By Nigel Hatch
In Volume II of his autobiography ‘To Paris and Back,’ Dr. Sarath Amunugama (SA) covers the period 1977 to 1990, aptly subtitled ‘The JRJ Years’.
He covers a momentous period in the nation’s history and in his own career: J.R. Jayewardene’s (JRJ’s) landslide victory in 1977 and the second Republican Constitution which established the Executive Presidency, the introduction of the open economy, his appointment at the age of 37 as the youngest Permanent Secretary in 1977, and his enduring contributions to the development of broadcasting and the introduction of TV and tourism, including investments by international hotel chains.
The JRJ years
Dr. Amunugama, who worked closely with President J.R. Jayewardene as Permanent Secretary to the Ministries of Information and Broadcasting and State, states that as a social scientist, he was fascinated by the JRJ persona and wishes to present “a sympathetic portrayal” of JRJ, whom he correctly identifies as an important political leader. His breakdown of JRJ’s zeitgeist is a fascinating read of the public and private faces of this enigmatic politician. “Sri Lanka has not seen a leader of the calibre of JRJ,” Dr. Amunugama writes.
SA tells his readers that JRJ and his brother Harry (Hector Wilfred ‘Harry’ Jayewardene – HWJ) read every book on their heroes Disraeli and Napoleon. The reviewer recalls that when apprenticing with Sam Kadirgamar QC, the latter and HWJ would phone each other and indulge in one-upmanship about their latest acquisitions on Napoleon.
But SA does not view JRJ through rose-tinted glasses: “A cynical interpretation of legal provisions led JRJ and his supporters to many undemocratic acts and violations of human rights…. Amendments to the Constitution to solve parochial political issues led to the debasement of the Constitution and the presidency.”
Amunugama takes the reader through the deprivation of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s civic rights in 1980, which pushed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) into an extreme Sinhala nationalist position and led to the emasculation of the Opposition, which he calls “a blunder which changed the political landscape of this country”.
He deals with the rise of Cyril Mathew under JRJ’s blessing and the July 1983 riots which worsened the ethnic tensions in the country, inevitably leading to disenchantment in India under Indira Gandhi. Also addressed are the rise of Tamil militancy in the wider context of the vicissitudes in Indo-Lankan relations, culminating in the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 and the 13th Amendment which devolved power, as well as the violence unleashed by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
JRJ’s tactics led to “the country slipping into a quagmire of regional misunderstandings and domestic ethnic conflict which finally destabilised the country for three decades and blunted the trajectory of economic growth which had started with much promise in 1977”. Whilst the Singapore model animated policymakers, SA wryly notes that the Singaporean leadership looked upon Sri Lanka as a failed State.
He knew and writes about the other leading personalities in JRJ’s United National Party (UNP) Cabinet post-1977 and opines that it was “the most competent Cabinet of Ministers in modern times,” inter alia R. Premadasa who became Prime Minister, Ronnie de Mel in Finance, Lalith Athulathmudali in Trade and Shipping, Gamini Dissanayake in Mahaweli Development, and Anandatissa de Alwis as Minister of State.
In appointing Premadasa as Prime Minister, JRJ “sent a strong signal that the UNP was merit-based and not kinship- and caste-based as it was under the Senanayakes”. However, he stoically notes that after the LTTE assassinated many of these leaders, the UNP “fell into the hands of mediocrities”.
SA also documents the ‘revenge’ factor in Sri Lankan politics: JRJ against Sirimavo Bandaranaike for having briefly imprisoned his son during the 1971 insurrection, Gamini Dissanayake’s (GD) contretemps with Gamini Atukorale, who snitched to JRJ that the former secretly met Hector Kobbekaduwa in an attempt to stave off the deprivation of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s civic rights, and the GD/Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) conflict after the latter was defeated by one vote in the UNP leadership contest consequent to President Premadasa’s assassination and the sabotage of GD’s presidential election bid.
Readers are also given insights into the background of many causes célèbres which were hitherto not in the public domain. Profiles of leading advisors to JRJ including G.V.P. Samarasinghe and Esmond Wickremesinghe add to the memoir.
To the reviewer, this aspect of the memoir compels a reappraisal of the Executive Presidency introduced by JRJ in the second Republican Constitution of 1978. As SA reminds us, JRJ himself saw the presidency as a continuation of a long line of a Sinhala Buddhist monarchy of over 2,500 years.
But as a modernist, he told the Buddhist clergy (sangha) who wanted to discuss ethnic relations with him “to mind their own business just as he did not advise them on sangha matters”. The rationale of this political construct, namely, Executive stability unaffected by the vicissitudes of parliamentary change, rapid economic growth with an open economy, and managing of ethnic tensions has proved elusive.
The enduring legacy of corruption
Apart from the initial growth spurt of 8-9% between 1977 to 1980, the anticipated economic takeoff did not materialise, primarily due to the protracted war with the LTTE which ended with their military defeat in 2009. Despite the LTTE’s intransigence in arriving at a negotiated settlement, an omnipotent presidency was incapable of finding a solution.
Ethnic tensions still remain, particularly due to the triumphalist posturing post-2009 and attacks directed at the Muslim minority, an extremist section of which inexplicably attacked churches in 2019. To date, the Catholic Church has been critical about the failure to ascertain the mastermind behind this and the concomitant lack of accountability.
The national economy has been beggared due to incompetent leadership by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was ousted from office by a mass movement against rampant corruption and cronyism and a clamour for a systemic change. Financial scandals and corruption are legion – e.g., the bond scandal and corpulent commissions by ministers with little or no accountability despite specialised commissions to investigate them.
Like the mafia, there is ‘omertà’ or a vow of silence, with no State or private sector official prepared to expose corruption. Anandatissa de Alwis once nonchalantly stated in the old Parliament (now the Presidential Secretariat) that the magnitude of corruption would inevitably rise under an open economy!
The abolition of the Executive Presidency, which Amunugama notes many presidential aspirants undertook but never delivered on, is topical again. Ironically, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a kinsman of JRJ who was inducted into national politics in 1977, is now ensconced as President, reliant on a parliamentary majority of the Rajapaksa family dominated-Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which has lost political legitimacy.
The country, which is stifled under the yoke of a lack of foreign exchange, fuel, and medicines and crippling inflation, yearns for accountability for economic mismanagement and the return of allegedly stolen billions, parked in foreign safe havens. Will Wickremesinghe, enjoying the presidential levers of power, be able to deliver on forging a government of national unity, restoring economic stability and accountability, and recovery of stolen assets?
A striking feature of this memoir is Amunugama’s recounting of his experiences in foreign countries. He was part of a delegation to China led by Esmond Wickremesinghe, as the post-1977 Chinese leadership was keen on close relations with the JRJ regime, despite close ties with Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Governments from 1960-’65 and 1970-’77.
There is a discernible sense of admiration for the CCP, which, during this era, was moving away from the failed ‘cultural revolution’ and the ‘Great Leap Forward’ under Mao. Amunugama’s insights are fascinating, since around the same time, the reviewer, then a student, contributed an article to the STC magazine eulogising Chou En-lai. His interactions with the political, business, and media elite in India after Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister, in an attempt to find a solution to the ethnic crisis, are also a compelling read.
A love of culture
Amunugama’s love of books and culture is reflected strongly throughout. Apart from his promotion of local artistes on the airways, he writes poignantly of witnessing the maestro Ravi Shankar’s last performance in Washington.
He records the appreciation received from Ediriwira Sarachchandra, Pandit Amaradeva, and the farewell from the staff of the left-oriented Government Press when he retired prematurely from public service in 1982 to accept overseas assignments. And while he takes readers through the many cities that he travelled through and worked in, Paris was his true love, and the memoir will delight even the most jaded traveller as did his reflections of Berlin in Volume I.
The wisdom of an elder statesman
A good memoir can be difficult to accomplish. Oftentimes, after reading an autobiography, one is left with no real sense of the spirit, or the life, of the subject. This cannot be said of SA’s memoir. His erudition, professionalism, integrity, and strong work ethic as a results-oriented individual comes across seamlessly.
He provides a deeper contextual insight into leading political personalities and events, including their misadventures which he does not fail to record, reflecting his academic training in sociology and economics.
He writes lucidly with a wry wit and an unerring eye for detail (e.g.: a senior grandee of the UNP was moved out from the Cabinet to Speaker, “a post which had much prestige but no tenders,” he says, later describing self-flagellation with birch branches whilst experiencing an authentic Finnish sauna – “though fearful at first I found this invigorating and the body was made ready for large gulps of Finnish beer which was sucked up by my tormented body”).
In these pages there were references to many whom the reviewer has known, including Sam Wijesinha, whom SA identifies as a trusted advisor of R. Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake, who in fact introduced the reviewer to SA (recounted more fully in the article on the Sarath Amunugama ‘Festschrift’ in 2010), Lalith Athulathmudali, and Ronnie de Mel.
This volume builds on Volume I and is a rich tapestry of the life and times of a brilliant and now preeminent elder statesman whose sagacity and involvement in national affairs is sorely missed. This autobiography will undoubtedly be an indispensable reference for the contemporary history of Sri Lanka.
Dr. Sarath Amunumgama’s autobiography ‘To Paris and Back: Volume Two (1977-1990)’ is published by Vijitha Yapa Publications and is available at all Vijitha Yapa bookstores and through its website.