T. Perera assesses the lives of two veterans of the Trotskyist movement in Sri Lanka, Meryl Fernando and Sydney Wanasinghe, who died this year.
Meryl Fernando, 1923-2007
MERYL FERNANDO, the veteran Trotskyist, died on 27 May 2007 at his home at Koralawella, Moratuwa. He had been in frail health for several months. He was 84.
He was born at Koralawella, in the house built by his maternal uncle in 1908. Meryl recalled a story recounted by people in his neighbourhood that their house was surrounded by Punjabi (Indian) soldiers during the 1915 riots. His uncle who edited a Sinhala nationalist paper was taken to prison as were prominent nationalist leaders.
The son of Cornelius Fernando, a small shop-owner-trader, and Mary Fernando, Meryl received his education at Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa. He entered the Colombo university in 1941; World War 2 was raging. Illness prevented him from sitting for the London intermediate examination. However, he prepared privately for this examination in economics and passed it in 1944. He later entered the Teachers’ Training College, Maharagama, where he qualified as a trained teacher.
His interest in politics began about 1942. He attended study classes conducted by Regi Siriwardena, at that time a Lanka Sama Samaja Party activist. He also contacted Henry Peiris, a popular party educator who was doing underground political work. Meryl recalled that he attended a full-day study class by Henry for the Ratmalana railway workers. He joined the LSSP during the second world war whilst still a university student. In the immediate post-war period he was active organising match-factory workers in his hometown Moratuwa.
His elder brother Aloysius who had been associated with the LSSP since the late 1930s was a formative political influence. Henry Peiris (later LSSP MP for Panadura 1947-1952) was another influence. In 1944 Meryl attended a secret conference of the party organised by the wing that supported the Bolshevik Leninist Party.
In November 1945 the workers at the Elephant Match Factory at Kelaniya came out on strike. Their demands were higher wages and an eight-hour working day. They sought the assistance of the BLP. Port workers in Colombo rallied to offer support and a demonstration of strikers marched from Peliyagoda to Pettah. Meryl tried to secure the support of the workers of the Lanka Light Match Factory, Moratuwa, but he and V. Karalasingham (Carlo) were not successful. The strike at the match factory at Kelaniya ended in a victory for the workers.
Later their efforts at the Moratuwa match factory bore fruit. In June 1946 the workers there joined the Kelaniya match workers’ union. On May 1 the Moratuwa match workers struck work. The management refused to grant their demands and two workers were also dismissed. The strike lasted nine days and was called off when the management agreed to reinstate the two workers and refer the union’s demands for arbitration.
Meryl was associated with the work of the Moratuwa branch of Kelaniya Match Workers Union for nearly two decades and served as secretary of the Moratuwa branch for several years. Meryl and Doric de Souza participated in committee meetings the union committee used to meet almost once a week. Meryl and Doric also attended to representation work and Meryl to the day to day work.
In 1948 Meryl was successful in getting carpentry workers at Willorawatte, Moratuwa, to join the Industrial and General Workers Union affiliated to the LSSP and submit demands. He and Doric de Souza made representations on behalf of the union. The management agreed to grant an eight-hour working day, wages-board holidays with pay, overtime payments etc. This was the first time that carpentry workers employed in a workshop had won such demands.
He was a member of the Moratuwa Urban Council for a period of fifteen years and was for a term its Chairman. This was the first local council in which the LSSP was able to wrest power from the ruling UNP in 1951. Moratuwa, 12 miles south of Colombo, was a rising seaside township dotted with carpentry workshops. Monsoonal conditions affected fisherfolk who lived in cadjan-thatched mud and wattle huts. Rainstorms blew away their habitations. Deep-sea fishermen were unable to venture out even to eke out a precarious living. Likewise in-shore fishermen who were engaged in the casting and hauling of nets were also adversely affected. The left-dominated urban council administration introduced relief measures.
A carpentry worker, Allanson Fernando was one of the mourners who filed past Meryl’s coffin at the Town Hall. He recalled that as a boy he had sought the latter’s assistance when his father a fisherman died at sea. Meryl had expedited the postmortem procedures and Allanson’s family received compensation from the council. He was later associated with the youth league.
Meryl was arrested and jailed during the August 1953 Hartal or protest campaign against drastic cutbacks on food and welfare spending by the ruling rightwing UNP Meryl was detained for three weeks. Colvin R. de Silva appeared for him at the trial, as he did in over 50 such cases in various courts in the island. The charges were blatantly false and after two policemen gave evidence and were cross-examined by Colvin, Meryl was acquitted without the defence being called.
The Hartal reached almost insurrectionary high points where the LSSP was strong, in Moratuwa in the hamlets of Egoda Uyana, Katukurunda and Koralawella. Over forty years later, Meryl published a reprint of Colvin’s original pamphlet Hartal, with a new introduction by him outlining the lessons of the tumultuous events. Meryl also addressed a public meeting at Moratuwa held to mark the Hartal anniversary. He vividly recounted the turbulent events that shook the town.
He represented the LSSP and later the LSSP-Revolutionary as MP for Moratuwa from 1956 to 1964. In the 1956 general election he made a stormy entry into parliament by beating into third place the sitting member, ex-LSSP and a leader of the Sinhala Bhasha Peramuna. The LSSP then adhered intransigently to its language policy of parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil as state languages. Its prestige was never higher.
He made rousing speeches in Sinhala; a parliamentary colleague used to tease him about his "takarang" voice, soaring in flights of oratory, he recalled in a self-deprecatory reminiscence. He spoke eloquently on the aspirations of workers and the oppressed and on the imperatives to radically transform society.
In May 1960 when N.M. Perera proposed that the LSSP should form a coalition government with the SLFP, Meryl along with the left tendency in the party opposed the proposal at a special conference. On developments that followed Meryl wrote: "recognising that ‘In the context of Sri Lankan politics, the attainment of power through a parliamentary election is a possibility’, the leadership proceeded to form a United Left Front in 1963 with the Communist Party and Philip Gunawardena’s MEP."
"But when the government was seriously weakened in 1964 and its very existence became doubtful, and Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike prorogued parliament for four months and sought left-wing leaders in her government" the LSSP entered the government and the ULF broke up.
Meryl rejected the coalition perspective the LSSP followed in 1964, in 1970 and thereafter. In 1964 Meryl broke with the LSSP along with Edmund Samarakkody, Bala Tampoe, Prins Rajasooriya and others when the party joined the capitalist coalition government of Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike, and he helped found the LSSP-R, and later the Revolutionary Workers Party.
We recall his final intervention in parliament in December 1964. It was a courageous reaffirmation of socialist and secular principles in the teeth of retrogressive attempts by the ruling United Front government to undermine them. He had moved an amendment to the Throne Speech (programme presented at the beginning of a parliamentary term) of the short-lived United Front government. His amendment drew attention to the coalition government’s basically anti-working class and chauvinist policies. He added that the government had abandoned the fundamental democratic principle of a secular state. Before his own amendment came up for a vote the government was defeated.
Some two decades after he had commenced his pioneering work in his hometown organising workers in unions, workers in a leading garment factory began a gruelling battle to gain recognition for their union as well as increase wages. In the aftermath of LSSP’s entry into the coalition government in 1964 the factory workers had high expectations. It turned out that their illusions about the new government quickly evaporated. The workers then turned to Meryl for assistance to build an effective union.
The strike received publicity and sympathisers rallied around to help. Several public meetings were organised. Finally the management agreed to reinstate the dismissed union activists. When they arrived at the gates they were shut out. The management reneged on its undertaking.
With his defeat at the hustings in 1965 Meryl braced himself for the long haul – the uphill task of pursuing principled politics. Meryl continued to intervene in class and social struggles. He stoutly adhered to the defence of working-class independence against all varieties of political opportunism. Meryl also contributed articles on political topics to the Revolutionary History and What Next? published in London, and the local press. On his last visit to London in 1999 he met for the first time the late Al Richardson and several comrades of his Revolutionary History team.
He undertook stints as a part-time university English teacher, and after passing three parts of a management accountancy examination worked for a period as a bookkeeper at the Moratuwa University.
There is an anecdote about the alleged riches he made on the stock exchange. One morning a group of pressmen called at his house. They broke the news about a large portfolio of shares he had acquired. It turned out that it was his namesake – a successful entrepreuneur who had made a attractive investment on the stock exchange the previous day. A bemused Meryl told the journalists that let alone purchasing shares he could barely make ends meet.
There is another tale of mistaken identity. In 1960 Robert Gunawardena defected from the LSSP to join his brother Philip, leader of the MEP. He received a congratulatory telegram and he rushed to Moratuwa to thank Meryl. He was disappointed to learn that the sender was the latter’s namesake (who spelt his first name with a slight difference).
Meryl was a modest and unassuming man. A lanky figure, he would travel to Colombo by bus or train for party meetings. He did not own a motor car.
His remains were taken to the Town Hall, Moratuwa, on 29 May to enable the public to pay their respects. Meryl’s close comrade Tulsiiri Andradi delivered the funeral oration. The Mayor of Moratuwa, Sunimal Fernando, in a tribute to Meryl referred to his services to the people of the town. The burial took place at the General Cemetery, Rawatawatte, Moratuwa.
Farewell Comrade Meryl!
Sydney Wanasinghe, 1932-2007
SYDNEY WANASINGHE, the veteran LSSP activist died following a heart attack on 29 April at his home at Wellawatte, Colombo. He was 75 years old. He was in failing health for some time, which affected his physical movements but left untouched his marvellous memory. He was a boon to struggling writers researching the left movement.
He was born at Raddoluwa, Seeduwa on 16 February 1932, the son of Louis Wanasinghe, a school principal and Jane Wanasinghe. Sydney was educated at St Mary’s College, Negombo, St Joseph’s College, Colombo and St Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. He joined the LSSP whilst still a university student in the early 1950s. He was the live-wire of a group of Samasamajists who distributed the party press on the Peradeniya campus. Those were the pre- and post-Hartal days when the LSSP dominated campus politics. Sydney and his comrades used to collect bundles of the party weeklies at the Peradeniya railway station for street sales in Kandy.
After his graduation Sydney served as a teacher at Carey College, Colombo, and rose to be headmaster. In the 1960s he was back at Peradeniya University to obtain a teacher’s diploma in education. He was also active in the teachers’ trade union.
In 1958 he was nominated by the party to contest the Wellawatte North ward of the CMC. He succeeded his friend and party comrade Osmund Jayaratne as the LSSP representative for this ward. In the municipal by-election that ensued Sydney won the seat which he held till 1965.
In the heady varsity days Sydney had teamed up with Vijaya Vidyasagara and Saravana Baghawan (Baggy), editors of the Samasamajist. In the years to come they were drawn more closely together. Baggy began publishing Marxist classics in pamphlet form under the Star Press imprint. Eventually Sydney took over where Baggy left off and blossomed as a peerless publisher of left books. He initiated the popular Young Socialist series, the publication of which coincided with the emergence of the left-wing tendency in the LSSP on the eve of the party split in 1964. At that time he also opened a sales outlet – the Suriya Bookshop.
In the aftermath of the electoral defeat of the SLFP in the mid 1960s, its coalition allies, the LSSP and the CP, unleashed a campaign of chauvinism. It was left to Sydney in the Young Socialist to undertake the task of documenting the wave of dreadful diatribes in the LSSP and CP press. Sydney in collaboration with Baggy also wrote a biography of Trotsky. It was published in Sinhala in 1990.
Sydney was one of the signatories of the resolution moved by fourteen central council members at the party conference in June 1964 which opposed the resolution of the leadership to enter a capitalist coalition government led by the SLFP. Their resolution was defeated by an overwhelming margin and they quit the LSSP to form the LSSP-R. Sydney later rejoined the party.
Under the SLFP-led coalition government (1970-75), in which the LSSP held three ministries, Sydney served as a project manager in the State Distilleries Corporation and the National Savings Bank.
In the 1990s he became the senior member of the Wanasinghe and Muttiah publishing "partnership". They embarked on publishing a series of documentary collections: Britain, World War Two and the Samasamajists (1996), and The Bracegirdle Affair (1998, reprinted 2006) etc.
These titles were followed by several volumes of vintage speeches and writings of the LSSP leaders in their glory days. The books were released to mark anniversaries of working class struggles spearheaded by the LSSP, and birth centenaries of the left luminaries. Thanks to their initiative they have ensured that the material they gleaned from the party archives is not forgotten. Sydney was preparing a memoir of his friend Baggy when the end came.
Three months later his close collaborator Wesley Muttiah, after a brief illness passed away in London on 4 August.
Sydney’s remains. were cremated at the General Cemetery, Colombo on 30 April. Orations were delivered by Wimalasiri de Mel, secretary of the LSSP, and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, leader of the Democratic Left Front.
We extend our condolences to his family, comrades and friends.