Features

90th Birth Anniversary was on July 18, 2005
Remembering Raju Coomaraswamy
Bradman Weerakoon

Last week the life and work of a legendary Sri Lankan, Raju Coomaraswamy, who literally made the world his stage in the second half of the twentieth century, was quietly and privately commemorated.

He was affectionately nick-named "Roving Raju" by the media and as Collette the fabulous cartoonist reminds us, he was often, in those post-independence days when our own foreign service was in its infancy, much in demand by the government for sensitive missions abroad.

But Raju although often out of the country on public duty was first and foremost a Civil Servant having entered the Ceylon Civil Service in 1938 following his distinguished father Chelliah Coomaraswamy, one time Government Agent of Jaffna.

Raju seemed to be always creating "firsts" — like being the first and only example of a son following a father into the CCS, coming out first of the four young men chosen in his year — the others including M Chandrasoma and Kohoban Wickrema — and, being the first to obtain full marks (250) for the viva voce interview, which counted for as much as two and a half written papers, in that highly competitive examination.

His civil service career for 23 years until he retired early to join the UN system in 1961 was marked by impressive achievement. It was a time of cataclysmic change with the war years — 1939 to 46 leading to the transition from colonial status to freedom. Managing the administration of the country at times like these required skills of mind and body of extraordinary quality and men like Raju and Shirley Amerasinghe later, were fully up to the mark. He was an amazingly versatile character. Blessed with an impressive build — credited with records in the sports field such as running the 100 yards in 10.1 seconds and hitting 4 sixes in an over in a first class cricket match — Raju also excelled as an actor and producer of plays at the University’s Drama Society. Music was his other love in the arts and he was no mean performer on the piano moving with ease from the classics to accompanying his friends at a sing-song of an evening outstation.

Raju could move with equal grace and acceptance among the differing political leaders of the day. As the senior official in the Ministry of Finance under JR Jayewardene he served as President of the Colombo Plan Council from 1951 — 1953 after that institution for regional cooperation was set up in Colombo. He was in the delegation accompanying Sir John Kotelawela to Bandung in 1955 and a delegate to the UN General Assembly in 1959 which Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was scheduled to address in September of that fateful year.

Raju always stood out in the crowd with his tall and imposing figure but his massive size for a Sri Lankan sometimes got him into unexpected difficulty. Dudley Senanayake was fond of repeating a story about Raju at the aid negotiations in Washington in 1960. Apparently that morning the delegation from Ceylon was pontificating on the serious state of malnutrition in the country. Inappropriately the delegation comprised Raju, 6’4" in height and then weighing 210 lbs; Gamani Corea, who was 6’1" and 190 lbs and Dudley himself who was no chicken at 5’10" and close to 200 lbs at the time. After the impassioned presentation the three Ceylonese just managed to squeeze themselves into a lift on the way down. Dudley would laugh uproariously telling the tale of the World Bank staffer, who had been an interested listener at the meeting, now pushed against the back of the lift, muttering softly to himself, "Asia’s starving millions — my foot!"

High position in the UN

In 1961, when I was Secretary to Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Raju requested and unhesitatingly obtained endorsement of the Government to win appointment to a high position in the UN system. He took with him to the international stage a talent for leadership and a flair for wise and graceful human relations which he had honed in his years of service for his home country.

Perhaps it was there in New York as Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Far East and later Assistant Administrator of the UNDP that Raju’s immense capacity for travel combined with sustained and devoted work come into full bloom. From 1961 until he retired from the UN’s service in 1977 Raju guided the Bureau’s activities disbursing millions of dollars of technical assistance to uplift the condition of the poor of one of the worlds least developed areas. He pioneered the trend from bilateral to multilateral aid and laid the foundation for the strategic shift to human development which later, under other Asians like Amartya Sen and Mahbub al Haq, became the flagship mission of the United Nations. It was a tribute to our country that his successor in the post was another Sri Lankan Andrew Joseph.

But Raju’s life’s work was not yet done. On his return home perhaps yearning for a well-earned retirement Raju was grabbed by ‘JR’, now President of the country to help anchor the newly established Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC), the forerunner of the BOI. Raju’s vast experience in the international arena was of tremendous value in setting the direction of the fledgling institution. But the strain of a lifetime of high activity was to take its toll and late one morning seated in his office at the GCEC, his great heart gave way. He probably died as he might have wished, at work, with his boots on.

Raju would have been a happy man to have known that the torch of public service which he carried so proudly and bravely is being borne with as much grace and dignity as he did, by his two children — Indrajith at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London and Radhika in the protection of human rights at home as well as throughout the world.

 

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