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The coming deluge

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by Uditha Devapriya

As far as presidential discretion goes, pardoning Duminda Silva was hardly an unprecedented act. This is nothing to be surprised at; it has happened before, it will happen again. The issue, therefore, is less about why it happened than why now.

The timing was wrong. The optics were wrong. The man being pardoned may or may not have deserved a pardon – let history be the judge of that – but letting off someone convicted by the country’s Supreme Court of one of the highest crimes outlawed in the land on a Poya Day, let alone a Poson Poya Day, should raise more than just eyebrows. The precepts of the Buddha are as much about forgiveness as the gospel of Christ, but forgiveness is, and should be, placed in its proper context. The president let out 94 prisoners, 16 of them former LTTE cadres. They had good reason to be forgiven. Duminda Silva may have had good reason too; who can tell? In his case, however, absolution could have come later.

The government cannot fault the people for turning what followed into a series of irreverent memes. First the president announced his address to the nation. Then people tuned in at night, only to find out it had been recorded before. (The president’s media division did make note of this, but hardly anyone noticed.) Coming in the wake of a pandemic situation that’s spiralling out of control, it seemed too little, and not a little too late.

Many of those tuning in didn’t listen to the speech. They overlooked it. And in overlooking it, they overlooked the man making it. The responses to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s social media posts are a 180 degree turn from what they used to be. This is a huge volte-face, and it tells us how the president of the country is perceived by many of his people.

Even if one didn’t expect such a reversal, the reactions to the speech showed just how badly things have changed. It is not that the president did not make valid points. He did. He is right about the vaccine situation; as a study by Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health notes quite correctly, Sri Lanka “presents an example of what a well-organized, centrally-designed, publicly-financed health system can achieve”, especially during a pandemic.

He is also right about his efforts at allocating “over 400 billion rupees to provide loan deferral facilities to small and medium enterprises.” As someone who experienced how loan deferral schemes could thwart the possibility of financial bankruptcy in the first wave, I agree with the need for such measures. These were, to be sure, not the only points that he made, but many of his other points seemed well made and well taken as well.

Yet people have begun to view the government in a different light now. Some of its biggest defenders have turned, or are turning. They haven’t taken kindly to some of the government’s choices, particularly those relating to vaccine procurement and delivery. It is true the country is being inoculated in practically every corner. But as specialists and experts have pointed out correctly, vaccine procurement should have picked up in January. It did not.

Worse, having dithered on procuring vaccines, a decision that backfired when India’s Serum Institute suspended exports of AstraZeneca (a decision for which the regime alone can’t take the blame), officials bungled on the PCR front, letting cases come down by way of reduced test numbers. As anyone would know, reducing cases by reducing tests is like painting spots on a cat to prove it’s a leopard: it’s deceptive, dangerous, and damaging.

Valid as these concerns are, though, they are nothing compared to perceptions of the regime’s disconnect from ground realities. Critics of the government should be forgiven for comparing its failings to the failings of its predecessor, yet anachronistic though such a comparison may be, for those making them, it remains relevant. And why? Because for such critics, there’s no line dividing a government which compromised on national security from one which erred in the face of biggest pandemic we’ve seen since the Spanish Flu.

If there’s no point bringing up the Easter Attacks here, it’s not only because it’s hard to score points with such tragedies today, nor because people have forgotten the mistakes of the last government, but because that was then and this is now. One could have applied this principle to the previous regime; when an MP grumbled about people honking horns at security escorts holding up traffic a few months after the Easter attacks, even Rajapaksa critics asked that MP why his likes were using the “Rajapaksa bogey” to cover up their failures.

It’s interesting, how roles can be reversed. About three weeks ago, social media was ablaze with vehicle owners protesting the fuel price hike by travelling on wheelbarrows; such posts, pertinent as the anger buttressing them may have been, and other posts showing vehicle owners defying travel restrictions during the subsequent “lockdown”, revealed a rift between middle-class critics of the regime and the bulk of the country stuck at home without as much as a motorcycle. Yet, ironically, it only reflected perceptions of the regime’s own disconnect: from not just its middle-class critics, but also the many others suffering in silence.

It’s a knife that cut both ways: while the suburban bourgeoisie complain about such issues as import restrictions and Chinese letters on butter packages, the regime, through its policies, is concurrently distancing itself from the peasantry and working class. What we’re seeing there is Bonapartism in reverse: populists unable to balance social classes.

In his speech, the president spoke about how the previous regime let the country down, and how it lost track of what had been a booming economy until then. He quoted the figures, gave the statistics, and drew a convincing picture of how things would have turned out if Mahinda Rajapaksa did not lose in 2015. For the sake of argument – and there are many arguments that support the president’s view here – let us assume that had a turnaround not happened in 2015, had Maithripala Sirisena not defected, had Ranil Wickremesinghe not become Prime Minister through Sirisena, and had the Mahinda Rajapaksa branch of the SLFP been recognised as the opposition, things may have improved. By that same logic, let us forget that personalities and individuals, by themselves, cannot decide on the direction of the wind.

The problem isn’t that these statements are flawed, though flawed they are. The problem is that they would have been more convincing had they been made, say, a decade ago. That they don’t seem convincing now tells us much about how circumstances and contexts change, and how what was true then does not necessarily remain true forever.

It also shows us how protean the local electorate is, and how voter sympathies, particularly Sinhala middle-class sympathies, can shift from party to party. Put simply, it shows how an electorate that voted against the Rajapaksas, yet still gave them a thin margin of defeat at the August 2015 election, then gave the SLPP a majority in January 2018 and a bigger landslide to Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019, with a gargantuan two-thirds mandate in August 2020, can turn the other way. The social media factor, hyped as it may be, is not a point to be discounted there. It worked against the status quo twice, in 2015 and 2019. Often it can work in favour of the government. Yet the tide can easily, and quickly, turn.

We are living in strange times. The government and opposition don’t see eye to eye on most matters, but unlike what went for politics before 2015, both sides are zeroing in on one aim: winning 2024. It comes to no surprise that none other than Champika Ranawaka, the foremost anti-Rajapaksa figure with nationalist credentials, has replied through supporters and proxies to Victor Ivan on abolishing the Executive Presidency, cautioning against rushing it. Similar sentiments have been expressed on the issue of human rights probes by the SJB.

What these show is that the opposition, barring perhaps the JVP and the UNP, has prioritised winning elections in the long run over propping up liberal utopias in the short.

In such circumstances, the government will find it unwise to play the war card, the security card, and the nationalist card, with voters who have a far bigger assortment to choose from. It is true that as far as nationalist credentials go, none can beat the Rajapaksas. But given recent incidents, and how Sri Lanka’s online middle class is reacting to them, the government would do well to note the anger rising up among even its most fervent supporters.

The president’s speech is a sign of things to come. If his men do not heed the wind, the tide can turn against them. Sooner or later, it may well turn against us too.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

 

 



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Politics

Reflections on the SLFP

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by Uditha Devapriya

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party was not the second or even third party to be formed in Sri Lanka: it came after the LSSP in 1935, the Communist Party in 1943, the UNP in 1946, and the Bolshevik Samasaja Party in 1946, among others. Yet within a mere five years of its founding it had become more popular than many of its predecessors.

1956 marked probably the first time a dominant political party had been swept away by a grassroots led movement. If there was no parallel in the other ex-colonies, it was because no one expected, even as late as 1954, that the UNP could be defeated. The SLFP’s victory was the product of circumstances that would have favoured any party that incorporated them in its programme; in that sense, the UNP failed to read the writing on the wall.

To understand how these circumstances came about, and how they contributed to the defeat of the UNP, it is imperative to understand the position Sri Lanka enjoyed prior to the 1956 elections. In 1947, foreign assets were decreasing, and the trade deficit had begun to widen thanks to a recession in the US and an earlier decision to devalue the rupee.

By 1950 economic prospects had rebounded, and rubber price increases were leading to surpluses which enabled the government to expand welfare schemes. By 1952 the Korean War boom had contributed to an unprecedented rise in foreign assets to Rs. 1,209 million. But following the end of the boom, they began to decrease at an unprecedented rate of Rs. 30 million a month; they were to reduce soon to an unremarkable Rs. 676 million.

It was against this backdrop that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike resigned from the UNP and crossed over and J. R. Jayewardene announced a substantial cut to the rice ration. The latter decision was taken on the advice of the World Bank, but what is often forgotten was that the rice ration cut was preceded by the halving of the food subsidy vote (from Rs. 300 million to Rs. 160 million) in the 1952/1953 budget, which was still felt to be inadequate to achieve the goal of curtailing expenditures and balancing the budget.

What is also forgotten that the reason for the hartal to erupt in such intensity was that J. R. refused to minimise the magnitude of the cut. In this he was being sincere or rash, but it cost the government dearly, so much so that the subsequent power tussle between Jayewardene and John Kotelawala after Dudley Senanayake’s resignation was resolved in favour of the latter, since the outgoing Prime Minister blamed the former for his downfall.

Had J. R. succeeded Dudley, it is possible that Bandaranaike would have faced a tougher competitor in 1956. Both Bandaranaike and Kotelawala were incongruous figures (more incongruous than J. R.), but it is to Bandaranaike’s credit that he made attempts to reach out a section of the population who felt they were being ignored if not sidelined.

But with his Buddhist upbringing (unlike Bandaranaike, who renounced it long after he entered politics, J. R. renounced Anglicanism in his youth), J. R. may have made the race tougher for the SLFP. As it turned out, Kotelawala not only misread the mood of the moment but did so despite all advice to the contrary by colleagues: this was symbolised by no less a figure than Dudley withdrawing his support for any party at the 1956 election. To examine that, however, one must examine the cultural forces at play here at the time.

The cultural revival which began here in the late 19th century had, by the mid-20th century, split into two ideological strands: a neo-traditionalist and a reformist. The former aimed at restoring pre-colonial monastic privileges while maintaining a separation between the clergy and the laity, and the latter sought to make all clergymen more active in social, political, and cultural issues. The UNP had identified and then condemned the latter as political bhikkus; this was only to be expected, given that the bourgeoisie were not in favour of monks agitating for radical changes which could affect their social position.

However, the UNP did play a part in empowering the revival. In 1954 monks from Burma convened a Buddhist Council and to this end invited Buddhist leaders from Sri Lanka. Four years earlier, the World Fellowship of Buddhists had been formed at the behest of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress. In 1953, after Kotelawala assumed power, the ACBC urged the government to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s passing away.

Surprisingly for the UNP and more surprisingly for Kotelawala, the request was complied with and a year later, at the time of the Buddhist Council, the Lanka Bauddha Mandalaya was set up. Together with the ACBC and YMBA, this organisation was to have a decisive impact on the 1956 elections. The result was the Buddhist Commission of Inquiry, the findings of which were presented to a massive audience at Ananda College in 1956.

As a critical indictment of the status quo, the Commission probably influenced the rural petty bourgeois intelligentsia to rally against the UNP, and around the SLFP, which by that time was on the cusp of entering into no contest pacts with the VLSSP.

In hindsight, and in that sense, the LSSP’s and the Communist Party’s mistake was to ignore if not relegate the issue of linguistic equality in the 1950s, especially considering that both of them and their erstwhile foe, Jayewardene, had raised it in the State Council in the 1940s. It led them to a crevice where they had no choice but join hands with the SLFP, even though splinter groups challenging these alliances would begin to break away from the mainstream. To say this, however, is not to deplore or indict any of these outfits too harshly.

What aggravated it all even more was the Commission’s critique of the government’s insensitivity to cultural grievances. That was not so much antipathy as apathy, a misunderstanding of the political forces at play whereby the government, as Judy Walter Pasqualge points out in her book on Rhoda Miller de Silva, saw the Left, rather than Sinhala nationalism, as the bogey in the room. It was a mistake that would cost them dearly.

Newton Gunasinghe among many other scholars have demolished the myth, a myth demolished first by Denzil Peiris in his account of the 1956 election, that it was the rural poor, the underclass, who rallied around these forces. That they did to some extent is beyond denial; but the classes the election ended up entrenching, far removed from peasantry though not totally cut off from it, belonged to the petty bourgeoisie, sections of which would drift back into the UNP and again revert to the SLFP not too long afterwards.

In the end the revival which had been supported by the UNP turned against the UNP. The SLFP was helped here in no small measure by Kotelawala’s increasing detachment from the world around him; when the Queen visited the country in 1954, for instance, he bent over backwards to ensure she and Prince Philip were kept amused throughout the ceremony. It cannot be said that he was deliberately hostile towards Buddhist interests, as detractors would argue later on: he was being indifferent, if not ignorant. His reading of the issue of linguistic parity, made evident at a speech in Jaffna in 1955, therefore angered Buddhists.

The SLFP did not just happen in such circumstances to absorb and vent out the frustrations of a community which, more than any group barring Indian plantation workers (who had been disenfranchised by the UNP to “ward off” the Leftist threat), had been discriminated against and deprived of opportunity in the colonial era. Yet it read the mood of the moment far better than any establishment at the time. This is a testament to the fortuity of its leader.

The 1956 election epitomised a coming together of cultural, social, and economic forces that conspired to dislodge the status quo from power. Yet if the SLFP in 1956 defeated the UNP, it did so while empowering J. R. Jayewardene, the bête noire of the UNP who was to rise in the next two decades and who, had he competed with Bandaranaike, would have given him a tighter race, though Bandaranaike may have won anyway. Two points were in J. R.’s favour: his Buddhist background, and his zealous hostility to the Left, which would have endeared him to more conservative-traditionalist Sinhala Buddhists. As fate would have it, however, a Jayewardene-Bandaranaike tussle was not, and never, to be.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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THE CITIES OF SRI LANKA – WHAT’S BEHIND A NAME ?

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by EVERYMAN

Known in ancient times as ‘Kolon Thota’ meaning the port on the river Kelani, Colombo has over the centuries been well known as an entrepot port. Traders from far distant shores such as Abyssinia, Persia, India and China, arrived here to barter their goods for spices. It was they who charted the sea lanes referred to as the Spice Route or Maritime Silk Road. However the question arises as to how Colombo got its name?

The author of the oldest Sinhala grammer – Sidatsangrava written in the 13th century mentions ‘Kolamba’ meaning harbor or ford which is derived from the ancient Veddha language. Robert Knox in his book ‘A Historical Relation of Ceylon.’(1681 ) refers to ‘ Colambo’ and explains that the name is derived from a tree called by the ancient Sinhalese as ‘Ambo’ meaning mango. This tree bore no fruit but had leaves in plenty. Hence ‘Cola’ meaning leaves and ‘ambo’ meaning mango gave rise to the name ‘Colambo.

It was the Portuguese who when they invaded ‘Kolon Thota’ in 1505 under the explorer and military commander, Lorenzo de Almeida and realizing its strategic importance made it their administrative capital and changed the Sinhala name to a western one of their of their own liking. Thus ‘Kolon Thota’ became Colombo which it has been claimed was in honour of Columbus. Christopher Colombus, to give his full name, was not a Portuguese. He was an Italian which in that language was written as Christoforo Colombo. And he was married to a Portuguese noblewoman, which explains the connection to the name of Colombo. The Portuguese it must be remembered had two main objectives. Conquests and conversions. Having succeeded in the former they now sought to achieve the latter for which they built churches. The first such church was built in Gintupitiya/Kotahena. It was on that site that the British in later years, built an Anglican Church dedicating it to St Thomas. It is recorded that Gintupitiya, was formerly called ‘ San Thome Pitiya’ because it was believed that St Thomas the Apostle had visited this place and preached to the people. Hence the name of the Church.

But Colombo was destined to be a continuous and integral part of the island’s history and indeed world history when our island was occupied by the British.

But before that let’s go back to the Dutch period which commenced in 1640 and ruled the country until 1796. They too made Colombo their stronghold and called it their Operational Centre. Amongst other things, they also did what the Portuguese did. They built churches. The best known is the Wolvendaal Church, which according to Dutch tradition was called the Wolvendaalse Kirk. Another edifice built by them was the Dutch Hospital which is considered to be one of the oldest buildings in Colombo Fort. It has now been converted to be a most imposing and impressionable shopping arcade and dinning outlet.

Unfortunately the present Covid – 19 pandemic has made this popular rendezvous where tourists happily mixed and moved with Sri Lankans into a lonely, deserted place. Yet another remnant of the Dutch period is the Old Town Hall located in Pettah. It was reconstructed to be a Dutch Museum with aid from institutions such as the Netherlands –Sri Lanka Foundation in Hague and the Netherlands Alumni Association of Sri Lanka. Opened on July 10, 1982 by President J.R. Jayewardene it houses a fascinating collection of memorabilia reminding us of the Dutch period, such as street signs, steam rollers and printing presses. It is hoped that the authorities will ensure that it is well preserved because it is an excellent tourist attraction specially those arriving from the Netherlands

But the pages of history turned once more and as mentioned earlier the Dutch were replaced by the British who ruled from 1796 to 1948. They too made Colombo their main city but went further by establishing it as the island’s Capital. At the risk of being sad and somber it needs to be stated that one of the many things the British granted to Colombo was the 48 acre burial grounds referred to as Kanatte. This was in 1866. Here among the many thousands who lie in peaceful slumber is the prominent science- fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Also seen is the tomb of Sri Lanka’s valiant martyr Henry Pedris who was executed for treason by the British on July 7, 1915. In keeping with British Military tradition his body was buried in an unmarked grave in a secret plot far from Colombo. But in 1987 his relatives unearthed the body and buried it in Kanatte.

So much for British Military tradition and British justice. But let’s give credit where credit is due, for among the well known landmarks built by the British in Colombo are the Galle Face Hotel, Cargills Building , the University of Colombo Building which was originally built for Royal College, the Joseph Frazer Nursing Home, the old House of Parliament, Temple Trees, the President’s House, the former General Post Office, Lloyds Building, and the National Museum.

Mention must also be made to another British contribution to the city of Colombo. This was the tramcar network. There was no other town in Sri Lanka which had this mode of transport. The tramcars operated on two main routes, Fort – Grandpass and Fort – Borella and was discontinued 1953.

And here is how Colombo became a part of world history. World War II (1939 – 1945 ) was ravaging across Europe and the Far East. The Japanese had already taken over Singapore and the next stop was to have been Ceylon, from where she could take control of the entire Indian Ocean. Meanwhile Sri Lanka and Colombo in particular, though being a front -line British base, was still safe. However the British military presence and the restrictions imposed like nightly black-outs in Colombo were continuous reminders that the War was on the verge of engulfing the Island. On Sunday ( Easter Sunday ) April 5, 1942 the worst fears of the British and Ceylonese military hierarchy became a reality.

The Japanese air armada headed by Mitsuo Fuchida who led the attack on the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, flew in. Their primary targets were the Colombo Harbor, Ratmalana Airport and the Kolonnawa oil installations. Fortunately for Colombo and no doubt the entire country a lone Catalina piloted by Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall of the Royal Canadian Air Force, while flying along over the South Western coastal belt on a routine reconaissance flight spotted what he later recalled as a ‘tiny speck’ on the horizon. Flying closer he observed that 300 nautical miles away from our islands South Western coast the ‘tiny speck’ was indeed the Japanese fleet comprising battleships, aircraft carriers, and cruisers.

He had just been able to send a warning to Colombo before he was shot down, sending his plane crashing into the sea. He survived the crash but was captured by the Japanese, and held in a Prisoner-of-War Camp. Birchall’s warning prepared the Allied aircraft stationed in Colombo to meet the Japanese threat. For the first time residents in Colombo watched the overhead aerial combats referred to as ‘dog fights.’ The attack lasted just 20 minutes. Yet within that short space of time 17 service personnel and 85 civilians were killed, among them seven inmates of the Mental Hospital, Angoda.

The Japanese aircraft carriers made a tactical withdrawal. Colombo once again safe. However the island was still in danger. There was Trincomalee to consider. In the meantime panic stricken residents of Colombo began a quick evacuation. Traveling by train, car, bullock carts and even rickshaws which at that time was a common mode of transport, they just wanted to get out of Colombo. Some even crossed over to South India by taking the ferry from Talaimannar. Soon Colombo was a deserted city and it took several weeks for a return normalcy.

To realise the danger which Colombo faced, it is relevant to quote the British wartime Prime Minister Sir. Winston Churchill who admitted that “The most dangerous moment of the War and one which caused me the greatest alarm was when the Japanese fleet was heading for Ceylon and the naval base in Colombo harbor.”

Today Colombo has been transformed to such an extent making it almost unrecognizable from what it was in 1948 when the country was freed of the British yoke and won Independence. And it is not only the skyscrapers, condominiums, arcades and roads. It is now the center of protests marches and placard waving hordes who defy the Covid Prevention regulations and try to grab the main spots in the media. But even as this is written, September 13, Colombo is under Lockdown. Or so it seems.

But this story does not end here. After the war, on his release from the Japanese prison, Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall was made an Honorary Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Canadian Air Force and was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and an OBE.

AndMitsui Fuchida? After the war Fuchida became a Christian convert and evangelist and travelled across USA and Europe talking about the experience of his life. He later settled down in USA. Did someone say ‘All’s Well that End’s Well’ ?

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How D.B. Wijetunga became Executive President of Sri Lanka

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by Nihal Seneviratne

Dingiri Banda Wijeunga (born February 19, 1922), hailing from Pilimatalawe, Udunuwara was one of the most popular politicians at that time. He endeared himself to others by his stark simplicity and his very affable manners. The people were so fond of him that his initials DB were used by people to call him Dearly Beloved and even Dunnoth Baraganan.

In the Nineties, he was chosen to be Prime Minister by President R. Premadasa overlooking two outstanding UNP politicians of that time Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali- a very adroit move. Mr Wijetunga had a Parliamentary service of over 25 years having served as Minister of Power, Highways and Energy; Minister of Posts and Telecommunications and Minister of Agricultural Development in the seventies and eighties.

On Tuesday, May 4, 1993, the Speaker announced the assassination of His Excellency President R. Premadasa. “It has been a brutal and cowardly act not just in the personal sense but also because it is directed at the Head of State, therefore at the Government and the entire nation. The loss of the Head of State of any country affects its citizens, irrespective of caste, creed and religious and political affiliations…. We Sri Lankans cherish democracy and we must all join hands to ensure that the reasons for such insane acts do not recur – the Secretary General of Parliament will now make an announcement,” he said.

I then announced that as a vacancy in the post of President had arisen and that under Section 2 of the Presidential Elections (Special Provisions )Act No 2 of 1981 a new President had to be appointed and under Section 5, the Secretary General of Parliament has to keep Parliament notified.

The second notice I was called upon to read to Parliament was that under the Act, I name Friday, May as the date for receiving of nominations under the provisions of Clause 5 of the above Act. On May 7, the Speaker at the commencement of business announced that the Secretary General will make an announcement in regard to the election to the office of President.

I then made the following announcement: Under Section 6 (1) “I wish to inform the House of the provisions relating to the receipt of nominations to the office of President. The relevant Section 10 of the Presidential Elections (Special Provisions ) Act No 2 of 1981 reads as follows:

6 (1)On the date fixed for the receipt of nominations, Parliament shall meet and the Secretary General should act as the Returning Officer.

2) A Member who wishes to propose any other Member for election to the office of President shall obtain the written consent of the Member indicating that such Member is willing to serve.

3) A Member addressing himself to the Secretary General shall propose any other Member present to the office of President. The proposal shall be seconded by another Member but no debate will be allowed.

4)If only one Member be so proposed and seconded to the office of the President, he shall be declared by the Secretary General to have been elected to such office. If more than one Member be so proposed and seconded, Parliament shall subsection of Section (3) find a date and time for the holding of the election, such date being a date not earlier than 48 hours from the date of receiving nominations.

In terms of Section 6 of the Presidential Election (Special Provisions) Act 2 of 1981, I shall now receive nominations for the Office of President.”

Election of President – Mr Wijepala Mendis, Minister of Transport and Highways said: “Mr Secretary General of Parliament, under the terms of Section 6 (1) of the Presidential Elections (Special Provisions) Act No 2 of 1981, I have much pleasure in proposing the name of Hon. Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, a Member of the Honourable House for election to the office of President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. I tender to you the written consent of the said Honourable Member agreeing to serve in the said office if elected by the House.”

The Hon. A.C.S. Hameed, Minister of Justice and Higher Education – “The Secretary General of Parliament, I have much pleasure in seconding the name of Hon. Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, a Member of this Honourable House for election to the office of President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

The Secretary General: Are there any other names?

I then made this announcement:

“In terms of Section 6 (4) of the Presidential Elections (Special Provisions) Act No 2 of 1981, I declare that Dingiri Banda Wijetunga has been elected to the office of President uncontested.

Congratulations to His Excellency the President.”

The Speaker: “Your Excellency, please accept my sincere best wishes on your assuming office today as the Third Executive President of Sri Lanka.

I wish to congratulate you on your election to the high office of President of the Sri Lanka which fell vacant following the tragic assassination of His Excellency Ranasinghe Premadasa. I have known your Excellency for nearly four decades. You are a gentle person with an ability to resolve any problem or issue on your own without causing injustice or harm to anyone. I am confident that you will be able to guide the destiny of the people of Sri Lanka towards peace and prosperity.”

The best speech was by Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Minister of Industries, Science and Technology and Leader of the House who made a long speech in Sinhalaese congratulating the new President.

After the day’s proceedings were over, the new President in his usual simple manner thanked me sincerely for all I had done to help him in his election. I responded: “Sir, I was only performing my tasks under the law and nothing more. But please Sir, please be kind enough to accept my warmest wishes and congratulations.”

I recall with nostalgia, the visit I paid him at his office at the Presidential Secretariat to say that I was leaving the office of Secretary General next week. He responded saying, “Nihal, we can’t afford to lose your services to Parliament after your distinguished service of over 30 years.” adding he would ask the Government to move a resolution to Parliament to extend my services, even after reaching the statutory age of retirement of 60 years. I politely declined his very kind offer and said my successor will be able to function as well I did. He then asked whether he could appoint me as Ambassador to a foreign country which too I very kindly declined and thanked him, saying I would return to my home in Havelock Road, Colombo 5 to spend time with my wife and two children. I thanked him profusely and left his office.

I will end with a note regarding his extreme simplicity and willingness to help. He had been approached by a Member of Parliament asking him to do him a favour – of getting approval of Parliament for him to have an extension from his telephone in his office upcountry to his home which was five miles away. The President himself phoned me and very affectionately addressing me as Nihal said, “I know you will find a way to help this Member and please do so.” I politely reminded him that I cannot do so as extensions to another place, apart from where his official phone is situated is only possible if that extension is within a few yards and that I could not approve it as I would have to face similar requests from other Members. In his own inimitable style he said, “I know this Nihal, but I also know that you will find some way of helping this Member” and rang off. The Member himself called me and said he had spoken to the President. I told him politely that I had already explained to him that I was unable to accede to his request. He left my office, not quite happy.

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