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Some election reminiscences



A csynic once remarked that politics in Sri Lanka is ‘Poly tricks’ or ‘Podi tricks’, adding that half of the reputation of a politician was ruined by lies and the other half by the truth.

It was also his view that the gift of the gab and the toothy smile did not make one a politician. Nor does being obscure, inept, ill-educated, clueless, nonentities, verbosity.

Honesty, consistency, ability, hanydwork and commitment appear to be things of the past.

As usual various promises which could never be kept are made at elections.

The world’s first politician is said to have been Christopher Colombus. For, he did not know where he was going and also did not know where he had been. All that, he did at people’s expense.

Prior to 1947, the mode of voting was very simple. Each candidate was allotted a colour and the voting was by dropping the ballot paper into the ballot box bearing the candidate’s colour, The colours much in demand were yellow and red. Yellow, because it evoked a responsive chord amongst a great majority of the voters who were Buddhists. Red was favoured by the leftist parties. In Ruhuna, the Lion of Ruhuna, the late D.M. Rajapaksa, chose the colour brown, the colour of the soil and the staple diet of the poor, kurakkan (finger millet).

From 1947 a voter had to mark the ballot paper with a Cross (x) opposite the symbol of a candidates and drop it into a common ballot box.

In this constituency, the majority of the voters were semi-rustic humble people. And this candidate went from house-to-house canvassing. “I am contesting this seat and my symbol is the lamp. I hope you are voting for me,” he said.

“Of course Mahattaya, need you ask us that? We are certainly voting for you.” “When you get the ballot paper, please make a cross opposite my symbol.”

At the next house too, he introduced himself. “Why the devil should we vote for you? And what have you done for us? We are going to vote for the clock,” they rudely told him.

“Well, that is your privilege. Then in the square opposite my symbol (lamp), in the ballot paper, mark a cross to show that you reject me.”

In 1931, the Anuradhapura seat in the State Council comprised the entire North Central Province. Today, the NCP has been broken up into 10 seats, as the population has increased ten-fold, thanks to the colonisation schemes of the late Father of the Nation, D.S Senanayake. In 1931, one of the contestants for the Anuradhapura Seat was an Englishman named H.R. Freeman, a retired Government Agent who preferred to live with his beloved peasants of the Vanni. Freeman’s election campaign was a novel and even casual one. He did not ever ask a voter directly for his vote. He would walk into a village, and sit on a rock or a tree stump by the road, and when the adoring peasants surrounded him, as they always did, he would tell them in a very matter-of- fact manner, “‘When you get that piece of white paper and put it inside the BLUE box, I go to the Council.” And the villagers would immediately raise their hands to Heaven and cry “Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!” “And if you put the paper into the RED box,” Freeman would continue, “I go to England.” “Apoi, hamuduruwane,” the villagers would wail, “Don’t do that! We will put the paper into your blue box!” The mini-meeting being over, Freeman would pick up his umbrella, and go on to the next ‘meeting’.

In the 1931 General Election to the Ceylon State Council, the Dumbara Seat was contested by the late A. Ratnayake (later President of the Senate), and the late M. B. W. Mediwaka, and their election campaigns were something that peace loving people would like to see today. They appeared on a common platform. How nice if we could revive this sporting and gentlemanly practice today.

During the General Election in 1989, Ranjan Wijayawardena, one of the UNP candidates for the Matara District, arrived at the Matara Textile Industries Centre premises with some of his supporters to hold an unscheduled election meeting. Just then, Mahinda Wijesekera, an SLFP candidate, also arrived at the same venue to have a meeting of his own. The two rival candidates conferred, and decided to have a joint meeting. Wijesekera was the first to speak and outlining and explaining the policies of the SLFP, he appealed to all those who were not going to vote for his party or him, to vote for Ranjan Wijewardena. Ranjan in turn, after explaining the policies of his party, exhorted those who were not voting for him, to vote for Mahinda Wijesekera. At the end of the meeting, the huge crowd that was present gave the two rival candidates a standing ovation for the sportsmanship they had displayed. Incidentally, both candidates were returned to Parliament from the Matara District.

At this time the election fever was hotting up. with even candidates from the same party fighting for the preferencial votes, on which depended their being elected to Parliament. It was in this atmosphere that an election meeting was held at the Mahajana Pola at Galewala in Matale. A candidate was speaking, when he saw a rival candidate from another party coming towards the Pola, about to turn back, on seeing the meeting of the rival group in progress. The speaker stopped speaking and hailed his rival over the loudspeaker. “I say, Mr…, don’t go! Come up here and join me!” The invitation was accepted, and the candidate who was speaking, introduced his rival to the crowd, adding that there would be so many who would not vote for him (the speaker), and appealed to them to vote for his rival. The rival candidate, when he was asked to speak, replied in the same vein, adding that his rival candidate was a very honest man just the sort of man needed in politics.”

Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe, the leader of the Communist Party was on his feet, addressing one of his own election meetings, when a man came up to him and whispered something urgently in his ear. Dr. Wickramasinghe stopped his speech abruptly and rushed off the stage and into a waiting car. The message was from his rival candidate, Sarath Wijesinghe, saying that Wijesinghe’s only daughter was seriously ill. After attending to the patient, Dr. Wickremasinghe returned and continued his speech, but not a word did he say about where he had gone, and why. He could have made a tremendous political capital out of it, but, the gentleman that he was, he did not.


Many years ago, and a certain MP noted for his quick temper and impulsive ways sought re-election. One day, while he was going round the electorate, canvassing, a supporter of his rival was rather rude to the MP.


The MP gave the man back in kind, and as the verbal exchange became heated, the MP drew back his fist and let his constituent have it on the jaw. Three of the man’s teeth were broken and he immediately went to the police station and made an entry against the MP. The parliamentarian was charged with grievous hurt, and the- case was postponed. Supporters, and especially speakers at the election meetings of the rival candidate, were strictly warned by their party hierarchy not to refer in any way to the incident as the matter was ‘sub judice’. But one irrepressible speaker was not to be put off so easily. Speaking at one of the MP’s rival’s meetings, this man said, “Sahodarawaruni it is nice to be loved by one’s wife. But my wife is overdoing her solicitousness for me. Every time I address a meeting and go home, she promptly grabs me and counts my teeth to see if any are missing!”

Talking of belligerent MPs, there was this not too popular chap who was nominated by his party to a certain seat. On the nomination day, as he returned home from the Kachcheri after handing in his papers, there were the usual wayside receptions and garlands. He was garlanded no less than nine times. The candidate reached his house, and leaping out of his car, grabbed his chief political catcher by the arm, and dragged him inside. Soon the people who had gathered at his house heard a loud altercation and the sound of a few slaps. They rushed into the house to see what the matter was, only to hear the would-be MP shout, Yakko, I gave you money for TEN garlands, and I got only nine!”

In one election, the doughty LSSPer Robert Gunawardena, was challenged by a prominent Buddhist coming from a very famous family which had been in the forefront of the battle for the emancipation of Buddhists and Buddhism from the restrictions placed on them by the British Raj. In his manifesto, this information of his famous family and that fact that he went to Dambadiva (the historical name for India) twice a year on pilgrimage were mentioned as qualifications. At one of his own election meetings, Robert Gunawardena, held up his opponent’s manifesto and said with withering scorn, “Sahodarawaruni, if going to Dambadiva twice a year is a qualification, then my barber is more qualified than this candidate, for that fellow goes to Dambadiva FOUR times a year!” (What Robert did not mention was that his barber was an Indian).

“In the general election of 1965 an SLFP Minister seeking re-election, had got off the stage after his speech, at one of his own election meetings, and surrounded by his cheering supporters, was making his way to his car to go to another meeting. He opened the door of his vehicle, but before he could get in, the huge crowd, surged forward, and the Minister’s hand got wedged in the door.

“Atha Atha!” (hand, hand!), yelled the politico, wincing in pain.

JAYAWEWA!” shouted the crowd, thinking he was referring to the SLFP symbol.

“Na, na, magey atha!” screamed the politico.

“Jayawewa!” roared the crowd….

Led by Somaweera Chandrasiri, the Poet of the Revolution, ‘hitivana kavi’ (impromptu verses) played an integral part at election meetings. Once when Ariyawansa Pathiraja, the famous Sinhala poet, was addressing an election meeting at Kotte, someone whispered to him that people from the enemy camp were recording his speech. Pathiraja immediately stopped his speech, and broke out into an impromptu verse:


Jathiya wanasala mage mulu rata holla

Newathath awuth apage chandaya illa

Tape karanawalu mun ayinak alla

Patigatha wenna honda hoowak daapalla

(“They’ve ruined our nation and shaken our country to its foundations. And now, once again they [impertinently] ask for our votes. Apparently they are furtively recording [my speech]. Let’s sound a big hoot they can tape.”) And the crowd responded with a mighty hoot!

About thirty years ago, a prominent local Marxist leader was addressing a public meeting, his theme being the equitable distribution of wealth. As he spoke, a young man in the crowd yelled out, “Everybody knows you are a very rich capitalist, Sahodaraya, so why don’t you set an example by distributing YOUR wealth among the people?”

The Marxist leader put his hand into his pocket, and taking out a ten-cent coin, tossed it to the young man. “I am worth about ten lakhs,” said the Marxist. “The population of this country is about ten million, and if my wealth is distributed among them, each person will get exactly ten cents! And now that you have got your share of my wealth, Sahodaraya allow me to go on with my speech!”

During one of those regular S. de S. Jayasinghe – Colvin R de Silva bouts for the Dehiwala-Galkissa Seat at one General Election, S de S. Jayasinghe speaking at one of his own election meetings said confidently, “I am winning this election, nonawaruni mahathwaruni! For my name begins with ‘Jaya’; Jaya for victory!” Speaking at one of his meeting a few days later,’ Dr. Colvin R. de Silva said, “I am told that my opponent Mr. Jayasinghe is bragging that he is going to be victorious, because his name begins with ‘Jaya’. Yes, Sahodara Sahodariyani! because his name begins with ‘jaya’ he may seem to win at the beginning, but come election day and I shall be the winner, for MY name ENDS with WIN.

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Beyond constitutional politics and polemics



Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster greet one another upon Pompeo’s arrival at the airport in New Delhi on Monday. PTI

by Austin Fernando

All quandaries on constitutional amendments are now over with an impressive victory for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the country looks forward to the implementation of the 20th Amendment (20A), to serve the people more efficiently, effectively, and economically.

Although Minister of Justice Ali Sabry declared that all 20A provisions had been in the JR Jayewardene Constitution previously, there were a few differences. Considering the volume of amendments, this stance is passable, though not exact. My observation is that Presidents Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa performed effectively in comparison to attain their development objectives through the 1978 Constitution.

Governmental performance

Economic performance is an essential ingredient in political performance and management. It is because the economics of development under all regimes has been an evaluation yardstick and also publicly questioned.

Performance by Presidents, Prime Ministers and governments are not guided and determined only by Constitutions. If Constitutions could facilitate smooth performance, why didn’t it happen during tenures of all Presidents exercising power according to the 1978 Constitution? Until 2009, they had failed to defeat terrorism. Corruption increased. The economic morass continued.

The development of a country hinges on the quality of political and business leadership, national security/stability, research/ technological /educational standards, labour legislations, foreign direct investments, foreign assistance/aid, environmental soundness, diplomacy, international political behavior, and positive responses. The Constitution could boost development, but it alone is not sufficient.

Successes do not preclude criticisms that were aplenty against the aforesaid three Presidents. Some criticisms were even acceptable as regards the moral decadence due to the open economy, proliferation of dangerous drugs, or the construction of an unoptimizable port, airport and other such infrastructural projects and debt traps.


Human rights

One criterion for foreign assistance is a country’s respect for human rights. I may quote Rights watchdog Meenakshi Ganguly, of Human Rights Watch- South Asia, to prove this point. After the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, she said: “The Sri Lankan government needs to hear that other countries are watching and will respond to renewed abuses.” This threat has not gone away.

Such issues will be taken up when the UNHRC meets in early 2021. Britain has already decided to withdraw the LTTE ban. Additionally, anti-China attitudes could lead to the harassment of Sri Lanka even indirectly. Contrarily, the Chinese have given assurances of bailing us out.

Even after the passage of 20A, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa cannot expect to be exempted from such attitudes, rules, and standards. I will highlight some immediate reactions experienced with selected internationals. The way foreign powers have responded to the incumbents after the presidential and parliamentary elections will be a guide to observe the trends.



Immediately after the presidential election, India showed up in Colombo. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also positively responded and the traditional first destination visit was to Delhi. Former President Maithripala Sirisena also did so, followed by another for the second inauguration of PM Modi.

Such visits provide opportunities to evaluate silently how foreign powers respond. I had the privilege of participating in all three visits by Presidents Sirisena and Rajapaksa. President Sirisena’s first visit was considered by Indians as a grand opportunity for novel openings and approaches, having experienced a deterioration of diplomatic relations under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure.

However, the agreement signed by Ministers Malik Samarawickrama and Sushma Swaraj in 2017, concerning several large-scale projects, apparently to spite Chinese political/economic interference in Sri Lanka, did not reach fruition. Indians did not forgive the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government although formal relations were maintained respectfully.

The difference in diplomatic relations is reflected in many ways. This was seen from how PM Modi responded when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited India in November 2019. Their one-on-one meeting lasted 55 minutes, and India offered US dollar 450 million to Sri Lanka in assistance. Perhaps, body chemistry of the two leaders clicked. PM Mahinda Rajapaksa once criticised Indians for having contributed to his defeat in 2015. India has proved that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in foreign relations, and it is only the mutual interests that matter.

Indians expected the fast-tracking of projects related to the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), the Mattala Airport, and Trinco Petroleum Tanks. But there has been no positive follow-up even eleven months after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s discussions with PM Modi. The COVID-19 pandemic could be one reason for this delay. But a fresh dialogue is necessary if India is to be kept in the development loops.

Recently, PM Modi offered a $15-million grant for the promotion of Buddhist cultural exchanges, but his officers are slow in finalizing requests for a debt moratorium and an additional $1.1-billion assistance discussed during the visits of Rajapaksa brothers in November 2019 and February 2020. Positively, the Reserve Bank of India signed a swap of $400 million. If such needs are not met, the vacuum will be filled by another.

For comparison, Indian External Affairs Minister committed a 100-million-dollar grant and a project loan of 400 million dollars to the Maldives in mid-August this year, showing assistance did not depend on demography, revenue generation, or socio-economy, but on other priorities. The swift assistance to the Maldives and the delay in responding to our request may be conveying a message that should be heard and understood by Sri Lanka.

I quote another Indian investment in Bangladesh for comparison. The Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority was ready (mid-2020) to start site development for an Indian Special Economic Zone, where billions of dollars in investment were expected from India. Sri Lanka was not so fortunate even though such potential was in the 2017 agreement. The government must learn from Bangladesh experience.


Quite the opposite response was shown by the Chinese who have already handed over 500 million dollars (March 2020). When the Chinese Minister Wang Yi met Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the latter thanked China for its consistent contribution to Sri Lanka’s development process as well as their support at numerous regional and international fora, like the UNHRC. China and Russia have been helpful throughout.

Chinese involvement in infrastructure development has drawn severe criticism. This is something common throughout the world as regards the Chinese investment through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Another Chinese intervention took place recently when Senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who reportedly said: “Sri Lanka will firmly commit itself to deepening friendship with China, and is willing to make every effort to press forward the key BRI cooperation projects such as the Colombo Port City and the comprehensive development of the Hambantota Harbour.” This would not have pleased the Indians and Americans, and even the Japanese, who recently lost a light rail investment project here.

When Yang met PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, just after the latter’s discussion with PM Modi, the PM thanked China’s support for combating COVID-19, adding that China’s strong support in various fields had helped Sri Lanka strengthen its capacity to resume work and production amid the pandemic.

Finally, it was revealed that China would also help mitigate the financial crisis faced by Sri Lanka.

The Framework of the Strategic Cooperative Partnership between China and Sri Lanka embarked on, in 2013, gave hope of advantages through development but achievements have been slow in coming. The recent high-level Chinese visit here points to a desire to accelerate it. It must be noted that such interventions with other countries (e. g. India) were slow. The delay between bureaucratic decision-making and politicized decision-making could be the reason.


USA, Quad, and influences


The incredibly positive relations build-up by Yang Jiechi is followed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Colombo. While arrangements were being made for Pompeo’s visit, the US announced that it would urge Sri Lanka “to make ‘difficult but necessary choices’ on its economic relations”. The reference to difficult economic relations invariably meant the partnering with China. The MCC is another project the US is interested in.

The US spokesperson made it abundantly clear, saying “We encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices.” Media reports show that this message was partially conveyed to several Ministers by the American Ambassador Toeplitz when she met them.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed the comments as a manifestation of the “Cold War mentality.” Its spokesman Zhao Lijian responded, “Attempts to use coercion to obstruct normal cooperation between countries will not succeed.”

Concurrently, Mike Pompeo has recently suggested (after the Tokyo Quad meeting) that the Quad should be institutionalized: “We [Quad members] can begin to build out a true security framework” for the Indo-Pacific. He also described the Quad as the “fabric” that could “counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presents to all of us.” It is clear Pompeo is gathering support against China.

In this context, meeting Pompeo after Yang Jiechi will be an embarrassment for Rajapaksas. In fact, a few months ago CCP was considered as a guide for their political party. Yet, the US will see whether Sri Lanka is prepared to counter the CCP challenges and to what extent. This is not surprising especially after India agreeing to sign a military agreement with the USfor sharing of sensitive satellite data and conducting a dialogue to counter China’s growing power in the region. It may be appropriate for Sri Lanka to remain cautious.

As commentators say, Chinese behaviour and attempts to re-order the region have caused concern among the Quad members. They believe that Quad may have to discuss a rule-based big picture of the Indo-Pacific Region, especially how to reshape China’s behaviour, and under what conditions they would reassess China as a responsible stakeholder. Pompeo is here after the Quad Foreign Ministers Meeting in Tokyo. Given this situation, how Sri Lanka should deal with him is a challenge.


Diplomatic conflicts and us

Countries like Sri Lanka sometimes become playing fields for powerful countries. US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz recently said that the US goal “in responding to this request (MCC) is to alleviate poverty and to boost inclusive economic growth” and identifying Sri Lanka as “a sovereign leader in maritime security”, which are indisputably favourable recognition of Sri Lanka.

But her statement “Sri Lanka should engage with China in ways that protect its sovereignty” angered China, which responded directly. The Chinese Embassy in Colombo stated that “with great shock and strong discontent, the embassy learned about the US Ambassador’s interview with a local newspaper, in which a foreign envoy from a third country openly played off China-Sri Lanka relations and severely violated the diplomatic protocol.” The Chinese are extraordinarily concerned with the US violating Sri Lanka’s diplomatic protocols. Having been a High Commissioner myself, I await such bold statements from our Ambassadors in the US or China, even violating diplomatic protocols, when a situation arises with these two governments! Am I waiting for Godot!

Further, the Chinese statement said: “Both China and Sri Lanka as independent countries have full right to develop relations with foreign countries according to our own need and will.” This reminds me of a past Chinese intervention in Bhutan. It is an example where the Chinese while seeking to mend relations with Bhutan, to make India lose ground, dropped Chinese tourist arrivals after the Doklam standoff, because Bhutan did not stand with China. It was a warning to Bhutan about the country’s vulnerability. At that point, the “full right to develop relations” with India was tabooed by China for Bhutan!

Bhutan’s obligations to act according to the Treaty of Friendship between India and Bhutan (8-8-1949) calling for peace between them and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and the additional agreement by Bhutan to let India “guide” its foreign policy and consultative action on foreign and defense affairs were not considered by the Chinese, as the legal “need and will” of Bhutan.

Similarly, India’s wrath was unleashed (2012) when the then Bhutanese PM Jigme Thinley met the Chinese PM, Wen Jiabao, on the sidelines of the Rio+20 Summit. India retaliated by withdrawing fuel subsidies to Bhutan. New Delhi’s heavy-handed response was deeply resented by Bhutan.

We complain of powerful countries using the proverbial stick, but these examples show that anyone could be the perpetrator to satisfy his needs. Let us be realistic without resorting to rhetoric, which emanate from boisterous politicians mostly- even ministers.

The Chinese strongly suggested “the US quit the addiction of preaching others and applying double standards” and named four areas of misdeeds, i. e. slandering, pretending as the guardian of free trade while violating the WTO rulings, holding high the banner of transparency, and smearing others’ normal cooperation against sovereignty, while militarily misbehaving and imposing unilateral sanctions. Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines or Taiwanese in China Sea or Indians in Ladakh may blame the Chinese for not adhering to some of these principled behaviours and preaching to the US. Can Sri Lanka challenge President Xi on the same lines?



I quoted the aforesaid references to point out the difficulties faced by Sri Lanka in the big diplomatic picture. They are thrust on us. Sri Lanka must take informed positions due to practicalities.

With the Indians, the proximity, centuries old relationships, strategic location in the Indian Ocean region, which became a focused area due to Indo-Pacific Regional bias, India and Japan, etc., must be valued. The busines alliances between India and Japan on ECT and Liquified Natural Gas projects send another message. The potential/ possible Indian influence on other countries, some parliamentarians, demographic and political groups must be considered for internal political stability purposes.

The Chinese factor must be considered in the light of past transactions and potential investments that could be received faster than from borrowing agencies or formal lenders. Sri Lanka’s economic problems need immediate solutions. How far could the government wait for external interventions satisfying all criteria?

The above quoted financial requirements and responses received from India may help understand the reality of financing, for which China responds faster than any other country. Any political intervention should address this problem and adapt to systemic assistance. Of course, the disadvantages of Chinese interventions, even highlighted by the World Bank study, about procurement procedures could push countries like Sri Lanka into difficulties. What alternatives could evolve is an issue.

Immediate response to the statement by Dean Thompson was experienced with Sri Lanka’s government bonds falling heavily last week. This is the danger that could be created by big brothers. The African proverb, ‘When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’, is always valid.

It is time for those who yelled last week that restrictions on stability/development could be remedied by constitutional amendments to keep quiet because it is not the absolute truth. The 20A had other objectives as is obvious. They should look afresh realistically and consider whether ignoring the international developments is possible. Let saner counsel prevail.

Simply stated, it is time to ditch camouflaged rhetoric heard in the House last week and look incisively, realistically, logically, and face the international challenges caused by the financial crisis, COVID 19, political conflicts, etc. Being a small nation, we need everyone’s support.

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Soon…a celebrity Doctor!



Dr. Nilanka is a name to be reckoned with in the local showbiz scene – not as a doctor, but as a vocalist/entertainer.

Although she has not been in the vocal spotlight, on stage, in a big way, this awesome singer has been churning out some beautiful music, in the studio, and uploading them on social media – her Facebook page – and, especially, on YouTube.

When ‘Arise Sri Lanka’ was taking shape, in August, I came across a video clip of Dr. Nilanka singing the Roberta Flack hit ‘Killing Me Softly.’

Obviously, there are several versions of ‘Killing Me Softly’ (Frank Sinatra, Fugees, Lauryn Hill), but Dr. Nilanka’s version just blew me away.

Since I was in the ‘Arise Sri Lanka’ committee, I thought we should have this singer on our show and immediately sent her video clip to those concerned. And, they were all unanimous in their decision.

And…Dr. Nilanka was there, on stage, on the night of Saturday, August, 29th, 2020, impressing everyone with her version of ‘Killing Me Softly.’

Those who heard her sing, that particular night, had only superlatives to describe her performance.

Yes, and a star was born – Dr. Nilanka Anjalee Wickramasinghe.

Her latest contribution, via a video clip, is The Bangles hit song, ‘Eternal Flame.’

Sohan Weerasinghe describes her as a singer with a marvelous voice and he did mention that he would feature her as a guest star, with The X-Periments, as often as possible.

He went on to say that she is in a class of her own. “A very talented singer with an absolutely seductive voice. Awesome talent, indeed.”

And, that means, we are going to see, and hear, a lot of Dr. Nilanka in the near future….

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Women in Power



The Revolutionary Lives and Careers of Siva,Doreen,Vivi and Srima

By Kusum Wijetilleke ( and
Rienzie Wijetilleke (

(Continued from yesterday)

US President John F. Kennedy modified a policy on the release of US rubber stockpiles after Ms. Bandaranaike wrote to him explaining the consequences of the policy on Sri Lanka’s rubber export earnings. She exchanged further letters with JFK on the most critical issue of the period, nuclear proliferation, expressing her dismay at nuclear tests undertaken by the US. Citing her speech at the 1961 Non-Aligned conference, JFK wrote back stating “…although there may be some differences between us as to what constitutes ‘effective’ inspection and control, I am heartened that we seem not to differ over the need for it.”

The 1962 Sino-Indian War led to some 6,000 deaths and Ms. Bandaranaike, realizing how devastating war between the super powers would be for Ceylon’s economic aspirations, travelled between China and India seeking compromises. Her efforts were some time before the term “shuttle diplomacy” entered the lexicon of international relations. A team of six non-aligned nations led by Ms. Bandaranaike and Sri Lanka led to a dramatic de-escalation in hostilities and earned her further recognition on the international stage. Her close relationship with Indira Gandhi led to a negotiation between PM J.R. Jayawardena and Indian Diplomat J.N. Dixit, on the restoration of her civil rights and parliamentary membership, after she had been convicted of abuses of power in 1977.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s political career was full of peaks and valleys, but her ascension to power was not merely a twist of fate caused by the assassination of her husband. At the age of 19, she took up social work in rural areas of the country, distributing food and medicine to villages and joined the Lankan Women’s Association, the largest voluntary women’s organization and served as its Treasurer, Vice-President and President. It might be unfortunate that her performance as a leader is defined by the decline of the Sri Lankan economy during her stewardship. It diluted a ground breaking career as a woman of formidable intellect with unrivalled power in a new political frontier.

A similar fate would befall another pioneering woman of Sri Lankan politics, its first female cabinet minister; Ms Wimala Wijewardene, whose political career was inextricably linked to the SWRD Bandaranaike assassination.

Ms. Wimala Wijewardene contested the seat for Kelaniya in 1952, at the 2nd Parliamentary election, but was defeated by her nephew J.R. Jayewardene. She would enter parliament and become a Cabinet Minister in 1956, but her career would be overshadowed by her close association with the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara and its Chief Priest, “Ven.” Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera. The Chief Priest had long been suspected of racketeering and other not so venerable business dealings. He was also the founder of the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (United Bhikku Front) which represented the politicized section of the clergy. Pamphlets, anonymously distributed, implied an affair between Buddharakkita and Sri Lanka’s first female Cabinet Minister. When Ms. Wimala urged SWRD to take action, he disregarded the request and allegedly retorted “Wimala, after all, aren’t some of these things true”. Investigations following the assassination of the Prime Minister revealed that Buddharakkita had convinced a fanatic nationalist monk to murder the PM and reportedly even provided the weapon. Further investigations revealed SWRD Bandaranaike’s wavering patronage to Buddharakkita and his business interests; the refusal of a shipping contract and a sugar manufacturing license, as prime motives for his assassination.

Ms Wijewardene was arrested along with Buddharakkita as a suspect in the murder assassination, but was later released. She did not return to politics but the dramatic events should not dilute a crucial political career which peaked with her appointment as the Minister of Health in 1956. Twenty years later, another equally skilled administrator would be appointed as the Minister of Health.

Sivagami Verina “Siva” Dassanaike and her husband James Obeysekere lll, were early supporters of the breakaway faction led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the 1950s. Thus, “Siva” became politically active in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at the age of 22 and contested the Mirigama seat in 1965 at the age of 36. Her victory as a first time candidate was even more impressive considering that she was an Anglican contesting a majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist district.

As Health Minister, Siva formulated a National Health Programme that would be adopted by the United Nations as an international model, earning her a special award of appreciation from the United States Senator for Massachusetts: Edward Kennedy. However Ms Obeysekere’s career was characterized by more than an award from a Kennedy. Despite, or may be because of a privileged upbringing, she was ahead of her time in realizing that the poorest in Ceylon had no meaningful income through employment and what work they did do was often exploitative, both in deed and remuneration. During her visits to far flung villages around the island she noticed that local artists in rural towns and villages, many of them women, would lovingly create handicrafts and handlooms but received very low prices for their labour. That was until Ms Obeysekere created ‘Laksala’ to earn better prices for handicrafts, an income generator to this day. Ms Obeysekere’s work towards uplifting the poor earned her the title of “Deshamanya” (Pride of the Island); the first female recipient of the award.

Sri Lanka’s independence heroes are rightly revered, with monuments, institutes and street signs bearing their names. D.S. Senenayake, Henry Pedris, C.W.W. Kannangara, Leslie Gunawardena, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Colvin R. De Silva and the like are cemented in history, but there are others who deserve recognition. Sri Lanka’s independence movement was partly the result of the agitation of a broad coalition of leftist political parties, thus Sri Lanka’s original socialists deserve more than an honourable mention.

The country’s first political party was the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), formed in 1935 by Colvin R De Silva and Philip Gunawardena on an anti-imperialist platform. The party aimed to dismantle the colonial government from within by fielding popular candidates to positions in the State Council. Yet the first leftist to be elected to the State Council was Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe (1931), who later founded the Communist Party of Ceylon, and had met the aforementioned Colvin Silva and Philip Gunawardena many years earlier in the UK. Whilst socializing amongst the radicals in London, Dr. Wickramasinghe would also meet his future wife, Doreen Young, whose parents were ardent British socialists and ingrained in her a revolutionary streak that would serve Ceylon well in later years.

Ms. Young would relocate to Ceylon as Principal of Sujatha Vidyalaya in Matara and made her mark almost immediately by launching a campaign of formal training for Ceylon’s predominantly female teachers, so they may obtain qualifications and improve their bargaining positions in the labour market. Her career as a revolutionary and radical in Ceylon had begun. She learnt Sinhala and proceeded to update the local curriculum to replace British history with Sri Lankan and world history. Her marriage to the leader of the Communist Party and their anti-imperialist campaigns led to the revocation of an employment offer from Vishaka Vidyalaya. She was later also removed as the Principal of Ananda Balika Vidyalaya in 1936, accused of spreading anti-British propaganda.

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