The passing away of Samson Senapala Samarakoon Wijesinha last Sunday at the age of 93, for many Sri Lankans signalled also the end of an epoch. He was Crown Counsel when the Attorney General’s Department was ‘autonomous’ and Secretary General of Parliament when it was ‘supreme’. His was an era when public servants were not [...]


Sam Wijesinha (1921-2014)


The passing away of Samson Senapala Samarakoon Wijesinha last Sunday at the age of 93, for many Sri Lankans signalled also the end of an epoch. He was Crown Counsel when the Attorney General’s Department was ‘autonomous’ and Secretary General of Parliament when it was ‘supreme’. His was an era when public servants were not the Government’s servants as they are today.

Hailing from Getamanna in the Beliatte constituency, the late Mr. Wijesinha was very proud of his village roots. Schooled in the south and later in Colombo, he married into the family of the well-known civil servant, the first Ceylonese Government Agent, C.L. Wickremesinghe. He was truly one who could walk with Kings yet not lose the common touch.

The sprawling Wickremesinghe-Wijesinha family house, ‘Lakmahal’ in Kollupitiya was a beehive of activity; a place where friend and foe met, and ‘Sam’ or ‘Sam Uncle’ as everyone called him, was the pivot with his wife Mukta, who predeceased him, the ever gracious hostess. ‘Sam’ hosted more than a thousand lunches and dinners at his home over the years, many convivial and others where introductions were made or warring parties brought together, but where the dispute in question was never discussed.

The hallmark of ‘Sam’ was his deep-rooted desire to help others, especially the downtrodden. If they were from the ‘south’ he would go the extra mile. ‘Lakmahal’ was not the exclusive preserve of Colombo’s elite; it hosted – and homed family after family; to send their children to schools; adolescents to Universities or young adults to work, till they got on their own feet. He made men out of lost souls and anchored wayward teenagers; he even brokered marriages.

‘Sam’ was an encyclopedia of knowledge. The franchise, parliament, constitution making, political families and their lineage, were his forte and he could rattle them off like a human Google search engine. In office, he was both liked and respected by Members of Parliament from either side of the House and served as a great counsel to many Speakers, senior politicians and young MPs finding their way up the greasy pole of politics, as both the President and Leader of the Opposition would testify.

In later years, ‘Sam’ did not spend his time in idle retirement. He served as Chancellor of the Open University, Chairman of the Prisoners Welfare Society and Chairman of the Dispute Resolution Council of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka where his approach to disputes was best reflected in one of his messages – “Our objective is to bring parties together”.

That indeed was his lifelong motto. He was a proud Sri Lankan and Sri Lanka was proud to own him as one of her illustrious sons.

Japan; a friend indeed
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Sri Lanka today and the red carpet must deservedly be rolled out for the leader of a nation — and people — who have stood by this country in good times and bad. That this month marks the 150th birth anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala (Sept 17) and also the first visit by a Japanese Prime Minister in 24 years is significant.

Relations between the two countries in modern history can be traced to the Buddhist revivalist movement in the latter part of the 19th century when Sri Lanka was under colonial rule. The American theosophist, Col. Henry Steele Olcott, had galvanised the dispirited Buddhists and news of his campaign had reached Buddhist Japan. Monks began to visit this island, and one of them, Ven. Kozen Gunaratana Thera accompanied the Anagarika Dharmapala to Buddha Gaya in India on a dangerous mission to wrest control of the management of that holiest of holy sites for Buddhists.

As the Anagarika Dharmapala formed his Maha Bodhi Society to unite Buddhists around the world, Japanese Buddhists joined hands with Sri Lankan Buddhists in this quest to ‘Save Buddha Gaya’. Members of the Maha Bodhi Society of Sri Lanka returning from Japan in the backdrop of World War II had to face questioning by the British colonial police on suspicion of being ‘spies’.

In recent times, President J. R. Jayewardene was to win the hearts of the Japanese people following their surrender after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when at the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951 that was to formally end the war with Japan and seek war reparations from it, he quoted the Buddha’s words; “Hatred ceases not by hatred; hatred ceases only by love”.

The Japanese had bombed Sri Lanka, the only incident of direct action on Sri Lankan soil during WWII, and Lanka’s rubber was ‘slaughter-tapped’ to provide natural rubber to the Allies ruining our economy. Yet, he said Ceylon opposed asking for compensation that would hurt Japan’s economy. He said; “This treaty is as magnanimous as it is just, to a defeated foe. We extend to Japan the hand of friendship and trust that with the closing of this chapter in the history of man, the last page of which we write today, and with the beginning of the new, the first page we dictate tomorrow, her people and ours may march together to enjoy the full dignity of human life in peace and prosperity”.

The ever grateful Japanese people, and their successive Governments, have never looked back since then in their commitment to helping Sri Lanka. Decades of economic cooperation and diplomatic ties followed as Japan became a mighty economic power again. It started offering Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Sri Lanka in 1954, a mere two years after the San Francisco Peace Treaty came into effect. Between 1965 and March 2013, Japan provided a massive Rs. 1,500 billion (1,190 billion Japanese yen) to Sri Lanka in the form of loans, grants and technical assistance. This assistance remained constant even during Sri Lanka’s tortuous 30-year war with the LTTE. Japan was the number one aid donor to Sri Lanka.

Japanese money, technology and expertise have supported growth in every vital sector including health, education, energy, transport and highways. As Mr. Jayewardene once remarked, “It is difficult enough to find a grateful man; it is still more difficult to find a grateful nation.” The Sri Jayawadhanapura Hopsital, Samanalawewa, Kandy and Jaffna Teaching hospitals, Upper Kotmale hydroelectricity, Greater Colombo water supply, Walawe left bank, Galle port, tsunami relief, poverty alleviation micro-finance, Kandy waste-water, National blood-transfusion – the list is endless, all done through JICA, the implementation arm of Japanese official development assistance.

But times have changed, as has Japan’s role in the international community. The Japanese government today sees its ODA programme as an extension of its foreign policy. As a serious player on the world stage, its support for Sri Lanka is necessarily tempered by its need to see post-war reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Japan has abstained from voting on – as opposed to voting against – resolutions on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council and refrained from harping on probes on war crimes as the West demands.
Japan has also placed great importance on the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. Today, many diplomats perceive Sri Lanka to be edging away from Japan, forsaking a tried and tested friendship for new allegiances. This country must resurrect these ties. Diplomacy is not a zero sum game and Japan has proven itself to be a reliable ally, no matter the odds.

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