Colombo Telegraph


By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The 25th Death Anniversary of President Premadasa

‘The False must be rectified’ — Bertolt Brecht

Any personality who has entered History demands a twin evaluation. What did he mean in his time, place, and circumstance? What is his importance outside of and beyond his own specific context? His contribution then; his relevance now: only thus can we recognize his significance. In the case of Premadasa however, this recognition has been made almost impossible by the most massive, sustained and protracted ideological operation launched against a single individual in 20th century Sri Lanka; a campaign using all the modes of warfare — siege, subversion, sabotage, attack, attrition – by a grand alliance of privilege and prejudice. The hegemonic ideology, the ideology of the hegemonic social strata, has borne down heaviest on the figure of Ranasinghe Premadasa, in life and in death. In death he is still dangerous, because they are never sure, can never be sure, that Premadasa really is dead – and if so, how long he will stay that way.

Given the continued centrality of the ethnic conflict, a particularly persistent and pernicious piece of propaganda is that it was Premadasa as Prime Minister, who with his obstreperous conduct wrecked relations with neighboring India – for which we paid a heavy price. The implication is that this ‘inability’ to understand so subtle and intricate a subject as diplomacy – and to hold his tongue – stemmed from a coarseness of character, which in turn was sourced in class and caste. But Premadasa was reacting to India’s coercive diplomacy which was itself a reaction by Delhi to the crude mishandling of Tamil affairs and of foreign and strategic policy by the Lankan administration of the day. These were decisions the Prime Minister had nothing to do with and were handled by elite echelons of the Government, persons with no discernible class/caste disabilities, cultivated men.


The Jayewardene administration’s foreign policy orientation in its first decade was but a recrudescence of that adopted in the first decade of postcolonial rule. The three main aspects of post-’77 UNP policy were a marked tilt towards the West, the hope that this would offset the Indian factor, and the departure ( following the Thatcher and Reagan victories ) from the Non-Aligned consensus. All three were motifs of the eminently Establishment administrations of Senanayake and Kotelawala. The contradictions with India over (up-country) Tamil rights, the retention of British bases, the non-recognition of the USSR and China; the break with the Afro-Asian consensus, the clash with Chou en Lai and the friction with Nehru at Bandung (which earned Sir John a rude local nickname) – these were part of the mainstream UNP’s foreign policy tradition. The reactivation of this policy line created the space for India’s interventionist diplomacy. Both as Prime Minister and President, Premadasa, a patriot who at 18 had launched a monthly magazine called ‘Swadeshaya’, was only attempting to bar and then close that window of Lankan vulnerability. To allege that he created the problem, is to frame him.

Among the most sophisticated and deep-rooted pieces of deception concerning Premadasa is his role in the UNP comeback of 1970-73 and its sweeping victory in 1977. The device is one of concealment by condescension. The entire effort is seen overwhelmingly as one of J. R. Jayewardene, assisted by ‘the best and the brightest’ – an elite of clever, well educated, tough- minded men of comfortable circumstance who endowed the masses with enlightened leadership, with Premadasa the upwardly mobile commoner, constituting a handy bit of camouflage and providing populist demagoguery. Depending on the commentator concerned, after the victory J. R. was ‘Machiavellian’ or ‘magnanimous’ in making Premadasa the Prime Minister. Upon becoming President, Premadasa is perceived to have marginalized such elements who contributed so much to the UNP-chafing as he obviously was, with envy at his social and intellectual betters! The pre-requisite for electoral success and the country’s salvation and progress today is therefore said to be to bring back ‘the educated’ and ‘the professionals’, giving them the pride of place they had in the winning UNP of ’77. This version is false in three fundamental respects. It obscures the dynamics and balance of forces within the UNP of ‘70-77, falsifies the nature of Premadasa’s contribution, and distorts the character of the ’77 victory itself.

There weren’t two political lines – Dudley and JR – in the UNP during that period in the opposition, there were three: Dudley, JR, and Premadasa. But this cannot be conceded, because to do so would be to concede that Premadasa was capable of a distinctive perspective and programme! Yet that was the truth of it. As a Deputy Minister in the Dudley Senanayake administration of 1965-70, Premadasa had been the second Lankan politician ever, to reach out to Western Social Democracy – the first such being his erstwhile leader A. E. Goonesinghe who, as Prof K. M. de Silva documents, sought to link up with the British Labour Party. Premadasa returned from a visit to West Germany and close interaction with Willy Brandt. He sought the assistance specifically of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), the foundation officially affiliated with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), to set up the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) for the task of labour education. The SLFP-led coalition, in opposition and later in office, denounced Premadasa as “backed by the West Germans” – as if this were somehow a darker doing than the Anglo-American backing received by their rivals and friends, the gentlemanly UNP leaders. His intellectual and ideological orientation was in marked contrast to that of the bulk of the UNP influentials, who in that same period felt and articulated great affinity with Taiwan, Indonesia, and Israel (i.e. with the US camp East of Suez, in the Cold War) and of course with the US and UK themselves.

This distinctive line of Premadasa, sharpened by the April Insurrection (he attended every single sitting of the CJC main trial), was best exemplified in an April 4th 1973 speech to a Colombo Rotary Club, a speech he was so proud of and committed to that he had it reproduced in the ‘SAARC Summit special supplement’ of the Daily News during his Presidency, accompanied by an introduction in bold type which read: ‘The seeds of today’s concepts were sown years ago.. President Ranasinghe Premadasa, then First Member of Parliament for Colombo Central was invited by the Colombo West Rotary Club to deliver an address on the topic ‘A Plan for Sri Lanka’ at a luncheon meeting of the Club. The speech was delivered when President Ranasinghe Premadasa was only an opposition member of Parliament and portrays the vision of a young politician of what he thought was the best for Sri Lanka. (CDN Nov. 21, 1991). In April 1973, there was no one who would have bothered to ghost-write a speech in English for this lone wolf (who had launched the Samastha Lanka Puravasi Peramuna in ’72) in the enfeebled opposition – and the audience at the Rotary Club of Colombo West would hardly have indulged him.

That speech, which takes as a desirable goal “Socialism without ulterior motivations and external interferences”, is the best short exposition of and platform for a social democratic Third Way I have yet read, and a good quarter century before Prof Anthony Giddens! Though dating from his Puravesi Peramuna period, before he rejoined the UNP mainstream at JR Jayewardene’s invitation (sometime after the latter succeeded to the leadership in late April ’73) its reproduction under his presidency – with the word ‘Socialism’ significantly undeleted – underscores the continuity of his thinking and gives the lie to those who would cunningly dilute and distort the content of his economic philosophy. That he chose to reproduce it in the SAARC special supplement indicates that this perspective is one he wanted the outside world to know about, and which he hoped to radiate in the region. Noteworthy too is the fact that one of his last acts as Prime Minister was to pen and publish an introduction to the Sinhala translation of Gorbachev’s Perestroika, a work in which Gorbachev defined his project as a ‘reformed’, democratic Socialism’.

A lengthy excerpt from Premadasa’s crucial April ’73 text is needed to comprehend the core of his thought:

“Political power has been diffused among the people through the exercise of the franchise. In like manner the economic wealth of the country should also be diffused among the people. We should evolve a scheme under which the public sector, the co-operative sector, the private sector and a combination of all these three sectors – a joint sector – could function in competition with each other. Such competition will bring the maximum benefit to the people who need not become slaves of either a public or private monopoly. The government should ensure through its legislative and planning processes that the people participate in all aspects of development without allowing monopolies – state or individual.

The people’s participation should be enlisted in all matters relating to policy decisions and their implementation. The common people should be made to share the responsibility of finding solutions to their problems. That burden must not be presumed to be monopolized by a few. The common people should have a voice in making decisions and share in their implementation. It should be possible for employees and the people to own shares in any venture thus enabling them to participate in the management and even in profits. What is necessary to retrieve the economy of the country is a nationalization of this nature.

If the problems of foreign exchange, development and unemployment are to be satisfactorily tackled, a massive development venture has to be launched to provide the necessary infra-structure such as a network of roads, a network of electricity, a network of irrigation and a network of domestic water supply. With the launching of such a scheme large numbers of people could be gainfully employed. Together with development of the infrastructure the country’s agricultural and industrial ventures will automatically improve. As a result foreign exchange could be conserved. People will get more money into their hands thus enabling them to purchase their requirements. The question of subsidies will eventually be eliminated. We can solve our problems. Scarcity of foreign exchange is no obstacle. To earn foreign exchange we must increase production; to increase production we must develop our national resources, and if we are to develop our national resources, we must harness the human potential that we have in abundance. It is futile to go on bended knees to foreign countries begging for assistance.

We must trust our people who have placed their confidence in us. Going to them for the vote alone is not sufficient. In order to formulate and implement policies from the village level to the national level we must get the active participation of our people including the new generation. The root cause of unrest among our people is that we have reduced them to mere voting machines operating once in five years. This system must change; and change completely to make the people the real masters”. (People’s Participation in Government- CDN Nov. 21, 1991. My italics-DJ)

Participatory Democracy, Participatory Development. Or, translated into the terminology of the Premadasa presidency: ‘people-ised’ democracy, ‘people-ised’ development. Hardly the credo of a commoner admiringly wedded to conventional liberal democracy and a free market economy! (During his presidency he would commend a ‘carefully regulated market economy’). The speech reveals the distance between what Premadasa envisaged and that which was implemented after ’77. By ’77 the economy was stagnant, even sinking, but there were two projects – two possible political economies – to unleash the necessary growth of the productive forces: the path of the UNP’s dominant faction, that of dependent and unequal growth – and the path of Premadasa, that of national, people- oriented and democratic development. The former demanded an authoritarian accompaniment, the latter did not. We know which path was taken – that of dependent authoritarianism – and with what monstrously malignant results.

One half of the secret of ’77 was that it was almost as much a victory of Premadasa’s as it was of JR Jayewardene’s and much more a victory of Premadasa’s than it was of Lalith, Gamini, Ananda Tissa de Alwis, G. V. P. Samarasinghe, N. G. P. Panditharatne, Wickrema Weerasooriya and Esmond Wickremesinghe. The other half of the secret was that the post-1977 administration and its policies were a confiscation and suppression of the promise of the people’s mandate; a betrayal of the people’s expectations of the ’77 victory. The betrayal was a deliberate one, a conscious class choice, precisely because the victory was of a radical-democratic character. That character was inscribed in the reformed UNP of ’73-77 by Ranasinghe Premadasa who also imparted it to the mass mobilization that was the election campaign of ’77. 

The extreme devaluation of the post of the Prime Minister and the enormous concentration of power in the Presidency, the specific form of the 1978 Presidential system, not the setting up of an Executive Presidency in and of itself, (which was a promise contained in the Manifesto) was a conscious maneuver to cut down Premadasa, the social forces and mass aspirations that he represented. Premadasa would refer to his devaluation bitterly in his acceptance speech of the Presidential nomination in Oct ’88, as having been given “the powers of a peon”.

Two quotations should suffice to undergird my reconstruction of ’77. The first from Lalith Athulathmudali writing as a confident Minister ( of Trade and Commerce) in 1980 in the Lanka Guardian special issue looking back at the decade of the ‘70s. He had neither the need nor the inclination to flatter Premadasa. The second, chronologically earlier, is from the cover story of the Far Eastern Economic Review of May ’77, where Mervyn de Silva (my late father) comments on what would be the last days of the UF Administration, providing a snapshot of the various May Day rallies and of the UNP campaign. Athulathmudali sums up the changes that made the UNP the electoral juggernaut it was by 1977: 

“… It had to change its image in theory and in practice. It had to stand on the side of the underprivileged, it had to provide answers to their problems. The one rupee membership campaign not only changed the money sources of the party but it also helped to democratize its internal politics. A new policy and programme proposed by a committee headed by R. Premadasa was adopted. Family power and privileged group power were dethroned and the fact that these very monstrosities were being strengthened in the other parties only served to consolidate the UNP. In the popular mind the UNP often thought of as being concerned with the few, came to be considered as the party of the masses. The UNP had built itself a new political base”. (Lalith Athulathmudali, Lanka Guardian Vol. 2 No 17, 1980 p13-14).

Mervyn De Silva’s quote from Premadasa is the only quote from any UNP leader and from any politician other than Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in his story: ‘R. Premadasa, Jayewardene’s newly appointed deputy and the party’s rising star, smartly spotted the mixed blessings of the vast influx into the party’s ranks of jobless, disaffected and alienated youth. In an obvious reference to the 1971 insurrection which came only 11 months after Mrs. Bandaranaike’s United Front Government came to power, Premadasa said: “Those young hands applauding us now may manufacture the bombs that will kill us if we, too do not change our ways of living and leadership” . (Mervyn de Silva, FEER 20.5.77. p17-19.)

This is proof of much: the prominence and significance of Premadasa’s role at that turning point in history, his brilliant perspicacity and prophetic vision of genius, his far from satisfied state of mind even about the triumphantly ascendant UNP of 1977, and the course which he thought the party and the incoming administration must take after victory. For Premadasa, the ’77 victory was an unfinished revolution. In his Feb 23rd 1978 Parliamentary speech assuming the Prime Ministership, an occasion which any other individual would have regarded with smug satisfaction and chosen not to strike a discordant note on, he spurned etiquette and rang the alarm bells

“Our people are facing untold hardships. The efforts of our youth to obtain opportunities for work, economic progress and social security have been unsuccessful. The forbearance and fortitude of our people who are shouldering great burdens of the cost of living, must not be mistaken for weakness. This atmosphere of poverty is about to overwhelm the limits of their patience. If so, none can tell what might transpire. Policies must be formulated, implemented… bearing this in mind.’’ (‘Prabuddha Shakthiya’, p170, published by B. Sirisena Cooray, June 1978, printed by MD Gunasena & Co.

This was the ‘moment of hegemony’ when the UNP governed with a greater degree of popular consent than any Lankan administration had. Premadasa was no conformist who went with the herd instinct and the commonest denominator. He did not share the hubris of the open economy, even at the time the marketplace was working its magic the most. But the UNP administration chose to collectively ignore his warning and did exactly that which he cautioned against.

By 1985, the doyenne of Lankanologists Prof Urmila Phadnis of JNU was writing in a volume on ‘Democracy in Developing Nations’ edited by the legendary Seymour Martin Lipset, of Sri Lanka’s “Crises of Legitimacy and Integration”. If Premadasa marginalized anyone upon assuming the presidency, it was those responsible for those crises, partly because his administration had to distance itself from that disaster. It is these elements who with the ’91 impeachment conspiracy, opened the gates for the return of the vanquished SLFP feudals, and for their restoration.

Today’s political re-colonization is the product of the UNP Right and the LTTE. In betraying the democratic and egalitarian surge of 1977, the UNP elite eventually spawned a barbaric caricature of revolution from below – the JVP’s second insurrection. In its turn, that insurrection permitted the Establishment no viable option but to turn to Premadasa to rescue it, and in doing so, permitted the halted ’77 struggle to be resumed under him – it’s more authentic vanguard. Having been betrayed by the comprador elite, the democratic and social aspirations of ’77 were revived in a far more urgent and radical form under the organic, national-popular leadership of Premadasa from Dec. ’88/Jan ’89 onward. But he was never really given much of a chance.

It took a total systemic crisis of the magnitude of ’87-88 for the baton to be passed to him; yet the crisis turned the baton into what he described as “a torch ablaze at both ends which was handed over to me”. That crisis and its combined consequences, parametrically constricted his capacities to carry forward to completion the twin mandates of ’77 and ’88. He fought and doused the raging fire in the South which would have engulfed most of us and everything here, but the flames at the Northern end of the torch, flames which he for one played no part in lighting, incinerated him.

[This revaluation originally appeared on the 8th death anniversary of President Premadasa]

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