Wrongs don’t cancel one another out

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Saturday 10th June, 2023

Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa crossed swords in Parliament, on Thursday, with the former reminding the House that the latter’s late father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, had violated people’s democratic rights blatantly. What one gathered from the Prime Minister’s line of reasoning was that he thought the Opposition Leader, as President Premadasa’s son, had no moral right to talk about allegations of human rights violations against the present government. Sajith responded that not everything his father’s government had done was acceptable to him, and he celebrated only its good deeds.

Premadasa’s presidential legacy has been an asset as well as a liability for Sajith, paradoxical as it may sound. The overall assessment of a departed political leader’s rule is usually influenced by various factors, and public perception of it evolves with biographers, researchers and historians providing fresh insights into discussions, debates and studies on their lives and careers. It is, in fact, a process that goes on for years, if not decades. However, posthumous remembrances of political leaders in this country tend to be shaped by basically what they did during the final phases of their tenures. Hence the need for the heads of state who want the people to have a positive impression of them posthumously not to wait until it is too late to retire or demean themselves by entering/re-entering Parliament after leaving high office.

The popularity of Premadasa Snr. was very low at the time of his untimely demise in May 1993 owing to the assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali, who had broken away from the UNP together with several party stalwarts,following an abortive attempt to impeach the former, and founded the DUNF, which emerged as a formidable political force. The Premadasa government resorted to extremely oppressive measures to hold its political enemies at bay and was accused of killing tens of thousands of youth during the second JVP uprising in the late 1980s. It is the people’s dreadful memories of that phase of the Premadasa rule that PM Gunawardena craftily sought to evoke when he took on Sajith in Parliament, on Thursday, in a bid to defend the incumbent administration against the allegations of human rights violations.

PM Gunawardena specifically took up the issue of mass sackings and blatant violations of labour rights during the Jayewardene and Premadasa governments, which were antipathetic to unionised labour despite having its own trade union wing, the JSS. They turned hostile towards labour unions and did everything in their power to crush strikes. PM Gunawardena was right in pointing out the plight of the workers who took part in a general strike in July 1980; tens of thousands of them lost their jobs, and the JRJ government bragged that ‘the elephant’ had only shaken its tail; it was a dire warning that trade unions would have to face a far worse fate if they resorted to industrial action again.

What PM Gunawardena, however, left unsaid was that his current political boss, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, was one of the diehard supporters of President Jayewardene and President Premadasa and served in their Cabinets. One may recall that when some UNP MPs led by Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, together with the Opposition, tried to impeach President Premadasa, Wickremesinghe solidly stood behind him in 1991, and remained ever faithful to him until his untimely demise about two years later despite numerous violations of human rights and attacks on democracy on his watch. Mahinda Rajapaksa was one of the key campaigners against the Premadasa government. In fact, it was his public protest campaigns that helped him rise to national prominence and work his way up to become the President. Today, Mahinda has thrown in his lot with Wickremesinghe. So has PM Gunawardena!

It may be recalled that the SLFP, which was involved in the 1980 strike, promised to look after the interests of the terminated workers, some of whom were driven to suicide. But the unfortunate strikers’ problems remained unsolved even under the SLFP-led governments of Presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Gunawardena was a minister in those administrations, which did not honour the SLFP’s assurance to the July strikers that justice would be served. One cannot but agree with PM Gunawardena that democracy suffered tremendously under the Ranasinghe Premadasa government, but he needs to be told that the wrongs that previous regimes committed cannot be cited in extenuation of the incumbent dispensation’s undemocratic acts, which are legion. Let that be the bottom line.

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