Bradman Weerakoon

Sri Lanka
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Redefining Civil Service by Embodying Servant Leadership

Bradman is the rare if not unique civil servant in the world who has served ten prime ministers and presidents of his country, with diverse political affiliations and agendas. However, Bradman’s contribution is not simply in his longevity or his ability to adapt to the political whims and manifestos of diverse government leaders. Many have survived long careers as state bureaucrats simply by toeing the party line, and pleasing the serving head of state. Rather, Bradman’s contribution is in reviving and renewing the ethic of service as a civil servant, and by doing so through his own example. He is in that sense a Gandhian figure, who never expected others to follow his instructions, but rather inspired change through his own example, by ‘being the change’ he sought in his peers and in society. 

 Bradman brought a combination of vision and integrity to civil service: two qualities which have, sadly, come to be seen as antithetical to civil servants around the world. Furthermore, even while holding the highest positions of civil service, as the right hand to no less than nine Prime Ministers and Presidents, until well past his retirement age, he remained humble to the core. For him, the honour lay not in titles or accolades but in being a true servant to the people day after day, capable of deeply listening to, caring for and responding to their needs and troubles with unstinting dedication at any time of day or night.  He was a highly deserving recipient of Sri Lanka’s prestigious title of ‘Desamanya’ conferred to those few distinguished individuals seen to have served the state to their utmost capacity, who merit the full respect and reverence of the state and all her citizens. 

 

Restoring The Nobility of Selfless Service to People and Country

 Bradman did what very few civil servants in any country of the world have been able to do in our times. He revived the nobility of the metier of being a civil servant: the nobility that comes from being of service to the nation, and more literally the nobility that comes from considering oneself at all times a servant of the people, especially in times of suffering and crisis.  Too often, civil service has been degraded to either a safe career without much challenge, as long as one is willing to toe the government line, or else it is seen as a profitable career where one can exploit one’s position for personal gain. Bradman’s motivation to become a civil servant for entirely different and remains so to this day. It was the best channel available to be of utmost service to his country and its diverse people. Bradman reinstated civil service as a noble vocation reserved for those who sought to truly be at the side of the common people of one’s country, to understand their needs and to seek to respond to them in the best way possible, even at the risk of one’s own career or life. He was one of the very few, if not the only, senior civil servant to be trusted by all Sri Lankans, whatever their ethnicity or political affiliation. He was a household name for Sri Lankans of all backgrounds, who all looked up to him and trusted him. His name became synonymous with integrity, virtue and ethics, in a country increasingly mired in conflict and the infectious corruption of values it brings in its wake. 

Love and Respect for the ‘Common Man/Woman’ as the Foundation of Civil Service

British colonisation made civil service the prized career for any aspiring educated ‘gentleman’ in former colonies. It was a profession that was increasingly cut off from the very people it was created to serve. Not for Bradman. His most formative experiences and his most treasured memories throughout his life were those when he was posted in remote areas where he came face to face with the realities of the daily life of the millions of ordinary Sri Lankans, with all their hardships. He looked with love and concern to each of them and made it his goal to find effective solutions to each of their problems, by identifying their root causes. Again, in the mid 1970s, at the height of his remarkable career, his integrity brought him in conflict with the government leader he was serving, and he found himself ‘banished’ into exile to the heartlands of both Sinhala South and Tamil North East, away from any political influence. This did not deter him; rather he found deep solace and meaning in being able once again to serve the real needs of so called ordinary people who he revered as formative guides and teachers. And for each of them, Bradman’s humility and simplicity, despite his prestige and reputation, was a living inspiration. In his retirement, Bradman continued his deep care for ordinary people by immersing himself in the daily life of the Kalutara district near Galle, where he had a simple family home. His passion for history and background in sociology led him to combine his daily conversations and engagement with local people with an in-depth study of the hitherto unexplored history and development of the district, resulting in a publication of the History of Kalutara. This local historiography gave him as much satisfaction as his erudite publications on serving the Presidents and Prime Ministers.

International Civil Service: Championing Development and Women’s Rights 

Bradman’s highly distinguished national career as a civil servant is embellished by his notable contribution to international civil service. In 1984, following an international executive search process, the world’s second largest NGO, the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, selected Bradman Weerakoon as its international Executive Director. From 1984 to 1989, Bradman served this post with great distinction. Stationed in the London Headquarters, he brought his visionary, ethical and service-oriented leadership style to the hundreds of national chapters of IPPF around the world, replenishing the organisation with new vitality. Bradman came to be deeply admired and respected for his sensitive stewardship of this critical issue for development and women’s rights, not only by his colleagues around the world but by the heads of state and of international organisations that funded and partnered with IPPF. He won the admiration and appreciation of the multiple heads of state and international organisations who supported and partnered with IPPF. During his tenure, IPPF was faced with dramatic cuts in US government funding, ostensibly because it supported women’s right to safe abortion which the then Conservative US government opposed. Bradman’s ethical leadership helped the organisation not only survive but expand as he won new friends, funders and supporters worldwide by his ability to communicate authentically the vision of the organisation and its vital contribution to development that respected women’s fundamental right to choice over their own lives and bodies. Although Bradman chose to return to Sri Lanka and national civil service in 1989, the impeccable international reputation he had built up long outlived his tenure at IPPF. He continued to be a cherished advisor and Board member to reputed international organisations. He served on the Advisory Board of The International Committee of the Red Cross headquartered in Geneva Switzerland for several years. He was also commissioned to lead a mission to Nepal at the height of its conflict in early 2005, to present his report and recommendations to Amnesty International. As we see below, he was a lifelong champion and guardian of the freedom of civil society and the media both internationally and nationally. 

A Democrat to the Core: A Champion of an independent, Critical Civil Society and Media

Today, Sri Lanka has the unsavoury reputation of belonging to that growing handful of countries that is hostile towards independent civil society organisations and media outlets. Countless defenders of human rights and independent journalists have been targeted, forced into exile or killed not only during the decades of violent conflict, but also since the ostensible end of the war in 2009. 

For Bradman, it was always clear that a true democracy is synonymous with a robust, free and independent civil society and media. His study of Sociology during his MA degree obtained in the University of Michigan in the 1970s surely contributed to reinforcing his own observations as a civil servant that government officers and institutions required the watchful safeguard of strong non-governmental organisations, independent journalists and human rights defenders to curb any abuse of authority or power. 

Throughout his life, and well into retirement, Bradman was sought out by the most reputed independent NGOs in Sri Lanka to provide trusted guidance and to serve on their Boards. Despite his association with government, he did not hesitate to serve on the Boards of eminent NGOs at the controversial forefront of the pursuit of peace and human rights. These included, for example, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies and the Centre for Policy Alternatives, both headed by prominent Tamil intellectuals and human rights lawyers, albeit with an ethnically diverse team. In all his civic engagements, and in serving each of these organisations, he defended the rights of citizens with zeal and commitment. He never hesitated to put what was right before what was safe, especially when his own security was concerned. He never demonstrated the slightest reserve of a seasoned bureaucrat, but acted with the unswerving dedication and decisiveness of a servant of the people in all his non-governmental activism, in favour of peace, justice and inclusion.

As a brilliant, incisive and humorous orator with a flawless knowledge of an array of subjects, an insistence on truth, and a natural gift of captivating any audience, he was one of the country’s most popular speakers at public and national events. His political biography Rendering Unto Cesar (2004) is a potent and fearless account of his tenure under nine Prime Ministers and Presidents of Sri Lanka. 

He was sought out by the media for television debates or insightful expert opinions on a range of topics, as few could be as trusted as Bradman to speak truth to power without mincing words. Thus Bradman became a trusted and familiar household name to all Sri Lankans and to countless world citizens around the world for his championship of free speech, human rights and peace in his forthright and fearless manner. 

Thus his service to the country and the world went well beyond his distinguished career as a civil servant and spanned the invaluable championship he provided to the vast array of fiercely independent non-governmental and civil society organisations, and to the print, radio and television media outlets that dared to preserve their freedom at all costs. 

 His extraordinary speeches on a gamut of subjects of national and global concern gave direction, guidance and hope to generations of citizens from all walks of life. In 2007, Drene Terana Sariffodeen published a compilation of his speeches under the title Rendering Unto Bradman of Sri Lanka – a breath-taking testimony of the breadth and depth of Bradman’s perspectives and courageous advocacy for democracy and engaged citizenship.His authored books on political and historical issues were a key reference source not only for scholars but for the lay public. He remained authentic in every dimension of life, in international, national and civic service: erudite yet accessible, brilliant yet simple, distinguished yet humble, noble and always loving.  

Lifelong Pursuit of Peace at all Costs – even of one’s own Life 

Above all his many achievements and accomplishments, Bradman will be remembered for his lifelong service to peace, as much by the eminent peace makers he worked with, with, as by the committed civil society activists and journalists he associated with and above all by the countless war-affected citizens whose lives he served and helped to save. 

Bradman was deeply dedicated to peace and wellbeing throughout his life. He was intimately versed in both the conflicts that had afflicted Sri Lanka since independence: first, the civil war that had devastated the Sinhala Buddhist south of Sri Lanka in the 1970s, pitting the government against a leftist uprising primarily led by Sinhala youth and intellectuals, killing hundreds of thousands; and second the civil war pitting the government against the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, who claimed independence and autonomy for the Tamil minority in the North and North East of the country. Early in his career Bradman had served in both the Tamil and Sinhala heartlands and witnessed first-hand the conditions of the people, and felt a deep affinity to the struggles of local people and the discriminations they faced. 

Bradman became deeply engaged with the conflict with the Tamil minority ever since its outbreak with ethnic riots in 1983. His engagement was not only political but personal. He had worked hand in hand with trusted Tamil colleagues in the North and East as well as in Colombo throughout his career, and he could not now accept them being scapegoated in a politicised civil conflict. Little known to the public, he even risked his own life to protect Tamils during the 1983 riots. When a rampaging crowd of bloodthirsty rioters arrived at the gates of his own home demanding that the Tamil family who lived within his compound be handed over to them, Bradman abandoned his normal poise, and charged out singlehanded and unarmed to face the mob, like a lioness guarding her young. He refused to be intimidated by the mob,  but shamed them with his courageous presence into realising how immoral their behaviour was. They left empty handed and the Tamil family was saved. Bradman’s commitment to ending the riots speedily, protecting Tamil lives and property and compensating losses was palpable. The President designated Bradman as the Commissioner in Chief of Essential Services, giving him unlimited authority to take whatever measures were needed to respond to the emergency situation created by the riots and to safeguard Tamils made refugees in their own country overnight. Bradman strove relentlessly to create multiple refugee camps and to respond to the spiralling needs of the Tamil community, always ensuring their dignity and respect. Many Tamils still swear allegiance to Bradman for saving their lives in those bitter days of violence, with his unswerving commitment and bold actions. 

Chief Negotiator for the Peace Process 

It is no surprise that when at last a genuine peace process began between the Government and the Tamils, it was inconceivable to not have Bradman present to lead it. Although by then, Bradman was well into his retirement, he was sought out by the newly elected President who had committed to a peace process, and invested with the responsibility of leading the Peace negotiations. Bradman dedicated himself to this serious responsibility of negotiating an end to the long-lasting deadly civil war in Sri Lanka. He alone was able to win the trust of the different sides to the conflict. And he did so in his unique way. At an early stage, he invited the chief negotiator of the Tamil Tigers, hitherto considered a dangerous terrorist outfit, to have lunch with him and his family in their Colombo home. When close family members expressed their shock and outrage that he would go so far and ‘risk the family’s safety’, he simply responded, ‘If I cannot make him feel that I trust him enough to invite him to my own home, how can I expect him to trust me? And if he doesn’t trust me, how can we dialogue about peace?’ It was largely thanks to Bradman’s integrity and efforts that these negotiations made the headways that all previous attempts at negotiations had failed to make. 

Sadly, as often in politics, the negotiations were suspended by the political party that won the subsequent elections, and decided to win the war through the battlefield rather than the negotiating table. When the Sri Lankan war ended finally, not through the negotiated process that Bradman had invested so much in, but through a military victory by the Government forces over the Tamil Tigers, with huge civilian losses, his chagrin was bottomless. From his personal involvement, he felt the enormity of the lost opportunity to make peace without violence, and the excessive and needless suffering to innocent civilians. 

Supporting Reconciliation: Reintegration and Rehabilitation of Refugees 

 Bradman’s profound chagrin was mitigated when, well into his 80s, he was again approached by the newly elected bi-partisan President elected on a campaign promise of reconciliation. This time the President requested Bradman to serve as the Government’s Senior Advisor to lead the reintegration effort to bring back the refugees forced to flee the civil war, and help rehabilitate and reintegrate them into the country. This for Bradman was the completion of a circle. Bradman did not take on this challenge merely to develop and implement the most effective ways of reintegration after such a traumatic war that had divided and scarred the country. He obtained deep fulfilment and joy from going out personally, despite his advanced age, to welcome each returning group of refugee returnees, to express his grief for all their losses and hardships, and to wish them his best for a new life in their home country. 

On Bradman's 90th birthday, The Visioneers International Network in partnership with TRANS4M honoured Bradman's life by presenting him with the prestigious Hero of Humanity Award in a unique online ceremony attended by his family, friends and colleagues from around the world.    

To learn more about this beautiful tribute to Bradman's life click this link: 

https://www.trans-4-m.com/celebrating-bradman-weerakoon-trans4m-honours-senior-statesman-integral-civil-servant-and-hero-of-humanity-from-sri-lanka/