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The 75th Anniversary of United National Party – does our future lie in our past?

By Dinal Edirisinghe

The political history of Sri Lanka probably dates as far back as the time of King Ravana narrated in the Ramayana Epic which pre-dated our rich heritage of a 2,300-year monarchy that commenced with the arrival of Prince Vijaya in our beautiful island home in the 5th Century BCE. The United National Party (UNP) founded on 6 September 1946 is the most important Sri Lankan institution and brand since our last Sri Lankan King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe was captured and executed by the British in 1815. Allow me to explain why. 

A glorious past

The UNP has governed Sri Lanka since independence for a cumulative period slightly over 50% of the time. During the party reign, Sri Lanka has prospered and the nation has declined during non-UNP years. The significance of the mission of the UNP lies in its name – United National Party. Its core purpose is to represent a united Sri Lanka where freedom, progress, and justice reign. 

Founding Father of Sri Lanka and UNP Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake initiated the Gal Oya Project, free education, and the University of Peradeniya. His son, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake created the Talawakelle Tea Research Centre, the Lunuwila Coconut Research Centre, and founded the University of Moratuwa. The next UNP Prime Minister Sir John Kotalawela commenced the Lakshapana Hydropower Project, modernised the Ratmalana Airport, and constructed the Kelaniya Bridge. First UNP President J.R. Jayawardene introduced the much-needed Free Market and Open Economic Policies to Sri Lanka; launched the Free Trade Zone concept including Katunayake and Biyagama; built new hydropower reservoirs such as Victoria, Randenigala, Rantambe, and Kotmale; awarded “Swarnabhoomi” land deeds and free school textbooks; and created the University of Ruhuna, the Eastern University, and the Medical Faculty of the Jaffna University. President Ranasinghe Premadasa launched the Gam Udawa Programme and the now critical Apparel Factories Programme and created the National Housing Development Authority, Urban Development Authority,  and Central Environmental Authority. 

Challenges to learn from

Not everything the UNP did was fruitful. Like any human endeavour it made mistakes along the way. The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 and Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act of 1949 sadly disenfranchised upcountry Tamil Workers of Indian descent. The creation of the executive presidency, though well intended, created an all too powerful institution that future custodians abused for narrow political gains. The party was also not able to control and stop the riots of 1983 Black July in a timely manner. The UNP, however, is the only political party to actively learn from its mistakes and reform in a robust manner.

In 1988-89, faced with a monumental twin challenge of a simultaneous Marxist Southern Insurrection and a North Eastern Conflict, Sri Lanka’s Grand Old Party paid the ultimate sacrifice by losing President Premadasa, Presidential Candidate and Party Leader Gamini Dissanayake, great leaders such as Lalith Athulathmudali, and many others including countless tri-forces and police heroes, party loyalists, and innocent civilians in urban and rural Sri Lanka.   

Present era – rebuild, reform, and return to power

Current UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe carried out his mandate to rebuild and reform the UNP from 1994-2000. From 2001-2004 the United National Front regime led by him reversed a negative growth economy, resolved an acute power crisis, and strategically took forward a peace process unilaterally declared by an opportunistic and brutal Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Leader. From 2006 to 2014, the UNP performed below its potential due to a blend of internal party issues resulting in unfortunate and opportunistic crossovers and external challenges, including successful Opposition misinformation campaigns. Many of the UNP Leader’s detractors inside and outside of the UNP seem unable to comprehend his strategic foresight in national consensual decision-making. They were proved wrong from 2014 to 2019 when the Leader as the chief architect of the UNP-led Yahapalanya Government brought forward the crucial 19th Amendment to the Constitution which was passed with 224 of 225 votes in Parliament and a highly successful 100-day plan from January to April 2015. Sadly, the National Policy Framework and government proposed time and time again by the UNP Leader has not resonated with the majority of the politicians who seem to ride the wave when advantageous to them but scuttle it for personal political gain like we saw in 2003, 2006, and 2018 much to the disadvantage of Sri Lanka.

The future – a personal perspective

Earlier today, I was exploring the Joo Chiat area on the East Coast of Singapore when I stumbled upon Ceylon Road, a serendipitous reminder of where Sri Lanka was in the 1960s when legendary Singaporean Leader Lee Kwan Yew visited Colombo for a study tour. Many Sri Lankans, especially professionals, aspire for Sri Lanka to be like Singapore today. It is only UNP values, policies, and past record that can take Sri Lanka there. 

On Monday, 6 September, UNP turns 75. The UNP has just communicated a national strategy based on four pillars: economic security, health security, environment security, and knowledge security. If you genuinely care for Sri Lanka, I sincerely urge you to pay attention.  

(The writer is Founder and Head of Singapore Surmount Ventures)