Politics
The Impeachment Saga

Men and Memories Buddhika Kurukularatne

Who tipped off President Premadasa of the impeachment?

S.L.F.P. front bencher Stanley Tillekeratne himself told your columnist that when he saw the impeachment motion, he saw ‘stars’. As a former Speaker he realized its gravity, he emphasized. He wanted the document to study it. But Mrs. Bandaranaike would not let him have it. Then Colonel, now General Anuruddha Ratwatte who was with Mrs. B at the time did not allow Stanley to take even a photo-copy of this volatile document.

So, Stanley claiming a deep civic sense informed Premadasa.

But by that time President Premadasa had already been tipped off.

There were two Coorays who were absolutely loyal to him. Evans and Sirisena (they are not related to one another). - Of those two, Evans was like an ‘one master Alsation dog’. He started his career as a journalist on the Lankadeepa then under Donald Ranaweera’s control. It was Premadasa who raised Evans to the dizzy heights that earned for him wrath rather than plaudits, envy instead of praise. He was physically beaten up for being a Premadasa loyalist. But as the one master Alsation, he bore it all on behalf of the "boss".

It was to Evans that the top secret manoeuvre was first conveyed by the brother of a VVIP SLFP politician from the deep South — obviously the information was to be passed on to Premadasa. This was promptly done by Evans.

I am realiably informed that Evans — a journalist of no mean repute would shortly be releasing a book in Sinhala ‘Premadasa and I’.

In this book, which is still in the proof stage Evans mentions this incident although he has not disclosed the name of his informant for obvious reasons.

No doubt this book which contains many such hitherto unknown and undisclosed incidents would be a best seller.

Though a government MP at the time, I was a critic of Premadasa.

Somewhere in July 1992 I received a letter from Premadasa which had been addressed to all UNP MPs informing them of their appointment as UNP organisers to the various electorates they represented. He had wanted our acceptance to be in by letter before Aug. 31, 1992.

I was fed up of being a MP and openly criticised Premadasa in the Parliament lobby. Premadasa had wanted each UNP MP to enrol 10% of the voters in his electrorate as UNP members. To implement this at Rs. 2 a membership ticket at the time I would have to spend Rs. 20,000 as it was well nigh impossible to get the voters to dole out any money.

I didn’t have money to throw about as Premadasa had imposed a ban in my doing any court work. I told my senior, Mr. Eardley Perera, that I wanted to resign and revert to the Bar.

His reaction was a curt ‘pissuda bung’? (Are you mad)? I also discussed this matter with Hemakumara Nanayakkara, SLFP MP who also confided in me that he too was not going to contest the following General Election but would not resign his seat as it would be a betrayal of the trust that the people placed on electing him for 6 years. ‘If you resign who is going to take your place?’ asked Hema.

Lalith Athulathmudali has been my teacher at Law College and I had the highest respect, regard, love and affection for him.

"Sir, Premadasa must be thinking that we are plucking money from trees," I told Lalith ventilating my grievances.

‘I say you are complaining of having to raise Rs. 20,000. Tyronne (Tyronne Fernando MP-Moratuwa electorate leader) has to dole out Rs. 50,000!’ was Lalith’s reply.

‘Sir, Tyronne has money — unlike me!’ I lamented and Lalith said ‘Hush! walls have ears!’. (Indeed I later learnt that walls, at least in Parliament had ears!)

Premadasa was like a pint-sized dictator. Most of the MPs had been in Parliament during the J. R. Jayewardene era and had been used to various perks like the allocation of government land, 2 vehicle permits (one to sell and the other for the MP and most sold both!) They also made use of their power to amass ill-gotten wealth with Jayewardene turning a Nelsonian eye!

Premadasa put a stop to all this. He told me in no uncertain terms that I could make up my mind whether to be an advocate and earn my money in courts or to be a politician. The fool I was I opted to be the latter.

At Government Parliamentary Group Meetings he used to tell us that when he was the Prime Minister he had observed many a government MP using the lobby telephones to put through business deals and to find out whether the "lorries had left".

Unsavoury activities

Obviously those who got re-elected in 1989 expected the same good times but Premadasa put a stop to such unsavoury activities. Recentment against Premadasa was simmering and an eruption seemed imminent.

As I had always been a loyal party man, I told Premadasa — ‘Sir, I have heard that when you were Prime Minister you always provided a link to the President for the MPs. Mr. Wijetunge has not been able to do that. Why don’t you invite the MPs for a cup of tea once in 2 months or so, so that they would be able to talk to you freely?’

"Yes — Buddhika, we’ll do that. Wait till the war is over" was his response.

It is in this back drop that Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake who each had an axe to grind with Premadasa for not considering them for the prime ministry, was able to muster the support of many UNPers for the impeachment motion.

Many a person had asked me to write the inside story of the impeachment. I refrained, because I was not privy to the controversial move unlike its prime mover, Speaker M. H. Mohamed, and others like, Sirisena Cooray (who cut short his visit to China to be by Premadasa) the late A. L. M. Aboosally who worked very hard to bring the prodigal sons home to the UNP and Ranil, the shrewd tactician who called for a Vote of Confidence at the very Cabinet meeting where President Premadasa was informed by the Speaker that he had received a motion calling for the impeachment of the President. This caught Lalith and Premachandra (Gamini Dissanayake had been dropped from the Cabinet ostensibly to enable him to proceed overseas for higher education as Gamini himself had asked for 6 months leave) unawares and they both voted to express confidence in the very man they wanted hounded out.

This caused ripples in the impeachment drama with Speaker M. H. Mohamed feeling more betrayed than let down. Ranil’s deft more signalled the beginning of the end of the impeachment fiasco.

Impeachment procedure is laid down in article 38 (2) (a) of the Constitution which inter alia states that any Member of Parliament may by a writing addressed to the Speaker, give notice of a resolution alleging that the President is permanently incapable of discharging the functions of his office by reason of mental or physical infirmity or that the President has been guilty of

(i) intentional violation of the constitution

(ii) treason

(iii) bribery

(iv) misconduct or corruption involving the abuse of powers of his office

(v) any offence under any law involving moral

turpitude and setting out full particulars of the allegation or allegation made and seeking an inquiry and report thereon by the Supreme Court.

It further stipulates that no notice of such resolution shall be entertained by the Speaker or placed on the Order Paper of Parliament unless it complies with the provisions of sub-paragraph (a) and

(i) Such notice of resolution is signed by not less than two thirds of the whole number of Members of Parliament or

(ii) Such notice of resolution is signed by not less than one half of the whole number of Members of Parliament and the Speaker is satisfied that such allegation or allegations merit inquiry and report by the Supreme Court’ (The emphasis is mine)

Try as they would the prime movers of the impeachment, Lalith, Gamini and G. M. Premachandra were unable to get the 2/3 although a fair number of Government MPs disgruntled with Premadasa’s strong arm rule signed.

The whole exercise was engineered by Speaker Mohamed. He was neatly caught behind the wicket when a prankster telephoned him introducing himself as a MP and asked in Sinhala ‘Sir, what is this document that has to be signed against Premadasa?’ to which an enthusiastic Mohamed had said ‘Yanna I say yanna, anna Lalith gava eka thiyenawa!’ (‘Go man, Go, there it is with Lalith!)

Meanwhile the pro-Premadasa lobby led by Sirisena Cooray were leaving no stone unturned to prevent the resolution from appearing in the Order Paper. Once an Impeachment Resolution appears in the Order Paper, the President is precluded from either dissolving or proruging parliament.

Premadasa intelligence service then unearthed a valuable piece of information. Having, according to him entertained the Impeachment Motion sans the required 2/3 signatories, Mohamed went overseas leaving an undated letter with Saumyamoorthi Thondaman which disclosed the fact that there were ‘not enough signatories’. Mohamed had got Thondaman to promise that it should not be handed over to the President until he returned.

The very night Premadasa got this information, he along with Sirisena Cooray and Paskaralingam went to meet Thondaman.

Reluctant

Although Thondaman showed them the letter he was reluctant to hand it over to Premadasa. Describing the incident Cooray in his very readable book ‘President Premadasa and I — our story’ at page 123 states that at long last Premadasa was able to obtain this vital document from Thondaman on the undertaking that it would not be made use of without Thondaman’s consent.

Mohamed who was overseas returned to the island and summoned a press conference ostensibly to announce the receipt by him of an Impeachment Motion. It was evident that by this time Lalith and Gamini, both President’s Counsel, had convinced Mohamed that as the resolution, though falling short of 2/3 signatories had more than 1/2 the total number of members (the Opposition plus the UNP renegades) he could act on it if he felt that the allegations contained therein merited investigation by the Supreme Court.

The gang of eight

This scenario made Premadasa jump the gun and make the letter public. This Machiavellian move, by Premadasa effectively killed the Impeachment move. The gang of eight who wanted to oust Premadasa found themselves ousted from the party and consequently from Parliament itself.

Premadasa was a man who could not be shaken easily. When he addressed Parliament after the Impeachment exercise failed he gave an example of his courage in the face of strong opposition — not the mild and passive opposition that we see today — but a very volatile and vociferous opposition lead by Anura Bandaranaike ably supported by Hemakumara Nanayakkara, brother Vasudeva, S. B. Dissanayake, Mahinda Wijesekera just to name a few.

At a Government Group Meeting he warned all of us that whatever the provocation, we should not retaliate. As expected the Opposition members trooped in with Anura shouting ‘What is this oil on our chairs? Black magic and hooniyan at play’ pretending to wipe away non-existing oil from his chair. It was widely believed by the opposition (and others as well) that Premadasa who believed in the occult had brought in a Malaylee poosari’ to perform some black magic.

Hemakumara later on told me that their strategy was to provoke Premadasa to such an extent that he would turn abusive and would engage in a verbal duel with the Opposition thereby cutting a very poor picture of himself in the eyes of the foreign diplomats who were present in the Speaker’s Gallery! Instead Premadasa was able to turn tables on the Opposition in the eyes of the diplomatic corps.

When Premadasa was being heckled incessantly, H. R. Piyasiri — A man reputed more for his brawn than brain (whose nick name was ‘the destroyer’ which he had earned during his feats in the 1987-89 JVP insurrection) was gesticulating at the Opposition hecklers with clenched fist inviting then to come out.

There is yet another explosive piece of information concerning the impeachment resolution. When the Speaker M. H. Mohamed informed the President (this communique was received when the President was at a Cabinet meeting) that he (the Speaker) had entertained a resolution calling for the impeachement of the President, your columnist has it from a very reliable source that it was not a factually correct statement for Mahendra Amarasekera, Attorney-at-Law, a student and a very close friend of Lalith and his doctor wife Suriyakanthi, the anaesthetist of the Sri Jayawardenapura General Hospital were sleeping on the impeachment papers that were hidden under their mattress!

As this story needs a separate article I shall not attempt to narrate it here. Mahendra who is my batchmate and a gentleman asked me not to divulge this until after the presidential election was over as it would hurt Ranil’s cause which both of us were espousing.

So leaving the story of Mahendra and Suriyakanthi literally sleeping on a powder-keg for yet another day, I shall narrate my own experience with the ill-fated impeachment.

Gang of eight

Lakshman Seneviratne MP (Badulla District) one of the ‘Gang of eight’ was a very good friend of mine — being a Gurutalawa Thomian. He was the Minister of State for Labour and Vocational Training and I took him to show the conditions of the Labour Office in Galle, then housed in a ramshackle old upstrair building in the Fort. ‘Bindu’, as Lakshman is affectionately known picked me up from my Dehiwala residence and all along the way we were discussing the political situation. We were critical of the President as he was behaving like a pocket-dictator.

A few days after this trip I came home from Parliament (I was the first to arrive in parliament and with Azwer one of the last to leave) and Malini my wife, asked me whether I crossed Bindu as he had just left.

Due to his rounded physique my children who were very small then called Bindu, ‘Bole uncle’. Bindu as usual had fun with the children and I asked Malini whether he just paid a social call or had come for a particular reason?

She said yes. He said that ‘Sir’, wanted you to meet him at 7.00 in the morning tomorrow!

I laughed and said that, that fellow must be thinking that I am like other MPs who sleep till late. He little knows that by 7.00 a.m. I am in Parliament doing my daily constitutional of 4 miles! If ‘Sir’ wanted me see him, he would have called’.

The ‘Sir’ referred was Lalith Athulathmudali who taught me at Law College.

The next morning as I was leaving the house, I thought to myself what the hell, he only wanted me to see ‘Sir’ not the ‘President’. I would just say hello to Sir without making him feel that I had fallen a victim to Bindu’s practical jokes.

I dialled 501007, Lalith’s Stanmore Crescent official residence number and Srimani said, ‘Buddhika, where are you’? Lalith is expecting you at Flower Terrace." (Lalith had his chambers there).

So Bindu had been serious after all.

Instead of proceeding to Parliament I drove my double cab to Flower Terrace and after parking the vehicle with difficulty on that narrow road I entered the compound through the small gate.

In the compound were Sharmila Perera, Lalith’s Coordinating Secretary, and with her was Lalith’s friend Damsiri Fonseka whom Lalith had made chairman of Sathosa Printers. Both Sharmila and Damsiri were lawyer friends of mine and upon seeing me Sharmila went into the house to announce the arrival and Lalith walked into the garden wearing a pair of white shorts and a white T-shirt and merely told me ‘There it is inside. Go and sign’!.

I then asked him, ‘What is it Sir?’

‘The Impeachment men, 40 of our people have signed and the entire opposition is with us. We shall form a government on the 28th of this month...’ he went on a monologue as if I had been privy to this coup d’etat.

‘Sir, are you trying to topple the Government with Anura Bandaranaike?’ I asked.

‘I say, that man will kill us men!’ said Lalith.

‘So, what? Only a coward is frightened to die’ I retorted and told him "Sir, if you have a problem with Premadasa, talk it over with him. I will go and meet him," I volunteered as fools rush in where angels fear to tread!

‘No! No! don’t go to see him. Mutual friends have tried and failed!’ He said raising his voice.

He again said ‘I can’t show you the signatures of those who have already signed as it is not fair. Hurry up and go and sign I have to hand it over to the Speaker by 10.00 a.m. today!’

I disbelieved Lalith on two factors. Lalith and I have been very close to one another and why did he ask me to be the 41st to sign? I should have been one of the first to have been asked.

I was later told by Gamini Premachandra and Bindu as to why I was asked last. Similarly on the same score I did not believe him when he said, he had to hand it over to the Speaker that day by 10.00 a.m.

Lalith unlike Gamini who was a charming and friendly man was quick tempered and lacked finesse in his approach. He got impatient with me and said ‘I say I have no time to waste’. When I very politely declined and pleaded with him to explore other avenues he erupted.

"I say on the 28th when we form the government, prizes, will be awarded only to people who have supported us!’

I was angry at this implied threat and it was my turn to tell him exactly where I stood.

‘Sir, you know that I never worked with ‘prizes’ in view. You have taught us to fight our opponents face to face not to stab behind the back!’

Being a man who is not used to such retorts, Lalith said, ‘I am surprised at your attitude. I thought you are my friend’. I replied ‘Sir, I am surprised at your attitude’ and Lalith said "OK I hope this would not be the end of our friendship!" I pleaded with Lalith that we could always agree to disagree without affecting our friendship.

I do not know how I drove to Parliament that day from Flower Road. My head was in a whirl. ‘What shall I do? shall I tell the President? What if ‘Sir’ doesn’t submit the impeachment and I had told the President?’ These were some of the thoughts that were spinning in my head.

That afternoon, after lunch I was to leave for Samanala wewa Project where I was the Legal and Personnel Advisor to the British contractors Balfor Beatty Construction International Limited. As Lalith said that he was going to hand over the impeachment motion by 10.00 a.m., time was indeed running out.

Doing my four mile walk around the the Diyawanna, I hit upon a plan. As I had so far not responded to President Premadasa appointing me as the UNP organiser for Ambalangoda I thought that I would in my letter of acceptance ask him for an urgent and immediate meeting that morning itself to discuss matters of utmost importance, both to the party and the country to ‘guide the country forward with his enlightened leadership’.

I knew that a special messenger carried the mail from parliament to the President daily. This dispatch is handled by Jayasumana Dissanayake, an amiable officer with long years of experience in the public sector. ‘Jaye’ was a trusted man of Premadasa.

I asked Jaye to hold back the mail to the President as I had a very important letter to be sent. Jaye told me that the ‘tappal’ dispatch had just left and being the gentleman he without asking what the content of this most important letter was, volunteered to send my letter by a special messenger if it was so urgent.

I handed over the letter to Jayasumana Dissanayake but did not tell him the contents of the letter.

Then I counted the seconds and the ministers and waited and waited and waited nervously. I thought the President being a man of lightning action would call me no sooner he read my letter.

As I did not get a response, I left immediately after lunch for Samanalawewa. Premadasa could not respond to my letter before the stipulated time as he was flying by helicopter to Maligawila to oversee the work on the Buddha Statue he told me later.

(to be continued next week)

 

 

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