Political Column  

The politics of whodunit
By Our Political Editor
Who killed Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, an icon of patriotism in Sri Lanka and a man who abhorred terrorism?
A man who served the nation without selfish ideals or pompous double talk fell victim to an assassin's bullet on August 12, or eleven days ago. Last Monday he was cremated at Independence Square with State patronage. Like in the past ten days, the question lingers on the lips of every Sri Lankan. So much so, it has become the burning national question.

One has to begin with the highest in the land. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Head of State, Minister of Defence, Commander in Chief of the armed forces among others passed judgement on Saturday morning (August 12). She declared "Lakshman Kadirgamar was felled by political foes opposed to the peaceful transformation of conflict and who were determined to undermine attempts towards a negotiated political solution the ethnic conflict."

Within minutes after Kadirgamar was known to be dead, she blasted the LTTE in very strong local language, but the very next day she refrained from naming them. This created a major problem not only for foreign Governments but also for the media who were reporting on the tragic event. Kumaratunga's statement meant it could have been anyone else other than the LTTE, or so many thought. More details on that later.
The head of the Political Wing of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), S.P. Thamilselvan condemned those in Colombo who hastily blamed them. He said, "We also know that there are sections within the Sri Lankan armed forces operating with a hidden agenda to sabotage the Ceasefire Agreement."

Truth is stranger than fiction, there was a meeting of minds, a confluence of thought and speech. Both President Kumaratunga and the LTTE, in their own words, had agreed that the dastardly killing had been carried out by enemies of the peace process. Even if it was not so, it seemed as if the two sides had agreed on what to say. Who are these enemies who were resorting to deadly violence to wreck the peace process?

It took days for the mystery to unfold. On Sunday night, more than 48 hours after the killing, Kumaratunga now accused the LTTE. She said their "only language is violence, their only method terror and brutality. She named a line up of Tamil political leaders who were "murdered by the LTTE to subjugate the Tamil people through violence and terror". She said Mr. Kadirgamar had "joined this long list of distinguished Tamil leaders."

The Sunday Times front page lead story last week had noted the shift in Government's position from blaming enemies of the peace process to the LTTE. That Sunday JVP's Wimal Weerawansa was talking to a senior Sri Lanka Freedom Party politician who had come to the Foreign Minister's official residence to pay his respects. He said he was appalled that Kumaratunga was treating the Tiger guerrillas with kid gloves and wanted to appease them by not placing the blame on them. A deputy minister had overheard this. Kumaratunga was later heard to tell a ministerial colleague "how can I just blame the LTTE. I am the President and I must have some evidence before I say such a thing". Evidence or no evidence, the same President placed the blame fairly and squarely on the LTTE that very night in a broadcast to the nation.

Even Cabinet Spokesman Nimal Siripala de Silva, who expressed sentiments to the contrary earlier, fell in line. He told a news conference on Saturday the Government finds it difficult to accept the Tiger guerrilla denial. He said "indications are that the LTTE is responsible".
There were others who were more discerning in their judgement about who did it. That was soon after the killing had taken place. Military Spokesman Brigadier Daya Ratnayake insisted that the assassination bore "all the hallmarks" of Tiger guerrillas.

Moreover, two suspects who were arrested ten days earlier for filming and photographing the late Mr. Kadirgamar's residence were positively identified as Tiger guerrillas. So did Police Chief, Chandra Fernando though he blamed the Foreign Minister for not heeding warnings not to go to his private residence at Bullers Lane.

A replay of events that followed the shooting of Mr. Kadirgamar is replete with instances of panic and confusion. The scene of the attack was not sealed off for more than an hour. The warped sense of humour from a senior policeman characterized the situation. He said the attackers waited for a long time after the firing to be arrested, so that they can take their cyanide capsules and become martyrs. Because no one arrived, they boarded a three wheeler scooter and left the area. That was meant to be a joke though a bizarre one at that.

DIG Nimal Lewke, who is head of the Special Task Force police commando arm, was at the scene. He and his men who were moving around entered the Thalayasingham household to find an upstair toilet that was used as the launching pad. Investigations have drawn a virtual blank except for a few clues that are now being chased. CID detectives are recording the statements of a number of persons including commando escorts of Mr. Kadirgamar. Most complained the commandos were being grilled as if they had been the culprits who committed the murder. But a CID detective insisted they were trying to only ascertain whether there was any "security fatigue" -- a state of lull caused by prolonged deployment.
Minister Mangala Samaraweera was one of the first to arrive at the Colombo National Hospital. He was at a discussion with some advisors at his residence when his mobile phone rang.

It was JVP's Wimal Weerawansa inquiring from him whether anything had happened to Kadirgamar. Weerawansa said he had heard some "bad news" and phoned the Foreign Minister's mobile phone. A security officer who had answered had only said there was an incident and hung up. Samaraweera had rung Kadirgamar's official residence at Wijerama Road and had been told by an aide that he had been rushed to the National Hospital. He went there.

Soon Weerawansa joined him. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse who was at dinner at "Temple Trees" had been told by his Army Commando escorts. He arrived at the hospital. Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, John Seneviratne and A.H.M. Fowzie were there. President Kumaratunga, clad in an off white salwar kameez was also there. She had spoken by telephone to Premier Rajapakse and was aware Mr. Kadirgamar had succumed to his injuries.

She walked towards the area where emergency surgery was earlier under way. She spoke to some medical staff outside the operating theatre and later walked towards her ministers. Biting her lips in an apparent bid to suppress her emotions, she walked towards Suganthie Kadirgamar, who was seated in a chair.

She hugged her whilst the latter broke in tears. When that was over, it was clear Kumaratunga was visibly shattered. Samaraweera placed his hands around her shoulders and tried to console her. It was then that an angry Kumaratunga burst out in harsh and unprintable words. She did not hide her feelings. She said in bitter terms that the LTTE was responsible for the killing. Tears were rolling down her cheeks when security staff advised her to leave the area immediately. Other Ministers were also told to depart but Samaraweera had broken down. He was wailing like a child that he had lost a mentor and only good friend in Cabinet. By then, Kumaratunga and some of her Cabinet ministers were aware Kadirgamar had died but no one spoke.

Outside Deputy Media Minister Dilan Perera and Cabinet Spokesman Nimal Siripala de Silva were debating who should officially break the news to the nation. The news was out before they could do so. Security officers had now advised the ministers to disperse. Samaraweera was still in tears when he returned home. He was watching TV, switching channels from CNN to BBC. Later he went to console Suganthie Kadirgamar. Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva stayed right through the preliminary Magisterial inquiry and was taking charge of the situation in the hospital.

State TV, not surprisingly took awhile to make the announcement while CNN and BBC carried the horrific news to all corners of the world. It was the breaking news of CNN that alerted late-night revellers in Colombo and elsewhere that Friday of what happened in Sri Lanka. Mobile phones, SMS messages started flying around; as the witching hour approached, the grim news was that Kadirgamar had not survived an assassin's bullets.

By Saturday morning it was a case of a tragedy making strange bedfellows. Former Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando (Now Governor, North-East), a bitter critic of Kadirgamar during his hey day accusing him of enjoying the benefits of state while being in the Opposition, was extolling his virtues on Rupavahini. He referred to his days in Oxford where they co-existed. Joining him was Dilan Perera whose job after the killing was to offer gratuitous advice to the media on how they should report the event. It was a case of politicians who assume the media portfolio becoming the judge, the jury and in this case, even the Court staff. All this while the state media under his command was making reference to unknown gunmen assassinating Kadirgamar. In the state-run Eye channel there was a tele drama where the story justified the demands of Tiger guerrillas. The next day the tele-drama ran on Rupavahini. Dilan Perera had also gone to Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation's Subharathi programme to declare unknown gunmen were responsible for Kadirgamar's murder.

An angry Deputy Minister Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi telephoned Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse to protest against Dilan Perera's propaganda odyssey. By this time the JVP leadership had realised all was not well at the official residence where the body of the slain Foreign Minister lay. The near and dear, some well wishers, friends and relatives were coming. But the common man was not. Security precautions and the belief it was out of bounds for them was keeping away crowds that wanted to pay their respects. There were no white flags though the Government had chosen to accord a state funeral.

JVP leaders Weerawansa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Deputy Minister Sripathi Sooriyaratchi went on Saturday night to 'Temple Trees', the official residence of the Prime Minister. There, they spoke with Premier Rajapakse. Within minutes he made a string of telephone calls. The next day, white flags began to adorn Wijerama Mawatha, the official residence where the body lay-in-state. The JVP had made sure white flags fluttered in the South. Leading planter and author, and long-time friend of the Minister Malinga Gunaratne (Please see his personal tribute on the cover of our feature section ) who drove to Colombo for the funeral from Ahangama said the roads were full of white flags on Sunday.

He said the hand of the JVP was clearly seen, but equally, that there was a natural outpouring of emotions. The southern electorate, where Kadirgamar always meant to visit, but never did, was in grief. Many people spontaneously organised themselves to travel to Colombo to pay their homage, and it was not for nothing that one mourner wrote in the condolence book referring to Kadirgamar as "apey maha kalu sinhalayata - nivan sepa labewa" or so much as to refer to him as the Great Sinhalese warrior to whom he prayed eternal bliss in Nirvana.

That Saturday evening the politburo of the JVP met and decided they should ensure a large crowd at the funeral. It was decided to notify all its branch orgnizations. Crowds milled outside the official residence at Wijerama and later at Independence Square. Barring the United National Party, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the Tamil National Alliance, Premier Rajapakse joined the JVP, Jathika Hela Urumaya and others in a news conference. There, all of them pointed the finger at the LTTE for the assassination.

Thereafter, Ministers Samaraweera and Nimal Siripala de Silva drove to Janadipathi Mandiraya. It was decided that Rajapakse would be the only speaker on behalf of the Government -- in both English and Sinhala. Efforts by Samaraweera to persuade Kumaratunga to allow five minutes to the JVP, whose leaders were close friends of Kadirgamar did not materialize. She was not in favour. On the grounds that to give the JVP a speaking slot, one would have to give so many other parties a turn, which in turn would extend the funeral ceremonies by almost an hour, the JVP was left out.

One is not sure whether to laugh or cry at the finale to the event -- a statement from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of which Kadirgamar was a prominent member. Its General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena, had prepared a hand written statement on Sunday night, just hours ahead of the funeral. Some media did not use it because they were not sure whether it was an authentic account. For a funeral under state patronage, no Government or SLFP dignitary was on hand to receive local and foreign visitors at Wijerama Mawatha. Such was the honour the SLFP and their minority Government gave one of its heroes who fell victim to a terrorist's bullet.

After taking part in the funeral, Opposition and UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, flew to New Delhi to deliver the Eighth Dinesh Singh lecture in memory of a one time Foreign Minister of India. He said he was talking to them in the shadow of the assassination in Colombo of Lakshman Kadirgamar, his "respected friend and parliamentary colleague".

The two of them kept a regular dialogue, and more often than not, Wickremesinghe would ask for Kadirgamar's presence whenever he was to meet Kumaratunga. Such was the confidence he had in Kadirgamar, to whom he gave all security during his term as Prime Minister. He also saw to it that his party, the UNP praised the Minister for his bi-partisan approach to foreign policy in their statement following his death
In New Delhi, Wickremesinghe referred to the breakaway of the Karuna group from the LTTE, and said that this was a key issue that muddied the water in Sri Lanka's long drawn internal conflict. He said the LTTE accused army intelligence of helping Karuna and giving him protection.
The LTTE claimed in terms of the Ceasefire Agreement that the Karuna group which was deemed to be paramilitaries should be disarmed by the military. He said the Government contended that they had no connection with the Karuna group, and that this group was not a paramilitary unit. As far as the LTTE was concerned, this was a crucial issue and unless settled could result in the breakdown of the Ceasefire Agreement, the UNP leader pointed out.

Wickremesinghe said there were eight fundamental steps to be taken that required great courage, determination and perseverance and that there are no options. Among them, he said, was the resumption of the peace process as envisaged in the CFA. He noted that the validity of the CFA had been upheld by the Supreme Court in the P-TOMS case.
Another, he said, was to strengthen the Ceasefire Agreement. The monitoring mechanism has no power to police and is not a peace keeping mission.

At the time the monitoring mechanism was put in place, no one envisaged the present situation in the East where many factions operate. "Therefore, to deal with this new situation, we would have to find new ways of operation for the Monitoring Mission so as to make it effective," he added.

Pointing out that killing by all sides should stop, Wickremesinghe also said that an agreement by the Government and Tiger guerrillas on a phased, balanced and verifiable de-escalation, de-militarisation and normalisation process at an appropriate time in the context of arriving at a political settlement was necessary.

Within days of Kadirgamar's killing, Kumaratunga had won a response to her plea from the Tiger guerrillas to discuss the Ceasefire Agreement. Conscious of the hardening of Sinhala-nationalist opinion and mainstream political parties in the south jointly supporting the introduction of a State of Emergency, the guerrillas had climbed down from their refusal to talk about the CFA. Won't they seek to win more concessions from an ever obliging minority Kumaratunga Government? The question remains as to whether this minority Government which has been more accommodating than even the previous United National Front Administration yield to still more demands? As for the LTTE, it will just wait a little till the dust settles, and the country returns to 'normalcy'.

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