By Jayantha Somasundaram
Class, caste and the politics of destruction
“… the liberal-cosmopolitan intelligentsia … supported … the UNP. Few, very few, deigned to support the SJB.” Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka The Election Result and the Intelligentsia (Colombo Telegraph August 7, 2020)
“I survived once but he will finally get me killed. He will get Gamini Dissanayake killed. Then I am sure he himself will get killed.” Lalith Athulathmudali (The Print 27/12/17)
“An attack upon a King is considered to be parricide against the state, and the jury and the witnesses, even the judges are the children. It is fit on that account that there should be a solemn pause before we rush to judgement”
Lord Chancellor Thomas Erskine
According to Karl Marx, history repeats itself, appearing the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. This adage is very fitting when we look at last week’s Parliamentary election results, the political fate of the United National Party (UNP), and at events that occurred 30 years ago.
First the context: South Asia is a feudal society and is, therefore, subject to caste stratification and caste bigotry. And in Sri Lanka, too, caste consciousness and discrimination is pervasive. It determines political alliances, political fortunes and political history. The Sinhala Govigama elite did not see the other major castes, even after they had acquired wealth and education, as mere inferiors. They viewed them as lacking legitimacy because, as Professor K.M. De Silva explains in The History of Sri Lanka, “recent immigrants, from South India, and their absorption into the caste structure of the littoral, saw the emergence of three new Sinhala caste groups – the Salagama, the Durava and the Karava. They came in successive waves into the eighteenth century.”
When an elected-Ceylonese seat was introduced in the Legislative Council, in 1911, the Govigama leadership united behind the Tamil Vellalar Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan in order to defeat his opponent, the Karawe Sir Marcus Fernando, whose candidature was proposed by Sir James Peiris. This led Governor Sir Hugh Clifford to say that the election “was fought purely on caste lines … caste prejudice providing a stronger passion than racial bias.”
The UNP, founded in 1946, reflected this mindset. “D.S. Senanayake had entered independence with a basically Sinhala-Govigama and Tamil-Vellalar administration” observed Janice Jiggins in Caste and Family in the Politics of the Sinhalese. Inspector Malcolm Jayasekera, who was attached to Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake’s security detail, recalled that when ministers travelled to the provinces, Sir Ukwatte Jayasundera, the General Secretary of the UNP, would, at their Rest House stops, join the security detail for lunch, because, as a member of the Navandanna caste, he didn’t feel welcome at the table of his ministerial colleagues.
When Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated, in 1959, the Leader of the House was C.P. De Silva. Professor A. J. Wilson records, “Dr. N.M. Perera told me that the Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, was going through a ‘gethsemane’ in his presence, asking, ‘How can I appoint a Salagama man’ (as Prime Minister)?”
Caste discontent became obvious during the April 1971 uprising when it was found that the combatants of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) were from depressed caste groups, like the Batgam and Vahumpura. Janice Jiggins notes that “Many in the armed services took the view that the fighting was an expression of anti-Govigama resentment and, in certain areas, went into low caste villages and arrested all the youth, regardless of participation.”
UNP’s 1970 Defeat
The shattering electoral defeat of the UNP, in 1970, compelled J. R. Jayewardene to depend on extra parliamentary agitation to regain power, and street-wise activists, like R. Premadasa, with a base among Colombo’s underclass, and Cyril Matthew, the trade union boss. By the time the party took office, in 1977, Premadasa had become one of the contenders for leadership. But Premadasa belonged to a depressed caste.
“Previous leaders had come from the landowning Goyigama caste whose well-off members had quickly got onside with the British colonial rulers, sent their sons to elite British universities and learnt to play cricket and parliamentary politics …. Premadasa was Sri Lanka’s first leader to come from the lower orders. He had scant formal education.” (Far Eastern Economic Review 13/5/93) The prevailing political leadership, “the UNP’s J. R. Jayewardene and the SLFP’s Sirima Bandaranaike both belonged to the same Anglicised elite in Colombo.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)
Since Jayewardene could only serve two terms, Premadasa was patient, confident that he would, in due course, become President. “Mr Premadasa was always searching for outside allies. He was forced to do so because of opposition to him, within the party. This opposition was based on class and caste factors… (and) was one of the factors which made Mr Premadasa try so hard to form an understanding with the JVP and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).”(Sunday Leader 5/1/93)
However, Premadasa soon realised that the Govigama establishment, in the UNP, was grooming Upali Wijewardene to succeed Jayewardene. Married to Mrs Bandaranaike’s niece and a kinsman of Jayewardene, educated at Royal College and Cambridge University, successful businessman with an international empire, Wijewardene was the perfect successor. “His attempts to get into politics, through JR, was thwarted by Premadasa who felt Upali would be a threat” wrote former The Island editor Vijitha Yapa, while Upatissa Hulugalle reminds us that “Premadasa cursed Upali in Parliament a few days before he disappeared.” (The Island 30/1/01). Upali Wijewardene was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1982.
“In early 1990, when Vijitha Yapa was Sunday Times editor, a columnist published some cabinet news that Premadasa was angry about. At a function, at Gangaramaya Temple Keleniya, Premadasa told (Upali’s cousin) Ranjith Wijewardene (the owner of the Sunday Times) in a small gathering: “I want to advise you, do not let those who destroyed Upali destroy you.” (Colombo Telegraph 4/4/14)
In the Constitution, that he crafted in 1978, President Jayewardene was careful not to provide for a vice president, who would explicitly be regarded as his successor. So Premadasa had to be content with the inconsequential office of Prime Minister. “As Prime Minister, he had no powers,” said Premadasa’s daughter. “Despite his being deputy leader of the party, and Prime Minister, he was not nominated for the presidency until the last moment. Both Lalith and Gamini were aspiring for the ticket.” (Sunday Island 4/1/97)
“Some Govigama politicians opposed the appointment of Premadasa, as deputy leader rather than Athulathmudali or Dissanayake, because it made him Jayewardene’s presumptive successor.” Though appointed Prime Minister, in 1978, when Jayewardene became executive President, the UNP leadership did not consider Premadasa as a prospective successor to Jayewardene. Instead “the leading contenders were Upali Wijewardene, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. Wijewardene was a cousin of Jayawardene… and was, in 1982, considered a likely successor to Jayawardene.
To the very end of Jayewardene’s administration, Premadasa had no assurance that he would be the UNP’s candidate at the 1988 Presidential Election. “Nearly all those in the UNP hierarchy, who advocated a third term for President Jayewardene, were killed, ostensibly by the JVP,” notes Rajan Hoole in The Linkages of State Terror (UTHR). In a sense, it was the JVP that won him his candidature, they were at the height of their anti-Indo-Lanka Accord and anti-Indian campaign. The only way the UNP could win the presidential election was by putting up a credible nationalist. For example, a champion of the Indo, Sri Lanka Accord, Gamini Dissanayake was on a poor wicket. Premadasa finally became President, on 2 January 1989, of a Sri Lanka “riddled with caste distinction and snobbery… Premadasa remained an outsider until he died.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)
Premadasa’s choice for Prime Minister would have been his loyal lieutenant Sirisena Cooray, but he could not ignore the fact that Lalith Athulahmudali came out the better of the two, in Colombo, at the 1989 Parliamentary Election. Rather than give Athulathmudali the position, with its implied deputy status, he invented an annually rotating premiership, assuring each aspirant a turn, and then appointed D.B. Wijetunga who was never a contender for office. Premadasa, thereafter, forgot about the ‘rotating premiership.’
On the anniversary of his installation as President, Premadasa “would receive a blessing from priests at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, in Kandy, and then present himself to the public from a chamber where the ancient rulers of the Kandyan Kingdom were crowned. The upper-caste clergy, at Kandy, may have gritted their teeth at presumption by a person who traditionally would not have been allowed near their most holy places.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)
“The dominant Siam Nikaya was once exclusively confined to the Govigama caste and remains overwhelmingly Govigama. The Karava, Salagama and Durava castes obtained ordination, in Myanmar, setting up the Amarapura Nikaya,” explains Punya Perera in “Caste and Exclusion in Sinhala Buddhism” (Colombo Telegraph 7/3/13)
Though his ascent to the Presidency was heavily thwarted by the Govigama elite that created the UNP, Premadasa succeeded to the office in January 1989.
Even after he became President, the UNP’s Govigama establishment kept up a latent but relentless campaign to undermine Ranasinghe Premadasa. In August 1991 Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali succeeded in surreptitiously getting the support of the opposition to present a motion in parliament to impeach the President, accusing him of everything from treason to corruption. It contained 123 signatures, including 47 of the 121 UNP MPs.
“As Premadasa walked into Parliament he was fiercely heckled by MPs. The President’s security men were concerned enough to have a helicopter on standby, in case the assaults turned from verbal to physical.” (Time 7 Oct 1991) Premadasa was able to get a sufficient number of UNP MPs to confess that they did not know what they had signed and narrowly avoided impeachment. Political Scientist Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda explained, “The attempt to impeach Premadasa can be seen as a backlash from the ruling stratum in Colombo that cut across the old guard of the UNP as well as the SLFP. They saw Premadasa as a usurper.”
“The two leaders of the impeachment were both drawn from the anglicised elite in Colombo. Premadasa put down the revolt by getting an acquiescent speaker of parliament (M. H. Mohamed) to deny the impeachment motion, but it fed his lifelong bitterness about caste discrimination.” (Far Eastern Economic Review 13/5/93) Athulathmudali and Dissanayake represented that elite, educated at Royal and Oxford, Trinity and Cambridge respectively, they commanded the loyalty of the Sinhala establishment who saw them as the natural leaders. They and their supporters were now expelled from the UNP. Lakshman Perera, one of Athulathmudali’s supporters, a municipal councillor who had authored a controversial play about Premadasa, Me kawda? Monawada karane? (Who is this? What is he doing?) disappeared. “The political rivalry between Premadasa and Athulathmudali led to a media war between the state-owned TV, radio and newspapers and the opposition-owned press. UNP thugs openly attacked journalists who covered opposition rallies.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)
Premadasa had been trying to get the point across that he would not take kindly to schemes to unseat him, or media attempts to criticise him. “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 then OIC stood, blocking the entrance to the police station and declaring that it was closed for the day!” (Editorial The 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,” reported Janes Foreign Report (24/9/92)
Richard de Zoysa
Richard de Zoysa epitomised the elite. He was the grandson of Manickasothy Saravanamuttu and Francis de Zoysa, belonging therefore to two of Colombo’s best-known families. “On the night of February 18th 1990 Ronnie Gunasinghe, Senior Superintendent of Police and a confidant of Premadasa, was having drinks with Deputy Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne. At one point says a senior police officer, Wijeratne called Premadasa and told him of a plan to pick up the journalist. The next day de Zoysa’s tortured body was found floating off a beach south of Colombo. Wijeratne was killed in a car bomb explosion in March 1991. Gunasinghe died with Premadasa.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)
Sri Lanka had now become a political killing field.
Richard de Zoysa was involved in Psychological operations (PSYOP) and propaganda for the Army when Lalith Athulathmudali was Minister of National Security. His abduction occurred when Athulathmudali was out of Colombo and could not be contacted.
According to human rights lawyer Basil Fernando “when the abduction and disappearance became a scandal the government began a campaign to ridicule the personality of Richard de Zoysa.” (Sri Lanka Guardian 13/4/10) “Another was that RAW (Indian Intelligence) was the culprit; this idea was put forward by Premadasa’s man, (Information Minister) A. J. Ranasinghe.” (Sunday Observer 26/3/17)
“You keep referring to abduction and murder. What if it is not murder, but suicide or something else?” asked Ranil Wickeremesinghe, a government minister. ‘What I hate these people for is their lies,’” says (Richard’s mother) Manorani Saravanamuttu (The Washington Post 3/3/91).
“I see no reason to disbelieve Manorani’s claim that a week after Richard’s death Ranjan Wijeratne held a party at the BMICH and told the death squads that he would ensure immunity for anything that happened previously.” (The Island 25/3/01)
The UNP had always seen Lieutenant General Denzil Kobbekaduwa as a political threat. While still a young officer he had been sent on compulsory leave both in 1967 and again in 1977 by the Senanayake and Jayewardena Regimes. Educated at Trinity and Sandhurst, he had assumed command of the Northern Theatre and his strategy for overcoming the LTTE was meeting with success. This made him immensely popular not only with the armed forces but also among Sinhalese looking for a military hero who would lead them to victory in the Civil War. As a kinsman of Mrs Bandaranaike he was seen as a possible presidential candidate. “In June 1992 Brig Chula Seneviratne, who was in Military Intelligence was summoned one night by Gen Kobbekaduwa (who) told him of a threat to his life from within the Army.” (Daily News 2/5/98)
Kobbekaduwa was killed in Kayts in August 1992. A hundred thousand attended his funeral, they were chanting slogans and attacking government supporters injuring among others Minister A J Ranasinghe and Deputy Minister John Amaratunga. Riot Police had to fire tear gas to quell the protesters.
Mrs Kobbekaduwa called for an international commission to investigate her husband’s death. After the UNP had lost power an independent commission was established revealing that “from January 1990 Gen Kobbekaduwa, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake were investigating the secret delivery of weapons, arms and ammunition (to the LTTE by Premadasa and) … wanted to place all this before an international tribunal.” The Commission would determine that “the explosion was in the vehicle” in which Kobbekaduwa travelled and that it was able “to come to one conclusion only that President Premadasa targeted Maj Gen Kobbekaduwa for assassination.” (Daily News 11/3/98)
With Kobbekaduwa’s death Premadasa’s opposition came into the open. Gamini Dissanayake commissioned an investigation into the blast that killed Kobbekaduwa and brought in international experts. He and Athulathmudali formed their own party, the Democratic United National Front. “Within months it had more than 500,000 members. They held rally after rally denouncing the President to crowds of 50,000 or more. They were expected to win handsomely in the seven provincial elections to be held on May 17th 1993.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)
Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta reported a conversation he had with Athulathmudali in June 1991. Pointing a finger at Premadasa, Athulathmudali had said: “I survived once but he will finally get me killed. He will get Gamini Dissanayake killed. Then I am sure he himself will get killed.” (The Print 27/12/17).
According to Colombo US Embassy staffer Daya Gamage, in August 1992 having finished her time in Colombo, the US Ambassador Marion Creekmore made a farewell call on Premadasa during which she warned “If any harm comes to one of them (Lalith and Gamini), the finger will be pointed at you.” (Asian Tribune) 5/1/18)
By 1993, the UNP had been wracked by internecine warfare that had seen its leader locked in a destructive frenzy.
On 23 April 1993, while addressing an election meeting Lalith Athulathmudali was shot and killed. His funeral was a replay of Denzil Kobbekaduwa’s; opposition supporters turned ugly, attacking supporters of Premadasa and his government. “The assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali has removed from the Sri Lankan scene the politician most hated by President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Few observers of Sri Lankan affairs were surprised at the speed with which the authorities discovered the corpse of the alleged gunman, who just happened to be carrying his identity papers which showed he was a member of the Tamil Tigers. Athulathmudali’s family were not impressed by the diligence of the police. They refused to permit either Premadasa or any of his cohorts to mourn at their house.” (The Independent, London 27/4/93)
“First they pick on an underworld gunman, reputedly the best marksman of the lot, and train him on the firing ranges of the STF. Then you kidnap an innocent helpless Tamil…when Athulathmudali is killed you bump off Ragunathan and dump him identity card and all, close to the spot where the shooting took place.” (Editorial The Observer 24/4/96)
“Scepticism was widespread and anti-government violence broke out during Athulathmudali’s funeral. Anonymous leaflets sent to embassies alleged that a government minister had hired two professional killers to do the job…After Premadasa’s death many Sri Lankans clearly felt that a kind of justice had been done.” (Far Eastern Economic Review 13/5/93)
Radhika Coomaraswamy recalled that Lakshman Kadirgamar “was loyal to friends – when Lalith Athulathmudali was assassinated he stood firmly by his widow, interrogating and questioning Scotland Yard as they had been put in charge of the investigations, insisting that it was not the LTTE but another force that had killed his friend.” (DBSJeyaraj.com 13/8/15)
Mrs Srimani Athulathmudali “called for a commission to probe her husband’s death because she believed that President Premadasa was the force behind the assassination.” (Daily News 13/1/98) On the basis of the commission’s findings four accused, including a UNP Provincial Council Minister and two members of the police were charged but were released in 2003 due to the lack of evidence.
Agence France-Presse reported on 7 October 1997, “An investigation into the killings of former minister Lalith Athulathmudali and army General Denzil Kobbekaduwa found that President Premadasa was “directly responsible for the two killings.”
The assassinations of Athulathmudali and Kobbekaduwa were fatal mistakes. Both leaders commanded the loyalty of the military hierarchy, Athulathmudali going back to his time as Minster of National Security. Many in the military were bitter about Premadasa arming the LTTE. “Every time one of my men gets his leg blown off,” said an army captain in 1990,”I think of our president.” (Asiaweek 12/5/93)
The response was therefore immediate as it was devastating. A week after the Athulathmudali assassination on May Day, Premadasa, his supporters and his security detail including Ronnie Gunasinghe were killed in a massive bomb blast in Colombo. It was not an assassination. It was the obliteration of Premadasa by his detractors.
At the inquest DIG CID Amarasena Rajapaksa, who was an eye witness said, “I was under the impression that the President had been taken away to safety. That was because the President’s vehicle and his security staff (including Ronnie Gunasinghe) were missing.” Only Premadasa’s wristwatch survived.
Evidence if any was immediately removed. “A mysterious force ordered the washing of the murder scene as soon as my father was assassinated,” complained Premadasa’s son Sajith, “critical of the conduct of the UNP-led government after the assassination.” (BBC 31/8/05)
Premadasa’s supporters vented their fury on the opposition. “Opposition supporters in Mount Lavinia complained of attacks apparently by government supporters,” reported the London Times. “Mount Lavinia was the stronghold of Athulathmudali, who was assassinated just over a week ago. Lalith’s party had blamed the government for his murder.” Newsweek (10/5/93) said “Premadasa’s assassination may have been in retaliation for Athulathmudali’s.”
The Opposition celebrated. “When his death was announced hundreds across the country lit firecrackers,” reported Asiaweek (12/5/93) “Police were quick to blame the Tamil Tiger separatists for both assassinations. But many people suspected the President’s men killed Athulathmudali and these same people are ready to believe that Athulathmudali’s followers murdered the President in revenge.
“There is growing suspicion among grief-stricken Sri Lankans that the two political leaders … were killed by one another’s supporters,” concluded Asian commentator Andre Malan in The West Australian (4/5/93)
“A statement from the opposition party, the Democratic Front, issued by Gamini Dissanayake, a former government minister, said: “This is a culmination of a process of violence which has accumulated during the last four years (Premadasa was President of Sri Lanka from 2 January 1989 to 1 May 1993). The fact that very valuable men were victims of that violence will perhaps be the epitaph of this regime.” (The New York Times 2/5/93)
Premadasa’s death was not mere murder it was a political coup. The vacuous Wijetunga became President but it was Ranil Wickremesinghe, who stepped in as prime minister, retaking power for the UNP’s Govigama establishment. Every Premadasa loyalist from Cooray downwards was stripped of office. All Premadasas functionaries in the police from DIG A. C. Lawrence downwards were neutralised. Gamini Dissanayake returned to lead the UNP and the following year and was selected as the UNP candidate for the presidential election. However, Premadasa propagandists reserve their bitterest invective for Ranil, sensing that he was the fifth column planted by the Govigama establishment inside Premadasa’s inner circle.
On October 24th 1994 Gamini Dissanayake along with 53 others, many of them his close supporters, were killed by a bomb explosion. The Economist (29/10/94) speculated that “possible suspects include Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists (who assassinated Mrs Kumaratunga’s father in 1959), senior army officers (who tried to stage a military coup just before August parliamentary elections) and anti-Tiger paramilitary groups. After three decades of frequently controversial political activity, Mr Dissanayake also had made many enemies, some of them within the UNP itself. In most countries, such possibilities would be dismissed as conspiracy theories. But in Sri Lanka the customs of civilised democratic life have yet to recover from a decade of violence and dislocation.”
“Sri Lankan investigators have closed probes into the assassinations of Ranasinghe Premadasa and Gamini Dissanayake … while the Premadasa assassination probe was dropped as ‘there was no evidence to indict any of the suspects,’ the Dissanayake case was ‘abandoned’ as all the ‘files had been lost.’” (The Hindu 5/9/05)
The UNP had disintegrated in a brutal internecine struggle to the death which decimated its leadership. The party had effectively consumed itself. No one from the UNP has since been able to secure the presidency that Jayewardene crafted for his party. So, the first time it was a tragedy with the score in 1994 at half time reading one nil.
The UNP leadership devolved on Wickremesinghe while the Premadasa loyalists never returned to the UNP; they distanced themselves from the party. That is until Sajith Premadasa entered politics. He marked time for two decades waiting for Wickremesinghe to step down so that he could claim what he considered his birthright. When this prospect grew dimmer the tussle of the past began to re-emerge with a haunting familiarity.
After a shabby term in office the UNP handed Premadasa Junior a poisoned chalice in 2019, when he was given the UNP nomination for the Presidential Election. It was almost as if the UNP old guard wanted the young man to lose and discredit himself and thereby permanently undermining his claims to party leadership.
Nine months later when the Parliamentary Elections came around in August 2020 the UNP compelled Sajith Premadasa to go it on his own, denying him the political imprimatur of the Grand Old Party. Perhaps, the motive was to ensure that Premadasa failed a second time and would be humiliated and discredited so that his challenge to the prevailing UNP leadership would be squashed and rendered no longer credible.
But on August 5th the tables were cynically turned. While Premadasa and his freshly minted party proved no match for the Rajapaksa juggernaut, he emerged unquestioningly as the Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament to be. And it was Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP that suffered a crushing fatal defeat, greater than 1956; being virtually driven out of national politics.
It was almost as if history repeated itself, but this time as farce.
In August 2020, it is the final whistle and the score reads one each.