I was too young to hear them…
He was magic.I still miss that magic.”
SAW was large hearted and munificent primarily to but not exclusively to his village ,villagers and less affluent relatives. A monk told us how ,even Beatrice was not aware of the monthly emoluments he dispensed to the needy.
The Diyapattugama junior school,now named S.A.Welgama junior school was given a large assembly hall.He built a new Stupa at the Ovitigala temple;Kanthi and I joined in this meritorious deed by gifting the “Chuda Manikya” the large crystal placed at its very top.Electricity was provided to the shrine and its environs.The Bodhi tree in the temple (the prathana ,i.e supplication,Bodhi) was brought by him from Bodhgaya.
After his passing away Beatrice built a maternity home in his memory in the village of Wettawe.This had been a cherished ambition of his.His own mother is said to have succumbed at childbirth,and he wanted the impoverished women of his village to have easy access to modern medical facilities.
SAW of course provided employment to hundreds of villagers at his establishments.
In retirement he indulged in travel which he had long denied himself.He wanted to ” walk where he had never been and wonder at the beauty of this world”Kanthi and I were lucky that we were able to host him in Britain and also in USA.The long morning walks,the coach trips and the sundowners ,while the ladies cooked supper ,brought us closer in a way not conceivable before.He revelled in the sights and history of UK Germany and Switzerland and also Disneyland and Hawaii.One of the highlights was his visit to the Mercedes factory in Stuttgart.The automated production of his favourite cars enthralled him.Caravans enticed him,as did the miniature trains he rode in a fun park in Newcastle upon Tyne.He did not care much for shopping ,although Mother and Kanthi dragged him along,and grumble that he had become a ‘nattambi’,a carrier of goods.I feel however he secretly enjoyed seeing Beatrice buying apparel and wares unavailable in Ceylon at that time of austerity.For him ,all he wanted was a couple of hats.
The beauty of the Lake District,the Black Forest and Switzerland and the ancient cities of London Edinburgh and Freiburg fascinated him.
He was indeed a man for all seasons.
We rejoice in a life lived to the fullest and that we were blessed to be touched by this great man.
Emeritus Consultant Cardiologist
The Townsville University Hospital.
I acknowledge the help of Ven Suriyagoda Siri Dhamma,Nimal and Mahinda Welgama and Sadia Samarasinghe.
Some thoughts on Geneva
I was saddened by the events in Geneva having thought we were a popular country and our people well thought of internationally.To think that only 11 countries supported us in Geneva was indeed a cause for alarm and distress. Maybe the want us to take a step back and think of how to make Sri Lanka a better place.
Reams have been written about this resolution by erudite men and women. There is a common theme running through all of this: the UNHCR is against us; the western countries have ganged up against us. I beg to disagree.
Let us look at this resolution dispassionately. The high commisioner has made note of the very things we ourselves don’t like about recent happenings in our country. Did we want all Muslim Covid dead to be cremated? No. Once the WHO okay was given, we all agreed that religious customs may be followed.
Did we want our civil administration to be invaded by the military? No. Our civil adminitrtion is not the world’s best but we have no great issues over that. A military presence has not resulted in a marked improvement either. The public service meanders lazily as of yore.
As for killing of prisoners, what happened in Mahara is unfortunate. Surely there must be other ways of dealing with rioting prisoners than killing them? There are other pitfalls we could have avoided had we been less arrogant and a little more submissive. After all we are in UNHCR on our own volition
Our political leaders are very visible in the Buddhist scene, frequenting temples, prostrating themselves before Bodhi trees and participating in Buddhist rituals. All that is well and good. At the same time I wish they would embrace the Dasa Raja Dharma edict on governance of King Asoka. We will then have fewer problems with the likes of UNHRC.
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