A Look at Sri Lankan Minister Athulathmudali’s Legacy

By Srimal Fernando

7 May 2020

The Western Provincial Council (WPC) elections of May 1993  was expected to produce an outright  majority for Lalith Athulathmudali, led Democratic United National Front (DUNF) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led opposition alliance. On 23rd April 1993 one month before the Western Provincial Council polls in Sri Lanka the Former Minister for National Security and the  Leader of the Sri Lankan opposition Democratic United National Front (DUNF) Athulathmudali, was assassinated  for political reasons while campaigning  in Colombo. However, within one year of his demise, the United National Party (UNP) lost power at the 1994 general election after 17 years.

Photo: Minister Lalith Athulathmudali

Minister for National Security

Athulathmudali an eminent Sri Lankan  lawyer and a  Oxford  Union  President  entered parliament from Ratmalana  electorate  in 1977.  At the general election, held on  1977  the United National Party (UNP)     led by  J. R. Jayewardene secured   a resounding victory  over  Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).  The  United National Party (UNP)  alone  secured  140  of the   168  seats in the Sri Lankan Parliament . In 1977   Lalit Athulathmudali  the new  Minister of Trade and Shipping accelerated the much needed  modernization  for the island nations  shipping industry  .   Economic growth almost doubled in Jayewardene’s first year in office with a GDP growth rate of 8.2% in 1978 compared to 4.2% in the previous year. However the   situation in Sri Lanka became  more complicated   in 1983  when  the Tamil rebel groups intensified their  separatist  campaign in North and Eastern provinces of Sri  Lanka.   

Athulathmudali’s being appointed by President J. R. Jayewardene as the  Minister of National Security   also prompted   new hopes  for the  Sri Lankan armed forces  fighting  with   Tamil separatist terrorist groups .  The late Ministers contribution to National security   can be measured by looking  back at some key historical events . First, during his tenure the Sri Lankan  army increased   the  numbers  to  over 25,000  .  . Secondly the strong defense capabilities enabled the Sri Lankan forces to launch “Operation Liberation of Vadamarachi” in the  Jaffna peninsula .  This operation in Sri  Lanka’s North was  met with  stiff  resistance  from  Tamil  separatist forces. At that time  the  on going   unrest in the North and Eastern provinces was a source of concern for India.  Thirdly devolution of powers as per the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987 that led to Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) involvement in the counter-insurgency operation in Sri Lanka to demiltraise  the  Tamil insurgent groups  in these two provinces  were  notable  challenging moments for   Athulathmudali and the nation  For whatever reasons the Minister of National Security   was  confident that  the  national problem on  the  civil war will be solved. Late Minister Athulathmudali   had once said  “If you are weak in the face of terrorism, you stand no chance “. Furthermore Jayewardene ‘s Presidential tenure re framed Athulathmudali,’s approach towards embracing   popular politics aiming at common mans aspirations during later stages of his political career.

Minister of Education and Higher Education

 However, Ranasinghe Premadasa succeeded President Jayawardena in 1989 .Furthermore President Premadasa  made  Athulathmudali,  Minister of Agriculture   food  and  Cooperative.  During the 1989 general election  Athulathmudali, obtained the highest number of preferential votes  in Sri Lanka   with 235,447  votes.  Also President Premadasa took away Athulathmudali,’s previous portfolio of National Security and appointed him  as Minister of Education and Higher Education. In his tenure as the Minister of Education and Higher Education, he    introduced many reforms, including the  Mahapola Scholarship  awarded annually  to over  15000 meritorious students  entering undergraduate programs.

Leader Of Democratic United National Front (DUNF)

On the other hand, Sri Lankan  politics  took a different turn  in 1991 when the power struggle  within the  United National Party (UNP)  intensified . Unfortunately Athulathmudali  was  removed   from the Ministerialship.  Onetime political ally of Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali, and  a large  group of UNP  dissidents  joined hands with the opposition. They   moved   a impeachment motion against President Premadasa in 1991 . Following a failed impeachment motion against then President, Athulathmudali , Gamini Dissanayake  and the newly  formed Democratic United National Front (DUNF)  party supporters  sought to  strength its ties with  Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)  led  opposition alliances . The Democratic United National Front (DUNF) led by Athulathmudali became the third force  in Sri Lankan politics.

27th Death Anniversary

On the occasion of the late Minister Athulathmudali’s twenty seventh-death anniversary, the charismatic visionary leaders legacy   is remembered with profound respect.  Nevertheless,  at one time in history the  exemplary   policies   implemented  by Athulathmudali were instrumental in bringing about the stability to the South Asian nation.

(Srimal Fernando is a Doctoral Fellow at Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), India and Advisor / Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa. He is the winner of the 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ award in South Africa, and has been the recipient of GCA Media Award for 2016.In the field of politics, and Policy affairs, Fernando is a specialist, with over ten years of first hand experience in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The views expressed are personal)