Former Minister Lalith Athulathmudali's 70th birth
anniversary falls tomorrow:
REMEMBERED: A British MP, Cyril Smith, MBE - famous for his
sense of humour - related the following story in an after dinner speech.
"Mrs. Thatcher passed on and knocked on the Gates of Heaven but St.
Peter, after asking for her name, sends her down below. Some four days
later, there is a knock on the Gates of Heaven. St. Peter goes and finds
the devil standing there.
"What do you want?", asked St. Peter.
"Oh", says the Devil, "I have come to seek political asylum".
One might wonder what this fictitious story has got to do with Lalith
Athulathmudali. I would say 'very much'.
As the story seeks to depict, the 'Iron Lady' brooked no opposition
and not many said 'No' to her and got away unscathed. Mr. Athulatmudali
belongs to that few who had the courage to say 'No', and win her
The occasion was the high level bilateral talks in Colombo during
Mrs. Thatcher's visit to Sri Lanka, to declare open the Victoria dam.
As usual, Mrs. Thatcher had been fully briefed on the bilateral
economic issues, particularly by her loyal supporters in the private
sector - in this case the British shipping lobby.
One item on the agenda for discussion was the allocation of a
restricted number of containers by the Central Freight Bureau to British
Mr. Athulathmudali, who was generally several steps ahead of his
opponents, anticipated the questions and was ready with the defence.
Politely but firmly, the British delegation was reminded that just as
many developed countries, including the United Kingdom, developed their
fleets with substantial government financial assistance, a developing
country like Sri Lanka which cannot afford to provide financial
assistance, had to provide cargo assistance to develop a national fleet
and one which would be sympathetic to our export trade.
He also emphasised that the government's economic policy was open but
not free just as in any developed country with a market economy.
Although no increase in cargo allocation for British lines was promised,
Mrs. Thatcher could not help admiring a Sri Lankan Minister who fought
for his country's rights, just as she did on every national issue during
The late Robert Senanayake enjoyed repeating the remarks of a German
ship-owner after an encounter with Mr. Athulathmudali in the ministry
A very powerful delegation from the Ceylon, UK and Continental
Conferences, led by their veteran Chairman, held talks with the Minister
on a proposal to increase freight rates on our exports, as well as to
secure more cargo for their vessels.
Mr. Athulathmudali, the brilliant lawyer he was, listened without
offering a word, causing some discomfort and anxiety to the delegation.
The Chairman of the delegation, however, was emboldened by the
Minister's silence and made a few leading statements which were
factually incorrect. That was all the Minister required to demolish the
Chairman's entire case for the two demands.
The delegation left the conference room poorer than when they walked
in, because the Minister proved the case for a reduction in rates,
rather than an increase.
While the delegation was trooping out of the ministry building, the
leader had asked his German colleague what his perception was of the
discussions. "Operation was successful, but the patient is dead" was his
reply, according to the late Robert Senanayake.
I witnessed Mr. Athulathmudali's compassion, sense of humour, his
remarkable ability to restore order even in the most chaotic situations
and as quickly as changing scenes on a television screen.
One such scenario occurred in Hong Kong at a cocktail party hosted by
the millionaire Thomas Cheung, a well-known friend of Sri Lanka.
The party was held to promote Sri Lanka's 'Flag of Opportunity' ship
registry. The guests were the leading ship owners of Hong Kong and their
A Sri Lankan living in Hong Kong was invited by Mr. Cheung to
introduce the Minister and to make a short speech.
Nervously he walked to the microphone and the only words which
escaped from his mouth were 'ladies and gentlemen'. The deafening
silence which followed lasted a very embarrassing five minutes or so.
Mr. Athulathmudali then grabbed the microphone and said "ladies and
gentlemen, if my friend was asked to introduce a cabaret artist, he
would have described even her full anatomy. But when the poor man was
asked to introduce a politician, quite understandingly he didn't know
where to begin."
When normalcy was restored after a hearty laugh by everybody, the
Minister made such a convincing case for our ship registry that, within
a few months, over 80 ships were registered under the 'Flag of
Opportunity' scheme, which contributed to our invisible earnings, as
well as employment, particularly for our seafarers.
I had the pleasure of accompanying the Minister on several overseas
visits. On each such visit, I returned richer in knowledge gathered from
discussions with the Minister, even though poorer financially. One such
visit was to Buenos Aires to attend the 'Group of 77 Preparatory
Meeting' for UNCTAD VI.
One afternoon the Minister and I went down to the reception desk in
the hotel, to hand over our room keys before leaving for the conference
There was a note for me at the desk, but it was in Spanish. When I
tried to give it to the receptionist for a translation, the multilingual
Minister volunteered and read "This is to confirm our meeting at ten,
signed Barbara - whoever she may be," added the Minister, with a
mischievous smile on his face.
Rather than thank the Minister for his free translation, I sought to
dispel any misgivings by stating that Barbara was a freelance reporter
for UPI who wanted to interview me since I was appointed to be the
spokesman for the 'Group of 77' on shipping at UNCTAD VI to be held in
Belgrade in June that year.
The Minister smiled again and said, "By the way, she has failed to
mention whether it is 10 a.m. or 10 p.m. So if it is 10 a.m. give her a
good cup of Sri Lankan tea (which we always carried to be given as
gifts), but if it is 10 p.m. you will have to settle for Argentinean
At that point I realised that silence was golden.
On yet another occasion, five of us were returning via Zurich and
dead tired after attending UNCTAD meetings which usually ended at 2 a.m.
or 3 a.m. One of my colleagues had several pieces of hand luggage and,
after checking our baggage, he screamed that two bags were missing.
When he started frantically to search for the bags, one of my friends
detected that the Minister was carrying my friend's bags. What a
contrast it was to some protocol conscious Ministers!
Perhaps the most memorable scene was in an aircraft, when the
Minister, Mrs. Athulthmudali, and their six-month-old baby were
travelling back to Colombo from Geneva.
In the early hours around one a.m., a Sri Lankan friend who was
seated by my side, pinched me to show Mr. Athulathmudali feeding his
daughter with a bottle of milk. Neither the Minister nor his unassuming
wife entrusted this to a stewardess who would have gladly obliged.
As an official who had the opportunity of working under Mr.
Athulthmudali, I witnessed at first hand his outstanding performance as
a speaker at international gatherings, his ability to inspire and win
the respect of his officials at all ministerial meetings and his
qualities of a sincere friend enjoyed by all his officials.