It was the day after Lakshman Kadirgamar had been appointed Foreign Minister. He had rung my home and when my wife answered, told her that he wanted us to visit him, "tomorrow if you can". He had given no indication as to why he wanted to see us. I was away in Kandy at the time and so on my return my wife and I went to meet him at his Thummulla residence.
We had a long chat and at the end of it he said he had two favours to ask of me: one, if I could recommend any persons from the private sector to take up ambassadorial appointments as there was a dearth of personnel and in his new capacity as Foreign Minister he had to reorganise the set-up and professionalise the Foreign Service. Secondly, he wanted me to go as either Sri Lanka's ambassador to Washington or High Commissioner, London.
|A portrait of Lakshman Kadirgamar addressing the UN
I was astounded. My wife, I remember, protested that we were not diplomats and that in any event, I was too old for such a job. But Lakshman being Lakshman, wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. I remember he walked us down the stairs to our car and said, "Now SK, don't say no; say you'll consider my request".
My mind was made up but I hadn't bargained for Lakshman's gentle but relentless persuasion. He visited us at home thrice and kept reasoning with me. He had given up a lucrative law practice to serve the country, he said, and shouldn't I also consider doing the same at a time the country needed us to combat the scourge of LTTE terror. He even got some of our mutual friends to join in urging me to take up his offer.
How could I say no? I finally gave in. After all, I had had a long association with Lakshman. We were in university at the same time — though he was junior to me and my brother-in-law Haris Hulugalle and he had been at the Law Faculty together. So ours was not a political relationship but one built around many ties — family, friends and so much more. My brother V.K. had been in Oxford at the same time as Lakshman, my wife and his sister had known each other from their Ladies' College schooldays and Lakshman's brother Sam had been on the Board of Ceylon Tobacco Company when I was Chairman. Over the years since he came back from Geneva we had met many a time and shared many discussions. He and I had been on a Foreign Affairs committee appointed by President Premadasa chaired by Gamani Corea. So when he asked this of me, it was hard to refuse.
He had also picked others from many different fields outside the Foreign Affairs Ministry for his team, among them H.L. de Silva, Mangala Moonesinghe, Warnasena Rasaputra, John de Saram and S.B. Pethiyagoda and his thinking was that we would spearhead his plan to counter the negative image that Sri Lanka had as a result of very pervasive LTTE propaganda being effectively disseminated abroad.
Before we left to take up our new postings he held a meeting for all the new ambassador designates and briefed us extensively on the challenges ahead.
When he was trying to persuade me to take up the appointment, I remember telling Lakshman that I was too old to be rushing to the airport to meet the many Sri Lankan ministers who would arrive in London. His response was swift. He assured me that the only people I would have to meet were the President and the Prime Minister. No one else not even the Foreign Minister.
True to his word, he had a letter to this effect drafted and approved, and issued to the Cabinet. At this meeting he told all the new diplomats that they would not have to meet ministers at airports and that the ministers had been duly notified of this. When one of the prospective ambassadors said that they would of course have to meet him, he demurred, saying he would not be an exception, and insisted that he too should not be met by the ambassadors at airports.
I followed his advice, except, perhaps once or twice when I had something urgent to discuss and he happened only to be passing through London on his way to another capital. Then I did meet him and travel with him in the car to sort out what I needed to. But he never expected, leave alone demanded it. He was always very considerate.
One happy occasion I remember was when he married Suganthie and they were flying via London on their way to New York to attend the UN General Assembly sessions, stopping over at Heathrow. My wife and I were at the airport with flowers for the newlyweds.
Thanks to Lakshman, so many doors opened for me in London for he had friends in high places - political leaders, Law Lords, top civil servants, many of whom had been contemporaries of his at Oxford. They held him in high regard, not just for his illustrious career at Oxford where he had been president of the prestigious Oxford Union, and his legal eminence as a barrister, but also for the man he was, his personality and intellect.
|Sri Lanka’s former High Commissioner
S. K. Wickremesinghe
The LTTE had at that time a lot of influence in the Foreign Office and in other ministries because there were among the Tamil diaspora, people who had links with both the Conservative and Labour parties. Theirs was an already well-oiled lobbying machine which had contacts right up to the top levels of the British government. Once I remember being at a dinner with just Prime Minister John Major and the High Commissioners of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and our wives when this person who was known to be aligned with the LTTE happened to walk past our table and was personally greeted by the British PM.
We needed to build up a network ourselves and Lakshman was the man who set about doing it. He was able to make use of his personal rapport with the elite of the British establishment and a few others on the Continent to build strong ties in Western Europe and present a proper picture of what was happening in Sri Lanka to those governments. There was no doubt that he was very successful in promoting a positive image of Sri Lanka and having it disseminated amongst the people that mattered. As a result of his work, the British Government banned the LTTE and its activities in that country, which was a major morale blow to the organization.
He was extremely supportive of all our efforts to counter LTTE propaganda. Two of my early initiatives in London were to launch a monthly newsletter and form an association of Sri Lankan professionals known as the International Foundation of Sri Lankans (IFSL). Together with the IFSL, we launched a quarterly magazine called 'Lanka Outlook' which was a high-quality publication modelled on international news magazines such as 'Time' and 'Newsweek'. It was well received by the Foreign Office in London. Lakshman, appreciating the value of the publication, bought some 400 copies to be sent to our missions abroad and the foreign diplomatic missions in Colombo, seeing it as a tool to spread positive news and views about Sri Lanka.
Again, in consultation with Lakshman and the Trade Ministry, we set up a Sri Lanka-UK Business Council which was launched at a prestigious venue by a senior Cabinet Minister of the UK Government, the Secretary of Trade and Industry.
When the High Commission wanted to extend some support to an anti-LTTE march in London organised by a nationalist Sri Lankan association headed by Gamini Keerthichandra, Lakshman backed us to the hilt. A massive crowd, several thousands from all over Britain, including professionals, marched from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, and even the LTTE with its much vaunted organizational capacity had not been able to match such numbers.
I remember vividly too a stirring speech Lakshman delivered in 1998 on 'The Global Impact of International Terrorism' at Chatham House, at a meeting organised by the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the IFSL, which was attended by some representatives of the British Foreign Office and other ministries.
Another event I remember when he made a little-known contribution was at the Commonwealth Heads of State summit in Edinburgh in 1997. This was the first time that Nelson Mandela was attending a summit meeting after his release from jail. I recall President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Lakshman going one morning during the summit to meet him and Graca Machel (former Mozambique President's widow who is now married to President Mandela) who was campaigning vigorously against the use of child soldiers.
President Kumaratunga had been given the great honour at this summit of 52 world leaders of proposing the vote of thanks to the Queen and also toasting the Queen and Prince Philip on their 50th wedding anniversary which was that year. She was also chosen to present the anniversary gift made jointly by these leaders.
She had a small committee which included Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Lakshman, Jayanath Rajapakse and me to draft her speech. Lakshman who had such wit and a pithy turn of phrase, contributed a brilliant few paragraphs about cricket to the draft speech. Despite having to curtail her speech to match Her Majesty's brief address, Chandrika chose to retain this part which was a wise choice because it had this eminent gathering in stitches.
This was Lakshman's unique touch: "Many of our countries engage in a form of esoteric sport, so complex and shrouded in mysterious rituals that it drives half the world to despair in seeking to comprehend it, while to the other half, it is a religion and not a game.
"Only we in the Commonwealth know that a square cut is not a succulent bovine offering, that off drives, on drives and cover drives are not options available to a landscape artist, that a Yorker is not a pudding, that a googly is not an Indian sweetmeat.
"No other game is capable of bringing the life of entire nations from the West Indies to Australia, from South Africa to the Indian sub continent to a halt while 22 young men watched by millions around the globe pursue a small spherical object with frantic fervour over an open field.
"Coming from the country that produced the current world champions in the art of hitting, throwing and catching that object, I can vouch for the fact that cricket at least provides a level playing field on which larger and smaller players can contend on equal terms."
The Queen and Prince Philip both congratulated Chandrika at the end of the dinner and so did almost every single head of state.
My friendship with Lakshman continued after my four-year stint in London was over. Madanjeet Singh, a retired former Indian ambassador had been presented with a cheque for over 50 million dollars by his son and he decided to use the money to set up the South Asia Foundation, with an exclusive membership of SAARC countries. Sri Lanka was represented on the main board of the Foundation by Lakshman, India by former Prime Minister I. K. Gujral and the other SAARC members too by either Foreign Ministers or ex- Ministers. Each SAARC country set up a local chapter and Lakshman asked me to join, along with others like James Mather, MDD Peiris, Prof. Carlo Fonseka, Dr. Roland Silva, Lucien Rajakarunanayake and Jeevan Theagarajah.
The goal was to assist SAARC countries but each programme had to be designed for implementation in all countries. The first programme was proposed by us to help the open universities in all the countries and this was a good choice as Madanjeet's son had made his fortune by creating computer programmes for distance learning.
All throughout his political life, Lakshman worked tirelessly and effectively for Sri Lanka. He had a very clear vision for our country which he dearly loved. In the final reckoning, I believe he was a man of peace but he was not one for peace at any cost.