Chanaka Amaratunga 1958 - 1996

Extracts on the 15th Anniversary of his death
From Memoirs of the Eighties and Nineties

Chanaka in 1981 had set up a body called the Council for Liberal Democracy, which I was initially wary of, because he said he had established it with President J R Jayewardene’s blessings. Though he had been upset at the treatment of Mrs Bandaranaike, he thought my fears exaggerated, and expressed the belief that, though some elements in the UNP had authoritarian tendencies, J R himself was basically decent.

I found this ironic, because back in England, in 1978, which was his freshman year, he had been deeply critical of J R. I was impressed by the developments in Sri Lanka, and thought J R entirely responsible for the change, whereas Dudley Senanayake had seemed to me a leader without much initiative. Chanaka however was deeply critical. Though his loyalty to the UNP was absolute in those days, he saw Dudley as an utterly decent politician of deep convictions, while J R was essentially an ambitious intriguer.

By 1980 that had changed. He was less fond of Premadasa than he had been earlier, when he had told me that Premadasa had nearly joined the Dudley front. But his real bugbear was Lalith Athulathmudali, whom he saw as potentially a dictator. He claimed indeed that J R had encouraged the formation of the CLD so as to provide space for liberal thinkers such as Gamini Dissanayake, of whom he thought very highly.

In 1981, with the conduct of the DDC elections, Chanaka had begun to worry. Still, he came back to work for J R’s re-election, when the Presidential election was advanced to 1982. I missed this, because I was in Indonesia, but I came back to find the Referendum had been announced. It was also reported that J R had insisted that his MPs give him undated letters of resignation, so he could later clean out those who were unsuitable. I was deeply saddened to find that it was Ranil Wickremesinghe who was reported as having gone round distributing and collecting these letters at the Group Meeting at which J R sprang his surprise.

When Chanaka came to see me after that, I told him that I assumed he would somehow find an excuse for the Referendum too. His answer was forthright. He felt it was wrong, and he would fight it as best he could. And so it was that I accompanied him to meetings with various people he thought of as Dudley loyalists, whom he urged to speak out against the Referendum.

I was disappointed at the response. Even those who were categorical in their condemnation refused to say anything publicly. These included A C Gooneratne, who had been Chairman of the Party, and Rukman Senanayake, Dudley’s nephew. They both wanted Chanaka to find more people to join them, but this proved impossible. J R later got rid of Gooneratne, having heard about his sentiments, so it struck me as sad that he had not had the courage of his convictions. It was only Hugh Fernando of those who had supported Dudley in the struggle between JR and him who took a stand. He later became the first Chair of the CLD.

So it was only Chanaka and one or two of his younger friends who campaigned energetically, if not very effectively, with leaflets quoting Dudley’s declaration that there were some things which should not be done in a democracy however large the majority. Asitha Perera, who came from an SLFP family contributed actively, but their other great mate, Rohan Edrisinha, who was more solidly UNP, was lukewarm.


By 1994 President Wijetunge had  merrily abandoned the efforts Premadasa had made to win round the minorities. His infamous comment about how the minorities were like a vine that clung round the Sinhalese tree, paralleling what Sarath Fonseka was to enunciate some years later, in declaring that the country belonged to the majority, was symptomatic of a mindset that simply could not understand the traumas the whole country had undergone. That the minorities had suffered over the years through majoritarian policies that first ignored and then attacked them, and that it was necessary for a government in power to work together with those who had stood firm against the Tigers once their destructive agenda was apparent, was beyond him.

Some people did recall that he had been amongst those who had opposed Dudley Senanayake in the sixties, when he had negotiated a pact with Chelvanayakam, but this type of historical awareness was rare in Sri Lanka. The fact that despite all this Premadasa had made him Prime Minister instead of more able and sensitive men showed how deep was the bitterness the succession struggle within the UNP had engendered.

Chandrika Kumaratunga meanwhile was at her inclusive best. The assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali had propelled her into the position of Chief Minister of the Western Province, and she also benefited from the fact that Gamini Dissanayake was thinking of going back into the UNP instead of taking over the leadership of the combined opposition that Lalith had seemed to occupy. She built up her contacts with the TULF as well as the SLMC, which had earlier been talking to Chanaka about an alliance that would have been supportive of Premadasa, along with both the Liberal Party and the SLMP, which Ossie Abeygunasekara had taken over after Vijaya Kumaranatunga’s death. All that fell by the wayside as Wijetunge made it clear he had no desire whatsoever to pursue such alliances so that, by the time of the Parliamentary election the following year, the UNP had little minority support.

Wijetunge meanwhile did everything he could to destroy himself electorally. He engaged in machinations in the Southern Provincial Council, which led to another poll, whereby the slim majority against the government was turned into a virtual landslide. Then, when he realized that there was some criticism of his style – and lack of substance – within the party, he turned on Sirisena Cooray, who had been Premadasa’s chief henchman. The occasion for this was in fact an article Chanaka had written, which was published in the ‘Sunday Observer’, suggesting that the main problem with the government was its leader. Wijetunge however was quick to prevent this snowballing into a revolt, and he promptly dismissed the Chairman of the Lake House Group who was known to be close to Cooray.

He then asked for Cooray’s resignation. Cooray said he would consider the matter but, when Chanaka went to visit him, he found him relaxing, not calling up members of the party for support as Chanaka had expected him to do. His explanation was simple. He told Chanaka that he had indicated his worries in order to save the party, not himself, since he had only entered active politics in support of Premadasa. If Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister, and in Cooray’s view the best successor to Premadasa, was not prepared to stand up for him, he would gladly give up.

On cue, Ranil declared that the problem was one between the President and the General Secretary of the Party, and it was not up to him to intervene. Wijetunge also managed to get a statement of support from the Premadasa family, which was bizarre, since he it was who had sidelined them immediately he had taken over as President. But with such reactions, Cooray resigned and went on holiday, and from then on the decline of the UNP was inexorable.

Sure enough, after Cooray’s departure, Wijetunge brought Gamini Dissanayake back into the party. This perhaps made sense then, since he also decided to have a Parliamentary election first, hoping to win and then stay on as President. Surprisingly enough he nearly succeeded, for the result was very close. However the decision of the Muslim Congress to support the opposition ensured that Chandrika became Prime Minister.

Chanaka was a victim of the infighting, in that he had decided, along with Ossie, whose opposition to Chandrika ran deep, to stay with the UNP. He was particularly close to Gamini Dissanayake, and felt that he would be a better leader than Chandrika, and he assumed that he would almost certainly be the UNP candidate for the Presidency. Unfortunately the UNP would not have him, in spite of the commitment made to him not only earlier by Cooray, but also by Gamini Wijeyesekera who had taken over as General Secretary.

Chanaka said later that he had been undone by Ranil Wickremesinghe, doubtless because the latter feared his closeness to Gamini. According to Anura Bandaranaike, when Ranil heard that Chanaka might be on the UNP National List, he had called J R Jayewardene, and asked him to object to Wijetunge, on the grounds that Chanaka had been critical of two sitting UNP Presidents, namely himself and Wijetunge. This was done and Chanaka was therefore removed from the list, another nail I believe in the coffin the UNP was preparing for itself.

Daily News 1 August 2011