Epitome of a pragmatic politician
are born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust
upon them” – William Shakespeare
If there was one Sri Lankan to whom all these statements apply, it is
none other than Lalith Athulathmudali, whose death anniversary falls on
April 23, 2007.
Today, when the country is yearning for real leaders, we feel his
absence; who was born great, and achieved greatness and to this day, the
people of this country thrust greatness upon his memory, 14-years after
Having had the good fortune of working so closely with him, I take this
day to reminisce the unparalleled brilliance and the intellect of this
politician par excellence.
Lalith Athulathmudali was a lawyer by profession when he entered
politics; a field to which he was no stranger. He was a great orator who
had command over both languages and had a sharp mind, which made him a
fast learner of any subject.
Serving in the government of Sri Lanka, he held important portfolios
such as Trade and Shipping, Defence, National Security, Agriculture,
Food and Cooperatives, Education and Higher Education.
In each of these fields, not only did he master the subjects but, was
able to make significant improvements. Underlying this mastery was a
keenness to serve the people and a drive to find the best and the most
practical way to achieve the goals he set for the respective ministries.
Throughout his career as a politician, he dedicated his time for the
people and left huge footprints on the paths of Sri Lankan politics,
which no one else has been able to match to this day
A true leader
He was a true leader, who commanded every person in his ministries
and received the respect and awe of all his staff. However, his forte as
a leader, as I saw it, was the ability to delegate authority with
confidence and allow himself enough time to strategise for further
He used delegation also to get out of situations, while empowering
someone else in his team. He placed high confidence in his team, that
the people serving him have had to strive for excellence that they were
When other leaders would burn themselves out, trying to do things by
themselves, Lalith Athulathmudali was not afraid to delegate authority.
He was not insecure about it. In fact, he gained as a leader, as he was
able to enhance the capacity of others to perform at high levels.
He rarely checked on his staff. Once he entrusted someone with a task,
he did not interfere, and this was his winning streak. This
characteristic of his gave him time to meet people. And a fine feature
of the great leader was that he actively listened to people who came to
him in need, be it a farmer, labourer or, a government servant. He gave
them his undivided attention. He could relate to and communicate with
people from all walks of life.
He had the early hours of the day reserved for people and the rest of
the day was dedicated for government and business people. Alas! Today’s
politicians are afraid to delegate duties and neither have they the time
to listen to people.
How did he draw people to him and make them so loyal? Athulathmudali
never ‘pulled up’ his personal staff in public. He pointed out their
mistakes in private and defended them in public, like a father would
care for his children.He also had the good fortune of having people of
great capacity and integrity such as Lakshaman de Mel (Secretary,
Ministry of Trade and Shipping), Dharmasiri Peiris (Secretary, Education
and Higher Education and Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives), and late
Gaya Cumaranatunga and Harsha Wickremasinghe serving as ministry
Cumaranatunga was so cautious that when he did not want any confidential
information of meetings to leak, he wrote down the minutes in Latin.
Senior Assistant Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries such as Preethi
Jayaratne, Thilak Collure, P. Athukorale, Pushpa Ilapperuma, K.L.L.
Wijeratne, C.P. Jayasinghe and David Soysa ( Directors of Merchant
Shipping) to name a few of the brilliant persons who worked alongside
this great man. Like me, they too would agree that working for him was a
They say that punctuality is the politeness of princes. And a true
prince he was, when it came to time management. I remember once, when he
arrived at the office and found that his personal staff members and
senior assistant secretaries were late, he declared them ‘sacked’
Later in the day, he wanted a letter to be drafted by one of them, when
his private secretary informed him that Preethi Jayaratne (who had
drafted many letters and speeches for him) reminded him that since all
had been sacked, they were unable to work. He was quick to respond ‘tell
them that they are all reinstated’. Such was the humour through which he
maintained a close relationship with his staff, while maintaining strict
One of his footprints that time cannot erase is the Mahapola
concept. The reason behind the scholarship was that his father passed
away when Lalith was just about to leave for studies abroad. He made a
request to the government of the late Prime Minister S.W.R.D.
Bandaranaike who presented a proposal to parliament, through which he
was provided a grant.
The creation of the Mahapola Scholarship was his way of repaying.
Initially, Mahapola set out to provide scholarships for 422
undergraduates and part of the funding for this was his personal
contribution. However, the collecting of funds was not an easy task.
Therefore the maestro came up with the plan for Mahapola Lottery, which
sold five million tickets annually, and the proceeds fed into the
Mahapola Trust Fund.
The creation of the Development Lottery was the brainchild of the late
President J.R. Jayawardene and Athulathmudali. It should not be
forgotten that Dr. Wickrema Weerasooriya played a big role in the
setting up of the Development Lottery Board which provided 50% of its
earnings to the President’s Fund and the remaining 50% to the Mahapola
What is unique about this is that Athulathmudali ensured that the
Mahapola Scholarship Scheme was sustained so that students could benefit
for many, many years to come. Up to date, 150,000 students have
benefited from this scheme.
Mahapola Trade Fair
Similar to the Scholarship Scheme, he also wanted to help out with
school infrastructures; hence, the concept of Mahapola Trade Fairs came
into being. These seven-day trade fairs gave the small-scale
entrepreneurs the space and opportunity to sell their produce. The fairs
were held at schools and alcohol and gambling were strictly prohibited.
There were also stalls of different ministries disseminating information
to the public on services available to them.
The public got their bargains, information and clean entertainment and
it was a win-win situation all round. However, what contributed most to
making these trade fairs a success was Athulathmudali’s ability to
mobilise a vast number of people and have their commitment.
Apart from the aforementioned ministerial officials, Wimal Amarasekara,
(Chairman SLPA), K.S. C. De Fonseka (Managing Director SLPA), H.A.
Wijegoonawardhane, Lionel Fernando, S.M. Gunadasa, S.K. Wallipuram,
R.A.P. Goonetilleke, A.D. Weerasinghe, Ranjith Thenuwara, Godwin de
Alwis, Mr Pasqual, Dhamasiri Fonseka, Shyamila Perera and Sita
Wimalasena. There were many more people whose names I have most
unwittingly left out, who contributed to the success of not only
Mahapola but, all his work and he really appreciated all of them all the
Some of the key people who carried the Mahapola concept and the
activities of all the ministries to the public, through the media were
Premil Ratnayake, Richard de Silva, Udya Manawasinghe, late Bundala
Hemapala, late Tissa Jayawardhane of SLBC, and the late Dharmadasa
Kuruwita who was the compere for all Mahapola on-stage activities.
However, I will be failing in my duty, if I did not mention the
tremendous support given by the two Deputy Ministers; M.S. Amarasiri and
Mahendra Wijeratne, to make the Mahapola Concept a resounding success.
Athulathmudali was also the pioneer in dialoguing with school children
through the Mahapola “Gnana Dharshana” Programme. It was an interactive
session where O/L and A/L students could freely exchange views with the
Honourable Minister and that was part of his vision to create
generations of intelligent people.
He created history by setting up Sri Lanka’s first Exporters Forum,
bringing together exporters from all over the country to discuss their
issues. As Trade Minister, he admitted that the open economy was too
open but, given the years of a restricted economy, prior to UNPs
election in 1977, he knew that it was inevitable. Therefore, he was keen
to strengthen Sri Lanka’s exports.
At these meetings, which were regular and systematic, any exporter could
approach the Minister and he did not procrastinate in making decisions.
As a result, the exporters benefited tremendously, and they felt they
had the support of the State in their business ventures.
The members of the Exporters Forum which he created, felt that he was on
their side, for such was his ability to relate to people from any walk
of life. He also set up Export Production Villages and encouraged
village level individuals and groups to have production lines which are
still in existence. However, whether they still receive State patronage
is a question.
Ports and shipping
It is sad, but when the Sri Lanka Ports Authority celebrated 25
years in 2004, not a single reference was made in their 3 page
Supplement to Athulathmudali, who was the driving force behind bringing
the Port Talley Corporation and Port Cargo Corporation together and
forming the Sri Lanka Ports Authority through an Act of Parliament.
When he took over Trade and Shipping in 1977, Sri Lanka was placed 169th
in the world for shipping ports. However, within 12-years, he was able
to take the Port to the 29th position in the world, a feat none can
match, for which had the dedication of late the Vimal Amarasekara, K.S.C.
De Fonseka and the dedicated staff of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.
Parliament bomb attack
He was one of the persons seriously injured in the bomb attack in
Parliament .When he was taken to one of the back entrances of the Sri
Jayawardhenepura Hospital, it was padlocked. His security officer,
knowing the urgency of taking Athulathmudali to the hospital, drew out
his pistol to shoot open the padlock. Athulathmudali, in his semi
conscious state, told him not to. He wanted to be taken through the
He also wanted treatment locally, because he trusted the local doctors
and they in turn did not fail him. People prayed and sent good wishes
for his recovery. And he was very keen that all those letters were
replied to. I pay tribute to the local media, particularly to the
Divaina newspaper, which carried a daily update on his recovery, to
bring solace to the public.
On national security
When Athulathmudali was entrusted with the newly created National
Security Ministry, he had no special training on the subject but, he was
a Minister who could even brief the heads of the armed forces on matters
of national security. I still recall one such briefing he had with the
commanders of the security forces when the LTTE launched suicide bomb
His message to them was very clear and simple; it was not about how to
counter suicide attacks or, how to catch the suicide bombers but, how to
stay alive. He laid out four instances in which a VIP could fall prey to
a suicide bomber; when you are leaving home in the morning, when you are
going home after work, when you come to office and when you leave
office. It is not rocket science.
His assessment was based on the fact that the suicide bomber will
monitor you over a period of time, before launching the attack and that
he or she would not stay in one place. His simple advice to the heads of
security forces was to keep on changing the times of arrival and
He also stressed that the top brass should not travel together and that
they should often change their vehicles. His words of advice are valid
even today. When you consider all the leaders and military people who
fell victim to LTTE’s suicide attacks, over the years, and even in the
recent past, haven’t they been correctly targeted at one of these four
instances which Athulathmudali envisaged they would? How was he able to
achieve such greatness, one may wonder. The secret behind this success
was that he had a sixth sense called common sense and he was not afraid
to use it.
The Ratmalana Electorate Development Foundation (REDF)
The founding of the Electorate Development Foundation in 1980 gave the
people of his electorate hope for life. Athulathmudali’s vision was to
give people different vocational skills.
He started a driving school, English and Stenography and Secretarial
classes for which people in the calibre of the late B.K. Cooray, late
Gunapala Peiris, late Eustace de Silva, late Mr Hapugoda, late B.D.Y.
Seneviratne, late S.W. Goonawardhane, late K.P. Gunaratne, Upul
Jayasuriya and Manel Liyanage were placed in charge.
Always a practical and far sighted person, Athulathmudali obtained a
dealership from the Petroleum Corporation and the profits of the petrol
station went into fund the activities of the REDF. He was also supported
by the businessmen in the electorate, in this venture.
Democratic United National Front (DUNF)
The political context in the late 80’s, forced people like
Athulathmudali to bring in an impeachment on the then President. It was
not done for personal gain but, in a bid to restrict dictatorial
leadership. However, he was removed from the United National Party as
well as Parliament. However, he, together with the late Gamini
Dissanayake, were able to create the DUNF in 1991. At the 1993
Provincial Council Election, even after Athulathmudali’s death, the
Party was able to secure 975,000 votes.
This showed the confidence that people had placed on him. It also showed
the calibre of the leader people needed. The United National Party has
not been able to recover from the self destruction it launched by
sacking senior and stable members like Athulathmudali and Dissanayake.
Neither have members of the party seem to have learnt the lesson that
sidelining senior members does not help at all.
He was of the firm belief that there should be a negotiated
settlement for the armed conflict. And, he reiterated that the State had
to weaken the LTTE, to bring them for talks. However, he made it very
clear that weakening did not mean killing people.
He had the utmost respect and care for human life and was deeply
concerned when lives were lost. To him, whomever was lost, was a tragic
loss for the country. He was particular that there should be minimum
sacrifice of human lives and when a negotiated settlement is reached one
day, the people of the nation should not feel that the sacrifices made
by those who are no more, were not in vain.
There can be volumes written about the late Athulathmudali, for he
continues to be a legend in this country. His intellectual brilliance,
together with a necessary arrogance, saw him shine both locally and
internationally. His wit and humour made those around him feel that he
was one of them.
However, there was one strict order which all his subordinates had to
adhere to; he never wanted anything named after him. Therefore,
significant achievements he made for the country were given to the
people. However, that alone has made his name synonymous with his work.
And, he was a leader, who could walk freely in any part of the country.
These are just two reasons why he is still alive in our memories. And,
the greatest tribute we can pay him today is at least try to follow his
advice and the path to inner freedom he showed us. I conclude with this
quote taken from the long essay he wrote after his near death
“Life is never to be given away, it can only be taken from us”
– S.V.D Kesarralal Gunasekera