In my childhood, I was fortunate to see Vijaya Kumaranatunga frequently. A lifelong friend of my father Ossie, Vijaya frequently came to our home. At such occasions, hundreds of people flocked around to catch a glimpse of their hero. Some of them came to see Vijaya, the politician. But, many (including those who did not agree with his politics) came to see Vijaya, the actor. The majority of them did not know that Vijaya had started being a politician before he became an actor.
My father and Vijaya were political friends for a long time. In 1982, they were imprisoned along with few others by the JR Jayewardene government on trumped up ‘Naxalite’ charges. They later became the nucleus of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), established in 1984. For a few years, it was the third largest party in the country. It was built up under immense pressure from not only the government but also the main opposition party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. During the 1987-89 insurrection, the SLMP faced severe threats and 114 members including leaders such as Pohoddaramulle Pagnaloka Thera and Deva Bandara Senaratne were killed. However, the first leader of the SLMP to be assassinated was Vijaya himself.
Vijaya’s trip to Jaffna in 1986 is perhaps the best example for his courage. The main objective of the trip was to secure the release of some Sri Lanka Army soldiers held in the LTTE captivity. My father Ossie and Felix Perera also joined Vijaya in this trip. They met with LTTE leaders such as Kittu and Rahim. Addressing the people of Jaffna Vijaya remarked that “there is no difference as Sinhalese and Tamils. We are all the same.” It was an extremely bold statement, given the prevailing political climate. Under no circumstances did Vijaya change his stance, despite many threats.
Charm and eloquence
Vijaya was never reluctant to open discussions with Tamil politicians to find a solution to the ‘National Question.’ He also had ties with the South Indian politicians. I can remember a photo where Vijaya can be seen with the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran.
Vijaya’s personal charm and eloquence drew huge crowds to political rallies anywhere in the island. He was above all a humanist, with an immense love for the fellow human beings and he always gave prominence to his political ideals over money and luxuries. He tirelessly worked for the people and the country. He spoke of reconciliation and social integration, which are very attractive terms today, three decades ago. He believed in the separation of powers and supported the 13th Amendment. He supported the Provincial Councils which almost all other opposition political parties vehemently opposed. He was one of the few giants who stood bravely for what he believed in while many contemporary politicians were indulging in racist, populist rhetoric.
Had Vijaya and his assassinated companions in the SLMP leadership lived today, the political situation of the country could have been totally different. Vijaya brought many new faces to politics. Sadly, only a few even care to remember him. My father, in contrast, always remembered Vijaya, his colleague and friend, in almost all his speeches until his untimely death in 1994. He took the initiative to erect a statue of Vijaya at Polhengoda. Today, the statue can be seen in Kandana. Vijaya’s home was converted into a place of remembrance, a place to reflect on the short life of a charismatic leader.
Vijaya was killed at the relative young age of 43 years. He was a high flyer in politics, moving very fast. Yet, when he was brutally killed, the goals and ideals he strived for, remained unfulfilled. Therefore, his was an unfinished life.
February 16 should be a day, not only to remember the death of Vijaya, but to reflect on his immense love for fellow human beings. Young people of this country should learn who Vijaya was beneath the stardom and aura which is around him. Beneath the aura that blinded many people, friend and foe, Vijaya Kumaranatunga was an exemplary human being, who strived for a better future for his people.