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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2614

Former President D.B.Wijetunga passed away

D.B.WijetungaD.B.WijetungaAsian Tribune: Sri Lanka Bureau

Former President D.B.Wijetunga passed away in this morning [21] at the Kandy Hospital.

Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was born on February 15, 1922 in Kandy.

Wijetunga was born to a middle class Sinhala Buddhist family living on the outskirts of the then Udunuwara Parliamentary seat in the Kandy District of the Central Province in Sri Lanka. On completion of his secondary education he joined the Co-operative Department as an Inspector. He was closely associated with veteran politicians like George E. de Silva and A. Ratnayake.

Ratnayake who was then Minister of Food and Co-operatives in the D.S. Senanayake Cabinet took him as his Private Secretary.

He joined the United National Party in 1946. He entered Parliament for the first time when he successfully contested the Udunuwara electorate at the 1965 general election and quickly made a reputation for himself as an excellent Member of Parliament who constantly worked for the welfare of his electors. In terms of meeting the needs of his constituents, he was considered the most effective MP in that Parliament.

He lost the Udunuwara electorate in 1970 but was returned to Parliament in the 1977 UNP landslide, being appointed Cabinet Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the J.R. Jayewardene administration.

During this regime Wijetunga functioned in various ministerial capacities holding the portfolios of Posts and Telecommunication, 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 election he contested, he secured the largest number of votes in the Central Province.

Wijetunga was surprisingly appointed Prime Minister in 1989 by President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Party heavyweights such as Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali were overlooked apparently because the President favored a deputy who had no further political ambitions. He also held the Ministries of Finance and Labor and Vocational Training in addition to being the State Minister of Defense in the Premadasa’s administration.

As Prime Minister Wijetunga performed the role expected of him by the President to perfection, playing second fiddle to the charismatic Premadasa. Within the party however there was a simmering discontent, as cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament found themselves powerless as the iron-fisted President used wide executive authority to centralize power to his office.

The former Prime Ministerial aspirants and arch rivals Dissanayake and Athulathmudali united to lead an abortive attempt to impeach the President. Both of them were expelled from the party and consequently lost their Parliamentary seats.

Athulathmudali was shot dead in April 1993 while campaigning for the Provincial Council elections. The killing provoked widespread protests against the government and allegations were hurled at the President for complicity in the assassination.

A week later President Premadasa was also murdered in Colombo on May Day 1993 in a suicide bombing widely considered being an act of the Tamil Tigers.

Wijetunga became 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 remaining Premadasa’s term. The humble Kandyan farmer was sworn in as the fourth executive President of the country on May 7, 1993.

In a moving farewell speech to Parliament Wijetunga cited Shakespeare's often 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, Wijetunga ushered in a more political free era.

His rule also coincided with the rise of Chandrika Kumaratunga within the ranks of the SLFP. For some of the elite the daughter of two Prime Ministers was a refreshing contrast to the humble village peasant in President Wijetunga.

His rather hawkish approach to the ethnic conflict also made him unpopular especially among the minorities who traditionally backed his party.

After a decisive defeat in the Southern Provincial Council Election in 1994, he dissolved parliament in August that year, in a desperate bid to stem the rising wave of popularity of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

However his party was defeated in the hustings and Wijetunga graciously appointed Kumaratunga as Prime Minister. Even though under the constitution, Wijetunga was bestowed with wide powers, he wisely chose not to exercise much authority, letting the Prime Minister manage the affairs of the country.

He relinquished office in November 1994 after Kumaratunga was elected President by an unprecedented majority.

-Asian Tribune-

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