An interlude in Sofia, doctorate, Indo-Lanka relations and Vijaya Kumaratunga



Vijaya Kumarathunga with Former President JR Jayawardane and Former Minister Gamini Dissanayake

(Excerpted from volume ii of the Sarath Amunugama autobiography)

Following the successful Tashkent meeting, UNESCO geared up for its annual sessions to be held in Sofia in Bulgaria. This was a two week long meeting which was to map out the next two year programme for the institution. UNESCO’s International Programme for Development Communications (IPDC) had an important role to play and I was included in the large list of officials who were to move lock, stock and barrel to Sofia to manage the conference.

UNESCO also invited several Third World journalists to cover this meeting and I managed to nominate Gamini Wijetunga, editor of Desathiya’ to be a member of this group. He first came to Paris for a briefing and then accompanied me to Sofia to cover the General Conference.

The Bulgarians who had only recently asserted some independence from Russian domination went all out to make this event a great success. On the opening night they hosted a gala reception on the grounds of the Sofia museum. The museum was a fabulous place with many exhibits from the Greek and Roman civilizations which had covered much of Bulgaria’s Mediterranean territory. Famous Bulgarian wines and Russian Vodka flowed at this reception as the organizers wished to distance themselves from the drab Russian political culture which was now being assailed by the USSR leadership under Gorbachev.

Their new found commitment to freedom of action was so strong that they were lining up a female Bulgarian diplomat to succeed M’Bow when his term was over. Unhappy about the constant criticism from western media, M’Bow was not averse to being lionized by the USSR and the East European countries. In one of his adroit moves he asked me to visit GDR [East Germany] and repair the damage caused by an affair which could have come out of a spy novel.

A senior GDR official had been on the staff of UNESCO. He had been accused of spying for the West while being attached to our organization, by the GDR authorities. When he returned to his country for a holiday while being on the staff of UNESCO, he had been detained in East Berlin by his government. M’Bow took up the position that the relevant officer was a UNESCO/UN employee and could not be detained by a member state. Rather than accept this position, the GDR authorities remained adamant in detaining the officer.

M’Bow then had no alternative but to break off relations with the GDR. Since IPDC was relatively independent, I was asked to mediate. As soon as I landed in Tegel airport in East Berlin with my wife, who was also invited by the GDR, I sensed that they wanted to settle this matter and end the impasse. We were received with bouquets of flowers and much ceremony and driven to a state guest house where we had discussions about IPDC and UNESCO.

A visit had been arranged for us to see the sights of East Berlin which had been familiar to me from earlier visits as Director of Information of Sri Lanka. An unforgettable sight was the dilapidated Jewish synagogue which had been kept unrestored as a symbol of the `Kristalnacht’ in which the Jews of Berlin were attacked by the Nazis. We also visited the Pergammon Museum with its famous Egyptian collection. The impasse with the UNESCO official was resolved when he was allowed to come to Paris, resign his job and get back to Berlin.

Going against the grain of spy novels, he did not make a run for it from Paris but returned to East Germany to hold a position there. Maybe he was a double agent. From time-to-time UN agencies are rocked with allegations of spying by nationals planted there by secret agencies. It is an open secret that the UN in New York is riddled with spies from different camps and the New York Police Department is busy trailing such suspects. Not only are there spies but there are others who try to persuade officials from behind the iron curtain to defect or play a double game. The Chinese in my time were less subtle. My friend from Xinhua News Agency told me that they got all the information they want from the managers and cooks of the hundreds of Chinese restaurants which dot the city. Many of them are subsidized and our UNESCO friends from China would wine and dine us at the best Chinese restaurants in the city, which served exquisite dishes. French politicians and bureaucrats were also similarly entertained. They say that the best Chinese food outside of Shanghai can be found in Paris.

The long stay in Sophia helped me to explore the ancient city which had seen waves of cultural invasion including the Turks. The mix of cultures was seen by us in the Bulgarian cuisine which was an eclectic offering of Mediterranean, Western, Russian and Ottoman Turkish dishes. Due to the UNESCO `invasion’, Bulgarian restaurants and markets were doing good business. In the meanwhile Gamini Wijetunga had made contact with a large ` of Sri Lankan students who had come on scholarship to Universities in Sophia.

They were mostly from families which had links with the Lankan Communist Party and had been rewarded for the fidelity of their parents for the cause. These students were very helpful in taking us to small eateries which cooked delicious local meals. They also invited us to their University dorms and cooked rice and curry meals for us. But what surprised us was the vehemence with which the students complained of the old Communist regime.

This was seen even in East Germany among the young; even though GDR was the most orthodox of the Communist regimes. All this was to boil over in the coming years leading to the fall of the Soviet Union. Bulgaria too had been strongly in the Soviet camp due to its undisputed leader Dimitrov, the head of the Comintern, who defied the Nazis after being falsely accused in the Reichstag fire trial. He later became the leader of Bulgaria as a confidante of Stalin and later one of the geriatric leaders of the USSR. Today Bulgaria is a free state and very much in the western camp.


The break in Sofia helped me to revise my thesis which was to be submitted for a doctorate in Social Anthropology [Called Ethnology in the French system] to the University of France. I was fortunate in having two South Asia specialists, Jean-Claude Galay and Eric Meyer, as my supervisors. Since I was a senior student, it was a friendly interaction involving their reading chapters of my thesis and sharing a meal in a cafe or Jean-Claude’s apartment while talking about it.

It was plain sailing but for the fact that it had to be submitted in the French language. Following many foreign students, I wrote my thesis in English and had it translated into French. Once it was accepted, a day was fixed for the defence of the thesis at the EHESS (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales – School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) . According to French tradition it is a public event which is held after a notice is published in the newspapers. Accordingly my defence of the

thesis was held with the public accommodated in the hall.

Most of those who turned up were South Asia specialists with a few well-wishers like Ananda Guruge, Jacques Renault and his wife. On the high table was the jury which comprised the Chairman from College de France, Collette Caillart of the Sorbonne, Eric Mayer of the CNRS and Jean Claude Galay who was my supervisor- I made a brief presentation in French giving a summary of my thesis. Then the Board, especially the Chairman asked a series of questions which I easily answered because I knew the subject better than him, followed by Caillart and Eric Meyer who bowled a few full tosses at me.

Then the discussion was opened to the house and I easily answered the questions directed at me. In the French system after a short break the jury delivers its verdict. We remained in the hall and the jury returned after a while and announced that I had successfully completed the requirements for a doctorate and signed the book to attest to that effect. After the usual congratulations we retired to a nearby pub to celebrate. That night my wife had arranged a dinner at our home to thank our friends, Ananda Guruge, Eric Meyer, Manu Ginige, Jacques Renault, Navaz and many others who were treated to a rice and curry dinner.

A few days later I called over at the EHEESS to collect my certificate. One of my objectives in coming to Paris was now satisfactorily concluded. But I continued to keep up with Eric and Jean-Claude for quite some time. Jean’Claude went to Cambridge, Eric retired and Louis Dumont died at a ripe old age to be celebrated by the world of social science as one of the great scholars of our time.

Indo-Lanka Relations

In the latter part of Indira Gandhi’s ‘reign’, relations between India and Sri Lanka went from bad to worse. This period was marked by the rise of the LTTE and the elimination of all those Tamils, including Tamil militants, who did not join them. The LTTE argued that Tamil ‘traitors’ had to be eliminated before they took on the Sinhala forces. Sabaratnam, the EPRLF leader and his whole central committee was gunned down in Chennai and in Jaffna.

While it may not have been the official line of the Indian Government, RAW which had a history of going ‘rogue’ against the Indian establishment, was strengthening the LTTE. At the same time they were introducing ‘moles’ into the LTTE exploiting caste differences. Initially LTTE was seen as a `Karaiyar’ (Karawe) outfit just as the JVP leadership was dominated by its Sinhala Karawe members. It was the sea that gave the LTTE the edge as it could cross over to the southern tip of India by boat when pressed by the army in the North. Velvettiturai was a staging post for the LTTE which could travel to South India and back with impunity. VVT was the home town of Prabhakaran.

Another of JRJ’s miscalculations was his belief that the USA would take his side and balance his relationship with India. He sent his close associate Ernest Corea as Ambassador to the US to cement the relationship. But the US stance was that we should settle this problem with India’s assistance. President Reagan sent his personal envoy General Vernon Walters to Colombo with that message. Walters repeated that advice at an impromptu press conference held on the tarmac in Katunayake en route to New Delhi.

In Delhi he warned the Indian policy makers not to miltarize the conflict. The US facilitated a meeting with the Israelis to help modernize the SL army and also recommended the use of British mercenaries. This was negotiated by Ravi, JRJ’s son who had taken on the role of security advisor much to the relief of the father who had a troubled relationship with him. I was told that JRJ had a secret meeting with Israeli leader Yiztak Rabin in the Hotel Crillon in Paris during a State visit to France.

But the LTTE was on the offensive and I was present with Gamini Dissanayake and the President in the President’s lodge in Kandy when Generals Attygalle, Ranatunga and Seneviratne wanted talks to begin with India and the LTTE as the military situation was grave. Though JRJ did not give it much thought the US-Pakistan-Israel axis troubled India and undercut his attempts to woo her.

Vijaya’s Visit To Paris

While being pushed to the wall in the North, JRJ’s dealings with the Opposition also took an unfavourable turn. The strong showing of the Kobbekaduwa campaign came as shock to him and he responded by calling his opponents Naxalites and imprisoning them. Some of the radicals – Vasudeva and the JVP, went underground creating further problems. The impression that JRJ was using these tactics to get revenge and cripple the legitimate democratic opposition gained ground. His venom was particularly directed at Vijaya Kumaratunga who was the live wire of the Kobbekaduwa campaign.

He was arrested and detained in the magazine prison under inhuman conditions. Vijaya’s candidacy to enter Parliament for the Mahara constituency, a part of JRJs old Kelaniya seat, was thwarted by the use of force. It was all getting very personal and bitter, and JRJ was fast losing his popularity. After many appeals Vijaya was released and his wife Chandrika arranged for him to recuperate with a holiday in France. She had many friends there and Manu Ginige who acted as a coordinator told me that we should spend some time with Vijaya.

I was happy to oblige as we had many common friends in the Sinhala film industry. We first met for dinner in the house of one of Chandrika’s friends who was now a rich stockbroker. Through Vijaya was the chief guest he was withdrawn and was recovering from the effects of his unfair detention. He was missing his wife and children and was spending time with the children of his host rather than engaging in a conversation with them. He seemed spaced out and uncomfortable.

The following day he called me at UNESCO and suggested having lunch as he was missing rice and curry. Manu Ginige had found a restaurant which specialized in ‘Paella’, a popular Spanish food with a lot of rice and meats which we all enjoyed eating. Vijaya was very reflective that day and spoke very little. He was keen to get back to Sri Lanka where he was to be a key player in the anti-UNP resistance. However he was the leader of the left who kept a line at communication to the Tamil leaders as a strong supporter of devolution of power to the north and east even when it was an unpopular proposal at that time.

He became a chief target of the JVP which assassinated him in cold blood. Had he lived he would have been elected President which would have changed much at Sri Lanka’s subsequent history. His name must be added to Premadasa, Gamini and Lalith who would have each enhanced the Presidency had they lived. It was Sri Lanka’s tragic fate that it lost its leaders to violence and be succeeded by others who did not have their charisma and competence.


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