Mervyn de Silva : A tribute in retrospect
Had Mervyn de Silva, founder Editor of the Lanka Guardian, and
Editor, respectively of the Daily News, the Observer, and the Sunday
Times as well as Editorial Director of the Lake House Group been alive,
he would be celebrating his 78th birthday on September 5, perhaps at the
Capri, chuckling away about the passage of time.
TRIBUTE: Most tributes tend to involve reminiscences of the departed
by the living who valued their friendship. This tribute is no exception
and no excuses are made. Hopefully, it would convey something of the
extensive range and depth of Mervyn’s interests, insights and
initiatives and their undoubted influence.
We first literally bumped into each other in the mid-sixties,
back-stage at the Lionel Wendt Theatre where I was an undergrad
bit-player in Ranjini Obeysekere’s production of Garcia Lorca’s “Blood
Wedding.” Mervyn was there to write a review.
His theatre and movie reviews and his coverage of the cultural scene
went well beyond the immediate intrinsic artistic merit of the movie or
play, to often delve deep into their social and political context.
I recall discussing the corporate motto of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM)
film studios, “Ars gratia artis” (Art for art’s sake) and his views on
some of the arty Colombo types whose real motto was “Art: for (boru-)
I was flattered years later, to have my review of a George Keyt
exhibition as a cover-story in the Lanka Guardian.
The review, as I recall, also described some wealthy Colombo-types
who once tried to commission Keyt “to create” a made-to-order painting,
which was to have very specific dimensions, exactly fit into a
particular wall space in their three-storey mansion and also match the
curtains just brought back, from France, if I recall it right.
Mervyn’s articles moved easily from movies and art to politics and
back. Although there was no doubt in our minds at all about the LTTE’s
responsibility for the assassination of the late Ranjan Wijeratne,
Mervyn commented on the competing local accusative speculations at the
time on who was the killer. Mervyn had drawn an analogy with Japanese
film director, Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”.
The film deals with a killing witnessed by three people who have
conflicting views on who was responsible for the act. An articulate
member of the US-based Ilankai Thamil Sangam blamed Mervyn for his
(admittedly mistaken) classification of “Rashomon” as Kurosawa’s “first”
The expatriate invoked what psychologists and shrinks now call “the
Rashomon effect” (the subjectivity of perception ) to exploit the local
finger-pointing polemics about who killed Ranjan Wijeratne and to
thereby discount/deny LTTE responsibility for the assassination.
Mervyn in his article was of course making a point about the damage
caused to Sri Lanka then by what he called that period’s “divisive
conflict, the violent and the unseen, and by both steadfast alliances as
well as by changing loyalties”.
In respect of foreign relations, Mervyn realised the full importance
of a non-aligned balanced policy given the fact that the world is a
small place and that Sri Lanka is also in it. In consequence of Colombo
hosting the fifth Non-Aligned Summit, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister
Sirimavo Bandaranaike assumed the role of Chairperson of the Movement in
1976 for the following three years.
When President J.R. Jayewardene came to power in 1977, there was some
serious thought given to Sri Lanka relinquishing the role of
Chairperson. Advisors had felt that Non-Alignment was too much of a
tight-rope walk with no safety-net.
President Jayewardene himself had been quoted, in the New York Times,
as saying that there were only two Non-aligned states in the world: the
United States and the Soviet Union. Mervyn was however, one of those who
The story goes that, in a Close Encounter of the Advisory Kind at
Ward Place, Mervyn had strongly advocated Sri Lanka continuing the
leadership of the Movement for the remainder of our term as urged by our
The positive impact of Sri Lankan leadership of the Movement at a
critical time has been locally and internationally conceded.
Mervyn’s real strength lay in his ability, to anchor our foreign
relations realistically and pragmatically to the national interest, in
terms of its economic and social ramifications, without being cast
adrift or drowned in unfortunate divisive, politicised, personalised,
Following the tragic events of July 1983 he wrote as follows in an
article: “July had “internationalised” our ethnic discontent and the
deeper crisis of which it was a manifestation.
We were rudely awakened to the world outside and jolted into a
compelling awareness of our environment, the neighbourhood and the
geo-political realities....”Black July” was NOT a Sinhala uprising. It
was NOT a Sinhala-Tamil clash.
Those who seek to present it in such terms in order to safeguard
their vested interests or serve their ideological prejudices, do a great
disservice to the Sinhala people” (October 1984 issue of the Centre for
Society and Religion journal, reproduced in the “Crisis Commentaries -
Selected Political Writings of Mervyn de Silva” published by the ICES
Mervyn served on both the Board of Studies, and the Council of
Management of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS),
where his views were widely appreciated - principled, practical and
pragmatic, as were also his lectures at the BCIS Seminars, and those
given to Foreign Service officers and others.
It is not much known that it was indeed on a proposal by Mervyn, at
the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), that the Foreign
Affairs Study Group (FASG) was set up by President R. Premadasa under
the Chairmanship of Dr Gamini Corea, to make proposals for greater
efficacy in our foreign relations.
There had also been a proposal (not by the OPA!) to dissolve the
Foreign Service to deal with the unemployment problem. The FASG had
members from the corporate sector, the Central Bank, the Legal
Profession (the late Lakshman Kadirgamar), the Media (Mervyn, of course)
and the Foreign Service.
The recommendations of the FASG did promote useful changes in the
Foreign Service, including more interaction with the corporate, defence
and financial sectors and the media.
These links, which need to be strengthened even further in the
current context, would have no doubt pleased both Kautilyas (the 4th
century B.C. Kautilya, writer of the “Arthashastra,” and of course our
own 20th century one who should have continued into this century as