Summit and JR’s derisive dismissal of Non-Alignment
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
My response was very simple. If I
were him I wouldn’t be seen within a mile of Le
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.