Forgetting the Premadasa Legacy

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM May 14 2021
Columns Forgetting the Premadasa Legacy

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

The death of Premadasa brought Ranil to the forefront of the UNP, that and the overwhelming grief of Premadasa’s right hand man, Sirisena Cooray. Prime Minister Wijetunge who took over as Acting President asked Cooray to succeed him, which made sense for Wijetunge was a cipher and realised he needed something of the Premadasa appeal if he was to continue in power. But Cooray, who saw his political career as bound up with that of Premadasa, turned down the offer and suggested that he ask the most senior UNP Minister remaining. This was Ranil, who had been Leader of the House and had stuck with Premadasa when Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake tried to impeach him. 

Ranil was accordingly sworn in by Wijetunge. Cooray’s grief was palpable at the funeral, and the more striking in that the rest of the UNP leadership seemed in triumphalist mood. Hema Premadasa made a speech in which she seemed to proclaim that she was the most suitable person to succeed her husband, and Wijetunge himself seemed more impressed with his own unexpected elevation to a powerful position he could never have achieved on his own than the loss of his patron. 

Ranil was not so vulgar, but over the next few months he forgot Premadasa completely, and fell in with Wijetunge’s very different perspectives. These were racist and passive, involving even the claim that the Sinhalese were like a tree on which the minorities depended like vines. The strategy Premadasa had so successfully adopted, of winning hearts and minds in the Tamil areas Government controlled, the East and also Vavuniya which had been grossly neglected previously, was forgotten, and the UNP returned to being the party of the elite, who decided that Wijetunge was wonderful, declaring that his initials stood for Doing Bloody Well. 

Obvious blunders 

Amongst his obvious blunders though were manoeuver with regard to the Southern Provincial Council where efforts to bring over a member so as to nullify a narrow opposition majority led to dissolution and another Election which the opposition won conclusively. And he destroyed the imaginative university reforms begun by Arjuna Aluwihare when he sacked him from the position of Chairman of the University Grants Commission, to satisfy one of his confidantes who was angry that Aluwihare refused to pervert the system of university admissions to admit a protege. Cooray found all this difficult to take, and it became clear that he felt Wijetunge was betraying the man who had made him. 

Matters came to a head when the Lake House newspapers published an article by Chanaka Amaratunga, whose Liberal Party had signed an alliance with the UNP just before Premadasa’s death, declaring that his work was being undone. Wijetunge decided then to assert himself and demanded the resignation of the Lake House Chairman, Sunil Rodrigo, who had been a Premadasa confidante, and had indeed set up two garment factories near Vavuniya when Premadasa had wanted investment in the area. 

When that was achieved, with no fallout, he asked Cooray to resign from the position of General Secretary of the UNP. Cooray said he would think about it, but when Chanaka Amaratunga saw him soon afterwards, thinking that he would be rallying support, he found him relaxing at home. His point was that he had entered politics at Premadasa’s request and, if more committed politicians had no interest in continuing with Premadasa’s work, he saw no reason to continue. 

On cue 

As if on cue Ranil declared that the problem was a matter for the President and Cooray to resolve, making it clear that he would not help. And then the Premadasa family, having been conclusively sidelined by Wijetunge, responded to an appeal from him to denigrate Cooray who had not taken their side earlier. Cooray had obviously been sensible in not taking Hema Premadasa’s pretensions seriously, for the claim was that he had betrayed Premadasa which was an absurd idea. Cooray accordingly resigned but then, instead of appointing a prominent member of the party, Wijetunge gave the position to Gamini Wijesekera who had left the UNP earlier along with Rukman Senanayake. They had gravitated back to the party after Premadasa became President, and obviously Wijetunge felt safer with someone who had no allegiance to any of the others in the party. And then he started to work towards what he evidently thought the party needed, the return to the fold of Gamini Dissanayake.

Though the latter was now Chief Minister of the Central Province, his heart had not been in the DUNF as Lalith’s had been, and with his great enemy gone he had every intention of getting back to the UNP. Even that however was not enough to rouse Ranil to action, though his sister made clear the family’s anger about Wijetunge, dressing it up in terms of the need to resist his betrayal of Premadasa. But Wijetunge had his way and Gamini Dissanayake was back in the UNP when he had a General Election in August 1994, six months early because he did not dare to go first for the Presidential Election which was due that November. And meanwhile he had conclusively alienated the minorities, so that the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress went into an alliance with the SLFP while the TULF made it clear they preferred that party now to the UNP. 

Those two parties, which had worked together with the Liberal Party and the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya which Chandrika Kumaratunga had founded but soon abandoned, tried to persuade Chanaka to move with them, but he relied on Premadasa’s commitment which both Cooray and Wijesekera said they would uphold, to have him on the UNP National List. But when the list had been prepared, Ranil brought JR Jayewardene in to object to Chanaka on the grounds that Wijetunge should not give a place to someone who had criticised two UNP Presidents. This may not however have been only because of Ranil’s endemic vindictiveness, for he might have been worried about the fact that Chanaka was very close to Gamini Dissanayake. 

Stand by his commitment 

The UNP lost the Election narrowly, after the SLMC’s Ashraff made it clear that he would stand by his commitment to the SLFP. Ranil vacated the Prime Minister’s house and Chandrika Kumaratunga was sworn in as Prime Minister. But then, to Ranil’s chagrin, the parliamentary group elected Gamini Dissanayake as its Leader, and also as the UNP Presidential candidate, Wijetunge having sensibly withdrawn. Gamini Dissanayake revitalised the UNP in the brief period he was its leader, and the country was flooded with his propaganda and colourful posters when the Election campaign began. He also decided that he wanted a novel approach, and asked Chanaka Amaratunga – left out of Parliament though he had been on the SLMC National List since Chandrika Kumaratunga too was aware of his friendship with Gamini – to draft his manifesto. But when Ranil’s fortunes seemed on the decline, the Tigers stepped in again. A few weeks before the Election Gamini Dissanayake was assassinated. 

Ranil then expected to be nominated to the position, but a last ditch effort by those opposed to him in the party, led by Gamini Dissanayake’s brother-in-law Wickrama Weerasooriya, led to Gamini’s widow Srima taking his place. That however was probably a good thing as far as Ranil’s future went, for he would have had no hope of winning. And the compromise was that, whereas had she won she would have become the leader of the party, he would take over if she lost. 

Lost badly 

She lost very badly and Ranil became Leader of the UNP. His first move was to change the party constitution so that he in effect became leader for life. The new provision was that a new leader would be chosen only if the incumbent resigned or died. And this absurd provision was not resisted for there was no one left in the party to challenge him. Gamini Wijesekera had died in the bomb that killed Premadasa, and his successor had made it clear that he would take on the post only till the Election. He was replaced by Gamini Athukorale, who had been on very bad terms with Gamini Dissanayake. Other forceful figures in the UNP, the other DUNF Chief Minister G M Premachandra and one of Premadasa’s principal allies in Colombo, Weerasinghe Mallimaarachchi, who had also support Gamini against Ranil, also died in the explosion, as did the leader of the SLMP, Ossie Abeygunasekara who had become one of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s most effective critics. 

So for the next few years Ranil had no opposition at all in the party, and could do whatever he liked. In fact he did nothing. Had Gamini Dissanayake been leader of the opposition he would have kept Chandrika Kumaratunga on her toes. She might then have achieved something for she was an energetic operator when she had problems, as she had shown in achieving ascendancy in the SLFP, driving her brother Anura to seek shelter in the UNP after she had cut him down to size. But with Ranil remaining passive, she did not take the country forward. Ranil took the opportunity to get married, something that had long been urged on him to round out his image. And after that little was heard of him for the next five years, or rather for the next seven years. Though he stood for the Presidency in the Election Chandrika Kumaratunga called prematurely in 1999, he lost conclusively, and it seemed the UNP would be in the doldrums for the next few years too.

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM May 14 2021

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