The death of Fidel Castro marked the last of the Mohicans, the last towering figure of 20th century revolutionaries. The sad but not unexpected news of the death late last month of the ailing Castro brought to mind a little known anecdote, little known because only three persons were privy to it. The other two [...]


JR’s trenchant remark on the non-aligned movement


The death of Fidel Castro marked the last of the Mohicans, the last towering figure of 20th century revolutionaries. The sad but not unexpected news of the death late last month of the ailing Castro brought to mind a little known anecdote, little known because only three persons were privy to it. The other two have passed on to the great beyond.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in his tribute to Fidel Castro makes reference to the friendship that developed between ‘JR’ as he was popularly called (not to his face except by close friends) and the Cuban leader. It seems a strange coincidence that both leaders passed away at the age of 90.
The relationship Wickremesinghe refers to developed during and after the 6th Non-Aligned Nations Summit in Havana at which Sri Lanka passed on the baton of chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to Cuba.

Wickremesinghe says that JR would regularly send packages of the best Ceylon tea to El Commandante who would reciprocate by sending the Sri Lanka President the finest Cuban cigars. Since JR did not smoke cigars the beneficiaries of Castro’s gift were two aficionados of cigars- the then Foreign Minister Shahul Hameed and my brother Mervyn to whom JR would pass on cigars now and then.

That, of course, is by the way. The real story goes back several months before the Havana summit, which if I remember correctly was in September 1979. I was at the time the Colombo Correspondent of the New York Times. My boss was the NY Times bureau chief based in New Delhi. I think it was William Borders at the time and some time before Barbara Crossette took over the position.

J.R. Jayewardene

Anyway he had gone on leave or something and a replacement had been sent to hold the fort – the Red Fort as it were – in New Delhi and oversee some neighbouring countries including Sri Lanka which was his parish. Somewhere in early March 1979 I received a message from the acting bureau chief saying he would be coming to Colombo and to request an interview with our El Presidente. I was asked to mention that he had met JR at the inaugural meeting of the Colombo Plan which I believe was at the beginning of January 1951.

I quite forget his name now but I got back to him saying that I had contacted JR’s private secretary Nihal Weeratunga and requested an interview. The NYT man had himself contacted JR’s office and made the request. The chap arrived in Colombo and gave me a call asking me to join him for lunch at Galle Face Hotel. We met and over lunch discussed Sri Lankan politics and other developments. I said I would get back to him as soon as I heard from Nihal Weeratunga.

Weeratunga called and confirmed the time and place for the interview. It was to be at JR’s Ward Place residence. We arrived there as scheduled and was ushered into the President’s study where he greeted us.The NYT chap told JR when and how he had met JR who was then Finance Minister and part of the Ceylon delegation headed by Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake.

JR said he remembered the meeting. Whether he was just being polite or actually remembered having met the journalist I don’t know. But there it was and after a few minutes of small talk the serious business began. As is customary the visiting journalist asked the questions. After some time he seemed to have exhausted his questions.

I was then on the Daily News and I wanted a story for myself. So I began talking of the upcoming NAM summit as by now JR had inherited the chairmanship of NAM from Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike who had assumed the leadership following the 1976 summit in Colombo. The next year she lost the general election and JR who became Prime Minister in 1977 automatically took over as chairman.

The NYT man was not particularly interested in NAM and he closed his eyes and took a back seat as it were while I continued the interview. Both of us had our tape recorders switched on. Mine was a mini-recorder and quite unobstrusive. I am not quite sure whether he did not notice it or he just could not care because before the interview started I had taken the recorder out and switched it on leaving it on his desk.

I asked President Jayewardene whether he would attend the Havana meeting knowing his pro-western, especially pro American, views and his antipathy for communism (though Sir John had a different explanation which must await another occasion to relate).

He was quite clear about it. He said he must hand over the chairmanship to Prime Minister Castro. But he seemed rather skeptical of NAM. Quite unexpectedly he made a comment that was the piece-de-resistance of the entire interview.

“There are only two non-aligned countries in the world – the USA and the USSR”, said JR. I almost fell off the chair, metaphorically speaking. The NYT chap who I thought had lost interest after the interview turned to the subject of non-alignment promptly showed signs of life.

A few seconds later JR looked me straight in the eye and said “Now don’t write that.”With the interview over JR led us out of the study, down the corridor to the entrance. We had just left the study when JR who was much taller than I was put his right hand on my right shoulder and said once more “Now don’t write that” and added “I’ll lose my job.”

I almost burst out laughing but controlled myself. What job could he lose? Who would dare try to remove him from the presidency, even if they had the means to do so? And how could he be removed as chairman of NAM, there being no provision to do so. It was all bluff, the kind of game that JR loves to play on occasion. This time it was to show the NYT man how humble he was and how he appealed to the press to save him – from what I still wonder.
Returning to Lake House I wrote the story for the Daily News (23rd March 1979) which splashed it on the front page under the headline “President to attend Non-Aligned Summit”.

Naturally there was not even a tangential reference to his memorable comment. Memorable, coming as it did from the head of NAM! Had I written it President Jayewardene who would not have lost his job, I would have. The NYT chap made no mention of it either. Few would have believed that JR could make such a remark. Fortunately I had it on tape and to make sure that it would not be erased accidently I wrapped the cassette in a piece of polythene and kept it in the refrigerator.

Next evening my brother came home for a drink before going out for dinner. When I told him what JR had said, he just did not believe me. Who would have, really? So I carefully removed the cassette and played it to him. I saw the surprise on my brother’s face. Then he burst out laughing.
That however was not the end of the story. The NYT chap contacted me again a couple of months later and said he would be coming to Colombo for the meeting of the NAM Coordinating Bureau which consisted of 25 foreign ministers of member states.

There were a number of contentious issues facing NAM. One was the ongoing tussle between the ousted Pol Pot regime and its Vietnam-backed successor on who was the legitimate representative of Cambodia. To complicate the issue two delegations turned up in Colombo – the Pol Pot delegation led by Ieng Sary and the Hanoi-backed regime led by Heng Samrin.

Even more troubling was the strong move by Arab radicals such as Iraq, Syria, Algeria and the PLO to suspend, if not expel, a founder-member Egypt for its peace deal with Israel brokered by the US.Naturally these were stories of international interest and certainly so to the New York Times. Some time before the NYT chap left New Delhi for Colombo he had written a piece for his paper quoting what JR said four months earlier, perhaps to denigrate NAM which the US loathed for its anti-western positions on several international issues.

Somehow the story quoting JR reached the President. Either it was immediately transmitted by our High Commission in New Delhi or our mission in New York or had been made available to him by somebody in Colombo.

The NYT correspondent arrived in Colombo and wanted a briefing on the issues before the Coordinating Bureau. When we met he asked whether an interview with JR would be possible.

I told him quite candidly not to go within a mile of JR as he was livid about being quoted and JR would have him for breakfast if he got close enough. The chap came up with an excuse that was unbelievably lame and immature for a senior correspondent. He said that quotation was news.
I asked him why he waited four months to write it if it was news. I reminded him that JR himself requested that he not be quoted. He had no legitimate answer. That was the last time I met him and a short while later he left New Delhi.

Now that Ranil Wickremesinghe has mentioned the JR-Fidel relationship and NAM, I might add an epilogue to this story that concerns Ranil himself.
When JR took over the chairmanship of NAM Ranil Wickremesinghe was also deputy minister of foreign affairs besides his being minister of youth affairs. The Coordinating Bureau meeting was dragging on because the contentious issues were still not resolved despite Foreign Minister Shahul Hameed’s deft handling of the proceedings.

The wrangling continued late into Saturday night and tempers were beginning to flare. The following is a side bar I wrote in the Daily News after the meeting had ended under the headline “Bluff and Bluster”. Ranil Wickremesinghe would probably not even remember it.“A Colombo-based ambassador of a non-aligned country was given a hard knock by the Sri Lanka Minister of Youth Affairs and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Delegates Lounge on Saturday night.

The ministerial meeting of the Coordinating Bureau had reached a crucial stage with the Arab hardliners pressing on all fronts on the Egypt issue when the Arab ambassador lost his Sphinx-like look and began making untenable demands from a Sri Lankan VIP. Even the threat of breaking off relations with Sri Lanka was thrown into the monologue.

The deputy minister who was taking a short break from the arduous sessions was passing by when he heard all this. Visibly annoyed he turned on the Ambassador and bludgeoned him with the remark “The USA and the USSR cannot pressure us. Don’t think that your country can.”
The flustered ambassador was seen retreating with undue haste.’

It is perhaps not strange that uncle and nephew both refer to the Soviet Union as the USSR – the correct abbreviation – and both talk of the USA and USSR.  JR would always refer to the UN as UNO. I wonder whether his nephew does the same.

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