While I was away in 1981, I had the first inklings of the way in which society had changed in Colombo. Or perhaps it was simply that I had grown up, and come to understand the intensity of politics, which previously I had thought a separate compartment in life. My mother wrote to tell me that the Director of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies had called to find when I was coming back, and she thought that he sounded worried.
Before I had left, I had applied for the post of Director of Studies that the BCIS had advertised, and I was duly interviewed and selected. The Governing Board of the BCIS, as I remember it, included the Director, Premadasa Udagama, who had been Secretary to the Ministry of Education in the 1970 government. Other members included Mrs Bandaranaike herself, K H Jayasinghe, Professor of Politics at Peradeniya and one of the Gang of Four who were associated with the previous regime, Mr Dorakumbura, the Librarian at Sri Jayewardenepura University, who subsequently became Vice-Chancellor when I worked there, and Mervyn de Silva, who had tried to run Lake House as a moderate government establishment after the Bandaranaike government had taken it over, only to be turned out soon enough by those who wanted extreme adulation rather than critical support.
The interview was cursory, since these were all opponents of the Jayewardene government, and they obviously thought me heroic for having resigned. What I should have realized was that Jayewardene himself would have held the opposite view and, as my uncle Lakshman had informed me, when explaining how Shirley Amerasinghe had had his stint as Head of the UN Law of the Sea Commission curtailed when Jayewardene came to power, he was the unforgiving sort.
My father’s old friend Noel Tittawella, one of the Supreme Court judges who had lost his job when Jayewardene restructured the Courts, put it more dramatically. I had called Udagama when I returned, and he told me that there was nothing to worry about. However for some reason there had been a delay in the ratification of the appointment by the main Board of the BMICH, to which the BCIS Board reported. I assumed my mother had been unnecessarily worried, and told this to Noel, who had asked me what I was doing. His reply was that he did not think I would get the post, because Jayewardene disliked me intensely, the reason being that I was the only person of his own class – as Noel put it, since he tended to be quite cynical about what he described as Colombo society – to have kicked Jayewardene in the face.
I thought this an exaggeration, but I realize now that he obviously did not consider what might be termed traditional SLFP or left leaning families as potential irritants. Lakshman was of course an exception, but he was a priest, and lived and moved little in Colombo. And over the next couple of years I found that I was indeed isolated. The Marga Institute for instance, which had begun a series of discussions on constitutional matters, discontinued them immediately when they felt threatened by the government. It seemed that Lalith Athulathmudali had asked to see their articles of association, and that was the end of the meetings they had started.
With regard to the BCIS position, Jayewardene devised a characteristically subtle way of preventing me from being employed. He revised the BMICH Act, and removed himself from the position of Ex-Officio Chair of the Board. The Chair was instead to be nominated by the President, and he chose my uncle Esmond, knowing perfectly well that neither of us would want to be embarrassed by my actively pursuing a position under his control. Of course Jayewardene may have well had other reasons for his initiative, but the timing was suspicious. As it turned out, that was the end of the BCIS, which had previously begun to establish a good reputation for international studies. It turned into a sort of tutory, giving out diplomas in international relations, but it failed utterly to fulfil its potential as a think tank.
Oddly enough, I was involved in an effort to revive it when Lakshman Kadirgamar was appointed to chair the BCIS Board. That had continued with Mrs Bandaranaike at its head till she died, but it had hardly met. After her death, President Kumaratunga, who had by then taken over as Chair of the BMICH Board, appointed Mr Kadirgamar to run the BCIS after he had ceased to be Foreign Minister when a UNP government took office at the end of 2001.
The Board he constituted was perhaps the most impressive on which I have ever served. It was then that I really got to know Dayan Jayatilleka, though I had been impressed by the way he lent teeth to ICES in 1983, when it had previously been obsequious about the Jayewardene government. Radhika Coomaraswamy, who I think felt guilty about the manner in which she had accepted government restrictions previously, set up a body called the Committee for Rational Development, and gave Dayan a free hand to produce a fairly hard-hitting account of what had led to the July riots.
Sadly, Mr Kadirgamar died before his efforts could bear fruit. We tried to carry on under the guidance of Dharmasiri Pieris, whom Mr Kadirgamar had put on the Board when difficulties first developed between the BCIS and BMICH managements. Both we felt were extremely competent, but there were personality clashes, and without Mr Kadirgamar there to resolve them, they soon got out of hand. Before long the Board was reconstituted at a lower level, and before long the Director who had served Mr Kadirgamar with great diligence left for a job more suited to his talents.
For the second time, then, the opportunity to do more with what should be Sri Lanka’s principal think tank in foreign relations slipped away. This is the sadder in that the last few years have made it quite clear that we are desperately in need of developing competencies in this regard. During Mr Kadirgamar’s tenure we developed contacts with think tanks in India as well as China, and it is obvious how much these contribute to government policy making and implementation. Sadly, it seems that we have no understanding here of the need for productive study, for regular discussion groups, for research and analysis with regard to crucial issues.
Sunday Observer 8 May 2011 – http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/05/08/imp06.asp