Remembering Thomas Amarasuriya on his 100th birth anniversary - SO Jun 17 2007
Thomas Amarasuriya was born on the 17th June 1907 to Henry Mahendrapala de Silva Amarasuriya and Caroline de Silva Amarasuriya of "Amaragiri Walauwa," Unawatuna, Galle. Thomas who was named after his paternal grandfather Muhandiram Thomas de Silva Amarasuriya was often addressed affectionately as "Tom" by family and friends. His grandfather and father were renowned landed proprietors and planters who owned vast acres of tea, rubber and coconut in the Southern Province.
Young Thomas was educated first at Mahinda College, Galle, founded by his grandfather, and later joined Ananda College. At Ananda he played soccer and tennis for the school and was a leading light in the debating team. After completing his secondary education in 1926 he proceeded to England to pursue his further education. He followed a special course in Agriculture at Wye College in Kent. On his return in 1928 he with his brother Henry took charge of the extensive plantations of his parents.
The year 1932 was a landmark year in his life as he married his life partner Lucille Gwendoleen Lois, the daughter of the well known Buddhist leader of Moratuwa, Mr. M. J. C. Fernando. This was significant as Moratuwa was the electorate he nursed and won to enter the State Council in later years. From 1932 he took to politics and was elected to the Galle Municipal Council which he served for 10 years. During this period he was instrumental in moving for the establishment in 1939 of a Vagrants Home in Galle. He was a member of the Executive Committee of the Ceylonese Merchants Chamber and of the Lanka Mahajana Sabha. He was a Member of the board of management of the Galle Industrial Institute and the President of the YMBA and also a member of the Friend-in-Need Society, Galle.
In 1942 at the by-election held for the Moratuwa constituency in the State Council to fill the vacancy created by the death of W. A. de Silva, he was victorious. During his tenure as State Councillor he represented the State Council in the University Court, Board of Management of the Rubber Research Scheme and the Council Research Scheme.
He did much to improve his electorate Moratuwa, was responsible for getting funds for the acquisition for extensions to the Princess Louise Hospital in Lunawa, Amarasuriya was the Vice President of the Moratuwa Maha Jana Sabha, member of the Conciliation Board, Moratuwa Friend-in-Need Society and the Society which administered the Home for the Aged.
He was unanimously elected the President of the Sri Lanka Bauddha Samithiya in succession to his father-in-law, the late Mr. M. J. C. Fernando who was the founder president. He held this office for seventeen years during which he contributed largely towards the funds of the society and Moratu Vidyalaya. He was also a great benefactor to students in Moratuwa by awarding scholarships for University education to deserving students.
In 1947 he contested the Moratuwa electorate again but was unsuccessful. In 1953 he was elected a member of the Senate. His election to this seat in the Upper House fulfilled the concept of the Soulbury Commission had regarding the calibre of the individuals who were most suitable to occupy the Upper House.
To quote Soulbury "There are in Ceylon as in other countries a number of eminent individuals of high intellectual attainment and wide experience of affairs who are a verse to entering political life through hurly burley for a parliamentary election.
It would be advantageous to the country to get the services of such men and women who can express their views freely and frankly without feeling themselves constrained to consider possible repercussion upon their electoral prospects."
In 1953 Senator Amarasuriya was conferred Membership of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) in recognition of his services to the country.
Earlier a member of the UNP Senator Amarasuriya resigned from that party in 1959 following disagreement on the party stand on the Public Security (Amendment) Bill and joined the SLFP and late Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. On the 5th November 1963 he was unanimously elected President of the Senate which post he held till his retirement in 1965.
With his sound business knowledge and his ability to speak up especially on matters pertaining to the planting industry which is the mainstay of the country Senator Thomas Amarasuriya made a valuable contribution to the Upper House.
Despite his varied social and political activities his great interest in the plantation industry was recognised.
He became the Chairman of the L. C. P. A. in 1948 and was the first to hold that post for three years. He was elected chairman of the Coconut Board in 1950 and in 1951 was the Ceylonese to be appointed Chairman of the Tea Propaganda Board succeeding Singleton Salmon.
In 1956 the Planters Association of Ceylon broke a 102-year-old tradition to elect Senator Thomas Amarasuriya as the first Ceylonese Chairman.
It was not merely paying pooja to the principle of Ceylonisation but by giving recognition to one of the ablest of planters among the sons of the soil. Modesty was one of Amarasuriya characteristics. Thus when he was elected Chairman he said.
"I feel greatly honoured by your electing me as your Chairman.... I realize that in doing so a great compliment has been paid to Ceylon planters. I deeply appreciate the fine spirit displayed by the European community. Election as the Chairman of the Planters Association was not the only brilliant "first" scored by Amarasuriya. He was also the first Ceylonese to be elected as Chairman of the Tea Propaganda Board (1951-52).
Among the other posts of great responsibility filled by him in the planting world are chairman of the Southern Planters Association - he occupied this post for three years in succession - an unprecedented achievement - and member of the Central Board of Agriculture. He was also the Chairman of the Coconut Board extending over a period of fifteen years.
In the field of social service his first interest was in the Discharged Prisoners Association for a very long period. He has pleaded for the reclaiming of the prisoner and making him a useful member of society and giving them employment to have the means to support themselves honestly.
Buddhist activities were a family tradition and movements for promoting the propaganda of Buddhism and Buddhist education always received his unstinted support. He was an active member of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress and the YMBA and the Buddhist Theosophical Society, the latter of which he was a Vice President at the time of his death. He was an enthusiastic and loyal member of the Ananda College OBA.
Being a member of one of the most philanthropic families of the Southern Province, he together with his three brothers Henry, Francis and Buddhadasa gifted their ancestral home "Amaragiri Walauwa" in 1967 to the State to be used as a Training College for Women Teachers. Building schools and contributing to the educational and upliftment of our society was always foremost in their minds. This gift was the culmination of their inborn desire and almost obsession.
Up to now hundreds of women teachers have walked out of the portals of this institute and many hundreds more will walk out in the future to impart their knowledge to unborn generations in the future too. Being a man of varied interests Thomas Amarasuriya was an active member of the Rotary Club of Colombo and served a term as its President too. He was a long standing member of the Colombo Turf Club and the Galle, Gymkhana Club.
He led a happy family life with his wife Lucille who always supported him in all his activities.
He had five daughters and three sons. He passed away peacefully after a brief illness on 5th May 1979 at the age of 72.
It would be appropriate to end this article with a quotation from the late President Premadasa's speech.
He made a tribute to the late Mr. Amarasuriya when parliament passed a vote of condolence on his death on 22nd May 1979. "The late Mr. Amarasuriya has been linked with politics from the days of the National Congress. He was a member of the UNP for sometime but later left it. Yet he did not break off old friendships with the UNP. He continued the great work for which the Amarasuriya family stood. In politics he had no malice which was a rare trait.