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Sunday, 11 January 2009





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Government Gazette

Unmasking Premadasa

“In the Shadow of a People’s President” by Evans Cooray Published by Vijitha Yapa publishers

Knowing 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!

Two narratives

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 prosper.

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, 1993!

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 willingly paid.

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 pits?

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 freedom.

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 transparent honesty.

The sunny-side

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 progress.

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 relations.

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 doing so.

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 patterns.

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 human interest.

The publishers Vijitha Yapa have done a good job, although even a limited edition in hard copy would have been appropriate.


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