Conversation with Prince Phillip on BIA runway and President Premadasa’s genius for getting things done
Excerpted from the memoirs of Chandra Wickremasinghe, Rtd. Addl. Secy to the President
When Emperor Hirohito of Japan passed away at an advanced age, and the Duke of Edinburgh was scheduled to touch down at Katunayaka Airport on his return flight, after attending the funeral. Wije (KHJ Wijeyadasa) wanted me ‘to do the honours’ as he put it, by receiving him after touch down and entertaining him to high tea at the VIP lounge. Accordingly, arrangements were made for myself and British High Commissioner David Gladstone to welcome the Duke and conduct him to the VIP lounge. This was the time when SL had to face the menace of terrorism on two fronts from the JVP and the LTTE and as a precautionary measure there was a tight security wrap provided for the Duke’s safety by crack Air Force troops under the Air Force Commander.
When the plane, which was a small jet, landed, I went up the ramp with HC Gladstone and greeted the Duke who was in the cockpit. After exchanging the usual pleasantries , the Duke said that he had piloted ‘this small thing’ and what he wanted most was to stretch his legs a bit. I told him that we had arranged tea for him in the lounge to which he replied that he would prefer to do a walk up and down the runway to stretch his tired limbs.
I observed that he was dressed in workaday denims. Whilst walking with the Duke in the company of the British HC and the Air Force Commander, along with the security escorts, I engaged him in a conversation enquiring how the funeral was and how the older Japanese people, reacted to their Emperor, who had seen the country through the cataclysmic WW11, passing away. The Duke responded with his characteristic acerbic humour saying ‘ Oh he was dying for a long time and the Japanese had got used to the idea’!
Then about the funeral itself, he said with his typically wry wit, ‘it was a rather long drawn ceremony with a lot of sticks and incense being burnt.’ As the day happened to be cloudy and without any sun I commented that it was not the best of weather we were having that day, to which he replied smiling ‘Oh, ours is infinitely worse.” I also took the opportunity to ask him about the motor vehicle he was supposed to have owned while in Trincomalee where he had served during WW11 as a Sub- Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, adding that there were many here who claimed that they owned the vehicle.
He laughed and said that he too had heard the story of his motor car being owned by a person here adding that as he did not have much money at the time he remembers buying a small Standard or an Austin which was even at that time in a somewhat ‘clapped out condition.’ Soon after his brisk stroll up and down the runway, he opted to board the plane and take off despite our pleas to have tea in the VIP lounge. I must say it was quite an experience meeting the Duke in person and listening to his witticisms which have now become legendary as they are some times mixed with the occasional faux pas, he is notorious for making.
President RP’s way of getting things done on the double
Just one month before he was assassinated by an LTTE suicide cadre, I remember Dayaratna, the President’s Co-ordinating Secretary meeting me and saying that the President wanted to see me. I enquired from Daya, who was a very amiable officer, whether there was a problem; he replied “I do not know, Sir, HE is there alone in the office waiting for you”. When I walked in somewhat apprehensively into his large office room, Daya approached him and said “Sir, Mr. Wickramasinghe is here.”
I remember the President looking at me quickly and saying in Sinhala “Chandra, I have a big problem”. I was taken by surprise when he addressed me by my first name which he had never done before. My immediate reaction was to try to figure out what this big problem was that he as President could not solve. While studying the relevant file, he spoke to me switching onto English this time and said “There are two MPs who are fighting to get an unused paddy store. One of the MP’s wishes to use the store to rehabilitate 32 ex-JVP cadres while the other is keen on converting the store into a vocational training centre to train the youth in the area in vocational skills. This has become a big headache to me”. He then looked at me and said “Here is the file, you examine the problem and summon the MPs and tell them how it should be settled and let me have your report in two days”. I was totally flabbergasted, wondering how I could possibly summon MPs to appear before me and further, to tell them how the matter should be resolved. I had very little sleep that night and remember telling my wife that I regretted ever having joined the Presidential Secretariat.
It was in this despondent mood that I read through the file carefully that night and mapped out a strategy in my mind. I wanted to start working on it the very next morning as the report had to be submitted to HE in two days. I had decided by then in my own mind that the more viable option was the establishment of a vocational training centre which could cater to the needs of the youth in the area. With this in mind, I phoned the Secretary/Ministry of Mahaweli Development (it was either AA Wijetunge or DG Premachandra) and enquired whether land with a perennial water course was available in one of the border areas (Mahaweli H Division). His first reaction was to reply in the negative.
I then told him that HE was keen on settling 32 JVP cadres in a suitable border area. Thinking it was the President who was behind the request, he asked for half an hour to check and get back to me. He rang me within 15 minutes to say that there was a suitable land available with a perennial stream running through it. I then revealed the plan I had in mind for the settlement of the 32 ex-insurgents on this land. I asked him how much of land could be given to each settler to which his reply was that the normal allotment of two and a half acres would be given. I told him ,the extent will have to be five acres, to which proposal he reluctantly agreed, again thinking that this was being suggested at the instance of the President.
On further enquiry by me as to how much money would be given to each allottee to put up a house, he replied that the normal Rs. 5,000/= would be made available. I told him that the amount will have Rs. 20,000/= as we had to take into account the special circumstances. Thinking once again that these were President Premadasa’s instructions, he agreed to give the enhanced amount. I then requested him to send me a blocking plan of the land showing the stream and a report on the extent to be allocated and the amount of money that would be given to build a house, via fax. In the meantime, I made arrangements with Army Headquarters to issue these 32 JVP cadres the necessary firearms (pump guns, they called them) and ammunition and to train them in the use of these weapons. I also remember quipping that as they were JVP cadres such training may be somewhat redundant.
That evening, I telephoned the two MPs to convey to them ‘the decisions made by the President’. The first MP I contacted was the one who wanted to utilize the store for the rehabilitation of the 32 insurgents. I started the conversation asking him whether there was a problem regarding a warehouse in that area. The MP immediately launched on a tirade against the other MP saying that the JVP cadres were after all ‘our own people’ who had to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. At this point I told the MP that the President had gone into the issue very carefully and had decided to make the warehouse available for a vocational training centre, as such a training centre would be beneficial to youth in the entire area.
He was naturally taken aback and smelling something fishy, asked me what would happen to the JVP youth to which query I replied that the President had a plan of settling them in System H of the Mahaweli project. The MP immediately countered saying that they would be killed off in no time by the LTTE. I assured him that arrangements will be made to provide suitable firearms to them to defend themselves. He then wanted to know the extent of the allotment that would be given and when I said that each would be given five acres expressed disbelief saying that the normal extent was two and a half acres per settler under the Mahaweli project. I had to reassure him that it would be five acres. When asked about the financial assistance that would be given to build a house and being informed by me that Rs. 20,000 would be given per settler, the MP could not contain his surprise as the usual assistance given for the purpose was Rs. 5,000.
I also assured him that there was a perennial stream running through the land that would provide water for irrigation. At this stage he asked me somewhat testily whose decisions these were and I answered him without demur that they were the President’s. He was silent for a moment before telling me rather forlornly “What’s to be done.” I knew the President wanted me to settle the issue in a reasonable manner and that he would not object to this kind of settlement which ensured that the ex-insurgents who were to be settled in ‘System H’ would be treated exceptionally, providing them much better facilities than what the normal Mahaweli settlers were entitled to, without summarily throwing them to the wolves, so to speak.
I do not think the MP himself was too unhappy when I detailed to him the special concessions and facilities that would be extended to the JVP settlers, deviating from what was laid down. Further, the manner in which the MP somewhat timorously ended the conversation, indicated that he was prepared to accept the arrangement which he thought was based on the President’s instructions. I think what troubled him more was that the other MP was getting what he wanted and that this meant a loss of face for him.
The other MP whom I telephoned thereafter, was jubilant that the President had decided to give the warehouse to him to start a vocational training centre and gave expression to his joy by praising the sagacity of the President in making the correct decision. The next morning I took the file back to the President and explained to him at length what I had done informing him at the same time that I had deviated a little from the normal entitlements of a Mahaweli settler in view of the special circumstances of the case. He only asked me what Secy/Mahaweli had said about the deviations and on my replying that he concurred in them given the special circumstances, seemed satisfied that the additional concessions given were quite in order.
The President however examined my report very carefully, going into all the relevant details including the availability of water etc. Finally, he asked me what the MPs had to say about the decision and on my telling him that they seemed to agree with the new proposals, turned to me and thanked me which was again something he rarely or never did. I cited this particular case to show President Premadasa’s way of managing contending parties posing seemingly intractable problems which virtually defied solution. Being a hard-nosed realist with a decidedly practical orientation in working out solutions to problems, what was uppermost in his scheme of things was to forge a quick practical solution.
This is why officials who worked for him were all the time on tenterhooks trying desperately to work out practical solutions to problems which prima facie, seemed impossible to be solved. What facilitated matters in seeking solutions to such virtually intractable problems was the fact that all concerned officials in Ministries, Departments, State Corporations and Public Authorities at the time, were only too eager to chip in and help. This is what made our work, though trying and oftentimes exasperating , still, most satisfying, when the particular problems were eventually, successfully settled.
Enduring nexus between poverty and violent identity politics
The enduring nexus between poverty or economic deprivation and violent identity politics could not be stressed enough. The lingering identity-based violence in some parts of India’s North-East, to consider one example, graphically bears out this causative link.
At first blush the continuing violence in India’s Manipur state is traceable to inter-tribal hostilities but when the observer penetrates below surface appearances she would find that the root causes of the violence are economic in nature. On the face of it, plans by the state authorities to go ahead with extended economic quotas for the majority Meitei tribal group, for instance, who are considered the economic underdogs in Manipur, have intensified hostilities between the rest of the tribal groups and the Meitei.
It is plain that perceptions among the rest of the tribal communities that they are being unfairly treated by the state are accounting in considerable measure for the continuing ethnic tensions in Manipur. That is, the fear of being deprived of their life-chances on the part of the rest of the communities as a consequence of the new economic empowerment measures being initiated for the Meitei is to a considerable degree driving the ethnic violence in Manipur. It would be reasonable to take the position that economics, in the main, are driving politics in the state.
Sri Lanka, of course, is no exception to the rule. There is no doubt that identity issues propelled to some extent the LTTE’s war against the Sri Lankan state and its armed forces over three long decades.
However, it was perceived economic deprivation on the part of sections of the Tamil community, particularly among its youthful sections, that prompted the relevant disaffected sections to interpret the conflict in ethnic identity terms. In the final analysis, economic issues drove the conflict. If Lankan governments had, from the inception, ensured economic equity and justice in all parts of the country the possibility of ethnic tensions taking root in Sri Lanka could have been guarded against.
Even in contemporary Sudan, the seeming power struggle between two army generals, which has sowed destruction in the country, is showing signs of taking on an ethnic complexion. Reports indicate that the years-long confrontation between the Arab and black African communities over land and water rights is resurfacing amid the main power contest. Economic issues, that is, are coming to the fore. Equitable resource-sharing among the main communities could have perhaps minimized the destructive nature of the current crisis in the Sudan.
Sections of the international community have, over years, seen the majority of conflicts and wars in the post-Cold War decades as being triggered in the main by identity questions. Identity politics are also seen as bound up with an upswing in terrorism. In order to understand the totality of the reasons behind this substantive change one may need to factor in the destabilizing consequences of economic globalization.
The gradual dissolving of barriers to international economic interactions that came in the wake of globalization in the eighties and nineties brought numerous material benefits to countries but in the case of the more traditional societies of the South, there were deeply destabilizing and disorienting results. This was particularly so in those societies where the clergy of particularly theistic religions, such as Islam, held sway over communities.
In these comparatively insulated societies of the South, unprecedented exposure to Western culture, which came in the wake of globalization, was seen as mainly inimical. Besides, perceived alien Western cultural and religious influences were seen by the more conservative Southern clergy as undermining their influence among their communities.
A Southern country that reacted quite early against the above forces of perceived decadence was Iran. Iran’s problems were compounded by the fact that the Shah of the times was following a staunchly pro-US foreign policy. It was only a matter of time before there was an eruption of militant religious fervour in the country, which ultimately helped in ushering an Islamic theocracy in the country. Needless to say, this revolutionary change in Iran impacted drastically the politics of the Middle East and beyond.
Militant Islam was showing signs of spreading in Central Asia when the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan occurred in 1979. This military incursion could have been seen as an attempt by the Soviet authorities to prevent the spread of militant Islam to Afghanistan, a state which was seen as playing a principal role in the USSR’s security.
However, radical Islamic opposition to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan came in the form of the Mujahedin, who eventually morphed into the present day Taliban. However, as could be seen, the Taliban presence has led to the spread militant religious sentiment in South and South-West Asia.
Fortunately, there is substantive political science scholarship in South Asia currently which helps the observer to understand better the role poverty and material backwardness play in sowing the seeds of religious fundamentalism, or identity politics, among the youth of the region in particular. A collection of papers which would prove helpful in this regard is titled, ‘Civil Wars in South Asia – State, Sovereignty, Development’, edited by Aparna Sundar and Nandini Sundar, (SAGE Publications India Pvt. Ltd.) In some of its papers are outlined, among other things, the role religious institutions of the region play in enticing impoverished youth to radical identity-based violent politics.
While there is no questioning the lead role domestic poverty plays in the heightening and spread of identity politics and the violence that goes hand-in-hand with it, one’s analysis of these questions would not be complete without factoring into the situation external military interventions, such as those of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have aggravated the economic miseries of the ordinary people of those countries. There is an urgent need for in-depth impartial studies of this kind, going forward.
Russian ambassador’s comments
The Russian ambassador to Sri Lanka in a response to my column of May 18th , 2023 titled, ‘Containment Theory returns to West’s ties with East’, takes up the position that the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, beginning 1979, was not an invasion but an operation that was undertaken by the Soviets on the invitation of the then government of Afghanistan. This amounts to contradicting the well-founded position of the majority of international authorities on the subject that the Soviet push into Afghanistan was indeed a military invasion of the country. This is the position that I have taken over the years and I do not have any reason to back down from it.
The subsequent comments made by the ambassador on my column are quite irrelevant to its thematic substance and do not warrant any replies by me.
Man of the Globe International …branching out
Kalum Samarathunga came into the spotlight when he won the title Man of the Globe International (Charity Ambassador) 2022, held in Malaysia, last year, and also Mr. Sri Lanka 2022.
A former sales and marketing co-coordinator, in Kuwait, Kalum is now into modelling (stepping into the local modelling world in 2021, when he returned to Sri Lanka), and is also focusing on becoming a professional presenter, and an actor, as well.
Kalum made his debut, as a presenter, at the ‘Ramp Comes’ Alive’ fashion show, held in April.
He also mentioned that he has been involved in music, since he was a kid…and this is how our chit-chat went:
1. How would you describe yourself?
I’m just an ordinary guy on the road to achieve my humongous dreams.
2. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
There was a time where I was very insecure about myself, but everything is fine with me now, so I wouldn’t consider making any changes.
3. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
Nothing at all, because I’m blessed with an amazing family.
Indian Public School, in Kuwait, where I was the leader of the school band, playing the keyboards, and a member of the school dance team, as well. In sports – under 19 long distance runner (800m, 1500m and 5000m), and came second in the inter-school Kuwait clusters, in 2012,
5. Happiest moment?
My happiest moment is that moment when my parents teared up with joy after I called them, from Malaysia, after winning Man Of The Globe International Charity 2022. Seeing my parents crying out of joy was the happiest moment, more than winning the title.
6. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
It doesn’t matter what you do in life as long as it makes you happy. For example, I was born in Kuwait, living a lavish life, a great job and an awesome salary, but I was still unhappy and that’s because I wasn’t doing what I wanted to.
7. Are you religious?
Let’s just say that I’m a God loving person and I live my life according to that. I believe that I’m nothing without God and I have experienced God’s blessings in my life
8. Are you superstitious?
No, because I have never experienced luck in my life. All that I have achieved, in my life, is purely out of hard work.
9. Your ideal girl?
There no points looking beautiful if you can’t keep up a conversation, so “communication” comes first for me; a woman who respects and loves my parents; loyalty and understanding; her voice should be attractive, and she doesn’t have to be someone in the same field I’m in, as long as she trusts me and respects the work I do.
10. Which living person do you most admire?
My mom and dad are my role models, because the man I’m today is because of them. They went through a lot in life to raise me and my siblings.
11. Which is your most treasured possession?
My piano, my first and only friend that was there for me, to make my day. I was a bullied kid in school, until Grade 10, so playing the piano was the only thing that kept me going, and made me happy.
12. If you were marooned on a desert island, who would you like as your companion?
Sri Lankan actress Rashiprabha Sandeepani. I admire her qualities and principles. And, most of all, she was unknowingly there for me during a bad storm in my life.
13. Your most embarrassing moment?
My ex-girlfriend’s mother catching us kissing, and I also got slapped.
14. Done anything daring?
Taking a major risk, during Covid (2021), by leaving everything behind, in Kuwait, and travelling to Sri Lanka, for good, to finally follow my dreams .
15. Your ideal vacation?
I’ve actually forgotten what a vacation feels like because I’ve been so focused on my goals, back-to-back, since 2020.
16. What kind of music are you into?
I don’t stick to a single genre…it depends on my mood.
17. Favourite radio station?
No special liking for any station in particular.
18. Favourite TV station?
I do not watch TV but I do watch TV series, and movies, on my laptop, whenever I can. And, thanks to Sinhala teledramas, on YouTube, I’m able to brush up my Sinhala.
19 What would you like to be born as in your next life?
If this ‘next life’ is actually true, I wouldn’t mind being born as anything, but, most importantly, with “Luck” on my side.
20. Any major plans for the future?
I am planning to invade and destroy Earth…just kidding! I don’t want a top seat in my industry – just the seat I deserve, would be fine.
Anti-ageing foods for younger-looking skin
It is a rich source of quercetin, a powerful antioxidant, which helps in the removal of harmful free radicals from your system. Broccoli is also a natural anti-inflammatory agent, and hence, it prevents your skin from looking tired and dull. So, do not forget to pick some broccolis the next time you go grocery shopping.
Rich in vitamins A and C, spinach keeps your skin healthy and also helps to repair damaged skin cells. It is also rich in lutein, a biomolecule that improves the hydration, as well as elasticity of the skin. So, add this super-food in your diet for a healthy and soft skin.
It is rich source of omega-3 fatty acids that help in improving the elasticity of the skin and in providing wrinkle-free skin. It also add natural glow to your skin and make you look vibrant.
This super-food is loaded with an age-defying ingredient called lycopene. Lycopene shields your skin from environmental damage, prevents wrinkle formation by neutralising free radicals, and also improves its texture. So, consume tomatoes in the form of salad, juice, soup, or anything else. Just do not forget to make them an essential part of your diet.
These tiny powerhouses are rich source of selenium, which protects newly-formed skin cells from damage, caused by pollutants, as well as harsh UV radiation. Selenium is also believed to be helpful in preventing skin cancer. Furthermore, mushrooms are also packed with vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, and B6. All these vitamins facilitate the growth of new skin cells. Also, our body requires copper to produce collagen and elastin, which are important for maintaining the strength of skin. And, mushrooms are one of the best sources of it. So, to have a youthful skin, make sure you add this plain-looking food in your colourful diet.
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