Vivienne Gave Beans!

I had the great opportunity of meeting with Violet Vivienne Gunawardena in London, in July 1994, at a luncheon, just prior to her departure by cutting her holiday short to get actively involved in the 10th Sri Lankan Parliamentary elections held on August 16, 1994. Her ambition was again to be an advocate for Left participation in the People's Alliancecoalition government dominated by the SLFP led by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Seizing the opportunity I 'pushed' some hard questions to her, and she spoke her mind out.

Early life

She hailed from an upper middle class family and was a female pioneer, socialist and a feminist in Sri Lanka, who came into politics during a predominantly male oriented climate, long before the word 'Women's Lib' was heard in the West.

I was curious to find out as to why she wanted to embrace socialism?

"It's not a question of family, but what you really believe in and the only method by which your beliefs could be translated into action to help the majority of the people, and not the minority", she blurted.

Her maternal uncles Philip and Robert Gunawardena were influential in getting her attracted to politics while she was still a schoolgirl at MusaeusCollege. In 1933 Philip Gunawardena launched the anti-British Suriya Mal movement with the slogan "against slavery and poverty and for freedom and prosperity". Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was forged in 1935.

Political career

She was elected to Parliament as a LSSP member first in 1956 and ended up as a Junior Minister. Also she worked hard as President of the All Ceylon Local Government Workers Association until her demise. In 1964 she was instrumental in forming the SLFP alliance led by Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Why didn't the LSSP groom a charismatic young leader for the future I posed the question while mentioning two popular names that are very much in the political scene even to date! She made no bones about her dissatisfaction about it and swift came the answer:

"You mention Mr… X! For a start, nothing will make me think in terms of him as a leader of a political party that we are aiming to create with equality in living standards. I think his coming into this movement was accidental. Then you mentioned Mr…. Z. He is so erratic and not capable of working in an organized fashion"!

"You see, in life, quite often, we come across many things and situations where we don't have to argue and try to win over the majority. Sometimes it becomes sensible to knuckle under and see how you can convince the majority and get them to your side without harming your party. But to leave the party and start another Centre against the party would be to lessen the future influence and the ability of that party to achieve its goals," she continued.

Failure

The LSSP had best of brains and intellectuals such as Dr. N.M, Colvin, Leslie, Bernard and yourself; still your party failed to make an impact on the masses for the past 50 years or so and you were never elected to power. What do you think was the missing link in your party? I queried.

"Left was never able to be united from the very start. It was due to the fragmentation that took root within a very short period into 'Communist' and 'Samasamajist'. We were opposed to Stalin's method of government in the Soviet Unionthough we accepted socialism. If I may give a direct answer to your question with regard to the future material, yes, I admit, the LSSP has not achieved that important base."

In 1956 the LSSP became notorious with organised industrial unrest to cripple the country's economy. How could people have faith in the LSSP in the future? I put directly to her.

"It is true that the LSSP started the Union movement, but how can you safe-guard the interests of the working force otherwise? We fought for basic pension rights and index linked wage rises". Unfortunately even the workers have today forgotten what the LSSP did for them! We believed in actual unionism as a working class movement to give a better standard of living for the workers and their children by bringing development plans into the budget.

While you were sharing power many accusations emerged on nationalisation of tea plantations and introducing inappropriate legislation to curb imports etc. Would you like to comment?

"The actual ruination of the PlantationIndustry took place after privatisation and not before! Foreigners took away the major portion of our income without any re-investing. They did not offer any better conditions to the workers either".

"Colvin was just about to introduce a housing scheme for the estate workers and establish community centres for them when we were thrown out of the government in 1975! Felix Dias didn't allow us to carry out our programs. We never got the time to fulfill our commitments to the people. Today even Thondaman himself says it is not profitable because the UNP handed the estates over to the private sector for five year periods".

Shouldn't the LSSP take a major share of the blame for various queues and peoples' suffering due to short-sighted closed economic policies adopted during your coalition?

"Yes I agree", even right now when you and I are sitting here and discussing these things in London, the UNP is standing out there on the platforms and blaming us for creating bread queues. They have nothing else to talk about. We banned only the imports of luxury goods! They never say we brought the prices of bread down! What is happening today is that the people don't think of important issues such as Education or the sky rocketing cost of living. They are only hankering after material goods.

Sharing and firing

The LSSP had no option but to join hands with the PA to taste power. But once you started sharing power, three of your Ministers, NM, Colvin and Leslie were fired in 1975, and the coalition collapsed! Then the LSSP accused the SLFP for using your party to gain power, today once again you are aligning yourselves with the PA to contest elections! Don't you think that history might repeat again in the future? 

"I have a great fear about it, but I hope Mrs. Bandaranaike also has learnt a lesson from what she did in 1975".

In 1975, Dr.NMcategorically exposed 45 rich industrialised families who were controlling Sri Lankan politics and the economy. Why has the LSSP now joined hands with the same families again to bring Bandaranaikes to power yet again, when you talk about socialism?

She replied thus: "NM was not referring to the families of the ruling party only, but in general. He was referring to the rich who had invested so much and that his aim was to increase tax and break that class structure. That's why Chandrika is now talking about open economy etc., because she feels that in order to get through at the next general election and win, she has to support the upper classes rather than standing for rigid controlled economy".

You mentioned that the reason for cutting your holiday is to go and campaign for the SLFP on public stage, but have you discussed the LSSP Manifesto with the SLFP and come to an amicable agreement?

"No. Not until I left Sri Lankaon 28 June (1994) the manifesto was not ready!

Do you then foresee a conflict of opinion in policies in the future; should you happen to share power?

"After winning the Southern provincial elections, Chandrika addressed a group of businessmen at the Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo and assured that she was not going to 'undo' the open economy'. That time of course, I took the matter up at the Central Committee. How can she utter words like that ......? In that case we could have joined hands with the UNP and shared power! After all, open economy is a UNP policy".

If the PA wins the elections on August 16 and come to power, how confident are you that what the mother did in 1975 to the LSSP, the daughter wouldn't do? I diplomatically put to her.

"I am confident about the PA's victory, but I am not that confident about the other. But remember, we will be in a better position to discuss in the open. If we try to do it now the people will think that in-fighting is already going on. The most important thing is we must get in, for the benefit of the vast amount of people of our country and, it is imperative that we get rid of the United National Party".

Originally published on Daily news Features |  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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