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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2395

28th Death Anniversary of Vijaya Kumaratunga

By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

In the early afternoon of the 16th of February 1988, two assassins riding a motorbike visited the house of a politician loved by many Sri Lankans and burst a round of T56 bullets to his face. This attack saw the fall one of Sri Lanka’s brilliant politicians in the most cruel manner right outside his house while his children Vimukthi, Yasodara and his beloved wife Chandrika Kumaratunga were at the house.

This was the revenge taken by assassins who called this man a traitor and sent many death treats just to ensure his silence. Remembering Vijaya Kumaratunga is relevant at a time like this- a time of many empty words spoken by politicians leaving promises undelivered. In order to honour this fearless leader, I have penned an appreciation on the 28th death anniversary of Vijaya Kumaratunga. Vijaya and my father Ossie Abeyagoonasekera were close friends.

I remember him visiting our home almost every day and working together until his death in 1988. Even though I was quite young when he died, I remember how people gathered to see him. His personality was such that he managed to bring happiness to everyone, be it through his life as an actor or as a politician. Those who did not agree to his politics loved his movies. He was assassinated at the young age of forty three and one could call his life an unfinished one which ended untimely. He did not hold any political office at the time of his death; Vijaya was not even a member of a Local Urban Council nor a Member of Parliament.

“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Jack Nicholson , Few good men

He was the founder of Sri Lanaka Mahajana Party (SLMP) which used to be the third largest party some years ago. There are two commemoration lectures this year in honour of Vijaya. If Vijaya was alive lot of things would have been different. Unfortunately, the SLMP almost died down as it lost many members. In total, about 117 who were assassinated during the 1988 insurrection. Vijaya was the first to be killed. Vijaya’s courage became evident in two occasions. First when he was jailed along with few other party members in 1982 as Naxalite prisoners during J.R. Jayawardena’s period in office. Vijaya was fearless to speak against the regime at that time and this was evident at many of his political speeches. Vijaya and members of his political faces multiple challenges and hardships in their political journey.

Vijay made a courgaeous journey to Jaffna in 1986 to meet the LTTE leaders Kittu and Raheem. The intention of this journey was to engage in a political discussion in order to free Sri Lankan soldiers who were detained by the LTTE. They managed to win the hearts of the Tamilians of Jaffna. While delivering one of his most memorable and remarkable speeches, Vijaya stated that “Sinhalese and Tamils are one …” For a politician to utter these words in the political context which prevailed in 1986 requires courage and a different mindset. It should be noted that he never changed his position. He was called a traitor by many in Colombo and the South after this journey.

Before his death Vijaya was about to create a grand political alliance which he failed due to his untimely death. Vijaya was not afraid to meet Tamil political leaders to discuss solutions to the ethnic problem. He had a very close relationship even with South India, with Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran. He had the charisma to win people and people gathered to see him and listen to his speeches where ever he visited.

Vijaya could not be bought by anyone. He was a true and kindhearted politician and a courageous leader. He epitomized qualities of a courageous leader by fearlessly adapting and changing with the intention of ensuring a greater benefit of society instead of prioritizing popularity.

Vijaya believed in a multiethnic society and in devolution of power. He expressed his support to the Indo-Lanka Accord which brought about the 13th amendment very publicly. When it is difficult to find a handful of politicians who would be courageous enough to engage in a constructive debate on the 13th amendment even today when it had been implemented for over 25 years, the challenge Vijaya took in 1985 was enormous. One might think that most of the Sri Lankan Sinhalese politicians did succumb to popular politics of engaging in ethnic politics, but Vijaya was one of the few exceptions. ‘To stand against the tide when the tide is high is foolish and irrational’, one might say. Leaders sometimes need to make unpopular decisions as it was with Abraham Lincoln who implemented the 13th Amendment in the US constitution to give rights to the African Americans. It was not the most popular thing to do at that time. It will be history which decides whether you are a great leader or not, as it is the case with Lincoln.

In the Sri Lankan case where ethnic harmony connotes how much inter-ethnic and communal trust you can build, actions of individuals such as Vijaya meant a lot across communities in Sri Lanka. Memories of Vijaya still bring hope and stands for the reality that not all Sinhalese are bigoted.

Had Vijaya and other leaders who lost their lives been alive today, we could have witnessed a transformation in our political culture. Vijaya introduced many present day politicians to the field of politics. However, many of them do not represent his party or ideology today and only a few mention his name.

Commemorating his vibrant and courageous life on his 28th death anniversary, we can pay tribute to Vijay by being introspective on what we can carry forward and introduce to the younger generation from his personality, political career and life. I write in particular remembrance and admiration of Vijaya’s work toward the dream of creating a harmonious society which promoted reconciliation among ethnic groups and presently stands as pressing national priority.

- Asian Tribune -

28th Death Anniversary of Vijaya Kumaratunga
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