Posted on April 14th, 2021


The popular mood, after the 1956   elections, was such that everything was to change, the way institutions were run and certainly the persons manning them. The popular mood was not just for language change, though this had priority with an insistent lobby behind it, but it included a lot more, said Bradman Weerakoon.

This was especially so on the cultural side where indigenous forms and practices were to   soon replace the western modes of thought and habit which the Colombo elites had embraced. The banning of horse racing and the consumption of liquor at public functions were two items in this new trend, Bradman noted.

In the 1950s the model of a good respected politician was that he belonged to the westernized Ceylonese elite and behaved like an Englishman. He was an urban based trouser clad man of the English educated elite.  The 1956   MPs came from the Sinhala speaking rural hinterland and from the lower urban classes.

The westernised class was horrified. The progressive class was not. When Upali Dias, son of Arthur V Dias, a relative of my mother, was asked by my mother, ‘but can these new MPs run Parliament. Upali Dias replied firmly ‘they will learn.’

With 1956, the political life of the country, which hitherto remained dominated by the English speaking elite, underwent a transformation, the immediate result of which was the emergence of a new leadership

Earlier, the CCS men and their ministers came from the same social class and thought alike .1956 changed this. 1956 election brought to power a new political leadership whose cultural and social orientations were very different from the officers of the  Ceylon Civil Service, who had to work directly with them, said Wiswa Warnapala. The General election of 1956 brought their subordinates into Parliament. In Anuradhapura Sirimevan Godage, Office assistant came forward for election, facing PB Bulankulame.

M. S. Themis, a postal peon was elected to Parliament from Colombo Central at the 1956 General election, with a narrow margin of 43 votes. Themis was the first worker to sit in Parliament. The Colombo society was much amused when a postal peon, M.S Themis, had been elected an MP, reported the media.

  M.S. Themis

Themis at the age of 18 was elected as the Vice President of the All Ceylon Post and Telecommunications Union and the following year he was elected its Secretary. He also held the post of Joint Secretary of the All Ceylon Public Service Trade Union Conference.

Themis showed rare integrity. When Philip Gunawardene left the MEP government, Themis resigned from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and left the MEP government along with Philip. He returned the allowances he had drawn as a Member of Parliament back to the national coffers to be used for gratuity payments. He never returned to Parliament. He started a stationery company, Royal Mailhouse Pvt. Ltd and became a successful printer and publisher. Themis died in 2017.

The role of the state changed in 1956.  The state now came forward to play a direct role in the economic development of the country. The CWE increased its activities, and took over a large percentage of the import and export trade.

1956 was the Age of State monopoly, said Fiijk” ( N.E.Weerasooriya). More state corporations were formed in 1956-64 than in any other period in history. About 20 state industrial corporations were created, for textiles, engineering, oils and fats, cement, chemicals, ceramics, small industries, salt, industrial estates, mineral sands, paper, plywood, steel, leather, tyres and sugar plantations. The CTB was created in 1957, Ceylon Port cargo corporation in 1958. Followed in the 1960s by Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (1961) and Ceylon Insurance Corporation. (1964).

Before 1956, industries were set in Tamil majority areas. Cement Factory at Kankesanturai (est. 1950) Paranthan Chemicals Corporation at Kilinochchi (est. 1954)   and Valaichchenai paper mill in Batticaloa district (1955.) Many of the   state corporations established after 1956 were in Sinhala majority areas and the recruitment from top to bottom was on political patronage, said Fiijk.

The 1956 government like the governments before it, had links with the trade unions. The MEP government was supported by trade union leaders like DA Piyadasa of All Ceylon Harbor Workers Union and DG William of the State Employees Federation.

 They were  useful to the MEP government .When the right wing of the  MEP  organized a demonstration in Colombo to oppose the guaranteed payment for farmers, the demonstrators were met at Gordon Gardens,  by DA Piyadasa’s union, which was loyal to Philip. There was a free for all. The trade union gave the marchers a beating, recorded Meegama.

Then the Ceylon Harbor Workers Union went on strike and the authorities tried to negotiate.The discussion got heated.  DA Piyadasa  had suddenly jumped up and slapped Vernon Peries, the Civil Service officer involved in the discussion, on the jaw. The Civil Service was furious. They insisted on  a case against Piyadasa. They were adamant.   Philip Gunawardene who had connections with Piyadasa wanted the matter settled with an apology. Civil Service declared that Piyadasa must be charged in courts.    MF de S Jayaratne, Permanent   Secretary to Ministry of  transport refused to budge and a case was filed against Piyadasa. 

Critics of 1956 pointed out that the Age of the Common Man also was the Age of strikes. Statistics show that the strike age started in 1956 and continued up to 1964.  There  were strikes in the port, and in the nationalized transport services, also in estates and other establishments.  From 1948-1955 there were on the average 55 estate strikes and 38 others, from 1956- 1964 there were on average 139 estate strikes and 66 others. The total number  for 1948-1955 was  estates 436 and other 306. From 1956-1964 it was estates 1255 and other 681.    ( Continued)

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