I did this interview for Uthayam many years ago but lost his photo
Mr. Vernon Abeyesekera was the Government Agent of Jaffna for around three years from January 1966. He was very popular with the people of Jaffna, as he developed a good rapport of with them by going beyond his duties as a government servant and taking part in many cultural activities. His stay in Jaffna also saw the agitation by people from ‘depressed castes’ demanding social Justice and equality. He showed finesse in dealing with the situation and managed to avert a major flare up. He left Jaffna following his appointment as Postmaster General.
When ‘Uthayam’ interviewed him, he told us quite willingly, the experiences he had with the people of Jaffna and those in Jaffna. Following are excerpts of the interview.
Q: When were you the Government Agent for Jaffna?
A: I was the Government agent for Jaffna from January 966 to latter part of 1968.
Q: What could you say about your experiences in Jaffna?
A: I had a very pleasant and peaceful time in Jaffna. I enjoyed the goodwill of the people, support of MPS, local politicians and the Government of the day. The most rewarding work I did was the eradication of social disability. It was practiced at various levels in different ways. The Government passed laws by which differentiating people on the basis of one’s caste was made a penal offence. For example aggregating people based on caste in admitting students to schools, refusing entry to people into temple again on the basis of one’s caste were made punishable offences.
Q: Could you reflect on any prominent people of your time?
A: Of course there were many politicians and MPs. such as G.G.Ponnambalam, Dr. E.M.V. Naganathan, A. Amirthalingam and S.J.V. Chelvanayagam. Of them, SJV was very weak and Amir used to speakon behalf of him after listening to SJV. SJV was ailing from Parkinson’s disease and he used to speak in a feeble voice. Then there was MR. M. Sivasithamparam, who was the Mp for Udupiddy. One day, I offered to share drinks with him, but he refused my offer politely telling that he knows the effects of drinks from the experience of his boss.
Q: Although Jaffna was free of political violence at your time, did you foresee any ominous signs that were portending the present day armed conflict?
A: No, definitely not. The reason being the youths who are now carrying arms were just children during my time.
Q: In your opinion were there any political conditions that prevailed at that time which paved way for the present armed conflict?
A: Yes, there were resentment among Tamils over the abrogation of the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayagam pact; what they resented most was Buddhist monks were in the forefront of the agitation.
Tamils were promised District Development Councils, which were watered down version of Provincial Councils and they too were not implemented. Tamil politicians were disappointed and they were sceptical about the Government implementing its promises.
Q: The LTTE has been waging a was against the Government in pursuit of their goal for a separate state. What is your opinion?
A: Do you mean the separate state of Tamil Eelam? I do not like the fragmentation of Sri Lanka. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers are like brothers. I am answering this question from my background. I find it difficult to believe Eelam as a happy alternative.
Q: If that is so, what is the alternative you would like to suggest?
A: Now the Government is thinking about devolution of power as a possible solution. The nature and extent of devolution have to discussed and a settlement is to be reached. Then only Sri Lanka can prosper and go forward.
During your time, there was an agitation at the Madvidapuram temple, over the entry of people from ‘depressed’ caste. Q Could you elaborate on it?
A: In or around the time, when the Festival was to begin, I received a transfer order to Colombo asking to take up the post of Postmaster General. But late Mr. Dudly Senanayake, who was then the Prime Minister prevailed upon me to wait in Jaffna till the temple festival was over.
During the festival, people from ‘depressed’ Castes were sitting outside the temple demanding that they be allowed inside the temple. They were backed by members from the LSSP Communist party and government officials. Members from ‘high’ castes, temple priest and late Mr. C. Suntharalingam were opposed to the entry of those people from. ‘depressed’ castes. Although tension was running high, no incidents of violence took place. I held a series of conference at the Jaffna Kacheri and it was attended by all parties to the dispute At the end, people from ‘depressed’ castes agreed to leave the temple on condition that the Government would meet their demand at a later date.
It was a critical time for me and I was about to leave for Colombo.
Q: Do you have any message for people in Jaffna?
A: Yes, I do. The happiest time in my life was spent in Jaffna and among them. I would like them to be a part of social, economical and political mainstream of Sri Lanka. I wish them good luck.
Q: Uthayam has a sizeable readership among the Sinhalese. Any message to them?
A: I would like to tell the same to them as well. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers are all brothers and all have to work together. During my student days. Tamils and Sinhalese studied together and they did not have any problem. There were many inter-marriages and I would like those to happen again.
Q: Would like to add anything to what you have already said?
During my days in Jaffna, I took a keen interest to promote cultural activities. I helped to stage a Tamil drama titled ‘Pen Paavai’. It was adapted from Ipson Doll House. It was translated by Mr. V. Mahadeva from Jaffna Hindu College.
I selected this drama because it depicted the social conditions that were prevailing in Norway at the end of 19th centaury and they were similar to those of Jaffna in the 1960s. I was also the President of Pradesha Kalai Mandram.
I staged another play titled ‘Arms in the Man’ by Bernard show. The British Council asked me to stage it in memory of him.