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Politics and Administrators in the 20th Century



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

Reviewed by Leelananda De Silva


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

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


Trinity College, Kandy

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

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


The University at Peradeniya

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

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

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


District Administration

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

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

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

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

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


Director of Information

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

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

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



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

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

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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development



There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka



By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?



Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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