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D R Wijewardene - A true patriot

*****

Today is the 114th birth anniversary of the Founder Chairman of The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd, D R Wijewardene who was not merely a newspaper magnate but also a patriot who used the newspapers to instill the importance of regaining independence in the minds and to agitate for it strongly

****

Profile of a press baron

* Name: Don Richard Wijewardene

* Date of birth: February 23,1886

* Schools attended: Sedavatta school, S. Thomas’ College

* University: University of Cambridge

* Graduated as a Lawyer

* Set up Lake House Group

* Died on June 13,1950


D R Wijewardene the Founder of Lake House

The history of the early 20th Century marked a renaissance among the Sri Lankans in several fields. The resurgent nationalist forces were agitating for independence while the unjust and often draconian laws were in force under the British colonial regime. Laws such as the Waste Lands Ordinance had robbed the lands of the Kandyan peasantry in the previous century while the martial law of 1915 had imprisoned national leaders. In the struggles against those oppressive laws and colonial regimes D R Wijewardene played a key role also as a national leader.

He was born, the son of Muhandiram Don Philip Wijewardene and Helena Wijewardene of Sedawatte, an eminent family of Colombo who were well-known for their service to religion and philanthropy. After completing his school education he left for England to pursue his law studies. On his return having passed out as a lawyer, legal practice did not attract him but he decided to come to the newspaper business.

Lake House

At that time the Sinhala newspaper Dinamina was printed at a press in Pettah and D R bought it in 1914. After he bought Dinamina he not only improved its standard and increased its circulation but used it as the main tool to awaken the rural intelligentsia and keep the agitation for freedom vibrant. Among his friends were the first chairman of the National Congress Ponnambalam Ramanathan, his successor James Peiris and D S Senanayake. Along with these leaders D R used the newspapers for a continued agitation for independence as well as to criticize the colonial regime and its officials.

His next venture was to start the Ceylon Daily News in 1918 that was to become the main standard English newspaper of the country. The celebrated editor H A J Hulugalle contributed to maintain the high standards of journalism of this paper. With the start of the English daily his next move was to buy the Ceylon Observer then owned by a foreigner. With these three newspapers Lake House owned by D R became the most influential newspaper group of the country.

But he knew the value of a high standard weekend Sinhala newspaper and started the Silumina in 1930 and next the Tamil newspaper Thinakaran in 1932. The other newspapers of the time like those in English started for the European planters run by various companies and individuals were insignificant compared to the Lake House newspapers.

New school of writers

During this time the Silumina had editors like Martin Wickramasinghe who was to become the doyen of the contemporary novelists and writers and to be followed by such eminent editors like Meemana Prematilaka.

Of course Lake House and Silumina created a school of new Sinhala writers like the famous satirist T G W de Silva or eminent novelist G B Senanayake. Thus the contribution D R made was not only in agitating for independence from the British but also in creating and nurturing a whole set of Sinhala and English writers and novelists.

However the left political movement and parties were highly critical of D R and Lake House. They named him the symbol of local capitalists and landowner class that opposed to socialist political policies and parties.

There was some truth in these observations as D R as a friend of the Senanayakes and the elites who were supportive of the UNP. The class he represented sought to keep political power in their own hands and the opposing political views and parties were anathema to the then ruling group of UNP politicians led by D S Senanayake.

Yet given his background and the times in which D R Wijewardene lived one cannot be too critical of the policies he followed and furthered. But as a newspaper magnate his efficiency and dedication made the Lake House group stand far ahead of the other newspaper publishers.

The standards he insisted on all these newspapers and their successful achievement is a mark of the greatness of this pioneering newspaperman. Following in his family tradition D R remained a devout Buddhist and helped several temples including the Kelani Raja Maha Viharaya as its main dayaka.

When the new university campus of Peradeniya was built he built its Sanghavasa for the Buddhist monks who enter the University. At all times he advocated unity among all groups of Sri Lankans and stood for national unity.

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