“To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do-for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder”
-Inaugural Address of President Kennedy -January 20, 1961
Ven. Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera, the first accused in Prime Minister assassination case laid the foundation for elimination of SWRD at the famous Kurunegala convention of the party held under divisive ‘politics’ and factional struggles. Troubles brewed commencing at the beginning of 1958. Though the SLFP was formed by a breakaway group of UNP stalwarts, led by its second in command, SWRD Bandaranaike, it drew its major portion of membership from the left-oriented Sinhala-educated electorate mainly comprised of ‘Sangha, veda, guru, govi, kamkaru’ the Pancha maha balavegaya. Out of them Buddhist priests, Ayurvedic Medical Practitioners and teachers were the tripartite forces who aggressively campaigned for SLFP in 1956; also they were responsible for installing Bandaranaike as Prime minister.
65th anniversary sessions and 7th Conference
Disturbed by a deep calamity, the SLFP is to have its 65th anniversary sessions in Maligapitiya Grounds, Kurunegala on September 5. The circumstances under which it is going to be held remind of the troubled 7th annual conference held on May 16 and 17, 1959, also at Kurunegala 57 years ago, under the auspicies of founder SWRD Bandaranaike. During that time there were signs that apart from the factional struggles, the ideological clashes within SLFP/VLSSP coalition that formed the ruling party Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, would soon reach a climax.
Ven. Buddharakkita Thera, a powerful force behind the regime thought SWRD was drifting towards the left under the influence of Philip Gunawardene, ‘father of Marxism in the island’. The high priest was at the centre of chaos; he arrived late to the sessions. The controversial monk walked right into the hall in a hostile way commanding attention. Chairman of the party and PM Bandaranaike was on his feet -- the entire audience stood up. The charismatic and malicious monk who usually did not care about the opinions, rights, or feelings of others had a quick look at the audience with a flash of cheeky smile and focussed pompously at the figures seated on the stage, but paid little attention on the Chair or the Speaker. The chairman interrupted his speech walked up to the priest, paid his obeisance. The atmosphere was electrified as SWRD continued his address with a changed tone and emphasizing the fact that the SLFP and the government strictly followed the middle path. Receiving thunderous applause for his ‘Kurunegala Doctrine’, a coinage by scribes of the day, he said, “We are opposed to both Communism and Fascism to Capitalism and Materialism. Our party stands against any attempt to impose any of these on the people of this country” as he was under pressure by the Monk and the right wing led by Stanley de Zoysa, W Dahanayake and R. G. Senanayake. They took control of affairs at the summit from the moment the monk walked in; the meeting tilted in favour of the right, while a disillusioned leader, the Prime Minister watched haplessly.
Both Bandaranaikes -- SWRD and Sirimavo -- came from the aristocratic property owning feudalistic class, who acted against their class interest. They nationalized bus companies, Colombo harbour, insurance, petroleum, plantations and introduced many more socialist measures such as the Paddy Lands Act. SWRD’s exit from the UNP to break or challenge the domination of political supremacy held by an urban elite and create a situation that cemented a two party system which is a necessary ingredient for proper parliamentary democracy, where people could select an alternative party. SWRD Bandaranaike, the young Oxonian returning from Britain, firmly believed in a Federal structure for the island nation; however, later entering competitive politics, he and the party blundered by choosing to propagate ‘nationalism’, language issues that ultimately led to decades long communal clashes, terrorism and civil war. With the formation of the coalition MEP, the SLFP gained a reputation as a socialist-oriented party. SWRD, though aligned with the Marxist parties -- the leader submitted to extremist nationalist forces that became unmanageable; the result was strict implementation of ‘Sinhala Only’ Policy, creating ethnic disharmony and clashes that began in 1958. In Shakespearian drama, Malvolio remarks; “In my stars, I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.”—Act 2 - Scene 5: ‘Twelfth Night’.
Was Solomon West Ridgway Dias Bandaranaike born great, achieved greatness or had ‘greatness thrust upon him’?
Ven. Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera, the chief incumbent of the historic Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara was also the leader of the influential United Bhikku Front (Eksath Bhikku Peramuna); his close association, political and personal with Health Minister Wimala Wijewardene was no secret. They played a crucial role in mobilizing support for the MEP during the 1956 elections. The party created in 1951 managed to form a coalition government within five years.
Ven. Buddharakkita had been a ‘businessmen’ who prudently dipped into into import and export trade, and was a wealthy monk, who had little respect for vinaya. The powerful prelate had lavishly spent for SWRD’s election campaign. He was responsible for staging a satyagraha with 500 monks at Prime Minister’s Rosemead Place residence in 1957, compelling the PM to abrogate the pact he signed with the leader of the Tamil community aimed at devolving a reasonable power-sharing between Sinhala and Tamil speaking communities. The head prelate’s association with the fair minister had been the subject of gossip of news sheets and pamphlets. SWRD ignored minister’s urge for taking action against perpetrators.
The crisis within the SLFP brewed over this plus government’s left wings opposition to granting a shipping tender violating the procedures to Ven. Buddharakkita. Personal disputes and policy issues within members of the party had to be settled by the leader in many instances. An unparalleled ‘Cabinet strike’ orchestrated by the right wing ministers was a tragedy he faced during his short rule of three and a half years. The influential monk wanted to import rice from Burma (present Myanmar) through his shipping company, to which left wing senior Cabinet Ministers opposed. SWRD respected his minister’s advice and refused to grant the money-spinning shipping contract to the prelate’s nominee.
Next, tenders were called for purchasing two ships -- the monk made an effort to obtain the tender through his authority to which PM refrained from interfering. Provoked by this ‘step-motherly treatment’ the prelate decided on a course of action.
Leader forced to deliver ‘Kurunegala Doctrine’
Ven. Buddharakkitha saw the Left wing in the Cabinet led by Philip Gunawardene, P. H. William Siva and SLFP’s T. B. Illangaratne as a threat to his personal interests, was determined to ‘eliminate’ the ruling party of all sections that possibly could stand on his way to achieving his business interests and other objectives. On the second day of the summit, during elections for office bearers, the left wing was being defeated unfalteringly. The cleansing of left alienated members in the Cabinet was seen by analysts as an act of giving in to Ven. Buddharakkita dictates; the PM took away several important departments from the two VLSSP ministers.
The immediate outcome of the summit was the exit of the left wing in the government coalition. The very next day, on May 18, Philip Gunewardena, Food and Agriculture Minister and Industries and Fisheries Minister, P.H. William Silva resigned their portfolios allowing SWRD to form a new Cabinet. Eight left-inclined MP’s crossed over to the Opposition bringing the government’s strength to 47 out of 101, but strengthened the right wing.
The monk’s task to ridden the government of leftists and transform the PM into a puppet of the right loyal to him. He was ably supported by the only female member in the Cabinet, Wimala Wijewardene and other right wing ministers. SWRD always made an effort to maintain balance by restraining the assertive right. The annual sessions in Kurunegala was chosen by Ven. Mapitigama Buddharakkita to launch his well designed move.
Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is in a similar crisis today, the Rajapaksas and their followers are in a counter-revolution temper. SLFP’s coalition with the UNP is the main rallying point. The six-decade-old hostility between the rank and file supporters of two main parties and the substantial policy differences between the two have created a feeling that President Maithripala Sirisena has surrendered the party to the UNP leadership. There are moves to form a new political party; or as an alternative, the Joint Opposition (JO) to contest independently at the LG polls.
It would certainly be premature and stupid for an established party to split motivated by emotions! For the sake of the country and its democratic future, this should not be encouraged. There is an apparent, but pathetic move by the party hierarchy to convey a message to the SLFPers in the JO that anybody agreeing to toe the line would be exempted from prosecution; names of Anura PriyadarshanaYapa and Susil Premjayantha were deleted from the list of suspects in CTB case. New developments in the SLFP have propped up the UNP.
A coalition of two main parties with perceived policy differences is a necessity at times, though, by character, is a fragile and weak alternative to a single party rule. Lenders, aid-donors and investors have little faith in them. Joint efforts in governance always tend to strengthen democratic virtues at the expense of fast-track progress to which the UNP is more accustomed to. ‘A little bit of authoritarianism’ in JR-Felix Dias phraseology and in a Malaysia-Singapore model is useful in governing a developing nation.