26 September, 2020

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89th Birth Anniversary Of President Ranasinghe Premadasa: Developmental Values And The Value Of Development

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“…the social state is advantageous to men when all have something and no one has too much” –Rousseau (Social Contract).

Values are not constants. Different historical-times have different political, developmental and socio-cultural values. For centuries, beheading a murderer was an accepted practice across civilisational-divides. So was child labour. In those Western nations caught in the ferment of the first Industrial Revolution, children as young as six-years worked for 18-20 hours in mills and mines. Politicians and prelates, kings and society ladies accepted this brutal exploitation as a necessary condition for the wealth of nations. The initial demands for marginal improvements in the harsh labouring-conditions of these ‘new slaves’ were decried as inimical to national wellbeing: “It was asserted….that the restriction of the labour of young persons and children would be ruinous to industry and that foreign countries in which enterprising employers were not hindered by factory laws would secure trade which would be lost to Great Britain”[i]. The US Supreme Court declared any attempt to provide some safety to America’s labouring children as unconstitutional, in the first quarter of the 20th Century[ii].

The post-socialist world is experiencing a counter-revolution in ideas and attitudes. A key component in this regression is the return to certain economic beliefs, once abandoned as unethical and damaging/destabilising. A case in point is the triumphal return of the old – and historically invalidated – theory of ‘inequality as the driving force of capitalist growth’. The worsening chasm between the rich and the poor is no longer seen as undesirable, or dangerous. Denuding public services and anti-Robin Hood tax policies have become synonymous with ‘good economics’. The obscenely conspicuous consumption by the mega-rich, even in times of general economic distress, has become socially acceptable. Augustus Melmotte, Anthony Trollope’s stratospheric-earning, stratospheric-spending, corrupt and corrupting financier is the new entrepreneurial prototype, from New York to Beijing– and Colombo.

Refusing to learn from the past is a characteristic of not just the political man but also the economic man. Inequality was the great societal-de-stabiliser, from French Revolution onwards. Radical Enlightenment thinkers warned about the political dangers inherent in socio-economic inequality: “The man discriminated against is aggrieved. The man who possesses nothing lacks any stake in society”, cautioned d’Holbach[iii].

239 years later, the ‘Riots, Communities and Victims Panel’, appointed by the British government to study the August 2011 riots, concluded that societal violence is inevitable when people do not have a ‘stake in society’[iv].

Stable societies are cohesive societies. Cohesion is impossible when a society is racked by inequality. If some people feel that they are marginalised for ethnic/religious/sociological reasons or that development is something that happens to others, disenchantment sets in and politico-psychological fissures develop. Instead of the necessary ‘national’ perspective, ethnic/religious/caste/class perspectives become predominant. Instability breaks out, even in the midst of spectacular growth, as the ongoing events in Brazil and Turkey demonstrate.

Socio-economic equality is not an automatic outcome of growth. Like political equality it must be aimed for and worked at, by governments and by societies. Societal pressure and political will are important requirements for any real movement towards greater socio-economic equality, just as it was for political equality. Where governments do not make extra efforts to promote equality, inequality flourishes. This insalubrious atmosphere breeds the socio-political germs which eventually kill the growth-march of the economy, often in a fusillade of violence.

As happened in Sri Lanka, in the second half of the 1980’s.

The Relevant Interregnum

The Premadasa presidency marked an interregnum in more ways than one. Ranasinghe Premadasa was Sri Lanka’s first (and only) non-upper caste head of state. His ascendancy revealed the caste-fault-lines which bisect our society, underneath a veneer of modernity. As the discourse of that time demonstrates, even the left was not immune to this malaise; a visceral antipathy to this ‘caste-upstart’ was something dominant caste Sinhalese and Tamils had in common. Much of the baseless accusations levelled against Premadasa and the viciousness of the epithets hurled at him stemmed from this primordial hatred.

Premadasa was a member of a subaltern caste; he was born and bred in Keselwatte, the geographical other of Kurunduwatte and Sri Lanka’s equivalent of the old Harlem, a place which ‘the respectables’ avoided like the plague. He knew of the anger and the bitterness, the frustrations and the despair of the marginalised. His (misplaced and dangerous) sympathy for the JVP and the LTTE, and his persistent attempts to reach out to them stemmed, from empathy.

As President, Premadasa sought to bridge destabilising societal-gaps (poor-rich/rural-urban/powerful-powerless) with programmes such as Janasaviya, Gam Udawa, 200 Garment Factories and land-redistribution. This conscious adoption of a strategy of equitable development marked another epistemological break from the Lankan norm.

Available statistical evidence points to the success of this ‘growth with equity’ strategy. During the 1989-1993 period growth rate improved[v], unemployment decreased[vi], budget deficit was contained[vii], balance of payment and debt service ratios improved[viii] and the stock market thrived[ix]. More pertinently, poverty[x] and inequality[xi] decreased and literacy rates[xii], infant mortality rates improved[xiii], real wage-rates increased[xiv] and trade union activities intensified[xv].

This definitive movement towards a less-unjust equilibrium was made possible by an increase in expenditure on social services (as a % of total government expenditure)[xvi], the distribution of 327,368 acres of state land amongst landless poor, the building of 159,336 new housing units with state assistance, the setting up of 134 new garment factories in underdeveloped areas[xvii], the granting of free uniforms and mid-day meal etc[xviii].

What is significant is that this growth-equity improvement took place while the country was recovering from the Second JVP Insurgency and engulfed in the Second Eelam War.

Today we are headed in the opposite direction. According to the latest Mercer’s International Geographic Salary Differentials, Sri Lankais among the five lowest-paying countries for para-professional employees in the world[xix]. This is one more indicator of a development path which under-develops the people[xx].

As a grade 11 student-participant of an essay competition to commemorate President Premadasa observed, “If the ‘development’ of a country goes hand in hand with the worsening of the living conditions of the people, for whom or for what is that development? A developed country for a malnourished people – is this not an insanity? Must the people of the country gaze at highways like a child looking yearningly at an empty ice cream cup?[xxi]

Inequality’s destabilising impact can assume particularly deadly forms in a country beset with ethno-religious divisions, especially if the rulers use the race/religious card to impose an artificial cohesiveness on an economically divided society. Premadasa understood the mutually sustaining relationship between anti-people development and the rise of fanaticism: “Sinhala villagers felt increasingly shut out from power and privilege which continued to be enjoyed by the few. These feelings of being denied access to a better life took an ethnic character when some of our leaders found it expedient to divert their emotions along ethnic lines”[xxii].

People, de-prioritised by prevailing developmental values and deprived of benefits of growth, can be bamboozled into demonising the ethno-religious ‘Other’.

The sense of déjà vu is palpable.


[i] English Economic History – George W Southgate

[ii] Just Four years after it refused to intervene to alleviate the condition ofAmerica’s working children, the US Supreme Court saw nothing unconstitutional in prohibiting the consumption of alcohol. During 1920-33, the consumption of alcohol was made illegal, carrying a fine of $1,000 and a six year jail term while child labour continued to be legal and socially acceptable.

[iii] The Social System

[v] Economic growth which had fallen to an average of 2.2% between 1987 and 1989 (the lowest in 15 years) showed a marked improvement to an average of 5.5% between 1990 and 1993.

[vi] From 19.5% in 1985/86 to 14.5 in 1993.

[vii] Budget Deficit (after grants) as a % of GDP averaged at 7.4% during the 1990-93 period.

[viii] For the first time in years there was a positive balance of payment, from SDR millions (-) 101 in 1988 to SDR million (+) 138 in 1990 and SDR million (+) 375 in 1993. Debt Service Ratio improved from 28.8% in 1988 to 16.5% in 1990 and 13.8% in 1993.

[ix] Annual turnover increased from Rs. Million 378.4 in 1988 to Rs. Million 1562.8 in 1990. The All Share Price Index increased from 172.44 in 1988 to 384.39 in 1990; the Sensitive Index increased from 309.56 in 1988 to 680.3 in 1990.

[x] According to the World Bank Head Count Index I poverty levels decreased by 4.9% between 1985/86 and 1990/91; according to the World Bank Head Count Index II, the decrease in absolute poverty during this period was 5.26%.

[xi] Income Distribution (Relative Poverty)

Deciles 1985-86% of income 1990-91% of income
Lowest 10% 0.4 1.9
Second 1.1 3.3
Third 2.0 4.3
Fourth 3.6 5.3
Fifth 4.9 6.4
Sixth 6.8 7.5
Seventh 8.1 9.2
Eighth 11.1 10.8
Ninth 12.7 14.8
Highest 10% 49.3 36.5

The distribution of income improved not only in favour of the poor but also of the middle classes. For example the share of the income received by the lowest 50% of the population improved by 9.8% (from 12% to 21.2%). The only significant losers were the highest 10% of the populace whose share dropped by 12.8%.

[xii] Literacy rates which decreased for all age groups (5-18) between 1981 and 1985/86 increased to 86.9% by 1990/91

[xiii] from 22.6%  in 1987 to 17.2% in 1991

[xiv] Real Wage Rates increased during 1990-93 for two of the three major categories – Workers in Wages Board Trades by 9% and all Central Government Employees by 2.2%. The real wage rate for the third major category, all Government School Teachers declined slightly by 0.8%.

[xv] The Number of newly registered trade unions increased during this period, from 83 in 1990 to 154 in 1993, as did the number of functioning trade unions from 1032 in 1990 to 1151 in 1993.

[xvi] from 23% in 1987 to 30% in 1993

[xvii] Of these 82.1% was outside theWesternProvince with 40.3% located in the zone with the lowest mean and median income level. 7 factories were established in the government controlled areas of the North and the East. As the Central Bank reported by the end of this first year the factories generated 70,000 jobs; their export earnings amounted to 29,589 million – 53% of the total textile and garment exports of the BOI industries during 1993.

[xviii] The sources for all the above statistics are the Central Bank Reports, Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey, Statistical Pocketbook of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka Economic and Stock Market Review.

[xix] The other four countries areVietnam,Pakistan,India and the Phillipines.

[xx] Tragically the UNP of today offers no alternative; both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa seem to believe in trickle-down policies, the latter with some handouts thrown in. Tom Paine said that “an hereditary governor is as inconsistent as an hereditary author”; developmental values are not borne genetically.

[xxi] quoted in ‘Ran Piyawara’

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    A very clever president.

    He inherited a country with 4 terrorist groups. LTTE, JVP, TNA (Tamil National Army) and IPKF. He got rid of 3 of them. The other got rid of him!

    He devised a clever plan to get Tamils in the north pay their due share of ‘tax’. Total economic embargo choked Jaffna. The only way to get milk packets, etc. was to bribe the checkpoint huge sums of money. An Anchor packet was 250/= in Jaffna when it was only 50/= in Colombo. Out of 200/= half went to the personnel and the other half to defence. Getting the enemy finance your war effort was amazing!

    • 0
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      the Government was financing the LTTE when they send food and medicines to the “civilian” population. I am personally aware the people got none of the medicines and only a part of the food.

      • 0
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        best president we had for living memory.

  • 0
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    Lot of facts you mentioned here are true. But I have understanding that Premadasa has biggest responsibility of starting the government sponsered fellow citizen killing culture, power given to police and forces to do instant judging and execution. These days people get used to these instant judging and execution by police and military so mch and lot of people feels that’s the right way
    Anura

    • 0
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      prove 1. wheres proof this is all rumour. current regime has killed so many

  • 0
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    Generally speaking, not only Sri Lanka, ever country in the world improved or developed economically since the second world war. That is why many countries – china, India, Malaysia, Brazil – have become big global powers. While countries thriving and developed at one time had peaked and now are going bankrupt.

    Before the world war, lack of trade resulted wars.

    • 0
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      JimNutty:
      Even by your standards, this is “nutty!” WW II ended in 1945, in case you didn’t know, and there were a hell of a lot of economic ups and DOWNS between then and 1993. There was not steady and dramatic economic growth between 1945 and 1993 ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD!

  • 0
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    Premadasa a Devil of a Dark Era, a killer maniac, his ghost face is one of the worst things to see on earth.

    • 0
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      See Mahinda’s and Gnanasara’s face, if you want see the worst.

    • 0
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      this guy has personal grievances. lmao

  • 0
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    Ms T’s arguments don’t jel. Do they?.

    PM Erdogan done more for the Turkish poor than anyone else.

    Erdogan has paid its foreign creditors and developed the Economy to be the only shining star in the EU Econoic Black Hole.

    Like our Ms T followers,the Moderate vigilantes, it is the Istanbul Elite with the support of Western Intelligene and their Govts who want to roll Erdogan and keep the rural Burka clad Muslim girls at home.

    Can’t we see the similarity here,

    Keselwatta Dalit as Ms T calls our old Prez Prema never had a chance against the Sinhala Vellalas from Kurunduwatta.

    Because they were dominating the UNP and their English speaking Elite servants were taking care of both Civil and Military establishments.

    The story is that the only security officer who warned Prema not to get off the security vehicle was a Southerner with the STF.

    He was over ruled and Prema was delivered to Prabakran on a plate.

    Prema was the only UNP leader who wanted to do something for the rural poor.

    Instead of getting his help, JVP who are the self claimed saviours of poor folks in the illage rheamed him big time , driving him mad and into the hands of the LTTE.

    Two UNPers, a Prez and a PM who ruled after him, never said the truth how Prema got done.

    At least Ms T,s favorite British enquired about the riots and said it was the poor.

    Srilanka now is a medium income nation.

    And the beauty is this Medium tag is not a Rajapaksa invention, although their hard work during the last eight years certainly helped.

    • 0
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      It looks radicalising and letting muslim fundamentalists get their way may be the western agenda. that may eventually lead to break down that system.

      See what has happened to Libya, Iraq, Egypt and now what is happening to Syria.

  • 0
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    The only leader who did something to the country.
    The poor man’s president.
    Unlike the present ‘Katin Bathala Hitawana’ Hingana Beggar Buggers.

  • 0
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    What I heard, the trade protectionism was one of the major reasons why there was second world war. Trade protectionism led to internal turmoil in many countries eventually that leading to the war.

    Only thing Sri Lankan politicians would have done was preventing trade thereby screwing up the country.

    On the other hand, there trade protectionism even in the USA which is the most trade -oriented.

  • 0
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    Truth is visceral anathema to many. Hosannas are seen to be sung for RP year after year many of which he deserves. But the fact that many turn a rogue blind eye is the fact that it is JR who brought about this transformation in the country. Even TG’s much hyped “Janasaviya, Gam Udawa, 200 Garment Factories and land-redistribution” programmes of RP had their roots in the greater economic master plan and vision of JR without which RP would not have been able to “glide along” his “growth with equity” and “socio-economic equality” lines. Without discounting anything from the “goodies” RP delivered to the people, he in a way failed the country as a nation by failing to take over from where JR stopped and ushering an era of prosperity, promise, democracy, good governance, strategic and favourable international relations and walking the country into socio-economic and cultural prosperity so to speak. He was the type of politician who revolved and hovered mainly around the poor and the underprivileged whereas what was required was to build on the platform already laid and work towards a more diverse economic index venturing into more technology and hi-tech oriented ventures. His subaltern caste was at war with the elite and it is the country that paid the ultimate price-the ethic problem remained a problem forever, strained international relations, dissent in the country not handled properly and status quo maintained. Of course the JVP’s irresponsible and anti-government, anti-societal and anti-progress activities did not help him either coupled with the LTTE terrorism.

  • 0
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    1. R.Premadasa was ignored when Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord., and Gamini Dissanayake was given prominence.
    2. The naval rating who attacked Rajiv Gandhi with his rifle, after signing the Peace Accord, was released from the prison no sooner he assumed as President.
    3. During the 2nd JVP insurrection several thousands of Sinhalese youths were killed and thrown into Kelani Ganga. What anused was the kidneys of those youths were exported to a foreign country.
    4. After the presence of the IPKF, several truck loads of arms & ammunitions were sent to LTTE in Vanni straight from the Colombo harbour during his period.
    5. Stamps of the denomination of Rs.1,000/+ and Rs.500/= were made available at Hulftsdorp below denominated value.
    6. His Secretaries made use of him to plunder the wealth of the country. After his death several people became multi-millionaires overnight.
    7. Abductions also took place during his period. Lalith Athulathmudali was shot at Kirullapone when he was addressing an election meeting, after having the power cut.
    8. Upali disappeared mysteriously when he was travelling from Malaysia during his period.
    There are some more. Finally, during the May day procession he disappeared mysteriously when Premadasa waved his hand and signalled Babu (the suicide bomber) to come and he collided with his cycle. He failed to realize his limits.

    • 0
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      some of the some more are…. Ranjan Wijeratne, Vijaya, Denzil Kobbe and the list goes on… but Hinganapaksa calls Preme a poor man’s president…ha ha ha

    • 0
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      what a joker the above guy. premadasa waved flag to kill him. lmao

  • 0
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    His best friend was Sothi Upali

    • 0
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      When Premadasa & Ranil Kick out Gamini,Lalith, and come to power.now Sajith try to kick out Ranil and take the power.

  • 0
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    Premadasa is responsible for all defeats of U.N.P.
    he destroy U.N.P. he kick off Lalith & Gamini the upcoming leaders of U.N.P. if he give the premier ship to Lalith or Gamini U.N.P. still in power. Premadasa is responsible for forming D.U.N.F. by Lalith Gamini group. that is the beginning U.N.P.s falling. now his son Sajith try to do the same thing what his father did for the party. I’m not saying Ranil did the best. he also with Premadasa against Lalith & Gamini. now no leader in U.N.P. no one can save the party.

    • 0
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      Dear Haniff Mohamed,
      I agree with you. Had Lalith been alive, Sri lanka would be a paradise today. Gamini was in very good terms with India. Even the ethnic issue would be solved on the British model. I was working with Lalith and discussed various matters of developing Sri Lanka to international standards. We missed a fine opportunity because of some blind politicians.

    • 0
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      If Preme gave the premiership to Gamini, we will be having more Mahavelis flowing through the country and he will be having more orchards in Australia.

      • 0
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        Also more burnt libraries.

  • 0
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    Aney what this evil man did to Richard de Zoysa. Tears still coming to my eyes. Why this Thisaranee girl write about this man I donn know.

    • 0
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      beeta akki is only talking BEET ROOT
      how many people have died by this regime?

  • 0
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    its funny how this woman does not want to prosecute premadasa for the matele mass graves . it was preme who put an end to the JVP khmer rouge . thank goodness . That is one of his lasting achievements and the country should be greteful for them . but in the end he was a fool who beleived the tamils could somehow be trusted .

    • 0
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      He once said without the 5 lingams he would never comprehend, no? Who killed him? That’s your sweet problem. Jai Hind.

  • 0
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    Tisaranee G you got it spot on over again- like Brazil and the rest it’s time to revolt and to all those who like to wait and see here’s how.

    Everyone take a “mutt” for a walk to a favorite tourist place, government place and do the “goo” and go away.

    The stench itself is a protest.

  • 0
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    The writer is hell bent to give credit to this man who masterminded a weapons deal with the terrorists. When Mr. Premadasa was living if any one said he was a common man coming from not so higher society, he would have got killed. After all he had studied at ST. Josephs. So what is the class distinction the write is trying to establish. We know how Allosyous and Dharmadasa become tycoons during his administration. He was no saint for the common people. It is only the media trying to say so.

  • 0
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    No matter what they say this man did wonders for the country, the poor and was by far the most genuine hard working president

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