by Sarath Amunugama
While his supporters were fitted into convenient positions on State boards, Minister R S Perera was more interested in his own nascent business interests. He set up a factory in Kelaniya to make rubber slippers. Then he set up a factory to manufacture ‘mantles’ for Kitson lamps. Since we got on well he would invite me to his spacious office to observe his experiments in firing up the gauze mantles which gave a blinding light for the Kitson lamp. He confided in me that he himself had to conduct the experiment because if anybody else discovered the formula he would take it to another investor. A sudden visitor to his office would have found the Minister and his Director of Information huddled behind a table trying to ignite a Kitsons lamp – a task which was not included in the gazette notification which detailed our respective responsibilities. Apart from his pseudo cientific experiments RS soon began to leak Cabinet secrets to SLFP Mudalalis. By this time the SLFP, and particularly Mrs. B, had nurtured a group of native entrepreneurs who using state patronage had built up lucrative businesses. They were personally loyal to the Prime Minister and a few of her like minded ministers including Maitripala Senanayake, Illangaratne and Kalugalle. Those ministers were quite willing to instruct the State Banking system and the State Trading bodies to favour these Mudalalis. ‘These lucky businessmen included J P A Piyadasa, Dasa, McCallum, Ratnapura Gem merchants, Douglas Perera and a host of other smaller fry including R S Perera, who were solidly behind the SLFP. They were now alarmed that NM was dead set on dismantling their privileges. They also succeeded in getting the ear of Felix who was willing to ally himself with anyone in order to establish himself as the intellectual leader of the SLFP government. After every Cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning RS would come back to his office and telephone his Mudalali friends about the latest outrage proposed by the Finance Minister Some of them would then come over to personally inspect RS’s copy of the offending Cabinet paper. Then they would lobby their friends to get the proposals rescinded. NM and Bernard made proposals to clean up the Banking system. Any attempt to change the structure of the People’s Bank was strongly opposed by the Mudalalis. It was the People’s Bank under its General Manager Solomons that had provided easy credit to fuel the acquisitions and investments of the Mudalalis. The LSSP had appointed Hector Abeywardene as the Chairman and he was not hobnobbing with the businessmen as his predecessors had done. In fact NM’s tinkering with the Banks based on an outdated philosophy did more harm than good.
The economy was on a downward spiral and following the shibboleths of the Marxists, NM was replacing entrepreneurship with State enterprises with neither the managerial capacity nor the enterprising spirit to be a success. He was dismantling a system which could deliver the goods and replacing it with the dead hand of the state because of an out of date doctrine. No wonder Felix and the modernists of the SUP were aghast at the blundering attitudes of `golden brains’ NM. They called him a ‘Gadol Modaya’ instead. I can recoil one occasion when we were summoned by NM to discuss publicity for his programmes. I suggested that his numerous corporations be asked to publicise their work with newspaper advertisements. NM was horrified at this idea and said that he did not want the Corporations to spend money oil propaganda. Since he was also not willing, to spend money from the Budget for publicity the case for the Government went by default. He had no time for modern publicity and was content to leave that to his party machine which was nearly extinct. This was a silly attitude when the JVP was throwing the book at the leftist leaders and creating a huge wave of hatred towards them. I had a great friend in Sarath Nawana, a dynamic LSSPer who came back from UK with the 1970 victory. He wanted to modernize the propaganda effort of the party. He became the editor of the ‘Janadina’ the LSSP paper and rival to “Aththa” which itself was becoming more critical of the Government. The leftist ministers of the Government were constantly in fear of being pulled up by the PM at Cabinet meetings for the criticisms levelled in their party newspapers. Nawana was continually warned by NAM who however resisted requests from other leaders to fire him. Sira of “Aththa” was also being warned regularly though Pieter and Sarath Muttetuwegama defended him. I had to constantly interact with these two irascible journalists particularly since my Minister RS was their favourite target. By this time RS and his Mudalali friends had become bitter enemies of NM. They were constantly bad mouthing him and complaining to the PM while at the same time Kumar Rupasinghe was poaching leftist cadres.
N M Perera
NM had been my ‘Beau Ideal’ when I was in the University. With a double doctorate in Political theory at the LSE under Harold Laski he was a scholar and writer of the first rank. His analysis of the annual budget was the best reasoned speech in Parliament. After speaking in Parliament he would come to Peradeniya to repeat his analysis and we would listen spellbound by the clarity and originality of his exposition. Whenever NM spoke at Peradeniya the Arts theatre was jam packed with both staff and students hanging on to his every word. NM was always elegantly, though simply, dressed in white trousers and bush shirt with a weatherbeaten watch on his right wrist. I noticed that the dial of the wristwatch was turned s and NM would from time to time dramatically look at the time, perhaps a habit picked up in Parliament where time is rationed. He loved fancy shoes and sandals. Later when I would meet him at Colvin’s house, where he would sit patiently to pick up his colleague for a high class social visit, I noticed his brightly polished shoes which would have been the envy of a ballroom dancer. In fact NM was a great ball room dancer and ladies would compete to take a turn with him. All this was of course hidden from his half starved worker supporters who imagined that their leader was living on ,half rations.
As the Secretary of the University Economics society, which was a LSSP front, I would visit NM in his Borella house to fix dates for his and other party bigwigs visits to the Campus for lectures. His front office was full of books and newspapers which could certainly have done with some dusting. There was a large portrait of Trotsky indifferently hung up. In the middle of the room there was a large table with a mountain of files on either side. He guffawed when I told him about our requirements. ‘You people are with us only till you pass the CCS exam’ he said. ‘Only Batty and Shanmugaraja continued with us’. I assured him that this time it would be different. Little did I know at that time that he was prophetic. Any way he consulted his diary and gave me some was prop he tic. Any way he consulted dates and a couple of dog eared books for me to read. Vivienne Goonewardene came from inside the house and seeing that I was famished after the long train journey from Peradeniya, invited me to have breakfast. NM waded into the stringhoppers and I marvelled at his appetite. He had a broad chest which was barely contained by a sleeveless banian. He wore a checked sarong and had a pair of cheap wooden clogs on his feet. His wooden clogs were the stuff of legend. Apparently after their celebrated jail break on the eve of the Japanese air attack on Colombo during the second world war, NM held up the getaway by going back to his cell to retrieve his cheap wooden clogs much to the fury of Robert Gunawardene who had coordinated the operation ‘Yathura’. Significantly the LSSP selected the key as their party symbol for the election. NM was well known for his frugality and thrift. Sarath Nawana told me how he refused to loosen the purse strings for expenses for his party paper. While having breakfast he cut short our discussion about politics and was planning a Buriyani dinner expedition to a Muslim friend’s house. He asked Vivienne, who by this time was living with him, to ring up Leslie and invite him also for Buriyani. Many years later I had to interact with him almost daily during the JVP insurrection which I will describe later. After he was defeated in 1977, and was out of Parliamentary politics which had been his life’s vocation, I visited him in his Cotta road residence which he occupied after selling his Borella property. There were not many visitors then but his faithful Sena Gunasekera and long standing driver looked after him. I remember NM affectionately talking to his dog which curled under his table and was licking his toes. I was the Secretary to the Media ministry when NM died in hospital. My Minister Ananda Tissa de Alwis and I rushed there and coordinated the final ceremonies with JRJ’s concurrence. Though he was out of Power we ensured that NM got what was in effect a state funeral. have a vivid mememory of his old comrades led by Colvin whoa walked all the way behind the cortege and were sprawled on sports ground totally exhausted and oblivious to the official ceremonies that had begun and were being broadcast island wide.
With the success of the ULF, embassies of the socialist bloc became more active in Colombo. The PM made several highly successful visits to China ina and the USSR. She was so popular as the first woman PM that the Bandaranaike name became synonymous with Sri Lanka in foreign countries. With her trade mark Kandyan saree, flashing smile and inborn courtesy she made a brilliant ambassador for her country and global leaders vied to be photographed with her. In the Information Department we were inundated with requests for interviews which she handled with great aplomb. It was her and the country’s finest hour. Whenever Somasara and I wanted to meet her we would go early in the morning to Temple Trees and she would greet us graciously and quickly decide on the issues on which we needed guidance. Her officials in the Defence ministry – Ratnavale and Ridgeway Tillekeratne – had been my bosses in Ratnapura and were constantly in attendance at Temple Trees and we could all chat with her easily because of the Ratnapura connection.
She followed her husband in only using Temple Trees for official engagements and lived in her own house at Rosmead Place. Her house was well kept but did not have any of the garish furniture that has become so commonplace in politician’s houses today. The telephone was fixed to a bracket on the wall and Mrs. B would take calls in the sitting room for everybody to hear. After her state visits she would be received ceremonially by the cabinet on the airport tarmac. These festivities were orchestrated by T B Illangaratne. I was drafted into this ceremony because I had to bring my younger daughter Varuni and her friend Lekha Ratwatte, daughter of Mackie, to the tarmac to present bouquets of flowers to the returning PM. This was a nerve racing task for me as the two mischievous children would run around and had to be dragged back just in time to greet Mrs. B who unfailingly kissed them after receiving the welcoming flowers.
This is an excerpt from Sarath Amunugama’s three-volume autobiogbraphy, the first of which is now in print.
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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development
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.
Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka
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!.
Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?
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!