By Shenali Waduge
There are many lessons from the rule of President Premadasa that will help us avoid the same mistakes. The quality of governance has deteriorated over the years and it is unlikely to change unless the present culture of governance carried down by successive governments and politicians changes. Let politicians remember that all governments have ended up falling short of people’s expectations because they have removed themselves away from the people trusting in only their henchmen, and no sooner government moves away from the masses it becomes the beginning of the end.
The culture of depending on the underworld and goon squads have passed down from one government to the other resulting in unnecessary bloodshed, and a spate of criminal activity that has brought the country into disrepute over the years. Until such time, this trend to depend on thugs ceases to be, we are unlikely to bring any semblance of good governance to Sri Lanka since the law of the country needs to apply to all equally, and officials implementing laws should not have to bow their heads down to gangsters who think they can brandish a weapon and get away with it.
Sri Lanka’s mobsters
Gangster rule and goon squads started with the UNP and its legacy has continued unabated. The Wikipedia has a separate page of Sri Lankan mobsters starting out with Gonawala Sunil involved in a spate of activities including rape of a 14-year- old girl for which he was given a Presidential pardon by then President J. R. Jayawardena and ended up obtaining an all-island justice of peace and being bodyguard to Ranil Wickremasinghe, then Minister of Education. Need we say more about the culture that was being slowly created.
Then came Soththi Upali said to be a close ally of Sirisena Cooray, then Minister of Housing under President Premadasa. Sri Lanka’s Police had to address Soththi Upali as “Sir”. Taking over from Soththi Upali was his arch rival Chintaka Amarasinghe, who is said to have been aligned to the People’s Alliance.
His brother Dhammika Amarasinghe is said to have had a hand in over 50 murders and countless bank robberies, and as is always the case when their notoriety gets too linked to their patrons they end up being gunned down to conceal their links. Then comes Kalu Ajith who killed Chintaka Amarasinghe and was killed by Chintaka’s brother Dhammika.
Next to enter is Kaduwela Wasantha, who after a decade of terror was gunned down by another rival Karate Dhammika. We will all remember Baddegane Sanjeewa who was a police sergeant for President Kumaratunga. The other notorious underworld figures with fascinating names are Moratu Saman, Thoppi Chaminda,, Nawala Nihal, Kalu Ajit, Vambotta, Olcott, Thel Bala, Kimbula-Ela Guna, Dematagoda Kamal, Colum, Anamalu Imtiaz, Potta Naufer, Neluwa Priyantha, Kudu Lal and the latest to enter Julampitiye Amare.
Good and bad of Premadasa
If no human is perfect, then no leader is perfect either. In the case of a President, there are certainly good times and bad times though no leader can make the entire population happy with the decisions taken.
It is good to wonder how much of the legacy Premadasa had to deal with was of his own making. If we recall the late 1980s and early 1990s, it is nothing but bloodshed and gruesome killings with a country torched from the North to South. It was Ranjan Wijeratne who took on the task of eliminating the JVP which gave a sigh of relief to the people of the South, though many innocent Sinhala youth perished as a result. No human rights organizations cried foul play, not even the local NGO bandwagons or their mouthpieces.
It was J. R. Jayawardena who introduced the neo-liberal economy to Sri Lanka which Premadasa continued, while also carrying out his own programme of bringing the villages to a reasonable level and managing to transform the UNP, often described as the party of relatives into what he termed a people oriented party. He deregulated trade, financial services and privatization, he created massive zones of small industries giving employment to women in rural villages through garments, shoes, toys and revived tourism. He started well over 15,000 small industry-based projects all over the island.
What no leader has been able to match was Premadasa’s passion for precision and his attention given to details. He woke up at 4 a.m. did his yoga, read the newspapers and would even call his staff and ask for updates and no one could say ‘later’! – he was behind every project personally monitoring and supervising them and never forgot a single project he started.
During Premadasa’s presidency, not a single government office was spared unannounced visits and all offices were clean, and staff always on alert not knowing when the President might walk in. After Premadasa, the government offices have cared little to continue those good practices and most offices function in a ‘don’t care’ attitude.
Where did Premadasa go wrong. Coming from humble beginnings and working his way up the political ladder it was natural that he would suffer internal complexities which were manipulated by the people he kept around him as his inner circle. However, those economic advisors did not want to make real Premadasa’s vision of making the poor richer and instead the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer and people started to develop hate for the man they hoped would change their future.
A leader is brought down by his advisors and it is no different in the case of President Premadasa which reiterates the need for the present leadership to be wary of those they solicit advice from. It was the rumours, the tales and lies fed into the ears of President Premadasa that turned an iconic figure into a demon distancing himself from parliamentary colleagues’, sane advice and surrounding himself with henchmen who turned Premadasa into a dictator killing off all opposition.
In a country as small as Sri Lanka, once labelled as a dictator, it is difficult to remove that name from people’s minds. The poster mania started with the UNP and there was never an empty wall without a picture of Premadasa, the culture of news reflecting only politicians and their daily openings is another factor that has been carried down by successive governments over the years. Street smart Premadasa definitely was but it takes far more to lead in a world, where leaders are led by greater leaders. It is for this reason that leaders need to have intellectuals who love the nation and its sovereignty, advising them and certainly not intellectuals ready to hand over the nation to foreigners.
While we cannot forget the manner that President Premadasa stood up against India demanding that the IPKF pack their bags and leave forthwith it was overshadowed by the manner he lavished arms on the LTTE which killed countless innocent civilians and troops. We will not forget the lives of 500 innocent policemen who had to give up their arms on instructions of the Premadasa Government and watch each comrade being shot by the LTTE. It is said that President Premadasa had even threatened India that he would abrogate the 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement, and we wonder why he did not. The public have had enough of threats. It is now time for action.
High and lows
Premadasa’s tenure of leadership was certainly marked with highs and lows, and the manner that people celebrated his death with crackers and fireworks does not project any of the good he did during his five years in office as President. It does convey perfectly to all future leaders that people forget the good and will judge only on the bad, and this is a lesson that needs to be remembered and not ignored. Leaders who accept this fact with a ‘don’t care’ attitude are in for greater shocks.
Premadasa led a country in one of the most violent phases of Sri Lanka’s history. His advisors manipulated his paranoia, his weaknesses were tapped turning him into a man hated by the masses. He compared himself with great Dutugemunu and his closest confidant became the second most powerful man in the country, but a man whose connections to LTTE terrorism remains to be investigated to understand how terrorism was created in Sri Lanka and why it remains a threat to this day with his connections to the Tamil Nadu ‘Eelam factor’.
It is often the advisors that build up animosities amongst politicians creating political rivalries. We all remember the animosities that prevailed between Premadasa, Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake and their advisors will know how they played one against the other.
We may also like to remember President Premadasa’s plea of innocence ‘You can assassinate me…but don’t assassinate my character…’ claiming he had nothing to do in the murder of Athulathmudali.
The view of most during Premadasa’s rule was that ‘you cannot rule a country by killing its people’ though he chased out the Indians he did nothing about the Provincial Council System and judged the PCs as a means of generating a political base which is the same situation unfolding currently.
We are well aware that regime change is a top priority in the political scene prevalent in Sri Lanka. The strikes, the protests are all part of the ploys being used to test the type of change to be further manipulated. These are all testers before the real plan is set into motion, and is meant to test how a government is able to handle situations. Governments do not help the situation by playing footsie with governance by setting different rules of laws to favoured people and the malpractices building up over the years end up creating a mass of people unhappy with the type of governance not helped in the least by media which is often anti-government projecting situations far worse than what they are.
Devolving powers is not the answer
It is therefore upto the government to face the situation realistically without functioning in a state of denial. No regime change operators will touch a country that has its masses behind its government. This is why attempts are afoot to make the government and the leadership to be projected as dictatorial and unsuited to lead.
The reaction is not to make the situation worse, but to take measures to address these properly.
What is evident is that advisors have managed to make Sri Lanka’s leadership think that by devolving powers the war crimes probe will be swept under the carpet. This is nothing but a carrot being dangled to get the President to agree to devolution. Agreeing to devolution is to destroy the sovereignty and unitary status of Sri Lanka, and it is a quicker exit for the President from power and will leave him forgotten in history as a man who defeated terrorism, but destroyed the nation – and it will be nothing he can ever be proud of. Therefore, it is good for the President to start to move closer to the people for they would never allow the country to ever fall into pieces for any peace that external forces are promising. In a country that has summers and springs we do not need further springs!
The views expressed are the author’s own.