Last month the nation’s leaders paid tribute to Sirima Bandaranaike on the 50th anniversary of her becoming the prime minister of this country.
Though it has been said ad nauseam that Sirima Bandaranaike was not only the first woman prime minister of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) but of the world what was perhaps striking about it was that her name and fame were known to many millions of ordinary people round the world and not just to the world leaders with whom she often shared the stage.
One example might suffice to show how far and wide her name had spread. In 1966 Rex de Silva, later editor of the Sun and Weekend of the Independent Newspapers Ltd and more recently of the Borneo Bulletin in Brunei, and I were at a journalism institute in West Berlin following a 5-month training programme for an advanced diploma in mass communication. Two years earlier Mrs Bandaranaike’s government had been defeated. So when we went to West Berlin she was out of power. Germany was still a divided nation and the glitzy, ritzy West Berlin stood as the showpiece of western capitalism and democracy as against the war ravaged, poor and regimented East Berlin, the capital of communism’s frontline, the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Quite often on a Sunday Rex and I used to cross over to East Berlin for the day. Once, two Filipino journalists accompanied us across Checkpoint Charlie, the well-known crossing into East Berlin. They were given such a fright by the East German immigration officials calling them “Americano stooge” that it was the last time the two Filipinos went within a mile of East German territory. The reception that the two Ceylon journalists got was quite the opposite. As soon as they glanced at our passports, they greeted us enthusiastically. All they knew about Ceylon came out in two images- Frau Bandaranaike and thé (tea). Each time the Bandaranaike name featured in the greeting however much they stumbled over the pronunciation.
When Mrs Bandaranaike returned to power in 1970 at the head of a socialist coalition I was on the Daily News, my 8th year at Lake House. One of my assignments was to ‘cover’ the Prime Minister.
Naturally there was fierce competition between the Lake House newspapers and those from the other two major publishing houses to be first with the news by scooping the opposition. What was not known outside the four walls of Lake House was that the competition between the Daily News and The Observer was even fiercer than with the rival newspapers though the two papers were from the same stable.
The Daily News editor then was my brother Mervyn and Senior Deputy Editor Clarence Fernando, a hardened newsman and veteran Reuter correspondent, ran the news desk like a veritable sergeant major, albeit a more jovial and generous one when the sun set. When Clarrie as he was popularly called, sent a reporter out on a job he had better come back with a good or an exclusive story unless he was prepared for a kick in the posterior( generally metaphorically but occasionally literarily) or a verbal assault in language as colourful as a rainbow.
Clarrie usually assigned me to cover the departures and arrivals of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike to and from abroad. I cannot quite remember where she was going on this particular occasion. It was possibly to India to follow up on the implementation of the Sirima-Shastri Pact of October 1964. Those who remember the old Katunayake airport would recall that the VIP lounge was a separate building on the left of the main airport building with a small parking place between the buildings and a gate leading to the tarmac so vehicles could be driven up to the plane when necessary.
The Observer had sent its political reporter to cover the departure. Determined to get a story for the Daily News that was not the usual humdrum news item of who was there to see her off and who she spoke to, I waited near the gate and accosted her when she was heading to the plane. I got my story after firing a few questions and it was the lead the next day. My Observer colleague had nothing new to say in his report the next day. On her return The Observer strengthened its staff sending both its deputy editor and the political reporter. But again the Daily News scooped its sister paper thanks to a tip from Mrs Bandaranaike’s security.
Mrs Bandaranaike arrived and went into the VIP lounge where seth pirith was chanted. She chatted away with acting Prime Minister Maithripala Senanayake and some other ministers and well wishers. I realized that staying in the VIP lounge was not going to do me any good. Even if I buttonholed Mrs Bandaranaike I would not be able to ask her my questions without being overheard by the other reporters.So I left the building. Her car was parked opposite the entrance to the lounge and facing the main road. I asked her security chief who knew me well enough which side of the vehicle she would enter from. He told me it was the door away from the lounge. I made my way there and waited by the car door. When she finally emerged from the lounge and made her way towards the car, the crowd that followed blocked the other reporters from getting anywhere close to her. When she got to the door I opened it halfway so that she could not get in. She looked at me obviously wondering what I was up to. She asked me whether my brother had come. I said no, but I had some questions for her.
Mrs Bandaranaike smiled, said fire away and stood there with her arm on top of the half-open door and answered the questions without any sign of annoyance or the blah blah often employed by those who have nothing concrete to say or wished to fudge the answers. Her answers were simple and clear enough. Five minutes or more later when it was all over I held the door fully open and let her get in and continue her journey home.
The two Observer journalists were caught on the wrong side of the car. So was photographer Rienzie Wijeratne, better known as a society photographer who went along with me and did ‘shoot’ a couple of pictures of my talking to the prime minister with her arm resting on the door. Back in office Clarrie ran the story as another front page lead. Rienzie gave me a copy of the picture saying “wrong colour of shirt and tie, boy.” It was then that it struck me I had been wearing a green shirt and tie, the accepted colour of her rival UNP. Even if Mrs Bandaranaike noticed, it obviously did not matter a jot to her.
Perhaps the best illustration of her tolerance of what some might see as journalistic intrusions if not invasions, and she had come to accept as an adjunct of enterprising journalism was when Mrs Bandaranaike was leaving for India for talks with Mrs Indira Gandhi on the Indo-Ceylon agreement and the territorial dispute over Kachchativu, the islet on which was situated a Church dedicated to St Anthony of Padua.
I think it was somewhere in 1974 but I cannot be sure since most of my newspaper clippings have been destroyed and what is left are not with me here. But one individual who I know is mostly likely to have copies of reports from those days is my friend and university colleague Nihal Jayawickrama who was a confidante of Mrs Bandaranaike and was an inveterate collector of newspaper clippings and could give the national archives a close run.
She was taking an Air Ceylon flight from Ratmalana Airport. That airport was a stuffy old place those days and I suppose little has changed except that it is more aged today. The Observer having missed out on the previous occasions moved in its heavy artillery to the airport including its editor Lionel Fernando who had known the late SWRD Bandaranaike. I sensed that with four of them hovering around I was not going to get anything exclusive. So I got out of the terminal building and crossed the tarmac onto the opposite side where there was hardly anybody save for some airport staff.
The plane was parked some 200 yards or so from the terminal building. When it came close to leave, Mrs Bandaranaike, along with President William Gopallawa and Maithripala Senanayake who would be acting in her absence, began to walk towards the aircraft. When they were about 50 yards from the terminal building and I was sure that none of the Observer colleagues could get there, I cut right across the tarmac from the opposite side and stopped all three in their tracks. While the move must surely have taken everybody including the sprinkling of security people and other journalists by surprise, Mrs Bandaranaike gave a quizzical look. Laughing, she asked whether I was also going to India.
rusqueness was not her style. Firm she could be if necessary as when she eye-balled an increasingly troublesome LSSP leadership. In the end the LSSP left (or was thrown out) and the Communist Party followed suit some months before the 1977 election which swept her government out.
Anyway there we stood on the tarmac under the morning sun, no gun-toting security detail in the vicinity, just three of the highest in the land and a pesky journalist wanting a story. I remember asking her about the controversy over Kachchativu and whethr she was going to raise the issue in her talks with Mrs Gandhi. Mrs Bandaranaike answered affirmatively, as I remember. There was no evasion, no equivocation.
What a different ethos it was when there was a different kind of relationship between the country’s political establishment and the ordinary journalists who were seen to be just doing their job though the Big Beasts on either side of the battlements clashed and sometimes disastrously as the take-over of LakeHouse and later the old The Times of Ceylon group proved.
The writer is a serving diplomat in the SL embassy in Thailand.