The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon
Part 9

Sachi Sri Kantha
[4 July 2001]

Four Musketeers of the UNP

Minister Wijeratne’s assassination and Rashomon theme

In his eulogy to Minister Ranjan Wijeratne, Mervyn de Silva subtly informed the readers about the conflicts involving the personalities who occupied the higher ranks of power pedestal in Colombo in 1991. Of course, he was experienced enough not to name the then President Premadasa and his accomplices. Being a movie critic during the early phase of his journalistic career, Mervyn de Silva rather alluded to Kurosawa’s Rashomon theme, on the difficulty in extricating truth of a dramatic event. In his words,

“a dramatic event as perceived by four persons; different versions of the same reality, though only a single, shocking and gruesome incident. Each person sticks to his/her story faithfully, convinced that it is the whole truth, the only possible. Each is plausible and quite convincing. And yet each is somehow ‘coloured’, unconsciously distorted by the ‘mind’ rather than the eye that sees.” [Lanka Guardian, March 15, 1991, pp.6-7]

Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), the acclaimed Japanese movie director, linked two short stories Rashomon (Rashomon gate) and Yabu no Naka (In a Grove) written by author Ryunosuke Akutagawa to create his Rashomon movie. His movie-script tells about a rape in a forest and a subsequent murder of raped woman’s husband, from multiple angles of participants and witness.

For the benefit of readers, who may be unfamiliar with the Rashomon theme, I briefly paraphrase the plot of this Japanese masterpiece from Donald Richie’s The Films of Akira Kurosawa [1970, 2nd edition, pp.70-80].

First, a woodcutter tells how he went into the forest and found some items belonging to the woman and went to the police. There, he tells how he found the body. Then a priest presents his testimony about how he saw the murdered man Takehiko and his wife before the tragic events. Then, the policeman tells how he captured the bandit who committed the crime. Policeman’s testimony was interrupted by the bandit Tajomaru who tells his participant version of the crime. Then, the woman victim who was raped tells her version. This was followed by the woman’s murdered husband who presents his version through the lips of a ‘medium’. Finally, the woodcutter revises his first testimony, which he says needs correction.

According to the bandit (accused), he first raped the woman in front of her husband and when he was about to leave the scene, the woman stopped him and demanded a duel between him and her husband. In that duel, he killed the husband and the rape victim ran away.

According to the woman victim, when the bandit left her after the rape, her husband spurned her because she lost her purity. Then, in a spurt of grief, she killed her husband and ran away.

According to the woman’s husband, after the rape, his wife agreed to leave with the bandit, but insisted that bandit should kill her husband first. After the bandit left the scene in anger, he committed suicide - being shamed by his wife’s behavior.

According to the woodcutter, once the rape was done, bandit was pleading with the woman to join him. She said that only men can decide and she cannot decide what to do. Her husband and bandit then had a duel and bandit killed the husband. Then, the woman ran away.

My comment on Mervyn de Silva’s eulogy

Mervyn de Silva in his eulogy had mentioned that Rashomon was Kurosawa’s first movie, which was factually incorrect. I wished to correct this error and I also wanted to bring to his attention some facets of bandit Tajomaru’s logic, as presented by Akutagawa, the original author of the two stories. Thus, I sent the following letter dated March 31, 1991, to the Lanka Guardian.

“Akira Kurosawa’s first directorial venture was not Rashomon, as stated by columnist Kautilya in his eulogy to Minister Ranjan Wijeratne. In 1943, Kurosawa made his movie directorial debut with a film titled, Sugata Sanshiro, about a judo master. His first popular movie Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel), starring Toshiro Mifune as a sick gangster, was released in 1948. Rashomon was released in 1950. It did introduce Kurosawa and the Japanese cinema to the Western audiences. But giving undue credit to Kurosawa for the Rashomon theme is like asserting that Cecil B de Mille authored the Bible. The Rashomon movie was based on two short stories (Yabu no Naka and Rashomon) authored by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), who committed suicide at the age of 35 years. Akutagawa adopted these two short stories from the tales of the 11th century Japanese anthology, Konjaku Monogatari. So much for the origin of Rashomon.

Columnist Kautilya, in reminiscing on Rashomon to impress his readers, subtly implies that Minister Ranjan Wijeratne is the samurai Takehiko [the murdered person in the movie]. And with extensive citations from the Indian newspapers Hindu and Dinamani, who have their own axes to grind, Kautilya also focuses on the LTTE as the robber Tajomaru (presumed villain of the Rashomon story). One can be surprised by the fact that author Akutagawa’s portrayal of robber Tajomaru resembles the logic presented by the LTTE for their past killings:

‘To me killing isn’t a matter of such great consequence as you might think... Am I the only one who kills people? You, you don’t use your swords. You kill people with your power, with your money. Sometimes you kill them on the pretext of working for their good. It’s true they don’t bleed. They are in the best of health, but all the same you’ve killed them. It’s hard to say who is a greater sinner, you or me...’ confesses Tajomaru in his defence, to the High Police Commissioner. Did Kautilya notice this sequence perceptively in this movie?...”

Once more, Mervyn de Silva (using his wisdom) preferred not to publish this letter in the Lanka Guardian in 1991. Thus, it failed to join the ranks of 43 of my other letters he published in his news magazine between 1981 and 1996. I should add that among the 43 letters, three specifically dealt with Pirabhakaran.


Four Musketeers of UNP

A retrospective look from late 1988 to October 1994 reveals the power struggle which depleted the front-line positioned four musketeers of the post-Jayewardene phase of UNP. First, Premadasa and Wijeratne joined hands to prevent Athulathmudali and Dissanayake reaching the presidency sweepstakes. Secondly, Wijeratne having gained stature as the JVP-smasher staked claim to Premadasa’s throne. Miracle or not, Wijeratne was assassinated in a car bomb blast in March 1991. Thirdly, sensing that Premadasa had become a lone wolf, Athulathmudali and Dissanayake pounced on him through a parliamentary plot. Fourthly, Premadasa with street-smart toughness evicted both of them from the party. Fifthly, Premadasa had a quick draw on Athulathmudali. Sixthly, Premadasa followed the path of two of his tormentors - Wijeratne and Athulathmudali. Finally, Dissanayake as a lone wolf, while perfecting his throne-capturing act, paid for his sins. All four of them fell for their Himalayan-sized avarice one by one.

The official versions, though challenged by accumulated evidences, implicate LTTE in the assassinations of all four musketeers of UNP. This is simple and convenient for many Sinhalese to believe and painless for the politically-corrupt Sri Lankan law enforcement agencies to peddle. However, ardent supporters of these four UNP musketeers (which include the immediate family members of the deceased) have expressed reservations on the official versions peddled by the Sri Lankan media.

While not negating the fact that Wijeratne and Premadasa (being the de facto and de jure Commander in Chief of the Sri Lankan army, during 1991-93) would have been legitimate military targets of LTTE, one should note that from January 1991 to May 1993, the relationships among the four UNP musketeers were not cordial. Though Athulathmudali and Dissanayake presented a veneer of cordiality to the public after their expulsion from the UNP by Premadasa, their unity was bonded only by their mutual hatred of the man from Kehelwatte. Even when they formed the new breakaway party (DUNF), they were bickering on who would be the prime leader of that splinter party. Their co-leadership ploy resembled the farce of two persons trying to sit in one toilet seat at the same time.

Following the departures of Athulathmudali and Premadasa, the last man standing turned out to be Dissanayake. The DUNF party he co-founded with Athulathmudali split into two factions, one led by Athulathmudali’s widow Srimani and the other led by Dissanayake. Subsequently, Dissanayake returned to the UNP through the connivance of Premadasa’s successor D.B.Wijetunge, and elevated himself to the ranks of UNP’s presidential candidate - merely 18 months following Premadasa’s assassination.

Probability Analysis on the Beneficiaries of Four Assassinations

I present below the probability analysis on the beneficiaries of the assassinations of UNP’s four musketeers, which occurred between March 1991 and October 1994.

(1) Minister Ranjan Wijeratne

Date of assassination: March 2, 1991

Place of assassination: Colombo

Immediate beneficiary of assassination: R.Premadasa (the President of Sri Lanka)

Level of antagonism shown by beneficiary to victim: high

Beneficiary’s accessibility to area of strike: convenient

Method of assassination: explosive bomb in car

Accessibility of assassination material to beneficiary: easy

Assassin’s availability to beneficiary: easy

Beneficiary’s relationship to LTTE: had become confrontational since mid-1990.

(2) UNP-breakaway party’s co-leader Lalith Athulathmudali

Date of assassination: April 23, 1993

Place of assassination: Colombo

Immediate beneficiaries of assassination: R.Premadasa (the President of Sri Lanka) and probably Gamini

Dissanayake (co-leader of the UNP-breakaway party)

Level of antagonism shown by the main beneficiary to victim: high

Beneficiary’s accessibility to area of strike: convenient

Method of assassination: shooting by gun

Accessibility of assassination material to beneficiary: easy

Assassin’s availability to beneficiary: easy

Beneficiary’s relationship to LTTE: had become confrontational since mid-1990.

(3) President Ranasinghe Premadasa

Date of assassination: May 1, 1993

Place of assassination: Colombo

Immediate beneficiaries of assassination: Gamini Dissanayake (main leader of UNP’s breakaway party) and

India’s policy mandarins

Level of antagonism shown by beneficiaries to victim: high

Beneficiary’s accessibility to area of strike: convenient

Method of assassination: suicide bombing

Assassin’s availability to beneficiary: not easy, but available at a price

Beneficiary’s relationship to LTTE: had become confrontational since 1987.

(4) UNP’s Presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake

Date of assassination: October 24, 1994

Place of assassination: Colombo

Immediate beneficiary of assassination: Chandrika Kumaratunga (prime minister of Sri Lanka)

Level of antagonism shown by beneficiary to victim: high

Beneficiary’s accessibility to area of strike: convenient

Method of assassination: suicide bombing

Assassin’s availability to beneficiary: not easy, but available at a price

Beneficiary’s relationship to LTTE: cordial at the time of assassination


Political Assassinations

Anti-LTTE propagandists like Rohan Gunaratna repeat ad nauseam that LTTE is the only organization to assassinate the heads of state belonging to two countries. The manner in which the investigations on the assassinations of Rajiv Gandhi and Premadasa progressed during 1991-94, prompted me to write the following letter to the Tamil Times, in which I commented on the then prevailing situation. Excerpts:

“Political assassinations and what follows when an associate of the assassinated leader ascends to the power has remained predictable since the times of Julius Caesar. Bertrand Russell, in his classic work, Power (1938) wrote,

‘A politician, if he is to succeed, must be able to win the confidence of his machine, and then to arouse some degree of enthusiasm in a majority of the electorate. The qualities required for these two stages on the road to power are by no means identical, and many men possess the one without the other’.

According to this principle, the associate of an assassinated leader is placed in a precarious position, if he is not photogenic or does not possess mass appeal. So, he will do everything not to revive the memories of his assassinated colleague. Lyndon Johnson ascended to the power following John F.Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Hosni Mubarak became the leader of Egypt after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.Narasimha Rao was lucky to become the prime minister due to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Similarly, D.B.Wijetunge owes his position as the President to the assassins of R.Premadasa.

One can see parallels in the styles of how Johnson, Mubarak, Rao and Wijetunge have behaved in ‘solving the problem’ of the assassinations of their immediate predecessors. Johnson and Mubarak rushed to deliver the ‘verdict’ and tried their best to erase the public memories of their assassinated predecessors, though it is questionable how much they succeeded in this venture. Still doubts remain about who assassinated Kennedy and Sadat, and for what reasons. Rao and Wijetunge worked in the opposite direction to that of Johnson and Mubarak. But their motives remained the same. They are least interested in finding an answer to the assassination, which brought them to the pinnacle of power.

Politicians who step into the shoes of their assassinated predecessors do not gain much by reviving the memories of their deceased seniors. An exception to this rule of thumb occurs when the new leader is a family member of the deceased leader. Thus the ‘chapters’ on the murders of S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike and Rajiv Gandhi were closed in quickest possible time, because Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Rajiv Gandhi who followed them respectively were related to the deceased leaders...” [Tamil Times, December 1994]

All told, once the victim’s funeral and the formal mourning phase is passed, the beneficiaries count their blessings and carry on with their careers rather than trying to find out who committed the assassination. Premadasa (if he was not the culprit, as pointed out by Rajiv Sharma: see, The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon - part 8) was not bothered in finding out who killed Wijeratne. Premadasa’s successor Wijetunge was not keen in finding out who killed his predecessor, since he was competing with the ‘populist image’ of his predecessor. Dissanayake was not that interested in finding out who killed his colleague Athulathmudali, since it did not serve much for his own political ascendancy. Finally, Chandrika Kumaratunga has not bothered about finding out who killed Dissanayake, because she was the immediate beneficiary of that assassination.

President Premadasa’s assassination
(as viewed by the
New York Times)

President Premadasa was the second Sri Lankan head of state to be assassinated, the first one being padre Bandaranaike. Few days later, the New York Times editorially commented on Premadasa’s assassination; rather than paying the usual eulogy to the fallen head of state, the editorialist wrote a sobering reflection on why the assassination could not be averted. Moreover, the editorial also linked S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s dubious contribution to the nation-building process and its repercussions to the Sinhala-Tamil unity.

What is striking for me in this editorial was the emphasis on the ‘why’ component of the assassination and not on ‘who’ did it. There was not a single sentence of praise for Premadasa. I reproduce this New York Times editorial of 20 sentences in entirety, though the first 16 sentences provide a capsule summary of events of the post-1956 period, known to all Eelam Tamils. But, this editorial was written mainly to an American audience (non-Tamils) who had to be appraised on the background to the ‘why’ component of Premadasa’s assassination.

The Tragedy of Sri Lanka

“When Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, it was called Ceylon and seemed to have it all: reasonable prosperity, a stable parliamentary system, habits of nonviolence and a landscape of bewitching beauty.

Now Sri Lanka, its official name since 1972, is synonymous with strife and tragedy. Last Saturday its president and two dozen others were blown to bits by a suicide bomber. This followed the murder of the president’s chief rival and leader of the opposition. The cycle of retribution seems certain to continue.

How did things go so horribly wrong? Sri Lanka’s story says a good deal about the unintended consequences of rooting politics in religion an ethnicity. It starts with the election victory in 1956 of the Oxford-educated Solomon Bandaranaike, a year that also marked the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha’s attainment of Nirvana. Capitalizing on religious fervor, the prime minister made Buddhism the favored religion and decreed that Sinhalese, spoken by Buddhists, was henceforth the sole official language.

This angered a minority a mainly Hindu Tamils, who saw themselves at a permanent disadvantage since they spoke a wholly different language than the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese. So Bandaranaike temporized, and suggested allowing ‘reasonable use’ of Tamils. Communal riots erupted, and the well-meaning prime minister was murdered in 1959 by a Buddhist fanatic. In due course there followed a full-scale civil war as an extremist Tamil faction clamored for a separate state and found support in India, with its 50 million Tamils, just across the strait.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi saw a chance in 1987 to placate Indian Tamils and win points as a peacemaker in Sri Lanka. He dispatched 50,000 troops to Tamil strongholds on the island as part of a peace accord signed in Colombo. But India’s sometimes brutal soldiers were unable to disarm Tamil militants, and in 1991 Gandhi himself was assassinated, almost certainly by a Tamil extremist.

The lesson is sobering. When an ethnic majority diminishes the citizenship rights of a well-established minority, even an idyllic island can plunge into a bloodbath. It is an open question whether Sri Lankans can ever recover what has been lost. But there is time for other countries to ponder Sri Lanka’s tragic experience.” [New York Times, May 5, 1993]

It is an irony that even in death, Premadasa (though being the Sri Lankan head of state, at the time of his death) was not recognized by name by the New York Times; however, the two who predeceased him in a violent fashion (padre Bandaranaike and Rajiv Gandhi) received mention by name in the editorial.

The following assertions in this editorial needs reiteration. First, it acknowledges the ‘full-scale civil war’ in Sri Lanka in which ‘an extremist Tamil faction’ [LTTE] was ‘clamoring for a separate state’. Secondly, the sobering lesson for other countries from Sri Lanka’s predicament is that ‘when an ethnic majority diminishes the citizenship rights of a well-established minority’, assassinations are bound to happen. Thirdly, ‘whether Sri Lankans can ever recover what has been lost’ is an open question. These three assertions acknowledge the role played by Pirabhakaran and his army in turning Sri Lanka into a moribund state.

Why I stress these assertions is to rebut the propaganda of Minister Kadirgamar, his cronies, Sinhalese commentators and Indian policy mandarins that Pirabhakaran is only a ‘terrorist’ and nothing else. Here is a recent sample of this propaganda.

Colombo’s pro-war newspaper The Island carried a bizarre editorial ‘Why only McVeigh?’ last May, prior to the execution of Timothy McVeigh’s death penalty. It took to task the US Secretary of State Colin Powell as follows:

“...It was only the other day that US Secretary of State Colin Powell urged Sri Lanka and the LTTE to negotiate and evolve a solution to the northern conflict. While a negotiated settlement of the conflict is the best, if possible, the question is whether such exhortations by powerful nations do not smack of double standards. For, they themselves do not hesitate to deal with those who unleash violence against the state and civilians in the most stringent manner, while preaching to others on virtues of negotiating.

Take for example, McVeigh. He was thrown in prison and condemned to die by lethal injection. The US law took its due course against him and the American public are demanding that he be executed - the first federal execution in 38 years. While this treatment is meted out to McVeigh, Sri Lanka is urged to talk to the LTTE, whose leader Prabhakaran, is responsible for dozens of blasts and hundreds of massacres in comparison to which McVeigh’s crime might fade into insignificance...” [Island-Colombo, May 13, 2001]

Pirabhakaran is not a McVeigh but a military leader

The first rule in scientific analysis states ‘Before correlation, balance the units of items to be compared to a common denominator’. This is taught to children at the secondary school level. Simply put, one cannot mix either kilogram and milligram or kilometers and miles. If done, the outcome will be laughed at. Sometimes even rocket scientists lose their reputations for disobeying this rule as demonstrated a few years ago, when the collaborating groups of a space probe experiment on either side of the Atlantic, used kilometers and miles interchangeably in their calculations and ended up with pie in their faces. Sri Lanka’s science-challenged journalists are oblivious to this first rule in scientific analysis, since they thrive in obfuscation.

By comparing the crime of Timothy McVeigh (1968-2001) and the war-related operations carried out by Pirabhakaran’s army, the editorialist of the Island revealed his ignorance in American law and especially the McVeigh case. McVeigh in his deposition had stated that he was the sole perpetrator of 1995 bomb blast of Oklahoma’s Federal Building. In the first instance, he never had an ‘army’ to lead. Secondly, for more than ten years the turmoil in Sri Lanka has been recognized in international circles as a civil war, and Pirabhakaran leads one of the warring factions of this civil war. One can be relieved by the prevailing circumstance that the current US secretary of state Colin Powell has a military background and is not an ignoramus like the editorialist of the Island newspaper.


What is a civil war and how it differs from terrorism?

The lackluster UNP leader Dingiri Banda Wijetunge, who followed Premadasa for the presidency in 1993 was the ignoramus who became a laughing stock by equating LTTE’s military manoeuvers in a civil war against the Sri Lankan army as ‘terrorism’. Here is a recent commentary on that episode, as presented by an anonymous correspondent to the same Island newspaper.

“ ‘We do not have an ethnic problem, we have a terrorist problem’ was how a certain former president of this country characterized our situation. The same person, visiting Paris for an Aid Consortium meeting responded harshly to a European foreign ministry official, who inquired about the human rights situation in the country with the following words: ‘What human rights problem? We do not have any human rights problem.’

The diplomat had been aghast. He had been taken aback by the man’s tone and all he had to say later was: ‘May God help you if these are your leaders,’ “ [Island - Colombo, March 4, 2001]

I’m of the view that one should not assess harshly D.B.Wijetunge (a man with a limited world-view), when even more literate politicians like Minister Kadirgamar who routinely romps the world for podium limelight, peddle the same view unabashedly. Thus it is pertinent to present what are the criteria used to categorize a civil war and how a civil war is differentiated from terrorism.

I’m more than happy to refer readers to an excellent retrospective study by Roy Licklider, Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University, which appeared in the American Political Science Review journal of September 1995. The title of his paper was, ‘The consequences of negotiated settlements in civil wars, 1945-1993’, in which he has included Sri Lankan case also as one of his study samples. Licklider has defined a civil war as ‘any conflict that satisfies all of the three following criteria.

1. Some influential leaders must be concerned about possibly having to live in the same political unit with their current enemies after the killing stops. This concern must be important enough to influence the kind of settlement they are prepared to accept.

2. There must be multiple sovereignty, defined by Charles Tilly as the population of an area obeying more than one institution. ‘They pay taxes (to the opposition), provide men to its armies, feed its functionaries, honor its symbols, give time to its service, or yield other resources despite the prohibitions of a still-existing government they formerly obeyed’ (Tilly, 1978). This criterion differentiates civil wars from other types of domestic violence, such as street crime and riots, in which there is no centralized control of the opposition. To distinguish civil wars from colonial wars, each side must have significant number of troops made up of local residents.

3. A civil war, by our definition, involves large-scale violence, killing people. I used the operational definitions of the Correlates of War project: (a) 1,000 battle deaths or more per year and (b) effective resistance, that is, at least two sides must have been organized for violent conflict before the war started or else the weaker side must have imposed casualties on its opponent equal to at least 5% of its own (to distinguish between civil wars and political massacres).

[American Political Science Review, Sept.1995, vol.89, no.3, pp.681-690]

However unpleasant it has to be to his adversaries, by Prof. Roy Licklider’s three stipulated criteria for a civil war, Pirabhakaran can only be categorized as a civil war leader and not as a ‘terrorist’. Let me recapitulate. He has organized an army. He has a population behind him which provide men (and women) to his army and honor the symbols of his military unit. Importantly, the population of the area where Pirabhakaran commands support, ‘give time to it’s [his army’s] service, or yield other resources despite the prohibitions of a still existing government they formerly obeyed’. Also, Pirabhakaran’s army has ‘significant number of troops made up of local residents’. Sri Lankan army has been accused of using hired mercenaries. But Pirabhakaran’s army is made up of local residents.

Next, I wish to focus on when Pirabhakaran’s army transformed into one of the warring parties in the Sri Lankan civil war. This is because, there is some confusion on this issue about the date of transformation in the published literature. [Continued]