April 23 marks the 20th Anniversary of the death of Lalith Athulathmudali By S.V.D Kesarralal Gunasekara People keep asking me why I continue to write about the Late Lalith Athulathmudali two decades after his unfortunate and untimely demise. The necessity to write invariably follows as a result of what is happening (or not happening) in [...]


Athulathmudali’s vision: Its relevance today


April 23 marks the 20th Anniversary of the death of Lalith Athulathmudali

By S.V.D Kesarralal Gunasekara

People keep asking me why I continue to write about the Late Lalith Athulathmudali two decades after his unfortunate and untimely demise. The necessity to write invariably follows as a result of what is happening (or not happening) in the country. Very little seems to be moving in the right direction and there is a lot more to be done in each sector. The country seems to be facing crisis after crisis and we do not seem to be having a National Plan.

I recall, when as a Member of Parliament visiting India on its 50th Anniversary since Independence. On our request, the Indian government gave us an opportunity to meet the Head of the National Planning Commission. Even at that time India had had ten or eleven National Plans of Actions of four year duration, all of which were passed and acted upon. We had only one such National Plan of Action at Independence and were embarrassed to acknowledge that we have not had a plan since then. An actionable plan is one of the greatest needs at the present time.

Many a reader would agree that the present predicament is the result of the absence of a visionary leader. This situation calls for a true statesman in the calibre of Lalith Athulathmudali and Lakshman Kadirgamar. And that is why I keep referring to the vision of Lalith in relation to many a sphere of activities.

Recently it occurred to me that Lalith has earned a strong following among the clergy and the public alike. At a recent meeting a majority of monks and laymen kept referring to his style of governance and were lamenting his absence. The reason why people agreed unanimously on this is because he is still considered by everyone as a problem solver. These are all indicators that Lalith was a pragmatic leader who touched the lives of all Sri Lankans.

The vision Lalith had for Sri Lanka which he wrote in the 1990s at a time he was disillusioned with the Premadasa government is still valid.

Take for instance the national issue. We can all rejoice that Sri Lanka has defeated the LTTE and won the battle locally. The victory will only be complete if we can win the war internationally. Although reluctantly we will have to accept that we are losing face in the eyes of the international community because we have failed to consider that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Lalith’s wisdom was such that he knew that the national issue was twofold; the military battle with the LTTE and the North East issue. He always worked in the firm belief that both these issues needed to be addressed to resolve the national issue. Even today, his approach is relevant. It is the responsibility of the advisors to provide sound counsel to the country’s leadership to use diplomatic language in these international engagements.

Lalith’s foreign policy vision was; “Our foreign policy will be an extension of our domestic interest realistically projected against the background of a rapidly changing international scene. Accordingly we advocate a policy of friendship with all, but alliance with some. We will show malice to none but magnanimity to all. Within that framework the highest priority will be accorded to nationals in the geographical proximity of Sri Lanka”

He went on to add “we are aware that conflicts in Sri Lanka have ruined our image abroad on the issue of human rights. Therefore we will have a judicial inquiry into disappearances and torture of our citizens during the past years. Such a judicial panel will include judges from nations which have consistently been critical of us. Indeed we are mindful that issues pertaining to human rights are becoming a new vital component in the field of foreign relations”.

Both these statement prove that he envisioned the difficulties if we did not have a clear foreign policy.
He was careful in using diplomatic language and with the tone. He firmly believed that even one word out of place can do untold damage. Diplomatic relations were something he handled with utmost care. In the last Human Rights Session in Geneva, the facial expressions of the Sri Lankan Delegates showed that we are not ready to engage positively with the international community. Sadly we are facing the consequences of believing that arrogance is the way out of trouble. Today those who have been air dropped in to diplomatic posts have not heard the saying ‘when in a pit, stop digging’.

Appeasing the local crowd seems to be the plan. We have lost our common sense and take pride in insulting. Even our ‘leaders’ love to slander international leaders thinking that saying things in the local language will not be conveyed to them. We fail to understand that we are a small country with nothing of great economic value to offer, therefore fighting with economic powers is not the wise thing to do. The trend is also followed even by the local media. When Lalith was a cabinet minister, there was only one person appointed to make statements whereas now, from the cabinet ministers to the pradeshiya sabha member, everyone makes comments on international affairs.

No one seems to be studying or analysing the situation to find a strategy for redress. We should make every attempt to win over countries and not to antagonise them. The UN and its members have their own agenda and we should be mindful about it. I remember that during the Falklands war Sri Lanka supported the United Kingdom at the UN on an important resolution. As a result, we received a lot of support from Britain. Today, we seem to be failing in making strong alliances with other countries. We must also not forget the commitments we have made on treaties and the pledge to honour them. These have placed us in a situation where we are locally on top of the world and internationally; down in the dumps.

What would have made Lalith sad is the fact that a government has to retain Public Relations Companies (using public funds) to resurrect an image, so ruined by the idle talk of ignorant people. Promoting the country and safeguarding its image was the bounden duty of the President, the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Secretaries and our diplomats. But today, the image of the country is being tarnished at the speed of lightning and he would have disagreed a PR company can prop up any ill reputed country without first resolving the issues at hand.


Lalith Athulathmudali was a wise man who knew that health care did not necessarily mean hospitals and medicine. His vision to improve primary healthcare started with developing water supply in all areas to ensure purified drinking water for all and physical education and preventive programmes. In addition to that his vision included improving basic sanitation and removing environmental hazards while advising families on nutrition and balanced diet. From the government perspective he also felt it is important to adopt a suitable pricing policy on basic essential nutritional items. These are simple yet pragmatic suggestions. If today’s leaders could consider any of these options we could really maintain a top spot in the region in terms of primary health.


Lalith loved agriculture. Even at a personal level he had his own little plot of land in Alawwa where he planted trees and taught his daughter the value of agriculture and the protection of the environment. Since he also held the portfolio of Minister of Food and Agriculture, he held a beautiful vision for this country, traditionally an agricultural society. He strongly felt about the need to protect the farmer and for the price stabilisation of their produce. Establishing export production villages (EPVs) was one of his dreams.
Today, the local farmer is at a loss. He is unsure of what he is going to cultivate or whether there will be any reason for him to continue as a farmer. He faces enormous problems from securing manure or fertiliser to water to transporting his produce without losing his profit to wastage. All these areas need state intervention and state patronage immediately. Lalith’s vision for the agriculture sector included all these and more measures to safeguard the local farmer.

Religion and Culture

Lalith’s basic principle in a multi-religious and multicultural society was to respect all religions and foster national harmony. Today this has become something of national importance as there seems to be attempts to spread hatred towards other cultures and religious intolerance. Frighteningly, the state has not made any clear comment on the goings on as if to indicate that such acts are acceptable.


“The biggest problem in the Ministry of Education is its priorities. Today the first two priorities of Education is the Department. But as long as I am holding this post, the first priority of the Ministry is Children! Second priority is Children! The third priority is Children! Everything should be viewed from the point of view of children, the students. Secondly things should be seen from the point of view of teachers and then parents,” said Lalith in 1990, addressing the first meeting with the Staff of the Ministry of Education, as the Minister of Education.

He firmly believed that the need of the hour (way back in the 1990s) was an educated society. He also knew that the real benefit of free education was to have a society where people could think for themselves. At a time when experienced educationists feel that the country’s education is moving away from the right track, and free education is not totally free, his absence is being truly felt.
Lalith always said that policy decisions on education should be made with utmost care as their results, good or bad will be felt about 20 years after. Particularly if there are ill effects of an unsound decision, it will take another 30 years to be redressed and for positive results to come about. This has proven true with regard to the Swabhasha Act. Fifty years later, we are still suffering due to this change in policy.


Lalith’s approach to governance was “more democracy and less bureaucracy”. His vision encompassed providing services such as water, electricity and transport at lesser cost to households and business establishments to improve productivity in the country. At a time when electricity charges are being raised, we need to understand that the Ceylon Electricity Board has become an employment generation venture of successive governments at an immense cost to the economy. He believed in equity. His plan for this country was while agricultural sector is developed, the infrastructure should be developed along with roads and transportation facilities for the development of everyone and for an economically independent Sri Lanka.

“Coherent policies for national development are becoming absolutely paramount, as a result of formulating national policies is a growing need. It is therefore essential to set up a national think tank comprising a wide range of academics, professional and intellectuals. .. This think tank shall evaluate all proposals, views and ideas submitted by any interested party and advise government of their recommendation”

He would have been the one to steer that think tank and the country. If only this country was fortunate enough to have a statesman such as Lalith Athulathmudali at a time like this.

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