Rendering Unto Caesar: Memoirs of a Sinhalese Bureaucrat

Bradman Weerakoon, Rendering Unto Caesar, Vijitha Publications, Colombo, 2004, 396 pp.

Reviewed by Sachi Sri Kantha

Of the millions of Sri Lankans born in the 20th century, Bradman Weerakoon is the only fellow to be blessed uniquely.  He was blessed for the first time in the year of his birth (1930), when his police officer father Edmund R.Weerakoon christened the name of legendary Australian cricket batsman Donald Bradman to him.  In 1930, Bradman became a phenomenon in the cricket arena by scoring 974 test runs in his England tour.  Bradman Weerakoon was blessed again – the only Sri Lankan - to serve nine Sinhalese politicians who held nominal executive power from 1954 to 2004.  Thus, Weerakoon was privy to the thoughts and work styles of these nine politicians (John Kotelawela, Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike, W. Dahanayake, Dudley Senanayake, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, J.R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa, D.B. Wijetunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe) whom he has sketched in this memoir.  In addition to the nine leaders, even the first prime minister Don Stepehn Senanayake also receives passing mention, as the father of Dudley Senanayake.

All the nine politicians under whom Weerakoon served share some cultural tags.  First, all were Sinhalese.  Secondly, almost all were Buddhists for public consumption, though a couple or so were Christians by birth and would have been closet Christians at home.  Thirdly, all, except Premadasa, belonged to the feudal families of Goyigama (cultivators of soil) caste, which ranks highest in the totem-pole of Sinhalese caste hierarchy.  Premadasa’s origin is from the lowly Hena-Hinna (washers) castes.  There is a subtle difference between the terms Hena and HinnaHena (or Rada) are washers to the higher Goyigama caste.  Hinna are washers to a lower caste called Salagama (cinnamon peelers in the low country).  Fourthly, the majority among the nine (Kotelawela, Bandaranaikes, Senanayake, Jayewardene and Wickremesinghe) were related by blood, marriage or both.  Weerakoon, for politically correct reasons, has taken a higher ground in not identifying all these intertwined tags openly.

But these identities are essential in comprehending the difficulties faced by the nine politicians covered in the book.  This is because Ceylon (constituted as a unitary state in only 1833) is also home to people who are not Sinhalese, who are not Buddhists and who do not belong to feudal families.  As anthropologist Edmund Leach noted in his revealing analysis published in Daedalus journal (‘Buddhism in the post-colonial political order in Burma and Ceylon’, 1973; vol.102, pp.29-54), in Sri Lanka, "changes of government seem to have more in common with the succession disputes of the Wars of the Roses than with ordinary, Western, party government."  Why these nine Sinhalese politicians could not transform themselves into ‘nation builders’ is that they were politically myopic and essentially could not lift themselves from the parochial puddle of sectarianism.  They tried to be too smart by half.

Which Politicians?

In 335 pages of text, Weerakoon has evenly spread out his selected (and most importantly, non-controversial) reminiscences of six UNP leaders (Kotelawela, Dudley Senanayake, Jayewardene, Premadasa, Wijetunga and Wickremesinghe), two SLFP leaders (Bandaranaikes - the husband and wife) and the eccentric odd guy Dahanayake, who had been with both the SLFP and UNP.  The splits are as follows: John Kotelawela – 16 pages; Solomon Bandaranaike – 43 pages; Dudley Senanayake – 38 pages; Mrs. Bandaranaike – 50 pages; Jayewardene – 49 pages; Premadasa – 34 pages; Wijetunga – 22 pages and Wickremesinghe – 57 pages.

Sprinkled Ephemera

The book contains some interesting ephemera springled like raisins in the cake. Here are a few:

(1) The autobiography [An Asian Prime Minister’s Story] of John Kotelawala was ghost-written by his Civil Service Officer cum secretary Park Nadesan.

(2) When the then young Queen Elizabeth, during her Ceylon visit in 1954, was at a receiving end of sudden gust of wind leaving her light cotton dress momentarily raised [a la Marilyn Monroe scene in Bus Stop movie], the irrepressible playboy Kotelawala shouted to his official photographer Rienzie Wijeratne in colloquial Sinhala ‘ganing yakko ganing’ [translation: Shoot, you beggar, shoot] and that particular frame shot "was not among the carefully selected album photographs ceremonially presented to the Royal guest."  Does photographer Wijeratne or his heirs still keep the negative of that shot, one wonders?  It may fetch a price at premier auction house Sotheby’s.

(3) Solomon Bandaranaike was fond of the ‘my dear fellow’ phrase, "especially when addressing those he considered slightly below him in intellect."

(4) Chandrika Bandaranaike took ballet lessons as a child, and was, in her father’s petting phrase. ‘my Pavlova.’

(5) A young Anura Bandaranaike, at the age of 7 or 8, was a sour-pus who complained to his father that his elderly play-mate, brought from the village, was constantly bowling him out all the time.

(6) "She (Mrs.Bandaranaike, that is) did not crave adulation, had little time for flattery, and was refined and dignified in speech and behaviour.  Often she would be genuinely embarrassed at her husband’s much more uninhibited speech as he related a familiar ribald tale at family social occasions."

(7) Dudley Senanayake was "perhaps the only prime minister I worked with who would pass down a book in which he had underlined a passage of the text in red ink or adorned a page or two with a marginal comment."

(8) Jayewardene was an unabashed ‘monarchist,’ who "used to take pride in saying that he was the last in the line of rulers of the island in an unbroken succession dating back over 2500 years!"

(9) Premadasa was an afficinado for new gadgets.  He got himself a computer very early (by Sri Lankan standards) but did not actually learn to use it.  He was a sucker for the teleprompter, after watching Ferdinand Marcos using one in Manila.

(10) Premadasa "trained himself to become a quick reader…While he knew some colloquial Tamil, from speaking to his Colombo Central constituents who came from diverse ethnic groups, he would have the Tamil newspapers translated and ready for reading in the morning."

(11) Wijetunga "had absolutely no sense of self-importance.  This was unusual in a country where status and title is often on display."

(12) Wickremesinghe was "a close friend of the Ram family of The Hindu and would, when passing through Chennai, try to make contact with N. Ram, its editor" and also he "enjoyed talking with Ms Jayalalitha, the mercurial and temperamental chief minister of Tamil Nadu."

(13) "The eclectic scope of Ranil’s reading was impressive.  It encompassed the work of economists, political thinker, philosophers and military historians.  Once in London he wanted me to find a book on Marshall Zhukov, the Russian general who is credited with having defeated Hitler."

(14) Sinhala expatriates in the 1990s "had built alliances with our [i.e., Sri Lankan] missions abroad" and are not easily contained.  "Australia was a case in point where agitational groups such as SPUR were vociferous in their denunciation of concessions to the ‘terrorists’."

(15) Readers are informed about the health problems faced by a few of these folks.  Solomon Bandaranaike suffered from frequent attacks of sinusitis, which made him irritable.  He also was troubled by eczema.  Mrs. Bandaranaike was troubled by a knee problem for which she preferred the alternative medicine of the therapeutic mud-packs offered in Tito’s now-vanished Yugoslavia.  She also suffered from diabetes.  Dudley Senanayake was a chain smoker with a very weak and erratic stomach, probably caused by gastritis or peptic ulcer.  Two leaders, Dahanayake and Premadasa, were early risers; Premadasa at 4:00 am and Dahanayake at 4:30 am.

Assassination of President Premadasa

Other than these ephemera, what I consider as the most revealing thoughts in the book appear between pages 300 and 304.  This relates to the doubts expressed by Weerakoon on the prevailing orthodox view that the LTTE conspired and assassinated Premadasa on May 1, 1993.  I have read three published reviews of this book already, but for understandable reasons, none of the three makes any mention of this vital issue.  The authors of these three reviews are Prof. Bertram Bastiampillai [Colombo Daily News, July 24, 2004], Carl Muller [Colombo Sunday Observer, August 1, 2004] and Nirupama Subramanian [The Hindu, October 19, 2004].  Thus, it is appropriate to quote what Weerakoon has written:

"The facts appeared straightforward.  Premadasa was killed by a bomb blast on 1 May 1993 when he had alighted from his bullet-proof jeep to wave at a long and orderly procession of people moving towards the May Day rally on Galle Face Green.  The blast was so powerful that about 30 others around him, including his favourite Man Friday Mohideen and several security personnel were instantaneously killed.  Who threw, planted, or carried the bomb?  Since it was a public intersection in the heart of Colombo, the site was quickly cleared and the road even washed clean, in the next hour or so.

The police inquiries revealed that a Tamil youth called Babu, whose upper part of the body was discovered some 50 yards away, could be the suspect.  Babu apparently had gained access to the Premadasa’s household some months earlier and had been a friend of Mohideen.  It was even said that Babu had accompanied Premadasa when he went in the helicopter to his Ambanpola estate.

I had never seen or heard of Babu until the Police revealed the man. [emphasis added] I  used to be a frequent visitor to Sucharita and found it strange that the name Babu had never come up earlier either in my hearing or to my vision.  It was said that Babu was planted by the LTTE and that the assassination was carried out by the LTTE.  However, there was no charge against anyone instituted in the courts, as would have happened in the case of any homicide, and certainly, in the case of the president of the country.

There was also other, although members of the family, especially Premadasa’s daughter, Dulanjali, insistently calling for, a public commission of inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the killing. No appointment of a commission was made, either by the Wijetunge administration, or thereafter.  I followed in the press, stories that came out from time to time about 20 to 30 people being held in custody for the murder of Premadasa, perhaps as accomplices of the main suspect.  But these stories never ended up as actual charges against any person or persons in the courts."

Weerakoon continues further to question the "LTTE did it" hypothesis as follows:

"It looked to me then, and even today, that there was no great desire or the part of those in authority to probe the matter further.  It was good enough that the LTTE had done it.  The bomb blast was their usual modus operandi especially employing young females who wore the belt around their waists.  The authorities were apparently satisfied and so were the media….

There were also a couple of more facts that I was aware of that bothered me.  Firstly, the terrible photograph of the mangled bodies of the fallen which Sudath Silva, the president’s photographer who was following Premadasa in the procession had taken.  It showed unmistakably a dark, tall man with tousled hair with his crumpled bicycle also among the dead.  Something like a tape recorder with detached wires still appeared strapped to his upper chest.  Who was this man and what was he doing on a bicycle in a foot procession so close to Premadasa at the moment of his death?  His face was not that of Babu that the media was showing. [emphasis added]

The second fact would probably be termed circumstantial by the legal people.  I was one of the very few who knew about this matter.  When the news of the impeachment motion against Premadasa broke and before the resolution was placed before the speaker of Parliament in terms of the Constitution, a group of MPs from the EROS party contacted me wanting an urgent appointment with the president.  EROS had close ties with the LTTE.  Their group of nine members were at the time boycotting Parliament and were planning to resign.  At the meeting with Premadasa at Sucharita two of the group’s members Edward Ratnasabapathy and Sivagnam who had come down from Jaffna for that purpose, indicated to Premadasa that on the instructions of the LTTE they would assure Premadasa that they would call off their boycott and help support him in voting against the impeachment motion.  At the time I thought it was very unusual that the LTTE would wish to protect Premadasa and see that he continued as president.  It served to indicate that even though overtly conflict was ongoing between the LTTE and the government troops, as far as the LTTE was concerned, Premadasa was still the politically safer ‘bet’ on the Sinhala side.  After all, he had opened peace negotiations with them, provided them with arms to fight the TNA and had tried to bring them into the mainstream of the Sri Lankan polity.  Why then, the sudden urge to kill him on the first day of May 1993 when he had still some time to serve?"

Weerakoon’s above observations do puncture the political balloon of the "LTTE did it" hypothesis.  The author concludes with an inference, "In the absence of a public commission…Premadasa’s killing will continue to be regarded as another of the unsolved murders of this particularly murky period of our modern history."  Fine, but what is rather perplexing is that (1) Weerakoon fails to record his impressions on two other assassinations; that of JVP founder-leader, Rohan Wijeweera (in 1989) and Ranjan Wijeratne (in 1991), which occurred during the Premadasa presidency; and (2) he attributes the assassinations of Premadasa’s two nemeses Lalith Athulathmudali (on April 23, 1993) and Gamini Dissanayake (on October 20, 1994) to the LTTE, without the benefit of any public commission inquiries conducted on these either.

Pluses, Minuses and Factual Slips

The major deficiency in this memoir is that Weerakoon has been so close to the power-holders that he would not dare to bare his inner-most thoughts for fear of offending the living family members of the political leaders he served.  He has couched his compassion with the slippery words, "I did not want the book to be, as is becoming increasingly common today, a disclosure of personal secrets.  I was not seeking to find new cracks in inevitably long-exposed lives."  In the last paragraph of his preface, Weerakoon states, "Profound problems, sometimes the old ones in new garb, yet assail the state."  But he had been spineless not to identify these.  I’ll mention a couple; family cronyism, and outright thuggery by the power-holders and power-sharers in the last four decades.

In my reading of post-independence Sri Lankan history, there were three Rasputins who wielded extraordinary power on the nominal executive Prime Minister-President.  These three were, Mapitigama Buddharakitha Thero (in Solomon Bandaranaike’s tenure), Felix Dias Bandaranaike (in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s tenure) and Ravi Jayewardene (the son of J.R. Jayewardene, in his father’s tenure).  While Felix Dias Bandaranaike makes a cameo appearance in the text and Buddharakitha Thero is passingly mentioned, not a word appears in the book about Ravi Jayewardene, who wielded power without accountablity between 1977 and 1988.  As one can guess, the activities of Buddharakitha Thero and Felix Dias Bandaranaike are passingly noted since they are not living, but the deals of Ravi Jayewardene – such as his links with the defence contractors and the establishment of the notorious Special Task Force (STF) in the police department - has been tactfully omitted.  This is ironic since Bradman Weerakoon is the son of a police officer!

Of all the chapters in the book, I liked the one in which Wijayananda Dahanayake was featured.  As all Sri Lankans know, Dahanayake was the ‘odd man out’ among all the prime ministers and presidents of Sri Lanka.  He represented the good, the bad and the ugly traits of Sinhalese commoners perfectly.  Because of his short tenure as the interim prime minister for only six months, Dahanayake’s period (September 1959 to March 1960) has been routinely down-graded to an asterisk in the tomes of academics.  Thus, Weerakoon provides some refreshing balance in elevating Dahanayake’s short tenure to a chapter level.  A few more mentions of Dahanayake’s unique character could have added luster to Weerakoon’s treatment of ‘the voice of Galle’ (Dahanayake’s sobriquet).  Among all the Sinhalese politicians of the 20th century, my father admired Dahanayake’s folksy attributes and sarcastic doggerels.  From him I have heard that it was Dahanayake who first scheduled the general elections of the island to be held in one day – rather than being spread over a couple of days.  He had quipped his choice with the remark (typical of him), that he’d fix the election date based on the calendar and not on astrologers’ predictions.  Secondly, it was also Dahanayake who once cracked that the letter D in his name stood for ‘discipline.’  Having been a school teacher, it is no wonder that Dahanayake had high regard for discipline.  Thirdly, Dahanayake never left the island [in his long career as a legislator] on foreign junkets wasting tax payers’ money as has been the wont of other prime ministers.

Factual slips which disfigure the pages suggest that, either the author has been careless or that the publisher did not bother to avail himself of the services of a knowledgeable reviewer for the text.  Here I have assembled a chunk of such slips – in chronological order - which need pointing out.

(1) Col.Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) could not have converted the Wijayananda Pirivena of colonial Ceylon to Buddhism in 1845 (p.62); he would have been only a 13 year old boy then. Col.Olcott had to first take part in the American Civil War of the 1860s, and he would land in Ceylon only in 1880.

(2) The Sinhala Maha Sabha, led by Solomon Bandaranaike was not formed in 1942 (p.33), but in November 1936.  That the activities of this racist Sinhala Maha Sabha as well as the oratorical skills of padre Bandaranaike gained succor from Hitler’s verbal pyrotechnics – in the decade of 1930s - on Aryan dominance [Bandaranaike’s phrase was arya Sinhala, as denoted in p.33] is now being selectively masked by Bandaranaike afficinados.

(3) Dahanayake was not a Member of the State Council for Bibile in 1940 (p.63); rather he was first elected as a representative of Bibile on October 14, 1944.

(4) The Federal Party MP who was ridiculed by Solomon Bandaranaike in June 1956 within the parliament chamber with the words "here he is with his wounds of war" was not E.M.V. Naganathan (p.39), but A. Amirthalingam.

(5) Weerakoon’s university colleague who later became the MP for Chavakachcheri was not C.S. Navaratnam (p.39), but V.N. Navaratnam.

(6) Henry Kissinger did not serve as the National Security Advisor in the Kennedy administration (p.122) which came to an end in November 1963; rather he served as the National Security Advisor to Nixon and Ford between 1969 and 1975.

(7) C.P.de Silva, then the deputy leader of the SLFP, did not abruptly cross the floor of parliament in 1994 (p.95), but on December 3, 1964.

(8) Prof. Jeyaratnam Wilson did not leave Sri Lanka "after the events of 1983 and domiciled in Canada" (p.256); rather he had moved to Canada ten years earlier, in 1973.

(9) Sirimavo Bandaranaike could not have died of a heart attack on the 10th of October 2000, and then "finally called it quits, retiring from politics in 2001" (p.136).

Quo Vadis Sri Lanka?  Weerakoon has tactfully refrained from providing a conclusion, though he would have been the best guy to say it.  I am sure that, deep in his heart, he may be a disappointed bureaucrat.  Annexure II in the book provides "some economic indicators for the period 1950 to 2000" as "five decades of development."  This is nothing but a charade.  In the 50 years, the total population of the island has increased from 7.5 million to 19.35 million.  Expenditure on defence (as percent of budget) also has increased from 1.07 to 5.7 (in 2000), though it shot up to 12.5 (in 1990).  Foreign borrowing (as a percent of GDP) has increased from 3.2% to 43.1%.  I will provide another set of numbers to show the decline of Sri Lankan "development."  On January 1952, the then government of Ceylon and the IMF agreed on a par value for the rupee at the rate of Rs 4.76 equal to one US dollar.  Now 50 years later, the par value for the rupee has plunged deeply to more than Rs 100 to one US dollar.  Should not all the political leaders [with the sole exception of Dahanayake, who served only as a caretaker prime minister] who were served by Weerakoon take some blame for making Sri Lanka a basket case in economic prosperity?

Coda

Considering his unique perch in the bureaucratic watchpost, if one expected that Bradman Weerakoon had performed a ‘Bradman’- type play in his book, readers will be disappointed.  The legendary Bradman was a relentless heavy hitter who entertained cricket fans with his majestic plays.  But this Bradman Weerakoon’s performance in his memoirs brings to my mind the batsmanship of another Australian captain, Bill Lawry, who captained Australia in the second half of the 1960s.  In his performances, Lawry was reliable, dogged, patient, tenacious and last but not the least, boring to watch.  Nevertheless, Lawry’s contributions were worthy in patches and were needed by the team.  Similarly, Bradman Weerakoon’s book is interesting in offering some ‘birds' eye view’ snippets related to the personal habits, illnesses and idiosyncracies of the eight political leaders and also casting serious doubts on the prevailing ‘LTTE did it’ hypothesis relating to the assassination of President Premadasa.

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Posted December 19, 2004