Esmond Wickremesinghe: A hero in international news media | Sunday Observer

Esmond Wickremesinghe: A hero in international news media

Esmond Wickremesinghe, a press baron and a political kingmaker, wielded considerable influence in Sri Lankan politics. A lawyer by profession, he took to journalism with ease. He was no stranger to politics having been involved with University student politics and LSSP politics. Journalism always interwined with politics, at Lake House.

His father-in-law, D R Wijewardene had pioneered in Sri Lanka the publication of the mass circulation newspaper, thereby establishing a monopoly. These newspapers strove to expand political awareness of the people in the absence of a mass scale political movement, especially, after Universal Franchise was gained in 1931. Lake House became the media for the Independence campaign. Both, Sir D B Jayatilake and D S Senanayake needed the support of D R Wijewardene. The Westminster political party system was introduced to Sri Lanka with the 1946 Soulbury Constitution, prior to Independence. Organized political parties contested each other at Parliamentary elections. The Ceylon National Congress became the UNP promoting democracy and the Ceylonese identity, and Lake House backed the UNP.

D R Wijewardene retired due to ill health and Esmond Wickremesinghe took over the Editorial direction of the Lake House newspapers. He realized that Sri Lanka, as an independent country required, stability, democracy and pluralistic politics. Hence, there was no change in the overall political direction of the newspaper. But, there were many reforms to cater to the needs of an electorate that was more educated, more politically aware and better informed than their predecessors, watching with concern the collapse of an old order after World War II. This meant changes in the content and style of newspapers. It brought in the American style newspaper with sensationalizing and open campaigning of specific issues.

Journalists

Esmond Wickremesinghe created a new set of journalists to cater to the new style newspaper. A number of young journalists were recruited, and a training system introduced. The team included, Piyasena Nissanka, M A de Silva, Edmond Ranasinghe, Denzil Peiris, Tarzie Vittachchi, Ernest Corea, Aubrey Collete, Mervyn de Silva, Neville de Silva, S Sivagurunathan and Manik de Silva.

Esmond Wickremesinghe got into king making with the death of D S Senanayake, who had informed only two people, that, “if anything happened to him Dudley should be made the Prime Minister”. The two were Lord Soulbury the Governor General and Esmond Wickremesinghe. D S Senanayake died on March 22, 1952 while Lord Soulbury was visiting London. Immediately, the Lake House press claimed that the UNP Parliamentary Group supported Dudley Senanayake. The claim of the Leader of the House Sir John Kotelawela was ignored. ………. months later Dudley Senanayake resigned as Prime Minister on grounds of ill health, nominating his cousin, Sir John Kotelawela.

One of Esmond’s main interests was Sri Lanka’s role in global affairs. Sir John Kotelawela appointed him as the Prime Minister’s – Foreign Affairs Advisor. He worked with Sir John to summon the Asian Powers meeting which included India, Pakistan, Burma and Indonesia. This led to the 1955 Afro Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, the forerunner of the Non-aligned Movement. Though Sri Lanka supported the allies and the USSR during World War II, our entry to the United Nations was vetoed by the USSR since US had vetoed Mongolia. Therefore, Sir John Kotelawela entrusted Esmond Wickremesinghe with the task of getting Sri Lanka admitted to the UN with the help of Indian Foreign Minister V Krishna Menon; there came about the famous package deal which included the admission of both Sri Lanka and Mongolia as members of the United Nations in 1955.

The relationship between Sir John and Dudley and his Ministers was strained after March 1952. As a result, J R Jayewardene and the other Ministers refused to serve under Sir John Kotelawela. Esmond Wickremesinghe defused the crisis by inviting Sir John and J R to a meeting. A reconciliation was made, with J R Jayewardene to succeed Sir John Kotelawela as Prime Minister after the next Parliamentary elections. But, this never took place. Sir John Kotelawela was advised to go for early election, defuse the anti UNP movement and gain ground. They lost this gamble and the UNP was reduced to 8 seats. In 1958, Dudley Senanayake again became the Leader of the UNP.

Challenge

Esmond Wickremesinghe’s biggest challenge came in 1964 when the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government introduced legislation to take over the Lake House newspapers. She wanted the Government to control the media and deal a blow to the Opposition. Immediately Dudley Senanayake, J R Jayewardene and Esmond Wickremesinghe formed themselves into an unofficial action committee to defeat the government’s plan. Within two months public opinion was mobilized – the Sangha, other religious leaders, Chambers, Trade Unions and Civil Society came out against this proposal. For the first time a massive anti Mrs Bandaranaike movement built up. They decided to take on the Government in Parliament. Esmond Wickremesinghe was able to obtain the support of his friend Philip Gunawardena, MEP, the Federal Party led by S J V Chelvanayakam with whom he used to appear in Court and another friend from LSSP days Edmund Samarakkody. He then started talking with C P de Silva, Mrs Bandaranaike’s deputy who was dissatisfied with the government forming a coalition with the LSSP. This group could make up the number to give the Opposition a majority. As agreed, they defected to the Opposition on the day a vote of confidence was due in Parliament. This was a night of high drama with the vote of confidence being defeated by one vote. In the ensuing Parliamentary election, the UNP and its coalition parties obtained a slim majority and therefore needed more members to form a stable government. Esmond Wickremesinghe went back to S J V Chelvanayakam to obtain support for the incoming government, which was known as the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact. But, the government failed to implement this agreement and missed the chance for the settlement of the ethnic issue. In 1968, Esmond Wickremesinghe retired from Lake House. But, it was not the end of politics for him.

Leader

Esmond Wickremesinghe was a close friend of J R Jayewardene who invited him to be an official advisor when the latter became Leader of the UNP. J R Jayewardene needed a media. The Lake House press had been nationalized by the Government, the Lankadeepa brought under the control of the SLFP and the Dawasa press sealed. Esmond Wickremesinghe undertook to start the UNP publication division utilizing the services of a number of journalists who had worked at Lake House and at Dawasa. By 1976 the UNP newspaper could not meet the rising demand. Esmond also brought together a number of left-wing, trade unionists and civil society activists who were not supporters of the UNP, but opposed to the Mrs Bandaranaike government. The UNP was building up a large anti-Mrs Bandaranaike coalition. The final result was a resounding victory for the UNP in the 1977 Parliamentary elections. Esmond Wickremesinghe never took on a permanent position. Until his death he was both, a member of the UNP Working Committee and of the group of Advisors who formed an inner Council.

Defeating Mrs Bandaranaike’s Lake House takeover Bill made Esmond Wickremesinghe a hero in the international news media. He received the Gold Pen Award for press freedom and served as both, President of the International Press Institute and the Asia Press Foundation. He had a wide network of leading newspaper personalities from the United States to Japan. His support was available for the cause of press freedom in any part of the world. The International Press Institute named him in 2000 as the IPI World Press Freedom Hero – a person who made a significant contribution to the promotion of media freedom.

During the first three and a half decades after Independence, in an ongoing intellectual debate on the future of Sri Lanka, especially, its political system, the language policy, the economy and its role in the world, Esmond Wickremesinghe made the Lake House press the main vehicle for the debate. He was committed to democratic politics and the settlement of the language issue. The passing away of his counterparts in the Federal Party who stood for modernization was a major blow. He promoted a market economic development as the East Asian model at a time Socialistic planning was popular. The first report, Economic Liberalization prepared by Prof. Shenoy was sponsored by him. It came out the same time as the Singapore Economic Liberalization proposals. Opening of the economy under J R Jayewardene found him in the middle of the debate as the relevant economic strategy. At the same time his wife, Nalini was promoting re-awakening the Sinhala culture.

After 1977, he visited a number of countries as J R’s Special Representative carrying messages to leaders of those countries. He was responsible for persuading Amadou-Mahtar M’Baw the UNESCO Secretary General to support Sri Lanka’s Central Cultural Triangle Project.

Strain

Esmond Wickremesinghe’s biggest contribution was in the sphere of Indo-Lanka relations which was under a strain at the time. He met with Indira Gandhi after she became Prime Minister in 1979 together with her Advisor and his friend Ralph Buultjens. They had a frank discussion which included her relationship with President Jayewardene and her concerns – after the 1983 riots. Indira Gandhi appointed G Parathasarathy as her Advisor on Sri Lanka. Esmond Wickremesinghe and G Parathasarathy were old friends and became the informal line of communication between the two leaders.

In May 1985 Esmond Wickremesinghe was sent to Thimpu, Bhutan as the Sri Lanka President’s Representative to participate in the concluding round of talks on the formation of SAARC. There he became friends with Romesh Bhandari, Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, India, and was invited to stop over in New Delhi on his return trip to meet Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Considerable progress was made during the talks which included a visit by President Jayewardene to New Delhi. While in New Delhi with President Jayewardene, Esmond Wickremesinghe fell ill with a heart murmur. Medical examinations revealed the need for a by-pass surgery. He flew to Houston, Texas for the surgery. Esmond Wickremesinghe was confident he would be back within a few weeks to continue the talks with Bandhari. But it was not to be. He passed away a few days after the surgery, on September 29, 1985. 

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