Arjuna Aluwihare, Dayan Jayatilleke, Gamini Dissanayake, JVP, Lalith Athulathmudali, LTTE, Mr Ashraff, Mr Sivasithamparam, Mr Yoheswaran, Mr. Amirthalingam, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Ossie Abeygunasekera, Premadasa, Richard de Zoysa, Sam Tambimuttu, TULF, Vartharajah Perumal
Premadasa’s dark period culminated in the killing of Richard de Zoysa in February 1990. I was away at the time, sailing round the world again on the Semester at Sea programme, and I got back only after things had settled down. I have written elsewhere, in different modes, about the incident, so I need not discuss it here. However what I found when I came back to Colombo in July was a world rapidly returning to normalcy.
I have argued that Premadasa used the opportunity offered by the international furore over Richard’s death to rein in the death squads that had destroyed the JVP. I am aware that the force used was excessive, and I believe Premadasa knew this too, but felt he had no alternative when the Ceasefire he had offered was ignored. To his credit it must be noted that, after February, the squads, which had been continuing with excesses such as Richard’s killing even after there was no threat, were disbanded.
I suppose normal too was the renewal of hostilities with the LTTE, since hindsight teaches us, as it taught Premadasa and Chandrika and later Ranil too, that the Tigers were at their most dangerous when pretending to negotiate. Though Premadasa’s technique of dealing with the Tigers after war broke out was not as successful as that of the Rajapaksa government, he also in his own way did much to reduce their strength. In particular he concentrated on developing the East, and in fact by the time he died he was able to hold elections there in which the UNP did remarkably well.
Premadasa was also able to build up a coalition of minority forces, both ethnic and ideological. His understanding with Ashraff had been very fruitful, and he proceeded also to talks with the TULF and in particular Neelan Tiruchelvam, who was its most serious figure albeit not in Parliament, following the Tiger assassination of the TULF leader Mr Amirthalingam, the radical MP for Jaffna, Mr Yoheswaran, and the forceful activist from the East, Sam Tambimuttu. The nominal leader of the party, Mr Sivasithamparam, had only barely escaped assassination, and he was almost an invalid, only a shadow of his former self.
Premadasa also developed links with Ossie Abeygunasekara, whose SLMP was left out in the cold when Chandrika started moving back to the SLFP, taking the Communists and Trotskyists along with her. And he also had working for him Dayan Jayatilleka, who had been part of the EPRLF government in the North East Province, which Premadasa had fallen out with when he was dealing with the Tigers. Dayan however was of the view that the Chief Minister, Vartharajah Perumal, had lost legitimacy pushing for powers not in the Constitution, which is why he left him and cast his lot with Premadasa instead. Certainly Dayan has always had a consistent approach to devolution, which is maximum empowerment with no room whatsoever for separatism – and Perumal’s attempt to declare independence suggests that Dayan’s perspective was accurate.
Premadasa’s broader coalition would I think have proved more than a match, had he lived, for the realignment of opposition forces that occurred in 1991 with the split in the UNP. Though I was personally fond of Lalith Athulathmudali, and Chanaka convinced me in time of the merits too of Gamini Dissanayake (who was I now believe by far the greater figure), I felt that they had left not so much out of principle but through pique. This was understandable in Gamini’s case, since he had been dropped from Cabinet, but he had also helped to precipitate this through continuing hostility to Premadasa, and also neglect of his responsibilities, since he had taken leave while a Minister to finish a degree at Cambridge.
Unfortuantely both he and Lalith had been filled full of hot air in JR’s time as part of his technique of dividing and ruling, and both, though much younger than Premadasa, had had serious hopes of succeeding JR. Premadasa too was foolish in not making one of them Prime Minister, but instead appointing a nonentity, who ultimately did more than anyone else to destroy everything Premadasa had striven to achieve. The result was a burning animosity on the part of Lalith and Gamini which was brought to fruition by what seems a most peculiar intrigue, and attempt to impeach the President.
It has since been claimed that they would have succeeded had they not been betrayed by the Speaker, M H Mohammed, who had initially been on their side but finally threw in his lot with Premadasa. A more likely explanation is that they simply did not have the numbers, and Mohammed realized this soon enough and rapidly mended fences. Sadly the episode only served then to undo the discipline Premadasa had tried to institute, after JR had subverted his own constitution by, as my father once put it to him, making robbers out of barons – the reference was to the way in which he had given executive positions to massive numbers, to buy their allegiance as it were, even as he was reducing the actual power of members of Parliament.
So, after the abortive impeachment attempt of 1991, politics went back to normal in Colombo. The greatest loss I think was in education, for Lalith had shown himself dynamic there as in all he did, and was perhaps the one person capable as Minister of pushing through the reforms that are so urgently needed. I should note though that Premadasa, who took over the portfolio himself, made a valiant attempt at least as far as Higher Education went, by working through Arjuna Aluwihare, who was Chairman of the UGC.
Where Premadasa shone in the few years in which he actually exercised power was in addressing the burning issue of regional disparities. What finally convinced me to support Chanaka’s decision to ally with Premadasa in 1993 was the perception as to how his Garment Factory scheme actually benefited rural youngsters. One of my Colombo acquaintance noted that her husband had said he would have to close one of his factories near Colombo if he were to go along with Premadasa’s scheme of setting up factories in the regions – but that was precisely Premadasa’s point. He saw no reason why the workers should stay in appalling boarding houses which took up most of their wages when they could stay comfortably at home, and use their wages to increase economic activity in their own villages.
Travelling through the country a lot as I was doing by then, I was struck by the cheerful faces of girls coming out of factories all over the country. This was a marked contrast with the depressed demeanour of the girls in the Free Trade Zone, prey to so much exploitation. I could see then what Premadasa was trying to do and, combining this with the fervent appreciation of the educationists I worked with in the Eastern Province, I felt that this was a man to support as possible.