The splendid island of Sri Lanka holds with it a glorious history that runs back to hundreds of centuries. However, it has passed several milestones in this journey thus far, and there are several significant personalities who have played major roles in the political history of this country as well. Among them, if there is one Sri Lankan leader who used his powers to empower the people, it is none other than Ranasinghe Premadasa!
Hence, we thought of focusing this read on this important political figure of Sri Lankan history. Continue reading, and you will get to know many things about this eminent personality, as well as about Sri Lanka’s past.
Who is Ranasinghe Premadasa?
Ranasinghe Premadasa was the second executive president of Sri Lanka. He served the office from 1988 to 1993. Before that he was the prime minister of the government under President J. R. Jayewardene. In addition, Premadasa was the first person from a lower-middle-class family and a less privileged caste to ascend to the highest position of the country. His rise to the presidency was not an easy feat. Nevertheless, he was never a man to slack off from a challenge.
Besides, Ranasinghe Premadasa was a modest leader who wished the best for his countrymen. As a politician loved by the people, he was the only leader in Sri Lankan history to sign as “Your loyal servant – R. Premadasa”. President J. R. Jayewardene awarded him the “Sri Lankabhimanya award”, the highest award a civilian can receive in Sri Lanka in 1986. Unfortunately, an LTTE suicide bomber assassinated him during a May Day rally in Colombo in 1993.
Early Life and Education of Ranasinghe Premadasa
Ranasinghe Premadasa was born on the 23rd June in 1924 at Dias Place, Colombo 11. His father, Richard Ranasinghe (Ranasinghe Mudalali) owned a fleet of rickshaws in Colombo. He had four siblings in his family, out of which he was the eldest. Premadasa received his primary education under Ven. Welitara Sri Pannananda Thero of Purwarama temple. Later, he attended Harvard Methodist Girls’ College, Lorenz College, Maradana, and entered St Joseph’s College in Colombo for his secondary education.
When he was just 15 years old, he started “Sucharitha Childrens’ Society”, a volunteer organization to uplift the economic, social, and spiritual development of the underprivileged in Colombo. Later, it became the “Sucharitha Movement”, which he attended even after he became the president of the country. Moreover, Ranasinghe Premadasa was the chief organizer of the community upliftment projects of the society by 1939. He was a teetotaler and the youth who joined him in the activities of the society too took his example and avoided smoking and drinking liquor.
At St. Joseph’s College, Premadasa faced all the exams that qualified him for the University of London. Aspiring to a career as a journalist and with the intention of carrying out his social welfare activities, he abandoned his chance of University education.
The Political Career of Ranasinghe Premadasa
Premadasa planted the roots of his political career when he joined the Ceylon Labour Party in 1946. By the time of his assassination, he was a long-time member of the United National Party (UNP). During his career, he stood on the side of the socially deprived and the poor. He established a number of programs to alleviate poverty, create employment and uplift the lives of the underprivileged.
Early Political Career under Ceylon Labour Party
Ranasinghe Premadasa joined the Ceylon Labor Party led by A. E. Gunasinghe in 1946. A. E Goonasinghe was a true representative of the laborers and the lower class. Premadasa, throughout his political career, had the influence of his mentor, A. E. Gunasinghe.
In 1949, he was appointed as the president of the youth league of the Ceylon Labour Party. Then, he became a Municipal Councillor of the Colombo Municipal Council in 1950 and was re-elected to the position in 1954. Later, he became the deputy mayor of Colombo in 1955.
However, at some point, he realized he would have a brighter political career if he joined the UNP. Thus, he did so and became an active member there.
Premadasa Joining the United National Party
Premadasa joined the UNP in 1956 and contested for the 1956 election from the Ruwanwella electorate in Kegalle. Even though Premadasa was from Colombo, and had fewer connections in Kegalle, he took up the challenge but lost the election to Dr. N. M. Perera. However, he was elected to the parliament from the Colombo Central electorate in the 1960 March election. Still, that government didn’t last at least 6 months.
Besides, UNP saw a major defeat in the 1960 July election and Premadasa couldn’t keep his seat. He re-entered the Colombo municipal council in 1961 and served till 1965. During this time, he opened preschools for kids from poor families and started vocational training centers in sewing and tailoring for the youth.
In the 1965 election, the UNP came to power again and formed a government under Dudley Senanayake. Dudley appointed Premadasa as the parliamentary secretary or the deputy minister to the minister of local government, M. Truchelvam. However, M. Truchelvam resigned from his position due to a rift between the prime minister and himself. Thus, Premadasa succeeded Tiruchelvam as the minister of the local government. During his tenure of office, Ranasinghe Premadasa initiated the Maligawatta Housing Scheme.
Opposition and the Citizens’ Front
UNP lost to the SLFP led by Sirima Bandaranaike in the 1970 election. However, Premadasa managed to secure his seat in the parliament from his usual seat, Colombo Central. He sat in the opposition with J. R. Jayewardene and he was the Chief Opposition Whip. Further, Ranasinghe Premadasa became the chairman of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth Interparliamentary Association held in Australia. He was also a part of the post-colonial constitution assembly which drafted the constitution of 1972.
Both Premadasa and J. R. Jayewardene wished for reforms in the UNP for the best interests of the Party. However, UNP leader Dudley Senanayake didn’t agree with them. While there were major rifts between Dudley Senanayake and J. R. Jayewardene for the party leadership, R. Premadasa left the Party with his allies and formed the Citizens Front. When Dudley Senanayake died of a heart attack, his allies pointed the finger at Premadasa because of their rivalry. However, the new leader of the United National Party, J. R. Jayewardene came to terms with Premadasa and Premadasa rejoined the UNP as its deputy leader.
Minister of Local Government, Housing and Construction
The general election of 1977 scored an unprecedented victory for the UNP. J. R. Jayewardene appointed Premadasa as the leader of the House and the Minister of Housing and Constructions. When J. R. became the first executive president of the country after the amendment of the 1972 constitution, he appointed Premadasa as the prime minister of Sri Lanka.
Ranasinghe Premadasa as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka
Ranasinghe Premadasa became the 9th prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1978. During his tenure of office, he brought about a number of schemes for the development of the country.
According to the proposal of R. Premadasa, the UN declared the year 1987 as the “Year of Shelter”. Premadasa started the “Shelter for the Poor” scheme in alignment with the UN “Year of Shelter”. Moreover, he launched the “Jana Saviya” project to uplift the lives of the poor people in Sri Lanka. Giving the poor people a monthly allowance, encouraging their participation in trade activities, and giving them necessary training to contribute to the economy of Sri Lanka were the main prospects of the Jana Saviya proposal.
Besides, Ranasinghe Premadasa was a delegate of Sri Lanka to many international conferences and he secured the British fund for the construction of the Victoria dam in 1979 in the commonwealth heads of government meeting. He addressed the UN General Assembly of 1980. Similarly, Premadasa established the Tower Hall Foundation and arranged pension allowances for elderly artists as the prime minister of Sri Lanka.
However, Ranasinghe Premadasa didn’t agree with J. R. Jayewardene, when J.R signed the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord and established provincial councils. He was against the Indo-Sri Lanka Acord since it allowed the Indian peace corps to stay in Sri Lanka. And of course, it was the presence of the Indian peace corps in the country that later became the root course to the uneasiness of both Sinhalese and the LTTE. However, Premadasa was in office for almost 10 years with such mild rifts between the president and himself.
Ranasinghe Premadasa as the President of Sri Lanka
Premadasa became the second executive president of Sri Lanka, defeating SLFP’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the presidential election held on 19th December 1988. Soon after, he called for the general election and the UNP won the election and formed the government under him. He appointed D.B. Wijetunga as the prime minister.
Further, President Premadasa worked to establish divisional secretariats within districts of Sri Lanka. Through these, he expected to bring the administration closer to the common people. Establishing “Pradeshiya Sabha” was an extension of this motive. Also, Ranasinghe Premadasa was the first and only non-Govigama or non-Radala person to become the president of Sri Lanka. During his regime, he had to put up with the civil war in the Northern part of Sri Lanka as well as the JVP insurrection in the South.
Besides, a lesser-known fact about former president Premadasa is that he was a clever poet. He wrote poems and songs about the country, his people, and his love for the nation.
A remarkable initiative by Ranasinghe Premadasa was the “Gam Udawa” initiative. Through Gam Udawa, he upgraded villages into towns by developing infrastructure, building affordable houses for the people, developing transport, and building health centers and schools. Dambulla, Kekirawa, Mihintale, Kundasale, and Mahiyanganaya are some of the villages that turned into towns during his rule under the Gam Udawa initiative.
Moreover, as the president of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa developed the garment industry in the country by opening garments out of Colombo thus building new industrial zones. He facilitated the entrepreneurs by introducing low-interest loan schemes. In addition, he opened a number of factories in many towns, and these provided jobs to the unemployed youth.
Premadasa also worked hard to eliminate unemployment in Sri Lanka, one of the twin problems Sri Lanka was facing since its independence. Today the garment industry he developed has become the forerunner in bringing foreign exchange to the country. So, Premadasa owns a good percentage of credits of these benefits being the initiator of this industry.
1988 to 1989 was a dark period in Sri Lankan history. Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led by Rohana Wijeweera carried out insurgent activities in the southern region of Sri Lanka by kidnapping, target killing, unofficial curfews, and stopping business and work. The insurrection hindered economic and social activities in the country. President Premadasa appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs and state minister of Defense Ranjan Wijeratne to thwart the JVP activists.
“Operation Combine” was the counter-insurgency mission that Sri Lanka Army and Sri Lanka Police carried out to annihilate the insurgency. Operation combine showed an end to the insurgent activities within a short time, stopping the insurgency brutally. Still, it involved the massacre of many young leaders, including Wijeweera, himself. So, this period marked a dark era during the leadership of Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Even though president Premadasa was successful in closing the insurrection chapter, he was inept in dealing with the civil war against the LTTE. As soon as he came to power, he discussed with India about pulling out the Indian peace corps from the Northern and Eastern areas of Sri Lanka. In the attempt, he provided weapons to the LTTE. When this fact came to light after the assassination of Lieutenant General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, it led to much controversy and condemnation of the people and politicians alike. According to the records, the LTTE used the same weapons to slaughter 600 unarmed policemen in the 1990 massacre in Batticaloa.
While Premadasa climbed to the highest place from a lower position, he had formed enemies outside and inside his party. In fact, the majority of the UNP was Govigama or Aristocrats who owned land. Thus, both the majority of UNP and SLFP saw Premadasa as someone who took their privilege from them.
Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, with the support of the opposition, put forward a motion to impeach the president in September 1991. Impeachment accused him of many charges including treason and corruption. It had 123 signatures, including 47 of the UNP parliament members.
Later, the majority of the UNP MPs confessed that they didn’t know what was on the impeachment when they signed it. Thus president Premadasa defeated the impeachment. However, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake and his supporters had to leave the UNP after the Impeachment. Lalith Athulathmudali was assassinated a week prior to President Premadasa’s assassination.
Personal Life of R. Premadasa
Even though Ranasinghe Premadasa was given many facilities including accommodation, he only used his own private residence and office “Sucharitha” during his work as the prime minister as well as the president of Sri Lanka. Ranasinghe Premadasa married Hema Wickramatunge in 1963 and they had a daughter and a son, Dulanjali and Sajith Premadasa. Sajith Premadasa fought in the presidential election in 2019, but he could not make his dream a reality. However, he serves as the opposition leader at the moment.
The Assassination of Ranasinghe Premadasa
President Premadasa was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber on the 1st of May 1993. The president had come to see the May Day rally of the UNP which was heading from Sugathadasa stadium to Galle Face. He was supervising the procession when the suicide bomber, Babu came at the president and blasted himself killing 17 people including president Premadasa. The sight of the assassination was a complete mess, and the witnesses said that president Premadasa could not be identified unless for his watch.
Premadasa’s regime led to controversy and fear among some people. Many believed that he was behind many assassinations, including the assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali. While killing the leader of a nation is a great loss to a country and its people, some groups of people lit firecrackers at the news of his death. However, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s death marked the end of the flourishing years of the UNP and a start of a corrupt, unfortunate political system in Sri Lanka.
Legacy of Ranasinghe Premadasa
The garment industry, the villages which he developed under the Gam Udawa initiative are the epitome of the legacy left behind by the great leader. Besides, the R. Premadasa Stadium still reminds Sri Lankans of him whenever they hear that name.
R. Premadasa Stadium
R. Premadasa Stadium is located near the Khettarama temple in Maligawatta. It was an idea of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, and thus it got his name.
When Premadasa was the prime minister of Sri Lanka, he had a chance to watch a cricket match in Perth Stadium during a visit to Australia. Amazed by the features and facilities of the Perth Stadium, he wanted to build such a grand stadium in Sri Lanka too. When he came back to Sri Lanka, he summoned the head engineer of the state engineering corporation of Sri Lanka and asked if they could build a “ground to play cricket at night”. Then he provided the engineering corporation with the necessary funds and technical assistance.
R. Premadasa stadium was opened on the 2nd February 1986 for a match between Sri Lanka “B” and England “B” teams. Inaugural One Day International match was between Sri Lanka and Pakistan in March 1986. The stadium was formerly known as Khettarama ground. Later, Sri Lanka Cricket named it in honor of the late president after he passed away.
With a capacity to hold 35000-40000 spectators, R. Premadasa Stadium is the largest stadium in Sri Lanka and a highlight in Sri Lanka Cricket. It has been the arena for more than 100 ODIs including the 2011 world cup semi-final and a quarter-final. Sri Lanka cricket renovated the stadium before the 2011 ICC World cup. The stadium was proof of Premadasa’s knack for finding the right people to do a job and utilizing the resources inside the island to create something as fascinating as the R. Premadasa Stadium.
The Bottom Line
As the second executive president of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa brought elite-class politics to the middle and lower classes of Sri Lanka. Besides, he is popular as a genuine leader who worked hard to dispel social inequality, injustice, and the discrimination of the poor. Even though there are certain controversies about his rule, he still remains an iconic figure in Sri Lankan politics. So, let us wish that the present political leaders would learn from Premadasa’s mistakes, and follow his good initiatives and pave the way for a better Sri Lanka.