Bandaranaike, Champika Ranawaka, Chanaka Amaratunga, Cyril Mathew, Dhammika, Dinesh Gunawardena, IPKF, J R Jayewardene, Jaffna Library, JVP, LTTE, Mr Ashraff, Mr Yoheswaran, Ossie Abeygunasekera, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Referendum, Vijaya Kumaranatunga
By the late eighties, Sri Lanka was in a state of turmoil. In the North and East, the Tigers were battling with the Indian Peace Keeping Force. In the South the JVP was gaining in strength, aided I believe by several SLFP members who saw this as the only chance of getting rid of the authoritarian government J R had developed, with not even a pretence of fair elections. The techniques initiated at the election to the Jaffna District Development Council in 1981, which had included murderous intimidation of opposition politicians (I was in Parliament when the MP for Jaffna, Mr Yoheswaran, subsequently assassinated by the LTTE, described how he had barely escaped with his life) and gratuitous violence such as the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, had been applied successfully in the country at large.
Given the absurdity of the Referendum which put off elections to Parliament for six years, the wholesale prevention of opposition meetings, the total control of the media, and then to make doubly sure the ruthless stuffing of ballot boxes (not just impersonation but the phenomenon of armed gangs taking over whole ballot books from Returning Officers), I am astonished at how the chattering classes, who accepted all this because it was done by their favoured patron, now claim two decades later with a very different sort of duly elected government in power that democracy is in danger.
The stand taken by Chanaka then was the more admirable, and I continue proud of the dissent we expressed in the days before this became fashionable. But the greatest credit I think has to be taken by the old Left, which not only opposed J R’s authoritarianism and racism, but then had also to face violence from the JVP when they came out in support of the Indo-Lankan Accord. In the Provincial Council elections that took place in 1988, they came under attack on both sides, and some brave characters lost their lives, as for instance the Communist Party stalwart who had helped print the Liberal Party newsletters.
Most tragic of all was the murder of Vijaya Kumaranatunga, whose charisma the JVP found threatening. By then the internecine battles in the SLFP, as Mrs Bandaranaike inclined to her daughter and her son in turn, had resulted in the former leaving, to set up the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya, which soon united with the Communists and the Trotskyists in a United Socialist Alliance. Vijaya was its dynamic leader, but in February 1988 he was killed.
So the USA did not do as well as it had anticipated in the Provincial Council elections, campaigning under pressure, not sure whether they would be attacked from left or from right. We too faced some threats during our campaign, but we were doubtless not considered serious enough for any action to be taken. As it happened we did win a couple of seats, because we had managed to persuade Mrs Bandaranaike to allow SLFP supporters who wished to contest to do so under the Liberal Party banner.
We had in fact succeeded in convincing her that the SLFP should contest the Provincial Council elections, but this was after nominations for the first set had closed. When she announced the change of policy, we were told, stalwarts from the first set of Provinces protested, saying that others should not be given advantages they had been deprived of. So the SLFP contested none of the Councils, and lived to rue the day, because the Councils that were established were able to exercise some influence during the Pesidential poll of 1988, which Mrs Bandaranaike lost very narrowly. She also lost some votes to the new leader of the USA, Ossie Abeygunasekera who had made a name for himself by doing well in the Western Province election.
Chandrika had by then gone away to England, and soon parted company with the SLMP and the USA, setting up instead the Bahujana Nidhahas Pakshaya in which she was joined by Ratnasiri Wickramanayake. Anura Bandaranaike was then the chief influence over his mother though, as we soon found out, his input meant little in comparison with that even of his older sister.
We found this out in our efforts to develop a comprehensive alliance to oppose the UNP. Initially, on an initiative of Dinesh Gunawardena’s MEP, several parties had begun to meet to discuss a common strategy. These meetings were kept going largely because of the Liberal Party, for we found that none of the others were at all systematic, so that we ended up preparing minutes and acting as the Secretariat for the meetings. Through the Inter-University Student Federation, represented most forcefully by Champika Ranawaka, the JVP too joined us, and it seems that Chanaka and its representative, a young man called Dhammika, who was subsequently killed in the wholesale destruction of the JVP in 1989, developed a healthy respect for each other. When the JVP left the talks, he had told Chanaka that, though they disagreed on most issues, at least they both understood political principles, which he claimed was not the case with the other participants at the talks. Interestingly enough, the JVP was the only party that supported the suggestion that English too be made an Official Language (this was the one provision of the Indo-Lankan Accord that was dropped, it seems because the USA was opposed to it).
Despite the JVP leaving, the alliance was by and large still holding together when the Presidential election was finally announced, and Chanaka was largely responsible for drafting the manifesto under which Mrs Bandaranaike contested it (though, when Cyril Mathew was trotted out by the UNP to question this, she repudiated one of its most important features, the commitment to restore the old Section 29 of the Soulbery Constitution that prohibited discrimination). Unfortunately the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress had left us by the time of the election, and that effectively ruined Mrs Bandaranaike’s chances of victory, given that the JVP had, in its determination to enforce a boycott, intimidated large parts of the country where the SLFP was strong.
We made valiant efforts to persuade Mrs Bandaranaike to accommodate the SLMC, which was very moderate in its requests. Some Muslim members of the SLFP had told her that the SLMC was unimportant, but we presented her with a paper that indicated that the number of votes it certainly commanded could make the difference. She finally agreed, after a late night session with Chanaka and Anura, but when Chanaka turned up the next morning for the signing of the agreement, she had changed her mind. He and Anura were of the view that her elder daughter Sunethra, who lived in the same house, had persuaded her, but Anura was too depressed to do anything more, and told Chanaka that he would have to break the news to the SLMC leader, Mr Ashraff.
Chanaka told me later that Ashraff was deeply upset. He told Chanaka that he would make clear his strength to Mrs Bandaranaike, and sure enough he had soon reached an agreement with Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had overcome the opposition to him in the UNP and been nominated as its candidate. Ashraff said he was not in a position to ask for much, but Premadasa promptly delivered on what he promised, including a lowering of the cut off point for entry into Parliament. Ashraff duly delivered what he had promised, and the SLMC votes made the difference to ensure Premadasa’s victory.