Sri Lanka News and Information Portal

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Rise and fall of president Premadasa


We were indeed fortunate to read and interesting pen-portrait of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa by one of his close associates K.H.J. Wijedasa, which appeared in the Sunday Island of April 29. As Wijedasa says in his article, he has been, with him for 17 long years, as Additional Secretary and Secretary of a Ministry directly under him, finally as the Secretary to the Prime Minister and President himself. A very long time indeed for a public servant!

Any human being has his brighter side, and darker. No ordinary human being can be called a perfect saint by any stretch of imagination. In the case of an ordinary individual the impact of his lifestyle, with warts and all, is confined to his family circle and his close associates. But in the case of a leader of a country, what he did or failed to do affects an entire population, even after he is no more. So it was in the case of late president Premadasa.

The Premadasa era can be best described as ‘ best of times and the worst of times ‘ in the Dickensian sense. On the one hand, a bonfire was raging in the north in the guise of the LTTE. , killing and maiming both Sinhala and Tamil youth. In the south JVP had unleashed it’s killing spree, and carnage. The normal administration, even in the south did not function. Murder was stalking the streets. Country was on the brink of irretrievable anarchy and chaos.

It was in to this vortex, Premadasa stepped in as the leader of the country. He used to say that he was forced to carry a torch which was lit at both ends. Immediately after he came to power he tried to bring the JVP in to the mainstream through consultation. Failing in that attempt he saw to it that this insurrection, was brought to close by using strong measures. Thus he was successful in dousing the fire on one end. With that at least people of the south started to live near normal lives, although the LTTE. menace was taking its occasional toll even in the south. (How Premadasa was duped by the LTTE is described in Mr. Wijedasa’s article. In fact some measures Mr. Premadasa resorted to placate the LTTE. , which were not well known like doling out Rs. 30 million monthly for 12 long months is mentioned there).

Premadasa got the necessary physical space to implement his ‘ people friendly ‘ projects described in Wijedasa’s article, in this environment. While continuing with the neo-liberal economic measures introduced by. J.R. Jayewardene, like free markets, open-door policy etc at the macro level he, concentrated to ameliorate the awful conditions of the have-nots, by spreading a wide safety net, in the form of providing housing, Gam -Udawa and its attendant infra-structural development, boosting Janasaviya, assisting needy artistes etc.

Changed party complexion

In fact he changed the entire complexion of the United National Party, by such popular measures. The popular adage which described the U.N.P. as Unge Nadayange Paksaya , (Party of their relatives) , became a people oriented party. Mr. Premadasa, was right behind these projects, visualising them, monitoring and supervising them until he achieved success. He never spared himself or his assistants in this endeavour.

It should be mentioned here, that most of the projects, initiated by, Premadasa are being continued by his successors, although they are fighting shy to admit this fact. Thus "Dayatakirula" is a perfect replica of "Gam Udawa". Housing programme launched by the present Ministry of Housing promising one million house- holds, to those who do not have proper houses is exactly what Premadasa promised , and partially fulfilled. The Samurdhi is Jana-Saviya by another name.

This is the positive side of Premadasa, the President. What about the negative side? When reading Wijedasa’s article one gets the feeling that while he is fulsome in his praise on Premadas’s positive contributions, he is treading rather softly on his negative qualities.

It should not be so. Even in hindsight we as a people should examine what was right and what went wrong during a particular historical era. Such a contemplation, will compel us to emulate the right measures and shun the mistakes that brought about catastrophic results. The rulers who come after should be able to draw this distinction, for the wellbeing of the country and its people.

It was in the field of man-management that Premadasa erred the most. This was equally true in the way he handled his political colleagues and the public officers. Wijedasa calls this attitude of Premadas as " Demonic" but does not elaborate.

Wijedasa implies in his article, that the impeachment brought against Premadasa, spearheaded by Lalith Athulathmudali, and by Gamini Dissanayake was a sudden development due to some restrictions brought against the parliamentary colleagues by president Premadasa. Actually this was a culmination of a long drawn out process, where Premadasa got him self alienated by distancing himself from his brighter colleagues in the cabinet by denying them their due positions, and surrounding himself with some of his mediocre henchmen. A sagacious leader would not have resorted to such tactics, but would have tried to win them over to his side, and get the best out of them for nation building.

A most recent example in this regard is how Barack Obama treated his arch rival Hillary Clinton, by appointing her to the highest position in the civil service after his victory. Recently I read an account that the Clintons (both wife and husband) are best of buddies of Obama. By confining himself, to a narrow circle Premadasa not only missed the larger picture, but also was instrumental in creating fissures that could not be healed in his cabinet. Impeachment was the ultimate result of this unwise policy. Although he overcame the imminent danger of getting impeached through subterfuge, it was a much bruised and battered Premadasa we saw after that. Wijedasa himself says " As President, Premadasa was rather arrogant and dictatorial in his style of governance" This was his undoing.

Ingratiating public servants

How did he treat public officials, who had to work closely with him in implementing his cherished projects ? His way of getting things done through them was utterly dictatorial to say the least. Premadasa seems to have been afflicted with the notion that, all other human beings except himself were born shirkers, interested only in bolstering their own egos, and thoroughly selfish and a lazy lot. Philosophically, this boils down to the fact that the man is inherently bad, a fallen creature. Either you have to make him or mar him. Furthermore he seems to have doubted that the others also have their drives, initiatives and one should recognise them and encourage them. Consensual management was not his forte. Like ancient Pharaohs who heavily depended on slave labour, he thought the public servants have to be driven, to their tasks through threat and intimidation. As a person who was in the administrative system those days I knew some of the colleagues who had to perforce, work closely with Premadasa. They were a much maligned and a frightened lot. It was not their, conviction and devotion that led them to perform what was ordered to be done. But fear, sheer fear ! In such an environment a human being cannot be compelled to give the his best to the task he was asked to perform. They were praying for the day that they could escape from that ordeal.

There was this extreme case, that did the rounds those days, where a rather high official of the municipality getting a call in the early hours of the day from President Premadasa while attending to his morning ablutions. He got such a thorough verbal bashing from the president, for some negligence on his part, that he died of a heart attack in the bathroom itself. This incident epitomises the manner in which he treated the public officials. This was not management by objectives. By any means. But management through intimidation.

The overall effect of this attitude was that among the majority of the public servants Premadasa was not a much loved figure, but a person who evoked fear and awe.

Wijedasa attributes the following reasons for the downfall of Premadasa " Some of the factors responsible for the downfall were of his own seeking, such as impeachment, the media hype and his arrogant behavior." But as usual he does not go into details.

Media hype

Certainly media hype was one basic reason, which alienated him from the public. Both electronic and print media, were misused, and the entire country was deluged with posters, where Premadasa’s smiling face was invariably displayed. The public evinced a thorough aversion to this type of propaganda. People disbelieved even what were factually correct. As Wijedasa very correctly states, people came to the conclusion that all this was a one -man show. Premadasa appeared in the television so often, that people used to turn off their tv’s at such times. It was certainly a case of "over -kill". I cannot imagine why the one and only adviser (As Wijedasa says in his article) and his closest officials failed to point this out to the President. Premadasa set a bad example by misusing the media to such an extent, that his successors are also merrily following him, as obvious from the way they are handling the government media institutions, without learning lessons from the Premadasa’s misadventure.

Assasinations and disappearances

Then comes the assassinations and disappearances. Some who succumbed to this gruesome fate were well known, and some less well known. It all started with the disappearance of Upali Wijewardene. The period within which these acts were committed was murky and chaotic, to such an extent, there were no proper investigations into them. So the miscreants, could easily take cover, after committing these dastardly deeds. Loose ends in those investigations were so obvious, the people started to think, that such loopholes were deliberately left as they were.

These assassinations and disappearances happened at such critical moments in Premadasa’s career, that people started to suspect that he had a hand in them. The assassinations of Wijaya Kumaratunga, Richard De Zoysa, General Kobbekaduwa, Lionel Jayatilake, Merril Kariyawasam, Athulathmudali were of forcmost significance in this regard.

As regards Athulathmudali’s assassination Wijedasa says that, the fact that Premadasa asked him to get the services of the Scotland Yard convinced him that Premadasa was innocent of the allegations. But it should be mentioned that the general public was not informed of what the findings of Scotland Yard were. In fact the entire investigation was full of loop holes, that the people thought the entire pseudo-drama was enacted to stage a white-washing Job. This assassination, like many others remains a mystery to this day.

Bad legacy

It is bad for the Premadasa legacy to keep those investigations incomplete and inconclusive. It is the duty of the Premadasa loyalists to press for the conclusion of these investigations even at this late stage; so that he will be absolved from these accusations that tarnish his name.

I think it is time for some capable biographer, who is prepared to accept the challenge of writing a definitive biography of Premadasa, to undertake this task. It would be saga of a third world leader, who rose from lower depths to the very pinnacle of success, overcoming insurmountable difficulties on his way. The drastic salutary changes he brought in to the polity should have a special place in such a biography. It should also boldly depict the negative characteristics of this leader, which unfortunately hastened his tragic downfall.

Premadasa’s life reminds me of the distinction, Raymond Williams drew in his book " The Death of Tragedy" between the Romantic Hero, and the Ibsenite Hero. Romantic Hero is a person who has immaculate qualities, bravery, ingenuity sagacity, daring and luck. Whatever his social origins are, once he takes up the gauntlet, he conquers all what he surveys and smashes the injustice he perceives in the outside world and wins his girl in to the bargain.

But the Ibsenite Hero is different. On the one hand he wants to fight the inequities the squalor, sloth and corruption outside, but his own innate frailties come to the surface and brings his downfall, before he achieves his broader social aims.

Is Premadasa an Ibsenite hero in this sense ?