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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-) Part’s Sake”.

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” film.

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 felt otherwise.

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 UN Missions.

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, promotional polemics.

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 2001).

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 well).

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