A Tribute to SWRD on his 98th Birth Anniversary

On the 98th Birth Anniversary of Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, which fell on 8 January 1997, it is a fitting tribute to highlight his achievements and assess the important role he played as a statesman with a vision for the future. It becomes all the more relevant today since his 2nd daughter has been bequeathed his political legacy of democratic socialism underpinned by nationalistic aspirations. Mr. Bandaranaike had an enlightened philosophy, the full realisation of which suffered certain setbacks in the past. But two years ago it bounced back to realise its full potential with the return to power of the Peoples' Alliance. The new regime¹s aim was said to be, to build on that philosophy in formulating policies Œ to enhance the sum of human happiness of all the people in Sri Lanka, irrespective of ethnic, religious and caste considerations¹.

Political commentators in Sri Lanka described this latest change of political power in Sri Lanka as an emergence of dynastic politics, but the mandate given to the Peoples' Alliance at the last elections pointed to the fact that the path-breaking changes wrought by SWRD in 1956 had not diminished their appeal and cannot be consigned to the mists of history, but are alive and developing in more robust forms.

Delving into the past history, one could follow the developments which moulded SWRD to be an enlightened statesman. The dawn of Independence, on 4 February 1948, did not usher in true independence to ' Ceylon' since the commanding heights of the economy and the bureaucracy in the judiciary, and the administration of the country perpetuated a colonial culture. Being a Minister of D.S.Senanayake Cabinet and a member of his United National Party SWRD proposed certain changes. These proposals in the form of resolutions were debated at the Madampe Sessions of the UNP Conference in June 1951. Such proposals were aimed at ushering changes to establish the just aspirations of the Sinhalese who have had a raw deal during the Colonial era. SWRD proposed these changes with a sincere conviction, without harbouring plans to achieve political power. What he wanted was to bring about three changes without leaving the UNP, of which he was a key founder member. This action was testimony to his statesmanship which his critics have overlooked and has condemned him as an ambitious politician who was out to grab power.

When his resolutions were thrown out at Madampe Sessions, SWRD resigned from the UNP and the Cabinet on 17 July 1951. Subsequently this paved the way to build the new political philosophy & the SLFP was born to give expression to that creed. After a few years of campaigning, SWRD was able to weld a united organisation comprising the progressive elements of the political spectrum but with a nationalist hue to contest the 1956 general elections. This organisation MEP (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) was supported by the Buddhist Commission whose slogans of discrimination against the Sinhalese by 400 years of Christian rule and unremedied by eight years of the UNP rule had an impact on the electorate. The result was the sweeping victory of 1956 which was a path-breaking one. " The Sinhala Only Act " which was the flagship of the new government's political programme became one of the foremost Bills to go through Parliament with a provision for reasonable use of Tamil. It also enacted procedures for those officials who were not proficient or prepared to work in Sinhala to retire with enhanced pensions.

It is regrettable, yet relevant, to state that during this stage even some Sinhalese officers made use of these procedures to retire rather than work in Sinhala medium. By making compensatory provision for those officials who were likely to be adversely affected by changes flowing from the enactment of the Sinhala Only Act, SWRD was able to provide relief and prove his compassionate approach - a key feature of enlightened statesmanship.

An interesting episode to illustrate SWRD's compassionate nature and to strengthen his credentials as a true statesman was the way he treated Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, the Governor General of Sri Lanka after the UNP defeat in 1956. The Leftist parties who were in the opposition at the time were dismayed that Sir Oliver was retained as Governor General and a cut in the vote for Governor General's salary and establishment was moved in August 1956. At this moment SWRD, with great dignity replied: " It is only fair on my part to state that His Excellency the Governor General has placed his knowledge, experience and constitutional powers at the full disposal of the present Government; and as constitutionally proper, been most helpful to the Government. He acted in a very constitutional manner and the government has received great assistance from him on many pressing problems". Finally the move to reduce GG's allowances and salary was rejected by the government.

The way SWRD handled the abrogation of the 1947 Defence Agreement with the UK and the take-over of the Naval Base at Trincomalee and Katunayake Air Base speaks volumes for his achievement. He was able to negotiate in a civilised and effective manner without antagonising the British and maintaining cordial relations at the same time.

To hail SWRD as a great statesman and reinforce the view that he was far seeing could be gleaned from the way he forged the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact with the aim of achieving a just settlement of the Tamil separatist question. The pact was a well thought-out diplomatic move and satisfied the Tamil nationalist aspirations which would, on hindsight, have prevented extremist terrorist groups such as the LTTE springing up to claim a separate unitary state. The Pact had to be abandoned due to Sinhala chauvinistic groups which labelled it as a " sell-out" to the Tamils ! They were so short-sighted to foresee that such a settlement would have stopped extremist, separatist Tamil groups in their tracks spawning terror, death and destruction and destroying the democratic beliefs of the country. SWRD had the vision and Chalvanayakam the prudence to agree in order to avoid future developments of an extreme revolutionary nature.

If the BC Pact was implemented it would have served as a solid base to build on, to solve the other related ethnic problems and would have immensely contributed to a just and peaceful settlement. The developments that took place after the abandonment of the Pact lead to the TULF adopting a militant approach which increased its intransigence in dealing with the subsequent governments. It is a tragedy that such a situation had to develop and today, as a result, Sri Lanka is paying a price in experiencing the most intractable problem of a full blown civil war in the East and [North].

SWRD's other claims to earn the coveted crown of a true statesman was the way he had to solve the problems of recurrent strikes fomented by the extreme left-wing elements in the Port of Colombo to undermine the new government. The approach he adopted , to stand up to certain individuals in his own party whose aim was to further their business interests, was with fortitude and courage. But in the process he became the unfortunate victim of those unscrupulous elements in his own party.

The greatness of SWRD Bandaranaike's statesmanship lay in the courage of his convictions to restore to the ordinary people of rural areas, opportunities to better themselves by way of easy access to employment which was denied to them in the past due to a lack of an English education. By fostering a sense of national identity as expressed by the adoption of Sinhala as the national language, he lit a flame of national consciousness, which will be hard to put out.

Critics have branded him as an expedient opportunist, but only stubborn facts will always attest to his sincerity and dedication in ushering a political way of life based on social democratic principles and also the adoption of non-alignment as a creed when dealing with other nations of the world. Such criteria have reinforced and established S.W.R.D Bandaranaike as a True Statesman.

This article is based on the research by Clarence H. Fernando BSc [Econ] London - Former Asst. Secretary of the SLFP (UK & Europe) Branch.