Doyen of Sinhala nationalism passes away

[TamilNet, Sunday, 26 April 1998, 23:59 GMT]
Gamani Jayasuriya, an ardent Sinhala nationalist and controversial politician died today. He was 74. He was Minister of Agriculture in J R Jayewardena's 1977 Cabinet from which he resigned in 1987, protesting against the Indo-Lanka Accord. Gamani Jayasuriya was also a stout champion of Buddhism and associated with many organisations such as the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress.

Gamani Jayasuriya married a niece of Anagarika Dharmapala, who, arguably, could be called the patron saint of Sinhala-Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Anagarika Dharmapala was responsible for transforming Buddhism, which was, till the Buddhist revival in the late 19th century, an other worldly, monastic religion, into what it is today in Sri Lanka - a faith to which Buddhists can relate while they pursue their worldly and materialistic lives.

It is this type of Buddhism which has come to be known as 'Protestant Buddhism' in sociological texts.

Anagarika was also instrumental in using Buddhism as a vehicle to attack British imperialism and the Western and Christian value systems.

But Jayasuriya's emphasis on indigenous culture and the revival of Buddhism was also a direct attack on not only the culture and religion of the minorities, but also against their political autonomy and economic well-being.

The minorities most affected were the Tamils and the Malyalies.

What started as an anti-imperialist movement became the precursor of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism which reared its head in the post- independence era in Sri Lanka - especially during and after the premiership of S W R D Bandaranaike.

Gamani Jayasuriya belonged the second generation of Sinhala nationalists after independence. He entered politics in 1960 and was in Parliament during the United National Party (UNP) government under Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake (1965-70).

After the intervening 1970-977 period under the United Left Front, he was back in the government benches in 1977, now as Minister of Agriculture, under J R Jayewardena.

Gamani Jayasuriya's most decisive hour came in 1987, in the wake of the signing of the Indo - Lanka Accord. To him and some others in the UNP at that time, the Accord was a sellout to Tamil and Indian Government interests. He resigned from his portfolio and from Parliament.

Among many Sri Lankans, this was seen as a fine gesture by a man who was willing to sacrifice position and power for his convictions - a quality that had long disappeared from the public life in Sri Lanka.

To others - especially the minorities - this gesture only demonstrated how deep anti-Tamil sentiments ran in certain sections of the Sinhala community.

Gamani Jayasuriya spent his retirement from active politics working in various Sinhala nationalist and Buddhist organisations.

After his resignation he was an inveterate critic of J R Jayewardena. Gamani Jayasuriya and others who thought on the same lines as himself, tried to portray themselves as being above the fray of party politics and championing the cause of the Sinhala Buddhists.

They lobbied consistently against proposals such as the devolution of power to the Northeast, sharing of power with the minorities in the Central Government and the merger of the North and East, which have been put forward as solutions to the ethnic problem from time to time.

He has also been a consistent advocate of a military solution to the extent that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had to be destroyed before the ethnic problem could be resolved.

Another theme that has been present in all his public interventions has been that there should be no third party mediation or facilitation for any solution to the ethnic problem.

His last public act of opposition to concessions to the minorities was the formation of the National Joint Commission, which compiled a report on the woes of the Sinhalese.

It was thus known as the Sinhala Commission Report and aimed primarily at countering the Peoples Alliance (PA) Government's political package which proposed granting devolution of power to the minorities through a system of regional councils.

Though a ceremonial presentation was made of the Report and sections of the Buddhist Sangha (clergy) known to oppose devolution and concessions to the Tamils welcomed it enthusiastically, the bluff of the NJC was called when there was very little palpable public support for the Report.

A pilgrimage to the famous Hindu temple of Kadirkamam (Kataragama) to seek divine intervention for the NJC's project and whip up a wave of hysteria against the political package - as it would have undoubtedly done 30 or 40years ago - fizzled out.

All in all, Gamani Jayasuriya's role after resigning from the UNP in 1987 was as critic of the governments in office for their concessions to the minorities on the question of political power. Whenever times were propitious for ardent Sinhala nationalism, he and others of ilk, thrived.


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