Expatriates - President and the Sri Lanka Press

By Thilak S. Fernando - Dec. 1997

April 10, 1997 seemed a normal business day in London, except that the Christmas fever had begun to rise. The famous Oxford Street was getting choked with traffic while the car parks were minting money out of Christmas shoppers. Shops were packed to capacity with people trying to grab whatever ' goodies' they could for Christmas presents. There is no doubt, the very meaning of the word Christmas has now diminished and turned into a money spinning exercise by the business community.

Sri Lankans, among other nationalities in London, getting caught up in the Christmas hype is not something unusual. That may be the reason why an isolated Sri Lankan expatriate happened to be at the famous Dillons Bookshop on a week-day, during working hours, perhaps looking out for books to be given as Christmas presents!

Quite oblivious to what 'The Island' newspaper had flashed in the front page in early December about ' President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge leaving the country on a private visit', this expatriate was taken by surprise to set eyes on the President, who was incognito, inside the very Dillons bookshop, right in front of him, browsing through a range of books and enjoying herself with her daughter while a private security official was on guard, according to him.

Events that followed in London was rather hilarious and alarming from a security point of view for the President. British Telecom phones, Cable telephones and mobile phones & fax machines soon started to work overtime and London based Sri Lankan gentlemen adjusted their tie knots and lubricated the gossip machine. In short a section of the Sri Lankan expatriate community took over the duties of the old English tradition of Town-Crier, to announce that their country's President was on a private visit in London with her daughter. What a scenario!

The present day Sri Lankan expatriates are curious animals. Their behaviour and thinking pattern do not seem to conform to any religious teaching and do not even reflect on the word ' professional', which the majority of them keep on harping constantly. At times, in situations such as this, one wonders whether these so-called educated elite are simply aware of the very meaning of the word 'Education' ? What some of them forget is that England is a highly developed country with their own rulebooks and sophisticated methods of resolving their own problems, in their cool own time. What these unfortunate expatriates keep forgetting is that they are trying to execute the functions of Immigration Officers, Social Security Fraud Officers, Inland Revenue Inspectors etc., by becoming inquisitive and going to such lengths as to find out and report how his other fellow Lankan has managed to stay in Britain, bought a new car or acquired a luxury home etc.

In such an environment if news about their President being in London is leaked out, will she be spared by this Lankan lot, especially when a Sri Lankan daily newspaper had already let the cat out of the bag ?

The element of security risk that generated for the President because of the petty gossip and tawdry became enormous. Some of the criticism against the President's private visit included that she, in her prestigious high office, should not have been wandering in London in a pair of trousers. Others wanted to know whether she was on holiday and doing her Christmas shopping. From another quarter a question was paused as to whether her trip was purposely leaked out to the Island newspaper! To any rational and sensible mind all these appeared merely as a storm in a teacup. In England even the Queen, when she wants to enjoy her freedom, is said to get into ordinary clothes, old overcoats and scruffy hats and drives an old motor car through the London city whenever she goes to Windsor for her week-end breaks.

This unnecessary gossip mongering about the President's visit to London boiled down to gross violation of her privacy as an individual and exposed her to unwanted possible dangers in London where international terrorist organisations have germinated their seeds.

Were such criticisms levelled against the President by a certain section of the expatriate community in London fair by the Head of their State? Is the President not entitled to a private life, a holiday or to attend to her young children's affairs and welfare? Hasn't she got a right to see to her daughter's higher education, if that was the reason cynics blamed her for? What many who jumped in the band wagon to criticise the President seemed to have forgotten was that many Government Ministers, Junior Ministers, Members of Parliament and Provincial Governors from all regimes in the past have come to London, not on private visits to enter their children to Universities and higher seats of learning but under the guise of official visits out of the public purpose. There was an era when prominent personalities of Sri Lanka such as Dudley Senanayake, Anura Bandaranayake, Sunethra Bandaranayeke and the President herself , as matured students, were sent to universities abroad. The environment then was quite different, they were adults and a common factor they all enjoyed was that they had two living parents to look after their welfare. Today it is a different and an entirely different scenario. The President herself has to take enormous security precautions travelling in Sri Lanka because of the terrorist menace that has devolved over 15 years and, as a mother if she does not attend to the future education and welfare of her children, in the absence of a father, who else will take the same responsibility, caring and the enthusiasm of same magnitude?

Rubbing salt to a pestering wound in London, the London reporter of the Island newspaper found it fit to repeat the news on 11 December 97 adding some distasteful ' puss' into the wound which the ' Island' gaped opened a few days prior to the second report.

The news which read, " President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaragtunge who arrived here early this week on a private visit in connection with admission to her daughter Yasodara to a medical college is expected to be here for several more days.

As it is strictly a private visit, sources ruled out her meeting any political leaders in England or have any other agenda."

If the report confirms President's visit as a private one and any meeting with political leaders was ruled out, then what was the purpose of such a report carried in a prominent box in the front page ! Was the intention behind such news, which was picked by Reuters and went to the World Wide Web, was to convey a message to the world that the Sri Lankan President had gone to London on a Christmas shopping spree? No ! it does not give that impression but seems to appear as a cynical piece of down graded gossip!

Hasn't ' The Island' newspaper in this instance off shot the mark in misusing their privilege of the press freedom and ended up by picking a stinking garbage bin and smearing themselves well and truly with the scum?

Rajmohan Gandhi, one of the most remarkable journalists, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the editor of Bombay's weekly, Himmat, constantly sought to turn Indian eyes outward despite India's own pressing problems and reminded his readership that journalists have a duty towards their vocation, towards their conscience towards truth and towards their country, especially when there is a climate of fear. How far Sri Lankan journalists have matured to be responsible towards their own vocation and towards their own country remains to be seen & decided only by the readers of the incidents mentioned above.