By Amaradasa Fernando
January 4th marks the 10th anniversary of Edmund Samarakkody's death. He was one of the pioneers of the Left Movement. He came from what one would call a "walauwa" in Panagoda. His elder brother Siripala was a member of the State Council and so was another brother Stephen.
They were bourgeois nationalists, which was the political trend in the early nineteenth century. But young Edmund was to carve a different path for himself. While still a student he joined a young group of intellectual radicals who had returned to the island after finishing their studies in the US and UK in the early thirties.
These young men were S. A. Wickremasinghe, Philip Gunawardene, N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, T. B. Subasinghe and V. Karalasingham etc. Coincidentally all the above named were Anandians, except Colvin who came from Royal, while Edmund came from St. Thomas'. With the advent of the great Russian October Revolution, Philip Gunawardene in particular had been influenced by Marxist and labour movements. Philip was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He had been earlier introduced to the socialist ideology while the others held socialist/nationalist views.
He was introduced to socialism, by Prof. Scott Nearing, an American, when Philip was at Wisconsin, while Harold Laski and Bernard Shaw influenced NM at the London School of Economics when reading for his Ph.D. During the latter part of his stay in Great Britain Philip came to be influenced by the Russian Left Opposition against Stalin led by Leon Trotsky and his Theory of the Permanent Revolution.
Sri Lanka, Ceylon, was a Crown Colony of British Imperialism. World War II, which saw the decline of colonialism, had its impact on India and Ceylon. It was in these heady times that young Edmund was caught up in the nationalist movement. He became a member of the Colombo South Youth league, which was affiliated to the All Ceylon (Youth) Congress. In November 1933 the radical element of the Youth League was associated with the Suriya Mal Movement, which was started as a counter to the Poppy organisation on November 11, which collected money for disabled war veterans of Great Britain.
Instead now the Suriya Mal Movement collected for the war veterans of Ceylon. In the years of the Malaria epidemic of 1934-35 in Ceylon which took a toll of over 100,000 lives, found the Suriya Mal Movement activists led by Drs. N. M. Perera, S. A. Wickremasinghe and Philip Gunawardene who took a leading role in relief work in the Kelani Valley. Thus the Suriya Mal movement saw the beginnings of the anti-imperialist movement in Ceylon, later to become the LSSP, an umbrella organisation for all nationalists, socialists of different hues.
At its founding conference of the LSSP on December 1935 Edmund was elected to its Executive Committee. The more militant socialists in it grew into what was called the "T" group (Trotskyist) led by Philip. They included, NM, Colvin, Leslie Goonewardene, Robert, Vernon Gunasekera, P. H. William Silva and Edmund. There was a split party, one led by the T. Group, who now sided with Leon Trotsky in the International Communist movement, while a group led by Dr. Wicks, M. G. Mendis, P. Kandiah etc., sided with Stalin, who were expelled and were to form the United Socialist Party, later the Ceylon CP.
The LSSP was the first party that stood for complete independence of Ceylon from the British Empire, while even the "father of the nation" D. S. Senanayake stood for "Dominion Status within the Commonwealth". A. E. Goonesinghe was the first to organise both the indigenous and Indian labour in the early 20s. With the appearance of the Colombo South Youth League and later the LSSP posed a challenge to Goonesinghe's, Ceylon Labour Union.
The tea, rubber, DC mills, harbour, the
textile workers were mostly led by Goonesinghe who had got a head start.
The Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills led by the latter with a labour
force of 1,400 strong, 2/3 Malayalam, and 1/3 Sinhalese had led strikes in
1923, 1926 and 1929. In 1933 because of the economic depression, the
workers went on strike in defiance of A.E.G. They walked out in protest
against a drastic cut in wages, besides they asked for a reduction in
working hours from 60 to 54 hours.
The young militants of the Colombo SL then supported the Indian workers, while A.E.G used the Sinhala workers from the Weaving Mills and also from the Harbour as black legs. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, S. A. Wicks, Philip, Leslie and young Edmund who had by now passed out as a lawyer started the Wellawatte Mill Workers Union with Colvin as its President.
His first brush against British interests was when he supported the workers of the M/s Vavaseurs and the Colombo Commercial Company. This was done against the leadership of the Communist Party, which was formed by the Stalinist nucleus within the LSSP, later expelled.
The CP which was in control of the rubber, coconut, tea and the engineering firms had given a 'no strike' pledge, as they were supporting the British war effort, with the Nazi attack on the USSR, were given a free run supported by their managements. While Edmund was arrested along with Leslie Goonewardene for participation in these strikes, Edmund was involved in the wave of plantation struggles of Mooloya and Wevasse.
There was a celebrated case of an Indian
plantation worker Govindan, who was shot dead at Mooloya (Jan 18th) where
Colvin R. de Silva, Jack Kotalawala and Edmund took up the legal defence
of the estate workers. By the end of May the strike enveloped the whole of
Uva like a forest fire. It was this direct clash with the British colonial
interests, where some estate workers for the first time in the working
class history of Ceylon set up "workers councils". In Badulla a
mammoth meeting despite a police ban was held when the British military
government decided that it was time to crack down on these agitators.
Within a week of the fall of France to
the Hitlerite forces the Governor issued detention orders on five leaders
of the LSSP. "The Times of Ceylon" the newspaper of the
plantation Raj, on 19th June 1940 reported the arrest in head lines,
"Red leaders in Welikade jail... three last night another today
...Swift action by the police". N. M. Perera, Philip Gunawardene, and
Colvin R. de Silva were taken into custody on June 19.
Edmund was arrested in Mount Lavinia on
the following day. But Leslie Goonewardene evaded arrest and went
underground. In Welikade and following a hunger strike against poor
conditions, the four detainees were removed to the British military prison
in Bogambara, Kandy, where they planned their future political strategy.
The prisoners with the connivance of a prison guard scooted out of jail to
attend all night party meetings and returned to jail. They even attended a
secret party conference of 42 delegates.
It was Edmund and another comrade who
remained in the cell to cover up their absence of the leaders. On another
occasion an Indian comrade from Benares visited their cell surreptitiously
to plan their escape and their future political strategy in India. On the
night of April 7, 1942, the four prisoners made a daring jail break, along
with the prison guard, Solomon, whom they had won over to their cause.
Philip, NM and Colvin crossed over to India in a "vallam" from
Vellvettithurai, while Edmund stayed behind in the underground to help
build the LSSP.
In India they helped the Indian Troskyists to launch the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, of which the LSSP now became its Ceylon Unit. While BLPI supported the Quit India Movement the Indian CP worked against it.
In 1943 the Indian Police swooped, on the fugitives, betrayed by a Stalinist mole Shukla, deporting Philip, MN, Colvin and Robert, while Doric de Souza, Leslie, V. Karalasingham, Bernard Soysa, Hector Abeyawardhana, Vievienne Goonewardena, and Allan Mendis who had also gone over to India, stayed behind to help build the BLPI. In 1944 Edmund was re-arrested and charged for conspiring against His Majesty's Government and the jail break and had a six months rigorous imprisonment imposed on him.
By the end of the war the LSSP split into two factions - the LSSP led by Philip and NM and the Bolshevik Samasamajaya Party led by Colvin, Leslie, Edmund and Bernard Soysa. In 1950 the parties re-united. They fought the General Election of 1952, and Edmund was elected as member for Dehiovita. In 1960 he represented Bulathsinghala.
In 1953 a group split to toe an SLFP line of not anti-capitalism but anti-UNPism. In 1955 it was Edmund who seconded NM's motion in Parliament to make both Tamil and Sinhala as official languages. The UNP, SLFP, and the VLSSP of Philip had switched from Tamil and Sinhala as Swabhasa languages to one of "Sinhala Only".
The LSSP, (NM, Colvin Leslie) joined in the formation of a Coalition Government with Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike in 1964.
This made Edmund, Meryl Fernando, V. Karalasingham and Bala Tampoe, walk out to launch the LSSP (R) as a Trotskyist Party affiliated to the Fourth International, the Party built by Leon Trotsky after he was sent into exile by Stalin. Before long the LSSP (R) also disintegrated.
Press take over
An important episode in Edmund's life should not be missed. In 1965 he as MP for Dehiovita and Meryl Fernando MP for Moratuwa, being in the LSSP (R) from the Opposition voted with the UNP on the Throne Speech on the specific subject of the take over of the Lake House and the Times Press. The UNP leading the Opposition found these two MPs, along with C. P. de Silva and thirteen others voting with the Opposition. The 13 crossed over to the UNP. The Government of Sirimavo lost by one vote!
Because Edmund was such a purist in politics it often left him isolated. He formed a splinter group, ran a Sinhala weekly and worked among trade unions in the last years of his life.
There was one thing to be said of Edmund through his life. He was honest and steadfast to the cause of revolutionary socialism. He preferred to stick to orthodoxy than compromise one bit and retain his political identity and remain as a small group.
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