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Lessons from President Premadasa for Sri Lanka’s existing leadership

There are many lessons from the rule of President Premadasa that will help to avoid repetition of making the same mistakes if properly adhered to. The quality of governance has deteriorated over the years and it is unlikely to change unless the present culture of governance carried down by successive governments and politicians does not change. Let all politicians remember that all governments have ended up falling short of people’s expectations because they have removed themselves away from the people trusting in only their henchmen of advisors and no sooner governments moves away from the masses it becomes the beginning of the end.
The culture to depend on the underworld and goon squads have passed down from one government to the other resulting in unnecessary bloodshed and a spate of criminal activity that has brought the country into disrepute over the years. Until such time this trend to depend on thugs ceases to be we are unlikely to bring any semblance of good governance to Sri Lanka since the law of the country needs to apply to all equally and officials implementing laws should not have to bow their heads down to lowlife gangsters who thinks they can brandish a weapon and people have to worship them.
Sri Lanka’s mobsters
Gangster rule and good squads started with the UNP and its legacy has continued unabated. The Wikipedia has a separate of Sri Lankan mobsters starting out with Gonawala Sunil involved in a spate of activities including rape of a 14 year old girl for which he was given a presidential pardon by then President J R Jayawardena and ended up obtaining an all-island justice of peace and bodyguard to Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe then Minister of Education. Need we say more about the culture that was being slowly created. Then came Sothi Upali said to be a close ally of Sirisena C, then Minister of Housing under President Premadasa. Sri Lanka’s police had to address Sothththi Upali as “Sir”. Taking over from Soththi Upali was his arch rival Chintaka Amarasinghe who is said to have been aligned to the People’s Alliance. His brother Dhammika Amarasinghe is said to have had a hand in over 50 murders and countless bank robberies and as is always the case when their notoriety gets too linked to their patrons they end up being gunned down to conceal that links. Then comes Kalu Ajith who killed Chintaka Amarasinghe and was killed by Chintaka’s brother Dhammika. Next to enter is Kaduwela Wasantha who after a decade of terror was gunned down by another rival Karate Dhammika. We will all remember Baddegane Sanjeewa who was a police sergeant for President Kumaratunga. The other notorious underworld figures with fascinating names are Moratu Saman, Thoppi Chaminda,, Nawala Nihal, Kalu Ajit, Vambotta, Olcott, Thel Bala, Kimbulaela Guna, Dematagoda Kamal, Colum, Anamalu Imtiaz, Potta Naufer, Neluwa Priyantha, Kudu Lal and the latest to enter Julampitiye Amare.
The Good and Bad of Premadasa
If no human is perfect then no leader is perfect either. In the case of a President there are certainly good times and bad times though no leader can make the entire population happy with the decisions taken.
It is good to wonder how much of the legacy Premadasa had to deal with was of his own making. If we recall the late 1980s and early 1990s it is nothing but bloodshed and gruesome killings with a country torched from North to South. It was Ranjan Wijeratne who took on the task of eliminating the JVP which gave a sigh of relief to the people of the South though many innocent Sinhala youth perished as a result. No human rights organizations cried foul play not even the local NGO bandwagons or their mouthpieces.
It was J R Jayawardena who introduced neo-liberal economy to Sri Lanka which Premadasa continued while also carrying out his own program of bringing the villages to a reasonable level and managed to transform the UNP often described as the party of relatives into what he termed a people oriented party. He deregulated trade, financial services and privatization, he created massive zones of small industries giving employment to women in rural villages through garments, shoes, toys and revived tourism. He had started well over 15,000 small industry-based projects all over the island.
What no leader has been able to match was Premadasa’s passion for precision and his attention given to details. He work up at 4a.m. did his yoga, read the newspapers and would even call his staff and ask for updates and no one could say “later”! – he was behind every project personally monitoring and supervising them and never forgot a single project he started. During Premadasa’s presidency not a single Government office was spared unannounced visits and all offices were clean and staff always on alert not knowing when the President might walk in. After Premadasa, the Government offices have cared little to continue those good practices and most offices function in a don’t care attitude.
Where did Premadasa go wrong. Coming from humble beginnings and working his way up the political ladder it was natural that he would suffer internal complexities which were manipulated by the people he kept around him as his inner circle. However those economic advisors did not want to make real Premadasa’s vision of making the poor richer and instead the rich got richer and the poor got poorer and people started to develop hate for the man they hoped would change their future.
The lessons
A leader is brought down by his advisors and it is no different in the case of President Premadasa which reiterates the need for the present leadership to be wary of those they solicit advice from. It was the rumors the tales and lies fed into the ears of President Premadasa that turned an iconic figure into a demon distancing him from parliamentary colleagues, sane advice by surrounding him with henchmen who turned Premadasa into a dictator killing off all opposition. In a country as small as Sri Lanka once sealed as a dictator it is difficult to remove that name from people’s minds. The poster mania started with the UNP and there was never an empty wall without a picture of Premadasa, the culture of news reflecting only politicians and their daily openings is another factor that has been carried down by successive governments over the years. Street smart, Premadasa definitely was but it takes far more to lead in a world where leaders are led by greater leaders. It is for this reason that leaders need to have intellectuals who love the nation and its sovereignty advising them and certainly not intellectuals ready to hand over the nation to foreigners.
While we cannot forget the manner that President Premadasa stood up against India demanding that the IPKF pack their bags and leave forthwith was overshadowed by the manner he lavished arms to the LTTE which killed countless innocent civilians and troops. We will not forget the lives of 500 innocent policemen who had to give up their arms on instructions of the Premadasa Government and watch each comrade being shot by the LTTE. It is said that President Premadasa had even threatened India that he would abrogate the 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement and we wonder why he did not. The public have had enough of threats made to only please the public. It is now time for action.
Premadasa’s tenure of leadership was certainly marked with highs and lows and the manner that people celebrated his death with crackers and fireworks does not project any of the good he did during his 5 years in office as President. It does convey perfectly to all future leaders that people forget the good and will judge only on the bad and this is a lesson that needs to be remembered and not ignored. Leaders who accept this fact with a don’t care attitude are in for greater shocks.
Premadasa led a country in one of the most violent phases of Sri Lanka’s history. His advisors manipulated his paranoia, his weaknesses were tapped turning him into a man hated by the masses. He compared himself with great Dutugemunu and his closest confidant became the second most powerful man in the country but a man whose connections to LTTE terrorism remains to be investigated to understand how terrorism was created in Sri Lanka and why it remains a threat to this day with his connections to the Tamil Nadu “Eelam factor”.
It is often the advisors that build up animosities amongst politicians creating political rivalries. We all remember the animosities that prevailed between Premadasa, Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake and their advisors will know how they played one against the other.
We may also like to remember President Premadasa’s plead of innocence “You can assassinate me…but don’t assassinate my character…” claiming he had nothing to do in the murder of Athulathmudali.
The view of most during Premadasa’s rule was that “you cannot rule a country by killing its people” though he chased out the Indian’s he did nothing about the Provincial Council system and judged the PCs as a means of generating a political base which is the same situation unfolding currently.
We are well aware that regime change is a top priority in the political scene prevalent in Sri Lanka. The strikes, the protests are all part of the ploys being used to test the type of change to be further manipulated. These are all testers before the real plan is set into motion and is meant to test how a government is able to handle situations. Governments do not help the situation by playing footsy with governance by setting different rules of laws to favored people and the malpractices building up over the years end up creating a mass of people unhappy with the type of governance not helped in the least by media which is often anti-government projecting situations far worse than what they are.
Devolving powers is not the answer
It is therefore upto the Government to face the situation realistically without functioning in a state of denial. No regime change operators will touch a country that has its masses behind its Government. This is why attempts are afoot to make the Government and the leadership to be projected as dictatorial and unsuited to lead. The reaction is not to make the situation worse but to take measures to address these properly.
What is evident is that advisors have managed to make Sri Lanka’s leadership think that by devolving powers the war crimes probe will be swept under the carpet. This is nothing but a carrot being dangled to get the President to agree to devolution. Agreeing to devolution is to destroy the sovereignty and unitary status of Sri Lanka and it is a quicker exit for the President from power and will leave him forgotten in history as a man who defeated terrorism but destroyed the nation – and it will be nothing he can ever be proud of. Therefore, it is good for the President to start to move closer to the people for they would never allow the country to ever fall into pieces for any peace that external forces are promising. In a country that has summers and springs we do not need further springs! 
by Shenali Waduge

Categories
Foreign Affairs

Undoing Constitutional Tomfoolery

basilfernando

Basil Fernando

That the United National Party (UNP) has published a few ideas on the changes to the constitution they would bring about if they come to power is an indication that a serious critique that has been made about the 1978 Constitution, can no longer be ignored. As it is good to have even an inadequate debate on vital issues rather than nothing at all, it would be better not to ignore the UNP proposals but rather to utilise the occasion to raise all the vital issues that need to be addressed if the mess created by what retired Justice C.V. Wigneswaran charaterised as tomfoolery with the constitution, is to be brought to an end.

What has to be asserted clearly and unequivocally is the fundamental elements of the basic structure of the constitution. The notion of basic structure implies that certain permanent notions are entrenched in the constitution and that attempts by any government to change that basic structure will be resisted. The tomfoolery with the constitution became possible only because there was no agreement on such a basic structure and because the judiciary did not consider it their fundamental obligation to defend and to promote such a basic structure.

The basic structure of the constitution must recognise that the inalienable sovereignty of the people is guaranteed by the recognition of the following principles:

  1. That Sri Lanka is a secular democratic republic where all persons are equal.
  2. That the basic structure of the government envisaged in the constitution is organised on the principles of the rule of law.
  3. The recognition of the principle of the separation of powers.
  4. The recognition of the independence of the judiciary and the right of the judiciary to be the final arbiter on interpretations of the law and with the power of judicial review (as it existed before the 1972 Constitution).
  5. The independence of the public institutions within the framework of the rule of law.
  6. The recognition of human rights as expressed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, with the recognition that everyone is entitled to the enforceable right to a legal remedy for violations of rights.
  7. That the peoples’ right to participation is guaranteed by free and fair elections held at fixed periods and through the freedom of expression.
  8. That the public accountability of all public servants must be guaranteed through public hearings before state organs created by the Constitution.
  9. That the character of the welfare state will be safeguarded.

The prime importance of agreeing on the basic structure

The making of a constitution or replacing a constitution is not just a matter of writing a new essay. It is an historical act. In an historical act addressing in the clearest terms possible the fundamental errors that have led to the present impasse need to be clearly expressed. A new constitution is a clear departure as well as a clear beginning.

Therefore it would require a prolonged and a sometimes painful discussion in order to enable a clear agreement being expressed through the basic laws of the country. This does not mean that all issues can be finally settled through a constitution. A constitution is a dynamic document and the problems of a nation are also dynamic. Resolving these problems is a perpetual preoccupation. However, there are basic and fundamental areas where the people recognise that things went wrong and that these must not be allowed reoccur. Therefore a thorough reflection of the past is an essential aspect of any serious attempt to develop the country’s basic law for the future.

The UNP in entering into this area of the national debate has done itself a favour. However, in the very preamble of its declaration on the basic constitutional issues it has done great harm to the credibility of this initiative by being an apologist for the 1978 Constitution. The UNP’s credibility will be tested by its capacity to unequivocally condemn the enormous harm caused by the 1978 Constitution and the practices which developed under that constitution. Accepting full responsibility for the catastrophic consequences caused by introducing this constitution is an essential step for establishing credibility for its initiative for constitutional reforms.

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