President Premadasa as I knew him

89th birth anniversary


by Asoka Somaratne

I came to know President Premadasa, when I was a young journalist working for the "Sunday Observer" of the Lake House Group. I once covered the stormy UNP annual sessions, when President Premadasa thundered that like a house that the UNP must be built from the foundation upwards and it cannot be built from roof downwards if the party is not to get swept away in elections. At one point President Premadasa got into a heated argument with Mr. Dudley Senanayake who was one of our former Prime Ministers and walked out of the annual sessions. After I carried my news item about the UNP sessions my editor Mr. Philip Fernando wanted me to interview President Premadasa to ascertain what his future plans were going to be.

When I interviewed him at "Sucharitha" he categorically told me that he would not leave the party but take the message to the grass root members of the UNP that the party should be built from the grass root levels upwards. It was at this time President Premadasa started the Citizens Front. Mr. Sirisena Cooray was his effective number two in launching the Citizens Front. It was during this time that I developed a close friendship with President Premadasa which lasted several decades until his death.

I had been fascinated by President Premadasa’s style of oratory. I once asked him in a private chat with him at "Sucharitha" how he prepares his speeches. He told me if he was addressing an intellectual audience that he would make his speech fact heavy and make extensive preparations. If it was to the general masses, he told me that he would allow his heart to dictate his speech while he was on his feet.

In fact he gave me a very interesting example of speaking from the heart. Apparently before giving a public speech on one occasion, he told me that he felt a huge urge to visit a toilet. At that very moment his name was announced to speak to the audience. He told me within few minutes of his speech he lost this urge to go to the toilet nearly for one hour while he was addressing as he was so absorbed in his speech. Then he told me when he stopped his speech he again felt the urge to visit a toilet.

He also told me that he had listened to the speeches of Hitler given in German. Though he did not understand a word of German, he said that there was some moving force in the speeches of Hitler that arrested people’s attention. In fact on one occasion when I was a junior to Dr. Colvin R. de Silva he told me "Somaratne, if you want to learn how to speak in Sinhala you must listen to Premadasa as often as you can".

In the early 70’s whenever my cases went down or I was otherwise free, it was my habit to visit "Sucharitha" generally by about 10.30 in the morning. President Premadasa did not have much of a crowd at "Sucharitha" at that time and it was easy to engage with him in a relaxed conversation. Those days President Premadasa regularly visited the Criminal Justice Commission to listen to the case of Rohana Wijeweera and others. So one day after visiting one of those court sessions, he asked me whether I think that youth unrest can be stopped even if every young man in this country is given a job.

He himself answered the question by saying that he believes that if the youth of the country does not have a sense of participation in the development activities of the country, that we can never stop youth unrest by providing only employment. In subsequent years when he was in power I think it was based on this philosophy that he established that Gramodaya Mandalayas and a minimum percentage in all elections for youth to be allocated.

I resigned from Parliament somewhere towards end of 1987 being dissatisfied with President Jayewardene’s action to invite the Indian Army to Sri Lanka and other legislative proposals on the ethnic question. I met President Premadasa to discuss my impending resignation from Parliament. In fact he was the only person to whom I confided of my intention to resign from Parliament being disappointed with the policies of the then UNP government on the ethnic question. President Premadasa who was the Prime Minister at that time advised me to be a little more patient and that he too was very disappointed with the turn of events. He told me that in a confidential letter to President Jayewardene that he wrote to him in Sinhala zztlla lvf;d¿ jid .kakg f.diska ug jqKq ldßhd folla lvf;d¿ yod .;a;hs b÷refõ wdpdßhdZZ This was a tell phrase that summed up the situation at that time. What he told me at that time is still vivid in my memory. He told me that he believed one day when the Indian Army leaves Sri Lanka that they will leave a well armed proxy army and that we will never be able to extricate ourselves from this mess.

President Premadasa was a brilliant thinker who had a huge thirst for knowledge. Whenever he met someone with some specialized knowledge, he never stopped until he picked everything out of his brain. Whenever he attended any meetings, if he met a renowned Veda Mahaththaya or a senior citizen of the area, he always got his assistants to write in a book the details of these persons with their addresses etc. Therefore he was always aware of people with diverse talents in every part of this country.

He was a deep thinker on Buddhist philosophy. When I was the Member of Parliament for Ratgama he came a few times to meet some of the meditating monks in the island hermitage in Polgasduwa, Dodanduwa in the Ratgama Lake. On one occasion I travelled with him in a little boat to one of those island hermitages. When he was talking to me in that journey even explaining to me about our quest for various imaginary things of the world which were non-existent and unattainable, how people can face sorrow as the core element in Buddhist philosophy. In fact he came to the island hermitage to engage himself with those priests in a discourse about Buddhist philosophy.

Mr. Sirisena Cooray was his closest top level aide at that time and they were also very close friends. Thanks to Mr. Sirisena Cooray after the death of President Premadasa he made a great effort to propagate the memory of President Premadasa.

Over the years, the Premadasa Centre, under the guidance of Mr. Sirisena Cooray, carried out a variety of activities to commemorate President Premadasa. These included reconstructing the tsunami-affected houses in Piyagama, Balapitiya, redeveloping the Maligawatte Base Hospital and renovating the Kataragama sacred city.

Premadasa Centre has built computer centres and provided scholarships, helped children and old people, published books on President Premadasa and organized an essay contest, to ensure that his thinking is made available to the coming generation.

I should also mention that the Premadasa Centre and Mr. Cooray in particular ceaselessly defended the late President from the malicious canards spread by his enemies. It gives us a sense of achievement when we hear his praises being sung today on all sides. We always said that this country will come to understand his greatness; today we are proven right.

The writer is Secretary of the Premadasa Centre

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