Remembering Vijaya Kumaratunga

61st birth anniversary:
Remembering Vijaya Kumaratunga

By Kumar Rupesinghe

I remember meeting Vijaya on several occasions when our paths crossed during the 1970s. The first was when he visited me in the Janavegaya office in 1974 where his passions for justice and human dignity was clearly visible. On that occasion he wanted me to form a political party to which he would donate a printing press and find the resources for a party. I told him that I did not agree with him and the best way to proceed at that time was to work within the SLFP. The next time I met him was during the Katana by-elections when we campaigned together against the UNP. At that time UNP thugs were waiting for me at the Jaela Junction and by mistake brutally assaulted a person whom they mistook for me. In Vijaya’s case he was also brutally assaulted and his jaw was dislocated . I went to see him at the hospital. The next occasion I met him was at Horagolla, when UNP mobs were desecrating the Samadhi and large numbers of SLFP supporters were being harassed and intimidated. Vijaya then arrived with his partner to be i.e. Chandrika Bandaranaike. Since then I have been following his political career and the announcement of his death was a blow to all of us who had stood for a united Sri Lanka where Tamils would live in dignity and justice through a negotiated solution to the ethnic crisis.

[Vijaya with his two children Yashodara and Vimukthi]

October 9th marks the 61st birth anniversary of Vijaya Kumaratunga, arguably the most popular Sri Lankan film actor who adorned the silver screen. He made his debut in ‘Hanthane Kathawa, in 1969 acting in the lead role and since then, in a career that spanned nearly two decades, he portrayed varied characters in approximately 114 films, winning the award for the most popular actor in Sri Lanka consecutively from 1983 to 1988.

His skills were not limited to acting alone. He was a talented singer, winning the hearts and minds of the local populace. Born to a middle class family, he understood the difficulties in life and was known as a man with a heart of gold, who was totally unaffected by fame and prestige. After his marriage to Chandrika Bandaranaike, he took to active politics, joining the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, where he led the progressive faction. Vijaya was active in the presidential campaign of Hector Kobbekaduwa in 1982. However, after the election, he was jailed under the emergency regulations by JR Jayawardena for allegedly being a ‘Naxalite’, but he was never charged. A man with a mission, he was unflappable; not allowing this development to affect him, Vijaya continued along his chosen path.

The year 1985 was a turning point in his illustrious life. He made the decision to leave the fractured SLFP with his wife and form a new political party, the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), which was a party with a social democratic content. With the establishment of this new party, he managed to bring all the Leftist parties together to work jointly for a common objective. The fact that he was able to win the respect of staunch Leftist campaigners like Dr. Colvin R De Silva speaks volumes for his legitimacy and leadership qualities. In the 1986 by -election, he contested the Minneriya seat on the SLMP ticket and was placed second, after the United National Party thus effectively relegating the Sri Lanka Freedom Party into the third place. Although he was deprived of the position due to machinations of the then ruling party, the fact that he was able garner so much of the vote just two short months after forming the SLMP, is an indication not only of the strength of his popularity but also the belief the populace had in his capability.

It wasn’t only the southern community who noticed Vijaya’s leadership qualities; even the Tamil leadership acknowledged his capabilities and proven courage. In 1986, at the height of the ethnic conflict, when 6 policemen were taken hostage by the LTTE, it was Vijaya Kumaratunga who went to Jaffna to intervene and secure their release.

Another remarkable facet of Vijaya was his valiant struggle to restore peace in the country. He was one of the few people who actively promoted the Indo Lanka Agreement, the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987 when a vociferous minority took to the streets to demonstrate against what was then termed as a ‘sell out to India’.

An ardent proponent of the provincial council system, he firmly believed that devolution of power to the periphery was the fairest way of resolving the ethnic crisis and the issues of historical inequalities suffered by the minorities. As a result of this act, he earned the wrath of the JVP, who were vehemently against the Indian intervention and as it later conspired, it was this act that led to his assassination one year later. Before his death Vijaya was vilified by the JVP and Front organizations such as the Protection of the Mother Land as a traitor, as an agent of the LTTE seeking to divide the country. To date, he remains one of the few Sinhalese leaders who defied government pressure and death threats in order to have direct negotiations with all the Tamil leaders including the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. The party he founded remains the first party to start direct discussions with the LTTE to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict based along the lines of a federal solution The same campaign of vilification, death threats, and slander continues up to this day with the JVP and other extremist forces including individuals who engage in hate speeches and articles to vilify those who are working for peace.

The late Vijaya Kumaratunga was a person who was loved and adored by the people. His human nature and personality were well recognized. He saw the ethnic crisis as the most serious crisis affecting the nation and worked tirelessly to find a solution. He was so dedicated to the cause that he didn’t allow repeated death threats to daunt him. In fact he is known to have briefed those close to him that if working for peace was to lead to his downfall, that his objectives and unwavering commitment to find a lasting solution should be pursued at all costs. As such, the biggest tribute we could give the late Vijaya Kumaratunga at present would be to assist in the solving of the ethnic conflict that has plagued this nation for over two decades. []

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