ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 17
Front Page Columns
Thoughts from London

Havana Summit and JR’s derisive dismissal of Non-Alignment

By Neville De Silva

Commandante Fidel was so delighted to see fellow presidante Mahinda that he almost fell off his hospital bed. Or so the story goes.

But that is not the whole story. Fidel was even happier to see Presidante Mahinda contributing to the depleted coffers of a dollar- strapped Cuba by a little bit of shopping here and a little bit there, picking up a kurakkan-coloured Cuban shirt with embroidered front panels and all.

Even more than that for bringing with him compatriots that must surely have been the mother of all delegations at a non-aligned summit for a small country like ours. Fortunately the streets of Havana are relatively safe.

So the travelling circus from Colombo to Cuba did not have to take their battalions of bodyguards that would have multiplied the number fourfold at least.

Otherwise the tax payers would be coughing up more money for two, at least, chartered 747s flying wingtip to wingtip as the hordes aboard sang that old ditty “kapalla, beepalla, jolly karapalla….”.

Having managed to create traffic congestion in Manhattan- the Daily News said it was because of President Bush- the flying circus and the accompanying media maestros transitted in London for the day before jetting back to Colombo.

Whether some dropped off in London to say hello to the Queen and storm Petticoat Lane, I don’t know. But one thing is certain there would not have been throngs with garlands gathered at the airport waiting to welcome their cardboard Castros back unless some of them were able to rent a crowd with a fistful of dollars left over from their allowances.

No doubt Sri Lanka contributed generously to getting those critical paragraphs condemning terrorism and urging member countries to act individually and severally to “combat the menace,” included in the final declaration of the non-aligned summit.That indeed was President Rajapaksa’s message both at the NAM summit and in his address to the UN General Assembly. The fact that this message reverberated in the summit declaration brings some credit to Sri Lanka and all those who worked behind the scenes on the draft.

Talking of non-alignment and past summits I recently read articles on the subject written by two former colleagues of mine in Colombo- Thalif Deen and Gamini Weerakoon.

Both referred to a cynical remark made by President JR Jayewardene, then chairman of NAM, about the movement itself.

Gamini Weerakoon could not recall exactly when JR, as he was called by both friend and foe, said what he was reported to have said. Thalif Deeen wrote that JR said so in an interview with The New York Times.

Let me put the record straight as I am the only living person who knows exactly what happened. To begin at the beginning, which is always a good place to start, The New York Times had sent a temporary bureau chief to New Delhi. Like Gamini Weerakoon, I cannot recall his name right now. Since I was the Sri Lanka correspondent for the New York Times then, he was my immediate boss.

Somewhere in March 1979 he called me to say he would be coming to Colombo, that he had written to the president’s office asking for an interview and for me to arrange it.

The New York Times man had met JR when he covered the conference that set up the Colombo Plan.

I contacted Nihal Weeratunge, JR’s private secretary and fixed the meeting that was to be at his Ward Place residence.

So the Times bureau chief and I went to Ward Place and we were invited into JR’s study. The president and the Times correspondent exchanged pleasantries after the latter reminded JR of their meeting in the early 1950s. I let the visiting journalist ask the questions which is not only correct but also the courteous thing to do, and get his concerns off the chest. I was deputy editor of the Daily News at the time and had known JR for many years.

I was anxious to get a story for our papers now that I was with the president and waited till my ‘boss’ appeared to exhaust his questions.

Then I broached the subject of non-alignment. JR had succeeded Mrs Bandaranaike as chairman of NAM after she lost the 1977 election. The summit was to be held in Cuba later that year. But before that the NAM foreign ministers were to meet in Colombo in June to thrash out the agenda and some thorny issues left over from the 1976 Colombo summit.

So I broached the subject of the forthcoming summit knowing well enough that JR was sceptical about non-alignment- in fact about foreign affairs for which the UNP somehow did not have the stomach or the interest. That is why JR made foreign affairs a separate subject and handed the portfolio to A.C.S. Hameed who then earned the sobriquet of “All Countries Seen” not only because that stood for his initials but also as he had seen almost all the countries during JR’s long parliament.

Anyway I asked JR whether he is going to attend the Havana summit.

“Yes, I will go,” he said in the intonation that I had some reputation for imitating. “After all I must hand over the chairmanship to President Castro.”

There was this great debate at the time within the movement about “natural allies of non-alignment” and whether the Soviet Union is a “natural ally.” Since Cuba and Yugoslavia were on opposite sides in this debate everybody was expecting a major clash between Fidel Castro and Broz Tito.

So I pursued the subject with JR and the Times man seemed to be getting bored with all this talk of non-alignment that meant little to The New York Times.

Then suddenly JR said “There are only two non-aligned countries in the world-the USA and the USSR.”

Suddenly the Times man seemed to wake up. I was taking notes and both of us had our recorders switched on. I had one with a mini cassette.

I don’t know whether JR was aware that the recorders were switched on or pretended not to know. But having dropped this bombshell and as I was scribbling furiously, he told me, “Now don’t write that.”

Later when we were leaving Ward Place, JR who walked with us to the door, put his arm round my shoulders and said “Now don’t write that, I’ll lose my job.” I was momentarily taken aback. Surely nobody was going to kick JR out of the presidency. Nobody would dare.

The next day my brother Mervyn and his wife dropped in at my Jawatte Road flat as we were all going out for dinner. Over a drink I told Mervyn about JR’s acid remark. He wouldn’t believe me so I played the tape. He listened and burst into laughter as he was wont to do often enough.

It was a great story- after all JR was then the chairman of NAM. But I respected JR’s wishes and did not write it.

But the NYTimes man bided his time. Shortly before the foreign ministers’ meeting opened in Colombo he wrote a piece from New Delhi with JR’s celebrated quote which a few colleagues knew as I had had a good laugh over it.

One day I got a call from JR’s office saying that the NYTimes had quoted him as saying what he had said. JR was not blaming me but that he was angry at the Times correspondent who had known him.

The Times man turned up in Colombo for the ministerial meeting. When we met for lunch at Galle Face Hotel he wanted me to arrange another meeting with JR.

My response was very simple. If I were him I wouldn’t be seen within a mile of Le Presidante.

When I explained why, he said it was a great story for him and he couldn’t ignore it.

Fine, I told him, it was a great story but then JR did not want it written. I told him he was aware of it otherwise he would not have waited another two months to write it and, in any case, I would have written it the next day as it was my story.

That is how my story got into the New York Times two months or so later and is now often quoted as JR’s derision for non-alignment which he purported to follow in foreign policy.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.