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Janaka: The shock and the shame

  • Family members horrified by treatment given to war hero after A'pura bomb attack
By Our Political Editor

Weeks ahead of the North Central Provincial Council elections in August, Major General (retired) Janaka Perera confided to a family member, that he met Basil Rajapaksa MP, Senior Presidential Advisor. It was Thilanga Sumathipala, former UNPer and now Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) organiser for Anuradhapura, who had facilitated it.

Known for his exceptionally good public relations skills, Rajapaksa, the key strategist in the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, broached the subject of Perera's then impending entry into politics. He asked the Army's former Chief of Staff whether he would support the government and play an important role. He could even be a defence advisor, he was told.

The soldier turned diplomat who served as Sri Lanka's envoy in Canberra (Australia) and Jakarta (Indonesia) politely turned down the offer. "I have already given my word to Ranil Wickremesinghe to be the United National Party (UNP) chief ministerial candidate for the NCPC elections," he declared. The meeting ended with Rajapaksa sounding a note of caution that he would then have to face the political consequences.

Following the controversy over the airlifting of the bodies of Major General Janaka Perera and his wife Vajira, their bodies are seen being taken in a motorcade to Anuradhapura. Pic by Athula Bandara

Such a political consequence, neither Rajapaksa nor Sumathipala would have thought would come in the form of a suicide bomber snuffing out Perera's life. Having won the largest number of preferential votes at the NCPC polls, Perera became the Leader of the Opposition. That was an endorsement that the people regarded him as a good soldier who defended his motherland and won the respect of his men. Instead of opting to Rajapaksa's offer of becoming Defence Advisor, Perera had also agreed to Wickremesinghe's proposal to be the National Security Spokesman for the UNP, an appointment that was to be made last Wednesday.

On Monday morning, he opened the office of the NCP Opposition Leader in a two-storeyed building near the old bus stand in Anuradhapura town. A suicide bomber walked close to him, almost at the tail end of the opening ceremony, tore open his shirt, and detonated the explosives strapped to his body. Perera had dodged Tiger guerrilla bullets many a time during the separatist war. He risked death on a few occasions to learn parachute jumping. As a commando officer, he later earned his wings for learning that rare skill, the pride of commandos or Special Forces in the Army and their equivalents in the Navy and Air Force. However, that lone suicide bomber blew him apart. The same fate befell his one time comrade-in-arms, a Women's Corps officer and later wife, Vajira.

Also among the 28 killed were Dr Raja Johnpulle, the long-time UNP Anuradhapura District organiser and wife Jenny. Reams of newsprint and hours of prime time slots on television and radio have been devoted to the incident. More details appear elsewhere in this newspaper. The Government lost no time in blaming the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of carrying out the attack. However, the UNP charged that the pro-Government paramilitary cum political group Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) was behind the attack.

Colombo district parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake told a news conference that erstwhile LTTE eastern commander and TMVP leader Karuna (alias Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) was appointed a Member of Parliament as a reward for the actions of his group. Yet, it came as a scathing indictment and once more a reminder of the pathetic state of affairs in the UNP. None in their ranks was able to raise objections on the floor of the House before Karuna was sworn-in as a Member of Parliament. The man whom the UNP was accusing is the leader of the TMVP, a man convicted of a criminal offence abroad, and jailed. If their accusation is right, it was such a person who was being rewarded. Whether such an objection was upheld or not is another matter.

After all, the TMVP leader admitted before a Crown Court in the UK that he had entered that country illegally using a diplomatic passport with his photograph but a different name. He was convicted of that criminal offence and served a prison term. There will now be a new precedent. Any Sri Lankan convicted of criminal offences abroad could still be a member of Sri Lanka's supreme legislature.

There is no doubt Perera was a high profile target of the LTTE. He knew it well. At least on two different occasions he was warned by security authorities after intelligence reports suggested that the guerrillas were plotting to kill him. It was not only the guerrillas who feared Perera. He failed to win an extension of service after now General Lionel Balagalle was appointed Commander of the Army in August 2000. He retired in January 2001 as Chief of Staff of the Army.

At that time a confidante asked President Chandrika Kumaratunga why she later appointed him High Commissioner to Australia. "It is better he remains in Australia than in Sri Lanka," she remarked somewhat jocularly. Yet, the remarks reflected Kumaratunga Government's mood then. Now in Europe, Kumaratunga, like many others, including the opposition, refused to believe Perera fell victim to a guerrilla suicide bomber.

If who killed Perera is an issue of contention, at least between the Government and the UNP, there is no question that the veteran soldier was a target of the guerrillas. There were intelligence warnings. Perera was aware. He not only wrote letters to the Ministry of Defence but also went to the Supreme Court to seek relief. That led to a group of police officers being assigned to him. Some Army and Police spokespersons have taken great pride in saying he was warned on numerous occasions about the threat. This shameful act perhaps occurs only in countries like Sri Lanka. There are others, with barely any threats, being assigned elite armed units to protect them. For these people, it is more a status symbol than personal protection.

If indeed, Perera was under threat, would it not be the responsibility of the Government to ensure his safety. After all, it is those very people who denied him security then who have now come to praise him as a war hero. Even in saying so, the high and mighty have acknowledged that Perera did make a worthy contribution to Sri Lanka, his country, as a veteran soldier. Yet, they did not think it fit to accede to his request for protection. Here again, some argue police protection has been given. True, but that was to a man who knew thoroughly well, being a veteran soldier, the threat levels he faced and the inability of Police to cope with them. He asked very little from the Army in the form of a few soldiers whilst he gave so much to them. If that were reprehensible enough, right thinking Sri Lankans would hang their heads in absolute shame at the events that followed.

Around 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday the sealed coffins of Perera and wife Vajira arrived at the Air Force base in Ratmalana. They lay there till noon whilst a dispute raged about the remains being airlifted to Anuradhapura. Former Speaker Joseph Michael Perera was to tell Parliament that some officials were taking revenge even from the dead Janaka Perera. He said Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake had agreed to help airlift the body. "Today, there are elements giving orders even going beyond the Prime Minister," said Michael Perera.

Officials at the airport had said that there was no clearance from the Ministry of Defence. Since they said they were awaiting such clearance, the remains were kept there. The disappointed family of late Perera decided to take his and his wife's remains to Anuradhapura by road. Late afternoon when the motorcade proceeded along Negombo Road, a police officer had stopped them at Ja-ela. They were told the motorcade could not proceed along that road though a police scout car and another police escort vehicle accompanied by motorcycle out riders were leading it. Later, the motorcade was forced to proceed to Kandy via Warakapola. At Kurunegala, the police scout car and the escort vehicle were abruptly withdrawn. Only the motor cycle outriders remained for the rest of the journey to Anuradhapura.

By late afternoon, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, the gentleman democrat he is, was to tell Parliament he expressed his regrets over the incident. He claimed the problem was created after instructions of the Commander of the Air Force, Air Marshal Roshan Gunatilake, were disregarded. The Premier said he spoke with the Air Force Chief and told UNP General Secretary to talk to him. However, instead of making contact and allowing the Air Force to take the body from the funeral parlour, the UNP had taken the body to Ratmalana. However, Tissa Attanayake denied the charge. He said he had personally spoken to Air Force officials who had asked that the remains be brought to Ratmalana and assured it would be airlifted to Anuradhapura.

More light on the issue was thrown later on Wednesday night. An official in the Ministry of Defence responsible for co-ordinating various matters told officials he had received "instructions from the top" not to heed anyone's directives and allow the remains to be airlifted to Anuradhapura. He had also added that he was instructed to take "orders only from the top on such matters." Thus, the instructions he received was to provide police escorts and the remains to be taken in a motorcade.

In the light of steps taken by this official, Nimal Lewke (DIG in charge of the Police Field Force Headquarters) called on the family of late Perera. He said the police would escort the remains of late Perera and his wife. That was how the Police scout car and escort vehicle were assigned. There was no explanation as to why they were withdrawn when the motorcade had reached Kurunegala.

The day after Perera died, the Government placed an Air Force helicopter at the disposal of Eastern Province Chief Minister and TMVP leader Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan. He and the TMVP spokesman Azad Mowlana flew in that to be on hand in Parliament for the swearing in of Karuna alias Vinayagamoothy Muralitharan.

No senior officers of the Army were present at his funeral yesterday though it was held with military honours.

That this incident smacks of hypocrisy is one thing. That it was the treatment meted out to one of Sri Lanka's distinguished soldiers is another. Family members of the late Perera were aghast. They asked why the remains were kept at Ratmalana for hours and why the authorities did not have the common courtesy to inform them. If they had arranged to take the remains by road, it would have reached Anuradhapura during the three and half hours it was left behind at Ratmalana, a family member pointed out. An incensed family member said "they praise him as a war hero and at the same time provide him treatment that even an enemy does not deserve."

The irony of it all was that lawyers of Perera were preparing papers to go before the Supreme Court once again. Perera had already signed his proxy before Samararatna Associates, Attorneys-at-Law and the draft Fundamental Rights application prepared by Upul Jayasuriya refers to continuing threats to Perera's life and the need for security.

This week also saw the Supreme Court deliver a landmark judgment in the Water's Edge case where it was held that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga abused her office by allowing her friend Ronnie Peiris to make money by way of "brokerage fee" for the transfer of State lands for a private golf club. Kumaratunga came into office in 1994 with the slogan to fight Dooshanaya and Beeshanaya - Corruption and Fear, which were the hallmarks of the previous UNP governments. Not one single case involving corruption was taken to court except for some school principals and clerks, and even these cases were not successfully prosecuted.

It is the first time a former President has been ordered to pay back to the State money as a form of punishment for her abuse of power. The Court also pointed out to what is sad in the governance of Sri Lanka since Independence in 1948, and how politicization of the administration has ruined the country.
For someone who said she used to live in 'gentle poverty' in London before returning to the country to become the President, Kumaratunga now lives in a chic address in London.

Some say the punishment meted out by court is not harsh enough. They say that her friend Ronnie Peiris should forfeit his entire commission of Rs. 57 million in this sordid deal. Meanwhile, legal experts say this is a fundamental rights case, filed on the principle of public interest, and that the Bribery Commission should make the decision regarding monetary and/or custodial punishment.

In its order, the Supreme Court made some pertinent remarks about the general conduct of Sri Lanka's political leaders. Apart from patent abuse of power and illegality in the Water's Edge case, the court has referred to the way various state agencies, such as the Board of Investment and the Urban Development Authority, are "under the thumb" of the President and the Ministers, and how vulnerable they are to abuse and corruption.

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