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Government Gazette

Pieter Keuneman - 13th death anniversary:

Pioneer of Left and Socialist Movement in Sri Lanka

A glowing star that shone out in the Leftist political firmament during the latter part of the last Century, passed away on January 3, 1997. He was aged 80 years.

Dutch Burgher

Born as Pieter Gerald Bartholomeusz Keuneman, his father was Justice Arthur Eric (A. E.) Keuneman, a distinguished judge of the Supreme Court, during the British period.

Pieter’s mother was Majorie Eleanor Shockman, daughter of a wealthy medical doctor from Kandy. He had one younger brother A. E. (Arthur Eric) Keuneman Jnr. who qualified as a Barrister-at-Law and joined the Attorney-Generals’ Department as a Crown Counsel now State Counsel.


Pieter Keuneman

The Keunemans were Dutch Burgher of good stock who first settled down in Matara. Most of their clan became lawyers and practised in Matara and Galle courts. Later they dispersed settling down in Colombo.

Royal College

Pieter Keuneman was a bright student at Royal College, Colombo, along with his brother. At College he was the editor of the magazine. He won several prizes, the captain of the Junior Cadet Platoon, coloursmen of the rugger team, prefect and leader of the debating team. His prizes were for English language, literature, classics - Latin and Greek. Winner of the Shakespeare prize, he was elected the secretary and later the President of the Literary Association.

Cambridge University

Proceeding to the University of Cambridge in 1935, he gained admission to Pembroke College. Whilst being an undergraduate he got himself involved in Communism after being a voracious reader of the works of Marx and Lenin.

There too he cut his teeth as a fine debater. His forte was on matters relating to Marxism-Leninism. He also served in the University magazine Granta. For a short period he worked on the editorial staff of Daily Express. To participate in the civil war in Spain against Franco, he proceeded to that country.

He also toured in continental countries such as Switzerland, France, Italy and Ireland. In Switzerland he met his first wife Hedi Simon of Jewish origin. They got married there. She was a graduate in philosophy and psychology.

Pieter graduated BA (Cantab) Tripos - History, Sociology and English Literature. For law studies he was enrolled at Grays Inn and read for the Bar examinations. However, he couldn’t take up the finals in London. He also obtained the MA (Cantab.) - Cambridge.

Communism

On his return to the land of his birth instead of seeking greener pastures, he got in touch with Communist comrades such as Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe, A. Vaidyalingam, M. G. Mendis, Ven. Udakandawala Saranankara Thera etc. Getting in contact with the Colombo harbour workers, he advised them to form a trade union.

For a short spell of time he worked at Lake House as a features editor. Then he got the opportunity to make an acquaintance with the well-known editor of Dinamina and subsequently Silumina, Martin Wickremesinghe, the doyen of Sinhala journalists, author of several books as various themes and admirer of the Soviet Russia, its communist way of life. Assembling at a certain place at Peliyagoda in November 1940, the United Socialist Party was formed. That organisation was the precursor of the Communist Party.

During the Second World War period (1939-45), both Socialism and Communism were anathema to the British imperialists in our country. Incidentally, the USP of which Pieter Keuneman was one of the architects and its secretary was proscribed by the British military administrator Geoffrey Layton. Besides that obstacle, the attacks from Labour leader A. E. Goonesinghe were considerable. On July 2, 1943, the Communist Party was established at No. 85, Kotte Road then known as ‘Cotta’ Road.

Elections CMC

He was also a member of the National Congress along with his comrades and cronies Dr. S. A. Wickremesinghe and A. Vaidyalingam. They all resigned from that political organisation in 1945.

His attempt at contesting an elections began in 1943 when he contested the Borella ward in the Colombo Municipal Council. His opponent A. E. Goonesinghe won that election. Again he was defeated by A. E. Goonesinghe at the 1946 Municipal elections. In 1947 he was successful in winning the Kotahena ward of the CMC which he held till 1959.

In that capacity he agitated for better housing, eradication of slums and shanties in the Colombo city and saw to the setting up of libraries and dispensaries.

On August 1, 1944 he launched the Communist Party journal Forward of which he was the editor.

The first annual conference of the Community Party was held in April 1945. Once again he was elected the Secretary of the party. He participated in every strike and demonstration after the cessation of the war in 1945.

AT the 1947 May - general strike of Government clerks and workers when V. Kandasamy, a clerk in the Health Department was shot dead by the Police at Kolonnawa junction, Dematagoda. Pieter Keuneman made a vociferous speech at the Galle Face green condemning the cold-blooded murder of poor Kandasamy and the atrocities committed by the Police instigated by the British Raj and their local henchmen who followed them merely at their beck and call.

Parliament

The Parliamentary elections were held for the first time in August-September, 1947. He contested the Colombo Central constituency and was returned as the 3rd Member of Parliament obtaining 15,435 votes. In Parliament he spotted the escalation by leaps and bounds of bribery and corruption at the hands of the UNP Government of 1947.

He made a proposal in June 1948 that a Bribery Commission be set up. As a result of his motion the first-Bribery and Corruption Commission was established with Pieter Keuneman’s brilliant father former Justice A.E. Keuneman as its first Chairman.

In 1949, he was responsible for getting a commission appointed to investigate bribery and corruption allegations against the Colombo Municipal Councillors. Ten UNP city fathers including the Mayor were found guilty of those anti-social corrupt practices.

At the 1952 second election to Parliament, he was elected as the first MP for Colombo Central electorate defeating the labour party leader A.E. Goonesinghe secured the fourth place.

In 1952, he married his second wife Mand Rogerson, an ardent communist activist from England. As a Parliamentarian before the 1956 era, he boldly campaigned and fought against Premier Sir John Kotelawala’s anti-communist, reactionary, oppressive measures to defeat all progressive steps.

He vehemently opposed a repressive Bill on Rent Laws placed before the House of Representatives by Sir John Kotelawala’s Government. Similarly, he opposed Sir John’s anti-strike Bill at the historic 1956 elections and was returned as the first MP for Colombo Central.

He deplored the assassination of Premier S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike on September 26, 1959. He did whatever was possible to bring all the conspirators and the assassin to book. He also became critical of the bona-fides of Wijayananda Dahanayake’s caretaker government formed after the Prime Minister’s death.

At the March 1960 general elections, he was again returned as the first M.P. and at the July1960 elections he won the seat securing second place. In 1970, he was returned as the third MP for the same constituency-Colombo Central. He exposed the dangers of the attempted coup d’etat of 1962 led by the high-ranking Military, Navy and Police officers. Similarly, he criticised the validity of the 1971 insurrection led by the misled, misinformed and inexperienced JVP cadres.

In the 1970, Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government, he held the portfolio of Housing and Construction as a Cabinet Minister. His radical laws on housing and the new Rent Act were highly beneficial to the poor tenants. The establishment of the State Engineering Corporation and many housing schemes was his brainchild. His projects proved profitable and successful. It is to his great credit that he got 13 houses built per day.

He lost the Colombo Central seat which he held invincibly since 1947 at the 1977 elections. In his retirement he was very well looked after by his third wife Ouida Keuneman. He breathed his last on January 3, 1997, aged 80 years.

Tributes

Beneath the many divisions in our national life there is also a consensus of respect, gratitude, honour and affection for those who have served our country and its people well.

Pieter Keuneman was such a gentleman, Sri Lanka can be proud to have produced. We honour him as a doughty fighter against imperialism. Initially, among the harbour workers his voice was a lone one. A grateful Sri Lanka honour him as a pioneer and founding father of the Left and Socialist Movement in Sri Lanka for being one of the first politicians to introduce and popularise the scientific ideas of Marxism-Leninism in our country, as one of the founders and leaders of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and both as a patriot and internationalist.

For more than 50 years, Pieter Keuneman fought unwaveringly against feudal oppression and all forms of obscurantism against imperialist and capitalist exploitation for democratic and trade union rights, for better wages and working conditions for socialism. This fight will never be forgotten.

Whenever anyone in our country stands up to fight injustice and exploitation, Pieter Keuneman will be there too. His example will fortify, as it did earlier all our future struggles for peace for national and social liberation for equality and brotherhood between the different nationalities of our country and for a future socialist Sri Lanka. There was so much goodness in this honest, upright learned gentleman.

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