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Turmoil in the country during 1956-59 MEP regime

Although the 1956-59 MEP regime brought about a transformation in the country beneficial to the commoners, it was also a period of turmoil as well. It was the language issue that took the most serious turn of events.

When Sinhala was made the State language, the Tamil parties launched a civil disobedience movement. Although after making Sinhala the State language provisions for the reasonable use of Tamil was mooted but they were never properly implemented. As a result a civil disobedience movement gathered support from the Tamils. This in turn led to a Sinhalese backlash culminating in the riots of 1958. They caused some deaths as well.

C.P. de Silva. Sirimavo Bandaranaike W. Dahanayake S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike

The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact was signed in 1957 to resolve the ethnic conflict. In this settlement Sinhala was accepted as the official language and Tamil was made the regional language in Northern and Eastern provinces. The regional councils were to be set up with one for the North and one or more for the East. The powers over the land were vested on them and there were also provisions for two or more regional councils to merge.

There was severe opposition to the Bandranaike Chelvanayakam Pact. It was criticised as the first step towards the formation of a separate State. The power given to regional councils to merge was considered dangerous. It was opposed by many Sinhalese led by the Maha Sangha. Even the UNP organised a protest march to Kandy against it. Eventually S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was forced to abrogate the Pact.

Another problem the 1956-59 MEP government had to face was the massive wave of strikes. At the beginning both the LSSP and the CP opposed the MEP government. However the unexpected victory of the UNP at the Colombo M.C. elections held at the end of 1956 made the CP to mellow its attitude towards the MEP whereas the LSSP continued its policy to embarrass the Government. The LSSP condemned making Sinhala the State language and giving prominence to Buddhism as communalistic and reactionary.

The country witnessed a massive wave of isolated as well as general strikes and the LSSP took a major role in leading them. The relevant leniency in the response shown by the government in dealing with trade unions were put to maximum advantage. These strikes occurred mostly in the public sector and frequently government services and industry were paralysed.

Although at one time Dr. N.M. Perera and some other leaders in the LSSP were willing to join the government to strengthen the progressive camp, the LSSP continued to embarrass the Government. It is true that most of the strikes were sparked off by economic issues. Nevertheless this period also witnessed purely political strikes. The CMU, a major trade union led by a leader of the LSSP condemned the government of communal vandalism. At the general election in March 1960, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike referring to the wave of strikes accused that it was Dr. N.M. Perera who caused the death of S.W.R.D. Banadaranaike without killing him ("Mage Samiya Nomara Maruve N.M. Pereaya").

It was alleged that the main cause of the conflicts in the 1956-59 Cabinet was impetuous attitude of Philip Gunawardena. It is true that Philip was relentless and invective so as to embarrass some of his Cabinet colleagues. But it was an exaggeration to accuse that the arrogance of Philip Gunawardena was solely responsive for the conflicts in the Cabinet.

In 1957 Philip wanted to nationalise the foreign-owned estates. However he deferred it on the request of Prime Minister Bandaranike. He reluctantly agreed to make amendments to the Paddy Lands Act made by the Cabinet. Philip conceded to allow S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to present his controversial Co-operative Bank Bill in Parliament.

Another accusation made against Philip Gunawardena was that no public officer could work with him. Philip activated dormant public officers and on the contrary, K. Alvapillai, his permanent secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food well and truly counter acts allegation. He expresses that it was very pleasant to work with Philip Gunawardena and Philip won the admiration of all the officers under him.

He acknowledges that Philip had the knack to select the best person suited for the job and entrust with responsibility. He further says that Philip had to leave the Cabinet not because he did not extend his co-operation to the Prime Minister Bandaranaike but because those who were jealous of Philip's ability in plan implementation and as administrator stood in the way of such co-operation. He adds 'I knew that Philip Gunawardena leaving the Cabinet was painful to S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike".

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike formed a sole SLFP government after Philip and William de Silva left the Cabinet in May 1959. But his problems did not end there. The reactionary elements brought pressure on the Prime Minister Bandaranaike to get tenders, contracts and for their other irregular activities. When he did not yield to them, it antagonised them and they began to conspire and plot against S.W.R.D. Ultimately S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated on September 26, 1959 being shot by a Buddhist Bhikku instigated by them.

After the death of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike there was so much confusion in the country. Ven. Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thera, the 2nd accused in the Bandaranaike assassination case who was later convicted for conspiring to kill S.W.R.D. even addressed the nation by the Government radio. From 1958 Philip Gunawardena had been warning S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike that there was a conspiracy. But Bandaranaike did not pay heed to it and had to pay with his life for it.

On the death of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike the next in line in the SLFP was C.P. de Silva. But he had gone abroad for medical treatment and W. Dahanayake was appointed Prime Minister. W. Dahanayake adopted a dictatorial attitude and he even censured the media. There was delay to arrest those connected with the assassination of S.W.R.D. and there were rumours that the Government wanted to shield them. There were stories that Wimala Wijayawardena who was arrested later too refuge in the "Temple Trees", the residence of Prime Minister.

In this background when the Opposition moved a vote of no confidence against the Government even some Cabinet Ministers did not come to the rescue of W. Dahanayake and the Government managed deafeat it only by one vote. Prime Minister Dahanayake was furious and he expelled some SLFP Ministers who went against him and formed a Cabinet of his own.

W. Dahanayake set up a new Ministry of Internal Security and made Sidney de Zoysa its secretary. Some suspected that W. Dahanayake was preparing the ground to set up an administration similar to the Catholic dictatorship of Din Diem in South Vietnam found at that time. Nevertheless in the light of the Opposition to his government from all quarters W. Dahanayake was compelled to dissolve Parliament and call for nomination on January 4, 1960.

Around this time there was a new set up in the political scene in Sri Lanka. As the SLFP was in disarray without a powerful leader, the UNP with Dudley Senanayake coming back as the leader expected an easy victory. SLFP entered the fray led by C.P. de Silva. The VLSSP which had now assumed the name MEP formed an alliance with the Dharma Samaja Party led by L.H. Meththananda committed to bring about a Buddhist resurgence.

The LSSP had high hopes of forming the next government. It even rejected a move by the Communist Party to form a United Left Front. W. Dahanayake formed the Lanka Prajathanthravadi Party, in collaboration with Stanley de Zoysa. Some powerful Catholics too supported the LPP. When the nominations were called for the general election which was fixed for March 19, 1960, 21 political parties including some small ones entered the fray.

 

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