People and Events
Gamini Dissanayake - An ordinary person’s tribute

gamini.gif (48057 bytes)by Nan
One can hardly believe that seven years have gone by since Gamini Dissanayake was brutally assassinated. Time flies, yet the remembering mind is very clear and unfaded.

I vividly remember I was walking fast that early morning towards Galle Face with the twin intentions of doing good to my body and taking an overseas call at the GPO. I met a person I knew who broke the news to me and advised me not to venture to the Fort. "Gamini Dissanayake died of injuries suffered at an election meeting. Along with Premachandra and others." Was it the LTTE, I inquired. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "He was contesting the presidency and had a very good chance of winning."

It hit me.

I came home and broke the news to my husband who was also deeply shocked. I gauged the depth of the crime and extent of loss by my husband’s reaction — an unperturbed person who, in full control of his emotions was swayed little by joy, sorrow or shock. But he was visibly shaken by Gamini’s death, having worked in the Mahaweli Authority and known him to be a very efficient minister and humane boss.

We had, had a spate of killings about that time: Lalith Athulathmudali, President Premadasa, Ranjan Wijeratne, Gladys Jayawardena, singers and TV artistes, but the two deaths that really impacted themselves on me were Gamini Dissanayake’s and Richard de Zoysa’s. Why? They were such bright stars in the firmament, with so much promise of shining bright for very long, so much of good they would have done, so lasting an impression created, and their lives snuffed out in a second by deplorably cruel hands.

Waste is shocking and not to be tolerated. Waste of human life is terrible. Waste of good, valuable human lives that would impact on all of society and on the country, is inconceivable, impossible to come to teens with. Gamini would have steered our country to successful development and Richard would have been a spark burning bright in creative writing and the theatre.

Both handsome men; both absolutely charismatic, winning people over with just a smile. They both had charm by the ton, personality and the ability to dent a definite mark on history.

Like to the falling of a Star;

Or as the flights of eagles are;

Or like the fresh Spring’s gaudy hue;

Or silver drops of morning Dew;

Or like a Wind that chafes the flood;

Or Bubbles which on water stand;

Even such is Man, whose borrow’d light

Is straight called in, and paid to Night.

The wind blows out, the Bubble dies,

The Spring entomb’d in Autumn lies;

The Dew dries up, the star is shot,

The Flight is past, the Man forgot

Henry King (?) Poem 1657

Young Man

Gamini, even as a young boy, was responsible minded. As eldest in the family, he did cast a caring eye over his younger siblings. His mother was a gracious lady and her qualities of innate goodness and simplicity passed onto to the son. Maybe Gamini’s charm and ability to deal successfully with people came from his father.

We saw him grow up — the boy next door — to a handsome young man, always perfectly neat in his white trousers and Trinity pullover with its red-yellow-blue stripes round V neck and armholes.

We lost touch with him after he left Trinity and we left Kandy. The next time we "met" him was seeing his photograph splashed all over the newspapers as the youngest MP. We who had known him as a schoolboy, and known his parents and siblings shared their pride.

The politician

He was outstanding.

He was controversial too, an ardent acolyte to the ‘old Fox’, not, you can be sure, to curry favour, but recognising in JR the ability and guts to lead Sri Lanka on a new path, which he favoured too. If he were the currying favour type he would have held his peace and given lip service to R. Premadasa like most Sri Lankans, specially those in the periphery of power did, and gone on as minister.

He was very much there in the Indo-Sri Lanka battle of wits when Rajiv Gandhi’s air force dropped parippu on Jaffna. He was also very much there when the controversial Indo-Sri Lanka pact was signed. Thus being prime mover he also became the prime target of Premadasa’s disapproval.

But what else could we have done with India poised to come over if we did not comply by their order to withdraw from Jaffna, poised as our army was to deliver the final death blow to the ‘boys’ holed up in Vadamarachchi? What else could we do but bring in the 13th Amendment and decentralize power?

Gamini Dissanayake was a doer and a catalyst that got things moving and got things done. The Mahaweli Diversion Scheme had thousands working in it, excellent brains at the top, large foreign companies too, but if he as Head was not dynamic, not committed, not determined to see it telescoped from 30 years to 5, it would never have been completed so successfully.

The opening up of neglected land, the introduction of crops benefited so many. Remember the chilli cultivator who soon enough bought himself a TV set and lived the good life; the baby corn and gherkins available in the local market, the creation of jobs, the sheer buoyancy of the economy and its influence on our everyday lives.

Then came the locking horns with President Premadasa. We shivered in fear for Gamini Dissanayake. Please, please spare him, we prayed. In that instance he was spared, only to fall victim to assassination when he was really on the ascent.

Almost single handedly he succeeded in having the august doors of the International Cricket Club opening to Sri Lanka. Proof again of the persuasive charm of the man.


What would it have been had he lived? Would our growth rate have plummeted to 0.4 percent? Would our politics and politicking descended to such low depths? Would Kandy have been the battle ground it was in runs-up to polling day? Not on your life! Gamini rode the political field like a colossus, and a benign one. True he had ambition, but where’s the rub if your ambition pushes you forward in a decent manner, with gentlemanly finesse? He was a consummate politician, a firm believer in democracy, and a person with the interests of the people at heart.

Remember his assured look and very comfortable stance as he and his wife were in attendance to HRH Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh when they visited Sri Lanka. Also the aplomb with which he squired Margaret Thatcher to declare open the Victoria Dam. Here was a man who could so beautifully walk with kings but not lose his touch with the common man, his connection to grass roots level.

I firmly believe our political history and economic path would have been entirely different, stained much less with muck and moving upwards in spite of the drain of the war. Who knows whether, had he lived, we would be living in peace with all of us Sri Lankans first and then Sinhalese and Tamil and Muslim and...

Charismatic Man of the People

He never forgot his roots, neither the people he knew. It was the done thing for him to approach the nonentity and speak with that person, or stop his car and descending, say hello to a known person. (No screeching suicidal motorcades then!) Even as minister and right hand to JRJ, he would visit ordinary homes of those he had known.

The photograph that accompanied Rajiva Wijesinghe’s article on Gamini Dissanayake in last Sunday’s Island captured the essence of this man among men — a dreamer yet practical, a visionary whose vision encompassed the whole of the country; a thinker and a doer; great and elevated but never forgetting the common man. Above all so very attractive, both in appearance and in heart and spirit.

As we have read and heard, he could charm not only the heathen but the suave, the sophisticate, the gentlemen of the hallowed ICC, the aristocracy of the world.

Here’s a compliment I like best, to the man:

My sister was resident in Nuwara Eliya when Gamini first contested that seat. A wizened village woman would deliver the daily bottle of fresh milk. My sister asked the woman this question: undiplomatic and incorrect, I suppose, but ask it she did and got this wonderful reply.

"Kiri Amma, kaatada chande denne?"

"Aney appe, vena kaatada? Gaminitene Harima lassana mahathaya. Naaki matath eka penewa. A vagema hari hondai." And this with the cutest of smiles, a blush on the cheeks and an appreciative glint in the eye.

Greatness is a spiritual condition worthy to excite love, interest and admiration; and the outward proof of possessing greatness is, that we excite love, interest and admiration.

(Matthew Arnold)

Ah God, for a man with heart, head and hand,

Like some of the simple great ones gone

For ever and ever by,

One still strong man in a blatant land

Whatever they call him, what care I?

Aristocrat, democrat, autocrat, one

Who can rule and not lie."
(Lord Tennyson)