Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dr. John- A Genuine Peace Pundit (Published in the Daily Mirror of February 21st, 2007)

As far as Sri Lanka goes, it has produced only one genuine Peace ‘Pundit’- Dr. John Gooneratne, a former Secretary General of SCOPP. Dr. John, as he was affectionately referred to at SCOPP, is a subject in propia persona!

The first time I met Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala and Dr. John Gooneratne at SCOPP, I referred to Mr. Dhanapala as Dr. Dhanapala and he gestured to his Deputy Dr. John Gooneratne and said, “he’s the real Doctor not me”. Thereafter, during my first few days at SCOPP, I started referring to Dr. John Gooneratne as ‘Dr. John’ like most others did until one day, he told me, “if you continue to call me Dr. John, I will start calling you Mrs. Sharmini” from there on, John became John!

And from that day onwards, I realised what I had to deal with!

Although blessed with two sons but no daughters, he had an abundance of them at SCOPP. I had the privilege of being one of them. There was never a time when John was not surrounded by my lady colleagues. There was always some reason or excuse for us to hang around him. He emanated a feeling of joie de vivre even during the worst of times.

As Director Communications I didn’t have an easy time with John. Regarding official matters, he never refused to answer a question, but the jargon he dished out was such, that at the end of it, I was totally confused and had actually forgotten the question I had asked him, which was precisely his intention. All my journalist colleagues who know John will agree with me. You couldn’t get anything out of that man!

Of course on other subjects (other than the Peace Process), it was an educational experience just listening to him. But on the Peace Process, which he’s totally au fait with, having been involved with it since the day the CFA was signed in February 2002, and having attended all six rounds of Peace Talks with the LTTE, as a member of the Government delegation including the Geneva Talks in February 2006, He didn’t let anything out, except to those who mattered, which didn’t include journalists. His long stint as a career diplomat showed!

The humble and unassuming gentleman that he is, John claims that he was just a member of the ‘second row’ at the Peace Talks. But the brains and the power of the delegation usually occupy the ‘second row’. The ‘first row’ depends heavily on the ‘second row’ for background papers, the options and research for the ‘first row’ to make their political decisions.

I recall Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala once telling me, how heavily he depended on John for advice, in making comments and decisions on the Peace Process. He also told me that John’s wry sense of humour and his perceptive questions were a great asset in dealing with the Norwegian facilitators and that he often enjoyed his role of a Good Cop as John played Bad Cop!

I will never forget those weekly meetings with the Norwegian facilitators at SCOPP. The then Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Hans Bratskar used to walk into SCOPP wearing an expression on his face, as though he was paying his last respects to the dead. The reason- he knew he was in for it with Bad Cop John!

After Mr. Dhanapala resigned from his post as Secretary General of SCOPP in November 2005, John succeeded him as the next Secretary General of SCOPP until May 2006 when he resigned. By then, the Prace Process was dead any way.

During his tenure as Secretary General of SCOPP, John was a force to reckon with, and continued his role as ‘Bad Cop’ with the Norwegian and the SLMM. I was privy to those meetings, where most often than not, John let fly at them, until they turned red in the face, while all of us- his ‘colleagues’ backed him to the hilt.

Going back to Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala’s tenure as Secretary General of SCOPP, there were three designated spokespersons- The Secretary General, the Deputy Secretary General and the Director Communications. Both Mr. Dhanapala and I as Director Communications communicated with the local and foreign media whenever there was something worth talking about, but from dear John who was then the Deputy Secretary General, the media got nothing. I used to spend sleepless nights whenever Mr. Dhanapala was away from the country, because John simply refused to answer questions from the media and the onus was on me to do so.

Each morning, I would go to John’s office to find out what the ‘media line’ was for the day, and his classic response was “what media line? Just give them the usual one men”, which invariably meant ‘outsourcing the questions to the numerous self appointed spokespersons in government on the Peace Process. My heart went out to my journalist colleagues and thanked my good karma for not being a practicing journalist at the time.

I later discovered the reason for his reluctance to speak on the subject of the Peace Process: those self appointed spokespersons in government on the Peace Process, constantly contradicted each other, and being a true savant on the subject, John didn’t want to utter a word, which would inevitably have contradicted all the theories of the self-appointed spokespersons in government.

Being within the establishment, we had the advantage of knowing exactly what was happening and not happening, and more often than not, we used to come across various hypothetical references in newspaper articles and reports, which the poor readers out there swallowed hook, line and sinker.

A case in point was a weekly column that reports on ‘situations’. The writer quoting his ‘very reliable highly placed source,’ went on to describe a high profile meeting that was supposed to have taken place at the Foreign Ministry. He had even mentioned the people who were supposed to have been at the meeting, and even given a lengthy description of what they had discussed. The date and the time of the meeting were also mentioned. What the writer didn’t know was, that he had been taken for a right royal ride by his ‘very reliable highly placed source’; for the meeting never took place, as each and every person who was associated with this hypothetical meeting, was out of the country except John, who was very comfortably seated behind his desk at SCOPP at the time of the hypothetical meeting!

John gave his ‘SCOPP daughters’ a very hard time especially regarding his attire. He abhorred the very thought of ‘dressing up’. I in particular, had a big problem with his brown belt, (which ought to have been retired many moons ago), which he wore with black, brown or beige shoes. I kept insisting that black shoes must be worn with a black belt and his response was “I don’t practice karate”. Through sheer desperation, I gave him a belated birthday gift of a black belt, and the next day he rewarded me by wearing black shoes and the new black belt, thereby effectively shutting me up. The following day to my utmost horror, the old brown belt made a reappearance, but I kept mum, after all it’s the man that matters not his attire.

His beloved briefcase in which he carried all his cherished documents held me spell bound the first time I saw it. I’m sure it was held together through sheer willpower. That too ought to have been retired along with the brown belt, but he insisted that it was too early for retirement, despite it developing symptoms of albino pigmentation.

John was a regular beneficiary of my ‘nivithi paththiya’ (spinach plot) and once I gave him a box filled with cooked spinach. The next day he came into my office and asked me “What have you got against me?” I didn’t know what the hell his problem was with me, until he told me he had eaten the entire box of spinach in one sitting. Well, we all know what a lot of iron spinach contains and what effect it has on one’s digestive system!

Dr. John Goonertane, the internationally renowned Career Diplomat I was told, used to travel to SCOPP and back home to Kottawa by bus, until the Director Administration & Finance ‘Ari’ insisted that he use an official vehicle. After all he was our Deputy Secretary General. Here I must also mention, that our Secretary General Jayantha Dhanapala who served SCOPP pro bono, accepted the use of an official vehicle, but out of a fleet of limousines what did he choose?……. a ramshackle car that had seen better days, decades ago.

Those were the gentlemen, the prominenti we worked with at SCOPP!
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