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Remembering Mervyn de Silva

by Sachi Sri Kantha, June 25, 2012

First, when I submitted that critical commentary on the coverage of Economist, I was unaware that Mervyn was the unacknowledged Sri Lankan reporter for Economist. He obviously didn’t want his paychecks blocked, by publishing my item or lose his freelance assignment to another rival competing for the same Sri Lankan beat. In hindsight, this I can understand well. Secondly, Mervyn was somewhat close to Lalith Athulathmudali (as he had acknowledged in his 1993 obituary note). And Athlathmudali was the architect in recruiting the British mercenaries to target the Tamil militants. As Athulathmudali held a Cabinet Minister rank, Mervyn obviously didn’t want to antagonize one of his valued ‘sources’ for inside political news. In hindsight, this also I can understand well.

Mervyn de Silva (1929-1999)

June 22nd marked the 13th death anniversary of Mervyn de Silva (1929-1999), whom I consider as one of my mentors in journalism. As I have recorded in this website on numerous occasions, Mervyn de Silva offered me a ‘little space’ in his Lanka Guardian (not exceeding one page, on an average which had cumulative 24 or 28 pages per issue), to comment, critique and offer the Tamil side of the view. I was thankful for that training. He taught me that verbosity doesn’t count that much. His only lesson to me was: ‘If you have a point, and can express it succinctly with a punch’, I’ll publish it.’

In the inaugural editorial he wrote in 1978 for his fortnightly journal, Mervyn wrote as follows: “The Lanka Guardian is primarily a journal of opinion… If we may dignify this exploratory venture in Sri Lankan journalism and embellish our ordinary wish with the formal ostentation of a motto, it is: OTHER News, and ANOTHER opinion…” This motto hooked me well. On three occasions, when I sent longer contributions, they were not published for reasons known only to Mervyn (see below, as I provide one of these rejected items). I never bothered to follow up later by letter or phone about these rejections, because it was the editor’s privilege to accept or reject any unsolicited submission. 

If my name did appear 42 times in the Lanka Guardian between March 1981 and March 1996 (see Appendix, for the complete list), over 40 of my other submissions had been rejected by him. His rejections of my submission did not disappoint me because I perceived that he was open minded to accept my views, even though he might not have agreed with it. This I cannot say about his other contemporaries in his profession who practiced his trade in Colombo.

In the 42 letters, I did write on a wide range of topics (including Bandaranaike, caste, democracy, elections, etymology, federalism, J.R. Jayewardene, Lincoln, Reggie Michael, Muslims, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Cyril Ponnamperuma, Prabhakaran, Rajiv Gandhi assassination, King Ravana, M.G.Ramachandran, Edmund Samarakkody, satire, Suu Kyi, Tamil ethnicity, Thondaman Sr., Udupiddy electorate) within the maximum permitted 250-300 words. I provide a sample of my letters that appeared in the Lanka Guardian in 1993 nearby. In it, I had raised the question relating to the future of Lanka Guardian, after Mervyn. Sadly, the magazine folded after his death. One of Mervyn’s catch phrase was, ‘Writers write; editors edit.’ I made sure that whatever I wrote will pass his muster. To avoid Mervyn’s editorial scissors, I presented my point of view, with focus, economy of words, humor and a punch as a parting shot. This was one of the best journalism training I received. Since September 1996, Mervyn’s son Dayan Jayatilleka assumed the editorship of Lanka Guardian, and I lost my verve to submit my letters. Afterall, Dayan was not Mervyn, despite being his son! After Dayan became the editor, Lanka Guardian morphed from the ‘journal of opinion’ to ‘journal of left polemics’.

Now, I remember Mervyn de Silva, with two items. First, his signed obituary notice to Lalith Athulathmudali (1936-1993), who was the first National Security Minister in the Cabinet of J.R.Jayewardene. Mervyn de Silva’s style in summing up the political career of an ambitious Sinhalese leader differed from that of other journalists. The old adage, Kurudarkal naatil orrai-kannan Arasan (In the land of the blind, one-eyed guy is the King) perfectly fitted him. As such, I felt that his obituary note to Athulathmudali deserves preservation in electronic medium. Also, mark Mervyn’s words about JVP’s so-called 1971 ‘insurrection’. He had chided it as “Though extravagantly styled, ‘Guevarist’, the JVP revolt had more than a touch of comic opera.” Though, in this obituary note, he refrained from identifying the assassins of Athulathmudali, in a subsequent signed commentary, Mervyn recorded the following, indicting LTTE: “Despite the usual rumours, there was little doubt that the former National Security Minister who personally led the Vadamaarachi Operation, was assassinated by the movement that held him guilty.” [Lanka Guardian, June 1, 1995, p.2]. This was the typical Sri Lankan police version, without providing convincing evidence for their accusation. Why this has to be so? The police personnel involved in the assassination of Athulathmudali were loyal to the then President R. Premadasa who viewed Athulathmudali as his number one enemy, because the latter had attempted to dislodge him from power in 1991. Unexpectedly, Premadasa also met his end tragically eight days later, on May 1, 1993; and with him, died the loyal police officers who held the secret of Athulathmudali’s assassination. Thus, it was convenient for the police folks to place the blame on LTTE for both deaths. If Mervyn de Silva’s assumption has to hold, one has to answer why LTTE did not touch either J.R. Jayewardene (the President during the Vadamarachchi Operation in 1987 without whose approval, Athulathmudali wouldn’t have moved) or D.B.J.Wijetunga? It should not be forgotten that JVP attempted to assassinate Jayewardene in the parliamentary complex in 1987 and Athulathmudali suffered serious intestinal injuries on that attempt.

I’ll refrain from praising Mervyn as a [or the] God of Sri Lankan journalism. Afterall, he was a human and he had his foibles. Earlier, I used the metaphorical adage that he was the one-eyed guy in the land of blinds. But, his other eye was ‘weak’. This explains why he indicted LTTE for Athulathmudali’s assassination. I guess Mervyn was familiar with the Principle of Parsimony, known as Ockham’s Razor, which states Entia nunsunt multiplicanda sine necessitate [Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.]. That’s why his political commentaries were erudite. But at times, he succumbed to pressures from various corners which prompted him to deviate from Ockham’s Razor. His 1995 inference that LTTE killed Athulathmudali was one of this examples. Applying Ockham’s Razor to Athulathmudali assassination leads one to the question: ‘Who was the immediate beneficiary?’ It was not LTTE, but President Premadasa. At the time of his death, Athulathmudali was not even holding a Cabinet position!

Secondly, now that he is gone, I’d like to settle a score with Mervyn. I still keep in my file a 970-word commentary which he rejected when I submitted it to Lanka Guardian in June 1990. Thus, now I have the pleasure to enter it into electronic record, 13 years after his death. My submission was titled, “Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Turmoil in the Economist Magazine”. It was a period piece, but the essence of it still remains true in how the Economist magazine covers the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka.

Assassinations: The Fissures Widen

[by Mervyn de Silva, Lanka Guardian, May 1, 1993, pp. 3-4]

[note by Sachi: Words in bold font and within parentheses, are as in the original. Mervyn’s penchant for use of initials SWRD (means Bandaranaike), JRJ or JR (for Jayewardene), abbreviations for parties such as DUNF (Democratic United National Front) and JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) as well as metaphorical place name such as Sri Kotha (for UNP’s headquarters) are easily understood by Sri Lankans, but may not be so by non-Sri Lankans.]

On Friday 23, the DUNF President and former National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali became yet another victim of the violence that was lately gripped ‘the dhammadeepa’, the tropical paradise. It is sad to see a politician of such immense potential, become a mere casualty of what is now a common place of Sri Lanka life. As President JRJ’s National Security Minister he had been intimately involved in what was soon to be a frighteningly remorseless process – the politics of the gun. Just four years earlier he had nearly succumbed to his wounds after the daring JVP bomb attack in Parliament.

Greetings from Japan Lanka Guardian June 1 1993Some admirers and well wishers may see yet another irony. The former Oxford Union President and accomplished debater had rarely concealed his admiration for S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, also an oratorical ‘star’ in that famed debating society. The parallel didn’t end there. Quite consciously he strove to project the image of the ‘new’ SWRD, dissatisfied by the party leadership and its political style. Though SWRD too fell to an assassin’s bullets, the analogy cannot be seriously sustained.

First, Lalith and his group, tried to overthrow the leadership in what he himself admitted was a konspiratzia albeit constitutional. Second, SWRD, increasingly critical of Sri Kotha’s conservative program, decided that he must present the electorate with a new program and a different personality. He was as much against Senanayakist conservatism as with the ‘father-son, uncle-nephew’ feudalist practice. Lalith’s chief grievance was capsuled in his own pet phrase ‘One-Man Show’. Whereas President JR, the patriarch, did exploit the clear generational gap between him and the rest of the ministers, Lalith resented what he regarded as an over-concentration of authority sustained by a supper-star style – the use of the media was another of his constant complaint. In short, he would have been quite satisfied if chosen prime minister or given a portfolio which permitted him to consolidate and broaden his mass base. Higher education was far from helpful in the pursuit of a wider electoral appeal. He had to break out of his rather constricted mass base (metropolitan) and alter his personal image (Royal College, Oxford, Hulftsdorp lawyer). In this regard, he had sensed that even his fellow dissident, Mr. Gamini Dissanayake from Kandy-Nuwara Eliya, had a distinct advantage.

But the assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali, a formidable persona by any standard, has far wider significance. First, the cult of violence or ‘gun culture’ as some commentators like to describe it. It was not quite Lalith’s generation and certainly not his class that launched the JVP insurrection in 1971. Though extravagantly styled, ‘Guevarist’, the JVP revolt had more than a touch of comic opera. And yet, in the light of the current crisis (and let’s bear in mind that this event is just another episode in a deep-ranging national crisis) the JVP uprising was an ‘early warning’, a phrase now comfortably accommodated in the increasingly respectable ‘conflict studies – conflict resolution’ discourse.

The Sinhalese generational revolt was followed in the next decade by the Tamil youth revolt. The self-same frustration and anger over jobs, over opportunity for upward mobility, led however to a different discovery – racial discrimination and deprivation rather than class oppression. The banner of revolt was ethnic, all the easier to raise, and mobilise popular support given by the proximity of Tamilnadu, with a population so much larger than Sri Lanka.

In the unlikely post of National Security Minister, the Oxford debater became militarist, convinced that he could defeat the ‘Tigers’ in the field of battle, if only he was given the troops, the weapons and the full support of the government, and hopefully the Opposition and the Sinhala masses.

At least at the start, National Security Minister Lalith Athlathmudali did not understand, or understand fully, the nature of the war. This I realised only after several interviews, on and off-the-record, and frank exchanges. (Articulate, perhaps too talkative for a Defence Minister, he loved to discuss and debate and rarely shrank from an argument). If he had all the men he needed and all the money for the equipment required, he was certain, he could defeat the LTTE or force it to the negotiating table. All he asked was money – a bigger budget. On that he clashed with another prominent Cabinet personality, Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel, the IMF’s man. While Ronnie de Mel used the IMF-World Bank argument for a modest defence vote, Lalith would often suspect that there was personal motivation too.

Lalith didn’t fully grasp that even if he had all the money, men and material, he would NOT be allowed to crush the LTTE and the armed Tamil movement by Delhi. The armed struggle and the cadres, trained and armed by India, constituted Delhi’s principal instrument of coercive diplomacy conducted to protect and advance what the new raj perceived as its strategic interests, as the regional power in a bipolar world; a nation with its own sense of destiny, shaped mostly by history.

The parippu-medical supplies air-drop by the IAF after Lalith’s Vadamarachi operation was Delhi’s soft option. President JR read the message loud and clear, to the great disappointment of his National Security Minister. But Finance Minister De Mel, and more so Lands Minister Gamini Dissanayake, had already persuaded JR, who may not have needed much persuasion, that India must be permitted to play ‘conflict-resolver’ and ‘peace keeper’ in keeping with its regional pre-eminence and its political stakes in Tamilnadu.

At that moment in history, prime minister Premadasa, who knew nothing or little of all this, and Lalith were on one side; Ronnie de Mel and Gamini were on the other, with the brilliantly resourceful high commissioner Dixit, playing a vital role. Mobilising Sinhala-Buddhist opinion by exploiting to the full the provocative presence of the IPKF, the army of the huge neighbor, the historic enemy, the JVP launched its second insurrection – Lalith’s first close encounter with Death.

An abortive impeachment move against the leader of the United National Party gave birth to the Democratic United National Front, led by Lalith and Gamini. “United” and “National” are common to the parent party and its rebellious offspring. The truth is that the past two-three decades and the tragic mismanagement of the ‘National Question’ i.e. the Tamil issue, mocks the self-acclaimed ‘unity’ of the UNP and Sri Lanka. Self-destructive violence, grievous disunion and party division are the main characteristics of the country named Sri Lanka. The condition of the Bandaranaike dominated SLFP dramatizes the fact of fissure even more strikingly.


Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Turmoil in the Economist Magazine

[by Sachi Sri Kantha; submitted to Lanka Guardian on June 5, 1990 and unpublished]

On August 16th of last year [1989], the Wall Street Journal of Aug. 16, 1989, carried an article by Martin Wooster (the Washington editor of the Reason magazine), with the caption, “The Economist missurveys America”. After reading it, I found to my satisfaction that I’m not alone in perceiving the way the Sri Lankan turmoil was covered in the Economist magazine. If some Americans feel that, there is “bias, condescension and misplaced priorities” in the Economist’s coverage about America and American life, they should read what this British weekly magazine writes about the people living in the recently liberated ex-colonies of the British empire. Americans were lucky that they fought and gained their independence from Britian two centuries ago.

Since it was established in 1843 (when the British empire was the biggest bully in the world), the Economist carries it’s colonial bias as condescension to a greater degree when it covers the events in Asia and Africa. During the past one and a half years, approximately 25 commentaries have appeared in the Economist on events related to ethnic turmoil and the presence of IPKF in Sri Lanka. We should consider this amount of coverage in the Economist as a saturated one, since on an average only 6 or 7 news events from the Asian continent are published in each week’s Economist.

What was disappointing is the way, the Economist had reported the Sri Lankan scene. These weekly reports in the magazine were written under different bylines such as, (1) “Colombo correspondent” or “Sri Lanka correspondent”, (2) “Delhi correspondent”, and (3) “Special correspondent”. Sometimes the bylines were not mentioned, which could mean that the newsreports were written at the London editorial desk.

J.R.Jayewardene was occasionally praised, such as, “He(Jayewardene) acted courageously in bringing in the Indians and pressing ahead with some kind of Tamil self-government. The army is stretched to run even the essential services, but Mr. Jayewardene has declined to impose martial law” (Dec. 3, 1988). It was as if, the non-declaration of the martial law made any difference to the Tamils or to the Sinhalese in the island.

The LTTE militants were repeatedly depicted as “brutal” killers, and as jungle warriors with “no interest in giving up the certainties of the gun for the vagaries of the ballot” (Sept.16, 1989). Wasn’t Winston Churchill and his other British army commanders ‘brutal’ in planning and executing bombing raids against the civilians of Germany and other Axis powers? The less said the better about the brutality of the British imperial army against Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolence campaigns or against Jomo Kenyatta’s Mau-Mau campaign in Kenya.

The Indian commander’s cited quote that “his men had disarmed the Tigers three times” (Mar. 31, 1990), should be the joke of the IPKF-LTTE war. This is similar to the fantasy of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character winning the Vietnam war in the silverscreen after Americans lost the real one in the battlefield. One would also wish that the scribes who write in the Economist focus their attention to the following questions, which they have ignored so far.

  • Why the LTTE militants originated (in the first place) among the predominantly law-abiding Tamil population in Sri Lanka?
  • Since 1983, how much money was made by the British mercenaries and arms dealers in the business they had with the UNP government?
  • What were the real motives of Indian decision makers in sending the IPKF to Sri Lanka?

In the Apr.8, 1989 issue, the Economist reported the investigations on the failed coup in the Maldives in which the PLOTE cadres had participated in an arms-for-hire deal. “All for the sake of a dance” was the caption for this report. But I have not come across any reports in the Economist on the arms-for-hire deals made by the British (or Israeli or South African) mercenaries with the Jayewardene regime.

While the Economist has been silent in reporting the unholy alliance of the British mercenaries with the dictatorial elements in the UNP government, the American Time magazine was more explicit in covering this crucial link (For example, see its cover story of June 9, 1986, written by Marguerite Johnson). In a book entitled, War Zones: Voices from the World’s Killing Grounds (Dodd, Mean & Co, New York, 1988), the journalists Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson have also provided a brief interview with a British mercenary who had fought against the Tamil rebels.

Sometimes, one cannot resist laughing at the ridiculous comments made by the Indian correspondents of the Economist. One wrote, “The Sri Lankan government did offer its Tamils a good whack of autonomy” (Nov. 12, 1988). Then, in the issue of July 8, 1989, the Delhi correspondent wrote, “the Indians are determined to destroy the remaining Tamil Tiger guerrillas before they go…”. He also moaned about “the Tiger’s record of broken promises.” That correspondent conveniently ignored the “broken promises” of Rajiv Gandhi and the arm-twisting tactics of the Indian intelligence service (Research and Analysis Wing) which made the Tigers to wage a war against the Indian army.

It is a pity that those who fill the Economist pages (editorial team and field correspondents) seem to live still in the bygone era of colonial contempt. They insult the intelligence of any average reader living in the lands beyond the borders of the so-called ‘Great’ Britain. If only sensible reporting and respect for the balanced view becomes the norm, 300,000-odd subscribers and an estimated one million readers of the Economist could get a more clear view about the events in the Third World countries which they do not (or cannot) visit at first hand. But, considering the long standing colonial baggage and the ‘we British ruled the world’ mentality, the Economist carries in its shoulders, it is probable that the contemptuous coverage in the magazine will remain biased and off-the mark.


Coda (written in June 2012)

When reading my 1990 submission to the Lanka Guardian and Mervyn de Silva’s 1993 obituary note to Lalith Athulathmudali side by side, it becomes evident, why my submission went unpublished then. First, when I submitted that critical commentary on the coverage of Economist, I was unaware that Mervyn was the unacknowledged Sri Lankan reporter for Economist. He obviously didn’t want his paychecks blocked, by publishing my item or lose his freelance assignment to another rival competing for the same Sri Lankan beat. In hindsight, this I can understand well. Secondly, Mervyn was somewhat close to Lalith Athulathmudali (as he had acknowledged in his 1993 obituary note). And Athlathmudali was the architect in recruiting the British mercenaries to target the Tamil militants. As Athulathmudali held a Cabinet Minister rank, Mervyn obviously didn’t want to antagonize one of his valued ‘sources’ for inside political news. In hindsight, this also I can understand well.


A complete list of my 42 published Letters in the Lanka Guardian (1981 to 1996)

Observations on the Madurai Tamil Conference. March 1, 1981, p.5.

Polls in US Press. Dec.1, 1982, p.1.

New name in science [about Ariyadasa Udagama, a dental oncologist]. May 1, 1983, p.2.

Reply to Shan [N.Sanmugathasan]. July 1, 1983, pp.1 & 16.

Ethnic identity of Tamils. May 1, 1990, p.2.

Determination of ethnicity by biomedical evidence. July 1, 1990, pp. 1 & 27.

The other Dicky [J.R. Jayewardene]. Sept.1, 1990, p.26.

Indian Tamil issue in the 1952 election. Sept.15, 1990, p. 9.

Defining ethnicity; a reply. Oct.1, 1990, p. 26.

Lalith’s [Athulathmudali] friends. Nov. 15, 1990, p.1.

Whither parliament? May 15, 1991, p. 22.

Whither etymology? July 1, 1991, p. 7.

The etymology of Ceylon. Aug.1, 1991, p.21.

[Rajiv] Gandhi assassination. Aug.1, 1991, pp.21-22.

Lincoln’s definition of democracy. Sept.1, 1991, p. 24.

Udupiddy electorate. Nov.1, 1991, p. 2.

Udupiddy. Dec.15, 1991, p.1.

Edmund Samarakkody, Feb.15, 1992, p.2.

Prabhakaran’s mentors. Aug.1, 1992, p.2.

Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Oct.1, 1992, p.5.

The non-democracy phenomenon. Oct.1, 1992, p.5.

The mirage of democracy. Nov.15, 1992, p.11.

Utopia in federalism? Mar.1, 1993, p.24.

Suu Kyi’s Burma and Sri Lanka. May 1, 1993, p. 20.

Greetings from Japan. June 1, 1993, p.11.

Repartee or ribaldry? Aug.1, 1993, p.2.

President Premadasa. Oct.1, 1993, p.1.

Federalism – Then and Now. Nov.1, 1993, p.16.

1948-49 Disenfranchisement. Nov.15, 1993, p.12.

Rule rather than exception. Apr.1, 1994, p.12.

A Hindu perspective in Bosnia. May 1, 1994, p.18.

Arden on Nehru. May 15, 1994, p.17.

Language usage. June 1, 1994, p.17.

Bosnian Muslims – an explanation. June 1, 1994, p.17.

Parody and profanity. July 15, 1994, p.20.

Cyril Ponnamperuma; scientist extraordinary. July 15, 1995, p. 19.

Ravana legend. Sept.15, 1995, p.15.

Political satire. Nov.1, 1995, p. 10.

Prabhakaran compared. Nov.15, 1995, p.17.

Prabhakaran’s retreat. Dec.15, 1995, p. 13.

Caste, Buddhism and Japan. Feb.1, 1996, p.19.

The good and the bad. March 15, 1996, p.5.