Lalith Athulathmudali : Brilliant visionary | Daily News

Lalith Athulathmudali : Brilliant visionary

Sworn in as President's Counsel
Sworn in as President's Counsel

I remember a school-friend’s birthday party in our neighbourhood, when Lalith Athulathmudali was seven years old and I was five and a half. It was a fancy dress occasion, and Lalith and I attended it wearing the khaki uniforms of Inspectors of the Ceylon Police. When we were even younger, our parents put us both in blue and white sailor suits for our own birthday parties: those occasions that are always such an integral and important part of childhood, milestones on the way to being grown-up and part of the adult world.

Our relationship extended through our time at Royal Primary School and Royal College and survived the years when academic interests and postgraduate study took us overseas in different directions, Lalith to Oxford and Singapore, myself to London University, and later, to Sydney. Our friendship lasted through to his tragic death in April, 1993.

As a schoolboy at Royal Primary, Lalith William Athulathmudali would sometimes sign his name as Lalith William Samarasekera Athulathmudali. He was very proud of his mother’s family name. His father, Don Daniel Athulathmudali, was a former State Councillor who, in the General Election of 1948, contested the Matugama/Agalawatte seat, and lost by a narrow margin to Sam Silva, a stalwart of the socialist LSSP (Lanka Samasamaja Party).

The household, consisting of Lalith’s parents and their three children (Lalith and two younger siblings, his sister Sujaee and his brother Dayanthe), occupied a house across the street from my own family home in the centre of that part of Deanstone Place which is nearest the grounds of C.M.S. Ladies' College.

The Deanstone Place-Deal Place-Inner Flower Road-Duplication Road-Walukarama Road complex where Lalith and I lived with our families during the 1940s and 1950s is situated in a suburb of the city of Colombo that rejoices in the name of ‘Kollupitiya.’

When Lalith was in his mid-teens, the Athulathmudali family moved to Flower Terrace. His father had built a house there on land he had purchased from my father, who had bought it at an auction sale and presented it to Athulathmudali at the same price he had paid for it. Lalith’s parents, well aware of the value of land, were grateful for this and frequently told me so.

Don Daniel Athulathmudali was a most articulate man. While deeply attached to all three of his children, he was very proud indeed of the achievements of his talented eldest son. Lalith, who was the apple of his father’s eye, could do no wrong and Athulathmudali had great hopes for his future.

Lalith was an exceptionally talented and dedicated student, who, during his years at Royal College, walked away with some of the school’s most coveted and prestigious prizes. I saw him distinguish himself year after year at the College prize-givings and among the18 - 20 prizes he won that I remember were the Governor-General’s Prize, the Rajapakse Memorial Prize, the Mackeen Memorial Prize and the B.F. de Silva Memorial Prize. Lalith must surely have established some sort of record, or come very close to one, by this consistent academic performance. Certainly, I know of no one else of my generation who has won so many of the College’s named prizes, for which competition is extremely keen every year. Inevitably, his success caused a lot of heartburn and silent envy amongst his peers, as well as among others who knew of his talents. This was a burden Lalith had to carry all his life, in other spheres as well, especially that of politics.

While on the subject of Lalith’s academic brilliance, I must admit that it was not his practice, as the saying goes, to hide his light under a bushel. False modesty was certainly not one of his deficiencies. His nature led him to work hard towards success and to be pleased when success came his way.

We, who admired and respected him, found it perfectly possible to accept this side of his personality, especially since it went hand-in-hand with a most generous acknowledgment of, and pleasure in, the achievements of others. As young boys, he and I became as close as any two friends could get, partly, because we were so near to one another in age. Also, Lalith, being so much older than his younger brother, while I was the only boy in our family of five children, we found friends and interests in common.

Lalith’s sister Sujaee and his brother Dayanthe are both, talented in their own right. Sujaee became Head Girl at Ladies’ College and worked as a medical practitioner in Britain, while Dayanthe made his career as an aviation-related engineer and took up the position in Sri Lanka of Director of Civil Aviation, going next to Singapore, where he joined the International Air Transport Association (IATA). He was selected as a Director to design the world’s largest airport in Dubai, then returned to Sri Lanka and is now a consultant.

An important part of Lalith’s character, and a most unusual one, was his almost complete lack of envy and jealousy. He was very generous in imparting knowledge and sharing ideas. Success came to him easily, for he had a phenomenal memory which helped him greatly. He encouraged me to cultivate this attribute, so that remembering details, figures and dates came easily to me as well. But there was a period in my school life when I was not (in Lalith’s opinion) studying hard enough, being preoccupied throughout the year with the sports I loved and spending most of my time on the cricket or athletics field. He took on the role of an elder brother, admonished me and put me to work on my books, guiding me with his notes, encouragement and his ideas. As a result, I managed to win a number of subject prizes at Royal College, besides the usual cricket and athletics awards. I knew few boys of our own age who could delight in the success of others as Lalith did, however close they might have been as friends.

His deep interest in the education of young people and his belief in its importance were amply demonstrated later in life when he initiated the Mahapola Scheme for the benefit of Sri Lanka’s intelligent and gifted youth. His ability to share the joys and pleasures of others in academic achievement was demonstrated annually there, but it was also expressed in a more personal and private way some years ago when, learning that our son and daughter had been awarded memorial prizes at their schools in Sydney, Lalith displayed such spontaneous delight that you might have been forgiven if you had thought these successes had come to his own children. Lalith’s generosity of mind was a rare quality and in him it marked a true nobility of character.

Lalith was disciplined in mind and body and his friends used to feel that the famous Latin saying of the Roman poet Juvenal, Mens sana in corpore sano (‘A sound mind in a healthy body’) fitted him like a glove. These important habits and characteristics stood him in good stead when he went to Oxford and later, to Harvard University, where he brought great honour and glory to his family name, his old school, his country and also to us who knew him. Having completed his studies and completed his term of contract as Lecturer in Law at the University of Singapore, Lalith returned home and practiced for fifteen years as a barrister in Sri Lanka before bringing to the J.R. Jayewardene government the skills of organisation, vision and discipline he had developed during his extraordinarily talented youth at Royal College.

On joining the UNP government, Lalith was assigned the portfolio of Trade and Shipping. He had initially been offered the Ministry of Lands, including the Mahaweli Ministry, but that offer was then changed due to known reasons: there was money to be made in the tender procedure and contracts in the Mahaweli Project. J.R. Jayewardene was persuaded to give it to another person.

According to the pro-UNP press, the departments that made up the Ministry of Trade and Shipping were those that had virtually brought down the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government. The Marketing Department, the Co-operative Wholesale Establishment (CWE), the Insurance Corporation, the Port of Colombo, the Export and Import Control Department and the other departments assigned to Lalith’s portfolio had caused, it was said, much hardship to the people and colossal waste and loss to the government exchequer. In a space of three years, with an excellent team of proven performers, mainly old Royalists like Harsha Wickremesinghe, Wimal Amarasekera, Chanaka de Silva, Rohan Hapugalle, Lalith de Mel, B.S. Wijeweera and many others, Lalith turned this around. He was the main instrument in the newly-won popularity of the J. R. Jayewardene government maintaining its ‘new broom’ image.

There were no more food queues, farmers got a fair deal for their produce, the Insurance Corporation was put on an efficient and mercantile-type footing, and the notoriously long queues of ships outside the main port of Colombo, which had earlier been an everyday occurrence, were no longer in evidence once Lalith got going. Although this added to the popularity and credibility of the J. R. Jayewardene government, Lalith’s contribution and the achievements of his team did not receive the credit that was properly due to them.

It is not merely a lifetime of affection and a valued friendship that lead me to say that Lalith Athulathmudali had the makings of a great leader, since this judgment is backed by a track record of proven achievement. His talent, vision, indefatigable energy, his intelligence and practical organisational capabilities gave him the drive and ambition to help Sri Lanka compare well even with the immense and rather exceptional contribution made by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore in the 1950s: they could have matched it if only they had been given the chance to do so.

Lalith’s outstanding ability and vision were embodied in the Mahapola Scheme─a living example of his permanent contribution to the welfare of Sri Lanka’s youth. He would have been well-advised, however, to turn down J. R. Jayewardene’s offer of the Ministry of National Security, a good example of what is called a ‘No-win Situation’. If he had crushed Tamil Tiger terrorism, the Tamils and the international media would have criticized him heavily, since he would have had to use drastic military methods in order to do so. If he had lost the war, the UNP and the Sinhalese reaction would have forced J. R. Jayewardene to end his political career. This was not the first time that Lalith misjudged and under-estimated the twin forces of the mighty military and publicity machine of the LTTE.

In my own assessment of Lalith Athulathmudali, looms large his desire to set right some of the wrongs done by J. R. Jayewardene and his government, in which Lalith was an important figure: in particular, his determination to alter the Draconian constitution, which he had previously approved, a constitution that sets the President above the law of the land.

It is in this context, with the full realization of the complications that could ensue, that Lalith Athulathmudali decided to press for the impeachment of President Premadasa. When that effort failed, he founded a new political party (the DUNF) which gathered tremendous momentum just before the Western Provincial Elections of 1993, alarming the government into curtailing his activities and denying him the basic rights enjoyed by any prospective Member of Parliament (which Lalith had now become, after being ousted from his own party, the UNP). Lalith’s police protection was withdrawn, his telephones were tapped, and his house was subjected to repeated raids by the Department of Inland Revenue (none of which raids turned up any evidence on which the government could prosecute him). No single individual in the history of our country since Independence has been subjected to such an organized, brutal and systematic campaign of intimidation and mud-slinging by the State, backed by the State-controlled media.

In the British Army, the Victoria Cross is awarded for bravery of this sort─unflinching courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and determined and calculated action in the face of immense risk. The Greeks have a beautiful-sounding name for courage resulting from virtue─ARET─which Lalith displayed in abundance when he took on State-run, State-funded and State-controlled thuggery and repression. Lalith’s heroism, in challenging this monstrous machine, was one of the greatest contributions made by any one in politics in the history of 20th century Sri Lanka. It ranks with the attempts of Keppetipola Dissawe in 1818 to take on the British Government and its military might, in order to free his country of foreign domination.

Finally, on the April 23, 1993, with police protection and surveillance of his political meeting at Kirillapone withdrawn in mysterious and highly suspect circumstances and with the electrical supply to the meeting failing without warning, armed gunmen assassinated Lalith in full view of his political supporters. The fatal bullet penetrated his heart.

And so, with his career sadly cut short, Lalith Athulathmudali joined that small and tragic group of nationalists, thinkers and believers who wanted to change the course of events in their respective countries, but fell foul of reactionary forces that did not want such changes and would not permit them to take place: Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Liaquat Ali Khan, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Aung San, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Salvatore Allende, and Benito “Ninoy” Aquino are among those who paid for their vision, as Lalith did, with their lives.

His vitality, vision and optimism remained with Lalith throughout his life, as did the serious attitude he developed in his early years and maintained during his political career. It was only in his latter years that he would relax and be his normal, vibrant and spontaneous self. He took responsibility seriously and always felt that achievement was the yardstick by which he would be judged in the political arena.

Who would not mourn the passing of such a man? With Lalith’s death, Sri Lanka lost not only one of its greatest sons, but a leader who, with his dynamism and vision, his brilliant eloquence, his energy and his incorruptibility, would have helped alleviate the lot of our people, especially the youth of this country. To them he became a beacon of hope in a land riddled by corruption and torn by hatred and civil war. 



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