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 Lankas 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
The following is the full obituary published in the Times:
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 authors 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.
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 Wijetungas
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
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.
Wijetungas 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 Wijetungas 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 Premadasas.
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.
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