There have been many tributes to the third President of Sri Lanka, the late D. B. Wijetunga. As a public servant who worked closely with Mr. Wijetunga in the Ministry of Finance (1990 to 1994), I would like to pay my own tribute to this much loved and respected statesman, who rose from the lower ranks of society to the highest office in the land.
Mr. Wijetunga was my minister, first as Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, and from May 1993 as President and Minister of Finance.
He was polite and considerate to the officers who served under him, and he was genuinely concerned about their welfare. On one occasion, at a Buddhist function at the Ministry, we were seated together – he on a thick cushion and I on a mat. Turning to me, he inquired: “Rajah, are you comfortable? Do you need a cushion?” I politely declined his kind offer, but I mention this as an example of his concern for his subordinates.
He was a devout and committed Buddhist. I well remember one morning when he wanted me to meet him in his room in Parliament. He arrived a few minutes after me, and he was given a tray of flowers to offer at the Buddha statue in the Parliament shrine room. He asked me to accompany him, and gave me the tray of flowers. Apparently, this was the way he started his day’s work in the office. He was a complete vegetarian, abstaining from consuming even eggs and Maldive fish. When I had to leave for towns outside Colombo on Ministry Mobile Services, I informed Mr. Wijetunga’s personal staff that I was a vegetarian, and that I would require vegetarian meals. They told me the Prime Minister was a total vegetarian, and that I need have no worries on that score.
Once, during a chat while we were outstation on Ministry Mobile Services duties, I asked him whether any astrologer had predicted his meteoric rise to such heights. He said, “Rajah, you ask very peculiar questions!” But he did say raja yoga (predictions of “royal” status) references had been made, but no one had spelled out that he would one day be a prime minister or a president.
Mr. Wijetunga had his own sense of discipline. My own experience was that ministry files referred to him would be returned the following day, with approval for a recommended course of action. I once asked him how he managed to deal with the mountain of ministry files and take such prompt action. He said he would get up very early in the morning and attend to office files.
Punctuality was another virtue of the late President. In the day’s programme for many ministry events, the Minister of State would be expected to arrive before the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance. Often, Mr. Wijetunga would arrive earlier than scheduled, and he would receive the Minister of State, who at the time was the late Harold Herat. Mr. Herat told me it was very embarrassing for him when he came at the appointed time, or even a little earlier, to find the prime minister already present. So, to avoid embarrassment, he would make it a point to come quite early for functions attended by both Mr. Wijetunga and himself.
The late Mr. Wijetunga was a very humble man. He once told me he knew my father, also a politician, first in the UNP and then when they followed the late Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He said he had visited our home in Ratnapura in the early 1950s, when my father was with the UNP, and perhaps he was in the company of the late Mr. A. Ratnayake, a former president of the Senate, since he was at that time his private secretary.
It is not often that persons in high office refer to their connections and associations with subordinate officers, or their parents and relations, especially when they have had small beginnings. Mr. Wijetunga was not carried away by the high office he held. A great and endearing characteristic of the late President was that he never lost the common touch.
(In this connection, I am reminded of a story about an encounter between the late Prime Minister Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and the Ven. Vajiragnana Nayaka Thera, founder of the Vajiraramaya Temple in Colombo. The late premier had gone to visit the Thera, who was not well. The distinguished visitor remarked that the Thera’s leg was swollen. Promptly came the Thera’s reply: he said his leg may be swollen, but his head was not!)
President Wijetunga took the many political elevations that came his way in his stride, without a semblance of pride or conceit. He always remained the simple man that he was.
I recall with nostalgia the pleasant and friendly relations we had during the period I served in the Ministry of Finance.
May this humble, simple man, so unaffected by the high glamour of his position as head of state and government, realise early the supreme peace and bliss of Nibbana.