Lessons from President Premadasa: May Day LTTE victim

Ranasinghe Premadasa

It was on 1st May 1993, at the UNP May Day Celebration that LTTE eliminated a sitting President and blew him to smithereens using its infamous suicide human bomber. President Premadasa is remembered by many in different ways.

  • Caste / Upbringing no factor to Lead a nation: He proved that a person did not necessarily need to be of high caste, elite upbringing, come from elite Colombo schools or tutored at home to lead a nation. President Premadasa carved a niche of his own. He woke up at 4a.m. every morning, he rang his advisors who promptly had to brief and update him on all matters, he read the morning newspapers, he delivered eloquent speeches, he used technology to read out prepared speeches and was even able to spring surprises on those who interviewed him showing off that he had done his background reading.
  • Gangsters and Leaders make a bad combination: Quality of governance gets deteriorated when politicians move away from the masses and rely on gangster rule. The culture of depending on the underworld and goon squads started with the UNP and has been passed on and used by successive governments. Leaders are doing wrong by the country and the officials implementing laws when gangsters think they can brandish a weapon and get away with any crime. Lest we have forgotten some of these mobsters: Gonawala Sunil raped a 14year old girl but was given a Presidential pardon by then President J R Jayawardena as well as becoming an all-island justice of peace and ending up bodyguard to Ranil Wickremasinghe, then Minister of Education and people had to get his seal of approval to even admit children to schools! Soththi Upali was a close ally of Sirisena Cooray, then Minister of Housing under President Premadasa and the Sri Lanka Police had to address Soththi Upali as ‘Sir’. Chintaka Amarasinghe another goon was aligned to the People’s Alliance while brother Dhammika Amarasinghe is said to have committed 50 murders and countless bank robberies and as is always the case the patrons end up covering for them or gunning them down eventually to conceal the links. Baddegane Sanjeewa was a police sergeant working for President Kumaratunga. The other notorious underworld figures with fascinating names include : 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, Julampitiye Amare and the list continues.
  • Leaders are also human : Premadasa Period : When no human is perfect, no leader is perfect either and no leader can please the entire population in the decisions taken. We remember President Premadasa’s rule as a period of both good and bad. While on the one side there was bloodshed as a result of gruesome killings across the country from North to South, thousands of innocent youth perished from the South. Both UNP and the JVP have to take moral accountability for these deaths. Not a single international NGO, local NGO or their mouthpieces spoke about the human rights violations of the Sinhalese. At the other spectrum, Premadasa continued with the neo-liberal legacy – deregulated trade, financial services and privatization and created massive zones of small industries giving employment to women in rural villages through various industries like garments, shoes, toys. He is credited with starting well over 15,000 small industry-based projects throughout Sri Lanka
  • Passion for precision: No one can deny that President Premadasa had a passion for precision and detail. He personally supervised every project and monitored each. His briefings had to include minute details for which all those working around him needed to have at the tip of their tongues.
  • Immaculate Government offices and well-dressed public servants: President Premadasa insisted that all government offices were clean, had greenery and all officials and public servants were dressed properly. Anyone would recall how every Government office (big or small) was sparkling clean and even the peon was smartly dressed and everyone had to wear what we today call the ‘Chinese collar’ shirts or long sleeved shirts with tie.
  • Leaders must not outsource decision making to advisors: It is often the choice of wrong advisors that end up bringing down the reputation and quality of governance and result in creating the disrepute of the leader among the masses. Those linked to the economic advisors of President Premadasa continue to hold key portfolios within the present Government ringing alarm bells that todays leaders need to be watchful of. It is always the inner circle that would start the domino effect in creating the eventual collapse of leaders. If President Premadasa envisioned a scenario of making the poor richer what his advisors ended up doing was to make the rich richer and the poor poorer and that was when the people began to hate the man they once loved. President Premadasa faulted in listening to rumors and those that carried tales did so for their own personal gains and this led to turning an iconic figure into a demon and distancing himself from sane advice given freely to surrounding himself with henchmen who turned Premadasa into a virtual ‘dictator’ while they had property and visas and were ready to jump ship if the need arose. The identical scenario prevails presently and cautions leaders to be aware.

Beware of the Advisors: The demand to remove the IPKF was overshadowed by taking advice to lavish arms to the LTTE which resulted in countless innocent civilian deaths and troops. We also recall how advisors compromised the lives of over 500 innocent policemen who were killed one after the other when they were asked by the Premadasa Government to surrender to the LTTE. Premadasa’s advisors manipulated his paranoia having assessed his weaknesses and shortcomings. It is the advisors who build up animosities amongst politicians and create political rivalries. We recall how the managed to divide Premadasa Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake playing one against the other. Most of these same advisors have had close links to the LTTE and the question of how far they were aware of the assassination still hovers in many a mind. We must also recall President Premadasa’s famous declaration ‘You can assassinate me… but don’t assassinate my character’ claiming he had nothing to do with the murder of Athulathmudali. A golden rule that needs to be reminded is that one cannot rule a country by killing one’s opponents. Prabakaran did the same and those that live by the gun are ended by the gun too. We saw examples of how ill-advice on devolving powers as a compromise formula to evade war crimes probe would have cost the Government its life span in office. We see advisors dangling numerous other carrots and question with what sanity the leaders continue to keep even cabinet Ministers who go wailing to the UN with chits of manipulated grievances and nothing is done against them. There are also attempts to use playaround with terminologies and dilute the power of the unitary status of the country as well as the Buddhist identity which the Kandyan Convention is clear proof that should easily silence any critic. The UNHRC Resolution itself played around the word ‘united’ omitting reference to ‘unitary’ and not many advisors brought this important fact to the attention before the public did. Such silence will only lead to a public watching and benchmarking the character change of leaders and will eventually determine the fate of the leaders no different to how Premadasa had crackers lit upon his demise. Some of Premadasa’s advisors have been advisors and continue to function as advisors even now. Some of these advisors are actual prodigies of the advisors that drained the country during President Premadasa’s rule and it is these advisors that have fooled the leaders into the current economic decisions taken and likely to create disastrous impact in time to come.

  • UNP ugly legacies should not continue: Goon squads, poster mania, tv news coverage of politicians, everything Western compromising Eastern culture were some of the legacies passed on by the UNP Government. We would recall times when there was never an empty wall without the picture of President Premadasa, The Provincial Council system became a dearth to the nation eating up the country’s money and distributing it amongst those connected to politicians, their family members and their cronies. That same legacy continues and we can but appeal to leaders to end the system that will end up the basis for the downfall of leaders eventually. We look at the provincial council system and feel aghast at the quality of councillors who we have elected. Do we blame the system or our own inability to elect good officials to office!
  • Undermining what will sustain Sri Lanka: The neo-liberal capitalist economy led to the collapse of small industries and self-sustainability. UNP’s venture to privatization led to the selling away Sri Lanka’s infrastructure and assets resulting in a gradual demise of Sri Lanka’s agriculture. Even today, while concessions and tax holidays are showered upon capitalist entrepreneurs very little attention is given to easing the burden of the farmer who becomes victim of world agriculture mafia in the form of fertilizers and pesticides and the middleman that makes off with the profits while the farmer ends up in eternal debt. It was the UNP that scrapped the Guaranteed Purchasing scheme denying producers to benefit but gave the ricer millers and traders the riches. We can recall how 100% tax levied on foreigners was reduced allowing them to purchase real estate in Sri Lanka in 2002 under the UNF budget which was regarded as a sell out of the country to foreigners. We then question why the present Government is not taking an interest the lakhs of Maldivians and other nationals making use of loopholes in the system to marry and purchase lands in Sri Lanka. The reliance on export-oriented market is a lesson Sri Lanka should not repeat having looked at the scenario under President Premadasa. Ignoring the key home-grown assets is likely to lead the present Government into catastrophe’s too.
  • Proudly standing up to India: If President Premadasa should be remembered fondly and with appreciation it was to demand from India the removal of the IPKF. It is a surprise that his advisors stopped short of asking that he abrogate the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment a question that advisors of the present Government is also not suggesting President Rajapakse to do.
  • Packing off noisy parker foreign envoys : In 1991, UK High Commissioner David Gladstone was declared persona non grata for interfering in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka when he was found visiting voting center in Dickwella. The pluck President Premadasa showed has not been repeated despite numerous other foreign envoys doing far worse than David Gladstone.
  • People’s gratitude short lived: Every leader needs to understand that they will not be remembered for their past victories all the time. It is always the present decisions that lead to the masses developing a love-hate relationship with their leaders. When President Premadasa was assassinated people were not shocked that he was gunned down by the LTTE, they in fact lit crackers and fireworks thus setting smoke to all the good he did because the people had begun to hate the man for the bad decisions he was advised to take. This is a perfect example for present leaders to take note of. Leaders adopting a ‘don’t care’ attitude are likely to be in for rude and greater shocks locally and externally as well with the visible regime change operators very much into action helped by the same advisors advising the Government.
  • Masses are a Governments ONLY defence: While wrong advisors will do everything and anything to distance leaders from the masses, the leaders themselves need to allocate time to determine for themselves the likely outcomes of implementing what advisors suggest them to endorse. No regime change operators will touch countries where the masses are solidly behind the leaders. This is why numerous quarters are being financed to project a notion that dictatorial rule and lack of governance prevails and if the Government allows such examples to surface and do nothing about the wrong doers the leaders are simply walking into the trap.
  • Don’t’ undermine the Army: A key lesson for politicians taken from the Premadasa past is the manner that senior politicians and advisors in the UNP did not cooperate with the Sri Lankan Armed forces in their dealings with the LTTE. This led to the Treasury releasing funds to the LTTE, facilitation of LTTE personnel leaving the country and even getting Sri Lanka High Commission officials to accord receptions for LTTE leaders (example Jaffna Commander Kittu arrival in London). The Premadasa-LTTE tryst led to transfer of arms, ammunition and equipment to the LTTE during the 14month ceasefire (May 1989 to June 1990) and lifting restrictions on a range of items including cement that helped Prabakaran fortify his bases. A lesson that successive Governments had not learnt lessons from.
  • Taking decisions : When Varatharaja Perumal the Chief Minister of the merged North-East Provincial Council declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, President Premadasa did not hesitate to take action – he dissolved the North-East provincial council. The TNA has been of late testing the Governments patience even passing Resolutions that directly contravene the country’s constitution and lucky for the TNA the Government appears nonplussed. The appeals to repeal the 13th amendment continue to fall on deaf years as are the appeals to provide an alternate to the Provincial Council system and the proportional representation system that has given undue advantage to minority political parties who have no interest in the minorities they are said to represent or even the country.
  • Astrologers are not always right : If there was a President who relied on the supernatural, the charts, the rahu kalaya and any charm that advisors recommended, it was President Premadasa. The only fault was that none of them could predict that on 1st May 1993, he would face his last May Day rally. Leaders are often led to be addicted to relying too much on the ‘wisdom’ of astrologers forsaking their own good judgment and this can become detrimental to the nation. It is a crucial weakness that leaders need to come out of.

The life of President Premadasa in many ways serves as good lessons for not just leaders but every citizen of Sri Lanka. He was a man who reached the top showcasing the possibilities of the impossibilities. He stood his ground when he had to but he was also enveloped with short comings and these were good enough for the leeches lurking in his midst to take advantage of by feeding him with lies and rumors and leading the man into taking irreversible decisions and leading the country to a bleak period. President Premadasa no doubt will be remembered for the manner he uplifted the public service where staff were all at attention not knowing when the President would spring a surprise visit and every public servant could not be shabbily dressed at any time. Moreover, the lethargic officials found around of late would not have existed during President Premadasa’s rule for he expected everyone to brief him on all aspects for he himself had read up on the status before arriving at any venue.

When President Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE a good look back at the newspaper captions found very little foreign calls from governments or NGOs on the human right violations done to a sitting President by the LTTE showcasing the utter hypocrisy on the terror front.

The lessons from President Premadasa’s rule are those that present day leaders should ponder some time upon.

– by Shenali D Waduge