Plus - Appriciation

Memories of Lakshman Kadirgamar, the quintessential Sri Lankan

Life is not without its tragedies and almost all of us, in the course of our human sojourn on earth, are called upon to endure our share of these tragedies. Just as much as we individually suffer indignities and ordeals, so do the countries of the world. And I am now absolutely convinced that it is Sri Lanka’s enormous tragedy and misfortune that Lakshman Kadirgamar was compelled to take leave of us before he could help put Sri Lanka right after the end of the brutal reign of Velupillai Prabhakaran and his band of ‘Liberation’ Tigers!

I recall vividly the last hours of August 12, 2005, the day Lakshman Kadirgamar died at the hands of a suspected LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) assassin. Amidst his crowded life as Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister and Senior Advisor to the President on International Affairs (the latter post he held in the brief period of his political career when he did not hold the portfolio of foreign affairs), Kadirgamar found the time to give exemplary leadership to the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) by serving as Chairman of the Centre’s Council of Management. In the latter capacity, the late Minister added immeasurable value to the BCIS’s traditional offerings and initiated several new ones. Among the noteworthy fresh offerings were two that were especially dear to his heart and by means of the completion of which he anticipated giving to Sri Lanka and the world something all of us could be proud of: the first of these was the establishment of a quality new journal under BCIS auspices and the other the commissioning of a classic study of the art of Stanley Kirinde, Kadirgamar’s contemporary at Trinity College, Kandy and at the University of Ceylon.

The primary objective of these twin endeavours, Kadirgamar told us, was to tell the world that there was more to contemporary Sri Lanka than tea, tourism and terrorism. He lived to see the completion of the first project but, sadly, not the second. He was able to take a cursory glance on the afternoon of the day he died at the final proof copy of The World of Stanley Kirinde, a magnificent volume felicitating the renowned painter on the occasion of his reaching the milestone of 50 years as a painter. The volume was conceived to felicitate Kirinde as much as to project an image of Sri Lanka through the eyes of the famed artist. What Kadirgamar and the Committee he put together to accomplish this task found particularly attractive was the fact that the entirety of Kirinde’s work was rooted in, and inspired by Sri Lanka, its villages, its mountains, its people, its literature, while his vision was inspired by classical painting of both east and west. In other words, Kirinde’s art was imbued with the best of both worlds. He was rooted in the ‘particular’ but was inspired by the ‘universal’, much as Kadirgamar himself. As he once told his audience at Oxford University and all of us, Oxford was the icing on the cake that was baked at home.

Lakshman Kadirgamar presided over the function organized to release the maiden volume of International Relations in a Globalising World, the spanking new journal of the BCIS (the first of the special twin projects of Kadirgamar referred to above) on the day of his passing. Immediately prior to releasing the journal, he was invited by the BCIS director to launch the Center’s newly designed website. As he pressed the button to accomplish the task, the lights of the BCIS auditorium went out due to a technical glitch. The superstitious among those present held their breath while some even expressed fear and anxiety. If Kadirgamar’s equanimity was disturbed by the turn of events, he certainly did not reveal any trace of such disturbance. As ever, on that August 2005 evening too, he displayed admirable calm and grace under pressure. He was always philosophical about death having schooled himself to live in its shadow ever since he decided on first becoming the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka to intellectually and ideologically take on the misguided and disingenuous architects of the LTTE.

Those bullets fired from unused upper reaches of what was once the home of my now also departed bosom pal, Lakshman Thalaysingham, snuffed out the life of one of the finest Sri Lankans I am privileged to call my friend and collaborator. Born on April 12, 1932 he died on August 12, 2005. Ours was a brief but glorious friendship. Fittingly so, for in most matters the Lakshman Kadirgamar I knew preferred quality to quantity. It was another civilized Sri Lankan and yet another victim of the savage LTTE--Neelan Tiruchelvam--who introduced me to Lakshman Kadirgamar, a little over a decade ago. I had applied for a senior position at The Commonwealth Secretariat in London, U.K., and was keen to have a letter of recommendation from the distinguished Foreign Minister. Consequent to a meeting I had with him, kindly arranged by Neelan, Lakshman Kadirgamar, generous as ever, unhesitatingly gave me the invaluable piece of paper I had sought.
Years passed by and during the ensuing period from the sidelines I watched with great admiration Kadirgamar’s brilliant and spellbinding performance as our Foreign Minister. In particular I relished the finesse with which he handled the challenge of LTTE terrorism.

To say that it was primarily his powers of persuasion and skilful handling of sensitive domestic and international issues that redeemed Sri Lanka’s sullied image is surely no exaggeration. Needless to say, then President Kumaratunga, the Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe, and several dedicated and effective Sri Lankan diplomats not given to ‘megaphone diplomacy’ played their quiet and crucial behind-the-scenes role in this restoration process, but the helmsman was clearly Lakshman Kadirgamar. How vastly differently and infinitely more sophisticatedly he would have handled our ‘post-war’ international relations today had he lived. We would never had been kicked around like a political football or treated like a pariah state by either the UN or the international community if he were yet our Foreign Minister. He would have played an invaluable role to prevent us from losing the peace after accomplishing the daunting task of winning the ‘unwinnable’ war. Kadirgamar would surely have advocated and seen to it that Sri Lanka heeded the message instead of seeking to shoot the messenger!

It was my friend and Kadirgamar’s colleague Nanda Godage who first introduced me to his Minister. Nanda encouraged me to get to know Kadirgamar observing that any and all encounters with the gentleman should prove both congenial and wholesome. To my immense gratification, Kadirgamar responded graciously and warmly to my overtures of friendship. The memories of my subsequent close association with Lakshman Kadirgamar I shall cherish for the rest of my life.
The ‘mellow tones’ of Kadirgamar that his Oxford contemporary Peter Jay has spoken about I shall always hear in my mind’s ear. Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the course of his tribute to Kadirgamar in Parliament, noted that a meal with the Minister offered food for the body as well as the mind. On most occasions I found that a mere telephone conversation with him provided such nourishment for the soul.

In my many encounters with Kadirgamar I was able to discover what an exceptional human being he truly was. He was an exemplary citizen of Sri Lanka. There was in him not a trace of racism. He was Sri Lankan to the core. And, great and irreparable as the loss of Lakshman Kadirgamar is, the greater tragedy I find is that neither the zealots amongst the Sinhalese who mourned his death nor their counterparts within the Tamil community who gorily rejoiced over it understood, nor yet truly understand, Lakshman Kadirgamar the human being.

Both groups have missed the wood for the trees. The zealots among the Sinhalese mistook his principled and resolute opposition to the separatist extremism of the LTTE as a sign of his pro-Sinhalaness. Their moral inadequacy from which arose their failure and inability to understand Kadirgamar’s heartfelt aversion to ethnic and religious labels made the zealots among the Tamils conclude that his championing of an over - arching Sri Lankan identity was an act of political expediency at best and a manifestation of anti - Tamilness at worst. It is ultimately the tragedy of Sri Lanka that neither zealot will ever know the essential goodness of the man whose passing in 2005 all true Sri Lankans will continue to mourn sincerely today and in the years to come.

My abiding memory of Lakshman Kadirgamar will be his innate Sri Lankanness. He desperately and tirelessly strove to make all Sri Lankans--Muslim, Tamil, Malay, Burgher, Sinhala--– realize the value of living together in one united country. He put Sri Lanka on the map of the world as few of his fellow Sri Lankans have been able to do. As noted above, his last public act on the evening of August 12, 2005 before his time on earth ran out, was to preside over a ceremony to mark the release of the inaugural issue of International Relations in a Globalising World (IRGW), the journal of the BCIS. The release of IRGW, as Adam Roberts, another Balliol man has observed, was a key part of Lakshman Kadirgamar’s long term plan to raise the level of Sri Lanka’s contribution to international diplomacy. In similar vein, his decision to bring out that felicitation volume for Stanley Kirinde, I am personally aware, was part of his long-term plan to raise the level of Sri Lanka’s contribution to the world of culture and the arts.

All in all Lakshman Kadirgamar was a peerless fellow-traveller, a man of the utmost refinement of work, thought and deed. Sri Lanka could not at the time of his death by assassination, and cannot today afford to lose sons of his calibre. But, then, it is the tall trees that catch the wind. He is being missed, and will continue to be missed, by every decent Sri Lankan in the years ahead amidst the encircling gloom and doom.

Tissa Jayatilaka

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