IN MEMORY OF VIVIAN GUNAWARDENA-HER 80TH BIRTHDAY FELL ON 3 OCTOBER 1997
Vivian Gunawardena was one of the dynamic personalities in Sri Lanka who embraced politics long before the word ' Women's Lib' was heard in the West. She was regarded as an outspoken, ' fiery' and fearless lady who spoke her mind out, a quality she had inherited from birth! As a teenager she argued her case fearlessly with her father when he objected to her ambitions to go to University. At the age of seventy eight, when I interviewed her in London, she had not changed much in her attitudes and convictions. She gave an exclusive interview to me on the eve of her departure from London, after cutting short a holiday to take an active part on the political platform in Sri Lanka before the general elections on 16 August.
Q. You were one of the female pioneers in Sri Lanka to come to politics during a predominantly male oriented political climate . What inspired or encouraged you to do so ?
A. My father was a strict disciplinarian and a doctor. We used to live within site of hospitals and we used to visit hospitals. I really saw the extent of suffering, inequalities and poverty that the majority of people were suffering from. During this period my uncle Philip Gunawardena, who originated the anti-British movement had a great influence on me.
Q. Considering the cream of the LSSP hierarchy coming from upper middle class and rich families, why do you think they wanted to embrace socialism ?
A. Its is not a question of family, but a question of what you really believe in. The only method by which your beliefs could be translated into action. It has nothing to do whether you came from the poorest family or an aristocratic family. It is a question of your values and ideas and what you stand for, and what you think you can achieve in order to help the majority of the people , and not the minority.
Q. Why didn't the LSSP groom a charismatic young leader for the future ? e.g. Vasudeva Nanayakkara or Wickramabahu Karunaratne !
A. You mentioned the word Wickremabahu ! Nothing will make me think in terms of Wickremabahu as a leader of a political party that we are aiming to create - i.e. equality in living standards. I think Wickremabahu's coming into this movement was accidental. Vasudeva Nanayakkara is so erratic and he is not capable of working in an organised fashion!
Q How do you mean ?
A. You know in life, quite often, you come across many things and situations where you don't argue & try to win over the majority. You can't do it all the time. You have to sometimes knuckle under and see how you can convince the majority & get them to your side without harming your party. But to leave the party and start another Centre against the party would be to lessen the future influence and the ability of that party to achieve its goals.
Q. If I may re-phrase my question, do you admit that the LSSP has failed in grooming anyone as their future leader ?
A. There are people at the moment in the Party, but the fact of the matter is to become a leader of a political party one should also be educated. And if I may give a direct answer to your question with regard to the future material, yes, I admit that LSSP has not achieved that important base.
Q. You can't deny the fact that the LSSP has been branded as trouble makers in the past . Going as far back as 1956, your party has been accused of organising strikes and various industrial unrest which crippled the progress of the country during that era. How can people have faith in your party in the future ?
A. That's very unfair and untrue. Certainly it was the LSSP who started the Union movement in our country. Without a union movement how can you safe-guard the interests of the working force ? We fought for the basic pension rights and index linked wage rises to help the working classes to keep them on a par with the rising cost of living.
Q. But how would you defend the argument ?
A You know, even the workers today have forgotten what the LSSP did for them. We brought development plans into the budget. We believed in actual unionism as a working class movement to give a better standard of living for the workers and their children. There were other unions also such as the UNP union etc.
Q. How do you foresee the LSSP role in the future, if the PA comes into power after the forthcoming elections, in terms of labour relations with the working class masses?
A. We are not going to say that we are going to stop it tomorrow if we have a PA Government after August 16 ! Do you think we are not going to achieve workers' rights? No. We will organise more unions !
Q. How would you defend many accusations such as nationalisation of tea plantations and introducing inappropriate legislation to curb imports etc.? Surely the LSSP also should take a major share of the blame for various queues & the suffering people had to undergo due to short sighted closed economic policies you adopted when you were sharing power?
A. I agree that even now when you and I are talking here in London, the UNP is standing there on the platform and blame us stating that we created bread queues. They have nothing else to say, and that's all they can say against us. And what imports did we stop? Imports of luxury goods only. They never say we brought the prices of bread down! You go and see today, there are not only bread queues but the prices too have gone up. What is happening today is that the people don't think of important issues such as Education or the sky rocketing cost of living. They are only hankering after material goods. And we have the press like you emphasising on the propaganda. I have never seen any queue at the Co-ops during our time before 6 am. But the Press says so, so it has to be true...!
Q. How about the nationalisation of tea plantations ?
A Actually, the ruination of the Plantation Industry took place after privatisation. Not before. The plantation industry was the highest income earning asset in the country before nationalisation.
Q. Then why were those nationalised ?
A. The fact of the matter was that foreigners were taking away the major portion of the income. They were not re-investing in our country ! Neither were they giving any better conditions to the workers. Colvin was just about to introduce a housing scheme for the estate workers and establish community centres for them when we were thrown out in 1975 ! Felix Dias didn't allow us to carry out our programmes, what we had in mind for the estate workers. We never got the time to fulfil our commitments to the people. Today even Thondaman himself says it is not profitable because the UNP has handed the estates over to the private sector over 5 year periods.
Q. The LSSP had best of brains and intellectuals such as Dr. N.M, Colvin, Leslie, Bernand and yourself; still your party failed to make an impact on the masses and for the past 50 years or so, you were never elected to power. What do you think was the missing element in your party?
A. Left was never able to be united from the very start. It was due to the fragmentation that took root within a very short period into 'Communist' and 'Samasamajist' . We were opposed to Stalin's method of government in the Soviet Union though we accepted socialism. We found the Socialism we adopted to be far more superior than to what existed in Russia, as far as ordinary masses of people were concerned.
Q. What is your personal view point on Tamil's claim of inequality ?
A. That's all bunkum. If you see the statistical data during that time you will find the Sinhalese who were 72% of population were not even able to get a job as clerks in the government service.
Q. Why was that ?
A. Why ? Because English was taught by Missionaries in the most remotest parts in the North. Consequently Tamils ended up being lawyers, doctors and professionals whereas the majority of the Sinhalese in the South who did not have an English education, except in certain central schools, ended up only as peons, because they were only able to read a name of a file in Englsh.
Q. The LSSP had no option but to align themselves in order to taste power. But once you started sharing power, three of your Ministers NM, Colvin And Leslie were fired in 1975 and the coalition collapsed. Then the LSSP accused the SLFP for using your party to gain power and giving the LSSP a hard kick on the 'bottom', if I may use that expression. But today once again you are aligning yourselves with the PA. Don't you think that history might repeat again in the future ?
A. I have a great fear about it - tha the history might repeat itself. But I hope Mrs. Bandaranaike also has learnt a lesson from what she did in 1975. You can't just forget such things.
Q. At that time, I mean in 1975, Dr. NM categorically exposed 45 rich industrialised families who were controlling Sri Lankan politics and the economy. Why has the LSSP now joined hands with the same families again to bring Bandaranaikes to power again?
A. NM was not referring to the families of the ruling party only at the time, but families from other parties too. They were the people who had invested so much that NM was going to increase tax and break that class structure. That's why Chandrika is now talking about open economy etc., because she feels that in order to get through at the next general election and win she has to support the upper classes rather than standing for rigid controlled economy.
Q. What are your personal views about the open economy ?
A. What we say is that imports must be controlled. You can't allow people to import as they like! At the same time you must maintain a mixed economy.
Q. LTTE is now blaming Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike comparing her with President Premadasa. They claim she is trying to get Tamil votes by tactical manoeuvring - i.e by adopting ' speak soft and hit hard ' attitude . What are your views on that ?
A. The fact of the matter is that she as the Leader of the PA, with all other parties who are together, must seek a solution to end this terrorist problem by discussion. We want to meet with the militants, discuss and solve the problem, but we are not for ' centralising' by joining North and East .
Q. Have you discussed the LSSP Manifesto with the SLFP and come to an amicable agreement?
A. No. Not until I left Sri Lanka on 28 June. Even the manifesto was not ready at that time.
Q. Do you then foresee a clash of opinion in policies in the future, if you happen to share power?
A. After winning the Southern provincial elections, Chandrika addressed a group of businessmen at the Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo and assured them that she was not going to 'undo' the open economy. That time of course, I took the matter up at the Central Committee. How can she utter words like that ? In that case we could have joined hands with the UNP and shared power ! After all , open economy is a UNP policy.
Q. What is your personal opinion of the LTTE war ?
A. My answer to the LTTE war is simple. The UNP Government wants to use this war as a beggar's wound. Unless there is a wound a beggar can't beg, so what does he do? he scratches the wound from time to time , the wound festers more & more and the begging continues! According to President D.B,Wijetunga, we are spending 26 billion Rupees a year on this war. Why not invest that money to improve the lives of people affected in those areas?
Q. Can you keep your hand on your heart and say that the PA is going to win the elections on 16 August ? And if they do come to power, how confident are YOU that what the mother did in 1975 to the LSSP, the daughter wouldn't do ?
A. I am confident about the PA's victory, but I am not that
confident about the other. But remember, we will be in a better
position to discuss in the open. If we try to do it now the people will
think that in-fighting is already going on. The most important thing
is we must get in, for the benefit of the vast amount of people of
our country and, it is imperative that we get rid of the United