Groundviews

Letter to the President from Bradman Weerakoon

This is part of an exercise where Fulbright Scholars were requested to write a letter, for their 60th Anniversary, to the President referring to what they learned through their exposure to the US political system during their stay in USA.

Dear President Rajapakse,

I am addressing this letter to you as part of a project initiated by the Fullbright Commission of Sri Lanka to commemorate the 6oth Anniversary of the Fullbright programme in Sri Lanka. The Project called for Fullbright awardees over the years to write a letter to the Presidents of their countries indicating how their period of academic study abroad and the broader experiences gained through that exposure to the United States, its government, culture and people,  influenced their subsequent careers.

In my own case my work as a public officer in Sri Lanka both at the Centre and for several years at the periphery, was undoubtedly very much guided and informed by what I had observed in those early impressionistic months I spent in New York state (Bard College) where I had my orientation to America and at Michigan in Ann Arbor.

I was one of the early Fullbright scholars who in 1952 at the age of 22 was selected as one of the two Fullbright awardees that year to undertake an year’s academic study in the United States. I had earlier completed my Bachelors degree in Economics at the University of Ceylon (1951) and took advantage of the Fullbright scholarship to obtain a post – graduate Masters Degree in Sociology at the University of Michigan. It meant a rather intensive application to books and papers but also provided an unique experience through engagement with colleagues and staff members who were most generous in the exchange of thoughts, in gaining an understanding of the deeper implications of some momentous happenings on the domestic American scene. Two of these in particular were for me of a defining quality.

The first was the 1952 Presidential Election which was won by Dwight Eisenhower the Republican candidate against Adlai Stevenson the candidate of the Democratic Party. I arrived in the United States in September and the Election was in the first week of November so I had a good opportunity to learn about how this important election in a country which prided itself on its adherence to democracy was actually handled by all parties concerned with it. Like many others in academia I favoured the intellectual Stevenson but the one – time war hero Eisenhower won handsomely winning most of the electoral votes and States. The contest was transparent and basically clean and the result was a win for the power of democracy as well. That the voice of the people was truly reflected by the result was the unanimous verdict of all analysts and observers. There was a great deal here I could learn and did learn about the ways of elections to public office, transparency, the rule of law and due process, the accountability of public office – holders and so on.

The other profound happening was the rumbling of Black turbulence I heard and saw in Little Rock, Arkansas  in that same year 1952. The struggle of the black minority for equal opportunity in the US – through the non – violent attempt at desegregation in the school system and the entry of black students into State schools in Arkansas, had begun in earnest. What was significant at this time was that Eisenhower, elected by the majority of white voters, took decisive Presidential action to use Federal troops  against the action of the State Governor to ensure that black children enjoyed the same rights as their white brothers and sisters. As you would appreciate what began in Little Rock grew into a full scale civil rights movement whose struggle for minority rights and equality perhaps saw its final success in the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States in 2008. I thought the courage that President Eisenhower showed on the occasion had powerful lessons for our own country as our ethnic problem moved from bad to worse.

 I followed the course of both events, interconnected as they were both during my Michigan years and thereafter with avid interest.

I always considered, through my years in the public service of Sri Lanka as Secretary to several Prime Ministers and Advisor on International Affairs to three Presidents (as well as of course in my 7 years as Government Agent of 3 Districts in the East and South of this country) that the basic lessons I had acquired through my US exposure and experience, of general election procedure and processes on the one hand and the executive treatment of minority issues on the other and the basic principles which governed such action were valid for our own country.

 I tried with all the authority I was fortunate enough to hold from time to time, to establish these principles and concepts as standard practice in Sri Lanka. If I were to generalize, the true value and richness of the Fullbright experience to me as an individual and professional, would have to relate to the manner in which I perceived my office and how I performed my public duty through my career years. There were of course occasions in which the final result was not up to my expectation but many intervening factors were at work and I believe I honestly strove to the best of my ability to adhere to best practice as I knew it. Since my public service enabled me to engage with large numbers of younger colleagues some of whom tell me that they have attempted to use me as some sort of model in their thought and public action it is possible to speculate that the Fullbright experience that I gained yet lives on.

In the autumn of my life, in my 82nd year, I believe you, dear President would allow me some latitude to conclude with some candid thoughts.

There are many things I am very proud about in this wonderful country in which I was fortunate to have been born, live and die. I would not choose to do so anywhere else in the world. But I would be less than honest if I did not express my grave disappointment and dismay at the way things have developed over the years in two of the important areas I have alluded to in this letter. That of elections as a fundamental part of an authentic democracy and the other the question of resolving for all time our minorities rights for equality and dignity. Many of our countrymen and women will hold with me that in these two areas many of our administrations over the past three or four decades have been sadly deficient. The United States too from which experience I garnered my Fullbright heritage is no doubt deficient in many respects too. But its political culture and society constitutes a self – correcting mechanism. We don’t seem to have that here and this devolves on our political leadership a greater and more profound responsibility.

All I can hope and pray for is that in your historic role as President for many more years you will have the strength and courage to correct the imperfections that now detract from the image of Sri Lanka as a contented and peaceful nation and a people living in an effective, functioning democracy.

Yours sincerely

Bradman Weerakoon

###

Image courtesy REUTERS/Presidential Media Office/Handout, taken from FT.lk. Letter emailed to us by a reader of the site. Text formatting preserved from the original email.