Chanaka Amaratunga died 19 years ago, on the 1st of August 1996. He died a disappointed man, for he had not entered Parliament, which had been his dream. Only Chanaka, imbued in the Westminster style of Liberal Democratic politics, could have written an article entitled ‘In Praise of Parliament’ at a time when the Executive Presidency was well entrenched in Sri Lanka, and the tradition of the independent Parliamentarian long lost.
He had hoped to enter Parliament in 1988, when he was on the SLFP National List, but the defeat of the SLFP then had led to the sidelining of Anura Bandaranaike, who had been his great friend. He told me that, when he went to Rosmead Place on the day after the election, Sunethra had met him with the claim that the only hope for the party now was to bring Chandrika back. He had said this was nonsense, and that perhaps put paid to his chances. After her defeat, Mrs Bandaranaike too felt that the policies Anura had promoted had been a mistake, and moved back to the left.
Anura still had residual support, but he was soft-hearted to a fault, and gave up the Secretaryship of the party when he was appointed to the post on a split decision. The newspapers at the time reported that his mother had stormed out of the room, and he had followed her, and agreed to a compromise whereby Dharmasiri Senanayake became Secretary. The latter worked for Chandrika, and as we know she came back and took over. By then, though, it should be noted that Sunethra was supportive of her brother and when, forgetting the change that had taken place, I asked her what her sister was up to, she told me that she was trying to throw ‘my darling brother’ out of the party.
Before he was expelled, Anura had left the SLFP, and become a Minister in President Wijetunge’s Cabinet. Chanaka had previously allied himself with the UNP because he worked together well with President Premadasa, and appreciated his pluralistic approach. That caused the first major split in the Liberal Party, for one of our Vice-Presidents, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, and the Deputy Secretary General, Rohan Edrisinha, left. I was President at the time, and I put off the vote because I was sorry about the polarization that was happening. But at the next meeting, when I was out of Colombo, Chanaka and the other Vice-President, Asitha Perera, pushed the matter through.
The other two thought I too might resign, but I did a lot of work then in rural areas, including the East, and I was impressed by Premadasa’s achievements, and the affection for him of the Tamils and Muslims I worked with in the Trincomalee and Amparai University Colleges where I looked after the English programmes. Recently I have been accused of supporting the two worst dictators Sri Lanka has had, but this is a typical Colombo elite attack on outsiders who rose to the top. As I have noted before, Colombo has forgotten that the worst excesses of the UNP were under Jayewardene, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, the Referendum, the collection of undated letters of resignation, July 1983 and then the brutal suppression of the JVP including the murder of Wijeyedasa Liyanaarachchi.
I supported Chanaka then, with regard to the alliance with Premadasa’s UNP, and I am glad he persuaded me to accompany him to the signing of the MoU with Premadasa. One week later Premadasa had been killed, by an LTTE suicide bomber. I was glad that ‘Sam’s Son’, as he called me in asking on that occasion whether I had come, had been able to express appreciation of his work, and that Premadasa had been gratified.
Chanaka, unlike Anura Bandaranaike, disapproved deeply of D B Wijetunge. He was the first to tell me that the man was a racist, and indeed this was clear from his record, for he had been one of those who supported Cyril Mathew (with J R lurking in the background) when he opposed the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1968. At that stage, in 1993, I thought Ranil too, who had been a loyal lieutenant to Premadasa, was disappointed with Wijetunge, and I remember his sister complaining that the Premadasa vision was being traduced. But when the crunch came, and Sirisena Cooray tried to get things back on the right lines, Ranil let down Cooray and allowed Wijetunge full control of the party.
He also ensured that Chanaka did not get into Parliament, in violation of the understanding he had had with both Premadasa and Cooray. Wijetunge had appointed Gamini Wijeyesekera as Secretary of the Party, and he had had Chanaka’s name on the list, but the President had had it removed. According to Chanaka, Anura Bandaranaike had told him that Ranil had engineered this, by getting J R to call up Wijetunge and say he should not allow someone who had been critical of two UNP Presidents (the two of them) to be on a UNP list.
Chanaka was disappointed, but he was then put on the Muslim Congress National List, since he and Ashraff were good friends, and had indeed been thinking of working together – along with Neelan Tiruchelvam and Ossie Abeygunasekera – when Wijetunge had made clear his chauvinistic approach (‘the Sinhalese are the tree on which the minority vines cling’). However, after the election Chanaka was again stopped, though whether the Muslim Congress extremists or Chandrika Kumaratunga was responsible was never clear. Rauff Hakeem later said publicly that he had made a mistake in stopping Chanaka from being nominated to Parliament, but Chanaka also thought that Chandrika had been worried, given his friendship with Anura, that he might support the latter for the position of Speaker if there were a contest. So in the end Asitha Perera, a kinsman of the Bandaranaikes, was appointed, with a promise that he would resign once the government was secure – but he promptly became a Muslim and joined the Muslim Congress and point blank refused to resign.
Chanaka was not too disappointed, for by then he was working closely with Gamini Dissanayake, whom he had always much admired. He wrote his manifesto, the very enlightened manifesto which was then used by Srima Dissanayake after Gamini was assassinated by the LTTE.
That murder set the seal on the destruction of Parliamentary democracy, for without Gamini Dissanayake the UNP was totally ineffective in opposition. Ranil Wickremesinghe, having come into Parliament in J R’s executive dominated 1977 Parliament, had no idea how to lead an opposition, as I noted in the last five years where there was no attempt at all to use the powers Parliament has to challenge the executive. The Opposition hardly came to Consultative Committee meetings, Private Members motions became a joke with the UNP itself contributing to make Parliament inquorate, and there was no effort to introduce the systemic changes we so badly need.
Gamini Dissanayake’s death also meant the end of Chanaka’s hopes of a political career. Gamini had pledged to put him into Parliament but, after his death Ranil, with total disregard of the wishes of his colleagues, insisted on putting Dinesh Dodangoda in, succumbing according to Waruna Karunatilleke to blackmail, though that may have been farfetched.
The Liberal Party office still provided a haven for minority politicians, and one of the most enlightened of them, Mr Sidharthan of PLOTE, could often be found there. Unfortunately, despite Chandrika’s relative enlightenment in this area, she was not willing to use Chanaka actively, though her lieutenant, Mangala Samaraweera, did come round to ask for his support for the package she was putting together. But, typically of Chandrika, that package took a long time to emerge, and by then Chanaka was dead, two years after the General Election in which Ranil and Chandrika between them had dashed his hopes.
Now the Liberal Party seems to be heading for another split, with a small faction determined it seems to see Ranil Wickremesinghe as the best hope for the future. They pretend that this is to support the President, ignoring the fact that the President wants to hold his party together, for obvious reasons. Once he made the decision, however unwillingly, to give nomination to Mahinda Rajapaksa, we should accept his decision, which was indeed said by the now recalcitrant Liberal Party Secretary General at the last formal committee meeting that was held. But those who even then wanted an alliance with the UNP – though this was unanimously rejected by the Committee – have been working overtime, and seem not to care for either the party or its Founder.
They have now put up lists for the election, when this was not discussed at the previous Committee meeting. The so-called Leader of the Colombo list called me to ask for support, and said he had found our details on a website. He had previously stood with Wickramabahu Karunaratne’s party, an entity light years away from everything for which Chanaka stood. The sheer cynicism of those who have put together these lists is beyond belief.
Chanaka has now been dead for two thirds of the life span of the Liberal Party, which was founded in January 1987. I shall opposed efforts to destroy the Party, given that only I am now left of those who founded the party, and of those who came together in the Council for Liberal Democracy to oppose the Referendum of 1982. But I can see that this may be a blow from which the Party will find it difficult to recover.
He was never positive about either Ranil Wickremesinghe or Chandrika Kumaratunga. The fact that they have come together because of their shared dislike of Mahinda Rajapaksa would not have surprised him. But it would have surprised him that it is in support of such a combination, which seems determined to destroy also the SLFP, despite the contrary position of the President, that the Liberal Party is being sacrificed.