17 October, 2021

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Election-Related Violence – Part I

By Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

In a recent discussion with a friend, it dawned on me that a lot of the political theorizing and justification for what transpired in the Rajapaksa years has been attributed to the climate of violence that Junius Richard Jayewardene established after he ascended to power in 1977.

Let me open by saying that I missed the 1977 General Election and the horrendous violence that apparently followed it.

However, despite the fact that I have never been a fan of JRJ, even when he was deputy in an United National Party (UNP) led by Dudley Senanayake for which I worked very actively, an activity for which me and my family paid a very steep price, I know that election-related violence certainly existed from the time Sri Lanka achieved independence, if not before.

In the early days of independence, the common belief was that the UNP drew its battalions of thugs from the plumbago mines of the Kotelawelas and Senanayakes in and around Kahatagaha and that Sir John Lionel Kotelawela owed his electoral success, up to and including surviving the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) landslide in 1956, to that particular little “edge” that he held in the Dodangaslanda electorate! I have to admit, though, that despite the fact that I was in my late teens when I welcomed the SWRD Bandaranaike-led SLFP’s decimation of the UNP, I had no knowledge, except pure and simple gossip, that Kotelawela had used his “shock troops” to survive.jr-jayewardene

Picture via Facebook /JR Jayewardene Centre – 22.03.1965 J.R. Jayewardene at the polling queue for casting his vote for Ceylonese parliamentary election

While the UNP had their tough guys coming out of the plumbago mines which were legendarily thought to be the refuge of those on the run from the law for crimes of violence, the parties of the then-left, the Trotskyists and Communists, drew their shock troops from the ranks of the harbour and dockworkers’ unions which, by virtue of the very strenuous work involved in that occupation at the time, were known for their physical strength. There was, for a time at least, a three-way struggle for the loyalty of this element of our working classes because there were the N.M. Perera/Colvin R. de Silva faction who hated Philip Gunewardene’s “Trots” more than they did the less powerful (Stalinist) Communist Party lot and at least as much as their common enemy, the UNP. Vicious in-fighting was a feature of the relationship between the two elements of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). The “Nava” (new) branch and the “Viplavikari” (revolutionary) Lanka Sama Samaja Party (VLSSP) were like mongoose and cobra, implacable enemies! This, I learned subsequently, was typical of Trotskyist politics – the unbelievable hatred for those they considered political apostates! I did have some connection to all of this by virtue of a man subsequently known as “Mike Banda” who was very active in what was or became the NLSSP of Colvin and NM. The late Michael Adrian who bore the same last name as I do and was in his late teens at that time – the late ‘forties’ of the last century – was Secretary of, I believe, the Harbour and Dock Workers’ Union for a while.

I don’t know how extensive the violence visited upon the “left” of the time by UNP thugs was, but I do know that one of the NLSSP stalwarts, Reggie Mendis (?), lost an arm in warding off an explosive aimed at the LSSP leaders heading some march of public protest. Perhaps, if Bala Tampoe was still alive he would have been able to speak to this part of the “left’s” history and activity. But, alas, he proved to be the last principled member of that generation until the time of his final leave-taking.

Interestingly, it was from the party which loudly expressed its adherence to Buddhist principles that I experienced, at first hand, a capacity for electorally-driven violence and victimization.
By the time the 1965 election came along, I was a young adult who believed that, warts and all, the UNP of Dudley Senanayake was the only party with a coherent plan for making Sri Lanka self-sufficient in food – rice to be specific – could shed the rampant corruption and family bandyism that the governments of the two Bandaranaikes, SWRD and Sirima, had taken this country to and realize the promise of competent and honest fiscal management that appeared on the horizon in 1948.

For the first time in my life, I worked on an election campaign, ending up (by default?) organizing that of W. M.G. Tikiri Banda in the Galagedera electorate. Tikiri Banda was a small “kadey mudalali” (village store-owner) from my grandmother’s village, Minigamuwa, and might have even, in Sinhalese terms at least, been a relation of mine! He was also a protégé of E. A. (“Eddie) Nugawela, an eminently decent and honest man, who was Minister of Education in the first post-independence government that was subsequently drowned by the SLFP tidal wave of 1956.
Our opponent was one of Sri Lanka’s premier women politicians, Tamara Kumari Illangaratne, who had, in addition, the late Tikiri Banda Illangaratne who was an iconic and extremely powerful member of several SLFP cabinets, as her husband.

In fact, Mrs. Illangaratne had previously won the Kandy seat in a by-election after her previously-victorious husband had been unseated by an election petition.

It was a female Goliath against a male David in Tumpane in 1965.

To cut a long story short, Tikiri Banda pipped Mrs. I at the post, so to speak, taking the election with an extremely small majority. Our immediate reward, Tikiri Banda’s and mine, was being carried from what was then the new Kandy Kachcheri where the counting was held to the Dalada Maligawa, on the shoulders of our jubilant supporters.

Not having any ambitions of a career in politics or the periphery thereof, I returned to my agricultural pursuits.

I did, however, have help from Tikiri Banda who was a back-bench UNPer then when a (UNP) Minister of Health tried to prevent funds being released so that my wife could seek investigation for what proved to be Conn’s Tumour of the adrenal gland, then, at least, considered a “one in a million” affliction, with which Sri Lanka’s medical system of the time hadn’t the diagnostic capacity to deal. I distinctly remember the churlish, arrogant and dismissive attitude of M. D. H. Jayewardene who was the Minister of Health we had to see and “Ottupaal” (scrap rubber) Banda’s terrier-like persistence in getting him to approve the release of (our own) money to go to England. This ultimately happened after we secured the written opinion of several specialists in Sri Lanka who confirmed this need. We owed him for that one but the price we ultimately paid for continuing to support him at the subsequent election was virtual eviction from the land of our birth.

Getting back to the subject of election violence: in the 1965 election there was some minor violence when some of our village supporters blocked rural roads for short periods at night, with logs from the rubber trees that were being uprooted to make way for new, high-yielding clones, because moonshine (kasippu) was being delivered to voters from a central (SLFP) location in the middle of Galagedera’s Muslim enclave. While this might have seemed like an incongruous location for an illicit liquor warehouse, it did provide good cover for that very reason!

Apart from a few skirmishes in which I do not remember anyone being hospitalized or badly hurt, that seemed to be the extent of violence, in our neck of the woods, at least in 1965. I do recall, however, coming up on a brawl somewhere on the road from Ratnapura to Kegalle one night where at least one person appeared to have been knifed and I can but assume that those kinds of conflicts were not uncommon with a UNP-controlled media not reporting them if those they supported were the guilty parties. “Isolated and scattered, perhaps, but not unknown” would perhaps describe what happened after 1948 and until 1970.

*This story, providing background, will continue into that of the escalation of election-related violence in further instalments

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Latest comments

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    Thank You EvdP for these recollections; very interesting! There has indeed been low-level violence, increasingly over the years, but of course it was nothing compared to the regular ethnic violence that was visited on our Tamil brethren over the years, by all of the main Sinhalese political parties, until the inevitable escalation that gave us nearly thirty years of misery.

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      “n a recent discussion with a friend,…”

      So you have a riend then, hmm…

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        Summer Kakka:
        I trust you have one too, though I shudder at the thought of who/what it might be.
        Incidentally, don’t quit your day job to work as a comedian because you’ll surely starve to death.

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    Emil,
    Thank you for reminding us of the way election violence crept in to our midst and now takes a centre place.
    I remember in 1977 how I had to leave the country seeking safe haven after being at the sharp end of post Election violence.
    Since I shifted to my second home, this has never entered our thoughts though my family had lived through so many elections here.
    Often the elections day escapes our thought being at work, and at night after dinner, we rush to the polling booth to cast our vote at the last minute along deserted streets. Unless one is extremely keen to sit through the night watching the TV, most others wake up the following morning to learn of the out come on the morning radio.
    I suppose the Sri Lankan elections can never get to that kind of mature interest as there is so much of investment made looking for fat returns for the individual and his coterie of supporters.

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      Ranjan Fernando:
      I understand that JR’s victory in 1977 offered the opportunity for “payback” after the (extended) rule of Sirimavo during which all kinds of indignities were visited upon those she and her minions saw as opposing them. While election-related violence of any kind is unacceptable and to be condemned, it is something that I can understand having been “at the sharp end” of Sirimavo’s stick in 1970 and having to abandon everything we had in the land of our birth with a family that included a 13-month old child.

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    4 dudes dead in Mattakakakuliya,12 in Custody.

    A Sub Inspector was gunned down when he was trying to issue Yahapalana Traffic infringement notices.

    Bloemendhal Gang shot Galleon Band, while the latter was distributing Yahapalana How to Vote Cards in Colombo 13.

    Wela Sudda was praying to Lord Kararagaman the other day , while the BOC Chairperson and one of the assistants to Yahaplana UNP IGP were standing behind him .

    And it was in a Srilankan Web News Letter.

    Wonder whether these are the descendants of the Plumbego Miners whom Mr Pootin is on about?

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      K.A.Sumanasekera:
      Is this (yet another) attempt to enter the ranks of the now-destitute comedians who fattened themselves as diplomutts in a previous time? If it is, you seem well-quipped for that pursuit.

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    Isn’t it a shame that in this land of Dhamma we remain at the Tammany Hall level of politicking? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tammany_Hall

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