The Suriya-Mal Movement was formed in British occupied Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to sell Suriya (Portia tree) flowers on Poppy Day for the benefit of Sri Lankan ex-servicemen. The movement became anti-imperialist in character. It was also involved in relief work during the Malaria epidemic of 1934-1935.
In protest against the proceeds of Poppy sales on Armistice Day (11 November) being used for the benefit of the British ex-servicemen to the detriment of Sri Lankan ex-servicemen, one of the latter, Mr Aelian Perera, had started a rival sale of Suriya flowers on the same day, the proceeds of which were devoted to help needy Ceylonese ex-servicemen.
In 1933 a British teacher Doreen Young, wrote an article, The Battle of the Flowers which was published in the Ceylon Daily News and exposed the absurdity of forcing Sri Lankan schoolchildren to purchase poppies to help British veterans at the expense of their own, which caused her to be vilified by her compatriots.
The South Colombo Youth League then became involved in the Suriya Mal Movement and revived it on a new anti-imperialist and anti-war basis. Annually, until the Second World War, young men and women sold Suriya flowers on the streets on Armistice Day in competition with the Poppy sellers. The purchasers of the Suriya Mal were generally from the poorer sections of society and the funds collected were not large. But the movement provided a rallying point for the anti-imperialist minded youth of the time. An attempt was made by the British colonial authorities to curb the movement's effectiveness, by means of legislation, in the form the 'Street Collection Regulation Ordinance'.
Doreen Young was elected as first President of the Suriya Mal Movement at a meeting held at the residence of Wilmot Perera in Horana. Terence de Zilva and Robin Ratnam were elected Joint Secretaries, and Roy de Mel was elected as Treasurer.
Malaria Epidemic and floods
There had been a drought in 1934 which caused a shortage of rice, estimated at 3 million bushels. From October onwards there were floods, followed by a malaria epidemic in 1934-35, during which 1,000,000 people were affected and at least 125,000 died. The Suriya-Mal Movement was honed by volunteer work among the poor during the Malaria Epidemic and the floods. The volunteers found that there was widespread malnutrition, which was aggravated by the shortage of rice, and which reduced resistance to the disease. They helped fight the malnutrition by making pills of Marmite yeast extract. N.M. Perera became known as Parippu Mahathmaya ('Mr. Dhal') because of the lentils he distributed as dry rations to the people affected in those days.
- "Lerski: Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon (Chap.1)". Marxists.org. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
The two things given to each patient were a bottle of the standard quinine mixture and Marmite rolled into the form of vederala’s pills. The latter was said to have been the idea of the late Dr. Mary Ratnam and to have been more effective than the quinine itself, such was the degree of starvation among the peasantry. The Suriya Mal workers were amazed to see how this little Marmite revived them and put some life back into them.