This year, as I put pen to paper to commemorate the birth of a great Sri Lankan, the country is gearing for a decisive election. While we feel his absence even more at this juncture, we have every reason to celebrate the birth of Lalith Athulathmudali; a scholar, an orator, a pragmatic politician and a true son of the soil whose exemplary commitment to the country can hardly be matched. This article will search for the Statesman whom we lost 21 years ago as we celebrate his life.
Qualities to admire
One of the most striking features about Mr. Athulathmudali is that he did not promote himself through posters and campaigns throughout his career as a politician. But he was popular. Popularity came behind him as he delivered on his promises and for what he believed in and what he stood for. When he was injured in the parliament bomb the sea of letters which he received from the general public including school children, was demonstrative of the love he had earned from the people of Sri Lanka. The number of preference votes he received even after his death shows the respect he had earned. Now that is one quality that only a great leader and a statesman would have.
He was one of the sharpest brains that this country has ever produced. No matter what portfolio was given to him, he could apply himself to the needs of that Ministry. From Trade, Shipping, National Security, Agriculture, Food, Cooperatives to Education and Higher Education, he handled many subjects. Most importantly, he respected and relied on his officers and gave them due credit. For us, it was a sheer joy to be part of his team. Abuse of power was never in his genes. He had the greatest ability to lead as well as to follow. A lesson I will not forget.
It must be mentioned that while the world celebrates 25th anniversary of the UN Convention of the Child, Mr. Athulathmudali was a firm believer in ensuring that children enjoyed their rights. He was such a far-thinking statesman who knew that children were not only the future, but they are the present day citizens and thus were entitled to certain rights. He did not allow schoolchildren to be used for political purposes; may it be a pageant, a street procession or a rally. His contribution to the field of education is still unmatched. Even to this day, thousands of children benefit from the Mahapola Scholarship to further their education. Many of the present- day government servants have been beneficiaries of this scholarship.
Laid down his life
I also feel that I ought to share with you his views particularly on the need to abolish the executive presidency. He laid down his life fighting for the abolition of the executive presidency in Sri Lanka. He could see far into the future. He strongly felt and often said “too much power concentration in the hands of one person is not something desirable for the country.” Unfortunately what was undesirable for the majority at that time was very desirable to one person and a handful of inner circle people. Since the time of Mr. Athulathmudali’s death there was ample time for us to debate on this. However that did not take place except when there was a presidential election. Now it has resurfaced. Ministers and parliamentarians from the ruling side have relinquished their ministerial portfolios and are coming out in the open demanding the abolition of this super powered position. To me this is like Déjà vu, because it was for the same reason Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali, Mr, Gamini Dissanayake and 8 others walked out of the then UNP government. This also led to the birth of the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). The party contested only once and was able to secure over one million votes. But it also cost the life of Mr. Athulathmudali and subsequently Mr. Gamini Dissanayake. Two Ministers, six Deputy Ministers and two members of parliament came out of the government in 1991 and this resulted in the collapse of the government and brought about a change in the administration then. These are the factors which all of us need to look into because the exactly same scenario has cropped up again.
A Lesson for Any Leader
Mr. Athulathmudali firmly believed and demonstrated that leaders will have to realize that they need to govern in such a way to ensure that the country progresses in all areas; a high concentration on Agricultural development, Economic development, Social and infrastructure development, the Need for the provision of Public Utilities (with particular emphasis on reasonable and affordable rates) Alleviation of Poverty, Independence of the Judiciary, Rule of law, Freedom of speech and congregation, etc. He said that is the difference between ruling and governing a people. And, he said that if a leader is confident that things have improved in these sectors from the time he or she took office, then the person can be confident that the people will continue with their support.
Learn from the Past
As I ponder as to why history is repeating itself, I ask myself the question “Haven’t we learnt anything from the past?.” The development of a nation needs the contributions of the educated, intelligent and committed people. And if a government loses its intelligent, committed members, I think that government needs to rethink where they have gone wrong. While I doubt whether there is enough time to contemplate on this now, I also feel that had we taken the lesson from 1991 seriously, much of this mayhem could have been prevented.
No sooner than the recent turn of events took place, a friend of mine asked me what my reaction was to all this. My response was that we are being put into a dilemma, we are a people who fought tooth and nail against the regime of Ranasinghe Premadasa. It was a tough time. We could not even stay at home and sleep in peace. The DUNF was born out of that agony which we endured in the clutches of the executive power. Many felt that the executive presidency should go. Many paid with their lives. It is in that situation that the DUNF joined hands with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. But alas! She too could not move out of the executive presidency.
"Since the time of Mr. Athulathmudali’s death there was ample time for us to debate on this but this did not happen"
Up to date we do not know for certain who was behind Mr. Athulathmudali’s assassination. The media was quick, too quick to point fingers towards the LTTE. But we at Lalith Athulathmudali camp and the majority of the public had different views on the whole episode of his untimely death. But one thing is for sure, we have lost a statesman during his quest to abolish the executive presidency. It does demonstrate the absolute power of the position.
On all successive elections, there has been a promise to end the executive presidency. And I believe that it is never too late to discuss and review this particular topic as a matter of priority. Mr. Athulathmudali if he was alive would have liked to see the country needs to progress and move forward. In that context I do agree that you can’t satisfy everyone. But certain standards of governance need to be maintained for us to be progressive as a nation. And a committed statesman can still undo this before it escalates to a tragedy.