R. Premadasa was born on 23 June 1924 at Dias Place, Colombo 11, to the family of Richard Ranasinghe (Ranasinghe Mudalali) of Kosgoda and Jayasinghe Arachchige Ensina Hamine of Batuwita, Horana. R. Premadasa was the oldest of five children, three sisters, and one brother. He received his primary education at Harvard Girls’ School, Dam Street, Colombo, post primary education at St. Lorenz’s College, Skinner’s Road South (Now Sri Sangaraja Mawatha, Maradana) and his secondary education at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo. While attending school, he attended the Hewavitharana Daham Pasala. He completed his education at St. Joseph’s College, during the Le Goc era. He satisfied all the requirements for registering at the University of London for higher studies. However, he gave up this opportunity to engage in higher studies and chose path of social Service for the welfare of the poor and down- trodden.
He, the Architect of the Sri Sucharitha Movement, a volunteers organisation with the objectives of uplifting the economic, social and spiritual development of the low income people living in shanty areas of the capital. He was the full-time organizer of the community development project of the area in 1939. These youth who enrolled in his development movement refrained from taking liquor and avoided smoking and gambling. Premadasa too was a teetotaler.
Premadasa initially supported the Labour Party, then headed by A. Ekanayake Gunasinha. He was elected Deputy Mayor of Colombo in 1955. Having realized that the Labour Party in the 1950s didn't have a very promising Future, in 1956 Premadasa joined the moderate United National Party, and contested 1956 parliamentary election for Ruwanwella Electorate was defeated. He became the first non-Govigama Politician to reach to the highest levels in democratic, post-independence Sri Lanka.
The following year he joined the protest march to Kandy on October 3, which had been organized by the late J.R. Jayewardene (later President). This march was disrupted at Imbulgoda by some thugs led by a powerful Politician of the area. He was elected the third Member of Parliament for Colombo Central in the Dudley Senanayake government at the general election held in March 1960, but failed in the July general election. Later he was elected Member for the Cinnamon Gardens Ward in the Colombo Municipal Council.
In 1960, he married Hema Wickramatunge, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Wickramatunge Arachchige Charles Appuhamy of Bandarawela, on June 23, 1964. The son, Sajith, and daughter, Dulanjali, were born to this couple.
He was elected second Member of Parliament at the general election held in 1965 for the same seat and was appointed Chief Government Whip besides being appointed Parliamentary Secretary of Local Government. Later he was raised to the position of Minister of Local Government.
During his tenure as Minister of Broadcasting in Dudley Senanayake's cabinet, Premadasa turned Radio Ceylon, the oldest radio station in South Asia, into a public corporation - the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation on 5 January 1967.
In the following general election held in 1970, he was elected first MP for Colombo Central and sat in the Opposition with late J.R. Jayewardene, the Leader of the Opposition. Premadasa was once again appointed Chief Opposition Whip. Further, he was elected chairman of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth Inter- Parliamentary Association held in Australia. In the meantime, he held membership of the Constituent Assembly which drafted the constitution of 1972.
Premadasa was elected first MP for Colombo Central in 1977 and became the Leader of the House and the Minister of Local Government. In addition he became the Deputy Leader of the UNP. When J.R. Jayewardene became the first Executive President of the country, Minister Premadasa became the Prime Minister on February 23, 1978.
Premadasa proposed at the United Nations Organisation in New York to declare a year as International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. The proposal was unanimously accepted at the 37th session of the United Nations General Assembly and 1987 was declared the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless.
He was elected second Executive President of the country when late J. R. Jayewardene stepped down. He led the UNP to victory at the general election held in 1989. He survived the attempted impeachment by some of his party men together with opposition Members of Parliament. When he assumed duties as President, the country was in a bad shape with an insurgency in the South and the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the North and East. So, he first set about overcoming the two major problems in a very competent and matter of fact way. Then, he concentrated on building the economy, in which exercise too he was successful as seen by the improved position of the country’s economy during his tenure.
In 1992, he changed the country’s name in English from Sri to Shri Lanka on the advice of soothsayers, who predicted it would improve the country’s fortunes. However, after his assassination in 1993 the former spelling was restored.
Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed along with 17 others on 1 May 1993, at 12.45 p.m. during a May day rally in north Colombo, by an LTTE suicide bomber. Another 38 people were injured in the bombing including seven who were seriously wounded. An island-wide curfew was imposed hours after the assassination. Prime minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga sworn in as the new acting-president in the afternoon. Government did not announce the death of President Premadasa until 6 p.m. local time when state television Rupavahini broadcast a tape of BBC's report of the incident. A period of national mourning was announced until the funeral. Police claimed that they recovered the severed head of a young man suspected to be the bomber, which found to have a cyanide suicide capsule, bearing LTTE tradecraft in his mouth.