Gamini Dissanayake (Commemoration) 9th Death Anniversary falls on October 23
The politician who practised principles

by Prematilaka Mapitigama
Dissanayake, Gamini (1942 - 1994): Lawyer and politician; MP from 1970-71, 1972- 1991; entered Cabinet in 1977 as Minister of Lands and Mahaveli Development and held this post till 1988; was Minister of Plantation Industries under R. Premadasa 1989-90; joined Athulathmudali in opposition to R. Premadasa from 1991; expelled from the UNP in 1991; returned to the UNP and the Cabinet in mid-1994; Leader of the Opposition, 1994; assassinated October 23,1994.

To flesh out the bare bones of a biographical sketch of the man I knew so well moves me to tears. But praising what is lost makes remembrance dear. There is another reason why I feel impelled to write these lines on the occasion of the 9th Anniversary of his assassination and to explain this I must quote Shakespere again - "the evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones." And, it is not a question of speaking nothing but good of those who are dead but a firm belief in the integrity and sincerity of purpose of the man I knew that moves me.

Gamini was the scion of a highly respected Kandyan family in Kotmale. Of his roots I can do no better than quote from the writings of a distinguished contemporary of his early days at Trinity College Kandy, Sarath Amunugama: "Our group would assemble regularly at the Kandy Public Library which had an astonishing range of magazines and books. Then we would spend the evening together, walking round the Kandy Lake debating many issues we had read of.

"Of these walks we would often encounter the Dissanayake boys and other Trinitians playing near their lake-front home.... I remember Gamini most because he had the habit of probing us, searching his peers for ideas and facts. On the threshold of entering University all of us were somewhat inclined to penetrate the clouds. We had a more mundane reason for knowing Gamini and his brothers. They were the children of the owner of ‘Silverdale’, Kandy’s best known cafe. After our long walks we would retire there for a snack and envy the Dissanayake boys whom we imagined could tuck into all that delicious food at will!

"Gamini’s father Andrew was a leading citizen of Kandy and had started several businesses which proved to be so successful that he was perhaps the best known Kandyan entrepreneur of his time. `85He was involved with the politics of the hill country, of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya in particular. He was the President of the All Island Local Authorities Association and had come to know at a personal level, the acknowledged father of Local Government in Sri Lanka, the charismatic S. W. R. D. Bndaranaike."

SWRD was at the time looking for a new group of popular regional leaders capable of challenging the well entrenched UNP elite. "He was nominated for the Nuwara Eliya constituency by the SLFP in 1956. It was well known that he was one of the richest candidates of the Central Province and was financing the campaigns of several SLFP candidates in the area."

"Andrew Dissanayake won handsomely and was appointed a Deputy Minister in the Bandaranaike Government. Unlike many of his party colleagues and very much like his son Gamini later on. Andrew was totally devoid of rancour and hatred. This civilised approached to politics has obviously had an impact on Gamini who grew up in an atmosphere of politics."

Well, so much for the background of the young man who has been the target of loose tongues which claimed he was a little better than a pauper when he entered politics on his nomination to the Nuwara Eliya seat in 1969 by Dudley Senanayake.

Much has been written about Gamini Dissanayake’s historic role since that distant day when he won the Nuwara Eliya seat on the first shy, lost it later on an election petition and regained it at the by-election with a majority of 2,750 votes. He was the youngest member of the party which was reduced to 17 members in 1970. I do not intend to bore my readers by going back to a narration of his triumphs like the taming of the Mahaweli, or the winning score he made as President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka in fulfilment of his vision of the day when Sri Lanka’s village boys would play at Lords and not the least of them his endorsement of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord. Of these enough has been said.

What I would try then is project an image of the inner man, and this comes out into sharpest focus when a man is under stress. In Gamini’s case the worst period of his life was at the time he was stripped of his title of Minister of Lands Irrigation and Power and worst of all, the Ministry of Mahaweli Development. He was appointed Minister of Plantation Industries instead and this would have been a formidable blow a sabre thrust to the heart. The fortitude with which he bore the pain and his true character comes out clearly in two letters - one from UNP stalwart Samaraweera Weerawanni, the other, Gamini’s reply. Samaraweera Weerawanni’s letter is dated July 10, 1989.

Samaraweera Weerawanni; "The reason for this letter is the great pain of mind that I underwent caused by yesterday’s incident at the Government Group meeting. It was not only because you are my minister, but also because of our close bonds within the party that the verbal assault directed at you hurt me as well. We are aware from the tributes paid to you for your role in ensuring victory for the President and the ruling party at both elections, that the people’s early expectations in the Government were shattered.

"It is impossible to solve the burning problems of the country with a ‘Suba and Yasa’ drama, isolating learned and intelligent Members of Parliament able to look at problems reasonably; and instead appointing as ‘chit’ MPs or even as Ministers those persons with little education, who have never yet contested a general election, leave alone as election to a Village Council. I think there is little we can do than watch from a respectable distance the attempts by the present leadership to create needless problems by treading an obscure path.

Weerawanni went on plaintively: "I do not need to stress that even if you went to a foreign country, you will have a place among the educated intelligentsia due to your qualities of leadership, ability and efficiency. But looking at the unsettled conditions prevailing in our country today, if educated and intelligent politicians like you and Minister Athulathmudali are lost to the country and the party, what would be the fate of our party, the country and future generations?"

Weerawanni concluded his three page missive with an appeal: "Even if you lie low for a short period, the people will not forget you because during such a short period in the political arena you have shown your capabilities to the envy of veterans. Therefore I sincerely believe that you will, for the sake of the country and the party, forget personal interest and arrive at an intelligent wise and correct decision. Then, we shall be with you in the future as we have been with you in the past and now."

I shall give you a few excerpts of Gamini Dissanayake’s reply to Weerawanni dated July 14,1989 in which his decision to stay on in his new Ministry is clear. As clear as his antagonism to violence as a solution to the JVP threat.

"You have said that we should educate the people in order to minimise the effects of a volcanic eruption. I am deeply appreciative that young MPs like you believe in the principles of law and order and abhor the violation of human rights. Questions could be raised as to why I tolerated some of these violations during the earlier regime. That is a valid question, the answer to which is that I was placed in charge of the biggest development project in our country’s history. Its progress kept me totally absorbed as I was only too mindful that its completion was of vital importance to the country `85`85

"Politics is all about a vision. That vision has to be deeply rooted in the traditional values and culture of a society. This probably explains why I spoke so emotionally at the Government Group meeting the other day. A political vision has to be non-violent and encompass humanity as one of its basic tenets. It is not possible for me to accept the violation of the rule of law and the abuse of fundamental rights `85 Whatever the past may be, I am now in a position to look back and observe the mistakes we have made, to team from them and move forward`85`85 Therefore our aim should be a social transformation.

"The catalyst of such a transformation must be young MPs like you. Such a transformation must bring together the village and the city. We tried to do this in the Mahaweli. We tried to raise the standards of rational thinking, scientific knowledge and business acumen of those young future leaders of our country. We gave them what they never had, made them observe what they would have never seen, think what they would have thought, but most importantly we were able to teach them to believe in themselves`85`85

"Whatever the obstacles, the loss or the harassment, I will bear it on behalf of the country’s future".

How I dearly wish you had not gone away so soon Gamini.

The author was with Gamini Dissanayake as his Additional Secretary until Gamini was removed from the Ministry of Lands and Mahaveli Development. Thereafter he was appointed by the Cabinet as the Secretary to President J. R. Jayewardene. Mapitigama now functions as the Secretary General of the J. R. Jayewardene Centre.