18 May, 2024


“Really Real Manner Of Managing Sri Lanka” – ‘To Paris and Back’ 1977-1990 (JRJ Years)

By Sarath de Alwis –

Sarath de Alwis

“Really Real Manner of Managing Sri Lanka” – A review of Sarath Amunugama’s Autobiography Volume Two ‘To Paris and Back’ 1977-1990 (JRJ Years)

The Vision, the resolve and the style of the political leadership determines the wellbeing of the people and defines the character of the state. It is not often that a public intellectual who occupied a ring side seat at the circus gets to unravel the vision, evaluate   the resolve, and contemplate the style of the Ring Master of the circus while also dissecting the others in the circus – the clowns, trapeze artists and acrobats.  

The second volume of Sarath Amunugama’s Autobiography is unquestionably an absorbing account of contemporary history. It is unputdownable but given the weight of 480 pages of an anecdotal odyssey, a regular pause at intervals is recommended.  

The author’s perspectives are neither dispassionate nor moral neutral. They need to be absorbed at leisure. It is for the reader to assess his value judgements. Repeating them is not the burden of a review.

Intrigues, spin, and instances of back biting in the court of JRJ are recorded with a matter-of-fact neutrality.  

That said, the value judgements made are sharp. They betray a penchant for puckish wit and clever banter.  “The office of speaker carries great prestige but no tenders” is one such. 

He had the good fortune to develop a close rapport with Esmond Wickremesinghe JRJ’s Cardinal Richelieu and Anandatissa de Alwis Sri Lanka’s pioneering and preeminent political marketer. 

“Thus, with my close relations with two of the country’s classic insiders – Esmond and Anandatissa de Alwis and with plenty of time for chats with both of them here and abroad, I became privy to the really real manner in which the modern Sri Lankan state was managed since independence by our leaders of different persuasions.”       

The author describes his role undoubtedly pivotal, in introducing Television to Sri Lanka that transformed mass media with touching candor and honest pride. 

He identifies the accelerated Mahaweli scheme as one of the spectacular achievements of the Jayawardene regime.

The progress made in developing tourism during JRJ years is chronicled in meticulous detail.   

Dealing with JRJ’s persona, the Social Scientist swings back and forth between Karl Schmidt and Antonio Gramsci! 

Civility of the civil servant made him comply with JR’s hegemonic logic. Retrospective wisdom of the memoirist entertains serious doubts about the Nietzschean superman.

The author reconfirms JRJ’s oft expressed admiration and fascination with Napoleon. JR Jayewardene was a decisively cerebral admirer of Napoleon and an ardent adherent of Bonapartist governance and top-down reform. 

Napoleon crowned himself in the Notre dame cathedral. JRJ did it on Gall face green the exact venue where we recently witnessed a process – a kind of reverse process. 

I have been nourished by reflecting on liberty,” said Napoleon Bonaparte. “But I thrust it aside when it obstructed my path.”   

In the second volume of his autobiography and memoirs Sarath Amunugama  the social scientist and agile administrator but not quite the politician that he finally turned in to, provides an affectionate and  acutely incisive study of the JRJ presidency. 

It is essential reading for those who seek to make sense out of Sri Lanka’s current predicament. It is an eloquent excursion into our collective memory of the bamboozle that is called the executive presidential system.  

To the concerned and caring citizen trapped in the current inflationary spiral reading it is catharsis.

It disassembles the uncle’s fantasy- of history remembering him as Aristotle’s notion of the philosopher king. It is also a good guide to comprehend the nephew’s ongoing march of folly. 

Until the executive presidency, politics was a chaotic business. JRJ with his constitutional acrobatics made it a circus for ambitious clowns and a carnival for knaves.  

As a site and a setting, Galle Face green has an incestuous link with the executive presidency. On 4th February 1978 JR Jayewardene took his oath as Sri Lanka’s first Executive President in the locale where today dissenters have taken up kite flying. 

Forty-four years ago, a multitude gathered at the Galle Face Green to watch JRJ assuming office as the Exceptive President – the highest authority – the supreme leader of the land. 

In Volume Two of his autobiography covering years 1977-1990, Social Scientist and Multi-Talented Mandarin, SA tells us  how it all happened. In 1978 he was the secretary of the Ministry of State. Image engineering of the regime was an assigned task. His Minister was the peppy persuader and spin master Anandatissa de Alwis. 

“JRJ with his usual panache said that he wanted to take his oaths before a large gathering of the people. He proposed the Galle Face Green. Our Ministry proposed that the morning ceremony be followed by a mass musical show in the evening. That was a sure way of filling the grounds and G V P Samarasinghe who chaired the preparatory meeting gave us his enthusiastic support. To improve on the shining hour, I asked the SLBC to get down the top popular singers of Hindi film songs for the musical show. This was not difficult because Hindi film makers depended on SLBC broadcasts on their Indian beam to popularize their products. 

We had a virtual monopoly of All India broadcasts. Consequently, we got down Mohamed Rafi, Mahendra Kapoor and Asha Bhosle. The show was announced by SLBC over the airwaves and from early morning crowds began to throng the green and JRJ’s dream of swearing in before a multitude of people was realized. He may have thought that they all came to cheer him. GVP was happy to receive accolades on our behalf for the stage arrangements. JRJ gifted the pen he used to sign the pledge to national archives. “ 

Sarath Amunugama occupied the  vantage point of the insider and has the natural  elan of the informed arbiter. His riveting narrative is an instructive excursion into years of JRJs rule – deprivation of civic rights of opponents, black July, the referendum etc.   

I cited this passage for a good reason. It demonstrates how the executive presidency – the whim of one man maneuvered our parliamentary democracy towards a labyrinthian descent into a dysfunctional and now a bankrupt republic. 

How the Hindi singers Mohamed Rafi and Asha Bhosle appeased the ego of JRJ is no great puzzle. 

In his treatise Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky explains what Sarath and Anandatissa did with Bollywood singers at the swearing-in of our first executive president. 

“… massive propaganda is for everyone to consume. Consumption is good for profits and consumption is good for the political establishment.” 

From then on spectacle mattered more and substance mattered less. 

Sarath Amunugma the expert persuader tells us how the rice ration card – ‘Haal Potha’ of the closed economy was replaced with the ‘Salli Potha” the cash subsidy of the open economy. 

Defining the persona of JRJ, the memoirist relies on Max Weber’s ‘rationalitat’ to explain JRJ’s cold logic that supposedly made him impervious to emotion.  

Max Weber would have approved of JRJ. Weber presciently predicted the JRJ types while advising thin skinned academics to steer clear of politics. 

 “In a democracy the people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, ‘Now shut up and obey me.’ People and party are then no longer free to interfere in his business.” 

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Latest comments

  • 10

    Sarath Amunugama is indeed head and shoulders above any current civil servant. He is genuinely educated, openly despises witchcraft and mysticism, and can speak on most subjects with authority. But I can’t understand how he ended up supporting the clueless and corrupt Rajapaksas. He may have had a problem with Ranil’s take on the war, which was quite different from JR’S hawkish stance, but he could have just stood aside instead of getting caught up in fake patriotism. If there was anyone with leadership potential, it was this guy. So, now, here we are, discussing the merits of “aloof ” Ranil , Preme the talking dictionary, and motley hypocrites of the Weerawansa-Champika-Fonseka type.

    • 4

      Sarath: There is a reason that JRJ was called “Yankee Dickie”. His neoliberal Presidency project was USAID, CIA and Keenie Meenie backed, funded, enabled, advised and armed..! This is what got Lanka into Cold War confrontation with India, then in the Soviet Camp, which saw the birth of the LTTE by RAW and IB!
      This is the untold history of the Cold War in Sri Lanka which is yet to be written, including of the assassination of SWRD at a time that the US was Weaponizing Buddhism against Socialist Communist De-colonization movements in Asia and Africa! Assassinations galore from Aung Sang to Lumumba and regime change ops.. Now we have Arab Springs and Aragalaya Hagiography!
      Sri Lanka history needs to be de-colonized and de-islanded – including its seems Amunugama’s narrative of Yakee Dickie – so relevent as the nephew delivers Lanka to the IMF and Washington Consensus Today..!

    • 0

      nimal fernando

      Following is your comment published in colombotelegraph. I have copied and pasted it in case ……

      nimal fernando / September 15, 2016

      Is Amunugama writing this to atone himself for not always living by the Great One’s teachings?

      Mr Sarath de Alwis,

      “The Making of Modern Buddhism”

      Is there an old Buddhism and a modern Buddhism?

      Is “modernity” a necessary diversion from the enlightened one’s original teachings to suit “modern” man/environs?

      When the teacher forsook all riches, the “modern” disciples sit on thrones in palaces and enjoy all the modern luxuries and comforts.

      Even Christ said “don’t have an extra pair of footwear” and the Pope sits on a jewel encrusted gold throne in an opulent palace.

      Funny, isn’t it, how man interprets great souls’ teachings, eh?

      Why all these books about travel agents who sell tickets to Nirvana? What about going back to the original source itself for rejuvenation? I may be alone but feel something always gets lost in the translation.

      Anyway, Mr De Alwis, I don’t always agree with you but never doubt your honesty/integrity. And that’s a rare thang in present day SL.

      A Reformer Rediscovered: A Review Of ‘The Lion’s Roar’ By Sarath Amunugama

    • 1

      Dear OC,
      As I never guessed, Hiru Pachavahini is quite neutral now, what is behind it?
      Please listen to the link below and see for yourself.

      They no longer seem to be protecting the son of Medamulana Bitch-Mahinda.

      those feudists rascals behaving like genetically modified men and women? Are these men born shameless ?

      Yesterday, Mahinda was asked when Gota will come again… He just ignored the question as usual.
      however, there were also videos proving Gota had left the country for a medical check-up. It came from the cesspit of Mahinda Ballige putha. My health would turn out to be fine, if my eyes would be able to see these buggers be jailed forever.

      Why does Mahinda Rajapaksa continue to deceive the same audience? What is the role of journalists?

      • 1

        Not only Hiru, but Derana and even Rupavahini are much better now. Only Sirasa doesn’t seem to know the difference between news and editorialization.

  • 6

    I read with laughter the pride Sarath Amunugama felt over introducing the TV. Would the inventor of the wheel have felt a better elation.
    If, until the executive presidency politics was a chaotic business, what do you call, what followed after the executive presidency?
    The accelerated Mahaweli scheme achieved a lot. Yes, indeed. The biggest achievement of all was the disquiet brought about to the racial balance.
    “But I thrust it aside when it obstructed my path”, – Napoleon Bonaparte.
    JRJ went even further. He thrust aside anything and everything that he suspected was obstructing his path.

    • 8

      Nathan, the aim of the so-called accelerated Mahaveli scheme was to settle hundreds of thousands of Sinhalese settlers in the Tamil Vanni and eastern province, especially in Batticaloa, change the demography and convert all these areas to Sinhalese majority. Only Jaffna, most probably Killonochchi and northern Mullaitheevu district, were to be spared, as they thought it was too difficult to convert these areas. Gamini Dissanayake and all the Sinhalese bureaucrats and engineers planned this and cunning crafty JR was fully aware of this. It was supposed to be a top secret but someone let the cat out of the bag and they were forced to abandon this but are still trying their best to do this, especially after the fall of the LTTE. This is why the Archeological, forestry and many other government departments, as well as the occupying Sinhalese armed forces, are very busy in the north and east, claiming everything as Sinhalese and Buddhist armed with fake history.

      • 1

        Hello Rohan25,
        Wonder if you have evidence to support what you have noted.

        Engineers were not delighted to see different sub-projects of the overarching Mahaweli Project (which was the largest project) handed over to foreign companies on a turnkey basis.
        I worked at the Mahaweli Development Board 50 years ago and I was not aware of any secret attempts to settle ONLY Sinhalese.
        It is mischievous to note that there was a communal bias.
        Senior Tamil engineers (if they are still alive) who worked with us may not have a similar opinion.
        There were many who were excited that Mahaweli waters would reach Iranamaduwa tank. From what I understand, it did not happen. Perhaps, you could correct me.

        I refer you to my comment below.

        • 3

          It is IranaiMadu and not Iranamamaduwa . Trying to Sinhalize and using this an ancient Tamil place name in the north instead of properly using the correct and proper Tamil place name speaks volumes and proves your anti-Tamil bias. There is enough written evidence about this. `

          • 0

            Hello Rohan25,
            Your comment does not respond to what I raised.

  • 18

    Old codger what a pompous old codger you are ! Amunugama is educated but is he national leader material ? He did not fall out with RW on a war issue. RW did not want anyone with any liberal education near him.Amunugama joined Chandrika long before the fighting began.

    ‘Aloof” Ranil is best friends with ” corrupt and clueless” Rajapkse family. In this budget Ranil proposes to establish a branch of the army run Kottalawala university in Kurnagala, MR’s present seat .

    Aloof Ranils best friend was Mahendran . He fought hard to make him Governor of Central Bank and even after the bond scam went public defended Mahendran/Aloysius and even reappointed him.If a Rajapakse or any other politician did what Ranil did with Mahendran, all the old codgers would have slaughtered him in this forum.

    But not Ranil ! They cannot bring themselves to criticize ranil . What inferior minds !

    Who made money in the recent coal scam ?

    • 10

      Do I have to wait much longer for your masterly analysis of this “bond scam”? Are you and Amrit collaborating on this long-overdue masterpiece? Have you hired foreign consultants? Is it written in Simple English for your benefit?

      • 6

        Codger I will do it after you show the amounts stolen by the Rajapakse family- figures, methods and account nos. We gave your master Ranil 4 years to do that.

        You are convinced that Mahendran and his son in law were doing charity . If you take this nation as the jury the verdict is clear.

        Ranil’s role in the Mahendran saga needs no imagination. A man who is no expert on economics, bonds or central bank matters was taken for a big ride by his best friend Mahendran.

        RW defence is that Cabrall also did it. So Ranil is admitting guilt ! Why didn’t ranil punish Cabrall ? Now ranil has also pardoned Nimal Siripala.

        Who is behind the coal scam ?

        • 5

          “Codger I will do it after you show the amounts stolen by the Rajapakse family- figures, methods and account nos”
          So you can’t do it. Bugger off then.
          BTW, where have I said the Rajapaksas stole anything? Please provide a link. Our are YOU accusing them?

          • 2

            old codger

            “BTW, where have I said the Rajapaksas stole anything?”

            Perhaps deepthi must be dreaming about Wimal Sangili Karuppan while typing this comment. By the way she reminds me of Champa.

            • 0

              You know quite well that I don’t talk about hotels in Dubai or golden Lamborghinis ( or even bond scams) on the strength of youtube videos.

  • 13

    OC says Prema is a talking dictionary ! Yes Sri Lankan elite are all jokers .

    But what do you say about Ranil who says he knows everything about everything , IMF, China, India, global politics, economics, parliamentary democracy, history, Buddhism even Indian Mumbo jumbo ( remember that picture where Ranil and wife are blessed by an Indian sham-ranil is bare bodied !)

    • 2

      deepthi silva

      ” remember that picture where Ranil and wife are blessed by an Indian sham-ranil is bare bodied !”

      Were you taken aback by his six-pack?

      • 1

        Apparently Deepthi looks down on people who worship bare-bodied. He isn’t aware, in his ignorance, that at least 400 million Hindu people do it. Sometimes one’s hang-ups come out inadvertently.

  • 1

    A beautiful piece as usual!,
    I remember what Sarath Amunugama said about the Provincial Councils at the inception. He thought that it will pay the way for the technocrats to be masters of the Provincial Council system, but it was not to be!; it turned out to be the den of the second level politicians aspiring to go up.
    It is a tragedy that an eminent civil servant- an intellectual par excellence ends up as a politician like so many other in the long history of independent Sri Lanka.

  • 1

    Dear Readers,

    ‘Sarath Amunugama (He) identifies the accelerated Mahaweli scheme as one of the spectacular achievements of the Jayawardene regime.’

    The validity of such an observation needs to be debated, although the implementation of the Mahaweli Project began more than fifty years ago.

    The implementation of the project was well underway before the UNP was elected. Diversion of Mahaweli waters for irrigation purposes is a case in point.
    The acceleration of the Mahaweli Project entailed the development hydropower based on already identified design parameters (MW, tunnel and reservoir capacities for example). Those who worked at the Mahaweli Development Board (Engineering Studies Organisation) would remember the UNDP reports.
    The hydro projects were awarded to multinational contractors on a turnkey basis, which provided an excellent opportunity for politicians (and ignorant civil servants) to take a leading role. I have no evidence to suggest that there were other corrupt considerations although the people who have the authority to award large contracts also have the opportunity to illegally benefit by such authority.

    One wonders if Sri Lanka missed the opportunity to develop a pool of engineers, particularly if the project was implemented as identified in the UNDP reports.

    • 0

      Whether any independent impact assessment was made about the accelerated Mahavali project, 30 years after the completion of the project? – that is the time to study the impact.

      It had two major components –agriculture and power.

      Now, both seem to be in crisis.

      What was the outcome let there be a value for money audit!

    • 0

      There was British money— as aid not loan — that I guess was a factor in some of the issues you raised.
      Was it not after Mahaweli that JRJ was said to have told Gamini D:
      “C, I knew that you are rich, but not that rich”.

      • 0

        “D, I knew that you are rich, but not that rich”.

      • 0

        Victoria Power station was a gift to Sri Lanka from the UK with no strings attached.
        There were many rumours around hefty commissions in all other projects but nothing was uncovered.

        The former Prime Minister of Australia (Scott Morrison) still has a mortgage while our politicians are exceptionally wealthy. This appeared in the Australian Financial Review.
        The per capita income in Australia is slightly below USD 60,000/-.

        This is one of the reasons why I say that Sri Lankan voters do not understand what happens.

  • 2

    The Mahaweli project was utilitarian, no doubt. It was a gift literally and otherwise.
    However, as with any gift to Sri Lanka, the objective was hijacked. That complaint is true and valid. (Ampara tasted blood!)
    Let us move on.

    • 0

      Let us remember something: several of the colonization schemes went unresisted, for a considerable part, owing to the failure of landless Tamils in the North being prevented from settling outside the peninsula.
      May we wonder why!

  • 1

    Sarath Amunugama is the last of the long list of Civil Servants who took to Politics as a last resort. George Bernard Shaw comes to mind.
——Prof. C.Suntharalingam Prof: Mathematics in the early days who became an MP and Cabinet Minister in the Govt:of DS.Senanayake.
——C.P.de.Silva G.A.Polannaruwa who became MP and Minister with the SL
He had a first class honours in Mathematics and was a student of Prof:Sun.
………..Nissanka Wijeyeratne G.A. Anuradhapura later MP in the SLFP. Still later he joined JRJ and went on to become a Cabinet Minister.
——–Ronnie De Mel first with the SLFP and then joined JRJ to become the longest serving Minister of Finance.
    Sarath Amunugama has out smarted all of them. Gamini Dissanayake sponsored his entry to UNP Politcs. After Gaminis death he was campaigning like hell on behalf of Srima Dissanayake for the Presidency against CBK. At one time, I was told he was also proposed to Chandrika!
    He was also at one time along with Prof: Kalpage with Ranil.W. This of-course did not last even a couple of weeks. Either they saw through Ranil.W. or Ranil would have treated them like Undergrads!
    Eventually, Sarath Amunugama ended up with MaRa……………

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