9 December, 2022


Premadasa, Père et Fils  

By Sarath de Alwis –

Sarath de Alwis

We are what time, circumstances and history has made of us. We are trapped in history. At age seventy-seven, I refuse to trap history in my mind. This essay is an obligation to history.   

Although JR Jayewardene introduced ‘Executive Presidentialism’, coercive cruelty of presidentialism in the public psyche of my generation is firmly linked to the presidency of Ranasinghe Premadasa. We carry the scars. 

R. Premadasa was the first  to practice ‘patronal presidentialism’. Unlike his predecessor, R. Premadasa was the rank outsider to the establishment. He set down the precedents of ‘patronal presidentialism’ that his successors Chandrika and Mahinda gleefully followed.  His ethos was simple. Don’t be dissuaded by people who tell you that it cannot be done.

As a directly elected president he addressed the nation from the Octagon in Kandy. The office had bestowed on him significantly more authority than other state organs. Unlike JR who drafted the constitution, Ranasinghe Premadasa had the advantage of interpreting the constitution in his own light- that of the street fighter who cut his teeth in municipal politics of Colombo. He realized that the president’s power was not confined only to such as stipulated in the constitution. The Presidency was an opportunity to build extensive patron-client relationships that covered the country. Power was no longer limited to codified law. The executive presidency with its immunity enabled him immense power to manipulate an informal hierarchical power network through which he channeled state resources to the loyal and punished his opponents. 

Ranasinghe Premadasa was the first ‘patronal president’ with a charmed inner circle of a presential elite who were committed to carry out his edicts 24 x 7. 

The office of President was the institutional focal point of an elite independent of the cabinet of Ministers. The patronal president decided on matters for the better or worse in consultation with his trusted aides. Parliament was an inconvenient adjunct. 

Very early in the process, Sajith Premadasa was forthright in his belief that his nomination by the UNP was his birthright. He told us, that as the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa, had prepared himself for this onerous task from the day he was born. 

Now we talk of shadowy excesses of an all-powerful executive running berserk with an outfit labelled the ‘Tripoli Platoon’.  Citizens of my generation have an obligation to remind the current generation of the ‘Lawrence Mafia’ that functioned under the Premadasa presidency. It was truly the fountain head of extra judicial processes of taming dissent. It was that terrible mechanism of fear that compelled a group of UNP dissenters to rebel against their autocratic leader. 

Sajith Premadasa has now moved one step further. He wants to perpetuate the executive presidency and the current constitutional order. 

Any talk of abolishing the presidency would therefore be a negation of his manifest destiny. He has boldly, bluntly and brazenly dismissed his party’s officially declared policy committed to abolish the executive presidency. 

At a press conference held at the home of Mangala Samaraweera, his new political praetorian, he insisted, quite vehemently, that no scientific study has established that the abolition of the executive presidency was either a national imperative or an objective desired by the electorate. He seems oblivious to the stringent laboratory test that demonstrated the profoundly heinous nature of executive presidentialism during the October constitutional coup. 

Sajith Premadasa is committed to build one thousand one hundred twenty-five ‘stupas’ throughout the land. Now in this noble undertaking he has a solid scientific explanation for dotting the island with protuberant piles of concrete that serves no practical purpose other than appeasing the piety of the ‘wide eyed’ and ‘silly’ minded.   

Sajith Premadasa like his father Ranasinghe Premadasa has a deep-seated aversion to the science of reason. May be it is this quality that has endeared him to the likes of Mangala Samaraweera, anxious to find a wiling rouser of the rabble or the  UNP’s version of  a tribal totem dancer- a kind of a reasonably literate chap who can be made to say the most stupid things about the tribe, the totem and  taboos. To win this election against Gotabaya, Mangala and his team want a Tribal egoist who will focus on my people, my religion and me, me, me!   

What is wrong with the presidential system? The executive presidential system institutionally separates the legislature and the executive. There is adequate literature scientific and demonstrative to make the point that Presidentialism is incompatible with representative multi-party democracy. 

Let us briefly examine how we ended up with this conundrum. At the 1977 general election, the UNP under JRJ swept to office with a five sixth majority while polling only 50.7 percent of the overall vote. 

Of all our post-independence political leaders, JR Jayewardene is the only leader who had tasted electoral defeat. He lost his seat in 1956. He was the quintessential machine politician. He was feared and respected as a consummate political operator. 

At the ceremonial session of the newly elected parliament, he whispered to the Leader of Opposition Amirthalingam who was seated next; “It took me thirty years to get to this seat.”  

 The conventional economic wisdom at the time was that poor developing countries should follow programs of import substitution. They must not import manufactured products from developed economies. Developing countries should export their primary produce and use their foreign exchange reserves for infrastructure development and enhancing their manufacturing capacity.  Persistent poverty of developing countries was the result of exploitative practices of capitalist economies.  

A resolute leader, JRJ jettisoned the idea of import substitution and the regulated economy.

He forced opened an economy that was hermetically sealed since adopting exchange control in the fifties. An economy insulated from the world was dragged kicking, screaming into the remorseless world of the invisible hand moving the market. This was twelve years before the fall of the Berlin wall and the failure of Global socialism. It was fifteen years before the developed economies formed the World Trade Organization to bring the semblance of a world order in free trade. 

In introducing these systemic shifts that were seismic in their impact, JR Jayewardene never forgot his humiliating defeat at the polls in 1956. Just as winning the war became a unique selling proposition in the post-civil war period, wining independence was the winning formula of the ruling elite of the post-independence years. 

The fickle voter had finally given him an instrument for drastic change and reform. He admired two men- Napoleon and Disraeli. 

The depositary of power is always unpopular said Disraeli. He followed Napoleons dictum that a true master of politics was able to calculate, down to the smallest fraction, the advantages to which he may put his very faults!   

Proportional representation would prevent a reversal of his far-reaching structural changes. The change from fickle politics to firm politics had a price. An executive president with absolute immunity while in office would replace the office of the prime minister subject to the whims of a parliament. Logic of market economics would override reason and equity. Darwinian law of the ‘strong’ feeding on the weak would be overarching rule. Presidential discretion would be the exception to the rule. The authority of the Presidency would only exclude gender tampering – making a man a woman or vice versa! 

Introducing harsh structural reforms in a society that was benignly sheltered by social safety nets called for what a social theorist accurately described as arrogantly authoritarian, coercive policies of an intransigent regime. We can brush over our mistakes, but we cannot forget the lessons of our mistakes.  

History is for human self-knowledge. The only clue to what we can do in the future is what we have done in the past. The value of history is that it tells us what kind of fools we were in the past. 

The executive presidency caused two civil wars, one in the south and another in the north. 

The Rajapaksa family did not invent impunity or disregard for the rule of law. When the then government moved a parliamentary resolution to deprive Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civil rights, the opposition pleaded that the government await the supreme court determination on her writ application. The then Prime minister Ranasinghe Premadasa put the matter to rest.  “even if the Supreme Court rejects the Report and the recommendations of the Commission, we shall not withdraw the Resolution that we are going to pass today” (Hansard Vol II – 16.10.80).  The executive presidency killed democracy and undermined the rule of law on that fateful day in October 1980. 

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Others are also disqulified.
    Because they are
    no intergrity or accountability

    The downfall of the so called yahapalanaya
    started after Sirisena started exposing UNP shit and in retailation
    UNP started exposing Sirisena’s shit.

    This is inevitable after the one year honymoon period.
    We are the foolls for expecting too much from these humbugs.

    • 3

      Agree. Voters are the fools who repeatedly vote for the same bunch of selfish, uneducated, corrupt, idiotic candidates and expect different results. Think and protest. Take back the country which belongs to all citizen’s. not a bunch of gods that we elect to worship and to abuse us.

    • 2


      In your youth did you dress like Sajith in this photograph? ……….. Ramona would have been in a tutu taking ballet lessons!

  • 11

    Sajitha wants a scientific survey to find out if the people want to abolish the executive presidency. What does he mean? He grabbed the UNP nomination without consulting the party. Isn’t this the classic behaviour of an a**hole ?

  • 8

    Sarath de Alwis ; Your Statement:-
    “Sajith Premadasa is committed to build one thousand one hundred twenty-five ‘stupas’ throughout the land.”
    Is Sajith Premadasa a Practising Buddhist?
    Building so many Stupas with no Qualified Bhikkhus to teach the Dhamma to our People, is the Best Way to destroy The Buddha’s Dhamma!
    In fact, the existing Temples do not have enough Bhikkhus to keep them Viable!

  • 7


    I was pinnng my hopes on Sajith to change the course of history in Sri Lanka by devolving power as he has promised but you have now cast doubt in my mind as to whether he can be trusted if elected.
    I have to trust you as you are on the ground and closer to reality.

    • 3

      As of now, Gota seems to have decided how to rule if elected. With all Sajith’s public rallies, one thing is clear; as of now, he has no idea what to do next if elected.
      Both these stances have their own reflections; one is fearful, and other is hopeless. So go for the better between fearful & hopeless.

  • 0

    You too CT (BRUTUS)

  • 2

    The writer makes it plain that the election of Sajith as the Executive President could be the start of another “Executioner” President reminiscent of his late father. Clearly Sajith represents the same trait “Always say Yes Sir! or get out of my sight!”. Today, luminaries like Indrajit Coomaraswamy can tell Ranil that what is proposed is against the law and to the outburst of “Then we change the law” is responded with “That is within your province” without having to face some disastrous consequence of being picked up by a white van and burnt in a tyre pyre or dropped in to the ocean from air like Richard de Zoysa. We all deplore the white van era of the Rajapakses maiming or killing journalists forgetting the fact that the abominable culture was first introduced to the Sri Lankan polity by none other than the pragmatic, efficient and effective Ranasinghe Premadasa. The intolerance of Sajith to a different point of view to such a vitriolic extent is the sure start of such an era if the HE gets power. Already the “aaryawa” mentality has crept into the spouse reminiscing the honorific “Hemavo!” long before being elected. Leading UNPers at all costs want a victory to continue to enjoy power even if that means dumping Ranil. Those who are rebelling against the inner circle of Ranil have joined Sajith and some in the inner circle have become closer to Sajith. Ranil may be able to do some “Abracadabra” to eliminate Sajith from the UNP but at what cost to the UNP in terms of popularity. The start of all this is that Ranil did not factor in the feelings of the ordinary in his decision making while in power. Sad!

  • 2

    “The executive presidency caused two civil wars, one in the south and another in the north.”

    These are incorrect conclusions. The first JVP uprising was in 1971, so how could it be caused by the Executive Presidency, which was only a ceremonial position until JR’s constitution came out in 1978? The 1971 coup was an attempt by disenfranchised rural youth to seize power. The 2nd JVP uprising in 1987 was a direct response to Indian intervention on the island. One cannot blame the EP here; if JR had been allowed to complete the highly successful Vadamaratchi Operation, there would have been no 2nd JVP uprising and in fact no more LTTE. Sirima’s economic policies can be blamed for the first JVP uprising. CBK’s colossal military blunders resulted in the war dragging out for more than a decade. Rajapakse was able to win the war in only 3 years.

  • 1

    “The claims of Tamil nationalists are more loud because there are 60 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu…”
    The Separation of Sri Lanka along Ethnic/Religious Lines, will result Ultimately in Northern Sri Lanka becoming a State of TamilNadu!

  • 1

    Indeed, Sanskritist’s observation that even the very first sentence of Sarath de Alwis’s article is written in grammatically incorrect English indicates the sorry state of affairs that exists in Sri Lanka Today as far as good English is concerned.

    An English Class school Master of the 1950s or 1960s would have immediately noted that:

    “We are what time, circumstances and history has made of us”

    should be replaced with:

    “We are what time, circumstances and history have made of us”,

    and also giving a few shots with the disciplinary cane of the ear.

    • 1

      English Master,

      Oh Master! …….. I studied in the Sinhala stream …….. any day you are welcomed ( or should it be welcome? …… Now, I’m confused; Sinhala_Man please help me out! ) to correct my English!

      But the difficulty is to find someone to correct the substance of writings/comments.

      Now, what would you prefer?

      Or would ye prefer to commit suicide if ye make one mistake in English? There are many Lankan who would prefer to commit suicide …….. some in my own family, mind ye!

      Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had about tube amplifier designs are with Hiroyasu Kondo and Ken Shindo who spoke very little English. They had no hang-ups whatsoever about conversing in broken-English unlike ye my dear English Master.

      Unlike the Japanese, wonder what is afflicting the Lankans? …… Insecurity? ……. Go figure.

      And if you are wondering why the “……….” it’s just that I learned English from comic-books ……… I’m just combining Joyce’s and Proust’s stream of consciousness flow with the style of comic-book narrative. ……… Taken English further away from the generations-stultified proper Lankan-English! :))

  • 0

    “The executive presidency caused two civil wars, one in the south and another in the north.”
    That is not quite correct.
    The author conveniently forgets the 1971 insurrection (civil war?) in the South resulted from mistakes of the Weatminster Parliamentary system 1948-1971.
    The civil war in the North resulted not only from mistakes of Presidential system 1978-1983 but also due to mistakes of Westminster Parliamentry system 1948-1978.
    History and facts should not be distorted to suit individual narratives and theories.

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