Rama Somasunderam’s Life, Times and Views: 1935-1990

Three chapters from Rama Somasunderam: For the Record, privately printed, n. d. …


ONE: My Early Life and Education–School and University

I was born on the 13 June 1935. My parents were Tamils who had settled in Kandy within the Central Province of Sri Lanka. My father was educated at Victoria College in Chulpuram, within the Jaffna District of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. His father had sent him in the early part of the last century to study in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, after he had completed the Junior Cambridge Examination. Strangely he entered Ananda College which was the premiere Buddhist College in Colombo. He passed his Cambridge Senior Examination and entered the Law College and passed out as a lawyer (Proctor E.N.P.).

My father practised for a while in Colombo, and thereafter joined the Kandy Bar. He married my mother in 1934. My mother’s family had settled for years in Kandy. She had studied at Girls’ High School in Kandy, which was a Methodist Mission School. She passed her Junior Cambridge Examination, and married my father when she was 18 years of age.

I was born in the house of my maternal grandfather, which was situated at 720 Peradeniya Road, Kandy. It was a typical joint family home in the traditional Tamil sense. My mother had two younger sisters and a younger brother. I was the first to arrive in their family, and therefore given a great deal of attention by my grandmother and my two aunts. I was an only child.

In 1940 I was entered as a student in the kindergarten of Kingswood College, Kandy. It was a Methodist School and the Principal I can remember was Mr Utting followed by Reverend Izzett, and finally Mr P.H. Nonis. I was a good student while at school, and developed a keen curiosity which helped me in later years. I yet have a great respect for the Methodist Church as they treated all persons equally, with no distinctions of religion, class or ethnicity.

At the end of 1954 I sat the University Entrance Examination and was admitted to the University of Ceylon which was newly built at Peradeniya Road. It was a Residential University, and its Vice Chancellor, Sir Ivy Jennings, modelled it on the lines of the ancient Universities of the United Kingdom, Oxford and Cambridge.

At school I owed a great deal to my teachers in the higher forms. Mr A.P. Samarajiwa, Mr C.V. Abharatne had a great influence in moulding my attitude to life. Mr Abharatne was a teacher of Western Classics, and Mr Samarajiwa taught me a great love of history and politics. My Tamil teacher was Mr P.T. Raja. He came from India, and was a strict disciplinarian. He too had a great influence in directing me towards what he always described as a good life.

At the University I concentrated a great deal in Student Activities and Politics. At that time the fashion was to be a Marxist and Socialist. The evidence of 1929 associated with the Great Depression, the rise of the Soviet Union, and the Development of the Welfare State in Europe and the United Kingdom were looked upon as great events. It was salvation by society. The intellectuals within the campus believed in socialist ideas. All the means of production and distribution had to be controlled by the state. There was to be full employment. Karl Marx was looked upon as a great prophet of the modern state as it evolved.

Hence, I too joined in the politics of University. I was a “Trot” and was associated with the LSSP. I was elected President of the Ramathan Hall and subsequently elected in 1957 as President of the Students’ Union. Soon after my election I was sent as a student delegate for a conference in Paris, where the main discussion centred around doing justice to the Hungarian Students who were displaced after the revolution in that country.

My experience in Paris was the first exposure to European University life. There was nothing that can compare to the nightlife in the Latin Quarter where students gathered in numbers, in the various cafes, to discuss the problems of life, and the new society they aspired to after the dreadful World War II. My French was weak, but I was able to follow the discussions. If I attended a group who spoke the language slowly, it was a great experience.

Subsequently in England I had short spells in seeing student life in the L.S.E., and what it was to be in the ancient Universities like Oxford. I believe there was nothing to beat what I observed as the Great Tutorial System that existed in the ancient universities in England.

My life at Peradeniya University between 1955 and the end of 1958 proved the worth of a residential university. University life was communal and we made great friends, not only with our teachers, but among ourselves as students. I remember my life at Ramathan Hall. I met and admired Mr K.N. Jayathikaya, who was a lecturer in philosophy. He was a great student of the Eastern Classics: Pali and Sanskrit. He subsequently went up to Cambridge and studied philosophy. His lectures in Indian Philosophy were excellent.

I was a general student and offered history, economics, and philosophy for my degree. It was a three year course, and I did not do an honours course which involved four years study of one subject. I made lifelong friends while at the university. Ramathan Hall was the largest at that time. It produced therefore a number of graduates who later went on to play a major role in the country. Some of my best friends were from Ramathan: Norman Weera Sorriya, Reggie Wijedoru, N.T.R.K. Senadhieera, Gamanie Hathotuwagama, P.V.J. Jayasckera, and Leelananda de Silva.

On my last day at the University, when I was clearing my room, a letter was delivered. I opened it and found that it was a letter inviting me to be a Teacher at my old School: Kingswood College. I readily accepted this and reported the next day to begin my work as a teacher.

TWO: Start of my Public Service Career in Sri Lanka

I started my life as a teacher and taught history, politics and government for students preparing for the University Entrance Examination. At that time teachers were appointed on their academic achievements or on the basis that they were Trained Teachers. The Trained Teachers were Professional Teachers who passed out from the Teacher Training Colleges. This group of persons did not teach at the higher levels in school except those who subsequently passed their degrees at a University Level.

I believe (even at present) the examination results would be an indicator of the efficiency of the teacher. As for me, my years as a teacher were reasonably successful as those whom I taught were able to get into University on the basis of a competitive examination. As to the pay, those who were Graduate Teachers (like me) were paid a higher salary than those who only had the qualification of being a Trained Teacher. While being a teacher I had no plan to continue to be in that position. Most of my colleagues who were Graduate Teachers applied for what was described as Staff Officers Grade in the Public Service. The highest service was the Ceylon Civil Service, and I believe that at that time one had to be under 24 years of age, holding a degree in the April of that year.

I was interested in joining the Ceylon Overseas Service/The Foreign Service. This did not have an examination at that time, but had two interviews. The last interview was by all the members of the Public Service Commission. I went up to the second interview but was not selected. This was a disappointment as I had already travelled in Europe, taken part in Student Politics, and had an interest in International Affairs.

However, in 1961 I was appointed as a Staff Officer in the Land Development Department. I started on a salary of Rs. 340 plus allowances. This was the starting point for what was then described as a Staff Officer Grade.

At the time I entered the Public Service the crown of the Service was the Ceylon Civil Service. This was a service that had begun as far back as 1802 during the British Period. From the middle of the nineteenth century the recruitment to this Service was based on a Competitive Examination. This followed the practice of the Indian Civil Service, which was one of the most elite services in the world and attracted the best university graduates from England. The British followed the recommendations of the North Coate/Trevelyan Report. This Report introduced a highly Competitive Examination. Those ranking the highest were offered the Indian Civil Service, followed by the Senior Administrative Grade in Britain, and thereafter for the Ceylon Civil Service, and the rest Eastern Cadetships covering Malaysia and Hong Kong.

When I entered the Land Development Department all my bosses were from the Ceylon Civil Service. Most of them had qualified in the Liberal Arts at the highest levels. The Director of Land Development was Mr C. de Fonseka, who had a first class in Western Classics. The Deputy Director was Godfrey Gunatileke, who had a first class in English Literature. The Director, Mr Fonseka, had earlier served as Police Magistrate in Jaffna, followed by being Assistance Government Agent in charge of a district: namely the Polonnaruwa District.

It was a great pleasure to work with such officers. It was training on the job. The training covered both Administration and Financial Management.

My first Station was in Alutnuwara which was within the Badulla District. It was remote, and in an unpoliced area, where the Divisional Revenue Officer performed both revenue and police functions. The Villages were in charge of the Headman. It was the ancient system of administration, and the people were used to it. It formed what may be described as the administrative culture of a country. The British toned and wired this system with the Government Agent in charge of the provinces, and the Assistance Government Agents in charge of the districts.

This system was the basis of British Administration in South Asia, and worked very well. It gave stability and a sense of fairness in public administration. It gave the basis of the modern state, which was followed by the Communication Revolution caused by the Industrial Revolution which brought in the modern infrastructure of South Asian states during the British period of Colonial Rule.

In India the Government, soon after independence was gained in 1947, introduced the Indian Administrative Service (I.A.S.) which succeeded the Indian Civil Service (I.C.S.). In Ceylon (Sri Lanka) this transformation took place in May 1963, when the Ceylon Administrative Service was formed (C.A.S.). I joined the Ceylon Administrative Service in 1963. I remained in that service until I retired in 1990.

While working I developed a great liking for the more remote parts of Sri Lanka. When I left the University my hopes were to serve in the Foreign Service in the world’s capitals like Paris and London. One night in the remote areas of Dabana, which was Vedeha Country (the Aboriginal people of Sri Lanka), I awoke and saw the Sorabora Wewa in the splendour of the moonlight. I had never seen such a sight. My mind thereafter was reconciled to working in the remote areas of the country, with its ancient irrigation works, its ruins, and the jungle. I had a weakness for hunting and shooting. The rest of my life in the districts was spent in the most remote parts of the North Central Province and the Central Province. It was a happy period. It gave me time to know and appreciate the peasants, and also the history and culture of the country.

In January 1962 while I was working in the Land Development Department during the first attempted coup d’état I had a strange experience. The then Deputy Director of Land Development was Mr Douglas Liyanage. I was, for a short time, attached to do undertake Land Development in the Moneragala District. This was while I was yet at Aluthnuwara. He had met me while on circuit, we both had an interest in hunting and shooting. I had a braze of guns and rifles. While discussing hunting he invited me to join him for a shoot, and wanted me to meet him at the Head Office in Colombo. As I was young I was greatly excited by this proposition. I received a telegram to come over to Colombo and meet him in Head Office, and thereafter to proceed on a shoot. I therefore loaded my guns and rifles and proceeded to Colombo to meet him at the Head Office. When I arrived there that morning he was not there. There was news that there had been an attempted coup by certain Military and Police Officers, and I took no notice of this. At the Head Office I enquired from his Peon, as to where he was. He did not give me a reply. In the next office there were two young officers: Ridgeway Thilekeratne and Kumaratunge, who were Assistant Directors at that time. I went into their room and started chatting. They asked me why I had come. When I told them the reason they seemed worried. After a quiet period they informed me that Mr Douglas Liyanage, the Deputy Director, had been arrested as a suspect in the coup, and it was best in my interest to meet the Director, Mr C. de Fonseka immediately. Mr de Foneska questioned me at great length. He called for the outward telegrams register (which was then maintained in offices) and after having examined it found that a telegram had been sent to me by summoning me to the Head Office by the Deputy Director. He immediately gave me a letter which stated that I had come to Colombo on official work, and that I am now returning to my Station. He wanted the letter given to a Police Officer who might check me on my return journey. I was in a state of shock. Mr de Foneska also did not want me to speak about this to anyone. I strictly followed his orders.

I met Mr Douglas Liyanage after he was acquitted, and years later when he was appointed Secretary to the Ministry of State. We never spoke about this incident. I believe this was one of the very many narrow escapes I had during my public service.

I had short spells in the Northern and Eastern Provinces which were the traditional Tamil areas. Hence, my real knowledge of the country was confined to the N.C.P. and the Central Province. While in the Polonnaruwa District doing Land Development I was associated with Mr C.P. de Silva. He was then a Member of Parliament and the Minister in Charge of Lands and Irrigation. He was a difficult task master. He had earlier been a Member of the Ceylon Civil Service, and functioned as Director of Land Development before he retired early. He had joined the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and entered Parliament.

He had no other interests except work and development of the N.C.P., and the peasantry of the country. His circuits began in the early hours of the morning and went up till midnight. Before such a circuit I slept at home, got my files for a few hours, so that I would be fit and ready to proceed on his circuits.

I got married in 1967 and my wife, Indra, did not like District Life. This was partly because of the heavy work involved with Land Development and the late night circuits that brought me home very late.

As I had spent so many years in the most remote areas I sought a transfer to Colombo, which was the capital city. This meant parting with the Minister, and I believe his permission had to be received before I was transferred to Colombo in April of 1968, and attached to the National Service Branch of the Land Development Department situated at Alston Place. I was in charge of assisting non-government organisations, the World Food Programme and this brought me in touch with the UNDP Office in Colombo. There was a Shramadana Scheme Inaugurated, and the then Director of Land Development, Mr Upali Gunaratna, was in charge of this.

It covered the whole island and it was volunteer work on rural projects, where the payment was in food items given by the World Food Programme. It was a great success. The Paddy Weeding Programme was a part of this. The then Prime Minister, Mr Dudley Senanayake, was a great supporter of this.

My children (Ramesh and Gayathri) were born in July 1968. My sister-in-law, Saras, and her husband, Upali, (both being doctors) were of great assistance to me. We lived with them in their annex in Torrington Place. Subsequently, I bought my house and moved to No. 16 Elvin Place in Nugegoda, which was my home till the dreadful ethnic riots in July 1983.

In 1969 I got a scholarship to the United Nations Asian Institute for Economic and Social Planning. I returned in 1970, and in my absence the Government had changed. The UNP were defeated and there was a new Government with the S.L.F.P.

No sooner I returned I was transferred to the Land Development Department Section that housed the major stores and the workshop. This was a section close to where I lived. It had a large labour force and there were plenty of Trade Union problems.

It was a short assignment, and thereafter I was transferred to the Ministry of Lands, Irrigation and Power, which was in charge of Mr Maitrapala Senanayake. This was a large Ministry, and was given to Mr Senanayake, as he was the Deputy Leader of the Party, and invariably acted for the Prime Minister, Mrs Bandranayake, when the need arose.

This was a time of the release of the Fulton Report in the UK, and there was a clamour for professional persons like engineers and doctors to be eligible for High Managerial Posts within their respective ministries. There was a criticism of generalists (like me), as not being qualified to lead technical ministries. Accordingly, the Ministry was in charge of an engineer, Mr Chandrasena, who was earlier Chief Engineer of Bridges in the Department of Highways.

While he was appointed as Secretary, the Additional Secretary was Mr M.S. Perera. He was a former Member of the Ceylon Civil Service (now changed to the Ceylon Administrative Service) who had functioned as Director of Agriculture. He was an excellent officer, who had a very good knowledge of Rural Institutions in Sri Lanka. The Senior Assistant Secretary was Mr T. Sivaganam. He too was from the former Ceylon Civil Service, who had a prolific knowledge of Irrigation and Land Development problems.

In this background it was a difficult period to start life in a ministry with such fundamental changes. However, I was accepted and, as I had worked in a technical department, I understood the problems faced by engineers and technical personnel.

Many of them were easy to work with. For example, Bernard Wijedoru was a brother of Reggie Wijedoru, who was one of my best friends at University. In this context I was appointed as Assistant Secretary to the Ministry and put in charge of the administrative work connected with the establishment of the Territorial Civil Engineering Organisation that covered the whole island. This Organisation, headed by Directors within the various districts of the country, had over 100 Divisional Engineering Offices. Its establishment and running was a massive operation. For the maintenance of roads it abolished the old Road Overseer System, and amalgamated a number of technical services that covered minor irrigation and water works. There was an Additional Secretary in charge and I assisted him.

It was hard work for me. To their credit the engineers appreciated, and never doubted, my commitment to their problems. I also functioned as the first Secretary of the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau that was formed to assist in the building of large irrigation schemes like the then envisaged river valley development associated with the harnessing of the Mahaweli, which was the major river in the country. I worked with Mr Victor Rajaratnam and Mr C.R. Tissayaganam. In the Ministry I also worked with other engineers like Mr Parker Perera, who was one time Director of Irrigation.

In 1976, after nearly six years, after a promotion I was transferred to the Department of Housing as Deputy Commissioner. This was a move that I made as I was getting stale in my job. After 1971 (the JVP Revolt) I did not want to return to the districts. The District Administration had taken a downward trend, and the Armed Forces and the Police were playing a major role in the District Administration. Civil Administration was waning, and no more was it safe to live and work in the districts. The old trust and belief in the merits of an impartial civil administration seemed to be on the decline. I believe this was the beginning of a new trend on depending solely on the Armed Forces to rule and administer the country in its outer regions.

I had my anxious moments during JVP Revolt in 1971. This was the first major revolt to forcibly change the Government after the country got Independence in 1948. It came on suddenly, and there was no hint of any such revolt, to the best of my knowledge, till it happened. What I witnessed and went through was quite frightening, and I spent many sleepless nights wondering what would happen to me.

Firstly, it was found that one of the main leaders of the revolt was Dhanapala, who was my K.K.S. (earlier called a peon) who assists a staff officer in a public office. I had known him at the time I worked in the Walawe Scheme, where I was in charge of Land Development of the Chandrika Wewa, and the settlement for a large number of land development labourers in Settlement Schemes of the Walawe Ganga. Subsequently, after my return from abroad, while I was in charge of the Transport and Stores Section of the Land Development Department, Dhanapala was my K.K.S. Soon after I was appointed the Assistant Secretary to the Ministry. He followed me in the same capacity to the Ministry Office.

Hence, when he was implicated and arrested there was no doubt that my name had to be cleared. I believe the C.I.D. checked as to whether I had wanted him transferred to the Ministry Office. Fortunately for me, I had nothing to do with this and the then Deputy Director of the Land Development Department was, I believe, questioned, and he had stated that it was a routine transfer.

Yet there was a degree of suspicion on me. It was found that I was an active as a leftist during my University days, though there was no evidence of my involvement in politics after I left the University. Matters became still worse when one of my colleagues in the Ministry, who had been transferred to Head an important Corporation, was also arrested and taken into custody. Another of my friends in the Ministry who was transferred to the R.V.D.B. was also suspect, and was relieved of his duties.

Strangely nothing happened to me. I was heavily committed to work in the Administration of the T.C.E.O. But I was not asked to handle any papers connected with the Revolt, especially pertaining to Reports that had to be sent to the Defence Ministry. At that time, after the Revolt was crushed, Senior Officers were sent out from various Ministries and Departments to question the suspects who had surrendered and were incarcerated in various jails. This was prior to the setting up of a Special Criminal Justice Commission to try all the accused in this failed Revolt. I was deliberately left out, and informed by the Secretary of the Ministry that this was in my interests.

The manner in which the Revolt was suppressed to say the least was barbaric. Once the Indian Army Forces were invited to the country to assist the Security, the Police and the Army had a field day in killing a number of youth without any trial. The Emergency Regulations under the Public Security Ordinance was used for the first time to give powers to the Armed Forces and Police at the Senior Levels to coordinators of the various districts. These Coordinators under the wording of the Regulations were not only armed with the authority of a Government Agent, and the wording was not “may” but the word “shall”.

This meant that the District Administration of Sri Lanka slipped into the arms of the Armed Forces, and it continues to this day. It was certainly a very defining moment in the history of the country.

In the 1914/15 Riots the British introduced Martial Law and handed over the Civil Administration to the Army. This meant that the provinces so gazetted the civil and judicial functions were taken over by the Military. Persons were shot while in the act of rioting. Those who were caught were tried before Military Courts under Martial Law. This lasted for only 90 days. Thereafter, the Civil Administration and the Civil Courts were restored. Hence, there were records of the persons who were shot by the Military, who could be verified even now.

This was in contrast to what happened after 1971. The number of persons killed, the manner in which they were killed, how the bodies were disposed of would never be known. It was in the thousands.

I remember one case involving the shooting of a driver of a jeep belonging to one of the engineers in the TCEO. For some reason the Minister encouraged the Officers in my Ministry to follow this up. It took two and a half years for a reply. The gist of the reply was that this was a period when there were a number of attacks directed at the Police Stations in the N.C.P., and in this instance the driver “had suspiciously moved towards the Police Station and was shot. The body was disposed of as per regulations.” I read it along with another Senior Officer in the Ministry, and we were shocked. These were mainly Sinhalese persons, who are the majority of ethnic community in the country. No one protested. No enquiry was held as to how the Armed Forces carried out their duties. I decided never to serve in the districts of the country again. It is no wonder that allegations have been made of tremendous Human Rights abuses against the Tamil speaking people when they revolted in the North and East after the 1983 ethnic conflict. This is yet a major issue in the politics of the country. To me it was the beginning of a “Terror State” in Sri Lanka.

There was a suggestion that I should move to the districts after my promotion to the next grade, I avoided it. I was prepared to serve in any Department or Ministry in Colombo. When there was a vacancy in the Department of Housing I accepted it. Further, after all what had happened, I felt I needed a change. Hence, my transfer to the Department of Housing.

My life in the Department of Housing was interesting. I was to assist in the operation of the Ceiling on Housing Act, Rent Control, and the Protection of Tenants Act. The Minister in Charge was Mr Peter Kueneman, who was from the Communist Party of Ceylon. He was an amicable minister. He came from one of the Old Dutch Burgher families. His father had been a Supreme Court Judge, and the Minister had been in Cambridge University where he graduated in English Literature.

He was followed by Mr Kumarasooriyer. He was an Architect and there was quite a few changes after he became Minister. In the General Elections that followed in 1977 the U.N.P. came into power. Mr R. Premadasa became the Minister. During the time I was Deputy Commissioner I tried to be as fair as possible. I believe I made the correct orders without considering any political issues. Once the Government had changed with Mr Premadasa as Minister I did make certain decisions. One of these referred to Mrs Bandranayake, and I was informed that Mr Premadasa was very angry about this.

At this juncture one of my colleagues, Sarath Amunugama (who later became a Minister), who was then Director of Combined Services, transferred me back to my old Ministry of Lands, Irrigation and Power, which was now headed by a very young minister, Mr Gamini Dissanayake. Sarath Amunugama and Mr Gamini Dissanayake were old boys of Trinity College in Kandy. I confessed my problems to Sarath Amunugama and he did the needful. Before Mr Premadasa dealt with me I was safely away. A Committee of Enquiry, subsequently setup by Mr Premadasa to check my work in the Department of Housing, found no fault in my actions.

I had not only escaped from a difficult situation but began a new period in my life in my former ministry with a young and up-coming minister.

FOUR: My Last Years: The Problems associated with the Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka

 In 1977, soon after the new government of Mr J.R. Jayawardene, there was racial riots which started in the north of Sri Lanka and spread to most parts of the island.  I submit that it started with events in the North and East of the Country when the T.U.L.F. were returned in large numbers pledged to fight the rights of the Tamil speaking people, and their right to self-determination.  Nobody expected the riots, and I had just returned to my old Ministry, and had sent my family to Jaffna by train, stating that I would join them at a scheduled wedding.

My wife and children went by train that left the Colombo Railway Station to Jaffna.  It was in the morning.  While working in the office someone informed me that the train in which they were travelling was attacked, and many had been killed.  I went down to the Police Station close to the Treasury and enquired.  I was informed that the train had been attacked, but that it had been sent back to Colombo.  At this stage when I returned to the office my wife telephoned me from our home stating that they had a narrow escape and that I should return.  This I did.

I must say that the Army did a good job to bring back a degree of law and order.  The Emergency Regulations were issued under the Public Security Ordinance.  However, a number of Tamils were killed in Colombo, many losing their homes.  There were Refugee Camps established in Colombo and many Tamils had to leave to a more secure place in Jaffna.  In the provinces it was a similar story.

However, it was short lived.  There was no Commission of Enquiry, or any compensation paid to the victims. It gradually dawned on the Tamils that their security in Sri Lanka was at risk.  To me it was the beginning of the Tamil Diaspora.  At the same time many of the so called Indian Tamils, brought over by the British from the mid-nineteenth century to run the tea plantations, sought refuge in areas of the North and East, regarded as the old and traditional homelands of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

The 1977 Riots were the major riots recorded after the 1958 Riots.  Both were directed against the Tamils.  In the 1914-1915 there was ethnic riots directed against the Muslims, at the time the British were the rulers.  If one takes all these three ethnic riots, they were brought under control by using the Armed Forces and the Police.

The July 1983 Riots were a major one, where the Armed Forces did not or were not used to bring a degree of law and order, and protect the Tamils.  From the late 1970s there was the beginning of an Armed Revolt by the Youth of the North and East of Sri Lanka.  Perhaps this was the reason why the Armed Forces were useless in protection the Tamils when they were attacked in other parts of the country.

I and my family were victims.  Our house was attacked, and I had to seek refuge in Malaysia.  From that date to the present it was a nomadic life with no prospect of the peace that I was used to in the country of my birth.

I had a narrow escape during the riots in July 1983.  I had travelled to my office and I witnessed how the Tamil persons and their property were attacked in the City of Colombo.  The Police and the Army did nothing.  The government of the day did nothing to protect the Tamils.  That afternoon after a curfew was declared I travelled with the GM of the C.E.C.B. hoping to reach home.  The city was yet in flames, and our vehicle was stopped at the Eye Hospital Junction by a gang of over 2,000 to 3,000 rioters, and they wanted to know whether there were any Tamils.  Fortunately for me my knowledge and use of the Sinhalese language was good and they let the vehicle pass.

I must record the fact that many Sinhalese assisted the Tamils during this riot.  As for me I owe a debt to some of the officers whom I must mention by name:  G.G. Jaywardene, the GM of the C.E.C.B.; Jayatissa Bandaragoda, Additional Secretary to the Ministry in whose residence my family and I remained till we left for Malaysia; and Mr Ivan Samarawickrama, the Secretary of the Ministry, who assisted me in various ways during this trying period.

While the Tamils had grievances, beginning from the Donoughmore Constitution, which was established in 1930, on the basis of adult franchise.  It was obvious that the majority at ethnic community, the Sinhalese, would dominate.  However, the Tamils never asked for a separate state.  They could have done so effectively when the British were leaving the country in February 1948.  What was asked was balanced representation, and provisions in the Constitution to safe guard their interests and thereby live with a sense of dignity and security as they did in the past.  The Muslims of India requested, fought for, and got an independent state by the way of Pakistan.  The Tamils had no such idea.

Some leaders among the Tamils correctly felt that the Citizenship Act passed, soon after the country got independence, was really aimed against Tamils.  Mr C. Suntheralingam resigned from the Cabinet of Ministers.  Mr S.J.V. Chelvanayagam broke away from the Tamil Congress led by Mr G.G. Ponnabalam, who served as a Cabinet Minister when Mr Suntheralingam resigned.  Mr Chelvanayagam formed the Federal Party of Ceylon, which advocated a Federal State for the North and East of Sri Lanka.  Its basic issue was the devolution of power to a people who had a common language, culture, and history, and had to be recognised on this factor alone.  Normally Federalism strengthens the unity within a country:  the USA and Australia being examples.  In Sri Lanka the feeling is quite the opposite.  This is the crux of the problem between the two major ethnic communities in that country.

The biggest question is as to how and why the young Tamils got the means to lead a revolt from the late 1970s till they were finally defeated in May 2009.  My answer is the geopolitics of the country that made India to intervene in first arming the young Tamils (over their traditional political leadership) and thereafter, once they had established what they perceived to be their strategic interests, they turned against the Tamils.  This in short is the story of the island’s history over the last fifty years.  It was a policy of running with the Tamils and hunting with the Sinhalese.

Sri Lanka has the world’s best natural harbour in Trincomalee, which is situated in the Eastern Province, within the traditional Tamil area.  The British first came to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the late eighteenth century to secure this harbour due to their rivalry with the French to control India and the Indian Ocean.

In the World War II Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Supreme Allied Commander, for South and South East Asia, was stationed in Sri Lanka.  Apart from the Harbour in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka is also situated to monitor communications.  Further the Indian Ocean, and the Trincomlee Harbour, had special features to hide submarines which were difficult to locate by solar or satellite means.

Sri Lanka is well situated for purpose of international communication.  During the British period the Naval Intelligence Unit was situated in Colombo.  The Voice of America broadcasting to Asia is also built in Sri Lanka.  The line between broadcasting and communications involving Military and allied Naval Deployments is very thin.  This adds to the geopolitical importance of the country.  It concerned the Indians (during the period Mrs Gandhi was Prime Minister) and with Sri Lanka’s connection with the West it was a worrying factor as India expanded in Military and Naval strength, and their close diplomatic and strategic relations with the Soviet Union at that time.  Further, Mrs Gandhi was not in favour of the Indian Ocean Nuclear Free Zone Policy (which was felt by the Indians that it was aimed at them) and the Policy of the Mr J.R. Jayawardene, who openly favoured the West.

During the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, which led to the breakup of Pakistan, Sri Lanka again was a cause of concern to the Indians.  The use of the airports and harbours by the then Pakistan Government was opposed by India.  The Government of India sent a Special Envoy and virtually threatened the country before these facilities were denied to the Pakistan Military.  This was the background to the Indian Intervention into Sri Lankan Politics:  it was based on its security needs.

This was, and continues to be, the major factor determining the ethnic conflict in the country.  India had played, and will play, a major part in the history and politics of the country due to these factors stated above.

I have made these broad points without going into details.  There have been a number of papers and books written on this subject.  Human rights have been abused, and the Tamils have been the major victims of a situation that they had no control.

In 1989 there was a very defining moment in the history of the Tamils and the ethnic conflict.  This refers to the coming of the T.U.L.F. Tamil Leaders (who had taken exile in India after the 1983 Racial Riots and the Amendment to the Constitution that prevented anyone from seeking a devolution of political power that had the potential for a separate Tamil State in Sri Lanka), and the events that followed this.  The T.U.L.F. led by Mr A. Amirathilingan were the elected leaders of the Sri Lankan Tamils.  Further, Mr Amirathilingan was the leader of the Opposition in Parliament.

Why did they return?  This has been an issue that had not been discussed, and there was a secrecy about this.  They were housed in a house situated at Bullers Road, Colombo 7.  I to at that time occupied a flat belonging to the R.V.D.B., which was vacant and allocated to me.  I became aware through a number of sources that the Indian Government had come to an Agreement with the Tamil Leaders that the Chief Minister’s Post of the Northern and Eastern Provinces which was held by Mr Varathalinga Perumal who was to be given to Mr Amirathilingan (or by a person nominated by him), so that the Sri Lankan Tamils will be adequately represented in their traditional homelands.  It was tacitly admitted that the Provincial Council at that time was not properly constituted.

It appeared that the Indian Government had also agreed to maintain an Army presence in the borderlands between the Tamil and Sinhala areas so as to give a sense of security and strength to the Provincial Council Leaders and to the Tamils living in their traditional homelands:  a fact that was accepted under Para 1.4 of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement signed at Colombo on the 29 July 1987.

All this appeared to have been made aware to the President of Sri Lanka at that time, Mr R. Premadesa.  He did not like this.  Further, it would have been a great step in solving the ethnic conflict.  To counter the Indian moves Mr Premadesa moved fast:  He contacted Anton Balasingham, the LTTE Political Theorist, and invited him to bring a delegation to Colombo.  This was a most extraordinary move.  The Indian Army units (the I.P.K.F.) were in the Tamil Areas trying to contain and disarm the LTTE, and this was in terms of Para 2.16(C) of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement.

What happened thereafter I would state, so that one can draw one’s own inference.  Firstly, the conference in Colombo had the leaders of the LTTE well entertained in the capital city, and treated with great consideration when the secret talks were held with the then President of Sri Lanka.  One evening, when the Additional Secretary of an important Ministry from India was in Colombo to implement the decisions between the T.U.L.F. and the Indian Government, the leaders of the T.U.L.F. were all (with the exception of Mr Sivathamparam) shot and killed, presumably by gunmen employed by the LTTE.  At first this was denied, and a faked up charge was made out against a Tamil person.  At the trial he was acquitted as there was no evidence.

While all this was going on the secret discussions between the President of Sri Lanka and the LTTE continued in Colombo.  In fact, as subsequently revealed, the LTTE were rewarded (on what basis I do not know) by being given a large amount of arms and ammunition.  Mrs Balasingham in her book “Quest for Freedom”, mentions in glowing terms the way she and the others in the LTTE delegation were treated, and special mention was made to the lavish food supplied to them by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, Mr A.C.S. Hameed.  Not a single line was mentioned about the killing of the T.U.L.F. Leaders.

It was subsequently, admitted by the LTTE, that the LTTE Leaders were traitors to the Tamil Cause, and had therefore to be got rid of.

The Indian Government’s reaction, to say the least, was weak-kneed.  They agreed to the withdrawal of the Indian Army from Sri Lanka which was welcomed by both Mr Premadesa and the LTTE.  Soon after this the Civil War began again, leading to a number of deaths, which included Mr Premadesa himself.  It only culminated in May 2009 when the LTTE was defeated, due to a number of causes, one of which was its own disintegration, and the geopolitical forces working within the Indian Ocean area.  It only left the Sri Lankan Tamils living within the North and East of Sri Lanka.  In the worst situation in their whole history, with an army of occupation, and having gone through a period of immense human rights abuses which is yet being investigated by the UNHCR.  The future depends on the political wisdom of the Sri Lankan Leaders as much as on the developing geopolitical issues where the main player will be India.

While working for Mr Gamini Dissanayake, he was requested by the then President, Mr Jayawardene, to deal with India, and also promote in whatever possible, the interests of Sri Lanka to maintain her independence in the face of what was feared to be an Indian takeover using the Tamil Issue.  One of the projects that I undertook for the Ministry I worked was the T.C.D.C. Project under the UNDP.  This Project was to get Indian Engineers of high quality to assist in the Mahaweli Projects.  The Mahaweli Projects were mainly on bilateral aid got from Western Countries:  Sweden, Britain, Germany, Canada and the USA.  There was a certain amount of multilateral aid channelled through the UNDP and the World Bank.  In this context we had a number of European and Western Engineers and Consultants working for this project.  It was felt that a second opinion on basic issues can be got by having Indian Engineers and Technical Personnel to assist the C.E.C.B. who were the Sri Lankan Engineers.  For this purpose I made a number of visits to India, and had therefore to have close relations with the Indian High Commission in Colombo.

In this process I got involved with the Higher Personnel of the Indian High Commission, including the High Commissioner, and his deputies.  I became acquainted with Mr Dixit, and the first Secretary, Mr B.K. Bahadrakumar.  Further, Mr Dissanayake introduced me to non-official channels like the media in India as I dealt with India on these issues.

My knowledge and friendship therefore, I presumed with the Indian High Commission had an official aspect.  But it had also a personal aspect as I was a Tamil who was worried about my own safety and future, especially after Ethnic Riots of 1983 of which I was a victim.

I retired in 1990 after a spell as State Secretary of the Ministry of Transport.  While working in this Ministry I had a near escape.  This was at the height of the Second JVP Revolt.  Many Senior Officers were prevented from attending office, and outside the City of Colombo there was no law and order at night-time.  The Railway Secretary Services provided some security when I needed it.  Mr Shabdeen, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, had been seconded to the Railway to head the Security Service.  He was transferred to Parliament to work for the then Speaker, and this was a transitional phase.  One morning he arrived at my residence and requested a letter prior to his leaving for his new assignment.  I offered him a cup of tea at home, and wanted him to accompany me to the Ministry Office.  As I got into the car along with him I noticed a blue Lancer Car parked opposite my flat, and this car turned around and followed us.  I took no notice, as Mr Shabdeen was well armed and we were all prepared for any eventuality.  When I reached office my Stenographer had not arrived.  I requested that Mr Shabdeen return within an hour’s time, by which time I would have the letter ready.

A few minutes later I was informed that Mr Shabdeen was shot and killed.  It was too much to believe.  I immediately sent an officer from the Ministry to check.  He confirmed that he was killed and that his body was at the Police Mortuary.  He was a Muslim and I attended his funeral.  The only question that I was asked by his brother, who was a Senior Police Officer, was as to how I escaped.  I had no answer.  I returned to my flat, crossed over to the Otters Swimming Club, and returned home.  I had become in-human:  that is a situation that happens when there is no law and order.  There was nothing else to do but to carry on.  It was by no means pleasant.

My final post was as Additional Director of the Sri Lanka Institute of Administrative Studies, which was a major Institute that trained the Senior Public Servants in Sri Lanka.  At the time I worked there for a short period.  The Director was Mr Eric de Silva, who had retired as Secretary from the Ministry of Education.

While working in the Sri Lankan Institute of Administrative Studies I had a visit from the special branch of the Sri Lankan Police.  They interviewed me in my office.  In keeping with the protocol observed at that time I was questioned by an Assistant Superintendent of the Police and an Inspector of the Police.  The first part of the question related to the Kotomale Dam Project which was funded by the Swedish Government.  They asked me as to why it was not put up for tender but given on a negotiated basis, implying thereby that the Ministry and the Minister had done something not in keeping with the Financial Regulations.  This had been a position given on the basis of the Swedish Government Aid containing a letter.  When this letter was first shown to Mr Sivaganam, the Secretary, he was reluctant to submit the Cabinet Paper.  He discussed this with me, and it was agreed that we should add a line which would imply that it was a condition over which we had no say.  I made a copy of the letter, and it was kept in the safe of my old Ministry.  I called for it, and got copies made of the letter.  When the Police called over to question me further I had only to produce this.

Thereafter, I was asked as to why I had signed a paper as regards the importation into the country of a bullet-proof car, which was used by the Minister.  The Police had information that I was responsible for this.

I called for the relevant papers and found that it was bought into the country for an Officer working under Danido Aid, and that it was a part of the contract for consultancy that the Officer concerned was able to import this car for his use during his stay in Sri Lanka.  It appeared that it had been used by various persons due to the uncertain conditions prevailing the country.  Hence, I said I cannot answer this except to question the foreign expert under whose name the car was registered.  The Senior Police Officer asked me how this can be done.  As there was no Danish Embassy in Colombo I suggested that he get the Foreign Ministry to send a Third Person Note to the Embassy which I believed was situated at that time in New Delhi, India.

On the third day the Police Officer returned and questioned me about payments regarding the Victoria Project funded by the British Government.  I remember that one of the decisions taken at that time was to have the Project Funds released by Foreign Countries in Foreign Banks, and to release the funds to the contractor through the Central Bank in Colombo on the basis of the work and due to the respective contractors on certificates issued by the Project Directors and the Ministry.

As far as I can remember this decision to bring only a small amount of the Mahaweli Project Funds into Sri Lanka was to avoid inflation.  I can recollect a clear recommendation was made by Mr Chandra Cooray, who was once Deputy Secretary to the Treasury and thereafter Secretary to the Treasury, while he was working as a Director in the Asian Development Bank.  In any case the money that was bought into the country, to the best of my knowledge, was to meet local costs of the Foreign Contractors.

I had nothing to do with this whole procedure.  Hence, I was surprised why I was being questioned.  I realised that the then President was not favourable to me, or with my former Minister.  This worried me.

I was already on an extension of service having completed the period of retirement.  I discussed this with my friends, and they all advised me to submit my pension papers and leave the country.  This I did.

My views therefore were coloured by these factors, and what I state should be taken in the proper context.  One of the lessons I learnt was that corruption is universal.  The idea that it is only confined to Asian and African countries is a myth.  I believe the whole system of economic development is based on contracts, and in this process one cannot avoid what one would describe as networking.  My only belief is that the Higher Civil Servants, especially in the Ministries, should be honest.  So should be those who represent the country abroad.  At least this would be a countervailing force in realistic terms.  In this regard, the British Higher Administrative Grade and the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Foreign Service are good examples.  They maintain a certain balance, and this adds to the quality of Civil Society and its future in a very competitive and corrupt world.

For example I consider Mr Dixit to be a brilliant diplomat in this sense.  He was the architect, to the best of my knowledge, to the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement and to the exchange of letters between the President of Sri Lanka and the Prime Minister of India on the same date.  The Agreement had positive aspects.  It recognised that Sri Lanka was multiethnic and multilingual.  It accepted that the Northern and Eastern Provinces have been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lanka speaking people.  In terms of Para 2.18 it was agreed that the language of Sri Lanka will be Sinhala but at the same time Tamil and English will also be official languages.  These were great gains for the minority community of Sri Lanka.

In terms of the exchange of letters, India was able to obtain a strategic and geopolitical needs.  In the letters exchanged Para 2(2) it was specially stated that the Trincomalee Harbour will not be made available to any other country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests.  In terms of Para 2(3) the work of operating the Trincomalee Oil Tanks were to be a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka.  In terms of Para 2(4) that Sri Lanka’s Agreements with Foreign Broadcasting Organisations will be reviewed to ensure that any facilities setup by them are used solely as Public Broadcasting Facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes.

Therefore these agreements protected Sri Lanka, its minority communities, and the security of India.

Mr Dixit, in my view, was concerned to protect the minorities of Sri Lanka and at the same time preserve the integrity of the Sri Lankan State.

The failure of Indian Foreign Policy thereafter was not to get Sri Lanka to follow these commitments made in July 1989.  It was not good for Sri Lanka and will be worse for India.

By March 1990 I joined my family in Australia.  That was the end of my public service career in Sri Lanka.  I began my retirement in Australia, and my visits thereafter to Sri Lanka were few.

***   end   ***




Filed under accountability, cultural transmission, education, ethnicity, historical interpretation, island economy, language policies, life stories, performance, plural society, politIcal discourse, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, world affairs

2 responses to “Rama Somasunderam’s Life, Times and Views: 1935-1990

  1. sach

    If anyone looks into the ethnic issue in SL carefully they should be able to realise this is NOT a minority issue. The tamils as evident in this gentleman’s narrative do not want to regard themselves as a minority but as a separate nation. If you look at narratives of many tamils about the ethnic issue including Mr. Somasunderam here we can identify few common points.

    1. Sri Lanka is the nijaboomi of the Sinhala people. That is this is the land where Sinhala people as a race as a nation developed. Their own writing system, langauge, traditions, religious ceremonies and way of thinking everything Sinhala is developed in SL. None of the races in SL except Sinhala can have such a claim. To a Sinhala, SL is what Tamil Nadu is to a Tamil. ( Not North and East is to a Tamil ). The tamils fail to realise this including Mr. Rama

    2. Historically Sri Lanka has seen only a Sinhala civilisation. And that has many evidences and there is no question about that. But the same cannot be told about a tamil civilisation in SL. It is not offensive to say there has not been a tamil kingdom in SL until the Sankilis held power in Jaffna for a brief period but simple historical truth. It is not rocket science for a tamil to understand that they should not insult the Sinhalese and their historical right to the country as a race. Starting with GG Ponnambalam, the tamil separatist ideology was heavily bent on insulting the sinhala people and their history.

    3. And many Tamils who talk about ethnic conflict, including this gentleman point out that tamils were greatly victimized by the Donoughmore commission with the universal franchise. Lets look at this analytically. By 1930s, the power in this country was held by an english educated elite which comprised of Sinhala elite and a Jaffna origin Tamil elite equally. So Tamils held power more than their numerical strength. It is this privilege that the Tamil politicians point at as equal rights. But in 1930s with the introduction of universal suffrage, all the people had the right to decide on the destiny of this country. As the Sinhalese comprised of close to 75% in population, in universal suffrage the Sinhala people had more power. Isn’t this the more equitable manner in power distribution? What these tamil politicians wanted was the 75% Sinhala population holding a 50% of power while the 25% of Tamil population could have the rest of 50%. With universal franchise this was avoided and people held power on more equitable lines. It is this loss of this power or privilege that these Tamil politicians point as discrimination.

    4. And look at this gentleman, he is from Jaffna, his parents bought property in Kandy and lived in Kandy, studied in kandy, went to government jobs. Isnt he much luckier than many Ceylonese at his time? Was he ever discriminated because of his ethnicity? He was not. But still he too has the above mentioned weaknesses in his narrative

    • Ramesh

      Sri Lanka should be considered a multiracial country and the history of the Tamils and Sinhalese points to this. Historians like G.C. Mendis and K.M. De Silva have clearly stated that the primary races in Sri Lanka are the Sinhalese and Tamils.
      The Tamils established a separate kingdom in the North of Sri Lanka which named to be called the Jaffna kingdom. It was one of the main kingdom within Sri Lanka by the 13th century as revealed in the writings of foreign travellers as Ibban Battu. Historians during the European period like Tennent have stated agreed to this fact of a separate Tamil kingdom in the North of Sri Lanka that developed its own culture and civilisation based on well irrigation / agriculture and the Hindu Saiva philosophy. Its contribution is unique.
      It developed its own social system based on the Kudamakal system.
      It had its own laws and customs called the Thesavalamai which was codified by the Dutch in 1703 and is yet the personal law of the Sri Lankan Tamils in the North of Ceylon.
      The tea plantations of Sri Lanka which is yet the backbone of the country’s economy was developed by British capital and Indian Tamil labour who were brought to Sri Lanka in the 19th century.
      Sri Lankan Tamils have played a prominent part in the history of Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa / culavamsa / the national chronicles of the Sinhalese point to the fact that south Indian / Tamil Royalty were closely connected to the Sri Lankan royalty. Vijaya got his queen from the Pandyan kingdom in Tamil Nadu. The last four Sinhalese kings who ruled from Kandy were from South India / Tamil Nadu.
      In the modern period Sir P. Ramanathan and his brother Sir P. Arunachelam played an initial part in starting an independence movement from British rule.
      While therefore accepting that the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka is Sinhala / Buddhist one cannot ignore the Tamils and their basic rights. .

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