Posted on June 3rd, 2023


Ranasinghe Premadasa succeeded J.R. Jayewardene as the second President of Sri Lanka. Premadasa was President of Sri Lanka from 2 January 1989 to 1 May 1993. He was assassinated on May 1.  1993.

Premadasa had a heroic struggle to enter the higher rungs of this party, said Sarath Amunugama. My view (Kamalika) is that his caste position (non-Goigama) as well as his predatory reputation would have influenced this.  

The Goyigama establishment in the UNP was grooming Upali Wijewardene to succeed Jayewardene as President. Upali Wijewardene, a kinsman of Jayewardene, educated at Royal College and Cambridge University, successful businessman with an international empire, was the perfect successor.

His attempt to get into politics, through JR, was thwarted by Premadasa who felt Upali would be a threat” wrote Vijitha Yapa, while Upatissa Hulugalle reminds us that Premadasa cursed Upali in Parliament a few days before he disappeared.” (Island 30/1/01).  Upali Wijewardene was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1982.

Premadasa had two other rivals, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. Lalith was assassinated on 23 April 1993, a week before Premadasa. Only Gamini was left. Premadasa had told Sirisena Cooray that he was planning in his speech at the May Day meeting of 1993, to deal Gamini Dissanayake a blow which will finish him.

Premadasa‘s period of office was described as turbulent and predatory.  Premadasa brought into politics a degree of venom that had perhaps never been experienced in politics earlier, said Chandraprema.  He could be extremely vengeful and unforgiving towards anyone who he though had insulted him or had crossed his path, observed Neville Jayaweera. He unleashed a reign of terror, said Sarath de Alwis. 

Premadasa was deeply paranoid, suspecting conspiracies against him, said Neville Jayaweera.  But Premadasa had the good sense to leave the opposition strictly alone. Those in the SLFP never felt his jackboot on their necks, said Chandraprema. Premadasa instead turned on his enemies in the UNP. Those who experienced Premadasa’s repression were members of the UNP itself. He persecuted his enemies or adversaries within the UNP very viciously and made sure those against him were expunged from the party.

Premadasa is believed to have caused many deaths. Many people suspected that the President’s men killed Athulathmudali, said Andre Malan writing in The West Australian of 4/5/93. Selvi Sachithanandam recalled that when Lalith was killed, a taxi driver who drove one of their guests to the airport said the Big Man is behind this.

People also thought that Premadasa had got Ranjan Wijeratne killed.    Wijeratne had arrested Rohana Wijeweera, while Premadasa had wanted Wijeweera alive, Ranjan made sure that Wijeweera was killed.  Premadasa was also known to have killed Richard de Zoysa, said Sarath Amunugama.

 Premadasa used violence. Gamini Dissanayake drew attention to the violence carried out during the four years of Premadasa   rule, a process of violence accumulated during those four years, he said.   Valuable men were victims of that violence. (The New York Times 2/5/93) .

Scores of UNP goons, armed with bicycle chains, clubs, swords and small firearms, descended on a group of journalists covering a leaflet distribution campaign conducted by UNP dissidents Lalith and Gamini opposite the Fort Railway Station. Cameras were smashed and journalists beaten up mercilessly. When the victims tried to lodge a complaint with the Fort police the OIC stood, blocking the entrance to the police station and declaring that it was closed for the day!.(Editorial Island 25/5/16)

. One of Sri Lanka’s top cartoonists, Jiffrey Yunoos was stabbed and his home and vehicle were wrecked. Athulathmudali was fired on twice. His supporters were assaulted with iron bars and cricket stumps. The last year witnessed the destruction by police of an anti-government printing press, a grenade attack on a meeting of dissident members of the ruling party, death threats against human rights lawyers and assaults on opposition politicians,” said Janes Foreign Report on 24/9/92.

There were disappearances. The best known case was that of Lakshman Perera. Lakshman Perera was a UNP Member of the Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia Municipal Council.  He was an Athulathmudali’ supporter. He was producing a drama, titled Me kavuda mokada karanne”, a quotation from a slogan of R. Premadasa’s Presidential election campaign. Posters advertising the play appeared. Then Perera   disappeared. According to rumors he was killed by a para-military group before the play was shown, and his body was dumped in the deep sea around Colombo by a government helicopter.

Critics spoke of a Premadasa mafia”. Premadasa Mafia would stick at nothing to retain or win power and was the most dangerous group ever to surround a politician in this country, said Chandraprema.  Everybody feared the Premadasa mafia. It was so dangerous that even the Premadasa family had suspected them of assassinating Ranasinghe Premadasa .Premadasa mafia was politically useful and they had a hold over Premadasa. They were a part of his machine, said Chandraprema.

The Premadasa government sponsored Soththi Upali, who terrorized the country and had even high-ranking police officers salute him. He died at the hands of his rivals after the UNP had lost power, said an Island editorial.

The public, especially those in government employment and others such as the media were frightened of Premadasa. One journalist had scolded Premadasa on the phone thinking he was another Premadasa. When he found out who it was, ‘there were beads of sweat on his forehead and he was a picture of utter shock and dismay.

There was a football game between the Parliamentarians and the Colombo Municipality team.  Premadasa captained the Parliamentarians and kicked the winning goal. A cartoon appeared in a newspaper where the Municipality team goalkeeper withdrew so that Premadasa could score the goal at his will.

Selvi Sachithanandam who was at the time working for the UN had attended a dinner party in Colombo and mentioned the death of Denzil Kobbekaduwa. A sudden quiet fell over the room.  There was     stony silence, some left the room. She was later told, we have spies in our drawing rooms. We cannot afford to get on the wrong side of the Big Man.  No one spoke out in  those days , not even on the telephone as they feared that the telephones were tapped, she added. Premadasa had his spies everywhere when he was Prime Minister , said Sarath Amunugama.   

I myself  was present at a dinner party, in a private house, just four or five of us, a trusted group, mainly relatives,   sometime after Premadasa was  assassinated. One  person   spoke of the arrangements his department  had to make in a hurry for Premadasa’s funeral and other matters relating to Premadasa . He ended his  statement  saying to his host,  ‘if Premadasa was alive, I would not have mentioned any of this, even to you’. 

There was fear but there was also silent  contempt . I have never been a devotee or enthusiast of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, said Sarath de Alwis, who had been a reporter on the staff of the ‘Ceylon Observer’. I had one disastrous encounter with his presidency that I have no desire to revisit.  I had a taste of the nepotistic facet of his presidency, he concluded.  

Chari de Silva chairman of LOLC found that Premadasa had turned against him.  Bernard Soysa  told me very gravely that he had overheard a conversation in the restaurant of the Parliament concerning me. Apparently Premadasa was very displeased with me. He suggested that I should go abroad for some time. I was in any case due to go to the USA. In Washington, I learned that Premadasa  had given instructions that I was not to be given any assignments by government.

Evans Coorey, the Press Secretary of President Premadasa had also told Chari that he was present at a meeting of ‘very important people’ who  wished to see Chari retire from the position of Chairman LOLC. Chari replied  had no intention of doing so. Chari had later met Paskaralingam on a plane and  asked  him about the strange antipathy thatPremadasa had taken to  him.

Paski explained to me that it was because LOLC were occupying Lakshman’s Building, which belonged to the furniture maker Lakshman Cooray. LOLC had a long lease on it. Lakshman wanted to get rid of us as tenants.  He felt that he could get a much higher rent than LOLC was paying. Paski warned me that until we vacated Lakshman’s Building we would have trouble as Lakshman was close to Premadasa , Lakshman had made a throne for Premadasa, which Premadasa had greatly liked.

Premadasa’s  policies as President were deplorable. He did not  take any interest in the  vital matters which were priority matters for any executive head of state.  The first duty of  an executive   Head of State is to protect the country’s territory and sovereignty and ensure law and order. Sri Lanka was in the throes of Eelam war II at the time and the reluctant Premadasa was, whether he liked it or not, Commander in Chief of the armed forces. 

However, Premadasa showed no interest in the war and  did not attend Security Council meetings. Premadasa  was thinking of enlisting the support of the  anti-government   JVP and  separatist  LTTE  to bolster his administration. Therefore he  pandered to the LTTE regardless of what  would happen to the country. 

The IPKF were sent away at the request of the LTTE  .IPKF was winning when they were sent away. They were giving the LTTE  a good beating. If they had continued for another year or so, LTTE would have been defeated, observed Shantha Kottegoda.  He then  strengthened the LTTE at the expense of the Sri Lanka army. He made the Sri Lanka army hand over its  best weapons, some brand new,  to the LTTE.  This was done in secret. The army was silently furious. These weapons were later used against the Sri Lanka army. Premadasa  was  also directly responsible for the deaths of 600 policemen, under the hands of the LTTE .

Premadasa lacked the economic and political  vision expected of an Executive President .He could not think at the macro level at all.   President Premadasa could think of nothing else other than to give incentives for garment manufacturers to set up factories in rural areas so that rural communities will benefit from the employment opportunities created, said Chandraprema. Until the Rajapakse government came into power after 2005 and started conceiving of a service oriented economy based on the Hambantota and Colombo Ports and the Colombo Port City, for nearly three decades Sri Lanka had been limited to garments and foreign employment.

 Premadasa’s thinking was  at micro level. His pet projects were  ones carried over from his days as Minister of Housing and included the upgrading of sub-standard housing in the city, the construction of lower middle class and middle class flats in the city, rural housing, Gam Udawa housing schemes, development of infrastructure facilities including rural roads and water supply projects etc, said critics. He was not concerned with expense, he left that to his frightened officials, who somehow found the money.

Nicky Karunaratne says Premadasa did much damage to the Sinhala Buddhist culture with his notion of “kovil, pansal, and palliye”.   There  were temples already in the villages,  there was no need for a  second  Buddhist temple. Premadasa ’s  temple building was  a ruse to introduce the other religions into the village, concluded Nicky. His much praised housing programme  was also  very unsatisfactory. Instead of low rise housing schemes, he built a small number of free standing houses for a few selected  families.

 ‘Janasaviya’ was also criticized. President Premadasa  said that every poor family will have a deposit of Rs. 25,000 made in their names, said Chandraprema. Paskaralingam even gave out a signed letter stating that Rs 25,000 had been deposited in the name of every poor family,. The National Savings Bank paid out small amounts of money saying that it was the interest on the deposits of Rs. 25,000. But in actual fact, not a cent had been deposited.  Some families still have the cards given out and some have even gone to courts asking for their deposits.

It is unlikely that Premadasa would have been allowed to go on  much longer. The public were   fed up. They were no longer impressed by his seeming concern for poor”  and tired of  his  violent, predatory  behavior. Premadasa  was considered a ‘mad president’, said Chandraprema.

Premadasa ,like JR before him, knew  that he was unpopular.  Evans Cooray said that on May 1 1993, Premadasa  appeared worried whether there would be a good crowd on  Galle Face  for the  UNP May Day celebrations . He was worried about the May Day meeting, whether there will be a good crowd, confirmed Sirisena Cooray. Premadasa was killed while on his way to this meeting.

When   they heard that Premadasa  had been killed, the public  immediately  lit fireworks, celebrating the death.  When his death was announced hundreds across the country lit firecrackers,” reported Asiaweek (12/5/93)).  I  distinctly remember the huge number of firecrackers that were lit in jubilation on that May Day, said Emil van der Poorten.   Some kind of tension was released within people, said critics. 

After the assassination, every Premadasa loyalist from Cooray downwards was stripped of office. All Premadasa’s functionaries in the police from DIG A. C. Lawrence downwards were neutralized, said  Jayantha Somasunderam. ( Concluded)

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