ABHAYA GAMINI PERERA "TARZIE" VITTACHI was born in Colombo, Ceylon, on
September 23, 1921. His parents, both teachers, taught their precocious son
early to read, write, question and think for himself. Upon completion of
primary and secondary schooling at Ananda College in Colombo, the premier
Buddhist college in Ceylon, he entered the University of Ceylon where he
earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics with a minor in political
science in 1944.
Employed as principal of a provincial school at the age of 23, VITTACHI,
after four years, sought greater challenge for his restless energy and
curiosity in an entirely different work. By his own account of the next two
years as Assistant Accountant in the Bank of Ceylon, "every day was a new
death"—he "could not imagine a life of checking debits-credits,
debits-credits and guarding other peoples' money." Already considered too
rebellious to be a good banker, publication by Sight and Sound, the
prestigious official journal of the British Film Institute, of a piece by
VITTACHI on "Cinema in Ceylon" convinced Bank management he was not cut out
for banking. "Me, too," he has said.
In 1950, VITTACHI "on an impulse" joined the Ceylon Daily News as Assistant
Editor. Soon advanced to News Editor, he also began to make a national
reputation as the author of two popular columns. One, entitled "Cursory
Glances," exposed graft, nepotism and maladministration in the Government.
The other, called "Bouquets and Brickbats," is until today the most widely
read satire on Ceylon's social and political moves.
In the third year of his journalistic career, VITTACHI was "exiled," as he
puts it, to the U.K. as London Editor for the Associated Newspapers of
Ceylon, Ltd. "because my criticisms of the Government of the day were
striking too near the bone." "Forgiven" and recalled two years later, in
1952, to be Editor of the Ceylon Observer, he became at 32 the youngest
Editor ever appointed to the oldest newspaper in Asia (founded in 1834).
A vigorous "new broom," VITTACHI made immediate changes in content, format
and style so that the Observer, described by him as "a stodgy journal
playing second fiddle to the other dailies," soon became a political force
in the country.
As an editor, VITTACHI has shown a keen perception in gauging maneuvers in
Ceylonese politics and government. He is respected for his courage by those
who agree with him as well as those who do not. His relentless exposure of
corruption has effectively helped defeat legislation by some leaders to
secure power for themselves without regard for the integrity of the
parliamentary process. Politicians know and some fear the barb of his
satirical wit expressed most regularly in his daily editorial printed on
column one of page one. Of the author of this trenchant political critique
of Ceylon affairs a former Prime Minister publicly said: " VITTACHI is like
one of those Air Force chaps. He has brought down 10 enemy planes all
chalked up to his credit. Who knows? Mine may be the next." And it was.
Sensing dire consequences from their manipulations, VITTACHI was the most
persistent critic of politicians who exploited race and religious
animosities to maintain themselves in power. His book, Emergency '58, is a
blunt, non-partisan account of the resulting 1958 communal riots in Ceylon.
Published in London, it became the biggest best seller in Ceylon's history.
This reporter's report, written while the memory was fresh, though the
problems were no less explosive and the same government was still in power,
serves as a reminder to the Ceylonese people of the hatreds and violence
that can erode their country when communal emotions are aroused.
Aside from its worth as a record, the value of VITTACHI’s reportage on the
communal problem rests in the case he makes for practical reason in dealing
with the old prejudices, legitimate aspirations and new fears that have
motivated and continue to divide Ceylonese society. With his book he has
cogently placed before the English-educated Sinhalese the points of view of
the Sinhalese-educated class and the Tamil community and the meaning of
VITTACHI describes the divisions that have existed in Ceylon of race,
language, caste and sub-caste, between highland and lowland dwellers,
religions and sects of religions, and between an English-educated upper
middle class and a Sinhalese-educated lower middle class. These underlying
causes of the 1958 riots stemming from deep in the island's history were
brought to the surface by a general fear of insecurity that affected all
communities in a new nation not yet developing at a pace rapid enough to
provide the opportunity and production needed by an expanding population.
He points out that, because there was a multiplicity of political parties
during the outbreak, no single party was in power nor did the elected
umbrella organization have enough total support to provide firm national
leadership. Emphasizing that power in Ceylon is still determined largely by
such factors as personality, ad hoc events and religion, Emergency '58 is an
appeal to the leaders of all communities and at all levels to accept the
extra responsibility that should be theirs.
" . . . Ceylon is now afflicted by a general malaise which no one can escape
sensing," the author says. "The racial and religious tolerance which
leavened our relationships has been sacrificed for political expediency.
Increasing poverty and unemployment have brought the people to the brink of
communism. The next outbreak of violence may not be racial or even
religious. During the latter days of the 1958 riots, the attack was directed
noticeably against Government officials and the middle class . . . Unless
the Government is able to open up new avenues for employment, increase the
productivity of the island quickly and effectively, maintain law and order
without succumbing to sectional and separatist demands . . . it is likely
that Ceylon's system of parliamentary democracy will be thrown away for
something more 'efficient' and ruthless."
"There was one good result," the author adds, " . . . people who had taken
the benefits of democracy for granted because they had been given democratic
forms and privileges without their ever having to fight for them began to
learn and to value consciously what they had lost . . ."
VITTACHI concludes with an admonition against abuse of the rule of law: " .
. . it was vital for the peace and order of the country, especially in times
of rapid social change, to preserve and strengthen the rule of law and the
authority of the officers who enforce the law. This salutary rule was
ignored and even spurned in the extravagant mood of enthusiasm in which the
Government tried to meet the massive problems that challenged its
capabilities . . . The terror and the hate that the people of Ceylon
experienced in May and June 1958 were the outcome of that fundamental error
. . ."
The Ceylonese were left, he says, with "some grim lessons . . . we cannot
afford to forget . . ."
VITTACHI and his wife, the former Sunetra da Silva, have three children.
Deeply concerned by the political excesses committed in Ceylon in the course
of transition from a state of colonialism to independence, he says:
"Journalism is my trade. Politics is my field. But religion is my life." The
VITTACHIs are members of the Subud spiritual movement which was founded by
Mohammad Subah in Indonesia and now has adherents in 40 countries around the
Vittachi, Tarzie. Emergency '58. London, Andre Deutsch, 1958.
Clippings from the Ceylon press.
Interviews with persons in Ceylon.