29th October 2000
Editorial/Opinion| Business| Sports|
Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine
Abeysekera recalls some poignant
moments with Mrs. B.
Empowerment starts with self, through a recognition of one's self-worth and the self-knowledge that one can think for oneself and act according to one's convictions and perhaps be a contributor to society and even an achiever. I believe that this is what made Mrs. Bandaranaike a leader and an unparalleled one. Although rather shy and retiring by nature, she had a latent inner strength, courage and commitment to be of service to her family, rural women through the Lanka Mahila Samithi and then to the nation when, from being the wife of a Minister and later of the Prime Minister, she became Prime Minister herself.
She was able to rise above grief and, in later years, above defeat, displaying a great strength of character. Many are those who say that she would never have been propelled to leadership had it not been for the assassination of her husband. Perhaps that was her destiny. But, what needs to be kept in mind is that once in office, she proved herself to be her own person - quick at grasping the essentials of a situation and equally quick at pondering over the results of a possible policy or decision in relation to it. In other words, she had a great capacity for decision-making.
As the world's first woman Prime Minister and Head of Government, she was thrust upon the world with surprise but, it is a compliment to the people of Sri Lanka, that they took this phenomenon in their stride as indeed she did fulfilling an astrological prediction with great aplomb as if she were "to the manner born" which she might well have been. True leadership is never enforced but inspired, which leads people to respect and follow someone who shows the way as the leader. Mrs. Bandaranaike, in her person, reflected her adherence to the principles and values upheld by our traditions and religions. This, combined with her courage and charisma, her dedication to the task she had undertaken and the stamina she had to fulfil it made her a true leader.
As an official who worked in her Ministry of Defence and External Affairs, I was deeply impressed by the methodical and efficient manner in which she handled three portfolios in addition to being Prime Minister and Head of Government - that of Defence, External Affairs and Planning, devoting one day in the week for each as a matter of routine and adding more time to any one of them when necessary.
She was able to maintain this difficult pace because she was always punctual at these conferences as she was for public events, often arriving a few minutes early, much to the embarrassment of those who themselves were not quite ready to receive her! She never missed such discussions on policy and, during them, she displayed a remarkable knack of speedily grasping the essentials and basing her considered decisions on them. She had a sharp eye for detail as well as for the whole issue and could see through deception. I also admired Mrs. Bandaranaike's capacity for allowing officials to carry out their appointed tasks without her or those in her office breathing down their necks. She never talked down to us, ordered us or lost her temper with us but was always unruffled, relaxed and informal. There was no attempt to politicize us, so that we were able to work with other Administrations as well after a change of Government.
Her quality of having confidence in her officials stood her, us and the country in good stead when we had to organize the NAM Summit. She placed her brother Dr. Mackie Ratwatte in charge of the Organizing Committee, which was composed of several subject Committees which were chaired mainly by officers of the Foreign Ministry, the Military and the Police. I am happy to say that when I produced a Manual of Protocol Procedure for the Summit, detailing the functions of each category of officers, the military and the police followed suit! The Organizing Committee was established in 1974 and for nearly two years we were able to train our staff in their duties.
We were in constant touch with Dr. Ratwatte, who was very easy to work with and reported at regular intervals to Mrs. Bandaranaike who never failed to scrutinize our reports and question us on them.
Another instance of a quick and considered decision on her part was when I informed her that I had only twelve members of staff in the Protocol Division and needed so many more for handling the Protocol task of receiving and seeing off the foreign VVIPs for the NAM Summit, their frontier formalities and their baggage clearing. She immediately directed that the Cadet Corps be assigned to handle frontier formalities and Army personnel the baggage. Consequently, I had about 150 military personnel working under my direction and I told the Army Commander, after I had carried out my task with military precision, that, although I may have behaved like a Sergeant Major at times, I should have been made an honorary Colonel at least but alas, he was not amused! Further, realizing that I would have problems of communication with my Deputy Chiefs of Protocol and staff on the ground when I boarded a plane to receive the visiting VVIP, I asked for a walkie-talkie which, despite the reluctance of my Foreign Service colleague - in charge of finance - to give for reasons of cost, Mrs. Bandaranaike immediately grasped the necessity for it and directed that I should have it. This saved us in many a difficult situation as when, on boarding an aircraft, I found that a delegation other than the one we expected had arrived, I was able to communicate this to those on the ground, so that the Military Committee could hoist the correct national flag and play the right National Anthem. I am proud to say, that though there were quite a few such unexpected situations, we never made a mistake in receiving the 92 NAM Heads of State or Government or their Representatives, thanks to Mrs. Bandaranaike's decision in the matter of the walkie talkie.
Although Mrs. Bandaranaike's contribution to the work of the Lanka Mahila Samithi is fairly well known, it is perhaps not known that she was instrumental in establishing the first focal point for women in the Administration - the Women's Bureau.
Before long came the elections of 1977 which brought the UNP into office. To my great satisfaction, my having brought the Cabinet Paper to the attention of Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria, Secretary Plan Implementation, and to the attention of President Jayewardene himself when I got the opportunity as Chief of Protocol during the visit of the Prime Minister of Singapore, the Women's Bureau was established in 1978 which, in later years led to the creation of the Ministry of Women's Affairs and then to that of the Presidential National Committee on Women. The point of recounting these developments is to show that Mrs. Bandaranaike had a deep interest in the advancement of the women of Sri Lanka and provided the start for the creation of a government mechanism to this end.
Two other qualities I would like to mention, which I regard also as those of humane leadership, was her caring nature which made her a true Mother of the Nation, and her simplicity and informality which enabled her to move with ease among VVIPs as well as people of all strata of society. These characteristics and her wonderful sense of humour endeared her to me in addition to my deep respect for her as my finest boss. Many were the chuckles we enjoyed in public and in private as when I accompanied her in 1975 to Geneva and Mexico City to deliver the Keynote Addresses to the ILO Conference and the UN first World Conference on Women respectively, as the world's first woman Prime Minister and Head of Government.
I recall overall instances of her sense of humour such as when President Gopallawa and she watched a dress rehearsal of the Protocol Arrivals Ceremony at the Airport and I met her a few days later to present some VIPs to her. She remarked that I obviously had a strenuous task and suggested that I have someone near at hand to take over in case I collapse. I was quite alarmed at this suggestion though it had been made out of kindness and concern. So I explained to her that there was a Deputy Chief of Protocol trained to step into my shoes, day or night and then added that, should I collapse on the tarmac, only a crane could remove me from it, at which she laughed heartily - and that ended the matter! Thereafter when Mrs. Bandaranaike was receiving VVIPs arriving at the airport for the NAM Summit, one Head of Government held on to her hand extended in greeting with both his and instead of reciprocating briefly went into a lengthy greeting in his language which neither of us understood. There was me desperately trying to extricate her from his firm grip by asking him to proceed to the Guard of Honour since there was only seven minutes allocated for the whole arrival procedure for each VVIP and time was of the essence. For a brief moment, my eyes met those of Mrs. Bandaranaike and we were both in great danger of bursting into giggles like two schoolgirls!
On another occasion, she remarked that no country would think we needed aid, especially food aid when its VVIPs I was constantly receiving saw me, to which I cheekily inquired whether I was not in good company at which she laughed good humouredly.
Even in recent years when I visited her at her residence, the first remark she made to me was whether I had increased or decreased in size, all the while urging me to partake of the tasty snacks she served with tea. She never failed to inquire after my husband and my brother and cousins and aunts she had known.
Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, not only because she was a woman but because
of her sterling qualities of leadership, is an inspiration to all women
and to men too. Given her life, work and example who can say no to the
empowering of women in all aspects of nationbuilding and foreign affairs,
so that half our population and that of the world may contribute in equal
measure with men, both as policy makers and beneficiaries of them? The
best tribute we Sri Lankans can pay to Mrs. Bandaranaike is to strive to
achieve such a new paradigm of shared nation building and leadership.
Nimalarajan reported the truth and paid the ultimate price for exposing the fraud that was going on in Jaffna in the name of a free and fair election. The EPDP has been accused of this cowardly crime by more than one source. The government has promised an inquiry. Let's hope the inquiry will be impartial. It appears that the government is guilty of aiding and abetting the abominable gun culture. The 'ex-militants', as they are officially referred to, are a unique lot in Lanka. After abandoning armed struggle, they enjoy the special privilege of carrying arms and behaving like petty warlords in some parts of the North-East, especially in areas controlled by the Sri Lankan Army. The government did not permit journalists from Colombo to attend the funeral of their murdered Tamil colleague. This was a terrible mistake. Nimalarajan was a bridge-builder across the ethnic divide. He did it by upholding a democratic right that is common to all communities in Lanka - the right to information. This did not seem to please the powers that be. I join my fellow Lankans and the international community in condemning the killing of a brave and exemplary journalist.
Prof. N. Shanmu
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