By Rajan Hoole –
The Year 1988: The Red Moon Over Sri Lanka And The Dawn Of New Wisdom – Part 3
If Jayewardene did believe as he told Rajiv Gandhi that Premadasa and Athulathmudali were in some way conniving at the JVP’s depredations, he would have wondered at the UNP targets chosen by the JVP. On 23rd December 1987, the UNP General Secretary Harsha Abhayawardene was shot dead. On 7th February 1988, the Panadura MP Mervyn J. Cooray narrowly escaped an assassination attempt with injuries. On 1st May, Nandalal Fernando, Abhayawardene’s successor as party secretary, was shot dead. About the same time, Galle District Minister G.V.S. de Silva was shot dead. On 26th September 1988 Kuliyapitiya MP and Minister of Relief and Rehabilitation, Mr. Lionel Jayatilleke, was shot dead. On 21st October a lawyer and Working Committee member Tudor Keerthinanda was shot dead. Nearly all of them were close to Jayewardene and the last two especially were said to be prominent advocates of Jayewardene going for a third term as president.
These murders no doubt weakened Jayewardene’s position within the UNP. It would of course be futile to look for direct links between these killings and a group within the UNP. Once there was a channel of communication, which identified common interests, it was enough for the JVP to know the trends within the UNP to make up its hit list. We have testimony that Jayewardene explored some drastic measures.
According to Dixit (p.271), Jayewardene during July-August 1988 toyed with some drastic emergency measures for which he anticipated opposition from Premadasa and Athulathmudali and said that he may need Indian troops to maintain order also in the South. Dixit deemed it imprudent as it was bound to affect the IPKF’s credibility as well as Jayewardene’s own.
The other option that would have crossed his mind either separately or along with the former was to form a national government in partnership with the SLFP. This was only hinted at in the press – i.e. reference by Qadri Ismail in the Sunday Times of 28th August 1988 that UNP opinion was against elections if the SLFP was linked to the JVP. He added, “The logic runs all the way to a UNP-SLFP coalition.”
The JVP was demanding that Jayewardene should step down, the parliament dissolved and that elections should be conducted by a caretaker government headed by a supreme court judge. Coming from a killer force which acknowledged no ethical constraint, it was a recipe for anarchy in which the JVP stood a good chance of capturing power. Athulathmudali had shown himself over-anxious to make a deal with the JVP by, in May, falling for a hoax by a law student, who had claimed to be a JVP link man. In August, he expressed a readiness to go into the JVP’s demands. Premadasa did not give himself away. He kept making statements such as, ‘Those who make mistakes must be brought back to the fold’.
About early September Jayewardene called Dixit to Kandy and informed him over dinner that he was quitting.
The log jam in the Party, it is said, was broken by Ranjan Wijeratne, the UNP Secretary who succeeded Nandalal Fernando and then took on an active role. Almost nothing was said in the Press about what was going on. The Island of 26th August quoted Gamini Dissanayake saying that there would be a new UNP government under a new leadership. The same paper on 10th September quoted Ranjan Wijeratne saying that the UNP Working Committee has recommended presidential elections during the third week of December. He said that the UNP presidential candidate would be chosen unanimously and would be the most ‘suitable candidate’. This suggested that Wijeratne was pushing for a particular individual and wanted other hopefuls to stand down. The Sunday Observer of 18th September announced that Jayewardene would bow out and that the UNP Working Committee had on the 16th unanimously chosen Premadasa for presidential candidate.
As to how the matter was decided, we understand that Ranjan Wijeratne, perhaps on Premadasa’s suggestion, polled the senior UNPers. He then told Jayewardene that it was the majority opinion in the party that it was Premadasa, rather than he, who could win at the presidential election. Jayewardene, who had been anxious to stay on, agreed to go. Wijeratne then pressed for the party to nominate Premadasa, in which he is said to have been supported by Ravi Jayewardene who was upset with the Accord and saw Premadasa as the man who would ask the Indian troops to go. Premadasa’s nomination was proposed by Dissanayake and seconded by Athulathmudali.
There is no doubt that an important reason why the UNP that had been tightly controlled by Jayewardene decided to ditch him and choose Premadasa was the JVP. Apart from Jayewardene himself, a number of cabinet ministers told journalists that the situation was such that those who supported Jayewardene, as opposed to Premadasa, were bound to have a shorter life. The suspicion among this group that Premadasa was using the JVP was very strong.
From this time Ranjan Wijeratne, as distinct from former UNP secretaries who were essentially back-room boys, became a powerful figure in his own right. He led Premadasa’s election campaign and came to control the government security machinery. With the approach of the presidential election, accusations against the SLFP that it was in league with the JVP became more strident.
To be continued..