by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Where has the tree gone, that locked Earth to the sky?”
Philip Larkin (Going)
Sirisena Cooray gave his final interview three months before his death. A Sunday Sinhala paper had carried a wildly inaccurate account of the Premadasa era. Sirisena Cooray called the editor and asked for an opportunity to set the record straight. The resulting interview ran to two full pages and was carried on consecutive Sundays.
Sirisena Cooray spent the last years of his life as an observer of the Lankan political scene. He was willing to talk to those who sought his advice, but shunned further involvement. Though distressed by the national trajectory, he opted for silence, unable to identify with any of the political players. But these self-imposed restraints vanished when Ranasinghe Premadasa was maligned. Sirisena Cooray could withstand extreme personal and political vicissitudes. Any attack on the memory of his leader and friend was another matter.
“An obituary is a perfect framing devise,” wrote New Yorker columnist Susan Orleans. It is also a balance-sheet of a life. Sirisena Cooray’s story was inextricably intertwined with the story of independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka and the story of Ranasinghe Premadasa. The Premadasa-Cooray relationship defined and shaped not just Sirisena Cooray’s life but also that of Ranasinghe Premadasa and thereby modern Lankan history.
Without Sirisena Cooray, there would have been a Minister Premadasa, perhaps even a Prime Minister Premadasa, but never a President Premadasa.
20th Century was the age of Causes. No time in history was played on a grander canvas, or a bloodier one. It was on this stage of seemingly infinite possibilities that Ranasinghe Premadasa and Sirisena Cooray would live their lives. The national and international ferment did enable a breadth of vision and a reach that was not available to preceding generations. Premadasa could organise lectures for the young members of the Sucharitha movement on Politics (including an overview of Karl Marx and of different political and governance systems) and Religions and Doctrines (a summary of the four main world religions). Young Sirisena and his friends could meet and invite leaders of major political parties to attend a ceremony organised by their newly formed Sucharitha branch. Change was in the air, and dreaming big was normal. Two young men from Colombo Central could imagine one of them becoming the leader of the country electorally, peacefully transforming the land to the benefit of their marginalised brethren.
Busy years; happy years
Sirisena Cooray became a UNPer because of his father, a founder member of the party. But supporting Ranasinghe Premadasa was his own choice, though one backed by both his parents. Starting with a small part in Premadasa’s 1956 Ruwanwella campaign, Cooray’s involvement grew until in 1960 he took over Premadasa’s successful parliamentary bid from Colombo Central.
Though helping Premadasa became an axiomatic part of his life, Cooray never intended to become a politician. He enjoyed his work as a cinema manager. He particularly relished being sent to theatres across the country, the constant moving perfectly in synch with his own restless nature, and his desire to see and experience new places. He would recall with unconcealed glee that over a period of 13 years he managed 12 cinemas, involving 12 relocations with his patient wife and growing family in tow.
For many years, the two strands of his life, the personal and the political, moved side by side. This changed in the 1970s, when at the urging of Premadasa and the UNP, he contested and won the Suduwella ward and entered the Colombo Municipal Council. The transition was cemented once JR Jayewardene took over the UNP, and Ranasinghe Premadasa became his de facto second in command. Sirisena Cooray found himself in the thick of the UNP’s political campaigns, criss-crossing the country, at Premadasa’s side, while also building the Colombo Central organisation into a formidable electoral machine.
1977 was a year of radical break, both good and bad. Its most progressive component was the fracture with familial and dynastic politics. “I have no princes or princesses to crown,” was a constant refrain of JR Jayawardene’s campaign. His remade UNP consisted mostly of new men who were not sons, brothers or nephews of other politicians. Perhaps none symbolised this break with the past more than Ranasinghe Premadasa, an outsider both in class and caste terms. Colombo Central was Premadasa’s political family, the home of his growing tribe. And Sirisena Cooray was the man in charge of that vital space.
Throughout his life, Sirisena Cooray would be beset by two warring impulses. He loved travel, loved new experiences and vistas. He also wanted to be at Premadasa’s side, to help him realise their shared vision.
After 1977, he planned to try his hand at farming, sold his house in Colombo and brought a land in Katana in readiness. Premadasa persuaded him to become the head of the Common Amenities Board, and set in motion plans to improve the living conditions of Colombo’s poor. In 1978, he became Sri Lanka’s high commissioner in Malaysia. One year into the job, he was summoned home by President Jayewardene, and asked to contest the Colombo Mayoralty. “Cooray, this man (Premadasa) can’t do without you,” JRJ told him.
His 10 years as mayor were a fruitful time, a period in his life he would recall with nostalgia. The work of these years included the construction of the new public library, setting up a network of mobile libraries serving Colombo’s poorer areas, the construction of the Khettarama Stadium solely with CMC funds, expertise, and labour and improving and expanding sanitation facilities by replacing bucket lavatories with water sealed closets.
“There were 5,000 bucket lavatories in just Colombo North,” Cooray recalled in President Premadasa and I: Our story. “Every morning, these buckets had to be removed manually. The refuse was taken in open lorries and the whole area used to stink. It was an appalling sight. I had found out all these details during my stint at the Common Amenities Board. Our plan was to provide residents with the necessary assistance and get them to construct septic tanks. This programme worked and as a result today there are no bucket lavatories in Colombo.”
The significance of this achievement becomes clear when one considers that Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is not connected to a municipal sewage system. Its waste (and those of many other Dubai skyscrapers) is trucked out of the city to a treatment facility, where the trucks wait in queue up to 24 hours. Glitzy infrastructure can exist side by side with the absence of basic facilities when leaders prioritise appearance over substance.
His failure to prevent Black July was one of Sirisena Cooray’s lasting regrets. But it was due to his and Premadasa’s approach to housing that prevented Colombo Central, the most multi-ethnic and multi-religious electorate in Sri Lanka, from going up in flames. In the new apartment blocks, flats were allocated in such a manner that each floor consisted of families of different ethnicities and religions. You could not set fire to your neighbour’s house without endangering your own.
Presidency and beyond
From 1978 to 1988, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Sirisena Cooray were engaged in the slow political and organisational build up towards a future Premadasa presidency. When the UNP was compelled to make Premadasa the candidate, Cooray naturally became the campaign manager (a term first used by the late Roshan Pieris). The campaign took off with the famous Me Kawda, Monawada Karanne (Who is this? What is he doing?) poster campaign. The slogan was coined by a journalist friend of Victor Hettigoda who attended the first preparatory meeting. The overnight campaign was the work of the Colombo Central organisation, the one Cooray had nursed over the years.
The campaign hit a snag soon after when the Kandy UNP organisation and security forces agreed that holding the inaugural rally in the hill capital was impossible due to security considerations. Ranasinghe Premadasa, uncharacteristically, toyed with the idea of a postponement. Cooray refused, saying, “Sir, in that case resign from the candidacy, because postponing the first meeting is like accepting defeat.” Instead he took over the task of organising the meeting from the Kandy party apparatus and handed it over to Colombo Central branch. The meeting was held as planned.
Once the presidency was won, Cooray wanted to continue as mayor. But Premadasa wanted him in parliament and he eventually gave in, as he always would. Premadasa needed a custodian for his housing programme and his Colombo Central electorate. Cooray was the ideal choice, both in terms of ability and experience. Even more important was the issue of loyalty. There was no one Premadasa trusted more.
Absolute loyalty was not uncritical loyalty. Cooray had differences of opinion, and didn’t hesitate to express them to Premadasa. For instance, he felt that the premiership should have been given to either Lalith Athulathmudali or Gamini Dissanayake, and argued unsuccessfully with Premadasa on the issue. But whenever need arose, he was there, be it the impeachment, raising of the Maligawila Buddha statue or building a model village in Bodgaya at a time when relations between Colombo and Delhi were as cold as the Himalayas.
Post-assassination, had Cooray dumped the Premadasa legacy, had he changed colours to suit the new environment, he could have continued with his political career. But for him such betrayal was as impossible as not breathing. Cooray could say no to the offer of premiership without regrets. But he could not stop defending Premadasa.
Ranasinghe Premadasa who built so much never named a single village or a byroad after himself. It was Sirisena Cooray who named the Khettarama stadium after him, post-assassination. (Cooray who also built much never named even a passageway after himself. Like a majority of political leaders of that time, they built to serve, not to perpetuate their name at public expense). Premadasa’s subsequent rehabilitation in public memory and political arena was the result of the work Cooray enabled and presided over. Without Cooray, Premadasa’s memory would have become lost in fogs of lies and misrepresentations.
After he (and the UNP) lost the July 1960, election, Premadasa called a meeting at Lawrence College to thank his supporters. Looking at the audience, he turned to Cooray and said, “Sirisena, never forget the poor people of Colombo Central.” When Premadasa won the presidency, Cooray reminded him of this promise at a pubic function in the mayoral residence. That promise they made to each other was the other reason Cooray continued with his memorial and social service work, after he lost Premadasa.
In the last one year, with his public involvement severely limited by pandemic related health restrictions, Cooray still found a way to continue with his work. He would help individuals who visited or called him seeking assistance. If help was impossible, he would still listen to them, insisting that to the poor and the powerless, even a sympathetic ear meant much.
For the Premadasa tribe, Sirisena Cooray was the last remaining link with an imagined, desired, and only partially-realised world where life was not determined by birth or bank balance. Until his death, he tried to be true to that role history and choice has bestowed on him.