Midweek Review
DB's place in history


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D. B. Wijetunga

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Mrs. Wijetunga
The First Lady the public never saw

by C. A. Chandraprema
Former President Dingiri Banda Wjetunga celebrates his 79th birthday on the 15th February 2001. He is not only the sole surviving former head of state in Sri Lanka but also the only surviving former party leader of the UNP. It is now six years since D.B.Wijetunga bowed out of politics in November 1994. What is history's verdict on his brief administration? President D.B.Wijetunga held the office of Chief Executive of this country from the 1st May 1993 to mid-November 1994, a period of roughly eighteen months.

An unlikely Chief Executive

D.B.Wijetunga was the unlikeliest person in the UNP to have become President. I was told by a veteran reporter who was the Kandy correspondent to a newspaper in the late seventies, that DBW was at that time regarded among Kandy politicians with a certain degree of amusement. At meetings, he would often make remarks totally unrelated to the matter at hand and was altogether an unimpressive speaker especially when he was addressing official meetings.

He was not by any means regarded as one of the brighter or more competent politicians in the UNP. In fact when he was appointed Prime Minister in March 1989, the joke was that Premadasa had summoned Gamini Dissanayake and asked him how much is two and two? After some thought, Gamini had replied, twenty two. Then Premadasa had got down Lalith Athulathmudasli and asked him how much is two and two? Lalith had said four. Then Premadasa called in D.B.Wijetunga and asked him the same question. Pat came the reply "How much do you want it to be Sir?" D.B got the job - so went the joke.

Then again, after his sudden elevation to the post of Prime Minister, another joke which circulated was a pun on his initials. The joke was that the 'D.B' stood for 'Deaf' and 'Blind'. DBW was fully aware of all these jokes about him, - but it didn't seem to affect the man in the least. Even though a lesser man may have been mortified at being regarded as a joke, (He was in reality afterall, a British trained public servant and a senior political functionary with many years of varied experience.) D.B.Wijetunga took it all in his stride. Even the most cursory study of history will show that every person of destiny invariably goes through an almost mandatory period in the sticks, facing every kind of humiliation possible. DBW had his own share to go through. His triumph was to emerge from that 'baptism of fire' without being embittered.

After he became President, he suddenly a announced to a group of reporters one day, "Isay, do you know? Two and two is four. Not five or anything else!" The fact that he was the butt of jokes was itself a joke to the new President. Unlike in the case of his predecessor, power sat lightly on D.B.Wijetunga. He never got carried away by the enormous power vested in him as the Executive President. He was a President who was able to really enjoy doing his job. He filled his position with effortless grace.

While both his predecessor and his successor spent most of their time in a state of constant anguish, moving from one crisis to another, he alone was able to do his job in a state of tranquillity. One thing that President Wijetunga showed this country was that what was wrong was not the Executive Presidency itself, but the quality of the person who holds that post. Ultimately the only thing that can really guarantee democracy and good governance is the conscience of the holder of power.

In making an assessment of D.B.Wijetunga's tenure in power, one is inexorably led to compare his performance as President with that of his immediate predecessor and immediate successor. In penning his parting words on DBW's Presidency on the 6th November 1994, the Sunday Times reporter on the Presidency had a quite prescient heading "DB's Useful innings will someday be glorified".

That prediction has now come true. An unbiased assessment places Dingiri Banda Wijetunga head and shoulders above both his predecessor and his successor in the office of Executive President. D.B.Wijetunga became President only due to fortuitous circumstances. Like Gerald Ford in the 1970's America, DB had the handicap of being perceived as a kind of living, breathing, stop-gap measure. This factor debilitated his tenure of office from the beginning.

Judged against his predecessor...

Once in power, DBW got his act together in record time and his long apprenticeship in the various branches of government began to show in the quick and decisive way he handled things. Just a few weeks into his Presidency, the 'Deaf and Blind' label had dropped and was replaced by "Doing Bloody Well" (DBW). His predecessor, President Premadasa, was a singularly hard-working man. His attention to detail was exemplary. Unlike the present day powers that be, President Premadasa never wasted his time blaming the opposition for anything. In fact the opposition rarely featured in his thoughts. The SLFP was left severely alone and Premadasa concentrated on his economic and political programme. Premadasa was however an uncut diamond who did not have the finesse to hold a high position like the Presidency. Once in the top post, he was like a bull in a china shop. To aggravate matters still further, he was surrounded by a swarm of the most consummate scoundrels one would ever find. (These parasitical camp followers of Premadasa have since - appropriately enough - become ardent supporters of President Chandrika Kumaratunga!)

Surrounded by his lackey's President Premadasa commenced his programme of self destruct from the beginning of 1990 onwards. (Even though he became President in February 1989, he did not really come into his own until the JVP was crushed.) Once the JVP was safely out of the way, President Premadasa got down to work building the country and destroying himself at the same time. At that time, the UNP was brimming with confidence and the SLFP was left severely alone. The motley crowd of "never do wells" whom Premadasa had attracted around himself soon began the task of persecuting Premadas'a perceived rivals within the UNP. Combined with this persecution of his own party stalwarts, Premadasa's launched an image building exercise reminiscent of the personality cults of dictators like Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. Premadasa's abuse of the state owned media for personal glorification showed that he had no conception of 'restraint' or 'propriety' so essential for a high post like the Presidency.

A misguided missile

Speaking a few days ago, on TNL, veteran actor Gamini Fonseka, himself considered to be a Premadasa loyalist lamented that there was nobody at that time to Dissuade Premadasa from his self destructive course. With his experience of the audio visual media, Gamini succinctly explained the effect of 'over exposure' and stated that this could be suicidal to a politician as well as an actor.

Giving an example, he explained how he had got his producers to withdraw two films when he noticed that three of his films were running concurrently. His position was that it was suicidal for Gamini Fonseka to be seen on every bill board, every wall and at every junction... The same applied to Premadasa. On TV, on Radio, it was Premadasa all the time. And sure enough Premadasa was soon the object of public hatred. The more he sensed his popularity to be waning, the more he persecuted his perceived his rivals within the UNP, until it came to such a situation that both his party and the public were ranged against him.

An apologist for the SLFP might be able to claim that the 1970-77 government of Mrs Bandaranaike became so unpopular because of 'extraneous' reasons like the world energy crisis and the world food crisis which affected Sri Lanka in the mid seventies. But with regard to Premadasa's rule there were no such extraneous reasons for his unpopularity. All the reasons for Premadasa's unpopularity were created by Premadasa himself, and the causes were entirely political and not economic. Once the JVP was crushed, and even though the LTTE commenced their war again from 1990 onwards, Premadasa had complete peace in the South to have been able to have run a successful government. However, his singular lack of finesse precluded all that. At the end of 1991, the UNP split with party stalwarts Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake going their own way. Premadasa made the harassment of his political opponents a highly organised and relentless chase, with a special mafia type organisation featuring retired cop Lawrence and underworld figures like 'Sottthi' Upali and 'Malu' Nihal. On top of the relentless persecution of political enemies both real and imagined came the relentless campaign of self glorification over the state owned TV, radio and press. It was not long before people began perceiving President Premadasa as a mad tyrant. By the time President Premadasa died, he was beyond doubt the most hated head of state this country had ever seen since Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe. And news of his death was received with countrywide rejoicing and lighting of fire crackers.

Viyaru gini del nowemu...

It was in such an atmosphere that D.B.Wijetunga assumed office. In fact the succession 'coup' which brought President Wijetunga into power was masterminded by Ranil Wickremasinge and is to date, his biggest political achievement. He single-handedly prevented power from falling into the hands of the motley crowd of opportunists and scoundrels who had gathered around the deceased President. In fact on the 7th May 1993 when 'Acting President' Wijetunga was unanimously elected by Parliament as the third Executive President of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremasinghe very uncharacteristically, recited a poem during his congratulatory speech.

Viyaru gini del nowemu

kelaya avula thabana

Sihila dena wessa wemu

Devena kelayata wasina

Let us not be the flames of mad fury

that rage through the forest

Let us be instead the cooling rain

that falls upon the flaming forest.

Given the circumstances of the time, this poem was pregnant with meaning and it set the tone of the new regime that was taking shape. The use of the plural 'mu' in Sinhala meaning 'us' could not have been purely accidental as moves were already at that time afoot to appoint Ranil as the Prime Minister. Chief among those lobbying for Ranil Wickremasinghe was J.R.Jayawardene who came rushing back from abroad upon the assassination of President Premadasa, to congratulate 'Wije' (as JRJ used to call him) and to press for Ranil's appointment as Premier.

The DBW-RW combination did very well from the start. Of course, the very moment President Premadasa was killed, all the tension that had built up in the country up to that time, simply evaporated. D.B.Wijetunga's own unassuming personality did the rest. Congratulating him on his election by Parliament as the third executive President, M.H.Mohamed the Speaker of the House said "...You are a gentle person with an ability to resolve any problem or issue on your own without causing injustice or harm to anyone..." Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike, at that time the leader of the opposition and the only candidate who could have rivalled DBW, did not contest and allowed him to be elected unanimously instead.

In congratulating him on his election as president Mrs Bandaranike said, " I rise on this historic occasion, to congratulate the Hon D.B.Wijetunga... It is opportune to remember that Your Excellency is assuming the positions of head of State and Government at a moment in our history when national security and the democratic process in our country are gravely imperilled. We are confident that with your years of experience, you have the capacity to rise above self and party and serve the country.... We are confident that with courage and resolution you would reach the heights of statesmanship the country expects of you today..."

His shame

The strictures put in place by Premadasa were all done away with and as one Sunday Times columnist quipped, D.B.Wijetunga soon became popular by simply not doing what Premadasa had done. At the height of the Premadasa tyranny, D.B.Wijetunga himself as a member of that government was called upon to perform unpleasant tasks. When Lalith Athulathmudali and some of his supporters were assaulted by Premadasa's Kehelwatte mafia at the Fort Railway Station, D.B.Wijetunga who was the Prime Minister and State Minister for Defence at the time, had to announce that the assault was carried out by 'the enraged public' who had been upset at the calumny being heaped by Lalith Athulathmudali on the 'common peoples President'. This was DBW's moment of shame. The revulsion that DBW evinced for Premadasa's apparatus of tyranny was evident in the speed with which he moved to get rid of it the moment he became President.

Above everything else, D.B.Wijetunga was a man who acted according to his conscience. In his own way, he was a resolute decision maker. He dismantled the repressive apparatus put in place by Premadasa without waiting for anybody's compliments. Then he dismissed the sycophants who had been recruited to sing Premadasa's praises. He did not want that kind of 'boosting up'. As a politician, not having a few sycophants to sing his praises may have been a mistake. But that is DBW. J.R.Jayawardene was always conscious of his own greatness. But DBW, if anything was conscious only of his ordinariness. He is undoubtedly the most unassuming leader that this country has had. He has no collected memorabilia which can be preserved for posterity. He is a pilgrim who travels light on the Samsaric journey without accumulating unnecessary baggage. In some respects he may be declared to be a successful Buddhist. He held the highest position in the land and managed to avoid being defiled by it. He was so unassuming in office that the public has never seen his wife or family. While President Premadasa's wife played a very prominent role as 'the aryawa', the public has never seen Mrs Wimalawathi Wijetunga. We publish here for the edification of the public a photograph of the former first lady the public never saw. I managed to obtain this photograph only through a paparazzi like stratagem.

His achievement

His predecessor was definitely more energetic, but DBW showed that what was necessary in the position of President was not energy but good breeding and a sense of proportion and propriety. DBW was not by any standard a creative man. He added nothing to what JRJ had put in place, but he was a very good manager. Because of his lack of tact and finesse, Premadasa was never really able to reap the benefits of peace after the JVP rebellion was crushed at the end of 1989. However, DBW reaped the full benefit of the peace in the South.

Under his dispensation, the economy boomed for a full eighteen months. The stock market soared to unprecedented heights. Land values were at the highest ever. The economic euphoria that prevailed during his brief tenure of office can be compared only to JRJ's best years between 1977 and 1982.Even though the LTTE problem persisted,the entire Eastern Province was brought completely under government control under the leadership of the late General Lucky Algama. There were two major military debacles in 1993 at Pooneryn and Janakapura during DBW's tenure as President. But the courts of inquiry appointed to look into these incidents held that the debacles were entirely due to the gross negligence of the officers in charge of these two military installations.

For example, at Janakapura, two battle tanks were lost to the LTTE because the officers in that camp had disregarded the basic instructions given to all camps in the battle zone to remove vital moving parts from armoured vehicles when not on duty - so that in case of an attack, the raiders will not be able to drive away the vehicles. The political authorities were not responsible in any way for the military debacles in Pooneryn and Janakapura and neither were the military high command in Colombo, even though the then Army Commander General Cecil Waidyaratne resigned. President Wijetunga's failure in the military sphere was that of not appointing General Lucky Algama to that post once Waidyaratne resigned.

Be that as it may, generally speaking, President Wijetunga's period in office saw one of our most successful phases of military strategy. DBW's special skill was in conducting an affordable war - being an experienced public servant he had the common-sense necessary to be able to proportion the war according to the available resources. While the present government did capture Jaffna in 1995, President Wijetunga's regime managed to capture the East in 1993. It depended on the prioritisation. The PA considers the North to be of primary importance, the UNP considered the East to be important. In any event, during President Wijetunga's tenure, not only was the East pacified, the security of the metropolis was also ensured. During his entire tenure, there wasn't' a single bomb blast in Colombo. The May 1st bomb blast that killed Premadasa was before DBW became President and the bomb blast that killed Gamini Dissanayake in October 1994 was after the new PA government had assumed office.

The whole country was as close to complete peace as it ever was since 1983. Press freedom was greater during the eighteen months of DBW's rule than before or since. Even though the so called "Free Media Movement" of 1994 went about shrieking from every platform about the suppression of the press by the UNP, this was after DBW had restored complete freedom to the press. When in 1994 the Free Media Movement complained about suppressing the press, they were actually aiming over the head of DBW and hammering the memory of Premadasa. Certain leaders of the Free Media Movement were later handsomely rewarded by the PA for their service in misleading the public.

The inexorable logic of democratic politics

On the political front, DBW was also able to mend the broken UNP by bringing back Gamini Dissanayake and the cream of the UNP that left with Gamini and Lalith to form the DUNF which was until Premadasa died, the most dynamic segment of the opposition. While some criticised his decision to bring new blood into the UNP, Anura Bandaranaike was until he recently became Speaker of the house, one of the most sought after and popular platform speakers in the UNP. Rajitha Senaratne continues to be a live wire in the UNP even playing a major role in the UNP's recent 'paa gamana' from Kandy to Colombo. Gamini is dead, but he was deemed fit to be the UNP's Presidential candidate when he died... And recently, Minister Mangala Samaraweera himself admitted during an ITN interview that had the UNP been led by Gamini, the PA would have been booted out of office long ago... So that was the calibre of people DBW took into the party - who can find fault with such a policy?

If DBW healed the UNP, then why did it lose in 1994? This was the inexorable logic of the democratic system, or even of plain physics. That which goes up must come down. DBW's misfortune was that he obtained power only when the UNP was on the way down. His misfortune was the good fortune of the UNP, because had the UNP lost power with Premadasa still in the saddle, UNPers would still be getting hammered by a public goaded beyond endurance! In 1994, even the most astute politician could not have prevented a UNP defeat as we were being engulfed in what would later reveal itself as a world-wide trend in favour of the social democratic parties as against the old conservative parties. It was not only the UNP that lost in the nineties, the Republicans in America, the Conservatives in Britain, the Christian Democrats in Germany all went the same way as the UNP. There is no arguing with this world-wide trend. The same logic is very soon going to overtake the PA as well. The conservative trend is once more gaining ascendancy in the international arena as can be seen from the victory of Republican George W. Bush in America and that of Ariel Sharon's Likud Party in Israel...

Comparing DBW with his successor Chandrika Kumaratunga, he comes out in a very favourable light. In 1994, beside the young and photogenic Chandrika Kuaratunga the uncharismatic DBW was seen by everybody as a very poor match. But after six years of PA rule, many would have by now changed their minds. Compared to Chandrika, DBW was a superb economic manager, a solid military strategist, a wise and tactful politician and in every way a much more successful President. When in August 1994, DBW found himself working with a non-UNP cabinet, the ultimate constitutional nightmare that Dr Colvin R.De Silva used to warn us of at every seminar on the 1978 constitution, came to pass. The President and the cabinet were from rival parties. What in normal circumstances would have led to a constitutional crisis, went off without a hitch entirely due to the personality of DBW. Dr Colvin R.De Silva when he was doing his constitutional doom mongering, never imagined that there were politicians of the calibre of D.B.Wijetunga. Compare the attitude of DBW with that of Chandrika - When she was faced with the possibility of having to work with a UNP cabinet after the October 2000 Parliamentary elections, she publicly stated at many meetings that she was not prepared to work with a non-PA cabinet. And this lack of preparedness to work with a non-PA cabinet led to the wholesale stuffing of ballot boxes in selected districts...

Judged against his successor...

That Sunday Times columnist was right when he said that DBW's 'useful innings' as President will some day be glorified. In 1994, people referred to him pejoratively as the 'sudu seeya' and went running after the photogenic young Chandrika. What have they got now? A country teetering on the brink of bankruptcy! During 'sudu seeyas' time, nobody heard businessmen complaining that they could not make ends meet. Nobody complained about the cost of living. And DBW himself, never complained about the amount of money being spent on the war. In those days, political leaders did not appear on TV like Minister Mangala Samaraweera pleading with the people to eat 'bajiri' and get by the difficult period. 'Bajiri' is a weed for the elimination of which Baur &Co manufactures the weedicide Harcros WIP-Super. It would appear that the PA now wants to use humans to get rid of this weed by literally eating it out of existence.

It is time that the UNP also took up the challenge of educating the younger generation and reminding those who are older that when DBW was President and Ranil the Prime Minister, this country was as close to peace and prosperity as it has ever got to in recent times. There was no doubt a period of turbulence between 1990 and May 1993 with President Premadasa and his gang of scoundrels playing ducks and drakes, but if the UNP erred, it was the UNP itself which put all those wrongs right.

The DBW-RW combination during 1993/94 showed this country what good governance can be even with a war raging in one corner of the country. Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was not a creative genius, a philosopher-king like J.R.Jayawardene. But he was a good man, a gentleman and an able and compassionate President. The only time that this country experienced all round good-governance in the unfortunate decade of the 1990's was during the brief DBW-RW partnership in 1993/94. On that note, I would like to extend my warmest felicitations to President Wijetunga on the occasion of his 79th birthday which falls tomorrow.