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Evans Cooray: Flamboyant and Robust Media Personality

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by S. J. Anthony Fernando

(Former Press secretary to President Premadasa , Evans Gunalal Cooray,passed away on August 16th in London.This article written in 2006 by his colleague and friend to mark Cooray’s 70th Birthday is reporoduced here as tribute to Evans)

The name of Evans Cooray, I am certain, needs no introduction. The mere mention of the name is sure to ring a bell in the higher echelons of the local political and media circles specially of the old guard.

A flamboyant, dynamic go-getter media man he hob-nobbed with power centers in the political and media field in his inimitable style and finesse, associating with powerful political personalities of various hues from early 1960s till 1994 in the official capacities as a senior journalist and a public servant handling state media services under successive governments and also till recently in the diplomatic service at Sri Lanka’s High Commission in London.

Now resident in London with his wife Nanda, sons Sampath and Rasantha and daughter Sadani (all graduated from university). Evans was in town last week to put the finishing touches to the book he has authored entitled “Janasetha Sedu Janapathi Sevane”) (meaning “In the shadow of a President who worked for the welfare of the people). It was on his visit recently I received a call from him inviting me to join him on his 70th birthday.

Besides the opportunity of meeting him after several years it gave me an opportunity to recollect nostalgic memories of our working together, the trials and tribulations we underwent on this important landmark of his life’s journey. He certainly does not look his age and is the same cheerful personality with still a little of his youthful looks about him.

The book, with his autobiography recalling his journalistic days at Lake House and at Times of Ceylon inter-woven with a graphic recount of the political life of President Premadasa during his long and illustrious political career, is certain to capture attention with the revelation of interesting happenings and behind the scene events which are hitherto unknown.

Power blocs

Evans’s associations with power blocs and his loyalty and commitment in serving them whatever the political party those he served belonged, made him well known as a man who gets the job entrusted to him accomplished, quickly and effectively, while at the same time , there were occasions when he was cast in a somewhat controversial mould in the minds of his detractors. But his commitment and loyalty to the ministers he served failed to dislodge him when the relevant ministers stood by him.

Of course he hogged the limelight by his close association with late President Ranasinghe Premadasa from the early days of Premadasa’s political life as a Colombo Municipal Councillor in the 1950s first while working as a young journalist at Lake House and later as his press officer when Premadasa was the Deputy Minister of Local Government in the late 1960s in the Dudley Senanayake Government.

He was to later serve under several ministers under the SLFP and the United Front Governments from 1970 and later joining the bandwagon in charge of Premadasa’s media outfit after he became the Minister of Local Government, Housing and Construction following the historic landslide victory of the UNP under President J. R. Jayewardene’s leadership.

During his career Evans created and initiated several trail blazing media programmes and campaigns to popularize various programmes and projects initiated and launched by Premadasa for the benefit of the common masses.

Besides the print and electronic media, Premadasa knew the power of communicating through posters and handouts on projects and schemes, neatly designed and presented. Evans handled this work quite dexterously enlisting various artists and layout men egging them to get the printed material out in time.

The designer and layout man who captured the mind of President Premadasa most was Piyaratne Hewabatage, Managing Director of Heritage House, a talented graphic designer and artist who is also most sought after by several ministers, state and private sector organizations.

I joined the media team of President Premadasa quite unexpectedly in 1978. I had not known President Premadasa personally as did Evans when he joined. I was at the time the News Editor of the old Daily Mirror run by the old Times of Ceylon headquartered in Fort. The Times of Ceylon was at the time a Government Owned Business Undertaking, taken over and run on state funds when it was on the verge of closure.

The take over was on a request made by the employees to the then newly elected UNP Government after some back stage manoeuvring created an atmosphere where it came under de facto government control under the previous UF government.

This resulted in the company already in bad financial straits suffering further losses. The result was the employees of Times in order to keep their jobs intact asking the then UNP Government to take it over, which the government did.

At this moment of time I suddenly received a letter from the management of the Times of Ceylon saying that the Secretary of the Ministry of Local Government Mr. R. Paskaralingam, has sent a letter asking that I be seconded for service to work on a temporary capacity in the Media Division of the Ministry. When I looked into how this has happened Evans told me that he was to go on a three month scholarship to the British Information Office and that Minister Premadasa had told him that unless he found a suitable person to handle his work during his absence he would not allow him to go.

He said he had mentioned my name and Minister Premadasa had agreed. Later I was to learn that President Premadasa had read my reports in the Daily Mirror of his speeches made at public meetings and in Parliament with my byline and stated that my reports gave the most correct version of his speeches.

After Evans went on his scholarship to the British Information Service I was left alone to handle the work. I was instructed to attend the weekly heads of department conferences presided over by Minister Premadasa. This is the first time I am meeting Premadasa so closely.

You could imagine how elated I felt when Minister Premadasa announced my name to the senior officers informing that I would be handling the media work in the absence of Evans and to give their fullest cooperation to me. The impact this episode had on me was such that I would give my heart to a man like that. Such is the manner Premadasa takes into confidence any officials to whom he entrusts responsibilities (an attitude present ministers and officials could do well to emulate in taking their media secretaries into confidence to carry out their work effectively).

After Evans returned from his scholarship I reverted to my position at Times of Ceylon. Now that Times had become a Government Owned Business Undertaking, I felt that it could not pursue an independent stance and like Lake House newspapers having to toe to the Government line.

So I reconciled myself that it is better to join the Information Department as a press officer. Hence when the Information Department advertised for press officers I applied for a post and was selected and automatically posted to the Ministry of Local Government Housing and Construction under Evans who was then promoted to a post of Assistant Secretary.

Present Minister of Public Administration and Home Affairs Sarath Amunugama was the then Secretary to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Co-incidentally when Evans joined the Information Department as Press Officer to the Director of Information was the very same Sarath Amunugama. Evans’s contemporaries at the time in the Information Department were high calibre officers like Kenneth Somanader, B. H. Hemapriya, G. T. Wickremasinghe, Dalton de Silva, G. W. Surendra and H. W. Gunawardene who were assigned to handle information work in several other important ministries.

Secrets of success

One of the secrets of success of President Premadasa’s style of administration in getting the work done speedily is the weekly Heads of Department Conferences held attended by the heads of departments or corporations and their second in command at which progress of work on hand is revived and reasons given for any delays at which point the solution is given instantly.

He also had the knack of picking the right man for the right job. He recognizes hardwork and did not fail to reward such officers. Of course if you rub him on the wrong side, he could be a bad enemy. One thing everyone around him learnt was that he is a good friend and a bad enemy.

With his knack of picking the right man for the right job, when he assumed duties as Minister in 1977 the first thing Premadasa looked into is building a team of capable officers and deliberately picked on Mr. R. Paskaralingam and K. H. J. Wijeyadasa who were then relegated to the “Siberia” of Public Administration being branded as SLFP sympathizers. Mr. Sirisena Cooray was the president’s man for all occasions.

As time went on he also picked on several other officials like Bradman Weerakoon, Susil Siriwardhana, Anton Alwis, Ajantha Wijesena, Felix Balasuriya, Late Christy Cooray, W. D. Ailapperuma Ariyadasa and Dayaratne together with professionals, engineers, architects, town planners and academics to carry his pro peoples programmes and projects forward.

Premadasa would not take official reports for granted but had his own investigative team to do an independent survey to ascertain whether the report was factal. This made all officials make sure to present a realistic picture. This attitude of his also earned him a bad name as being vindictive. But he always maintained he has a job of work to do on behalf of the people.

Evans undoubtedly was one of the most trusted and reliable persons Premadasa had as he had worked himself close to the boss. So much so that while bouquets were given to him he also takes the rap for reasons of certain work falling behind schedule even though the delays are due to lapses on the part of his colleagues. On my part I kept a not too close and not too distant stance doing the work to his satisfaction. This he appreciated with Evans having to face the music when something went wrong.

Incidentally, Evans by dint of hardwork and commitment set a trail blazing example in the state media sector as the first press officer to be elevated to positions of Assistant Secretary (Information) Senior Assistant Secretary (Information) and finally as Press Secretary to the President, the post on par of an Additional Secretary. The precedents he set opened the doors of high office to many professional state media personnel of the present day.

Premadasa knew the importance of the media in communicating with the people. He had always maintained a healthy rapport with the media. Evans and I worked steadfastly to maintain these relations. I often accompany media people to nooks and corners of the country when he opened thousands of new villages and townships under his Village Reawakening Programmes, Evans and I worked hard to maintain these relations.

There were occasions that due to stringent security safeguards security personnel had turned rude to media people. At such times we knew that we have to receive the rap from the President.

Constant policies

One of the constant policies he followed was that he did not want hollow publicity on sunshine stories and would want publicity only to work already accomplished. Also he avoided like the plague foundation stone laying ceremonies and would attend only the opening of a new project or commencement of pro-peoples programmes. Once a major project is accomplished he would like to go to town. Evans and I strived to work accordingly With passage of time the opening of projects and programmes were so frequent that it became unwieldy.

It came to a point that the number of opening of projects and programmes like model villages, garment factories, new roads, bridges became too frequent each day. Coupled to this are commemorative events of national importance, with speeches made at every function there was a problem created when the media carried two or three speeches of Premadasa sometimes in a single newspaper. There was an opinion expressed that this was counter productive and we were also discussing ways of balancing the news.

Though each project opened deserved publicity) as each cost around Rs. 20 to 30 million yet it was found too much with the same type of speech being repeated. Though we tried to suggest a way out summarising the reports no one was willing to “bell the cat”, by suggesting such a move and it fell by the wayside. Premadasa’s detractors saw it as one of his weaknesses — too much publicity.

Many thought the speeches published in the media were hollow not knowing they were made at events mark the opening of major projects. Which were much appreciated by the people attending. Though the speeches were repetition to media personnel they were new to the people of the area and he scored heavily gaining popularity with the rural masses.

Despite these misgivings one could not deny the fact there is no other leader than President Premadasa who had done so much for the benefit of the people during their political career.

Starting from the high rise buildings at Echelon Square in Fort and main landmarks of Colombo like the Maligawatte Housing Complex with 100 foot wide road, road development, Hulftsdorp Court Complex, development of Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, Sugathadasa Indoor and Out Door Sports Complexes, the Kettarama International Cricket Stadium (Now Premadasa Stadium), St. John’s Fish Market and many other housing projects and urban development programmes stand to this day as monuments to Premadasa’s hard work.

This is apart from the model villages and other housing complexes and townships which came into being under his village reawakening programmes together with taking industries to the villages under the 200 Garment Factories Programme, decentralising administration to the provinces under the Pradeshiya Sabha system have given an opportunity to transact business to people closer to their hometowns.

This together with poverty alleviation programme, and the mobile administrative services programmes were some of pro-peoples programmes he had initiated. Looking back it is hard to believe that all this work was done and what some thought was excessive publicity could be excused.

First to read

Evans’s and my work was made easier to an extent because as Minister, Prime Minister and President it was President Premadasa himself who is the first to read the newspaper at 4 a.m. in the morning. The early morning wake up calls officials get are the result of some shortcoming or neglect spotlighted in the papers and he would dutifully get them cut out copy them and sent to relevant officials with a copy to Evans to follow up with “Evans” written on the envelope with his own hand. Very often he would chide us saying “I say I have become the press officer too”.

Being very close to Premadasa made Evans at times get into hot water in his relations with the President. Evans always kept a healthy rapport with Ministers Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali.

It is well known that due to tale carriers the relationship between Premadasa and the two ministers were strained due to suspicions that they were trying to obstruct his aim of the leadership of the party which was his rightful due. I know personally that Evans at times fell foul of the President due to gossip mongers when he attempted to patch-up differences between the two ministers and the President.

It went to the extent of the President ignoring Evans and contacting me directly on various matters. But Evans endured all that and continued to show his loyalty and commitment. It was not long before, President realized that “The truth has prevailed” as he would often say when he himself is misunderstood by certain sections. Relations between Evans and the President would sooner than later return to normal.

It is also no secret that Evans Cooray had to face a torrid time when serving ministers under the SLFP and United Front Government too from 1970 to 1997.

He had worked under Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike when he was Justice Minister and as special officer assigned the task of public relations of the Criminal Justice Commission which heard the cases of Rohana Wijeweera and others for their involvement in the 1971 insurrection. He earned the commendation of the then Justice Ministry Secretary.

He was posted to the Ministry of Education under Minister Baduddin Mahmud who too recognized his capabilities and capacity for work and entrusted him with bigger responsibilities. He authored the book entitled “Bandaranaike I Knew” “giving a biographical sketch of Badiuddin Mahmud and his associations with the late Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Attempts made to dislodge him failed when the ministers stood by him apart from two occasions when he was interdicted and reinstated.

Ironically this book he wrote for Baduddin Mahmud on SWRD made him a marked man and regarded as “Badi’s catches” and by the time of the UNP’s landslide victory in 1977 he was hounded by certain UNP supporters on that score to prevent him from occupying a position of importance.

But Premadasa would have none of that and took on Evans to do his media work right up to his ascendany to the presidency.

The book by Evans Cooray containing his autobiography incorporating the life and times of Premadasa interwoven in a single book is now receiving the finishing touches. It gives much more information and interesting episodes the personal and political life of President Premadasa, his weaknesses and strengths and the many challenges he faced within the party and outside, including the impeachment episode hitherto unknown, which should enrich political literature of the country

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