A rare politician with exemplary qualities
A tribute to ex-President D.B. Wijetunga:
When President D.B. Wijetunga at the time of assuming office said,
“There is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka; there is only a terrorist
problem”, he was howled down, and labeled a ‘Sinhala Buddhist
chauvinist’ by his own party and opposing forces.
Neither could he afford to be seen as unsympathetic to the demands of
Tamil nationalist sentiment, in view of their competition for the votes
at that time.
But even then President Wijetunga stood for what he thought was just
and right, not that he was a pro Sinhala Buddhist extremist but was a
leader who aired his views without bias or political motives.
His comments in this regard assumes greater significance today at a
time when the country is seeing light at the end of the tunnel with
regard to an end to terrorism.
His famous quote when assuming office as the country’s Executive
President still lingers in the minds of the people as forthright views
by an exceptional human being who was humble and unaffected by absolute
After assuming duties as the first Executive President to be
appointed by Parliament with the assassination of President Ranasinghe
Premadasa, Wijetunga who was fondly known as DBW, quoted William
Shakespeare in his opening salvo.
”Do not be afraid of greatness. Some men are born great, some achieve
greatness, and some have greatness thrust up on them” he said referring
to his humble beginnings and the unexpected rise to the zenith of
political office in the country.
Throughout DBW amply demonstrated with his intelligent and thought
provoking speeches and Gentlemanly behaviour that he belonged to a rare
breed of politician who was not affected by absolute power.
To the end DBW remained his humble self. Loved and respected by both
friends and political foes alike.
He was the President of Sri Lanka from May 1, 1993 to November 12,
1994, Prime Minister from March 3, 1989 to May 7, 1993 and the Governor
of North Western Province, from 1988 to 1989.
Dingiri Banda Wijetunga the fourth President (third Executive
President) of Sri Lanka and first Executive President to be elected by
Parliament in 1993 was born on February 15, 1916 in the remote village
of Polgahanga in Udunuwara.
He was the first son of a middle class family of 11 born to Mudiyanse
Wijetunga and Manamperi Mudiyanselage Palingu Menike.
He was brought up in an environment of strict religious and moral
upbringing. on the outskirts of the then Udunuwara Parliamentary seat in
the Kandy District. On completion of his secondary education at St
Andrews College, Gampola, he joined the Co-operative Department as an
He closely associated with veteran politicians like George E. de
Silva and A. Ratnayake. the then Minister of Food and Co-operatives in
the D.S. Senanayake Cabinet who later took him as his Private Secretary.
He joined the United National Party in 1946, but his nominations to
contest elections on the UNP ticket was rejected.
Thus he had to be content contesting as an independent candidate in
1956 by-elections for Kadugannawa seat and later in 1960 for Yatinuwara.
Even though he lost both, he had garnered a substantial proportion of
the votes in both polls which subsequently paved the way for him to be
nominated as the UNP candidate for the 1960 July General elections for
Yatinuwara which he lost by just 213 votes.
But fortunes changed in 1965 when he first entered Parliament winning
the Udunuwara seat by a majority of 3,069 .
He lost the Udunuwara electorate in 1970 but was returned to
Parliament in the 1977 UNP’s landslide victory by regaining Udunuwara by
a majority of 10,753 votes.
Being appointed Cabinet Minister of Information and Broadcasting in
the J.R. Jayewardene administration later Wijetunga also functioned in
various ministerial capacities holding the portfolios of Posts and
Telecommunications, Power, Highways and Agricultural Development.
He served briefly as the Governor of North Western Province in 1988
before returning to Parliamentary politics a few months later. In the
last general elections he contested, he secured the largest number of
votes in the Central Province.
He was considered a very punctual politician who never got late to a
function. Also he had the reputation of being an early riser and had the
habit of meeting the public who sought his help early in the morning.
He was also a teetotaler and an ardent Buddhist who had based his
life on the simple Buddhist principles. Wijetunga was later appointed
Prime Minister in 1989 by President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
He also held the Ministries of Finance and Labour and Vocational
Training in addition to being the State Minister of defense in the
After President Premadasa’s assassination by an LTTE suicide bomber
in Colombo on May Day in 1993, Wijetunga became the acting President
till Parliament convened to elect a successor to the slain President in
terms of the Constitution.
The amiable Wijetunga was elected unanimously by Parliament to
complete the remainder of Premadasa’s term. The humble Kandyan farmer
was sworn in as the Third Executive President of the country on May 7,
Although President Wijetunga took up the mantle of leadership at a
time of catastrophe, he brought about a peaceful transition of power and
returned stability to the nation. During his short tenure as President,
he oversaw the removal of several irritants that had earlier divided
various sections of the people.
During his first six months in office, President Wijetunga instituted
measures to consolidate and carry forward the economic development
programmes that had re-oriented the country towards a market economy
since 1977. He also moved to modify certain programmes so as to make
them more productive and cost effective.
President Wijetunga gave high priority to programmes for poverty
alleviation, education, employment generation, and a new impetus to
agricultural development. He also took measures to attract foreign
investment and advanced technology with the goal of making Sri Lanka a
Newly Industrialised Nation by the turn of the Twenty First Century.
In a moving farewell speech to Parliament Wijetunga cited
Shakespeare’s oft-quoted line “Do not be afraid of greatness, Some men
are born great, Some achieve greatness, And some have greatness thrust
As President, Wijetunga set about his work in his own simplistic,
inimitable fashion, after the authoritarian Premadasa, and ushered in a
more conducive political culture. After UNP suffered a decisive defeat
in the Southern Provincial Council Election in 1994, he dissolved
parliament in August that year.
However the UNP lost the ensuing election and Wijetunga graciously
appointed Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as Prime Minister.
Even though under the constitution, Wijetunga was bestowed with wide
powers, he chose not to exercise much authority, letting the Prime
Minister manage the affairs of the country.
The Era of DBW’s rule was considered as a period of co-existence as
President was from one party and the Prime Minister and Cabinet from
But to President Wijetunga’s credit he never interfered in the work
of either the PM or the Cabinet even though he had at his disposal wide
range of executive powers. He relinquished office in November 1994 after
Kumaratunga was elected President by an unprecedented majority.
Later he retreated to his ancestral home in Pilimatalawa to enjoy a
long deserved retirement, totally unaffected by his previous position
After relinquishing duties still he was the same unassuming and
simple man who was always at heart a peasant farmer.
The first and the only biography on the former President “Nihathamani
Rajya Nayakaya” or the “Humble Statesman” was written by Manike