Why Amunugama is the most qualified to pen ‘Dreams of Change’
This article, probably Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria's last, was sent to the Sunday Times, days before he passed away on Tuesday
Recently I was honoured by a request from my good friend Dr. Sarath Amunugama to review his latest literary contribution namely “Dreams of Change” which deals with issues of land, labour and conflict in Sri Lanka. This excellent publication of 450 pages is a collection of essays done by Dr. Amunugama over a period of several years when he served as a senior public servant and later held several Cabinet portfolios in successive governments. The themes are dealt with in 12 chapters. Some of the chapters are on specific issues such as Chandrikawewa, Rural Development, Sramadana and Buddhaputhra and Bhoomiputhra which deals with dilemmas of modern Sinhala Buddhist monks. There is also a special chapter on Dr. Amunugama’s main teacher and guru at the Peradeniya University, the much respected Dr. Ralph Peiris. As a reviewer, I will deal only with some aspects of chapters 6 and 7 on the JVP uprising of 1971 and on the subject of Family Planning. However, before I do so, I would like to commence my review by first talking about the very accomplished and scholarly author of this book, with whom I have had a close friendship for over 50 years from my days when we were together as undergraduates at the University of Ceylon in Peradeniya. We both hailed from similar social backgrounds, children of middle-class families and we had both gone to good schools though different from each other. I had gone to Royal College Colombo and Dr. Amunugama to Trinity College Kandy. However, at the Peradeniya campus, which we entered together in 1959, we were both resident students although here again in different Halls of Residence. In those days being a resident student was one of the greatest privileges of a university career and the three years I spent at Peradeniya had a lasting and profound impact on my life thereafter and my attitude towards the people of Sri Lanka. At the university, in those days, we met and lived with students from different parts of the island and from all walks of life, while in schools like Royal and Trinity we associated more with students of a special segment of society. In that context, I consider my university life at Peradeniya as the anvil in which my character was moulded to face the challenges in future years, especially my service to the country as a public servant. However, while Dr. Amunugama went on to do most of the things I did, he also ascended the political stairs to become a national icon of the country. I would categorise Dr. Amunugama as belonging to the position of a statesman rather than a politician because in personality and ability he towers well above most of the Parliamentarians we have today. As I stated earlier, unlike me Dr. Amunugama, because of his involvement in politics, is a celebrated public figure currently holding the top portfolio as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Earlier he had been the Minister of Finance and read out Budgets and also successfully held several other portfolios. But this is the first occasion on which he is serving as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He is well known in Sri Lanka for his many contributions first as a university lecturer, then as a public servant, then as a scholar and media specialist and more recently from about the 1990s as one of our best known politicians. His name is a household name. Having served in the public sector for many years, I personally know that Dr. Sarath Amunugama’s contribution at Cabinet level has been greatly appreciated and admired. He does not speak unnecessarily at Cabinet; nor does he speak on every subject on which there is a Cabinet paper (as some Ministers tend to do). However, when Dr. Amunugama speaks at Cabinet he is listened to by his colleagues. I have been told this privately by those who have served as Cabinet Secretaries in the recent past. I would like to highlight one quality or trait in my friend Dr. Amunugama. People wonder how he has accumulated all the ability and wisdom which he now displays as a senior statesman and also in his writings. He has written several books for the general readership far more than any other Cabinet Minister. His most recent publication in 2017 was the biography of Sri Lanka’s renowned Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala under the title “The Lions Roar”. This publication resulted in Dr. Amunugama becoming the winner of the State Literary Award in 2017. By way of public speaking, Dr. Amunugama is an excellent orator in both Sinhala and English but particularly in English. I have listened to him delivering English speeches at Seminars and Conferences. He does so without any notes or piece of paper to guide him. His rich vocabulary and his mastery of the facts of the subject on which he is talking mesmer- ise the audience. Sri Lankans in the audience are so proud that they have as a speaker one of their own sons because we must admit that there are very few of our local politicians who can make a speech in English to a foreign audience Frankly when I consider Dr. Amunugama’s public speaking, I can think of only one other Sri Lankan who could speak in English that well. I am talking of the period post-1994 when Dr. Amunugama first entered Cabinet. The only other Sri Lankan I could think of is the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, a brilliant Oxford educated lawyer, who was our Minister of Foreign Affairs during the government of Chandrika Bandaranaike. The only difference was that while both Dr. Amunugama and Mr. Kadirgamar had a suave and amiable personality, Mr. Kadirgamar had an Oxford accent. Dr. Amunugama never developed a foreign accent, but is equally effective in public speaking. These are my personal observations. Before I leave my nostalgic memories and comments about the author Dr. Amunugama, let me also put before the readers my own view on how Dr. Amunugama came to acquire his skills and his passion for scholarship and writing. I would like to put this on record for future generation of Sri Lankans to show how important it is to have an excellent university education. Quite apart from being a reviewer very few Sri Lankans can talk about Dr. Amunugama, like myself because I have known him very closely from my undergraduate days. As an anecdote Dr. Amunugama told a family gathering of mine that Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria’s father, the late Queens Counsel N E Weerasooria, had consulted him when he was writing his Four Volume History of our country under the title “Ceylon and Her People”. My father had consulted him more than any other university friends of mine because Dr Amunugama had experience having served as a Government Agent. With that experience my father felt that Dr. Amunugama could advise him. That was how close Dr. Amunugama was to me and to my family. Hence I claim more than a reviewer’s privilege to talk about him in the way I want. As I said earlier it was very important to have an excellent university education and Dr. Amunugama had such an education at Peradeniya and he also had as his teachers a galaxy of famous academics such as Ralph Peiris, Stanley Tambiah and Gananath Obeysekere. Dr. Amunugama was not only a student of all three, but later on during his university career as a lecturer after he graduated, he worked as a Field Research Assistant and conducted surveys and researches for Tambiah and Obeysekera and both these academic giants have mentioned his contribution to their own work. Dr. Amunugama’s university results were so good that when he passed out he was given a lecturer’s post. After serving as a lecturer in Sociology at Peradeniya he sat for and gained immediate entrance to the Ceylon Civil Service which soon became our country’s Administrative Service. In that respect we can refer to him as one of the last Mohicans. When you pass out so well in the Civil Service you could not only get a bride with a large dowry, but you could soon be a Government Agent which Dr. Amunugama became. He served as a Government Agent in many parts of the country. Especially his contribution in the field of land issues and agriculture has been commended by many senior public servants of that time. Thus, in my view, Dr. Amunugama’s strength to do so what he is now doing can be traced to his university education and his career as a civil servant in the early years. His success as a senior public servant is too well known for me to recite. He also served for a time as a media expert in Paris at UNESCO. This was a senior job offered to him directly by UNESCO and not by the Government of Sri Lanka. I had the privilege to stay with him at his apartment in Paris when he was working at UNESCO. In conclusion, I must confess that I have not done justice by reviewing the publication Dreams of Change and the twelve chapters contained in it and I have been emphasising the author’s ability and scholarship. In a way this is justified because many reviewers speak about the book being reviewed rather than about the author that wrote it or compiled it. There is, however, one area that I must remind Dr. Amunugama that he may have forgotten. When he wrote the chapter on Family Planning -- chapter 8 -- he has devoted about 35 pages to this chapter. But almost 90% of that content is on Social Science Research on Family Planning. Here Dr. Amunugama appears to have forgotten the assistance and guidance he gave me as Secretary to the Ministry of Plan Implementation during the years 1977 to 1986 when I spearheaded some new directions in the implementation of Family Planning Policies. I persuaded my Minister, the late J.R. Jayewardene who was the Executive President, to permit me to introduce into the gazette the subject of Population Policy and Implementation that was not there before. Armed with that authority together with National leaders like Lalith Athulathmudali and Dr. Ranjith Attapattu, I was able to make Family Planning part of the Population Policy. We introduced voluntary sterilisation programmes with financial incentives especially in the upcountry estate areas which were causing concern by high birth rates. As everyone knows the late Lalith Athulathmudali helped me to put Family Planning above party politics by getting all the leading political parties to sign such an agreement after a national seminar at the Family Health Bureau in Colombo. I also got the approval of my Minister President Jayewardene to appoint Siva Obeysekera, a former Health Minister in the SLFP government, to head the International Review Programmes on Family Planning in Sri Lanka. I was ably assisted by all the NGOs working in this field such as the Family Planning Association at that time led by Daya Abeywickrema and Community Development Services led by Brigadier Dennis Haputalle. How Dr. Sarath Amunugama came into the picture was an area that he may have forgotten because I did not find this on his chapter on Family Planning. As Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Media, Dr. Amunugama knew more about creating awareness on family planning than I and he readily helped me. I can still remember the slogans which he helped me to print on envelopes at the Government Printers which ran as follows: Punchi Pavula Raththaran - Api Dennai - Daru Dennai, which means in English “A Small Family is Beautiful or Golden - Two Parents and Two Children”. Those were the catchy slogans. The idea was to take family planning out of the bedroom into the public domain and we succeeded at that time and much of the awareness campaign was due to the input provided to me by Dr. Amunugama. I wish to acknowledge this contribution in this review.
Dr. Sarath Amunugama: Man of many achievements