26 March, 2023

Admitting the impossibility of summarising into a short article of this nature, to give an all round portrayal reflecting the greatness of an outstanding personality like the late Philip Gunewardena , I chose to revisit an old write up by me sometime ago, justifying how the references made then apply to the contemporary situations we are facing today.

I trust the readers will understand by this short account the greatness of some characters that lived in our societies, the significance of their doctrines and the importance of the struggles launched by them amidst threats to their lives as pioneering political fighters in history.

Through these reminiscences we see how they chose to serve the motherland in their multiple role plays as thinkers with clear moral purity, truthfulness, acting in resolute with courage and determination to serve their fellow beings. It will not be out of context to recall the events unfolding today with a sense of grief and frustration when we take a glimpse into the future seeing what challenges and opportunities lie ahead of us mishandled by novices.

Today we commemorate the 51st Death anniversary of Don Philip Rupasinghe Gunawardena, a name written down in golden letters in the History of Sri Lanka.

His unrivalled excelling role as a true representative of the masses shining so bright above all was a true beacon throwing light meaning progress for the future of the country in every sense. And we recall his innovative visionary and his analytical approaches to serve the oppressed always standing for truth and fairness detesting injustice at any cost.

Self-less commitments

A heroic son of the soil Like Philip should be honoured by reflecting upon the devotions, sacrifices and self-less commitments with which he stood up with others to serve the fellow beings in a true humanitarian spirit. He was born on 11th January 1901 as the fourth son in a family of 8 children, in the famous Boralugoda family of Don Jaccolis Rupasinghe Gunawardena and Dona Liyanora Gunesekera. Philip Gunawardena had his schooling starting from Awissawella and continued later in Prince of Wales College (Moratuwa), Ananda College (Colombo) before entering the University of Colombo. Without completing his his higher education in Sri Lanka, he travelled to the United States to study Economics at the University of Illinois.

His born qualities for entering politics and getting involved in radical political activities emerged during the University days and became an activist of the anti-imperialist League of USA where he played an active role as an agitating under graduate among those protesting against the colonial regimes.

His cosmopolitan political involvements pioneering as the most outstanding rebel among the International Students came to peak with his moving into UK, where he got the opportunity of associating with personalities who later became renowned world leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan and Krishna Menon all from India, and Jomo Kenytta of Kenya, Jose Vasconcelos of Mexico and many others of international fame and reputation from many parts of the world as contemporaries. He excelled among his colleagues and generally in the radical political movements active in those days as an orator, trade unionist and as a writer who also contributed as a political columnist in UK. What we recall today in reminiscence is the activities of a great son of Sri Lanka who Played a dominant role in the World Politics that gave rise and formed the nucleus to many National Independent Movements in many parts of Globe.

Radical political movement

Before he took to give leadership to Sri Lankan politics he encountered the other luminaries in the annals of local political scenario such as, Dr. N.M. Perera, Dr. Colvin R de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene and Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe during his sojourn in England. It is with them that he commenced his radical political movement in Sri Lanka later. He started the first leftist Political party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1935 with many of these colleagues which was a milestone in the rebellious movement against Imperialism and Colonialism.

Philip has faced many political whirlwinds than any of the well known political leaders in this country. He was out spoken, forthright and more than anything else a daring fearless character because of which he came to be known as the Boralugoda Lion. And a fitting tribute it was for a man like Philip who did not care to shed his cloaks of honor for the sake of truthfulness.

It is very rare to come across personalities of this calibre in politics. Positions was not what Philip was after. He had a mindset to serve the oppressed.

He has made sacrifices second to none during his journey to achieve this objective. In his illustrious career there are many instances which exhibit this great quality.

In the 1930s while he was in UK, his passport was impounded by the British Government for the alleged offence of socialist work and anti-imperialist activities. He was allowed to depart only after the Intervention of Sir D.B. Jayatilleke making representations to the highest authorities.

In 1940, following the banning of the LSSP Philip was imprisoned by the Colonial Government with other leaders of the Party and his rebellious brother Robert Gunawardena. After a jail break in 1942, he fled to India. It is also reported that his presence in India became known due to his partaking in the activities involved in India’s Independence Movement to be arrested there.

His life was not a bed of roses only because he chose to fight for the sake of the others. Born to an affluent family, educated in achieving high standards, what he chose to do was to forget all those in renunciation and stand on his ideological grounds sans the benefits and facilities he was bestowed with.


The political events and history associated with him is too long to narrate. But it would suffice to state that even after he became an elected representative of the people of Sri Lanka, by getting elected to the First parliament in 1947, he continued his struggle for the rights of workers, and got expelled from the parliament for his involvement in the famous 1947 general Strike losing his Awissawella seat as well as his Civic rights for seven long years.

Philip Gunawardena was a visionary of the period during which he got involved in Sri Lanka politics. He always took a lead in the elimination of poverty and emancipation of poor farmers who had become slaves of the land owners. His Paddy lands Act freed the Ande farmers and provided them the consolation and the pride of working in the paddy fields as co-owners and not as slaves of the masters. He loved to develop the Co-operative movement which indirectly served as the source of unity at the village level in their collective efforts to improve their life conditions. His long acquaintance with India provided the impetus for him to promote the Co-operative movement here and did it in the most innovative manner by setting up and introducing the Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society system. These MPCSs became the central distributing and supply agency at the village level inculcating a self- managed development culture to our village society.

He expanded the system to Cooperative Banks and his vision culminated in the formation of Cooperative Federal banks and later to the formation of the People’s Bank.

Serving as a cabinet minister in the SWRD, MEP government he was instrumental in the establishment of the Transport Board, Nationalisation of the Harbor and laying the foundation for the formation of the Insurance Corporation and the People’s Bank. The establishment of the People’s Bank which is serving today as a leading State Bank is a move that should be remembered by all including the future generation. When he became the Industries and Fisheries Minister in a subsequent national Government he introduced many novel concepts like the Industrial development Board, Sate Industrial Corporation as well as the private sector industries.

The importance of Commemorating personalities like Philip Gunawardena lies in the focus it produces in the minds of the new generations not used to great political cultures and eternally exposed instead, to a culture of politics of survival. In the context of what we witness today, as basic elements of politics voiced often as pilferage, fraud, corruption, accumulation of wealth, nepotism and a host of other allegations and accusations, these reminiscences of sacrifices and the backgrounds of great personalities who had come forward to serve the masses, gives us a consolation in a way that at least our history is rich of such characters.

As a schoolboy I remember the shrieking voice of Philip Gunawardena speaking at public rallies gesticulating with his raised fist shaking his head making his hair shrivel encouraging and prompting our minds to wake up and stand for justice with no fuss or fear. A great man he was in every sense making us to ponder over the values we have lost.

Let this be a tribute to him on this death anniversary.

- The writer is a retired Bank Employee of the People’s Bank, One time Chairman of the Board of Directors of the BOC and National Gem and Jewellery Authority.