(Excerpted from volume ii of the Sarath Amunugama autobiography)
I left Sri Lanka to join Asian Media and Communication Centre (AMIC) in Singapore in March 1982. It was a short tenure as I had to report for duty in UNESCO, Paris in September that year. So, I was in Paris when the second Presidential election was held in Sri Lanka. Though the Presidential election under the new constitution was due in 1983 following a six-year term, the President with his penchant to spring political surprises as part of his tactics, announced that it would be held in October 1982 and immediately launched his reelection campaign.
When I spent a few days in Colombo in early September, en route to Paris, JRJ’s campaign was getting into full swing. As anticipated by the President the Opposition was in disarray. Since Mrs. B was disqualified and the SLFP was badly split there was no wholehearted support for a strong contender from the party. Several factions within the SLFP were in fact supporting JRJ.
A party stalwart Kal ugalle left the party and appeared on the President’s election platform. Maitripala Senanayake was lukewarm. Eventually the party nominated left of centre Kandyan, Hector Kobbekaduwa. I remember meeting my old boss, T.B. Illangaratne, about this time. He was disappointed with the SLFP for ignoring his claims for the nomination as he was senior to Kobbekaduwa, being a founder member of the SLFP. This was the reason for his later resignation from the party that he helped to build from its inception and sacrificed much for.
On the other hand, Mrs. B and her son Anura were displeased that an alternative leader was in the offing. This was made clear when Anura made the unwarranted statement that Kobbekaduwa was only ‘a contractor’ whose job was to win and bring Mrs. B back to power. This was playing right into the hands of JRJ.
To make matters worse a section of the Left decided to go on their own. Colvin R de Silva [LSSP], Vasudeva Nanayakkara [NLSSP] and Rohana Wijeweera [JVP] opted to contest and effectively sabotaged the chances of Kobbekaduwa. Only the Communist Party and a group of SLFPers led by Vijaya Kumaratunga and Chandrika supported by Illangaratne and Ratnasiri Wickremanayake backed Kobbekaduwa and in effect ran his campaign.
Surprisingly, and unanticipated by JRJ, the Kobbekaduwa camp began to gather momentum and worried JRJ who had experience of a similar ‘surge’ against the unassailable UNP in 1956. As mentioned before JR was not a man to forget. He later gave short shrift to those who stood in the way of his well-planned strategy for re-election.
As the contest heated up the radical elements in Kobbekaduwa’s campaign began to use the language of violence, perhaps to strengthen the resolve of their supporters. The old left knew how to use bloodcurdling threats which everybody knew was part of their theatrics. Kobbekaduwa’s speakers, some of whom had a JVP background, were not so subtle and their threats to ‘swim in the blood of the capitalists’ and particularly the UNP leaders, was carefully noted for future use.
Though Kobbekaduwa’s campaign was gathering steam in the country they ran out of time and money. But out of this campaign a new hero emerged. It was not Kobbekaduwa but Vijaya Kumaratunga who became the focal point of the resistance to the UNP, replacing the old left, the JVP and even the the group over which Mrs. B presided hoping to secure the succession for her son Anura.
As the undoubted emerging hero Vijaya attracted not only the support of the radicals but the hatred of the UNP, the JVP and parts of the SLFP. It was a vicious cocktail which he tended to ignore till it became too late. The immediate result was that Vijaya became the focal point of the left and was regarded as the next common candidate of the anti-UNP forces. It was a prospect that Anura and the SLFP rump did not relish and they did their utmost to vilify and sabotage Vijaya.
Though JRJ won the election comfortably as he planned by splitting up the Opposition, the result exposed many of the challenges he would have to face in his second term. He had reason to celebrate as he was the only UNP leader to win an election immediately after his first tenure of office. It was a victory never to be repeated by UNP leaders.
But ominously the north did not vote for him though he won every other province. Many attributed it to Mrs. B’s agrarian policies which favoured the local, particularly the northern, farmer. But it was also a growing indication of the power of the militant Tamil youth. Some of the armed groups like the EPRLF supported Vijaya.
The Sinhala youth segment of the country was turning to Vijaya who was becoming so popular that the LSSP and CP were obliged to hang on his coat tails. JRJ’s nominee to win over the youth, Ranil Wickrem-esinghe, was a hopeless failure. He was an elitist who had to depend on a group of his college friends and relatives to promote him. These friends were no better in the popularity stakes than him. The JVP, which had optimistically hoped for a large poll even if they were to lose, were now impatient and thinking of new ways to capture power. They abandoned their earlier internationalist policies and began to fashion a Sinhala nationalist ‘line’ which was opposed by senior leaders like Lionel Bopage.
In this context JRJ, together with hardliners like Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali, pondered his next move. His objective was to continue the reforms he had undertaken in his first term and secure the future of the UNP in the light of the unexpected strength of the Vijaya led resistance and the lack of cooperation of the Tamils who were now being intimidated by the armed groups who were controlled by RAW.
All this had to be weighed against the arbitrary use of power and abuse of human rights which became a major issue for JRJ from now on.In Paris where we followed events keenly and were briefed by Esmond who visited us, we realized that the President was set on a path of confrontation which was to blight his Presidency.
On the advice of Premadasa and Lalith he abandoned the Parliamentary election which was due in 1983 and decided to hold a referendum to extend the life of the Parliament which was elected in 1977. This was an obvious ploy to retain his steamroller majority which could not be assured if a new election was held.
Apart from the loss of popularity of an incumbent regime, JRJ’s own electoral system introduced in his Constitution which called for ‘Proportionate Representation’ [PR] precluded the possibility of the emergence of a large majority in Parliament.
He also called for undated letters of resignation from his MPs. He then ordered a referendum to extend the life of Parliament and threatened the MPs who failed to get a majority of ‘Yes’ votes in their constituencies with dismissal. The referendum itself was flawed. Violence was used to prevent the opposition from garnering a ‘No’ vote. Having had his way by force, JRJ then proceeded to wreak vengeance on all those who gave him a scare in the Presidential election.
His first move was to imprison his chief adversaries led by Vijaya Kumaratunga on a spurious charge of Naxalite violence. While there may have been bloodcurdling talk on the election stage it was manifestly clear that Vijaya and his supporters were not in a mood for extra-Parliamentary confrontation and violence. JRJ cast his net wide and arrested radical leftists of the NLSSP, CP and JVP. Some of them like Vijaya were incarcerated under inhuman conditions while others like the JVP went underground.
The stable political environment which prevailed in JRJ’s first term was now in jeopardy. He then turned to the Tamil issue which was becoming more and more of a security problem. He was also nonplussed at his poor performance in the North and had a growing suspicion that the Colombo Tamils were playing a double game, supporting the ‘Boys’ in the North while doing good business in the South thanks to the open economy.
He instructed his nephew the Army Commander ‘Bull’ Weeratunga in Churchillian tones “to wipe out terrorism in the North”. Weeratunga unleashed a reign of terror. A censorship was imposed, and the newspapers were prohibited from publishing the finding of the inquests into the deaths of many young Tamils who were accused of aiding and abetting terrorism. The riots of 1983 and the Weeratunga offensive led to the strengthening of the militants and the decline of the TULF.