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Achievements of 1956-59 MEP regime and conflicts within

Maithripala Senanayake

The 1956-59 MEP government set about a social revolution in Sri Lanka. First and foremost it declared the May Day - the International Worker's Day, a holiday in our country.

Thereafter on June 6, the MEP government passed the resolution that made Sinhala, the official language in Sri Lanka. The UNP too voted in favour of it and only the Tamil parties with LSSP and the CP voted against it. By making Sinhala the official language, the rightful place was given to Sinhala, that was dethroned after the British conquest in 1815.

Prof. Mendis Rohanadeera explains that for 2,300 years Sinhala had been the State language in Sri Lanka, except for 53 years from 1017 to 1070, when Sri Lanka came under Chola domination. Getting the due place to Sinhala was the culmination of the struggle carried on for 140 long years by the people in Sri Lanka against the imperial domination.

There are some who contend that making Sinhala the official language was the beginning of the ethnic conflict in our country. Nevertheless this was a step broadly paralled to similar ones taken in post-colonial countries. Thus India made Hindi the official language while allowing regional languages such as Tamil to be used locally. It is not gainsay that the failure of successive governments to implement at least the provisions of the Reasonable Use of Tamil mooted, widened the gap between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

On the other hand making Sinhala the official language brought about a social revolution in Sri Lanka. Prior to thereat all the high appointments, job opportunities and other privileges were the prerogative of the elite and opened only to the English educated who were only 05% of the population. All those avenues were open to the commoners only after making Sinhala the official language.

C.P. de Silva

Before 1956, the foreign policy of Sri Lanka was to follow the dictates of the West. In 1955 the UNP government did not allow Soviet scientists to come to Sri Lanka to observe the eclipse of the Sun. The MEP government followed a non-aligned foreign policy and opened up diplomatic relations with countries like Soviet Russia and Communist China. It also abrogated the Defence Agreement with the British.

In 1957 Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas were made Universities. As a result erudite Maha Theras like Welivitiye Soratha, Bambarande Siri Seevalee, kalukondayawe Praggnaskera, Yakkaduwe Pragnarama, Kotahene Pragnakiththi and Kiriwaththuduwe Praggnasara came to the forefront. For the first time a separate Ministry was formed for cultural affairs and there was a renaissance in indigenous culture.

The MEP government did a lot for the betterment of the commoner. The Paddy Lands Act and the Multi-Purpose Co-operatives benefitted the peasant. Labour Tribunals were set up to bring relief to workers. It was the MEP government that nationalised the bus transport and the Port. The mechanisation of the fishing industry too was effected in this regime.

The year 1956 was a landmark in other aspects as well. It was in 1956 that Martin Wickremasinghe released his classic 'Viragaya' Prof. E.R. Sarathchandra staged his epock-making 'Maname' and Lester James Peiris screened ground-breathing 'Rekawa'. W.D. Amaradeva in the field of Music, Chithrasena, Premakumara and Panibharatha in dancing too were given their due places. In the 1956-59 MEP government, the two Leftist ministers, Philip Gunawardena and William de Silva of the VLSSP forged ahead with a radical agenda. Philip introduced the Paddy Land Act to emancipate the tenant farmer. His Multi-Purpose Co-operative scheme was meant to facilitate proper distribution of produce to ensure benefits to both the producer and the consumer.

Stanley de Zoysa

Philip re-generated agriculture with modern techniques and re-planting programmes to increase the yield. He re-activated the co-operative movement for the benefit of the consumer. Ministry of Agriculture and Food in a hectic three years under Philip Gunawardena borough change and growth virtually to every subject that came under its purview.

P.H. William de Silva as the Minister of Industries and Fisheries also did a yeoman service to the country. The mechanisation of fishing industry was begun under him and as a result fish landings increased in great proportion. For the first time he introduced a concerted policy for the development of industries in our country. During his tenure of office various corporations like steel, tyre, flour milling and mineral sands were set up and while encouraging various incentives saw the beginning of many private industries.While the Minister of Transport Maithripala Senanayake sought to postpone the process for eight years, pressure from Philip, William de Silva and other progressive Ministers saw the bus transport nationalised in 1958. It is now generally acknowledged that Philip's group was responsible for most of the progressive measures instituted in the 1956-59 regime?

In due course there developed a conflict between the progressive Ministers and reactionaries in the MEP Cabinet. Philip Gunawardena, William de Silva and T.B. Illangaratna led the progressive camp. W. Dahanayaka, C.P. de Silva, Maithripala Senanayake, R.G. Senanayake and Stanley de Zoysa were the leaders of the reactionary group.

The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka took measures to strengthen the reactionary elements. They got round W. Dahanayake, the Minister of Education who was at one time a teacher at St. Aloysious College, Galle. He was one of the protagonist of the reactionary group in the MEP Cabinet. It was a demand all over the country that all the assisted schools should be vested in the State. Dr. W. Dahanayake as the Minister of Education indicated that he would not 'take over' the assisted schools.

R.G. Senanayake

The Catholic priests who made a big noise about 'Social Justice' in the 1940's did every thing possible to sabotage the Free Education Scheme and failed. Likewise the same crowd of priests rigorously campaigned against the Paddy Lands Act that brought relief to the tenant farmer. In fact some students of Aquinas College of Higher Studies who at the instigation of such priests distributed pamphlets against the Paddy Lands Act were chased away by harbour workers.

During this time there was a conspiracy by the Catholic top brass in the police force against Osmund de Silva, a good Buddhist who acted impartially at the 1956 general election to oust him from the post of IGP. They succeeded and as a result M.W. Abeykone was appointed as the IGP. At this stage Philip Gunawardena realised that there was a conspiracy against the government. However the first to disclose this in Parliament was Dr. N.M. Perera. In the MEP May Day rally in 1959 Philip Gunawardena revealed that the senior DIG Sydney de Zoysa was conspiring against the government and requested the Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to remove him immediately. Philip had to face a criminal defamation case over this issue.

In the first half of the year 1959, the conflict in the Cabinet worsened. When Philip introduced the Co-operative Development Bank Bill, the Cabinet Ministers in the reactionary camp opposed it vehemently. Prime Minister Bandaranaike wanted to introduce the Bill himself to bring about a settlement and Philip too agreed. Nevertheless the reactionary Ministers initiated a Cabinet strike and insisted that they would not attend the Cabinet meetings until Philip Gunawardena is removed.

Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was helpless and he envisaged the LSSP to join the Cabinet and strengthened the progressive camp. At one time Dr. N.M. Perera and few leaders of the LSSP took up the position that the MEP regime in spite of its shortcomings was a socialist government and its weakening would lead to the rise of reaction. They were opposed by the militants in the LSSP like Edmud Samarakkody, Robert Gunawardena and J.C.T. Kotelawala. As such the LSSP did not come to the rescue of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

In this background as a measure to get out of the situation, Prime Minister Bandaranaike wanted to reshuffle the Cabinet by removing the subject of Co-operatives from Philip's Ministry and Fisheries from that of William de Silva.

Philip was to be allocated Fisheries in addition to Agriculture and Food. The two Ministers, Philip and William de Silva however resigned from their portfolios in protest and joined the opposition. In all 12 members of the government all of the VLSSP and 7 from the SLFP crossed over to the opposition with them. That was the end of the MEP Cabinet and a sole SLFP Government was formed.

 

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