29 June, 2022


Chanaka Amaratunga – Reflections After 18 Years

By Rajiva Wijesinha –

Chanaka Amaratunga died 18 years ago on August 1st. Like Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, he might have said that he had failed in everything he tried to do. But, like Bishop Lakshman, the impact of his thought continues, and with every day that passes the principles he enunciated seem more important.

Dr Chanaka  Amaratunga

Dr Chanaka Amaratunga

His masterwork was the volume of Ideas for Constitutional Reform which was based on widespread consultations with a range of parties and thinkers. He was a close friend of Gamini Dissanayake and Neelan Tiruchelvam, two exponents of liberal thought from different backgrounds, who were both victim of Tiger assassinations. These were lifelong friends, with whom he had much in common. But he was also close to Ranasinghe Premadasa, not only during what proved to be the last days of the latter, but also at the start of Chanaka’s own interest in politics.

This sprang from his deep affection for Dudley Senanayake, who he felt initially had been betrayed by J R Jayewardene. I myself thought then that J R had rescued the party from moribundity and introduced much needed reforms after his election victory in 1977, but Chanaka forcefully expressed a contrary view even in 1978. He told me then that he regretted that Premadasa had not gone on with his initial sympathy with the Dudley Front that UNP traditionalists had tried to develop.

But over the next few years, perhaps admiring the rapidity with which J R introduced economic change, he fell in line, and thought I was making an unnecessary fuss when I resigned my university post because Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights were taken away. He agreed that this was wrong, but thought it was not important in comparison with the reforms the country needed.

I thought therefore that he would also gloss over the referendum whereby elections were postponed, but he did nothing of the sort, and made a valiant attempt to rally the old Dudley Front supporters to express their opposition. But none of them had the courage to stand up openly, so it was only Chanaka who actually left the UNP on that issue. His great supporter in that campaign was his schoolfriend Asitha Perera, with whom there was a sad falling out when the latter usurped the seat Chanaka had been promised by the Muslim Congress in 1994. 18 years later Rauff Hakeem expressed his regrets at having been one of those who had pressurized Mr Ashraff not to keep his promise, a lapse that I think proved crucial in limiting the scope of the SLMC, despite Mr Ashraff’s own much broader vision.

In the eighties, after Chanaka’s bold step in breaking with the UNP, he was supported to hold a series of seminars on the Constitution by the German Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, in the brief period in between its unthinking allegiance to the more authoritarian elements in the UNP. These drew increasing attention as it became clear that J R’s authoritarianism was leading the country to disaster. So we held some of the seminars during a period of increasing terror, and continuous tension, with both the LTTE and the JVP on the rampage, following the Indo-Lankan Accord.

The Liberal Party were strong supporters of the Accord, though we were also critical of some aspects, in particular the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Thus we found Premadasa’s approach worrying, and thought in 1989 that he was bungling things appallingly. But he soon enough understood the folly of his opposition to India and his flirtation with the LTTE. He was able to mend fences relatively soon, through sending a superb High Commissioner to Delhi. This was Neville Kanakaratne, who had done an excellent job in Washington in 1970 when initially Mrs Bandaranaike had to face much hostility from the United States. J R accordingly got rid of Neville, which he did also to Shirley Amerasinge, despite general requests that the latter be kept on to continue to chair discussions on the Law of the Sea. Shirley sadly died soon afterwards, but Neville at least had another lease of productive life when J R belatedly realized his worth and sent him to Moscow. Premadasa too made use of him, and his last position was Governor of the Southern Province to which he was appointed by President Kumaratunge.

Premadasa was also magnanimous in victory after his defeat of the JVP, and did his best to overcome the causes of disaffection. In the south, and also in the north and east in areas government controlled, he embarked on social and economic development, which won him a lot of support. Unlike J R, he never tried to manipulate elections, and the results of local elections in the East, the year before his death, justified his confidence.

Unfortunately the discipline he tried to introduce in government went haywire after the attempted impeachment, a conspiracy that reverberates still in the anxiety of all subsequent Presidents to indulge their Parliamentarians. But I believe that he would have embarked upon essential reforms had he won another term, and his courting of Chanaka, with whom he signed a memorandum of understanding shortly before he died, is testimony to his appreciation of the need for political principles. Not entirely surprisingly, Gamini Dissanayake did the same, 18 months later, in asking Chanaka to draft his manifesto, and ensuring that all this was done in confidence because he had little faith in the abilities of colleagues in the UNP, to which he had returned after Premadasa’s death.

But both Premadasa and Dissanayake were killed by the Tigers, and Chanaka had to face the hostility of both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunge. However the Liberal Party Office in those days became a refuge for the Tamil groups that had joined the democratic process after the Indo-Lankan Accord, and it is a pity that Chandrika did not make greater use then of Chanaka’s understanding of political principles in negotiations. Unfortunately, though her commitment to pluralism has never been in doubt, like many politicians she was suspicious of anyone who was not totally committed to her, and therefore had to use the second rate rather than the best minds available. Also, like President Rajapaksa, she was lulled into complacence by the weak opposition she enjoyed, and did not realize the urgency of moving for the sake of the people who had suffered from deprivation and conflict. With re-election seeming easy, she failed to concentrate on the important issues, just as has happened now.

Chanaka was not alive to see the failure of negotiations, nor the sorry state into which the country plunged in the political chaos that accompanied Chandrika’s re-election, with increasing anger in the SLFP at her waywardness. Had he lived, I have no doubt that, as the Liberal Party decided made sense, he would despite his dislike of Ranil Wickremesinghe have supported the UNP in the sudden election of 2001. He would probably have approved of the Cease Fire Agreement, even though he would doubtless hae critiqued the more excessive concessions to the Tigers that it included, and he would certainly have been in favour of negotiating with the Tigers. But, given his implacable opposition to terrorism, I think too that he would have realized soon enough that Ranil was giving in far too much. The ruthless killing of the other Tamil groups that had been so close to him for a decade and more would have upset him intensely, and he would have been in favour of the different approach taken first by President Kumaratunge and then by President Rajapaksa.

He would have endorsed the President’s determination to get rid of the Tigers when they refused to negotiate and then refused to surrender, and he would have been pleased when they were destroyed. But he would also have assumed that the purpose of the victory was to ensure an inclusive peace. The failure to work together with the moderate Tamils who had, at great risk to themselves, opposed the Tigers would have upset him considerably. And though he would have been shocked at the decision of the TNA to support Sarath Fonseka in the Presidential elections, something that his old friend Neelan Tiruchelvam would never have done, he would have understood the need after the election to extend an olive branch to the TNA and work positively towards a solution.

The tragedy of what is happening now is that President Rajapaksa also understood this. But isolated as he is from the views of the rest of the SLFP leadership, concerned as he is primarily about electoral victories (and having inherited a system that makes this a full time concern, unlike in the days before Provincial and Pradeshiya Sabha elections), he has simply not been able to work on the sort of consensus that a national leader should aim at. He has diminished the role of the Cabinet to a greater insignificance than even the most authoritarian of his predecessors did, and Parliament as Parliament has no role at all.

Chanaka, who once wrote an article entitled ‘In Praise of Parliament’, would have found all this tragic. The breakdown of the Committee system, the destructive effect of the Standing Orders that the Jayewardene government introduced, the empty house during Adjournment Motions and Private Business days, would have upset him greatly.

Though I never felt as strongly about Parliament as he did, I am glad that the Liberal Party has made two significant if small contributions to making Parliament more effective. One is the seriousness brought into the deliberations of the Committee on Public Enterprises, to which I was appointed without requesting it, but at which I am the only new Parliamentarian on the government side to attend regularly. I was also able to introduce mechanisms to ensure that we covered all institutions under our purview, and to develop a reasonable system of follow up, though Eran Wickremaratne and I are still trying to make it better.

And more recently, because of my complaints, according to the Secretary General of Parliament, there is now a report on the Consultative Committees. I can only hope that this becomes widely known, because it may lead to public assessments that will motivate a more serious role for Committees as well as encourage better attendance.

But the simplest way of achieving this, the amendment of Standing Orders that I have proposed, is unlikely to see the light of day, since in violation of Standing Orders it has not as yet been put before the House. And even more sadly, what would be the most important Bill to have been proposed during the life of this Parliament, a Constitutional Amendment to reduce the Cabinet to 30, is likely to vanish without trace.

Chanaka would have been delighted that that was proposed by Vasantha Senanayake, the great nephew of his great hero Dudley. He would also have understood why Vasantha is on the government side, rather than in the party founded by his great grand father, our first Prime Minister. But he would also have regretted that the SLFP has failed to make use of such ability.

Well before the conclusion of the war, the Council for Liberal Democracy brought out a streamlined version of Ideas for Constitutional Reform, which looked at a few of the issues that needed urgent attention. In addition to limiting the size of the Cabinet, and moving to a mixed electoral system, it urged the introduction of a Second Chamber and the introduction of a Bill of Rights. Ironically, much of this is already in the first or second versions of the Mahinda Chintanaya. But in what seems an increasingly myopic concentration on electoral victories, without consideration of how to govern afterwards and with what objectives, the reforms the country so urgently needs seem to be forgotten. Doubtless if things get much worse there will be recognition of the need for reforms on the basis of principle rather than change for the sake of change. But given the current penchant for violence, and the immunity those repeating the excesses of 1983 seem to enjoy, one wonders whether the decline will not be irreversible. The policies on which the last two elections were won should be enough to make things better. But we seem drawn back to the eightes when, in contrast to the nineties when it was terrorism that made life so difficult, government seems adept only at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.


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Latest comments

  • 4

    Gamini Dissanayake and liberal thought in one sentence..never thought I will see the day… lol

  • 3

    It is precisely because of the current electoral system you are in Parliament representing your tiny party. The moment you bring changes you will need to join one of the bigger parties to get elected. In effect you will be shooting yourself in the foot if you want to trim the cabinet.

    The present problem in Parliment is having to accommodate too many chiefs. This has left with an elephantine dysfunctional cabinet to support the large number of “chiefs” like you from minor parties.

    Not only that it has left with a ridiculous situation where your “Housing Minister” can contest independently of the alliance at PC elections creating awkward situations giving rise to conflict of interest.

    If you have any ideas on political reform, take it to the committee presently formed to discuss the issue. All your ideas are good apart from the North-East merger. North-East merger is not recommended because the East will lose its ethnic balance presently not in favour of any community.

    • 0

      Although the Liberal Party was a “tiny party” – to use your expression – I believe it had much to offer a political landscape that seriously lacked intellectual depth. It certainly is not to the credit of our political culture a party of learned young (and even some not so young) could not, in any substantial way, enrich our governance
      from the Liberalism the leaders of the Party learnt in Ole Blighty.
      Chanaka Amaratunga could have helped our political discourse in many ways. Unfortunately, fate saw to it he left the scene sadly and prematurely.


  • 0

    “The tragedy of what is happening now is that President Rajapaksa ……….. isolated as he is from the views of the rest of the SLFP leadership, concerned as he is primarily about electoral victories…… has simply not been able to work on the sort of consensus that a national leader should aim at. He has diminished the role of the Cabinet to a greater insignificance than even the most authoritarian of his predecessors did, and Parliament as Parliament has no role at all.”

    So what do we do Rajiva? Grin and bear?

    By the way, look out for that white van!

  • 1

    Entirely by accident in Dr Wijesinghe’s article, he comes off as having not only out-thought and out-done Dr Amaratunga, but being the more virtuous. His selective speculation on what might have been Chanaka’s response to events studiously avoids the unbridled parliamentary adventurism such as injustice done to the Chief Justice and the 18th amendment – such odious violations of principles might have given even Chanaka cause to put down his glass of port.

  • 3

    Dear Mr. Wijesinghe,

    Your ability to draw conclusions from non-existent facts seems to improve with each article you compose.

    Chanaka Amaratunga must have been a wonderful human being. I have no need to doubt that. There is nothing he achieved in his political life, as you have eloquently created to mislead the rest of us. Just because his friends went to him for advise or he spoke to specific policies he was for or against does not make him a notable leader of anything.

    The Liberal Party was never a force in Sri Lankan politics as you claim it was, for National List seats to be traded in exchange for its support. The ONLY reason MHM Ashroff agreed to give up the National List seat was give the SLMC a more homogenic profile instead of an Islamo-Eastern centred party it really was/is.

    Proof: Even the Muslims in Colombo Central cannot be depended on to vote for its candidates.

    Fortunately for you Mr.Wijesinghe; Gamini, Premadasa, JR, Ashroff and Chanaka are all dead!! So there is no one to ask but ourselves. Most of us can recognise BS, when it is served up. And some of us, can call a spade, a spade because we do not have to write or sing for our next meal!

  • 1

    Bishop Lakshman Wickramasinghe was a Christain, Christianity says first make friends with your brother. Why not practice what religion says and be a example to followers.

  • 0

    Rajiwa wijesinghe may something to offer for the country as he was a educated political figure in the present politcal arena. But his Liberal party is crap that represent elite and can do nothing for the suffering masses in Sri Lanka. You can have memories but we need something for our hunger. Contribute your thoughts for a change. Dont worship corrupted rogues.

  • 2

    Rajiva are you serious that ‘Gamini Dissanayake ……..an exponent of liberal thought’. You must be insane.

    If you do not know, let me educate you. He is a damn down right rabid racist.

    1. He was responsible for burning the Jaffna library.

    2. During 1983, he played an important role to espouse violence against the Tamils. He went to the extent of demanding the President JRJ to wipe out the Tamils from the soil of Sri Lanka.

    Seriously, Rajiva has lost his marbles and loosing little bit of respect he has with his horrible portrayals of disgusting political leaders.

    If Gamini was liberal, Rajiva should have recruited him to his Liberal Party.

    I will not read Rajiva’s articles anymorehereafter as he s lost his balance like the belly dancing Dayan Jayatileka.

  • 0

    @ Good Boy

    “….the belly dancing Dayan Jayatileka”

    You mean, [Edited out] Dayan Jayatileka?

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