Amparai, Asitha Perera, Bellagio, Chandrika Kumaratunga, D B Wijetunge, Gamini Dissanayake, garment factories, Lalith Athulathmudali, Liberal Party, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Premadasa, Ranjan Wijeratne, Richard de Zoysa, Rohan Edrisinha, Siron Rajaratnam, Tissa Jayatilaka, Tissawewa Resthouse, UNP, Walter Ladduwahetty, Wijeyadasa Liyanaarachchi
I had left for Bellagio at a tempestuous time, just after the death of President Premadasa, in that extraordinary assassination on May Day 1993.That had followed on the murder of Lalith Athulathmudali the week before. The latter incident I heard of while at Anuradhapura, upstairs in the vast dining hall of the Tourist Board Resthouse that catered to the impecunious. The older Resthouses were now relatively upmarket hotels under the management of Quickshaw’s. I had loved staying in them, in particular in the old Tissawewa Resthouse, in my youth and again when British Council work took me there. But working for the government, and indeed having to pay my own way much of the time, precluded such indulgence.
Premadasa’s death occurred a week later, while I was running a training workshop for both AUC and USJP English Teaching staff at the University. I had persuaded Scott Richards to run the programme, but I think he had not turned up at the time we were told that a curfew had been declared. I saw everyone off and it was only when I got home, after driving through ominously quiet streets, that I heard that the President had been killed – after which I heard crackers, which has always struck me as perhaps the worst example of the viciousness that characterizes Sri Lankan politics.
I was quite cut off from news in Bellagio, in those days before email became common, so I had no idea what was going on in Colombo while I was there. The occasional cursory letter from home told me that Premadasa’s preposterous Prime Minister, D B Wijetunge, who had taken over as Acting President, and then been confirmed in the post by Parliament, was doing well. Indeed I was told that he was Doing Bloody Well, in line with his initials. I was therefore quite optimistic when I got back to Sri Lanka, but Chanaka soon gave me a much more bleak picture.
The Liberal Party had finally decided to support President Premadasa in the Provincial Council elections that had taken place in May. I had not been sure this was the best decision possible, and had indeed stood out against it when the question first came up, and suggested we wait and review the situation. I was the President of the party, and though executive power lay with the Leader, Chanaka respected forms and accepted the suggestion I made from the chair. But I believe those in the UNP he was talking to were impatient, and he and his old friend Asitha Perera, the most fervent at that stage about the alliance, pushed the matter through at the next meeting.
I had not been there, travelling in Amparai where I had also to look after English at the University College that was affiliated to the Eastern University. Asitha’s fellow Vice-President, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, and the Deputy Secretary General, Rohan Edrisinha (Chanaka’s other old friend from school), resigned when the decision was made, and indicated that they thought I would join them.
Tissa Jayatilaka, whom I had introduced to Chanaka some years previously, and who had joined the Committee, had resigned a little earlier, enraged by what he described, in a dig at Asitha who he thought was not in the intellectual league of the rest of the party, as ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. I could understand their stance (ironic as it now seems, since they all soon enough became staunch supporters of the UNP) but decided in the end to stay on.
One reason was that I was becoming increasingly aware of the positive impact President Premadasa’s programmes were having on the country at large. For instance his determination to have garment factories all over the country made a lot of sense in terms of the convenience of the workers. Previously I had been swayed by the comment of one of my friends that, if her husband had to open a factory in a rural area, he would have to close one near Colombo. But I now realized that that was what Premadasa intended. Under his dispensation, the wages the girls received circulated in the village. Earlier they had gone into the pockets of boarding house owners, most rapacious, many predatory. Girls far from home were easy victims of sexual exploitation whereas, travelling in rural areas, I saw how cheerful they looked as they came out of their workplaces together.
So I stayed on in the Party, not quite certain that this was the right decision, but glad now that I did not abandon Chanaka or indeed Premadasa. When we went to sign the agreement – I had tried to dodge but Chanaka had been keen I go along – I tried to stay in the background but the first thing Premadasa had asked Chanaka was whether Sam’s son was there. He was pleased to see me and, since just a couple of weeks later he had been killed, I am glad that I had been able to register appreciation of a man who had suffered much in his life because of his background.
He had also inherited an appalling situation when he became President and, like Mahinda Rajapaksa a decade and more later, he solved the problems he inherited and made the country a better and safer place. And I had also realized the horrendous prejudice he suffered, from those who had tolerated appalling abuses in the time of President Jayawardena but fell on Premadasa as easy prey for lofty criticism. So all the monstrosities the UNP had engaged in were laid at his door, as I realized when even as intelligent a man as Walter Ladduwahetty, Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, averred within a few years that it was under Premadasa that the killing of Wijeyadasa Liyanaarachchi had happened, and also the appalling torture and murder of some youngsters had taken place in Sabaragamuwa. That these had occurred under Jayawardena, and had fueled bitterness further, was not something the denizens of Colombo registered.
I feel that initially, after he became President, Premadasa did his best to deal with the JVP insurrection with moderation, as was witnessed by the Ceasefire he offered. But animosities were too deep then for the mutual trust such steps required, and so he had no option but to let Ranjan Wijeratne loose and crush the insurrection when his olive branch was rejected. But he reverted to moderation as soon as possible. In that regard I believe the reaction to Richard’s death, after which the death squads set up previously were promptly disbanded, was due to his insistence, and Richard’s death gave him the leverage with which to stop the excesses.
Certainly the programme of development he then embarked upon, and in particular what he did for the East and the areas in the North in which the writ of government ran were most impressive. His achievement was summed up for me in the bald statement of Siron Rajaratnam that she had not thought she would grieve for a Sinhalese politician, but she had been devastated by Premadasa’s death. And the support he received in local elections in the East testifies to the effectiveness of the measures he took, in the three years which were all he had (with the revolt in the party to deal with too, in that period) before he was killed. Sadly, though, as Chanaka deduced would happen before I think anyone else, his successor destroyed his legacy completely.
So it was indeed a very different country from the one I had left to which I came back after Bellagio, in the middle of 1993. I suppose I should have anticipated that Premadasa’s death would mark a watershed, but I do not think anyone anticipated the manner in which, perhaps without even intending it, Wijetunge destroyed what Premadasa had developed. Almost as soon as I landed, Chanaka told me that Wijetunge had absolutely no ideas at all, and that all he could think of was developing a system whereby he could continue as President. Realizing that nobody would vote for him, he was trying to promote a system whereby the President would be selected by Parliament, and meanwhile he allowed everyone else to maneuver around him.
The greatest failure perhaps occurred with regard to the war against the Tigers. After his initial flirtation with them, Premadasa had realized how appalling they were, and had worked systematically to weaken them. By 1993 he had established government control of most of the East, and the forces were ready to take on the LTTE in the North. Dayan Jayatilleka tells me that the army unveiled its plans to Wijetunge, who simply asked whether there would be many casualties. When he was told that this was possible, he aborted the plan. The impression I had was not that he was concerned about the casualties, but rather that he did not want to be unpopular since he wanted to stay on in power.
Meanwhile he merrily abandoned the efforts Premadasa had made to win round the minorities. His infamous comment about how the minorities were like a vine that clung round the Sinhalese tree, paralleling what Sarath Fonseka was to enunciate some years later, in declaring that the country belonged to the majority, was symptomatic of a mindset that simply could not understand the traumas the country had undergone. That the minorities had suffered over the years through majoritarian policies that first ignored and then attacked them, and that it was necessary for a government in power to work together with those who had stood firm against the Tigers once their destructive agenda was apparent, was beyond him.
Some people did recall that he had been amongst those who had opposed Dudley Senanayake in the sixties, when he had negotiated a pact with Chelvanayakam, but this type of historical awareness was rare in Sri Lanka. The fact that despite all this Premadasa had made him Prime Minister, instead of more able and sensitive men, showed how deep was the bitterness the succession struggle within the UNP had engendered.
Chandrika Kumaratunga meanwhile was at her inclusive best. The assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali had propelled her into the position of Chief Minister of the Western Province, and she also benefited from the fact that Gamini Dissanayake was thinking of going back into the UNP. At the time the DUNF that he and Lalith had established was in coalition with the UNP, Lalith had seemed to occupy the position of Leader. Gamini might not have agreed to this, but Chandrika had seemed to allow Lalith primacy in the campaign for the Western Provice election. After the election though, having become Chief Minister, it was clear that she saw no need to give precedence to Gamini – who was in any case happy to go back to the UNP since Premadasa was gone.
While Gamini was otherwise occupied then Chandrika built up her contacts with the TULF as well as the SLMC, which had earlier been talking to Chanaka about an alliance. Ashraff had got on well with Premadasa, with whom he had allied himself after Mrs Bandaranaike reneged on her commitments to him at the time of the 1988 Presidential election. Indeed it was his support that had given Premadasa his majority then, though Ashraff had stayed out of government in the Parliament elected early in 1989.
But by 1993 he realized the need for active input into government, and he had been working on a coalition of parties supportive of Premadasa, to include not only the Liberal Party but also the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya which Ossie Abeygunasekara had taken over after Vijaya Kumaranatunga’s death. But all that fell by the wayside as Wijetunge made it clear he had no desire whatsoever to pursue such alliances. So by the time of the Parliamentary election the following year, the UNP had little minority support.
Ceylon Today 30 July 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=3723