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Rienzi Algama’s plea by fire

Supreme sacrifice for a political cause

By Denagama Dhammika Ranaweera

What is the party’s need of the hour? Reforms or the unity of the members? He posed this question in a letter addressed to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on July 26. He took his life by setting himself ablaze a few hours later without waiting for a reply.
Rienzi Algama’s death by self-immolation that sent shock waves through the country, has become a main talking point in the country today, mainly because he is considered the first person to have `sacrificed ‘ his life for the cause of a political party in this country.

Born and bred in Deraniyagala, Rienzi Algama took up residence in Ranamadhiragama in Weligama after his marriage to young Nanda Algama of this village. The couple was blessed with three children, two daughters and one son. Ishanka Thushari, 24, the elder daughter is married and is now settled down in the Kurunegala area. Younger daughter Imalsha Manori, 16, is a student of Ibbawela Maha Vidyalaya in Weligama, A bright student, she is a school prefect. The only son and the second child in the family, Isuru Chameera, 22, is employed in a private firm.

Attracted to politics at a young age
Rienzi Algama was not a politician. But he was more politics-minded than anyone who has made politics his career. And his act of self-immolation demonstrates that he loved his party, the UNP more than his own life. UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya says that the name of Rienzi Algama would go down into the political history of the party in letters of gold.
Rienzi had developed ties with the UNP when he was still a teenager. He was a great admirer of then party leader the late Dudley Senanayake. He had later become a close associate of the late Vijaya Kumaratunga and worked briefly for the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party. However, he had returned to the UNP fold when the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa became the party leader.

Settles down in Weligama
After his marriage, Rienzi had lived several years at Ranamadhuragama, the village of his wife. Ven. Andugoda Somalankara Thera, Viharadhipati, a close friend of Rienzi said: “Algama Mahattaya did much spadework for setting up the Ranamadhutagama Housing Scheme. People in this area enjoy electricity today thanks to the efforts of Algama Mahattataya. Although he was a UNP member, he maintained cordial relations with all irrespective of political and other differences. He was very courteous and treated all with respect. He would address anyone respectfully as “Obathuma”. Politics was his favourite subject. Everyone respected him as a sincere village leader.”

A target of `Deshapremi’ hit squads
He was a target of hit squads of ‘Deshapremi’ cadres during the 1988-89 insurrection. He had been warned by the `patriots’ not to engage in political activity. However, death threats could not distance Rienzi from the political party he loved.
At elections, Rienzi Algama would work for the victory of the UNP with a new burst of energy. His residence also would take the appearance of a party office, where not only party activists, but local leaders too would gather to discuss and plan electioneering.

Sabaragamuwa PC election
His political activity was not confined to Weligama area. At the last election to the Sabaragamuwa PC, Rienzi was thick in the electioneering for the victory of actor-turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake. He worked tirelessly for the party with unfailing commitment expecting no favour from the party. Whenever the party suffered an electoral defeat, he underwent excruciating pain of mind.
The UNP had appointed Rienzi Algama as a co-coordinating officer at the Sirikotha party headquarters in recognition of his loyalty and the great contribution towards the party. He derived more satisfaction from being able to be close to the party machinery than from the pay he received.

Politics based on principles
Rienzi Algama believed in politics based on principles. He never peddled his political influence for personal gain. He did not use his position even to secure jobs for his children. He hoped against hope for a UNP victory when the party was suffering defeat at successive elections. Initially, he was following with equanimity the moves towards carrying out reforms in the party. However, he believed that the unity among the leaders and the rank and file was more urgent than party proposed party reforms. While a dialogue on party reforms was gathering momentum, Rienzi still thought that he was representing the viewpoint of the majority that the unity was the most urgent need of the hour. He obviously sacrificed his life to press his viewpoint.

Fateful day
Rienzi left home early in the morning on July 26, after telling the family members that he intended visiting Weligama. Just before leaving home, the inmates had heard Rienzi conversing with someone over the phone. They had overheard him concluding the conversation saying, “Hondai ada bala gamu!” (Well, let us reach some finality today!)
Addressing the media at Colombo National hospital, Rienzi’s wife Nanda Algama said:” For the last few days, Mahattaya (husband) had been meeting the party MPs in Colombo. He did not want anyone to berate party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He always tried to ward off a possible split in the party. He was in a state of melancholy during his final days.”

At party headquarters
Although Rienzi told the family members that he was going to Weligama, he had really gone to Sirikotha headquarters. Until 5 in the evening, Rienzi was in touch with several intimates over the phone. His elder daughter, son and UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya were among them. He had told them all: ”I am going to say `farewell’ to politics”. But he had not told anyone that he was going to say adieu to life itself.

Daughter recalls
Rienzi’s elder daughter Ishanka Thushari said: “Our father never did any wrong in politics. He got along well with everyone. Everyone liked him. He was very good to us as a father. He spoke to me for the last time about 4.35 pm on July 26. He said Duwa, ‘I am going to say goodbye to politics. You can’t do politics with these people.’ However, it never struck me that he was going to take his life.”

Policemen rescue
It was two Policemen on mobile duty who first saw a person enveloped in raging flames. The person on fire was later identified as Rienzi Algama. While being taken to the Colombo South hospital in a three-wheeler, he had remembered his children and talked about the future of the party he loved, obviously with no thought about his own imminent tryst with death. He had told the Police before breathing his last that he set himself on fire as a protest against the proposed party reforms. Rienzi had told Karu Jayasuriya early in the morning on July 26 to make another effort to resolve the crisis in the party. He later in the afternoon had told him that he was quitting politics for good. But none had thought that he was going to leave them all for good, which he did early in the morning the following day.

Rienzi’s message
Politicians seeking narrow political gains may turn opportunists. But those working selflessly towards the goal of building a great nation, would consider principles they stand for are worth more than their life. Rienzi Algama has by his supreme sacrifice effectively conveyed this message.