Ranasinghe Premadasa

The Rise and Fall of President


By Deshamanya K.H.J. Wijayadasa
Former Secretary to the President
President Ranasinghe Premadasa; An Extraordinary Man

President Premadasa was no ordinary leader. He was a self made, self educated, self disciplined and self motivated man. Mentally and physically he was nothing but a computer operated human dynamo. He was a philosopher- politician, a thinker, a patriot and above all an extraordinary man. He devoted his full time and energy in the pursuit of an exemplary political career. It is said that he spent every second and every minute of his life breathing politics, drinking politics and eating politics. President Premadasa was indeed an epoch maker (yuga purushaya). Such epoch makers reach certain critical milestones in a short period of twenty to thirty years but their impact would last a couple of hundred years. Such impacts are quite often deep rooted, economically stable and environmentally sound and sustainable. The fruits of labour of such great men are often seen and felt long after their demise.

Early Signs of Greatness

Premadasa was born on June 23, 1924, at 12, Dias Place, Keselwatta, Colombo 02, to the family of Richard Ranasinghe of Hegalle, Kosgoda and Jayasinghe Arachchige Ensina Hamine of Batuwita, Horana. Unlike the other prominent leaders of Sri Lanka he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father owned a fleet of rickshaws which were hired to coolies for passenger transport; a lucrative enterprise during the bullock cart era. His parents were devout Buddhists who saw to it that their children grew up in an atmosphere of restraint, tolerance, respect for elders and above all the willingness to share and care. As was customary at the time, he was sent to the Purwarama Temple nearby to learn the Buddha Dhamma together with reading and writing of the mother tongue. This temple education and association with the Sangha enabled him to acquire proficiency of Sinhala language, communication and oratorical skills which not only stood in good stead in his political career but also made both his political colleagues and opponents feel envious.

He had his primary schooling at Harvard Girls School at Dam Street, Colombo and thereafter at Lawrence College, Maradana. He had his secondary education at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo which was and is still one of the most prestigious Catholic Missionary Schools in the island. His admission to St. Joseph’s College enabled him to acquire not only English language skills but also appreciate the importance of racial and religious harmony. Even though his biographical data stated that he studied up to the SSC; having served under him for 07 years as Additional Secretary and Secretary to the Ministries of Local Government, Housing and Construction and Highways and as Secretary to the Prime Minister and as Secretary to the President for 10 years, my assessment of his intellectual capacity and universality of knowledge far exceeded that of all his highly qualified colleagues and top officials. In fact he often told us in lighter vein that he graduated from the "University of Life." His racial and religious tolerance was amply rewarded when he was repeatedly returned as first Member of Parliament of the multi religious multi racial and multi lingual electorate of Colombo Central. Later in life he proved his resolve to bring about religious harmony by constructing multi religious places of worship in each and every reawakened village established under the Gam Udawa Programme.

Living amidst the squalor, ignorance and lawlessness of the slums and shanties of Keselwatta, young Premadasa soon realized the need for a movement for social and moral regeneration. Thus in 1939 he founded the Sucharita Movement which gave umbrella cover to several activities of moral and social regeneration such as a free night school, the temperance movement and many religious and literary activities. In 1949, Premadasa joined the Labour Party of A.E. Goonasinha and entered municipal politics in 1950 as a Member of the Colombo Municipal Council. He gained fame as a fearless debator and a non-partisan and genuine advocate of the voiceless and downtrodden people. In 1955 he was elected Deputy Mayor of the Colombo Municipal Council. In 1956 he joined the United National Party and unsuccessfully contested the Ruwanwella seat in Parliament against the Marxist stalwart Dr. N.M. Perara. He once again served as a member of the Colombo Municipal Council from 1961 to 1965.

Entry into National Politics

It is said that fortune favours the brave. But, in the case of Premadasa it was not bravery that pushed him up the ladder to those dizzy Himalayan heights of the Presidency. Many people believe that you should have both pluck and luck in equal measure. As for pluck his determination and perseverance were remarkable. He had a great capacity to inspire people. He was a man of tremendous courage and self confidence who could take up any defeat and look ahead unabated. He was full of new ideas and new concepts and wanted them tested. He was quick on the uptake. He was impatient and restless until his objectives were realized. He was ruthless to those who shirked their duties and responsibilities. He silently acknowledged and admired efficiency and innovation. He made optimum use of time; in fact every second and every minute of it. In the process he set time targets which looked demonic.

The turning point in Premadasa’s life which took him from his humble home in Keselwatta to President’s House was the Parliamentary Election of March 1965. Contesting on the UNP ticket he won the multi member Colombo Central Electorate handsomely coming second to Pieter Keuneman, a Leader of the Communist Party. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake who was leading a seven party coalition appointed M. Tiruchelvam, a senior member of the Federal Party as Minister of Local Government and Premadasa as his Deputy Minister. It was a tricky appointment as the Federal Party had the avowed objective of achieving federalism for the Tamil people of the Northern, Eastern and Central Provinces, whereas Premadasa, the patriot stood for amity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. However, Premadasa remained loyal to the Prime Minister and did not cross swords with Tiruchelvam. In 1968 the Federal Party left the government and the Prime Minister had no hesitation in appointing Premadasa as the Cabinet Minister of Local Government. So, within three years of being elected a Member of Parliament Premadasa had leapfrogged to a position of power and strength. Premadasa believed that his marriage to Hema Wickrematunga on his 40th birthday on June 23, 1964, brought him good luck. After 1964 he never suffered a political reversal. It was a steady rise to the top without any slip but of course in the process encountering many challenges and obstacles on the way.

During the two years as Minister of Local Government in the Dudley Senanayake government Premadasa made his mark as a man of action charged with grit and determination. His instant bridges programme using pre stressed concrete components and the Maligawatta Housing Scheme; a city within a city that rose from a swamp became the talking point of even his opponents. At the General Election of May 1970 the United Front led by Sirmavo Bandaranaike rode to power with a 2/3rd majority. The UNP strength in Parliament was reduced to 17 members. J.R. Jayewardene who became Leader of the Opposition appointed Premadasa as the Chief Opposition Whip. Seven years in the opposition from 1970 to 1977 gave Premadasa an opportunity to reflect on past mistakes; formulate an action plan for the future, travel about freely and engage in writing.

While in the opposition he published two novels, namely "Ranminimuthu" and "Pemwathiya" and thereafter "Peramaga Lakunu" incorporating his socio political vision. In his book "Peramaga Lakunu" which was published in 1976 he confessed that his vision was greatly inspired by the age old "Tank, Paddy Field and Dagoba" concept symbolic of prosperity, plenty and tranquility. He was obsessed by the great stupas and the massive irrigation works built by the Sinhala Kings relying heavily on human ingenuity. His modus operandi was to unleash the latent forces of human energy and ingenuity through moral and economic empowerment of the people. His vision of national development was essentially home grown. It was founded on time honoured principles such as sustainable use of resources, reliance on indigenous knowledge and traditional wisdom and optimum utilization of land, water, local raw materials and labour. His vision was founded on the "bottom up" approach as against the conventional "top down" approach.

The Dazzling Rise of Ranasinghe Premadasa

The dazzling rise of Ransinghe Premadasa to the all powerful Executive Presidency was swift and steady, calculated and premeditated and meticulously planned and executed all the way. The General Elections of July 1977 catapulted the United National Party into power with a 5/6th majority in Parliament. Premadasa played a pivotal role in ensuring victory by rallying round J.R. Jayewardene who led the campaign. As expected, Premadasa was elected First Member of Colombo Central Electorate with a big margin. He was appointed Minister of Local Government, Housing and Construction as well as Leader of the House. With the passing of several Constitutional amendments, J.R. Jayewardene was sworn in as President in February 1978, making way for Premadasa to be appointed as Prime Minister in quick succession.

To begin with Premadasa set up a massive institutional and legal framework for conceptualizing, articulating and implementing his ambitious housing, water supply, infrastructure and urban development programme. He set very high targets such as 100,000 houses in the first five years and a further million houses in the second five years coupled with an ambitious village reawakening (Gam Udawa) programme. Village reawakening encompassed not only housing but also integrated infrastructure and community development including water supply, roads, health and education facilities, home gardens and even places of religious worship.

The wide variety of his programmes and projects and his capacity to personally direct them mesmerized both friend and foe. His programmes and projects were multi sectoral, multi faceted and their benefits equitably distributed island wide as reflected in housing and village reawakening, water supply, 200 garment factories poverty alleviation mobile ministries and host of such other facilities and services. He did not waste money on grandiose schemes nor did he lend his name to any road, building, bridge, play ground, temple, school or any such edifice constructed with state funding. The J.R. Jayewardene - Ranasinghe Premadasa regime will go down to history for bringing about several radical changes in the socio economic and political configuration of Sri Lanka. Among these the liberalization of the economy, the introduction of the executive presidential system and launching of three lead projects namely; Mahaveli, Free Trade Zone and Housing and Urban Development provided the launching pad for steady economic growth, political stability and social justice.

As Minister of Local Government, Housing and Construction and Prime Minister Premadasa made full use of the opportunities that were thrown open to him to project his image both nationally and internationally. He was always the keynote speaker at the annual sessions of the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements and led the Sri Lanka delegations to the Asia Pacific Ministerial Conferences on Environment and Development, Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings and the United Nations General Assembly. He was an excellent coordinator. His management techniques were sound. He lived by example as against precept. He was a true democrat who cherished freedom of thought and expression. He was well versed in Parliamentary procedures and privileges. His honesty and integrity was beyond reproach. Premadasa was an extremely well organized man. His methods and systems were cut and dry. He did not waste state coffers on hordes of Advisors, Secretaries, Consultants, Coordinating Officers etc. As Executive President he relied on just one Secretary, one Advisor, four Additional Secretaries, one Press Secretary, two Coordinating Secretaries one Private Secretary and other Support Staff.

There was absolutely no difference between his declaratory policy and actual policy. Unlike most politicians he practiced what he preached. He was not a "Jekyll and Hyde" personality. He was of the view that leaders with dual personalities who rule by deception would succeed in the short term but fail miserably in the long term as they have to utter ten lies to maintain one lie. He was very sensitive to media reports; especially those which were critical and adverse. He not only rectified the mistakes but also took measures at damage control. He did not mix politics with public duty nor his official work. He gave a hearing to his constituents at his private residence. He kept his officials clean out of politics. He did not preside over the distribution of letters of appointment to new recruits to the public service. He did not use state officials and state resources for electioneering nor for his private purposes. In hindsight it could be argued that this type of gentlemanly politics would certainly be counter- productive.

The Fall of President Ranasinghe Premadasa

The fall of President Ranasinghe Premadasa from the invincible and highly fortified office of the Executive President was precipitous, least expected and unbelievably tragic. His gradual rise to the top from Municipal Councilor in 1950 to Executive President in 1989 took 39 long years but his precipitous fall which culminated in his tragic demise was signed, sealed and delivered in the matter of a mere 04 years and 04 months. Since his demise diverse views and opinions have been expressed both by his friends and adversaries with regard to the causes and the factors responsible for his rapid fall.

Of the factors that were responsible for his fall some were inherited by him, some were of his own seeking or creation and some others were of course inherent. Astrologers who had the privilege of reading his horoscope have said that they have severely warned President Premadasa to be extremely vigilant and careful on the 01st of May 1993 owing to the confluence of a rare combination of malefic planets. The warning they gave had stopped short of predicting death as it is against professional ethics and etiquette to do so. They further surmised that in any case he had completed his "ayusha" or life span and hence had to depart at the age of 69 years. As preached by the Buddha once born death is certain and can come at any moment.

He won the UNP nomination for the Presidential Election of December 1988 against great odds and insurmountable obstacles. President Premadasa himself had his fingers crossed till the last moment as to whether President J.R.Jayewardene would bring a Constitutional amendment enabling him to seek reelection for a further term of office or whether the official UNP nomination would be made in favour of Gamini Dissanayake or Lalith Athulathmudali. Even though President Jayewadene technically had a clear 2/3 majority in Parliament to amend the Constitution he was rather hesitant to do so as the mood in the country was against such a move and the Premadasa faction was gaining in strength.

In any case there was complete chaos and political turmoil throughout the country resulting from the terrorist war of separation by the LTTE in the North and the reign of terror unleashed by the JVP in the South to capture power by undemocratic means. The "wise old fox" President Jayewardene quickly sized up the situation and made Prime Minister Premadasa virtually the scapegoat by granting him UNP nomination for the Presidential Election of December 1988. Contesting the Presidential election in a very volatile and hostile environment in which innocent people were being killed, property both private and public was being destroyed and party men were being massacred in cold blood was not an easy task. Security was a matter of primary concern as the JVP in the South and the LTTE in the North were both engaged in disrupting the holding of the Election as reflected in the poor voter participation which was 55.32%. However, Premadasa won the election in the first count itself securing 50.43% of the valid votes cast. His new vision and new deal focused on restoration of peace, enforcement of discipline and ushering in a new era of prosperity sans poverty.

In his inaugural presidential address to the nation on January 2, 1989, President Premadasa invited the LTTE and the JVP to join the democratic process and enter into a dialogue with the government to find solutions to their grievances. He released some 1,800 JVP cadres from prison as a measure of goodwill. He was deeply concerned about the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force of over 100,000 spread over the Nothern and Eastern Provinces. The Sri Lanka Security Forces were confined to barracks and the LTTE was engaged in a long drawn out battle with the IPKF. In fact getting rid of the IPKF had been one of his solemn election pledges as he considered its presence as an affront to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. In April 1989 the LTTE responded to the President’s call and the laborious and protracted talks ended with the war breaking out again in June 1990 soon after the IPKF had been fully withdrawn. The talks which lasted for well over one year turned out to an absolute farce enacted as usual by the LTTE as an interlude in its march to Eelam.

It was pretty obvious that the LTTE had betrayed the trust and confidence that the President had placed in it. President Premadasa during the talks in good faith genuinely believed that the LTTE would give up the separatist war of attrition in favour of greater autonomy for the Northern and Eastern Provinces and join the mainstream of democratic politics. In all probability this false notion prompted him to issue weapons to the LTTE to annihilate the Tamil National Army of the Provincial Council of the Northern and Eastern Provinces set up by the IPKF and also to dole out to the LTTE around Rs. 30 million per month of state funds for nearly one year for the upkeep of LTTE cadres.

The JVP while not heeding to the call for an amicable negotiated settlement accelerated its campaign of death, destruction and mayhem virtually bringing the state machinery to a grinding halt. President Premadasa had no alternative other than to meet force with force. He gave the Armed Forces and Police a free hand to deal with the situation and the JVP insurrection was ruthlessly wiped out. Even after two years into his Presidency of the three inherited scourges that sapped so much of his energy and wasted so much of valuable state assets and resources only two, namely the wiping out of the JVP and the dispatching of IPKF, had been resolved. The Eelam war had recommenced with vigour and President Premadasa had wittingly or unwittingly stepped into the LTTE trap for good.

Some of the factors responsible for his downfall were of his own seeking such as the impeachment, the style of governance, the media hype and his arrogant behavior. The impeachment was the culmination of a class struggle between the English speaking aristocratic upper class clad in western dress and Sinhala speaking ordinary middle class clad in national costume. The impeachment was the brainchild of Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali who were fairly longstanding UNP heavyweights vying to ascend the Executive Presidency. They are said to have fallen from grace because they did not pull their weight during the Presidential election campaign nor did they treat the President with due respect even thereafter. Consequently, in the allocation of Cabinet portfolios both Gamini and Lalith had a raw deal being shunted clean out of their traditional domains of Mahaveli and Land Development.

Collecting signatures for the Impeachment Motion was made easier with the imposition of wide ranging restrictions on travel abroad on official business by Ministers, MPs and Officials (only three trips were allowed per year) limiting the use of official vehicles (down to three from thirty in some cases), severe restrictions on use of the VIP Lounge at the Katunayake Airport (to prevent smuggling of contraband) and a complete ban on participating in embassy dinners, receptions etc. These blows were further compounded by the fact that these restrictions were not made applicable to the President. Also, all complaints of bribery, corruption and abuse of power against Ministers, MPP’s and Officials were referred by the President himself to retired DIG of Police Mr. A.C. Lawrence, Head of the Special Investigating Unit nicknamed "Gestapo" for investigation and report which was not only resented but feared especially by those who had skeletons in their cupboards.

Premadasa as Minister and the Prime Minister was amenable, reasonable and precautionary in his dealings as well as in decision making. The reasons for this are two fold; firstly as Executive President in waiting he had to be patient and mark time and secondly in terms of the 1978 Constitution the Prime Minister was only a figure head devoid of any powers and functions. As President, Premadasa was rather arrogant and dictatorial in his style of governance. This was inevitable considering the fact that the Executive President is the master of all he surveys being the Head of State, Head of Government, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers and the Leader of the ruling political party.

He was vindictive and ruthlessly stalked his enemies. He expected one hundred percent loyalty from his Ministers, officials and friends. He distanced himself from some of his lifelong friends. He disregarded the advice of his Security Advisors and the Presidential Security Division. He trusted his valet Mohideen so much that he was blissfully ignorant of the fact that Bhanu the designated LTTE assassin was in and out of his private residence at Sucharitha Mawatha procuring women and supplying foreign liquor to Mohideen and his clique.

President Premadasa’s style of governance was not strategic, diplomatic or discreet. On the contrary it was open, cut and dry and predictably straight forward. His style of governance was reflected in some of the hard decisions he made such as forcefully prevailing on the Indian Government to withdraw the IPKF, declaring the British High Commissioner David Gladastone persona non grata and sending him home and sacking the Ministers and MPs who were the prime movers of the Impeachment Motion from the Cabinet, Parliament and the Party. Of course he was mindful of the fact that these lethal blows would generate serious repercussions both nationally and internationally and the after shocks would be felt by him and the country sooner or later.

The campaign to slander Premadasa commenced with the Impeachment Motion which contained several false allegations such as abuse of power, violation of the Constitution, mental incapacity, dictatorial rule, misuse of state assets and last but not the least raping of a virgin every week in fulfillment of a vow. When journalist Richard de Zoysa, a great buddy of David Gladstone, was killed the finger was pointed at President Premadasa; of course not without reason as armed men in full military uniform had taken him away from his house. When Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa along with several senior army officers perished in the LTTE land mine explosion at Araly Point in Jaffna, President Premadasa was accused of plotting and planning the gruesome killings; the motive being to get rid of Denzil Kobbekaduwa a prospective candidate at the Presidential Election!!

In fact the assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali which took place just one week prior to President Premadasa’s assassination was the last stroke that broke his morale completely. Soon after the tragic event he summoned me to his private residence at Sucharitha Mawatha. He was shocked and surprised and seemed helpless and devastated. He knew that as usual his enemies would accuse him of plotting and planning the gruesome killing. He instructed me to telephone General Sepala Atygalle, Sri Lanka High Commissioner in London immediately and get down a team of detectives from Scotland Yard. I felt relieved because if the President had any hand in that dastardly act he would not have called for Scotland Yard assistance. In hindsight, I have now come to the conclusion that the assassinations of both Lalith Athulathmudali and Premadasa were expertly masterminded by the LTTE both in respect of methodology and timing so that President Premadasa would suffer one week of mental torture before his demise.

Premadasa was 65-years of age when he reached his final goal of the seemingly elusive Executive Presidency. It was indeed something very precious and hard to achieve. He wanted to fully exploit the vast potential under his command for the common good. He had a vision for the transformation of the country from rags to riches, from war to peace and from the abyss of social and moral degeneration to an exemplary, disciplined and law abiding society. People may have misunderstood him but he was doing everything possible in good faith. As a firm believer in astrology he would have known that the time available to him was limited. Therefore, he was a man in a hurry. He was impatient and restless.

But from the word go the problems and obstacles he encountered were enormous and insurmountable. Basically, he had two weaknesses; firstly he did not trust anyone, secondly he was not diplomatic. He wanted to have a controlling hand in everything conceivable. He centralized the entire decision making processs in and around the Executive Presidency which was nicknamed the "one man show". As he was in a mighty hurry to get his programmes and projects through he had no time for listening to excuses or indulging in diplomatic niceties. His style of governance was rough and tough. During his regime he was always on the attack. He genuinely thought that "attack is the best form of defence;" but alas it failed.

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