Asitha Perera, Chanaka Amaratunga, Council for Liberal Democracy, Gamini Dissanayake, Hugh Fernando, J R Jayewardene, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Rohan Edrisinha, S. Thomas’, Vijaya Kumaranatunga
Early in 1983 then I found myself without a job, and out of favour with much of Colombo. But by then it had become clear to me that Colombo had no standards at all, and one really had no moral option at all but to be an outsider.
This was not because of S. Thomas’ which, fascinating as it had been, was not at all significant in terms of the country as a whole. Rather, it was that while the whole esoteric drama of my dismissal was being played out, the country suffered the worst assault on its integrity it had had to face since independence.
This was the referendum of 1982, whereby J R Jayewardene extended for six years the life of the Parliament in which he had a massive majority. This was by virtue of the first past the post system, which he had recognized was unfair, so he had replaced it with a system of proportional representation. It was obviously also potentially destructive because, by having an utterly unrepresentative Parliament, there was a danger of dissent being driven underground. But then he decided to keep it going for a further six years through a Referendum, which he made it clear he would use all the powers at his disposal to win.
When I had resigned over the deprivation of Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights, which I saw as the first nail in the coffin of the country, most people thought I was exaggerating the danger. The following year, when we had the appalling thuggery of the District Development Council elections in Jaffna, with the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, more people saw the writing on the wall. And yet, most people in Colombo, including the Tamil elite, continued complacent. Most of them continued to believe in Jayewardene, and voted for him at the Referendum.
One of the few who understood the implications of the move was Chanaka Amaratunga. He had been a protégé at Oxford, where I had helped him get into my College, and then argued his case when he was in danger of being sent down for total academic indolence, which he justified on the grounds that politicking at the Oxford Union was more important. He did however get a degree, and then went on to do postgraduate work in London. He excelled at that, and what began as a Master’s degree was turned into a doctorate on the advice of his supervisor.
He used to come back at intervals, which indeed is how I was persuaded to take up the position at S. Thomas’. He had also set up a body called the Council for Liberal Democracy, which I was initially wary of, because he said he had established it with JR’s blessings. Though he had been upset at the treatment of Mrs Bandaranaike, he thought my fears exaggerated, and expressed the belief that, though some elements in the UNP had authoritarian tendencies, JR himself was basically decent.
I found this ironic, because back in England, in 1978, which was his freshman year, he had been deeply critical of JR. I was impressed by the developments in Sri Lanka, and thought JR entirely responsible for the change, whereas Dudley Senanayake had seemed to me a leader without much initiative. Chanaka however was deeply critical. Though his loyalty to the UNP was absolute in those days, he saw Dudley as an utterly decent politician of deep convictions, while JR was essentially an ambitious intriguer.
By 1980 that had changed. He was less fond of Premadasa than he had been earlier, when he had told me that Premadasa had nearly joined the Dudley front, but his real bugbear was Lalith Athulathmudali, whom he saw as potentially a dictator. He claimed indeed that JR had encouraged the formation of the CLD so as to provide space for liberal thinkers such as Gamini Dissanayake, of whom he thought very highly.
In 1981, with the conduct of the DDC elections, Chanaka had begun to worry. Still, he came back to work for JR’s re-election, when the Presidential election was advanced to 1982. I missed this, because I was in Indonesia, but I came back to find the Referendum had been announced. It was also reported that JR had insisted that his MPs give him undated letters of resignation, so he could later clean out those who were unsuitable. I was deeply saddened to find that it was Ranil who was reported as having gone round distributing and collecting these letters at the Group Meeting at which JR sprang his surprise.
When Chanaka came to see me after that, I told him that I assumed he would somehow find an excuse for the Referendum too. His answer was forthright. He felt it was wrong, and he would fight it as best he could. And so it was that, in the midst of my inquiry I think it was, I accompanied him to meetings with various people he thought of as Dudley loyalists, whom he urged to speak out against the Referendum.
I was disappointed at the response. Even those who were categorical in their condemnation refused to say anything publicly. These included A C Gooneratne, who had been Chairman of the Party, and Rukman Senanayake, Dudley’s nephew. They both wanted Chanaka to find more people to join them, but this proved impossible. JR later got rid of Gooneratne, having heard about his sentiments, so it struck me as sad that he had not had the courage of his convictions. It was only Hugh Fernando of those who had supported Dudley in the struggle between JR and him who took a stand. He later became the first Chair of the CLD.
So it was only Chanaka and one or two of his younger friends who campaigned energetically, if not very effectively, with leaflets quoting Dudley’s declaration that there were some things which should not be done in a democracy however large the majority. Asitha Perera, who came from an SLFP family contributed actively, but their other great mate, Rohan Edrisinha, who was more solidly UNP, was lukewarm.
The great disappointment was Richard. Though initially he had expressed horror at the idea of the Referendum, he later decided that it was desirable that the government continue in a strong position. Lalith Athulathmudali, who was a great family friend, may have swayed him, but I also think something of his old rivalry with Chanaka, whom he thought I was foolish to encourage, may have contributed.
But his essential decency reasserted itself, after he had been to one or two of the meetings to which Lalith had sent him. He said that he found horrifying the approach of people like the then UNP Chairman, N G P Panditharatne, whom he had previously thought of as a decent model of the old school. The instructions had been that the Referendum had to be won at any cost, and this turned out to include thuggery and intimidation of the worst sort.
Thus Vijaya Kumaranatunga was thrown into jail on trumped up charges, essentially because he had proved to be the most effective campaigner during the Presidential election for Hector Kobbekaduwa, who had emerged as the SLFP candidate. It was claimed that he had engaged in a Naxalite plot to take over the government after a Kobbekaduwa victory, but the investigation concluded with the assertion that evidence could not be found, since evidence was naturally thin on the ground when there was a plot to have a coup after an electoral victory. I used to think that Tyrell Goonetilleke, supposedly an excellent police officer, had shown himself hopelessly servile, but I now wonder whether he was not being openly cynical about the preposterous task he had been given.
Of course the Referendum was won, with massive stuffing of ballot boxes in addition to intimidation of the opposition and limitations on their campaigning. Not entirely surprisingly, the West said nothing, delighted at the strengthened position of their favourite politician. JR’s claim to have rolled up the electoral map for ten years was music to their ears.