President D.B. Wijetunga
Wijetunga Sri Lanka’s third Executive President, who passed away
in Kandy yesterday morning at the age of 86 following a
prolonged illness, marked a golden chapter in Sri Lankan
His passing away takes from our midst another politician of a
by gone era when clean politics ruled the day.
There was nothing flashy or demonstrative about D.B.Wijetunga,
a hallmark of the present day politician but his calm
disposition, simplicity and modest demeanour made him a popular
Neither did he have any pretensions to oratorical skills or
verbal flourishes but spoke the idiom of the masses that
endeared him to the electorate. Not for him were the gung ho
displays or the sweeping rhetoric. These things were alien and
far removed from character of the simple peasant from Udunuwara.
He never sought the plums of office. On the contrary
greatness was thrust upon him. He was the quintessential
politician of the masses and it was fitting that the United
National Party which at one time took pride in its rural base
had him as the party’s last President that marked the end its
tenure. He was a UNPer of the old guard.
Of course he was catapulted to the highest office in the land
by force of circumstances. In fact even his worst critics - of
which there were not many - would concede that the simple
unobtrusive politician never hankered after office or position.
He was the reluctant politician of Sri Lanka with no
pretensions to genius or exceptional talent. But his smiling
persona will always be etched in the minds of that segment of
the public who still hark back to the era of the gentleman
Dearly Beloved as he was affectionately known in later years
ideally fitted into this milieu. He was one of the first
gentleman-farmers to enter politics. He had a ready empathy with
the Kandyan peasantry that was reflected in the impressive
electoral victories he notched up in his Udunuwara constituency.
His simplicity was his hallmark which even endeared him to
his political opponents. Ambition for high political office
certainly would not have fitted in with his traits.
He would have been the last to have entertained hopes of
mounting the pedestal of the Presidency. D.B. had always been
bit player even though he held Ministerial Office under the
J.R.Jayewardene Government and was never given to manipulations.
Hence it was sheer force of circumstances that first made him
Prime Minister and later the President. In fact he was the
compromise candidate as Prime Minister, handpicked by President
There was nothing exceptional during his tenure as Prime
Minister and it was evident that he was being used as a mere
rubber stamp by the President in Parliament. Yet he received the
accolade “Doing Bloody Well” by an irrepressible member of the
Opposition who himself is no more, punning on his initials.
D.B. certainly brought dignity and poise to the exalted
Office of Prime Minister. Not for him though the cut and thrust
of Parliament debate and he was sometimes heckled on by an
Opposition out for the blood of the President.
But there was no rancour and malice in these encounters and
the Prime Minister always held himself with a quite dignity that
helped douse the storm. His brief spell as the country’s
President too did not witness anything extraordinary, but he was
fiercely opposed to LTTE terrorism and pledged to wipe out the
organisation. He always stressed that Sri Lanka suffered from a
terrorist problem, not an ethnic conflict per se.
He acquitted himself with dignity and honour as befitting the
high office without courting publicity and fanfare. Perhaps he
was resigned to the reality that his was a stop gap appointment
and decided to serve the remainder of the Presidency without
courting controversy. He was the ideal choice in the smooth
transition of power during those turbulent times following the
tragic death of President Premadasa.
His brief one year tenure as President also saw a radical
transformation of the much maligned political culture that
prevailed at the time and paved the way for the smooth change of
the Government in 1994.
This phase also saw the end to vituperative politics that
characterised the polity during the Premadasa years. He was also
the first President to co-habit with an Opposition Prime
Minister and her Government. It was as if a fresh wind was blown
into the country’s political scene for which all credit should
go to President Wijetunga.
Presidential Office sat lightly on this simple politician
from the outback of the hill country. His genial smile and warm
personality compensated much for his lack of political craft and
stage presence. His demise brings into focus the paucity of such
politicians of simple bearing and character.
D.B. presided over a phase in the country that ushered in
clean politics. This was amply demonstrated in his friendly
cohabitation with the new Government elected in 1994 before his
exit as President later that year. He certainly deserved the
endearment ‘Dearly Beloved.”