29 May, 2023


The Year 1988: The Presidential Election Campaign

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Rajan Hoole

The Year 1988: The Red Moon Over Sri Lanka And The Dawn Of New Wisdom – Part 5

With Premadasa as presidential candidate and the party machine firmly under Ranjan Wijeratne, the UNP campaign got under way in earnest. The fortunes of party members too came to depend on the services they rendered Premadasa. In September the UNP’s position seemed weak. On looking back, the UNP’s was a well-co-ordinated campaign throwing in everything it had, both fair and foul. Chandraprema cites an incident just after the murdered Liyannarachchi’s funeral in early September where Anura Bandaranaike and Halim Ishak, both leading SLFPers, were boastfully confident that the JVP would support them. As surprising and absurd as such wishful thinking appears in retrospect, similar hopes are entertained with regard to the LTTE today by influential lobbies not confined to the Tamils.

Any force which totally devalues mercy, compassion and the sanctity of life, and has built up a record of killing anyone who is merely a hindrance to its quest for total power or is ready to voice a frank opinion, cannot ever countenance even a symbolic power sharing arrangement. It was utterly irresponsible for the SLFP to have entertained the illusion of riding to power in coalition with the JVP, which was regularly killing political opponents and rivals. Of course, there were leading UNPers trying to use the JVP. But they were doing it deviously from a position of strength with the State apparatus behind them. The SLFP had nothing except the illusions of its leaders. It cost the grass-roots SLFPers dearly.

On 30th September 1988, the Press reported Anura Bandaranaike’s announcement that Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike would be the common candidate of an 8 party front – the Democratic Party Alliance – including the JVP. There was of course a general mood of wanting a change of government. But whether the JVP was a credit or a liability to anyone who associated with it remains an open question. In the second week of October the JVP issued threatening letters forcing people to walk out of their work-places and demonstrate for parliamentary, rather than presidential, elections under a caretaker government. But the SLFP with other alliance parties failed to condemn these and issued statements exonerating the JVP. The ordinary voter must have been puzzled.

The Shantha Bandara affair was one example of the influence of the JVP’s perceived anti-Indian bona-fides among the elite. Bandara was a senior JVPer captured in Tangalle. Ravi Jayewardene with help from Herman Gunaratne talked to him about the threat posed by India and how as a divided Sinhalese nation fighting each other, they stand to become slaves of India. He proposed that they get-together and form a common front to fight Indian domination. In this connection, Ravi Jayewardene had a word of admiration for the LTTE’s apparently fervent anti-Indianism, forgetting that the LTTE once boasted itself the chief agent for India’s domination of Sri Lanka. He persuaded his father to release Bandara about the same time that the UNP nominated Premadasa (16th September), with a view to opening a dialogue. Bandara finally wrote to Gunaratne on 19th November repeating the JVP’s standard demands – release all political detainees, presidential and parliamentary elections under a caretaker government etc. Ravi Jayewardene wrote him a pained reply. Bandara was caught and summarily killed in early 1990.

Strangely, it never occurred to Ravi Jayewardene that his own actions, which helped to deepen the gulf between Sinhalese and Tamils, had rendered India’s involvement sine qua non. This same mindset with its resulting failures drove such persons to see the LTTE in a new light as supreme patriots.

Using the resources of the State and the party machine geared towards backing Premadasa, the UNP launched its campaign with thoroughness. Liyannarachchi who was killed had been supposedly operating out of the offices of an SLFP lawyer Ranjit Abeysuriya. This was used by the UNP to strengthen accusations of SLFP – JVP links. There were four basic ingredients in the UNP campaign representing also a division of labour.

1. The UNP leaders, especially Wijeratne but not Premadasa, repeatedly charged the SLFP with trying to ride to power on the JVP’s terror campaign. Two examples from Ranjan Wijeratne are given below :

“The JVP along with the SLFP should take responsibility for the current wave of violence. Anyone thinking of coming to power by violent means is harbouring a delusion. The JVP guns that point to us will no doubt be levelled against the SLFP”.

(CDN 3.10.88)

“The SLFP is mistaken if they think of riding to power by using the JVP against the UNP. If the SLFP came to power that way, the JVP would train their guns on them in 6 months”.

(CDN 13.10.88)

2. UNP MPs, chief ministers and other party functionaries were called upon to submit lists of supposed JVPers to their local military co- ordinating officers. The latter were virtually ordered to eliminate those on the lists. One Brigadier was told by the Army Commander, “Those who indulge in terrorist activities must attain ‘nirvana’.” The Brigadier asked his Police counterpart, a DIG with whom he got on well, to investigate those on the list given by the chief minister of the province. He then found that all those on the list were SLFPers. The Brigadier and the DIG decided that they would go through the normal process and if there were charges against anyone, they should be brought before the Magistrate. The Brigadier was transferred and his successor attained notoriety.

Such experiences were then common. General Daluwatte had given testimony to a similar effect before the Disappearance Commission pertaining to Ratnapura. Brigadier Lucky Wijeratne is said to have refused to carry out such orders from Galle and was replaced. But later on, in Trincomalee, from June 1990, his brigade was responsible for more than 800 disappearances of Tamils. He died in a mine explosion in December the same year.

The SLFP was kept busy by the JVP blowing hot and cold before the elections and did not wake up to what had happened until January 1990.

3. The Tamil Congress which had a year earlier supported the Indo-Lanka Accord and had demanded a place on the proposed Interim Council on which the LTTE had refused to entertain any other party, had become a member of the DPA (the Democratic Peoples Alliance which included the SLFP and JVP). It was now on an anti-Accord, anti-IPKF and a pro-LTTE platform. Through Kumar Ponnambalam, the Congress leader, the SLFP was hopeful of working out a deal with the LTTE to make its position on the withdrawal of Indian troops credible. Ponnambalam went to Vavuniya before the Presidential Election with Anura Bandaranaike to try to make contact with the LTTE. Nothing tangible came of it. But the UNP led by Athulathmudali went to town on the event raising anti-LTTE hackles. Tamil baiters like Cyril Mathew were brought out of cold storage. The burden of their accusation was that the SLFP was going to give the Tamils more than what was given under the Indo- Lanka Accord.

4.  There is no evidence that Premadasa had forged links with the LTTE and the JVP by then. However, it would not be off the mark to hold that they had all recognised the common interests they had in the short run, and only in the short run. All three of them therefore lent support to furthering these. This is not to say that any one of Premadasa, Prabhakaran or Wijeweera would have felt sorry to see the exit of another. But should anyone be elected president, they all had a common interest in ensuring that it would be Premadasa.

The UNP Government had over the past 11 years acquired an unsavoury reputation inter- nationally, and Mrs. Bandaranaike’s election was bound to give the State a fresh look, and a rebel cause would have been under enormous pres- sure to reach accommodation. This neither the LTTE nor JVP could ever do. It is also notable that the LTTE started getting a very bad press only after Chandrika Kumaratunge as the new leader provided a break from the past in 1994.

Premadasa’s job was ridiculously easy and full of inconsistencies. The UNP while on the one hand getting SLFPers killed at the grass-roots, on the other hand, through Athulathmudali, Wijeratne and Dissanayake, was accusing the SLFP of not condemning JVP violence. However, Premadasa himself was on record saying that the JVP was not responsible for the killings. The other UNPers raised a hornet’s nest over the SLFP’s trying to reach accommodation with the LTTE. Premadasa kept out of this. He said in Mannar instead that he would appeal to the LTTE and JVP to join the political mainstream.

When Premadasa went into polemics, it was as a man brought down from nirvana to express sorrow for us mortals. “There are three groups living in fear in this country”, he said, “They are the UNP, USA and JVP. Only the leaders of the SLFP live free from this fear. I would like to ask you. What could be inferred from this situation?”

To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power  – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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    Dr. Rajan Hoole

    I was not even born when the things you describe happened. So, thank you for the valuable history lesson. It looks like people were always doing bad things to each other. It gives me some relief to know that because people are always telling me this is the worst time to live in Sri Lanka.

    Kutti Machan
    [Edited by Naana]

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