President Premadasa’s ascendancy from small beginnings



Sirisena Cooray and Gamini Fonseka

(Excerpted from volume ii of Sarath Amunugama autobiograph )

By the time we (the Amunugama family) returned to Colombo President Premadasa had, with characteristic impatience, commitment and sincerity, launched his new programmes for the development of the country. Even as Prime Minister he had no hesitation in offering the voters a new people friendly administration. As his closest confidante Sirisena Cooray has written, that the new Presidents constant admonition to him was “do not forget the people”.

Before he came on the scene Colombo Central – the largest electorate in the island with three representatives in Parliament – was the playground of the rich Colombo UNP Muslims who were liberal spenders at the time of elections. They were close personal friends of Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene. Colombo Central was the closest to what sociologists like Robert Merton have described as urban voting machines.

Politics was enmeshed with obligations of voters who had benefited from the services of ‘ward bosses’ who were agents of the political leaders who represented the electorate. These ward bosses were friends of the poor and the helpless majority of voters who needed a `powerful friend’ to help them navigate their lives in a social context which necessitated constant interaction with various authorities who wielded power from the municipality upwards.

Tambiah in his groundbreaking sociological study of `Wattas’ [Compounds] in Colombo municipal areas around Maradana has highlighted these intermeshing obligations which tend to transform themselves into votes for their ward bosses ‘patrons’ at election time. The Marxist left too tended to duplicate this pattern of ward representatives who would deliver votes to their party candidate at an election.

These ward bosses, as in the case of Chicago studied by Merton, were selected on particularistic criteria to suit the ethnic composition of the locality they served. Thus even Marxists would ensure that the ward leader of a particular area would emerge from the largest caste concentrated in that locality. Fortunately for the Marxists their top leaders were drawn from all the leading castes in the country and they could, perhaps unwittingly, corral their caste and party comrades.

Premadasa as a son of the urban poor, had an unparalleled knowledge of Colombo’s electoral mathematics. But he, coming from a numerically small caste, could create a support base which included the poor of all large castes who were mesmerized by his superb oratory which attacked all high and mighty oppressors and spoke up for the underprivileged and dispossessed. His speeches had an authenticity which could not be matched by the westernized politicians of every persuasion.

As described in volume one of my autobiography I owed the trajectory of my public service career to Premadasa who plucked me out of a large number of colleagues with the same seniority to head the Department of Information at a comparatively young age in 1967. He was then the Deputy Minister of Information and chafing under the reluctance of Dudley Senanayake to give him a cabinet position though he was the chief speaker for the UNP in the 1965 general election.

It was only in 1968 that he entered the Cabinet on the resignation of his Minister Tiruchelvam. So I was well aware of the heroic struggle he had to engage in to enter the higher rungs of his party. That unfair social prejudice remained even up to the day of his untimely and violent death. I knew that his cry of a few days before when he said, “kill me but do not tarnish my character” was a heartfelt one. Since he was sensitive to social prejudice against him Premadasa created a coterie of loyalists who were both efficient and sympathetic to change. He was a hard taskmaster but he also gave credit to his staff who implemented his orders without question.

His Chief of Staff was Sirisena Cooray whose family had been involved in municipal politics of the UNP for generations and were early supporters of Premadasa. In fact Premadasa was not a born ‘true green’ UNPer. His early political affiliation was with the Labour Party of A.E. Goonesinha who led the Colombo working class before the foreign trained Marxists displaced him. Premadasa’s father Richard came from the same village as Goonesinha in Balapitiya. Inspired and aided by his fellow villager Goonesinha Richard set up a transport business in the vicinity of the Colombo harbour which was the strong hold of the Labour leader.

I was told by Premadasa that his father managed hackeries used to transport people and goods a business that flourished during the growth of Colombo city. He followed his mentor Goonesinha into Labour party politics and contested a seat in the municipality. He was defeated in his first foray and when Goonesinha, increasingly under pressure from the Marxists, allied himself with the UNP young Premadasa, whose political talents were recognized by the local populace, also joined the UNP and was elected to the Council from a UNP ‘pocket borough’.

From then on despite many obstacles Premadasa never looked back. Many of the old stagers of the UNP led by V.A. Sugathadasa opposed him but he prevailed. This was due to two factors; his superb speaking skills and organizing ability. Premadasa was easily one of the best speakers on the UNP platform. He was a brilliant, attacking speaker and the UNP pitted him against Bandaranaike who too was a brilliant orator but without the Sinhala language skills of the young ‘nationalist’ challenger from San Sabastian Hill.

Premadasa’s organizational skills were legendary. He undertook responsibilities that other party members shirked. For instance he contested the Ruwanwella seat which was held by N.M. Perera at the request of the party. He told me that he went to Ruwanwella for the first time to hand over his nomination papers. Nevertheless his electoral organization was so efficient that he gave a good fight to the LSSP leader. After the election NM, in his usual generous manner, had complimented Premadasa for a splendid effort.

He had great respect for the LSSP leaders especially NM and Colvin and did not attack them with the venom he reserved for Bandaranaike. Later when he was my ‘boss’ as deputy Minister of Information I found that Premadasa never forgot his supporters from Ruwanwella. He helped them even though he had by then established himself in Colombo Central and had no intention of going back to the “Four Korales”.

Sirisena Cooray, whose brother Nandisena was a senior UNP municipal councillor and early mentor of Premadasa, was the `Alter Ego’ of the young politician and the two of them became a formidable force in municipal and later, national politics. It was not easy to deny Premadasa his wishes when he set his mind to it. When I was Secretary to the Ministry of Tourism I refused to grant a gaming license to a Chinese businessman who had become a friend of Premadasa as instructed by JRJ who was afraid of starting another confrontation with the Buddhist monks who were advocates of Temperence.

Premadasa ignored JRJs instructions and got Cooray who was the Mayor of Colombo to issue the businessmen a gaming license under Municipal Council bye-laws. JRJ turned a blind eye to this insult but soon Premadasa himself fell out with the Chinese businessman and had him bundled out of the country within 48 hours and JRJ and my Minister Anandatissa de Alwis had the last laugh.

Sweeping Changes

The new President made sweeping changes. On the Economic Front he introduced the garment industry. This drew in foreign investment throughout the country in addition to providing employment to thousands of rural women. It also had a spin off effect on other services for the nascent industry. In his own colorful phraseology he had enabled the poor rural girl to earn an income and buy her own gold necklace. This was an opportune time because other manufacturers had exhausted their preferential quotas and were willing to transfer some of their production centres to Sri Lanka.

He encouraged the migration of workers to the Middle East, thereby opening up a new source of foreign exchange and employment which even today is an important prop of our economy. On the welfare front he launched the Jana Saviya programme which created a safety net for those below the poverty line. His trademark housing programme caught the imagination of the poor and the homeless.

Perhaps remembering our national exhibitions of Dudley Senanayake’s time when he was my deputy minister at the time I was Director of Information’ he began district level exhibitions which also catered to fun and frolic called `Gam Udawa’. Keeping to his election pledge he managed to get the Government of V.P. Singh to withdraw the IPKF in short order. He failed in his overtures to the JVP and the LTTE even though he was willing to compromise in order to open a new path to peace and reconciliation.

But he failed due to the intransigence of both terror groups. Rukman Senanayake became his trusted intermediary to the JVP in discussions held in ‘Woodlands’. But the JVP was too fragmented for quick decision making as they were on the run from the armed services which were wresting the initiative from them. Moreover, secret communications of the JVP were distrusted by the armed services which were better organized now under the management of Ranjan Wijeratne and were confident of victory.

When talks failed Ranjan launched an all-out offensive which saw brutal killings by both sides. Finally, the JVP leadership were all eliminated, and the uprising came to an end. Among those killed was Richard de Zoysa who is alleged to have supported the JVP. I remembered the time when Richard and I had office rooms in the same compound at Kinross Avenue, as I have mentioned before. He was the local correspondent of IPS and I was the Additional Secretary General of WIF.

We were all shocked by his murder and I recall the small knot of people at Kanatte cemetery on a gloomy evening when we said farewell to him. Close friends published a paid supplement in the newspapers in his memory and I had no hesitation in writing about him and our friendship, though several of his close friends were afraid to contribute because they knew that the Premadasa regime had killed him. The tragedy was that Richard had been warned of impending danger and was to leave Colombo for IPS headquarters in Rome in a few days en route for an European assignment.

Gamini Fonseka

With the ascent of Premadasa to the Presidential ‘gadi’ two of my close friends Gamini Fonseka and Indra de Silva became part of his inner circle. Indra worked in the information section of the USIS when Premadasa was a junior minister of information in the Dudley Senanayake government. He helped to bring the ambitious neophyte deputy into the ‘patrons list’ of the embassy and arrange to send him on a trip t the US under an exchange programme. Indra had taken early retirement and as customary been granted a pension and US citizenship. He settled down in Washington and was much sought after by the State Department particularly to escort visiting Sri Lankan dignitaries. He also kept in touch with many of the US foreign service officers who had served in Colombo.


The new President immediately appointed Indra to our mission in Washington and made him his “eyes and ears” there, much to the embarrassment of our Foreign Service officials serving in Washington who had been up to then a law unto themselves. He also moved house from his earlier dingy quarters to the famous, or notorious, Watergate apartments located in a posh area in Washington which was in close proximity to the Potomac river and the Kennedy Centre.

Later he relocated to Colombo at the Presidents request but was left stranded after his assassination. Indra died not long after. My other friend was Gamini Fonseka who was a buddy of Premadasa during good times and bad. When in the opposition he set up his “Citizens Front” [Purawesi Peramuna] Gamini was a prominent speaker on its platform together with other favourites like Tilak Ratnakara. However with the death of Dudley, Premadasa teamed up with JRJ and disbanded his `Peramuna’.

As President he quickly brought Gamini to Parliament from Matara electorate, which was a Durawe stronghold, and made him the Deputy Speaker. He was eminently qualified for this position as he was a fluent trilingual speaker. He also won the confidence of the Tamil MPs who knew that Gamini had risked much in denouncing Sinhala communalism of that time. The tradition then was to appoint a trilingual MP as Speaker and his Deputy. Unfortunately that salutary tradition, like many others, has now been breached and party loyalty rather than competence seems to have won the day.

I suspected that Gamini would have preferred to be a Minister. Relations had cooled between the two when the President was assassinated. After that my friend retired from politics and concentrated on his film career thereby delivering some superb screen performances. He was a chain smoker and in characteristic braggadacio ignored all medical advice. He was asked to undergo heart surgery by his doctors but he ignored their advice and died in his sleep. By this time Premadasa was long gone and I am glad to record their friendship which was a part of our history associated with the rise and sudden fall of an unforgettable character who dominated politics in his time just as Gamini dominated the Sinhala screen for those several decades.