By Dayan Jayatilleka –
[B. Sirisena Cooray, former Gen-Secretary of the UNP, died this week at age 90.]
My mother told me decades later that she was sure Sirisena Cooray knew I was under 18 when he let me slip into the cinema in my long-trousers for the 9:30pm show for movies that were ‘adults only’, having conspired with my father. She remembered Mr. Cooray laconically saying “wait till the lights go off”. What surprised me was that my mother too had spotted our scam. Sirisena Cooray was the manager at Ceylon Theaters, which was the role in which Killi Rajamahendran became his lifelong friend. The two friends died in the same year. Cooray had tossed Killi and his brother out of the cinema for some infringement.
That was his day job, or rather, his on-the-books job. Off the books he had already started on his vocation. That was as the righthand man of Ranasinghe Premadasa. Cooray’s elder brother Nandisena was Deputy Mayor of Colombo. Premadasa used to visit Cooray’s father. As a young man heading the Sucharitha Movement which he had founded while a student of St Joseph’s College (Godfrey Gunatilleke once told me that Premadasa had been his classmate, except he had been Premadasa Ranasinghe at the time, not Ranasinghe Premadasa), Premadasa had already cut a figure in the ’hood.
Sirisena Cooray’s father told him “If you are interested in politics, don’t hang out with your older brother, he won’t amount to much. Follow that young man, Premadasa, he will lead the country someday”. Young Sirisena took the advice.
Premadasa’s Kid Brother
Sirisena Cooray became, in effect, Premadasa’s younger brother, though he always referred to him in conversation with others as “Mr. Premadasa” and with the man himself as “sir”. He was a younger brother who played the same role that Raul Castro did to Fidel. Raul was the man who made Fidel’s dreams comes true; who gave organizational shape and material form to Fidel’s soaring vision. Fidel strategized and led the victories; Raul organized them. That is also what Sirisena Cooray did for Ranasinghe Premadasa.
It was Premadasa who started Cooray off in politics. When Nandisena Cooray died, Premadasa wanted Sirisena to run in his place, for a city ward. The United Front coalition government had a two thirds majority in parliament, the UNP had lost badly and was internally divided, the powerful Left controlled the city’s politics, and an emergency had been declared because the rise of the JVP had been detected. Cooray won. The shock waves hit. The Sirimavo Bandaranaike government reacted by suspending all local authorities’ elections and appointing a special commissioner, Mr. Fowzie, to run Colombo.
In time and with Premadasa’s support, Sirisena Cooray was elected the Mayor of Colombo, the first executive mayor the city and the country had. In July 1983 Premadasa and Cooray cautioned President Jayewardene not to permit the bodies of the 13 soldiers to be brought to Colombo for cremation, but he didn’t heed their counsel and caved in to the defence establishment. The nation paid the price.
In 1988, Mr. Premadasa was determined to run for the Presidency with or without the UNP. That single-minded determination actually helped the UNP because he had instructed Cooray to plan a campaign and setup the organizational apparatus for an independent candidacy. The UNP conceded the candidacy to Premadasa after Ranjan Wijeratne concluded his nationwide survey informing President Jayawardene that neither Gamini Dissanayake nor Lalith Athulathmudali had a chance of winning; only Premadasa did. But the UNP could not mount a campaign. The JVP had paralyzed it by killing every UNP organizer and activist it could.
When Ranasinghe Premadasa got the candidacy in October 1988, the parallel apparatus and campaign organized by Sirisena Cooray for an independent Premadasa candidacy was clicked into place. Against all odds, Ranasinghe Premadasa won, addressing even empty public squares, knowing that poor people were listening behind closed doors (in terror of the JVP). Sirisena Cooray was the manager of that victory.
Premadasa had opposed JR’s ban on the JVP. He had over a thousand JVP detainees released, declared a ceasefire and offered the party three portfolios in a coalition Government. It refused and returned to war. The Jayawardena administration had fought the JVP from 1986 with limited success. Premadasa took oaths as President in January 1989. In November, Wijeweera and Gamanayaka were dead. A key element in the victory was the Ops Combine, associated in the public eye with Ranjan Wijeratne as Deputy Minister of Defence. However, as Prof Rohan Gunaratne, always close to military intelligence, wrote in his book on the JVP’s second uprising, in reality, the Ops Combine – and Ranjan Wijeratne– reported to Sirisena Cooray.
Once, in a rare moment, on his birthday while sharing a cognac with a few guests including Ranjit Wijewardena, Killi Rajamahendran and Milinda Moragoda, Cooray rapped the surface of the finely worked round table we were seated at, and said “meke daala thamai JVP ekata gahauvve!” (It was here, at this table on this on this surface—where the plans were rolled out—that the JVP was defeated).
He never confirmed or denied the story that Wijeweera’s comrade from 1971, a founder member of the JVP, Somawansa Amarasinghe was afforded shelter from the repression, at his home and then smuggled out of the country to India by boat. Somawansa was distantly related to Sirisena Cooray’s wife.
When Cooray was called Premadasa’s right hand man, he would occasionally permit himself a half-smile and a twinkle, gently murmuring “some may say I was his left-hand man”. In another mood, when Cornel Perera rolled-in a white chocolate birthday cake with wishes in icing to “the Godfather”, Cooray demurred: “Now I am only a grandfather”.
After Ranjan’s assassination and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera’s refusal to take the post, Cooray offered to take it and accomplish the task. I daresay he might have. Premadasa refused for two reasons, which he gave his friend, and shared with me when I asked him the obvious question: “why don’t you give the job to Mr. Sirisena Cooray?” He didn’t want to put his friend in the firing line and risk losing him, and he didn’t want his friend to commit the deeds and accumulate the (karmic) demerit he would have to in order to win the war. If not for his fealty to his friend, Premadasa might have survived and gone on to win a second term.
Premadasa entrusted his Housing Ministry to Sirisena Cooray and Imtiaz Bakeer Markar. Cooray and Susil Sirivardhana handled Premadasa’s Gam Udawa programs.
When President Premadasa wanted the Khettarama stadium built, Sirisena Cooray built that world-class stadium without a dollar in foreign funds; only with the funds of the Municipality which he collected in the requisite quantity by merely changing the periodicity of payment of Municipal rates. When the Free Mid-Day Meal program for schoolchildren was kicked off it was through the Colombo Municipality.
Cooray had a wry humour about Premadasa which disguised the love he felt. When asked whether he was the only one Premadasa trusted, Cooray quipped “he didn’t trust anyone, not even himself. To the extent he did trust someone else, I suppose I was that person”.
During the years I worked with President Premadasa I never met Mr. Cooray. Later he would joke to his crew, referring to me and a fellow director of the Premadasa Center (now a respected, courageous political commentator): “ey kaaley api meyaala hambuvelavath naha; ey kaaley meyaala Janaadipathi-ge minissu ney!”. (“In those days, I hadn’t even met these two. In those days, they were the President’s people!”) President Premadasa kept things compartmentalized, he and Cooray had their own crews, and in any case, Cooray was self-effacing.
I met him after the Premadasa assassination, at the Sucharitha. Pulsara Liyanage showed him to me saying “there’s Mr. Sirisena Cooray, why don’t you speak to him?” He was seated silently in the row of the main mourners, a little forlorn.
Sirisena Cooray was conscious of a single political distinction between himself and Ranasinghe Premadasa. Cooray was a UNPer, a party member at 16 and the first member of the UNP Youth League, he proudly claimed. When the UNP boss asked him to re-join the party paying the dues often rupees, he snorted that he had a life-membership of the party. “Mr. Premadasa was different. He came from the Labour Party; he joined the UNP with Mr. A.E. Goonesinghe” he mused. Premadasa’s ideology was always different from that of the UNP establishment.
While Premadasa was ambivalent about 1956 and SWRD Bandaranaike in that he sympathized with the social overturning of the old elite, Cooray strongly felt that that ’56 was the Great Fall. He was firm in his conviction that without the UNP’s non-racialist/multiracial ideology, the country would fail and without Premadasa’s programs and philosophy the UNP would fail. In a cover story of Business Today in February 2000, he predicted (“take it from me”) that the de-Premadasization of the UNP under its then (and current) leadership would doom it to an average 25% vote. He never confused non-racialism in ideology with minoritarianism in political and electoral strategy: “winning the majority of the majority” was the cornerstone of electoral success, he would often say.
The Ranasinghe Premadasa-Sirisena Cooray combination led the UNP to its highest achievements: victory in civil war, rapid growth with rapid equity, election victories at all three levels of the polity: presidential, parliamentary and local authorities. After Premadasa’s assassination by the LTTE, Sirisena Cooray’s removal as UNP Gen-Secretary and the party’s ideological de-Premadasization and burial of the Premadasa programs, the UNP was never to lead the nation again.
Sirisena Cooray was prophetic. He died a year after the UNP did electorally. He had founded the Premadasa Center which proved valuable (in keeping the flag flying) but transitional. The Premadasa statue at Hulftsdorp at which the annual Premadasa commemoration is held (I was present at the first, and several after) was commissioned and built by Sirisena Cooray. It has been the starting point of a new cycle of the Premadasa saga, with his only son leading a new party that within months of its break-away from the UNP became the country’s main Opposition. A Premadasa is now the leader of the Opposition, with the potential of rescuing and rebuilding the country as his father and Sirisena Cooray once did, three-and-half decades ago.
Sirisena Cooray was right when in 1994, he opened his Introduction to The Premadasa Philosophy with the line: “We have begun to write the legend of Ranasinghe Premadasa.”