Paul Perera was a household name in politics two decades ago. Paul became a close associate of J R Jayewardene when he was the Leader of the Opposition and played a key role in ensuring the UNP victory at the 1977 General Elections. He started his career in the public service and then left to become an Advocate of the Supreme Court. It was during this period when he lived opposite J R Jayewardene’s residence that they became friends. He was originally a backroom member of our party – a person who did important work for the Party but was not known. Subsequently he became a much talked about political figure.
Upali Wijewardene to start work on establishing a Free Trade Zone – the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC).
I got to know Paul Perera in 1972 when I was an apprentice lawyer working for H W Jayewardene. One day, he together with some others, came into H W Jayewardene’s Chambers for a discussion after obtaining the Court Order prohibiting the expulsion of J R Jayewardene from the UNP. I joined the case at that stage. Subsequently
J R Jayewardene and the then Leader Dudley Senanayake reached a settlement. That single act changed the history of our country; for without J R Jayewardene there would not have been an open economy in Sri Lanka. J R Jayewardene could not have won an election without the UNP. After the expulsion issue was settled, I got to know Paul Perera and we all went to work for the UNP candidate at the Kesbewa by-election. When J R Jayewardene became the leader of the UNP in 1973, he appointed Paul and myself to the Party Working Committee. He was always by the side of J R Jayewardene, working on different strategies to ensure that Parliamentary elections were held in 1977, which the UNP won. Paul Perera also oversaw a group of the electorates in the Gampaha area including the constituency of which I was the organizer.
In 1977 after the unexpected landslide victory of the UNP, Paul Perera was entrusted to help Upali Wijewardene to start work on establishing a Free Trade Zone – the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC). He was appointed as the Deputy Director-General when Upali became the Director-General. This was the first special economic zone set up in the South Asian region. Upali Wijewardene focused on promoting investments while Paul Perera was responsible for the construction of the Katunayake Free Trade Zone and the Biyagama Free Trade Zone. He, together with Lalith Athulathmudali were also responsible for Sri Lanka obtaining quotas for the export of garments to the USA. They also obtained similar facilities from the EU. Subsequently, Paul succeeded Upali as the Director-General of GCEC. The work of Upali Wijewardene and Paul Perera ensured the success of the GCEC, which today is known as the BOI.
Paul was a superb lawyer; he was quick on the uptake, seized a point immediately, and studied the brief thoroughly -- at least thrice over. He carried these attributes into politics. Paul Perera enjoyed Parliament; for him it was a continuation of the
A good example of Paul’s commitment to the Investment Zones is the construction of the Biyagama IPZ. The UNIDO specialists said Biyagama was not suitable for an investment zone as the soil was too hard for construction work. Paul Perera overruled them and acted on the advice of the Sri Lankan Engineers who pointed out that this was a misreading of the local soil conditions of the Siyane Korale. I must recall with gratitude, the help he gave me in transforming Biyagama from a backward region to one of the highly industrialized regions with one FTZ and two Industrial Estates. Paul Perera together with the late Suranimala Rajapakse were instrumental in the construction of the roads from Kiribathgoda to the Zone, as well as the Kaduwela Biyagama- Belummahara Road.
By now Paul Perera had got the itch for politics. In 1983 President Jayewardene appointed Paul to fill the vacancy in Parliament arising from the death of M D H Jayawardena. During the first night of the July 1983 riots, the President instructed H W Jayewardene, Paul, and myself to visit Dehiwela and Ratmalana and report back to him. Until Paul’s death we would frequently recollect that horrifying experience, which we shared that night.
Subsequent to the communal riots, Paul started his Parliamentary career as acting District Minister for Polonnaruwa. When the country returned to normal, Ekanayake from Medirigiriya became the District Minister while Paul returned to the backbench. He became the Minister of Justice at the end of President J R Jayewardene’s term of office. When President Premadasa downsized the Cabinet Ministers, Paul Perera became the Minister for Science and Technology in my Cabinet Ministry of Industries, Science and Technology. He was a great help, taking over the daily chores from me. Paul then became the Cabinet Minister of Lands under President Wijetunga, a post he held till the end of Parliament.
The high point in Paul Perera’s Parliamentary career was when he was nominated as the Parliamentary candidate for the Gampaha seat with Attanagalle as his base. Everyone had expected him to lose, but Paul had mastered the system of preferential voting early. He went around stating that he is the opponent of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike and requested every UNPer to spare him one preference. Paul won handsomely, but it was a tactic that you could not repeat. An unexpected consequence was that it heralded the entry of Chandrika Kumaratunga to politics.
Paul was a superb lawyer; he was quick on the uptake, seized a point immediately, and studied the brief thoroughly -- at least thrice over. He carried these attributes into politics. Paul Perera enjoyed Parliament; for him it was a continuation of the Court craft – similar to appearing in Court and thinking on his feet. He volunteered to speak on many debates, and insisted that his speeches were fully reported. This was not an easy task for the press gallery. Paul was also a fighter who never gave in. The best example was in 1997 when he fell seriously ill during a flight and the plane had to make an emergency landing in Bangkok. He was given a few weeks to live, yet he fought back, recovered, and carried on for ten more years. It was an unique experience working with Paul Perera, which I did for two decades. Paul will be remembered, not only for his politics, but also for his contribution in promoting foreign investments in Sri Lanka; in this he was a pioneer.
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