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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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