4 December, 2020

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What Retired Planters Can Do About The Parlous State Of Our Country

By Emil van der Poorten –

Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten’s speech to Association of Ex-Planters on September 22nd, 2012

When Malcolm Dias, asked me to address you today, I told him he might regret having ever made the request!  That said, let me say at the outset that if you are expecting some truly inflammatory rhetoric that will bring a convoy of white vans to this place even before you reach your dessert, I hope you are going to be disappointed!

Let me start with something totally unrelated to what is going to be the essence of what I have to say today, some personal information – verging on gossip, if you will – that concerns Malcolm and me.

Unless you are a particularly assiduous collector of TCK trivia, you will not be aware that I was on the College boxing teams during C. E. Simithraaratchy’s final year and Norman Walter’s first year as Principal of what its old boys, at least, call “the best school of all.”  I didn’t cover myself with glory and I didn’t even win “colours”.  Shortly thereafter, having reached the point when I truly hated the smell of pugilistic leather laced with sweat, I dropped out of boxing completely.  However, when another house competition came along, Lemuel House was, as usual, scrounging for entrants and I was approached to make a “comeback”.  Having already represented the school, I decided to give boxing another “go” and foolishly determined that since there were no other boxers with competitive experience in my weight, it was going to be a cake-walk, not requiring any preparatory training or practice.  I was in for the surprise of my life because I came very close to having my clock cleaned and, to this day, don’t have any recollection of the third and final round of a defeat which didn’t encourage any returns to the ring thereafter!  There are no prizes for guessing who gave me that lesson in humility.  It was Malcolm Ranjith Dias.

Anyway, back to talking about the here and now.

It has been many years since TCK boxing rings, Kandy Sports Club rugger, Mahagastota Hill Climbs, breeding sheep and all that kind of stuff.  I’ve been back in Sri Lanka for about six years now after more than three decades in Western Canada where I did many things that I’d never dreamt of doing when Malcolm and I were being educated at Trinity.

It’s interesting though, that the primary reason for Malcolm inviting me to inflict myself upon you is that which caused me to leave Trinity prematurely in the first place – a compulsion to dabble in journalism.

While I was very politically involved during my years in Canada, inclusive of managing election campaigns at a Federal, Provincial and Territorial level and helping establish a Provincial Political Party at one point of time, journalism was not among my pursuits.

It took a return to Sri Lanka and a growing apprehension about our current “reality” to provoke pangs of conscience about the need to do something about a state of affairs that obviously left a great deal to be desired.  I liked to write and knew I wasn’t too bad at it.  So, why not use my keyboard to try to change the status quo?

For those of you who know me as the columnist in The Sunday Leader who writes under the by-line, Renaissance Man, let me enlighten you about the fact that I had already been published in Lakbimanews, the Sunday Island and Montage magazine, sometimes pseudonymously, for a few years before Frederica Jansz invited me to write for the paper she had begun to edit subsequent to the murder of its founding editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge.  In fact, I had what was supposed to be a regular (pseudonymous) column in the Sunday Times until that paper, seemingly decided my rhetoric was too inflammatory and quietly “tapered off” my column on one pretext or another!

I have fielded my share of abuse and invective for my journalistic contributions over the past few years, most of it couched in rather poor English grammar and syntax at the quality of which my old teachers at TCK would have thrown up their hands in holy horror!

I have been threatened with all kinds of unkind fates inclusive of, on one occasion on Colombo Street in this very town when I was told I “was being watched for writing against the President.”  Many friends have appealed to me to “shut up, sit down and join the hallelujah chorus in the pursuit health, wealth and happiness!”

While there certainly is an element of logic to these threats and appeals, let me say that there are other elements to human existence – self-respect, justice, fairness and all those moral elements on which you can’t place a simple monetary value but which you can’t avoid without surrendering your identity as a human being.

In terms of silencing criticism, let me give you the information that Frederica Jansz quit as the Editor of The Sunday Leader yesterday and that you will, probably not be irritated by my column in future.  However, suffice it to say that I do not intend to be silenced and am looking at other alternatives.

While you can’t place a rupees and cents value on any of the above, if you take them out of the equation, you end up reducing people to the animal kingdom from which they are supposed to have evolved, red of tooth and claw, surviving only because they are the most unprincipled and violent, not “the fittest” as is often claimed.

I have also heard the perennial argument that the forces of evil are so vast and powerful that, to put that old saying in polite language, it is like matching human flatulence against thunder!

Superficially, yes, this might be so, particularly in the short term.  However, it is a historical fact that corruption and violence have not gone away of their own accord, but have only been moved by people standing up against those elements of darkness.

At minimum, if we so much as pretend to follow the principles of any religion or any of the great atheist or agnostic moralists or ethicists, we have to stand up to be counted, in whatever way possible, and always.

By speaking with one’s neighbours, by writing letters to the editors of papers, by initiating or signing petitions regarding public issues, by marching in protest and in a myriad other ways, we need to have our voices heard.

You say, “But no one listens to us and no one cares.”  Perhaps, at the beginning, but you WILL be heard, particularly if you join hands with people of like mind to have your voice heard.  Remember that old chestnut that used to appear in Autograph Albums of our generation, “Little drops of water and little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean and the mighty land?”  As romantic as that sentiment might sound, it’s true.  And in terms of people changing their minds, I distinctly remember a friend I met at a meeting of this very organization at the Kandy Club some years ago, suggesting that I was wasting my time in being critical of the status quo in Sri Lanka because of the power of those I was critical of.  Let me suggest that he seems to have since changed his mind about the efficacy of complaint and protest.  Otherwise I don’t think I would be giving you indigestion today at his invitation, would I?  If you want reinforcement for that thought consider what the greatest anthropologist of our time, Margaret Mead, had to say, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

So, my friends, you who worked in a profession with a very proud history of independence, endeavour and success, often under very difficult conditions, need to have your voices heard, either singly or collectively.  No matter how powerful and ruthless those arraigned against you might seem, you will prevail.  Let me close with a quote from one of my heroes and a martyr of the Apartheid era in South Africa, Steve Bantu Biko: “The greatest weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”  Be not afraid, speak power to truth, never give up, my friends! 

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Latest comments

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    Emil thanks for your words of wisdom. I believe the responsibility is not only yours or mine alone to stand up for Justice and Honesty, which were the ideals, that moulded the societies we grew up. Sadly today, our very own, who have grown up with us are either totally silent or very indifferent when we speak of the lapses committed so openly. It appears the society is anaesthatised and are immune to the excesses committed which some do not want us even to speak of, leave alone writing about it. The Public spiritedness of individuals who would venture to help another in trouble then, would today look the otherside and walk away. They believe they do not want to get involved unnessarily. The Society has become utterly selfish and expect the others to do the bidding for them to sit and enjoy the benefits. What a land mark we have reached in this so called Human Civilisation. Take care!

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    You should indicate which papers you would contribute to.I enjoyed your column.Thanks for it

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    Gamini and Upali:
    Thank you for your kind words. I always wrote (and will continue to write)knowing that I wasn’t the only one who believed in decency and social justice in this country.
    I really can’t predict where my scribblings will appear now. Suffice it to say that they will be available to pretty well any journal prepared to publish them. However, the ugly reality is that this Fascist regime has, through coercion and worse, succeeded in stifling and suppressing dissent and even simple discussion. However, I will not simply fold my tent and “Burgher off” to some place as has been suggested by those who have made it their (well-paid) business to abuse the likes of me! I really do believe what Steve Biko said about the mind of the oppressed being the main weapon of the oppressor!

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    Sri Lanka needs more people like Emil.
    But,alas,most are silent or are silenced by methods we never dreamed of, in our childhood.
    Emil, more strength to your elbow.
    Do become a journalist,soon. You are the calibre we need.

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    NOT ONLY RETIRED PLANTERS BUT MOST RETIRED PROFESSIONALS CAN GET THIS COUNTRY OUT OF THE MESS IT IS IN.I AM AN ENGINEER, WHO LEFT SRI LANKA WORKED ABROAD SINCE I WAS PERSECUTED BY THE GOVERNMENT OF THE TIME
    I TOO WAS AT TCK AROUND THAT TIME, WITH THE VAN DER POORTENS, WRIGHTS, RAYMONDS AMONGST OTHERS DURING THE “SIMITHRAARATCHY” ERA WHICH HAS BEEN OFTEN COMPARED TO THE “FRASER”ERA.
    LOOKING FORWARD TO YOUR WRITINGS.
    THANKS A LOT FOR WHAT YOU HAVE DONE UP TO NOW FOR THE SAKE OF OUR COUNTRY.WISHING YOU ALL THE BEST.

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    Ayman so you are also a Trinitian. I am sad to say it is mostly Trinitians that who have helped to ruin this country. Take Lakshman Kadiragarmar he compromised with corrupt CBK to stay in power. He even went to the extent to call the JVP guys as reasonable in their demands when he found that the JVP was lobbying to promote him as PM. Then take that cess pit of corruption Sarath N Silva, who ruined the Judiciary delivering biased judgements, even allowing a Tsunami embezzler to become the President of this country. Next lecherous Sarath Amunugama singing hosannas to any as long as he has a Minstry to finger about.

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      So, Gamini, you seem to be criticizing almost everyone in and out of SLFP. Who could be the most qualified to become the next president, according to you ? If CBK and LK were that corrupt minded, so tell us how would you rank MR and the today´s cabinet ministers?. I think CBK was honest but her cabinet ministers were not honest. Sorry, all these I could not follow closely being away from the country :(. But even today, I personally respect LK, because his great service under CBK in terms of getting the LTTErs banned on almost every continent was very successful. MR or any other leader could not have defeated LTTErs within the island if LK failed to get them banned everywhere.

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        Lilani, where were you basking all this while not to know the levels of corruption under CBK, a long list from Air Lanka to Thawakkal. Your respect to LK is for your belief that he got the LTTE banned outside? These war games the Americans have been playing for the last fifty odd years,the world over with their intrigue involved, is too much for you to understand anyway. So better keep it that way. Yes I will criticise anyone irrespective who the person is, as long as criticism is due. I am not your kind that I would waive blame for friendship or relationship. It is in that vein I say that if someone can pinpoint corruption on RW, I will not hesitate to condemn him with the contempt he deserves. As for my opinion on MR, about his honesty is no better, except for the fact that MR has ammassed wealth in half the time, what CBK robbed within fer period.

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          I am a lanken reader and my source is just limited to online. Not basking but trying HARD to realize the chaotic and stagnated political situation in present day Lanka.

          I respect your comments most of the time but this time, some contents you put are not clear enough.

          Question:
          As you yourself pointed out in your comment quoted as “I am not your kind that I would waive blame for friendship or relationship”?

          why is then you become like a local mongoose met with a cobra – when someone criticises RW´s person and his inablities in term of bringing the opposition together ? How many more years UNPers would take to get united to fight all undemocratic actions of the rulers ? In a democracy, both President and opposition leader are equally responsible when it fails to safegurad the democratic values of the folks. Right at the moment – almost no human rights are respected under the most brutal regime ruled by MR.

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          Lilani, when you tried to say that CBK was not corrupt and you hold LK in high esteem is sure displaying different yard sticks to measure Corruption according to your standards. That is why I said, although I knew LK personally and CBK being a relative that they can not be exempt from blame. I went further to point that if anyone alleges corruption against RW that I will not hesitate to hold him with scorn. As for you blaming RW saying that he too is responsible for destroying Democracy, the Lawlessnes and Corruption, being the leader of the Opposition, I humbly differ. It is a case like blaming the passenger for the bad and reckless driving of the vehicle. As for your querry how long the UNP will have to wait, I believe there is no point in replacing MR to appoint another rogue from the UNP. However the next Presidential Election I believe will be the last this country has to change and if RW fails to get elected, that is the end of RW and the UNP will be open to anyone. Good Luck to all.

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    It’s all rhetoric isn’t it my friends ? We are charging at windmills mounted on donkeys !

    The essence of this discussion is NEVER GIVE UP.

    Keep doing the RIGHT thing in whatever way you can.

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    Considering yor color, we’ve decided to send a black van for you;)

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    Emil nice to read your well thought out journals, thanks we enjoy it and I can relate to the period you speak of though I went to the school by the sea.Some day in the near future the people will dish out the appropiate justice to the uneducated,Mafioso Rajapakse thieves.

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