Lalith Athulathmudali epitome of a pragmatic politician
"...some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have
greatness thrust upon them" - William Shakespeare
If there was one Sri Lankan to whom all these statements apply, it is
none other than Lalith Athulathmudali, whose death anniversary falls
tomorrow 23rd of April. Today, when the country is yearning for real
leaders we feel his absence; who was born great, and achieved greatness
and to this day the people of this country thrust greatness upon him,
fourteen years after his demise. Having had the good fortune of working
so closely with him, I take this day to reminiscent the unparalleled
brilliance and the intellect of this politician par excellence.
Lalith Athulathmudali was a lawyer by profession when he entered
politics; a field to which he was no stranger. He was a great orator who
had command over both languages and had a sharp mind which made him a
fast learner of any subject. Serving in the government of Sri Lanka he
held important portfolios such as Trade and Shipping, Defence, National
Security, Agriculture, Food and Co-operatives, Education and Higher
Education. But in each of these fields, not only did he master the
subjects but was able to make significant improvements in those fields.
Underlying this mastery was a keenness to serve the people and a drive
to find the best and the most practical way to achieve the goals he sets
for the respective ministries. Throughout his career as a politician he
dedicated his time for the people and left huge footprints on the banks
of Sri Lankan politics which no one else has been able to match to this
A true leader
He was a true leader, who commanded every person in his ministries
and received the respect and awe of all his staff. But his forte as a
leader as I saw it, was the ability to delegate authority with
confidence and allow himself enough time to strategies for further
improvement. He used delegation also to get out of situations while
empowering someone else in his team. He placed high confidence in his
team that the people serving him had had to strive for excellence that
they were expected of. When other leaders would burn themselves out
trying to do things by themselves Lalith Athulathmudali was not afraid
to delegate authority. He was not insecure about it. In fact he gained
as a leader as he was able to enhance the capacity of others to perform
at high levels. He rarely checked up on his staff. Once he has entrusted
someone with a task, he does not interfere, and this was the winning
streak. This characteristic of his, gave him time to meet people. And a
fine feature of the great leader is that he actively listened to people
who came to him in need, may it be a farmer, labourer or a government
servant he gave them his undivided attention. He could relate to and
communicate with people from all walks of life. He had early hours of
the day reserved for people and the rest of the day was dedicated for
government and business people. Alas! Today's politicians are afraid to
delegate and neither have they, the time to listen to people.
How did he draw people to him and made them so loyal? Athulathmudali
never pulled up his personal staff in public. He pointed out their
mistakes in private and defended them in public, like a father would
care for his children. And he also had the good fortune of having people
of great capacity and integrity such as Lakshaman de Mel (Secretary,
Ministry of Trade and Shipping), Dharmasiri Peiris (Secretary, Education
and Higher Education and Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives), late Gaya
Cumaranatunga and Harsha Wickremasinghe serving as ministry additional
secretaries. Cumaranatunga was so cautious that when he did not want any
confidential information of meetings to leak out, he wrote down the
minutes in Latin. Senior Assistant Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries
such as Mrs. Preethi Jayaratne, . Thilak Collure, Mrs. P. Athukorale,
Mrs. Pushpa Ilapperuma, Mr. K. L. L. Wijeratne, C. P. Jayasinghe and
David Soysa (Directors of Merchant Shipping) to name a few of the
brilliant persons who worked alongside this great man. Like me, they too
would agree that working for him was a sheer pleasure.
They say that punctuality is the politeness of princes. And a true
prince he was when it came to time management. I remember once when he
arrived at the office and found that his personal staff members and
senior assistant secretaries were late, he declared them 'sacked'
instantly. later in the day, he wanted a letter to be drafted by one of
them and his private secretary informed him that Mrs. Preethi Jayaratne
(who has drafted many letters and speeches for him) states that since
all have been sacked, they are unable to work. He was quick to respond
'tell tem that they are all reinstated'. Such was the humour through
which he maintained a close relationship with his staff while
maintaining strict discipline.
Mahapola Scholarship concept
One of his footprints that time cannot erase is the Mahapola concept.
The reason behind the Scholarship was that his father passed away when
he was just about to leave for studies aborad. He made a request to the
government and the late Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike
presented a proposal to the Parliament through which he was provided a
grant. The creation of Mahapola Scholarship was his way of repaying.
Initially Mahapola set out to provide scholarships for 422
undergraduates and part of the funding for this was his personal
contribution. But the collecting of funds was not an easy task.
Therefore the maestro came up with the plan for Mahapola Lottery which
sold five million tickets every year and fed into Mahapola Trust Fund.
The creation of the Development Lottery was the brainchild of the late
President J. R. Jayewardene and Athulathmudali. It should not be
forgotten that Dr. Wickrema Weerasooriya played a big role in the
setting up of Development Lottery Board which provided 50% of its
earnings to the President's Fund and the remaining 50% to Mahapola Trust
Fund. What is unique about this is that Athulathmudali ensured that the
Mahapola Scholarship Scheme is sustained so that students can benefit
for many many years to come. Up to date, 150,000 students have benefited
from this Scheme.
Mahapola trade fair
Similar to the Scholarship Scheme, he also wanted to help out school
infrastructures; hence the concept of Mahapola Trade fairs came into
being. These seven day trade fairs gave the small-scale entrepreneurs
the space and opportunity to sell their produce. The fairs were held at
schools where alcohol and gambling were strictly prohibited. There were
also stalls of different ministries which were disseminating information
to the public on what services are available for them. The public got
their bargains, information and clean entertainment and it was a win-win
situation all around. But what contributed most to making these trade
fairs a success is Athulathmudali's ability to mobilise a vast number of
people and have their commitment. Apart from the aforementioned
ministerial officials, Wimal Amarasekara, (Chairman SLPA), K. S. C. de
Fonseka (Managing Director SLPA), H. A. Wijegoonawardhane, Lionel
Fernando, S. M. Gunadasa, S. K. Wallipuram, R. A. P. Goonetilleke, A. D.
Weerasinghe, Ranjith Thenuwara, Godwin de Alwis, Pasqual, Dharmasiri
Fonseka, Mrs. Shyamila Perera and Mrs. Sita Wimalasena. There were many
more people whose names I have most unwittingly left out, who
contributed to the success of not only Mahapola but all his work and he
really appreciated all of them all the time.
Some of the key people who carried the Mahapola concept and the
activities of all the Ministries to the public through media were Mr.
Premil Ratnayake, Richard de Silva, Udaya Manawasinghe, late Bundala
Hemapala, late Tissa Jayawardhane of SLBC and late Dharmadasa Kuruwita
who was the compere of all Mahapola on stage activities.
But I will be failing in my duty if I did not mention the tremendous
support given by the two Deputy Ministers M. S. Amarasiri and Mahendra
Wijeratne to make the Mahapola concept a resounding success.
Athulathmudali was also the pioneer in dialoguing with schoolchildren
through Mahapola "Gnana Dharshana" Program. It was an interactive
session where O/L and A/L students could freely exchange views with the
Minister and that was part of his vision to create generations of
He created history by setting up Sri Lanka's first Exporters Forum,
bringing together exporters from all over the country, to discuss their
issues. As Minister for Trade, he admitted that the open economy was too
open but given the years of a restricted economy prior to UNP's election
in 1977, he knew that it was inevitable. Therefore, he was keen to
strengthen Sri Lanka's exports. At these meetings which were regular and
systematic, any exporter could approach the Minister and he did not
procrastinate in making decisions. As a result the exporters benefited
tremendously and they felt they had the support of the State in their
business ventures. The members of Forum which he created felt that he
was on their side, for such was his ability to relate to people from any
walk of life. He also set up export production villages and encouraged
village level individuals and groups to have production lines which are
still in existence. But whether they still receive State patronage is a
Ports and shipping
It is sad, but when the Sri Lanka Ports Authority celebrated 25 years
in 2004, not a single reference was made in their three page supplement
to Mr. Athulathmudali, who was the driving force behind bringing the
Port Tally Corporation and Port Cargo Corporation together and forming
the Sri Lanka Ports Authority through an Act of Parliament.
When he took over Trade and Shipping in 1977, Sri Lanka was placed
169th in the world for shipping ports.
But within 12 years he was able to bring the Port to the 29th
position in the world a feat none can match which had the dedication of
late Vimal Amarasekara, and K. S. C. de Fonseka and the dedicated staff
of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.
Parliament bomb attack
He was one of the persons seriously injured in the bomb attack in
Parliament. When he was taken to one of the back entrances of the Sri
Jayawardhenapura Hospital, it was padlocked. His security officer,
knowing the urgency of taking Athulathmudali to the hospital, drew out
his pistol to shoot the padlock open. Athulathmudali in his
semi-conscious state told him not to do so. He wanted to be taken
through the correct entrance. He also wanted treatment locally because
he trusted the local doctors and they in turn did not fail him. People
prayed and sent good wishes for his recovery. And he was very keen that
all those letters are replied to. I pay a tribute to the local media and
particularly to Divaina newspaper which carried daily update on his
recovery to bring solace to the public about their leader.
On national security
When Athulathmudali was entrusted with the newly created Ministry of
National Security, he had no special training on the subject, but he was
a Minister who could even brief the heads of the Armed Forces on matters
of national security. I still recall one such briefing he had with the
Commanders of the security forces when the LTTE launched it suicide bomb
attacks. His message to them was very clear and simple, it was not about
how to counter suicide attacks or how to catch the suicide bombers, but
how to stay alive. He laid out four instances at which a VIP could fall
prey to a suicide bomber, when you are leaving home in the morning, when
you are going home after work, when you come to office and when you
It is not rocket science, his assessment was based on the facts that
the suicide bomber will monitor you over a period of time before
launching the attack and that he or she will not stay in one place. His
simple advice to the heads of security forces was to keep on changing
the times of arrival and departure. He also stressed that the top brass
should not travel together and that they should often change their
vehicles. His words of advice are valid even today. When you consider
all the leaders and military people who fell victims to LTTE's suicide
attack over the years and even in the recent past, haven't they been
correctly targeted at one of these four instances which Athulathmudali
envisaged they would? How was he able to achieve such greatness, one may
wonder. The secret behind this success was that he had a sixth sense
called common sense and he was not afraid to use it.
Ratmalana Electorate Development Foundation
The founding of the Electorate Development Foundation in 1980 gave
the people of his electorate hope for life. Athulathmudali's vision was
to give people different vocational skills. He started a driving school,
English and Stenography and Secretarial classes for which people in the
calibre of the late B. K. Cooray, late Gunapala Peiris, late Eustace de
Silva, late Hapugoda, late B. D. Y. Seneviratne, late S. W.
Goonawardhane, Late K. P. Gunaratne, Upul Jayasuriya and Mrs. Manel
Liyanage were placed in charge. Always a practical and far-sighted
person Athulathmudali obtained a dealership from the Petroleum
Corporation and the profits of the petrol station went into fund the
activities of the REDF. He was also supported by the businessmen in the
electorate in this venture.
Democratic United National Front (DUNF)
The political context in the late 80's forced people like
Athulathmudali to bring in an impeachment on the then President. It was
not done for personal gain but in a bid to restrict dictatorial
leadership. However, he was removed from the United National Party as
well as Parliament. But he together with late Mr. Gamini Dissanayake
were able to create the DUNF in 1991. At the 1993 Provincial Council
election, even after Athulathmudali's death, the Party was able to
secure 975,000 votes. This showed the confidence that people have placed
on him. It also showed the calibre of the leader people needed. The
United National Party has not been able to recover the self destruction
it launched by sacking senior and stable members like Athulathmudali and
Dissanayake, neither have they seen to have learnt the lesson that
sidelining senior members of the Party does not help at all.
On the ethnic issue
He was of the firm belief that there should be a negotiated
settlement for the armed conflict. And he reiterated that the State had
to weaken the LTTE to get them down for talks. But he made it very clear
that by weakening he did not mean killing people.
He had the utmost respect and care for human life and was deeply
concerned when lives were lost. To him whomever we lost was a tragic
loss for the country. He was particular that there should be minimum
sacrifice of human lives and when a negotiated settlement is reached one
day, that the people of the nation should not feel that the sacrifices
made by those who are no more, were not in vain.
There can be volumes written about late Mr. Athulathmudali for he
continues to be a legend in this country. His intellectual brilliance
together with a necessary arrogance saw him shine both locally and
internationally. His wit and humour made those around him feel that he
was one of them. But there was one strict order which all his
subordinates had to adhere to: he never wanted anything named after him.
Therefore, significant achievement he made for the country were given to
the people. But that alone has made his name synonymous with his work.
And he was a leader who could walk freely in any part of the country.
These are just two reasons by he is still alive in our memories. And
the greatest tribute we can pay him today is at least try to follow his
advice and the path to inner freedom he showed us. I conclude with this
quote taken from the long essay he wrote after his near death
"Life is never to be given away, it can only be taken from us".
- S. V. D. Kesarralal Gunasekera