n the way of resistance, there were few lonely voices…In the main, though, the foreigner took the Ceylonese upper class by the scruff of its neck…It was a class therefore destined for a rude shock…Meanwhile the masses lay dormant; watching, waiting, resentful. Mervyn de Silva, “1956: The Cultural Revolution That Shook the Left- Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition, May 16, 1967
Radhika Coomaraswamy tellingly observes that Mervyn de Silva was “the greatest journalist that Sri Lanka ever produced.” (Introduction: A Tribute to Mervyn de Silva, Crisis Commentaries: Selected Political Writings of Mervyn de Silva, ICES, Colombo, 2001). In a serendipitous synchronicity, Mervyn de Silva’s birthday, September 5, was separated by only a few days from that of the political party he supported and was identified with but never joined—the SLFP, which was born on September 2, though in a different year and decade.
Mervyn and his close friend Haris Hulugalle, son of the distinguished editor and ambassador HAJ Hulugalle, always lamented a peculiar absence in the SLFP: that of a modern, internationalist, supportive intelligentsia.
Mervyn observed that the educated elite was divided between the rightwing UNP and the Marxist Left, and that those first rate intellectuals who supported or were actively involved with SLFP-led coalitions came from the Left, beginning with those who supported Philip Gunawardena’s MEP.
He was troubled by the absence, unique in Sri Lanka and in sharp contrast to the Congress Party of India and the People’s Party of Pakistan, of a modern intelligentsia to support the moderate nationalist SLFP. He saw this in deeper systemic terms: the Centre did not have its own intellectual and policy elite equal to that of the Right and Left. He was doubly concerned that this would diminish the capacity of the moderate centre to generate its own ideology as well as state cadre (most especially in the Foreign Service, which he saw as pro-UNP/pro-West dominated), and undermine the ability of the long term, for the centre to sustain itself; for the centre “to hold” (in the Yeatsian sense).
Mervyn’s political discourse can be triangulated within three points of preoccupation: the UNP, the SLFP and the struggle of the Nonaligned/the global South. In his discourse, the first two i.e. the national factors, were situated against the backdrop of the third, i.e. the international.
The point of departure was Mervyn’s definition of and attitude to the Establishment, the Right, represented by the UNP.
Mervyn was born into a comfortable, middle class, propertied, conservative, Sinhala Buddhist, pro-UNP family. His stiff, authoritarian father, a Trinitian, was decidedly UNP, rightwing and anti-Left. Only one brother, a doctor, would veer vaguely leftward late in life, and it took a professorial Communist brother-in-law to provide Mervyn an anti-UNP conversational counterpart within his extended family. Interestingly enough, Mervyn had a friendlier, more respectful equation with his colourful father-in-law, his Catholic wife Lakshmi’s Panadura Buddhist father, who was a very literate and liberal parent, lay preacher and an active polemicist of L.H. Mettananda’s Bauddha Jathika Balavegaya (BJB), than he did with his own disciplinarian, conservative patriarch.
As Tissa Devendra’s delightful reminiscences of Mervyn in primary school reveal, the latter showed no traces of his Sinhala Buddhist conservative background even that early in life, displaying a precocious, irrepressibly rascally character, shaped by influences –literary, informational, political and even religious-- that were global and well outside his family’s consciousness and cultural comfort zone.
One cannot trace how early Mervyn’s individualist rebellion against his father began because no one had a memory of a Mervyn who even as a boy, willingly conformed to or hadn’t transcended his familial ethos –which as a father himself, he would dismiss as “dull, dull”--and forged his own consciousness out of “the school library and English literature”. But the rebellion against conformist conservatism never stopped, and his dialectic with the patriarch was a shaping, perhaps determinant, influence on his character, conduct and choices throughout life.
Politics formed part of that rebellion. As a schoolboy Mervyn was a sympathiser of the LSSP and distributed its newspaper on the Udahamulla train, while Gamini Seneviratne confirms recollections of him as an undergraduate, as alienated from Trotskyist punditry and more sympathetic to the ‘Stalinist’ Communists.
However, Mervyn’s individualist rebellion against conformism was such that he never fell into the trap of organisational commitment to the Left, and retained his skeptical Western liberal humanistic core till the last, with the books on his bed and desk testimony to his actual, abiding intellectual and temperamental inclinations: Leonard Woolf, Walter Lippmann, and I.F. Stone.
Mervyn’s description of the UNP was clear and consistent, as was his attitude. “The UNP’s policy had been one of timid dependence on the British, a colourless adherence to the status quo.” (South Asian Review, Sussex, January 1973). “The conservative UNP won the island’s first parliamentary elections on the eve of Independence…The UNP, the authentic spokesman of the ‘establishment’, the propertied and the professional elite…” (Times of India, 1989). “The conservative UNP, the strongest party in the island…” (UN University seminar paper 1993).
The exception that Mervyn made also illustrated what he thought was the UNP’s norm: “Premadasa…left for China soon after he became the rightwing UNP’s first ‘man of the people’ candidate…” (Deccan Herald, Sept 22, 1988). Mervyn’s support was evident from the title of his article to the Indian press welcoming Premadasa’s victory: “Dominance of Elite Ends”. (Deccan Herald, Dec 29th, 1988) That support was based not only on decades-long personal acquaintance going back to the 1960s but on the notion that Premadasa had always represented Mervyn’s cherished 1956 ‘revolution’ within the UNP.
While Mervyn was opposed to the UNP because of its ideology and international stance, making sympathetic exception only for Premadasa, he was also respectful of and friendly with President Jayewardene, while being acerbically critical of his policies and government. In his writings he treated early 1960s SLFP defector CP de Silva icily as a traitor, and Mervyn’s own career stood in acute jeopardy when Esmond Wickremesinghe engineered the defection of SLFPers (including Mangala Samaraweera’s father) and Trotskyists, splitting the centre-left coalition in late 1964.
"Mervyn, if alive, would be at the Orient Club, playing his game of billiards, ticking off the racing sheet, puffing his Havana cigar and nursing his ice-cold Heineken, waiting with semi-cynical certitude for the next 1956 to come, with the ruling elite “blissfully unaware of the gathering storm” and “the socioeconomic forces which would jet-propel the masses into action…with such terrific momentum that it shattered the Right"
Friends with UNP liberals Gamini Jayasuriya, ACS Hameed and Gamini Dissanaike, Mervyn had sharply polemical relations with those he saw as cold warriors on the authoritarian Right of the UNP—the far right of a rightwing party-- such as Lalith Athulathmudali. Thus his relationship in the 1960s with his boss in Lake House, Esmond Wickremesinghe, father of the present Prime Minister, was that of a very civil Cold War, while his equation in the 1970s as Editor of the Daily News with the present PM’s mother, UNP hawk and Sinhala Buddhist matriarch, was one of barbed confrontation.
Mervyn was no less clear about the SWRD’s dramatic break with the UNP, the nature of the SLFP and what he found valuable about it. It is noteworthy that the definitive, unambiguous paragraph that follows was not from an article to the local papers but to a scholarly British journal:
“Then came Mr. Bandaranaike’s departure from the UNP and his founding of a moderate socialist party…he had a ready-made cause in the underprivileged state into which the Sinhalese had sunk under colonialism. The British had as a matter of conscious policy favoured the Tamils and the Christians, and in both jobs and representation, the Sinhalese–speaking Buddhist masses were at a great disadvantage.
“Now the masses were throwing up their middle classes to act as their spokesman, and they had a champion…Mr. Bandaranaike also offered radicalism in economic issues (the immediate nationalisation of public transport and the ports, rapid expansion of the State sector, the accent on industry and the new concept of a mixed economy), and an international modernism in foreign policy (nonalignment, Afro-Asianism, the establishment of relations with the Soviet Union, China and other socialist countries, and the closure of British naval and air bases)…” (South Asian Review, Sussex, January 1973).
In the final analysis Mervyn’s antipodal attitudes to the UNP and SLFP were sourced in his world outlook, in the dual sense of his values as well as his stance in the world at large. His internationalism and its underlying values were most strongly defined in a paper presented on Non-Alignment in Baghdad in 1982. He identifies what he regards as the core value of Nonalignment:
“Whatever the preoccupations of the movement at any given time or in any definable period, the non-aligned community has held on steadfastly to an aim which we must accept as its central or core value: an end to domination…the ultimate goal of course in this projected path of progress is the total emancipation of our peoples and their liberation in all spheres—political, economic and cultural…anti-colonialism and anti-neo-colonialism were the foundations of nonaligned thought…the system against which we are battling has been created by the West and remains West–dominated…”
“…deeper down, as we touch the domestic power structure, we observe the role of local elites, their self-interest, their ideological outlook, and international linkages….Press, radio, TV, everything is centred in Colombo, the capital, where a privileged English-educated minority stands at the apex of the power structure. In the countryside dwell the millions of Sinhala or Tamil educated poor, at whom the international communications system, controlled and managed by the metropolitan elite, is directed…”
(Paper delivered at a seminar titled ‘The Non-Aligned Countries in the 1980s: Results and Perspectives’, Baghdad, Iraq, under the patronage of President Saddam Hussein, 1982)
With these core values it is little wonder that Mervyn scorned the propensity of the Western-oriented elite of Ceylon to “bend obligingly” and would have been alarmed by Sri Lanka’s strategic repositioning today as part of the US pivot to Asia and Washington’s competition with our traditional friend China. He would have seen it as a throwback to two earlier periods when we aligned with the Atlanticist axis, namely pre-’56 (more generally 1947-1956) and the early 1980s:
“Ceylon was represented at Bandung by Sir John Kotelawela, a brash anti-communist crusader perfectly attuned to the spirit of the Dullesian era. Ceylon was on the doorstep of CENTO when 1956 rescued our foreign policy from what would have been a disaster…and now we are back in a new cold war, with its new military budgets, new alliances and new bases being established, and the Indian Ocean emerging as the main arena of confrontation and tension.” (‘April Anniversaries: Revolutions and Insurrections’, Teilhard de Chardin seminar, April 1981, Crisis Commentaries, pp.36-52)
Mervyn’s acute concerns today would have been threefold. Firstly, the effacement in the country’s political map, of SWRD’s Middle Path, as the result of the SLFP’s bloc with the UNP—entailing and constituting a shift to the right: “...the feature of Mr. Bandaranaike’s middle path policies (‘middle path’ is a direct adaptation of a central Buddhist concept of virtue)…” (South Asian Review, January 1973) Secondly, the unbalancing and undermining of the stability of the democratic system by dismantling of the two party system through the eviction of the Centre-Left from the space of the Parliamentary Opposition. With the SLFP no longer the parliamentary Opposition and the alternative government, who or what will be the alternative to the Rightwing UNP? What will be the fate of the SLFP and the legacy of 1956 --and with what consequences? Thirdly, always conscious of the external and the ‘intermestic’ factors, he’d resurrect the problem he posed decades ago: “If the SLFP “centre” cannot hold...India might find itself like Syria and Israel, with a messy Lebanon on its doorstep.” (Deccan Herald, Dec 29, 1988)
Mervyn and his Lanka Guardian were sharply criticised in Parliament by the present PM when the latter was a young ‘gauleiter’ of the post-1977 UNP junta (as it was dubbed) and its storm-troopers. Mervyn’s voluminous corpus of work leaves little doubt that the target of his contemporary critique would have been the elitist pro-western establishment led by the son of his ideological and institutional foes, both enabled and camouflaged by a CP de Silva type SLFP defection to the UNP-led coalition.
Equally, his discourse leaves little doubt that his current sympathies would have been with the political formation which continues the “anti-neo-colonialism” of ’56 and ’70, led by three centre-left political personalities he manifested an avuncular warmth towards when they were rebellious young MPs: Mahinda, Dinesh and Vasu. As a young journalist Mervyn had admiringly profiled Dinesh’s father the iconic Philip Gunawardena for a Lake House magazine. Mahinda was Mervyn’s young protégé from the Palestinian solidarity movement and the cousin of Mervyn’s Moscow-leaning buddies from Royal College, 1956 and the Atlanta Club, George and Lakshman Rajapaksa.
Mervyn, if alive, would be at the Orient Club, playing his game of billiards, ticking off the racing sheet, puffing his Havana cigar and nursing his ice-cold Heineken, waiting with semi-cynical certitude for the next 1956 to come, with the ruling elite “blissfully unaware of the gathering storm” and “the socioeconomic forces which would jet-propel the masses into action…with such terrific momentum that it shattered the Right…” (Ceylon Observer Magazine, May 23rd 1967.)