The leader committed to social justice | Daily News

The leader committed to social justice

May Day is synonymous with workers. When May Day and workers are discussed, the name that the United National Party can never be forgotten is that of R. Premadasa. His precious life was snatched away by mindless terrorism while organising the May Day celebration of the United National Party. That was on May 1, 1993.

He was the leader who introduced such positive terms as ‘poverty elimination’ and upliftment of the downtrodden’ to our political glossary. He was the leader who launched an accelerated journey with genuine interest to transform the meaning of these terms into reality.

He had a dream, a vision and an ambition for the oppressed, the downtrodden of our society. He had the courage to move forward undeterred and unfettered overcoming obstacles, challenges and impediments in the arduous journey to realize this dream.

When mulling over R. Premadasa’s dream for the future of Sri Lankan society, I am reminded of the legendary speech ‘I have a dream’ by civil right activist Martin Luther King who waged a battle for freedom, equality and human rights in American society. My memory goes back to some parts of the speech delivered to over 250,000 civil right supporters from the steps of Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

President Premadasa’s dream

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

In fact, the foundation and the underpinning principle of Martin Luther King’s dream and R. Premadasa’s dream were not two, but one and the same. At every meeting of Premadasa’s presidential election campaign, I always referred to Martin Luther King’s ‘dream’. By making him the President, we ought to realize our own similar dreams we had for the country. When he made appointments to his first Cabinet, I was selected as State Minister of Housing, the subject he was in charge of previously. I will never forget what he told me at his office soon after being sworn in.

“Do you know the Ministry you’ve got?”, he asked.

“Yes” was my reply.

“It is my Ministry that has been given to you”, he said with a smile on his face.

Sirisena Cooray was the Cabinet minister of Housing. I was the state minister.

“First, there will be Gam Udawa at Mahiyangana, there are villages never visited by ministers. Imthiyaz I need commitment. Do everything possible to ease the suffering of those people”. I knew he was speaking from the heart. I still feel these words echoing in my ears whenever I think of this great leader.

He was the leader who was truly sensitive to the pain and distress of hapless families living in wattle and daub huts, slums and shanties and makeshift shelters made of planks exposed to vagaries of weather. He was the leader responsive to the needs of families who took turns to sleep as their heavily cramped shelters did not permit such luxuries.

It was to wipe their tears and bring smiles back to their faces; he introduced a raft of housing programmes including model houses, twin houses, one hundred thousand housing programme, one million housing programme and international year of housing.

Poverty alleviation programmes

‘Janasaviya’ was our own innovative concept of poverty alleviation. It was a programme totally devoid of narrow politics designed for families engaged in an incessant struggle to eke out a living. ‘Sevana’ foster parent scheme was introduced to change the destiny of children who had lost their parents. “Mid-day meal programme for schools” was launched for children attending schools without a proper meal. “Free school uniform” programme was initiated to ensure the continuation of school education of children of economically backward families who could not even afford uniforms for their children. “Mawathe Api” was commenced to uplift and bring a sense of dignity to the lives of people begging in streets. “Bamboo gate programme” at unprotected level crossings was implemented to ensure the safety of people.

‘Presidential mobile service’ programme was held countrywide to bring politicians to the doorstep of people who would otherwise never have an opportunity to bring their grievances to the notice of the politicians.

“Kepakaru Gammana” was an innovative programme to enlist the support of philanthropists, additional to the provisions allocated by the government to economically empower people living in penury.

“No” or “cannot” were words totally alien to him. He took the initiative to launch the “Sevana Fund” as a source of funding for services that could not be offered to the people through the financial provisions of the government.

For all major religions of the country, religious affairs ministries were established bringing to the fore, the noble concept of treating everybody alike.

Development initiatives such as “Gam Udawa” (village reawakening), which covered an entire district accompanied by regional “Gam Udawa” at the divisional secretariat levels and “Weekly Programme” which interlinked diverse fields were conducted throughout the country to achieve the objectives of integrated development.”Gramodaya Mandala” programme was introduced with the aim of uplifting villages and fostering unity in the village.

Effecting a revolutionary change in the traditional administrative structure, the concept of ‘Divisional Secretariats’ was inaugurated replacing the ‘Government Agent’ system bringing officials closer to the public while taking the benefits of development expeditiously to poverty-stricken rural communities. “Fifteen thousand village” programme was started to as an alternative to the traditional model of development.

Laws were enacted making it mandatory to have “forty percent youth representation” at local government elections in order to accord due recognition to youth population while enabling them to make a greater contribution in the governing process.

When Premadasa assumed duties as President he famously said that “he had been handed over country similar to torch burning from both ends”.

He was referring the insurgency in the south and the raging armed conflict in the north. Schools and government offices remained forcibly closed. Political activists were threatened with death if they did not resign from their posts, public servants who defied orders not to report for duty were killed, families of security force personnel were under constant death threats, use electricity after 6.00 in the evening was banned, government property including building and SLTB buses were torched, those who cast their votes at elections were murdered, coffins of those killed by insurgents could not be raised above the knee level, the country’s very existence as a democracy was in grave danger. It was during such a time President Premadasa took up the reins of government.

Principles of democracy

His fervent appeal to those engaged in violence was, “Do not harm the lives, I am willing to negotiate with you. I am even ready to come blindfolded to any jungle of your choice.”

That was his compassionate and humane appeal. That was a heartfelt plea. He wanted to stop mindless killings. He wanted to protect and uphold principles of democracy. But his appeals were an excise in futility. During the first five months of his presidency, he did everything possible to restore peace through consensus, compromise and consultation. Finally, the southern insurgency was crushed by the armed forces. He was deeply saddened by the lack of progress in the efforts to find a negotiated settlement to problems in the north and south of the country.

He did not have a hidden agenda. In foreign relations, the dignity of the country was the underpinning principle. He steadfastly stood for a non-aligned foreign policy that respected “justice over might”. His decisions to send home the Indian Peace Keeping Force and close the Israeli diplomatic mission were examples of his forthrightness and principled stand and showed in no uncertain terms that he was not ready to tolerate any force that sought to undermine the dignity and sovereignty of the country.

R. Premadasa becoming the leader of the country was truly a revolution. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable socioeconomic barriers and challenges posed by deeply entrenched caste consciousness he was able to reach the highest position in the country. It was with his assumption of office as President, the society at large started to believe that caste and creed were no barriers to reach the topmost position of the country. All those who contributed to making that ‘revolution’ possible through the United National Party could justifiably be proud of this achievement.

Under the astute leadership of Premadasa, the United National Party was able to emerge victorious in most of the rural electorates with a Sinhala-Buddhist majority.

As he was able to understand people’s consciousness and had a correct vision for the common people, economic and social changes precipitated by his policies positively impacted the lives of the overwhelming majority of countrymen. The United National Party has always endorsed and unwaveringly stood for social justice and equality, the existence of a democratic society and the principle of according equal opportunities for all. It has fearlessly protected these principles whenever they were threatened.

I believe that preservation of this heritage of the United National Party passing it on to the future generation and discharging this responsibility with courage and conviction is the greatest honour that can be paid to President Premadasa. 


 

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