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By Roshan Peiris
His origins are remarkable. The revered Anagarika Dharmapala the man who fought hard to restore the country's religion and traditions was his grand uncle. "My grandmother's brother on my father's side."
Anil Kumar Moonesinghe therefore has had a head start in life, and now looks back to fifty years spent in the political life of his country.
"Pray that your son would work for the Buddha Sasana and culture of this country," said the great Anagarika Dharmapala to Anil's mother when he was still in his diapers.
At sixty nine Anil Moonesinghe retains a keen sense of humour and his vision, though still not fully realised, is that the country of his birth would progress towards equality, unity and prosperity. Anil is not a Sinhala name but his grand uncle who went over to Bengal to start the Mahabodhi society there nearly ninety years ago wanted his grand nephew to be named Anil. A Bengali name. The grand nephew has not disappointed his revered ancestor. He joined the Trotskyites of this country seeking to give a place in the sun to the deprived small men and women of this country.
In 1980 he was locked up at the Maradana police station by the J.R. Jayewardene Government for supporting the July strike. "The government thought I was going to do something dreadful" said an unrepentant Anil. His neighbour was the firebrand Vasudeva Nanayakara occupying the cell next to him and carrying on vigorous if not a raucous chit chat, Anil recalled laughing.
Half a century in politics starting as a nineteen year old boy from Royal College, the man now grown old in politics, expressed his feelings. "I am sad that the idealism with which I started as a Marxist is now not there in the politics of this country. It is indeed a sad indictment. Of course we had causes to arouse the national fervour and get rid of the British, our colonial masters. There are still inspiring causes but those dedicated to them are lacking. Of course we had the inspiring genius of people such as my grand uncle Anagarika Dharmapala as well. I am visiting Bengal this Vesak day to celebrate the anniversary of the Mahabodhi Society in Bengal."
What are the other idealisms that inspired him at nineteen to join the tough game of politics. "It was partly the idealism generated by the Russian revolution. Also there were men with revolutionary fervour such as Osmund Jayaratne and Dicky Attygalle to inspire and guide me. Later, after my university career I went to London in 1945 to study for a degree in Law. At the University of London I saw the contrast in the lifestyle of the relatively affluent people there and the plight of our own. I was disconcerted and prepared myself to join the British Trade Union Movement and I also became a lecturer of the National Labour College and the British Trade Union Congress. I used to address Trade Union Branches and lecture at discussion groups in pubs. This way I learnt a lot not only about the Trotskyite movement but how best to organise workers and make them aware of the need to improve their standards of working and living."
He confessed "Yes we at the time were busy educating the workers on their rights rather than their duties. Anyway just think where did Premadasa who boasted of peoplisation programmes take the workers? In the C.T.B. which was doing well under state control he divided it into ninety five branches and what happened? It left only colossal debt of 10 billion rupees and helped neither workers nor commuters.
"It was also a time I remember when Trotsky realised that Marxism as such was untenable in a backward country and so the movement itself was addressing itself to seek support at first in the advance countries such as Britain, France and Germany.
"In my fifty years of left politics, essentially the left which called Parliament the talking shop, accepted in the 1950s that Parliament was necessary for an integrated revolutionary process. So changes did take place."
What are his memories of May day rallies of the past? Wasn't there a lighter side to it all?
"We never had a lighter side. It was a day of dedication inspired by the ideals of strengthening the working class movement and even the peasants too followed us and their expectations too were high. It was a heavy burden for us to carry, while at the same time being a worthy ideal to aspire to. I was the leader of harbour, motor and estate workers, which brought me to Agalawatta."
In 1956 Mr. Moonesinghe won the Agalawatta seat by a majority of 12,000 votes. At 22 years he kept working at a vigorous pace and contributed a great deal to develop the living conditions of the peasants and the education of the young. Mr. Moonesinghe has the record of being the longest elected member of Parliament for the region of Pasdun Korale.
Anil Moonesinghe is an athlete and represented the University of Ceylon at the All India Universities Athletic Meet in Lahore in 1944. It was this perhaps that made him stoutly join the strikers as they struck work in 1980 undaunted by baton charging policemen.
In 1964 the LSSP was involved in a major dispute when Dr. N.M. Perera wanted the LSSP to join Sirima Bandaranaike's SLFP Government as a coalition partner. Mr. Moonesinghe together with Vivienne Goonewardene, Trade Union leader D.G. William, Chandra Gunesekera. Dr. N.M. Perera opted for the coalition, while Leslie Goonewardene, Colvin R. de Silva, Bernard Soysa and Doric de Soza were opposed, among others. A third group headed by Edmund Samarakkody and Merryl Fernando, left the party. Anil, as Minister of Communications then was in charge of Air Ceylon, the C.T.B., the C.G.R. and even Light Houses. In the 70s he was the Chairman of the C.T.B. "I ran the CTB as best as I could doing away with corruption. The commissions obtained for buying buses, I demanded and got it all to finance the cars necessary for inspection work of the C.T.B.
In a life full of service, ups and downs, there have to be moments of sadness and Anil said "the saddest moment in politics first of all was when I was unseated after an election petition from the Agalawatta seat. Secondly I am sad today because as Deputy Speaker I am not making use of my practical experience in serving my country. As Deputy Speaker I do no active participation in the way I want for my country. Ms. Bandaranaike, at a meeting to celebrate my fifty years in politics did say Anil should have been Minister of Transport.
"In Parliament I feel members are not allocated sufficient time to speak at important debates. In the early days they were given so much more time. Today even to wind up an important debate only half an hour is given".Return to the News/Comment contents page
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