By Dr. Lloyd Fernando

D.E.W. Gunasekera is the longest-serving political leader – 60 years to be precise. Dudley Senanayake served 37 years; J.R Jayewardene 50 years; Sirimavo Bandaranaike 40 years; Dr. N.M. Perera 46 years; Dr. Colvin R. de Silva 56 years; Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe 50 years; and Pieter Keuneman 57 years. 

A distinguished Norwegian friend after a brief chat with D.E.W. asked me – how would you characterise D.E.W.? My immediate reaction was that he is a professional communist. He said he understood who a communist is but why add ‘professional’ to it? The answer was simple. He does not rely on rhetoric; he is analytical and is factual.

D.E.W. had an academic foundation, starting at Sri Jayewardenepura University and has been on a learning curve ever since. His professional career started at the Inland Revenue Department through which he had the privilege of interacting with intellectual giants like Baku Mahadeva, S. Sittampalam, C. Sivaprakasan, Shirley Amerasinghe and Hugh Molagoda, to name a few. He served under three distinguished Finance Ministers: Felix Dias Bandaranaike, T.B. Illangaratne and Dr. N.M. Perera.

His intellectual capacity was duly recognised also by his colleagues who appointed him Secretary of the Buddhist Association, Literary Association, Recreation Club and most importantly, the Trade Union. That gave him the opportunity to enhance his inter personal skills and leadership qualities, The Trade Union became a vibrant organisation under his leadership giving him an opportunity to develop negotiation skills.

The Inland Revenue Department also gave D.E.W. the opportunity to learn, in particular, tax laws, tax structures and systems as well as financial analysis and how to examine profit and loss accounts

It was during this period that he joined the Communist Party as a candidate member for two years. The Communist Party strictly followed a policy, particularly where young recruits were concerned, of putting them through a rigorous program of Marxist logic. This is how I got the opportunity of meeting D.E.W. 

We both attended N. Shanmugathasan’s class at the CTUF (Ceylon Trade Union Federation). Shan taught political philosophy. D.E.W. remembers to this date the first lesson on democracy. Shan asked the class, what is democracy? I referred to Abraham Lincoln’s famous definition, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”; Shan paused for a while and asked, “Which people?” That was the first lesson in class analysis.

Communist Party classes were not confined to Shanmugathasan; P. Kandiah conducted a rigorous course in political economy. There were also random lessons by other stalwarts like Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, Pieter Keuneman, and Premalal Kumarasiri. Party cadre were encouraged to write for the party organs – ‘Forward’ and ‘Mawbima’. This provided good training in marshalling thoughts and systematically putting down on paper.

The biggest jump in D.E.W.’s learning curve came with his appointment as Private Secretary to Pieter Keuneman who was Minister of Housing and Construction in 1970. D.E.W. had to give up a promising public service career, joining Pieter. But there were no regrets as the daily routine was an opportunity to learn something new. 

However, the most important training opportunity came when called upon to translate letters and documents. Precision of thought and language were essential requirements of good translation. D.E.W. also provided regular articles for the party organs and the ‘Daily Áththa,’ in particular.

When D.E.W. was appointed Minister of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration in May 2004 he was already equipped with knowledge of public administration. He was made Minister of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms in April 2010 and continued in that position till November 2010 when he was appointed Senior Minister of Human Resource Development. By that time he had become an ardent advocate of public administration reforms. But his overarching position in charge of human resource development, though without a cabinet portfolio, prompted him to look at the broader canvas.

D.E.W. became a champion of human resource development as a strategic issue of progress in an increasingly globalised world. Thus, at the launch of the National Human Resources and Employment Policy, which was organised under his patronage, he issued the following statement: “The real value of a country is found in its human capital and not in its fixed assets. The quality of life of the people living in a country makes the difference between an advanced economy and a poor economy. The ideas and capabilities are the key sources of wealth and opportunities. Hence we should invest in our human resources and enhance their knowledge, skills, creativity and productivity.”

Touching on the fundamental problem of exploring and winning new export markets he said: “Our policy and planning framework on human capital should be responsive to the present demand in the global market. We need to explore new market opportunities and prepare plans to create new employment opportunities for all levels of our people so that every Sri Lankan can contribute to economic development of the country while enjoying a decent standard of living.”

What happened to the National Human Resources and Employment Policy, the product of a wonderful effort of collaboration involving various government institutions, academia and the business community, organised under D.E.W.’s guidance, is now history. There were efforts to revive it and put it into an implementation plan, after change of government in 2015, but without success since the Finance Ministry and the Policy Planning Ministry showed no enthusiasm 

D.E.W. remained a member of parliament only till August 2015. It was during this period he served as chairman of COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) investigating the Central Bank Bond Scam. A wonderful effort displaying prowess at interpreting statistics, Central Bank procedures and public accounts and above all capacity to handle a volatile political discussion, came to nothing with the dissolution of Parliament blocking the submission of the report.

It is unfortunate, from the country’s point of view, that some of D.E.W.’s highly-competent, best efforts are yet to yield the desired results. D.E.W. has been trying hard to promote a consensus of ‘left wing ‘parties opposed to the UNP neo-liberal economic policies and subservience to the West, particularly the US.  Left politics in this regard have been confined to criticism based on rhetoric. What is necessary is to spell out an alternative strategy of development. Days when left wing parties could turn to the Soviet Union, China and other socialist countries for development models are over. What is required is a combination of market efficiency with social justice, based on the principles of good governance, sans rhetoric.

Etc- :The Island