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THE TIMES OF LONDON CALLS DINGIRI BANDA WIJETUNGA A MAN WHO RESTORED DEMOCRACY BACK IN SRI LANKA

By Walter Jayawardhana

The Times, in an obituary published called the deceased Sri Lankan President Dingiri Banda Wijetunga as a man who restored democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka after the shocking demise of his predecessor by assassination committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

But The Times , following the Western practice, called his identification of Sri Lanka’s trouble as a terrorist problem and not as an ethnic problem a gaffe but Sri Lankan expatriates in London said Wijetunga has been proved beyond any doubt by history itself. They said all leaders who entered into negotiations with them have been killed or wounded by them like Rajiv Gandhi and President Ranasinghe Premadasa who were assassinated and President Chandrika Kumaratunga , who was left partially blind by a bomb blast.

The obituary said,” Wijetunga was quickly and unanimously chosen by a stunned Parliament to take over from Premadasa as acting President for the remaining 18 months of his term of office. Press and trade union freedoms, curtailed by the authoritarian Premadasa under a state of emergency, were restored, if only temporarily. Sri Lanka seemed to breathe easier now that the combative Premadasa was no longer in power.”

The obituary said, the quietly-spoken, fastidiously polite Wijetunga brought a much needed change of tone that cooled the hothouse political atmosphere, at least for a while. A senior Sri Lankan political analyst noted later that the new President “set about his work in his own simplistic, inimitable fashion”, ushering in a “more politically free era”.
But without substantiating it the Times said one of these inimitable traits was to put his foot in it, such as when he declared that Sri Lanka did not have an ethnic problem, only a terrorist problem.

The following is the full obituary published in the Times:
“Wijetunga: he ushered in a more politically free era but was prone to gaffes

It is a telling humiliation that no publisher could be found in Sri Lanka to distribute a biography of Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, the former Prime Minister and President. The author’s downbeat working title, The Humble Statesman, inadvertently said it all: that he was a passive leader who stirred up passions and politics only accidentally, when he said the wrong thing at the wrong time.
“A publisher did finally take on the volume after a friend of Wijetunga put up some money. The overriding impression left by nearly every political analysis of his steady rise to become the most powerful man in Sri Lanka is that nobody, not even he, understood fully how it happened. Those who knew him well described him as humble and lacking ambition. He was not a man to excite publishers.

“His most important step to the top was when President Ranil Premadasa (sic) stunned everybody — Wijetunga included, it seems — by appointing him Prime Minister in March 1989 above more deserving contenders. Doubtless Premadasa feared having an assertive and ambitious man at his elbow. Wijetunga held this position, efficiently but without notable achievement, until Premadasa was assassinated four years later, almost certainly by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The humble statesman was suddenly the man of the hour.

“Wijetunga was quickly and unanimously chosen by a stunned Parliament to take over from Premadasa as acting President for the remaining 18 months of his term of office. Press and trade union freedoms, curtailed by the authoritarian Premadasa under a state of emergency, were restored, if only temporarily. Sri Lanka seemed to breathe easier now that the combative Premadasa was no longer in power.

“Wijetunga was in manner the opposite of Premadasa, who had decisively demonstrated his dictatorial tendencies in 1991 when he suspended Parliament for a month to fend off an impeachment motion against him. It had been proposed by senior figures in his own party, some still furious at Wijetunga’s elevation, and alleged that he had abused presidential authority by assuming too many powers.

“The quietly-spoken, fastidiously polite Wijetunga brought a muchneeded change of tone that cooled the hothouse political atmosphere, at least for a while. A senior Sri Lankan political analyst noted later that the new President “set about his work in his own simplistic, inimitable fashion”, ushering in a “more politically free era”. One of these inimitable traits was to put his foot in it, such as when he declared that Sri Lanka did not have an ethnic problem, only a terrorist problem.
“It was a measure of his conciliatory style that he voluntarily stopped acting as executive President when his political rivals, under the leadership of Chandrika Kumaratunga, the daughter of two former prime ministers, won the August 1994 parliamentary elections under the banner of the coalition People’s Alliance. She became Prime Minister but Wijetunga still had three months left in office pending presidential elections.

“As executive President he could have wreaked political havoc and brought the business of government to its knees. He did not do so, instead choosing voluntarily to act as a constitutional president for the remainder of his term, leaving Kumaratunga to run the country. It was a crucial gesture that saved Sri Lanka from political paralysis at a time of national crisis as well as national hope, given that Kumaratunga had been elected on a pledge to end the civil war with the Tamil Tigers.

“Wijetunga’s rule was sometimes ridiculed as submissive, but, paradoxically, that was exactly what was needed at the time. A battle between a president and prime minister of rival parties might have made a peaceful transfer of power impossible. As it was, power changed hands calmly. It was Wijetunga’s finest moment.

“He was now anxious to pave the way for a successor in the forthcoming presidential elections and head into retirement. He had long been aware that Premadasa, the low-caste son of a village peasant, was disliked by most of the electorate, most MPs, and most of the intellectual establishment. So he distanced himself from the former President, even to the extent of citing illness for being unable to attend the unveiling of his statue on the spot where he had been assassinated. If the United National Party had any hope of capturing the presidency, Wijetunga knew he had to dissociate himself from the would-be dictator. It was to no avail: the party lost the November 1994 polls.

“His own family background had been almost as lowly as Premadasa’s. He was born into a village family of Sinhala Buddhists, without important political or clan connections, near the central city of Kandy.

“After secondary education he became an inspector for the Co-operative Department. But he began taking an interest in politics and met some important politicians who helped to promote him as a parliamentary candidate. He was first elected in 1965 and rose into senior ministerial posts, including the portfolios of defence and finance.

“He was out of power between 1970 and 1977 and served briefly as governor of the North Western province in 1988. When he left office as President after his defeat, with a victorious Kumaratunga now due to succeed him, he retired to the Kandy village of Pilimatalawa, from where he quietly watched her peace hopes turn to dust.
“Wijetunga is survived by a daughter.
“Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, 1989-93, and President, 1993-94, was born on February 25, 1922. He died on September 21, 2008, aged 86”



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