A Role Model for Women Leaders: Vivienne

(INTRODUCTION to the book "RED Leader: Vivienne")


Vivienne Goonewardena

by Tissa Vitarana


To mark the Birth Centenary of Vivienne Goonewardena, ("Vivie") which falls on September 19, 2016, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) decided to publish a second edition of this book, which was first published on Sept. 18, 1996, to mark her 80th birthday. The authors were Malalgoda Banduthi-laka and Nandasena Suriyaaratchi. As it is out of print, and the former passed away, Suriyaaratchi agreed to add a foreword to expand the scope of the book, thereby giving a more complete picture of a remarkable woman who played a significant role in the history of Sri Lankan politics.

At a time when the door is being opened for women to play a greater political role by ensuring that they should form at least 25% of all representatives in Parliament, Provincial Councils and Local Government bodies, Vivie will undoubtedly be a major, if not the main, inspiration for future generations to follow. Sri Lanka needs fearless women leaders who are nationalist, internationalist and socialist, with a broad outlook. Unfortunately many NGO women leaders, though devoted to their cause, tend to have a narrow single issue outlook, and tend to miss the full picture.

Vivie was born in 1916 in our poor under developed country when it was colonized by Britain, then the most powerful imperialist power in the world. In the society of that time when development was uneven (with the dominance of feudal, semi-capitalist and imperialist forces) there was the need to fight and overcome various prejudices in the course of the national liberation struggle. This struggle developed out of the nationalist "Suriyamal movement", which emerged in 1932 as a counter to the British Poppy movement.

The subsequent organized leadership was provided by the socialist Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Sri Lanka’s first real political party. The main objectives of the LSSP were:

* To win the anti-imperialist national liberation struggle for complete independence,

* To establish an equal society free of poverty, a samasamajaya (a welfare state on socialist lines) – with free education and health care, worker’s rights like eight hours work, overtime and pension rights, land for the tiller, school children’s free mid-day meal etc.

* To establish a society free of prejudice and discrimination based on race, religion, caste, gender and class.

*To build a leadership with a fighting spirit committed to the noble cause of taking our society out of colonial subjugation, of changing the associated servile mindset, and building a truly independent, sovereign, united Sri Lankan nation, with a developed economy free of poverty, having an internationalist outlook.

Left Women Leaders - Among the Marxist leaders, who were not only Sri Lankan nationalists but also socialists, that formed the LSSP on December 18, 1935, were Dr N M Perera, Dr. Colvin R de Silva, Philip Gunawardana, Dr. S A Wickremasinghe and Leslie Goonewardena, all of whom studied in the West, and provided the leadership that was equal to this task. But we are proud that among the Left leaders there were women too with a nationalist and socialist outlook. Doreen Wickremasinghe, as its President, and Selina Perera were active in the Suriyamal Movement. Vivie, as head girl at Musaeus College mobilized the whole school to sell Suriyamal. Selina Perera was also a founder member of the LSSP, and remained a political leader here, and later in India, where she fled along with NM after the British ban on the LSSP. Kusuma Gunawardena and Doreen played active leadership roles in the Left movement, first in the LSSP and thereafter in the MEP and CP, both in Parliament and outside. Florence Senanayake was the first to be elected to Parliament from Kiriella in 1947 from the LSSP, with Vivie repeatedly (1956, 1965 and 1970), and Soma Wickremanayake (1960) and Kusala Abhayavardhana (1970) following. Women of the Left gave leadership at other levels, e.g. Local Government, and Sirinawathi de Silva of the LSSP, was the first female Urban Council Chairperson in Sri Lanka (from Ambalangoda).

From this book it is evident that Vivie devoted her entire life to the LSSP, and the struggle to achieve all its objectives, and to serve and lead the people selflessly and fearlessly. Vivie from a young age demonstrated her readiness to fight against the prejudices against women that prevailed in a backward society. Her father was against her pursuing higher education and wanted her instead to prepare for marriage. Vivie surreptitiously prepared for the Matriculation examination, which she passed, and then went on to win an "Exhibition" at the University scholarships examination. Her independent and rebellious attitude was considered unbecoming of a woman, and led to her father not supporting her university hostel education, resulting in her obtaining an external general degree(London B.A) instead of an honours degree.

This led to her life-long struggle for women’s rights- both within Parliament and outside. She was the President of the Sama Samaja Kantha Peramuna, and a leader of the Left Eksath Kantha Peramuna. She consistently raised and agitated on women’s issues, be it at the work place (mills, plantations, offices or factories) or at the home, and even abroad. She led processions on International Women’s Day, and May Day, facing Police terror fearlessly. She stood for equality for women with men.

She fell in love with Leslie Goonewardena, who belonged to a Karawe Christian family, and here too she encountered prejudices, but on caste and religious lines, which led to her father opposing her marriage. Leslie had to file a Habeas Corpus application in Courts to get her out of her father’s control at the age of 23, and they got married in 1939. These early experiences of gender, caste and religious oppression, steeled her resolve to fight against these and all forms of oppression, particularly those based on class and race which divided the nation as a whole, throughout her life, particularly as a member of the policy forming LSSP Central Committee.

Fearless Fighter - For example, when Vivie was confronted by a Sinhala racist mob during the time of the anti-Tamil riots, she argued against their actions, and narrowly escaped death, being rescued by her supporters just in time. As a member of the Colombo Municipal Council, and also as the MP for Colombo North, she fearlessly faced and overcame the thuggery of the UNP, led by powerful capitalist politicians like Sugathadasa, who was Mayor and thereafter the UNP MP for Colombo North. This confrontation extended to the trade union field as well, as Vivie was the President of the Local Government Workers Union. She was one of the leaders of the Great Hartal of 1953, and personally helped to fell a tree across a public road in Colombo.

Parliamentarian- Besides regularly being elected as the people’s representative to the Colombo Municipality, Vivie was returned to Parliament - from Colombo North in 1956, from the Borella seat in 1965 and from Dehiwela-Galkissa in 1970. At a time when there were few Ministers, Vivie was made Junior Minister of Local Government by the PM, Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1964. She moved closely with the people, diligently attended to their needs daily, and with her charm, honesty, and integrity, enjoyed their respect and love. In both the Municipality and Parliament she made regular speeches on their behalf, and also on matters of policy. But she also earned a name for strongly heckling, even the Ministers, when they made false statements. Throughout she was loyal to the LSSP and its policies, even when they aroused hostility, as on the language issue.

Activist- Vivie was ever active on behalf of the LSSP and the people in broad national politics. She led May Day rallies, election rallies, anti-imperialist demonstrations and women’s protest marches, and marched all the way. When peacefully returning from one of the women’s marches on March 8, International Women’s Day, where a letter of protest was presented to the US Embassy, the Kollupitiya Police arrested a press photographer for no reason and when Vivie went to rescue him the Police officer threw her onto the floor and put his foot on her and arrested her as well. Vivie asked him "do you have a mother?" She petitioned the Supreme Court which held that her arrest was unlawful and the State had to pay Rs.2,500 as damages. On the following day the sub-inspector who arrested Vivie was given a promotion by President Jayewardene. On an earlier occasion when Vivie was much younger and the Police attacked a peaceful procession in the presence of the IGP Sir Richard Aluvihare, who was on horseback, she fearlessly went up to him, pulled him by the leg and protested against this unprovoked attack on a peaceful procession! She won many demands in the trade union field, specially as the President of the All Ceylon Local Government Workers Union. She helped to make a success of the Cooperative movement in the 1970s.

Struggle for National Liberation- The weak capitalist class in Sri Lanka, led by the Ceylon National Congress (which later became the UNP), was happy to be a junior partner to UK and share in the exploitation of Sri Lanka as their agent (playing a comprador role). In contrast the Indian capitalist class and the people, led by Gandhi and Nehru, carried out the "Quit India" mass struggle to chase the British out, right through the period of the Second World War. But in Sri Lanka the LSSP, which was banned, had to go underground to continue the independence struggle. The British imprisoned NM, Colvin, Philip and Edmund, but Leslie who was leading the underground struggle, had to send Vivie and her baby Kumudini to India, and later when arrest was imminent, to follow her there. The LSSP leaders, the others who broke jail as well, joined the "Quit India" movement, in the conviction that if Britain had to leave India they would have to leave Sri Lanka as well.

Vivie and the others joined the Congress Socialist Party and the liberation struggle, which led to Indian independence, and for Sri Lanka as well. In 1992 the Indian Government had a ceremony to mark 50 years of the "Quit India" movement, and she was the only woman among the five foreign invited guests who were given awards (among whom was Bernard Soysa). As a socialist internationalist, Vivie participated in international fora and solidarity meetings, and supported liberation struggles against imperialism in all countries, like Cuba, Vietnam and Palestine.

Role model- One may ask why make a Left leader like Vivie, the role model for women leaders entering the political arena, and not women of the caliber of Sirima Bandaranaike or Chandrika Kumaratunge, who have been heads of state in Sri Lanka? Both of them inherited power, after independence, from SWRD Bandaranaike, who had already obtained leadership of the Pancha Maha Balavegaya (Sangha, Vedha, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru). They did not have to start from the bottom like Vivie and win the support of the people through sheer devoted hard work. They were both Centrist politicians, who served the interest not only of the poor but also the rich, which included foreign imperialism. As heads of state, at critical times and on important issues, they were both prepared to betray Sri Lankan interests to foreign imperialism. Vivie never did that.

Save Sri Lanka for a better future- The global economic crisis is deepening and the American Empire is worst affected. Naked exploitation of countries like Sri Lanka is vital for their economic revival. Sri Lanka needs women politicians who feel for our children, the future generation, who will not appease the powerful US Empire, but who will join with the Left to fight against it, and its agenda that the UNP-led Government is trying to implement. We have to form a Centre/Left Government once again, by defeating the regime of the Right, led by the UNP, that is in power today. Sri Lanka needs to produce female leaders like Vivie who are anti-imperialist, and are committed to protecting the gains made by the Centre/Left governments since 1956.They must help to achieve the goals of sustainable development that will make Sri Lanka a developed rich country, free of poverty where the gap between the rich and poor is minimal. Sri Lanka must become a united nation state where every citizen is equal. There must be no oppression based on gender, race, religion, caste, or class. We must form a united Sri Lankan nation, which will return to a truly non-aligned foreign policy based on equality among all nations.


(The writer is General Secretary of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party)

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...