Sumnapala Dahanayake, An ideal Member of Parliament
Posted on April 4th, 2023

by Garvin Karunaratne, former SLAS.

It was a very strange order coming from the Minister for Public Administration, Mr Felix Dias Bandaranayake, the de facto ruler of Sri Lanka in 1970.

You can go on transfer as the Government Agent at Matara only if all members of parliament agree”. The order of the Hon Minister was conveyed to me by Baku Mahadeva, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Public Administration.

I was wondering what to do- shall I go behind all the members of parlaiment and be indebted to them in my work as the Government Agent of the District. Then I would not be able to do any work as I would have to please them.

I finally decided to bell the cat-meet the Members of Parliament. It would be a blot on my career as an administrator if did not get the posting as the GA at Matara.

I met Ronnie de Mel and had a hearty chat. He had earlier been a senior member of the SLAS and we had a lot in common. I was certain that he had no objection. Then I met Dr SA Wicks. I had known him when I had worked at Matara earlier as Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services and was also certain that he liked me to come in. I met Deputy Minister Tudawe who was non commital but added that he had no objection. I tried to find the rest of the members of parliament but the rest including Sumanapala Dahanayake could not be traced. .However something unknown to me 1did happen and Minister Felix Dias approved my transfer to Matara.

A few days after I assumed duties a young man walked into my room with a smile on his face.

I am Sumanapala Dahanayake. I am happy you got in here. Dr NM had heard that you were facing a problem and we had to put our foot down to get you here. We have heard of you and we want you here.”

That was how we met.

Sumanapala stood by me in all the problems we faced beginning with the April 1971 insurrection of the JVP when they tried to take over Sri Lanka in one night like Fidel Castro in Cuba to be a colony of North Korea. Many of us today do not know that the North Korean Embassy was implicated in the insurrection and ordered to get out at once. North Korean battle ships were reported in our waters and one came to Dondra and unloaded boats and some baggage. Major Rajapaksa and I watched with our binoculars how they were machine gunned for over fifteen minutes by our airplane and chased away.

That was three weeks when the Ministry of Public Administration was inactive- No communication whatsover and my word was final. Matara was reduced to a coastal strip and I requisitioned over ten jeeps and equipped them as battletanks to fight the enemy- the JVP cadres- our own boys who were misled. I impounded all petrol stocks and issued permits for their use. In all these -Sumanapala was beside me. I even issued him a revolver. The entire district except for the coastal strip belonged to the JVP. Major Rajapaksa took a battle hardended force in fourteen jeeps to fight the JVP and Sumanapa Dahanayake joined in- he was entrusted by me to find volunteers to build an armed force. He wanted to somehow get to his electorate- Deniyaya.

This massive force fully equippied with machine guns was way laid about ten miles from Matara before it reached Akuressa and the massive fire power of the JVP cadres, put two jeeps into flames, severely injured both the commander Major Rajapaksa and Sumanapala Dahanayake who was beside him. The battalion had to beat a retreat to Matara, leaving the two jeeps in flames.

Both Major Wettasinghe and MP Sumanapala were severely injured and were warded at the Matara Hospital. The next morning news of Radio Ceylon blared that an army soldier warded at the Elpitiya Hospital was shot and killed in his hospital bed. I rushed to the Matara Hospital and arranged to move Sumanapala Dahanayalke in an ambulance to Colombo. The ambulance had to go throu2gh JVP territory and if checked the fact that the patient was Sumanapala should not be known. I gave Sumanapala a different name, wrote out a hospital bed ticket with that name and sent him off to Colombo. Though stopped several times by JVP cadres they managed to bluff when checked and managed to get through to Colombo.

That happened to be the beginings of our friendship- all happening within the first five weeks of my stay at Matara.

We got down to development work in earnest. Sumanapala was keen to develop his electorate. We suggested many projects – a water colour industry, a dairy industry-to have cows for milk. These were not approved. It was only a few agricultural projects opened up in the entire district.

On my own I had through my Planning Officer, a science graduate found the art of making crayons. It took three months of experiments locked up in the Rahula School Science Lab from six to midnight everyday. We wanted it to be a cooperative and I had observed Sumanapala in his work as the President of the Morawak Korale Cooperative Union to be an efficient organizer. I sent for him and inquired as to whether he would like to make crayons at his cooperative. He was taken aback at the quality of crayons we had produced and readily agreed. The question of funds to establish the industry came up.Though I spent a vast sum on various programmes I could not accommodate building a crayon factory in any. Though the Government Agent had been gazetted as a Deputy Commissioner of Cooperatives that was specifically for the purpose of spearheading paddy cultivation. Finally I wrote out a letter authorizing Sumanapala to use coperative funds and set up a cooperative making crayons. We administrators had got used to bend rules for the sake of development.

That was all that was needed. Sumanapala got working like a duck in water – he purchased the utensils and machinery. The Divisional Secretary had recruited unemployed youths- some twenty and Sumanapala cleared two large rooms in his Cooperative Union. On the third day I took off with five officers of the katcheri to train the youths to make crayons. It was a handmade crayon, boiling the ingredients to a particular temperature, then carefully pouring the liquid into thin glass tubes and finally hand crafting each crayon. Sumanapala took over the task, The katcheri officers carefully supervised and Sumanapala was around working at least eighteen to twenty hours a day supervising and goading the youths, speaking kindly but very firm and supervising the youths- a task done in two weeks

My plan was to establish the crayon factory and it was done- a marvel feat all done by Sumanapala under our eyes. I was more at Morawaka than at Matara those days and Sumanapala was all over. His enthusiasm knew no bounds, Labels were printed, crayons put into packets and crayons made to fill two large rooms a feat well done..

Finally Sumanapala and I carried some samples to meet some big wigs and win them over before other big wigs could put me into trouble for doing the unauthorized.. We first met the Minister for Industries, Mr Subasinghe who was amazed at the quality and agreed to come in a week to open sales. That was done and that gave us legitimacy and none could punish me. Sumanapala got cracking with the production. He shone forth as a leader- someone to be admired as a role model for our members of parliament today,

We had won the day. However we had to face many difficulties. One was the high prices at which we had to purchase dyes in the black market and I approached the Ministry of Industries for a small allocation to be told that their foreign exchange was not to be given for cooperatives. They were not going to bend rules to help us. . Then we got wind that the Ministry of Imports was about to authorize a big allocation of foreign exchange to import crayons and we decided to make a move. Armed only with a few packets of coop crayons I took off in haste to meet the Controller of Imports, accompanied by Sumanapala. It did not long for us to convince Harry Gunaratne, the Controller of Imports that by allocating a small fraction of the import allocation he was hoping to allow for the import of crayons, he could be rest assured of saving a massive amount of foreign exchange, by cancelling the imports of crayons. However he said that it had never been done earlier and he wanted us to get the approval of the Hon Minister, Sumanapala knew him and I had never met him earlier. It was Minister Illangaratne. When we met him he was so surprised at the quality of the crayons that he not only approved giving us an allocation of foreign exchange from the funds earmarked for imports but he immediately ordered the total cancellation of foreign exchange for importing crayons. He also insisted that we should open a crayon factory at Kolonnawa, his electorate. Sumanapala had to do a lot of talking to get him to agree to wait a while till the Deniyaya Coop Crayon was on a firm footing.

Another involvement by Sumanapala is in my memory. That happened somewhere in 1973. The work done under the Divisional Development Councils Programme – the highlights were the mechanized boatyard at Matara and Coop Crayon at Morawaka, which brought great presitige. A public meeting was held at Matara where the achievement of the DDCProgramme was highlighted. Sumanapala made a great speech indicating the progress made under the DDCP in Deniyaya. I too spoke highlighting the achievement. At the end I as the presiding officer called on anyone in the audience to come and speak. Strangely, a Development Assistant who worked in Matara under me came forward and made a speech criticizing the achievement in Coop Crayon, stating that none of the ingredients that went into the making of the crayon were found in the Matara District adding that the results were poor. The audience looked confounded at this. As this officer ended his speech I replied, telling that the achievement in our District was easily the best considering the two major industries established within months- the Boatyard and the Crayon Factory. I stated that if it was good for Japan to buy cotton from as far as Egypt, take it all the way to Japan, make textiles and market the textiles back to consumers in Egypt, which was successfully done we too followed their practice and made crayons finding the ingredients from other districts and yet made a stunning profit and created employment for our youths At the end of the meeting I instructed that Development Assistant to see me in the office immediately after this meeting was over. When he came to meet me at my office I told him that he had ample opportunity to raise this question at the many meetings I had with him and other Development Officers and that he had no business to belittle our achievement in the public. I served an interdiction letter on him, stopping him from work, depriving even the half salary during interdiction for bringing the programme to discredit by making a public speech. He went away in tears.

Strangely half an hour later Sumanapala barged into my room. I am told that a Development Assistant had criticized Coop Crayon’s achievement in the public. He had no business to ridicule the achievement of Coop Crayon. It is we who have suffered and broken rest at nights to build up the crayons. I was searching to give him a good hiding. He would end up in a hospital bed. . I heard that you have severely punished him and therefore I cannot beat him.” Sumanapala was right. That officer deserved to be punished. Coop Crayon was a product which Sumanapala had developed with great care and devotion. I can remember him breaking rest at night repeatedly in the first two weeks when not only I but five officers of the katcheri and Sumanapala broke rest,

I left the Administrative Service for further study abroad in April 1973 leaving coop crayon in the able hands of Sumanapala and he handled it extremely well, developed it to have islandwide sales- an industry that brought income and employment to local lads. Coop Crayon was easily the best industry established in the entire programme islandwide.

However after the 1977 parliamentary election where Premier Sirimavo lost, President Jayawardena wanted to hang Sumanapala. Then coop crayon had stolen the march to be the best industry that the Divisional Development Councils Programme had done. President Jayawardena sent for AT Ariyaratne the Deputy Commissioner of Cooperative Development and assigned him the task of conducting a full appraisal of coop crayon, including a full audit. Ariyaratne told me that he took a posse of auditors and went through all aspects of production and accounting and had to report back to President Jayawardena that he could not find a single fault. Ariyaratne was an admirable administrator who would not try to please Pesident Jayawardena for personal gain. Sumanapala was saved a stint at the Welikada gallows. This Audit also spoke highly of the work done by Sumanapala as the President of the Cooperative Union.

Sumanapala was a member of the Samasamaja Party and Dr NM often visited Deniyaya, when he went though the development work that was done- Coop Crayon , the Batik and Sewing Industry at Tittapaddara, and the agricultural farms at Kotapola etc. Dr NM was actually admiring the success of the Divisional Development Councils Programme- the programme which he had initiated with Premier Sirimavo in action. It was all to: create employment opportunities in the rural areas through small scale projects in agriculture, industry…”. (Budget Speech of the Minister of Finance: 1973)

Sumanapala shone in that task, an ideal held for any member of parliament ever. . As Dr NM said- He concluded that Coop Crayon was a great success. In the 1970 Budget Speech his aim was to fulfil the aspirations of thousands of young men and women for whom life will lose all meaning unless they can find a useful place in our society”(1970 Budget Speech)

Sumanapala’s achievement is beyond par and will hold as an ideal for centuries to come.

Garvin Karunaratne, Ph.D. Michigan State University,

former GA Matara 1971-1973 & Later International Consultant

4 th April 2023

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