Business Times

‘America is the land of the free(dom)’, says Prof. Mendis

Lankan village lad who rose to fame and worked for US Presidents
By Feizal Samath

Growing up among village youth and water buffaloes amidst rice farms at Palugasdamana in Polonnaruwa, 52 year-old Patrick Mendis, now a successful professor, scholar and diplomat in the United States, hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“I am extremely proud of it,” the former village lad says in an interview during a visit to Colombo to deliver two lectures on a ground-breaking book titled “Commercial Providence: The Secret Destiny of the American Empire”.

Prof. Patrick Mendis

Prof. Mendis, who has authored many articles and books on varied topics and worked under both the President Bill Clinton and George Bush administrations, recalled his humble beginnings, parents and grandparents during his life in Sri Lanka.“I was born in Polonnaruwa, the son of farmers.

My grandparents were the pioneers of the colonization process after independence, settling down in Polonnaruwa,” he said, in an interview at the office of Nimal Gunawardene, Chief of ad agency, Bates, one of his mentors during his school days.

His father was a Catholic from Jaela while his mother, a Buddhist, came from Ratnapura. When Patrick was born, the child’s horoscope read by a Buddhist monk in a Polonnaruwa temple revealed that the child had some bad spirits and could possibly die. To ward off these ‘bad spirits’, it was suggested that the boy should either join the Buddhist order or sent away from home.

His mother was agreeable to the first option (becoming a monk), but this was opposed by his father who handed over the then, 7-month old boy to be raised by grandparents as their own son. That secret was kept intact from the public.

“I grew up believing that my grandparents were my parents, who whenever they visited me, were my ‘uncle and auntie’,” he said, adding that he went to the Palugasdamana Maha Vidyalaya, a Buddhist school, and was taught Catholicism during weekends.

“I had the best of both worlds (religions) and also played with Muslim friends from a nearby village. It was a multicultural environment that I grew up with.” Soon after school he went to the fields, collected the water buffaloes, riding them often to the canal (after a dusty day in the field) to soak in the water for 1-3 hours. “I’ll read a book with my ‘Saramak Ekka’ while the buffaloes laze around in the water and then take them back to the resting ground,” he said, adding ‘these were happy, carefree, days, spending after-school hours on the fields and cycling with friends’.

Brilliant in sports and cadetting, he was selected the best commander of the cadet corp in 1976, beating boys from prestigious schools like Royal College, Colombo which helped him win the prestigious AFS scholarship to the US.

“I read about the scholarships in the Dinamina newspaper and applied. There were 100,000 applications from all over Sri Lanka and I felt, a village boy like me without much knowledge of the English language would never be selected. Nevertheless I wanted to try,” he recalled. To his surprise, after being interviewed in Batticaloa, the selection board which included Mr Gunawardene, who was also a former AFS exchange student, picked him and eight others.

“They thought I was special, had some ability… given that I had beaten the best to becoming a cadet commander and they wanted to give me an opportunity,” he said, adding that this completely changed the life, of a simple, Sinhala-speaking, village boy who got 4 straight As at the A level examination.
It was when he won the AFS that the ‘cat was out of the bag’, literally, when he had to submit documents that had to be signed by his parents. “At that point my grandparents revealed that my real parents were the uncle and aunt who regularly visited me.”

He had to learn English. His ‘guardian’ in the US State of Minnesota was a farmer family with 28 cows, a 500-acre farm, and grandparents, aimed at matching his profile back home. After a year in the US, Prof Mendis, returned home completed a degree in Business Administration at the Sri Jayawardenapura University. When the ethnic riots broke out in 1983, his Minnesota family and friends urged him to return to the US, fearing that he was also in danger.

On return, and a few years later he married a US resident of Scandinavian descent who was also an AFS scholarship winner. The rest is history. After serving in government service in the US Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy and State, Prof. Mendis returned to academia. He served as the vice president of the Osgood Center for International Studies and as a foreign policy visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. Since 2010, he has been elected to serve on the board of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Alumni DC Council in Washington.

Freedom in the US
Discussing his widely-acclaimed book, Prof Mendis said there is a general misconception about America. “What one sees (in the public domain) is what America does around the world and what is portrayed in the media. What however is fascinating for me is about the American society being prosperous, dynamic and full of energy freedom. It is this freedom that drives everything,” he says.
Prof Mendis, who has done extensive research on the founding of America, its founders and British colonialists, notes that the focus of the founding fathers of the US was freedom. “If there is no freedom, it’s not worth living …that’s what the founders believed in. Everything was built around freedom.”
He likens this to the Buddhist doctrine of freedom from suffering, freedom from fear, freedom from hunger, freedom from dictatorships, etc. “The Buddha spoke about democracy and how does one govern in a democratic way.” He said America’s forefathers realized, just like the Buddha, that freedom was all that matters for human life to be sustained.

The founding fathers (of the US) brought people together through trade and commerce - the doctrine of commerce-, not religion. The next step was to end the domination of the dictators (British colonialists), who left the US in 1776 and moved to Asia.“Freedom is paramount as far as far as the founding fathers (of the US) are concerned. That’s why they fight wars; that’s why they get rid of dictators,” he said, noting that trade brings people together irrespective of one’s ethnicity, race or religion. This, he points out, is why his book is important as it looks at these issues and searches for the answers.

“You cannot achieve trade and development unless you have freedom. That’s why America fights for freedom everywhere. Dictators will never survive. Their time will end… it has happened before.’

Mendis to speak at AmCham Breakfast Meeting, Kadirgamar institute

The American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka will be featuring Sri Lankan born Dr. Patrick Mendis at a breakfast meeting on January 18 in Colombo. He will address the gathering on “The Secret Destiny of the American Empire and the AFS Enterprise for a More Peaceful World.”

Dr. Patrick Mendis, a top American academic, author and diplomat associated with two US administrations and several universities will be speaking on an intriguing topic based on his latest book, “Commercial Providence: The Secret Destiny of the American Empire” and connecting the dots with his earlier book, “Trade for Peace”, the “China Factor,” and his AFS connection, which links many luminaries around the world, including our IMF’s Christine Lagarde and Sri Lanka’s first woman Attorney General, Eva Wanasundera.

Later in the evening, he would be delivering a lecture on a similar topic involving freedom and its ideals, at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies.

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