Charlie Edirisuriya 'Rhino' of Ruhuna
The 103rd Birth Anniversary of late Mr. Charlie Edirisuriya fell on 10th of August. We knew him and spoke about him as a man with a heart overflowing with humanity, as an excellent pioneer in the field of agriculture rarely found in a country, and as an ardent rebel in the sphere of politics.
It was he who in the 1930's introduced the first rice mill into Sri-Lanka and became famous among the people of Giruwa Pattu as 'Mole Mahattaya' (Mr. Mill). Thereby he opened up a new path in the field in agriculture. He also pioneered the building up of Badagiri Peasant Settlement Project and eliminated the peasants fear of the then White Rulers. He who was an extremely wealthy person died as a pauper as a result of his honest politics. He represented the Hambantota and Tissamaharamaya seats in the Sri Lanka Parliament. As a result of his devoted service to the common people he was eulogised as the 'Rhino' of Ruhuna. He was Charles Francis Warnakula Edirisuriya, former MP and a great son of Ruhuna.
Charles Edirisuriya was born on 10th of August 1895 at Hathagala, Ambalantota. He was the 2nd son of Jakolis Warnakula Edirisuriya a prominent planter and a very wealthy person who held the post of Vidana Arachchi of Pahala Kanuketiya and of Madam Amadoru Jayawardena. He was educated at Richmond College, Galle.
He grew up to be a kind and courageous young man following in the footsteps of his father, serving and fulfilling the needs of poor peasants and fisherfolks of the area. He was highly motivated by nationalist sentiments. His father's sole wish was to direct him along the path of service to the people. Therefore, young Edirisuriya bade farewell to further education and embarked on the road of service to the people while engaged in the agricultural activities of his father.
As his income from plantation activities increased more and more, he became more and more involved in public service. People in Ruhuna had been devastated due to foreign domination and epidemics such as Malaria and Cholera and young Charlie who dedicated himself to social service at an early age with purpose of uplifting the people's lives, activated the innocent peasantry of Ruhuna to restore ruined tanks and irrigation works and to repair highways. He set up in every village irrigation committees, agricultural committees and fishermen's committees. He took the lead; in their activities and played a leading role, exhorted them to increase paddy and fish productions.
During this time the white (Colonial) Government Agents and Revenue Officers were enforcing their rule by terrorising the peasantry and the fisherfolk. Charlie Edirisuriya who came forward to instil courage in peasants who were frightened took the lead in fighting against the White Government Agents against injustice and oppression. He attacked these White Rulers in the presence of peasants and chased them away there by removing the fear the peasants had. Even today peasants of Ruhuna remember him with gratitude and respect for his struggles on behalf of the chena cultivators who were not allowed to engage in chena cultivation and to winning for them the freedom to do so.
Charlie Edirisuriya who was an active member of the Ceylon National Congress later became a member of the United National Party. He started his political life in rural politics and became chairman of the Kanuketiya village council. From there he proceeded to contest all Parliamentary elections from 1947 to 1970. In the 1st Parliamentary general election of 1947 he contested the Hambantota seat and if not for advocate G. K. W. Perera who polled thousand odd votes, he would have won the seat and directed the political history of Ruhuna on a different path. Lakshman Rajapaksa won the seat with a slim majority of 400 votes. In the 1952 General elections he won the Hambantota seat with a majority of 4000 votes but he lost in 1956. In 1965 he contested the Tissamaharama seat as a SLFP candidate and was elected. But in August 1965 he resigned from the SLFP and joined the UNP government Parliamentary group. In the special speech he made at his crossover he said that he is an old man now and that his whole desire was to serve the peasants and fisherfolk of Ruhuna and that with the intention of rendering his services to the peasants of Ruhuna, he was joining the UNP where he started his political life. He however refused to accept the post of Deputy Minister of Agriculture which he was offered. While serving as the Chairman of the Tangalle Urban Council, he rendered unforgettable service to that area. It was he who fulfilled a long standing vital need of Tangalle by inaugurating the Tangalle Urban Housing scheme.
Charlie Edirisuriya's dominant political dream was to provide irrigated water to Ruhuna by means of the Walawe Project. He appealed to then Prime Minister late Mr. Dudley Senanayake then Minister of Agriculture and late Mr. Bulankulama to implement the Walawe Scheme and he threatened that if it was not done he would cut his throat and jump into the Walawe river.
This was a historic incident that shook parliament. He was a courageous and an outspoken person and what even he had to say he said to a person's face. Fortunately he could within his life time see his dream being realised and Uda Walawe Scheme was implemented. The Badagiri Project too was the result of his endeavours.
Charlie Edirisuriya was not only outspoken, but a brave and an upright man did not hesitate to attack when attack was called for. In the political arena he was second in courage only to late Sir John Kotelawala the late premier. In the contest for premiership between Dudley and Sir John, the task of bringing about peace between the two devolved on Charlie Edirisuriya 'Rhino' of Ruhuna. The dispute was amicably settled and the main reason for it was the intimate friendship between Charlie and Sir John.
In 1967 during the controversy about the regional council proposals which created a stir in the country, it was Hathagala, Charlie who led the fight against the proposal. Ministers and M.P.'s were reluctant to speak against late Mr. Dudley Senanayake in his presence. However, one day when late Mr. Tiruchelvam Minister of Local Government at that time and Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake were having confidential discussions at "Woodlands" Charlie happened to go there by accident. In the skirmish that followed Charlie slapped Tiruchelvam a number of times, showing Tiruchelvam the might of Ruhuna. Even Dudley was frightened to get near Charlie. Dudley shouted" stop that Charlie this is my house! "Promptly Charlie retorted "No Sir, this not you house. This is our D. S. Sir's house." Dudley did not say anything further. That was the end of the regional council proposal. This is an era where we need people like Sir John, D. S., Philip, D. M. etc. That is the need of the hour.
It is an exaggerated claim if anyone says that someone who knew about the irrigation need of Giruwa Pattu better than Charlie. He had such an expert knowledge of the irrigation problems of the district and that there was no canal, sluice or bund which he did not personally know about. His sole objective was to guarantee the welfare of the peasants and fisherfolk of Ruhuna. Making the peasants and fisherfolk healthy and prosperous and restoring the ancient glory of Ruhuna was also the dream of late Mr. D. M. Rajapaksa, the "Lion of Giruwaya"
Both these were leaders who sacrifice the immense wealth they inherited, for political causes. It is a challenge for the present day politician of Ruhuna.
Charlie Edirisuriya who sacrifice the enormous wealth, he inherited from his father this supreme philanthropist who at the end became a pauper, departed from us for ever twelve years ago on the second of July 1986, but his services to the people in the sphere of agriculture and social welfare is immaculate and everlasting. He will remembered eternally.