Thursday, May 10, 2018

In Memorium: Emeritus Professor Laksiri Dharmasoka Jayasuriya (1931 – 2018)

Dr. Siri Gamage
logoEmeritus Professor Laksiri Jayasuriya (Laksiri) who was Professor of Social Work and Social administration at the University of Western Australia passed away on April 20th 2018 in Perth. He was the founder of the sociology department at the University of Colombo and led an illustrious career in the Australian academia while contributing to government policy making processes in areas such as multiculturalism, ethnic affairs, immigration and citizenship. He nurtured cohorts of students under his care during his long career in Australia and continued to engage in scholarly activities and publishing after retirement. Professor Jayasuriya leaves behind bellowed wife Rohini and two loving sons Kanishka and Pradeep – both professionals – one in the academia and the other in medical field. His death comes as a great loss to his academic colleagues, particularly in Australia and Sri Lanka.  
Prof Laksiri Jayasuriya
Laksiri was born on 27 October 1931 in Ceylon during the late British colonial period. His father was a prison medical doctor. He was the eldest in a family of three.  His mother came from a wealthy family. He obtained primary and secondary school education from Royal College, Colombo (1945-1951). Among others, it was an institution that trained civil servants for the colonial government of Ceylon. Thus, he grew up with English educated elite in Ceylon and had access to a privileged background even though he did not belong to the highest caste. He participated in the debating team in the Royal College which included figures like Felix Dias Bandaranayake (later a Minister of Finance and Public Administration) and Mervin de Silva (later a reputed journalist). During the War, the school-named Glendale- moved to the hills and he was schooled in a residential facility for four years. It instilled British tradition and values in him while affording the opportunity to participate in sports. There he edited Glendale Gazette and took part in a mock parliament (David Walker interview 2012).
Following the trend at the time of the English educated elite to send children for higher studies in Cambridge or Oxford, he also wanted to follow the same path. However, through an encounter with Professor A.P Elkin – father of Peter Elkin an English professor at the University of New England, Australia – on his visit to Colombo, the opportunity arose for Laksiri to go to Australia for tertiary study. He proceeded to Sydney in 1951 to begin his degree course as a private student by a ship called Himalaya and became a resident of the Wesley College. At Sydney, he was with a cohort of students who occupied influential positions later in Australia and overseas (David Walker interview 2012). He studied for a Bachelor’s Degree with Psychology (Hons) between 1950-54 at the University of Sydney obtaining the degree in 1954 with first class and the University Medal.
Laksiri studied subjects such as history, psychology and anthropology. After completing the Bachelor’s degree in 1954, he was offered a Teaching Fellowship in the same year by the Sydney University. He became the first or second Asian academic at Sydney University. Laksiri was 23 years of age then. Most students he taught were returned servicemen who were in a different age group. He taught a first-year statistics course. Teaching lasted until the end of 1955 (David Walker interview 2012).
Laksiri brought with him a left orientation and political consciousness from his Royal College days. Sri Lanka had a strong Trotskyite group at the time. He had a close relationship with David Ross –a senior student at Wesley and the son of a Communist Party Trade Unionist. His contemporaries included Hedley Bull –later to become Professor of International Relations and Jim Wolfensohn who became President of the World Bank. His teacher Prof. W.M O’Neil had much influence on him in terms of ‘scholarship and academia than anyone else’ (David Walker interview 2012).
The class of people Laksiri interacted at Sydney University was well aware of the need for Australia to engage with Asia. Rev. Alan Walker was a critique of white Australia policy. He gained considerable understanding through involvement in university life. e.g. President of the Sydney University Psychological society (1953), secretary of the Sydney University International Club (1953), President of Sydney University Anthropology Society (1952-53). He orgainsed one of the initial Sydney film festivals. Later, he was to continue this interest in film when he took up his appointment at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka as it was then called. His work for Radio Australia called ‘Diary of an Asian Student’ which documented his response to or reflections on Australian life was exemplary. In the 1950s, he received several prizes including Frank Albert Prize and a University Gold medal
Laksiri accepted a fulltime, permanent academic appointment at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in 1956. Having trained as a social psychologist, he joined the Sociology Department which at that time included Ralph Pieris, Stanley Thambiah and Gannanth Obeyesekere. At the time, the department was  the best within the Faculty of Arts – an institution that was very well regarded in Asia. The campus was a site of creative intellectual endeavour as well as of robust debate over academic and political issues. Laksiri built strong friendships with reputed academics such as K N Jayatilleke – Professor of Philosophy and J E Jayasuriya – Professor of Education. He was an active participant in the academic debates and remembered fondly by his colleagues and students. 

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