Mallika Lakshmi De Mel

She was the lady behind the success of her husband. As private secretary to the then Minister of Finance and Planning (1977-1989), she was, apart from many other things, responsible for providing jobs to many a youth in the south in general and Devinuwara in particular.

It is said that those who were provided with jobs made it so good that they moved into the city, built houses, shifted their bases and had never gone back, even periodically, to at least exercise their franchise at elections.

Her husband, Ronnie De Mel is considered to be the best Finance Minister of post-Independence Sri Lanka and held that portfolio for a record 11 years.

In late 1993, Mallika was in the thick of DUNF politics. That year was a watershed in Sri Lankan politics.

The second Executive President of the UNP had been installed in power in 1989 in the thick of chaos created by the JVP. This was after a period of 12 years. The first Executive President, J. R. Jayewardene held office from 1978 to 1989, after the constitution was amended in 1978.

During the tenure of President Ranasinghe Premadasa things turned sour, as 10 to 11 MPs led by Lalith Athulathmudali, while being in the party and cabinet initiated an impeachment motion against President Premadasa. They were expelled from the party, made to resign from cabinet and had to seek refuge in the Supreme Court under Article 99 13(a) of the Constitution. They launched an islandwide campaign against the so-called dictatorial policies of the President and took the issues to the country and public at large.

The present President, Mahinda Rajapaksa launched his opposition in the form of the now famous ‘Pada Yatra’, a massive rally traversing from Colombo all the way down to the deep south. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who had just returned to the island after many years abroad, having fled the country after her husband’s assassination, also joined in the rally, almost by force.

Mallika was in the thick DUNF activities. She joined hands with Lalith A, Gamini D and Dr. Sarath Amunugama, a new entrant to politics. Dr. Amunugama was a respected public servant who was in the last batch of Civil Servants to be recruited in 1962. Dr. Sarath Amunugama should get the credit for settling the leadership tussle in the DUNF between Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. It was he who suggested the rotation of leadership with Lalith getting the ‘first innings’, on the eve of Provincial Council elections.

Mallika participated in all important rallies and meetings island wide and was present at the official inauguration of the DUNF in Anuradhapura.

The government panicked and threw a massive police cordon round the Ruvanveliseya Stupa, the venue of the meeting, making it out of bounds for thousands of supporters of the new party, who had come down from all parts of the country.

The DUNF had to face a legal battle to gain recognition as a registered political party. The party was represented by the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, while K. N. Choksy appeared for the UNP before the Commissioner of Elections.

Whoever writes about the history of the DUNF, which served as a springboard for many a successful politician, should devote a few pages to Mallika. She was ably deputising for her husband, who was forced to be out of the island due to the hostile attitude of the government.

In fact, during a brief appearance in Sri Lanka, Ronnie De Mel barely escaped being hurt during a shooting incident in Bulathsinghala, which was supposed to have been instigated by the government.

She was MP for Devinuwara from 2001 to 2003 and was offered a second term, which she would have easily won, as she won the first election with the highest number of preferential votes in the Matara district. She declined the offer due to health reasons.

Politics was just one avenue for her to help the poor

Being a daughter of Sir Leo Fernando, a native of Panadura and a former MP of Buttala and a bus magnate, who was one of the richest persons in Sri Lanka in the 20th Century, she inherited a great deal of wealth. It was this wealth that she used to fund many a charitable cause and institutions in Kalutara and Panadura.

The writer was fortunate to be associated with her as Director of ‘Dakshina Lanka Sahana Padanama’ of which she was the Chairman. The ‘Padanama’ ran many a training institute in handicrafts, cloth making and a host of other activities, which enabled many a trainee to find employment. She was the benefactor of many a temple in Kalutara and Matara. She treated like a brother and wanted me to be more proactive and take to active politics.

Generous to a fault, she was warm-hearted and lit up the lives of many a person.

She was very much a family person, always looking after the needs of her husband (she confessed to me that she should predecease him) and extremely fond of her three daughters Sunalini, Tara and Renuka.

Despite her busy schedule - a politician, wife of a politician and an indefatigable social worker - she found time to spend a holiday with two of her daughters domiciled abroad, Sunalini in the UK and Tara in America, every year.

Good night Sweet Princess, the flights of Angels will sing thee to rest. (Hamlet - Shakespeare)

Her journey in Sansara will be short and may she attain the Supreme Bliss of Nirvana.

Methsiri Cooray,

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