By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The Birth Centenary of Sri Lanka’s third executive President Dingiri Banda (DB) Wijetunga was celebrated last week. DB Wijetunga was born during British rule on February 15, 1916. He passed away on September 21, 2008 at the age of 92. DBW as he was popularly known served as President from May 1, 1993 to November 12, 1994. Earlier he held the post of Prime Minister from March 6, 1989 to May 1, 1993. DB Wijetunga was also leader of the United National Party (UNP) from May 7, 1993 to November 12, 1994. An important event commemorating his birth centenary was the unveiling of DB Wijetunga’s portrait at the parliamentary complex in Sri Jayawardenepura.
Among the distinguished participants at the ceremony were Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. While speaking at the function Premier Wickremesinghe observed that the former President had always said whatever he had to say in simple and concise language without wasting the time of those present. Referring to the fact that DB, who had been prime minister under President Ranasinghe Premadasa, had become President following the assassination of the former, Mr. Wickremesinghe said, “DB Wijetunga was the first President elected from Parliament in the country. He had become the President of the country with the consent of both the Government and the Opposition.” Incidentally Ranil Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister when DB Wijetunga was President.
It was this life philosophy which defined his approach to politics. His simple, mild – mannered demeanour made many underestimate his talents, fortitude and capability. He was the butt of many jokes based on his initials.
When DB Wijetunga was made Prime Minister by Ranasinghe Premadasa the joke was “Dunnoth Baragamu” Wijetunga; when he played second fiddle to President Premadasa he was derisively called “Deaf and Blind” Wijetunga. After Premadasa’s tragic demise DBW became President. He was then called “Deela Balamu” Wijetunga. Later as Wijetunga discharged his Presidential duties exceptionally well and earned the admiration of friend and foe alike, he was described as “Doing Bloody Well”. His worth was fully recognized after he stepped down earning him the sobriquet, “Dearly Beloved”. DB Wijetunga however took both praise and criticism in his stride and treated” both impostors” alike. In a farewell address to Parliament, DBW invoked the immortal lines from the Bard of Avon “Some men are born great; some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”. In Wijetunga’s case he was not born great but he certainly did achieve a great deal of greatness like Parliamentary and ministerial office through his own efforts. But the highest offices of the land like the Premiership and Presidency were instances of greatness being thrust upon DBW.
I came to know this modest and moderate man when he was Minister of Posts and Telecommunications during the time of the Junius Richard Jayewardena Government, while I as a journalist was covering that ministry. The most unforgettable thing about Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was his simple, disarming smile. Even the toughest of journalists warmed to that genial grin and thought twice about tossing a hostile question to him.The toothy, beaming smile exuded warmth and friendliness. It was straight from the heart, putting one at ease immediately. This smiling image etched in memory recurred again and again when reading about his portrait being unveiled in Parliament.
During JR Jayewardena’s tenure as Prime Minister and President, DB Wijetunga held many ministerial portfolios including Information and Broadcasting, Posts and Telecommunications, Power and Highways and Agricultural development
Two things were remarkable at news conferences conducted by him (usually in the morning). One was his unusual practice of assembling almost all his key officials at the meeting. While we the scribes sat at the main table those officials would sit around us forming an outer ring of sorts.
When specific questions were asked DB would look at the official concerned and tell him to respond.After the question was answered, he would ask the reporter concerned whether he or she was satisfied. He would also urge them to contact the official concerned later on and get more details if necessary.
This practice deviated greatly from the usual one where ministers would answer questions directly. With the exception of a few like Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and Anandatissa De Alwis, most of these ministers did not have a grasp of the subject they were in charge of. As a result they would bluff and bluster while officials who knew more than the minister would keep quiet, not daring to butt in when the boss was holding the floor. DB’s action on the other hand allowed journalists to get better information from the horse’s mouth as it were.
The other aspect of DB news conferences was the hospitality shown. Instead of a mere cup of tea, he would have a lavish spread laid out for journalists and officials. A must on all such morning occasions was Kiribath and fresh fruit. DB as we referred to him among ourselves would walk from person to person with a benevolent smile repeating “Ganda, Ganda “(take, take) or “Kanda, Kanda” (eat, eat). He was the epitome of traditional rural Sinhala hospitality and his entreaties were authentically sincere.
One incident I remember vividly was when DBW admonished some of us gently for trying to eat a papaw slice with a spoon. “That is not the way to eat papaw. This is the way ” he said in Sinhala and proceeded to demonstrate by raising the slice to his lips and biting into it as we usually do in our homes.
Apart from seeing DB Wijetunga in his official capacity as cabinet minister I also had the chance to have a firsthand view of the man as a parliamentarian representing a rural /semi – urban constituency. I once accompanied two friends who wanted to invite DB Wijetunga as chief guest for a cultural function . We went to his Kandy home early morning on a weekend. There were more than a hundred people there.
The other aspect of DB news conferences was the hospitality shown. Instead of a mere cup of tea, he would have a lavish spread laid out for journalists and officials. A must on all such morning occasions was Kiribath and fresh fruit
DBW called in each person and patiently listened to his problem or request. He dictated letters to his typists about them. He granted appointments for some to see him at the Ministry in Colombo. Once in a while he would go outside and address those waiting for a few minutes. He apologised for the delay and asked them to wait patiently saying he would definitely attend to each and every person. The people waiting were served plain tea regularly.
This was DB Wijetunga at his best. The simple, sincere man of the people whom the spoils of high office could not buy or alter. He was a man rooted among his people who in the words of Kipling, “Walked with kings yet retained the common touch”.
Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was born in the Kandy district village of Polgahanga on February 15, 1916. He was the eldest of eleven children born to Mudianse Wijetunga and Manamperi Mudiyanselage Palingu Menike. He received his primary education at the Welihella C.M.S. Primary School and his secondary education at St. Andrews College, Gampola. As for tertiary education DBW passed his inter-arts for a London university external degree but never graduated.
DBW worked briefly for Kandy political stalwart George de Silva and then joined the co-operative movement.
He was appointed co-operatives Inspector in 1942 and soon formed a trade union of which he was head.When the UNP was formed in 1946, DBW was one of the pioneering members from the Kandy district.
The party under D.S. Senanayake formed the first government of independent Ceylon in 1947. Abeyratne Ratnayake who contested from Wattegama was appointed minister of Food and Co-operatives. DB Wijetunga in turn became his private secretary. Ratnayake also served as Home Affairs Minister from 1952 – 56. DBW continued as Ratnayake’s private secretary.
This experience whetted Dingiri Banda’s political appetite. He sought nomination in 1956 as second UNP candidate for the multi-member Kadugannawa seat then held by E.A. Nugawela of the UNP and C.A.S. Marikkar of the SLFP. The party gave it to L.S. Jinasena. An aggrieved DBW displayed his rebellious streak of defiance by contesting as an Independent. He got only 5903 votes but made his mark in electoral politics.
Wijetunga returned to the UNP later and in March 1960 staked his claim for the newly carved electorate of Yatinuwara. Again his claim was rejected and the nomination given to Sunil Abeysundara. A chagrined Wijetunga turned rebel again and contested as Independent. Abeysundara with 4352 votes squeaked ahead of the SLFP’s Hector Kobbekaduwe with a majority of just 193 votes. Wijetunga came third with 3156 votes.
A political rapprochement was effected by Dudley Senanayake and M.D. Banda ahead of the July 1960 poll. Thus Wijetunga moved to the neighbouring Udunuwara electorate replacing the Radala aristocrat T.B. Panabokke as UNP candidate. He lost to TB Jayasundara of the SLFP by just 213 votes in July 1960. In March 1965 DB Wijetunga defeated Jayasundara by 3059 votes and entered Parliament for the first time as MP for Udunuwara.
D.B. Wijetunga made no waves as a “fresher” MP and was content to remain as part of the 16-member “ginger group” led by Festus Perera. This ginger group came to the fore in 1968 when it vehemently opposed the proposed District Councils bill causing Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake to abandon it. In 1970, DB Wijetunga with 13,318 votes lost by 1068 votes to the SLFP’s T.B. Jayasundara. In 1977 DB Wijetunga riding the crest of a pro-UNP wave won comfortably with a majority of 10,750. He obtained 21,766 votes to the SLFP’s M.P.B. Senanayake who obtained 11,013 votes.
During JR Jayewardena’s tenure as Prime Minister and President, DB Wijetunga held many ministerial portfolios including Information and Broadcasting, Posts and Telecommunications, Power and Highways and Agricultural development. When the provincial councils were set up in 1988, JR wanted some senior UNP leaders to become Governors. Wijetunga obliged and was appointed North-Western Province Governor.
After the election of R. Premadasa as president there was intense rivalry between Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali to be Premier. But Premadasa flummoxed them all by recalling Wayamba Governor Wijetunga to active politics. DB Wijetunga topped the preferential polls for Kandy district and was appointed Prime Minister and also finance minister. As finance minister DB Wijetunga once made history by delivering his budget speech in a record time of 45 minutes. He was also minister of Labour and vocational training. Later DBW was deputy minister of defence after Ranjan Wijeratne was killed by the LTTE.
The assassination of Premadasa by the LTTE on May 1, 1993 saw Wijetunga become acting President immediately. He was later elected unanimously by Parliament as President. He held Presidential office until November 12, 1994 when Chandrika Kumaratunga was sworn in as executive president.
Wijetunga’s assumption to presidential office was like a breath of fresh air after the rigid authoritarianism of Premadasa. One of the first things done by DBW was the exorcising of State media when he chased away some “evil spirits” haunting Lake House. He ushered in a free media culture that flourished during the Kumaratunga era. Another of his acts was to dismantle the extra-constitutional security apparatus and doing away with wire-tapping. DIG Ronnie Abeysinghe had died along with Premadasa but the sinister outfit headed by former Police DIG AC Lawrence still existed. This was disbanded.
In spite of these positive acts and his aversion to family bandyism and the politics of nepotism, DB Wijetunga was not without his faults. He permitted a cabal of corrupt racists to be formed around him. Though Wijetunga himself was above corruption he did allow many wrongful acts of omission and commission like the granting of multi-million “loans” to dubious entrepreneurs. He also permitted blatant abuses of power like the Fransiscu abduction affair during the Southern provincial polls. It was during his presidency that a mass defection from the SLFP to the UNP was engineered. Anura Bandaranaike deserted the party of his parents and crossed over to the arch-rival UNP with some of his supporters.
On the ethnic front Wijetunga was responsible for the clearing of the Eastern Province enabling local authority elections to be held. The improvement in the Eastern security climate enabled the emasculated Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) to raise its head again in Batticaloa and Trincomalee during the 1994 parliamentary elections. Ironically the bulk of Tamil and Muslim votes in the East went to Kumaratunga during the presidential polls in ‘94.
It was during Wijetunga’s presidency that the army launched “operation Yarl Devi” to take Kilaly. This was foiled by the Tigers. The LTTE also conducted two major operations in that period. One was the attack codenamed, “operation Thavalai (Frog) on Poonagary – Nagathevanthurai and the other on Janakapura in WeliOya/Manalaaru codenamed Operation Ithayabhoomi.” (Heartland).
A little known fact about the humane approach displayed by Wijetunga regarding military matters was a crucial decision made by him once. This was before the parliamentary elections of August 1994. A proposal was mooted that the armed forces be allowed to launch a massive, no-holds barred offensive in the Jaffna peninsula against the LTTE. It was felt that a military success in Jaffna could swing votes in favour of the UNP in the South.
President Wijetunga then inquired from General “Lucky” Algama about the number of possible civilian casualties in such a military venture. “At least 15,000,’’ was the answer. Wijetunga was aghast. He would not permit such harm to innocent human lives knowingly, he said. Algama remonstrated saying omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs. Wijetunga however refused to give the go ahead.
“It was better to lose elections rather than attain power by causing harm to innocent civilians,” he said.
There was no military onslaught. There was no UNP victory either. This then was the crucial difference between Wijetunga’s humanitarian approach towards war and the mode in which fighting was conducted subsequently by his successors. This laudable yet little-known act by Wijetunga is one that deserves praiseworthy mention.
As a journalist covering his ministry, I remember how DB used to pay special attention to the Tamil media. He always inquired whether the Tamil media reporters had obtained all the information they required. With his customary benign smile he would emphasise the importance for the Tamil people to know and participate with equal rights in national life.
This was the reason why many Tamils like myself who knew him got upset and disappointed when he came out with his infamous observation about minority community “creepers” being entwined around the majority community “tree”. The DBW we knew and the DB Wijetunga who made this statement seemed to be two different persons. If I recollect correctly, DB Wijetunga made these comments during the election campaign to the Southern Provincial Council in 1993.
This was the time when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was transforming the image of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as a minority-friendly party. Wijetunga’s ill-advised pronouncement was the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back.There was a massive shift in the mood of the minority communities. Wijetunga’s comment was pinpointed as proof of Sinhala supremacist thought being dominant in the United National Party (UNP) government. The UNP began losing its traditional minority support.
Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was not one who understood all the ramifications of the Tamil national question and was not one who advocated devolution of powers as a solution to the problem. Another of his positions was that a terrorist and not ethnic problem prevailed in the country. At the same time he was not a rabid majoritarian chauvinist or Sinhala supremacist as portrayed by sections of the Tamil media on the basis of the provocative comments he made. It is a moot question as to whether expressing such views alone make DB or others holding similar views “communalists”. In any case the “offensive” observation made by DBW in 1993 paled into insignificance when compared with the flagrant acts of racism that prevailed in the years that followed the Wijetunga presidency.
The greatest political blunder made by Wijetunga was the holding of parliamentary elections early in 1994. Realising his limitations as a populist mass figure, President Wijetunga engaged in a bold gamble before the presidential elections scheduled for 1994. Though the parliamentary elections were due only in 1995, Wijetunga decided to hold it a year earlier. Given the UNP’s unshakeable vote bank, Wijetunga thought that the UNP would come out on top. Thereafter he thought that he could win the presidency on the strength of a parliamentary victory.
What DB Wijetunga did not take into account was the positive impression made by Kumaratunga on the electorate and the yearning for peace in the Country at that time. Besides, the 17 years of UNP rule had had its toll and the Nation was clamouring for change. The People’s Alliance was elected with a slender majority and there were moves afoot to do horse deals enabling the UNP to retain power. To their credit both President Wijetunga and the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe refused to go along with such efforts.
The period between August and November 1994 saw DB Wijetunga reverting to the practice of being a symbolic head of state. It was a brief period of political cohabitation where the President and Prime Minister were from different parties. A constitutional crisis in the making was prevented by the statesmanlike conduct of DB Wijetunga. He simply behaved like a titular head of state acting solely on the advice and recommendation of the new Prime Minister.
What happened then was this. In August 1994 Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power and cobbled together a parliamentary majority with the help of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Up Country Peoples Front. Tamil Parties from opposition ranks supported her also. The UNP could have attempted subversive tactics at that juncture and undermined Kumaratunga. Given the fact that it had been entrenched in power for 17 years and had a subservient bureaucracy such a course of action could have created problems for the fledgling administration. Wijetunga could have exercised his executive powers and countered every move by Kumaratunga.
DB Wijetunga however bowed down to the will of the people and offered the path of least resistance. While retaining the defence ministry portfolio to complement his capacity as supreme commander of the armed forces, Wijetunga acceded to Kumaratunga’s wishes in cabinet formation. Chandrika Kumaratunga became Prime Minister and for all practical purposes exercised power in a manner akin to the powerful Premiers of the pre-1978 era. Wijetunga though retaining executive powers in theory reverted in practice to being a mere constitutional head like William Gopallawa from 1972 - 1978. Thus a conflict situation was averted. In November, 1994 Kumaratunga became President and once again the country had a president, prime minister and parliamentary majority of the same political persuasion.
As the UNP Leader and President D. B. Wijetunga could have sought re-election in November 1994 if he so desired. DB Wijetunga declared himself out of the forthcoming presidential stakes and encouraged Gamini Dissanayake (who had returned to the UNP) to be presidential candidate. Tragically, Dissanayake was killed by the LTTE in October 1994 and his widow replaced him as the candidate. Kumaratunga swept the polls.
Dingiri Banda Wijetunga stepped down from office as President and retired from public life. He went back to his home in Pilimatalawa and resumed his traditional occupation of gentleman farmer cum dairy owner. He lived in splendid isolation without any scandal or controversy till the end of his days. His death on Sep 21, 2008 after a prolonged ailment removed from our midst a rare human being who was a fine embodiment of true Sinhala culture and Buddhist values.
There is a much quoted reference attributed to Robert Knox about the ordinary Sinhala farmer being capable of discharging the duties of a King if placed upon the throne. What Robert Knox actually stated was somewhat different to the popular opinion that prevails about “the Sinhala farmer fit enough to be king”
Robert Knox in his book, ‘An Historical Relation of Ceylon’ describes in pages 94 -95 the situation about the central areas of the country coming under the rule of the King of Kandy at that time. Knox records that the region was divided into larger and smaller divisions. He likens the lesser sub-divisions to the Counties of England. Among those mentioned by Knox are the Counties of Oudanour or Upper City and Tattanour or Lower City. The “Oudanour” and “Tattanour” referred to by Robert Knox are of course Udunuwara and Yatinuwara respectively. Knox goes on to state that the two counties, “have the pre-eminence over all the rest in the Land”.
In reference to Udunuwara and Yatinuwara Knox goes on to say - “The Inhabitants thereof (i.e. Udunuvara and Yatinuvara) are the chief and principal men: insomuch that it is a usual saying among them, that if they want a King, they may take any man, of either of these two Counties, from the Plough, and wash the dirt off him, and he by reason of his quality and descent is fit to be a King. And they have this peculiar Privilege ………….”. What Robert Knox actually said therefore was that the people of Udunuwara and Yatinuwara had opined at that time that they had a claim on the throne of Kandy to the point where even their ‘ploughman’ (farmer) was fit enough by way of quality and descent to mount the throne once his dirt was washed off.
The opinion held by the people of Udunuwara and Yatinuwara as reported by Robert Knox came true in the twentieth century when a native of the Udunuwara/Yatinuwara region hailing from a farming family became Prime minister and President of Sri Lanka. Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was a “gentleman farmer” on whom the greatness of Prime ministerial and presidential duties were thrust upon by fate. He rose to the occasion admirably and demonstrated in modern times, the validity of Knox’s ancient observation about the opinion held by the people of Udunuwara and Yatinuwara.
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com