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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2783

Remembering Ossie Abeyagoonasekera in his 25th death anniversary

By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

‘Our nation was protected by the sacrifices made by our military, without them, democracy would have been long gone due to terrorism, remember this is the same reason we could conduct this election rally at midnight hours and speak to more than one thousand participants who are gathered here’ Ossie Abeyagoonasekera 23 October 1994 final speech before the LTTE suicide attack.

October 24, 1994 was a dark day in the Sri Lankan political history. It marked the day in which the most number of political leaders including United National Party Presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake , Dr.Gamini Wijesekera, Weerasinghe Mallimarachi, Christy Perera, Mawathagama Premachandra and 56 innocent civilians were killed and 70 injured in a single terrorist attack at a Presidential election rally.

As I rushed to the general hospital on that day soon after the attack, I witnessed the heinous crime committed by the terrorist. There were screams from the injured victims and the emergency room was soaked with blood. I found my father just before he was taken to the operation theatre. This was the last day I heard him speak, his words were ‘why did they do this to us?’

After the war ended in 2009, when I met a former LTTE member I was told this bomb was a huge mistake and that my father was never in the hit list and it was Gamini Dissanayake. My question was what about the 56 other innocent civilians? I never got an answer to this question. My father succumbed to injuries two weeks after the attack. I wish to pen few important events from his illustrious and short political life on the eve of his 25th death anniversary. I thank the postal department and President Sirisena for releasing a commemorative stamp on behalf of my father.

At the time of his assassination Ossie Abeyagoonsekera was 44 years old, a parliamentarian from the Colombo North electorate. He secured the second-highest preferential vote from the UNP from Colombo district in the Parliamentary election of August 1994.

Born on August 7, 1950, after his education at Ananda College, he entered into politics at a young age, following footsteps of many leaders including his own father A.W.A. Abeyagoonasekera, a politician from UNP who defeated the communist leader Peter Kennaman. At the beginning of his political journey, his political view was guided by a centre-left socialist mindset deviating from his father’s centre-right UNP ideology. Ossie Abeyagoonasekera embarked on his political journey with a unique group of political leaders such as R G Senanayake, Hector Kobbekaduwa, T.B Illangarathna and Vijaya Kumarathunga. A close friend of Vijaya from his younger days, he was a strong supporter of the political activism of the actor-turned-politician who broke away from the mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to form the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) on January 22nd, 1984.

My father was also a political maverick! Back in 1982, he was instrumental in printing the rice ration book (Hal potha) which President Jayewardene had abolished. The Hal Potha was a symbol of protest against President Jayawardene’s neo-liberal policies, which saw abolishing of a series of welfare measures. During the same time J.R Jayawardene’s executive decision to do away with the Parliamentary election and instead to hold a referendum threatened the democratic fabric of the country. Ossie Abeyagoonasekera stood up against this decision. As a consequence, Ossie, Vijaya and his colleagues ended up in prison labelled as Naxalites by J.R Jayawardena.

"Struggle continues and victory is certain" were the words of Nelson Mandela from South Africa who wrote to Ossie while he was imprisoned for his political actions. While writing to fellow freedom fighters from prison, Nelson Mandela continued with his correspondence with words of encouragement.

In 1983 Ossie contested from the Habaraduwa electorate while Vijaya contested from Mahara from SLFP. It is notable that at this election, President Maithripala Sirisena was the main speaker in their rallies, but both lost that election to the UNP.

The new political party, SLMP where he played a significant role soon became a political movement which took the centre stage and became the third-largest political party. However, soon the young political party was to receive a brutal shock. The assassination of Vijay Kumaratunga shattered the political organization and sent shock waves within the entire group of leftist parties which were then forming a grand alliance to defeat the two mainstream political parties, the UNP and SLFP. Vijaya’s assassin was captured by the authorities and went missing after several days in custody. At a later stage, Vijaya Kumaratunga assassination case was investigated by Yasantha Kodagoda who served as Attorney-General’s counsel before Commissions of Inquiry.

After the assassination of Vijaya and murder of 117 party activists during the period of blood-soaked violence in 1988-89, Ossie Abeyagoonasekera led the SLMP, which became a target of extra-judicial violence especially due to its strong political position to support the 13th amendment to devolve power and a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

At the time of the Presidential Election of 1988, the Provincial Council elections in 1989, and during the southern insurrection, the supporters of the 13th amendment were labelled as traitors and gunned down. In this dangerous political backdrop, he led the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party which became the third-largest political force. Contesting under the United Socialist Alliance, the new alliance secured 4.63% votes, a deciding factor in the election. At the Presidential race, he was only 39 years old, the youngest to contest a Presidential at that time.

More than once, he was a target during the Presidential Election campaign. At a political rally in Kadawatha while seated next to Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Vikramabahu - gunmen openly fire at the platform. The group managed to escape narrowly the assassin’s bullets. Despite warnings from the assassins, they fearlessly pushed forward their political agenda intending to build a democratic country and more equitable society.

The chief editor of the Sunday Lankadeepa, Aryarathna Dombagahawatha speaking at my father’s memorial event sometime back stated: ‘It was Ossie who saved my life. He called me and sent me to India saying there is a threat to your life’ this was during the 88-89 southern insurrection when many journalists were assassinated.

The visit to Jaffna in 1986 by Vijaya, Ossie and Felix Perera was a symbolic gesture of their genuine belief in a political settlement when most politicians considered it as an unfruitful exercise and some labelled them as traitors who have betrayed the country by negotiating with the Tamil terrorists. Posters were put up in Colombo calling this a treacherous act.

None of that discouraged the path taken by Ossie as he and the colleagues went ahead with the next round of negotiations, believing that the problem of the north requires a political solution. Ossie was loved by many Tamilians, a proven factor was the Tamilian support at his Colombo North electorate. In a lecture "Does Prabakaran need a political solution?" he stated that Prabakaran was not prepared for a political solution. He explained the difference between the LTTE and the Tamil people and Prabakaran does not represent them. A vacuum of such leadership was created when the LTTE strategically targeted and assassinated politicians who were unafraid to make their voices heard. In his last political speech, he made a clear statement that the peace negotiations will fail with the Tamil Tigers and paid tribute to the valiant military officers who sacrificed their lives to protect democracy.

He spoke of the importance of fighting corruption and misuse of public property. Upon his appointment as the first leader of the opposition of the Western Province Council, he placed a sticker on the back of his vehicle stating "this vehicle was paid by public money and will be used only for public work and not for private use". He spoke at the provincial council to decentralize the bribery commission to fight corruption at all levels. It is a known fact that he never misused public money; at the time of his death, he didn’t possess any large sums of money in his name as every rupee was used for the public good.

He went way beyond to protect people, a true politician who dedicated his life to the people of Sri Lanka and did not engage in politics for personal profit. His political career is an example of an honest person who served many. A morally uncompromising and fearless politician, Ossie Abeyagoonasekera’s life is a lesson to remember the importance of values in politics and the need for politicians to dedicate themselves to serve the nation and its people.

- Asian Tribune -

Remembering Ossie Abeyagoonasekera in his 25th death anniversary
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