By Rajan Hoole –
The 1990s: The Culture of Untruth and a Perilous Vacuum Part 4
More than any other single incident, one that decisively weakened the Premadasa Government was the attempted impeachment of Premadasa. There was little love lost between Premadasa and the twosome Dissanayake and Athulathmudali, who had both played a key role in the Jayewardene regime. Dissanayake had been dropped from the Premadasa cabinet in early 1990 and Athulathmudali remained as minister for higher education. Probably feeling insecure, Premadasa had nominally dumped responsibility for key areas such as finance and defence with his elderly prime minister D.B. Wijetunge, a man who conveyed a phobia for exertion. As 1991 wore on with the Joe Sim affair, Ranjan Wijeratne’s assassination and increasing activism by groups for the disappeared, the Government’s credibility dipped lower. More importantly, a large section of the UNP was unhappy at Premadasa whittling down the excessive privileges and perks Jayewardene had earlier given them. The speaker M.H. Mohamed too was unhappy at the loss of his importance within the Party.
The main architects of the impeachment plot were Dissanayake, Athulathmudali and Mrs. Bandaranaike. The first two being lawyers knew Jayewardene’s 1978 constitution inside out – the main draft having been Athulathmudali’s. With 67 MPs, the SLFP was a force in Parliament. On 29th August 1991, Premachandra and Athulathmudali resigned from the Cabinet. Premachandra was minister of labour and a party to the plot. A petition to impeach Premadasa had already been submitted to the Speaker with the signatures of 123 members with 45 from the UNP and 78 from the Opposition, and had been transmitted to the President by the Speaker saying that he was entertaining it.
The conditions for impeachment included mental or physical infirmity of the President, intentional violation of the Constitution and acts of treason. Premadasa’s dealings with the LTTE, including the supply of arms to them, featured in the petition. The Speaker is bound to entertain the petition if signed by not less than two thirds of the 225, or 150, members. In the event that it is signed by not less than a half as in this case, the Speaker has the discretion. He can entertain it provided he is satisfied that the charges merit inquiry by the Supreme Court. If it is supported by not less than two thirds of the House, it goes to the SC.
In a political environment where survival rather than principle is the key consideration, people are bound to go with the tide. A weakness in the proceedings was that the signatures of the UNP members supporting the impeachment had been obtained in secret without their coming into the open. This gave them the option of playing it both ways. About half a dozen UNPers who had signed got cold feet and claimed that they had been misled. Using another provision in the Constitution, Premadasa prorogued Parliament on 2nd September to meet again on the 24th. The same evening (2nd) a meeting of the UNP parliamentary group was summoned and Premadasa addressed them. Some deals, including financial ones, too were in due course made! While Dissanayake and Athulathmudali buoyed by the public response were overconfident of getting the UNPers who had signed to come out into the open, Premadasa sent his agents to buy them over.
The final blow came from the speaker M.H. Mohamed. Earlier he had promised to allow a secret ballot in Parliament on the motion he had entertained. But after returning from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in New Delhi, where he was acclaimed the ‘Best Speaker’, he informed the President by letter that he had ceased to entertain the motion of impeachment. The fate of the petition was thus decided. But the incident gave the people a clear idea of how and why the UNP was being held together. Premadasa then adopted Jayewardene’s trick of shoring up his position by having 90 out of his pack of 125 hold executive positions as ministers or ministers of state (see Counterpoint, Sept. 1993).
The impeachment crisis created considerable excitement in this country. With the formation of the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) led by Dissanayake and Athulathmudali, the Government was attacked more openly than before, and this contributed to press freedom. The alternative media who were approached by Dissanayake’s agents were educated in capitalist techniques of sensationalism, presentation and increasing circulation. Some of these papers that were edited by one time die-hard socialists, began carrying news items designed by Dissanayake’s agents. They saw for the first time the inner workings of the UNP machine of the Jayewardene era. Money just flowed, measured in stacks with a foot-ruler rather than by exactly counting notes. Dr. Wickrema Weerasooriya again made his presence felt.
On the question of Human Rights the Government became more cornered. At a public meeting, Athulathmudali raised his hands and said, “My hands are clean”. A combination of the needs of various groups and individuals was unfairly concentrating the blame for the record of killings on those who remained with Premadasa.
Certain attacks were hard hitting, as they were unfair. A popular slogan then devised and promoted by the DUNF stated that the country is run by three Ps. The three, were Premadasa, Paskeralingam and Prabhakaran. Paskeralingam was a Tamil public servant on whom Premadasa placed such complete reliance that he was seen to dominate cabinet meetings in Premadasa’s absence.
During the rest of Premadasa’s term, there was one attempt to break the military deadlock by launching an attack from Kayts to capture Jaffna Town. On the eve of the attack, on 8th August 1992, General Kobbekaduwe and 8 other top brass of the Army and Navy died in a mine blast. The weight of suspicion, distrust and intrigue that had developed over the years within the country’s ruling class led to widespread allegations of foul play (see Sect.19.2).
When the year 1993 began, the atmosphere was pregnant with change. The campaigning started for the provincial council elections due in May. The SLMP had divided after the assassination of Vijaya in February 1988, and the supporters of Chandrika Kumaratunge, Vijaya’s widow, aligned with the SLFP. She led the SLFP in the Western Province, which was in an electoral alliance with the DUNF. Chandrika Kumaratunge quickly established herself as the most promising person to lead the moribund SLFP to victory at the presidential and parliamentary hustings to follow. She made the SLFP adopt SLMP policies in an effort to take the SLFP out of its narrow Sinhalese-Buddhist
sectarianism and make the party look like one that could solve the country’s pressing problems, most of all the ethnic issue.
There then occurred two major assassinations in quick succession, which brought about unexpected change. Lalith Athulathmudali was gunned down while addressing an election rally in the Kirullapone municipal grounds at 8.45 PM on 23rd April 1993. The body of a dead youth was found the next day 150 yards from the scene of shooting. In less than 45 hours, the state broadcasting media claimed that the dead youth, supposedly the assassin, was a member of the LTTE. This was widely disbelieved in view of a series of irregularities, beginning with the failure to provide the mandatory police protection for the meeting and an unexplained power failure at the time of the shooting.
At this time, Premadasa was firmly in control, but he was a heavily burdened man. He remained in many ways a strong man, but his spirit had become wearied by daily insinuations, charging him with being a killer. He was a product of this country’s political history and was no more guilty for the state of the country and no more a killer than Jayewardene, Athulathmudali or Mathew. But Premadasa was also an easy target because of his humble origins. Bradman Weerakoon who met Premadasa a short time after Athulathmudali’s assassination found a much pained and worried man. Weerakoon said that whatever the methods Premadasa had used to climb to the pinnacle of power, he was looking for a new image, and wanted to be remembered in history as a benevolent leader. Weerasinghe Mallimarachchi, a close associate of Premadasa’s was quoted as saying that Premadasa was very unhappy and knew who the killers were, and would reveal the whole truth at the May Day rally due the next week.
In what was to be Premadasa’s last election rally, at Kirullapone, he made a speech which has been interpreted as an anguished cry from the heart of a tormented man: “Assassinate me by whatever means, but please do not assassinate my character – an asset I have treasured from my childhood.”
On 1st May, Premadasa left home early in the afternoon, apparently anxious, to supervise personally arrangements for the May Day rally. He was killed along with dozens of others, ostensibly by an LTTE suicide bomber who apparently knew him (see Sect.19.3).
To be continued..