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Remembering a father figure who moulded us

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by Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne,
(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy)
Former Chief of Defence Staff

Fifteen years ago, I was commanding SLNS Sauyra, the flagship of the Sri Lanka Navy, stationed at the Colombo Port. I had just returned from India after finishing my tenure as Defence Adviser at our High Commission in New Delhi. Our task was to sail into deep sea towards the equator in search of LTTE arms smuggling ships. We used to patrol for 21 days at a stretch and be in the harbour for 10 days for our much deserved break.

I vividly remember that day—Friday 12th August 2005. We had our Inter Command Volleyball tournament at Welisara, followed by a dinner. Our ships are ‘dry’ at sea (meaning no liquor is served onboard when out at sea) and this party following the volleyball tournament was a good opportunity for us to relax after a 22-day dry spell. 

It was around 9 PM on that day when I received a call from Madura, the Personal Security Officer of then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The Minister had promised me that he would visit my ship when I met him last time. My vessel was due to sail to Vishakapatnum Indian Naval Dockyard for medium refit—a US$ 20 million job arranged free of cost to the Sri Lankan government due to skilled negotiations of our Foreign Minister Kadirgamar! I thought the call was about the minister’s visit.

But what I heard from Madura was shocking. He said in a voice choked with emotion: “Sir, Minister was shot. His body is lying in the Colombo Mortuary. I am going back to his residence with the madam. Please come.”

So, LTTE has ultimately taken their prime target! 

I rushed to the Colombo mortuary from Welisara.

On my way, my mind went back to the day that I had met Mr Kadirgamar. I had been selected to the post of Defence Adviser, Sri Lanka High Commission (SLHC), New Delhi, India in November 2001. I was given an appointment to meet the Minister prior to my departure to India 9 AM at his residence. Half an hour was allocated for the meeting. There were also two clerical workers who were going to an Embassy in a Western country also waiting to see the Minister after me. I was surprised to note that the Minister used to meet all our staff (diplomats or the clerical staff) posted to foreign missions prior to their departure. When he saw me in uniform, he asked the others to meet him first, finished their calls fast and sat with me for a long interview. He knew the Navy well; his elder brother had once commanded it. He inquired about my foreign training exposures and advised me on the important appointment I was going to hold for the next three years. His briefing aptly covered the importance of India to us. 

Our half-an-hour meeting went on for one and half hours. Minister who was extremely busy but ready to spend time with a newly appointed diplomat to brief him and motivate him before he took up appointment in a foreign country! I was so impressed and determined to do my best in my new post.

When I reached the mortuary, the Minister’s body was lying on the postmortem table. The postmortem was over and the staff at mortuary were preparing the body to be transferred to an undertaker. They allowed me to see the body. His chest had been opened for the postmortem. One gunshot had gone piercing the heart damaging the main arteries. Lying on the table was the heart that had won love and respect of all Sri Lankans, Trinity rugby colours (1948/1949), the captaincy of the college cricket team (1950), Sri Lanka schools record in 110 meters hurdles, Trinity Lion in Athletics (1950), the first Duncan White Challenge cup for Athletics in 1948 and prestigious Ryde Gold Medal for best all round student at Trinity College in 1950.

Achieving glory

In 1950, young Kadirgamar went to the University of Colombo and then to the Peradeniya University to study law and graduated with an LLB (Hons) degree. He travelled to India in 1951 and 1952 for all-India university games and won 110 metres hurdles title in both years. He passed the Law College exam with a first class and took oaths as an Advocate at Supreme Courts of Ceylon. He then won scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. In 1960, he obtained a BLitt from University of Oxford and became a barrister at Inner Temple in London. He was the second Sri Lankan (after Lalith Athulathmudali) to become the President of Oxford Union.

Kadirgamar was working abroad as a reputed international lawyer until President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga invited him to serve this country. She made him a National List Member of Parliament and the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  

I consider it a privileged to have served under such an eminent Foreign Minister. He very well understood the importance of India in our foreign policy. He had so many friends there. We who served at SLHC, New Delhi, as junior diplomats always benefited from Mr Kadirgamar’s visits to New Delhi. Ministers Natwar Singh, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Pranab Mukherjee or Ministers Mani Shankar Iyar or Kapil Sibal were our Minister’s close friends. He always introduced us, the young diplomats, to those eminent Indian leaders.

The usually calm SLHC would become a hive of activity when our Deputy High Commissioner, Chinnaiah announced, “The Minister is coming next week”. All important briefs and reports were prepared and updated. The Minister had the habit of listening to us and getting our views. My friend Saj U Mendis, who was a First Secretary at that time, would continue his brief until the Minister said, “I got your point Saj”. He stayed with our High Commissioner, Mangala Moonasinghe at the latter’s official residence. Mr and Mrs Munasinghe looked after the Minister and his wife with love and affection. When he stayed in a hotel, I was responsible for looking after his security. He was a prime target of the LTTE. The Indian government was aware of it and provided him with maximum security.

Minister Kadirgamar was a great orator. He would come to New Delhi, taking the Srilankan flight that left Colombo in the afternoon. He used to rest for four hours in the flight and have a light dinner prior to landing at New Delhi around 7 PM. Then, he went straight to the hotel and prepared his speech to be delivered the following day. With his trusted lieutenant and personal assistant Lenagala (Lena) on his side, he would work till late in the night. When his wife accompanied him, she would ask him to go to bed. We would take over the hotel business centre and convert it into our Secretariat temporarily during the ministerial visit. 

Once after Minister Kadirgamar’s speech, The Hindu editor and Ranji trophy cricketer, N Ram, who is the Minster’s personal friend, had this to write in an editorial: “When Lakshman speaks India listens.” The minister’s speeches were brilliant; he understood India well and Indian leaders respected him. He was a dear friend of India, and Sri Lanka gained tremendously from that friendship.

Among impromptu speeches the Minister has delivered, the one he made in London in September 2004 when he met the Sri Lankan cricketers during a dinner reception stands out. He highlighted the difference between National cricketers and our politicians in his speech replete with wit. (It is available at https://www.cricketmachan.com/cricstories/witty-speech-late-lakshman-kadirgamar-2004/)

While working under Minister Kadirgamar, I learnt three important things about India:

No protocol for friends: the Minister’s best friend was Pranab Mukherjee, very senior Politician from the Congress party. He was the Minister of Defence in 2004. He became India’s Finance Minister, External Affairs Minister and later the President of India. During one of the visits by Minister Kadirgamar to New Delhi in 2004, a meeting was scheduled at the meeting room of the hotel where the Minister was staying (Taj Palace Hotel) with Pranab Mukherjee, the Minister of Defence  of India. Our Minister informed me to tell him when Mukherjee was leaving his office. When I did so, Minister Kadirgamar came down in the lift from 5th floor and received Mukherjee at the entrance to the hotel. Then they went to the meeting room together. After the meeting also Minister Kadirgamar walked up to the car of the Indian Minister. Later, when I told him that as per protocol he had to receive Mukherjee at the meeting room, he said: ” Pranab Mukherjee is my friend. There is no protocol for friends! “

In a democratic country, do not forget the Opposition: When our Minister visited New Delhi, he made it a point to meet government leaders such as the PM, Minister of External Affairs, Defence Minister, etc., and thereafter the Opposition leaders.

One day, I asked him why?  He said “Ravi, do not forget, India is a democracy. In a democracy, one day the Opposition will come into power. It may be weeks, months or years. But when they come to power, they will remember you.” How true! It was a BJP-led government that was in power then. When we defeated the LTTE in 2009, India had a Congress-led government.

Indian monsoon is very important to Sri Lanka: Minister Kadirgamar would call and inquire about the monsoon in India. He would ask whether rain was heavy or mild and whether sufficient water had been received in agricultural areas or not. One day, I asked him why he was so keen about Indian monsoons.  He said, “Ravi, the Indian economy depends on the monsoon. When they get enough water, they will have a good crop of rice, wheat and vegetables. So, the government does not have to give grants to farmers and will have money to help neighbouring countries like us”. Brilliant thinking!

We miss the great Minister who groomed us. The diplomats recruited during Minister Kadirgamar’s tenure are now holding high positions as Ambassadors and High Commissioners today, due to excellent training they received from him. He wanted us to observe, learn and perform well for the country.

One day, Minister Kadirgamar was rushing to the President’s House with a junior diplomat at the time (I think its Chanaka Talpahewa) to meet President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. They were scheduled to meet the Russian Foreign Minister. Suddenly, the Minister stopped, looked at Chanaka carefully, walked up to him and adjusted his tie knot, saying, “Now you look better.” That was how the great man groomed the junior diplomats.

He was a wonderful person—a father figure. We miss him.

 


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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