The lost generations of the UNP: Sirisena Cooray

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 26 2021

By Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha

The next Minister in the UNP’s protracted reign of seventeen years was very different from Ronnie de Mel. The latter served only under J. R. Jayewardene, Sirisena Cooray served only under President Premadasa. He was given the portfolio Premadasa had held when he was Prime Minister, that of Housing and Construction, and continued with the programmes Premadasa had started. And Premadasa also appointed him as General Secretary of the UNP, a mark of his total confidence in him.

Cooray was very different from the Ministers who had been influential in the UNP Government under JR, a host of talented members of a social elite, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, Gamani Jayasuriya, Monty Jayawickrema, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ranjith Atapattu, to name the more distinguished. Ronnie de Mel too, belonged to this class, and was thought to be the brightest intellect amongst them, with the possible exception of Athulathmudali. Cooray on the contrary came from a much poorer background and had nothing like the same sort of education. And while the elite were never tarred with the violence that had become endemic under JR, Cooray was thought by many of those who traditionally supported the UNP to be a thug, essentially Premadasa’s hatchet man. 

This criticism of Cooray reached its apotheosis in the theory that, while our High Commissioner in Malaysia, he had contrived the death of Upali Wijewardene, whose Lear Jet vanished when he was flying back to Colombo from Kuala Lumpur in February 1983. Personally I find it difficult to credit this since such accidents happened to several Lear Jets. And while I have no illusions about the fact that the UNP in those days, like so many parties since, engaged in murder of political opponents, I cannot believe either Premadasa or Cooray thought Upali a serious enough threat to merit such summary treatment. Premadasa had after all seen off JR’s attempt to bring Upali into Parliament when there was a vacancy for Kalawana. 

It was a decade after that, that I first saw Sirisena Cooray. In the period just before that I had moved towards appreciation of what Premadasa was trying to do, and after much thought I supported Chanaka Amaratunga’s desire to move the Liberal Party into collaboration with Premadasa’s UNP. And when an MoU was signed, though I had not initially wanted to be present, Chanaka wanted me along and I agreed. I am very glad I did for the first thing Premadasa asked when Chanaka went in was where Sam’s son was. I had been, as my cousin Kshanika Wickremesinghe had put it to my sister, lurking at the back as usual. But Premadasa had a healthy regard for my father, and was pleased when I came forward for I had been one of JR’s most fervent critics.

And I was pleased I had gone for a few days later he was killed. But when I went along with Chanaka to the funeral I was astonished to see what seemed almost a festive atmosphere. It was clear the senior leadership of the UNP felt no sorrow at all, and D. B. Wijetunge who was Acting President seemed more pleased at the advancement he had received than sad at the death of the man who had pushed him much higher than he deserved. And then Hema Premadasa made an extraordinary speech in which she seemed to be offering herself as her husband’s successor, following rumours that Wijetunge had tried to cut the family out of the funeral entirely.

But then, as we were leaving, I noticed a man sitting by himself, tears pouring down his face. That, Chanaka told me, was Sirisena Cooray, and I realised then that he was a man of deep feeling, and his devotion to Premadasa was absolute. 

Later we heard that, when Wijetunge was sworn in as Acting President, he had asked Cooray to take over the position as Prime Minister but he had refused and recommended Ranil Wickremesinghe whom Premadasa had made Leader of the House. Ranil of course accepted, though he then characteristically treated Cooray shabbily.

This happened when it became clear that Wijetunge had no desire to take Premadasa’s legacy forward. He was appallingly racist and drove Ashraff and the Muslim Congress into the arms of the SLFP. I recall Kshanika, who was adept at pressing the right buttons, agreeing with me about his betrayal, but those were days when Colombo’s elite claimed that the President was Doing Bloody Well.

It was Chanaka who alerted me to the mess he was making, and finally he wrote an article about how everything Premadasa had achieved was being traduced. This appeared in the ‘Sunday Observer’, the Chairman of Lake House at the time being Sunil Rodrigo, a confidante of both Premadasa and Cooray.

Wijetunge acted swiftly. He sacked Rodrigo and then asked Cooray, who was General Secretary of the UNP, to resign. Cooray told him he would think about it, and Chanaka assumed he would fight back, but when he went to see him he found Cooray at ease at his house. His point was that he had entered politics to serve his friend Premadasa. He had hoped enough people in the UNP recognised the mess Wijetunge was making, but if they did not wish to take a stand there was no point in him doing so.

He obviously meant Ranil, but as if on cue Ranil washed his hands of the whole business and declared that the problem was one for the President and the Secretary of the party to solve between them. And then, astonishingly, the Premadasa family, which Wijetunge had treated with contumely when he took over the Presidency, weighed in with an attack on Cooray. 

So Cooray resigned, and then Wijetunge astonished the UNP by replacing him with Dr. Gamini Wijeyesekera. He was a very decent man who had left the UNP some years earlier along with Rukman Senanayake when JR was driving the country deeper and deeper into disaster. But he and Rukman had rejoined the UNP when JR had finally given place to Premadasa.

The MoU with the Liberal Party had involved a place for Chanaka on the UNP National List, and after Premadasa died Cooray had confirmed that he would stand by this. When he resigned Chanaka assumed the party would be back in the control of JR types, but Wijeyesekera, who had been part of the group that met at Dinesh Gunawardena’s initiative to coordinate opposition to JR, had remained a good friend. As Cooray had pledged he put both Chanaka and Ossie Abeygunasekara on the UNP National List for the General Election which was called for 1984.

I have often thought I bear some responsibility for what happened then. Kshanika who rang me up asking if I could ask Chanaka to persuade Rosy Senanayake, who was a friend of his, to become a UNP candidate. In telling her that I did not think he could do this I mentioned that he himself was on the list.

Kshanika must have told Ranil for according to Anura Bandaranaike, by now in the UNP himself, he stopped this. Typically he did this insidiously, urging J. R. Jayewardene to call up Wijetunge and object, for someone who had been critical of two UNP Presidents should not be on a UNP list. Wijetunge did this and Chanaka was left out. 

The SLFP alliance was able to form a government, thanks to Ashraff whom Wijetunge had alienated. And then, though Gamini Dissanayake was elected UNP leader in Parliament instead of Ranil, and its Presidential candidate, he too was assassinated by the Tigers. Along with him they eliminated Gamini Wijeyesekera and Ossie Abeygunasekera, and there was no one left to challenge Ranil. It was in that traumatic situation that he changed the Party Constitution to in effect make him leader for life, a position he still occupied well over a quarter of a century after the decimation of the UNP leadership.

Meanwhile, soon after Chandrika Kumaratunga became President, she got Cooray arrested, on a preposterous charge of planning her assassination. After he was in custody for three months, the Supreme Court ruled “that Mr Bulathsinghalage Sirisena Cooray’s fundamental rights guaranteed by Article 13 (1) and 13 (2) of the Constitution have been violated and that his arrest and detention is unlawful and illegal…The State shall pay the said Mr Bulathsinhalage Sirisena Cooray a sum of 

Rs 200,000/- as compensation and costs.”

That Chandrika could engage in such vicious pettiness is now forgotten. And so is what happened to the one foray Cooray made into active politics after 1994. In 2006, he was once again the UNP candidate for Mayor of Colombo, a post he had held much earlier, in the first years of the Jayawardene Government. But the UNP nomination list was rejected in as much as one of the candidates on it was underage. Subsequently the UNP supported a list of shadow candidates which won so that a trishaw driver became Mayor. And then, the frosting on a farcical cake, he then defected to Government. 

It is difficult to believe that what precipitated this ridiculous situation, the disqualification of Cooray’s list, happened accidentally. The easy victory of an absurd list suggests Cooray would have won handsomely, and he would have been an efficient Mayor, something Ranil Wickremesinghe would not have wanted. Earlier, when Karu Jayasuriya proved a popular Mayor, he was moved into Parliament where he proved a cipher until he affirmed his loyalty to Ranil as an obsequious Speaker. With Cooray, a much more independent mind, Ranil could take no risks. 

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 26 2021

More News