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Government Gazette

President D.B. Wijetunga

Dingiri Banda 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 politics.

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 leader.

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 politician.

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 Ranasinghe Premadasa.

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.”

Dingiri Banda Wijetunga - the journey to greatness

Brief term, significant steps:

Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, who was Prime Minister at the time of President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s assassination, was elected by Parliament to succeed the slain leader as President in 1993. He thus became the first Executive President to be elected by Parliament.

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