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Government Gazette

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 power.

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 Inspector.

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 Premadasa Administration.

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, 1993.

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 upon them.”

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 another.

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 and power.

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 Sumanasekera.

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