Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
By Morris Perera
1 May 1993 was a fateful day in Sri Lanka’s politics. Ranasinghe Premadasa, President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, was assassinated by a suicide bomber on this day in the heart of Colombo as he was preparing to lead the May Day procession of the United National Party. What followed was shock, mayhem and possible anarchy.
Law and order in the country was on the verge of collapse. The Police and defence services top brass were subject to utter confusion and no one had any idea what to do. Then emerged the real leader who immediately took stock of the situation and without wasting any time, got the then-Prime Minister D.B. Wijetunge sworn in as the Acting President.
The collapse of the government authority was prevented and if not for the timely intervention of Ranil Wickremesinghe, then-Leader of the House, the country would have fallen into a state of anarchy and the Opposition would have taken state power into its hands without a democratic process.
At that time, democracy won the day and Wickremesinghe was the real winner. After D.B. Wijetunge was confirmed President through parliamentary approval, Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister. During his term he was credited with pushing the country through an impressive economic transformation and was generally backed by the business community.
In 2001, the UNP, led by Wickremesinghe, convincingly won a parliamentary majority and, realising the futility of continuing the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), decided to engage in peace talks sponsored by Norway and Western nations with the Eelamist LTTE. Whilst engaged in peace talks, Wickremesinghe initiated secret moves to weaken the LTTE leadership and in collaboration with the US Pacific Command, took very effective measures to strengthen the defence forces, which were weakened by continuous fighting with the Tigers prior to his assumption to the office of Prime Minister.
The advanced training of the armed forces and re-equipping of the defence forces, including the commissioning of the SLNS Samudra donated by the US Government, a naval craft capable of destroying the Tiger’s seagoing vessels, was a major factor in the weakening of the LTTE’s capabilities at the time. This paved the way for a final victory against them in later years.
Wickremesinghe’s silent contribution to the war victory went unnoticed and was never acknowledged. He was not one to seek the spotlight even when his efforts achieved tremendous success. However, during this term of office as Prime Minister, President Chandrika Kumaranatunga in 2004 sacked three Ministers and usurped the three ministry functions when he was away from the country. Upon his return, thousands of UNP and Government supporters lined the route from the airport to the city and shouted slogans to fight back but the wise democrat that he was, he never gave in and continued with the residual Cabinet within the democratic framework.
The JVP, cashing in on the critical state of the Government, joined forces with President Kumaranatunga and forced Parliament to be dissolved. The ruling UNP was thereafter relegated to the Opposition. But he kept the party together and never allowed it to face the ignominy of losing its core strength to become like some of the leftist parties which are insignificant entities at present.
Wickremesinghe believed in economic liberalism, which is organised along the individual lines of economic decisions made by individuals or households rather than by collective institutions or organisations. It encompasses different economic policies such as freedom of movement, but its basis is strong support for a market economy and private property as a contributory means of production.
When in the Opposition, most UNPers gave up hope and never ever imagined that the formidable Mahinda Rajapaksa could be challenged. It was Wickremesinghe, along with other leaders committed to restoring democracy like Ven. Maduluwave Sobhtha Thera, who contributed in a major way behind the scenes to bring about a meaningful coalition of anti-Rajapaksa forces that finally defeated him
In 2002, based on liberal thinking, he presented a comprehensive proposal for economic revival with a long-term strategy that was named ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’, a vision and strategy for accelerated development. Most elements of this plan, though at times disparagingly labelled by various political personalities as an ultra-capitalist concept, were adopted or copied by them in their own economic plans.
The economic nexus connecting the north, east and west of the country in present development plans flows from the ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ concept. If implemented with determination and conviction, it will result in the rapid revival of the economy and here again Wickremesinghe will be the winner.
Quite a number of party loyalists feel that the leader is arrogant and never regards them. But those who have known him for some time vouch for his concern and feeling towards others when the need arises. A friend told me of two simple instances where his mellowed attitude was evident.
One was during the seventh-day almsgiving of his mother, where my friend arrived at Wickremesinghe’s brother’s residence early. After a while, the leader walked in from a side entrance and saw my friend but never acknowledged him. But after the event, my friend wanted to leave and Wickremesinghe was standing by the door. My friend, with due deference, took his leave to go. He told my friend, “You were one of the first to come, have you had lunch?” Then my friend said yes and thanked him before leaving. This showed that my friend was noticed by him and he wanted to make sure he was fed. These are nuances that people miss.
Another time was when he was campaigning in Uva in 2014. There was a meeting in Dambetenna Estate in Haputale which Wickremesinghe attended. While the meeting was in progress, my friend and a doctor who went in their party to Uva were climbing up a path to visit some estate quarters for campaigning. Later, the doctor was introduced to Wickremesinghe by Dr. Harsha de Silva when he replied, “Yes, I saw him going up that hill canvassing with M (M is the friend I referred to earlier).” So he takes notice of what’s happening around him and remembers people. So his nonchalant appearance does not mean he ignores you.
His leadership was challenged within the party some years ago but he emerged victorious. The party headquarters Sirikotha itself was physically attacked. There were charges levelled against a few Premadasa supporters for instigating this violence. At that time, a staunch Wickremesinghe loyalist suggested to the Leader that he sack Premadasa. Wickremesinghe’s response surprised many. He responded, “You are asking me to sack the son of President Premadasa, who was a revered leader of the party? Do you think that is wise? Never talk about this again.”
When in the Opposition, most UNPers gave up hope and never ever imagined that the formidable Mahinda Rajapaksa could be challenged. It was Wickremesinghe, along with other leaders committed to restoring democracy like Ven. Maduluwave Sobhtha Thera, who contributed in a major way behind the scenes to bring about a meaningful coalition of anti-Rajapaksa forces that finally defeated him.
After the marginal victory at the 2015 general election, he realised that in order to resolve the ethnic conflict to bring lasting peace and reinstate democracy, law and order, judicial independence and good governance in the country, he needed majority support in Parliament and was therefore compelled to join with the SLFP, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, to form a unity government.
Unfortunately, President Sirisena had other ideas. Although some of the planned reforms were achieved, due to squabbles within the coalition and resulting frustration among UNP MPs, quite a number of planned changes and goals could not be realised. The SLFPers and some from the UNP started blaming Wickremesinghe for all of these failures. He carried on undeterred and never gave up democratic norms and ethics despite the provocative stands often taken by the leader of the coalition partner, the SLFP and pressure from the frustrated UNP parliamentary group. There were challenges within the UNP itself but he has survived to lead the party until now. He never gave up liberal and democratic principles for political expediency.
There were attempts by Opposition parties and some of the coalition partners, along with a few members of the legal fraternity, to see Wickremesinghe implicated in the infamous bond issue of February 2015. But the Commission appointed by the President to comprehensively study the issue did not find a shred of evidence that even remotely implicated him. His name was comprehensively cleared but some do try to tarnish his image even now.
The next major challenge was the constitutional coup of October 2018 where Wickremesinghe was removed from the post of Prime Minister and replaced by Mahinda Rajapaksa. His determined leadership kept the party and parliamentary group intact and his campaign of a sit-in at Temple Trees, helped by the bold stand of the Speaker and the Supreme Court decision, put paid to this and democracy and the UNP Government was restored to its rightful place. He maintained his cool under grave provocation.
For more than a year, Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa aspired to stake his claim to become the presidential candidate of the UNP. He was certainly widely supported by the ordinary people and foot soldiers of the party. Quite a few emerging political leaders in the UNP recognised this trend and openly or covertly supported him while some of the seniors wished to promote Wickremesinghe. He recognised this trend well ahead of time and hinted that no one should take hasty decisions. This was hidden advice to the Deputy Leader too.
As the end of the term of the incumbent President drew closer, the campaign within the UNP gathered momentum. Wickremesinghe, the astute politician that he is, played his cards close to his chest and not even his close confidantes nor his kith or kin knew what was on his mind. He allowed the pot to be stirred so well that at times he made it appear that he himself was one contender. At this point, one newspaper headline even went as far as to report ‘Ranil throws his hat into the ring ’. His motive was to get all views and have a truly democratic selection within the UNP.
He also led the Opposition through a guessing game and let them believe that the UNP was about to split into several factions. Many prominent UNP Ministers were identified as possible contenders. The plot thickened. The SLPP confidently announced its candidate a month before but the campaign did not gather steam as expected. The apparent tug of war in the UNP made headlines daily, pushing the SLPP candidate into the shadows and the coverage he was entitled to, did not bear fruit.
Ultimately, Sajith Premadasa, the son of the late R. Premadasa, the popular President, became the unanimous choice of not only the UNP but of all parties in the alliance of the UNF after a truly democratic process unlike in the SLPP where only one family makes all selections.
This then is the coup de grace executed by the master craftsman of the game of politics, who grew up in the shadow of his father, the late Esmond Wickremesinghe, and his uncle, the late President J.R. Jayewardene, throwing down the gauntlet to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP. Let’s see who wins. However, Wickremesinghe is the ultimate winner in this game of politics.