Civil servants are normally reputed to be staid pen-pushers, waiting for orders from above. Neville Jayaweera’s memoir gives the lie to that slur. In these “Diaries” we see a Civil Servant who is a far cry from that stereotype. Jayaweera comes across as a Civil Servant who, in a time of extreme and unprecedented crisis, not merely took over the running of the district single handed but also had the audacity to give leadership to the public services, the police and the military as well, with both the latter services willingly accepting his orders, extending to him a loyalty they would normally reserve only for their own kind. He audaciously drove a virtual parallel administration from Vavuniya, whilst the Government in Colombo, emasculated by the JVP onslaught, looked on with approval.
Jayaweera was notorious as “Dudley’s man” and as punishment, had been banished to Vauniya, the most insignificant of the 22 districts, immediately after the UNP defeat at the General elections in 1970. However, once the crisis was past the Minister in Charge, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, had risen in Parliament to pay Jayaweera a tribute that no public servant had ever received hitherto, least of all a rejected public servant, for conduct and leadership qualities above and beyond the call of duty.
In these memoirs we see Jayaweera as a man who combined superlative managerial skills with an extraordinary spirituality, a mix we never encounter in public life.
To savour the Vavuniya story to the fullest, I recommend that readers should sit for two hours and read it through to the end. It is a real life thriller that will keep readers on the edge of their seats, and subject them to a spectrum of emotions- anger, disgust, and hate, but not least, love, joy and compassion as well.
The following extracts from the Foreword to the book, jointly contributed by Susil Sirivardana, one of Jayaweera’s contemporaries, and Marshal Fernando, clearly illustrate the dangerous and unstructured conditions in which Jayaweera operated during the period under review.
“………running through this book like a golden thread there is a profound concern fo r ” right ” and “wrong” and the “good” and the “bad”, for nobility of behavior and a steadfast commitment to ultimate values(Page 1).
The above is the primary lesson of Jayaweera’s narrative, that conflict, however violent, can still be successfully managed and resolved without even once compromising on decent human values of conduct and interaction.
“We invite readers to visit the Vavuniya Police Station on the evening of April 5, 1971, when 30 police constables were holed up with ammunition running low, and faced with great fortitude and courage, the imminent prospect of death. The nobility of their conduct was astounding. We invite readers to visit the riverbank of the Malvatu Oya, where a jeep load of soldiers was ambushed by the rebels, and a solitary sergeant Ameer of the artillery regiment organized his troops for the fight back. (Page2).
There are many such instances of both individual and collective bravery.
We invite readers to visit the tragedy that was acted out in Government Agent Neville Jayaweera’s office, wherean innocent young woman’s husband was handed over to him for safe custody, but an unspeakable tragedy ensued. Worth mentioning is also how Jayaweera risked his career in order to compensate the young family for the loss of its breadwinner at the hands of a brutal enemy”.(Page 2)
The above is perhaps the most harrowing segment of an essentially grim narrative. But it is also an example of Jayaweera, for once exceeding his official remit, in order to provide the bereaved woman with a comforting closure.
To continue with Sirivadana and Fernando;
“Right through the 3-4 months that Vavuniya was the focus of the rebellion, Jayaweera was risking not merely his career but his life as well. When he stood up to the brutality of errant military the latter plotted to assassinate him but that did not cause him to compromise or change course. When the regular military command had disintegrated Jayaweera’s resolve personally to fill the power vacuum was both audacious and risky because his detractors could have attributed sinister motive to him. In truth that was precisely what the government later did, after Jayaweera had cleared out the stables for them. Such was the peril in which Jayaweera found himself in at the end of this drama.”
Remarkable was also the balancing act that Jayaweera had to play out in order to hold the town’s defences together. When the police and the military seemed to be on the brink of an undeclared civil war between themselves and when they actually started firing at each other, calling a truce and risking his life, Jayaweera drove his car in to the space between the two opposing antagonists. Foolhardy? Yes, but that was the measure of the courage that drove Jayaweera, both as a mediator and as the Head of the District. While being gentle as a dove in his role as a mediator, in his role as Head of the District, he was also as hard as nails. Not least was the sheer audacity that Jayaweera showed when he virtually ran a parallel administration with Vavuniya as its capital.” (Page 3)
Perhaps it was both fortuitous and fortunate, that the “Siege of Vavuniya” was managed by a courageous and principled civilian administrator, with a confidence buttressed by moral strength, a personal faith and an unflinching sense of duty and obligation to exercise a remit entrusted to him by a set of masters who, finally, were to prove both ungrateful and vindictive. In this context one is immediately constrained to draw a parallel between the “Civil Servants” of that day and the present.
Sirivardana and Fernando comment further; “The Vavuniya narrative is driven by a moral courage that can only be described as awesome. The question may well be asked, “whence came this moral courage and the willingness to take risks which the ordinary public servant would shy away from?”. There is only one answer that Jayaweera gives. He drew strength from the “Invisible” from “Above”. Jayaweera claims that throughout the siege of Vavuniya and thereafter, and not least now, he kept his eyes riveted on the vertical.”(Page 4)
The above is a revelatory reflection on the spiritual substance which reinforced Jayaweera’s physical and moral courage in adversity.
Speaking of the events which are the subject of the book Jayaweera has this to say;
“It was a multi-layered drama with a message that the rulers of those times never grasped and with the lessons that have yet to be fully learned(2017)……..and the pronouncements that I make in this book, though removed in time by more than forty years, resonate today as audibly as they did then (Introduction—xi)”
Jayaweera has summed up, incisively, one segment of the core message of the narrative of a now almost forgotten conflict, which consumed the country almost fifty years ago, but since subsumed by the greater enormity of subsequent conflicts.
Further on in the book Jayaweera reinforces that message with another, equally perceptive comment.
“This is the classic dilemma of governance. Ultimately, the state has to depend on the barrel of a gun, rather than on a moral code or even on the Courts of Law, to enforce its authority. However, unless the use of the gun is subordinated to the moral vision, over a sustained period the moral vision is not only obscured but is often replaced by the ape’s perspective”( Page 58)
Pithily, unforgivingly, Jayaweera has laid bare the nudity of governance in this country since 1971, with a comment more apt now than ever before. The morality index of governance in this country has been in a continuous downward spiral since Jayaweera’s day and the indications are that the bottom is yet to be plumbed. The Felix Dias of Jayaweera’s era has been superseded by others, of an arrogance, duplicity and corruptibility, greater than Dias’s by an order of magnitude.
The second segment of Jayaweera’s message, in his comparison between the man at the dawn of humanity and he man of the present, is derived from his newly awakened spirituality.
“……cave man felt insecure, and erected barricades of timber and thorns around his crude dwellings. Today, his sense of insecurity has deepened and he seeks to fend off his real or imaginary foes with weapons of mass destruction. Really, nothing has changed, bar the size of man’s cave and the destructive potential of the weapons he uses for defending it.” (Page 102).
The above is a statement which has global applicability.
As he has done in his previous book, ” Jaffna, Exorcising the Past and Holding the Present”, Jayaweera once again confronts both the rulers and society in general, with uncomfortable questions. Having successfully concluded a war on three fronts, by decimating the dissenters, have we simply, temporarily, suppressed the expression of dissent, without addressing and resolving its root cause? That question is partially answered by the fact that the JVP movement resurrected itself, with much greater malevolence, in less than twenty years after the merciless suppression of the first.
To quote Sirivardana and Fernando again; “Contrary to appearance, this book by Neville Jayaweera is not a book about a rebellion or about military conflict. It is only marginally so! Rather than explore conflict this book takes the reader to the edge of another world where the writer says there is neither conflict or pain, nor crying nor mourning. Not many likely to follow Jayaweera in to his world, but there it is, Jayaweera has nailed his flag to the mast! (Page 4)”
“Vavuniya Diaries “is a multifaceted story, written by a man with a multifaceted persona, the administrator, philosopher and reluctant combatant. What stands out right through an essentially stark narrative is the luminosity of Jayaweera’s deep faith in something greater than himself, the unshakeable conviction that, eventually, right must supersede evil. Despite the real-life tragedies that he has chronicled, all is not despair and Jayaweera ends on a note of absolute hope and optimism;
“However, one thing is for sure. Sometime in the not too distant future, maybe even within the lifetime of most of us, the new world of Homo Resurrectus, liberated from his “I”, will appear over the horizon……when that day dawns we shall all be released from our respective caves…………all our masks will be ripped off and we shall see one another as we were originally made- in the Divine Image and Likeness. But the choice is ours whether to turn around in humility and brokenness and play our part in greeting the new dawn”. (page107).
(Published by Ravaya Publications, the ” Vavuniya Diaries” will be available at the ongoing International Book Exhibition at the BMICH)
This article was originally published on September 16, 2017, in http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=171775