Maheswaran: The chilling message
- Concern over security of opposition politicians
- Strong suspicion on EPDP; court refers to TV interview
Just six hours after the New Year had dawned, a Tamil parliamentarian, a dissenting voice, fell victim to a cold-blooded murder in the sacred precincts of a Hindu Kovil in Kochchikade. A day later, Tiger guerrillas exploded a claymore mine, barely 100 metres from an Army detachment and in the proximity of the Air Force headquarters.
That day, i.e. Wednesday, Jan. 2, the Government abrogated the Ceasefire Agreement of February 22, 2002. It will be ineffective from January 16. On this same day, the Status of Mission Agreement (SOMA) that conferred immunity and inviolable privileges on Scandinavian truce monitors will cease. These monitors who form the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) are hurrying to finish business before this date and leave Colombo.
The very next day, Thursday, Jan. 3, Tiger guerrillas exploded a claymore mine aimed at an Army truck plying the Anuradhapura road at Kebettigollawa, a village that has been the scene of killings of many civilian and military personnel.
Even if every Sri Lankan wished one another for a "happy and a prosperous New Year," those events clearly portended what 2008 holds.
Thiagarajah Maheswaran, a United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian for the Colombo district had gone on Tuesday morning to Ponnambala Vaanieasvarar Hindu temple. In god's own sanctuary a gunman poured bullet after bullet from a micro pistol into his head and chest. He was dead after admission to the National Hospital. The detailed events that led to his killing appear elsewhere in this newspaper. He was the third Opposition Tamil MP to be gunned down during the brief tenure of the incumbent Presidency.
|Opposition UNP supporters in the funeral procession of Maheswaran are seen tearing up a poster carrying the picture of president Mahinda Rajapaksa along with a peace message. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam
However, some of the more important aspects deserve closer examination. His untimely death, at the age of just 41 years, is becoming endemic in a nation that is fighting one kind of terrorism and simultaneously spawning another equally dangerous kind. The days before Maheswaran met with his death, a fate he was worried about, tell a story. The moral of it highlights the all-important question - how safe are ordinary Sri Lankans?
A one time Hindu Affairs Minister and MP for Jaffna, Maheswaran dodged death on the last day of April 2004 general election campaign in Colombo. But, this time sudden death was chasing him was clear to anyone who wanted to know. He was highly critical of the alleged paramilitary outfit of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP). Douglas Devananda, who has remained a cabinet minister in successive SLFP-led governments, leads the EPDP. Maheswaran was also a businessman in the years past dealing in kerosene sales in the troubled north which was facing an embargo at the time. He thus earned the nickname Bhumithel Maheswaran or Kerosene Maheswaran for his troubles. In recent years, his acquisition of ships to transport goods, this time legitimately to Jaffna made him rich. He became a land owner and property developer. He was on the verge of buying aircraft to operate flights from Colombo to Jaffna.
He told the Shakthi television's popular Minnel (lightning) programme on December 30, 2007 at 6 p.m. that he would expose the activities of an alleged militia group operating in Jaffna but out of Colombo, when Parliament resumes sittings on January 8 - next Tuesday. The remarks were made just 40 hours before his assassination. Just 24 hours later, Ithaya Veenai, the radio service operated by the EPDP responded. In their programme at 6 p.m. on Monday, December 31, they castigated not only Maheswaran for his remarks but also Shakthi TV's Sri Ranga, who conducted the Minnel programme.
Allegations of EPDP connections proliferated further after an interview Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella gave BBC's Sinhala service, Sandeshaya shortly after the Maheswaran shooting. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation with Chandana Keerthi Bandara:
Sandeshaya: Do you have any details of the disclosures made by the suspect arrested in connection with the assassination of T. Maheswaran?
Rambukwella: Yes, he has been temporarily living in Wattala………Eight rounds of live ammunition used for micro pistols were found……
Sandeshaya: Is there any truth in reports that he was connected to a Government Minister?
Rambukwella: Yes, there is a report to that effect. He has been in the security detail of Maheswaran himself.
Sandeshaya: Before working for Maheswaran's security, whom did he work for?
Rambukwella: He has been working in the Ministerial Security Division (MSD). I think he has been working for Minister Douglas Devananda. Most of the Tamil MPs use Tamil security guards…………..
Sandeshaya: That means he has been definitely working as a security officer in a Government security service?
Rambukwella: Yes, that is what has been disclosed during the investigations.
Sandeshaya: If that is the case, persons providing security could assassinate an opposition MP. There should be a special investigation about those providing security.
Rambukwella: Definitely. There is no doubt about it. There is a possibility that a spy for a group could infiltrate……
In the wake of these developments, the EPDP strongly denied all allegations against the Party in the Maheswaran killing. A statement issued by them said that killers had rushed to "spread rumours like wildfire with the motive of tarnishing the EPDP and to impress on the general public that it was responsible for the murder of Mr. Maheswaran."
The statement added: "People who are behind this vicious campaign must have a hand, directly or indirectly, in this murder. That is why these elements are spreading rumours to impress the general public before the assailant reveals the truth."
Colombo's Additional Magistrate Ravindra Premaratna on Thursday ordered the Police to take into consideration the comments made in the Minnel talk show. Some of the points made by Maheswaran in the show were:
= Five to six people are killed daily in the Jaffna peninsula. Many are abducted and go missing forever. This is done with the backing of a paramilitary group. At first they will send ten people from the south. After three to four months they will be replaced. Minister Douglas Devananda must take the responsibility for it
= When I was in Jaffna a few days ago, I went to the Karainagar temple. EPDP members surrounded the temple. I have been shot at previously by EPDP groups in Nallur and Ilavalai. The Government has withdrawn my security. I had to seek help from private security firms. Under then Premier, Ranil Wickremesinghe, I had 18 security personnel for seven and half years. At the last general election I escaped death by gunfire. It was due to Police reports that I was provided security.
Why was Maheswaran's security detail of 18 whittled down to just two in the recent weeks?
During an oration at Maheswaran's funeral on Thursday, one of the convenors of the National Congress and head of SLFP-(M) and former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said: "In his last speech in Parliament immediately after the Nugegoda bomb blast when hundreds of innocent Tamil civilians living in and around Colombo were rounded up indiscriminately and arrested for the simple reason of being Tamil, he made a hard hitting speech on the floor of Parliament accusing the government of a systematic campaign against the Tamil people under the guise of fighting terrorism. He threatened to expose the powerful figures behind these horrendous human rights violations. This speech so obviously upset the powers that be that within hours of the speech Mr. Maheswaran's security detail was reduced from 17 (the correct figure was 18) to two………..Thus, all fair-minded people will agree that the responsibility for this dastardly act lies at the feet of the present administration."
One of the characteristics of the defence establishment under the present administration is the withdrawal of security of anyone who is even slightly critical. Claims are made, however, that they are based on intelligence assessments.
Maheswaran not only faced a serious death threat but spoke frankly about them before he was felled by an assassin's bullet. There are many cases where the withdrawal of security, one dare say, was due to reasons other than security considerations and threat factors. Take the case of Samaraweera and colleague Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi. Then followed Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader and Cabinet Minister Rauff Hakeem, who crossed over to the Opposition.
The same fate befell National Heritage Minister Anura Bandaranaike, after he crossed over to Opposition benches on that final day of the Budget debate. He walked out of the chamber to go to his office but found his security had been withdrawn within a matter of minutes. It was reduced from some 70 odd to 2. Now the PSD (Presidential Security Division) is 'guarding' the former Minister, not allowing visitors to see him. Human rights activist and runner up in US State Department's award for human rights defenders, Mano Ganeshan, Colombo district MP, found that his security detail of ten (together with a back up vehicle) had been whittled down to just two. He publicly declared his life was in danger. On Thursday, three more police officers had turned up at his home but Ganeshan sent them back since he had no vehicle for their travel.
Early on Friday, Ganeshan left Sri Lanka to the safety of a foreign country. From his residence in Colombo, European Union's representative in Sri Lanka, Julian Wilson, accompanied him to the airport. Such was an MP's fear for his life. It is in this backdrop that UNP and Opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has also been warned of serious threats to his life. Thus, elected representatives of the people, no matter what views they hold or express, have to live in fear of their lives in Sri Lanka, which the Tourism Ministry calls a "land like no other." Perhaps true. In marked contrast, some 'bureaucrats' and 'aides' who are toadying up to the political leadership have even their families being protected by the Presidential Security Division (PSD).
"Granting personal protection," commented a one time senior defence official "is being used like someone's private property with utter contempt for civilised and established norms." The official who has held a number of positions in the security and defence establishment added, "this callous and petty attitude cost the life of Mr. Maheswaran. It could kill more people if the leadership does not realise the potential danger that lies ahead", he warned.
"Ultimately the responsibility will rest on the political leadership who must answer someday."
He said the actions of a few seemed to reflect either their gross abuse of authority or the power of the gun. He may be right. The underlying message - be with us if you want your security.
There also was a tragicomic aspect to the Maheswaran killing. Even before investigations could begin or end, judgement was passed.
That it came from none other than the Inspector General of Police, Victor Perera. Angered by the Opposition protests against his Department, he said the LTTE was behind the Maheswaran killing. That made clear that the Police Chief, the highest police official in the country appeared unaware of the sequence of events that had led to Maheswaran's death. Could he not have waited until his men found out? It seemed that, like some of the previous Police Chiefs, he had to please someone powerful somewhere.
However, is it incumbent on a Police Chief to say it even before the investigation has begun? Is he not trying to join the politicians in deflecting the issue? The Opposition now wants the Speaker to summon him before the House to answer queries.
Another who took over from him was Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama. In a news release on Friday, he also accused the LTTE of carrying out the killing. An official in the defence establishment, who heard of the Maheswaran killing was quick to remark that the killing "must be business rivalry."
The matter also figured at a meeting of party leaders on Wednesday. Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara is currently on one of his frequent trips abroad. The meeting was therefore chaired by Deputy Speaker, Gitanjana Gunawardena. UNP parliamentarian Joseph Michael Perera proposed that an early date be allotted for the condolence vote on Maheswaran. It was decided it will take place on January 11.
JVP parliamentary group leader, Wimal Weerawansa proposed that in future, security for parliamentarians should not be left only in the hands of those at the Ministry of Defence. He said there should be a decision to urge the authorities to consult the Speaker before any changes are made. Gunawardena could only agree to convey it to Lokubandara when he returns.
UNP's Colombo district organisers were detailed to organise the Maheswaran funeral. Ravi Karunanayake from Kotte led the group, mobilising the funeral orators, while Colombo East's Bodhi Ranasinghe was to oversee the street decorations, and Colombo West's Rosy Senanayake spent several hours consoling Maheswaran's widow and little children.
But there was the ugly side to this as well. The Maheswaran killing saw a pathetic display by UNP stalwarts who enacted an ugly battle to win the hearts - and the votes - of the Tamils living in Colombo. It was the battle for the Manape chande (preferential vote). Some Organisers from the district of Colombo began a race to find space outside the Maheswaran residence to hang up their banners expressing that particular Organiser's balavath sokaya (deepest sympathies) for the slain MP. The front gates and the parapet walls were not spared in the exercise.
The Police was keen that the funeral procession does not lead to a breach of the peace. They refused to allow the procession to wend its way from Wellawatte through Jawatte Road and onto Bauddhaloka Mawatha before proceeding to the General Cemetery. Their argument was that this would mean that the procession would pass the high-security State television Rupavahini and radio stations, the former, a venue much in the news the previous week over the Mervyn Silva drama.
The UNP meekly obliged to the Police request and agreed to wend their way towards Narahenpita and then to the cemetery. Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's own security detail had expressed concern over this move, and was forced to devise their own strategies to protect the Opposition Leader.
On Wednesday, Tiger guerrillas had exploded a claymore mine at Kompannaveediya killing four persons and injuring 28, mostly civilians. Reports of how it happened appear elsewhere in this newspaper. On Thursday, the guerrilla exploded a pressure mine on a passing Army truck at Kebbetigollawa killing two soldiers and wounding four. The Tourist Board was much quicker than the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) in giving details of the incident. It said no tourists were affected and protection was being given to them. Yet, German tour operators, who send the third largest volume of tourist traffic to Sri Lanka, decided to advise tourists not to visit Colombo after that incident.
On Friday, tour operators in the UK and India, the first and the second largest, were examining whether they should continue to send tourists to Sri Lanka. This is in the wake of fears that the abrogation of the Ceasefire Agreement may lead to increased violence. The Cabinet decided on Wednesday to abrogate the CFA and SOMA. It was formally announced by Foreign Minister, Rohita Bogollagama, during a news briefing on Friday. Government official and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of the President, set the stage for the abrogation of the CFA by telling the Daily News that the CFA should be abrogated and the LTTE banned. That was just days ahead of the Cabinet meeting.
The Sunday Times reported two days after the December 14 Budget victory for the Government, thanks mainly to the JVP's volte-face decision to abstain from voting, that one of the conditions the Marxist-Nationalist Party had placed before a prominent Government MP (Basil Rajapaksa) was to abrogate the CFA. One of the other demands is to cut down on the jumbo Cabinet.
The Opposition UNP, architects of the CFA in 2002, says that the JVP also wants the Government to bring down the cost-of-living, and asks why the Government does not do that as well. The Party is yet to come out with a detailed statement on the abrogation of the CFA, some of its frontliners making incohesive disjointed remarks about the Party's position on the matter.
The world outside has expressed utmost concern at these developments, and urged both the Government and the LTTE to refrain from harming civilians. Both sides seem equally deaf to these concerns, and tit-for-tat killings are bound to increase. And the Maheswaran murder clearly shows that the politics of Colombo is very much part and parcel of the turbulent events unfolding.