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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

D.S. SENANAYAKE

By Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu


Curriculum Vitae

WITH SRI LANKA IN THE THROES of apparently intractable strife 50 years after formal Independence, it would seem that the work of its first prime minister, Don Stephen Senanayake, was either unfinished in his lifetime or undone thereafter. The absence of a national identity and consciousness shared by all the communities that inhabit the island is the key to why the search for a just and lasting peace has proved so elusive. Building such an identity is not the sole responsibility of an individual, of course, but the product of collective aspiration and effort. However, in providing direction and purpose, leaders have a responsibility to propagate a framework for national unity that will endure. In this respect, Senanayake's contribution lies more in skillfully steering Sri Lanka's peaceful progress to Independence than in defining a widely accepted and durable vision of the country and its future.

"D.S.," as Senanayake is popularly known in Sri Lanka, was a conservative nationalist. His was an agenda for continuity. There are those who will argue that even today his conservatism is a more efficacious idiom for national unity and economic development than the more radical alternatives it has had to compete with, then and now. Critics may contend that the evolution of Sri Lanka can be explained in part by his failure to stamp its political culture with his pluralist assumptions of national unity from the outset. But it is ironic that five decades later, these concepts underpin arguments for a political solution to the current ethnic conflict, as illustrated by the present government slogan for national integration - One Country, One People.

For Senanayake, the nation was "assumed" in that he did not feel an overpowering need to explicitly articulate or define it. Nevertheless, when questioned, he provided a cogent statement of his concepts of nation and the importance of sustaining and defending them. Like the politicians and bureaucrats of the upper-middle class who were his associates, Senanayake believed in an inclusive nationalism in which minority relations would be ameliorated by moderation on the part of the dominant group. That is the majority community would refrain from forcefully asserting its interests. The prime minister opposed any departure from secularism in favor of Buddhism, the main religion of the majority Sinhala community to which he belonged. Nor did he subscribe to linguistic nationalism. Yet, as the historian K.M. de Silva points out, this brand of nationalism had a crucial flaw: "It was basically elitist in conception, and it did not have much substantial popular support extending beyond the political establishment. It required D.S. Senanayake's enormous personal prestige, and consummate statecraft to make it viable."

Although he had experienced the worst excesses of colonial justice when incarcerated following the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915, Senanayake remained an Anglophile. He believed in the Commonwealth and the West as a bulwark against communism. At the same time, an innate pragmatism led him to recognize socialist China and to allow the sale of rubber to the Chinese on the open market during the Korean War. Still, his anti-communism ran deep. So long as the threat from the left existed, he vowed, "I shall be in the battlefield and fight against them." His government's move in 1949 to disenfranchise residents of recent Indian origin in the plantation sector, was partly attributed to fears that they might have constituted a voting bloc for leftist parties. It was during Senanayake's premiership that Commonwealth foreign ministers meeting in the Sri Lankan capital in 1950 came up with the Colombo Plan as a defense against communism through economic development.

Senanayake was a passionate agriculturalist with a close affinity to the rural farmer, and directed much of his formidable energies toward improving the conditions of the peasantry and boosting food production. While his irrigation and colonization schemes became a source of friction in the subsequent ethnic conflict, they also attest to his concern for the country to diversify out of its reliance on a plantation economy. The Gal Oya Valley scheme, with its huge reservoir, testifies to his vision, and the rehabilitation of the Dry Zone for settlement and food production is an enduring legacy. Senanayake was a pioneer and patriot. No great scholar and a reluctant entrant to politics, he nevertheless demonstrated a mastery of the art. Adept at managing both a team and a process, he guided the progress to independence adroitly. He was also a warm and generous person, unpretentious yet with a commanding presence - a big man in physical stature and in political achievement.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, an expert on the politics of ethnic conflict, heads the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo


D.S. SENANAYAKE

•Born 1884 in Colombo

•A onetime rubber planter, he entered the colonial legislature in 1922 and launched an agriculture cooperative movement

•Guided Sri Lanka to Independence in 1948. As prime minister, he won the respect of both Tamils and Sinhalese

•Died in 1952 following a riding accident

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