- She also taught us the value of listening, especially to raw, young talent – she is one of the very few political figures, whom I have met, who has the humility to be able to do so
- Even though, as a nation we have many more miles to go – CBK continues to be a guiding light for the arduous journey ahead
I remember my first encounter with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) so vividly. Seven years ago, around mid-morning in late August, I returned a missed call on my phone. I made the usual greeting and asked who it was that I had missed a call from, and an authoritative voice replied;“this is Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.” Fair to say I was stunned for a few moments and I faintly remember asking if the person on the other end was joking.
Fast forward to 2020, I am honoured to be able to pen a few words about her role in my life; and in the lives of the many young professionals who have been privileged enough to work with her in the past few years. At the outset I want to make it clear that this is not an analysis of her political career nor her political alliances, but simply a genuine tribute to a leader, a mentor and a mother who is by nature a friend.
National Unity and Reconciliation
Many who know CBK will strongly agree with me that the driving passion of her life is to ensure that this island and its peoples prosper in unity. In fact, the reason she had initially called me was to discuss the very same subject, following my involvement in the 2013 Rally for Unity campaign to ensure that “Hate has no place in Sri Lanka.” On her invitation, several colleagues and I shared our vision for this country and at that young age, it was inspiring for us to receive such high-level validation of our hopes and aspirations. Later, during my engagement with her at the South Asia Policy and Research Institute (SAPRI), where she is the Founding Chair and while at my full-time role at the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), her commitment to a united Sri Lanka was made clearer. In fact, the creation of ONUR was her brainchild and the initial blueprint meant to create a body within government to catalyse and incubate programmes that would work towards promoting reconciliation among the various communities in the country. I will treasure those initial documents in the hope of using them again one day, as within them were a mechanism that would ensure that this taboo subject was mainstreamed and integrated into the entire government machinery.
Following her clear vision and together as one team, we made plans on reforming our education system to enable an incoming generation to believe that we Sri Lankans were one and that our history would never hold us back; we created programmes where students who had never met anyone from a different race and religion could meet together in student camps, where arts and culture were an integral tool used for this bonding; we developed applications to provide easy access to translation and interpretation services so that the National Languages Policy could be fully implemented; we looked into sustainable models to provide basic social and livelihood needs to the vulnerable populations in the North and East; we initiated activities for war affected women from all over the Island to speak with one voice of their common pain; we brought together religious and community leaders from all across the country so that they could ignite the healing process so very needed in this country; we dreamt of creating a better land for all those who called this country home.
Working with CBK taught me some very valuable life skills. For instance, we all learnt how to think on our feet. She had a plan in her head, which more often than not, we didn’t know of and after many trials and errors, we learnt that the trick was to always be able to think 3 steps ahead. We learnt to work on time – deadlines were set and were followed up on meticulously and believe it or not, the one time I was late she came early! Uncertainty was the nature of the game and it brought the best out in us. She also taught us the value of listening, especially to raw, young talent – she is one of the very few political figures, whom I have met, who has the humility to be able to do so. She would invite us to share our opinions and ideas and would act on our submissions if they were valid. In a country where seniority defines career progression and as a leader of an organisation myself, I deeply value this training she set by example.
Then there were times when we would implore of her not to make controversial statements, but she insisted that as leaders it was necessary that the undesirables were spoken of, even at the risk of unpopularity. We learnt from her that being brave could be a hard and lonely journey. From the start of her career and when she had much more to lose, bold and fearless statements made by her defined the Sudu Nelum movement and inspired the peace processes in our country. She has been fearless in this regard and the respect she has earned, from all those who share her vision across the world, is testimony to this fact. I have sat at meetings with world leaders who have looked up to her in admiration for all that she continues to stand for. Even though, as a nation we have many more miles to go – CBK continues to be a guiding light for the arduous journey ahead.
I write this because it is important that our country understand that before she became a leader, that she was a daughter – a daughter who saw her father assassinated and the pressures her mother and the family had having to step into his shoes
Crab curry and ambarella juice
I often joke with “Madam” as I fondly call her, that if she weren’t a former President, she would have probably run one of the country’s most successful restaurant chains. What the world may not see is that she is a proud home-maker and a mother. To this date, she plans what her guests would eat and drink when invited over for either a friendly or an official gathering. She has created the recipe for the best crab curry, which I have ever tasted and makes sure that we are served with the most delicious Ambarella juice just because she knows we like it. She personally chooses the colours for her curtains and upholstery. Walking around her garden, you can clearly see she has a green thumb and that she takes pride in beauty around her. She never steps out of her house without being immaculately dressed and that too with the greatest taste and class; we have often had long conversations on Sri Lankan crafts and life in Europe.
I write this because it is important that our country understand that before she became a leader, that she was a daughter – a daughter who saw her father assassinated and the pressures her mother and the family had having to step into his shoes. I am not sure many of us would have been able to withstand this first blow, let alone what was to come. We should not forget that she was a young and hopeful wife when her husband too was assassinated, and that as a young mother, she was left to fend for two young children in an extremely volatile context. It was not an easy decision to have made to set up life in the UK to protect her children and then to have made an equally hard decision to come back to take her mother’s place in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. You cannot take away from the fact and even though we have a long way to go, that by winning by landslide to be Sri Lanka’s first woman President that she is among the few who paved the way for women to be active in electoral politics.
We will probably never be able to understand the deep fear and insecurity she must have had to sleep through, after she almost lost her life to a suicide bomb attack. We mustn’t forget that she is now a grandmother who yearns for a month of peace to spend time with her grandchildren. She has had and continues to have hopes and dreams as a woman, just like we all do. Some may disagree, but she has sacrificed for our nation and we mustn’t forget or belittle that. She has shown by example what perseverance can look like; that no matter how hard you are hit – you are only hurt if you don’t get up.
I have been very lucky in my life to be mentored by great women and she is one undoubtedly of them. As a woman who intends to play a role in the public discourse of this country, I will forever value the unreserved insights that she has unselfishly shared with me; with us.
Dear Madam, you have trusted us and given us the confidence to rise to the occasion and that is a very rare characteristic among people of your status and calibre. The leaders of our country have much to learn from your humility and from your love for all our people. Thank you, Madam, for continuing to be a friend to all of us. May you have the strength to continue to do what drives you.
The author is an Attorney-at-Law, social entrepreneur, social and political activist. She was former Deputy Director - Programmes at the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation.