Chanaka Amaratunga in politics
Extracts on the 15th anniversary of his death :
From memoirs of the eighties and nineties :
Chanaka in 1981 had set up a body called the Council for Liberal
Democracy, which I was initially wary of, because he said he had
established it with President J R Jayewardene’s blessings. Though he had
been upset at the treatment of Mrs Bandaranaike, he thought my fears
exaggerated, and expressed the belief that, though some elements in the
UNP had authoritarian tendencies, J R himself was basically decent.
I found this ironic, because back in England, in 1978, which was his
freshman year, he had been deeply critical of J R. I was impressed by
the developments in Sri Lanka, and thought J R entirely responsible for
the change, whereas Dudley Senanayake had seemed to me a leader without
much initiative. Chanaka however was deeply critical. Though his loyalty
to the UNP was absolute in those days, he saw Dudley as an utterly
decent politician of deep convictions, while J R was essentially an
By 1980 that had changed. He was less fond of Premadasa than he had
been earlier, when he had told me that Premadasa had nearly joined the
Dudley front. But his real bugbear was Lalith Athulathmudali, whom he
saw as potentially a dictator. He claimed indeed that J R had encouraged
the formation of the CLD so as to provide space for liberal thinkers
such as Gamini Dissanayake, of whom he thought very highly. In 1981,
with the conduct of the DDC elections, Chanaka had begun to worry.
Still, he came back to work for J R’s re-election, when the Presidential
election was advanced to 1982. I missed this, because I was in
Indonesia, but I came back to find the Referendum had been announced. It
was also reported that J R had insisted that his MPs give him undated
letters of resignation, so he could later clean out those who were
unsuitable. I was deeply saddened to find that it was Ranil
Wickremesinghe who was reported as having gone round distributing and
collecting these letters at the Group Meeting at which J R sprang his
When Chanaka came to see me after that, I told him that I assumed he
would somehow find an excuse for the Referendum too. His answer was
forthright. He felt it was wrong, and he would fight it as best he
could. And so it was that I accompanied him to meetings with various
people he thought of as Dudley loyalists, whom he urged to speak out
against the Referendum.
I was disappointed at the response. Even those who were categorical
in their condemnation refused to say anything publicly. These included A
C Gooneratne, who had been Chairman of the Party, and Rukman Senanayake,
Dudley’s nephew. They both wanted Chanaka to find more people to join
them, but this proved impossible. J R later got rid of Gooneratne,
having heard about his sentiments, so it struck me as sad that he had
not had the courage of his convictions. It was only Hugh Fernando of
those who had supported Dudley in the struggle between JR and him who
took a stand. He later became the first Chair of the CLD.
So it was only Chanaka and one or two of his younger friends who
campaigned energetically, if not very effectively, with leaflets quoting
Dudley’s declaration that there were some things which should not be
done in a democracy however large the majority. Asitha Perera, who came
from an SLFP family contributed actively, but their other great mate,
Rohan Edrisinha, who was more solidly UNP, was lukewarm.
By 1994 President Wijetunge had merrily abandoned the efforts
Premadasa had made to win round the minorities. His infamous comment
about how the minorities were like a vine that clung round the Sinhalese
tree, paralleling what Sarath Fonseka was to enunciate some years later,
in declaring that the country belonged to the majority, was symptomatic
of a mindset that simply could not understand the traumas the whole
country had undergone. That the minorities had suffered over the years
through majoritarian policies that first ignored and then attacked them,
and that it was necessary for a government in power to work together
with those who had stood firm against the Tigers once their destructive
agenda was apparent, was beyond him.
Some people did recall that he had been amongst those who had opposed
Dudley Senanayake in the sixties, when he had negotiated a pact with
Chelvanayakam, but this type of historical awareness was rare in Sri
The fact that despite all this Premadasa had made him Prime Minister
instead of more able and sensitive men showed how deep was the
bitterness the succession struggle within the UNP had engendered.
Chandrika Kumaratunga meanwhile was at her inclusive best. The
assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali had propelled her into the
position of Chief Minister of the Western Province, and she also
benefited from the fact that Gamini Dissanayake was thinking of going
back into the UNP instead of taking over the leadership of the combined
opposition that Lalith had seemed to occupy.
She built up her contacts with the TULF as well as the SLMC, which
had earlier been talking to Chanaka about an alliance that would have
been supportive of Premadasa, along with both the Liberal Party and the
SLMP, which Ossie Abeygunasekara had taken over after Vijaya
Kumaranatunga’s death. All that fell by the wayside as Wijetunge made it
clear he had no desire whatsoever to pursue such alliances so that, by
the time of the Parliamentary election the following year, the UNP had
little minority support.
Wijetunge meanwhile did everything he could to destroy himself
electorally. He engaged in machinations in the Southern Provincial
Council, which led to another poll, whereby the slim majority against
the government was turned into a virtual landslide. Then, when he
realized that there was some criticism of his style - and lack of
substance - within the party, he turned on Sirisena Cooray, who had been
Premadasa’s chief henchman. The occasion for this was in fact an article
Chanaka had written, which was published in the ‘Sunday Observer’,
suggesting that the main problem with the government was its leader.
Wijetunge however was quick to prevent this snowballing into a revolt,
and he promptly dismissed the Chairman of the Lake House Group who was
known to be close to Cooray.
He then asked for Cooray’s resignation. Cooray said he would consider
the matter but, when Chanaka went to visit him, he found him relaxing,
not calling up members of the party for support as Chanaka had expected
him to do.
His explanation was simple. He told Chanaka that he had indicated his
worries in order to save the party, not himself, since he had only
entered active politics in support of Premadasa. If Ranil Wickremesinghe,
who was the Prime Minister, and in Cooray’s view the best successor to
Premadasa, was not prepared to stand up for him, he would gladly give
On cue, Ranil declared that the problem was one between the President
and the General Secretary of the Party, and it was not up to him to
intervene. Wijetunge also managed to get a statement of support from the
Premadasa family, which was bizarre, since he it was who had sidelined
them immediately he had taken over as President. But with such
reactions, Cooray resigned and went on holiday, and from then on the
decline of the UNP was inexorable.
A victim of infighting
Sure enough, after Cooray’s departure, Wijetunge brought Gamini
Dissanayake back into the party. This perhaps made sense then, since he
also decided to have a Parliamentary election first, hoping to win and
then stay on as President. Surprisingly enough he nearly succeeded, for
the result was very close. However the decision of the Muslim Congress
to support the opposition ensured that Chandrika became Prime Minister.
Chanaka was a victim of the infighting, in that he had decided, along
with Ossie, whose opposition to Chandrika ran deep, to stay with the UNP.
He was particularly close to Gamini Dissanayake, and felt that he would
be a better leader than Chandrika, and he assumed that he would almost
certainly be the UNP candidate for the Presidentcy.
Unfortunately the UNP would not have him, in spite of the commitment
made to him not only earlier by Cooray, but also by Gamini Wijeyesekera
who had taken over as General Secretary. Chanaka said later that he had
been undone by Ranil Wickremesinghe, doubtless because the latter feared
his closeness to Gamini.
According to Anura Bandaranaike, when Ranil heard that Chanaka might
be on the UNP National List, he had called J R Jayewardene, and asked
him to object to Wijetunge, on the grounds that Chanaka had been
critical of two sitting UNP Presidents, namely himself and Wijetunge.
This was done and Chanaka was therefore removed from the list, another
nail I believe in the coffin the UNP was preparing for itself.