Sri Lanka: Lasting Memories About Comrade Prins Gunasekara

by Lionel Bopage

I came to know of the late comrade
Prins Gunasekara through the large amount of work he did in the social transformation
that took place in 1956, while representing the Habaraduwa electorate in the
Galle district. He was a joint-secretary of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP)
established in 1956 and was a contemporary and a follower of Mr SWRD
Bandaranaike and comrade Philip Gunawardena. In the General Elections of March
1960, he contested and won the Habaraduwa electorate from the MEP ticket with a
small majority of around 100 votes but was defeated at the General Elections of
July 1960. Again, he contested and won the 1965 General Elections as an
independent leftist candidate with a majority of about a hundred votes. He
contested and won the General Elections of 1970 handsomely under the United
Front led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. His political determination at these
elections was a source of satisfaction to us even when we were younger.
Nevertheless, my view is that the ideology he held could be branded as an
admixture of left-wing progressive and Sinhala nationalist ideas.

His attitude towards the thousands of
youth who took part in the Uprising of April 1971 was quite different to the
attitude most of the members displayed at the time, who appeared to be leftists
in the Parliament. The attitude comrade Prins displayed towards our group
including comrade Rohana Wijeweera, who took a stand against the then
government during the “Main Trial” filed in the Criminal Justice Commission had
irritated Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike as well as many leftist leaders who were in
the ruling coalition. The “Main Trial” was prosecuted by the Attorney General Victor
Tennakoon, the Deputy Solicitor General Percy Colin Thomé, Advocate Ranjith
Abeysuriya, the current Minister of External Affairs
and Attorney at law Tilak Marapana and Attorney-at-law Sarath N. Silva, who
later became an infamous Chief Justice.

Comrade Prins Gunasekara being an
Advocate, was prominent among the group of lawyers, who came forward to
challenge the legality of the Criminal Justice Commission, when the government
of the day filed charges against 41 people for conspiring to wage, waging and/or
abetting to wage war against the Queen and conspiring to overawe by means of
criminal force the Government of Ceylon. He was also
prominent among the group of lawyers who stood up and walked out protesting
against the unusual procedure of the Commission which was following the
instructions of Mr Felix Dias Bandaranaike, the Minister of Justice at that
time. The Chair of the Criminal Justice Commission, Chief Justice H N Fernando
banned from appearing in the Commission any of the lawyers who had walked out in

Even within certain groups who were in
government, especially within the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (Moscow wing),
there had arisen a tense situation over the arbitrary moves that would have
been taken under the Criminal Justice Commissions Act. The Communist Party and
the Lanka Sama Samaja Party could not control the issues that were rising from
among their young party members. They did not support the JVP but were
terrified of the Criminal Justice Commissions Act and the government getting
enhanced judicial powers under the state of emergency.

such as the General Secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile Union, Advocate Bala Tampoe and Prins Gunasekara
and other independent groups were disclosing information to the rest of the world
about the cruel state repression. Comrade Prins had brought Lord Avebury of the
Amnesty International, a high-ranking human rights activist and a member of the
British Parliament for a tour in Ceylon. They accompanied by Comrade Bala
Tampoe had been collecting information by visiting various areas that had been
subject to destruction due to state repression. The real nature of the state
repression led by the United Front regime began to be internationally revealed.
Especially incidents like comrade Premawathie Manamperi, being paraded naked on
the street and then shot and killed in Kataragama, came to the attention of
foreign media.

Before his departure from the island, Lord
Avebury and comrade Prins were to meet comrade Rohana at Welikada Prison. When
they were ready to enter through the gates of the prison, they were prevented
from doing so. Orders had come from the then Permanent Secretary to the
Ministry of Justice, Mr Nihal Jayawickrama following the instructions he
received from the then Minister of Justice Mr Felix Dias Bandaranaike. The then
Commissioner of Prisons Mr J P Delgoda prohibited comrade Prins and Lord Avebury from entering the prison premises. Even
during the seventies, not allowing comrade Prins, who was then a Member of
Parliament, to enter prison premises displayed the autocratic nature of the
then government. Such was the commitment and determination of comrade Prins
Gunasekara for protecting human rights against the autocracy.

Comrade Prins, who left parliamentary
politics in 1977, fearlessly confronted the social and national issues. Having
been released due to the repealing of the Criminal Justice Commissions Act
around 1978, comrade Rohana and I had the opportunity of meeting with Lord Avebury
at the home of comrade Prins in Colombo. We also had the opportunity through
comrade Prins, of having discussions at his home, with Professor Venerable
Walpola Rahula Thero, at the time a lecturer at the Vidyalankara University.
Ven Walpola Rahula Thero was also closely associated with Lord Avebury.

The “Gini Pupura” (Spark) group in
London established connections with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the early
seventies through the campaign to free political prisoners that had been
launched during that time. It has been comrade Prins who had arranged for
comrades Acha de Lanerolle and C I Fernando of the “Gini Pupura” group to
establish connections with comrade Alwis, who had been active in the trade
union of the Railway Yard in Ratmalana. When I was carrying out political work for
the JVP in Galle District and when contesting for the Galle District
Development Council, comrade Prins Gunasekara allowed me the opportunity to
continue my work while staying at his parental house in Kataluwa. During the
Presidential Election campaign in 1982, he voluntarily allowed his house in
Colombo to be used as the main office of the JVP’s presidential election

The only national referendum held so
far in Sri Lanka, known as the “Lamp -Pot Play”, was held in the latter part of
1982. The referendum was held to extend the parliamentary term by another six
years. At this referendum we, together with all other opposition parties
campaigned against the extension of parliamentary term. While government
supporters vehemently violated the election laws with the mediation of
President J R Jayewardene, our request to the Elections Commissioner and the
Police to prevent such illegal election activities received no response.
Nevertheless, the law against the opposition was implemented to the letter. Due
to opposition to this referendum, the office of the “Aththa” newspaper of the
Communist Party of Sri Lanka was sealed and some of the leaders of the SLFP
including comrade Vijaya Kumaratunga were arrested on the pretext of preparing
for a 'Naxalite plot'. Documents were also seized from the party offices that
had been broken into.

According to the results of the
referendum held under the use of massive thuggery and illegal state power and
resources, the lamp had received more than three million valid votes.
Accordingly, the term of office of the Parliament was extended to August 1989.
Since the government of Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike had worked to extend the
parliament in 1975 by another two years, some members of the opposition parties
were ambiguous and seemed unable to oppose the results of this referendum.

It was only the JVP that came forward
to challenge the results of the referendum through a motion submitted to the
Supreme Court. It was led by Comrade Rohana. Advocate comrade Prins Gunasekara
and former Minister of Justice Felix Dias Bandaranaike appeared for the petitioners in this case.
This had become a serious headache to President J R Jayewardene. The JVP had in
its possession evidence of election fraud and corruption. The report the then
Commissioner of Elections, Chandananda de Silva had released around 1988 also appeared
to confirm that there had been undue pressure brought on achieving the outcome
of the referendum.

Overcoming this legal challenge was
not an easy task for the then President and the government. It was during this
time, the Black July pogrom was launched against Tamil people in the South in mid
July 1983. An army attack killed a group of LTTE members and in revenge the
LTTE had launched a retaliatory attack on July 23. Thirteen soldiers were
killed as a result. On the instructions of the President, the then Army
Commander Lieutenant General Tissa Weeratunga had arranged the burial services
of the dead soldiers to be conducted on July 24, at the Borella Cemetery.

The attack led by some of those
gathered at Kanaththa that day on Tamil shops in the Borella town and the Tamil
houses in the vicinity was like a signal to the groups that had been armed to
destroy the Tamils and their properties throughout the country. Almost in every
town, government politicians had planned and launched these attacks. Some
leaders associated with the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS), some government
members of parliament and some thugs associated with the government had led
these attacks in public with electoral register in hand to look for the
properties owned by Tamil nationals.

The government allowed the
attacks to go on for two days and then curfew was imposed on July 26. The
President addressed the people on July 28. Similarly,
organized Tamil groups had attacked the Sinhalese people living in the North
and East. By July 31 by an extraordinary gazette
notification the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, the Nava Sama Samaja Party and
the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna were banned. The President declared that those
parties were proscribed because of the reports he received that the attacks
launched against the Tamil people were an anti-government conspiracy of the
extremist Leftist leaders.

This is how the basis of the
massive state repression that ran till 1988-89 was set. Using these incidents
as a pretext, the JVP was banned also with an aim of escaping the defeat that
the state was destined to due to the petition submitted to the Supreme Court
challenging the results of the referendum. Comrade Rohana Wijeweera went
underground. Due to the ideological differences and ideological clashes
developed with the party leadership, by that time I had already decided to
leave the party. I also did not agree with comrade Rohana’s decision to go
underground at that particular moment.

During the 1983 Black July,
about 17 activists of the JVP, including myself were detained under the
emergency regulations at the fourth floor of the Criminal Investigation
Department. Comrade Prins Gunasekara was also one of those detained. Every
month, we should have been given a signed copy of the order the Secretary to
the Ministry of Defence issued to hold us in detention. Though we received this
for the first two months, later on we did not receive any signed notifications.

Comrade Prins Gunasekara
suggested that to protest this illegal action by the government, we should
leave the cells we had been detained in and walk out of the building of the
Criminal Investigation Department. While most of us agreed with this
suggestion, some of us felt that we could be assassinated on the tried and true
pretext that we have been trying to escape from the CID. Most of us including
me and comrade Prins were of the view that they could kill us if they need to even
while we are in detention, but we should take the risk and carry out our

One morning when ASP Punya de
Silva was present at the first floor, Comrade Prins Gunasekara and I went to
him and told him that the CID had no right to detain us because we have not
been given an order signed by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence to be
detained. We left the door to exit the section we had been detained in and with
the rest we walked onto the corridor. When we approached the staircase to the
ground floor, Sub Inspector of Police, Mr Chandra Wakishta arrived via the lift
from the upper floor, showed us the documents with the seal of the Secretary to
the Ministry of Defence and pointed out that we have been detained legally and
if we walk out of the building, force will have to be used against us. As such,
we had to go back to the cells. Due to a Habeas Corpus petition my wife comrade
Chitra had filed before the Courts and with the help of President’s Counsel
Nimal Senanayake, we were released without any charges.

Though comrade Prins continued
to act against the government after being released from detention, comrade Prins
acted in agreement with the nationalistic position the JVP followed. The
country was in a highly vulnerable situation in the face of the armed and
terror activities between the nationalist separatist struggle of the north, the
nationalist patriotic armed movement of the south and the military forces of
the state. Many activists and lawyers who staunchly worked for defending human
rights were mysteriously assassinated. Faced with all these challenges, comrade
Prins continued to fight for basic human rights. The state security forces used
para-military death squads under diverse names such as PRA, Green Tigers, Black
Cats. They assassinated thousands of youth. Meanwhile the JVP's patriotic armed
movement targeted and assassinated political leaders, activists and the
civilians who did not implement their orders.

The killing of comrade Kanchana
Abeypala, his elder sister’s son, was the last straw. Disappearances as well as
mysterious killings had become a daily occurrence. In the face of intensive
state violence and the armed struggle launched by the JVP, comrade Prins had to
leave the country in 1989 and to seek and obtain political asylum to save
himself and his family. Mr Felix Dias Bandaranaike too had gone abroad
temporarily. The petition filed by the JVP in the Supreme Court challenging the
referendum result was dismissed under the pretext that no one was present in
courts on behalf of the petitioners of the case.

In the latter period of 1989,
we were forced to leave the country as a result of death threats targeting me
and other members of my family. While in Australia, I came to understand that
comrade Prins Gunasekara together with Lord Avebury had continued his
activities in defence of human rights. Sadly, my efforts to rekindle a relationship
with him did not materialise. It may be because that the political road he had
chosen to thread on would not have been compatible with the political ideas I

Nevertheless, I cannot but
salute comrade Prins, who was always a peerless and fearless humanitarian. Despite
the political differences I do not have any diminution in the respect and the loyalty
I have always held towards comrade Prins Gunasekara, who devoted his entire
life to defending democratic rights.

In conclusion, my family and I would
like to express our deepest sympathy to his dear wife and children and friends
in their time of grief.

Recollecting the unforgettable
memories, we salute you comrade Prins Gunasekara - a giant and exemplar of
human rights.

Your contributions to the
society will be solely missed.

Chitra and the rest of the Bopage Family

Melbourne, Australia


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