Obituary: Ranasinghe Premadasa

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The Independent Online
Ranasinghe Premadasa, politician: born Colombo 23 June 1924; Minister of Local Government 1968-70, Leader National State Assembly 1977-88, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka 1978-88, President 1989-93; Chief Whip, Opposition Parliamentary Group 1970-77; married 1964 Hema Wickrematunga (one son, one daughter); died Colombo 1 May 1993.

THE ASSASSINATION of President Ranasinghe Premadasa is another in a long line of political killings in Sri Lanka that threaten to hasten the collapse of the few remaining political civilities in the island.

There was a certain inevitability to it following the earlier murder of Lalith Athulathmudali, his main political opponent just a week becore. Even though these events were linked, given the devious and Byzantine nature of Sri Lankan politics, it does not necessarily rule out other opponents' bearing responsibility for Premadasa's killing as he walked in the May Day parade in Colombo. In fact, the human bomb method of assassination is normally the preserve of the separatist Tamil Tigers. Given the present political impasse in Sri Lanka, the Tigers can only approve further instability and confusion.

In his four years as President, Premadasa had appeared to achieve the unattainable. First, he had managed to humiliate his largest neighbour, India, by forcing them to withdraw ahead of schedule the remaining troops they had stationed in Sri Lanka since the signing of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accords. Then he had held peace talks with the Tamil Tigers, the first in nearly two decades, and negotiated a ceasefire which lasted for 15 months - a local record. And, perhaps most significantly, he had neutralised the growing threat from the Sinhalese Marxist movement, the JVP, which had posed a greater threat to established Sinhalese society than the Tigers themselves. As a consequence of those formidable accomplishments, in the past two years the Sri Lankan economy revived and tourists started flocking back to the beaches after a decade of shunning the island.

But there was a high price for these achievements - state-sanctioned terror and political tactics that would have made Machiavelli shake his head in wonderment. At the height of the renewed attacks on the Tamil Tiger strongholds in northern Sri Lanka, 100,000 Tamil refugees fled to southern India, while nearly a million Tamils were displaced by the fighting. In the campaign against the JVP guerrillas in southern Sri Lanka, an estimated 5,000 people were killed in the months of August and September 1989. It was an unwritten rule that for every security-force family wiped out by the JVP, 12 JVP familes would suffer a similar fate. The government's use of death squads and private militias in their final push against the JVP led the human-rights group Asia Watch to declare it 'a period of lawlessness and bloodshed unparalleled in (Sri Lanka's) 40 years as an independent state'.

Premadasa always had the reputation of being a political thug amongst the Sri Lankan elite and, even during his early career as a local politician in the slums of Colombo, it was not uncommon for opponents simply to disappear.

The most blatant example of his later political chicanery was an admission in parliament two years ago that he had secretly sanctioned the provision of arms to the Tamil Tigers while they were engaged in their armed conflict against the state. Premadasa had other goals to achieve, however, and in this case he was assisting the Tigers to put up a better fight against the remaining Indian armed forces, both to hasten their departure and to reassure the Sinhalese majority of his nationalist credentials. These hints of xenophobic behaviour also enabled him to eradicate the leadership of the JVP and to unleash death squads on their pockets of supporters while keeping his own credibility with the Sinhalese majority.

However, his cynical tactics led to the break-up of his own ruling party, when Lalith Athulathmudali, the former National Security Minister, first moved to impeach him and then was finally expelled along with Gamani Dissanayake, the two most capable ministers in the government. The other minister of real stature, Ronnie de Mel, who had been Finance Minister from 1977 until 1988, had already defected from the party and later had to go into exile in London to avoid the same fate as Athulathmudali.

The assassination of Athulathmudali will assist in creating a sympathy vote for the Democratic United National Front, now led by Dissanayake, if the provincial elections proceed later this month. The same cannot be said of the ruling United National Party, which has no figure of comparable stature to take over the reins since Premadasa's demise. In the hours after his assassination was announced, there were celebrations in the streets by supporters of the DUNF.

Ranasinghe Premadasa was born in 1924 at Kehelwatte, a deprived working-class area of central Colombo near the docks. He was a member of the Hinaya or washerman's caste, one of the lowest in the highly stratified Sinhalese Buddhist caste system. He was first educated by Buddhist monks and later won a place at St Joseph's College, Colombo, the leading Catholic school and equal in prestige to its Anglican rival, Royal College. Only two years after independence in 1948, he became a Labour Party member of the Colombo Municipal Council and, later, deputy Mayor, which is when his reliance on thugs and criminal elements for his backing was first noticed. He unsuccessfully contested a parliamentary seat in 1956 for the United National Party and was elected four years later.

After a brief spell as Minister of Local Government when the United National Party (UNP) held power in the late Sixties, he then became the chief opposition whip after the re-election of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister in 1970. From then until he became President in 1989, his political career was closely connected with that of the patrician JR Jayewardene, who was subsequently Prime Minister and later, from 1978 until he retired in 1988, President of Sri Lanka. The attitude of the Sinhalese UNP leaders towards Premadasa was patronising and contemptuous. He was an essential political weapon for the UNP against their socialist opponents but, because he had been so astute at building his own mass political power-base, it was impossible to prevent him eventually attaining political power in his own right.

Premadasa was appointed Minister of Local Government, Housing and Construction when Jayewardene won the 1977 election and the following year took on the added responsibility of Prime Minister when Jayewardene created a presidential form of government. It was Premadasa's continuing position as housing minister that really cemented his political support. He made a special effort to provide universal housing and was canny enough to be sure that his photograph was given equal prominence to that of the President in all of the subsequent publicity.

Premadasa's connections with the political and criminal underworld came to full use during the 1983 riots against the Tamil population. His political thugs, or goondas, went on a systematic spree in Colombo, firebombing Tamil residences and destroying their commercial property. Later, when the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord was signed by Jayewardene and the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, Premadasa refused to participate in the ceremonies, in order to show his support to the Sinhalese opponents of the Accord.

Premadasa did not rely on charm to attain his power and had complete contempt for the media. He refused to give interviews to the foreign press and some found his personal manner almost reptilian. He was deeply aware of the caste barriers that he had broken by becoming the first non-high- caste Head of State in Sri Lanka. Despite his use of the lower castes to come to prominence, his later politics and demeanour showed indifference to his own origins, with his solid gold watch and retinue of flunkeys.

SWRD Bandaranaike, an earlier Sinhalese chauvinist head of government who was assassinated, still has a lasting position in the pantheon of Sinhalese leaders. Given his unique origins and circumstances, it is highly doubtful whether Premadasa will be seen in such a sympathetic light in the medium to long-term future. The position of the Tamil minority remains as uncertain as ever with no sign of a political solution on the horizon, while the use of gunmen to resolve political problems threatens to engulf the entire political process.

(Photograph omitted)