Anonymous, in Island, 7 June 2020, with this title “The Last Mandarin”
This is the story of a professional civil servant who believes that he made a contribution to a society and an administrative service, that in the first instance made him what he is and enabled him to achieve his full potential as a person, a professional and a citizen. It is the autobiography of a vanishing coterie of bureaucrats who strived for excellence, believing that they had responded to a high calling.
Rama Somasunderam’s family biography is characteristic of the era in which he has lived. His father, who was born in Jaffna and had his early education there, completed his schooling at Ananda College, Colombo and then passed out as a lawyer at the Ceylon Law College. Thereafter he established a law practice in Kandy where Rama was born. Rama himself attended Kingswood College, the premier upcountry Methodist boy’s school. A lifelong Hindu Rama acknowledged his debt to his alma mater, “I have a great respect for the Methodist Church as they treated all equally with no distinction of religion, class or ethnicity.”
At Kingwood he had received a sound grounding in Western Classics, but when he entered the new residential University at Peradeniya in 1954 he would read History, Economics and Philosophy for his degree. Like many young students he was drawn to the politics of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, and was in turn elected President of Ramanathan Hall and in 1957 President of the Students’ Union.
He spent his entire working career in Government and in his autobiography provides the reader with an incisive historical account of the evolution of the civil service crafted by the British, which they successfully transplanted in their Asian colonies. The Ceylon Administrative Service (CAS) which he joined had its foundation in the Classics graduates, the competitive examinations and the professionalism that grew out of these traditions. “All my bosses were from the Ceylon Civil Service – the precursor of the CAS. Most had qualified in the Liberal Arts…the Director Chandra Fonseka had a First Class in Western Classics. The Deputy Director Godfrey Gunatilleke had a First Class in English Literature.”
Rama’s first appointment was with the Land Development Department at Aluthnuwara in the Badulla District, “a remote unpoliced area. Villages were in the charge of Headmen, an ancient system of administration that the people were used to, what may be described as the administrative culture of the country that the British toned and wired. It gave stability and a sense of fairness.”
The strength of the CAS, later the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, was not only the First Class minds of its Seniors, but the exemplary in-service training that moulded and shaped its Juniors who were prepared for, and also destined for, great things. A tradition that went back to Seventh Century China where scholar administrators, known to us as the Mandarins, were selected through written and oral examination, versed in the Classics and ranked and promoted through examinations, competence and experience.
He recounts his epiphany in Dambana, Veddha country, where one night he chanced on the Sorabora Wewa in the splendour of moonlight. So captivating was this sight that he thereupon committed himself to working for the rest of his life in the “remote areas of the country with its ancient irrigation works, its ruins and its jungles.” And this is where he spent the formative years of his working life “the most remote parts of the North Central Province (NCP) and the Central Province, coming to know and appreciate the peasants and also the history and culture of the country. The peasants of the NCP were some of the best persons I had met, they displayed courtesy and it was a pleasure to work with them.”
Rama perceived a major change in the way rural Sri Lanka came to be administered in the aftermath of the 1971 JVP uprising. He observed that the Military and Police began to play an increasingly major role in district administration, “civil administration was waning. This was the beginning of a new trend of depending on the Armed Forces to rule and administer the country in its outer regions.”
Rama demonstrated another attribute of the professional civil servant, a productive relationship with his minister. This began with C.P.de Silva who had been a member of the Ceylon Civil Service before going into politics. As Minister of Lands, he was a difficult taskmaster and workaholic, but one with a passion for the peasantry. C.P.de Silva was not the only one singled out for praise, because Rama’s experience was that ministers were willing to accept the sound advice of their senior staff. “I was lucky to work with good ministers like Maithripala Senanayake and Gamini Dissanayake.”
When the UNP returned to office in 1977 Rama moved to the Ministry of Mahaweli Development as Senior Assistant Secretary. This enabled him to bring to this new endeavour his extensive experience with irrigation projects and land settlement. The Mahaweli was going to be a colossal project, with numerous high dams and the irrigation and settlement of vast tracts of new land. For the Recordcontains a detailed history of the conception, planning and the implementation of the Mahaweli Project by one of its principal administrators. He was in his element; “the best years of my life were while I worked in the Ministry of Mahaweli!” So it was with a great sense of satisfaction and fulfilment that in 1990 he retired after three decades as a public servant.