|Friday, 21 March 2003|
Remembering a trail-blazing servant of the people
by Talia Jayasekera
'My vision is a country where every person contributes their mite - both physical and intellectual, participating in the mainstream of economic growth as partners. Everyone shall reap the fruits of his or her efforts and benefit from a balanced and sustained march to prosperity. That is the Sri Lanka of my dreams'. - Gamini Dissanayake
"Gamini was a man of integrity. He had charisma and was a true leader of the people. That is why his popularity was so immense". These are the words of Srima Dissanayake. Words she speaks passionately about her husband in her delicate yet cultured manner. The late Minister Gamini Dissanayake's life was cut short in 1994 at a rally in Kotahena by a suicide bomber during the year's Presidential election campaign.
Today is the 61st birth anniversary of the late Minister Dissanayake. His memory and dedicated work for the people of this country has yet to fade from our minds. The magnetic presence of this man is ever-present though he was snatched away at such a young age. At the time of his death, Dissanayake was running in the Presidential campaign against Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Gamini Dissanayake was born in 1942 in the cool climes of Kotmale in the Nuwara Eliya district. He and his seven siblings spent their days revelling in the simple life that was the hill country. Dissanayake began his primary education at the prestigious Trinity College, Kandy and thereafter joined the Sri Lanka Law College and took his oaths in 1967 to begin his sojourn as a lawyer in this country.
It was evident to everyone who crossed paths with him that Dissanayake was destined for a career in politics. And so his chance came on request from Dudley Senanayake, then leader of the UNP party, in 1970 to contest the Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya electorate which he won convincingly. Dissanayake was only 27 years at the time and the youngest Member of Parliament.
He proved himself to be a modern politician, unburdened by baggage as past politicians. He was a great statesman and leader who was admired for his organisational skills, his capacity to conceptualise a truly modern vision for the country.
"The period from 1970 to 1977 was the best period in Gamini's life. He showed his flair for politics and more importantly his compassion for those who were suffering", said Mrs. Dissanayake. "He strongly believed that computer technology should be made available to the youth of this country. He co-founded several educational institutes such as the Armstrong Waterfield Foundation in Nuwara Eliya, the SOS Children's Village and the Galway Village".
Dissanayake was appointed Minister of Irrigation, Power and Highways by President J.R Jayewardene in 1977. In 1978 he was also appointed Minister of Lands, Land Development and Mahaweli Development. He spearheaded the `Accelerated Mahaweli Development Projects, the Greater Colombo Economic Development Scheme, the Colombo City Upliftment and Re-planting Campaigns'. He was instrumental in constructing several reservoirs such as Kotmale, Victoria, Randenigala, Rantembe, Ulhitiya, Rathkinda and Maduruoya which brought great relief to the masses in the dry zone areas. Dissanayake helped form the Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union where Tamil workers were integrated in the main national stream with equal opportunities. President Premadasa, in 1989, appointed Dissanayake as Minister of the Plantation Industries where he developed the `cluster system' for the tea estates. In 1981 Dissanayake was made President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka (BCCSL) where he helped Sri Lanka achieve Test Status in 1982. He re-developed the Asgiriya Stadium and expanded the Getambe Ground as junior cricket stadium. An attorney herself, Mrs. Dissanayake gentle demeanour speaks volumes for her education at Ladies College. She smiles generously when asked about her life with this distinguished man.
"My role as his wife was to stand by him and keep our home and children safe and happy. I, sometimes, may not have agreed with him or had my own personal reservations but once he started on a project, he could be sure of my fullest support. I would have to say we were a very contented family. I would go with friends to see Gamini give his speeches. They were incredibly moving and I saw first-hand how much he was loved by the people".
"I constantly feared for his life because in a short space of time Lalith Athulathmudali, Ranjan Wijeratne and President Premadasa all lost their lives in LTTE plots. But I knew there was no way I could hold him back from what he was destined to do. He always told me that election campaigns cannot be carried out by appearing on television or in the newspapers. You had to mix with the people and be one with them to really understand their lives", said Mrs. Dissanayake.
"My husband never agreed with the cause of the LTTE or Prabhakaran but he did feel for the people of Jaffna and the hardships suffered by them. They were very disgruntled by the lack of development and comparing rate that was achieved in other areas of the country. But Gamini helped them tremendously no matter what portfolio he held in the UNP Government. He felt that no one had the right to kill others and bring such devastation and violence to a country".
"Gamini was very satisfied with the way president J.R Jayewardene was handling the LTTE situation. But Prabhakaran was very young in those days and stubborn. He had an equally determined group of young Tamils behind him so there could be no reasoning with them".
Mrs. Dissanayake was thrust into the limelight when her husband was assassinated and she then felt it was her duty to campaign in his place for the Presidency. "My grief was immense at the time of his death. The campaign had been progressing exceptionally well and the UNP was geared with the `Dissanayake' name. So when Gamini died, I had to take his place because that was what the people wanted".
"I have to say I am in full support of the peace talks. It may be only in the embryo stages but the effects on the people have been tremendous. I do hope that the federal system is explored and that we can reach an understanding between the Government and the LTTE so that peace will prevail in the country. Too many lives have been lost". Mrs. Dissanayake then turns to shine a light on her life's passion - the Gamini Dissanayake Foundation. It is obvious that this project brings her great pride and gives her the opportunity to carry on her husband's dream of educating the underprivileged youth in computer technology and English. The Foundation consists of a distinguished Board of Directors and Patrons including Mrs. Dissanayake as chairperson and her sons.
The Foundation focuses on the poor and most disadvantaged groups. The rural community constitutes 78.5% of Sri Lanka and the Foundation hopes to help them achieve a better quality of life and economic well-being. The needs of the estate workers in the field of housing, education and health is another area of attention. The Foundation regularly donates books and other educational necessities to poor children and wheel-chairs to the disabled.
The Gamini Dissanayake Institute of Technology and Vocational Studies was opened in October 1995 and is an educational institute operated on a charitable basis and funded by the Gamini Dissanayake Foundation. Originally located in Kandy, the Institute recently moved to its new and impressive premises in Nuwara Eliya.
The primary aim of the Institute is to provide a sound training for young people of employable age in English and Computer science and additionally in general administration and office skills through a one-year course. The Institute aims to ensure that graduates have no difficulty in obtaining private-sector employment, presently largely denied to rural youth due to their poor exposure to English, modern technology and the industrial culture. The guiding philosophy is that no graduate of the Institute will be unemployable.
"When the Institute was opened in 1995, we took 60 underprivileged students, between the ages of 18 -20, on a scholarship basis to educate them in English and Computer Studies. On completion of this one year course they are granted a Diploma in Computer Studies", said Mrs. Dissanayake. "Approximately 300 students have passed through our Institute and are now gainfully employed. Six of our students were selected to receive scholarships from the Informatics Institute of Computer Studies to follow the Manchester Metropolitan University Degree course".
"We do not charge the students any fees except a facilities fee of Rs. 250 per month. This is a very nominal fee that is used to keep up the standards of the Institute. We have had a few funding problems but the students have formed an alumni which organises musical shows, raffle draws.
The new batch along with the Nuwara Eliya Municipal Council have printed stickers to be sold at the entrances into the city for the tourists".
"We work with a full-time principal and a 12 member staff who are already trained but we hope to train some teachers of our own. We also have a volunteer VSO from Kenya at the Institute and two career guidance counsellors. Mr Keerthi Lenaduwa of the Katubedda University is an advisor for the teaching staff".
"The Institute also conducts English and computer classes for Government servants and also a 3 month course of the same nature for children in the junior, intermediary and senior levels", she said.
To honour his many contributions to the country, the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will rename the Kotmale Reservoir after Dissanayake on 11 April and the Kotmale Maha Vidyalaya will be renamed the Gamini Dissanayake Maha Vidyalaya.
Produced by Lake House