Ranasinghe Premadasa

A long-time leader in the United National Party, Ranasinghe Premadasa (1924-1993) became the second president of Sri Lanka in 1988.

Ranasinghe Premadasa, the ninth prime minister and second president of Sri Lanka, was born on June 23, 1924, in Colombo. He came from a family of modest means. Politically a self-made man, he was the first "commoner" to be at the helm of affairs, breaking a tradition of the top leadership being in the hands of high caste landed aristocracy or those coming from affluent families.

Educated in a Christian missionary college in Colombo, Premadasa initially opted for a career as a journalist. He was a prolific writer in his mother tongue, Sinhala, including a translation of the autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru. Keenly interested in neighborhood welfare affairs since his youth, he became increasingly involved in municipal politics, which led to his election to the Colombo Municipal Council at the early age of 26. Five years later he became Colombo's deputy mayor. Premadasa took an active part in the freedom movement during the 1930's and was imprisoned several times.

Initially Premadasa joined the Ceylon Labour Party led by A.E. Goonesinha, one of the pioneer labor leaders of the country. In 1955 he became a member of the United National Party (UNP). The UNP nominated him to contest one of the parliamentary constituencies in Colombo in March 1960 and, except for a break in the July elections of 1960, Premadasa had the rare distinction of holding the constituency for his party from 1965 into the 1990s.

Recognizing Premadasa's commitment to grassroots political institutions, Dudley Senanayake, then the prime minister of the UNP government, nominated him as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of local government and to the minister of information and broadcasting in 1965. In 1968 he was elevated to be the minister of local government.

With the UNP losing the elections of 1970 and its strength being reduced from 66 in 1965 to 17 in the 1970 elections, Premadasa became the chief opposition whip and also a member of the Constituent Assembly which drafted the first post-colonial constitution for the country under which the island came to be known as Sri Lanka, discarding the colonial name given to it (Ceylon).

In the elections of 1977, however, it was the turn of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to lose the poll as badly or worse than the UNP had done in the 1970 elections. The UNP secured an unprecedented majority of more than four-fifths of the 168 seats in the Parliament, with the architect of this victory, J.R. Jayewardene, being elected as the prime minister. Premadasa became the deputy leader of the party as well as, once again, the minister of local government, housing and construction. He was also made chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee, which drafted the second constitution in 1978 heralding a presidential system in place of the parliamentary system under which the country had been governed since 1948 when it attained independence.

With Jayewardene becoming the first president of the Sri Lankan Republic in 1978, Premadasa was elected as the prime minister, a position which he held for a decade. In 1988 he won the presidential election, defeating the SLFP leader, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

On assuming office as the president, Premadasa was confronted with the formidable challenges of coping with the separatist Tamil insurgency in the north under the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the anti-systemic insurgency of the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP, People's Liberation Front) in the south with its appeal addressed to Sinhalese chauvinist sentiments. While he succeeded in containing the JVP, he continued to battle with the LTTE after an infructuous bout of negotiation (for two years) with the LTTE leadership.

Despite the unsettled domestic situation in the country, Premadasa went ahead with the implementation of his schemes and programs for economic and social reconstruction. The main thrust of his approach in this respect was the launching of the village awakening movement (known in Sinhalese as gam udawa) as well as the Janasaviya, which literally means extending a "helping hand to the people."

Gam udawa envisages a civic society of self-governing village republics. Janasaviya aims at providing those families living under the poverty line (nearly half of the country's population) not only with a dole in the form of food stamps but also with an investment allowance. Under this scheme of poverty alleviation to be implemented in a phased manner throughout the island, the poor families would be provided with a sum of 25, 000 rupees (about $6, 250) over a period of two years as a modest capital requirement for the acquisition of the means of production. The object of this scheme, as stated by the president in his address to the Parliament on April 4, 1990, was "to transform a population that subsisted on food stamps into persons engaged in productive livelihood and enterprises."

Premadasa was a regional leader in the fight against terrorism and violence in South-East Asian countries. He was chairman of a regional organization devoting his energies to the development of an atmosphere of cooperation, and working for the economic uplift of poor people throughout the region. Concerned about poor pilgrims making the sacred journey to pilgrimage centers in India he was able to secure Sri Lanka donations and worked with representatives of India to inaugurate a housing project. He worked hard to promote trade, social development and improve the welfare of women and children in the region.

During the early 1990s domestic and political turbulence in Sri Lanka increased. On May 1, 1993 Premadasa died in a brutal assassination. World leaders sent their condolences, recognizing his many contributions to the people of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. U.S. President William Clinton sent the following communique: "As Prime Minister and then as President, he worked tirelessly to promote his country's development and raise the standard of living of all Sri Lankans. His efforts made a real difference to his fellow citizens.—Hillary and I wish to extend the sympathy of the American people to the people of Sri Lanka at the loss of their leader. We send our sincere condolences to the family of President Premadasa at this tragic time."

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Further Reading on Ranasinghe Premadasa

There is no official biography except a slim volume entitled A Profile of Ranasinghe Premadasa—Prime Minister of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, printed by the Sri Lankan Government Press (n.d.). Another official publication entitled People's President: Ranasinghe Premadasa—His Vision and Mission has, in addition to some of the major policy speeches during 1988-1989, a brief biographical sketch. A testimonial edited by Christie Cooray was Ranasinghe Premadasa. A Felicitation Volume (Colombo: 1985). A biographical sketch also appears in the Ceylon Daily News, Parliament of Sri Lanka, 1977 (Colombo: 1980), which provides a who's who of the members of Sri Lankan Parliament. Though a number of his speeches are available in pamphlets, his select speeches under one cover are available only for the years 1979-1980 and 1989. The former is entitled Time for Action, complied by Christy Cooray (Colombo: 1980); the latter is Selected Speeches of His Excellency R. Premadasa—President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (Colombo: 1989). Accounts of his assassination can be found in Sri Lanka newspapers.