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. When I joined the Divaina in 1984 these memories were revived and the relationship was further strengthened.
Going through my old diary I came across the date March 4, 1988. Place IRED Institute, Horton place, Colombo 7. The Convenor 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 K. H. A. Godawatte, Aamarasinghe, T. Jayasinghe, Dr. Willie Gamage, Dharman Wickremaratne, SS. Sahabandu, Justin Dissanayake, K. D. Peiris and the brothers, Chamal, Mahinda and Basil. 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 and Legal Aid Centre at ‘Carlton,’ human rights activities and protest demonstrations.
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 Gamage handled the coordination and administration, and I directed the field operations. Promotional work was the responsibility of Ari Weeeratne, Padmasiri Rajapaksa, Disa, Keerthi Disanayaka and many others.
Among those who campaigned for Mahinda Rajapaksa in 1989 were some of those who 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 6.00 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. Bandara and Tilak provided security for Mahinda Rajapaksa.
During the 1989 election period, Mahinda Rajapaksa woke up at 5.00 a.m. every day, read some book for a few minutes and at 6.00 a.m. came to the office, which was in the same premises. In the morning he attended to various court cases and other urgent work. Every morning over 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.
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 enjoyed treacle mixed with kurakkan. On and off he had pittu and coconut milk for dinner. But I cannot recall him having 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.’ 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, where farmers and traders extended to him their maximum support. 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, Ari and 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 criticized 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 symbolized the ocean, red symbolized the people, white symbolized 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.
The JVP had warned that they would kill the first 12 persons who cast their vote. The party had declared an unofficial curfew from 13th to 16th February Island wide. 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 kilometers. As soon as election results were announced we went to the Government Agent’s Office in Hambantota. 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 victories 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 flocked to Medamulana to celebrate the victory. Mahinda joined the villagers of Giruwapattuwa in the celebration. That was the strength and support he needed to take a thousand more steps to reach the peak of success. Today it is nearly 22 years since all these events became part of our political history.
(The Writer is a senior Environmetal Journalist who was attached to "Divaina" in 1988-89)