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Lakshman Kadirgamar

Five Years On: A Personal Reminiscence

Dr dayan jayatilleka
It was the laugh, he said. He’d turned his head sharply at the sound of Mervyn’s laugh at a sit down dinner at the Grand Oriental Hotel, only to recall that Mervyn had died earlier that year. My laugh reminded him of my father’s and took him back to the University tuck shop at Thurstan Road in the early ’50s, he said. That was the beginning of my sustained encounter with Lakshman Kadirgamar, which lasted from 1999/2000 to 2005. My father was dead, I had written a piece in defence of Kadirgamar in my new column in the Veerakesari group’s Weekend Express when he was attacked by Anura Bandaranaike, come out in support of President Kumaratunga in her re-election campaign in late 1999 when the LTTE, Ranil Wickremesinghe and her erstwhile allies, the ‘peace lobby’ had banded together. I was in close contact with Kadirgamar and in touch with several ministers during the Tiger offensive on Jaffna in 2000. He soon inducted me onto the council of management of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies under his Chairmanship.

That wasn’t my first encounter with Lakshman Kadirgamar though. I think we were introduced – or it may have been his brother Sam—at the same birthday celebration of Radhika Coomaraswamy in the mid 1980s at which Rajiva Wijesinha embarrassingly recalls both his query as to whether I was a Stalinist as well as my laconic reply. The first real meeting with Kadirgamar was in the next decade, in the very early 1990s, when Nihal Rodrigo invited me to make a presentation to the Foreign Affairs Study Group (FASG), in which he was the Foreign Ministry’s point man. The FASG had been initiated by Mervyn de Silva on a mandate of the Organisation of Professionals Associations at its 1990 sessions, chaired by Dr Gamani Corea, and tasked by President Premadasa to prepare a report on future directions in Sri Lankan foreign relations and the restructuring of our External Affairs apparatus. Bradman Weerakoon was the link with the President’s office, and there were bright young personnel from the Treasury and the Foreign Ministry, but it consisted mainly of independent experts. Lakshman Kadirgamar, expert in international law, was a member, having been tapped by Mervyn, his old university friend. An interim report was drafted for President Premadasa by Mervyn after a commissioned visit to Europe and the USA in early ’93, during which Milinda Moragoda arranged a meeting with iconic Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. Sadly the report of the complete study was finally presented by the FASG team led by Gamani Corea only after the suicide-bomb assassination of President Premadasa, to his successor President Wijetunga, with comic-opera consequences.

The wheel of fate would turn to this precise point in the following decade. Foreign Minister Kadirgamar would draw me into his own policy and institutional redesigning of Sri Lanka’s foreign relations. I had told him of the correspondence between Gen Anton (‘Tony’) Mutukumaru and Mervyn de Silva who had been the drivers of the Ceylon Institute of World Affairs in the 1960s and ’70s. My personal (boyhood and adolescent) recollections of the Ceylon Institute’s events ranged from the Krishna Menon public lecture at the New Town Hall to the BMICH lecture by Sir Michael Howard. The high level of awareness of international affairs in Sri Lanka in those times derived primarily from its prominence in the Non Aligned Movement and secondarily from the intellectual role of two institutions, the Ceylon Institute of World Affairs (CIWA) and the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS), in both of which my father Mervyn de Silva had been a guiding spirit. The BCIS was founded on the basis of a report by him and a follow up report by Tissa Wijeratne. I told Lakshman Kadirgamar of Gen Mutukumaru’s urging that Mervyn should re-launch the Ceylon Institute with a new ‘annex’ or ‘division’ for strategic studies. In the ’60s, Gen Mutukumaru had made the initial introduction to the IISS, the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, and Mervyn was soon friends with its legendary director Alastair Buchan and famous successor Francois Duchene. In their correspondence Gen Mutukumaru suggested the reopening of contacts with the IISS.

Lakshman Kadirgamar was captivated by the idea and promptly initiated the process of reconverting the Foreign Ministry’s Sri Lanka Institute of International Relations (SLIIR) for just such a purpose. Under his direction the Foreign Ministry commenced discussions with the IISS. He went further, and invited his friend Sir Adam Roberts, Emeritus Professor of international relations at Oxford, to spend a week in Sri Lanka addressing a number of public and closed door meetings on problems of external affairs, terrorism, and war and peace. He ensured that I shared the platform on all these occasions. Minister Kadirgamar chaired and Sir Adam led a discussion at the institute on Challenges and Future Directions in Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy, with K. Godage, Manel Abeysekara and myself as panellists and a concentrated combination of young Lankan diplomats and military officers as the audience.

Minister Kadirgamar brought me in to a group that met at the Foreign Ministry to manage the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami, the massive induction of external aid and exponentially growing foreign and foreign media presence with its knock-on effect on sovereignty and the power balance with the LTTE. Gen Daya Ratnayake, at the time the superb military spokesperson, was the other ‘non Ministry’ participant though I was probably the only one from outside the state structure.

“What did you talk about for so long?” asked his widow years later, at a cafe in Geneva, the city in which they’d met and where he was held in high regard, his protégé heading one of the important UN organisations. Mrs Suganthi Kadirgamar was referring to the regular, frequent practice of sending his car to fetch me by 8 p.m. when he would return from his swim and the conversation over red wine and a bottle of Jamaican rum he had reserved for me, lasting till around 3 a.m. the next day when I was dropped back at my residence. Last year at dinner at her place, his valet remembered the ‘rum bothalay’. I no longer touch the stuff. The answer to her question was “almost everything”. From 2000 to 2005, he would tell me of his appreciation of a nephew at the UN in New York who sent him material and was the only family member who hadn’t severed ties, the decision to reopen relations with Israel, the limits of the support he’d obtained from Delhi during the Tiger offensive on Jaffna, his concerns about the pro-LTTE build up in South Africa, the management of US Asst Secretary of State Thomas Pickering’s visit in 2000 (putting me on TV to counter Pickering’s line of a “potential humanitarian crisis”), the disappointment about Colin Powell’s remark “Lakshman, you know there can’t be a military victory over the Tigers”, his gentle rebuke to Teresita Schaeffer at the CSIS Georgetown seminar regarding her advocacy of a confederation and for the US to open a line of communication to the LTTE, the serious dangers posed by the CFA, the ISGA proposal and the PTOMS, the manoeuvres to countervail Ranil Wickremesinghe’s policy of appeasement and eventually to prise him out of office, the high-level visits to India and the briefing he had given its leaders about the LTTE build-up around Trincomalee, his efforts to simultaneously educate the JVP and the Foreign Ministry by throwing them together in seminar formats. He talked of (and sought my views on) senior security force commanders’ contacts with him and an initially ambivalent President Kumaratunga during the dreadful CFA; Paul Wolfowitz’s tip-off about Eric Solheim’s effort to have Washington pressurise Colombo; his own attempt to offset Solheim’s bias by reaching out to the Norwegian Foreign Minister and having CBK speak to the Norwegian PM; the draft texts of the SLFP-JVP agreements. While he was an indispensable part of the fight-back against the CFA and Ranil, CBK partially retrenched him almost immediately after her re-acquisition of full control.

I was privy to his conceptual evolution to the position that cordial relations with the West should be nurtured and expanded, but the pivot or centre of gravity of Sri Lanka’s external relations should be relocated to the rising Asia, especially its twin power-houses India and China, and most especially the latter. His vision for Sri Lanka synthesised a deep commitment to the Western democratic heritage, the ethos of India’s successful constitution-making, and the Sino-Malaysian-Singaporean model of rapid economic catch-up.

I never met him except at his request. I was at his home when he returned from the famous parliamentary battle of August 2000 for the draft Constitution, and he was disappointed that R. Sambandan had let him down, having earlier pledged support. I was also at his place when Yasushi Akashi met him after an encounter with Prabhakaran which had left the Japanese peace envoy rattled and reminded of earlier meetings with Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.

One day, Mr. Kadirgamar phoned several times to re-check my opinion on whether he should accompany President Kumaratunga to India or attend the CNN 25th anniversary in Atlanta. ‘CNN, CNN’ I consistently urged him. His performance, thanking the world community for support extended during the tsunami, was characteristically superb, and a contrast to CBK’s bluster on the live ‘feed’ from Colombo for the same occasion. He told me that after the fast paced Hard Talk, which proved a Kadir classic, the BBC’s Zeinab Bardawi became a friend, and introduced him to her husband.

I hadn’t had the quality of conversation I routinely had with Mr. Kadirgamar since my father died. With them both gone, it ceased to be a regular practice. LK hosted a formal farewell dinner when I left Sri Lanka and when it was over, kept me back, setting up chairs in the middle of his driveway around midnight for a longer discussion. We had been in close touch during his growing withdrawal from President Kumaratunga over the talks with the Tigers on the post Tsunami relief mechanism (PTOMS) and the ‘give-away’ by her non-resident negotiators (one of whose international negotiating function as superpower proxy had evidently been confirmed in a new book by Strobe Talbot which had just been gifted to LK). CBK’s attempts to contain and outflank Kadirgamar by operating directly with his key officials and her advisors hurt him deeply. He enjoyed speaking at the Hindustan Times conference (sharing a platform with Madeline Albright), channelled more of his energies into the BCIS, holding international seminars on Indian model federalism, the role of the USA in Asia, and fittingly felicitating Justice C.G. Weeramantry for whom he had affection and intellectual respect.

I had taken the initiative of mentioning to then Prime Minister Rajapaksa, the imperative need for keeping LK on board as Foreign Minister in the (to me certain) event of his Presidential electoral victory (he had not even been nominated SLFP candidate at the time). LK’s important foreign policy speech at the opening of the new building of the BCIS gifted by China, the top dignitaries from Beijing, the presence of Prime Minister Rajapaksa rather than President Kumaratunga as chief guest, Kadirgamar’s private keenness over the initiative to educate the JVP leadership in economic and international affairs on visits to China arranged by Ambassador Rodrigo, all pointed to the new and final stage of evolution of Lakshman Kadirgamar’s policy perspective.

One thing troubled me deeply. An acquaintance with whom I had rather a cordial equation, a close confidant and highly placed functionary of President Kumaratunga, had expressed misgivings over the efforts by an NGO which was a Tiger front, to engage in a ‘dialogue’ with the administration, ostensibly for the purpose of rehabilitation and reconstruction work. The ‘feelers’ were to three nodal points in the system: the President’s top staff, Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Lakshman Kadirgamar. The President herself was commendably wary; Samaraweera was most enthusiastic and lobbying the President’s staffers for a fast-track assent. A reluctant Kadirgamar had finally consented to contacts. Apart from dropping heavy hints, I couldn’t raise the matter directly without betraying my source. I did the only thing I thought possible. At a one–on-one farewell lunch for me hosted by India’s High Commissioner Nirupam Sen, I told him what I knew, shared my fears of a set-up and ‘hit’ on our mutual friend, and requested him to strongly counsel Mr. Kadirgamar to deny access to these intermediaries -- which he promised to do, since we shared the same reading of and approach to the LTTE. LK’s widow would tell me years later that her husband had disclosed to her that “Dayan is totally opposed to any communication with these fellows”.

Ten days before the Tigers killed Kadirgamar, I picked up the August 1, 2005 issue of The New Yorker at Heathrow. It had a long essay on Sri Lanka by Philip Gourevitch, author of the famous book on the Rwanda genocide. One and half columns of the New Yorker feature were on me and the essay ended with a long quote from my article on Sivaram. That wouldn’t have happened had Lakshman Kadirgamar not been keenly insistent that Gourevitch and I meet (just as I was quoted in two issues of The Economist because he nudged every Western journalist of quality who visited him, my way). On August 12, when he was murdered, I was in a small town in the USA, disaggregating in hibernation and transition; not quite “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” as Dylan lamented, but close enough. Kadirgamar had, hours before his death, launched the journal of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, which he had originally invited me to edit (but I had declined). However, the inaugural issue he launched on August 12 had a lengthy contribution by me. Gourevitch, who was moving on to revive and edit The Paris Review, tracked me down in Missouri and we talked about the tsunami, the Tigers and the civil conflict, live on New York Public Radio’s Leonard Lopate Show which he was hosting. Replying the last question, “Where do you see the future of Sri Lanka going? What’s your prognosis?”, I predicted terrorist ‘deep strikes’ on key targets in the Sinhala areas, a unilateral return to war by the LTTE leader (whose plans to do so had been delayed by the tsunami) and Prabhakaran’s inability to prevail in that coming war. That was the afternoon of August 11, 2005. Even as we were on the air, on the other side of the world, the last day of the life of the man who had put us together, Lakshman Kadirgamar, had begun.




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