Sri Lankan right-wing politician, prime minister 1978–88, president from 1988, having gained popularity through overseeing a major house-building and poverty-alleviation programme. He sought peace talks with the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. He was assassinated in office by a suicide bomber in the centre of Colombo; the Tamil Tigers denied responsibility.
A member of the lowly hinaya caste, he was born in a poor area of Colombo, but was educated at the prestigious Roman Catholic St Joseph's College. Originally a Labour Party member, after independence in 1948 Premadasa became a municipal councillor and deputy mayor. In 1960 he was elected to parliament as a representative of the conservative United National Party (UNP) and became a protégé of J R Jayawardene, who was prime minister 1977–78 and president 1978–88. After serving as UNP chief whip 1965–68 and 1970–77 and minister of local government, housing, and construction 1968–70, Premadasa became prime minister in 1978 under Jayawardene. He launched an initiative to provide universal housing and alleviate poverty. He also adopted a Sinhalese nationalist stance in 1987 and refused to support the Indo–Sri Lankan Accord signed by Jayawardene and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
As president, Premadasa negotiated the Indian peacekeeping force's withdrawal from the northern Jaffna peninsula, and secured a 15-month ceasefire with the Tamil Tiger separatist forces. He sanctioned harsh action against the southern-based Marxist JVP movement, which cost at least 5,000 lives August–September 1989. These forthright actions brought back political stability and revived Sri Lanka's economy. Alienated by Premadasa's autocratic style, UNP rivals – including former national security minister Lalith Athulathmudali (also assassinated in 1993) and Gamani Dissanayake – left to form the new Democratic United National Front.