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Lalith Athulathmudali was accepted as a leader nationally and internationally

Lalith Athulathmudali (November 26, 1936 – April 23, 1993)

by S.V.D. Kesarralal Gunasekera

(19th Death Anniversary of Late Lalith Athulathmudali.)

Nineteen years ago on April 23 as I sat in the hospital varandah unable to muster enough courage to see the slain body of Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali, I had a sad and strange feeling that this was the end of great politics in our nation. Today, as we are challenged by the international community, I still feel the loss.

There are only two names that come to mind about who could have saved the nation and the embarrassment that we are compelled to counter – Lakshman Kadiragamar and Lalith Athulathmudali. It is our misfortune, they are no longer with us. On this death anniversary of Mr. Athulathmudali, I would like to ponder what he would have done differently in a situation like this

First and foremost, he would have analyzed and understood the reality of the matter. He had the wisdom to know that in the arena of world politics, might is right and not the other way around. For example, everyone knows that there are human rights violations in China. But given China’s economic might, no one dares challenge it. In dealing with certain countries this is a fact and he would have explained this even to the head of state. Sadly, the inability to see the reality and take disciplined steps to redress the situation is dragging us further into the mire.

It was no secret that Mr. Athulathmudali was accepted nationally and internationally. He was educated at Oxford and Harvard Universities. His oratorical skills made him shine both as a scholar as well as a politician and statesman. He was familiar with the language of international politics and given his farsightedness, was on par with other players in global political arena. He was well read and had up- to- date knowledge on almost everything.

Given all these attributes, he was accepted by all without question. Especially when dealing with other countries, it is imperative that the country presents someone whom others readily accept. People ponder whether it is a misfortune or we lack frontline politicians who have such acceptance.

During the time when he held important cabinet portfolios, he demonstrated that he was both competent and confident. Late President J R Jayewardene trusted him to handle many ministries such as Trade and Shipping, Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives, Education and Higher Education and National Security. In the Cabinet his peers accepted his word and his juniors looked to him with awe. If President Rajapaksa had similar lieutenants who possess education, quality and excellence, the situation today would be entirely different.

There was a time when people of the calibre of Mr. Athulathmudali were invited by international organizations and UN bodies, especially UNCTAD, to address their fora and conventions. But in the last decade or so, we rarely see any Lankan politician being sought in that manner. Such invitations carry a lot of weight and recognition. But it is sad that Sri Lankan politics has been producing court jesters and not orators in the last few decades.

Mr. Athulathmudali had both national and international media wanting to interview and question him. He was confronted by hostile media in the 1980s by the same Channel 4 on the issue of the LTTE. The transcript of that interview which is in my possession shows how professional he was in countering the accusations. Today the only counter we see is pointing fingers at other nations and saying they too are violating human rights. There is a saying ‘When in a hole, stop digging’. By pointing fingers at other nations we are inadvertently admitting that we too have violated human rights.

His first principle in dealing with media was to be fully informed. The other was that he was the single voice that represented the country. In the present day context, the inability to have one voice is clearly seen by the conflicting statements being made by many ministers. It also shows that the ministers are not in agreement with what is happening. Lalith Athulathmudali would have rallied the entire cabinet to comprehend the situation and consent to a proper counter.

His professionalism also showed in the way he handled media interviews. He would never antagonize the interviewer. He always sought to convince the interviewer and through that the audience.

Lalith Athulathmudali had great political acumen – a quality not abundant in today’s politics. He used every opportunity to brief himself on current events, something that gave him an advantage of being able to foresee problems. He would have foreseen this situation we are in way before the end of the war and anticipated the repercussions.

He would have even come up with a plan of action following the end of the war which I am certain would have included a dossier to educate all these countries and the Human Rights Council, diplomatic engagement at the highest possible level, mediation with key countries and constant communication. He would have used the diplomatic channels to the maximum to ensure that our story is heard and understood.

What we have not understood is that if we continue to collide with the countries which raise concerns, there is no escape. And if we fail to have professionals handling this situation the results will be far worse.

Lalith Athulathmudali was a politician who knew himself. Today, we see politicians who are unaware of themselves taking seats in parliament. Some are well educated in the English language while others believe that because they are members of parliament they are well informed about everything. Such misconceptions make some politicians make arrogant statements.

Asking the public to boycott American products while accepting IMF loans not only shows an unscrupulous polity but also lack of patience and maturity. There are so many things which we can learn from Mr. Athulathmudali’s speeches (which were written by himself) including a clear policy of not insulting anyone. While it may be entertaining to listen to politicians insulting one another as well as world leaders, it shows a definite lack of respect and class.

Many people ponder whether the strategy is to entertain the local crowd and keep them misinformed of what we are facing? If that is the case, then surely the nationalistic strategy is working well, but we must also be mindful that we are losing credibility in the world. During Mr. Athulathmudali’s time he ensured that the country did not lose internationally. But in the present context many are asking the question are we heading towards disaster?

Recently someone asked me ‘What is Sri Lanka’s foreign policy’? I was compelled to keep mum because no one seems to know what it is. Is it absolute stubbornness or arrogance or a mixture of both? However, the fact that we could not get India to abstain from voting shows a serious lack of policy and engagement with those who matter.

Since the predictions of the Central Bank on the economic front are slightly second to those of the Meteorological Department’s predictions on the weather, we cannot be sure where we are heading in terms of our economy. But one thing is certain – instead of antagonizing them, we need to engage with developed countries as nearly 70 to 80% of our trade is with the USA and Europe. Are we slowly but surely making enemies of these countries due to a lack of foreign and economic policy?

One question we need to ask ourselves is what we have achieved after the end of the war. Have we improved our education? Have we become more united? Have we been able to manage our own economy? Are corruption and crime on the decline? Have, media standards dropped to despicable levels? Is everyone who has a different point of view labeled ‘traitors’ and is nepotism the way forward.

At a time when the President needs all our support to steer this country towards lasting peace, politicians in the calibre of late Mr. Lalith Athulatmudali are needed to heal this wounded nation.

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