Posted on April 23rd, 2020


This essay lists some of the many changes and improvements made by the MEP government of 1956.  These changes, carried out between 1956 and 1958 have not got the recognition it deserves.

UNP government followed an anti-communist and pro western foreign policy. The MEP government, on the other hand, swung to a non aligned position in foreign affairs.  A number of world leaders visited Sri Lanka    when SWRD was Prime Minister. They included Robert Menezies, Prime Minister of Australia, Walter Nash, Prime Minister of New Zealand, Diefenbaker, Prime Minister of Canada, Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister of UK, Ludwig Erhard, Deputy Prime Minister of Germany and Soekarnao, President of Indonesia. This was an impressive recognition of SWRD and a tribute to his policy of non alignment, said Vernon L.B. Mendis.

MEP government established diplomatic relations with socialist countries.  Viliam Široký Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia  and President Josip Broz Tito, President of Yugoslavia visited 1958. Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba soon after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. ‘Che’ Guevara visited Ceylon as Castro’s special emissary in August 1959. Guevara visited Yahala Kele rubber estate in Horana and planted a Mahogany tree there.

MEP decided to open diplomatic relations with the Peoples’ Republic of China and the Soviet Union. Before doing so, SWRD informed the British and U.S. governments of his intention.  In this way, he avoided abrasiveness in implementing foreign policy decisions, said diplomat Bandu de Silva.

In 1955 the UNP government did not allow soviet scientists to come here to observe the eclipse of the sun. In 1957, the MEP government established diplomatic relations with   Russia. Gunapala Malalasekera was the first ambassador to Russia. This was an excellent choice.  In 1958, an agreement on cooperation in economic and technical spheres between the Soviet Union and Ceylon was signed. Sri Lanka was able to gain Russian assistance in many fields’, projects including Oruwala Steel Mill, Modera Flour Mill, Kelaniya Tyre Factory, Samanala Weva hydro-energy project, Russian aid and technology.

Sri Lanka also received heavy machinery such as tractors, tippers, cranes. Russia helped some housing projects, too.  Russia gave scholarships to Sri Lankan students, to study medicine and engineering at prestigious Russian universities. Sri Lanka exported tea, rubber, coconut oil and coir products to Russia. Tea was the major export item to Russia.

SWRD established diplomatic relations with China in 1957. Chou en Lai visited in 1957 during his tour of Asian countries. He was invited to participate at the ninth celebrations of Sri Lanka’s Independence. He came with Vice Premier He Long.  Prime Minister Chou climbed Sigiriya and also visited a colonization scheme and met colonists. Sometime later, China sent the Beijing Opera to Sri Lanka.

It was significant that within a space of four months in early 1957, the Prime Ministers of India and China were here as State guests, said D.C.Ranatunga. First to come was Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. The second leader to visit Sri Lanka was Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, accompanied by daughter Indira The highlight of his visit was a trip to Anuradhapura where a large crowd was present to listen to his address. Nimal Karunatilleke translated Nehru’s speech into Sinhala. Prime Minister Bandaranaike hosted official receptions at Temple Trees, for Nehru and Chou en Lai, when they visited. The foreign affairs commentary in Radio Ceylon was headed by an Englishman. SWRD did not like its rightwing slant. He appointed Mervyn de Silva to the post.

When Britain withdrew from Ceylon, the naval port of Trincomalee, Katunayake Air base and some camps at Diyatalawa remained in the hands of Britain. DS Senanayake as Prime Minister readily agreed to this when the terms of independence were negotiated. SWRD got back Trincomalee and Katunayake, when he became Prime Minister. Trincomalee was taken back on October 15 1957 and Katunayake on November 1 1957.

SWRD had presented a Cabinet paper on the transfer of army and navy bases back to Sri Lanka. Britain wanted the transfer subject to their terms and conditions. SWRD did not agree.  He said that the return of the bases was something that Ceylon had the right to demand without any qualifications. Britain accepted that Ceylon could give them notice to quit.  Britain had no grounds on which to refuse.   ‘In the last resort we have depend on the good will of Ceylon’, admitted Britain.

Vidyodaya Pirivena, (Maligakanda), and Vidyalankara Pirivena (Kelaniya) were the leading pirivenas of the time. They had played a historical role during the British occupation, in preserving Buddhist learning and in projecting the image of a strong Maha Sangha.  SWRD recognized this and took action to elevate these two Pirivenas to University status.

Vidyodaya University and Vidyalankara University Act No 45 of 1958 converted these two pirivenas to universities. The two universities were duly established at Maligakanda and Kelaniya respectively. This was sneered at. The western oriented University of Ceylon was quite sufficient, said the opponents of SWRD.

Ven. Welivitiye Soratha who was the Principal of the Vidyodaya Pirivena was appointed as the first Vice-Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University, and the university was ceremonially opened on 16th February 1959. Today, this has become University of Sri Jayawardenepura. Vidyalankara Pirivena became the Vidyalankara University in 1959. It is today University of Kelaniya.

In 1956 for the first time a Ministry was formed for Cultural Affairs.  Ministry of Cultural Affairs was established on 12.04.1956 in accordance with the Throne Speech made by the MEP government when it came into power in 1956. It was established to formulate and implement a national cultural policy to regenerate the indigenous cultural tradition which had been suppressed for so long, under colonial rule.  

In 1956, Parliament passed the Official Language Act no 33 of 1956. It was passed after a marathon debate, with 66 ‘for’ and 20 ‘against.’ The Act said that the Sinhala language ‘shall be the one official language of Ceylon.’ The Act came into effect on 1st January 1964.  All government transactions throughout the country had to be in Sinhala from 31.10 1964.  Therefore it was not ‘Sinhala in 24 hours’. That statement is incorrect.

‘Sinhala only’ was never ‘Sinhala only’. Critics observed that the Act had failed to limit the use of Tamil and English, ‘as it should have done’. Nor did it make Sinhala compulsory in schools. No subsidiary legislation was passed under the Act either. Implementation was based solely on administrative orders and Cabinet directions. As a result, state administration was conducted in English above a certain level.

There were many positive results from Sinhala Only.  It brought a hitherto submerged class onto center stage and upward mobility,   said Meegama. TIME said until now, citizens could not send         telegrams make long distance calls, make out a bill of lading or hold a government job unless they spoke English. Sinhala only also led to significant changes in the administration of justice in Sri Lanka. Sinhala was made the official language in 1956 and   this led eventually to the use of Sinhala in courts of law, said WTA Leslie Fernando.

A National Planning Council was formed it. This was a first for the country. This Council brought out Ceylon’s first Ten Year Plan for 1959-68. It was the first comprehensive and systematic plan covering both public and private sectors, unlike earlier plans which covered only the public sector. It extended beyond the usual five years, said the Central Bank in its 25 anniversary review.

The MEP government made   a lasting contribution to the social legislation of the country. There was significant labour legislation, said Meegama.  These laws are now taken for granted.  The pioneer role of the MEP is forgotten today.

The Prevention of Social Disabilities Act, No. 21 of 1957 prohibited discrimination on the basis of caste. This was a boon to the low caste groups in Jaffna, who at the time were prevented from entering certain temples and barber shops.

The Act permitted all persons to enter and be served at, any public hotel, rest house, eating house, and restaurant. Obtaining or using water from any public well, spring, water-pipe or any other source of supply of water to the public. Entering, or obtaining the service provided at a public hairdressing saloon or laundry. Entering any public cemetery and attending or taking part in any burial or cremation. No person should be prevented from entering and worshipping in any temple which belongs to that person’s religion.

MEP government set up Conciliation Boards   to   facilitate amicable settlement of disputes. The Conciliation Boards Act No. 10 of 1958 was passed amidst opposition from vested interest. Conciliation Boards were to operate in all villages. Boards were empowered to settle dispute of a civil nature, especially those which related to moveable property.

It was not until 1958 that a serious attempt was made to reintroduce the concept of the ‘amicable settlement of disputes’ by introducing the Conciliation Boards Act 1958, said legal experts. The Act provided for mandatory community level resolution of minor disputes by impartial conciliators. The objective of the Act was to make available to disputants a much more accessible, less expensive, speedy and participatory dispute management process.  They did a tremendous service by settling the disputes at village level and preventing length litigation in courts, said WTA Leslie Fernando.

The Conciliation Boards operated from 1958- 1977. Problems with the implementation and application of the Act ultimately led to its repeal in 1977, said analysts. The Mediation Boards Act no 72 of 1988 is nothing but a continuation of the Conciliation Boards, said WTA Leslie Fernando.

Labour Tribunals were set up on 2.5.1959. . Until these tribunals were set up, a worker had to go to the civil courts when he was wrongly dismissed. This was beyond the worker’s means. With the creation of Labour tribunals, the workman with a grievance now had a place to go to. He could get a non lawyer to appear for him in the Labour Tribunal. The Labour Tribunals provided speedier justice than the courts .  TB Ilangaratne minister of labour, housing and social service in the 1956 government was responsible for introducing the legislation for this in Parliament.

The Employees Provident Fund (EPF) was established under the Act No. 15 of 1958 and is currently the largest Social Security Scheme in Sri Lanka. It had an asset base of Rs. 2,289 billion in 2018.

MEP government of 1956 nationalized the ‘port ‘and the bus services. All cargo handling operations in the port of Colombo were nationalized in 1958.  There is no further information on this. It is different with nationalization of bus services. There is plenty written on that.

MEP had promised to nationalize the bus companies and create a State Transport Board.  There were several large bus companies at the time. South Western Bus Company of Cyril de Soyza operated on the Colombo-Galle route. Silver line bus service   operated in Colombo. Sri Lanka Omnibus Company owned by Jayasena Madanayake of Peliyagoda, operated Colombo-Kandy- Gampaha-, Kurunegala run. Panadura Motor Transport Company of Leo Fernando operated on Panadura- Ratnapura- Wellawaya- Buttala route.

There was a host of smaller companies in the outstation. Siri Medura Bus Company ran buses   from Gampaha to Waturugama.  There was the Blue line Company, Green line company,  Uva Bus company, Madhyama Lanka,  Kandy Omnibus,  Galle Motor company and so on.

There was long standing dissatisfaction with the bus service provided by these private companies. There was much public anger over the deplorable service provided and the huge profits that the bus owners were making, which they did not use to improve the service. There was rivalry between the bus owners and brutal fights. Employees were badly treated.

The call for nationalization of bus service had been there for a long time, but the UNP government was not prepared to nationalize. The Bus company owners were all supporters of the UNP. They provided the UNP with funds and also provided gangs for intimidation during elections.  In the 1950s, 27    MPs had interests in the bus companies.

The MEP nationalized the private bus service. The Motor Transport Bill for the nationalization of bus services was presented to the House of Representatives on September 24, 1957 and passed on October 17, 1957. It was passed without division. Buses were nationalized in 1958. SWRD wanted the nationalization done in stages, Philip Gunawardene insisted that it must be done in one go.

All road passenger transport services were transferred from private to state ownership and on January 1, 1958 by Transport Act No. 48 of 1957. The Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) was created to operate an all island bus service.

 SWRD appointed   a senior member of the Civil Service, Vere de Mel as Chairman, He was an excellent choice. He handled the takeover expertly, then set up an integrated bus transport system which for the first time catered to   hitherto inaccessible parts of the island. CTB also made it possible for passengers to travel to distant  places without having to change buses at  several  points,  noted Meegama. It should be observed,  however, that while this may have been good for transport, it was  a  calculated hit at the  emerging Sinhala business man.  The takeover was a severe blow to them and many ‘bus mudalalis’ never recovered from it.

May Day was declared a holiday in Sri Lanka in 1956 for the Government sector, bank and mercantile sectors. Ayurveda was revived, .  A   film  and recording studio was  set up In Kirula Rd, Colombo for making  films. This was  very welcome. Until  this studio was set up,  the Sinhala film makers had to go to India to get their films processed.  ( Continued)

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