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Edmund Samarakkody

T. Perera

JANUARY 4 marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Edmund Samarakkody, a pioneer of the left movement in Sri Lanka. He came from a well-off political family. His father and two of his brothers – Siripala (a member of the State Council in the 1940s) and Stephen (an MP in the 1950s) – belonged to the other end of the political spectrum. While still a student he joined a group of young intellectuals who had returned to the island in the early thirties, having completed their studies abroad where they had been influenced by the Marxist and labour movements. They enthusiastically participated in the radical activities of the newly-formed Youth Leagues. Edmund joined the South Colombo Youth League, an affiliate of the All-Ceylon Youth Congress.

In November 1933 the Youth League radicals initiated a dynamic revival of the Suriya Mal movement, which became a focus of anti-imperialist agitation among the youth. [In opposition to the official Poppy Day sponsored by the British colonial administration, the Youth Leagues sold the local Suriya flower, with the proceeds going to Ceylonese ex-servicemen – ed] During the malaria epidemic in 1934-5 Suriya Mal activists did relief work in the disease-stricken areas where over 100,000 people died. In 1933 a strike at the Wellawatte Weaving and Spinning Mills, the island’s largest textile factory at that time with 1,400 workers (two-thirds of Indian origin and one-third Sinhalese), gave the Youth Leaguers a chance for leadership as well as experience in trade union agitation. Edmund then became a union official at the South Colombo Motor Workers Union.

Meanwhile in the Youth Leagues there grew a nucleus of Marxists who had been influenced by the ideas of the Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky. Edmund soon joined this group, known as the "T" (after Trotsky) group, whose original members were Philip Gunawardena, N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Robert Gunawardena and Vernon Gunasekera. The group gradually expanded and was the precursor of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the island’s first left party. The "T" group shaped the party’s political orientation, culminating in its adherence to the Fourth International in 1941.

Edmund took part in the LSSP’s founding conference on 18 December 1935 and was elected to the party’s executive committee. The party’s aims were complete national independence and socialism. Its first manifesto also declared that among its other objectives were the abolition of inequalities arising from differences of race, caste, creed or sex, and the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Edmund became the party organiser and at the next party conference the membership had risen from 80 to 600 members. The increase was due to the LSSP’s efforts at unionisation.

By the end of 1937 Edmund had played an important role in two strikes – at the Vavasseurs Coconut Mills and at the Colombo Commercial Co. Fertiliser Works. For his role in the latter action he was arrested along with Leslie Goonewardene. In the 1936 State Council elections Edmund campaigned for the LSSP candidate Philip Gunawardena, who was elected to the Avissawela seat. He found himself pitted against his father, who supported the rival candidate, a nominee of the Ceylon National Congress.

When the scene of the struggle for freedom shifted from the urban to rural areas the LSSP led militant plantation strikes. Edmund played a prominent role in the struggle in Uva, and he also defended strikers in court. N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena and Colvin R. de Silva were taken into custody on 18 June 1941. Edmund was arrested in Mount Lavinia on the following day. Leslie Goonewardene evaded arrest and went underground. After two months in Welikada, and following a hunger strike against prison conditions, the four detainees were moved to the British prison at Bogambara, Kandy, where they planned their strategy of defiance.

The prisoners, with the connivance of Ceylonese prison guards, left jail on two occasions for all-night party meetings. They even attended a secret party conference attended by 42 delegates. Edmund remained in the cell to cover up the absence of his comrades. On another occasion an Indian comrade from Benares visited the prisoners in their cell. On the night of 7 April 1942 the four prisoners made a daring jail-break. They escaped along with one of their guards, Solomon, who had been won over to the cause. Except for Edmund who stayed in the island to work in the underground, Philip, N.M. and Colvin crossed over to India in fishing boats from Velvettiturai. In 1944 Edmund was re-arrested, charged with escaping jail and sentenced to six months’ rigorous imprisonment.

By the end of the war the party had split into two rival Samasamaja sections – the LSSP led by Philip and N.M. and the Bolshevik Samasamaja Party led by Colvin, to which Edmund belonged. In 1950 the two groups reunited as the LSSP. In the 1952 elections Edmund became LSSP MP for Dehiowita. In 1960 he represented Bulathsinghala. In the early 1950s he also engaged himself in local government politics as a councillor in the Mount Lavinia Urban Council. In 1955 Edmund seconded Dr. Perera’s motion in parliament for the declaration of both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages.

In June 1964, when the LSSP formed a coalition with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s government, less than a quarter of the party split to found the LSSP (Revolutionary). For the first time a "Trotskyist" party had entered a capitalist government. The breakaway group included 14 central committee members and two MPs – Meryl Fernando and Edmund. It consisted of several disparate groups with conflicting aims. [Because of this, over the following years the LSSP(R) fragmented, with the tendency led by Edmund forming the Revolutionary Workers Party – ed.]

An English comrade in an obituary tribute said: "Edmund throughout his life had championed the rights of the Tamil minority. When the Tamil struggle escalated from one for equal rights to one of secession, he supported the right of an independent Tamil State while continuing to advocate working class unity." Although he was not able to build the Revolutionary Workers Party into a significant force, Edmund remained to the last a man of political principle.

This article first appeared in the Ceylon Daily News of 6 January 1997.