Sajith Premadasa has promised to take us back to the ‘Premadasa Yugaya (Era)’. He has not said ‘I mean, only the good parts of that time’. I mean, he hasn’t acknowledged anywhere that there was any wrongdoing under his father’s watch or the time when his father was the Prime Minister in J.R. Jayewardene’s government.
With that statement, however, he rules out any dismissal of any reference to ‘that time’ and the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.
He had his positives of course. He planted trees. He built houses. He introduced Janasaviya as a recipe for poverty alleviation. That was, remember, the era of IMF reforms. It was called ‘Structural Adjustment’. That was followed by ‘Structural Adjustment with a human face’ (the ‘human face’ was picked by Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 — ‘Open Economy with a Human Face’). Then came ‘Structural Adjustment with poverty alleviation’. That transition tells a story. In short ‘structural adjustment exacerbated poverty’. Anyway, the man wanted to move out from ‘handouts’. The programme however was politicized. Apparently ‘the poor’ were green, so to speak. Patronage continued to rule.
Ranasinghe Premadasa quashed the second JVP uprising. Now that’s an interesting story. Let’s recap. Rohana Wijeweera and the JVP were, according to the Old Left, creatures of the right wing. Some even said ‘the CIA’. Let’s assume they were not. JR, ‘magnanimously’ released the lot from prison. Thereafter the JVP rhetoric was all about attacking the SLFP and Ms. Bandaranaike. The JVP ‘stole’ some votes, it could be argued, from Hector Kobbekaduwa in the rigged 1982 presidential election (as was the Referendum making a mockery of democracy with 50%+1 vote allowing the UNP to retain a 5/6 parliamentary majority). In 1983, JR sent the JVP underground by claiming the JVP was responsible for the anti-Tamil riots, which as we now know were orchestrated by the JSS (the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya, the UNP’s trade union arm).
Was the 1988-89 insurrection and all the violence just a natural outcome of Wijeweera being a megalomaniac, though? Let’s trace.
During the time Premadasa was Prime Minister, the UNP government stripped SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civic rights. Premadasa voted for the draconian 1978 Constitution which, according to many, is the main reason for the democracy-deficit that has plagued Sri Lanka for more than 40 years. In 1980 striking workers were thrown out in their thousands. Several dozens would later commit suicide. Two university students were shot dead in June 1984 (Rohana Ratnayake and Padmasiri Abeysekera). That was a ‘Rathupaswala’ that greens disguised as born-again democrats have chosen to forget. They’ve forgotten other things too.
In 1987 JR capitulated to Rajiv Gandhi’s plans for the ‘Bhutanization of Sri Lanka,’ a project which gave us devolution as a solution for a misnamed and misrepresented problem
In 1987 JR capitulated to Rajiv Gandhi’s plans for the ‘Bhutanization of Sri Lanka,’ a project which gave us devolution as a solution for a misnamed and misrepresented problem (Note: all nine provincial councils are not dissolved, some have been so for more than two years, but get this: No one is protesting, not even the ‘democracy-fixated’ nor the Eelamists who have reinvented themselves as devolutionists). Premadasa was part of that government. The JVP rode the resultant disenchantment.
In September 1988 a 15-year-old student of Nugawela Central College was shot dead. The ‘kids’ were protesting. The protests were instigated by the JVP. Killed, let me repeat. Now think: what if this happened anytime between 2005 and 2015? Get the drift? Well, it’s more than a drift. We had, in the period 1988-90, around 60,000 people killed. Most of it under President Premadasa’s watch. We saw proxy arrests, abduction, torture, K-Points (Killing Points), tyre pyres, people burnt alive (including Rohana Wijeweera in the crematorium of the Borella Cemetery), billas (masked informants deployed to identify JVPers who would then be ‘bumped off’ — yes, tens of thousands of Ekneligodas), and vigilante groups (Kalu Balallu, Kaha Balallu, Kola Koti, the People’s Revolutionary Red Army [no less] and Ukussas among other creatures bent on dispensing terror). We didn’t have ‘white van abductions’ back then. They came in all kinds of vehicles, painted in all kinds of colours.
There’s more. Censorship. Newspaper content had to be passed by a ‘competent (sic) authority’. So too scripts for stage plays. Entire swathes of news pages came out in black by way of editors protesting these moves. Journalists were killed for the most trivial of reasons. Only Richard De Soyza’s name is remembered and that’s the privilege of social class. The JVP and UNP went on a killing spree at a rate unseen in this country since the massacres by the British in the 19th Century. Premadasa came out victor in that battle to decide the more pernicious political brute of the decade.
The JR-Premadasa era saw the worst violations of human rights, all in the name of battling terrorism. No Navi Pillais, Marzuki Darusmans or Yasmin Sookas back then. For Premadasa, after he became President, the LTTE were ‘kid brothers’ (mallilaa). He ordered 600 police officers to surrender to the LTTE. They were all shot dead in cold blood. He armed the LTTE (to fight the IPKF, we were told). India quit and that was a good thing, but those guns were turned on the entire nation and citizenry by the LTTE.
The ‘Premadasa Time’ was when politicization of the public service reached its height (it’s remained there and that’s a black mark on his successors as well). Cabinet-bloating to ensure parliamentary arithmetic remained favourable was his brainchild. Corruption? Had a free rein.
That’s the Premadasas Yugaya ladies and gentlemen.
Sajith Premadasa should talk about these things. Just as his loyalists (rightfully) demand that Gotabaya Rajapaksa speak of disappearances and murders that took place under his brother’s watch.
All of that was ‘fascist’. And if Sajith Premadasa wants a repeat, a second-innings, well then we can call his proposal ‘Neo-Fascism’ can’t we?
Sajith Premadasa wants that past. Does the UNP want it too? Do the people want THAT era back?
If not, we could limit discussion to the 21st Century, to what was done and remained undone, what was said and left unsaid, the track records of the previous regime and the yahapalana government whose crimes of omission and commission about which Sajith Premadasa has been strangely silent these past five years.
We could talk about creating the conditions for economic development versus stagnation produced by rank incompetence and daylight robbery. We could talk of ridding the country of the terrorist menace and a similar monster with a different name emerging from the fertile soil of pseudo reconciliation.
We could also talk about the Premadasa Era, if THAT’S what Sajith is all about.