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Remembering President Ranasinghe Premadasa

by Evans Cooray I recall the terrible event as if it happened only yesterday. Around 4.30 in the morning of



President Premadasa

May Day 1993 my telephone rang. Having worked for Mr. Premadasa for over 25 years, even as I tumbled out of bed I had no doubt in my mind who could be calling me at that time.

The President was brief and crisp. He instructed me to meet him at Sucharitha, his private residence at 7.00 am. I reminded him that he has assigned me with the special task of seeing to the last minute arrangements at the main stage at Galle Face Green the venue of the afternoon mammoth meeting where he wanted special facilities for the media. He said that nevertheless he wished to see me at 7.00 am.

At Sucharitha, his private residence at St Sebastian in Hulftsdorp, there were gathered at that time along with myself, the President's Private Secretary, F. D. Balasuriya, Personal Assistant K. P. Dayaratne and Sucharitha staffers including his valet M. P. M. Mohideen. President Premadasa was an absolute stickler for time. Never one minute late for an appointment, nor a minute early. Sharp at 7.00. he called all of us to his room upstairs adjacent to his bedroom. His instructions to us were short and precise, giving the impression of a military field commander who knew what he was about and as always, though cordial, his voice rang with authority and power, commanding compliance..

He assigned various tasks for each of us and my task was to gather some statistical data, which he needed for his May Day speech later that day. Having gathered the data, around 12.00, from the Presidential Secretariat I rushed off to the Sugathadasa Stadium where I expected to find the President. However, upon hearing that he had already joined the procession which was wending its way towards Armour Street I sped in that direction and found the President already at the Armour Street Junction. Ignoring the insistent advice of his personal security staff he had dismounted from his Range Rover and was directing the flow of the procession.

As I walked up to him he saw me from a distance and called me to him. The time was 12.32 to be precise. Pointing to his wristwatch he said that it was now time to convey to the SLBC the progress of the rally for 12.45 news. I carried out the instructions by using the mobile phone which was in my hand. When I reported back to him that I have phoned the SLBC and given the news to the News Editor he asked me to stand by for further instructions and along with the President's valet Mohideen and many others including his security staff who were helping the President direct the procession ,I stood by. I watched the main body of the procession pass by, led by Ministers Ranil Wickremesinghe, Festus Perera and Gamini Lokuge and many others whom the President greeted and instructed to proceed.

At that moment another stream of the procession emerged from Messenger Street led by the supporters of his own electorate Colombo Central and the President, waded into the crowd and started organising them to march four abreast. Right at that moment my mobile phone rang. It was my daughter wanting to speak to me. Because I could not hear her voice clearly above the din of the slogan shouting procession I had to move some distance from where the President was standing, towards the Sulaiman's Hospital. It was at that precise moment that tragedy struck.

There was an almighty explosion and in a second the scene was transformed into a battlefield. Shattered body parts were hurled into the air. The road around was splattered with blood and parts of flesh, broken limbs and decapitated heads. There was screaming and shouting everywhere and where moments earlier there was an orderly procession, now there was chaos and mayhem. The transformation had taken all of a second.

I ran forward not knowing what to do. I reached the residence of a Colombo Municipal Councillor in the nearby De Mel Housing Scheme where a large crowd had gathered. I telephoned Mr. K. H. J. Wijayadasa Secretary to the President and he too said that the news of a bomb explosion had reached him and asked me to come back to the Secretariat.

K. D. Ranjith a staffer at the Presidential Press secretariat who was all along behind me went back to the scene and called my official car. We went back to the scene and terrified and confused, looked for my President. It was like a battlefield with police cars and ambulances running round. I could not find him, or his bodyguards. Knowing the drill that the body guards had practised so many times, which is to bundle the President away immediately there is a hint of danger to his life, I assumed that he had been hustled away to some place. Our car sped along the opposite direction via Kosgashandhiya to Sucharitha Private Residence of the President, where several thousands of agitated supporters had gathered inquiring after his safety.

Before I could leave for the Presidential Secretariat the President's wife, Mrs. Hema Premadasa rang the Sucharita residence from Kandy and anxiously inquired after the President and not knowing what to say, just to console her I said, ' Madame I think he is all right'

Then I hurried back to the Presidential Secretariat and to my surprise found a large group of media men both foreign and local gathered outside the office. As there was still no official confirmation as to what had happened to the President I accompanied by Anthony Fernando my long time friend and Senior Assistant Secretary (Information) in my office went back to Sucharitha and we found that the May Day procession was still proceeding towards the Galle Face Green.

As there was still no news of what had actually happened we returned to the Presidential secretariat where we learnt the grim truth officially for the first time. President Premadasa and all those who were around him at that moment had perished in the explosion. Had my daughter not telephoned me at that very moment making it necessary for me to leave the spot in order that I may hear her above the din, I would not be writing this article today.

As I walked down from the upper floor where Mr. D. B. Wijetunga was sworn in as the Acting President before the Chief Justice the telephone on my table rang and it was from the News Desk of the BBC who wanted to speak to me. I said that I was not in a mood to talk and asked them to ring me later. After few minutes the telephone rang again and I overheard the announcer in the midst of reading news and saying that they are now switching over to Sri Lanka and asked' Mr. Cooray can you confirm the story about the bomb explosion'?.

Not realising that my answers are being relayed all over the World live I gave a brief description of what really took place and about the death of the President. Thereafter I summoned both the local and foreign media men and held a brief Press Conference. The whole world learnt about the death of the President through the BBC news broadcast at intervals while the SLBC announced his death officially only in the afternoon.

On this occasion I will speak only about that fateful day's dreadful events. However, I am writing separately, as a book, the whole Ranasinghe Premadasa story, warts and all. For nine long years I have watched in silence, but with dismay and great pain, how the President Premadasa's name has been dragged in the mud. He had no peace even after his sad and untimely death and his political enemies continued to pursue him beyond his grave. There is no leader in the known history in Sri Lanka who has been reviled and denigrated as President Premadasa was.

While he was living his 200-garment factories project was the butt end of jokes and was roundly ridiculed as the 'jungi industry'. Today, just 10 years later, the garment industry is a US $ 2 billion enterprise, runs 890 factories, employs a million people and is the mainstay of the country's export economy. Not bad for a 'jungi industry' which is barely 12 years old.

It is nothing but right that President Premadasa should be judged on the basis of his many great talents, his great leadership qualities and his multifarious achievements. The village reawakening programme - Gam Udhava, Sevana Sarana, Foster Parents Scheme, providing free mid day meals to schoolchildren, Mobile Ministry Programme, etc are only a few of those programmes which helped the poor immensely.

Premadasa was a human dynamo. As long as he was President, the Public Services hummed with energy and activity. Not only public servants but Cabinet Ministers as well were constantly on their toes and under pressure to perform. There was no room for bystanders or idlers. Every Cabinet Minister, every Permanent Secretary and every Head of Department was accountable and had to show results. Every minute of every day was precious in his sight and punctuality and discipline were almost articles of religious importance for him.

Above all, what most distinguished President Premadasa from every leader before him or since, was his total and unequivocal commitment to the poor. Everything he did was directed at that one objective the upliftment of the poor. For him alleviating poverty was not just a matter of ideology and bias for the poor was not just a populist slogan as it generally is with politicians, but was for him his life's passion.

President Premadasa had in fact been assassinated long before that fateful day nine years ago. Some of his political enemies had character assassinated him many times over spreading all types of falsehoods against him. He was born to an ordinary family and lived most of his life despised by some who were rich and powerful. However, much as all that pained him grievously, he journeyed on, content that he was loved and venerated by those whom he was born to benefit, the poor and the downtrodden. Getting to the top of the country's political ladder was worse than merely climbing up the greasy pole, for he was always being pushed down from above.

It is noteworthy that history and sanity have slowly but steadily begun the process of clearing his name of various canards that were deliberately and systematically concocted and spread around the world.

My great ambition is that someday I will be able to make my own contribution towards restoring to him the place of honour which he richly deserve.

I have had the very rare privilege of working close to him for well over a quarter century. As his Press Officer in the early years when he was the Minister of Local government in the Dudley Senanayake Government and later as his Press Secretary when he assumed the office as the Prime Minister and President of Sri Lanka. Never in my life have I seen a more brilliant example of a self-made man than Mr. Premadasa. His unbelievably great capacity for and efficiency at work is undoubtedly the result of his inner personality, which developed into gigantic proportions as a result of diligent application and effort. It shall be my own mission and privilege to tell the Premadasa story some day soon, so that the record may be set straight and honour restored where for too long it has been denied.

(The writer was the Press Secretary to the late President Premadasa during the time he was the Minister of Local Government and Prime Minister and President of Sri Lanka. Later he worked as the Press Counsellor at Sri Lanka High Commission in London)


'A Truly Great Man'

by Oscar E. V. Fernando - DN Thu Sep 11 2003



President R. Premadasa

He was a great man indeed. A man who felt for his country and, who had a burning desire to help the poor and the downtrodden as perhaps he himself came from that same soil. He was destined to reach the top, but unfortunately after reaching the top he found that he had to make that supreme sacrifice for not belonging to the ruling clan and class.

This was Ranasingha Premadasa whose last loud cry shortly before his assassination, and when he had to face the impeachment motion brought against was, "Do not assassinate my character even if you do assassinate me".

Yes, they lit crackers to celebrate his assassination. Perhaps it was by the very people who benefited from his people-friendly policies. Shelter for the poor, due to which the United Nations declared a Year of Shelter, Jana Saviya, the instrument he used to help the poor, whilst giving into the dictates of the IMF and the World Bank, (may be another matter to be seriously considered by the United Nations), the foster parents scheme that had a premature end with his assassination, the Gam Udawa project with which he tried to stir up the stupor in the Sinhala villages, the mobile secretariat whereby he took the central government bureaucracy to the peasant, the Tower Hall Foundation for oriental drama and music, the pension schemes he initiated for the elder artistes, an unostentatious life led by him in his simple residence away from his luxurious official residence, a man who perhaps travelled the least as a politician at the helm, an oriental in the true sense of the word, are just a few among many of his achievements and qualities that come to my mind.

On the economic front, let me only take one instance. The garment industry project that he initiated against much controversy and derision has now become a forerunner in earning foreign exchange and provision of employment in the villages. This was just one step in the direction of taking the economy to the outstations that has now turned to full bloom as the envisaged economic zones. In retrospect one has to wonder why there has been so much opposition to his attempts to bring about village participation on all fronts.

He had to work with a number of people, some of whom would be above board and some not. But taking his background and the matter of loyalty, much needed in politics, one may say that he did not have a very wide choice and therefore would have had to grin and bear actions of some of his close associates. But is this not the plight of many a politician at the helm?

As against all this, he was propagated to be a purveyor of killings, having a killer brigade under him, a plunderer of wealth, a show off, waster of public funds for carnivals such as Gam Udawa, a dictator who curtailed the press and had his own way, a man who gets things done by a show of his white hanky, a man who gave the nod to his aide to drag a person from his home in broad day light, with the sole intention of killing him, when all he had to do was to show his white hanky! or say the word, and it will be so ordained with discretion, a man disowned by colleagues of his old school, a man who was considered efficient to do much for the economy, but however; carried much misdeeds!, a man who twisted the arms of his leader who had to come to a stage, where he had to give in. To top it all, is the irony, that he was a man whose regime was purportedly toppled by the so-called fettered press, without any bloody revolt! Could imagination run a more severe riot than this?

In his defense let me commence with the last of the accusations. Having had very little to do with him, other than to make silent and close observations, in my capacity as a director and member of the Board of Management of Sri Lanka Foundation, chaired by H. W. Jayawardena QC, and also as a one time member of the Human Rights Task Force, the defense could be made only through the writing of a third party, and that happens to be none other than a person who had withstood politics of several generations, to be a trusted advisor to several past leaders of our country, the evergreen Bradman Weerakoon. In his book Premadasa of Sri Lanka, he speaks of the manner in which Premadasa accepted the leadership of the country;

Around the beginning of 1988, the matter of the successor to the presidency came up among the members of the UNP. It became clear to President Jayewardene that Premadasa was indeed the front runner, as under the prevailing unrest in the country, that only a person with the perseverance, industry and commitment of Premadasa could stand a chance at elections. He goes on to say;

"As Premdasa recalled in his speech to the Parliamentary Group on 2nd September 1991; the former President had called him up and said, Premadasa you should come forward the next time. I am going to propose your name to the working committee. To which Premadasa had replied; Please Sir keep me out of this. I do not want it.

There are so many names appearing in the papers and you can pick one of them. He goes on to say that; "Premadasa reminded JR that there were two Ministers in the running, Gamini Dissanayeka and Lalith Athulathmudali." He would give them his fullest support. This time it was JR who did not take No for an answer. He further goes on to say in his book that Premadasa accepted and shortly left on an official visit to China. Overnight the country was plastered with posters asking the question, Who is he?

What is he doing? These are Bradman Weerakoon's own words, written at a time when both President Premadasa and President JR Jayewardena and also the members of the UNP Working Committee were among the living. There appears to be no denial of this up to now. Incidentally this book Premadasa of Sri Lanka, "A political Biography, by Bradman Weerakoon was first published in 1992.

As most of my elucidations are based on Bradman Weerakoon's book, quotations from his book will be taken with my observations as it is felt that this is the only way one could do, justice to this great man, amidst all controversies and conjured up evidence against him. One could almost say he was crucified and like Pilate several have washed off their guilt by washing their hands, except for people in the likes of Mr. Bradman Weerakoon and Mr. K. H. J. Wijedasa, another much respected civil servant, who also happened to have served the country with several leaders sans politics. The latter continues to speak well of him and also speak of his weaknesses from the Premadasa Centre of which he is still a member, to my belief.

To those who say he was a dictator.

Quote from book; On his first Presidential address he worked into his speech that his government would provide the basic conditions where liberty and discipline would be ensured. It was a clear signal of his philosophy of less government and full participation and total involvement of the people. Consultation compromise and consensus one could definitely say that he continued with full participation and involvement with the people, literally witnessed to the last moment of his dying day.

To those who deny that he was an old Josephian.

Quote; St Joseph's College at that time had started an oriental languages course. Richard Ranasingha wished his son to follow this course. But St Joseph's was strict on admitting only Catholics. The interview with Rector Fr Le Goc was short and crisp.

What's your nationality?
I am a Sinhalese

What is your religion?
I am a Buddhist.

Do you attend classes in religious instruction?
Yes I do on Sundays.

Are you proud of being a Buddhist?
Yes Father

Why do you like Buddhism so much?
Because the Buddha taught us kindness. Because he taught us to be merciful, even to our enemies

Why do you want to join this school?
I want to study further.

Fr Le Goc was satisfied. He entrusted Premadasa to Fr DJ Anthony, a senior teacher of the college.

The stature of the man who quoted this in his book would be sufficient to show its value and validity. He remained a true Buddhist to the very last, after perhaps a sound disciplinary grounding, that perhaps was intended by the father for the son, in the oriental section of St Joseph's College. To those who speak ill of the Gam Udawa Project:

Quote; Roads were repaired, bridges and culverts strengthened, government buildings painted and everything for miles spruced up. It was as if the beam of a searchlight had been focused for a while on some dark corner

Perhaps it was to reawaken the stupor of the village, so that it would spread from village to village and then awaken the stupor of the whole country. To most of our villagers who do not have a sense of time, he considered a clock tower a compulsion, but, for the so-called hollow elite in our society, with their traditional naivete, it was the butt end of a hilarious joke! May we say, much akin to the joke they made of Puran Appu! As to those who say he was a show off, it is true that he appeared very often on TV, but if one cared to have a closer look, it was always in a project where he was helping the deprived masses, with his burning desire that society understand the deprivations among the poor. This was certainly anathema to some, and therefore they came to the wrong conclusion that he was a show off.

His thinking on the communal issue at this stage of the quagmire in the ethnic situation is worth some consideration.

Quote; On many public occasions he had bemoaned the fact that individuals are characterized into ethnic communities. How, he had questioned, would I have known that I would be born a Sinhalese or a Tamil or a Muslim? And he questioned how that accident of birth gave him any greater claim to the fruits of the earth, than someone else not so fortunate.

A Sarvodaya Field Director, Harsha Navaratne, made a point when he said; Premadasa is the first Head of State we have had whose Sinhala Buddhism is not a mere political convenience. He thinks Sinhala Budhism. He dreams Sinhala Buddhism.He talks Sinhala Buddhism.He knows what the Sinhala Buddhist wants. Although he does not agree with the Sinhala Buddhist who thinks that this country belongs only to them, and even though he is prepared to say so publicly and defend the rights of the minorities, the Sinhala Buddhist will not consider him a traitor. He will not betray us.

Quote; On assuming office of President he focused on three imperatives; Restoration of peace;

Enforcement of discipline and
Prosperity through the eradication of poverty.

Enforcement of discipline is something no one would ever deny. He made the shirkers in our bureaucracy tremble. It is also noteworthy that his idea of prosperity to the country was through eradication of poverty. It was not a question of making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Hence, Jana Saviya project.

As for restoration of peace, most of us know the turmoil in the country when he took over during two rebellions from the North and the South, both sides, so manoeuvring to ensure that society pointed the finger at him for all the massacres. What takes the cake is, that some in the South faithfully believed it! They would go to any length to believe that the LTTE went across to India and killed their Prime Minister. But as for the killing of all the Sinhala leaders; these were done by one man, and only one man from the South! Would not the LTTE have been laughing with glee at the lotus or, is it, kavun eaters, among us?

Do most of us not remember that when Premadasa quelled the southern rebellion, there was a period of calm where even he felt free to walk the crowded streets of Colombo on that fateful May-Day. A spell of calm, until he and two other indispensable political leaders were lost to the Sinhalese.

Peace and calm that enabled the present Prime Minister together with the then President to organize and conduct a clean and peaceful election, accompanied with encomiums from the opposition. Memories sure are so short! But now, do we not see rumblings of that ominous period surfacing with unrest in universities and institutions, continuous strikes almost programmed, if one may say, and killing of politicians where some politicians have the unscrupulousness to say that we are again witnessing a Premadasa style gung-ho.

Does this not smack of a well-timed repetition of the Batalanda fiasco? Could man descend to be so vile in politics, as not to let the dead lie in peace? Do we have to continue to assassinate a man's character even after assassinating him? Can we not respect a dead man's last wishes?

One could ask, years after all these wild accusations against him, what has been proved to date, even posthumously, other than those preposterous conclusions of the now infamous investigation reports, that such and such could not have happened without directives from the top? Top, bottom or sideways, how about the many directives given from the jungles inhabited by rebel leaders at that time?

Did we have such Idi Amin style dictatorship in Sri Lanka where this dictator had to be vanquished by a revolt, or be captured and sent to Siberia? Was a revolt necessary to vanquish a leader who walked the crowded streets on May Day without any fear? Being on a platform in a crowded place with a ring of security guards surrounding him, or traveling in a bullet-proof vehicle, were far from his mind that day.

It is now time for recompense, to perpetuate his memory, his dedication to the poor and the downcast, thus avoiding uprisings that may make life uneasy for those who want to perpetuate naivete, in our society.

We do see this recompense in the making, and we do hope it will see the light of day before long!