“In the Shadow of a People’s President” by Evans Cooray Published
by Vijitha Yapa publishers
both the writer and his subject fairly intimately, it was with some
reluctance that I accepted an invitation to review Evans Cooray’s book
“In the Shadow of a People’s President”.
The truth is simply that despite Cooray’s 35 years with Premadasa, I
do not think that he has succeeded in fully uncovering his master’s
labyrinthine and multi-layered personality. Premadasa was not simply the
run of the mill politician and leader. He was a phenomenon, who combined
in himself attributes of a genius, as well of a psychotic.
The soaring vision he had for his country, and I do not mean merely
for the Sinhala people but for Sri Lanka as a nation, was unmatched by
any political leader of the last century, either conceptually, or in
terms of the intelligence and managerial energy with which he backed it
up, even though that vision was tainted by his many failings.
The chattering classes’ criticisms of him, were a travesty of the man
he really was, and telling the full story, the good, the bad and the
ugly, has yet to be undertaken.
Cooray’s book will be of immense value to whoever will want to write
Premadasa’s definitive biography. As Press Secretary to Premadasa, he
had a unique opportunity to observe his master shorn of the many masks
he wore for the public.
Though none of Cooray’s disclosures are shatteringly new, they have
the ring of authenticity, and are to be valued for that reason. They are
not gossip or hearsay, but the real thing!
Evans Cooray’s book is in fact two closely intertwined narratives.
One narrative has President Premadasa for its subject, while the other,
minutely threaded into it, is Cooray’s own life story. The book is
therefore both a biography as well as an autobiography, and as to who
gets more space and column length in it, is not immediately obvious.
In seeking to use Premadasa’s political career as a scaffolding on
which to drape his own life story, Cooray is saying that, though richly
endowed with journalistic talents, he could never have come even close
to the heights he reached, without Premadasa’s patronage. Hence, the
metaphor, “Living in the shadow”.
From the day in late 1956, when as a young journalist working for the
Dinamina, he quoted in his paper one of Premadasa’s poems delivered
spontaneously from a party political platform, and caught his eye,
Cooray was sucked relentlessly into the vortex of Premadasa’s turbulent
life, from which he could not break loose until that fateful day on the
May 1, 1993, when his idol was assassinated.
It was not merely that Premadasa sought him out, but that Cooray
himself hitched his wagon to what he saw as a rising star.
However, I must confess that I find the concept of “Living in the
shadow of “ anyone, except of Deity itself, quite problematic. To live
in the shadow of another human being, and to snuff out one’s own light
in his presence, is not what it means to live the complete life.
Self-denial is a great spiritual virtue, but not self-immolation,
especially when undertaken in order that another’s manic ego may
Destiny and astrologers
Cooray admits to believing in “destiny”, although his hero Premadasa
impresses on him that there is no such thing as “destiny” and that man
shapes his own ends, through the power of his “mind” (Premadasa’s word).
I found that quite curious, considering that on Cooray’s own account,
Premadasa would closet himself with his astrologer regularly, seeking to
uncover from his horoscope his “destiny” for the day, which leads one to
wonder what his astrologer might have foretold for him for the May 1,
Premadasa also quotes to Cooray the famous first stanza from the
Dhammapada. (Mind is the forerunner of all conditions. All things are
mind made), which of course is universally true, regardless of one’s
beliefs. However, the problem is then how Premadasa reconciled its
acceptance with his faith in astrology. The Dhammapada and astrology
cannot both be true!
Although Cooray amasses a mountain of material concerning Premadasa
which would be manna for a psychiatrist or for a political analyst, he
does not attempt to analyse the material himself, or try to peer behind
them to discern hidden realities. To that extent, his 35 year
association with Premadasa has been allowed to run to waste and the
material he has amassed awaits an intrepid commentator or analyst.
I found Cooray’s life story quite fascinating. He writes about his
humble origins and attributes to Premadasa his successes in life.
He confesses freely that through that relationship he was able to
girdle the globe, shake hands with celebrities, dine and wine with the
rich and the famous, be photographed with ruling sovereigns and Prime
Ministers, benefit from scholarships, and be hosted to lavish
lifestyles, all of which he obviously valued very highly, but none of
which, on his own admission, he would have savoured had he stood on his
own status, as plain Evans Cooray. However, to board that gravy train,
Cooray had to pay a mighty price.
Living in the shadow
For over 35 years, except for a few years when Premadasa was out of
political office, Cooray had no life of his own.
As Premadasa’s Press Secretary, he lived utterly and wholly at the
service of his master, quite literally in his shadow, pandering to his
every behest, on call 24 hours of the day, the phone in his home ringing
incessantly and devoid of any space for a private life.
Working for Premadasa was frenetic, tempestuous and exhausting but in
a curiously masochistic way, Cooray seems to have carried on, as most
public servants might probably have done, never protesting, for fear of
losing their livelihood.
Perhaps the vast majority of Cooray’s colleagues, relatives and
friends, might also envy his successes and the dizzy heights he trod for
over three decades, even if they had to pay the same price as Cooray
On the other hand, a miniscule minority might ask, “Besides gorging
oneself on perks and privileges, and soaking up the publicity and the
reflected glory that comes from being close to the high and mighty,
aren’t there some fundamental values one can never compromise, some
principles which one can never trade for anything else”?
Clearly, Cooray was not troubled by such questions and, I am sure,
neither would the majority of his readers. Interestingly however, in a
solitary moment of illumination, Cooray says, “Keeping the company of
those in power was as dangerous as living with poisonous snakes”. (page
307) The question is then, why is there such a stampede to live in snake
This raises an important moral dilemma for any public servant who has
to work closely with a President or a Prime Minister, especially for any
considerable length of time, as Cooray had to.
Thirty five years is a very long time! Granted that no politician is
immune from serious character flaws, how far, and for how long, can a
public servant go without compromising his integrity? At what point
would he say, “Thus far and no further”.
In mitigation of Cooray, it must be said that he was only a Press
Secretary and was not complicit in the decisions that brought disrepute
to his master. His accredited job was to blow up his master’s image and
in his defence it must be said that he was not the only one who did it.
A clothes line
Cooray uses the story of his career like a clothes-line on which he
hangs out a multitude of little anecdotes, which enable us to gauge the
kind of persons both he and his master were.
He tells us how he was overbearing towards those lower down on the
bureaucratic or social ladder and how he would pick up the telephone and
lambaste them, very much in the style of his boss. Finally he tells us
that it was only the unspeakable trauma of Premadasa’s assassination
that transformed him and imparted to him a humility that he never had.
At least Cooray is not self-righteous, and does not try to justify
the many errors he committed while working for Premadasa. He tells us
that it is only now he feels liberated, able to walk the streets of his
adopted country, breathing the exhilarating air of anonymity and
Although Cooray virtually deified Premadasa during his lifetime, he
does not do so in his book. As far as I know only two books have been
written about Premadasa in English.
One of them, while Premadasa was still alive, but anonymous, abusive
and scurrilous and not worth the paper on which it was printed.
The other, written by a senior member of his staff, while he was
still in the master’s employ, at the latter’s behest, and therefore of
not much value either. Cooray’s book stands out as presenting as
truthful an account of Premadasa as one has yet seen in print and,
though lacking in analysis and depth, it is distinctive for its
Premadasa’s commitment to the poor defines his character, more than
does any other of his many attributes, and this attribute alone,
mitigates and even obliterates much of what was negative about him.
For him, alleviating poverty was more than just another aspect of
development. It was the passion that drove his politics, and he sought
power, primarily as a launching pad for his onslaught on poverty, summed
up in his slogan “nethi beri aya, ethi heki aya karamu”. Having savoured
poverty at first hand, amidst the squalor and degradation of Colombo’s
slums, he dedicated his whole life to its alleviation.
For Premadasa, to be poor meant more than merely to be deprived of
life’s wherewithal, but also to be ignored, humiliated and marginalised,
by the rich and the powerful. As he clawed his way upwards, over the
country’s rugged political rock-face, Colombo’s high caste grandees, and
the rich and the powerful, placed every conceivable obstacle across his
He was deeply lacerated and scarred, mentally and emotionally, and
throughout his career as a politician he carried those scars like
military men wear campaign medals.
He made it his life’s central resolve, that no one should be
diminished as a human being by reason of material lack or social
anonymity, and his flagship programmes, such as Janasaviya, the Million
Houses project and the 200 Garment Factories project, had for their
primary objective the lifting of people from poverty.Cooray also
presents Premadasa as a totally committed patriot.
His open letter to the Prime Minister of India (Indira Gandhi)
written in June 1984, while he was still only the Prime Minister, and
therefore without any executive status, castigating her for interfering
in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, was unprecedented in Lankan-Indo
It was also outrageous, because it was sent without President
Jayawardena’s approval, without the Foreign Ministry’s knowledge, and in
total violation of acknowledged protocol! It qualified Premadasa to be
sacked from the Cabinet and it is bewildering why JR refrained from
Premadasa followed it up with an onslaught on India at the 40th
General Assembly of the UN in 1985, and with another challenge to Rajiv
Gandhi when he met him at the Harare Non-Aligned Summit.
Cooray shows Premadasa as compassionate, extremely hardworking,
absolutely disciplined and as abstemious in dress as in food. In his
climb to power he subjected himself to the most rigorous disciplines,
and he demanded from his staff, and from all his political associates,
including members of the Cabinet, adherence to the same extreme
standards, not only in work output but equally in time management, in
dress, in abstinence from alcohol and in decorum and good manners, all
of which, though highly admirable, were not always welcomed by everyone.
It was partly his resolve to force his colleagues to conform to these
puritanical standards that sparked the attempted impeachment.
The dark side of Premadasa
However, it is also true that Premadasa’s many magnificent attributes
came diluted with a lot of dirt and dross. Cooray confesses that the man
he virtually deified was driven by an enormous “inferiority complex” (Cooray’s
words) and all the evidence he presents bear this out. He had a ravenous
appetite for publicity and would go to great lengths personally to
monitor every word the media wrote about him.
His monumental ego would brook no opposition, and he was highly
paranoid, suspecting conspiracies being constantly hatched against him
by the “upper classes” as he called them.
He could be extremely vengeful and unforgiving towards anyone who he
thought had insulted him, or had crossed his path, as Cooray illustrates
clearly in the instance of his treatment of Felix Dias Bandaranaike when
the latter called on him when he was Prime Minister.
It is possible that like many other politicians driven by a manic
ego, Premadasa was psychotic and was suffering from a psychiatric
condition known to professionals as “Multiple Personality Disorder” or
“manic-depression”, with strong dispositions to obsessive behavioural
Omissions in the story
There are some major omissions in Cooray’s presentation of the
Premadasa story. He fails to bring out Premadasa’s vision for his
country, based on an entrepreneurial economy and an elaborate welfare
programme, his famous twin-track approach to development, aimed at
creating wealth and simultaneously at uplifting the poor. As to whether
this vision would ever have been realised, considering all the
circumstances, is entirely conjectural.
Another of Cooray’s omissions is that he does not tell us what
Premadasa’s role was, if any, in the terrible blood letting of the two
years 1987/89, during the JVP’s second uprising, when vigilante death
squads rampaged through the country like a forest fire.
Although most of those atrocities were committed immediately before
he became President, his critics have been unremitting in placing
responsibility squarely on him. Was he a helpless spectator entrapped by
the military, or was he the silent and sinister protagonist?
All that notwithstanding, Cooray’s profiling of Premadasa has been an
honest effort. Even if he has not been able to tie all the ends together
he does present us with masses of data which can serve as an authentic
foundation for a future biographer.
Written in a relaxed prose style, and sometimes in the dramatic mode,
Cooray’s book makes easy reading. Not least, he regales us with
anecdotes, both about himself and about his idol, which are rich in
The publishers Vijitha Yapa have done a good job, although even a
limited edition in hard copy would have been appropriate.