Former president Dingiri Banda Wijetunga bids farewell to the nation

Former president Dingiri Banda Wijetunga has passed away around 9.30 this morning (Sept. 21st) at Kandy General Hospital, after a prolonged illness. He was 86.

Mr. Wijetunga became the third executive president of the country on May 1, 1993 after the death of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. He served as President till November 12, 1994.

He was also the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka from March 3rd, 1989 to May 7th, 1993.

Mr. Wijetunga was born to a middle class Sinhala Buddhist family living on the outskirts of the then Udunuwara Parliamentary seat in the Kandy District of the Central Province in Sri Lanka. On completion of his secondary education he joined the Co-operative Department as an Inspector.

He closely associated with veteran politicians like George E. de Silva and A. Ratnayake. A. Ratnayake who was then Minister of Food and Co-operatives in the D.S. Senanayake Cabinet took him as his Private Secretary.

He joined the United National Party in 1946. He entered Parliament for the first time when he successfully contested the Udunuwara electorate at the 1965 general election and quickly made a reputation for himself as an excellent Member of Parliament who constantly worked for the welfare of his electors. In terms of meeting the needs of his constituents, he was considered the most effective MP in that Parliament.

He lost the Udunuwara electorate in 1970 but was returned to Parliament in the 1977 UNP landslide, being appointed Cabinet Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the J.R. Jayewardene administration. During this regime Wijetunga functioned in various ministerial capacities holding the portfolios of Posts and Telecommunication, Power, Highways and Agricultural Development.

He served briefly as the Governor of North Western province in 1988 before returning to Parliamentary politics a few months later. In the last general election he contested he secured the largest number of votes in the Central Province.

Mr. Wijetunga became acting President in 1993 till Parliament convened to elect a successor to the slain President in terms of the Constitution.

The amiable Wijetunga was elected unanimously by Parliament to complete the remainder of Premadasa’s term. The humble Kandyan farmer was sworn in as the fourth executive President of the country on May 7, 1993.

In a moving farwell speech to Parliament Wijetunga cited Shakespeare’s oft-quoted line “Do not be afraid of greatness, Some men are born great, Some achieve greatness, And some have greatness thrust upon them.”

As president, Wijetunga set about his work in his own simplistic, inimitable fashion. After the authoritarian Premadasa, Wijetunga ushered in a more political free era.

His rule also coincided with the rise of Chandrika Kumaratunga within the ranks of the SLFP. For some of the elite the daughter of two Prime Ministers was a refreshing contrast to the humble village peasant in President Wijetunga.

His rather hawkish approach to the ethnic conflict also made him unpopular especially among the minorities who traditionally backed his party.

After a decisive defeat in the Southern Provincial Council Election in 1994, he dissolved parliament in August that year, in a desperate bid to stem the rising wave of popularity of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

However the party was defeated in the hustings and Wijetunga graciously appointed Kumaratunga as Prime Minister. Even though under the constitution, Wijetunga was bestowed with wide powers, he wisely chose not to exercise much authority, letting the Prime Minister manage the affairs of the country.

He relinquished office in November 1994 after Kumaratunga was elected President by an unprecedented majority.

Sources: Wikipedia and Lankadissent.

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