Vijaya’s blighted political legacy

(February 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The 23rd anniversary of Vijaya Kumaratunga’s assassination was marked last week in Katunayake with many old Mahajana Party stalwarts in attendance. The members of the Mahajana Party during Vijaya’s time are now scattered throughout the political party system and former Vijaya loyalists can be found both in the government and in the opposition. As such, last week’s commemoration was attended by Minister Rajitha Senaratne, who is an SLFP cabinet minister as well as Shanthini Kongahage who is now a UNP provincial councillor and the head of the UNP Women’s Front. Even the man who had swept the party office had been present. Prof. Carlo Fonseka, Vijaya’s political guide and close kinsman, was also a prominent participant. One former Mahajana Party provincial councillor asked the present writer whether I was not invited. Well, I was not.
On 16 February 1988, I was at the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, an institution belonging to the Anglican Church, doing research for my first book. Though it was a Christian institution, the EISD had the Complete Tripitaka, the Pali version as well as the English Translation published by the Pali Text Society London. That was long before the Nedimala Buddhist bookstore opened and a complete translation of the Tripitaka was available only in a few places – that too in highly restricted special collections. The EISD was one place where I could access this material with minimum red tape, so I was there reading the English translation of the Tripitaka to collect material for my book. Fr Kenneth Fernando who later became Bishop of Colombo was then the Director of the EISD. It was his son, Shani, who opened an upper story window of his house and shouted to me as I was sitting alone in the library of the EISD that Vijaya had been shot dead. I took in the news and continued with my research.
Even Vijaya’s death was not going to distract me from my single minded quest to finish my book. Anybody associated with the left movement at that time, was a marked man, and I certainly never expected to live through it. The assumption was that we were all going to die, and before I got killed, I wanted to finish my book as my legacy to posterity. I was at that time a left wing political activist, in the middle of a Marxist armed rebellion by the JVP, incongruously doing research into the indigenous entrepreneurial tradition from southern Sri Lanka and the capitalist orientation of Buddhism. Despite everything that was happening around me, my book did see the light of day more than a year later. It was printed at the Star Press in Maradana belonging to the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. While it was being printed at the Star Press, its manager, P.D.Wimalasena, told me that Hector Abhayawardana who ran the Press on behalf of the party had come on a visit and seeing my manuscript on Wimalasena’s table, had looked through it and been highly impressed.
A couple of days later, I came again to the Star Press at around 7.00 in the evening and as I approached the place I sensed something was wrong. The printer who was handling my book went past me with some policemen in a van and there were a few people standing near the entrance to the press and smoke was coming out of the premises. When I got there, I saw Wimalasena lying across the doorway clad only in his underwear. He had been shot through the eye. Just minutes earlier, a JVP hit squad had raided the place, and found Wimalasena taking a shower at the back of the press. He had been dragged out and shot dead. The others who were there were spared because they were employees and not necessarily members of the LSSP. Then they had poured petrol all over the press and set fire to it.
I stepped over Wimalasena’s corpse, went into the press, collared the printer and wanted to know where my book was because what happened to Wimalasena could happen to me next and I wanted that book out before it happened. The sight of comrade Wimalasena’s dead body in the doorway was not going to distract me from my single minded purpose. Miraculously, the printed pages of my book were untouched. All other printed matter in the press had been destroyed except for my book. The JVP hit squad had spattered petrol over my book as well and only the first few sheets had to be discarded due to staining. It was published in August 1989. Three months later, the JVP insurrection ended.
While doing research for my book on the JVP insurrection, I gave a copy of my book to J.R.Jayewardene who was then in retirement. Two days later, he called me and told me to meet him again. When I went to Ward Place, he effusively complimented me on my book. Some of the theoretical problems that he had been grappling with for over half a century had been clarified in my book foremost among which was that capitalism was not alien to Sinhalese culture and Buddhism itself was capitalistic. The fact that JRJ was so taken up by my book was justification for all the trouble I had undergone to get it out.
Even Vijaya’s death was not going to distract me from my single minded quest to finish my book. Anybody associated with the left movement at that time, was a marked man, and I certainly never expected to live through it. The assumption was that we were all going to die, and before I got killed, I wanted to finish my book as my legacy to posterity. I was at that time a left wing political activist, in the middle of a Marxist armed rebellion by the JVP, incongruously doing research into the indigenous entrepreneurial tradition from southern Sri Lanka and the capitalist orientation of Buddhism. Despite everything that was happening around me, my book did see the light of day more than a year later.
It was with difficulty that we managed to survive physically between December 1986 and December 1989. Many of my colleagues and friends in the left moment were done to death by JVP death squads. What the United Socialist Alliance comprising of the Mahajana Party, LSSP and CP came out of was a baptism of fire no less. Those were years of immense heroism. As far as the LSSP and CP were concerned, perhaps their finest moment after the 1940s when they confronted the British government was in the late 1980s when they stood firm in the face of JVP death squads. During those years, I never heard anyone in the left parties even suggesting that we should soften our stand and listen to the ‘youth’ of the country. All we needed to do to escape death was to describe the Indian army as a ‘monkey army’, and the threat to our lives would have disappeared. Yet all those in the left movement preferred to face the death squads rather than compromise on principles.
Less than five years after this heroic resistance, the leader of the United Socialist Alliance who formed the party over her husband’s dead body became the leader of the country. One would think that a regime built on such sacrifice and steadfast heroism would produce something that the country could be proud of. Yet what it produced was a complete horror – the most repressive, corrupt and incompetent government in the post-independence history of this country. The country was led by a president who insisted on talking like a basket woman and whose full time occupation during the first seven years of her reign was to harass the opposition. Sometime around 1997, a photographer attached to our newspaper was standing with me at the entrance to the Upali Group compound on Bloemendhal Road and pointing to the Sugathadasa Stadium in front of us, he said “We know that Chandrika will not build half of this even if she rules the country for 25 years, but we still vote for her.” That was the assessment of a die hard supporter of the People’s Alliance about their own president! And he was absolutely right. During her tenure in power Chandrika did not build even half a Sugathadasa stadium.
Vijaya was a man who built a political career out of sincerity and humaneness. The government of his widow was an insult to Vijaya’s memory. His widow’s government even appointed a commission to foist the blame for Vijaya’s murder on the UNP and to absolve the JVP. The way Vijaya’s widow behaved after capturing power was akin to the behaviour of an illiterate working class woman who had suddenly come upon unexpected wealth. Her crowning act of insanity was trying to imprison the leader of the opposition in order to win the parliamentary election of 2000. With that Viyaya’s widow nearly presided over the demise of democracy in this country. If one leader started the practice of imprisoning the opposition leader, every subsequent leader would have done the same and that would have been the end of the democratic system as we know it. Perhaps what ITN did was right – to celebrate Vijaya’s career as an actor not as a politician. Any mention of Vijaya’s short lived political career will remind people of CBK, which would be an insult to his memory.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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