Memory: Oxford Union Officers - Lalith Athulathmudali

By Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 31 2020
Columns Memory:  Oxford Union Officers  - Lalith Athulathmudali

By Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha

Lalith Athulathmudali was the first Ceylonese to be President of the Oxford Union, preceding Lakshman Kadirgamar by a year. He was an undergraduate at Oxford, and stayed on to do postgraduate work as well. 

It seemed he would have to give this up when his father died, but S W R D Bandaranaike, who was Prime Minister at the time, ensured funding to enable him to continue. Bandaranaike and the elder Athulathmudali had served together in the first State Council, elected in 1931, and been good friends, but the latter was not re-elected in 1936 when Bandaranaike first became a Minister. He was a UNP candidate for Parliament in 1947, but lost narrowly and did not stand again.

I first met Lalith in 1968, when he married Perin Captain, younger sister of my mother’s great friend Diana. We had known Perin from the early sixties when she had a dashing boy friend, but it seemed she needed someone more compatible intellectually too, and Lalith obviously fitted the bill. And though he was not a patch on her in terms of looks, I gathered later that he was much admired, if not loved, by a range of most distinguished ladies.

Lalith and Perin soon fell out, but he continued on very good terms with Diana. On the strength of that distant acquaintance he came to see me when I was at Oxford, and I took to him at once, for he was obviously very bright but not at all patronising. He seemed interested in my own efforts at winning election in the Union, while I was surprised that he was now passionately involved with the UNP, rather than with the SLFP led now by Ms Bandaranaike, in her second term as Prime Minister.

By the time I finished at Oxford and went back to Sri Lanka, Lalith was ensconced in power as one of the most influential Ministers in J R Jayewardene’s UNP Cabinet. I had been impressed by the range of talent J R had put together, but within a short time of returning I got disillusioned for I found J R increasingly authoritarian, beginning with the deprivation in 1980 of Ms Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights. That led to manipulation of the electoral process, allowing him to have an early presidential election (unprecedented for an executive presidency) and then to put off elections to Parliament, so that the 2/3rds majority he had obtained in 1977 remained in place for nearly 12 long years. 

Chanaka  Amaratunga, who had become a good friend after he came up to Oxford in 1977, just after the election, was a strong supporter of the UNP, though initially he thought J R was not as decent a politician as Dudley Senanayake, whom he much admired. But by the time he came back to Sri Lanka between degrees, in 1980, he was fully enamoured of J R, and thought excessive of my critical reaction to the removal of Ms Bandaranaike’s Civil Rights.

The referendum to extend the life of Parliament however, he found abhorrent, and campaigned against it through the Council for Liberal Democracy, which he had set up initially as a think tank with Jayewardene’s blessings. But he would claim the authoritarianism J R was practicising was promoted by Lalith Athulathmudali who had no commitment whatsoever to democracy. 

Chanaka was a great supporter of Gamini Dissanayake, the other bright young hope of the UNP. I did not know Gamini then, but could not understand how he could be seen as an alternative to Lalith, since he had no intellectual credentials. Besides, it was widely rumoured in Colombo that he was benefiting financially from the lucrative contracts awarded through the Ministry he headed, that of Mahaweli Development. At the time I thought Lalith Athulathmudali incorruptible, and told Chanaka that that was the vital criterion, but his view was that Gamini was a committed democrat and a little bit of peculation was not a problem given how efficiently he worked. 

Interestingly he did not contest my assertion that Lalith was not corrupt, though of course I told him that Gamini’s democratic credentials were non-existent given that he had acquiesced in all J R’s manoeuvers. Later we found out that Lalith had also made much money on the contracts his Ministry of Trade and Shipping had at its disposal. And I still recall my brother-in-law telling me in some surprise that there was much corruption also in the Cabinet of Chandrika Kumaratunga when she became President in 1994, and that the worst culprit was Lalith’s widow Srimani. I did not challenge his assertion, but I suspect Srimani was simply carried away by those who had controlled Lalith’s fundraising, and I still hope some government will investigate the source of the wealth that has bankrolled his political successors. 

By 1994 Lalith was dead. Ten years earlier he had been made Minister of National Security and Deputy Minister of Defence, which indicated that J R had accepted he was the most capable member of his Cabinet. Earlier he had been held at arm’s length, and I still recall my uncle Esmond, one of J R’c close confidantes, pooh-poohing my suggestion that Lalith was the best possible successor. Esmond was then touting the claims of Cyril Mathew, but Mathew blotted his copybook when he presided over the 1983 pogrom against Tamils, and J R – and indeed Gamini and Ranil Wickremesinghe who had earlier seemed Mathew disciples – moved away from him. 

Lalith was the beneficiary and he did a good job with the Defence establishment, but the rug was pulled out from under his feet when J R, under Indian pressure, called off the Vadamaarachchi offensive when Lalith seemed on the verge of destroying the Tigers in their stronghold beyond Jaffna. And when the Peace Accord was signed with India in 1987, both Lalith and Prime Minister Premadasa, who were opposed to it, seemed likely to be sidelined. Typically though, while Premadasa boycotted the banquet for Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Lalith had slipped in through a side door.

The next year was occupied with the JVP insurrection on the one hand, and the struggle for the UNP succession on the other. J R indeed tried to become the candidate for the Presidency for the third time, but his party made it clear that was not acceptable, and in the end he bowed to the clear evidence that Premadasa was the best standard bearer for the party. He managed to get both Lalith and Gamini, who had been hoping to be chosen, to second the nomination, and through ruthless electioneering Premadasa won the Presidency in December 1988. 

It had been assumed he would choose Lalith or Gamini as Prime Minister, and both campaigned for him actively. But then, having indicated that he would appoint whoever did best at the parliamentary election that followed, prompting them both to campaign vigorously again, he decided instead to appoint D. B. Wijetunge, whom JR had virtually retired earlier by making him a Provincial Governor.

Lalith and Gamini were both deeply upset, and both were disappointed with the portfolios they were given, though in fact they were areas in which much could have been done. Lalith did his best, but Gamini treated his with contumely and spent much time abroad, so that in the 1990 reshuffle, he was dropped. Lalith was however given Education as well as Higher Education, the first time both portfolios had been brought together since 1980.

I remember meeting him then and telling him he could do a lot in this position, and he agreed but also noted that Premadasa was very wary of him and would try to block him. One reason that worried him was the murder by government paramilitary forces, a month before the reshuffle, of Richard de Zoysa, who was widely known to have been closely associated with him.

Richard’s mother Manorani had long been a good friend of his, and Richard and he had got on very well. When he became Minister of National Security, Richard began working for him in various clandestine propaganda operations. And then, though Richard got involved with JVP activity, the friendship with Lalith continued. So one reason put forward for Richard’s killing was that he had written a play, which Lalith had instigated, that was highly critical of Premadasa. Indeed even another suggested motive, a human rights dossier designed to expose Premadasa, was said to have been prepared to denigrate him, which would in time benefit Lalith.

Lalith did react promptly when Richard was abducted, and helped a couple of Richard’s close associates leave the country, to forestall action against them too. That immediate reaction too must have been registered, which would have been another reason for him to worry. So over the next year he mended fences with his old rival, Gamini Dissanayake, and in 1991 together, with the support also of Ms Bandaranaike, who was leader of the Opposition, they put forward a motion of impeachment against Premadasa. 

That failed and they were both expelled from the UNP. There followed then the most heroic effort on Lalith’s part to build up a new party, the Democratic United National Front. He worked together with the SLFP, and the combination seemed likely to breach the UNP monolith. But a couple of weeks before the Provincial Council election, Lalith was assassinated. Blame fell on Premadasa and then he too was assassinated. The beneficiary was Chandrika Kumaratunga, who became Chief Minister of the Western Province, the post earmarked for Lalith. There was no stopping her then. He sadly was forgotten. 

By Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 31 2020

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