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Mahinda’s crowning political glory 21-years ago

Journalist recalls the General Election of 1989

Many are the articles that have been written from various angles on President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election victory. But the piece published today is different. It is on his second entry into politics in the wake of UNP and JVP terror 21 years ago. Having won a parliamentary seat for the first time in 1970 and after being defeated in 1977, Mahinda Rajapaksa returned to Parliament in 1989. Here senior Journalist Dharman Wickremaratne revives his memories of his experiences in working closely with the present President for over month during the general election of 1989

By Dharman Wickremaratne
I remember Mahinda Rajapaksa visiting our home in the early 1970s. It was due to the connection he had with my father, Gunapala Wickremaratne, who was, then, Deputy Director General of Education. His mother, Urugamuwe Katharina Amarasinghe’s elder sister was married to Buddhiyagama Dahanayaka Loku Mahattaya. He was the son of a brother of D.M. Rajapaksa. When my uncle, Punyapala, applied for the job of kachcheri clerk in 1944, it was Dahanayaka who introduced him to D.M. Rajapaksa. That was the start of a relationship that became stronger from generation to generation. When I joined the Divaina Sinhala national daily newspaper in 1984 these memories were revived and the relationship was further strengthened.

The JVP-UNP terror hit the country in 1987-90. Among the leaders of the campaign against the massacre of youth in the South was Mahinda Rajapaksa. Hoping to raise this issue through the press, he organised a four-day media seminar in Colombo from March 21 to 24,1998. However, only Padmasiri Rajapaksa of Dinaresa, Priyantha Colombage of Rawaya, Matara Correspondent Siri Wauwage (photographer) and I attended the event. The outcome of this discussion was a series of articles titled ‘Visit to the burning South’ (Ginigath dakunata giyemi) that appeared for two weeks in the Sinhala and English Sunday newspapers. The result was the then President J.R. Jayewardene ‘guillotining’ me on April 28, 1988. I thereafter joined the SLFP daily Dinaresa as News Editor on the invitation of Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike. At the time censorship and terrorism had changed our daily routine.

Going through my old dairy, I came across the date March 4, 1988. Place IRED Institute, Horton place, Colombo 7. The Convener of the event was Sunimal Fernando. There is no doubt that the discussions there laid the seeds of all the victories of the present President. The participants were KHA. Godawatte, Kudagalara Samarasinghe, T. Jayasinghe, Willie Gamage, Dharman Wickremaratne, SS. Sahabandu, Justin Dissanayake, Peiris and the brothers, Chamal, Mahinda and Basil. Kudagalara Samarasinghe recorded the proceedings. All plans were prepared for the 1989 General Election. It was Basil Rajapaksa who predicted that some day a President will emerge from the South. Basil was the brains behind all the strategies. We met every week and worked out the plans. Discussions were held sometimes in ‘Carlton’ Tangalle, Basil Rajapaksa’s residence at Jubilee Post and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s residence at Dehiwala. The outcome of these meetings was the Human Rights Protection and Legal Aid Centre at ‘Carlton,’ human rights activities and protest demonstrations.

Joint election campaign
The JVP called for the boycott of the Presidential Election. The terror they and the government unleashed intensified. It was under these circumstances that Ranasinghe Premadasa was able to win the Presidential Election of December 19, 1988. After his victory, he decided to hold the General Election on February 15, 1989. We decided to meet the new situation with renewed strength. All of us camped at ‘Carlton’, Tangalle a month before the General Election. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa regularly gave advice from abroad. Chamal Rajapaksa worked from Medamulana. But the Joint Election Campaign Centre was at Carlton. Willie handled the coordination and administration, and I directed the field operations. Promotional work was the responsibility of Padmasiri Rajapaksa,Vernon Samarakoon, Disa and many others.

Among those who campaigned for Mahinda Rajapaksa in 1989 were some of those who had worked for him in 1970 and 1977. They included Willie Gamage, Justin Dissanayake, A. Weeraratne, Wimalaratne, Sinha Abeygunawardena and Henry. We used to wake up at 5.30 a.m., start work at 7.30 a.m. and continue till 7.00 p.m. Due to army orders in response to JVP terror we could not work after 7.00 p.m. though we used to engage in discussions and exchange experiences till 12 midnight. Willie used to recall his days with Mahinda Rajapaksa MP at Anderson Flats in the 1970s. I recall Henry saying that he too at the time supported Mahinda who was then guiding trade unions at the Sri Jayewardenepura University.

At Carlton, Tangalle there were nearly 200 people in addition to our group to work for the campaign. All of them were the second generation of staunch supporters of the Rajapaksas. They were Mahinda’s closest associates. In fact, most of them were ‘political refugees’ because the JVP had threatened to kill them. To make matters worse the UNP Government ironically branded them JVP members and was trying to hunt them down. Although they were a good ‘political investment’ for the SLFP Mahinda was totally opposed to treating them in such a way. Consequently he had to bear the responsibility for their safety. Amazingly he could remember the names of all of them and their family backgrounds. It was he who proposed that all these village youth should be insured. For this purpose we met Insurance Agent Getamanne Weerakoon, who lived near Carlton, according to my diary. His clerk was Sarath Amaraweera. It showed Mahinda’s gratitude towards his comrades.

They were all camped at Carlton, at the building where Shiranthi Rajapaksa ran a pre-school and a temporary shelter at the same premises. In addition three rooms in the nearby Tangalle Rest House were booked for them. The Rest House owner Jayasinha Ralahamy was a long-time family friend of the Rajapaksa. Next to the Rest House was the Navy camp. Andrahendi, a lawyer who was a candidate in the election sometimes stayed in the Rest House for his safety. It was a relief that the government had allocated two guards for every candidate. Corporal Bandara and soldier Tilak provided security for Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Saved lives of youths
C. Col. Eric De Silva who was then a Commanding Officer in Galle was able to secure the release of Chandi Malli within a few days. Then as now there were many people who were ready to give Mahinda Rajapaksa any assistance he required. They were so loyal to the Rajapaksas of Giruwapattuwa that they were willing to help the family in whatever way they could.

During the 1989 election period, Mahinda Rajapaksa woke up at 5.00 a.m. everyday, read some book for a few minutes and then at 6.00 a.m. came to the office, which was in the same premises. During in the morning he attended to various court cases and other urgent work. Every morning around 25 poor villagers of Giruwapattuwa used to meet him. He solved most of their problems as far as possible then and there by phoning the relevant officials. Some of the villagers came to see him with a bag of rice, bag of coconuts, vegetables, wood apple or other fruits. They were good natured innocent people who campaigned for him by word of mouth risking their lives in that period of terror. ‘Carlton’ was open for visitors at breakfast and lunch times any day. One morning a mill owner rushed to the house and informed Mahinda that an employee had suffered a very serious injury while at work. The victim had lost several fingers when they were accidentally caught in a machine. The mill owner told Mahinda that the injured employee, who was a UNP activist, was demanding compensation of Rs. 25,000. The mill owner was not ready to give in to the demand and wanted to go to courts. Mahinda, however,smilingly asked him whether the victim’s blood too was green (UNP colour) and warned the owner that if he resorted to legal action he would be compelled to pay a much bigger amount as compensation. Therefore, he was told meet the relevant labour officer and pay a reasonable compensation.

Modest meals
Leaving home daily at 8.00 a.m. after paying homage to the Buddha, Mahinda spent a few hours in courts before engaging in election campaign work till 7.00 p.m. After consuming two glasses of water he had his tea around 6.30 a.m. His favourite dish for breakfast was red rice, ‘kiri hodi’ made from coconut milk, ‘lunumiris’ and ‘embul thiyal’ fish. Concerning fish he had a taste for kelawallas and bala fish (bala maalu). He had rice for all three meals. On the table was also a jar of pickle made from a mixture of ‘lunumiris,’ papaw and vinegar. During lunch he also had curd mixed with rice and at night he had curd and treacle as dessert. He also liked treacle mixed with kurakkan. On and off he had pittu and coconut milk for dinner. But I cannot recall him having hoppers, string hoppers or fish buns. During the election campaign he did not hesitate to have lunch at any villager’s house. He loved ‘kalu dodol.’ But he ate it only after removing the layer of oil by rubbing a piece of paper on it for two or three minutes. He was also fond of having melons with bee’s honey and enjoyed eating pieces of cucumber with the village folk in their ‘chenas’ or at places where they to do their purchasing and have tea.

Facing the terror of 1989, Mahinda went ahead with election campaigning and met people at weekly and daily village fairs in Vitharandeniya, Rathnawadiya, Ranna, Getamanna, Beliatta and Tangalle. At all these places, farmers and traders extended to him their maximum support. The man who went in front making announcements was Abeygunawardena alias Kiwi Abey. It was amazing the way he met people in fisheries villages after reaching them via Moraketiara from Mawella through the terror-ridden Kudawella in Beliatta. Although Nalagama and Vitharandeniya in the Tangalle and Beliatta seats and Ridiyagama in the Tissa-Ambalantota seat were the ‘fortresses’ of the then President Premadasa, Abey and I were succeeded in building pro-Mahinda strongholds there. The most number of villagers who at the time supported Mahinda were from Dammulla, Pallattara, Beligalla and Getamanna among a few others. We who engaged in election campaigning sometimes used to bathe in the anicut near the paddy fields of Kahawatte alongside the Beliatta-Walasmulla and the Tangalle-Weeraketiya roads. During any break from the routine, Mahinda used to visit the homes of friends nearby. He never suspected them and criticised them for their shortcomings. But he never harboured any grudges and forgot the incidents thereafter.

Election Day dawned on February 15, 1989. The auspicious time for leaving home was 6.07 a.m. The well-known astrologer from Maharagama who decided on the time, said that it was a very powerful ‘neketha’ and that the colours for the occasion should be blue, yellow, red, white and green. According to him, blue symbolised the ocean, red symbolised the people, white symbolised harmony and justice and green the land. As we stepped out of the house, Shiranthi Rajapaksa met us carrying a glass of water as the traditional good omen.

Unofficial curfew
The JVP had warned that they would kill the first 12 persons who cast their vote. The party had declared an unofficial curfew from February 13 to February 16 islandwide. Overcoming all these obstacles Mahinda Rajapaksa met villagers in Tangalla, Vitharandeniya and Puwakdandawa from the early hours of that day. People were busy as bees at the voting centres at the Technical College, schools and other places. By daytime it was the same in all the villages of the district. Although there were no mobile phones at the time, we had some walkie-talkies by which were able to communicate between a distance of three and four kilometres. As soon as election results were announced we went to the Government Agents Office in Hambanthota. I was one of Mahinda’s chief agents at the counting centre. The results delayed due to the prevailing tense atmosphere, were finally released 11.30 a.m. Mahinda and Chamal Rajapaksa had won and their victory was unique in the sense that they succeeded in spite of all obstacles.

We returned to Carlton. Villagers who had heard that Mahinda had won shouted and danced with joy. Everywhere we went we heard only ‘Jaya Wewa.’ Crowds flocked to Medamulana to celebrate victory. Mahinda joined the villagers of Giruwapattuwa in the celebration. That was the strength and support he needed take a thousand more steps to reach the peak of success. His elder sister’s husband Siri Hettiarachchi (Siri Aiya) told us where we should meet that evening. The activists who came from Colombo bid farewell to the Parliamentarian Mahinda Rajapaksa. We had our celebrations in the house of Samarasiri Jayasena at Walpola, Matara. Today it is exactly 21 years since all these events became part of our political history.

(Dharman Wickremaratne is a environmental Journalist who can be reached at ejournalists@gmail.com)