By Sujata Gamage –
While the debate about the 13th amendment is raging in the south, nobody bothered to check with Provincial Councils. Udaya Gammanpila, a minister of the Western Provincial Council is often quoted but he is no true representative of provinces.
Fears of undue provincial powers are whipped up but media has neglected to point to the reality of the situation. In reality, the President can exercise absolute control through his agent, the governor of a Province. The situation in the Easter Province is a case in point. Take the continuing struggle by the Mr. Wimalweera Dissanayake, the Minister for Education, Culture, Land, Land Development and Transport in the Eastern Province, to exercise some control over his ministry and not have the Governor dictate terms. Sadly the media, English media had failed to follow the story. It is a mystery why the English media did not follow up on the story of the governor ordering the closure of Vihara Maha Devi Sinhala School in Lahugala which the Minister had decided to be a crying need. Considering that the minister concerned is the strongest SLFPer in the province and the only Sinhala member among the five-member Board of Ministers, a responsible press would have looked into the stories behind the story.
I came to know Hon. Wimalaweera Dissanayake only a few months ago. Inspired by his vision, integrity and true compassion, I and a few others including Professor Siri Hettige have been travelling back and forth to Trincomalee or Ampara, some of us on a weekly basis , on our own account, to help the Minister implement his vision for education in Eastern Province. More on that later, but, I would be amiss if I did not introduce this unique politician to the English media.
Wimalaweera Dissanyake is a graduate of the University of Colombo, but, he did not complete beyond Grade 6 in school. In his early thirties, he completed GCE A/L on his own and applied for the University of Colombo. He received an acceptance in the mail only to receive a denial the next day citing the lack of 5 years of schooling. He, of course, wrote back a strongly worded letter to the authorities. Professor Stanley Wijesundera , the Vice Chancellor then, pleaded on his behalf to the University Grants Commission and got him admitted. Incidentally, while in university he took classes on Sociology from Prof. Siri Hettige and to date maintains a respectful relationship with the Professor. During the same period I had just come back from post-graduate studies to take up an appointment in the Department of Chemistry in University of Colombo, but our paths never crossed, but, from what I have heard wore the sarong to the campus and did not stop chewing his betel. He managed to stay put as a progressive student trying to hold the peace in campus. As he remarked nonchalantly, he never went for his graduation but found to his surprise that he was awarded recognition as somebody holding the peace during the tumultuous years beginning in 1987.
How a child who gave up school and labored to make up for the loss of his father at the age of 11 got to a university of his choosing is a story worth telling and repeating.
Dissanayake’s family hails from Kegalle. Born to Thissa Dissanayake and M. R. Podi nona he grew up with five siblings. He started school at Madeyiya Kanishtaha, but with the father’s untimely death he stopped schooling and started a life of menial work splitting wood, washing dishes to support the family. In 1966 the family moved to Nivuguna in Ampara close to the Hingurana sugar factory. Dissanayake joined the brigade of laborers at the factory working the harsh sugar fields. His love of reading sustained him. As a neighbor recalls young Dissanayake used to smuggle books into sugar thickets and read hidden by the tall sugar reeds. Starting from Demon Ananda’s ‘Maraka’ booklets bought for 75 cents, he read translations of Maxim Gorky’s Mother and Guy the Mauppassant and the classics Poojavaliya and Mahavanshaya. He did not leave a scrap of printed paper unread. He read the paper in which his food was wrapped. He read the papers from beginning to end including obituaries. The result was a man whose skin was hardened by the coarse sugar reeds but the mind was softened with knowledge. He decided to do the GCE O/L examination on his own. Next came the GCE A/L challenge. He studied Economics, Political Science, Sinhala and Buddhist Civilization for GACE A/L and got through the exam with sufficient marks to choose a university to his liking.
After completing his BA at the University he started work as the General Manager of The Ampara Weeragoda Cooperative Society, but followed his calling as a teacher at Ampara D. S. Senanayake National School for 10 years. He entered politics in 1994 as the leader of the opposition in the Damana Pradesheeya Sabha and went to become a member of parliament in 2000.After a brief setback, he was elected to the Eastern Provincial council in 2004 and became the Minister for Education, Culture, Land and Transport. He was reelected in 2012 with most preferential votes from the UPFA slate of candidates. He still lives with his wife Jayanthi Mendis and two children Anjana and Udara Supun not far from the Hingurana Sugar Factory for which he worked.
Dissanayake is a simple man. He has amassed no wealth. Despite enticements, he has chosen to keep his family in Ampara and send the children to school there. He is happy that the oldest is already into entrepreneurship while studying at the university. Dissanyake uses harsh words to respond to the cruelty, idiocy and other ills of present day society, but, he is a man whose life’s career is imbued with a compassion which comes from a unique life experienced and a habit of reading which further enriched his experiences. His contribution to education in the province and his vision for its future is another story. At this hour, his greatest role would be to act as the true representative of the ruling party and bridge the gap of distrust between the Centre and provinces.
Wimalweera Dissanayake understands better than anybody the suffering of the Sinhalese living in the border villages but he is equally empathic with Tamils and Muslims who suffered during the war. He is the only Sinhalese member in the in the cabinet of ministers in the Eastern Provincial Council, but, he is respected and trusted by his Tamil and Muslim colleagues.
Harmony in the Eastern Province is the beginning of harmony for all. Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa has a great opportunity in the Eastern Province to use this moment and allow the Eastern Province to take the lead. All he has to do is to encourage the culture of tolerance which is nurtured in the Eastern Province by SLFP stalwarts like Mr. Dissanyake. Unfortunately, the President seems to have chosen to follow what Dayan Jayathileke calls the Logics of Authoritarianism, Occupation and Ethno-religious Absolutism. The President’s continued support for the Governor Mohan Wijewickrama’s autocratic rule over the unified request from the Cabinet of Ministers to allow the Provincial council to exercise its limited powers is a case in point. The course can be changed. There is yet time for greater council to prevail. We can only wait in hope.