Chandrika Kumaratunge as President: An Unique Amalgam of Graciousness and Toughness

Chandra Wickremasinghe, in The Island, 17 October 2021, where the title runs thus CBK had an impulsive streak but was gracious in admitting mistakes”

With President Chandrika Kumaratunge assuming office, there was once again a flurry of activity in the Presidential Secretariat and in the Ministries, as she was anxious to expeditiously push through various development programmes she had in mind. Although she did not believe in an overly centralized system of Presidential rule, she kept a close tab particularly on the major development projects and programmes of Ministries by having regular review meetings with them.

She was very sincere in her efforts to find an abiding solution to the ethnic problem. Her many overtures to Prabhakaran towards this end, proved futile and abortive as the latter continued playing his little games with her as he had done with her predecessors. With the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, the suave diplomat par excellence, at the helm of the Foreign Ministry, she pursued a highly urbane foreign policy aimed at winning over the neighbouring countries in Asia as well as the major powers in the West, and getting them to align with Sri Lanka in the bitter on-going battle with the LTTE terrorists. These sophisticated approaches in foreign relations enabled Sri Lanka to get the LTTE banned as a terrorist organization in many countries across the globe.

President Kumaratunge possessed a personality which reflected a rather unique amalgam of pride, humility, grace and inner toughness. Kusum Balapatambendi who succeeded Wijedasa as Secretary/President, was basically a clever political firefighter. Being a senior public servant and a smart lawyer to boot, he was able to hold the fort successfully by assisting the President in her administrative duties as well as in the many political wrangles she had to settle.

President Kumaratunge had an excellent rapport with the officers who worked for her. There were times when she was needlessly and harshly critical of certain actions of her officials but she was quick to graciously relent when she realized that the concerned officials had acted only in her larger interests. I recall an incident which brings out in good measure the impulsive streak in her personality as well as her magnanimity in graciously admitting her mistakes. Those wielding power, are often inebriated by it and think they are infallible. She was, I must say, an exception in this regard.

It was an interesting little episode where she had dashed off a rather rude minute to me in Sinhala in a file (she had this habit of writing abrasive minutes to officers in Sinhala when she was angry) faulting me for some action I had allegedly not taken. It was a case where I had refrained from taking action as directed by her, for certain very valid reasons which I had pointed out to her in an earlier minute. Without looking at my earlier minute, she had impetuously dashed off this minute of her’s to me; I was naturally very angry, as the office staff too had seen her minute.

I telephoned Sarath Gonagala who had functioned as my Asst. Secy., before I, on my own initiative, sent him to the President to help her maintain her diary of appointments and to ensure that Ambassadors and other VIPs were not kept waiting unduly; (I must say that this attempt of mine proved an unmitigated failure as punctuality and the Lady President continued to remain enemies!) and conveyed to him what she had written on the minute sheet. I also told him that I would be sending a sharp rejoinder on a loose minute sheet which I wanted him to show the President and tear up before sending the file back to me.

Within two days Sarath G telephoned to say the Lady wanted to see me. When I entered her room, she was seated at the desk alone and asked me to take a seat. After a couple of minutes, she looked up and said quietly that she should not have written that minute to me, in reply to which I immediately said ‘of course you shouldn’t have as you had done so without seeing my earlier minute to you on the matter advising against your proposed action, pointing out that it was imprudent to do so as the media would have gone to town on the matter the next day’.

She then asked me “What shall I do?” I was so touched by her show of remorse and the disarming way she readily admitted her mistake that all the anger in me evaporated and I could only request her to send the file back to me. The particular file however, never came back. When I enquired from her about the file much later, she would only smile! I thought of referring to this incident as she was one President you could speak to candidly, on any matter- one to one, without running the grave risk of being misunderstood, with whatever other untoward consequences that may have followed.

Dhammika Amarasinghe and I who continued to function as Additional Secretaries to the President (as Neville Piyadigama had by then left the Presidential Secretariat to take charge of a Ministry), worked very conscientiously for her, with each of us overseeing about six Ministries from the Presidential Secretariat. She was quick and perceptive, sitting with us for long hours, going through our recommendations in detail and making her own additions and subtractions. It was indeed a pleasure working for her as she appreciated the work officers did for her.

The President who was acutely conscious of the need to plan to meet the energy shortages that were likely to occur in the future, was keen on expanding hydro power generation and exploring alternative source of energy like wind and solar power. I headed a delegation comprising senior CEB engineers to study BOT projects etc. in Pakistan and the Philippines in March 1995. One of the recommendation made by the delegation was to obtain the services of Dr. Tariq, the engineer in charge of the Tarbela Dam Project, to advice on the huge leakage of water at the Samanalawewa reservoir. Dr. Tariq visited S.L and made certain recommendations to the govt. which helped in reducing the leakage substantially.

In September 1996 Secretary President and I visited Islamabad to study that country’s success in the implementation of their BOO/BOT projects.

Presidential Committee on the alienation of State Land

Soon after President Kumarathunge assumed office, she appointed me to Chair a Presidential Committee to examine and recommend policies relating to the alienation of State Land. The Committee comprised seven Ministry Secretaries, the Chief Valuer, a representative of the Attorney General etc. When I showed her the names of the Secretaries who were to be members of the Committee, she picked out one name saying she did not want him to be on the Committee as she did not trust him. When I protested and said that the particular Secretary had to be on the Committee as land was a subject that came very much within his purview, she agreed after cautioning me to be careful with any proposals that would be made by him. The recommendations of this Committee were accepted by Govt. and were issued as circular instructions which are, I am happy to note, operative even today, apart from a few amendments made to adjust to changing times and circumstances.

The President’s Fund

President Kumaratunge further appointed me to manage the President’s Fund as Secretary to the Fund. I enjoyed this assignment which I did in addition to my work as Addnl. Secy. to the President. Personally, I found this work most satisfying as I was able to help poor patients suffering particularly from heart and kidney disease with money given from the Fund to undergo cardiac by-pass surgery/kidney transplantation, both in Sri Lanka and abroad. There were many other programmes initiated by President Kumaratunge viz. Presidential Scholarships awarded to promising poor students to pursue higher studies as well as scholarships awarded to public officers to pursue post graduate studies in fields which were considered to be of special relevance to the development needs of the country.

The allocations were generous, and often covered the full cost of by-pass surgery and kidney transplantation and the full cost of the scholarship awards, as the Fund at that stage was well endowed with regular income from the Development Lottery as well as from it’s other investments.

Distinct advantages in working for a President

There are distinct advantages working directly under the President of the country. One privilege I valued very much was that politicians, including Ministers did not interfere with your work and it was also easy to obtain the co-operation of Ministers and officials in the Ministries one oversaw from the President’s office. They were extremely wary in their dealings with you particularly during President Premadasa’s time. But all this came with the heavy responsibility of keeping a tab on anything untoward happening in the Ministries concerned which had to be reported fully to the President along with the detailed explanation given by the Secretary concerned.

President Premadasa in particular, was always watchful of any misdemeanors occurring in Ministries and would follow up on matters till they were rectified. President Kumaratunge did not interfere with the work of Ministers to that extent, but kept herself informed of progress made on development projects etc. at the regular meetings she had with particular Ministries.

When a President realizes that you are a conscientious worker who will work with dedication and integrity, you will be given numerous assignments to study problems and report on them, despite their being subjects falling at times, outside your officially assigned legitimate functions.

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One response to “Chandrika Kumaratunge as President: An Unique Amalgam of Graciousness and Toughness

  1. Kusum Balapatambendi I am sure looked after her hand bag and the purse. I am sure it was one of his sons who blew up $A 5 mil in Australia.

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