Chanaka Amaratunga died 20 years ago on August 1st, 1996. He died a very disappointed man, for he had not been put into Parliament at the previous election. Those of us who have been in Parliament can vouch that that is no panacea for disappointment, given how sadly our Parliamentary traditions have been traduced. But Chanaka was a passionate believer in the Westminster system, the last perhaps to care deeply about its forms, with the possible exception of his great friend, Anura Bandaranaike.
I have written previously about the reasons Chanaka was not put in Parliament, but it is appropriate here, today, to note categorically that his hopes were destroyed by two people. In their careers they have often seemed polar opposites, but at the time they were united in their determination to keep Chanaka out. But I should note that it was not primarily dislike of him that motivated them, but rather fear – a much under-estimated factor in Sri Lankan politics. The fear was not of him but of another of his great friends, Gamini Dissanayake.
The two conspirators I refer to are Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga. It is the more essential now to expound what happened because, in their subtle and not so subtle ways, they will now destroy Maithripala Sirisena, as they have destroyed so much else, unless their essential negativity is recognized. For once again what has brought them together is not anything positive, but rather a visceral hatred of Mahinda Rajapaksa. And underlying this hatred again is fear, and envy for they realize that he is much loved still in the country. This is despite all his faults and the faults of his government, because he achieved much for the country, not least destroying the terror that had burgeoned under their watch. They on the contrary did very little when they were in power, one for over a decade, the other in short spells, during which the power of the Tigers grew exponentially.
What happened way back in 1994? We need to go back first to 1993, when Chanaka decided that the Liberal Party should support President Premadasa. This was a deeply contested decision within the party. Ironically one of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s current confidantes, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, then one of our Vice-Presidents, left the party in opposition to the decision. The other Vice-President, Asitha Perera, was even more positive about the decision to support Premadasa than Chanaka was. I was in two minds, and as President of the party managed to delay the decision.
But Chanaka pushed it through at the next meeting, when I was not present. I was in fact travelling in Amparai, and it was recognizing there the sympathetic sensibilities of the President, in forcing the opening of garment factories in rural areas that swayed me in the end to go along with Chanaka . It was a measure much decried by our elite friends who owned such factories near Colombo and said they would have to close those to comply with the Presidential directive. But that is what Premadasa wanted, to take jobs to rural areas, and to the people. So my decision is not something I have ever regretted, and I felt the better for it in that President Premadasa much appreciated it, given his warm regard for my father. He asked for me when we went along to sign the agreement, a short time before the 1993 Provincial Council elections.
But a week later, Premadasa was dead, another victim of the LTTE, forgotten by the UNP when they were flirting with the Tigers, just as Neelan Tiruchelvam’s assassination was forgotten by the TULF when doing the same – though in their case fear also prompted the betrayal. The UNP fell into the hands of D B Wijetunge, who destroyed the excellent relationship Premadasa had built up with minority parties.
Sirisena Cooray tried to stop this, with the publication in the government-owned ‘Sunday Observer’ of an article by Chanaka that was deeply critical of the President. But Wijetunge reacted quickly, sacked the Chairman of Lake House, and then asked for Cooray to resign as Secretary of the Party. Chanaka was surprised then to find Cooray, who asked for time to consider his decision, doing nothing to rally support. But his reply was that he had not acted for himself, it was up to those who he thought should take Premadasa’s legacy forward to defend him.
He meant Ranil, whom he had ensured would be Wijetunge’s Prime Minister, the post first having been offered to Cooray himself as Premadasa’s chief lieutenant after the assassination. But he knew his limitations, in terms of being a national leader, as opposed to a backroom worker, and he thought Ranil, the only senior Minister who had stood with Premadasa when Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake tried to impeach him, the man of the future. So indeed it has proved, a future of 22 years, though with very little to show for this.
Wijetunge was however a wily bird, and did not replace Cooray with someone orthodox whose allegiance might have been to Ranil, but rather with Gamini Wijeyesekera. The latter had left the party along with Rukman Senanayake in opposition to J R Jayewardene. Gamini had no objection to Wijetunge also mending fences with Gamini Dissanayake, who was accordingly back in the party in time for the 1994 General Election. And he continued in close contact with Chanaka, and put his name on the National List for that election. Chanaka, who was also happy about Gamini Dissanayake coming back, had decided to stick with the UNP, even though the minority parties who had worked with him to support some of Premadasa’s work had switched to the SLFP, which was now controlled by Chandrika. Chanaka was urged to join him in this by the leader of the SLMC, Mr Ashraff, but he refused.
Shortly before the election however disaster struck. Gamini Wijeyesekera called Chanaka up and said that Wijetunge had told him to remove Chanaka from the list. He had received a call from former President Jayewardene to say that Chanaka was the only person to have publicly criticized two UNP Presidents, and he should on no account be kept. Wijeyesekera said he could not disobey.
Anura Bandaranaike later told Chanaka what had happened. He was by then in the UNP, having crossed over a few months after Wijetunge became President, since, as Sunethra Bandaranaike memorably told me, ‘My sister is trying to throw my darling brother out of the party.’ According to Anura, Ranil had been behind the move, having called President Jayewardene up, and stirred him into action. Underlying this was the knowledge that Gamini Dissanayake would challenge him for the UNP succession, and Chanaka would obviously support Gamini.
Chanaka then was removed from the UNP list, but Ashraff came to the rescue, and put him on the SLMC list. This was not only because of their friendship, but also because Ashraff was a wide-thinking Sri Lankan, and wanted to turn the SLMC into a national party (hence indeed the National Unity Alliance that he started shortly before he died). Sadly no one else in the party had his vision, and after his death it turned into a parochial and largely rent-seeking outfit.
This was when Chandrika’s antipathy came in. She had a majority of just one after the election, even with Ashraff’s support, and it was said that she did not want Chanaka in a decisive position. There was talk at the time that Anura Bandaranaike would be proposed for the post of Speaker, and it was feared that Chanaka’s old friendship might be dangerous, given that the balloting was secret.
Unfortunately Chanaka also had enemies in the Muslim Congress, given his determined secularism, though recently Rauff Hakeem was man enough to admit that he had been wrong in opposing Chanaka. And sadly Asitha Perera, who was related to Chandrika, began to play games, and convinced the SLMC that he was more reliable. Sadly, feeling more perhaps for Ashraff’s evident embarrassment than I should have, I too suggested a compromise, that Asitha be appointed for a month.
He agreed to resign, but welshed on the agreement and even became a Muslim to rally the faithful behind him. Chanaka was deeply hurt, but at the time he had some consolation in that Gamini Dissanayake had been elected Leader of the UNP and its Presidential candidate for the November election. He asked Chanaka to draft his manifesto, for which he roped me in. Gamini was wary he said, given that I was Ranil’s cousin, but he accepted what I wrote too and the way he summarized what we did, demanding changes where he disagreed, was clear evidence that his was a formidable intellect.
I do not think he would have won, but he certainly was giving Chandrika a good run for her money, and when I left Sri Lanka in October to lecture on the American University ship that invited me unexpectedly (Sri Lanka was no longer on their itinerary but there had been an epidemic in India) the country was full of green posters. But while I was in Hanoi I woke up to the news that Gamini too had been assassinated, in perhaps the LTTE’s most decisive killing, for there was no alternative to his leadership.
The UNP stupidly put up Gamini’s widow as the candidate but virtually handed over the leadership of the party to Ranil, whereupon propaganda stopped and the poor lady lost miserably. Ranil then proceeded to consolidate his leadership of his party, with the new constitution that made him leader for life, and did not challenge Chandrika. That I think contributed to her immense laziness in office, which prompted an Australian High Commissioner of the period to tell me that he had never seen a country go backward so fast as ours had done, in the three years of her tenure during which he was here.
So the terrible twins were both happy, and the country collapsed, with the LTTE getting more and more powerful. Chanaka’s expertise in constitutional principles was not used, though the other Tamil parties still flocked to the Liberal Party office in Castle Lane to discuss issues. Mangala Samaraweera did ask him to help with popularizing the changes that were contemplated, but there was no coherence about either the process of change nor its content and there was little for Chanaka to do.
He turned then to drama and to late nights, which led to a drive after midnight and a fatal crash. For that we cannot blame the self-centredness of the two characters I have mentioned. Over the next few years one kept hoping that they might improve. But all evidence is to the contrary. In 2001, when I voted for the UNP, I told my aunt, perhaps the only other member of my family apart from the late Bishop who had a radical streak, that I thought Ranil and Chari had reformed, but she told me she did not think that was the case. She was correct, as soon became obvious when, in his anxiety not to rock the boat so he could stay in power, Ranil allowed the Tigers to run circles around him. And I was correct 13 years later when I told Chandrika, in November 2014, on the day Vasantha Senanayake and I joined her in support of Maithripala Sirisena, that she was determined in adversity, but relaxed the minute she had got her way.
She knew exactly what I meant and looked sharply at me, but then the charm reasserted itself, and she assured me that things would be different this time. But of course she was in England for over a month soon after the President took office. Since he told me he had entrusted the SLFP to her care, naturally the UNP ran circles around the SLFP. What Dayan had warned me of, when I told him that Maithripala Sirisena would make a good President, happened. Though he was not opposed to Sirisena in himself, he told me that Ranil and Chandrika would take over and destroy him.
For a year and a half it looked like Dayan was right. But the manner in which the President removed the symbol of UNP corruption, Arjuna Mahendran, has I think given the country new hope. I can only hope the SLFP as a whole understands this, and works together to resume moving on the middle path for which its founder gave his life. Chanaka, who recognized efficiency, who deplored both the excesses of crony capitalism and those of statist socialism, would I know have wanted this. He was after all the classic Gladstonian Liberal, always on the side of the masses against the classes. 20 years after he died, I hope the Party, under its current Leader, will remember that.