President JRJ and the Export Processing Zone

I was recalled to Colombo after only an year of duty in the Philippines and wondered why. I did not have to wonder for long for shortly after my arrival back home, some security officers arrived at my home in Ward Place one morning and informed me that President JRJ wanted to see me. I was quite surprised as I did not know the president and wondered how he knew of my existence.

Be that as it may, I showered and changed and walked over to his residence and was welcomed at the door by him. I still recall the first question he asked me, whether I was a Royalist. I said "No, Sir, but my uncle was your contemporary at Royal.’’ He wanted to know who that was and when I mentioned the name he stated "he was my cricket captain" and without further questions took me to his study and pointed to a photograph of the Royal College cricket team of 1926 or 27 and asked me as to whether I could spot him. That was easy for me as I had seen the same group photo of the team many times before in my lawyer uncle’s chambers.

President JR was more than pleased and perhaps since he had been a boyhood friend of my mother’s brother, he, I believe, took a liking to me. He appointed me as Secretary-General of the first Board of Investment, the Greater Colombo Economic Commission as it was called, of which his cousin, Upali Wijewardena, was Chairman. The Secretary Foreign Affairs had been informed of the President’s decision and I assumed duties a few days afterwards. It turned out that certain reports sent by me from Manila, including one on the Batan EPZ to my friend, Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, had been shown by him to the President and this was one of the reasons for his deciding on me for this post.

The promotion of private foreign investment was at the heart of the president’s new economic policy of an open economy. The Greater Colombo Economic Commission was established as the Board of Investment. It was referred to as the second of his pet projects, behind only Mahaweli.

At the time I assumed duties a war of sorts had broken out between the GCEC Chairman and one of the commissioners who was also a confidante of the president. This person was backed by some powerful politicians who considered Upali Wijewardena a threat for they thought that Upali had political ambitions and may have been an obstacle for they looked forward to succeeding the aging president.

About two weeks after I assumed duties a most amazing thing happened. The five commissioners and I were summoned by the president and, after we took our seats he had a quick word with Upali. He next turned to me asked me as to whether I carried a diary to which I answered in the affirmative. He then told me to make a note that I should see him every Wednesday at 3.00pm and report to him on the work of the previous week; he also said that if there was any matter relating to the work of the commission which I wanted to inform him of, I should come to his residence and brief him. What happened next surprised us all. The president said "thank you" and indicated that the meeting was over.

This took everyone by surprise. The commissioners filed out of the room but the president indicated to me that I should remain. He closed the door and told me to leave in half an hour. I stayed on as directed, went into the room of his private secretary, Nihal Weeratunge, and told him that president had wanted me to remain for half an hour wondering what it was all about. Weeratunge surmised that president may have wanted to talk to me again so I spent the time with the private secretary and as the president did not summon me, I left when the half hour was up.

I was half way down the stairs (the president’s office was at Republic Square) and found Upali’s driver waiting for me. He told me that the chairman was waiting for me in his car. I was surprised and went over to inquire why. He asked me to get into his car and his first words were "You were with the president for half an hour. What did he say?"

The penny dropped then and there and I told him that the president’s parting words to me were that I should not mention a word of what he said to anyone. Upali was not pleased. He pressed me to tell him but I said that I could not break my word to the president; the very same question was asked of me by the commissioner who was at odds with the chairman and I gave him the same answer. The meeting summoned by the president was, I had no doubt, been intended to give ‘a message’ to the warring factions that he had a person who would be reporting to him on all that was taking place and that they should be careful about what they said and did. I believe this worked for the infighting ceased and the GCEC, which had been described as a ‘Sarpa Kalapaya’ by the Aththa newspaper became a ‘Mithra Kalapaya’.

There is another story that bears recalling. The president once summoned Upali Wijewardena, Raju Coomaraswamy who was the Deputy Director General in charge of investments, who he trusted implicitly (they were old Royal College friends) and me. He told us that our focus should be on job creation. I recall his words which were something to this effect: "I have three priorities jobs, more jobs and still more jobs and I would wish to see value added to local raw material. Please don’t come and tell me that you brought a million dollar project for I know that, in the first instance, that would be the value of the machinery which would have been inflated and may not be worth a million dollars; and further the machinery has been fabricated abroad and that money has not come to the country. The machines will be junk in ten years. I want to know of the number of jobs you have created." We did not let the president down. The GCEC created 25,000 direct jobs in the first three years.

Since I mentioned the name of the late Mr. Raju Coomaraswamy I should perhaps relate something quite unprecedented. Coomaraswamy in addition to his job at the GCEC was also ‘Economic Advisor’ to the President. There were occasions when a directive from the president (the GCEC functioned directly under him) was required, Mr. C address a letter to the president and set out the options with his own recommendation. He would then take out a letterhead of the president’s office and prepare a letter addressed to him referring to his letter to the president and approving the recommendation made by him in his letter to the president. We would then go across the road, by appointment of course, and meet the president, President JR reads Mr. C’s letter to him and then asks Mr. C for the response and the president unfailingly signed the reply which had been prepared by Mr. Coomaraswamy. In my many years in the public service, I never saw any instance where any political leader placed such trust in an official. Mr. C never let the President down and without fear of contradiction I could boldly state that in those first three years of the GCEC, never was any allegation of corrupt practice ever directed at the Commission or at any of its officials. The credit for that goes not only to Mr. C but also to the incorruptible men of absolute integrity who were in key positions.

M/s DHN Perera was in charge of project appraisal, Rohan Weerasinghe was in charge of Investment Promotion, Patrick Weerasinghe was in charge of Industrial Relations. They were supported by teams of officials. In fact President JR was kind enough to mention his appreciation of this fact when I went to take leave of him at the end of my tour of duty with the GCEC. The president no doubt was aware of the possibilities for corruption in such an institution. I regret to state that in the years that followed he was indeed proved right for the Board of Investment became known as a gold mine for the corrupt.

I have another story which bears relating. The High Posts Committee of Parliament, almost an year after the GCEC was established, decided to hold a meeting to examine whether the chairman was suitable to hold his post because he was himself a businessman. The committee was chaired by Prime Minister Premadasa who disliked Upali intensely and there had been a hot exchange at the committee as Upali was no respecter of persons. The committee, not surprisingly, held that he was not suitable to be appointed as Chairman of the GCEC which meant that the appointment had to be revoked.

That same evening Upali, Mr. Raju Coomaraswamy and myself were summoned to the president’s residence. The president smilingly asked Upali whether Parliament appointed him or whether it was he, the president, who had appointed him. JRJ did not wait for an answer, "So the High Posts Committee found you unsuitable?" he said adding "you stay until I ask you to leave." Upali eventually did on December 13, 1981, but that’s another story.

Finally I wish to relate just one ‘happening’ during my period in office. One morning around 8.00 am I was summoned by the president to his residence. He had a newspaper in his hand and he showed me the headline and the picture on the front page. The paper was the Communist Party’s Aththa, and the headline screamed how working girls in this instance were being exploited in the ‘slave zone’—the ‘Wahal Kalapaya’. The photo illustrated girls at a particular garment factory having their lunch seated on the ground by a drain outside the factory. The president was very angry and inquired from me as to whether I was aware of this and if so what I had done about it.

I said that I had heard of it late in the afternoon and that I had asked the Senior Industrial Relations Manager to look into it. JRJ was not satisfied, He then made this statement: "I did not set up this export processing zone to let foreigners exploit our people. They have their dignity. The workers must have their lunch room. Close the factory if the management is not prepared to carry out my instructions.’’

When I went to office the manager who looked into the matter told me that the American factory manager was not prepared to let the girls back into their lunch room as he was installing sewing machines in there. I asked him to summon the man to our office. When he refused to come, he was told that if he did not come he would be brought by the police and that the factory would be sealed. The then American Ambassador Donald Toussaint was informed of the problem and the president’s orders. He was entirely in agreement with the president.

The factory manager who had a reputation for being a tough guy and a bully was brought to our office by the police and the riot act read to him. He was told that unless he was prepared to let the girls back to have their lunch as was their right in the lunch room, that we would seal his factory and that he would be taken to his lodgings to collect his personal effects and that he would be put on a plane and deported that very night. Those were the president’s orders. The man at first refused to budge from his position and said "you cannot do that." We asked him to try us out and that he could, if he wished, speak to his embassy.

He was informed that he was going nowhere from the GCEC offices and that the police who had brought him from the Zone would take him to his lodgings and then have him deported. The tough guy crumbled and gave in. When the president was informed, he said that all workers must be treated with respect and that he would not permit anyone to exploit them; nor would he permit unions to be formed. He ordered that Workers Councils be established to ensure that workers were protected not ill-treated and their rights secured. We had no problems from bad managers after that.

Though the President was Presidential he was also quite easy to relate to and one could discuss and disagree and not be misunderstood. He also had a great sense of humour and it was indeed a privilege to have served under him.

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