Within days of the 2001 election, power was restored. And within a couple of months a ceasefire agreement was signed with the LTTE to immediately suspend fighting (this is the only agreement that was ever signed by Ranil and the LTTE notwithstanding the false propaganda claims made by the People’s Alliance). The construction industry began to boom, with investments made in small hotels, high-rise apartments, and infrastructure development projects like the long overdue expansion and modernization of the Katunayaka Airport and the bridge from Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya to Kolonnawa. For the first time in four hundred years the nation was self-sufficient in rice. Tourism soared giving those in the industry, service charge dividends of over Rs. 20,000 a month; the wayside economies – such as restaurants and boutiques were quickening with life. By 2003, the economy had begun to rejuvenate with growth rates of near 7% being recorded and the rupee that was hitting close to 100 for one dollar was brought down to Rs. 93 for one dollar.
As Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, another of Ranil’s significant achievements was to break down the country’s many ethnic barriers. He was able to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table for peace talks; and then, to a consensus to search for a solution to the ethic problem within a united Sri Lanka. Under Ranil’s leadership, the peace process became an inclusive act gathering the inputs of the marginalized Muslim community. It also included the voices of women from the North, East and South through the Gender Committee.
The Ceasefire Agreement allowed for the massive development of the Vanni and Jaffna. As a result, the services extended by the central government were upgraded. Both the government and NGOs initiated major development and welfare projects. It also led to a large number of LTTE cadre travelling to the Middle East for employment.
As the decades of mistrust and racial acrimony began to dissolve with confidence building measures, the peoples of the nation began to traverse freely from the North to the South and East and vice versa. Abandoned religious places were revisited; old landmarks were recognised; forgotten roads were travelled; lost friendships were resurrected. One of the pilgrims to visit the sacred Kovil of Nallur in the North was Ranil himself – becoming the first Prime Minister to visit to Jaffna in over 20 years.
Ranil was able to galvanise international opinion to assist Sri Lanka, in an ambitious rehabilitation programme. Confidence in his systematic ‘step by step’ approach to the peace process and close bonds established with world leaders, led to pledges of US dollars 4.5 billion by Japan, EU, US and other donors at the Tokyo Conference, to finance reconstruction, on the effective implementation of a peace arrangement.
Yet Ranil was no fool and he wanted the nation to be prepared for any eventuality.
“Under the Ceasefire Agreement, the LTTE had to recognize the right of the Sri Lankan armed forces to safeguard the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. This allowed for the government to sink LTTE ships when they violated the CFA. They did that when they attempted to smuggle arms into the country. We sent the Army for retraining to the UK, US and additionally, to India. Also, remember, the LTTE members travelling out of the country for peace talks had to carry Sri Lankan passports – they had to acknowledge the authority of the Sri Lankan state”.
After holding high-level discussions with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpai of India, US President George W Bush, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a number of defence advisory teams arrived in Sri Lanka to perform comprehensive reviews of the Sri Lankan security forces. The British Report was prepared by the well know General Michael Rose.
As Prime Minister, Ranil declined to sign the Statute of Rome (which established the International Criminal Court and gave the ICC jurisdiction over international crimes against humanity), as there were safeguards already built into the CFA. He also felt that the Sri Lankan judicial system was strong enough to deal adequately with any criminal violations internally. However, he signed the UN Convention against Corruption in 2004 before leaving office. Unfortunately for the country, the legal provisions to transform the Convention into law have not yet been enacted.
Regionally, Ranil continued his efforts at strengthening Indo-Lanka friendship, begun during his years in the Opposition. In the public perception, India was no longer the evil enemy from over the seas, but a land of goodwill and economic opportunity. For the Indians, Sri Lanka was no longer a pesky neighbour with continuous internal problems, but a dignified friend. Moreover under Ranil’s leadership Sri Lanka gained international appreciation and commendation for its liberal ethic, just direction and good governance. A key example being the establishment of the National Police Commission to ensure impartiality within the police force.
As Prime Minister, Ranil was determined not to loose touch with his people. He travelled to many remote villages of the country – sometimes by foot, to meet people living in trying conditions, to respond to their urgent needs. This was simply an extension of a lifetime of quietly travelling around the island; through the vast paddy lands of Ampara and the mountainous tea acres of Poonegala; through the coastal lagoons of Chilaw and the verdant rains forests of Kalawana; through the deep southern villages of Hiniduma to the historic sites of Mihintale. Recognizing the differing needs of people he attempted to tackle some of their pressing problems. This included the program Diripiyasa, which consisted of safe spaces for women to report sexual and gender based violence and gain legal and medical redress.
During the torrential rains of 2003 and the resultant floods and earth slips, Ranil took a personal interest in marshalling disaster management forces, and appointed a high-level team to restore the situation back to normalcy as quickly as possible – ensuring that the displaced men, women and children were looked after, the damaged infrastructure restored, houses rebuilt and livelihoods given a boost.
Even though Ranil wholeheartedly embraces all religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and their spiritual practices, Buddhism still occupies a special place in his heart. This was why he took the initiative to a build a “Ran Vata” for the Sri Maha Bodhi in Annuradhapura. During his time leading the government, no liquor licences were issued; nor were there any new casinos established.
It is to his credit that Ranil governed the country for three years with an unsympathetic President from an opposing party at the helm of the state and a rampant Opposition in Parliament. The hallmarks of his statesmanship were absolute tolerance, consensus building, strategic thinking, a vision outside the box, firmness of purpose, decisiveness when required, and silence at other times. His refusal to lie to his people, his refusal to smile for the cameras, and his refusal to promise a quick fix to win elections (which would have been to the detriment of the country) may have cost him victory in 2004.
In April 2004, when President Kumaratunga prematurely and autocratically called for elections, Ranil commanded a majority in Parliament and had a mandate for another four years. By then, he had begun his program of work for the country as per his election manifesto. At the elections, his government lost, and he has since been the Leader of the Opposition.
In December, when the country was devastated by a Tsuanmi, true to his character Ranil was one of the first statesmen to visit the affected (especially in Galle) offering his support and assistance to the many thousands of displaced people who were distraught due to the loss of families, properties and belongings.
Ranil was unanimously chosen by his Party as their candidate for the 2005 Presidential Elections. Yet by this time Velupillai Pirbhakaran had decided not to continue with a peace agenda because he felt that the peace process had become a ‘peace trap’. This was especially because the Tamil community, including some members of the LTTE, had been won over by peace and were expecting a political settlement. It seems that Pirbhakaran felt that this would have been disadvantageous to his private agenda. Moreover it seems that Pirbhakaran also blamed Ranil for the breakaway of the Karuna faction. This led to a clandestine agreement between Mahinda Rajapakse and Pirbhakaran to enforce an election boycott by the Tamil voters in the LTTE controlled areas and areas subject to their influence. As a result, Ranil lost the election narrowly – by a mere 180,786 votes.