Richard Pathirana (1938 - 2008)

Mr Speaker

I had not initially thought to speak during this vote of condolence, but I was reminded of so much to do with the Hon Richard Pathirana while listening to his son, the Hon Member from Galle, that I felt I should pay my tribute too.

I was in particular moved by his mention of the famous, or rather infamous bye-elections of 1983, when his father was one of the few to triumph against the juggernaut of the then government. It was shocking, Mr Speaker, to note one of my fellow neophyte MPs referring approvingly to our first Executive President, J R Jayewardene, as a model to be emulated. I hope that memories of what happened in the eighties, when democracy was treated with contempt, will introduce a proper understanding of political principles and persuade those embarking on a political career of the dangers of authoritarianism.

Those by-elections, Mr Speaker, were selective, a travesty of the pledge of the then President to clear out the rotten members of his government. In fact he worked out a formula that got rid of only one Minister, perhaps his most decent. The rest, realizing that Dr Atapattu did not know how to win elections when the people wanted to vote for a different party, got together to ensure victory, and went down en masse to Beliatta to ensure the defeat of the candidate whose victory they perhaps feared most in those very dark days.

It was in such a context that the Hon Richard Pathirana managed to win the Akmeemana seat. Though new to Parliament he succeeded, with that wonderful voice, to make the sort of impact that a tiny opposition had failed to do over the preceding six years. This was all the more important since, after it had perpetrated the horrors of July 1983, the government then punished the opposition. Not only did it proscribe the JVP, and send it underground, it also drove the TULF out of Parliament. Thus it prevented democratic presentation of Tamil  grievances, which of course added immeasurably to the appeal and therefore the strength of terrorists.

It was in such a climate of repression, of the abuse of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations against the democratic opposition, that the Hon Richard Pathirana was able to repeat his victory even more remarkably. This was in a further bye-election in 1986, when there were even fewer seats in which the UNP could concentrate its bulldozers. I recall visiting the area at that time, along with my friend, the late Richard de Zoysa, and indeed meeting the current Leader of the Opposition there at the Tisara Hotel. He used to be a more aggressive campaigner in those days, and we must be grateful therefore for his transition since then to a more gentlemanly style of politics.

The Hon Richard Pathirana won that by-election too, and established himself as a future star of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. His first portfolio was that of Education, and it was because he established a number of universities in hitherto neglected areas that I myself was able to work in perhaps our most beautiful campus, that of Sabaragamuwa University at Belihuloya, for ten years. He encouraged a new approach to university curricula, to introduce soft skills too, and it was perhaps because of that approach that even our Arts students have had a better record of employment that products of many of the newer universities which followed old and outdated colonial curricular traditions.

It was in his time too that a degree programme was started at the Sri Lanka Military Academy, against the predilections of some academics and some officers. Overcoming such prejudices on either side was not easy, but I believe the young officers who fought so bravely and so intelligently in the recent battles amply justified the determination of the Ministry under the Hon Richard Pathirana to expand the reach of higher education. I sincerely hope the current Minister will follow that trend, and ensure that, not just degrees, but appropriate higher training, is made available to other professionals too, and in particular our Police Force.

The first University Convocation I attended was at Belihuloya in 1998, and I am pleased that our University was able to show its gratitude for the vision of the Minister by conferring an Honorary Degree on him. Sabaragamuwa University has not had many politicians at its Convocations, but I am pleased that another hero of 1983, our Chief Whip, has also graced such an occasion, as did the Hon Lakshman Kadirgamar.

As others have remarked, the Hon Richard Pathirana was absolutely without any sense of racial prejudice, and he helped build up education in deprived areas all over the country. My friend the irrepressible Hon National List member remarked that he was especially helpful to the Muslim community, and I was privileged to work for many years for the South Eastern University at Oluvil, where I found that many of the security guards hailed from the Galle District. I thought this strange, but they explained that the Galle Port was full of workers from Oluvil.

I hope that the great expansion in Higher Education that the Hon Richard Pathirana initiated will be built on now, though on a broader basis, in terms of supply as well as content, in accordance with current needs and aspirations. I hope too that the Public Sector Reforms he was concerned with, as Minister of Public Administration, but did not have time to pursue, will be carried forward now that we have a dedicated Ministry for that purpose headed by the statesman in this Chamber who is most experienced in public governance. Public servants, like politicians, must be judged on performance, and perhaps the introduction of performance agreements will help in achieving the desired goals.

Liberalism is devoted to reform, continuing reform based on changing social realities. I will take this opportunity therefore to record on the floor of this House my congratulations to the Liberal Democratic Party of the United Kingdom, for once more entering government, after almost a century. I hope its tradition of constant reform, without disruptive revolution, will be taken further in the near future.

In pursuit of reform then, Mr Speaker, as for all other reasons, it is an honour to speak today in memory of someone who was a symbol of reform, as a young Member of Parliament challenging an established monolithic authority, as a Minister striving to enhance opportunities for those who had been deprived. I join with my colleagues in extending my condolences to the family, in expressing satisfaction that the tradition of the late Hon Richard Pathirana will be continued in this house, and in honouring his memory.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.