Epilogue of Life in Actions – The Island

Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Who met the ocean.”
Rachel Carson (Undersea)

Invitations are required for weddings. Funerals are open spaces. None are forbidden; anyone can appear, even sworn enemies. Lankan politicians use this openness as a political tool, so only while they are active in politics.

Sirisena Cooray never missed a funeral until the day he died (the exceptions being his stays abroad and, of course, during the pandemic). This habit persisted even after he gave up politics and retired to private life. For him, going to a funeral, closer or further away, to a villa or a municipal apartment, was not a political act, not even a social duty, but something as natural as a conversation.

It was part of who he was, a man who loved books but believed in people. Not the Nation, lionized and sacralized, but people, individuals lacking in life and living. These interactions motivated and energized him, giving him a reason to continue to be involved in society, especially during those long years without crowding after he lost his friend-leader Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Sirisena Cooray’s house was always open, his phone number public domain. People would call, ask for a job, a house, an entrance to some official space closed to ordinary citizens. His means were limited, but within that reduced space he would gladly do everything possible, not because he could gain anything by such an engagement, but because not making an effort was unthinkable. He left politics, but the sense of responsibility never left him. he was able to deliver Whenever he gained a quiet sense of satisfaction. Reading was a hobby, meeting friends and traveling was a pleasure. Working with people and for people was a profession, a vocation, a life.

Sirisena Cooray belonged to a period in Lankan politics when leaders were approachable and approachable. You didn’t need meetings or contacts; you didn’t have to go through security barriers, each more terrifying than the last. You have just entered a meeting with parliamentarians, ministers, even prime ministers. If you were lucky, you might get a cup of tea, if you were lucky, a solution to your problem. You always get that cup of tea at Sirisena Cooray’s. And a sympathetic ear, a promise to try, a promise that was always kept even if the effort failed.

Press Colombo Central

Colombo Central, even when I met it in the mid-1990s, was a village within the city. People had deep roots there, emotional connections and interconnections, and long memories, some passed down like an incorporeal inheritance. It was loud and quiet, unusual and everyday, an anomaly that was also a microcosm, a place of multitudes that did not swallow the individual.

Sirisena Cooray grew up in this place, and at a time when change was in the air, change from British rule to independence, change from colonial rule to electoral democracy. The man was coming into his own as a citizen-voter. Even the poorest had something desirable, a franchise. Individual self-improvement was seen as a necessary component of the larger social regeneration that the new age required. Ranasinghe Premadasa started his Sucharitha movement during these boiling times. “We grew up hearing stories about the extraordinary activities of this extraordinary young man,” Sirisena Cooray would recall in President Premadasa and I: Our Story. “Even before we met, he was my role model.”

Admiration led to emulation (that expression of the sincerest flattery would not have failed Ranasinghe Premadasa). When he was 12 years old, Sirisena Cooray and his playmates founded a society modeled on the Sucharitha movement, called Sri Sucharitha Vaag Vardana Lama Samajaya (Children’s Society for Improving Oratory Skills would be a rough translation). There were discussions, debates, but also more formal gatherings attended by personalities of local and national importance. It was an ideal launching pad for a future politician. It was also the best germ for life with people, a life of work.

Sirisena Cooray once called Ranasinghe Preamadas a storehouse of concepts. Sirisena Cooray was a storehouse of stories, a storehouse of oral history of a place historians bypassed (he was also a great storyteller, despite being an indifferent speaker; public audiences are anonymous; you told stories to a familiar audience).

One story was about the bucket latrines then common in the poorer areas of Colombo (they would survive until the early 1980s until the Premadasa-Cooray combine replaced them with latrines); and a community of laborers brought from India by the British to clean them up. Every morning these men and women emptied the often overflowing containers of human excreta into open trucks. In this community, death was celebrated the way other people celebrated births and weddings. The life of these people was so relentlessly miserable, death came as the only possible release.

It was an experience that left a deep impression on Sirisena Cooray. Contrary to popular misconception, both he and Ranasinghe Premadasa came from middle-class backgrounds. But they were born and spent their formative years in Colombo Central, “one of the poorest, most neglected areas of the city”, the despised habitat of miserable Lanka. It was also a mixture of primeval pluralities, where Sinhalese, Tamils ​​and Muslims lived cheek by jowl, literally. Poverty was the common thread that connected them, a bond strengthened by a shared sense of hopelessness.

“All theory is gray,” wrote Goethe in Faust. Sirisena Cooray (whose copy of that epic remains on one of my shelves) agreed. Politics, he would insist during endless debates, must not be learned from books, but from people and their lives. And for a young man with an awakening interest in politics, Colombo Central was a good place to learn about society’s ongoing socio-economic ills. Not just poverty, but poverty, not just unemployment, but unemployment, not just homelessness but homelessness, little things that add content to bare numbers, not just statistics, but lived experiences.

This knowledge helped set Ranasinghe Premadasa and Sirisena Cooray apart from most other leading politicians. He taught them that grand theories and impressive statistics mattered little if they did not positively touch the lived experiences of ordinary people. When the Uda Gam housing program was launched, detractors, especially on the left (a category to which I belonged) condemned it, saying that the houses were like chicken coops. But for a family living in a cabin that was often rented out, that ‘chicken coop’ was a dreamless home.

In the garden of an apartment building, dozens of families may have had to share one toilet, but that was infinitely better than sharing a bucket toilet. To understand these fundamental practical differences, it was not enough to visit the poor during election season or read about them in books. One must get to know their life, everyday and intimately. This knowledge enabled the Premadasa-Cooray duo to do more for the poor than any other leader before or since. That knowledge, and the sense of responsibility that comes from it, will drive Sirisen Cooray to do what he can to make a difference in one life at a time, until the day he dies.

Race and class

In book II of Odyssey, Telemachus, the young son of Odysseus and Penelope, turns to his father’s subjects to ask for their help in suppressing his mother’s unwanted suitors who have been laying bare his father’s property and thus his inheritance. But the people of Itha do not answer. They are not interested. In the absence of their king, they were given limited and temporary freedom to live their lives as they wished.

The French Revolution, with its overthrow and beheading of Louis XVI and the institution of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, opened the door to a political system that turned subjects into citizens with the right to choose their rulers. People whose historical role was limited to work and soldering entered the center of politics as voters. In response, political leaders began to trade in identity politics, invoking ethnic, religious, caste or tribal affiliation as a means of political relevance and electoral gain.

Identity politics might be an elixir for politicians, but for a country and its people it is a poisoned chalice, eroding primordial loyalties and sowing the seeds of future conflict. This was, for example, a legacy from 1956.

The way envisioned by Ranasinghe Premadasa and practiced by Sirisena Cooray was the antipodal: winning over the poor from all communities through tangible improvements in their lives. And achieve this upward socio-economic mobility of the poor without the rich feeling threatened. This fell under the category of (what Amartya Sen called) the ‘good and just’ development model, radical in intent but non-confrontational in style. Situated beyond the traditional ‘either-or’ deadlock, this model viewed economic strategy as a series of trade-offs balancing the interests of different socioeconomic groups for the common good. And the ‘common good’ is not a myth, but a truth that makes life acceptable, as we realized last year when we lost it due to economic and social collapse.

The absence of such a balanced economic strategy, along with racism, fueled the second JVP rebellion. Ranasinghe Premadasa wanted to end the conflict through negotiations, but the JVP was not interested. Sirisena Cooray founded and ran the Ops-Combine (operating from his home) to stop the country’s slow descent into anarchy. In a colorful speech by Deepthi Kumara Gunaratne, “Sirisena Cooray was the former manager of the Colombo cinema. He used the rural youth who watched western movies to destroy the rural youth of the JVP.

Therefore, Cooray, who was not a racist, defeated racism in the 1980s through Western thinking” (Sirisena Cooray: Beyond Psychology – ). Sirisena Cooray attributed the success of Ops-Combine to the new approach he brought in – to stop the indiscriminate killing of JVP suspects and focus on leadership. And, as in economics, think outside the box. For example, “I told the security personnel to get hold of the buses in advance and keep them in military camps with drivers and conductors. When the JVP declares a curfew, these buses would hit the roads. This is how we had buses that run even on JVP curfew days” (President Premadasa and I: Our Story).

When the LTTE broke off negotiations and the second Eelam War began, Premadasa’s plan was to conquer and consolidate in the East before moving north. Consolidation did not mean militarization but development. As Sirisena Cooray wrote, “carry out development work and political reforms in the areas, giving the people a decent standard of living and some measure of self-government…

There was a presidential mobile in Vavunija. Several garment factories were operating as part of the 200 garment factory program… Immediately after an area was liberated, we would move in and build houses for the people in that area. Initially, Mr. Premadasa wanted 1,000 houses to be built in three months in the liberated areas. When they finished, he was dead” (ibid).

When Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed, his development model was abandoned by everyone except Sirisena Cooray. But Sirisena Cooray could do nothing when he left the party and then politics. Deprived of the space to influence development policy, he still persisted in doing what he could to make a difference, first through the Premadasa Center, later on his own.

In the accepted political parlance of Sri Lanka, Sirisena Cooray was a reactionary. He was UNP, he was Premadasa’s man, and that meant, ipso facto, reactionary. In this rigid categorization, his enduring non-racism and all the development work he helped implement counted for nothing.

Sirisena Cooray never saw himself as a progressive or a reactionary. Those labels were not important to him. For him, as well as for his friend-leader, the work they had done should speak for itself. He did not deal with theories, even less with slogans. For him, the work was what counted. Much of the development work he did, both as a politician and as a former politician, remains unknown and uncelebrated. That’s what he wanted. “Don’t talk about me”, was his constant instruction. There are no pictures either. The singer was unimportant; only the song counted and many lives lit up by its melody.

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