Chanaka Amaratunga, Colvin R de Silva, Council for Liberal Democracy, Desmond Fernando, Fr Celestine Fernando, Fr Tissa Balasuriya, Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, G L Pieris, Gamini Dissanayake, Ideas for Constitutional Reform, Liberal Party, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Quinta, Richard Dias, Ronnie de Mel, Shashi Tharoor, Sintra, Suriya Wickremesinghe
The seminars the FNS conducted in Sintra were most enjoyable. They were run by an eccentric but most lovable Portunguese academic who rejoiced, if memory serves me right, in the name of Joao de Bettancourt de Camara. He presided over an establishment that included a superb cook who produced the most wonderful feasts. Questions were raised later in Germany about the self-indulgence of the Liberals, and the Quinta, as it was known, had to be sold, but those who regretted this pusillanimity insisted that the establishment was cost effective. In fact, when we were later put up in hotels in Germany, and taken to restaurants, I realized that the Quinta had indeed been incredibly good value for money.
The seminars too were fascinating. The first I went to, when operations were just starting, was a bit of a joke, since it had not been planned properly. Designed to look at possible Liberal processes in the 3rd World, and in particular Africa, when the FNS was just beginning to take emerging demands for liberty seriously (after decades, I am sorry to say, in which the West had supported dictators in Africa on the grounds that they were the best defence against communism), it was arranged before the FNS really had suitable personnel in place in Africa. The result was they relied heavily on a British academic in Holland who taught Africans, and he produced several of his students, who were enthusiastic and amiable, but had no idea of politics. I found the South Americans more committed, a delightful Brazilian – this was I think the year after I had so enjoyed myself in that country – and an Argentinian academic who had been in opposition to the ghastly dictatorship that country had endured.
The next two seminars I attended were intellectually and indeed politically much more satisfying. Though I suppose the Liberal movement could not attract the most important politicians – it lost Viktor Orban, the dynamic leader of reform in Hungary, to the Conservatives – it did draw delightful and committed idealists. One large and enthusiastic young man ended up I remember as the Foreign Minister of Slovenia, though I do not think he lasted very long. And I much relished meeting Shashi Tharoor at the Quinta, when he was making his way up in the UN system. He, like me, had just published a novel, but his was an international success, as it well deserved to be, a brilliant overview of modern Indian history in terms of the Mahabharatha – Gandhi as the holy but cunning old sage Bhishma, Nehru as the blind Dhritarashtra and, in a brilliant trope, Indira Gandhi as the only child of the blind old King, a daughter who was worth a hundred sons.
Though we had not been in touch for years, I was delighted when our High Commissioner in India rang me to say that Shashi had been particularly anxious to meet me, when he came to Sri Lanka in 2010 for the Film Awards. I had him for lunch together with members of the CLD which we had recently revived, and he was marvelously incisive in his assessment of how Sri Lanka should proceed. I also interviewed him for Rupavahini, and we went on for ages longer than we should have, the time passing unnoticed because he was so articulate.
Sybaritic stays in Sintra were not, I should note, the main occupation of the Liberal movement that Chanaka had begun. His greatest achievement perhaps was the seminar series he conducted on Constitutional Reform, which led to the publication of a massive tome that is still seen as seminally important. In an article on Liberalism he wrote about how John Stuart Mill never fails the modern liberal thinker, in terms of his principled approach to all social and political dilemmas. Chanaka similarly never failed us in his understanding of the problems that needed to be resolved, in his collation of a range of worthy ideas, all centering on basic principles that promoted freedom as well as responsibility with regard to social obligations and the rights of others.
I still remember the opening dinner for the series, for which Mrs Bandaranaike had been invited as Chief Guest. She had recently been given back her Civic Rights, and had mentioned in an interview shortly afterwards that she felt the Liberals had contributed actively to this by raising the issue internationally. Her enthusiasm for us then was understandable, but I was surprised when Chanaka reciprocated because, much as I admired the lady, I felt that her government of the seventies, albeit for idealistic reasons in terms of the socialist consensus of those days, had not been exactly liberal in its approach.
Needless to say, the rest of the Liberals enjoyed the dinner far too well, and when I went to the hotel the next morning for the opening session, none of them were there. By then I had realized that my four years seniority to them had endowed me with a sense of adult responsibility they thought boring, to use Chanaka’s favourite word to describe the moderation with regard to alcohol I had evinced in recent years. My response, though I thought it a salutary development, was that it was all his fault, since I had given up drink in student measure after I had become Sub-Warden of S. Thomas’ at his insistence.
I had to keep the seminar going then, on that first morning, until the rest turned up, but I have never regretted my association with the deeply committed group that Chanaka brought together for those seminars. These were people committed to human rights long before the subject became fashionable, Fr Celestine Fernando (whom my uncle Lakshman had always cited as his most important inspiration in Sri Lanka), Richard Dias and Fr Tissa Balasuriya of the Catholic Centre for Society and Religion (together with his devoted if irascible sidekick Bernadine), Suriya Wickremesinghe and her husband Desmond Fernando, who held the Civil Rights Movement together, Desmond in addition taking over the Chair of the CLD after Hugh Fernando died). We also had several politicians who Chanaka thought were essentially Liberal even though the perversions Jayewardene had introduced into the body politic made expression of this difficult. There were presentations by Ronnie de Mel and Gamini Dissanayake, by Colvin R de Silva and Neelan Tiruchelvam. Chanaka also gave G L Pieris his first exposure in a political context, for an erudite exposition of the role of the law in a liberal society.
A few years back I published, through the International Book House, a shorter version of ‘Ideas for Constitutional Reform’. It was difficult to decide what to omit, but I believe the version that finally came out encapsulates the essence of what we need to do, to get over the disasters to which we have been subjected, not only by the last two constitutions, but even by the meaningless formulaic structures that the Soulbery Constitution established.